Dan liked Las Vegas. He liked the swirling crowds, he liked the women dressed to the nines, the constant glitter of excitement. He loved the pure, unmatched satisfaction of sitting at a game of poker among the highly skilled and immensely talented regardless of whether he won or lost, although if pressed he would have had to admit that he preferred winning.
So when he got off the plane at McCarran, he was already feeling as airy and expansive as the bubbles frothing up in a flute of champagne. He had a suit carefully rolled in his luggage and a song in his heart. What more could a city boy need?
And then he saw Casey. A pillar of salt in the middle of a sea of unfamiliar, unremarkable faces. Dan felt his smile getting wider.
“Hey,” said Casey, pulling Dan into a hug. His low, rumbling voice was exactly the same as it had always been, and different than it was over the phone.
“Good to see you, man!” Dan slapped his back. “So where are we staying?”
Casey reached out in a silent offer to help with Dan’s bag; Dan waved it away. “That new one.”
“Which new one? They just keep building them.”
“Yeah, well,” said Casey, which wasn’t an answer, but then Casey said, “So how’s the show going?” and Dan forgot to press him. They’d had a ridiculous day, with J.J. tripping over his own feet and busting open his lip, and Dan could still crack himself up just talking about it.
Casey nodded along to the story, sometimes a beat too late, as they made their way to the taxi stand. Dan chucked his bag into the trunk while Casey slid into the back seat. The voice in the back of Dan’s head that usually told him to worry, worry, worry about anything out of the ordinary in their interactions was quieter than it had ever been. He thought it was probably the Prozac. There was a pill bottle tucked in his bag, rolled up with his shaving kit, a little amber plastic cylinder that somehow contained his best shot at happiness.
Think of it this way, Dan, his new therapist had said. You’ve got a biochemical disorder. If it were diabetes, would you think less of yourself for needing insulin?
…no, he’d said.
So why is it different when it’s a neurotransmitter that’s out of whack? Why do you expect yourself to be able to heal your brain by thinking real hard about it?
And the argument made too much sense to refute. So here he was, relaxing, despite Casey in the taxi next to him stiff as a board.
“How’s Dana?” he asked Casey, for lack of anything better to say.
“She’s good. She’s still seeing that guy.”
“You know, Jack. The executive.” Casey had a way of saying executive as though it were a pejorative, but he sounded less scathing than usual.
“Oh, yeah. The executive Jack.”
“See,” said Casey earnestly, “when you say it like that,” and Dan mouthed along to the rest with him: “it sounds like the executive Jack is a category of Jacks—” and Dan lost the lip sync as Casey realized what he was doing. “Hey!”
Dan cracked up, and Casey only pouted for a second before laughing along with him.
“I need to spice up my writing,” said Casey ruefully.
“Your writing is fine, it’s your rants that are entirely too predictable.”
“I can’t help it if people keep committing the same linguistic faux pas!” Instead of foh pah Casey pronounced it foh pahz.
“Is that the plural of faux pas? It’s not faux pas-es?”
“No, nor faux passes,” said Casey, and smirked.
“Tell that to the wide receiver.” Dan knew it was only partially sensical, but Casey laughed anyway.
It felt good to make Casey laugh again.
They chatted in the same vein as the taxi crawled down the Strip, unbelievably slowly. “Damn,” said Dan, squinting out the window. “They keep changing things, don’t they?”
“Mostly building.” Casey tipped his chin down to his chest, considering the view. “Bunch of new places just in the last couple of years.”
“And tearing down the old. No respect for the venerable institutions. Everybody wants to have the newest, the best, the shiniest. Where, I ask you, is the spirit of the Vegas of old? The smoke-filled corners, the harsh-voiced crooners, your friendly neighborhood Mafia goon in a suit, all lost to the shifting sands of time. It’s all plastic now, identical cookie-cutter facades with the same tepid marks of so-called luxury, soulless without even the animating qualities of the original neon signs."
He paused. Normally Casey would have broken into his monologue sooner to play devil’s advocate, but instead, Casey was still staring out the window, drumming his fingers against the door handle.
“Am I boring you?” he asked, lightly, only half-joking.
Casey started. “No. Just—thinking.”
“Vegas is no place for that kind of talk.”
“Danny,” said Casey, much too seriously, “do you like Las Vegas?”
“Do you like Las Vegas?” Casey repeated, oddly quiet and inflectionless.
“Do I—of course I like Las Vegas. I love Vegas! It’s like Atlantic City writ large, and you know I love that squalid hellhole.”
Casey laughed, but he seemed almost startled. “Okay. Good. What were you saying?”
“That the Strip is becoming a soulless shell of its former self.”
“Are you bitching because nobody does the old neon signs again?”
Casey rolled his eyes, and things were closer to normal.
As soon as the New York, New York casino was visible, Casey started glancing at it, quickly and almost guiltily. “Oh, come on,” said Dan. “Come on.” But sure enough, that was where the taxi turned in to drop them off.
“It’s a new build!” said Casey defensively as Dan laughed at the Statue of Liberty replica. “It has amenities! Come on, they were having a deal, it made financial sense.”
Casey pointedly ignored him, in high dudgeon, all through checking in. Dan looked around, unashamedly soaking in the ridiculous ambiance.
When they had the keys in hand, they made their way up to the suite. They stayed in hotels all the time, thanks to their job, so Dan didn’t bother wasting much thought on what the room would be like until they walked in.
There was a hot tub. Dan laughed out loud, surprised and delighted, and gave Casey a little crap about it. Casey got huffy and pretended to start sorting through his bag, and Dan took himself into the bathroom to shave and freshen up.
It was like what they’d always done, and yet not like; it was like being on assignment together, but different. They’d taken the odd night off to visit Atlantic City, but they’d almost never gone on a vacation together. Casey tended to use his vacation time to spend time with Charlie, when he took it at all.
They’d been in dozens of hotels rooms together over the years. Dan knew how Casey rolled his socks to pack them. Casey knew, and vehemently disapproved of, how Dan refused to use the hangers in the closet for anything other than dress clothes, because no one was going to care if his t-shirts were wrinkly. This wasn’t like their regular routine, without the pressure of being on deadline, having a game or an interview to get to.
It was almost like—and Dan cut that thought off ruthlessly with the ease of long practice, because it was an old thought, and one in which he was not going to let himself get trapped. Casey wouldn’t think twice about sharing a hotel room because it would never occur to him that someone less familiar with him, with them, might interpret that in a certain light, might see it as an opportunity of sorts.
An opportunity that Dan, of all people, would not have kicked out of bed, as it were. Casey looked more careworn than he had before. Older, in ways difficult to define. But Dan thought it suited him; he had always seemed like a high school quarterback, a golden boy full of bluster and self-importance. Casey was acquiring a new level of dignity, like a prince growing into a king.
Dan shook his head at himself in the mirror and briskly swished his razor through the water in the sink, spreading the foam of his shaving cream in intricate, breaking patterns.
Casey had always been handsome, and he’d always known it, and if you asked Dan, that was half of his problem.
Since Casey was Casey, he had arranged their schedule such that there wasn’t time for Dan to get started on any serious and ill-advised gambling before they were due at the Snake Eyes Steakhouse for dinner. Dan loved Snake Eyes. The steak was usually good, and it was the first really nice joint he’d ever been to in Vegas, years before as a fledgling anchor. He loved the lush velvet curtains draped everywhere, the ancient carved wooden booths, and being somewhere you’d see in the movies, and he honestly couldn’t tell whether Casey knew any of that or had gone with someplace that had “Steakhouse” in the name. Maybe he’d gotten a recommendation from Isaac, or read a review.
Casey kept looking at Dan and then away, like he needed to check on him, make sure Dan was still there.
“You going to be up for hitting the floor later?” asked Dan as they waited for their steaks.
“Yeah, definitely,” said Casey. “Got the show first, though.”
“And then we’ll drink like kings, among the table games and the hordes of loudly chiming slot machines, as circulating waitresses in skimpy outfits bring us free drinks?”
“Sure.” There was just a ghost of Casey’s usual smile.
Dan wondered, not for the first time, what had driven Casey to suggest this vacation, but that thought came with an unpleasant spike of icy fear and guilt in the pit of his stomach (something wrong? a medical condition? cancer?), so he pushed it down.
They ate their steaks in peaceful, contemplative silence, and Dan could feel the warmth of the Cabernet Sauvignon (a respectable vintage) percolating through him. That made it easier, when they finished eating, to talk—about nothing in particular, nothing that might be dangerous.
But of course Casey had never been able to resist the allure of getting dramatic over a glass or four of wine.
“You’ve been very good,” said Casey, forehead wrinkled with grim thought.
“What, on the show?”
“Yeah.” Casey wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at his glass of wine like he expected to see a vision in its depths, a crystal ball for the modern man.
“You’ve been watching?” Dan hadn’t expected him to. He knew it was a sore spot; he could tell, okay, he wasn’t completely insensitive to Casey’s evident abandonment issues, and he hadn’t thought Casey would probe the wound like that.
Casey was, apparently, watching it when he couldn’t sleep. “You’ve been doing some of your best work,” said Casey, and how peculiar it was to get that kind of compliment from Casey, and how even more peculiar when Casey said, with a dour set to his mouth, “When I said you could do it without me, I didn’t realize you’d do it better without me.”
Which set off something in Dan’s brain, like a miniature implosion. He found himself saying, “Whoa,” a remonstrance of sorts, while he tried to organize how he felt about that: about the tone of blame, the bitter subtext, mingled with the explicit praise.
Casey put a hand over his face. “Sorry. Seeing a therapist is—”
“It does a number on you,” said Dan, mouth still running on autopilot. He said some other meaningless comforting things, and was deeply relieved when they had to leave for the show, each throwing down bills for their share.
In the cab on the way to the show, he kept thinking, what was that supposed to mean? It seemed too much to mean what it sounded like—that Casey thought he’d been holding Dan back somehow. He hadn’t, that was absurd. Dan had been holding himself back, if anything, letting himself sink into the tar of depression until he couldn’t think, couldn’t write, couldn’t do the one thing he’d always enjoyed and been good at. He’d been on a downward slide for a while before the move, and maybe recovering from that was what looked, from the outside, like an improvement sans Casey.
He wanted to figure out a way to say that. He couldn’t.
Casey, on his side of the seat, was quiet, too.
When they got to Treasure Island, they had to find the theater—navigating through the crush of people, wearing anything from jeans and sweats to tuxedos and ballgowns—and then get to their seats, Casey pausing to ponder whether they needed popcorn or a beverage from the concessions. After an irritatingly long pause he must have decided they didn’t.
They settled into their seats, trying to fold their respectively too-long-for-this legs into less uncomfortable contortions. Watching Casey hunt for somewhere to put his elbows was always good for a laugh.
The lights went down; the drums came up; the performers started performing. Dan had heard good things about the Cirque du Soleil from his artsy friends. He enjoyed it. It had the same zany quality as any circus should, refracted through a high-brow lens, and the acrobatics were high-level, although constrained by the necessary limitations of show biz.
He spotted at least two former Olympians among the performers. They couldn’t push themselves to their absolute limits, the way gymnasts would in competition, because there was no reward for excess risk. Their routines here needed to contain only what they could reliably hit every time. So on the rings, the gymnasts bent their arms. The strength poses weren’t always held for the full two seconds they would have been in competition, the high-demand elements were separated by more time to allow the gymnasts to recover, and there were a lot of graceful but not strenuous bits where they waved their hands around or pointed their feet.
Casey, beside him, was riveted. Dan snuck a few glances at him, and every time Casey’s eyes were locked on the performance. Even between the acrobatic acts, when there was a comedian wandering the stage and its environs, Casey watched intently. Dan could probably have done the can-can without getting more than a vague shush.
There was one bit that was unexpectedly challenging. Dan had watched enough sports in his life to suppress a sexual reaction to even the most homoerotic of situations—well, at least mostly—but when a fair-haired and a darker-haired pair of acrobats came out and did a routine that involved a whole series of strength poses that were disconcertingly intimate, he found himself grateful that Casey was watching them, instead of him.
And Casey was watching them, wasn’t he, with that same fixed concentration, the piercing stare Dan was used to seeing aimed at a fourth-quarter turnaround.
The acrobats’ arms trembled, just perceptibly, with the strain of the poses. From his seat, Dan couldn’t see for sure how much they were touching, or when. They were totally focused on each other, and they moved with the harmony of long practice.
One of them twitched briefly, like he might lose his grip on the other’s arm where it supported him. Casey inhaled sharply.
But in the end, there were no accidents, no falls; everything moved on smoothly. A man did a routine with a spinning open cube of metal that glinted in the light, reflecting the wilderness of colors around him, with a stunning aerial conclusion. Casey seemed equally riveted by the tumbling and by the section that was clearly inspired by the high bars.
Finally, the performers took their extended bow, the lights came up, and Dan followed Casey as they shuffled out of the theater. Casey had a dreamy, far-away look on his face that Dan didn’t see often. Hadn’t seen since the time Casey and Lisa had consumed edibles, on a date night that went bad, and that led to Casey turning up on Dan’s doorstep at two a.m.
“Want to get a drink?” said Casey, and Dan, despite a very real desire to go find a game of roulette to join, had to admit that a drink sounded good.
They made it back to their hotel, and to a round hotel bar that sat smugly in the middle of the casino floor—Dan thought he could make the transition pretty easily whenever Casey got tired of staring moodily at his bourbon. It was a rather nice bourbon, which Dan ought to know, seeing as how he’d ordered and paid for them. Casey had bought the show tickets, without consulting Dan, which was yet another of the many small things Casey had a habit of doing that had so badly confused and tormented Dan for the first few years of their acquaintance. Date-ish things. Things a date might do, and that Casey had never meant that way.
He’d gotten used to Casey, he thought. Probably. It was the time apart that had left him looking at Casey like he was somebody else, all over again. He’d reacclimate.
“How’s Charlie?” Dan shifted on his bar stool.
“He’s good, he’s great. You know he’s getting into acting?”
“What? No, I did not know that.”
A slot machine somewhere nearby paid out, loud clinking and rattling and musical noise. “He was wanting to audition for this play at school, and he tried out, and I guess he got Puck.”
“Puck! In Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
“Yeah.” Casey smiled benevolently into the distance.
“That’s the best part!”
“That’s what I thought, but I do appreciate hearing it from an outside source.” Casey threw him a sidelong grin, slow and lazy. Dan had to look back up at the glass shelves and their display of liquors in a hurry.
“I’m not surprised, naturally. Charlie’s a talented little guy.”
“He has many talents, although none of them are in the arena of sports.”
“Pshaw.” Dan waved that away. “Who cares about sports? You think your kid was ever going to go pro at a sport? Nah, he’s too genetically handicapped by being related to such a huge dork. Theater is a way better place for him.”
Casey smacked him lightly on the back of the head. “Big words from a man who never played at the college level!”
“I never pretended I had a shot! I’m lucky I made it past Little League.”
“You’re lucky you made it past T-ball.”
“Besides, theater is a perfectly respectable talent.”
“Is it? I swear there’s some kind of tradition about it being for outlaws and vagabonds—”
“You’re just being a dick because you know I was in summer stock—”
“You were in summer stock once, as a nonspeaking extra—”
“I had a line!” Dan was laughing, almost snorting on a sip of his bourbon. “Oh, man. You’re going to end up with a theater nerd.”
Casey straightened his spine. “What? It’s only one play.”
“That’s how these things start,” said Dan, and went on with a comparison to drug dealers that left Casey laughing against his will.
But when he stopped laughing, Casey’s face transformed again, chillingly somber as he stared down into his glass. (Probably a brain tumor, Dan’s own brain unhelpfully and fatalistically supplied. Why else? What reason for this trip, for complimenting you, paying for everything, trying to make amends?)
“My therapist says I should be honest, when I don’t know what to say,” Casey said haltingly, not looking at him. “She says I should tell the truth.”
Oh, God, no, thought Dan. He looked down and said out loud, “Interesting theory. What is it you feel compelled to tell me the truth about?”
“I’ve really fucking missed you,” said Casey.
It wasn’t what Dan had expected; he glanced up and found Casey staring at him, into him, eyes burning like hot coals, and if Dan hadn’t known—if he hadn’t known, from years of thinking the wrong things, wanting to believe the wrong things, he might have sworn that in that moment Casey was staring through him to the things Dan had always wanted to say, do, feel, touch.
He was so sure, for that split second, so disoriented but so sure, that he opened his mouth to say something, he wasn’t even sure what. I love you or I’ll come back. A promise or a confession, or both.
“Hey,” said a woman’s voice just behind him. He turned, not sure whether to be relieved or irritated at the interruption. She was a knockout, drop-dead gorgeous with a mane of perfectly blow-dried platinum blonde hair, falling over one eye like Veronica Lake. “Aren’t you Dan Rydell?”
Dan smiled at her, conscious of the gesture, knowing it would only barely reach his eyes. “I am indeed. And you are?”
“I’m Laura, and,” she gestured at a redhead standing behind her looking vaguely scandalized, “this is Jennifer. We’re from California, we’re at UCSF.”
“Oh, that’s impressive! What do you study? Or do you teach?” Dan waved her to the bar stool next to him, and she perched on it, giving him a surprisingly sweet smile; from the hair and the blood-red lips, he’d thought she’d be harder, more of a vamp. He could work with that, but it wasn’t his favorite. He didn’t like feeling artificial when he was with a woman.
“Astronomy grad students,” she said. “Not to be confused with astrology.”
“You won’t read the stars for me?”
“Only if you want to hear what they have to say about background cosmic radiation.”
He laughed, and she grinned shyly at him, and he thought, this could work. It wasn’t a bad feeling. Her friend Jennifer was sitting next to Casey, now, starting to chat with him in a desultory way he could already tell wasn’t suggestive of a big sports fan.
“I really love your show,” Laura said. “I watch it all the time.”
“Yeah.” She laughed a little. “I know it’s not the biggest sport in the world right now, but hockey has my heart.”
“An astronomer and a hockey fan. You’re the complete package, aren’t you?”
Behind him, he could hear Casey and Jennifer exchanging pleasantries about the Las Vegas weather.
“You could find out,” said Jennifer, and put her hand to her mouth, not quite touching her lipstick. “Oh, never mind. That was so awkward!”
“Hey, I appreciate it when the lines are used on me rather than the other way around. I’m a modern kind of guy, you know.”
“Are you that funny in real life, or do you have someone write bits for you about dealing with women in bars?”
“Trust me, no writer could be fully prepared for the range of situations I have encountered in dealing with women in bars.”
She laughed musically. Her dress, he thought, was probably Versace, from how tight and sleek and shiny it was, a few rows of sequins rippling across her breasts. She was beautiful and she knew it, and presumably she knew what she wanted from him. “Tell me about the funniest one.”
“There is no funniest one. There was a woman who wanted me to be a godfather to her Great Dane, which was memorable.”
He ended up following her to her room. When he said goodnight to Casey, Casey gave him unmistakable kicked-dog eyes, but waved him on graciously enough.
He kissed Laura in the empty elevator, because it was Vegas and that was the kind of thing you did in Vegas, and because he was desperately angry with himself for nearly blurting out something stupid to Casey, for letting one fraught moment get the better of years of training himself to be a good friend. If Casey had wanted to say something, he would have said something. There was no reason not to; he had to know about Dan, after all the hints and all the years.
Laura kissed back. She was a biter, it turned out. Once they got into her room the dress came off, and under it she was wearing barely-there lace underthings that seemed almost superfluous. He sat on the edge of her bed and she came to sit in his lap, kneeling over him. She had small breasts, but lovely, and he cupped them in his hands, feeling the warmth through the fine black lace.
“Oh,” she breathed as he rolled his thumbs across her nipples. “Oh, yeah, please,” so he bent his head and kissed them, toyed with them, slowly and luxuriously, and let one hand slide down her stomach to the waistband of her panties. He paused there—she lifted her hips a little in encouragement—and he dipped his thumb under her panties, gentle downward strokes against her clit, until she couldn’t take it anymore, until she seized up and came, sweat beading up on her chest.
He laid her down on the bed. He could tell from her face that she was thinking, well, it’s time, but it wasn’t, not for him. He knelt between her legs and bent to kiss her through her underwear, and she gasped again, hips moving almost involuntarily. He tongued her—the lace presented no real obstacle, wet with her and with his spit—and as she started to writhe, he pushed aside the lace and slid a finger into her, working her with his tongue and hand until she came again.
Then, then, she grabbed for her clutch purse, tossed carelessly on the bed, and came up triumphant with a condom. “Please,” she said, and he was never one to deny a direct request.
So he undid his pants and rolled on the condom and sank into her, panties still pulled to the side, almost inclined to chafe—and she was so wet from their play, so ready, that he sighed out loud in satisfaction.
He started out slow, deliberately, meaning to tease her, and from the way she kept biting her lip and struggling to muffle her moans, it seemed like he was succeeding. She pushed up against him, trying to get more of him into her, and he drew back, smiling down at her.
“Uh-uh,” he said, hearing the rasp in his own voice. “Naughty.”
She moaned louder, shaking beneath him. He took pity, stroking her clit again, and this time she came almost immediately, squeezing around him; he held still for a few long minutes, kissing her face, until her breathing evened out, and then he started to move again.
She gasped and kept gasping, digging her nails into his back, his neck, dragging him towards her. He wasn’t wasting any time, now; he thrust hard and fast, over and over again, until she came again without a hand on her, until he came, deep inside her, perfectly squeezed all along the length of his cock.
“Oh, my God,” she mumbled as he pulled out. “Oh, my God.”
He kissed her a few more times before falling back against the pillow. Her makeup was wrecked—lips and eyes smeared—but she looked satisfied, and didn’t seem to even think about it.
Her cellphone chirped, a few minutes later, while he was still enjoying the afterglow. She picked it up and squinted at it.
“My roommate’s staying with your roommate,” she said. “You can sleep here tonight.”
“Oh.” His mind went terrifyingly blank for a second: how was he supposed to respond to that? What would a normal response be?
“So if you wanted to,” she said, and trailed her fingernails up his chest, “in a little bit, we could do that again.”
Which was a hard proposition to turn down.
The next time was about an hour later in the Jacuzzi, after she’d washed her face and taken off her jewelry; afterwards Dan was exhausted and fell asleep.
He woke up at some indeterminate point in the night, Laura snoring softly next to him, out cold. He got up to take a piss. In the mirror he looked fucked, faint traces of her lipstick smeared halfway across his face, which he scrubbed off with Kleenex, and there was going to be no hiding the hickeys she’d left on his neck. Makeup was going to love those.
He wasn’t thinking about (couldn’t stop thinking about) Casey and Jennifer, Jennifer and Casey, no doubt engaging in the same kind of acrobatics in their room, in the room with the hot tub Dan had almost been insane enough to suggest he and Casey get into together, the hot tub Casey had arranged for specially at Dan’s request, as if Casey gave a damn what Dan wanted, as if Casey wanted Dan to have the best possible time, as if, as if, as if.
He leaned forward, bracing his hands on the sink vanity, looking at the shiny drain-stopper, and let himself close his eyes and imagine it for a few seconds: what if the women hadn’t shown up. What if he’d said, I’ll come back. You know I will. I’ll always be there for you. What if Casey had said, I need you. I love you. What if Casey had licked his lips and said, Let’s go back to the room. What if they’d staggered in the front door together, hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other, what if Casey wanted to fuck Dan but didn’t know how to ask, what if Casey laid down on Dan’s bed and Dan knelt up over him, what if Dan made Casey come, made Casey say his name, made it so good Casey forgot all about whatever was bothering him and begged Dan to come back. What if.
He opened his eyes, blinking down at the porcelain of the sink. He was half-hard again. It was a mistake to think like that, he knew it was, and for years he’d mostly been pretty good about not doing it. Since moving away it was simultaneously easier and more difficult, because Casey wasn’t around for Dan to have to avoid his eyes after he did it, but then again, Casey wasn’t around for Dan to watch, listen to, memorize.
He went back into the bedroom. Laura was half-awake, watching him through slitted eyes.
“Want to do it again?” she asked hopefully. He answered her with a kiss.
In the morning, she shifted, and it woke him up. He was still a light sleeper in strange places, despite the years of frequent travel.
“Hey,” she said, tired but not without warmth.
“Hey.” He yawned, blinked, clearing the haze from his eyes. “Time is it?”
Practically pre-dawn for his usual schedule. “Mkay.”
She got out of bed, starting to putter around, hanging up her dress from the night before and smoothing it lovingly.
“Feel free to ignore this question,” said Dan, “but how does an astrophysics grad student afford a Versace dress?”
She glanced up, shame-faced, and laughed. “Honestly? I found it at a thrift store.”
“What? No. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I swear! Fifteen dollars at a little charity place ten minutes from where we live.”
“In San Fran?”
“Yeah.” She hesitated, turning her back to him as she fiddled unnecessarily with the dress. “If you wanted to give me a call if you end up in town—”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’d like that.” He sat up, the sheet tangling around his knees. “Can I take you to breakfast today? Brunch? Whatever?”
She smiled at him, wide and real. “I would, but I’m already missing part of the conference I’m supposed to be here for.”
She came over to kneel on the edge of the bed and kiss him, still smiling, and he found himself smiling back.
When he opened the door to his hotel room he had a split second to realize that he should have let Casey know he was on his way back before he was in the room, staring at a mostly-naked Casey and a partially-naked Jennifer. He left as fast as humanly possible, a knot of something horrible congealing in his stomach, erasing the lingering remnants of contentment.
Casey, he thought, must have kept drinking longer than Dan had; when Casey called him to give him the all-clear, and he came back to the room, Casey had the squinting, pissy look he got whenever he had a hangover.
So Dan forgave him for being snappish about Laura, and went with him to the buffet downstairs.
They talked, briefly and without much in the way of either details or grace, about the women; Casey seemed genuinely upset when Dan asked whether he’d gotten Jennifer’s number. “I don’t think I’m her type,” said Casey glumly, poking at a bit of scrambled egg.
“I’m sorry, man,” said Dan, trying not to wonder why Casey wouldn’t have been Jennifer’s type. He was—well, obviously he was handsome, and Dan had just assumed from Casey and Jennifer being in the room together that they’d—been intimate; but that left the possibility that Casey was somehow forgettable, in the sack, which Dan found unlikely.
Casey shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Dan snuck a longing glance towards the casino floor as they left breakfast. “What do you want to do this afternoon?”
“I—” Casey sighed, looking sheepish and put-upon at the same time. “You’re going to laugh.”
Dan raised his eyebrows. “No, trust me, what is it?”
Casey made a face. “Helicopter tour.”
Dan couldn’t help laughing. “Over the Strip?” It was fairly ridiculous, but what the hell. You only live once, and it was true that Dan had never done the helicopter tour.
“Before we go, though,” added Dan hastily, as Casey looked set on getting ready right that instant, “is there time for a game of blackjack? Perhaps some baccarat? Or even craps?”
“Huh.” Casey bit his lip and surveyed the casino floor, eyes roaming over the forest of slot machines. “It’s kind of early for most of the table games, isn’t it?”
“I could live with hitting the slots.”
“I’m sure you could. How about two hours? We’ve got time.”
“Two hours it is.” Dan made a show of checking his watch. “Synchronizing now, Mr. Bond.”
Casey rolled his eyes at him. “Hardy har. You’re hilarious.”
Dan gave him finger-guns. “I know! Always good to hear from a loyal fan, though.”
Casey flipped him off.
“Are you going to join me on the floor, Agent McCall? Or do you have somewhere you need to be?”
Casey gave him a slow, reluctant smile, visibly considering it. “I guess I can stand to lose a few bucks while watching you lose considerably more than that.”
“Now that’s the spirit! Or something. Come on, let’s get started.”
They were able to find a couple of table games going, and Dan sat down with relish. Casey sat down less enthusiastically. Santana was on in the background, my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa crooning appealingly at them.
The dealer stood on a soft 17; Dan frowned at his hard 14. “Hit me,” he said, and got an 8.
Casey raised his eyebrows at Dan. “Bust.”
Dan turned so the dealer wouldn’t see him stick his tongue out at Casey, and then turned back to the game. He pulled a cigarette out of the crumpled pack in his pocket, ignoring Casey’s grimace. Dan had mostly quit smoking, but if you couldn’t smoke while you gambled in Vegas, where could you smoke?
Casey lost a hundred and fifty bucks; Dan, less conservative, lost two hundred. By the time he tapped out, they were pushing it for getting ready for the helicopter, and Dan felt great, because he might have lost two hundred, but he’d won considerably more than that before feeding it back into the game, and he’d kept the first twenty of his winnings for luck.
“You’re a nut,” said Casey, shaking his head. “You should stand more.”
“And you should stand less!”
“Hey, do we have time to grab food?”
Casey sighed heavily. “If you can do it in less than twenty minutes, yes.”
So Dan grabbed a sandwich and ate it on the way back up to the room. Casey had leftovers from the night before stashed in the minifridge, which he ate while Dan changed.
“You reek of smoke!” Casey yelled. Dan ignored him, mostly, although he did brush his teeth.
And see, the helicopter tour was exactly the kind of thing that someone else might interpret as a date, and for a second when they met the pilot Dan was petrified that the pilot was having that exact thought: the pilot’s eyes flickered over both of them, and then came back to Casey’s face, a thoughtful expression as he weighed something internally.
“Are you Casey McCall?” asked the pilot.
“Yeah, I am.”
“From Sports Night?”
Casey grinned, shrugging one shoulder. “The very same.”
“Man, I’m a big fan!” The pilot seized his hand, shaking it vigorously. Then he turned to Dan. “And you’ve got to be Dan Rydell. Didn’t you move to LA?”
“Which is exactly why I’ve got to get away from LA sometimes,” said Dan.
The pilot nodded. “No better place than Vegas for guys to be guys, am I right?”
“Damn right.” Dan grinned at the pilot, who smiled back, still looking a little dazzled. Fans were like that sometimes.
The helicopter ride had another couple of people who arrived shortly thereafter. Dan sat close enough to the pilot to exchange shouted words, and Casey sat nervously close to Dan. How on earth Casey had forgotten that he wasn’t overly fond of heights, Dan didn’t know, but Casey didn’t even like seats in the high bleachers at games, let alone going up in some guy’s helicopter. It turned out the pilot was named Greg, and Greg thought it was just dandy to have famous sports anchors on his helicopter. He gave Dan special attention during the narration of the sights they passed—from the Stratosphere at the north end of the strip, a poor man’s Space Needle if Dan had ever seen one, to Mandalay Bay at the south end, a huge glittering golden building in the afternoon sun.
“Casey,” yelled Dan over the noise of the rotors, “do the afternoon flights cost less than nighttime?”
“Well, yeah,” Casey yelled back.
Dan laughed—it was a familiar argument, well-trodden, and so like them that he felt a sudden sharp pang, like homesickness but for a person. He found himself looking at Casey, the smile starting to fall away.
Had he been right to leave, after all? What had he left behind?
Casey’s head tilted, and his eyes softened.
The middle-aged man sitting with his wife behind them jostled Casey. He turned away to see whether they were trying to talk to him. They evidently weren’t.
“Now here,” yelled the pilot over the speakers, “we see the Luxor!”
The black glass pyramid below them was slick, sleek, and forbidding in the desert light. Casey craned his head to look down at it, and Dan let the other thoughts slip out of his head.
Sam would have liked it. Sam liked things that went fast, and things that were high up.
On the ride back to the hotel, Dan said, “You’re such a tourist, you know that?”
“Oh, and you aren’t? You’re born and bred to the desert?”
“I’m better at hiding it.”
“What’s the point in hiding it? What do you get out of hiding it?” Casey threw his hands up in exasperation. “I’d rather have fun and look like a novice than experience nothing and look cool.”
“Luckily for you, that is a choice you’ll never face, because you will never, as long as you live, look cool.”
“So what I’m hearing is that, in death, I will be cool.”
“No. Also not that.”
“I mean it, though.” Casey folded his arms stubbornly. “I don’t care if I look like a tourist. I am a tourist. I might as well look like one and try to keep a hand on my wallet.”
“You are why all of these hucksters keep shouting at us when we try to walk places.”
“You’re why the hookers try to pick us up.”
“First of all, they tend to prefer the term sex worker, second of all, the women here are exotic dancers, and third of all, why would you possibly imagine that that’s a bad thing?”
Casey huffed and refused to answer. Dan felt pretty smug about that. Casey’s hair also looked ridiculous, like something had tried to nest in it; he had no intention of telling Casey that, and preferred to go as long as possible without letting Casey fix it.
Dan’s publicist called to tell him a gossip site had candids of him leaving the bar with Laura, which was faintly ridiculous—he wasn’t even that famous—but had happened, which actually made things a little easier with Casey, because whether the thought had occurred to Casey or not, now it would be a matter of public record on the Internet that this was not, in fact, a lovers’ assignation in a plush hotel, but a manly man’s weekend getaway to the land of beautiful women dressed in designer clothes. Dan felt like he could breathe easier, even through the discomfort of his privacy being worn away.
He and Casey also managed to have an excruciatingly awkward conversation where Dan delicately asked a) whether Casey wanted to talk about whatever was on his mind (presumably his hypothetical brain tumor; he did not) and b) whether Casey was seeing Bobbi, which suggestion, met with resounding laughter, sounded like a very firm no. Casey remained single, and Dan tried not to be secretly relieved about that.
Casey wouldn’t stay single forever. He was a marrying kind of man. He’d find another woman, less crazy than Lisa, more in love with him, more into sports, and he’d settle down. It was just a matter of time.
Dan tried not to be glad that it wasn’t time yet, and then tried not to beat himself up too much about failing. His therapist always said that. Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up, Danny.
It was easier on the Prozac. Being alive was easier on the Prozac. He hadn’t let Casey see the medication—he palmed the pills at night, when Casey was in the bathroom, and kept the bottle hidden next to the bed.
He’d tell Casey. Eventually. But not now, not when they were starting to get along again, the way he’d missed for what felt like a million years.
Casey wouldn’t tell him where they were going for dinner that night.
“It’s some kind of magical surprise?” asked Dan. “Better than steak?”
“I don’t know if it’s better than steak.”
“But you can’t tell me where it is?”
“I cannot tell you where it is.”
“Oh, you won’t even use contractions now? It must be someplace pretty special. Is it at the end of the rainbow? In a sex dungeon? Come on, inquiring minds need to know.”
“Inquiring minds need to shut up and get dressed.”
“That’s kind of hard to do when I don’t know whether we’re going to an aquarium or into outer space.”
“Dress like you did for dinner last night.”
“Okay, fine, but if it’s terrible, I’m never letting you live it down.”
“Fine,” said Casey irritably, turning away as Danny finished doing up his cufflinks. He’d already been nearly dressed for dinner as it was. Dinner and a high-class poker game both deserved black tie, in his opinion.
Casey—Dan took a moment to appreciate the view, Casey’s back turned towards him, broad shoulders and tight ass outlined in his shirt and slacks; in a minute he’d shrug on his dinner jacket and be ready to go, but in that moment he could have been halfway to undressing, and Dan liked it. No point in pretending he didn’t; not to himself, anyway.
But he was careful not to stare for too long, because Casey’s tolerance, his patience with Dan’s predilections, was predicated in no small part on Dan’s discretion. And Dan could be discreet.
The taxi took them somewhere off-Strip. Dan didn’t pay too much attention where. It wasn’t like he knew the area well enough to be familiar with all of the restaurants. When the taxi pulled up to drop them off, the building looked completely unpromising, a blank and boring façade—but there were a fair number of other taxis and cars, even a stretch limo at the curb, so what the hell.
Casey led them in through an unmarked but guarded door, handing tickets to the doorman, murmuring pleasantly to the maître d’. Dan looked around, taking it in—the swirl of people, the smell of frying beef. At least the food should be good, he thought, if the smell was any indication.
They were seated at their table, a small half-circular booth so that they could both face the stage. “Dinner and a show again, huh?” said Dan. “You are predictable.”
“Oh, shut up,” muttered Casey from behind his menu.
“No, really, are there gymnasts at this one again?”
“Is it a musical act? Oh, please tell me we’re here to see Celine Dion.”
“I think I’ll save it for the plum duck.”
“I knew you’d get that. Talk about predictable.”
“Hey, a preference for duck is just evidence of my refined palate.”
“Your refined palate is missing out, because I’m going to try the seven-flavor beef, and it’s going to be amazing.”
“If it isn’t, you get none of my duck.”
“That’s what you say now.”
The warm-up act was a woman who sang beautiful, sad torch songs, which were pleasantly forgettable. But when the main act came out on the stage, Dan froze.
Because it was Tom Waits. And trust Casey, really, to do this; trust Casey to find the one thing Dan would have given his pinky finger to see, and make it happen somehow, no doubt thwarting the laws of time and space to do it. You could say a lot of things about Casey—he was boorish sometimes, he was always pretentious, he was a huge goober and kind of a dick—but you could never claim he didn’t care about the people in his life, and you couldn’t claim he didn’t show it.
He could see, out of the corner of his eye, that Casey was watching him, waiting anxiously for his reaction. He couldn’t spare the attention to tell Casey, but he knew he wouldn’t need to.
Tom Waits, as Dan would have expected, if he’d known to expect it, tore Dan’s heart out and pulped it with a meat tenderizer, and then handed it back, reformed into an approximate shape. And made Dan grateful for it.
And I thought that I knew all that there was to, lonely, lonely. Lonely eyes, lonely face, sang Tom Waits, lonely, lonely, in your place.
Back at the hotel, on their way up to the room, Dan looked at Casey, and tried not to look at Casey. Casey was puffed up with the fragile knowledge that he’d done good, that he’d made Dan happy. And that was almost too much to bear.
Because, in that elevator, with the mirrored gold surface reflecting them, he wanted to kiss Casey. He always (well, almost always) wanted to kiss Casey. He’d been in love with his stupid goober friend for over a decade, and this was how it was: standing in an elevator, a foot apart, wondering for the thousandth (millionth?) time how he’d ended up here.
That was one upside of living in LA. It wasn’t as dangerous a thought when Casey wasn’t right there next to him.
Casey was watching the numbers of the floors going up, chin tipped up, absent-minded and so handsome Dan could have broken something over it. Happy that he’d made Dan happy. Relishing the satisfaction.
I love you, thought Dan, and had nowhere to put it, all that love, so instead he looked down at his shoes.
And I still love you, the soundtrack in his head courtesy of Mr. Waits insisted. I still love you.