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mutual assured destruction

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i.

“How are you liking the table?” asks Dennis, glancing around with a smile that almost feels too wide and whose blinding brightness is charged by an anxious thrill that is buzzing under his skin. “Way better than the one we had that one time, huh? Much more central position. Great atmosphere. No kitchen in sight.”

“Uh, I guess,” says Mac without any particular conviction. “I mean, I don’t think it’s the table that really matters here. It’s just really nice to –”

“Right, right,” interrupts him Dennis. “An excellent venue.” He absentmindedly taps the luxurious folded napkin that lies on the table before him, awaiting the meal they are yet to order. It is just the quality he expects from the best restaurant in town. “Listen, Mac, there is something I took you here to talk about. Something important.”

“Oh?” Mac raises his eyebrows and leans forward curiously. “Sure, man. Hit me.”

Dennis takes a deep breath. He is calm and collected. His heart isn’t beating frantically and his chest isn’t too tight to hold it inside. He is, as always, in perfect control of both his body and the situation. He’s got this. He’s got this.

“I wanted to use the momentous opportunity of our second official monthly dinner since my, uh, my return to talk about a major turning point in our lives that is long overdue.”

“Okay?” says Mac, squinting at him in a fashion that is slightly wary and a clear indicative of his inability to grasp the point just yet. It’s okay, though. Dennis prepared with an exhaustive list of arguments supporting his idea.

“I mean, let’s be real for a second,” he continues. “Let’s take an honest look at my situation. As a man who’s almost forty –”

“Dennis, you’re forty-two.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t interrupt me with lies and slander. As I was saying, as a man who’s nearing his forties – with remarkable grace and style, may I add – it is high time for me to truly take my life into my hands and sort out all the shit that I tended to simply ignore or flat-out deny in the past. Clean up the messes, you know? Some of the messes, I mean. There’s some shit I’m not touching with a ten foot pole.” He chuckles nervously, then proceeds to get back on track. “Anyways, you may have observed some very impressive progress I have already made. Like the fact that I haven’t done any drugs, not even crack cocaine, in months.

Instead of the awestruck joy Mac should be expressing upon hearing this, he just furrows his brows in confusion. “Where are you getting with this, bro? Are you saying you wanna quit drinking too?”

“What? No, dude, don’t be absurd,” frowns Dennis. Mac’s ongoing failure to get his point and his frankly preposterous guess really throws him off for a second, and he needs a little time to recall the next argument he was going to make. “What I mean is I’m getting my shit together. It is time for me to get my shit together. I mean, just look at Dee and Charlie! What is going on there? How did that even happen?”

“Well, uh, you not being here for a while really messed with our group dynamic, I guess?” offers Mac helpfully.

“I don’t actually give a shit how it happened,” says Dennis. “It is weird, it is incomprehensible, and most importantly, it is just revolting to think that they would be the ones to sort out their lives enough to get into a relationship that appears to be more or less mutual and relatively stable. I mean, c’mon! Charlie and Dee?”

At this point, Dennis realizes he got a little bit too fired up; he leans back in his chair into a more casual and comfortable position, crosses his legs, inhales and exhales. He picks up his half-empty glass of celebratory red wine, just to have something to hold in his hands. Mac is looking at him, as focused and attentive and clueless as he’s been all through the conversation so far.

“They can’t win at this shit,” Dennis reiterates. “What do they got on me? I was made for success. I should be the one winning here.” He absentmindedly sloshes the wine around in circles, gaze resting on its rhythmic dance of deep, dark red, then looks up sharply. “Which brings us to the point I’m trying to make.”

He stares at Mac expectantly, biting back the desperate urgency with which he awaits his reaction as well as he can. Mac stares back at him intently, and for a few impossibly long seconds, the air between them is aflame with something breathtaking and age-old and electric, but then he finally blinks and admits, “Yeah, I’m lost.”

Oh, God damn it. God damn it.

It’s fine, though, it’s okay, Dennis tells himself as he puts the wineglass down and sits up straight. He’s just going to have to try with a new angle here, pull out some new arguments that even absolute fucking dumbasses can understand – which is not going to be a problem with the level of preparation he arrived with. He’s always been good at making lists and reasoning and rationalization. A lot better than at admitting when he just wants something.

“Listen, Mac, we both know that this was bound to happen. That our current arrangement cannot stand forever. We’re way too old to be still living together, pretending that –”

“Oh, no, you are not doing this to me,” Mac interrupts him. His previous expression of confusion shifts into suspicion, then betrayal, then anger, flashing a kaleidoscope of raw emotions on his face. “First you walk out on us, then you come waltzing back, expecting me to just get over it and pretend nothing happened, and now you wanna throw me out of the apartment? Again? You wanna throw me out of the apartment that I refurbished for us, only for you to fuck right the fuck off? The apartment where I lived alone for almost a year and where I graciously allowed you to move back in?”

“You’re really missing the point here, dude –” Dennis, positively dumbfounded by the turn the events took, attempts to salvage the situation, but Mac immediately cuts him off.

“And you took me here so I wouldn’t make a scene in public, didn’t you?” He points an accusatory index finger right into Dennis’ face. “That is such a dick move, man. I can’t believe you’d use our monthly dinner for your shitty devious plans like this. Well guess what, asshole, I’m –”

“Mac!” Dennis snaps. “I’m not throwing you out of the apartment, dumbass!”

Mac squints suspiciously at him from the other side of the table. “Oh, really? Then what in the shit are you even talking about here?”

At this point of the evening, at this point in his life, Dennis is way too frustrated by the audacity of things failing to go according to his plan and way too exhausted for another pointless argument, so, for the first time in a very long time, he stops explaining and stops reasoning and stops thinking. He leans across the table into an unpleasant position that is halfway between sitting and standing up, grabs the front of the only fancy shirt that Mac owns, and kisses him on the lips.

It is a very slow, very strange few seconds. Dennis feels a drop of sweat rolling down his neck, and the edge of the table digging harshly into his hips, and he feels like drowning, and oh God, Mac is not kissing him back, Mac is not kissing him back, Mac is not –

Dennis lets go, pulls away and sits back in a single panicked, frantic motion. Mac is staring at him with eyes wider than he’s ever seen, slack-jawed and completely frozen in place. Dennis wants to scream at him to react but his lungs feel too hollow inside his chest.

“Is this… Is this not what you wanted?” he asks instead, his voice weak like whisper, his words crushed by the heavy hand gripping his throat.

Mac blinks slowly, then lunges forward with such a desperate passion that he brutally smashes their noses into each other, but neither of them give a shit, really. This one finally feels like a decent first kiss, with the exponentially improving rocky start and Mac’s hands cupping Dennis’ face and the explosive, overwhelming, electrifying feeling of finally, finally, finally that pulses joyfully between them. It seems to fill everything for a few victorious heartbeats, until Dennis hears a crashing noise and reality comes rushing back.

So much for the glass of wine, Dennis notes hazily as he pulls back. And that gaping red stain is going to be a bitch to clean up. Maybe throwing themselves across a table to make out like some hormone-crazed teenagers is not the most practical or dignified thing to do, after all.

“Wow,” says Mac. He doesn’t say anything after that, just beams at Dennis with such an amazed, intoxicated tenderness that kind of feels like staring straight into the sun. Dennis looks away, shifts his eyes to the bleeding wound of the red wine stain on the white tablecloth.

“You get my point now?” he asks, with enough condescension in his voice to make up for his previous moment of embarrassing emotional vulnerability.

“Nah, not really,” Mac replies, his cheerfulness unchanged.

Dennis groans.

“I mean, I have no idea what you were talking about up to this point, but I get what you were trying to get to. I get it. I don’t really get why, though.” He furrows his brows, seems to contemplate this for a second. “I thought you were… I didn’t think you would be interested in, you know, this.” He gestures vaguely at the space between the two them.

“Well, you were wrong,” retorts Dennis, defensive and slightly irritated.

“But why?” asks Mac in a tone that is excruciatingly hopeful.

Dennis looks up at him and meets his eyes – deep and brown and so full of something unspeakably warm. He raises an eyebrow.

“Let’s be real here, Mac. This thing between us? It was always inevitable. You’d have to be an idiot not to see it.”

“Really?”

“There’s no way in hell it could end differently. There’s absolutely no way we could end up with different people. I did try living with other people, on multiple occasions, and, well, we both know how that ended. And you? You clearly desperately need me and desire me to a degree that is, though understandable, kinda ridiculous.” At this point, Mac makes a skeptical face, scrunching up his nose and looking up at he ceiling. Dennis elects to ignore it and goes on with his speech. “This is the only rational conclusion, if you think about it. The only option there is.”

“Uh, sure? If you say so.” Mac, naturally, bows down to his logic. He still seems a bit unsure, however; like he has a question burning at his throat that he’s trying to meld into words but he’s afraid that it’ll end up setting everything on fire. He swallows and, in a voice whose thinly concealed shaky nervousness is frankly pathetic, he asks, “Does that… does that mean we’re boyfriends, or –”

“You know I’m not really a fan of labels,” Dennis shoots him down quickly. “Or pet names, for that matter.”

“Oh, okay, then,” Mac says, still hesitant.

Dennis offers him a placating smile that never fails to work for him. “Let’s just enjoy dinner, shall we? No need to overthink every damn thing immediately.”

“Alright.” This time, Mac’s response is much more enthusiastic and genuine and it’s accompanied by a smile to which no words of agreement could compare.

Dennis picks up his fortunately unbroken glass and pours himself a new serving of wine so he can share a victorious toast with him.

ii.

“So,” Mac begins.

“So?” Dennis echoes, raising an eyebrow in a manner that is somewhere halfway between lightly teasing and ruthlessly mocking.

It’s got to be at least two in the morning and they’re pleasantly exhausted and joyously drunk on all the wine they consumed from the finest selection of Guigino’s, and on all the bottles of champagne they bought on the way home, and on each other’s lips after making out on the living room couch for a shamelessly long amount of time.

Mac pulls away, though their legs are still all tangled up, and scratches the back of his head. “So, I know you’re, like, taking a break from sex and all, and I’m totally okay with that, but I was wondering if we could sleep together? Not gay sex. Sleeping in the same bed in a wholesome and non-sexual way.”

There’s a nervousness in his eyes, like he’s testing the waters, trying out the limits of all these new territories of Dennis’ life he is being allowed in. It makes something stir inside Dennis’ chest, something foreign that he’d might consider an annoyance or a problem or a threat under different circumstances, but right now it is late and his head is swimming with triumph and copious amount of alcohol.

“Alright,” he says generously. “But you definitely gotta take a shower first, dude. That lethal combo of, like, five different shitty colognes you’ve got going on is not getting anywhere near my bed.”

“Don’t be a dick, man. It’s two and they’re classy,” Mac protests with that dumb, childish little frown he makes whenever his pride is wounded.

He does take a quick shower, though. And brushes his teeth too, sitting down on the lid of the toilet seat while Dennis is doing his nightly routine at the bathroom mirror. The comfortable familiarity of it all makes all the life-altering changes that are awaiting them feel barely noticeable and completely weightless for those few minutes, and whenever their eyes meet in the mirror, it feels like they’re up to something fun, it feels like they’re in cahoots.

It gets kind of awkward, however, once they actually get to bed.

Dennis flops down with a dramatic flair, just to demonstrate that it’s his turf they’re on and his terms they’re under. Mac lies down on the other side of the bed in a much more stiff and careful manner, which is essentially the exact behavior Dennis was aiming to elicit but at the same time something that low-key pisses him off.

“Good night, then,” he says, voice laced with a slight provocative edge.

“…Yeah, good night, dude,” Mac replies.

He’s lying flat on his back with his arms pressed firmly to his sides and his gaze fixed on the ceiling. He clears his throat. He turns his head to look over at Dennis and opens his mouth to speak, only to promptly swallow the words back and go back to the doubtlessly thrilling activity of staring upwards at nothing. Dennis can practically feel an anxious energy radiating from his body.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he sighs. He rolls on his side so he’s right next to Mac and leans his head on his shoulder. “You know you’re allowed to do this, right?” he asks, and his tone, though positively exasperated, comes out far less mocking than he intended.

The incredulous awe that washes over Mac’s face and the dopey smile that lights it up immediately afterwards is even more pathetic from up close. Dennis closes his eyes.

o.

“Where have I been? I’m sorry, but how is that any of your business, again?”

“Dennis… Dennis, are you high right now?”

“And if I am? You have no right to be interrogating me like this, Maureen.”

“…Did you just call me Maureen?”

“Maureen, Mandy, whatever!”

“You are high. What is it this time? Is it cocaine? Is it something worse?”

“Worse! You have no idea about worse. You have no idea about anything! Anything at all!”

“I really don’t understand, Dennis, but I will not let you talk to me like this in my own house.”

“What are you gonna do, then? Huh? Kick the father of your child out? Let your son grow up fatherless and miserable? Tell him he could have had a dad but you took that from him?”

iii.

The rest of the gang’s reactions to their groundbreaking news when they roll up at the bar late, hungover and conspiratorially grinning the next day is underwhelming, to say the least. Frank hits Dennis with an unimpressed “What, you gay now?”, to which Dee replies with a flat “No shit” and after some annoying and borderline offensive commentary that really no one asked for she finally concludes with a “You two dickheads deserve each other.” The only one who actually genuinely congratulates them is Charlie, but then again, he’s still banging Dennis’ sister so he’s not in the clear just yet.

iv.

“DVDs?”

“Borrowed.”

“Popcorn?”

“Prepared.”

“Alcohol?”

“Plentiful and most likely capable of killing a man.”

“Alright, then,” concludes Mac, “I think we’re ready for this.”

It is in that exact moment that someone starts to aggressively and relentlessly bang on their door like their life depended on it.

“Oh my God,” groans Mac.

“Maybe they’ll go away if we just ignore them,” suggests Dennis.

The banging only seems to get louder and louder.

“Well, that’s just rude,” says Mac.

“Some people have no manners,” agrees Dennis.

“I know you’re in there, assholes!” shrieks Dee outside their door, then proceeds to emphasize her message with some more violent banging.

Dennis lets out an annoyed sigh but, having had enough, finally gets up from the couch to let her in. He opens the door and greets his extremely pissed off and determined-looking sister with a condescending look.

“What do you want, Dee?” he asks.

“Nothing from you, dickwad,” dismisses him Dee. She steps inside, pushing Dennis out of the way, and points a bony finger in Mac’s direction. “You! Get off your ass! We’re gonna go rage.”

Dennis frowns. Sometimes he forgets that this is a thing now, that one of the unexpected consequences of his temporary departure messing up the gang’s dynamic was that Mac and Dee are actually friends now who actually hang out with each other. He still finds this development highly unsettling.

“No way, dude,” protests Mac. “I’m busy right now. Get lost. Go migrate south or some shit.”

“Yeah, bird,” cackles Dennis. “Go migrate south.”

Dee, most likely unable to find any defense against or retort to such cutting and witty insults, just looks around their apartment and gives them a skeptical look. “What on Earth could you possibly be busy with right now?”

“Me and Dennis are going to marathon Police Academy and get fucked up on that weird home-made vodka Frank got from one of his bridge buddies,” Mac replies with a tone of eager excitement.

Dee snorts. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. So, can we go now?”

“Are you literally not hearing the words coming out my mouth? I’m busy! I’m going to have a great evening with Dennis and you are not going to ruin it for me.”

“Ooooh, look at me, I’m Mac,” Dee whines in a mocking voice. “I don’t wanna have fun! I wanna sit at home all night with my dumb, creepy boyfriend!”

“Hey! I heard that,” says Dennis.

“Well, at least my dumb, creepy boyfriend isn’t too busy crawling around in the sewers naked and sharing beds with his father to spend time with me,” Mac shoots back.

“I’m literally standing right here,” says Dennis once again.

The other two really does not pay attention to his rightful indignation, however. Dee clenches her jaw with such a tense, silent rage that Dennis immediately realizes that Mac’s comment really hit the nail right on the head. She narrows her eyes threateningly, prompting Mac to take a few steps backwards, and then just slams the entrance door shut behind her back and announces, “I’m getting shitfaced with you two bitches. Give me some of that shady-ass murder vodka right the fuck now.”

Mac and Dennis’ eyes meet, sharing a look of mutual cowardice disguised as begrudging acceptance, and they simultaneously decide to just roll with it.

It takes the entire first movie of the Police Academy saga and half a bottle of undiluted alcohol poisoning for Dee to actually start talking about why she’s there.

“I mean, does he really like him more than me?” she slurs pathetically.

She can barely sit up straight on the couch, which she’s trying to compensate by leaning most of her body weight against Dennis and digging her deadly elbows into his ribs. Her breath smells the way the inside of Dennis’ skull feels like after having consumed a similar amount of vodka as she has; that is to say, like fucking death itself.

“Is it really what it comes down to? Does my own goddamn boyfriend like my father more than he likes me?” she goes on.

“How the fuck would I know that, Dee? Why don’t you ask him or some shit?” says Mac. He sounds like he is either exceedingly tired of Dee’s relationship drama or just on the verge of passing out. Both options are quite likely, considering that on the one hand, Dee’s relationship drama is indeed awfully exhausting, but on the other hand, he’s already laying down all lazy and limp with his head on the armrest and his legs across Dennis and Dee’s laps.

“I can’t just ask him that after the whole thing we had! I’d seem desperate and naggy. I’m not a desperate and naggy girlfriend! I shouldn’t have to be! Charlie should be the one begging to move in with me, that ungrateful little bitch!”

“Is this… is this what this whole thing was about? You asked Charlie to move in with you and he said he wanted to stay with Frank?” asks Dennis, suddenly understanding. The smug satisfaction that fills him at the thought is almost worth the whole ordeal with Dee barging in uninvited and yelling and complaining and messing up his evening plans with Mac.

“What?! No, it isn’t,” she says in an outstandingly defensive and unconvincing manner.

Dennis raises an eyebrow.

“It wasn’t, like, this big proposal or huge fucking deal,” she amends. “We were chilling at my place, he said something about how much he liked being there, I told him he could be spending a lot more time there if he wanted to, and he just –”

“Decided he’d rather keep living in squalor, having a seventy year-old man as bedmate?” Dennis guesses.

“Eat a dick, Dennis,” says Dee.

“That’s offensive,” notes Mac.

“Eat a dick, Mac,” says Dee.

“Now you’re clearly just deflecting,” Dennis points out.

Dee throws her head back with a jaded groan. “Okay, fine!” she snaps. “He did say that! Charlie did say that he enjoys living with Frank and does not want that arrangement to change! Are you happy now, assholes?”

Now that she finally said it out loud, she looks deflated, like an inflatable tube man who’s done dancing in the wind and advertising whatever the fuck it was supposed to advertise and now it’s just lying on ground all pathetic and grotesque and out of place.

“Oh, I definitely am,” says Dennis.

“I don’t really get what the big deal is,” frowns Mac. He sits up, using one hand to push himself up from his lying position and the other to grab onto Dennis’ shoulder for support. The drunken awkwardness of his movements makes an interesting combination with the earnest look on his face. “I mean, seriously, Dee, you usually cannot shut up about how much you value your privacy and hate having other people over and all that crap.”

“Yeah, when you goddamn freeloaders show up uninvited to crash on my couch for literal years! Those are two completely different situations.”

“Are they, really?” Mac asks. Dee’s subsequent expression suggests that she’s pretty certain about the answer and is just about to spell it out for him very clearly and very, very loudly, but even before she gets the chance to do that, Mac continues. “Are you sure you’re not just saying that because you think that’s how you’re supposed to feel? If things are going fine with Charlie – which, according to him, they are – you don’t have to change them just because you feel like you reached the point where couples are expected to move in together. You do you, you know? It doesn’t matter what society says you should do, the only thing that’s important is what’s right for you and what makes you happy.”

“…Huh,” says Dee after a brief pause.

“Wow, Mac,” says Dennis, genuinely surprised. He lifts a hand to Mac’s face, and as his thumb brushes across his lips, he can feel that Mac’s breath is quite literally bated as he’s staring back at him with wide-eyed anticipation. Dennis smirks. “You really are stupid as shit sometimes,” he tells him, giving a little pat on his cheek. “There’s no way in hell that what Charlie and Dee got going on is normal and you should stop encouraging them.”

A look of hurt and disappointment flashes across Mac’s face. Dee, on the other hand, looks contemplative for a few seconds, but then she just shrugs and reaches for the half-finished bottle resting on the coffee table.

“You know what, guys? Screw this,” she declares. “It’s not your shitty opinion that I came here for, it’s your shitty movie and shitty alcohol. Let’s get back to business.”

It’s a truce they can all agree to.

v.

Things are changing between Mac and Dennis.

Things are changing between Mac and Dennis, to a certain extent; however, that strange and indefinable thing that used to be between them turning into the strange and indefinable thing that is between them now feels more like a deepening or an excavation rather than a transformation.

Mac develops the habit of adding casual, careless little I love you’s to his thank you’s and goodbyes but never even attempts to start a conversation about his feelings, which, honestly, Dennis appreciates. He barely initiates a single touch while in public but when they’re at home, he kisses Dennis like it’s the only thing he’s ever wanted to do, like he’s been starving for decades, like it’s his last living moment on Earth. The two of them have a seemingly endless ongoing debate about whether they should start calling their movie nights and monthly dinners dates or keep the old names in order to honour their friendship’s traditions; an argument in which they frequently switch sides based on their moods or new ideas or simply because they forget where they left off last time.

The change between them is nothing like the crossing of a finish line, like Dennis imagined it to be; it feels like sinking, and he’s not sure he’s ever going to be able to plant his feet on solid ground again; it feels like an unraveling, and he’s sometimes terrified of the things it’ll bring into the light of day. Sometimes he still finds himself weighing up the dread of change against the familiarity of stagnation despite already having made this decision a long time ago.

o.

“What do you want me to do, Mandy? Huh? Please, do tell me.”

“I want you to leave, for now, and come back sober so we can discuss this like adults.”

“Do you want me to marry you? Do you want me to fuck you? What is it?”

“Dennis!”

“Do you want to make another kid? That’s what adults do, when their relationship goes to shit. Like another goddamn brat is going to magically solve everything.”

“We’re not in a relationship and I want you to leave now.”

“Let’s make another kid, then! Let’s make ten more kids!”

“Dennis, let me go!”

“Let’s make a million fucking children!”

“Let me go! You’re hurting my wrist!”

vi.

Dennis wills himself to open his eyes, then immediately closes them as the first rays of the morning – or, in this case, probably late afternoon – sunlight set the slow, heavy sizzling of his brain violently aflame with a single sharp stab. He’s definitely hungover, he decides. He’s positively, severely hungover. Maybe they’re getting a little bit too old to get shitfaced every day at work.

He reaches out blindly and finds nothing on Mac’s side of the bed. He opens his eyes once again, very slowly and very carefully, and squints at the empty space by his side. It doesn’t look like anyone slept there at all and somehow Dennis doubts that it’s because Mac decided to neatly make the bed when he woke up feeling, similarly to him, like absolute fucking garbage.

Did they have a fight last night? Dennis can’t remember. His stomach is in knots and he feels like throwing up.

He pushes himself up into a sitting position, takes a little break to prepare for his next incredible feat of strength, and finally stands up next to his bed. He’s so weak and shaky and nauseous that every step feels like a punishment for whatever stupid shit he did last night. As he exits his room, he quietly wonders what he could’ve said or done to upset Mac so bad he wouldn’t even lie down next to him. The possibilities are, unfortunately, endless.

He finds Mac in the kitchen, half-sitting on a counter and buttering a piece of toast. He stands up straight when he notices he’s got company. He looks considerably less hellish than Dennis feels, but still like a man in his forties who stayed up all night on a bender. His stubble and eye bags and messy hair are something Dennis finds strangely reassuring for some reason.

“Wow, dude,” Mac says in lieu of greeting. “You look barely alive.”

“I feel barely alive,” Dennis croaks.

“I don’t find that surprising at all. You went hard last night, man.” Mac flashes a knowing grin at him, then holds up the toast in his hands like an offering. “You want some breakfast? Or coffee, maybe?”

Dennis walks up to the dining table but doesn’t sit down; he just leans against it, right in front of Mac, and looks him straight in the eye.

“What happened last night?” he asks sternly.

“Uh, we were drinking?”

“You know that’s not what I mean, Mac. You didn’t sleep with me, did you.” He’s not asking, he’s making a statement.

Mac shifts uncomfortably, like he wants to look away but knows better than to do that. He puts the toaster down on the countertop, too distracted or careless to get a plate for it.

“No, I did not,” he admits cautiously.

“What happened, then?” Dennis repeats the question.

“Listen, Dennis –”

“What happened?”

Mac sighs. “It’s stupid, really. You ended up really wasted and you got all handsy and suggestive and flirtatious and I…”

Dennis stops breathing. He feels his insides turn to ice, feels the ground open up under his feet.

“…I had to go jerk off in the shower and sleep in my old bed,” Mac finishes, sounding apologetic and embarrassed. “It was the best option I could think of. I knew you’re not really into the whole sex thing right now and I didn’t really trust my self-restraint.”

The ice inside Dennis’ chest melts, evaporates; it fills him up with lightheaded confusion, gets stuck in his throat, bubbles and boils with an emotion that is painfully foreign and unfamiliar.

“You… you didn’t find it repulsive?” he asks, voice brittle and low.

What?”

“My advances. You didn’t find them repulsive? You didn’t find them terrifying?”

“What? Dude, no!” Mac sounds shocked and almost outraged. “I mean, you did get sloppy drunk, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re, like, the hottest person I know.”

Dennis feels out of breath. “So you would have sex with me?”

Mac gives him a pointed look and lets out a nervous laugh. “Oh, you have no idea.”

Without a second of hesitation, Dennis drops down to his knees, which, as he realizes the moment he hits the hard linoleum floor, is kind of a shitty and painful idea, but he doesn’t particularly give a fuck then and there. He looks up at Mac, who’s staring down at him, face incredulous and pupils blown wide.

“What the hell are you doing, Dennis?” he asks in a high-pitched voice.

“I’m going to give you a blowjob,” Dennis replies matter-of-factly.

Mac makes a weird, wheezing noise. “Holy shit, dude. Holy shit. Your timing is so fucking weird.”

“What?” Dennis bristles, suddenly feeling anxious and annoyed and self-conscious.

“Seriously, this is it? You just randomly decide to end your quest for abstinence here, on the kitchen floor?”

“I don’t give a shit about abstinence,” Dennis corrects him. “I wanted to take a break from sex because I realized that it wasn’t a very good experience for the women I slept with and it wasn’t, uh, the best experience for me, either. But this is different.”

“But the kitchen floor?” Mac protests again.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were so much above being blown on the kitchen floor,” Dennis snaps.

“Not me, us! You can’t seriously tell me you want our first time to be in the middle of the kitchen while both of us are hungover as shit and smell like rancid booze. It should be special, you know? On the bed, with, like, candles and background music to set the mood.”

“Candles?” Dennis echoes. “Mac, we literally burned this apartment down twice.”

“Okay, then no candles,” Mac rolls his eyes. “C’mon, man, you know what I mean. It’ll be perfect. You can make the playlist if you want.”

“…Fine,” Dennis sighs.

He didn’t actually need that offer to convince him, but he’s sure as hell not going to pass up this opportunity to showcase his excellent taste in beautiful, sensual music. He gets on his feet, slightly grabbing onto a chair and the table on his way up as he’s still miserably weak and nauseous, and says, “I actually could use some coffee, you know.”

vii.

It is weird when Mac and Dennis finally have sex with each other.

To be fair, every new act of physical intimacy is weird between them in a bizarre yet titillating way, every kiss carries the leftover taste of a lifetime of Dennis knowing that he could do this but mustn’t, that Mac is dying to kiss him but if Dennis allowed him to – or, God forbid, initiated something himself – that’d irreparably break the fragile armor of pretense they’re holding themselves together with and ruin everything. By now, Dennis is used to that feeling.

It is, however, especially weird to have sex with someone you’ve lived with for decades, being intimately familiar yet carefully separated observers of each other’s erotic lives.

It’s weird and nervous and slow and tentative, and it’s sweaty. They’re getting the hang of it, though, and it keeps getting better and better and better, until Mac’s lips suddenly stop on Dennis’ collarbone and he pushes himself up from his heaving chest to look down at Dennis.

“Dude, are you shaking?” he asks. His eyes widen with worry. “Dennis, are you crying? Are you okay?”

“Shut up and continue,” Dennis says. His voice cracks, but only slightly.

“Is there something wrong? Should I –”

“No, asshole, everything’s the opposite of wrong.”

His voice still comes out weak and strained, but the message seems to come through this time. Realization dawns on Mac’s face, growing into a huge, overjoyed smile.

“Shit, dude, am I really that good?” he teases.

“No, you’re not. You’re annoying as fuck.”

“I can’t believe you’re crying during sex. That’s so lame, dude,” Mac says, but the shine that glows up in eyes when he looks at Dennis and the infinite tenderness with which he reaches out to wipe away his tears say otherwise.

Dennis comes back at him with a choked up “You’re so lame” and feels like his heart’s about to burst with something he’s never felt before.

viii.

Not long after this incident, on a morning when they’re feeling way too lazy to get to work yet and they are just lying around on the couch, not really paying attention to the idiotic conspiracy channel that’s playing on the TV, Dennis, out of the blue, asks, “How many other men have you slept with?”

Mac flinches. Okay, maybe he actually was paying attention to the doubtlessly very intriguing documentary about time travel or whatever the fuck. It sounds like the kind of ridiculous garbage he’d be into.

“What? Why are you asking that?” He glances at Dennis. It’s difficult to tell if he’s just spooked by the unexpected question or actually nervous to answer it.

“Because I want to know, dumbass,” Dennis replies.

“Well, I could be asking you the exact same question,” Mac deflects. It has the opposite effect than he intended, though, as his hesitance to tell the truth is only making Dennis more convinced that he wants to know it.

“You could be, but then again, you know about literally every single sexual encounter I’ve ever had and in most cases, have also seen the sex tape,” he says. It’s not exactly the truth but he asked first and he’s definitely not going to let this conversation get derailed.

“Okay, that’s fair.” Mac turns the TV off. He rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands and sighs deeply. “Look, I don’t know the exact number, okay? I have no idea.”

“You have no idea,” Dennis repeats with a bitter taste in his mouth.

“You’re not the only one allowed to have stupid, meaningless one-night stands,” Mac says defensively. “Things were pretty shitty and boring when you weren’t around, especially after Charlie and Dee got together. I had to do something with myself.”

“So you had an immeasurable amount of casual sex while I was in North Dakota.”

“Well, no, not really. It was more of a reasonable amount, actually. I had some hook-ups before that, too.”

Dennis furrows his brows. “You mean when you were still –” A self-hating, closeted, miserable fuck. “– not out?”

“Yeah,” Mac says, more of an exhalation than a word. There’s a specific brand of shame on his face that Dennis hasn’t seen in a long time. “I had this habit where I got really fucked up and then hit the Rainbow, so that I could pretend that I was only doing it because of the alcohol and forget about most of it by the next morning. In retrospect, that was probably a very stupid and pathetic thing to do.”

Mac shrugs like it’s just some ridiculous, embarrassing anecdote from his past to crack as a self-deprecating joke and then immediately move on from. Dennis thinks about all the wasted girls he used to look at with the arrogant, disdainful fascination of a predator eyeing some easy prey, and he thinks about a herd of faceless men looking at Mac that way, and he feels like throwing up.

“Anyways, I can’t really give you a number on that one,” Mac continues. “But when you were in North Dakota, there couldn’t have been more than, what, a dozen dudes? Because then I started seeing Rex for a while. But you know about that already, you just caught the end of it when you got back.”

Oh, Dennis definitely remembers that one. He spent more than a week coming up with and preparing for a perfect scheme to split them up, only for Mac to casually announce their breakup before he could even begin to set the wheels in motion.

“So that was the only actual relationship you had at that time, right?” he asks, aiming for the relaxed and unconcerned tone of a man who did not devise an evil plan to ruin said relationship.

“Yeah, I guess,” Mac replies. There’s something like nostalgia or wistfulness lingering in his voice that’s really bothering Dennis.

“Did you love him?” he asks before he can stop himself. The words feel heavy and metallic as they tumble out of his mouth.

To his surprise, Mac just snorts. He gives Dennis a funny look, like he ought to know the answer to that question by himself. “Nah, dude,” he says. “He was really sweet, though. And hot as shit. Like have you seen the body on that beefcake? It was mind-blowing.”

Dennis clenches his jaw so hard his teeth start to hurt. Mac must notice his aversion to hearing more about this topic, because he hastily changes the subject.

“There was, uh, there was also this competition we did with Dee once, but I’m not sure of I should count that one or not.”

Dennis raises an eyebrow. “A competition?”

“Yeah, we had this, like, sugar daddy scheme between the two of us.” Mac grins, and it’s still really weird for Dennis to see him reminisce so fondly about something fun he did with Dee, of all people. “We downloaded an app to pick up rich old dudes and competed over who gets to squeeze the more expensive shit out of them.”

“So you fucked rich old dudes for money?” Dennis asks, somewhere between appalled and curious.

“Actually, all I had to do was send them pictures. It was shockingly easy. Some of them had some really freaky requests, but you know how it is, I’m not gonna shame anyone’s foot fetish or any other assorted kinks when he’s buying me a new watch.”

“So you basically just scammed old rich dudes for money,” Dennis concludes.

“Well, to be honest, I did bang one of them,” says Mac. “Only one, though! And he wasn’t, like, super old or anything,” he adds quickly. “He seemed pretty cool and he was from Philly, so when he offered to take me out for dinner, I said why not? He even asked me where I wanted to go.”

“Where did you go?” Dennis asks vacantly, despite already knowing the answer.

“We were supposed to go to Guigino’s, but it felt really wrong when we actually got there. Because that’s our place, and because I was trying really hard not to think about you at that time.” Mac falters for a second or two before switching back to his cheerful storytelling tone. “So I told him we should bounce because I had some beef there, which, technically, wasn’t even a lie with that asshole waiter who’s always pissed at us for some reason, and we got takeout and went back to his stupid fancy apartment to bang.”

“And then?” Dennis really hates how much this sounds like the beginning of a terrible, cheesy, My Fair Lady-esque romance novel.

“Woke up before he did, panicked, grabbed some expensive silver cutlery from the sink and bailed.”

“Nice,” grins Dennis, and gives the pleased-looking Mac a congratulatory pat on his leg. He takes a few moments to go through the whole story again, pieces it together and contemplates it a little bit, then asks, “So, who won in the end?”

“Oh, man,” grimaces Mac. “Charlie, who was up to something weird at the time, randomly got Frank to buy him a fucking helicopter by telling him he had an idea for a scheme or whatever, and Dee and I just gave up and admitted we had nothing on him.”

There’s a moment of silence after this, a mixture of awe and disbelief.

“…I missed out on a lot, didn’t I,” Dennis muses, finally. This time, instead of the usual annoyance that this realization tends to give him, he feels a pang of disappointment over the things he could have seen and the things he could have changed and the things he could have prevented.

ix.

Later that day, after they’ve actually dragged their asses to work, Dennis decides to use the opportunity of Mac getting into some nonsense argument with Charlie, Dee and Frank about the time travel conspiracy they were watching earlier to do something he’s been meaning to do. He grabs Mac’s phone and, quite certain in his estimation that the debate will last for at least several hours and completely distract all four participants for that time period, stealthily disappears into the back office with it.

As he scrolls through all of his contacts, he concludes with some cocky satisfaction that Mac still has no social life outside of the gang. He finds the numbers of the four of them, in addition to several takeout places, and, fortunately, absolutely no sugar daddies. He’s still got Rex’s number saved, though, so Dennis quickly deletes that before smuggling the phone back inconspicuously to its owner.

x.

Approximately six hours before the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Mac, all fired up and excited, tells Dennis that he and Charlie have an amazing thing in mind so they’re going to go and do it real quick, but he’s definitely going to be back for their evening plans. Dennis, who’s generally quite skeptic about Mac and Charlie’s schemes that are usually exceptionally dumb and/or disastrous even for the gang’s standards, doesn’t even ask any questions, just tells him he’d most certainly better be there on time.

Since Frank is out partying with Bill Ponderosa – yet another thing Dennis wants to know absolutely nothing about – Mac and Charlie taking off leaves Dennis alone with Dee for the rest of the day. Due to the usual lack of customers and the unusually low number of owners present, Paddy’s is strangely calm with the weight of its quiet emptiness and the dying sunlight filtering into its dim melancholy. It’s not unpleasant, though. Dennis and Dee share a look, leisurely contemplate the pros and cons of jumping at each other’s throats as they have no one else to go up against, but ultimately make a silent decision that they’re not really in the mood for that. They end up spending the afternoon watching YouTube videos of people complaining about their life problems or talking about their interests or giving fashion advice or showing makeup tips, and leaving ruthlessly critical comments on them.

Approximately two hours before the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Dennis goes home to get ready. He spends most of the remaining time doing his makeup, utilizing some of the tips he so joyfully mocked with Dee not long before; hesitating between two shirts, unable to decide which shade of blue makes his eyes pop more; and listening to sad eighties music, feeling low-key pissed off at Mac for still not being back from whatever the fuck he’s doing with Charlie.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Dennis arrives at Guigino’s. He only intended to be ten minutes early, which is something he considers stylish and fitting for such a high-class place, but he always drives faster when he’s frustrated. He sits down at the table he booked, not the best but still very decent, and picks up the menu.

Ten minutes before the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Dennis has already read through the whole menu and let the unnecessarily rude waiter know that no, he’s not ordering yet, he’s waiting for his date. He can’t quite see the entrance door from his table, but still turns to look every time he thinks he hears someone arrive.

Five minutes before the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Dennis orders a glass of wine. He thinks the waiter looks way too smug when takes his order. He thinks he’s going to kill Mac when he finally gets there.

At the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Dennis downs the whole glass and orders another one. There’s something deep in his stomach that he’s trying to drown; a cold, heavy mass of anxiety and dread and hurt twisting inside him and weighing him down. He wonders which would be more embarrassing: admitting defeat to the waiter and having dinner alone, getting up and leaving the restaurant without eating anything, or waiting all night for someone who won’t come.

Five minutes after the scheduled time for their monthly dinner, Dennis’ phone rings. An old couple at a neighboring table gives him a disapproving look. He gives them a menacing glare in return and answers the call.

“Dennis!” Mac’s voice greets him, loud and apologetic and nervous. “Listen, man, I’m really sorry I’m late. We had some, uh, technical difficulties and kinda totaled Dee’s car.”

“Uh-huh,” says Dennis.

“Either way, we’re on it, we’re going to handle it. I promise I’m –”

At this point, Dennis briefly has to tear away the phone from his ear as Charlie lets out a blood-curdling screech in the background. When he puts it back a few moments later, he hears Mac swearing under his breath and some distant yelling, which gets quieter and quieter as Mac presumably walks away from the problem to talk in peace.

“I promise I’m getting there real soon,” he finally finishes.

“Uh-huh,” says Dennis.

There’s an expectant pause on Mac’s side. Dennis can picture the face he must be making in perfect detail: the anxious slope of his eyebrows as he waits for Dennis to yell at him, biting his lips and eyes full of surrender, and his confused frown when he realizes it’s not going to happen.

“Look, I gotta go now,” he says eventually. “I swear I’ll be there. I’m not letting you down, Dennis.”

“Uh-huh,” says Dennis.

Mac ends the phone call.

Dennis can’t really decide if the exchange made him feel better or worse. He glances around, worried what the people around him might have heard and might be thinking and might be assuming, but sees no indication that anyone’s paying attention to anything besides their own meal and company. The old couple that gave him the side-eye before is busy being sickening and sharing a single slice of cheesecake.

He’s in the process of putting his phone away when it rings once again.

“Shit, Dennis, I forgot to tell you!” Mac adds urgently. “I love you very much.”

He hangs up before Dennis can say anything.

Dennis puts his phone in his pocket in a slow and robotic motion. He notices that at some point during the conversation, his second glass of wine was delivered to him. Being in dire need of a drink, he promptly chugs it.

It’s been ten minutes since Mac was supposed to arrive, twenty-five minutes since he’s been waiting for him here, and Dennis absolutely, passionately, vehemently resents how vulnerable and exposed it makes him feel. God. This is exactly why he thought this, all of this, would be a bad idea; being with someone means relying on someone and relying on someone means depending on someone and depending on someone means the whole world is collapsing on you when you’re inevitably let down in the end. God, he thought he was above feeling like this. He should be above feeling like this. How dare Mac do this to him.

The worst part of it all was the crowd that was there to witness it. How pathetic they must find him! Look at that guy, they’re clearly thinking, he’s been sitting here for half an hour. Look at that guy, he’s been ditched. Look at that guy, he’s still waiting. Look at that guy, look at that guy, he doesn’t matter, he never did, what an idiot, what a fool, he let someone close enough to…

Dennis forcefully stops his train of thought. Inhales, exhales, inhales, exhales. There’s no reason for all those people to assume he’s alone because he was ditched by someone. He could order right now, pretend he was just taking his time with the decision, and people will think something like oh, there he is, a man taking himself out for dinner. He must be celebrating some grand success, some victory of his.

He could be, let’s say, a businessman, Dennis muses. Filthy rich and the best in his field. He indeed is celebrating: he made a groundbreaking deal no one else could have, earning himself a promotion and making a fuckton of money for his company. He decided to treat himself tonight. He’s here alone because his wife and kids…

No, wait, scratch that.

He’s here alone because he’s simply not the type to go on dates or settle down; as a devastatingly good-looking man with a shining career and a real fortune, he’s a true womanizer who…

No, wait, scratch that.

Fine, maybe he’s alone because he’s just not as fortunate in his private life. Maybe he’s here because celebrating at home, no matter how huge and luxurious and elegant his apartment is, would still feel lonely, and because there’s no one to answer to about getting home late or spending way too much on a classy dinner. It’s okay, though. He likes the lack of pressure and expectations and he enjoys the peace and quiet when he gets home in the evenings. And maybe there’s this one particular neighbor, a guy with a nice smile and warm eyes and toned arms, that usually gets back the same time he does, one they always greet each other with in the elevator or corridors and one he’s been planning to talk to for a long time…

No, wait. Mac’s broke as shit. There’s no way he could be living in his fancy, expensive, upper-class apartment complex.

No, wait. The whole point of this fantasy in the first place is to erase Mac from the narrative. Oh, God damn it. Time to start again.

Dennis is in the middle of studying the appetizers section of the menu and pondering whether his imaginary businessman persona is on a diet or not when he faintly hears a familiar voice.

“What? What do you mean by that?” Mac exclaims somewhere at the other side of the restaurant. There’s a pause, most likely for a response that is inaudible because this person, on the other hand, is capable of using an indoor voice like a normal human being, then some more enraged protests from Mac: “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know I had to dress like a stupid rich asshole to be able to dine at your fine establishment, as opposed to, let’s say, booking a table and paying for the meal and being a well-respected regular!”

Even though he’s completely unable to see the entrance from his position, Dennis still leans forward and listens intently to the happenings.

“Yes, I do have a table booked,” Mac presses, replying to an unheard question, “and frankly, I find it really offensive that you’d assume otherwise. Discriminatory, even. In fact, I’m meeting someone who’s waiting for me so I’d really appreciate if you stopped trying to keep me away from him.”

There’s another response from the staff that Dennis, despite listening with bated breath, cannot hear at all.

“No, c’mon, I swear he’s here,” says Mac afterwards. “You must’ve seen him in there. Extremely gorgeous guy? Early forties? The one with the really good hair?”

Dennis frowns disapprovingly. Honestly, there really was no reason to bring his age into the discussion here.

At the same time, Mac’s little scene reaches its thrilling conclusion. He announces, “You know what? I’m going in,” which is followed by a loud crash, and the next moment he’s waving at Dennis enthusiastically and trotting across the restaurant towards him. He comes to a stop at his table with a huge smile on his face.

“Hey, Dennis,” he beams. “You look great!”

Dennis stares at him for a second, trying to decide which part of his appearance to comment on. Mac certainly does look like someone that no responsible and conscientious employee would allow into a fine restaurant like Guigino’s, or any restaurant of any kind, really. There’s blood on his shirt and his tie was used as a bandage over a cut on his arm. The shadow of a harsh, purple bruise is just starting to form on his cheekbone.

“What the shit did you do?” Dennis asks without a greeting.

“Things did not go according to plan,” Mac says meaningfully, as if Dennis has any idea about the original plan in the first place.

They can’t really continue the discussion any further, however, since just as Mac pulls out the opposite chair to sit down with Dennis, security catches up to him and throws him out for getting in an argument with the restaurant staff when asked to leave, and then aggressively rushing in while pushing one of them out of the way and into a huge gourmet cheese platter. They ask Dennis to leave too, which is entirely uncalled for and simply preposterous, but at this point, he’s too tired to argue and has had enough of the place for one night, so he obliges with the poise and dignity of a wrongfully exiled martyr.

“Well, that was rude as hell,” Mac concludes once they’re outside.

Dennis would love to get angry at the Guigino’s staff or Mac or anyone, really, but he just feels hollow and exhausted. He doesn’t reply.

“It’s okay, though,” Mac continues, elbowing Dennis encouragingly. “I had some plans for after dinner that we can just do right now. C’mon.”

Dennis could hardly be less excited to hear about some more plans from Mac, but nevertheless he follows him as they start walking towards the parking lot. He does raise his eyebrows in surprise, however, when they stops in front of the long, slick form of a pitch-black limousine.

“What is this?” he asks cautiously.

“Dee’s car was out of the question and we needed a ride,” Mac answers with a self-satisfied smirk.

“So you stole a limousine?”

“We borrowed a limousine. We’re going to return it, eventually. We’re not criminals, Dennis.”

Dennis is not entirely convinced. Meanwhile, Mac walks up to the door by the driver’s seat and raps on the window. “Yo, Charlie,” he calls.

“Charlie’s in there?” asks Dennis.

“Oh, yeah, he’s going to be our chauffeur. He agreed to assist me in this if I’ll help him make up to Dee for the car thing later.”

Dennis has some concerns about this idea but no time to voice them, as in the next moment, the window rolls down and Charlie sticks his head out with a spirited ‘Hey guys!’ He looks just as bad as Mac does, if not worse. His hair is a wild, sticky mess with things Dennis definitely doesn’t want to know the origin of but are at least partially blood, and there’s a piece of tissue paper tucked into his nose that he’s already abundantly bled through.

“Change of plans,” Mac informs him. “We’re going right now.”

“Alright, then, hop in.”

“Are you serious right now? Are you seriously telling me Charlie’s going to be driving?” asks Dennis, frowning incredulously.

“Uh, yeah,” says Charlie. “I’m an excellent chauffeur, dude. I’ve got my dedication and perseverance, I’ve got my discretion, I’ve got my eggs and I’m ready to go.”

“Your… your eggs,” echoes Dennis.

“Don’t question the eggs, dude,” says Mac. “He insisted on them for some reason. Just let him have his eggs.”

“The eggs are irrelevant! This man doesn’t even have a license!” Dennis snaps.

Charlie huffs, almost offended. “So what if I don’t have one? Doesn’t mean anything. Dee always tells me I shouldn’t let society’s conventions, like, measure my worth and limit my potential.”

“This is not a societal convention, this is the law,” points out Dennis. “You are legally not allowed to drive without a license.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Charlie in a high-pitched and sarcastic voice, “I wasn’t aware I wasn’t allowed to do things unless a piece of paper tells me so! Do I need a paper that allows me to breathe air? Do I need one that allows me to wipe my ass? Oh, I’m so sorry, officer, I forgot to bring my license for walking on the street! Luckily I have my license for crawling in the dirt like a worm, so I can still get home somehow!”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” says Dennis.

“Let’s just go,” says Mac. “The kid can drive, trust me, it’ll be fine. Let’s just go.”

Dennis closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, looks deep into himself and realizes he doesn’t really give a fuck anymore. Having no fight left in him, he simply shrugs. “Let’s go. Let’s go die in a car crash in a stolen limo. I can’t wait.”

Mac takes this as a yes and jumps to open the door before Dennis, gesturing for him to get in with that wide, expectant smile he always has on his face when he has a surprise up his sleeve. Dennis peeks inside, suspiciously at first, then with wide-eyed astonishment. The inside of the limousine contains a bucket of iced champagne, which is not a shocking sight in this environment, but also a handful of burning candles, slim and elegant and most likely insanely unsafe, and a bunch of wilted flowers, probably the freshest you can get at this late hour. A Queen ballad hums quietly in the background.

“What… What’s this?” he whispers weakly. There’s something swelling up inside his chest and tightening his throat.

“A date limousine,” Mac announces, all excited and proud and gentle. “I was hoping it’d save the evening.”

Dennis considers that for a second, grappling with its weight and its profundity.

“Let’s see,” he says finally, and gets in.

xi.

It’s the middle of the night, their bedroom not quite dark enough with the ever-present, distant glow of the city and not quite silent enough with its constant buzzing in the background, but still isolated and suffocatingly overcharged in a way only a small room full of lifetimes and infinities can be, and Dennis is pressed tightly against Mac’s back. His desperate grip is electrified by a lurking sense of danger, and he’s thinking: this isn’t love, this is a Cold War. He’s thinking: this is two people with their hands around each other’s hearts and with the promise of mutual assured destruction between them. He’s thinking: I’d never survive the nuclear winter.

He wants to wrap himself around Mac like a python buries its prey in its inescapable, deadly embrace. With his chest against Mac’s back and his face against his nape, he wants to press closer and closer until he can sink his claws into his very bones and seep his poison into his veins and Mac can never, ever walk away from him without tearing himself apart in the process. He wants to stay like this until they both die.

Mac lets out a pleased, half-asleep hum and lovingly puts his own hands on Dennis’ fists that are grasping the front of his old T-shirt so vehemently they’re almost shaking. He was always shit at detecting danger.

o.

“Mommy? Dada?”

“Brian?”

“Brian! Just in time! You want to have little brothers and sisters, don’t you? Tell your stupid mother you want some goddamn brothers and sisters.”

“Brian, Brian, sweetie, don’t cry! It’s okay! Mommy and Daddy are just having an adult conversation.”

“C’mon, kid, tell her!”

“Please don’t cry! Everything’s okay, I promise! Just please don’t cry and please get out of here. Please, Brian, go!’

xii.

Dennis gets a call from Mandy for the first time in a month or so. She does that, occasionally, to keep up the pretenses. They ask a few courteous questions about each other’s well-being and then she tells him stories about what’s going on in the life of Brian Jr. – who’s just Brian now, technically – which are excruciatingly painful to hear, really, but in a way that feels terribly right and leaves Dennis aching for more.

“How are you doing, Dennis?” she asks again, voice hushed and empathetic. Dennis always hates this part because he knows it’s way too kinder than what he deserves.

“Fine,” he says tightly.

“Were you thinking about the thing we talked about? Seeing a therapist, maybe?”

“I don’t think that’s really my thing,” Dennis says as politely as one who’s utterly disgusted by and terrified of the idea of giving over control and exposing the darkest parts of himself to a stranger possibly can. Then, to ameliorate the impression he’s giving, he adds, “But I’m still clean, you know. Apart from my BPD pills, which I’m taking regularly.”

“That’s really great,” says Mandy, and the worst thing about it is how genuine she sounds. “You know, Dennis, I’ve been thinking… I told you we’d visit, sometime, when we’re ready for that and you’re ready, too. I have a feeling that time is getting closer.”

“Oh,” breathes Dennis as something heavy and powerful stirs inside him.

“Yeah,” Mandy says. Her voice is quietly encouraging but still distant, not unlike the tone people use when talking to their relatives on their deathbeds.

It’s not a promise, just a possibility. She doesn’t specify any details and doesn’t name any dates, maybe because she doesn’t want to give Dennis the opportunity to prepare any schemes beforehand; it would be perfectly understandable, really. It still leaves Dennis dazed with a faint sense improbable hope.

xiii.

They’re on the couch one evening not long after the phone call, watching a film they’ve seen a million times before, Dennis laying down with his head in Mac’s lap and Mac’s fingers in Dennis’ hair, petting it absentmindedly. This is something Dennis wouldn’t allow, normally; his hair is a great piece of art that requires a lot of work and lot of styling each day and it shall not be ruined. It is different now, however, when they’re at home and it’s just the two of them, and besides, Dennis has a feeling that if he told Mac to stop right now he’d never do it again.

Dennis is not looking at the TV screen. From his position, he can see straight into Mac’s nose. He’s thinking about the ancient Egyptians and how they removed the brains of their dead by sticking a rod in there. He’s thinking about peaking into Mac’s brains through there to see what’s in there, what sorts of thoughts and feelings are swirling around inside.

“Do you ever fear me?” he asks out of the blue.

“What?” Mac glances down at him.

“Do you ever fear me?” Dennis repeats. “Do you ever get worried that one day I’ll, I don’t know, murder you?”

Mac snorts, “Dude.”

“I’m asking a serious question.”

Mac raises his eyebrows disbelievingly. “Dennis, I know you’re not a murderer. Is this still about the Maureen thing? I know that wasn’t you.”

“How do you know that?” Dennis presses.

“C’mon, dude. I know you.”

The deep, unwavering conviction in Mac’s voice is strong enough to brush away all of Dennis’ doubts for a second or two. They come swarming back, though, almost immediately; Dennis still can’t focus on the movie from the overwhelming urge to keep prying.

“What about a murder-suicide?” he asks.

Mac squints down at him suspiciously. “Are you... proposing one?”

“No, asshole,” rolls his eyes Dennis. “What I’m saying is, what if I just snap one day? Decide that I’ve had enough and that I want to take you down with me? Aren’t you worried about that?”

“Oh, well,” says Mac, “I still find that highly unlikely. But it’d better than the other options, I guess.”

“The other options?”

“You killing me only or you killing yourself only,” he explains in a tone that is bizarrely casual. “It’d still be a dick move, though.”

“A dick move,” Dennis echoes, absolutely flabbergasted by the sheer magnitude of this understatement.

“Yeah, bro,” Mac agrees. He’s silent for a few seconds, slightly scrunching up his nose and frowning in a manner that indicates he’s pondering something unpleasant, then says, “Actually, if it came down to that, we should probably make a suicide pact or an agreement to kill each other. Suicide is a major no-no for God, and murder is obviously one of the worst sins there are besides, like, worshiping false idols and birth control. If you do both, you’re definitely going to Hell. If we do it fifty-fifty, our sin levels are even.”

“Our sin levels,” Dennis echoes once again, this time more amused than shocked. “You’re measuring our sin levels.”

“Yeah, I’m trying to keep an eye on them,” nods Mac solemnly.

“Why?”

“Well,” Mac clears his throat, “you know how Dee and Frank are both going to Hell, right?”

“Oh, big time,” says Dennis.

“And Charlie,” Mac continues pedantly, “Charlie is a great kid, but he’s also a savage and a heathen.”

“Sure.”

“Therefore, the only one I have a chance to go to Heaven with is you,” Mac concludes. “I’m trying to make sure that happens. It’d be kinda boring, sitting up there all alone for eternity.”

Dennis acknowledges, “That makes sense. However, aren’t you endangering your own afterlife if you’re going around splitting sins fifty-fifty with me?”

Mac dismisses the idea with a confident smirk. “No, dude, I’m not endangering shit. There’s no way I’m not going to Heaven.”

“And why is that?” Dennis inquires.

“Uh, because I’m a good Christian who believes in the Lord, follows His teachings and prays on the regular?” Mac’s face suggests he finds it preposterous that this question was even asked in the first place. “Also, after I spent decades being scared shitless that I’d go to Hell for being gay, it’d be a horrendous PR move to actually land me there.”

“I’m not sure if the 24-hour news cycle is Saint Peter’s main priority,” Dennis reckons.

Mac lets out an exasperated sigh. “Well, no offense, dude, but you don’t know dick about Catholicism,” he says. “Besides, if it comes down to it, I can talk it out with Saint Peter. We have an understanding, you know, being in the same line of work.”

There have been many twists and turns in this conversation where Dennis found himself lost and questioning someone’s sanity, but nothing quite like this one. “What the shit are you talking about right now?”

“All I’m saying is, I’m the bouncer of Paddy’s, he’s the bouncer of Heaven. We get each other. We know what it’s like to be burdened by the sole responsibility for the safety a place and the lives of every single person within it.”

“Uh-huh,” says Dennis. With great generosity, he decides to let Mac have this. “Yeah, sure. Definitely.”

Mac, pleased with the success of his reasoning, flashes a satisfied grin at him before turning back to the screen. Dennis tries to focus on the movie as well and, to his own surprise, finds that the whole grotesque exchange lifted spirits enough to succeed in it.

xiv.

“We’re going to be out all day, Dennis. You have got to eat something,” says Mac in that annoyingly bossy voice Dennis absolutely cannot stand and with that infuriatingly patronizing expression that makes him want to punch him in the face. He’s standing in the kitchen door, strategically blocking Dennis’ exit, and there’s a stupid determination on his face indicating that he thinks he knows what’s best for Dennis and he’s going to keep pushing, pushing, pushing until he wins.

Dennis gives him a withering look, then returns his glassy-eyed gaze to the bowl of cereal before him. He considers the piss-warm milk and the soggy pieces of oatmeal in it, floating around like decomposing corpses, and his stomach churns with repulsion.

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, dude,” Mac says.

Dennis glances up and looks him dead in the eye. A sickly, bitter sense of joy flickers inside him as he takes the bowl, holds it away from the table in his outstretched hand, and, with the grace and confident precision of a bartender who earns his living from pouring different types of alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquids into different containers, he pours the whole thing on the kitchen floor.

Mac’s jaw drops. “Jesus Christ, man.”

Dennis gets up and walks right past him; Mac doesn’t even try to stop him, just goes to grab a mop laying around by the sink with a defeated sigh.

Dennis flops down on the living room couch and basks in the sweet, ruthless triumph of making a mess and having someone else clean it up for you – for a wonderful two minutes, give or take; that’s how long it takes him to re-think and re-evaluate his actions. He glimpses back towards the kitchen and his stomach tightens at the sight; there’s a lot of cereal on the floor, merrily spread around in a pallid pool of white. It doesn’t look like a point successfully made; it looks like an atrocity of an immature, out-of-place kind. His pride cracks and crumbles.

When Mac emerges approximately fifteen minutes later, his clenched jaw and tense posture make it abundantly clear that one, he didn’t find the incident very funny either, and two, he’s most likely done fussing over Dennis’ health and wellbeing.

Dennis says, careful and constrained, “I admit I lost my cool there for a second.”

“You think?” sneers Mac.

“Yeah,” says Dennis in a small voice and it’s the closest thing to an apology he can manage. “Do you think maybe you could… get me an apple?”

Mac throws his head back with a frustrated groan; puts his hands on his face and rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms; and then, finally, he takes a deep breath and in a strained yet devastatingly genuine manner, he says, “Sure, Dennis. Of course. I’ll peel an apple for you.”

Dennis, wide-eyed and speechless, watches him go back to the kitchen without hesitation.

xv.

“What’s your fortune cookie say?” asks Mac, leaning across the table and craning his neck to look at the piece of paper in Dennis’ hands.

It’s a Chinese takeout night, a pleasant, lazy compromise between cooking a decent meal and eating whatever microwaveable garbage they manage to dig out from the depths of their freezer. Dinners like this feel timeless; they’ve had so many of them over the years that sometimes the difference between them from two decades ago and them now becomes blurred, and it’s hard to tell if they’re Mac and Dennis, two kids in their early twenties who just moved in together, bursting with explosive energy and stupid, impossible dreams and lies and delusion and self-destruction without brakes; or the Mac and Dennis who lived a life together and have been through everything that could possibly tear two people to pieces, most of it done to each other or to themselves voluntarily, and yet, somehow, for some reason, they’re still here.

“It says that 36 is my lucky number,” Dennis replies.

“Well, that sounds like bullshit,” comments Mac, who, despite being a grown adult who’s lived on this Earth for more than forty years, still expects fortune cookies to tell his future for him.

“Mac, the entire industry of fortune cookies is built on bullshit.”

“I thought it was built on, like, easily exploitable child labor or something,” Mac muses.

“No, you’re thinking chocolate,” Dennis corrects him.

“Right,” says Mac.

Nonchalantly, he goes back to his dinner. That is to say, he goes back to his never-ending valiant struggle that consists of him switching between holding one chopstick in each hand and trying to pick up chunks of rice with them like some sort of extraordinarily pathetic Edward Scissorhands, and using only one chopstick as a rudimentary skewer and stabbing it into pieces of meat.

Dennis is used to a lot of dumb shit, but when Mac reaches the point where he just picks up the takeout container and attempts to shovel food straight into his mouth with the chopsticks, he can’t take it anymore.

“Holy shit, dude,” he says, his expression frozen somewhere between horrified and amused.

Mac puts down the paper box and frowns.

“It’s really not easy to eat with these things,” he replies defensively.

“Yes, it is,” says Dennis. “It is ridiculously easy.”

“I am an American! I was not born to eat with such exotic tools! And I shouldn’t have to, because this is the U.S. of motherfucking A. and in this country, we’re all free people who get to do whatever the hell they want to do!”

Mac glares at Dennis, all worked up and red in the face. Dennis returns it with a smug look and maintains eye contact as he lifts up a bite of shrimp to his own lips with flawless chopstick usage. “Sure,” he says sarcastically.

“You don’t have to be a dick about it, bro,” grumbles Mac. He puts his unfortunate, shamefully abused chopstick down and crosses his arms in front of his chest. “Actually, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this.”

“What, Chinese food etiquette?” Dennis guesses, his mouth full of shrimp.

“Your habit of constantly putting me down.”

Oh, God no. Not this shit again. Dennis, feeling his mood drop instantly, grimaces, “Do we really have to do this right now?”

“Dude, I’m trying to, like, communicate my thoughts to you clearly and be open about my feelings,” says Mac, exasperated and distinctly sounding like someone who’s quoting a wikiHow page on relationships. “Jesus. It’s really not that hard, you know."

Dennis puts his chopsticks down.

“What do you want me to do, exactly?” he asks, his tone belligerent.

“Tell me what is up with all this shit!”

“Define shit.”

“You know what I’m talking about, Dennis.” The look Mac is giving him is an accusation in and of itself. “You always looking down on me from your high fucking horse, you acting like I’m stupid…”

“I wonder why that is,” Dennis says venomously. He wants to end this conversation as soon as possible.

“That is exactly what I’m saying!” Mac points his index finger right into his face. “What is your deal, dude? Are you mad at me for something?”

Oh, sweet Lord. Dennis is clenching his fists so hard on his lap that they’re almost shaking, they’re almost breaking apart.

“Are you mad at me, Dennis?” Mac demands, frankly pathetic with that streak of hurt and insecurity in his voice that he can’t completely hide beneath his indignation. “What, you hate me again?”

Oh, Jesus Christ. Dennis closes his eyes.

What are you always so angry about, Dennis?”

Something inside him snaps with a horrible pang. “I’m not angry, I’m terrified!” Dennis snarls.

There’s a moment of silence when they’re both staring at each other in disbelief; Dennis mortified, Mac utterly confused.

“What are you terrified of, Dennis?” he asks, genuinely concerned.

Oh, holy fuck, he can’t seriously be this fucking blind.

He is, though, so Dennis says, “I’m terrified that if I let you, one day you’ll realize how much better you could do.”

He feels weak and hollowed out, like something huge and overpowering left his body along with the words. He looks at Mac with the despondence of a convict awaiting his death sentence.

Mac blinks at him, then snorts. “You mean better than you?” he asks, as if he finds the idea simply ridiculous.

“I mean better than a narcissistic, manipulative middle-aged guy with a shitty bar, a severe personality disorder and an estranged child in another state,” Dennis says, ruthless and cutting and more honest than he’s been in many years.

The surprise that flashes on Mac’s face is almost pity, but then it melts into something so warm and adoring that it’s physically painful to look at. “You mean better than my best friend who I’ve been in love with since basically forever? I don’t think so, dude,” he says. Then, as a coup de grâce, he adds, “I knew exactly what I was signing up for, Dennis. I’ve been waiting to sign up for it for a very long time.”

Dennis feels eviscerated. He struggles to comprehend this wild new concept, the unimaginable and foreign idea of being loved unconditionally, of not having to grasp someone with such desperate fervor it breaks them both, of being able to let go, secure in the knowledge that the other person will choose to stay anyway. It really is ludicrous; still, there’s something in the way Mac’s gaze holds his that makes Dennis want to believe in the impossible.

xvi.

There are mornings, on the good days, when Dennis wakes up next to Mac and the first thing he does is kiss him until he feels him wake up too, with a soft sigh against Dennis’ lips; and when Mac starts to kiss back he puts his hand on his mouth and makes a joke about his bad morning breath, only to roll on top of him in the next second and kiss him even deeper.

There are mornings, on the bad days, when Dennis wakes up next to Mac and he can’t even bare to look at him, his skin and soul prickling, utterly aggravated by the weight of his presence alone, utterly disgusted by the idea of talking to or in any way interacting with another human being. Mac can almost always recognize these mornings, now. He sighs, tells Dennis that he’ll make some breakfast and he’s welcome to join him when he feels ready, and leaves him alone until then, even when Dennis needs hours to emerge.

Most mornings, Dennis wakes up next to Mac and just listens to the familiar, grounding sound of his breathing until the day forcefully starts.

xvii.

Mac’s face is really expressive, even when he sleeps. He frowns, he smiles, his face softens or crumples. He doesn’t have that gross sleep apnea anymore, thankfully, and he’s not a big snorer either, but he still makes some muffled snores and gasps and huffs that speak volumes about his dreams.

He makes a confused little sound as his eyelashes flutter open. Instantly, his eyes widen in surprise and he does a small frantic jump that almost gets him to lose his balance and fall off the bed.

“Shit, Dennis,” he says, voice still dazed and slightly shaky, “you’re awake, I see.”

Dennis continues to stare at him, unblinking and unmoving and silent.

“I’m not saying you’re creepy but dude,” Mac complains. He waits a second, maybe for an answer, then changes the topic: “Hey, you want some breakfast in bed? I can make you something nice,” he offers with a bright, sleepy smile. There’s morning sunlight in his hair.

“Mac,” Dennis says finally.

“Yeah?”

“Can you stay with me instead?” he asks, so quiet that there’s no one in the world who could possibly hear it but them.

“Of course,” breathes Mac.

There’s something in his expression, a certain devotion, unbelievably vast and unbelievably gentle, that makes Dennis think he could’ve asked anything in that moment and Mac would have said yes. Let’s run away together. Let’s burn Paddy’s to the ground. Let’s go kidnap my son and raise him somewhere far away. Let’s get married. Yes, yes, yes, yes, of course, Dennis.

Mac rolls closer and puts his arm around Dennis. Dennis closes his eyes.

xviii.

The gang has a rug scheme one day, because, well, of course they had to have a rug scheme eventually. They all squeeze into Dennis’ new Range Rover, the one they bought him from Frank’s money when he got back and which he would suspect they meant as a consolation gift after his shameful retreat if he didn’t know them better to presume this level of empathy from their side, and he drives them around all day, selling rugs door to door.

It feels shockingly right, all the arguing and brainstorming and devising plans and fucking up and rolling with it nevertheless. Having been away from the gang for a while makes Dennis sharply aware of how understood he feels among them and how useful it feels to be part of a well-oiled machine, even if it is a machine of asinine chaos and mass destruction. It’s kind of depressing, really, what a profound sense of belonging fills him as he’s trying to focus on the road and ignore the familiar cacophony of Mac and Dee’s fiery debate about the music they should be listening to and Frank and Charlie’s enthusiastic conversation about something they found in the trash at one of the houses they’ve been to.

Maybe all of them are stuck in one intricate Cold War-type deadlock, Dennis reckons. Him and Mac are still the main players – Dennis being the U.S., obviously, superior and destined to rule the world, while Mac, that white trash working class son of a bitch, gets the Soviet Union – but there were more than two countries in that game. Frank can be Vietnam and Dee can be the United Kingdom or Canada or some shit and Charlie, well, he could be one of the socialist Eastern European countries, maybe? What countries are even there in Eastern Europe? Berlin? No, wait, Berlin was the name of the wall…

“Jesus Christ, Dennis, are you fucking blind?” Dee screeches right into his ear from the seat behind his and Dennis realizes he almost hit a fire hydrant by the side of the road.

“Maybe if you assholes were capable of shutting your mouths for just one second, I could actually concentrate on not killing you all in a car crash,” he quips.

The begrudging silence that follows lasts for an impressive thirty seconds, give or take, before everyone starts talking and/or yelling over each other again. It is, after all, their default state of affairs that they can always comfortably slip back to.

xix.

At the end of the long, exhausting day filled with excitement and adventure and a moderate amount of success and a ludicrous amount of rugs, Dennis finally drops off the others – Frank first, then Charlie and Dee together at Dee’s place, which is something he prefers not to think about. He gazes out into the city night, illuminated by blinking street lights and flashing television screens reflected in windows under a starless sky, and feels like nothing outside the island of this car matters. It gets quieter, as people exit one by one, but it doesn’t get emptier; on the contrary, it gets simpler and clearer and more complete, until it’s just the two of them again with Mac.

Dennis sits there for a minute or two after Charlie and Dee get out, watching them get into the house and then just looking at nothing in particular, bone-tired and pensive. He’s aware of Mac’s presence in the seat next to him the way one is aware of the rhythm of their own heartbeat.

“Let’s go home,” Mac suggests quietly.

Dennis looks at him. There’s something swelling up inside him, a familiar ache lighting up his chest and lungs and heart, and this time, when nothing exists but this moment and no one but the two of them, he actually lets the feeling pass through his throat and tumble of his mouth: “I’m in love with you.”

What?” Mac gapes at him.

“I think I’ve been for a very long time,” Dennis continues, pondering.

“Really?” Mac asks. His voice is so high-pitched it’s almost a squeak.

Dennis gives him weighted look. “You should say it back, you know,” he reminds him.

The expression of pure shock on Mac’s face begins to morph into a surprised, nervous smile. “I already told you a million times, Dennis,” he says fondly.

“It’s still what you’re supposed to do, in the given situation,” Dennis insists.

“Okay, then,” says Mac, beaming brighter and brighter each second, “I love you too.”

There’s still something acutely incredulous in his voice, and the awkward excitement with which he adds the little ‘too’ at the end makes it quite obvious that this is probably the first time he gets to say the phrase back to someone. For a brief second, Dennis fiercely hates Mac’s parents for never giving a shit and himself for always choking on his feelings, but the pang of resentment is instantly washed away by the radiant warmth of the smile Mac is giving him.

Dennis, still holding Mac’s gaze, puts his hands back on the steering wheel and softly repeats, “Let’s go home.”

o.

“Look, Dennis, I really do think you shouldn’t stay here anymore. No, no, no, don’t interrupt yet. Please. Hear me out. I know you’re trying to do the right thing by being here for Brian. But I also know that that’s not all there is to it. I have a feeling you were trying to run away from something, too. I mean, no one from Philly has paid a visit once, you haven’t visited them either, you haven’t even called your friends or your sister or… Well. It all feels really fishy, that’s all. I think you’re using Brian as an excuse to avoid confronting some serious stuff, and that it’s making you miserable. And you can’t do this to him, Dennis. You can’t tie yourself to him to avoid your issues and pretend it’s all for his sake. You know what’s worse than not having a dad? Having a dad who’s around but suffers and lashes out and slowly grows to resent you because it’s easier for him to blame you for his own cowardice. What is it that you’re so afraid to face, Dennis? Where do you really want to be? What is it that you really want?”

xx.

They’re sitting at the bar on a particularly slow day, approximately five beers in, when Mac unexpectedly announces, “You know what I’ve been thinking? We should do another Lethal Weapon movie.”

“Okay,” says Dennis, “I’m listening.”

“We should do another Lethal Weapon movie, but this time…” A dramatic pause and a pointed look. “This time, full gay.”

Dennis raises an eyebrow, intrigued. “Alright. Now, when you say ‘full gay’, do you mean full penetration?”

“Whoa, dude. No. That is not what I was saying. I mean, maybe if we get body doubles or something? But no, what I meant was, like, an epic love story to transcend all love stories.”

“A love story?”

“Damn right. If you think about it, all Lethal Weapons movies are love stories already. They’re all centered around the love between Riggs and Murtaugh, right? It’s just that you can interpret that love in many different ways, familial or brotherly or platonic or romantic.”

“Sure,” agrees Dennis.

“Well, I’m saying we make it full gay. Undeniably, explicitly gay. A beautiful love story about two men who were always the best and most important parts of each other’s lives but never thought they could have more than that, and just tried to fill the hole with fighting crime and boring straight marriages and shit, but one day they realize they want more than that, you know? That they can have everything they ever wanted because it’s been right in front of them the whole time and that it’s not too late for them to be happy?”

Each spoken word seems to suck out more and more of the air inside the room, until the last one flickers away too and all that’s left is just Mac and Dennis looking at each other, breathless and in a complete vacuum.

Suddenly, Dennis stands up from the bar.

“Uh,” says Mac, “do you not like it, then?”

Dennis grabs his arm and tugs. “Come on, now,” he says, his voice low and electric. “We have a script to write.”

xxi.

Dennis stares at himself in the mirror and what stares back at him is something that makes his stomach turn in cold, bitter revulsion. All the crow’s feet and wrinkles and eye bags and gray hairs, still sly but more and more noticeable each day, feel like cruel acts of betrayal, vicious attacks against his person and everything he stands for. Maybe the years do catch up to everyone, after all. Maybe the decades of solid alcoholism, sprinkled with the occasional bursts of heavy drug usage, do take their toll on one’s appearance.

Mac walks up to him and comes to stand right behind him, with his chest warm and solid against Dennis’ back and his chin resting gingerly on his shoulder. He meets Dennis’ eyes in the mirror and raises a questioning eyebrow.

“Do you think I age well?” Dennis asks him.

“I think you look better and better every day, Dennis,” Mac replies earnestly.

Dennis clicks his tongue, annoyed. “Don’t flatter me. Grow a spine and tell me the truth.”

“I am, though,” says Mac. “Maturity looks really hot on you. You kinda look like a sexy college professor whose classes are always full because all the students have a crush on him. Or a politician who’s so good-looking that nobody cares that he’s a corrupt piece of shit, and the whole nation is in love with him, and he has a trophy wife from a family of old money but he’s secretly banging his campaign manager on the down low.”

“I’m assuming you’re the campaign manager in this scenario,” Dennis guesses.

“Obviously,” says Mac.

Dennis allows himself to be mildly amused by Mac’s weirdly elaborate and vivid answer to his question for a second or two, but still feels compelled to ask a second one immediately afterwards.

“How about later, then? What if I’m, like, eighty and I’m bald and I have arthritis and my body looks like a hairless, bleached raisin somehow possessing a human skeleton.”

“That’s okay, man. I’ll probably be blind as shit by that time,” grins Mac. When this response only earns him a withering look, he quickly adds with a much more sincere expression, “All those things really won’t matter, dude. You’ll still have the perfect bone structure and the dreamiest eyes and the most brilliant smile. Or maybe you won’t, you know. Maybe all your teeth will have fallen out by then. But I won’t care about that, Dennis, because I love you and you’ll always be the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.”

Something inside Dennis crumbles. He feels like drowning and breaking through the surface and breathing his very first breath at the same time.

Completely unable to read his reaction, Mac goes on. “And it’s not like old people can’t be hot. Take Harrison Ford, for example. Once the primest of beefcakes, now the foxiest of grandpas.”

Mac does not merely kill the mood with this statement; he brutally slaughters the mood, chops its corpse into pieces, hides the body in a dumpster and sets the whole thing on fire. Dennis steps away from him instantly. Mac, who was positively leaning on him, stumbles a little bit.

“I can’t believe you just called Harrison Ford a foxy grandpa,” Dennis says flatly.

“Is he not one, though?” asks Mac.

“I’m not having this conversation,” says Dennis.

“All I’m saying is, it’s not like I can go back in time and fuck Young Harrison Ford, right? So Old Harrison Ford it is. That’s the only opportunity I have and it’s still a pretty good one, if you ask me.”

Dennis, desperate to not hear a single additional word about this topic, promptly walks out of the room at this point.

xxii.

Sometimes Dennis wonders what could have been if the two of them had just gotten their heads out of their asses right when they met each other; if they hadn’t been so busy being wrapped up in their own personal disasters, and trying to survive high school instead of trying to live a life. They could have spent their teen years making out under the bleachers, filled with hormones and awkward first times. They could have spent their twenties living out their wildest fantasies, filled with passion and burning youth. They could have spent their thirties planning for a future together, filled with optimism and clarity. They could be celebrating their, what, twentieth anniversary by now?

Or maybe not. Maybe they never would’ve gotten so tangled up in each other if they both hadn’t been broken beyond repair. Maybe they never would’ve needed each other so desperately if both of them had been complete, if there hadn’t been so much anger and bitterness and delusion and denial in them to mix, if they hadn’t had their sharp edges and soft weak spots and gaping holes to fit together perfectly. Maybe they’d have just walked past each other in the hallways, Dennis on his way to a prestigious vet school and a shining career, and Mac on his way to a stable job and a decent lower middle class life with a loving and supportive husband. Maybe they wouldn’t even know what they missed out on.

Sometimes Dennis imagines another alternate timeline, one where they got their shit together just a little bit earlier, not before he got off that plane in North Dakota, but just in time to reply with an honest and excited yes when Mandy offered for them to be the dads of Brian Jr. together. Maybe Brian could be spending every second weekend with them in Philly, and large chunks of his summer holidays. Maybe Dennis wouldn’t have failed completely as a father.

He admits that the last one is wildly unrealistic, though. Him and Mac have never been any good at taking care of living things. They don’t have the capacity for that. They might be good at taking care of each other, at least, but that’s always been more about survival than selflessness.

xxiii.

It takes approximately six minutes for Charlie, Frank and Dee’s spontaneous three-way rap battle to go from remarkably hilarious to preposterously bad. It is at that six minute marker that Frank attempts to rhyme ‘bitches’ with ‘syphilis’ and Dennis promptly elects to get the hell out of there and find Mac instead.

Mac turns out to be in one of the bathroom stalls, which is kind of strange, considering that he’s been missing for at least an hour at that point. Dennis knocks on its thin wall forcefully and urgently.

“Get out, man. Quit hogging the only working toilet,” he says. He only makes up the last part to be more convincing, but knowing the usual state of Paddy’s bathrooms, there’s a really good chance that it’s actually the truth, so he doesn’t feel bad about it.

Puzzlingly, Mac replies, “Oh, I’m not using it.”

He pushes the stall door open and reveals himself as he sits on the toilet seat, hunched and fully clothed. He motions for Dennis to get in and Dennis is confused enough to actually step inside and close the door behind him. It takes a little time for the full awareness of the situation to dawn on him.

“What,” he asks then, “the shit have you been doing in a bathroom stall for an hour if not using it?”

“Not just a bathroom stall,” Mac says pointedly. “This specific bathroom stall.”

Dennis glances around, trying to catch a glimpse of something in there that could potentially explain what’s going on.

“Is this about the glory whole?” He draws his brows together, contemplating. “Do you want me to go to the stall next door and –”

“Maybe later,” Mac interrupts him abruptly. “That’s, uh, that’s really not what I meant. I was referring to Country Mac, actually. This is the toilet where Frank flushed his ashes.”

Oh, right. That’s a thing that happened.

Honestly, half of the things that go down in this hellish bar seem like a fever dream immediately after they come to pass, and a few years down the line, Dennis struggles to recall them and to reconcile the hazy memories with reality. He’s not sure if it’s due to Paddy’s being some kind of liminal space where the past just sort of drifts away, or it’s just the gang’s exceptional powers of repression.

Meanwhile, Mac continues. “Sometimes I like to come and chill here for a while, to reminisce and pray for his immortal soul and shit. I didn’t use to, when I still thought people go to hell for being gay. I feel kinda bad about being so quick to condemn him, you know? Just because of my own insecurities.”

“That was messed up,” Dennis agrees.

“I wish I could talk to him about it, now,” says Mac. He looks as mournful and solemn as one sitting in a dirty toilet stall can possibly be. “There are a lot of things I wish I could have talked to him about. He was pretty much the only one out of all my relatives who… Well. You know how my parents are, not huge fans of being emotionally expressive. But me and Country Mac, we always had a lot in common and he was always happy to hang out with me.”

Mac makes a dismissive little shrug, as if he wasn’t just talking about grieving for the only family member who ever cared about him or understood him and whose remains were unceremoniously flushed down a toilet in the bar where he spends every single day of his life.

“So yeah, I was just paying my respects to him, I guess,” he concludes. He looks up at Dennis with a small, tentative flicker of hope in his eyes. “Do you… want to pray with me, maybe?”

The old Dennis definitely would have found the idea simply ridiculous and rejected it firmly. Most of the old Dennises, actually. There are so many past versions of him, aspects of himself that he cut off mercilessly or smothered with a pillow, that sometimes it feels like there’s an entire graveyard full of dead Dennises inside him. Or maybe not a graveyard; a graveyard suggests tombs and funerals and closures. Maybe a closet full of skeletons would be more accurate, or a lake full of floating bodies, or a cell full of the living dead.

Right now, he ignores all of the old Dennises and says, “Sure.”

Mac’s smile lights up the place, which is, well, certainly an impressive feat in this particular place. He holds out his hands for Dennis, and Dennis, crouching down with his back leaning against the wall, takes them. There’s some muffled rapping coming from outside the bathroom, in case the whole situation wasn’t absurd enough in the first place.

Dennis doesn’t pray. He observes Mac’s prayer, though, remarking his dark lashes against his cheeks as he closes his eyes and the soft movement of his lips as he whispers his words to someone very, very far away. He looks younger, somehow, with all this blind trust on his face.

It’s a strange moment but Dennis doesn’t mind sharing it with him.

xxiv.

When the gang decides to play Chardee MacDennis for the first time since his return from North Dakota, Dennis, just to make things clear, turns to Mac and tells him, “I love you but prepare to be fucking obliterated.”

Mac steps closer, so close they’re practically breathing into each other’s faces, and stares him down with his chin held high. “Dennis, I love you more than anything in this world but you’re going the fuck down.”

They hold the position, their eye contact defiant and intense, the air raw electricity between them.

Dennis swallows. “Is it just me or is this really –”

“Insanely hot?” Mac supplements. “Oh, definitely. You want a blowjob in the men’s room?”

Before Dennis could express his enthusiastic agreement, however, Dee interrupts the conversation.

“Jesus Christ, guys,” she snaps. Pointing at her brother, she commands, “Dennis, you stop fraternizing with the enemy.” Then, towards Mac, “Mac, you twank slut, stop trying to buy your victory with sex. It’s pathetic and it’s not going to work.”

“Like hell I need a cheap tactic like that,” Mac scoffs. “Charlie and I are going to beat you two bitches this time, fair and square.”

Naturally, they end up losing.

xxv.

Nothing that any of them ever says or does when they’re all hanging out together at Paddy’s seems to hold any significance for the future or any weight outside that one particular moment or scheme it belongs to, really, which is probably why Dennis bursts out with an incredulous, cruel little cackle when Charlie turns to Dee – who’s sitting at the bar right next to him – and asks, “So, what are your thoughts on, like, getting married?”

Mac, who’s sitting on Charlie’s other side, chokes on his beer. Dee doesn’t. She goes completely, horribly still, in a way that could either resemble a deer caught in the headlights or a predator preparing to pounce.

“You and me, I mean,” Charlie adds to clarify, probably mistaking her silence for confusion. “You being the bride and me being the groom, or something along those lines. If you prefer some other arrangement of roles, that’s cool too, I’m down for it. I’m flexible like that.”

Frank, who’s stuffing different sandwich ingredients into his face one by one at one of the tables, makes a peculiar noise that sounds like a snort escaping through a mouthful of ham. Mac and Dennis exchange a glance, both of them looking at the other for some clues as to how to react to the situation and only seeing a mirror of their own amused disbelief.

“Charlie,” says Dee finally, her voice tight and terrifying.

Her big, bony hands, ideal for strangling, are resting on the bar in front of her, clenched so hard her knuckles are white. Dennis remembers the weird thing she has about marriage, the way she was constantly blabbering about her plans for her dream wedding when they were kids and her later habit of trying on wedding dresses for fun. He, personally, has always found her hopes unrealistic at best and pathetic at worst.

“Charlie,” she says. “If you’re fucking with me right now, I swear to God I’ll kill you. I will kill you, and I will eat your body.”

There isn’t a trace of humor in her voice. Bewildered, Dennis looks at Mac from behind the bar, who raises an eyebrow at him in a familiar sarcastic manner. Straight people, am I right, he sneers wordlessly. Dennis cocks his head. They sure are something.

“I am not,” replies Charlie, earnest and either completely unaware of or utterly unnerved by the seriousness of her threat. “C’mon, you know I wouldn’t joke about something like that. Here, check this out!”

With that, he digs into the pocket of his worn out, old green jacket and pulls out something shiny and golden. Dee sucks in a sharp breath.

“It’s for you,” Charlie tells her. He doesn’t get down on his knee, just simply holds out a hand for her, and Dee, with the expression of someone in a trance, places hers on his palm, allowing him to tenderly put the ring on her finger.

Dennis absolutely cannot believe his eyes and is entirely appalled by how unprofessional the whole process is. Mac gapes at the newly engaged couple like it’s the most entertaining thing he’s seen all month. Frank says, “Isn’t that the ring we found in the sewers last time?”

“What?” scoffs Charlie. “No, dude, it’s not? It’s, uh, a different ring. That I found – I mean, I bought – somewhere other than the sewers. At, uh, at a ring store that is situated outside of the sewers.”

He is, by all accounts, ridiculously unconvincing. Dee doesn’t seem to care, though.

“Are… are we really doing this?” she whispers, looking at Charlie like he’s the only things she sees in the whole world. She blinks hard a few times, her eyes shiny and wet.

“Sure,” says Charlie. “Whenever it’s convenient for you.”

Dee lets out a quick, nervous laugh. “I’m free this weekend,” she offers, sharing a warm, meaningful smile with Charlie.

“That’s insane, Deandra,” Frank interjects, chewing on some cheese. “It’s already, what, Thursday? You can’t organize a wedding in two days.”

Dee turns towards him, and her facial expression immediately shifts into something harsh and guarded; or, maybe, it’s just her regular facial expression that seems harsh and guarded compared to the softer one she reserves for one person only. “It’s Tuesday, you fat, nasty trash,” she tells Frank resolutely, “and we can absolutely pull it off.”

“Yeah,” Charlie agrees. “It can’t be that hard to, like, find a priest and buy some flowers. I already have my lawyer outfit, which, I believe, is perfectly appropriate for the occasion, and we can borrow a wedding dress from Mac.”

“Why does Mac have a wedding dress?” asks Frank.

“It was for a scheme,” Mac says, embarrassed, at the same time that Charlie says, “He was really into it for some reason.”

There’s a beat of silence, then Mac adds, “I hope you don’t mind the blood stains and the gun powder, though.”

“Oh, I definitely do mind those things,” says Dee. “But it’s cool. I already have my eye on some candidates. I can get a wedding dress by the weekend, no problem.”

“Do you think Cricket is still, like, authorized to officiate a wedding and shit?” Charlie asks with a contemplative frown.

It is at that exact moment that Dennis reaches his breaking point.

“No,” he says firmly. “No, no, no, no, no. You cannot be serious right now. You can’t be getting married.”

“And why is that, exactly?” Dee asks him dryly. She looks him straight in the eye, and from that point onwards, it’s suddenly solely about the two of them.

“You aren’t even living together,” Dennis argues reasonably. “How do you expect to get married if you haven’t even moved in together? Me and Mac have been living together for twenty years. If anyone gets married here, it should be us.”

“Dennis,” says Mac. His name turns into a warning on his tongue, something tense and hesitant.

Dennis ignores him. “Come on, Dee,” he continues. “You can’t do this just to one up me. It’s laughable, and pathetic. I have always been the more successful twin and it’s time for you to accept that.”

“Has is ever fucking occurred to you, Dennis,” Dee says with a voice full of venom, “that not everything is about you? And you’re the one who has to accept that this time, I’ve won. I’m getting married before you are and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”

“You think I can’t organize a wedding before you can?” smirks Dennis.

Dee narrows her eyes into two tiny slits gleaming with a dangerous light. “Oh, bring it on,” she says.

“Dennis!” Mac exclaims. He leans across the bar and grabs Dennis’ wrist. “You can’t make a bet out of this, man! This is not something to make a bet out of,” he says, his tone strained and determined.

Dennis scoffs.

“No, dude,” Mac reasserts. “I’m serious. Look me in the eye and promise me you won’t make a bet out of this. Look me in the eye, Dennis! Are you looking into my eyes?”

Without breaking eye contact, Dennis says, matter-of-factly, “I’m always looking into your eyes, they’re beautiful.”

He watches with a satisfied smile as Mac buries his face in his hands with a little sound of surprise and frustration. Although he can’t see his expression, he doesn’t fail to notice how red the tips of his ears are.

When Mac emerges a few seconds later, it turns out that his face is sporting the exact same colour. He points an accusatory finger at Dennis. “Listen here, you charming, sweet-talking, romantic piece of shit,” he hisses. “The bet is off, you understand?”

Dennis flashes a wide grin at him in lieu of a response, then turns to Dee. “So, you said this weekend, right?”

xxvi.

When they get home that night, at the end of the workday, Dennis’ mind is still buzzing with half-formed plans and manic determination.

“You know what I’m thinking? Colorful tuxes,” he announces, marching in and throwing the keys on the coffee table.

Mac shuffles in after him, looking uncomfortable. “Uh, Dennis,” he begins.

“I know, I know. Black’s classic. But hear me out on this! The traditional black suit’s main function is to complement the white wedding dress, which won’t be relevant in our case. And we need something more unique, more daring, something that really catches the eye, you know? Now, I’m quite fond of our old matching Honey and Vinegar suits, but maybe something new would be a better idea. Blue, for one –”

“Dennis.” Mac stops right in front of him and grabs him by the shoulders. “We really need to talk about this wedding thing.”

Dennis frowns. “I’m talking about it right now.”

“Yeah, I’m aware of that,” says Mac. “Look, you need to stop obsessing over this, okay? This wedding competition you got into with Dee is insane.”

“You got into a sugar daddy competition with her,” Dennis reminds him scathingly.

“Sending dick pics for money is not the same as getting fucking married to prove a point!” Mac replies, exasperated.

It’s just about the worst thing he possibly could have said.

“Oh, so you’d rather send dick pics to strangers than marry me,” Dennis notes, his voice as sharp and cold as a knife.

Mac groans and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I really don’t want to have this discussion.”

“Then let’s not,” Dennis suggests, although he already feels uncertainty and paranoia stirring sluggishly inside him and urging him otherwise. “Let’s just get on with the plan, shall we?”

“This is not a plan, Dennis! This is not something you can make a scheme out of.”

Dennis narrows his eyes. “Are you saying you’re not in on it? Is that what you’re trying to say here?”

“Oh my God,” says Mac.

“Just trying to make sure I’m not getting it wrong. Are you telling me that you’re backing down? That you’re just gonna let them win?”

Mac’s expression is outright pained. “This is not something to win at, Dennis,” he says. His voice is pained too, and a lot smaller than before.

“Stop saying that!” snarls Dennis. He’s sick of the stupid hurt face Mac is making like he’s the victim here and he’s sick of his cowardice and his nonsense argument and his inability to say what he means, and there’s something else inside him beneath all that sizzling frustration, something much deeper and darker and hungrier that cuts into his voice with a desperate edge.

“Dennis,” says Mac, slow and careful and full of suspicion, “have you been taking your pills lately?”

Dennis freezes up. It takes a second or two for the true meaning of the question to seep through his horrified disbelief. “Are you implying I’m acting crazy?” he asks then, his tone quiet and terrible.

Mac lets out a nasty, hysterical laugh. “You certainly aren’t acting reasonably.”

The accusation feels like a dagger to the gut; excruciating, incapacitating, utterly sickening. Wrath rises inside Dennis; not the white-hot rage he’s used to, but something entirely different, something that doesn’t taste righteous or divine, just bitter, and leaves an aching tiredness in his bones.

“I’m going to leave now,” he says.

“Dennis,” Mac begins, warily.

He tries to put a hand on his arm, but Dennis shrugs him off. He picks up the keys he threw down mere minutes ago, and in a voice that is as cold as the ice inside his veins, he says, “I’m going to leave now, and don’t you dare come after me. Or wait up for me. If I get back and find you sitting out here waiting for me, I swear to God I’ll turn around and leave again.”

He doesn’t wait for Mac to respond to that.

xxvii.

When Dennis does get back a few – three, four? – hours later, Mac’s definitely not waiting for him in the living room. Dennis doesn’t feel relieved about it. Or any other way, really.

He stumbles in and closes the door behind him. He thinks about locking it, then notices that he’s not holding his keys, which, in turn, makes him realize in retrospect that the apartment wasn’t locked in the first place.

He doesn’t turn the lights on. It’s early morning already, bathing the apartment in a gray and hazy light that is just enough for him to move around and whose grayness and haziness matches how the inside of his mind feels like. His mouth tastes like alcohol and acid and the corpse of the last meal he ate, and he really doesn’t want to see anything bright at the moment.

On his way to the couch, he hears a crack under his feet and discovers the remains of something that appears to be a lamp. He steps over it and keeps going. Mac gets to have his tantrums too. At least it’s not something Dennis actually gave a fuck about; he wouldn’t have been surprised, truth be told, if he had found one of his own belongings trashed on the floor upon getting back.

Dennis collapses on the couch, utterly exhausted, fully clothed, and attempts to get some sleep. He fails miserably.

Even when he closes his eyes, his stomach keeps churning and the room keeps spinning, spinning, spinning in circles around him; that, however, is something he’s already used to. What’s really keeping him awake is the restlessness buzzing in his bones and the miserable, frantic desire to get home that still keeps tugging at him. He knows, with every fiber of his being, that he’s still not there yet, so trying to fall asleep on this couch feels wrong and incomplete.

He gets up and approaches the bedroom with shaky, uncertain steps. The door’s ajar. He peeks inside, and this time, every fiber of his being says, oh, there he is.

Mac looks strangely monochrome in the dim morning light. He’s not waiting up, but he doesn’t look asleep either. He’s lying on his back with his hands clasped together, and Dennis realizes that he’s praying. His face is expressionless and half-hidden is shadows, making it impossible for Dennis to guess what sort of favour he’s asking from God; for Dennis to drag his ass home, or for him to be lying dead in a ditch somewhere, or something entirely unrelated to him. He’s not sure he wants to find out.

He quietly clears his throat and Mac sits up immediately, turning towards Dennis alert and entirely unsurprised.

“You’re back,” he notes, his voice cautious.

“Yeah,” says Dennis.

He doesn’t walk in and Mac doesn’t ask him to. They look at each other, Mac on the bed and Dennis in the doorway; two gray figures frozen in a gray morning that feels nothing like the beginning of a new day, hesitant and wrecked.

“Where have you been, Dennis?” Mac asks finally, after what feels like an eternity.

There’s an ugly, bitter little part of Dennis that wants to reply with something vague and ominously suggestive. But in this harsh gray light and in this harsh gray silence, Mac doesn’t look anything like what he expected; he doesn’t look angry or jealous or demanding, just terrified in a quiet and lost way, and suddenly, telling him something like that doesn’t feel like glorious revenge, it just feels like telling his best friend and the love of his life who has a crippling fear of abandonment that he betrayed him, once again.

So Dennis tells the truth. “I got into the first bar I could find and spent the night drinking and dissociating. I have no idea what bar it was. I have no idea if I paid before leaving either. I got into an alley. I threw up in a dumpster. I sat on the ground for, like, half an hour contemplating getting some crack cocaine.” This part is not entirely true; he couldn’t have been arguing with himself for more than five minutes, and the debate consisted of a fleeting thought about crack, followed by him internally screaming at himself for several minutes for ever having that idea in the first place. He’s trying to make Mac feel bad for him, though, so he doesn’t feel guilty about exaggerating a little bit. “Then I threw up in the dumpster again and decided to get home.”

“Well,” muses Mac, “I could definitely smell at least half of the story on you.”

He goes for a reassuring grin, which comes out kind of weak and kind of crooked, but it has the desired the effect nonetheless. He stands up. With all the nervous tension gone from his body, he looks as energetic and fussy as ever.

He walks up to Dennis and says, “I’m serious, dude, go brush your teeth. Freshen up, powder your nose, do your thing to get yourself together. I’m gonna get something for you to eat.”

He puts his hands on Dennis’ back and shoulder and gives him an encouraging little push in the direction of the bathroom. Dennis, dazed like a sleepwalker, does as he was told. He quickly brushes his teeth and goes through his nightly skincare routine, all the motions automatic and absent-minded, and doesn’t even realize how truly disgusting he was feeling until he feels cool water on his face and takes his first minty-fresh breath.

By the time he emerges, the morning turned up its brightness into a pasty white and Mac is waiting for him at the dining table with an empty seat and a neat-looking sandwich and a welcoming smile reserved for him. Even though it is exactly as he promised, it still catches Dennis off guard for a second; not for the first time, he’s completely baffled by the seemingly infinite supply of forgiveness and patience and care Mac seems to have for him. It’s not a very sensible thing to have, Dennis figures. That stupid, naïve fool with his stupid, endless love never seems to learn, though.

Dennis sits down at the table. He picks up the sandwich but doesn’t take a bite. His awareness of how badly they need to talk about what happened is crushing, but still not as powerful as his desire to let it slide and never even mention it again.

However, they had spent more than twenty years of their lives ignoring a ridiculous amount of shit that really shouldn’t have been ignored, and it really is time for someone to start learning from their mistakes, so he says, “We should talk.”

“We should,” Mac agrees.

He looks at Dennis and Dennis looks at him and several moments pass in silence, each of them making Dennis more and more aware of the fact that they have absolutely no idea how to approach something like this. He’s just about to conclude that it was a hopeless idea in the first place when Mac finally begins talking.

“Look, normally, I’d be one hundred percent down to beat Sweet Dee at something. You know I’m all about dicking with her plans and stealing her spotlight and ruining her dreams, I love that shit. But this –”

“This isn’t about messing with Dee,” Dennis interrupts him, with a ghost of irritation in his voice.

“It isn’t?” Mac furrows his brows. “What’s going on, then? What’d you get so upset about?”

“Apart from you being a dick?” snaps Dennis.

Mac winces.

Dennis takes a deep breath, then releases it slowly and carefully. Suddenly feeling exhausted and entirely hollowed out, he adds, “It’s also pretty goddamn upsetting to learn that the person you were planning to spend the rest of your life with doesn’t want to marry you.”

Mac’s eyes immediately widen and something unidentifiable washes over his face. “Dennis,” he says softly, “I’d marry the shit out of you.”

What?”

“I’d marry you right here on this spot.”

Dennis feels completely out of breath. “Really?”

“Well, probably not actually right here on this spot,” Mac amends. “I’d want to do it properly, in a church. And I guess you’d want some big and fancy ceremony you can micromanage the fuck out of. Besides, in this case, waiting’s not a bad part of the process. Sure, being husbands with you would be the best thing that could ever happen to me, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on being fiancés either. Like we would go to Guigino’s and you’d order for me and say something like ‘and a glass of wine for my fiancé’ and that’d feel so special, you know? More special than I’ve ever felt in my life.”

As he speaks, his voice is light and casual with a slight hint of longing, and he consistently and atrociously mispronounces ‘fiancé’ both times. Something twinges inside Dennis, so deep and so sharp he feels like something in his chest is splitting in half.

There are a lot of things he wants to ask, but all he manages is a raspy “Then why?”

Mac huffs. “I’m not an idiot, dude. I’m not gonna marry you just so you can prove a point or win a bet or whatever, because I know how that ends. I’ve seen it. Getting to marry you is not worth watching you get bored of it in two days and going through a messy divorce and losing everything good I have in my life right now.”

Still having serious difficulties inhaling oxygen into his lungs and transforming it into words, Dennis mutters, “You’re nothing like Maureen.”

Mac lets out a little laugh, and the fact that there’s nothing mocking or malicious about its dry, knowing irony only makes it more heartbreaking. “Yeah, sure,” he says.

Dennis feels the split inside his chest open up wider, into a raw, gaping hole.

Mac must notice something about it on his face, because he adds, “Look, man, we can talk about this again after Charlie and Dee get hitched, okay? When there’s no game to win anymore. But right now, you gotta let this go, Dennis. Eat your sandwich and let’s go to sleep.”

Dennis finds absolutely no more words to say. He eats his sandwich and they go to sleep.

xxviii.

They sleep through most of the day, and then they have something that is similar to make-up sex in the sense that it’s a way for them to use touches and bodies and lips to express sentiments they never really learned to properly put into words, but instead of apologies – which is definitely not their style – it’s mainly about relief and reclaiming and moving on.

When they finally get to work, just in time for the non-existent evening crowd, the rest of the gang lets them know that the wedding is going to have to be postponed a little bit. Apparently, booking a church for the next weekend is harder than expected, so they ended up having to settle for next month.

“It’s cool, though,” Dee assures them. “More time for wedding planning.”

xxix.

Wedding planning goes the exact same way as all of the gang’s decision-making processes; that is to say, they gather around in the bar and yell at each other until they reach an agreement about a given question, usually in favor of the one that yells the loudest. In certain cases, it goes smoother than their usual debates, thanks to no one outside of Charlie and Dee giving a fuck about most of the finer details. In other cases, it gets really ugly.

The question of Charlie’s best man is one of the more controversial ones. Mac and Dennis spend several days lightly bickering about which one of them gets to be it; then, when they get to the phase of campaigning for the role by attempting to bribe Charlie or blackmail him or both, he just casually tells them at one of the planning sessions, “Oh, you didn’t hear? We’ve already decided that one. Mac’s gonna be my best man.”

“I knew it!” laughs Mac triumphantly. He high fives Charlie, then turns to Dennis with a toothy grin. “Hah! Right in your face.”

“That is bullshit,” says Dennis, deeply offended. “That is a decision with absolutely no logical basis whatsoever, and I refuse to accept it. I demand an arbitration process.”

“There’s no need for an arbitration process, dickwad,” says Dee. “The decision’s final. You can’t be Charlie’s best man, because you’re gonna be walking me down the aisle.”

That is the second thing in quick succession that manages to catch Dennis off guard. “Wait, what?” he asks, staring at his sister in total surprise.

“Yeah, Deandra, what the shit?” frowns Frank too. “I’m your father!”

“Uh, no, you’re not?” says Dee. “And even when you thought you were, you were an absolutely shitty dad in every possible way.”

“Dennis is an absolutely shitty brother in every possible way,” Frank points out.

Without missing a beat, Dee replies, “Oh, yeah, definitely. But he still looks better in a suit. If it comes down to a choice between having Dennis walk me down the aisle and making my entrance at my own wedding arm-in-arm with your ugly gremlin ass, I’m sure as hell gonna go with him.”

She exchanges a quick glance and a smug half-smile with Dennis, and for a second, it feels exactly like when they were kids and it was just the two of them against the world. In spite of his indignation mere moments ago, Dennis suddenly finds himself quite content with the new arrangement of roles.

“That’s fair,” Frank admits. “But if I can’t walk you down the aisle, I wanna be Charlie’s best man at least.”

Mac gives him a threatening glare. “Stay in your lane, you old bitch.”

“Guys, guys, guys!” says Charlie. Since the discussion is dangerously close to that point where Frank usually whips his gun out, it is probably a great idea that he decides to intervene. “Let’s remain civilized here. How about this – Dennis, you’re walking Dee down, Mac, you’re gonna be my best man, and Frank, you get to throw my bachelor party. That acceptable for everyone involved?”

They all stare each other down for a second or two, then, begrudgingly, nod.

xxx.

Days pass and arguments unfold as a wedding is slowly coming together, and eventually, the long-awaited night of the bachelor and bachelorette parties arrives.

Dee is the first one to roll out, accompanied by Artemis and Artemis only, since she basically has no friends, and she firmly rejected Mac and Charlie’ offers for their moms to be her bridesmaids, and inviting the Waitress would have been really weird now, after her thing with Charlie. She’s acting as if it isn’t pathetic, but in Dennis’ opinion, it kind of is.

He doesn’t have really high expectations for the bachelor party planned by Frank either, because, well, it is a party planned by Frank. He still manages to feel let down, somehow, when that old bastard – looking all smug and pleased with himself – takes them to the old strip club they used to go to.

Frank’s pretty much the only one to actually have fun there. Charlie looks uncomfortable, Mac looks bored, and Dennis is trying really hard to ignore the unpleasant and upsetting and undeniable fact that the place reminds him of a very similar night they spent there years before, which reminds him of the whole Maureen fiasco, which reminds him of his argument with Mac after Charlie and Dee’s engagement. Neon-colored lights flash and hip-hop music blares, not bright and loud enough to drown out possible conversations, but just enough to be irritating and mildly distracting.

Eventually, Frank gets tired of trying to get them to enjoy the show and fucks off in the company of some strippers, and Charlie, Mac and Dennis end up spending a very agreeable and nostalgic night drinking beers and hanging out. At one point, Mac tells them, “Remember that one time you two did that stripper thing? Except it was totally lame and you didn’t even get naked?” and then gestures towards the stage with his eyebrows raised meaningfully. Charlie replies with a curt “Dude, no,” at the same time Dennis says, “We can talk about this later at home.”

Truth be told, it’s not the worst bachelor party to participate in. Not thanks to Frank, though.

The next day, Dennis asks Dee how her party went, mostly because she returns looking like someone who has lived through a week’s time in a single night and that week included the murdering of a man and the burying of the body. “If Artemis ever offers you any drugs,” she responds, her voice tremulous and heavy with warning, “don’t you ever say yes.”

xxxi.

When the day of Charlie and Dee’s wedding finally comes, it’s both way too soon – since there’s a plenty of questions the gang couldn’t reach an agreement on, such as Frank’s idea for a wet T-shirt contest and Charlie’s proposal for the rings to be carried by some sort of trained animals – and not soon enough – since at this point, they were arguing about shit like whether rats or monkeys are more intelligent and better suited to participate in a wedding ceremony.

They all show up at the church hours early to oversee the final preparations. Since both Charlie and Dee are nervous as shit, not in the getting-cold-feet kind of way, but in the brutalizing-humongous-blocks-of-cheese and practicing-vows-while-dry-heaving ways respectively, and Frank is running around with a water gun, Mac and Dennis decide to supervise the continuous arriving of the guests instead of spending a second of the remaining time in their company.

Artemis arrives wearing a risqué dress that was definitely not designed for churchgoing and a lazy, smug confidence in the vital importance of her role as the only bridesmaid. Mac and Charlie’s moms are there quite early as well, Bonnie softly weeping in the pews and Mrs. Mac snoring loudly on her shoulder. There’s no one from Dennis and Dee’s actual blood relatives, however, since by inviting someone from their mom’s side of the family, they would have risked Gail the Snail finding out about the wedding, which they were very eager to avoid, and they had absolutely no interest in seeing Bruce Mathis there either.

Rickety Cricket shows up in all his street rat glory and confidantly lets them know that he’s done his share of back-alley weddings and he’s ready to offer up his services if the price is right. Bill Ponderosa also rolls up, whose drug supply is instantly confiscated by Dee and then immediately replenished by Frank, and Ben the Soldier too, sporting a jovial smile and some sweet jean shorts, and that basically fills the quota they set up for Dee’s exes that get to attend the wedding.

Da’ Maniac’s there too, moved to tears, even though Dennis is fairly certain that no one invited him.

Carmen makes an appearance with her husband and their son who’s not really Dennis’ nephew but could have been in some other reality. They bring a luxurious crystal stemware set that is way too generous a wedding gift to give to someone as poor and uncultured as Dee, just because she made a baby for them or whatever.

She waves at Mac with a bright smile on her face and Mac waves back. “Carmen and I are cool now,” he explains to Dennis. “We met up once and had a nice talk about, like, prejudices and internalized issues and shit. We still work out together sometimes. She’s pretty awesome, you know, for a chick.”

Dennis catches Carmen’s eye but doesn’t wave back. Without looking away, he takes a small step closer to Mac and clutches his upper arm tightly, simultaneously demonstrating his claim and copping a feel in the process.

Another guest that is kind of unsettling for him to see is Old Black Man. It’s not that Dennis doesn’t like the guy or thinks that he’s not welcome there; it’s just somewhat difficult to regard him as a normal regular human acquaintance one would invite to their wedding and not as an elusive mythical figure whose only purpose is to show up in your bed every night to punish you for your mistakes.

“Me and Dennis still sleep in the same bed,” Mac tells Old Black Man, his cheerful tone making it sound like he’s talking about some old hobby they all used to do together. “Except this time, it’s not because we lost a bet, and you’re not there, and Dee’s not there, and we have sex with each other because we’re in love.”

Old Black Man says, “I’m glad you two figured it all out eventually.” He looks genuinely happy for them, but his voice carries an implicit ‘And I’m glad you did it when I didn’t have to be in the same bed as you anymore.’

“Thanks, O.B.M.,” says Mac amiably.

All in all, it is a rather strange and slightly surreal and in some cases, downright unexpected assembly of guests, but at the same time, Dennis figures, it’s perfectly fitting for the occasion. And it’s kind of sweet, in a way, that they all decided to come.

Of course, things never go that smoothly for the gang. Shit inevitably hits the fan when some of the McPoyles decide to crash the wedding, prompting Dee to attack them with the nearest blunt object she can find. Unfortunately, it turns out that attempting to beat guests to death with a fire extinguisher is against church policy, and this, combined with some earlier incidents – such as Frank harassing people with his water gun, Charlie bringing a bunch of rats to the church because of the unresolved animal debate and then releasing them accidentally, and Mac and Dennis wrecking some ugly old chandeliers while making out on the altar – gets them kicked out of the place.

“So much for Jesus and his forgiveness,” Dee jeers as they’re all ushered out. There’s blood on her wedding dress, and some foam from the fire extinguisher.

“Jesus hates you, Dee,” says Mac.

“Jesus can suck my dick,” she replies.

“This is exactly the kind of blasphemous language that’ll land you straight in hell,” he informs her. “This, and being pro-choice.”

“You bird,” Frank adds helpfully.

None of them are especially surprised about the turn of events, though. They tell all the guests to regroup at Paddy’s and offer some limes to Cricket in exchange for his services as a wedding officiant. He makes a grimace and asks for money instead. They laugh at him cruelly and mockingly. He accepts the limes.

Somehow, the whole ceremony starts to feel more real when it takes place in the bar. It’s not an act anymore; it’s just them. They’re not playing assigned roles anymore; they’re following their own rules, the only ones that really matter in this strange place where they live their lives. They’re not exchanging empty phrases with strangers and making empty promises to a distant or possibly nonexistent deity; all the people present know exactly who they are and what the words they say mean.

It truly does feel as if it was always supposed to go down at Paddy’s. It was rather stupid of them to ever think otherwise, Dennis supposes. They’re all so deeply entwined with this place and with each other that it’s not likely they’ll ever be able to simply walk away; it’s either burning it all to the ground or getting married here and living their lives here and dying here and having their ashes flushed down one of the toilets in the end.

Dennis silently wonders if this is a thought that is more horrible or more comforting while he’s standing outside the bar’s main entrance with Dee, waiting for their cue to enter the scene. They’re listening to the screeching-scratching-banging sounds of people rearranging the place and dragging chairs around, and Dee is trying to get the dirt and blood out of her white dress with some napkins she got from inside.

She scrubs violently, then stops to observe the slightly vaguer and smudgier stains she managed to produce. “Do you think I make a pretty bride?” she asks Dennis, trying to keep her voice casual and ironic but failing to stop a little vulnerability and uncertainty from slipping through.

Truthfully, Dennis answers, “I think you look like the Bride. From Kill Bill. A bride that’s been through some shit.”

“Oh,” says Dee. “That’s cool. That’s a really badass look to go for. Iconic, even.”

Now that there are no intruders to beat to a pulp or crises to solve, she’s clearly back to being nervous about getting married. Dennis really doesn’t want to deal with that shit, especially the dry heaving part, so he’s extremely relieved when the inside of the bar goes suddenly quiet and the wedding march starts to play.

“Oh God,” says Dee, wide-eyed and grabbing onto Dennis’ arm with a painful strength.

Dennis rearranges their hands into a position that resembles a comfortable arm-in-arm situation and in which none of his bones are in immediate danger of being broken by his sister’s lethal, anxious, sweaty grip, and then shoves her inside the bar.

Even if they’re just in the same dingy old bar where they spend every single day of their lives, even if it’s just across uneven rows of portable chairs and towards a makeshift stage, there is something special about walking a bride down the aisle. Maybe it’s the music, or the way almost everyone turns towards them as they step inside – with the exception of Frank and Bill Ponderosa who are quite busy doing something that appears to be crystal meth in the back –, or that soft and incredulous expression that begins to light up Dee’s face.

Four people are waiting for them on the stage.

The marriage officiant, Cricket, is making a sour face, like he already started eating the limes, or like he’s just realizing that he’s about to officiate the wedding of the woman he used to be in love with and who utterly ruined his life for no payment whatsoever other than some limes.

The maid of honor, Artemis, is wearing a new dress that is – though it seems barely possible – even racier than the one she wore to the church, and also headphones because now she’s stepping in as the DJ as well. She is either chewing gum or in the process of snacking on something. Maybe it’s the limes. Maybe there’s a whole lime feast going on up there.

The groom, Charlie, doesn’t seem to be able to take his eyes off Dee. There’s something peculiar about him, and after a second or two of consideration, Dennis realizes that this is the first time Charlie seems completely and entirely like an adult to him. Not in the paying-taxes kind of way (which Frank does for him still) or the having-a-sex-life way either (which Dennis doesn’t want to know anything about), but in the sense that he’s a grown man who is about to make a life-changing promise with silent certainty in his eyes and glowing pride on his face and infinite tenderness in his smile. It’s a strange thing to see on him.

The best man, Mac, doesn’t even look at Dee. As Dennis is walking towards him and he’s standing up there, with a suit that looks foreign and stunning on him and that dumb thing he does with his hair on special occasions, and their eyes meet, transfixed and breathless, it’s so easy to imagine a similar yet vastly different scenario that Dennis’ entire chest aches with it.

They get on the stage, Dee coming to stand in front of Charlie and Dennis next to Mac, and all of them are a bit surprised to realize that there’s a ceremony about to happen and an entire audience to observe it. Artemis keeps chewing, pleased and smug. Cricket starts talking.

He doesn’t overdo it, which is something Dennis can appreciate. He doesn’t bore the guests with meaningless clichés. He assumes that everyone present knows what’s going on and who’s getting married, so there’s a flippant and sarcastic edge to his voice that only makes the whole thing more fitting and personal and genuine. He adds a dirty joke or two occasionally, prompting enthusiastic whoops from Frank and Bill Ponderosa. Bonnie Kelly, overwhelmed by the bittersweet pride a mother feels at her beloved child’s wedding, cries through the whole thing. Da’ Maniac, still uninvited, still there, also does. Old Black Man wipes away a tear or two occasionally. As for the others, Ben the Soldier keeps grinning and Mrs. Mac keeps snoring and Carmen and her family aren’t even there anymore, since they didn’t want to bring their kid to this place.

When it’s time for the vows, Charlie is the first to go, and he delivers his in the form of a little song he wrote. It’s really weird, and its grammar and rhyme structure are both atrocious, and by the time it’s over, Dee’s face is a blotchy mess of tears and cheap, clearly not water resistant eyeshadow. Then it’s her turn, and she immediately starts gagging as she begins her own speech, but Charlie just takes her hands and looks at her like she can do anything in the world and they finish their vows in the form of some sort of collaborative improvised def poetry.

It’s absolutely ridiculous.

“That is absolutely ridiculous,” Dennis croaks.

“Yeah,” says Mac, his voice also slightly cracking. “That’s so lame and definitely not the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

“You gotta admit, they do have style,” says Artemis. “This is probably the least boring wedding I’ve ever been to. I mean, all the blasphemy and the desecrating of the church and the assault and the attempted murder, and now this show? I’m living.”

Afterwards, Charlie and Dee finish up their vows and make everyone wildly uncomfortable by making out passionately for minutes on end, and then Cricket officially ends the ceremony by declaring them husband and wife. The audience cheers and Bonnie sobs loudly. Mac and Dennis take a look at the newlyweds and then at each other, their eyes reflecting the same question that neither of them really dares to put into words.

Even though the wedding ceremony may end with that, the party does not. The gang brings out a buffet table, one that severely lacks cheese – thanks to Charlie – but has an abundance of different kinds of alcoholic drinks and junk food. Artemis revs up her DJ equipment. Bill Ponderosa offers drugs to whoever that is interested.

When Artemis gives him the opportunity by playing a relatively slower and quieter song, Dennis asks Dee for a dance. Dee makes a suspicious grimace, but says yes anyway. They sway around in an unconscious and perfectly aligned rhythm, in synch with their blood and bones and muscles that are made of the exact same material.

“I always knew you’d have to settle eventually, but I never expected you to stoop so low,” Dennis tells her. His voice isn’t malicious; it’s weightless and measured, like he’s following a script pre-written for him by himself. “I mean, Charlie? That kid can’t read or write and kills rats for a living. When he’s not too busy crawling around in squalor with our dad who’s not really our dad but, as a matter of fact, his dad.”

Dee just gives him a self-assured smile. “You know what, Dennis? I don’t give a shit. I know you’re trying to ruin this moment for me, like the pathetic loser you are, but I genuinely do not give a damn. I know what I want and I know what I’m doing and once in my life, I’m actually truly happy about it.”

Dennis doesn’t argue any further, just sways silently. He follows Dee’s gaze, shamelessly obvious and oddly tender, and notices Charlie and Mac not far away from them, standing by the edge of the ad hoc dance floor and attempting to request a song from DJ Artemis.

“And then the dude goes, like, ohhhh yeeeaaahh? In a really deep voice?” says Charlie.

“It’s the song that was in the movie that’s just like that one time me and Charlie got office jobs, and Charlie went crazy and burned all the mail, and I got several consecutive panic attacks,” Mac explains.

Artemis stares at them, one of her carefully sculpted eyebrows raised high. “I honestly wish I was also doing that thing you guys are on right now,” she says.

“If you don’t have it, something from The Nightman Cometh would be pretty cool too,” yields Charlie.

“Original cast recording,” Mac clarifies, as if they have ever done more than one performance of The Nightman Cometh.

“I’ll see what I can do,” says Artemis.

At this point, Dennis realizes that Dee stopped looking at the scene and started looking at him with a knowing and sly expression on her face, so he turns his gaze to all the other people dancing around them instead. He notices Mrs. Mac and Bonnie doing something that resembles a synchronized choreography, but it might as well be Mrs. Mac having a seizure and Bonnie copying her movements and incorporating them into a dance routine. It’s rather fascinating, to say the least.

When Dennis glances back to his dance partner, she’s got her eyes on her brand new husband once again. Her expression suggests that she barely has any idea about anything else going on at the moment.

“What do you think our high school selves would have said?” Dennis asks her. “If someone had told us who we’d eventually end up with?”

She lets out a dry laugh. “I probably would have killed him,” she answers candidly. “For real. If you’d told me I’d end up getting married to Dirt Grub one day, I would have taken him out before it’s too late. As a favor for future me, to save myself from the embarrassment.”

“You’re embarrassed?”

“No, not anymore. But we were all pretty fucking dumb as teenagers. What about you?”

Dennis frowns, “Am I embarrassed?”

“No, dipshit. How would your high school self have reacted to your epic romance with Ronnie the Rat?”

Well, Teenage Dennis was indeed pretty fucking dumb. Or maybe messed up would be a more accurate phrase. It doesn’t matter, though, as that one particular Past Dennis is dead by now.

“Also with murder, probably,” Dennis says simply, because it’s easier than to say that in some tiny and remote and miserable part of him, in some corner of his soul that is desperately lonely and just barely discovered friendship, hearing a prediction like that would have kindled something akin to hope, and that would have terrified him enough to do something irrevocably stupid.

Dennis and Dee sway around for the remainder of the track in a quiet and pleasant manner, and then the Dayman song starts playing and Dennis uses the fitting opportunity to go and dance with Charlie instead.

They don’t talk throughout the duration of the song, since it still is and will always be an absolute banger that should be fully appreciated, but when the next one begins, Dennis says, “I can’t believe you ended up like this.”

Charlie says, “Well.”

“You know, I’m an excellent wingman,” Dennis continues. “I could have hooked you up with literally anyone you wanted to. Instead, you pick Dee. You decide to get tied down to a crazy person.”

Charlie gives him a pensive look, and once again, that strange adultness appears on his face. “Dennis,” he says, “you know that she’s still going to be your twin sister, right? And I’m still going to be your friend. Just like you and Mac are still going to be our friends.”

That response seems so unrelated to what he said that Dennis just stares at him, utterly speechless.

“Sometimes you just gotta let change happen, dude,” Charlie adds. “It’s not always, like, a bad thing, or anything extreme. Sometimes change just means that we’re gradually moving forward.”

Dennis gapes. That is not something Charlie should say or see or understand. That is not something anyone ever should confront Dennis with. It leaves him with a restless buzzing under his skin and a terrible feeling of rightness vibrating inside his chest.

The moment is gone in a second, however, when Dee and Frank – who apparently also had a dance together – show up and immediately latch onto Charlie. Dennis notes Dee’s hand in Charlie’s and their fingers interlocking with each other, and, oddly enough, feels unfazed by it; he’s almost at peace with it, even. He quietly wonders about that for a second or two.

Then Mac joins their circle as well and asks him for a dance and Dennis stops thinking about Charlie and Dee altogether.

xxxii.

After their wedding, Charlie and Dee promptly fuck off and go on a honeymoon to that old ski resort they all used to go to, the one Frank bought a few years back to profit off of it or exploit the natural resources of the mountain or whatever it is that he does. It’s a pretty smart choice for all of them, really. Dee is happy about it because she’s always loved the place, and Charlie’s happy about it because new places make him nervous and this one he already knows, and Frank’s happy about it because sending them to a holiday resort he already owns is a very decent yet exceptionally cheap solution to the problem.

It’s just for a single week, but it seems a lot longer than that for Dennis who cannot wait for it to be finally over, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s just weird and uncomfortable when the gang misses some members for an extended period of time; things never seem to work the way they’re supposed to. Secondly, Frank invites a lot of creepy friends of his to the bar in Charlie’s absence, ignoring all of Mac and Dennis’ protests and bringing all his shady shit to their goddamn workplace. Thirdly, Dennis can’t stop thinking about his argument with Mac after Charlie and Dee’s engagement and Mac’s promise to give the issue another shot after the wedding, and there’s something he really, really needs to get from Dee for that.

So when the newlyweds get back, he makes a visit to Dee’s place. Although it’s still Dee’s place officially, Charlie’s also there more often than not, therefore Dennis makes sure to do it at a time when Charlie is out with Mac and Frank, doing whatever weird shit those three get up to.

He raps on the door forcefully and relentlessly until Dee opens it, wearing an annoyed scowl and a bathrobe and some sort of cloggy face mask that gives her the distinct smell and appearance of a swamp monster.

Jesus,” Dennis says, in lieu of greeting.

“Just tell me what you want or get the fuck away from my apartment,” Dee replies, in lieu of greeting.

Dennis frowns. “No need to be a dick about it. I’m here because you have something that belongs to me.”

Dee narrows her eyes, which causes her swamp monster look to shift into something more turtle-esque. She asks, “Are you accusing me of something?”

“It’s not an accusation if it’s the truth. When I moved in here, I brought it with me. When I moved out, I didn’t have it anymore. Conclusion: you have it and it’s time for you to give it back.”

“I don’t even know what you’re accusing me of stealing.”

Dennis studies her face for a moment or two. She genuinely looks more confused and irritated than guilty, and she’s always been a terrible liar, so he decides to help her out with a hint.

“I’m talking about a jewelry box. A jewelry box I stole from Mom.”

Dee presses her eyes shut so hard her whole face and face mask wrinkles. In a low and strained voice, she asks, “And why do you have such an urgent need for that stupid goddamn box that you come right to my home, right now, in the middle of my special alone time, to pester me about it?”

Dennis decides not to make a crude and obvious joke about her special alone time and instead he says, “I don’t need the whole thing, I just need a ring from it.”

Dee eyes’ immediately fly open. “Holy shit,” she hisses. “Holy shit, tell me you’re not –”

“I am.”

She grips the side of the door harder and leans further out from the doorframe. “And with Mom’s ring? Are you seriously going to propose to him with a ring you stole from your dead mother who he had sex with?”

Nonchalantly, Dennis says, “We’ve all banged people we shouldn’t have banged.”

“But it’s Mom –”

“And I did love her, you know. Maybe it’s hard for you to comprehend, you stone-cold heartless bitch, but all the expensive shit we stole from her actually has sentimental value for me.”

“Jesus Christ, Dennis –”

“And why would I even take relationship advice from you of all people?” Dennis asks, his gradually sharpening voice downright cutting by this point. “You’re married to the stupidest man alive.”

Demonstrating her brilliant comeback skills, Dee says, “You’re married to the stupidest man alive.”

Dennis says, “Not yet.”

Dee blinks at him, then snorts a loud, surprised snort. With something that is almost a smile on her lips, she tells him, “Alright, asshole. I’ll get your box in a sec.”

She doesn’t invite Dennis in, just shuts the door in his face and disappears. Dennis tries the lock, then stares at the door suspiciously; it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for her to just leave him hanging out there and go back to her weird swamp skincare routine. She does return, though, in a few minutes and sporting the exact same horrifying outfit.

She has the jewelry box with her, but as Dennis reaches out to take it, she pulls it closer to herself hesitantly.

“She never really loved you, you know that, right?” she asks. Her voice isn’t malicious or mocking, just quiet with a certain straightforward seriousness. “She loved you like a new designer bag or a prize-winning dog. She never loved you like a son.”

“She still loved me more than she loved you, or Frank loved either of us,” Dennis replies matter-of-factly.

Dee lets out a defeated sigh. Her fingers seem to loosen on the box for a second, but when Dennis reaches out once more, she pulls it back again.

“Are you sure about this? On the long run?” she asks. “Are you sure that this is what you want, and not just you being the petty and competitive bitch you are?”

Oh, Dennis is pretty fucking certain.

He might have a tendency to go from intense manic obsession to complete apathy, he’s capable of admitting that; this, however, has nothing to do with his emotional volatility. His love for Mac, it’s not something he feels but something he is; it’s a part of him, vital and deep and constant in the same way that Mac’s love for him is endless. Even when it’s invisible, or disguised as mere familiarity or dependence or control, it’s still there, and it will always be there, and sometimes it’s the only thing that makes him feel warm, that makes him feel alive.

He can’t admit all that to Dee, though, but he can’t conceal it with a lie either, so he just grabs the box, yanks it out from her hands, and with a smirk that is just a bit too soft and a bit too meaningful, he says, “You’re the petty and competitive bitch.”

o.

“I genuinely do want the best for you, Dennis. And your son, too. He’d want you to be happy.”

xxxiii.

It’s a mind-numbingly boring afternoon, one where there isn’t a single costumer to deal with or a single person to gang up on or a single scheme to do to ease its monotony. Mac and Dee are out at the gym or doing something equally dumb and inconveniencing together, which makes Paddy’s considerably quieter. Charlie’s there, though, sitting behind the bar and drawing something into his notebook with his brows drawn together and his lips puckered in concentration. Dennis might even be interested in watching him do his thing, since he’s always been rather fascinated by the guy’s unparalleled weirdness verging on boundless creativity, but Frank’s sitting right next to Charlie and that nasty old fuck is snorting his daily cocaine like nobody’s business and that, on the other hand, is something Dennis intends to stay away from. So he’s just laying around on one of the pool tables, looking tortured and melodramatic, feeling bored and irritated, and hoping for something to happen to put him out of his misery.

“Hey!” Frank calls out suddenly. “Hey, you! Uh, De…nnis?”

His uncertain pause makes it sound as if he forgot Dennis’ name for a second, which would be a pretty wild thing to assume from a man who they both believed to be his father for the first three decades of his life and who spent every day of the fourth one hanging out with him in this bar, if it wasn’t for the fact that it wouldn’t be the first time Frank does that.

Dennis wonders if he’s going to forget about Frank too one day. Maybe when he’s eighty years old, he’ll ask, ‘Wasn’t there some creepy old dude following us around all the time?’ and Charlie will say, ‘Yeah, dude, that was Frank,’ and Dennis will say, ‘And who the fuck are you, again?’

He wouldn’t forget Dee’s or Mac’s name, though. Would he?

He considers it briefly, and decides that maybe a world in which every day he asks Mac’s name and every day he gets to completely lose his shit over his sullen ‘Ronald McDonald’ like it’s the first time he hears it wouldn’t be the worst possible world to live in, after all.

“Dennis,” Frank repeats, this time with a lot more conviction. He seems almost proud that he guessed the name right.

“What?”

Dennis sits up on the pool table and eyes Frank suspiciously, who looks back at him with sly amusement. He has coke all over his face, because he can’t do anything without making a mess, apparently. Dennis grimaces with distaste.

“Did you know,” says Frank, “that your boy toy came up to me the other day to ask me for your hand in marriage?”

Dennis sits up very, very straight on the pool table.

“I did not,” he says, his voice tight and measured.

“He asked Deandra too, she told me,” Frank adds, in a tone that suggests it’s the most hilarious thing that happened to him all week. “You wanna hear what I think about it?”

“I absolutely do not,” says Dennis. Since this is the point where Frank would normally share his unwanted opinion irregardless of his answer, he also lies back down and closes his eyes in a firm and authoritative manner.

Frank shrugs, or at least that is what Dennis assumes he does based on his lack of response, and goes back to doing his thing.

Dennis doesn’t go back to doing his thing. He stares up at the ceiling and simultaneously obsesses over and tries really hard not to think about the thing Frank just said. It doesn’t feel right to find it out this way, and he hates Frank for telling him, and he hates Mac for asking Frank like some idiot, and he hates how he can’t even pretend nothing happened because a small, desperate, hungry part of him is already rejoicing somewhere in the corner of his soul.

He thinks about tux colors.

He can’t tell if it’s minutes or hours later when Mac and Dee get back from the gym; it feels like both, somehow. He’s acutely aware of the moment as it happens, however, and gets up instantly when the front door opens, spilling noise and heat and light from outside.

“Heyyooo,” hollers Dee.

“What’s up, sluts,” hollers Mac. Then he marches straight to Dennis, presses a quick kiss to his cheek and greets him with a separate little “Hey, Dennis,” thus unequivocally establishing him outside the category of sluts.

Dennis cuts to the chase. Flatly, he asks, “Is it true that you asked Frank’s and Dee’s permission to marry me?”

“Oh, God damn,” says Mac. “Who told you? Was it Dee?” Without waiting for any sort of confirmation, he turns towards the bar where Dee is standing, pressed up against Charlie and looking at his drawing from behind his shoulder with a warm smile lingering on her lips. “Dee, you goddamn bitch!”

Dee flips him off without looking up.

Dennis blinks at him. “You literally spent the whole afternoon with her. I was here with Frank the whole time.”

“Oh, right,” says Mac jovially. He doesn’t turn to yell at Frank. He looks pleased that the question was cleared up, and he doesn’t appear to be aware of the many, many other questions of much greater import demanding explanations.

Strained and as patient as he manages, Dennis says, “Would you care to explain why you’d want their permission in the first place?”

Mac leans leisurely against the pool table. “I didn’t ask for their permission, really. I asked Dee if she thought you’d still want to do it, now that there’s no bet anymore. Just to hear a second opinion, I guess. And I asked Frank to make sure he’s willing to pay for another wedding and another honeymoon, though that was kinda stupid in retrospect, since it’s not like he paid a lot for the previous ones and it’s time for that cheap bastard to contribute.”

Dennis is struck by a sudden, sharp desire to pay for the whole thing by himself: the ceremony, the decoration, the food, the cake, the suits, the flowers, the airplane tickets, the hotel room, everything. To give the best of everything to Mac and to himself from his own power and without having to argue and bargain over every detail with someone.

He’s gotta check his bank account but he’s not very hopeful.

“It’s also traditional, you know,” Mac continues. “Asking the relatives and all that shit. I wanted to do it properly. I talked to my mom, too. She was very supportive. She thinks we’re a good match.”

“She really said that?” asks Dennis skeptically. It’s kind of hard to believe that Mrs. Mac gives a shit about something, let alone supports it.

“Well, she implied it.”

Dennis raises an eyebrow.

Cheerfully, Mac explains, “She called you a little bitch. That’s what she calls me too, like, all the time. Therefore, she implied that we’re a good match.”

Dennis says, “How sweet.”

Mac, impervious to both sarcasm and common fucking sense, beams at him. “Right? It does feel great, to do this engagement thing properly. You know, I wanted to visit my dad too, tell him the good news. You should come with me!”

It’s a terrible, terrible idea.

Mac glows with excitement over it.

Dennis says, “Sure.”

xxxiv.

This is the first time Dennis has ever visited Mac’s dad in prison. He’s never really had any desire to do so; the brief encounters they had and all those letters Dennis read and destroyed made him positively convinced that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy.

His first impression of the place is that it looks terrible and that he never wants to go to prison in his life.

His first impression of Luther is that he must have recently been stabbed; he looks pale and strained and there’s an awkwardness in his posture that suggests he’s trying really hard to hide an injury. The stabbing is just a theory, of course, but with Dennis’ excellent deduction skills and everyone here wanting to murder Luther because of that stunt Mac pulled, it’s a very solid one.

“My dad looks really badass today,” Mac says as they sit down at the table.

On the other side of the glass, Luther looks less than happy to see them. Mac doesn’t seem to mind or even acknowledge his vacant stare and his irritated expression, though, and grins an excited “Hey, Dad!” at him.

Dennis is sitting close enough to hear Luther’s response across the phone.

“Son,” he notes blankly. Then he turns his gaze to Dennis, and with slightly narrowed eyes, he asks, “Wendell? Wendell Shorteyes? That you?”

Oh, Jesus Christ. Dennis is not ready to go through this shit again.

“No, Dad, this is my friend, Dennis. Remember?” Mac quickly corrects him, before Dennis has any time to protest.

Luther silently considers this for a moment or two, then says, “He looks like a little bitch.”

“That’s exactly what Mom said!” Mac tells him, utterly thrilled. “It’s like you two are still finishing each other’s sentences!”

Normally, Dennis would be offended by Luther’s remark or Mac’s failure to defend his honor, but the whole thing is so pathetic that the only thing he manages to get pissed off at is Mac’s persistent, stubborn, idiotic refusal to let go of the delusion that his parents care about him or each other. He wants to get out of the prison and never come back.

Meanwhile, Mac is still talking to his father. “Actually, there’s something I have to tell you about Dennis. Big news, really.” He looks at Dennis for a second, his eyes full of hope and warmth and meaning, then turns back to Luther and says, “He’s not just my friend. We are in love and we’re going to get married.”

Dennis can hear that Mac’s breath is quite literally bated as he waits for his father’s reaction, and a bitter, aimless and powerless type of anger starts to stir in the pit of his stomach, knowing full well how this is going to end for him.

Looking thoroughly unimpressed, Luther says, “So.”

Without losing an ounce of his buzzing excitement, Mac replies, “Well, I just wanted you to know, because that is how it’s supposed to be done, and also because it’s really important for me and I want you to be involved in my life.”

Luther says, “I don’t.”

“Do you think they’d let you out for the wedding?” Mac continues, unwaveringly enthusiastic and completely blind to his father’s coldness. “I think I heard they do that, sometimes. For special occasions. Should I write a request or something?”

Luther says, “I rather you didn’t.”

Mac furrows his brows. “How should we do it, then?”

Oh, that stupid fuck. Oh, that stupid, naïve, loving, endlessly loyal fuck.

Luther says, “Oh, we’re not doing it, son, in any way, at all. Even if it was possible, there’d be no way in hell I’d go, because I do not care.”

Before Mac can even respond to that with something indubitably pitifully heartbroken and/or delusional, Dennis yanks the phone from his hands. “Listen up, bitch,” he says, glaring at Luther through the dividing glass. He hears a horrified gasp from Mac next to him, but ignores it. “I get it, you’re still pissed because your son was an idiot and accidentally fucked you over. Well, guess what, asshole! That’s life! We fuck each other over, we get through it, we move on. Do you even realize how hard he’s trying? That’s the most idiotic thing, really. Wasting all that time and energy trying to help you, trying to impress you, trying to win your approval. Wasting all that stupid unconditional love on you. As if you deserve any of it! You’re going to spend the rest of your miserable life in prison, and he’s going to have an amazing life out there, and if you don’t want to be a part of that, then it’s your fucking loss, you stupid criminal piece of shit.”

Mac gapes at Dennis with an indescribable expression. Luther stares at him with his intense, ice-cold, unblinking gaze and a complete lack of emotions on his face. Then, flatly and calmly, he says, “Give the phone back to my son.”

Dennis doesn’t break the defiant eye contact, but, feeling low-key curious about where this is going, does as he was told. Mac takes the phone with an automatic motion, without looking away or changing his expression or saying anything.

Luther tells him, “He’s a keeper.”

Mac’s eyes go even wider, and then, slowly and belatedly, an enormous smile begins to spread on his face. He looks at his father like a child who was just informed he’s being taken to Disney World. “So you like him!” he says, full of glee and pride.

“I’m still not going to the wedding,” says Luther with the same neutral tone he used before.

Mac’s delight is unfazed. “That’s okay, Dad, I understand. It’s too dangerous, with all your enemies wanting to murder you and everything. You’re just trying to protect us all.”

Dennis closes his eyes in exasperation.

xxxv.

Mac spends the entire way back to the bar gushing about his father. Dennis does both of them a favor and, to avoid getting really worked up over it again, allows himself to zone to fuck out all through it.

He thinks about Carmen and her son showing up to Dee’s wedding, and he thinks about inviting Mandy and Brian to his, and he thinks about the likelihood of Mandy agreeing to come. It’s not impossible, he figures. It’s not impossible at all.

They’re already in the alley behind Paddy’s when Mac finally concludes his goddamn fucking monologue and says, “So, now that we’ve talked to my Dad, I guess there’s nothing else standing in our way. I’m gonna go and get you a ring and –”

Dennis stops dead in his tracks, his mind abruptly pulled back to the present. Without a second of hesitation, without a single word, he drops down on one knee right there in the alley, which, honestly, is quite painful and not very hygienic and probably something he should stop doing at age of forty, but all of that is completely irrelevant in the sharp vastness of the moment.

Pulling out the ring he’s been constantly keeping in his back pocket for the past week or so, he says, “You’re too late, bitch.”

Despite everything, Mac looks honest-to-God gobsmacked. With a voice that is high-pitched from surprise and wonder, he asks, “You bought me a ring already?”

“Bought? Not exactly. It’s, uh, it’s from my mother. I stole it because it has sentimental value for me.”

“What, from her grave?” Mac scrunches up his nose. “That’s really gross, dude. That’s way worse than the sewers.”

Dennis closes his eyes. He will not allow this to be ruined, either by Mac or himself. He will keep the situation under control, and it will be perfect, and it will be the beginning of something amazing. Calmly, he says, “No, asshole, I stole it when she was still alive. Now, do you want to hear my speech or not?”

“Your speech?”

“There’s no proposal without a speech, Mac. At least one of us should do this shit right.”

A grin breaks across Mac’s face, easy and excited. “Sure. Lay it on me.”

Dennis clears his throat.

Mac smiles wider, expectantly.

Dennis says, “Mac.”

Mac says, “Yeah?”

“You –”

Dennis closes his eyes again. He inhales, exhales, inhales, exhales. These words aren’t going to suffocate him; they’re going to allow him to breathe free. He looks up with a new determination.

“You probably have no idea how much I owe you. Mostly because I prefer not to show it, I suppose. But I do. Nobody has ever cared about me like you do, so much and for so long. And despite how shit you are at karate and providing security and all those weird obsessions of yours, I always feel safe when I’m with you.”

“That’s because I’m actually really good at all those things and I’m ready to protect you from any potential danger,” Mac interjects. “I just saved your life last week, dude.”

“Oh, you mean that time when Charlie was playing around with my laser pointer and you screamed ‘Sniper!’ and tackled me to the ground?”

“I couldn’t have possibly known it was Charlie. I just followed my instincts and my training. Had it been a real sniper, you’d have died if it wasn’t for me.”

“You almost broke my nose,” Dennis reminds him. He suddenly becomes aware of how fond his snide remarks sound beneath all the sarcasm, and that annoys him almost as much as the distraction does. “Can I go on, now? Can we just get through this proposal without you complaining every time you don’t like something about it?”

Eager and honest as always, Mac says, “I can’t wait for you to go on, Dennis.”

Dennis goes on.

“Like I said before I was so rudely interrupted, you care about me more than anyone ever has, and you make me feel safe, and you’re… you’re the only person who’s ever felt like home.” He tries really hard to stop his voice from cracking but it does anyway. “So I need you, and I need you to know that there’s no one else I’d ever want to be with, and I need you to promise you’ll always stay by my side, and I need to know that even though it’s probably impossible to repay everything I owe you, I’ll still have a lifetime to try.”

He looks up at Mac, frozen and breathless as every fiber of his being is tense and raw with the anticipation of his response. Maybe it’s stupid, being so nervous about it despite already having agreed to get married, but the truth is that what they have right now between the two of them was never really inevitable. It might be the only possible happy ending for them – it definitely is the only possible happy ending for Dennis – but it was never inevitable; it’s a product of a lot of hard work and effort and growing and carefulness and recklessness and courage and luck, and it’s terrifying to imagine what could have gone wrong and what could go wrong still.

After several crawling seconds of this loaded silence, he says, “Aren’t you gonna answer?”

Mac says, “You didn’t ask the question.”

Dennis says, “If you’re not telling me immediately whether or not you’ll marry me, I swear to God I’ll punch you in the dick.”

He’s just in the right position to do so. Mac is completely unfazed by his threat, however. “Well, first of all, you wouldn’t stand a chance attacking me, because I’m an excellent martial artist with cat-like reflexes. Secondly, the answer is pretty obvious, dude. We literally just agreed to get officially engaged and it’s, like, the only thing I’ve ever wanted from life and more.”

He beams at Dennis, warm and radiant and like Dennis is the only thing worth smiling at, and Dennis stares at him, forgetting what he’s supposed to do next. Then Mac takes his hands and pulls him up, and he asks him, “So you will?”

Mac laughs. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Of course, Dennis.”

He kisses Dennis after that, not as an emphasis or a reassurance, but as an uncontainable outburst of joy. Dennis thinks about the feeling of the ring between their hands that are still clasped together, round like stability and solid like a promise and metallic cold like an anchor, and then he thinks about Mac’s mouth and the words that just left it, and then he thinks about nothing, nothing, nothing at all.

xxxvi.

When they finally walk into Paddy’s a bit later – a lot later, actually – Dennis turns to Dee behind a bar and, flashing a smug and content smirk at her, he says, “Get me a beer, sis.” Then he shares a look with Mac, allows himself to silently savor the next words for a second or two, their shape and their taste and their weight, and adds, “And a beer for my fiancé, too.”