The final rundown that night started suspiciously well. The script was tight, the clips were hot, and when Sam stood to leave after only ten minutes, saying that he didn't see much room for improvement, Casey chose to take it as a compliment.
He later reflected that as omens go, that one might as well have walked up and slapped him across the face.
"Oh, one last thing." Sam paused at the door of the conference room. "Dan's going on a two-week vacation, starting after Friday's show. Okay? Okay." He rapped his knuckles on the jamb and turned to leave.
"Who?" Dan asked, as Casey said, "Wait. What?"
"Dan Rydell. Is going on vacation. For two weeks." Sam gave them a doubtful look. "You hire someone to write your scripts, don't you? Someone much smarter than either of you."
"But I'm not going on vacation," Dan said. He looked at Casey. "Am I?"
"No." Casey sat up straight in his chair. "And certainly not for two weeks."
"Sorry, boys," Sam said. "This comes straight from the top."
Dan looked ill. "Trager?"
Casey shot a look down the table. "Dana?"
She shrugged. "Wasn't my idea."
Casey frowned at her, then at Sam. "Then who?"
"Well, me," Sam said. "When I said from the top, I really just meant from me."
"You can't make Dan go on vacation," Casey said. He looked at Dan. "Can he?"
Dan still looked a little green. "Is this a ratings thing?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "No."
"Because you're the ratings guy, so if you want me to take a vacation - it must be a ratings thing."
"It's not a ratings thing, Dan. If it were a ratings thing, I'd make Casey go on vacation."
"Hey," Casey said.
"Casey brings in males eighteen to thirty-four," Dan said loyally. Sam made a whoop-de-do motion with his finger and Dan's eyebrows went up. "Uh, that's kind of our primary audience."
"Look, I know you two have this fraught thing happening, where Casey's the guy and you're the other guy, but the fact of the matter is that ESPN and Fox have four Caseys apiece pulling in males eighteen to thirty-four." Sam leveled a finger at Dan. "You're the reason women eighteen to forty-nine are sending us panties in the mail. That's where we're gonna make our play."
"We have a fraught thing happening?" Casey asked faintly.
"Women send us panties in the mail?" Dan asked doubtfully.
"Lots of panties," Natalie sighed. Dan and Casey both looked at her. "We screen them out. The last thing you need is to get a box of strange women's panties every month."
"A box a month? Nice." Dan hesitated and made a rewind gesture with his hand. "Wait, the women are strange or the panties are strange?"
"Hold on," Casey said. "I don't think we're fraught."
Dana made an impolite sound. "You're incredibly fraught."
"Don't you have to be fraught with something? Like danger?"
"Suspense?" Dan suggested.
They stopped and frowned at each other. "We're not fraught," Casey said firmly. "We're fine."
"Desire," Natalie said, a beat late. Dan and Casey turned to stare at her. "You could be fraught with desire. Or longing."
"We're not fraught with longing," Dan said.
"Or desire," Casey hastened to add.
"You're not going to be fraught with anything for two weeks," Sam said. "Because Dan's going on vacation."
"I don't see why I have to leave." Dan leaned back and laced his fingers behind his neck. "Especially since I'm so good with women."
"I really wish you hadn't told him about the panties," Dana muttered.
"I've never had two weeks of vacation," Casey said. "Maybe not even cumulatively."
"I had a four-day weekend, once, in Dallas. It was epic." Dan looked at Sam. "That was the perfect amount of vacation. How about I take a long weekend?"
"Danny," Sam sighed. He turned and made a beckoning gesture over his shoulder. "Walk with me."
"Okay." Dan stood. At the door, he paused and looked sternly at Natalie. "Stop screening my panties."
Dana dropped her head to the table.
"Have a seat." Sam closed the door and turned to face Dan.
Dan looked around. "This is Isaac's office."
"I'm aware of that."
"It's just - I only mention it because I thought we were going to your office." Dan took a seat. "And this is not your office so much as it's Isaac's."
"When you two are done with your little skit," Isaac sighed from behind his desk, "please leave quickly and quietly."
Dan held one hand out in Isaac's direction. "See?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "Isaac, Dan wants to know why he has to go on vacation."
"Ah." Isaac put down the magazine he'd been reading.
Dan raised an eyebrow at him. "You knew about this?"
"Of course I did. It was my idea."
"Sam said it was his idea."
"I said it came from me, which technically it did, in the sense of it having come to your attention by virtue of me telling you about it." Sam waved his hands vaguely. "Shut up."
"Admit it, you just like to watch us dance."
"I have absolutely no problem admitting that."
Isaac cleared his throat to gain their attention. He leaned forward, resting his hands on the desk as he spoke. "Danny, we're going to start ramping up our visibility, with a lot of advertising and a lot of press. Over the next few weeks we are going to be working on some things that, if they come together in the way I hope they will, are going to let us think seriously about challenging ESPN during sweeps."
Dan stared at him. "And you - what? Don't want me onboard?"
"Oh, Jesus Christ," Sam said with feeling, and looked mutinous when Isaac held up a placating hand. He muttered something that might have been don't tell me you're not fraught as Isaac met Dan's gaze.
"Danny, you know better than that. Now, do you want an explanation, or do you want to do a song-and-dance?"
"I'm sorry. I'm just - you know." Dan tipped his head back and blew out a breath at the ceiling. "Sorry. I'm listening."
"I should have talked to you myself," Isaac said. He threw Sam an annoyed glance. "In fact, I was going to talk to you myself, tonight after the show."
Sam shrugged. "They were there. I was bored. I wanted to see Casey freak out."
"He didn't really," Dan said.
"Oh, he will." Sam leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach, the picture of smug anticipation. "When he realizes Isaac is on board and you're actually leaving for two weeks? Total meltdown."
"I doubt it. And I'm still not seeing why I'm going on vacation."
A knock sounded on the door and Dana stepped in without waiting for a response. "Hey. Has Dan freaked out yet?"
Sam nodded as Isaac motioned at her to come in and to shut the door. She did, then crossed the office and leaned on the window sill, ruffling Dan's hair as she passed. "Did you think we wanted you out of the way?"
Sam snapped his fingers. "Bingo."
"Danny, Danny, Danny." She kicked him lightly on the side of the knee. "Why are you so dumb?"
"Years of practice," Dan said, smiling up at her, "and some pretty great mentors."
"Are you all quite finished?" Isaac looked around the room. "Everybody? No more funny jokes?"
Dan squinted at him. "I've got one that involves a duck, a priest, and Harry Truman."
Isaac spoke quickly. "Esther and I are going to visit China. She's been wanting to go for years, and the timing never quite worked out. I'm not sure when we'll have the chance again, so we're going now."
"Okay," Dan said, drawing it out. "I'm still not - "
"You're coming with us."
"Esther and I are traveling to China," Isaac repeated slowly, as if speaking to a young child. "For two weeks. And you're coming with us."
"I'm - what?" Dan looked lost. "What am I going to do in China?"
"What do I look like, a tour guide?"
"I want you to take a vacation. And if you spend it here, you'll - "
"Bother me," Dana said.
"You'll bother everyone." Sam shrugged off Dan's glare. "It's true."
"But why do I have to go on vacation at all, is my question."
Isaac looked at him steadily. "We need you at one hundred percent, Danny."
"I am," Dan said. "Sam says women are sending me panties."
"I don't just mean on camera."
Dan settled back in his chair. His face took on the polite blankness that meant someone had entered the conversational no-fly zone. "I'm not sure what you do mean, then."
"There are going to be a lot of meetings over the next few weeks. Meetings about ratings, about advertising, about contracts."
"And, if you sit through two weeks of that, you're going to be at something less than one hundred percent."
Dan's eyes narrowed. "I am actually capable of doing my job, Isaac. Even the parts I don't like so much."
"I know you are. That's not the point."
"Then what is the point?"
Isaac folded his hands on the desk. "Please don't make me use words like pep," he said gravely.
Dan didn't laugh. "I'm not making you do anything. Anyway, Casey doesn't like that stuff any more than I do."
Dana cleared her throat. "He likes it more than he lets on, first of all."
"Dana - "
She held up a hand. "Second of all, it makes him feel better to sit in on those meetings. He'll snark and snipe, but at the end of the day? Having been there will make him feel more secure. More in control."
"And it's your impression that what we need around here is for Casey to feel more in control and me less?" Dan's voice started to climb. "Really? Because I have to say - "
"Hold on," Sam said.
Dan twisted towards him. "Sam - "
"No, hold on. We're getting off track. This isn't about Casey. I cannot tell you how much this is not about Casey, okay?" Sam held up his hands. "Seriously. This is about what is best for the show."
"Which is what, exactly?"
"It is best for the show when you are both at one hundred percent. Two weeks of administrative bullshit will wear you out and piss you off." Sam cocked his head. "True?"
Dan gritted his teeth together. "I suppose."
"So. Get on a plane, see the Great Wall, come back with some pictures. Enjoy it, because it's the last vacation you're going to have in a long time." Sam caught Dan's unwilling half-smile, and leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin. "No more fucking around. We're swinging for the fences, Danny. You gotta be ready."
Dan looked at Isaac. "And you think going to China with you for two weeks will get me ready?"
She grinned, drumming her heels against the wall like a little kid. "You're my closer, Danny. I want you rested for the playoffs."
Dan dropped into his chair at the anchor's desk, directing a significant look at Casey as he did so. Casey raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"
Dan shrugged as he placed his earpiece. "Isaac says yes."
Casey leaned back in his chair. "Really?"
"Apparently he and Esther are going to China and I'm going with them."
Casey blinked. "China?"
"For two weeks?"
Dan held out both hands, palms up. "I know."
"Well," Casey said. "Okay, well."
"It'll be fine."
"Totally fine. It'll be a little weird doing the show without you for that long." Casey looked around the set as if trying to imagine it without Dan. "But also fine. Weird but fine."
"This is what I'm saying." Dan picked up his script and appeared to study it. "I mean, it's not like we can't function separately."
Casey nodded. There didn't seem to be anything else to say. He scanned his own script and corrected a typo. He looked at the cameras, then at the control room door, then twisted his chair to face Dan. "We haven't been apart that much."
Dan dropped his script and leaned in close. "I know! I was trying to think."
"A couple days here and there, okay, but how often has it been longer than that?"
"Not that often."
"There was when you went to Chicago, our first year here."
"It was supposed to be two days -"
"- but you got snowed in over the weekend."
"When you took Charlie to Disneyland, that was almost a week."
Casey frowned as he thought back. "For a while there, we hadn't met yet."
"See, that's nineteen whole years."
"Twenty-five," Casey corrected him absently, still going over dates in his head.
Dan smirked. "Geezer."
"Also, there was that time when you were still in college."
"We hardly saw each other at all when I was in college," Dan agreed. "Only during the summers, really."
"And your breaks."
Dan tapped his pencil on the desk. "My junior year, when you were in Boston, we saw each other pretty regularly."
"Yeah." Casey grinned. "Remember that Red Sox game?"
"Dude." Dan looked affronted. "My twenty-one run? How could I forget?"
"My question is, how can you remember? You were wasted."
"Oh, I remember. I remember you telling me our seats were much better than they were."
"You were seeing double by then."
"I think you're right. I think I must have been seeing double, because our seats were twice as far away from home plate as you said they were."
"That doesn't even make sense."
"It makes as much sense as you trying to convince me the Green Monster was the backstop."
Casey laughed. "I did try to convince you of that. And as I recall, you believed me for about four innings."
"That's a lie."
"You kept shouting at Mike Greenwell to bring the heat. Of course, he was playing left field at the time, so - "
"That never happened," Dan hissed, the color rising in his cheeks, and Casey's earpiece crackled to life.
"Casey, quit making Dan blush."
He grinned at Dana through the camera. "He's just mad because he thought the Green Monster was the backstop."
"It's not like I was just walking around thinking that," Dan said indignantly. "Casey temporarily convinced me, but I was young and drunk - "
"I don't care," Dana said. "I don't care at all about how Casey plied you with liquor and took advantage of your youth. Just stop blushing."
"I'm not blushing," Dan said under his breath, but he smiled through clenched teeth and waved an assent at the camera.
Casey chuckled to himself for another moment. Dan glared at him. "It's not that funny."
"Oh, it's pretty funny."
"Let's do our show," Dan said curtly as Dave counted them in.
"Good evening, you're watching Sports Night on QVN. I'm Casey McCall, alongside Dan Rydell. Those stories plus..."
Casey sauntered into the control room with his hands in his pockets during the second c-break. "So."
Dana rolled her eyes. "Don't start. And get back to the desk."
"I've got four minutes," Casey said. He leaned forward slightly. "So, my partner's leaving for two weeks and nobody thought to tell me."
"Sam told you," Dana said with a saccharine-sweet smile. "I was there."
"Nobody thought to tell me sooner."
"Oh, we thought it. We just didn't do it." She glared over his shoulder at one of the monitors. "Guys, check the spelling on that Harbaugh graphic again, please." She re-focused on Casey and heaved an exaggerated sigh, like she couldn't believe he was still standing there. "What?"
"I'm just saying."
"Okay." She gave him the little squint that meant she was acknowledging his feelings, or whatever. "Welp. There you go."
He took his hands out of his pockets and folded them on the top of her control panel, favoring her with a magnanimous smile as he did so. "You know what this means, don't you? It means I'm gonna be the cock of the walk around here for a few weeks."
Dead silence fell in the control room. He sensed the techs turning in unison to stare at the back of his head.
It was Kim who finally broke the silence. "You're going to be what?"
Casey straightened and held one hand up. "Wait - "
Dana was turning red in her effort not to burst into what would surely be contagious, unprofessional, show-ruining laughter, but she managed to choke, "You're going to be the what of the walk?"
"The cock of the walk," Jeremy said. Casey was about to give him a fist bump of solidarity when Jeremy turned to him with malice in his eyes. Casey swallowed hard. "Though that would imply - "
"It's just a phrase," Casey said loudly.
"- that when Dan's around, you are the subordinate cock. The superfluous cock, if you will."
"We're equal cocks," Casey said in a helpless whisper, already backing toward the studio door. Kim made a horrible, strangled noise, which he did his best to ignore. "We're - we both - we share the walk. There are two cocks of this walk."
"There can be only one," Will intoned.
Casey shot him a wounded glare, then wheeled on Jeremy with the desperation of a dying man. "How are you not with me on this?" he hissed. "In matters of obscure phrasing, at the very least, I thought we had a bond."
"I have my pride," Jeremy said. "You didn't even count me as a cock."
The sound of someone clearing their throat came from the open doorway. They all turned to see Isaac step back, execute a dignified turn, and walk back the way he'd come.
Jeremy stared after him, one arm extended in midair, as if to call him back. "I think I should go - "
"You really shouldn't," Dana wheezed into her hands. "Oh, god."
"Oh, god!" Natalie echoed, but loudly. "Casey! Desk! Go! Go!
Casey scrambled for the desk and dropped into his chair right as the camera cut to him. "That was Bob Thorne, reporting from Minneapolis. Thanks, Bob. Latest from the Hot Stove League coming up, after a word from our sponsors. Don't go away."
"What the hell, Dana?" Dan shouted as soon as they cut away, but it was drowned out by the shrieks of laughter coming from the control room. He reached over and flicked Casey on the elbow. "Where the hell were you? What's going on?"
"You can't leave me alone with these people, Dan." Casey slumped back in his chair and ran a shaky hand across his brow. "They're like sharks. They smell the smallest drop of blood, and boom! You're fish food."
Dan rolled his eyes. "You'll be fine. Anyway, sharks aren't fish."
Casey blinked at him. "What?"
"Yeah, people think they're fish but they're not."
"Of - of course they're fish." Only years and years of television experience kept him from dragging his hands through his hair. He flung them out sideways instead, narrowly missing Alyson as she darted in to touch up Dan's makeup. "Of course sharks are fish, Danny! What else would they be?"
Dan opened his mouth, then closed it again. He squinted up at the stage lights. "Wait. Am I thinking of dolphins?"
Dan stood at the door to their office. He was mostly backlit, but the bluish glow of Casey's monitor cast ominous shadows across his face. All Casey could really see was the slightly mad gleam in Dan's eyes. "Swear it."
Casey finished buttoning his jacket, then put a hand over his heart. "I'll never mention the shark thing again."
"I was thinking of dolphins."
"Danny, I know."
"And at least I wasn't talking about - "
"Hey," Casey snapped. He wrapped his scarf around his neck with great indignation. "I only swear not to mention the shark thing on the condition that you not mention the other thing."
"Deal," Dan said solemnly. He turned his hat over in his hands but didn't put it on. "You ready?"
"Yeah. Let me find my gloves." Casey pawed at the couch cushions, watching out of the corner of his eye as Dan's hat went round and round. "You okay?"
"Yeah." The hat kept turning. Dan cleared his throat. Casey felt the leather of his gloves and let his fingers ghost over them without picking them up. He kept moving random cushions until he heard Dan say, "It was kind of funny, actually."
"When I was talking to Isaac about China."
"Which will be amazing," Casey prompted, when Dan didn't continue. "You'll have a great time. You like traveling. And Dana said I will, and I quote, be too busy to screw things up. I'm getting the sense - I don't know. I feel like good things are in the air."
"Yeah." Dan turned his hat over again, then twisted it and jammed it in his pocket. "Isaac was going to talk to me tonight, but Sam was bored. You know how he gets."
"I do know how Sam gets." Casey went ahead and found his gloves. "I'm his second-favorite chew toy."
Dan looked past Casey out the window. "He thought you would freak out when you realized I was actually going."
Casey laughed as he pulled the gloves on. "I'm not freaking out."
Dan smiled. "I know."
Dan held up his hands. "Hey, I told him you wouldn't."
There was something behind Dan's words that Casey couldn't quite see. He could just make out the edge of it, though; just enough to be sure it was worth a closer look. "Why?"
"Why did you tell him I wouldn't freak out?"
Dan furrowed his eyebrows. "You won't."
"Yeah, but why would you think I wouldn't?"'
"What the hell are we talking about?"
Casey cocked his head. "Well, would you freak out if I was leaving for two weeks?"
He knew as soon as the words left his mouth that it was exactly the wrong thing to say. Dan curled in on himself, with the barely perceptible movement of someone who had learned not to flinch. "Casey," he said wryly, "you should really not be using me as a standard of normal behavior."
There it was. That broken glass tone in Dan's voice that Casey was getting better at recognizing, if not anticipating. "Danny, I'm just saying - "
Dan blew out an impatient breath. "That I definitely would. Is that what you want to hear?"
"No." Casey felt a headache building behind his eyes. "I just don't know why you would think I wouldn't."
"Because you wouldn't," Dan said sharply. "You aren't. We've established that. There you stand, not freaking out. Making me admit that I would is just a way for you to confirm, once again, that you're okay on your own and I'm incredibly not, and frankly - ''
"Frankly, making me say it is an ego thing." Dan turned and yanked the door open. "Are we done?"
"I didn't mean it that way," Casey said.
Dan made a dismissive gesture. "Whatever."
"Danny - "
"It doesn't matter." The anger seemed to leave his body abruptly. He just looked tired, and defeated, standing in the doorway like he was waiting for Casey to take a parting shot. "I want to go home. Is there anything else?"
How much time you got, Casey almost said, but didn't. "No," he said finally, putting as much but I'd rather you stay and talk to me and as little I hereby grant you my sovereign permission to leave as possible into his tone.
Dan turned on his heel and walked away, letting the door swing shut behind him. Casey watched him go, then kept staring out into the empty bullpen for several seconds afterward. "Shit," he said, with feeling.
He pulled on his hat and was about to leave when he heard voices coming from Dana's office. He walked down the hallway and poked his head in the open door. "Hey."
"Casey!" Natalie jumped up from the couch and pulled him into the room. She smelled sweet and fruity, and behind her he glimpsed a bottle of wine on the corner table. Dana was sitting with her office chair tilted back, her bare feet propped up on the corner of her desk and a plastic cup in her hands. "Glad you're here. Help us figure out what to get Jeremy for his birthday."
Casey frowned. "Isn't Jeremy's birthday at the end of February?"
Dana tipped her cup at him. "Exactly."
"So can't this conversation wait until, say, late February?"
"It's that kind of thinking," Natalie said as she returned to the couch, "that leads to someone getting someone else a box of Mallomars for his birthday."
"Dan loves Mallomars."
"Dan loves you. Which is why you should get him something nicer than Mallomars."
"That doesn't seem quite right."
"He does love you," Natalie said reassuringly. "A lot."
"No, I mean - " Casey stopped. He had meant to say something disparaging about equating love with nicer presents, but on the other hand he couldn't deny that he was, in fact, the sort of person who got people Mallomars for their birthday. "Never mind."
Dana yawned. "Where is he? I thought you two were going out."
"I, uh - " Casey's mind was still stuck on the love thing. "No, he wanted to go home."
Natalie dropped her head back with a groan. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything."
Dana rolled her eyes. "Casey."
Natalie pointed at the couch cushion beside her. "Sit down." He did. She poured of cup of wine and put it in his hands. "Now tell us all about it."
"There's nothing to tell." He swirled the wine around in his cup. "It's possible - "
"Aha!" Dana said triumphantly.
Casey glared at her. "You can't aha before I tell you anything."
"I just did, my friend. I just did." She dropped her feet to the floor and came around the desk to sit on Natalie's other side. "What stupid thing did you say?"
"We were talking about him going on vacation, and about how I wasn't freaking out - "
Natalie snorted. "Oh, you will."
"When Dan leaves for two weeks?" Dana laughed. "You're going to lose it."
"No, I'm not," Casey said, and they both stared at him.
"Tell me you didn't say that to Danny," Natalie said. She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes as if his tactlessness was causing her physical pain.
"Hey, he agreed with me!"
"Of course he agreed with you," Dana said in her you are too stupid to live voice.
"And then what did you say?"
"It's possible that Dan inferred that I believed I would be fine without him in a more general sense. And, ah - I may have also inadvertently suggested that he would not be comparably fine without me." Casey held out his hands at their mutely horrified expressions. "I know! But I didn't mean it the way he took it."
Natalie shook her head, whether in commiseration or disbelief Casey couldn't say. "Well, how did you mean it?"
"I meant - " Casey looked up at the ceiling as he tried to recall the gist of his argument. "Hell, I don't know. Not that, though."
"Oh, honey," Natalie said, leaning forward to top off his wine. She set the bottle down and patted his knee comfortingly. "I'm sorry you are so hilariously awful and terrible. At relationships, I mean." Dana said something under her breath, and Natalie obediently amended, "And also tennis." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "And also clothes shopping. And also - "
His attempted glare must have been a pathetic sight, because all she did in the face of it was smile and pat his knee again and say, very kindly, "But mostly the relationships thing."
It had been impressed upon Casey repeatedly over the years that calling Dan before nine in the morning, save in the case of actual emergency, would be interpreted as an act of war. He had no desire to spend the next six months looking over his shoulder, so he waited with his phone in his hand until nine o'clock on the dot.
Dan answered on the second ring. "Hey."
"Hey. Did I wake you?"
"Nope." There were rustling sounds in the background. "What's up?"
Casey suppressed a sigh of relief. Dan sounded normal, if a bit distracted. "Not much. What are you up to?"
"You know you don't leave until Saturday, right?"
"You know it will be a miracle if I can find everything I need, let alone pack it, by Saturday, right?"
"Having seen the inside of your apartment, I concede the point."
"Thank you." There was a soft thump that might have been a suitcase thrown on a bed. "Huh. Is it possible that I have six Michigan State sweatshirts?"
"At least six," Casey said.
"I didn't, you know, attend Michigan State. Yet I have six times as many sweatshirts from there as I do from my alma mater." There was a momentary cessation of movement, and Casey imagined Dan in his bedroom, one hand on his hip, frowning at his dresser. "Did people send these to me?"
"Sure. They love you in Michigan."
"They love me in New Hampshire, too, but I don't have six Dartmouth sweatshirts."
"People probably assume you already have a Dartmouth sweatshirt."
Dan hummed thoughtfully. "That makes sense. Maybe I should mention that I also already have Michigan State sweatshirts."
"We could do a segment."
"On sweatshirts I already have?"
"No," Casey said. "That would make it sound like you're complaining. The segment should be on sweatshirts we'd like people to send us in the future."
"We? Now I see your angle. You're horning in on my story."
Casey grinned. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was an exclusive. My bad."
"Damn straight." Dan's voice rose and fell oddly, like he was moving relative to the phone as he spoke.
"Am I on speaker?"
"Yeah," Dan said. His voice was faint. "Hold on." There were a series of thuds, then his voice came back clearly. "Sorry, I was looking for my passport."
"It's in the outside pocket of your green duffel bag," Casey said automatically.
"Okay." There were more shuffling sounds, then the sound of the pocket being unzipped. "Hey, what do you know."
"You put it there after the last time you tore your place apart looking for it."
"Well, I did. But you were standing right there, and I made you say My passport is in the outside pocket of my green duffel bag five times." Casey made an exasperated face at his empty apartment before catching himself. If they were on the phone for more than a few minutes, he inevitably started talking to Dan like he was in the room. It had been a source of regular mockery from Dana when Dan was in college and the phone calls had been considerably more frequent.
"I have no memory of that whatsoever," Dan said cheerfully. "But now I know to repeat something five times if I want you to remember it."
"Casey, I want a snowboard for my birthday. I want a snowboard for my birthday. I want - "
"I'm about to hang up."
Dan laughed. "Okay. But rest assured we'll be coming back to the snowboard."
Casey tried to imagine Dan on a snowboard. "Why would you even - "
"Shhh. Just go with it," Dan said soothingly. "Learn to heed the call of the slopes."
"That's true, but irrelevant to the mighty call of the slopes."
"Why don't you learn to ski?"
"I look like a damn fool on skis."
"Well, I guess I want to look like a damn fool in my own special way."
Casey took a breath, then stepped neatly over that particular tripwire. "Anyway, snowboards are out."
Another burst of laughter. "What do you know about what's out?"
"I know snowboards are out. And black jeans."
"Unless you're a rock star."
"Rock stars snowboard?"
"No! They - oh, hell, you're impossible. Never mind."
"Listen, Danny." Casey hesitated for a moment, then plunged forward. "The actual reason I called - "
Dan's voice slipped from amused to serious in a second. "Casey - "
"I'm sorry about last night."
"You don't have to - "
"No, I really am. It all came out completely wrong."
"It's fine. I'm sorry I flounced." Casey could almost see Dan's face, his mouth twisted into a wry smile. "As you recently noted, I'm absurd. You don't need to apologize."
"What I meant to say was I'll miss you."
"I know. Me, too." Dan sighed, affectionate and familiar. "Anyway. I have to pack. And I want a snowboard for my birthday."
Casey made a noncommittal sound, as the image came unbidden of Danny flying down a field of white, fearless and lovely and ridiculous all at once, and forever skating along the edge of disaster.
"What?" Casey blinked the image away. "Sorry."
Dan laughed. "Are you mixing metaphors in your head?"
"Excuse you. There was only one metaphor, and I'll have you know it was particularly apt."
"Well, I'll have to take your word for it."
Casey smiled. "But now you have to pack."
"I really do."
"Okay. I'll see you later."
Casey was fairly certain they were okay after that, but decided to hedge his bets. Dan looked pointedly at the coffee cup when Casey placed it on his desk, then back up at Casey's face. "We're fine, Casey. And it makes me really uncomfortable when you decide to be sorry."
"Yeah, I know." Casey set a bag of donuts next to the coffee. "Sorry about that, too."
"You tend to make a performance out of it." Dan opened the bag and inhaled deeply. His eyelashes fluttered in defiance of the serious set of his mouth. "You tend to expect other people to perform their forgiveness to your satisfaction."
"On the other hand," Casey said, "donuts!"
Dan's smile, when it came, was the kind that set the world right. "Well, when you put it like that."
It was late afternoon before Dana managed to corner Casey in the bullpen. "You guys okay now?"
He nodded. "I apologized. Twice. Once with donuts."
She narrowed her eyes. "Don't make this a thing, Casey. Get through the week and let Danny go on vacation without a cloud over his head." She underscored the point with a jab to his chest before she walked away.
"Sometimes a donut is just a donut," he called after her. He looked down at Kim, who raised a skeptical eyebrow at him without actually looking away from her monitor. "Right?"
"Sure, sometimes. Not so much when you use them as small, delicious tools of emotional manipulation."
"I don't." He thought about the innocent donuts, and Dan's fluttering eyelashes. "I didn't!"
"Uh-huh." Kim picked up her handset and started dialing, even while muttering, "sugary circles of codependency."
"With angst sprinkles," Chris added from the next desk over.
"You people are impossible," Casey snapped, retreating to his office and pushing the door shut behind him.
Although the door moved too slowly for a satisfying slam, at least having it shut let him pretend not to hear when Chris cried out a moment later, "Dammit! I can't believe I went with angst sprinkles when fraught-sting was right there!"
Casey spent most of the night working with his temporary co-anchor. Patti Williams was a freelancer with a telegenic grin and the sort of towering passion for sports that made Casey feel immediately at home. Though she'd never been in the Sports Night studio, she had done some correspondent work for them and Casey had met her at various events; after an hour talking, and another two drafting fake scripts and taping fake segments in the small secondary studio, he had no worries about their compatibility.
"I think I love her," he confided to Dana, once they were back in her office. It was fifteen minutes to air, and all felt right in Casey's world. "I think I'm in professional love with her."
"Whoa, it's almost like I'm really good at my job!" She tossed a pen at his head, which he ducked easily. "I knew you would love her, because she's amazing, and also because she's a baseball person. You love baseball people."
"Perhaps because I am also a baseball person?"
"Come on. There are baseball people, and there are baseball people." Dana looked up at a knock on the door and waved Dan in. "Patti is officially amazing, and Casey is in professional love with her. So take your time getting back, I guess."
Dan pressed a hand over his heart. "Ouch. But I already knew Patti was amazing. Professionally." He winked sidelong at Casey. "And in other ways."
"Oh, gross," Dana said with feeling, gathered up her notebooks, and swept out of the room.
Casey stood, and looked hard at Dan as they followed her out. "You and Patti? Really?"
"Yes, really. In addition to being accomplished and beautiful, Patti knows more about baseball than I do, Casey." Dan grabbed Casey by the shoulder and turned him around so they were eye to eye. "More about baseball than I do," he repeated slowly. "More than me."
"And I take it that's an aphrodisiac."
"You're not a baseball person," Dan said pityingly, as they started walking again. "You wouldn't understand."
"I am not a baseball person," Casey admitted, "except if you count how I know and care more about baseball than ninety-nine percent of people on the planet. "
Dan grinned at him. "Yes. Exactly."
"But I am given to understand that I love baseball people."
The wattage on Dan's grin increased. "Darn right you do. We're good people."
"Well, she didn't mention your late night sabermetrics," Casey said, moving forward through the control room, "but I said you said hi, and she sent back a fond hello."
"Wait. Fond?" Dan frowned as he took his seat at the anchor's desk. "Describe what happened. Exactly."
"I mean, she didn't say fond. I said Dan says hi, and she smiled, just a little bit fondly, and said to say hello to you, too."
"That doesn't sound right."
"I don't know what you want me to tell you."
"I could easily believe a friendly hello. Or a warm one. Or even a completely neutral hello, because of professionalism or whatever. But fond?" Dan shook his head. "No way."
Casey shrugged. "Just reporting the facts."
"You're interpreting the facts, and incorrectly. Because our time together deserved more than fondness."
"Dan - "
"Some relationships are merely nice, and you remember your partner fondly - "
"Danny - "
"But some are magical, and you remember your partner more than fondly. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I think I do," Casey said, "and I desperately wish I didn't. Can we please not - "
"I'm great in bed," Dan said loudly. "That's what I'm saying. I'm very good. And I will not sit here and listen to accusations that I am remembered fondly."
In the control room, Dana rolled her eyes and jabbed at the intercom. "Thanks for that, Dan."
"Well, I am." Dan looked straight through the monitors and jerked his thumb at Casey. "Though he has his doubts."
"I don't doubt that you're good in bed," Casey said in an aggrieved tone.
"I think you do," Dan said. "I think you doubt it, and I think your doubt caused you to misinterpret Patti's facial expression in a negative way."
"There's nothing negative about fond!"
"It has a connotation."
"All words have connotations," Jeremy chimed in. He shrugged when Dana glared at him. "They do."
"Please don't encourage this," she whispered, even as Dan folded his arms and said, "Well, fond has a negative connotation, a connotation of unsexiness which is simply not applicable to me or my relationship with Patti."
Casey snorted. "A connotation of unsexiness?"
Dan glared at him. "I'm not talking to you."
"I didn't give a connotation of unsexiness to her look. I told her you said hello. She smiled fondly." Casey held up a hand to forestall Dan's argument. "If you were there, you, too, would have characterized her expression as fond."
"Whatever." Dan turned away and made a show of reading his script, bending over it and making an elaborate note in the margin.
Casey leaned in to see what he'd written. "You're just scribbling."
"Not talking to you," Dan said through clenched teeth.
"Fine," Casey huffed. He rolled his chair a few inches away and pretended to be absorbed in his own script.
A moment passed. The scratching noises from Dan's pencil slowed, then stopped. Another moment, and the pencil fell to the desk as if from nerveless fingers.
"Oh my god."
"Dan," Dana said sharply. "Don't - "
"Oh my god!" Dan put both his hands flat on the desk. "What if I'm not good in bed? Casey, what if - what if I only thought I was good in bed and I'm really not?"
Casey leaned back with an air of cultivated indifference. "I thought you weren't talking to me."
"What if Patti's expression really was fond?" Dan shot up, unbuttoning his suit jacket as he stood. "Okay, I need to have sex with someone right now."
"Everybody sit down!" Dana shouted. Kim, half out of her seat, sat back down with a pout. "Dan, take your seat. We have four minutes to air."
"Dana," he said in a strangled whisper, "I need to be validated. Sexually. Casey and Patti - "
"Danny - " Dana was distracted by Jeremy dropping his head to the desk with an audible thunk. His shoulders were shaking with what might have been either sobs or hysterical laughter. Dana herself felt like she could have gone either way. "You're not helping," she hissed, which only made his shoulders shake harder.
"I've only heard good things about you, Dan," Kim said soothingly. The techs turned to look at her and she smirked at them.
"Me, too," Natalie said. The techs swung their chairs in unison toward her. "What? I'm allowed to talk to people."
Dan looked doubtful. "Who did you hear good things from?"
Kim ticked names off on her fingers. "Sarah, Mandy, Jackie - "
"Oh my god," Casey groaned, "you actually slept with the aerobics stalker?"
"Different Mandy." Dan made an impatient gesture at the camera. "Go on."
"Rose and Linda," Natalie said. "All very positive."
Kim clapped her hands together. "Oh! Also, Steve from the coffee cart downstairs."
Casey's head whipped up so fast Dana was sure he must have cracked something. "Steve?"
Dan waved at him to be quiet. "What did he say?"
"He didn't really say anything, but last time I mentioned you he got a look that was definitely more than fond."
"Okay," Dan said thoughtfully. He slowly sat back down. "Okay."
"Steve?" Casey asked again, in a choked voice.
"From the coffee cart." Dan snapped his fingers twice. "Keep up."
"Steve, as in, coffee cart Steve, the man, and not as in a woman named Steve?"
Dan flung his hands up. "Oh boy, here we go."
"I'm not going," Casey said. He looked helplessly at the camera. "Am I the only one - "
"Yes," a chorus of voices came back loudly. He winced and adjusted his earpiece. "Ouch. Okay."
"This is not news to you, Casey," Dan said.
"I know you see men sometimes, I just didn't know you had seen any recently."
"See," Dan echoed mockingly, making air quotes around the word. "How quaint."
"Don't get mad at me! You used to introduce me to the people you date."
"I do introduce you to the people I date! Usually. But then it's a whole big thing." Dan delivered the last three words on one heavy sigh. "Sometimes it's nice just to see someone - "
"Ha! Admit it, see is a perfectly useful word."
" - for a while without all the pressure." Dan shrugged. "Anyway, I didn't need to introduce you to Steve. You already knew him."
"He seems like a nice guy."
"He is. He's very nice."
Casey considered that, then frowned. "So what was wrong with him?"
"Casey, Casey, Casey. That was, like, six months ago." Dan shook his head at the absurdity of being asked to remember back that far. "He was great. There just wasn't any there there."
"Well, okay. Now I know. Thank you." Casey turned his chair slightly towards Dan, and Dan mirrored the movement. After a moment Casey smiled and Dan mirrored that, too. "Tell me you didn't trade sex for coffee."
Dan's smile grew. "I can pay for my own coffee. If I'm going to trade on my sexual prowess, there will be private jets and secret islands involved."
"Aw, that's the spirit." Casey punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Shoot for the stars, and even if you miss you'll land among baristas."
"Yes, I'm sure I've heard that said."
"Ugh, this is boring," Kim groaned. "I want to talk more about Dan's sex life."
"Please don't," Dana and Casey said simultaneously, at the same moment Natalie said, "That sounds fun."
Kim cleared her throat dramatically. "Last year Dan slept with Paul the Pilates guy from the tenth floor. Discuss."
"You slept with the Pilates guy?" Natalie's voice went up an octave on the final two words.
"Oh, yes," Dan said. "Many, many times."
"That - that's - " Natalie's voice trailed off.
Dan pressed a finger to his earpiece. "Hello?"
"Hold on," Jeremy said after a moment, his voice tight with amusement. "Natalie's having some kind of sexual event at the thought of you and the Pilates guy."
"As well she should." Dan leaned towards the camera and pitched his voice low. "As well you should, Natalie."
"Thirty seconds to air," Dana said, sounding like she was trying hard not to laugh. "Game faces, please."
Casey looked at Dan smiling to himself as he tugged his cuffs straight, heard Dana trying to wrest the control room back from the brink of anarchy as Dave counted them down, and reflected that his life was very good at the moment.
So, of course, he immediately screwed everything up.
Casey could never remember much of that day, afterward. Had Natalie not suggested they go out after the show to celebrate Dan's second-to-last-night in New York before his vacation - rejecting, with her typically indomitable enthusiasm, any suggestion that that wasn't a particularly noteworthy milestone - it would have been a sort of paragon of Thursdays, peaceful and productive and utterly unmemorable.
But Natalie did suggest they go out, and an hour after their show ended Casey found himself adrift in a tequila haze, not quite sure how he got there but entirely certain he didn't want to leave. They hadn't all been out together in months, he realized. Not since before Quo Vadimus had taken over CSC, and the fact that Sports Night was finally going on offense - welcome as it was - couldn't help but put him in mind of those desperate last days. He knew that the impending dissolution of their little family had been, for Dan, not merely a professional disappointment but a loss so catastrophic that Casey could only dimly sense the depths of his relief when it didn't happen.
He thought that they should probably talk about that, at some point. And as soon as the idea occurred to him, his brain - for reasons surpassing mortal understanding - decided that now seemed like as good a time as any.
"But the point is we're all still together," he heard himself say, some unknowable amount of time later, his voice slurred and too loud by half. However long he had been talking was too long, probably, judging by how hard Dana was gripping his knee under the table. "The point is I didn't have to leave," he said anyway, and watched Dan go blurry, as Dan sometimes did, when his eyes did one thing and his mouth did another, and he seemed weirdly like a sad old magician whose glamour was starting to slip.
Possibly Casey should have stopped after four margaritas.
"Casey," Dana said, quietly, but in the tone that meant she would have been shouting if they weren't in public. Jack's was their turf, kind of, but that didn't mean there wouldn't be a blind item about Casey's drunken confessions in the paper tomorrow, or six months from now, primed to catch Dan behind the knees just as he found his stride.
"What I mean - "
"Stop talking right now," Dan said, and meant it.
Like that had ever slowed Casey down. "I mean, I can't control if we can always work together. There are bigger forces at work there." He reached out to pat Dan's hand, and missed. "But I - I didn't want to leave. That's important."
"Stop. Talking," Dan said again, and suddenly he wasn't blurry at all. He was very focused, and very still, and alight with the constrained energy that reminded Casey how hot Dan's anger ran, always just under the surface, only ever half-banked no matter how carefully he arranged the ashes. Casey took another drink and reflected dizzily that his life really would have been much easier if he hadn't found Dan's emotional extremes so magnificent.
He would have kept going, but Dana, bless her, pulled them out of that particular tailspin by dragging him bodily out of his chair and announcing loudly that she wanted to dance, and did Kim remember the name of that one club, you know, the one? That they should all go to right now? Kim, glancing up from where she was kicking Jeremy's ass at paper football, took one look at Dan's face and said, yes, of course she did.
The next time the haze in Casey's head cleared, they were in a club. Casey couldn't quite remember the name of it, or how they got there, or why his impulse to reassure Dan had given way to something sharper and meaner. Awareness came to him in flashes: pulsing lights, laughter curling up toward the ceiling like smoke, bass thumping away behind his collarbone, and Dan tangled in the middle of the crowd with his head back and his eyes closed, looking just like the fight Casey meant to have. And so they argued, nose to nose, pressed close from shoulder to hip, a crush of anonymous bodies grinding them together and together and together.
Casey had lost the thread of the argument long before Jeremy shouldered him away from Dan and off the floor and out into the cool air. He sat on the curb, resting his head on his knees, and wished he could lose the memory of Dan's voice, going rough with a hurt Casey had meant to cause, as easily.
Casey woke from a nightmare, drenched in sweat, fists twisted in the sheets. It was an old dream, but no less jarring for its familiarity. He dreamed of Danny coming unmoored. There were never any fights in these dreams, no glaring lights, no hiss of static in his ears. Only fog, and whispering water, and the knowledge that Dan had slipped free of whatever knots were holding him close. In the dream world Casey paced salt-warped boards, calling out into the dark, acutely aware that he was very close and much too late.
The corners of his mouth stung when he yawned. He licked away salt and the border between reality and the nightmare wavered for a terrible moment, before he remembered margaritas, and a fight, and being poured into bed by a quietly disappointed Jeremy and a loudly disappointed Natalie in the wee hours of the morning.
He quickly realized that work was going to be hell, and accepted it with as much penitent grace as his hangover allowed. Natalie had her say while he sorted through the mail, Jeremy settled for lurking constantly in the corner of Casey's vision looking like someone had stolen his bike and then kicked his dog for good measure, while Dana restrained herself to shouting, "You're losing it, McCall! Get it together!" at the top of her formidable lungs every time he was within earshot. Which she made sure was often.
For the better part of the morning Dan dodged him with practiced ease, always just a few moments gone from wherever Casey planned to catch him. Finally, Casey sought refuge in the utter indifference of Sam's company.
He dropped into the chair in front of Sam's desk and drank a cup of coffee in blessed silence while Sam continued to read the Times without giving any indication Casey's presence had registered. Finally Casey sighed, stretched his legs out, and began, "I don't know what you've heard, but for the record - "
Sam didn't look up from his paper. "Is there any chance I can get you to stop right there?"
"The thing is, I am committed to not being psychotically possessive of Danny." Casey nodded to himself, sure that it sounded even better out loud than it had in his head. "Obviously, it's a process."
"Uh-huh." Sam turned a page. "Be sure not to let me know how that goes."
"So I want to be very clear that I don't care at all about him going on vacation, and that my indifference comes from a healthy, loving place." Casey paused, cleared his throat, and then added, "Also? Any rumors you may hear of me having instigated a drunken, tearful, public screaming match with Danny last night are wildly overblown."
"I'm so glad we established that you two aren't fraught." Sam finished the page he was on, then finally looked up with a raised eyebrow. "Well. Good talk, I guess. There's the door."
"Okay." Casey stood. "I'll go, but I also want to be clear that your little scheme didn't work."
"Casey, at this very moment Dan is hiding from you like a nervous prairie dog, and the rest of the staff is taking bets not on whether you'll drive the show off the rails while he's gone, but on how long it will take. Meanwhile you are so incapable of being honest with your own partner that instead of making things right with him, you're down here trying to convince me that my mission to expose your insecurities for my own amusement has failed." Sam shook his head sadly. "You could at least have made it a challenge. This isn't even fun."
Casey swallowed. "They're taking bets?"
Slowly, and without breaking eye contact, Sam held out his hands and pantomimed making marionettes dance.
Casey beat a hasty retreat.
It was the communal hangover that finally slowed Dan down enough for Casey to catch up with him. After lunch Dan took refuge on the couch in their office, stretched out with his arm flung across his eyes to keep out the light.
Casey came in and closed the door softly behind him, then leaned back against it and watched Dan pretend to sleep for a moment. "I have been a spectacular asshole this week."
"You are wonderfully observant." Dan didn't move his arm from over his eyes. "And insightful, too! No wonder you're such a people person."
"Dan, I'm really - "
"If you say you're sorry I swear to God I will throw you off the roof." Dan dropped his arm and sat up, the better to let Casey see his serious face. "I don't even know how to get to the roof, Casey! But I don't care. I will find my way to the roof, and I will throw you off it."
"Danny - "
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Dan's voice slid from outrage to desperation in one question and Casey's heart ached in his chest. "When you act like this there are usually reasons. Stupid reasons, but reasons. I feel like -"
"Hey. It's not you." Casey came forward and sat down next to him. "It's really not. I've been acting like a possessive jerk because I am a possessive jerk."
"I'm fully aware of your possessive jerk tendencies. But they don't usually have anything to do with me."
"In my defense, you have actually always been very high on my list of people about whom I often find myself acting like a possessive jerk." Casey met Dan's searching gaze seriously. "But I'm working on it. I'll do better."
"I'm gonna hold you to that." A hint of amusement appeared in Dan's expression. "And can we talk about how that's just an incredibly unwieldy list name?"
"Right, because I'm known for my pithiness." Casey relaxed, stretching his legs out and resting his head on the back of the couch. He let his knee knock gently against Dan's, and after a moment said, "I used to be more careful with you."
"I know." The corner of Dan's mouth lifted, but he kept any comment on Casey's incomplete definition of careful to himself. "I appreciated that. I'm not sure I'd be able to tell you how much."
"I don't remember why I stopped, exactly. You seemed - it seemed like I didn't need to protect you from myself anymore. That you were ready to push back when I crossed the line." He studied Dan's profile out of the corner of his eye. "I gave myself permission to be less careful. And I think maybe I should have talked to you about it first."
"Maybe," Dan said. He rested his head against the back of the couch, too, and turned his face towards Casey's. "But it's okay. I think I don't need you to be so careful anymore."
They looked at each other for a moment of quiet, unhurried affection. Finally Dan smiled and said, softly, "You're totally going to ruin this moment, aren't you?"
Casey grinned. "I would say the odds are good. I was going to bust out coldly self-centered, but I could stick with needy and overbearing if you'd like."
"Ah, you know how I love the classics. But how about, instead of that, you sit here quietly, and I go ask Natalie and Dana to stand down, and we never mention this conversation again?"
"Deal." He extended a hand, jokingly, but Dan took it anyway, and shook it with mock seriousness. Then he pushed himself up off the couch with one hand on Casey's knee, and sauntered out the door and through the bullpen, cheerfully telling Kim she still owed him five bucks on Dallas.
Casey looked into the middle distance for a little while afterward, frowning and flexing his hand. He was pretty sure he shouldn't still be able to feel the warm press of Dan's fingers on his skin. He suddenly sat bolt upright. "Oh, shit."
Jeremy, who'd just stepped in to put a memo on Dan's desk, froze. He turned and fixed Casey with his best deer in the headlights look. "What?"
"I - " Casey blinked at him, mentally casting about for something, anything to say, and finally gave up completely. "You - I - You can't tell anybody."
"I can't tell anybody what?"
Casey worked his mouth, but no sound came out.
Jeremy looked warily around the room, but saw nothing that suggested a cause for Casey's distress. He turned and looked out the door, just in time to see Dan bounce up and down and give him a big wave from the water cooler. Jeremy returned it reflexively, plastering a grin across his face for good measure. Nothing to see here, he thought forcefully in Dan's direction.
Dan must have been too far away to see how tightly Jeremy's teeth were clenched, or the jig would have been well and truly up. Jeremy turned back to Casey, fully prepared to use his best approximation of Natalie's legendary information extraction techniques, but Casey was staring past him, out the door, to where Dan had turned back to the little knot of people around the cooler and appeared to be performing some sort of interpretive dance.
Jeremy had never really understood the term pole-axed before. Looking at Casey now, he got it. "Uh-oh."
Casey looked up at him with an anguished expression. "What the hell am I supposed to do?" he cried softly.
"How the hell should I know?" Jeremy cried right back.
Fortunately, everyone was one thousand percent done with Casey and his shit, as Kim kindly put it to him when he asked for the latest ATP rankings, so he was mostly left alone with his thoughts for the remainder of the day.
(He had a single moment of terrifying existential panic when Natalie pulled him into the control room, but it was only to inform him that she was throwing Dan a proper going away party after the show, and Casey's attendance was not optional, and if he screwed it up then by God he would pay in ways he had never even dreamed of.)
Casey's mind kept returning, helplessly, to this new idea of what he could be, to Dan. Of what Dan could be to him. The most frightening part of the concept was how frightening it wasn't, at all.
That night a good show got better when Dan went off-script in the thirties, sniffing derisively when the highlight montage illustrating Casey's Pro Bowl report ended with a clip of Polamalu vaulting the line in Tennessee to take out Kerry Collins. "Always thought that was an avoidable sack."
Casey saw the teleprompter catch and hover in that peculiarly judgmental way it had, but Dan had a gleam in his eye that Casey had never profited from ignoring. "How's that, Danny? If you were taking the snap, and out of the corner of your eye you saw Troy Polamalu at cruising altitude - "
"I'd bust a move."
Casey bit the inside of his cheek, determined not to laugh, but knowing perfectly well the camera saw how delightful he found Dan. Dan saw it, too, and the grin he didn't bother to hide was just short of preening. "And that would entail what, exactly?"
Dan schooled his expression into one of deep thought, clearly giving the question all the seriousness it deserved. "First, I'd think of a move."
"And then I'd bust it," Dan said with finality. He turned to introduce basketball highlights without missing a beat, and Casey managed with heroic effort not to giggle, not even when Dana muttered "Funny boys" approvingly in their ears and Dan gave him a no-look fist bump just out of the camera's sight.
And at the touch of his hand, casual as it was, something small and final clicked into place in the back of Casey's mind. There was no scenario where he walked away from Dan. Not one. Not ever. He wasn't sure there ever had been. He would be at Dan's side, in whatever capacity Dan was willing to have him, for as long as Dan would allow it. The idea felt simply and obviously right, and he wondered at the sense of happy certainty that had so rarely marked his approach to relationships.
He knew it showed on his face, because when the camera came back to him Dana snapped that, yes, their little stand-up act was cute, but he probably shouldn't grin like an idiot when reporting on someone's season-ending knee injury. He only thought of how haggard Jeremy must look right about now, and smiled all the wider.
After the show they bundled into cabs and went to Dan's place, where Natalie kept the lights low and the music down and informed the few who dared to ask that it was a party because she said it was. It was, of course, exactly what the doctor ordered; a warm hum of conversation descended over the apartment, and under it the tension of the week dissipated like fog.
Although Casey appreciated the calm, he couldn't shake his own restlessness. He circled the living room, joining a half-dozen conversations and not listening to a single one of them, watching Dan out of the corner of his eye and trying to look casual whenever Dan caught him looking.
Finally Dana hooked her arm through his and pulled him into the bathroom. "Okay, what the hell is going on?" She made a vaguely threatening gesture with her margarita glass when he hesitated. "Spit it out!"
"Okay, here's the thing. The thing is, I'm about to turn my life upside down. Possibly all our lives? But! I'm trying really hard not to do it right this second. I think I should get credit for that."
"Are you leaving? The show?" Dana glanced at the door and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Is that what all this - "
"No! God, nothing like that. The opposite of that, actually."
"The opposite of leaving is just, you know, staying." Dana cocked her head quizzically. "How is that turning your life upside down?"
Casey took a deep breath, considered being reasonable and waiting to have this conversation at a more appropriate time, and decided there wasn't much point in starting now. "Well, it started - No, wait. First of all, I think I was aware of this huge potential thing, but only in the back of my mind, like there was some alternate universe where it could work out, or maybe where it had already worked out? But it didn't occur to me that it could be real, here and now, for me. For us! For this version of us. Until, suddenly - "
"There is not enough tequila in the world for this," Dana groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose with her fingers.
"I'm in love with Danny," Casey blurted out. "Entirely, head-over-heels in love with him."
Dana blinked at him, and then furrowed her brow in a reaction that could only be described as tragically underwhelming. "Are you getting to the part where you're going to turn all our lives upside down? Because I'm just not seeing - "
"You don't find my feelings at all surprising?"
Dana snorted. "I find it surprising you haven't done anything about these feelings until now, but then decisiveness was never exactly your strong suit."
He drew himself up to his full height and said, with as much dignity as he could muster, "I didn't know about these feelings until now."
"Oh my god, Casey. You didn't know?" She laughed so hard she spilled half her margarita down the front of his shirt. "Are you serious?"
He snagged the drink out of her hand and stuck it on the back of the toilet. "I'm completely serious! And you are not helping!"
At the look on his face, she tried for a moment to contain her laughter, but only managed to gasp, "God, the last decade just became hilarious," before dissolving into giggles again.
"I'm glad you find this so amusing." He threw his hands up in the air. "Dana, I don't know what the hell I'm doing!"
"Oh, I know. Believe me, Casey, I know." She took a deep breath and wiped tears of mirth from the corners of her eyes. "I have been on the receiving end of you not knowing what the hell you're doing more than once."
"And I won't deny it has its charms." She laughed again, and patted his cheek. "Just do something. I'm sure it will work out. Probably."
That neither as informative nor as reassuring as he would have liked. "But what exactly should I - "
"Jesus, is this the flip side of your total romantic ineptitude? Has Danny had to listen to this for all these years?" She grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. "Just go! Make a gesture!"
The chair at the head of Dan's dining room table felt a little wobbly under his feet. The table less so, but the combination of adrenaline and the way the window seemed to have moved closer in the time it took him to climb onto the table suggested a heretofore-unsuspected susceptibility to vertigo. Casey held his hands out like a politician, partly because he didn't know what else to do with them and partly to break his imminent fall, and cleared his throat loudly.
"Ummmm, Casey," Natalie said in the sugary, faux-conversational tone she'd once used to talk a drunk Jeremy out of shaving his head. "Hey, Casey, whatcha doin' up there?"
"I have something to say." He hesitated, glancing at the window again. What the hell was the safety rating on that glass, anyway? He glanced at Dana, who grinned and flashed him a big thumbs up, then he blinked twice and focused on Dan, who just looked confused.
"I'm freaking out," Casey announced. He raised one hand, in a pose later determined by common assent to have been regrettably Evita-like. "Officially."
The silence that fell over the room was broken only by the rustle of movement as everyone turned to look at Dan, and then turned back to look at Casey.
Casey kept on looking at Dan, because Dan had gone very still, but there was something happening in his eyes that Casey wouldn't have missed for anything. He was only peripherally aware of Natalie and Dana herding people out of the room with frankly terrifying efficiency. "Danny," was all he could think to say, in a voice that wasn't much more than a whisper.
Then they were alone.
"Get down," Dan said hoarsely. "Be careful. Come down here. Slowly. But right now."
Casey managed the dismount with a gymnast's grace. Or so he thought, and Dan never had the heart afterward to tell him differently. He stepped forward, close enough to draw Dan into his arms, but waited. He felt now that they had all the time in the world, and he wasn't going to rush a second of it.
"Remember when I said I didn't need you to be careful?" Dan's eyes were wide and dark as his gaze searched Casey's face. "I lied, Casey. I actually need you to be so careful right now. I need you to be as careful as you have ever been."
"Oh, I'm being even more careful than that," Casey said. He found Dan's hand with his own and let their fingers entwine. "At least back then, as much as I didn't want to screw things up, if it came down to it I still could envision some kind of future apart from you."
"Now?" Casey shook his head, and saw the first glimmer of Dan's smile in return. "Not so much."
"So you decided to - "
"To make a gesture." Casey leaned forward to kiss Dan on the corner of the mouth. He liked it so much he tried it again on the other side. "I was assured it would probably work." He kissed him high on the cheek, feeling Dan's breath stuttering against his neck.
"As much as I hate to admit it," Dan said, lifting his face, "I'm afraid we are actually pretty fraught."
"We really kind of are," Casey said, "in all the best ways." He looked deep into Dan's eyes. "I'm sorry I came at this sideways. It is, unfortunately, the only way I know how to come at things."
"I'm well aware of that," Dan said. "It turns out I don't really care."
Casey raised reverent hands to either side of Dan's face, tracing the lines of his cheekbones with his thumbs. He knew the shape of Dan's face better than he knew his own, but the sense of it now - oh, the sense of it was wonderfully new. Dan turned his head to press a kiss to the palm of Casey's hand, and Casey let his fingers trail down to outline the impossible curve of Dan's mouth.
"Casey," Dan whispered against his fingertips, "I have to get on a plane in seven hours. I think you should kiss me as many times as possible before then."
And so he did.