"Anybody who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined."
--Samuel Goldwyn, attributed
"Christina Cairns," Casey announced during an afternoon lull.
The Georgia Tech game had been called on account of hail. Casey tapped his pen against his desk with smug satisfaction.
"Christina Cairns," Dan repeated obligingly. But Casey could tell Dan was only humoring him. Dan's genuine attention was focused on the screen of his iMac.
"Yes, indeed," Casey said, as if it were an explanation of the divine mystery that was Christina Cairns.
He tossed his pen from one hand to the other, and succeeded in getting Dan to lift his eyes from the stats of his Yahoo! Fantasy Basketball team.
"Yes, indeed what? Who is she? Is she that new diver for the U.S. Swim team now that Miss Sonya Davis got herself in a family way?"
"No. That's Susannah Hong, from Lambert, Maine. No, Daniel, my friend... Christina Cairns is the stuff that dreams are made of."
Sufficiently intrigued, Dan pushed his chair back and crossed to Casey's desk.
"She must be something else," he said, seating himself on Casey's desk. "Do I detect a grammar fumble? Wouldn't the proper phrasing be 'the stuff of which dreams are made?'"
"One does not quibble about grammar in the presence of the radiant Christina Cairns, my man."
"Radiant, now." Dan gave a low whistle and cocked his head. "So what's the 411 on this femme fatale?"
"The year was 1983," Casey began, still toying with his pen. "The dogwoods were in full bloom, the prom was nigh... and the lovely Ms. Cairns was proclaimed Queen of Shrewsbury High School. And I was her noble king."
"Get out. There was no way you were king of the prom." Dan caught Casey's pen before he could complete his next jaunty pass and pointed it accusingly at Casey. "At Shrewsbury High School, or any other institution of secondary learning."
Casey capitulated, and raised his hands, inclining his head slightly.
"Perhaps I was inflating my presence at said prom. Slightly. But I tell no lie about--"
"The fabulous goddess-like Christina Cairns. And she's the topic of your sentimental journey because...?"
"We have a dinner date," Casey answered, searching Dan's face for the appropriate awe.
"Ah ha. It all becomes clear to me now. Nookie with the prom queen. This is a special occasion." Dan favored Casey with a sage nod.
"We shall see, my faithful companion. The night is young. Tomorrow I will regale you with many tales of my manly prowess."
"I'm looking forward to it. I haven't been regaled in quite a while."
The next afternoon, Casey pushed the glass door open and found Dan typing the evening's script.
He straightened his tie, leaving the first button of his shirt undone and tugging the collar wide enough to hint at a hickey. He stood for a moment, allowing adequate time for Dan's opening remarks.
Casey was not one to kiss and tell, but he could imply mutual lewdness with the best of them.
When Dan failed to comment on Casey's generally dissolute appearance, or indeed, speak to Casey at all, Casey planted his hands on Dan's desk and cleared his throat.
"Morning, Casey," Dan said to his computer screen.
"And a fine morning it is," Casey replied. There was the comforting murmur of people in the background, and the familiar scent of Kim's 11 o' clock popcorn. Always slightly singed, so she wouldn't have to share it. He inhaled deeply, and let out a hearty sigh of satisfaction.
"Somebody got laid."
"That is a rumor I can neither confirm nor deny."
Dan paused a moment and surveyed Casey's unshaven chin and rumpled shirt.
"You got laid."
"You know me too well."
Dan shrugged and surveyed his script with a critical eye, adjusting his tie.
Casey waited another beat, but Dan seemed disinclined to continue exploring Casey's night of ill-repute.
"Okay then. I should get to work, anyway. No time to chit chat about my sexual conquests. With former high school prom queens. Who have aged very well, I might add."
Miffed, Casey made his way to his desk and booted up his own computer. Then he settled back in his chair, steepling his fingers and frowning at Dan.
After a while, Dan sighed and met Casey's eyes.
Dan returned to his work.
"It's just that..."
"Casey? Do you really need me to ooh and ahh at all the gory details? Because I have to get this in a little early today." After a moment, he answered Casey's silent question. "I have an appointment with Abby."
The two of them worked in strained silence for the rest of the afternoon.
Dan was off his game, and he knew it.
The fact that Abby found him at her desk rifling the pages of her "Quote a Day" calendar only emphasized that fact.
"Uh. I wanted to see if the 21st was a Thursday."
"And now you know."
"So you can breathe easy. And maybe walk around to the other side of the desk. It's this thing I have; I like to sit behind my desk and pretend I'm a doctor and that you're my patient."
Edging around the desk with downcast eyes, Dan made an attempt to look casual. He was failing at it miserably, but the nice thing about Abby was that, even if she called him on it, she'd make him sort of like it.
He sort of liked everything about her, from her smooth brown hair and calm blue eyes to her direct manner and her skirts, that showed off her legs. Also, she smelled like cashmere. Dan tried not to examine the reasons he found this comforting.
"You're early. That's not like you. What happened?" She leaned against her desk and folded her arms. He tapped the toe of his shoe against the leg of her desk and considered stalling.
"It was a fluke," Dan said. "The cab driver. Delusions of Mario Andretti. You know, I don't think we stopped for a single red light--"
"Do me a favor. Think of this session as the lightning round on a game show. The faster you give me answers, the more money you win."
"I'm paying you for this. I get an hour," Dan reminded her.
Abby nodded and glanced at her watch.
"Why are you early today, Dan?"
"Casey's started seeing someone."
"I don't think that plane's ever going to get off the ground. It's, uh, a high school sweetheart. From his hometown. The prom queen of Shrewsbury High, actually."
"That's all you have to say?"
"I really only made a sound. An 'I'm listening' sound. It wasn't actually a word. Have you met her?"
"Not yet. But Casey... he's like those Arctic Terns. He meets someone and then he gets serious about them and he marries them. Mates for life."
"Canadian geese," Abby said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm not sure about Arctic terns, but Canadian Geese mate for life." She leaned toward Dan in a conspiratorial manner. "I watch the Discovery Channel." Dan nodded. "She makes you uncomfortable. You see her as a threat to your friendship with Casey, to the time you two spend together. This wasn't a problem when it seemed he might date Dana, since you already spend most of your waking hours together anyway."
Dan knew he was doing that thing with his eyebrows, that thing that meant he looked pissed. He swallowed before he spoke.
"I wouldn't say that."
"No. You wouldn't. What was the quote?"
Dan raised his eyebrows.
"You were reading a quote when I walked in. What was it?"
"Sarah Orne Jewett. My high school English teacher made us read 'The Country of the Pointed Firs' my senior year."
Abby narrowed her eyes and gave Dan a prim smile.
"You're a TV guy. You went to Dartmouth. Recite it."
"The quote. Sarah Orne Jewett. In one, two..." and she finished with a silent three, then four, fingered gesture for him to proceed.
"'In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness.'"
"That's pretty good." She cocked her head at him, always a bad sign. "So what's in there, Dan? Endless regret? Or is it secret happiness?"
Dan cleared his throat once, twice. And couldn't answer.
"Though boys throw stones in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest."
--Plutarch, Water and Animals
Dan broke the amiable silence of the editing room with a question.
"Do you think it's possible to be too self-aware?"
"You been reading Kirkegaard again?" Casey's hair looked spiky at the back of his neck. Dan had to remind himself not to reach out and smooth it down.
Casey's hair was brown, a medium light brown, but if anyone had asked Dan what color it was Dan would have had to think about it. For some reason, his own first impulse was to answer ‘blond'.
"Do you ever think about going blond...?"
Casey just raised an eyebrow.
"It's Abby. I'm thinking of, you know, not seeing her anymore. Professionally." He was also considering giving up coffee. His tongue tasted funny after every cup. It might have been the Creamora, though.
Casey waited a beat before speaking.
"Any particular reason?"
"She talked about Canadian Geese, for one thing."
"Uh huh." Casey put his pen down. "Why?"
"I'm not sure. It's probably part of her hidden agenda."
"Her evil plan to make you feel better about whatever it is you're upset about."
"You're defending her," Dan accused, annoyed.
"So. You're feeling better. Settled. At peace with... everything?"
"Not exactly," Dan admitted. He turned away from the monitor where he was reviewing the previous evening's Laker's game. Casey, for his part, pushed his wheeled chair backwards and linked his fingers. "But, you know, I don't know how much she's really doing for me. And I'm not sure, but there's a potential downside to all this journey of self-discovery stuff."
"'Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.'"
Casey turned back to his notes and picked up his pen.
"You should keep going to see her until you're sure what it is that you're upset about. And, besides, you like her."
"Yeah." Dan swiveled the chair until it was once again facing the monitor. "Yeah."
Casey took off his tie and doubled it before batting it softly against Jeremy's hunched shoulder.
"The whistle has blown, sir. That means you can cast off your shackles and stumble home."
Not deigning to look up, Jeremy continued to pore over the paperback doubled up on the desk.
"What are you doing, anyway?" Dan asked, leaning over the seated man's shoulder.
"Checking stats for tomorrow's show. Did you know the Green Bay Packers have the highest instance of heart disease among professional football players?"
"I did not know that," Casey replied.
"Huh. Must be all that cheese," Dan suggested.
"Can't you work on that tomorrow? Come on, we're going to Anthony's."
"Jane Hopkins said that 'Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.'"
"Did she now. Did she say anything about how celibacy is the consequence of not going to bars to hit on women?"
Casey cuffed Dan's shoulder and shot him an annoyed glance before leaning over Jeremy's notes to review his facts.
"That can't be right."
"What can't be right?" Jeremy had a way with an expressive monotone, and Casey knew him well enough to know that Jeremy was getting testy. That he was, in fact, well on his way to peevish.
"It says there that Daunte Culpepper won the Heisman Trophy in 1999. He won the Heisman in '98."
Jeremy resettled his glassed and consulted the paperback.
"You're right. This, on the other hand," he said, indicating the passage with his finger, "is wrong." With a sigh, he closed the book and leaned back in his chair. "'I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy.'"
"Wait. I know that one." Dan loosened his tie, and then nodded, pointing at Jeremy. "Samuel Butler."
"Right." Jeremy granted Dan a slight smile.
"Give me another one."
"Uh, okay. How about, 'Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.'"
"Hang on, gimme a minute...uh, Jefferson!"
Jeremy shook his head.
"Abraham Lincoln, the Cooper Union address, February 27th, 1860," Casey crowed, and slapped Jeremy's desk for emphasis.
"To the day," Jeremy reported, obviously impressed.
Casey smirked at Dan.
"In your face. McCall is in the house! And you thought that Oration Society was unhip."
"It was unhip. It was, in fact, lamer than a dog with two legs. But that does not mean that I can't take you to school." Dan puffed his chest out and lifted his chin, squinting a challenge.
"Name the place and the time, my friend." The buttons on Casey's oxford clacked against Dan's as they squared off. "Better wear a dirty shirt, 'cause I'm gonna wipe the floor with you."
"We'll see, pal." Dan clapped Jeremy on the shoulder. "C'mon Jeremy, let's settle this like men."
"You mean go to a bar and drink a lot of beer and then belch the answers to trivia questions?" Jeremy was already stacking his countless paperbacks.
"That's exactly what I mean."
Jeremy was at the bar, getting them a pitcher and three glasses, and Dan confided, "You and I know a lot of stuff."
Casey nodded in agreement.
"A lot," Dan continued. "We can quote a large number of dead people with ease. What does that mean, exactly?"
"I have no idea."
"Do you think we've lost touch with the common man?"
"Not unless the common man has lost interest in Sport's Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue."
Dan nodded, apparently mollified, and Jeremy returned with the beer.
"'The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.'"
"James Branch Cabell," Casey said.
"John Wayne Gacey!" Dan blurted.
"Casey, you're right. Dan, you're probably a few drinks past your limit... Or else criminally insane. John Wayne Gacey was a serial killer who murdered young boys and--"
"That doesn't mean he never had anything pithy to say."
Both Casey and Jeremy favored Dan with a long, speculative look.
Jeremy prodded Casey.
"Uhm. 'Never play cards with any man named 'Doc'. Never eat at any place called 'Mom's'. And never, ever... sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.'"
Dan twisted his mouth and stared into his beer, and Jeremy took the lead when he said:
"Right you are. And words to live by if ever I heard them."
Dan's tone was flat, but he asked, "Where's Miss Prom Queen this evening, anyway?"
Casey had to think about it. "She's in, uh... New Jersey. On business."
"What do ex-prom queens make these days?"
"Uh. Her father was in real estate. She manages his properties for him."
"Sounds like there's money in it. She make more money than you?"
Jeremy's eyes flickered from one man to the other and he said softly, "Hey. Dan. It's your turn."
"So it is. I've got one for you, Casey. Who said 'There are people who have money and people who are rich.'" Dan made a buzzing noise and leaned closer. "Nope, sorry. Time's up. Coco Chanel."
"Dan, what is up with you?"
"Not a thing."
"Then why don't you give it a rest?"
"Shut up, Jeremy," Dan said.
"Oooookay. I'm uh, I'm just gonna go."
Both Dan and Casey ignored him and Jeremy quietly snagged his jacket from the back of his chair and made his way from the table.
"I thought we were past this," Casey said, still more confused than angry.
"Well, I guess we're not."
"Maybe I don't want to be second best anymore."
"Look, Danny, you're just going to have to accept the fact that I made the list and --"
"That's not what I'm talking about!"
"I think it is. 'It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.'"
"You can kiss my ass, number 92. Here's a quote for you: 'A friend in power is a friend lost." That's Henry Adams, for your information. Oh, yeah, and fuck you, Casey."
And Dan stormed out, leaving Casey hurt and riled and stuck with the bill.
Dan was on his couch staring at the phone, with a throbbing pain behind his eyes. He wasn't sure, but it might mean he was going to have an aneurysm.
No one was dead, or hospitalized, and he seemed to have the use of all his limbs and facilities, so he couldn't quite bring himself to name this terrible shaking and nausea as an emergency.
Too much to drink. The beer was sour on his tongue, and he pressed his hand hard to his midsection, trying to still his rolling stomach.
This was not an emergency. If he called Abby at three in the morning she'd be calm, but he'd hear her "I'm-not-angry" voice for sure. And Dan wasn't even sure she'd actually given him her home number.
It was probably some stupid answering service. Some polite, disinterested drone working the late shift while he shivered on his couch for no good reason.
Fuck this. This was stupid. This was a fight, this would blow over, this was his own inability to deal with even the specter of change.
Sure, CSC was for sale. Everything was. You could buy and sell anything in New York, including third rate sports shows with neurotic co-hosts.
He laughed, a small choked sound, thinking about Catherine, and his own weird last minute desire to be a little more marketable.
Her round, solemn face, and Casey asking him about his sudden penchant for sweaters.
"Catherine's idea. She said I should wear more sweaters."
"She says they make me look 'cuddly', and therefore more accessible to a young female demographic."
"She keeps me in line."
"You've been picturing her naked, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have."
There was a knock on the door.
"Dan, just let me in. Come on. We've gotta talk this out."
"Look, I've already made an ass of myself. Can't we just not discuss it in the morning and let it blow over?"
"Only if you let me in."
Dan walked to the door, but only pressed his forehead against it.
"I don't want to fight anymore."
"This won't be fighting. This will be letting the healing process begin, so that the healing process can begin. Also, you owe me 12 dollars and 56 cents."
Dan smiled, his cheek pressed to the cool paint of the door.
"That didn't work on Jeremy. It won't work on me."
"It worked. Eventually. In some fashion," Casey answered. "You're at the door. It's already working."
Dan shook his head, his forehead never losing contact with the door. But his stomach had settled some.
"I'm telling you, Casey. Now would be a good time to let me sulk in my lair and lick my wounds."
"Just let me in, huh? You'll get a reputation."
Dan unlocked the door.
Casey looked much as he had at the bar. His shirt was open at the collar, and Dan could see him sway a little. He looked a little unfocused, as if he wasn't sure where he was, or why.
"If I let you in, you have to apologize to Jeremy for me in the morning."
"I have to apologize to Jeremy for you every morning."
"Ha ha. Get in here. The neighbors will talk."
Dan closed the door behind Casey and they walked to the couch together. When they sat, Dan leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and Casey leaned back, resting his head against the couch cushions.
"I don't know why I said that," Dan began, even as Casey said,
"I wish you'd tell me what was bothering you."
"It's-- It's nothing specific. I don't know. I'll be fine and then you know... I just, like, say something, and then I come back to myself and I can't believe I've said it, and then I feel like shit, but I'm already in the middle of a fight, and then--"
"You used to talk to me, man. It's just... What can you tell her that you can't tell me?"
"Abby. You'll talk to a woman you pay by the hour, but you won't tell me what's bothering you."
Dan shook his head in disbelief.
"I don't fucking believe it. This isn't about you coming over here to smooth things over. This is about your pride being hurt because I won't let you play priest confessor anymore. Well, excuse me if I'm not forthcoming. If I won't pin my bleeding heart to my sleeve for you. Whatever the hell is wrong with me isn't a hobby, Casey, and forgive me if I feel like I should trust it to a professional."
"That's. That's not what I meant, Danny, and you know it." Casey looked chagrined, his big hands spread loosely on his knees.
"I'd really like it if you'd leave now."
"I mean it."
After another pause, Casey nodded and climbed off the sofa.
"We'll talk in the morning."
The next morning, Jeremy and Casey seemed mysteriously calm, and Dan was relieved.
It was almost okay. He flirted with Kim, pinched Natalie, and wrote his script. Not his best work, but certainly nothing to sneeze at. If Isaac kept looking at him with faintly sad eyes, well it could be that he was just tired. The stroke had made it more difficult for Isaac to school his face, and the stress of recent events had everyone looking slightly uneasy. It was as if the entire staff had suddenly realized they'd left the water running in the sink that morning.
But the show went well, idle chatter during the 5:40, Jeremy mentioning that he'd be attending an International Canadian Film festival.
"International Canadian film festival," Casey echoed. "That's like saying... 'International Canadian Film Festival'."
"Must I remind you that Canada is a foreign county?"
"Oh, come on, Danny. Canada is like our cousin who lives up the street who can play hockey better than we can."
"That's an incredibly shallow, and uniquely American--"
"Land that I love," intoned Casey.
"--view of another country. What you're saying is--"
"Land of the free."
"--that just because they live to the north of us--"
"Home of the brave."
"--and they sound like us, and they look like us--"
"I rest my case."
"It is, in fact, a country with its own rich culture."
"Give me a single example of Canadian culture."
"I can give you three: Canadian bacon,"
Casey only rolled his eyes.
"--and the metric system."
Casey tensed his eyebrows.
"Also, Dudley DoRight, pink money and The Kids in the Hall."
"A comic troupe on American cable, and discovered by Lorne Michaels," Casey countered.
"Himself a Canadian."
"Huh. Is he."
"He is, indeed."
Casey tapped a sheaf of paper on his desk top smartly.
"Well then. I may have to reconsider this whole Canada thing."
"I think that would be the thing to do, yes."
"Charm: the quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves."
--Henri-Frederic Amiel, 1883
Two days later, Natalie invited the staff to her apartment for a late, catered dinner party the following evening.
"As I am supplying the fabulous food, you will be supplying the alcohol. Bring your own beer, and, " she announced, with a significant look at Jeremy, "bring a date. Spouse, significant other, et cetera."
Dan snagged Jeremy as the crowd dispersed.
"So, Jeremy. You going stag?"
"I most certainly am not." Jeremy's dark eyes followed Natalie's bobbing, tousled head as she zigged and zagged around the office. "What we have just witnessed is the gauntlet being thrown. Now I must prove myself worthy of the challenge."
"So who are you bringing to the party? Jenny?"
"Well, seeing as how she's made it clear that she never wants to hear from me again, I'm thinking... No."
"Someone else, then."
"Someone else it will have to be. Who are you bringing, anyway?"
"The lucky lady has yet to accept the invitation."
"You're going stag then?"
Dan cleared his throat and smoothed his lapels.
"Yeah. Pretty much."
"Who's Casey bringing?"
"My guess would be the Prom Queen of Shrewsbury High."
Jeremy regarded him, his dark eyes and cocked head giving him a shrewd, birdlike appearance.
"You really don't like her."
"I've never--" Dan studied his shoes for a moment before answering. "I've never met her."
Jeremy blinked at him and then patted Dan's shoulder.
"You should bring someone," he said softly.
Catherine had surprised him by accepting his invitation, and they took her zippy little Cabrio to Natalie's building.
He held the door for her, and she paused in the doorway, giving him another in a series of brief, appraising looks.
Between Catherine and Abby, Dan sometimes felt like he was getting the complete makeover. Redesigned, inside and out.
"You should get out more," Catherine said. She looked attractively sturdy in the doorway, the soft glow of the lobby picking up the streaks of blonde in her straight, straight hair.
"Okay," Dan answered amiably.
"I bet we could set you up with Gina Forsch. She's with us, too."
"The soap star?"
"Would you be interested?"
"No." Dan had startled himself with the reply. Gina Forsch, if nothing else, was tall and dark eyed and hot.
Catherine seemed unperturbed.
"I see you're wearing a sweater."
"I am. They're fashionable and seasonable. If you go inside, I can close the door behind you and we can go upstairs. Where the people are."
She almost smiled and he followed her to the elevator.
Natalie's place seemed too small to hold this many people. He nodded to Jeremy, who was chaperoning a petite redhead toward the bar, and saw Casey beckon to him from beside the closet.
"Let me hang your jacket up for you," Dan said, and Catherine handed it to him. "While I"m up there, do you want a drink?" He held up the bottle of red he'd brought.
"Vodka and cranberry," she answered. He opened his mouth, and Catherine lifted her chin and put her hands on her hips. "If you ask to see ID, I'll kick you. Don't push your luck."
"Discretion. It's the better part of valor, you know. Vodka and cranberry," he repeated. "You want lime in that?"
She dimpled at him and he made his way toward Casey.
He handed Casey the jacket and Casey obliged him by hanging it up.
"So." Dan craned his neck and saw Elliot and his wife Frances, and Dave, and Dana who was smiling at a man with a beard, and Natalie, hanging on the arm of some musclehead who probably couldn't string a sentence together. She was being very attentive, in between bouts of tracking Jeremy and his redhead around the room. "Where is she?"
"Christina Cairns. The woman you profess to be dating."
"Oh. She's working. Her father just bought a health club or something and she had to be there for the closing."
"That's too bad." Casey gave him a look of frank disbelief and Dan hurried, "Really. I was looking forward to meeting her. I'm sure she's great."
"She is. She really is." There was a pause. "I see you brought your publicist with you."
"Yeah." He glanced her way, and saw she was talking to Jeremy's redhead. "She thinks I should date Gina Forsch."
"The soap star," Casey acknowledged. He narrowed his eyes. "Has she been talking to Dana?"
Dan tried not to smile.
"Not to my knowledge, no."
"Natalie has a new beau."
"He's hard to miss."
"It would be more convincing if she and Jeremy weren't so obviously pining for each other."
Natalie decreed that dinner would be served at the table, despite the fact that it hadn't been designed to seat 26 people.
Eventually, she allowed people to stand with their plates, but only after cramming as many people around the table as she could.
As it was, Casey was wedged next to Dan, Catherine to Dan's right and Rick, Natalie's date, to Casey's left.
Casey found Rick unsettlingly knowledgeable about women's synchronized swimming, and they conversed amicably until Natalie elbowed Rick in the chest and told him to bring her another bottle of red wine.
Casey was in a good mood.
The party was a happy one, full of friendly faces and people he was generally fond of. Dana looked content on the couch, balancing her dinner plate on her knees and stealing olives from her date's salad.
He felt no particular twinge about this, and he firmly reminded himself that he was dating someone else, and that everything was going fine, even with the probable sale of CSC in their future.
He fidgeted slightly and bumped knees with Dan, who seemed unperturbed, even oblivious.
It occurred to Casey that if he'd been wedged knee to knee with Christina, or even Dana, that there would be a current. A tang. A small electric charge of attraction, of chemistry.
Instead, it was just Dan's bony knee butting up against his own.
Dan's knee cap had settled into the hollow above Casey's shin bone and it was warm, even comfortable... But that was pretty much the end of it.
Well, if someone was sitting under the table, perhaps they'd note how he and Dan were jockeying for comfortable placement of their long legs. That Casey now had his shoe hooked around the back of Dan's heel, as he tried to flex his knee without shoving anyone's plate off the table.
Casey wondered suddenly if the scene under the table was giving anyone the wrong idea.
"What if someone drops a fork?" he murmured.
"I think that means company's coming," Dan informed him. He consulted an apple-cheeked Catherine. "Or is that when you spill salt?"
Casey closed his eyes and tried to picture the scene under the table. It could conceivably be construed as a flirtatious, perhaps even overtly sexual tableau.
Casey felt his ears getting pink, and figured he should have said no to that last beer, and hastily repositioned his feet, kicking Dan in the ankle.
Dan spared him a brief, annoyed glance and then returned to trying to back out of whatever celebrity luncheon Catherine was trying to steer him into.
Come off it, Casey, he urged himself. It's just Dan. Dan's knee. Dan's thigh, too, now that you mention it. Warm and solid and pressed right up against his thigh, all the way to his hip.
Did anyone notice? Was anyone thinking anything... Untoward? After all, it was just Dan. His friend. Everyone knew they were close.
Anyone under the table might think them... unusually close. More than friends, even.
"I'm getting a drink," he explained.
Natalie vetoed his request.
"You'll stay at the table until after dessert. Creme brulee. You'll like it. It was very expensive."
Dan snickered and leaned toward Casey, a new and intimate pressure of his leg against Casey's, the friction of two pairs of khaki slacks, as he shifted.
"I think Catherine's had a few too many. She just asked me which Spice Girl I'd be. And," he lowered his voice, "She agreed to a game of strip poker with Dave and Hermione."
"Hermione. Jeremy's date."
"Sounds promising," he ventured.
"Are you kidding? I'm gonna borrow Natalie's camera. We're going to document this girlish glee."
"You really want out of that Hollywood Squares appearance, don't you?"
"Like you wouldn't believe."
He'd had a few more beers than usual. A sense of maudlin camaraderie had characterized the last hour of the party, and then people had drifted away, in couples and fews.
Natalie's tiny one bedroom apartment seemed somehow smaller now that the crowd had thinned. Really, there was only Catherine, curled up on Natalie's futon, hugging a throw pillow.
Casey and Dan were sprawled on the futon's big brother. It still felt oddly fragile. Casey wondered if thinking a couch should be sturdier than your average patio lounger was a sign of age.
He would have asked Dan, but Dan was in that strange place where Casey couldn't reach him. Where Dan's shoulders hunched a little and he stared at things Casey could never see. He often had a bottle of beer in his hand when that happened; tonight he had only a glass of melting ice.
Casey happened to know Dan had been mixing himself Shirley Temples all night. It was part of his apology to Jeremy. Casey could have used a drink of water, himself. But he didn't feel up to standing at the moment. Or, more correctly, lurching into Natalie's tiny kitchen to run the tap.
He snagged the glass from Dan's lax hand, and tipped a few ice cubes into his parched mouth before handing it back.
The tingle of nearly-flat Coke and the sweetness of grenadine syrup settled on his tongue, and for a moment, just a split second, Casey wondered if Dan tasted that way.
It was mostly dark, and from the open window came the muted music of traffic and the familiar patter of Natalie's quick voice, underlain with the murmur of Jeremy's slower one. Dan's head tipped back; Casey only knew he was awake because Dan had a funny half-hitch to every third breath when he slept.
Shared hotel rooms, long nights, late parties. He'd had plenty of time to learn what Dan sounded like while he was asleep.
Twice, Dan had spoken his brother Sam's name while he dreamed. And once, a year before Lisa had finalized the divorce, a weekend she had gone to her mother's with their son, a weekend spent with Dan playing squash and watching the Knicks and drinking expensive beer... Dan, asleep on the couch, a beer bottle close to rolling from his hand, had said--
"I'm awake," Casey responded.
"You can't drive home."
"Catherine's down for the count."
"We're staying here?"
"Right here," Casey agreed.
"Natalie and Jeremy are arguing on the fire escape."
"That seems to be the case, yes."
"I think Dana went home with that guy with the beard," Dan said cautiously.
"His name is Franklin."
"Not... Ben Franklin?"
"No. He's Franklin Stewart."
"Two first names."
"You can usually get by just fine with one."
"He seemed nice," Dan decided.
"Jeremy is kissing Natalie."
They both craned their necks subtly, and Natalie's little hands slid up Jeremy's arms and settled on his shoulders before she pressed him back. Gently.
"She's giggling," Dan reported.
"A good sign."
"I think so."
Natalie stood on tiptoe and locked her hands behind Jeremy's neck, and Jeremy took off his glasses and said something solemn.
Nodding, Natalie took his hand and led him back inside. She slid the window shut behind them and turned to kiss Jeremy soundly once again.
"What'll we do?" Dan whispered nervously.
They both closed their eyes, and Casey could feel Dan shift, his side warm, expanding slightly with his soft, even breathing.
It wouldn't have fooled Casey, but then Natalie had probably had fewer opportunities to listen to Dan sleep.
After a too-long time, fraught with the tension of faking sleep and listening to the soft cooing, smacking sounds of two of your friends making out, Natalie whispered something to Jeremy and Casey could hear her pad away and then return.
In the dim glow from the bathroom light in the hallway, and through the fringe of his lashes, Casey saw her cover Catherine with a green and yellow knitted afghan. She snuck closer to them and Casey swallowed, fidgeting and inadvertently pressing closer to Dan's warm side.
"Goodnight, guys," Natalie whispered, and she draped the soft folds of a blanket over Casey's lap, tucking it around his neck, behind his shoulder.
He heard her pat Danny's head, and then move off, towards her bedroom. Towards Jeremy.
For a long time, Casey kept his eyes closed, and eventually, Dan's breath started to hitch softly on every third inhalation.
He could feel Dan's body growing incrementally heavier against his, feel Dan's folded arms slip, settle again with his elbow on Casey's thigh. Cautiously, hampered by the blanket, Casey reached out to feel around for Dan's glass.
It was wedged between Dan's thighs, and Casey finished the last cool watery swallow before setting the empty glass on the table in front of the couch.
Stretching to reach the coffee table unsettled Dan, who started to slump over, and by the time Casey had leaned back, Dan's nose was mashed against Casey's upper arm. He made a snuffly sound and rubbed his face against Casey's shirt.
His breath was warm and damp, even through two layers of cotton.
Casey froze a moment before shrugging gently, intending to dislodge Dan without waking him.
And then Dan made a sleepy, starting gasp and Casey froze again.
"What?" Dan said, groggily.
"You fell asleep."
"No, I didn't," Dan protested, his voice thick.
"You drooled on me," Casey pointed out.
And then Dan's breath fell into that well-known pattern again and Casey had to smile.
Another few minutes passed before he heard the soft, dry smack of Dan's lips and the hesitant, "Case?"
"Danny," Casey answered dutifully.
They didn't move for a while, and Casey could feel Dan tensing up again. Casey decided he didn't want that to happen.
With his chin, Casey gestured to Catherine snoring lightly on Natalie's futon.
"She doesn't drink much, does she?"
"Look at her. She's a leprechaun. I'm amazed she lasted as long as she did."
"I myself am pretty darned inebriated."
"You know how I can tell? You said ‘darned'. I stuck to Shirley Temples."
"Ah. A rugged, manly drink."
"Yeah. Well. I say stupid things when I drink. And-- And I didn't want to do that."
"Dan. You're forgiven, okay? If you can let me slide on that Abby thing--"
Dan turned his face against Casey's shoulder.
Casey draped his arm around his friend, ignoring his suddenly sweaty palms.
This was Dan.
For a long moment, he breathed softly on the back of Dan's neck, patting his spine through his gray sweater
"She thinks I'm afraid of what I want," Dan explained, voice muffled by Casey's henley.
"Catherine. Abby. Both of them."
"Are you?" It seemed the appropriate question. He felt Dan's hand close on his sleeve.
There was a long pause.
"Well," Casey cleared his throat, and his patting became a slow circles rubbed hesitantly against Dan's sweater. "I'll tell you what you told Jeremy. Face your fear. Be a man. If it's --"
Dan's breath caught, and his hand slowly stroked across Casey's stomach, dragging against the cotton. A thrill rolled down Casey's belly and shot up his thighs, courtesy of one hesitant touch of Dan's hand, a hand that settled lightly on Casey's knee and then cupped his kneecap. Casey could feel the tremor in Dan's hand, and he covered it with his own.
Dan lifted his head, and Casey could see the gleam of the hallway lights in Dan's wide, liquid eyes.
Casey tipped his head to one side, and then the other, and lowered his mouth to Dan's parted lips, felt Dan's hot, sweet breath and moving mouth as Dan tried to say something.
He pressed Dan's hand hard against his knee and slid his other hand up to curl his fingers around the back of Dan's neck.
Somehow Dan's hand got out from beneath Casey's, and made its way toward Casey's crotch in slow, kneading handfuls.
He felt Dan's knuckles graze the seam of his pants, where his dick was pressing hard against the placket of his zipper.
"Danny," he whispered, and Dan's hand stopped, high on his thigh.
"Yeah." Dan sounded breathless and strange. He kept swallowing very loudly, his forehead pressed to Casey's cheek. "Yeah. They're right inside."
"They're busy," Casey said, moving so his lips would brush Dan's hot ear.
"Casey, this is nuts--" Dan murmured, urgently.
"Yeah," Casey agreed, trying his teeth against Dan's ear this time.
"Oh, god," Dan stiffened and groaned, a thick, shivery, miserable sound that made Casey's dick throb hard in sympathy. "Oh jesus, Casey--"
Casey slid his hand between Dan's legs, and found warm flesh and slippery, spreading wetness. When the heck had Dan opened his pants?
He'd already come. And Casey had missed it.
He found it difficult to concentrate on this detail, as Dan was tugging at his zipper, and Casey squeezed Dan's hip, felt the sweater ride up a little as Dan reached for him.
"That's-- that's-- oh." Dan's hand was warm and smooth and so much bigger than any hand he'd had in that particular location, ever.
Dan bent his head and licked Casey's neck and did Casey in slow, drugged motions. Those hands had typed his scripts for him when he'd had the flu, when he'd been blind thanks to eye exams, when he'd been too fried about Lisa to do much more than stare at his screen and try not to give in to the burning behind his eyes.
Those hands were currently giving him the most unbelievably tender handjob he'd ever received, and all he could do about it was pant Danny's name.
"Shut up, Casey. Shhh. Shhh. Casey. Casey. Just-- shut up... okay?" Dan's voice was low and anxious and still rough with sleep. Danny's free hand combed through Casey's hair and pressed against the back of his neck, so that he was resting his forehead against Dan's shoulder as Dan... Dan... Danny....
Little red suns were blooming behind his clenched eyelids and he closed his teeth in Dan's shoulder and let out a hard little grunt that was mostly muffled by Dan's sweater.
Dan rubbed his hand off against Casey's shirt, the undershirt he was wearing beneath the henley.
Dan shifted in his arms, clutched at Casey's shirtfront for a moment and lifted his head, pressing a quick, awkward kiss on Casey's mouth.
Casey was in a warm, blissful, boneless state. He felt like he might drip right off the couch. He recognized the sweaty euphoria of the drunken post-orgasm, but dismissed it.
It was all okay.
It was Danny.
Danny who was zipping him up and tugging his shirt down again. Danny who took his hand and kissed his flushed cheek softly, with a solemn finality that Casey would only recognize much later.
Casey was pale and ruffled, his hair mashed down on one side and stiff and pointing out in spikes on the other.
He was staring at Dan like he'd never seen him before.
Dan felt his stomach sink and he dug his nails into his knee through his pants so that he'd remember to shut up. He was having an odd sense of déjà vu; a bad morning after was something he'd imagined so often, he knew it immediately.
"I drank a lot," Casey said woodenly. "Last night."
Dan didn't move, just tried to tell himself that everything would be better when Casey had showered and slept and either laughed it off or pretended it had never happened at all.
Catherine was creaking and moaning unhappily on the couch and the sun was pitilessly bright. It must have been nearly nine.
Casey clambered off the couch just as Natalie came out of her bedroom, wearing Jeremy's white oxford.
"Good morning everyone," she chirped. "Would anyone like orange juice? No? Oh well." And she returned to the bedroom with the entire carton.
Casey had his hands in his pockets, and something about the tension of his eyebrows suggested that he was trying to tug his BVD's away from where they'd dried to his skin last night.
From where Dan was sitting, Casey appeared freakishly tall. The morning sunlight had whittled him into a disturbing, elongated thinness. Scarecrow, Dan thought disjointedly. Please no flying monkeys, no flying monkeys, Dan chanted to himself, a sort of nonsense holding pattern that distracted him from the real issues.
Issues including the fact that Casey was stumbling out the door as fast as two sleep-stiff legs would carry him.
Casey let himself in to Dan's apartment.
He'd driven home to shower and change and think.
That last part wasn't going too well.
Dan was stretched out on his bed, still wearing yesterday's clothes, staring at the ceiling.
He showed no sign of having heard Casey, and Casey wondered if Dan had used the past hour and a half to ingest paralytics.
He moved closer, and Dan continued to stare at the ceiling.
"Look, I freaked out."
At least he could tell Dan was breathing.
"Look... about what happened at Natalie's--" he felt around, but came up with nothing. "I'm not that-- I'm not like that. That was like... invasion of the body snatchers. That's not me."
"I heard you the first time," Dan replied evenly. His folded hands rose and fell slightly with his breathing. "You freaked out."
"Yes," Casey replied, relieved. "And I apologize."
"Apology accepted," Dan's tone was flat and nasal. "Do you feel better now?"
"Well... No. Look, I can only say I'm sorry--"
"It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters! I behaved badly, but I mean, I apologized. Now you're supposed to forgive me. That's how this works."
"I forgive you."
"No, you don't!"
Dan's face was cool and expressionless. The line of his nose seemed to Casey to be suddenly sneering and cruel.
"It was really my mistake, Casey. I shouldn't have touched you."
"What?" Casey felt a terrible coldness pooling in his gut. They weren't having the same conversation, were they? "That's-- That's not what I meant. I meant... I wanted you to touch me. I just... I freaked out. I'm not apologizing for... what happened. What we did. I'm apologizing for skipping out this morning. Because... I don't-- I never thought I was that panicky morning after guy. And it looks like I am, and I know I must have made you feel like shit, but I swear that I never meant to."
For the first time, Dan's eyes were on him, rather than the ceiling.
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, I freaked out. But that even with a hangover, I should have treated you better. And... I just want to say... We're not seeing each other. Anymore."
"How is that going to work?" Dan sat up, face red and blotchy; his eyes looked sore.
"Christina Cairns! She called me. We agreed not to see one another. She's out of town a lot. I work approximately 23 hours a day. It's one of those things. Mutual agreement."
"But that's not the only reason." Slowly, Casey lowered himself until he was sitting on the edge of Dan's bed. His weight made the mattress dip, and rolled Dan slightly toward him.
"Look. Danny. I--" Hesitantly, he reached out and rested his hand on Dan's thigh. "Let me make it up to you," and he tried out his husky ‘wanna have sex?' voice.
For a moment, Dan's face shifted, incredulous, angry, interested, miserable... and then he laughed out loud.
Flopping back on the bed, he laughed some more.
"I gotta tell you, Case, your seduction techniques could use some work."
Offended, Casey removed his hand and crossed his arms.
"We can't all be smooth operators like you, Mr. Shirley Temple."
He felt Dan's hand close on his elbow.
"Casey? Are you sure about this?"
And Dan's eyes were big and dark, and his mouth was doing that thing, that little pensive twist that had always made Casey want to hug him, and now made him want to kiss him, too.
He opened his arms and Dan sat up again and hid his face against Casey's shoulder, and they sat like that for a long time.
"So. You were saying something about making it up to me?" Danny said eventually.
Casey brushed his thumb against Dan's stubbly chin, and said, "I may have mentioned something along those lines, yes. I might be inspired if you took off your shirt."
Dan smiled and Casey helped him shuck his sweater.
"You look... nice." And gently, Casey petted Dan's smooth chest. The skin was hot and inviting, and Casey liked it even more than he'd expected to. He leaned closer and tentatively kissed Dan's bare shoulder. "You smell pretty good, too."
"It's times like these when I really appreciate the fact that you're a professional writer," Dan murmured. His arms wound around Casey's shoulders and he rubbed his face in Casey's hair.
Casey carefully disengaged himself and pressed Dan back on the bed before stretching out beside him and running a possessive hand from his shoulder to the waist of his khakis. He looked up to see Dan's face, and saw a look of warmth and fondness and satisfaction in his eyes.
Lisa had never looked at him like that. Dan was just glad he was here, and he hadn't even really had to do anything.
Casey had to drop his eyes, and circled a fingertip around Dan's navel, mostly just to have something to do. The khakis were surprisingly low slung and they bared quite a lot of skin. Tracing the little hollow along Dan's hip, he found his attention drawn by a fine fluttery shiver of the skin there.
Dan's breathing picked up and he rocked his hips a little.
Stroking him again, Dan's head fell back and the tiny flinch of pleasure twitched under Casey's fingertips twice more.
"You're pretty sensitive," Casey marveled, feeling flushed and pleased and oddly flattered.
"And you're a schmuck sometimes, Case. But you have nice hands. I've always liked your--" shuddery gasp as Casey's other hand molded to the bulge building behind Dan's fly "-- hands." And Dan curled his fingers in what he could catch of Casey's short hair.
Solemnly, Casey lowered his head and kissed the skin just above Dan's pants.
"About Christina," Dan said suddenly. "You okay?"
"I am very okay," Casey assured him. He lifted his head and smiled. "But I have the feeling that she was my last chance at a prom queen." And he kissed Dan carefully, tenderly, the way he'd tried to last night. It was better this morning, but it could have been that he'd had some practice since, or the fact that his motor skills were no longer impaired by designer beer.
Dan hugged him and laughed right in the middle of a kiss, and tugged on Casey's hair until he was looking him in the eye.
"You really broke up with Christina Cairns for me?"
"Technically, she broke up with me," Casey admitted. "But she was never really my type. She's on the reunion committee, you know. That's how we hooked, up actually. She called to ask me if I would be a keynote speaker. Told me what this year's prom theme was going to be." He shrugged closer to Dan and started to work Dan's pants down his hips.
Dan hiked up Casey's shirt some more and wiggled his fingers under the waistband of Casey's trousers, kneading his ass.
"Huh?" Casey looked deeply distracted.
"‘What's this year's prom theme?'
"It's unbelievably cheesy."
"What, worse than 'Stairway To Heaven'?"
"God, was that your prom theme?"
Danny pinched him.
"‘Love of a Lifetime'," Casey yelped.
"Yeah. That's cheese. So, are you going to-- Oh! Ohhhhhhh. You are..."
And Casey did.