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The Worse (or Better) for Wine

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"Now listen – you're not listening – are you even listening?"

"I'm listening very closely."

"You're a liar, C.K. Dexter Haven, a big liar."

"You're drunk, Macaulay Connor."

"Hey now – hey, there's no need for name calling."

Dexter smiled and picked the wine up off the table, taking it over to the cabinet while Mike trailed after him like a forlorn puppy. "I think you've had quite enough of this for one evening."

"Well that's just fine, isn't it. A man's friend isn't supposed to take away his wine-"

"If a man's friend isn't, who's supposed to?"

Mike got a charmingly confused expression and reached out - presumably to support himself on the back of the chair, but he ended up missing his target. Dexter grabbed his arm and pulled him upright before he could fall into the bookcase. "What?"

"I said, if a man's friend isn't supposed to tell him when he should stop drinking, who's supposed to?"

Mike blinked for a moment, and then got a look on his face like he'd had an epiphany. "A man's wife," he declared.

"Well you haven't got a wife," Dexter said, and then regretted it the moment the words were out of his mouth as Mike slumped dejectedly and flopped into the chair he had tried to lean on with such force that it scooted a good couple of inches across the floor.

"I know," Mike said, picking at the upholstery. "Sometimes I think Tracey should've let me marry her, but that would have been no good because then she couldn't marry you."

"Would that have been so bad?" Dexter asked mildly. He and Tracey had talked about that on several occasions – one could hardly avoid the evidence that if circumstances had been just the slightest bit different, she might have been Mrs. Macaulay Conner. They'd come to the mutual conclusion that Mike was swell and would've taken great care of her, for all she would have run roughshod all over him.

"Horrible," Mike said, looking up at him like he thought Dexter was an idiot. "Anybody could tell she was still crazy about you, and you about her – I mean, Liz figured it out first – I mean, a woman would figure it out first-"

It figured that whenever one or the other one was having a rough time, Mike ended up getting roaring drunk in Dexter's sitting room. Dexter couldn't exactly get roaring drunk anymore and Tracey had sworn off the stuff for the second time after her near-disastrous wedding night, so Mike was their proxy.

He didn't seem to ever mind it. Dexter smiled outright as Mike hiccuped a little, still picking at the upholstery. His smile faded around the edges when he reminded himself that this time, Mike wasn't drinking for anybody but Mike.

"What happened with Liz anyway?" Dexter asked – the first time he'd done so all night. Mike had shown up on their doorstop missing his cufflinks with his jacket tossed over his shoulder, already weaving a bit, so Dexter knew it had been bad.

Mike hiccuped again. Dexter didn't know you could hiccup sullenly, but Mike managed it. "I need another drink," he muttered.

"Not happening," Dexter said. "Not until you tell me what happened at least, or else we'll sit here all night and all you'll do is hiccup."

"I do have the hiccups," Mike said, and hiccuped.

"We were talking about Liz," Dexter reminded him.

"No, no, no, C.K. Dexter Haven, you were talking about Liz. I was not talking about Liz, which I didn't want to do in the first place so I'm not."

"All right," Dexter said, subsiding. If the man didn't want to talk, he didn't want to talk.

"She's just – I'm – I'm a rotten no-good scoundrel and she deserves better," Mike said in a rush, finishing with another hiccup. "And she never would have gone because she's very much the romantic type, and I'm the - *hic* - troubled novelist that she's supposed to convert from wine, women and the ways of the world."

"I think you're the one romanticizing," Dexter said, amused. Liz had seemed like anything but a romantic, but then Dexter hadn't known her very well. She kept very much to herself, even with Tracey.

"Now you listen here, it's not fair you talking like that when I'm on the wrong side of a wine bottle," Mike said.

"Talking like what?"

"Romanticizing."

"But there, you said it just fine, so I'm not sure where the unfairness comes from."

Mike glared, but that was better than sulking, and Dexter did hate to see him sulk. He had wanted to clock him almost as badly as George that night he came wandering out of the trees with Tracey in his arms, but he had to admit that he had said something – done something – that had shaken something loose in Red, and Dexter deeply appreciated that. She was much easier to live with now.

"Now see here," Mike said, standing, and then he staggered forward and fell. Dexter reached out automatically and caught him, but it made no difference to the tirade Mike had prepared. "It's all fine and good for you to talk about people romanticizing when you're already married to the woman of your dreams-"

"Tracey's hardly a woman of anyone's dreams-"

"There you go being a liar again, and would you shut up for a change, I swear you're worse than I am," Mike said indignantly, and Dexter nodded at him to continue. Mike grabbed at Dexter's arms to support himself, leaning against him, and Dexter cleared his throat but Mike was definitely too drunk to get the hint. "I'm the professor here, I'm the one that gets to analyze-"

"You hate it when Tracey calls you that-"

"Good God man do you ever stop talking?" Mike asked, and Dexter chuckled low in his chest, thoroughly aware of the irony. He would point this out to Mike in the morning, who would make faces at him but would know he was right.

He didn't expect at all for Mike to go still at that laugh, to apparently become suddenly aware of their rather compromising position. "Oh," Mike said, and Dexter raised an eyebrow at him.

"Oh?"

"Oh, well, just that I'm analyzing."

"Analyzing a bit too much?" Dexter asked, and Mike grinned like he had the world to lose and loved every second of it.

"Analyzing not nearly enough," he said. "You're a swell guy, Dex. Funny how I've never really noticed it before."

"Now come on," Dexter said, serious now. "You said it yourself – you've had quite a bit to drink and there are rules-"

"Not if I say there aren't," Mike said, indignant all over again. "Where do you come off telling me 'there are rules' like you're trying to protect my virtue or something!" He put his own feet underneath himself unsteadily, pointing a finger at Dexter and scowling.

"Mike-"

"No, you listen to me! You're the one who's married, I should be telling you about rules-"

"Mike-"

Mike threw up his hands. "Now hold on a minute, I'm in the middle of saying something! You can never stop talking when I'm talking and I think it's a little bit rude-"

"Mike – Oh for heaven's sake-" Dexter grabbed Mike by the shoulders, watching his eyes fly wide and his mouth open like he was going to say something else – but unlike Mike, Dexter had a good deal of experience with the best way to shut someone up when they got on a tangent. He was married to Tracey, after all. And, well, Mike may have been surprised but it didn't make him any less inclined to kiss Dexter back. Dexter suddenly found himself with an armful of very eager journalist squeezing the life right out of him.

"No need to hang on so tight," he said gently, trying to pry himself loose.

"Dex, I'm only being honest because I'm very drunk right now, but if you weren't holding me up I'd probably fall right over."

"I guess it's a good thing I'm holding you up then," Dexter said. "And while I am I might as well take advantage of it, don't you think?"

"Don't I think what?" Mike asked, and Dexter kissed him again, keeping his eyes open to watch Mike's close, to see the red flush from the wine creeping even farther up his face. Mike's hands clutched Dexter's arms like he was drowning and Dexter was a lifeboat.

And then Mike pulled away suddenly. "Wait just a minute here!" he said.

"I'm waiting," Dexter said.

"You're just proving my point! I am a scoundrel – and now I'm making you a scoundrel too! You're married-"

Dexter laughed. He hadn't let go of Mike's shoulders, and Mike hadn't let go of him, and that was more telling than any of Mike's rather vocal protests. "Leaving aside the fact that Tracey's bedroom is right above the sitting room and you've been shouting so loudly that she could probably hear your every word-" Mike's mouth stopped moving and he gaped silently at Dexter- "Do you honestly think she would mind?"

"Mind?" Mike asked, his voice scaling up, letting go of Dexter to throw his hands up again. He made incoherent noises for a moment like he just could not understand what Dexter was saying, nor could he figure out how to respond. "Listen, C.K. Dexter Haven-"

"I much prefer Dexter," he said, sliding one hand around to Mike's back, pulling him in again. "Mike, she doesn't mind because it's you."

Mike stopped talking again, and this time his mouth closed with an audible snap. Thoughts flickered behind his eyes and Dexter wished he knew what the other man was thinking, if only because it was a hell of a thing to say and knowing Mike he would take it in all the wrong ways.

"You mean to tell me that Tracey – that she – that she'd be willing-"

"Willing to share?" Dexter asked when it looked like Mike was going to be too red to ask anyway. And, well, red was always a color Dexter had admired, on anyone. "If I hadn't been there that day she would have married you. She'll always be a little bit in love with you, and so will I."

Mike shook his head like he couldn't believe it. "I've had too much to drink."

"Finally you agree with me."

"You're crazy, you hear? You and her both, you're both crazy-"

"You like it that way," Dexter said.

Mike paused, and then he smiled, that same, bright world-challenging grin. "Well yes, I suppose I do," he said, and it made Dexter want to kiss him senseless.

So he did. This time, Mike didn't pull away.