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“I’m not saying the leaves aren’t beautiful,” said Dan, “I’m saying they’re beautiful in October, not mid-January.”

It was definitely Casey’s fault. Dan had decided to remind him of that fact, aggressively, every four or five miles, or in other words every hour or so. The road was not pretty. The snow, heaped into piles on either side of the road, was getting freshly bedecked by new snow with a rapidity he found more than a little alarming.

“Look,” Casey said defensively, huddled over the steering wheel and squinting out into the mess, “no one said you had to come.”

“Really? Because I would swear that I remember you saying your cousin threatened to—”

“Becky’s a good woman.”

“I don’t disbelieve you, but the way I recall that conversation going—”

“She’s a good woman and a little bit loony.”

“Hey, as your local loony representative I take that seriously.”

Casey glanced guiltily at him for a brief second before existential terror drew his attention back to the road. “Danny—”

“Kidding, kidding.” Dan slung an arm around Casey’s shoulders. “I am almost definitely not going to have a nervous breakdown on this trip. Unless your cousin is a lot worse than she sounds.”

“She’s not.”

“There you go. I’m safe.” Dan scooted back over to peer out the window into the flurry of snowflakes.

“I am glad you’re coming.”

“I am more than happy to lend an arm to squire the blushing bride’s fifteenth bridesmaid down the aisle.”

“It’s her sorority sisters,” said Casey. “There are a lot of them.”

“Did Lisa have that many bridesmaids? I don’t remember her having that many. Sure, there was kind of a swarm, so maybe it played tricks on my eyes—”

“She only had eleven.”

“A couple witches short of a coven.”

“You just don’t grasp the bonds of sorority.”

“And you do?”

“I was in a frat.”

“And how many frat brothers were there at your wedding?”

“Not eleven. …Danny, I need to drive. I can’t concentrate if you’re talking.”

“Is driving what you’re doing? What a generous way to describe this.”

“Very funny.”

“Oh, hey,” Dan said, “is that the turnoff?”

“Praise the Lord.” Casey turned the steering wheel so they could drift slowly around the bend.

“This better be good.”

“It’s not on the list of the top fifty B&Bs nationwide for nothing.”

“You and lists.”

“Danny…”

“Just joshing you.” Dan clapped his hand on Casey’s shoulder twice, briskly, to show there were no hard feelings. After all, the List Incident was ancient history. There had been healing. They’d healed.

“Sure.”

The B&B parking lot, such as it was, could be distinguished by the presence of a few lumps in the snow that were presumably cars. They found what was probably a space beside one of them, pulled in, and got out. Dan’s teeth immediately contributed the resonance of their chattering. He had a perfectly good winter coat. It was fine. Warm thoughts.

Casey opened the trunk and handed Dan his suitcase; he’d gone hard-shelled that time to protect his formalwear, a black suit he’d been told would match the other fourteen groomsmen.

Dan turned to look at the building as Casey pulled out his own luggage and slammed the trunk shut. It sure looked top fifty: gentle glowing yellow windowpanes liberally dotting the log-cabin exterior of the building, icicles hanging picturesquely off the eaves, lace curtains pulled back in perfect swaths of fabric, the largest window with a huge bouquet of tulips visible through the glass. It was very Martha Stewart..

“Great,” Dan muttered. “Casey, is this WASP country? Am I going to get called to account for the crimes of my people?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Casey heaved a sigh as he came alongside Dan. “They just want to sell you maple syrup.”

“I’m not objecting to the maple syrup, but if experience has taught me anything—”

“Has it? Come on.”

Dan followed Casey up the path, which was shoveled at least to the extent that Dan could put one foot down in front of the other. Casey knocked on the front door.

It opened a minute later. “Well, come on in!” The proprietress was a large woman, in both height and width, smiling at them pleasantly. “You don’t have to knock! Goodness. Now just scrape off that snow—yes, perfect. Boys, are you by any chance the McCall party?”

Dan, blinking at the novelty of being called a boy, said, “I do believe we are.”

“Good, good. I’m Ida, by the way. You’ve got the room with the doubles upstairs, then. It’s the only one left vacant, if you weren’t the McCalls I was going to have to offer you a couch and an apology.” She laughed merrily.

“Technically he’s the McCall.” Dan jerked his thumb at Casey. “I, meanwhile, am the pinch-hitter for the fifteenth groomsman, called up to the majors at the last minute.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Casey grumbled quietly to him.

Their hostess was bustling to a small desk. “Oh, a wedding! How lovely!”

Dan sighed, kicking the last traces of snow off his boots. “Yeah, if we can get there tomorrow.”

“Where is it?” she asked with bright interest.

“The Travers farm?” Casey ventured, as if he didn’t have it carefully written out in his day planner: Travers farm, Becky’s wedding, arrive by 10am.

“They just have such a wonderful building for weddings!”

“My cousin says it’s a historical site.” Casey looked vaguely uncomfortable.

“It is. It’s the oldest farmhouse in the county. Just lovely.”

“I’m sure she’ll be thrilled with it,” said Dan. His arms were beginning to ache. “So where exactly is our room?”

“If you’ll just sign—” The hostess held out a paper, which Casey skimmed briefly. He set down his suitcase to sign, then hoisted it up again as she handed them keys to the room (“not that we really have security concerns here, of course, but privacy is important, ha ha!”). She bustled some more, up the main flight of stairs to the second floor, and then up a much smaller staircase to the third floor, where she beamed at them. “Dinner is served at six pm sharp, and you gentlemen share a bathroom with the second floor, but lucky you it’s just here at the foot of the stairs!”

After she disappeared Dan dropped his suitcase at the foot of one of the beds, where there was a quaint little carved footstool just waiting for it. “Okay, now the question is with how many charming fellow travelers are we sharing this bathroom?”

“Two rooms. There’s another bathroom or two on the first floor.”

“Top fifty, my ass. At least there’s a minimum of two bathrooms in this charming old pile.”

“Hey.” Casey unpacked briskly, shaking out his own suit; he was groomsman #5, much higher up the food chain. “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried the complimentary food. I’m told the dinners are exceptional.”

“Complimentary should mean free, and God knows we’re paying for this.”

“I think I’m paying for it. You’re along for the ride.”

“Hey, I paid for some of it! A little of it. I’m here as a favor.”

“You did pay for gas,” Casey said, relenting.

“And that’s not something to sneeze at.”

“It is not, you are correct.”

“Oh, hey, mints on the pillows. That’s a nice touch. They splurged on Andes!” Dan popped his in his mouth. It was a welcome snack after the hours stuck with nothing but Casey in the car. And Casey, who was difficult to ever accuse of being too lax in his rule-setting, hated it when people ate in the car, so a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos had been firmly rejected as a snack at the last gas station.

Casey finished unpacking, his toothbrush and toothpaste set in a tidy row on the vintage dresser. Refinished to a gleaming shine; it was a shame neither he nor Casey would be taking advantage of the vanity table to do some makeup. Dan had exes who would have killed for a waterfall style like that. Very Marlene Dietrich.

“What time is it, anyway?”

“Haven’t you seen our clock?” Casey gestured broadly at it.

Dan had to let out a long, thoughtful whistle on seeing it, because his eyes had skipped past it for a reason. It was really something: a hulking monstrosity of porcelain, with a dozen cherub figurines perched at the hours. Dan had to get uncomfortably close to it to be completely certain about what the elaborate script on the clock face was trying to tell him.

“Wow, we made terrible time. Also, this thing’s going to give me nightmares. This place is like a museum.”

“It’s got quaint, rustic charm, according to the review.”

“It’s got something. I’m not sure charm is the word I’d use.”

“It’s got quaint, rustic charm.

“It’s got a four-foot-high ceiling.” This was only somewhat unjust to the ceilings. They were tall enough that neither Dan nor Casey were hitting their heads, but the margin was not as large as Dan would have preferred.

Casey sighed heavily. “Are you going to be complaining about this place for the entire trip?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll also complain extensively and cleverly about the wedding. They do know I’m Jewish, right?”

“Yes, Danny. You and three of the other groomsmen.”

“Maybe we’ll form a barbershop quartet,” Dan muttered as he dug his cufflinks out of the side pocket and set them next to Casey’s toothbrush.

“With your golden voice.”

“Like you can carry a tune in a basket?”

“Hey, I have been known to sing a song or two!”

“Sure, a song. Maybe two, if we’re being generous.”

They had enough time left before dinner for Dan to sit down on his bed—perfectly comfortable, just a bit of give—and really register the lack of a television.

“I guess this is one of those classy places where they don’t think people need a boob tube to rot their brains?”

“Yeah.” Casey was holding his dress slacks in one hand and frowning as he hunted for an ironing board.

“Remind me again why this isn’t a hotel room, where we’re guaranteed an ironing board and iron and also a television?”

“Because this is near the Travers farm and I thought I’d be going on a vacation alone, and it was very nice of Ida to change the reservation to include two beds on what was unfortunately short notice.”

“At least there’s no rehearsal dinner.”

“We do all our rehearsing at brunch tomorrow, sans bride.”

“Naturally. She’ll be getting her face done. Unnaturally, I can only assume.”

“You’re in no position to judge someone else’s makeup needs. They don’t have Alyson. Or our years of experience with foundation.”

“Ask you to put eyeshadow on, though, and you’d lose your damn mind.”

“What, and you wouldn’t?” asked Casey.

“Nope.” Dan flung himself backwards on the bed, full-length. He was already exquisitely bored. “I learned from the best.”

“And who are the best, exactly?”

“Drag queens.”

“You’re making this up.” Casey had found the ironing board and was struggling to get it unfolded, which did provide a few seconds of amusement. “You did not learn to do eye makeup from drag queens.”

Dan lifted his hand. “Scout’s honor. I was doing a story for the college paper.”

“Oh, in college. Of course.”

“You say that like you’d only expect it from college.”

“Wouldn’t you? College! People went to Rocky Horror and learned to play the guitar. None of it stuck.

“Are you saying you think I couldn’t still do a full smoky eye?”

“I might be.”

“You don’t even know what a smoky eye is.”

“Not as such, no.”

“Wait, did you go to Rocky Horror?”

“Maybe.”

Dan sat up, clapping his hands with glee. “You went to Rocky Horror! You precious thing. Did it hold a candle to your fraternity hazing?”

“Danny.”

“I will pay you a hundred dollars to wear eyeliner to this wedding.”

“Not a chance.”

“A thousand if you do any line from Rocky Horror during the ceremony or a subsequent toast.”

“I don’t get to do a toast. I’m groomsman number five.”

“Not if they can’t get the microphone away from you fast enough. All you really need is a glass, a utensil to tap against it, and a dream.” Dan mimed tapping on a glass.

Casey didn’t look up from his ironing. “I’m beginning to sense that I may regret having invited you to this wedding.”

Begged me to come would be more accurate.”

“Ah, yes, of course your main concern here is for accuracy.”

“When isn’t it? I’m a sterling paragon of journalist ethics. Ten thousand if you streak.”

“You do not have ten grand to fling around like that.”

Dan grinned at him. “For this, I would.”

“Alas, I find I’m able to resist your pathetic attempt at bribery.”

“Ten thousand smackaroos is hardly pathetic!”

“Maybe, but the word ‘smackaroos’ definitely is.” Casey held up his shirt. “See any wrinkles?”

“Not a one.”

“Good.”

“You want to do mine?”

“What do I get for it?”

I won’t streak at the ceremony.”

Casey extended a hand. “Fork it over.” His weakness, in this case, was his pride in the quality of his ironing; years of being responsible for his own wardrobe before moving up to the big leagues had left him with finely-tuned control and dexterity, if you listened to him.

Dan tossed it to him and got up to finish inspecting the room. “This window is single-paned. That hardly seems efficient.”

“It isn’t!” Casey seemed genuinely pained. “Are you sure?”

Dan rapped the pane with his knuckle. “I just see the one layer.” It had gone from twilight to night while they were getting settled in, and if he squinted through the reflection, he could see heaped mounds of snow outside.

Casey shook his head without taking his eyes off Dan’s shirt, now flipped efficiently to permit full sleeve pressing. The edge of that sleeve would cut through butter.

“What’s the forecast?” Dan asked idly.

“We’ve got a front coming through tomorrow that’s going to dump another four inches of snow.” Casey was always torn between his desire to pretend that Jeremy was the bigger nerd, and his deep need to prove that if they were both going to be meteorology nerds, he was going to be the more educated and informed nerd. It was adorable.

“Great.”

“Small chance of high winds.”

“How small?”

“Fifteen percent.”

“Okay,” said Dan, mollified. “Fifteen percent, I’ll take.”

“Don’t get too cocky.”

“Cocky is my middle name.”

“Your middle name is Solomon.”

“Have it your way.”

Casey held up Dan’s shirt. “You need a new dry cleaner.”

Dan laughed. “You need to sound less like my mother.”

“I’m merely being the voice of reason here.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

“Hey, don’t bite the hand that presses your collar.”

“That’s a fair point.”

Casey glanced at the horrifying cherub clock. “It’s getting on time for dinner.”

“Is that a hint that I should freshen up?”

“No, it’s a hint that I’m hungry.”

“Duly noted.”

 

The dining room was much more successfully elegant than their room. Dan couldn’t shake the suspicion that they’d gotten crammed into a room intended for children.

“Do you think the attic room is meant for kids?” he whispered to Casey. Casey kicked him in the ankle under the table, which, to be fair, didn’t help with the impression.

The woman on his left said, “You look familiar.”

“Well,” Dan said, turning to her to twinkle, although he realized immediately his twinkle would probably be wasted given the hulking diamond on her ring finger, “you may have seen me on television a time or two.”

Casey kicked him again, which he ignored with majestic hauteur.

“Television? Really?” She stared at him appraisingly. She had carefully blow-dried hair, but it looked like the bleach job was on the older side and fraying at the ends. “I feel like I should know what show.”

“Are you a sports fan?”

“No, but Larry is. Larry!”

Larry looked around her—presumably his wife—and said, “Holy cow, it’s Dan and Casey!”

“Or Casey and Dan,” said Casey, his attempts at humble anonymity instantly undone.

“Honey!” Larry was beaming. “It’s the show I watch all the time! Sports Night! These are the anchors. Dan Rydell alongside Casey McCall, haha, am I right?”

Dan grinned at him. Despite the quality of his impression of them (it was unclear which of them he was attempting to imitate), Larry wasn’t half-bad.

Larry’s wife, as it turned out, was named Janelle, and Larry and Janelle were not guests at any local wedding, but simply taking a brief vacation from having children. Larry thought Dan’s description of the way he’d gotten called into duty for the wedding was hilarious, and it was well worth having Casey elbow him out of an extra serving of the mashed potatoes, which were shockingly good. Ida, who was passing out dishes for family-style serving (Dan entertained a few dire thoughts here and there about botulism but gave it up after the biscuits), was clearly pleased as punch that her guests were getting along well; the other eight people at the table were engaged in their own animated conversations.

“That must have been rough on Casey,” said Janelle. “Did you have to ditch a date?”

Casey said, “No, I wasn’t—”

“Cool enough to have a date,” said Dan.

“—invited with a plus one, I was going to say. It’s a private affair.”

“For the couple and their seventeen thousand sorority and fraternity acquaintances.”

Casey sighed, aggrieved. “Do you know what Becky would do to me if I threw off her ratios? I told you, I’m escorting—”

“Her fifth-best friend?”

“Her second-best friend. She has three sisters.”

Larry and Janelle were beside themselves with merriment, and Dan turned to them beseechingly. “You see what I have to put up with?”

Janelle was chuckling to herself, shaking her head. “You guys are pretty funny.”

“That’s why you should watch them!” said Larry earnestly. It was positively endearing.

Janelle winked at Dan. “That’s one reason why I could watch the show.”

“Hey, now!” But Larry’s protest was pro forma only. There was no real jealousy in his voice. He was probably too simple and good a man for it.

After dinner, Dan contemplated the prospect of heading up to their attic room with its peculiar furnishings, although it wasn’t the most attractive alternative to continuing to talk to strangers.

“You want to go snowshoeing?” asked Casey.

“Do I want to what?

“It’s only seven.”

“It’s pitch-black out there! And since when are you some kind of junior woodsman?”

“It’s Boy Scout, Danny, and I was one for years!”

“I don’t believe you for a second.”

“I’ve told you about it at least half a dozen times.”

“Probably more, and I was just ignoring you.”

“You want a drink?” asked Janelle, who was holding a mug of something steaming. “Ida’s making hot toddies.”

“At least someone has some sense around here,” Dan said to Casey, and then to Janelle, “I’d love one. How do I acquire it?”

When he’d settled himself comfortably next to the fireplace, which was crackling and roaring in a very satisfactory manner, hot toddy in one hand and a trashy murder mystery from one of Ida’s shelves in the other, he thought this might not be such a bad vacation after all. Janelle, inspired by his choice of reading material, probably, had grabbed another novel from the same author, and was seated across the fireplace. They enjoyed some highly companionable silence, broken only by the occasional noise of sipping. He propped his feet up on an ottoman.

Casey and Larry had gotten into a game of backgammon, which confirmed that Casey was actually a thousand years old and merely trapped in the body of a thirty-seven year old man. Some retirees who were there for the syrup had started a poker game that was getting increasingly vicious.

Janelle made a face at her book.

“That good, huh?” asked Dan.

She set it aside. “The murderer is the boyfriend and I’m already bored.”

“You want to read mine? I’m pretty sure it’s the boss.”

“No, thanks. I’m going to see if there’s anything sluttier.”

He gestured towards the bookshelves. “By all means.”

She poked through the titles for a few minutes before selecting one. “The Queen’s Secret Barbarian Lover,” she read off the spine, for his benefit, he thought. “Should be something.”

“It doesn’t appear to be nothing.”

She flipped it open. “Ooh, the hero’s name is Ragnar. I think he’s a Viking.”

“Can’t go wrong with a Viking.”

“That’s what I always say.”

She read in rapt interest for a few minutes, while Dan slowly became more convinced that the boss was the murderer.

“Wow.” She raised her eyebrows. “Ragnar knows a few things, apparently.”

“I would expect as much from Ragnar,” said Dan absently, taking another sip off his rapidly-diminishing and no longer quite so hot toddy.

“When’s the wedding tomorrow?”

“There’s a rehearsal thing at ten in the morning and then the ceremony is in the afternoon. Indoors, naturally.”

“Naturally.”

“Can’t risk the sorority sisters breaking a heel. Or losing a pedicured toe to frostbite.”

She leaned back, staring up at the ceiling, and let out a long, quiet breath. Dan considered asking if she was all right, but vetoed the idea based on a lack of certainty about what he’d do if she wasn’t.

“It’s so nice to get away,” she said. “I love the kids. It’s just… I can’t remember the last time I got far enough into a book to get mad about how bad it is.”

“Yeah,” said Dan, who was actually mostly thinking about Natalie and Jeremy, and how refreshing it was to take a break from their youth and exuberance.

“Don’t worry,” she added. “I won’t say anything.”

It took him a long minute, much too long, to figure out what she meant. And then his brain caught up and liquefied and started trying to spill out of his mouth. “What—no—that’s not—”

“It’s okay.” She met his eyes squarely. “It’s okay.

“It’s not—that’s not what—this is just a wedding,” said Dan helplessly. “I’m just along for the ride!”

She raised her eyebrows very slowly.

“It’s not like that. I don’t know how to convince you of this, but it’s the truth.”

She shrugged. “Okay. Fine.”

“I mean it!”

“And I mean it, too.”

He tried to go back to his book after that, but found he couldn’t focus. It was impossible, with her words ringing in his ears. I won’t say anything, as if there were something to say. And the careful way in which she’d accepted his denials, as if she thought she was doing him some kind of favor.

He put down the book, drank the rest of his hot toddy in one lemony swig, and then went to put the mug away and head upstairs. “Night,” he said to Casey in passing. Casey just nodded, still intent on his old-man game.

There were books on the little shelf in their room, more murder mysteries and spy thrillers. He picked out one almost at random, turned off the room light but left the light on the end table between their beds on, and settled in. He tried to read.

When Casey came in, fussing with his contacts case, Dan left the book open on his chest and pretended to be asleep.

 

The next morning Casey’s alarm went off early. Early, for Dan, meant seven thirty, and early in this case was on the verge of sacrilegious. If it hadn’t been for the complimentary breakfast, he would have staged some kind of revolt.

Casey, who was normally irritatingly good at being a morning person, was gratifyingly annoyed by the contrast to their usual hours. He grunted something at Dan that was probably a variation on “good morning” but was unintelligible, and he ventured out with his toothbrush clutched in one hand.

Breakfast, however, was worth the wait. Dan hummed happily to himself as he piled his plate with everything short of the bacon. The pancakes were fluffy, light yet hearty, full of apples.

“Have another serving,” said Ida, holding out the butter. “You’re too skinny.”

“Don’t mind if I do!”

Casey shot him a disgruntled look, which he chose to ignore in favor of going back for another serving of sourdough toast with jam.

They got ready to go. Dan came back upstairs, showered and dressed, hair still damp and slicked back over his forehead. Casey looked up as Dan walked into the room, and for a moment he looked confused, almost alarmed. It passed.

“Ready for the big day?” asked Dan.

“Sure, why not.”

They did manage to get there in the snow—suits carefully hung in the back, because neither of them were foolish enough to wade through snow in formalwear—and the roads closer to the venue were even plowed, so Dan could eventually stop grabbing the door handle with white-knuckled force. The groomsman posted at the front door directed them to the rehearsal brunch, which was being held in a formal dining room in the rambling farmhouse that was not designed to seat thirty people and felt about as cozy as a sardine tin. Dan was almost sorry he’d filled up at the B&B, but the memories of apple pancakes were too close and too dear.

The rehearsal turned out to mainly consist of the mother of the bride, who actually seemed refreshingly normal (or perhaps just a few flutes of champagne into her morning), explaining the procession order to them. “You’ll just wait until Gerald waves you on,” she said. “Say hi, Gerald. Not all of them know you.”

Gerald, presumably, waved from his seat next to her.

So Dan felt that his part was simple enough. They finished off the mediocre brunch. (He was not, after all, sorry in the slightest for eating beforehand.) He and Casey had chosen to sit next to each other, as people who knew each other might, and he couldn’t stop glancing around, looking at everyone except Casey. Trying to find any hint of Janelle’s thoughts in the people around them—but he couldn’t. No one seemed to regard it as in any way exceptional that he had stepped up to squire a charming young lady down the aisle.

They caught up to him as he was getting up from the table, although he wasn’t sure where to go next to change and wait for the ceremony. He was going to ask Casey, who was saying something to the woman sitting on his other side.

“Dan!” It was—Wendy? Miranda? Damn, he had no idea, but he knew she was the maid of honor. “This is Tiffany, your bridesmaid.” She giggled. “Sorry, not your bridesmaid, but—”

“The bridesmaid whom I will have the honor of accompanying?”

Tiffany smiled at him. “That’s me.”

She had the polished prettiness of a recent ex-sorority-girl, with straightened hair and skilled makeup application, which after all looked unnatural but only in the societally acceptable ways. He couldn’t tell what she’d look like with it off, but it didn’t matter much. He was in no mood—not after—well. It wasn’t that kind of trip. Even if she had a hotel room and no date.

He offered her his hand. “Dan Rydell.”

“Oh, I know. I’m a big Cubs fan.”

“Should I be congratulating you or apologizing?”

“There’s no requirement for either.”

“Danny—” Casey put a hand on his elbow. “The groomsmen are getting together for a toast to Jim.”

“Right, sure.” He turned back to Tiffany. “Nice to meet you. I’ll try not to trip you on the way down the aisle.”

The maid of honor had already vanished; Tiffany smiled vaguely and waved at someone beyond him. “Great!”

He followed Casey out of the dining room, up a narrow twisting staircase, and into what was clearly the study, if his experience with watching murder mysteries had taught him anything. There were about ten guys already clustered there, some with cigars clamped in their mouths, and Dan spared a moment’s longing for his beloved nicotine.

The others filtered in—still not quite making up the full fifteen; Dan assumed there were errands to be run, things to be set up in the barn where the ceremony was being held, etcetera.

“Slip a Rocky Horror reference in to a toast here and that hundred bucks is yours,” Dan muttered out of the corner of his mouth, even though he had a nagging feeling he shouldn’t.

Casey just rolled his eyes. Dan wasn’t certain which man was Jim, the groom. There were three guys there who were more nattily-dressed than the others, and two of them looked panicky.

One of them cleared his throat. “As the best man—” (Okay, so the groom was probably the other guy.) “I just wanted to say, uh, before we get all this started, what a trip it is for me to see this guy get married!”

There were a few obligatory dry chuckles. Someone was handing out brandy snifters, which seemed a little ridiculous before noon, but what the hell. Dan took a surreptitious sniff of his; it smelled decent. Not that he was an expert on brandies, but it didn’t smell like nail polish remover or vinegar, so that was a good start.

Dan glanced up from his snifter to see Casey watching him intently. Dan raised his eyebrows and made a little moue that meant nice? at the glass. Casey shrugged and quirked his lips, which meant sure.

“—and the thing about Jim is,” said the best man, who Dan thought might have been named Bradley but of course went by Brad, “he is the best friend a guy could ever ask for. I was told I had to say all the real stuff now, before we go see the ladies.”

Everyone chuckled obligingly again.

“He’s been—” Brad had to stop and clear his throat. “He’s been part of my life for the last ten years, since the first day this chucklehead pledged Delta Chi, and I have to say, I did not picture him getting married, not any time soon. He’s played the field, and maybe he thinks the field is played out. That’s fine. More pussy for me.”

More minor chuckles. Dan forced a smile.

“And when he first met Becky, I didn’t realize there was anything different about her. I thought this was going to be a fun summer for both of them. And then I realized I was wrong. About six weeks in, he turns to me and he says, Brad, I’m going to marry her. I laughed it off, but what do you know? That was a year ago, and here we are.” Brad had to take a deep breath that sounded a little clogged. “I gotta say, it’s a bittersweet moment for us guys,” by which Brad definitely appeared to mean himself, given how uncomfortable the other guys looked, “when a brother gives up his bachelorhood. On the one hand, no more staying out all night to try and get as drunk as possible and as laid as possible. No more Super Bowl parties where we trash his place. No more sleeping on his couch when we’re too shit-faced to go home. Jim and I have had some good times, some really good times. It would be easy to feel like, uh, like she was horning in on that. On the other hand, Jim…” Brad had to pause again. “Jim finally found someone who can take good care of him, for the rest of their lives, and I have to say, you’re one lucky son of a bitch, buddy.” Brad thumped Jim a couple of times on the back. “Here’s to Jim and Becky.”

Everyone made the appropriate noises and drank a sip. Casey looked carefully blank, when Dan stole a glance at him.

They stood around for another hour or so, sipping their drinks and chit-chatting with the sports fans among the frat brothers (an unsurprisingly high percentage of them), until somebody told them it was time to go change and pointed them to the rooms where they could. Only one or three of them felt personally insulted by Dan’s take on various teams, and nobody was willing to actually start something over it at a wedding, so it could have gone worse.

After he changed, he waylaid a random guy to ask if they were going to the barn, which, he was delighted to learn, was connected to the main house by an enclosed walkway, so he did not have to stomp through any snow-drifts in his suit and dress shoes. “Nah,” said the guy. “We hang out near this end until they’re ready for us to go.”

So he went and stood, and as he waited for Casey, he heard one of the guys say to another one, very quietly, “Don’t know why he made Brad give a toast.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s fucked-up.”

“Yeah,” said the other guy mournfully. “It’s like he thinks we don’t know.

Dan concentrated on his hands, which were fussing with his cufflinks. Not shaking. He’d keep them from shaking.

They could, he thought, have been talking about Brad’s feelings for Becky. Perhaps Brad and Becky had a past. They certainly sounded like they should have, like Barbie and Ken.

“That fucking toast, man,” said the first guy. “Like everybody doesn’t know he wants to suck Jim’s—”

The second guy must have elbowed him in the ribs, because the first guy grunted a little.

“Dude,” said the second guy, “have some respect.”

“He didn’t even talk about Cancun.”

“So maybe he didn’t want to bring up Cancun.”

“Jim banged five strippers, and he’s not gonna bring it up? That’s just bullshit, man!”

“It’s his wedding day, maybe Jim asked him not to!”

“Whatever,” grumbled the first guy. They were silent for a minute before another guy wandered over to them and said something about whether there was going to be tequila at the reception.

“Hey,” said Casey, appearing from nowhere and brushing something invisible off his pants, “you got any chapstick?”

“No.”

“It’s cold and it’s dry out here. It’s a nightmare.”

“I will indulge you in this pointless back-and-forth later, Case, but we are about to watch a lovely couple I never met before today get married. Let’s focus on the task at hand.”

Casey frowned at him. “What crawled up your ass and died?”

Dan shook his head tightly.

He didn’t want to watch the look on Casey’s face slowly morph into concern, but it did.

Thank God the music started right about then. Gerald herded them into order and out into the walkway area, and the bridesmaids lined up next to them, clutching pretty little bouquets of white roses and lilies.

He offered his arm to Tiffany and marched with her up the aisle in a graceful lockstep. It all felt a little military, but then, Dan had been in weddings before.

When they had all lined up on their side of the makeshift altar, the groomsmen stretching around and back to absurdity, the music changed. Dan did his best to appear rapt as Becky came down the aisle on her father’s arm. Her dad was tall and gaunt, and he seemed to fade into the background against Becky’s sweeping dress—a train stretching out behind her, a full-length veil, all very classic Americana. It was exactly the wedding he would have drawn if he’d been asked to render the wedding he expected between a frat boy and a sorority sister.

Once they got started on the talking piece, Dan divided his time between watching the happy couple, watching the guests, and watching Casey.

Jim, in his tuxedo with a white rose boutonniere, looked pole-axed, which was understandable. Becky didn’t have the slightest gleam of doubt. If anything, she looked smug, although Dan thought he might just be projecting that onto her. The assembled guests had that glazed expression of boredom coupled with the fear that someone would notice that they were bored, which was amusingly universal.

Casey, meanwhile, was staring directly at the officiant. Dan spared a thought to wonder whether Casey was flashing back to his own wedding, which had, after all, looked something like this. Right down to the billowing train on the dress. Dan had been there—a last-minute invite of a new friend, and Lisa had been ticked about it.

He had not given a toast.

Brad was watching Jim and Becky. Mostly Jim. Dan wondered if his frat brothers were right. He tried not to wonder too much.

They finally kissed and the wedding was over, and Tiffany put her free hand delicately over the crook of Dan’s elbow and he rested his hand atop hers. He walked with her after the retreating husband and wife, glad he hadn’t tripped.

 

There was a brief cocktail hour, spread throughout the farmhouse, while the barn was set up for the dinner. The family vanished, presumably for photos. Dan ate canapes and started a glass of whiskey, sipping very slowly, as he found himself standing alone at the edge of the living room.

After a few minutes, Casey appeared and said “Hey,” then yawned before glancing guiltily around.

“Hey. Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone saw you.”

“I’m not bored,” protested Casey feebly. “Just tired.”

“I’m also tired.”

“Weddings are long.”

“That one was, anyway.”

Casey grunted in agreement. Dan made the mistake of looking over at him, and froze with his glass halfway to his mouth. Casey was staring off, over the crowd, thick with people in nice clothes smiling and hugging each other, the occasional flash of a camera; he was wearing his suit, and his tie was still neatly tied, and it was nothing Dan hadn’t seen a thousand times before. Right down to the piece of hair at the back at Casey’s head that always tried to stand up on its own no matter how much gel he used.

But he couldn’t help thinking, in that moment, about how he’d felt at Casey’s wedding. Watching Lisa kiss him—when he’d known, right away, meeting Casey—when it had been obvious from the first night they’d stayed out later than they meant to, Casey laughing, wiping the foam from his beer off his upper lip—they’d been so young. Ludicrously young. Dan could barely remember being nineteen, but the thing he’d known then had never gone away, and he figured with his luck it never would. It was persistent. It had, so far, persisted through Casey’s marriage and divorce, through the Dana fiasco, through the difficulties with Rebecca as well as half a dozen other former girlfriends he could have gotten serious about.

Shit, thought Dan, distantly, as his hand trembled a little.

He took a drink to cover it. Casey said, “I’ve got to talk to Jeremiah, hang on,” and was gone.

Dan wandered around the house until he found an unoccupied bathroom, and then he spent five luxurious moments in it, just sitting on the floor with his back to the vanity. He didn’t have to throw up—thanks to Abby, to therapy, to whatever—but the thought of the conversations outside were like sandpaper on his nerves.

When someone knocked on the door he heaved himself to his feet, loudly washed his hands, and exited.

 

At the reception, he’d been seated at the table of obvious eligible singles, which was annoying in one sense (he hadn’t wanted to spend the whole evening smiling pleasantly at women he didn’t know who might harbor matrimonial hopes he’d be bound to disappoint) and ideal in another sense; Casey had also been counted an eligible single, and he sat down next to Dan.

“You went MIA there earlier,” said Casey.

The centerpiece on their table was a vase of white roses and lilies. It looked a lot like one of the bridesmaids’ bouquets.

“Yeah,” said Dan. “You think she’s going to toss the bouquet?”

“Why, you angling for it?”

“Not a chance.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” said a woman smoothing her skirt to sit down next to him on his other side. “I won’t have to fight you for it. I’m Angela.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Dan, this is Casey.”

“Hello,” said Casey, reaching around him to shake hands.

Angela, wearing a bridesmaids’ dress, nodded at the centerpiece. “I think that one was mine.”

“So they did recycle?” asked Dan.

“They sure did.” She smiled with one corner of her mouth. “Frugal of them, I know.”

“Sensible,” said Casey.

The other singles seated at their table followed close on Angela’s heels. None of them were Brad, which made sense, since as the best man, surely Brad would be seated at the head table with the bride and groom. Dan looked up at the head table—yes, there he was, seated to Jim’s left. Even at that distance, halfway across the barn, he looked a little glazed.

“Keep an eye on him,” Angela murmured in his ear. “Brad. He got drunk last year at Chrissie’s wedding and broke the ice sculpture.”

“That seems like a bad omen.”

“It must be. Chrissie just filed for divorce.”

Dan grimaced sympathetically and reached for his glass of ice water. Casey glanced over at him, and took a drink of his water, too.

There were, of course, more toast—endless toasts—before dinner was actually allowed to start. This time, Brad’s toast was short and clean, a brief and totally impersonal wish for their shared happiness in the future. He delivered it without any audible slurring. Becky watched him with a pleasant smile. Dan couldn’t tell from her face whether she knew what the fraternity brothers had been whispering.

Casey’s leg kept touching his under the crowded table. It was fine. It was nothing.

When the dancing started, and the DJ announced them as “Mister and Missus Granville!” and everyone cheered. The third or so of the bar that had been cleared for a dancefloor had thumping music and some brightly-colored flashing lights, and Dan nodded to himself, pounded what was left of his glass of wine, and turned to Angela. “Would you care to dance?”

She laughed and let him tug her onto the dance floor. It was an excuse to get up and move around, after too many hours of standing perfectly still and then sitting carefully, but it was also a chance to remove any vestiges of desire that the women might have been harboring for him; he knew perfectly well that he was no dancer. Besides, at any wedding it was a public service to make it appear that the dance floor was crowded with people having a fabulous time. He was just helping out.

When Angela begged off for a rest in between a couple of songs, Dan faded back to lean against the wall. His forehead was a little sweaty, his tie askew. He wished he had another glass of whiskey.

After a few minutes, someone else had the same idea and propped up the wall next to him. Dan glanced over and wished he hadn’t.

Brad’s eyes flickered and met Dan’s. “Hey,” he said laconically.

Dan nodded in reply and went back to watching the floor.

Kool and the Gang came on. Celebrate good times, they belted happily. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brad flinch. They stood in mutual silence, not comfortable but not anything else, either. The elderly and small children danced with vigor.

The DJ came back onto the mic. “Hey, everybody!” he boomed, over the music. “Come join us on the dance floor for… the garter toss!”

Brad snorted. Clusters of guests from far corners of the room began to converge. “Oh, great,” said Brad. He was listing to the side, hard; he smelled like rum. “Just what we need. The garter toss.”

“Yeah, but we’ll survive.” Dan pushed his damp hair back off his forehead.

“Easy for you to say.”

Dan nudged Brad with his elbow. “Seriously, you want to hide somewhere, I’ll tell them a cover story.”

Brad was startled into laughter. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m not kidding.”

Brad shot him a sharp look. “Nah. Thanks, though. It would be weird if I missed it.”

“As groomsman number fifteen, I feel a certain responsibility to participate.”

Brad laughed again, sounding a little less bitter this time. “Sure, you’re an integral part of this ceremony.”

“Hey, I got roped into this for the symmetry. You think all her girls are going to be there for the bouquet toss?”

“Yeah. Of course they are.” Brad groaned softly and raked his hands through his hair. “Here we go.” Someone was bringing out a chair, and the bride was hiking up her skirt to sit in it. The groomsmen started circling up around the chair.

Dan made sure he was standing next to Brad—he had a vague sense that someone might need to do something, and he’d rather be the one to do it than—someone else. The guys who had been talking shit earlier, groomsmen numbers 7 and 10 respectively, were part of the group, ten feet or so from them.

“Hang on,” said Dan to Brad quietly. Brad nodded once, tightly. He seemed to have accepted that, somehow, they were in this together.

The music segued into Marvin Gaye. That got a lot of laughs. Becky was grinning up at Jim, and Jim grinned down at her before two of his buddies slipped a blindfold over his eyes. Dan heard Brad inhale sharply. Jim carefully got down on his knees and blindly reached out, grazing her ankle with his fingertips.

Dan glanced up from the action and saw Casey watching him from across the circle.

Dan stared at him for a minute while the music crooned at them, let’s get it on, and then deliberately blinked and dropped his eyes back to Jim’s hand, cradling Becky’s calf. Jim’s hand slid up her calf, under the bend of her knee, until he found the garter, and he was grinning, with his perfect jaw, his beautiful lips—how had Dan not noticed sooner? But Jim was untenably handsome, after all, as he tugged Becky’s garter down with one crooked index finger. Dan didn’t dare look at Brad.

Jim slid it off over her high heel, and then yanked up the blindfold, grinning at her like he’d done something clever. She was smiling back at him. He reached up and snapped it over his shoulder.

It hit Dan squarely in the chest. He grabbed for it instinctively, and found it in his hand. He looked down at it blankly; there was a blinding flash as the photographer captured the moment for eternity. A cheer rose up and died away.

Brad wheezed out a hideous laugh like he’d been punched, and smacked Dan firmly. “Good work, bro,” he said with a terrible smile. He turned and vanished into the crowd before Dan could say anything. He got a few more back-slaps, Becky even winked at him, and then Dan made a beeline for the bar. It was time for a drink.

After he got his whiskey, he stepped outside, meaning to sit with his back to the barn in the covered walkway. He realized right away that that would be a dumb idea, because despite the shelter from the wind, it was still colder than any human should willingly endure. A split second later, he realized he’d unintentionally followed someone.

Brad looked up from his cigar and laughed again. It sounded like something coaxed from a machine that had rusted out a long time ago.

“You again, huh?” Brad spat off to the side, which surely wasn’t covered under the rental agreement. “I don’t know you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Who are you?”

Dan shrugged. “Friend of a friend. Pinch-hitting for a guy who couldn’t make it.”

“Oh. Great. You don’t know these assholes, then.”

“Can’t say I know any of the assholes that might be present. Except Casey.”

Brad frowned. “He’s one of the groomsmen?”

“Yeah, number five. He’s Becky’s cousin.”

“Cool, cool.” Brad nodded, a little out of sync with what he probably thought his head was doing.

“I was at his wedding,” said Dan. “And we were friends for ten years, and then I was there for his divorce.”

Brad glanced up at him sharply. “There a reason you’re telling me this?”

“I’m just saying.” Dan put his hands up, palms up like he was about to carry a platter or something. “A wedding doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story. Maybe it’s happily ever after. Maybe it’s not.”

“I don’t want—” Brad stopped, computing something in his brain. He shook his head hard. “I’m not—”

“I know,” said Dan. “I know. I’m just saying, it’s going to be okay, one of these days. One way or another.”

“Oh, yeah?” Brad let out another one of those ugly laughs. “You know that? You going to make me a promise?”

Dan reached out and took the cigar away from Brad and took a couple puffs off it. Brad looked up, startled, and then seemed surprised by Dan’s face; his eyes fastened on Dan’s mouth.

“No promises,” said Dan, and put the cigar back in Brad’s mouth, which was open. “I’m just saying.”

He headed back into the party, aware of Brad’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his neck. But he knew better. All the same reasons he hadn’t flirted with Angela—well, not much—applied. And then some.

He wasn’t expecting to run into Casey as soon as he walked through the door, but he did. It was an unintentional shoulder check, and Casey grunted.

“Hey,” said Casey. “I was looking for you.”

“Yeah, who isn’t?” Dan sighed. “Sorry.”

“You smell like smoke.” Casey was frowning at him, staring at his mouth. It was too much, the second guy in as many minutes giving Dan that look.

“I snuck a couple puffs off a celebratory cigar.”

“Oh.”

“It’s fine.”

Casey glanced back at the dance floor, half-heartedly. “You want to go soon?”

“You’re just imagining missing out on the complimentary dessert at the B&B.”

“Maybe I am.”

“Yeah. I want to go.” Dan rolled his neck, getting a mighty crack out of it for his pains. “Let’s go.”

“Okay. We just have to—”

And that was the precise moment the DJ picked for the bouquet toss, so Dan had to smile and head back to the dance floor, and he had to smile and smile while Becky threw the bouquet over her shoulder and a woman he didn’t recognize caught it, and then he turned to Casey and said, verging on desperation, “Now can we go?”

Casey’s mouth had a grim set to it he recognized from the wars with the network suits. “You have to give her the garter.”

“Oh, come on!” But apparently it was a thing the gentiles took seriously, so he gave up and handed off the garter—not that he’d been eager to keep it, the elastic inside the silk sitting oddly in his pocket. The woman laughed and gave him a peck on the cheek, and after that Casey made a face at him and a gesture, so he borrowed a Kleenex from someone and scrubbed the lipstick off until Casey’s tight face eased and he nodded.

“God,” said Casey quietly as soon as the throng broke up again, “let’s get out of here.”

“Ladies and gentlemen!”

“Not another—” said Dan, turning to look, but it wasn’t the DJ. It was Brad, standing on a table.

“Oh, no.” Casey’s brows had drawn together above wide, concerned eyes.

“He’s going to break an elbow,” said Dan.

“He’s going to ruin the wedding.”

“No, he’s not.”

Brad boomed, “This calls for the Macarena!

“Okay,” said Dan, “I take it back, he is.”

The DJ, who must have been in on it, started the song. A fair chunk of the guests started dancing along to it. Dan and Casey were not among them; Casey’s hands twitched like he was thinking about it, but in the end, he didn’t budge.

“If I tackle him off the table, does that make this better or worse?” Dan asked Casey sotto voce.

“Worse, I think. He’s getting some traction with the audience.”

“I’m prepared to intervene should it become necessary.”

“That’s fair.”

“If he starts talking again—”

“God knows what he’d say,” said Casey, who was a little pale.

“Yeah.”

They waited for five thousand hellish years or so, until the song ended. They watched Brad in the instant after the song ended, waiting for his next move.

He yelled “Thank you!”, swept a bow, overbalanced, and fell backwards off the table onto his ass.

Dan shoved his way forward until he could kneel next to Brad. “Hey,” he said, “easy there, big guy.”

Brad snorted, shaking his head slowly. “You again?”

“Me again. Come on. Upsy-daisy. You’re going to need some ice on that.”

“On my ass?” asked Brad witheringly. But he allowed Dan to slide an arm under his and gently help him to his feet. “Oh, ow,” Brad added in some wonder. “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah. That’s your tailbone. It’s gonna hurt. You’re just lucky it wasn’t your head.

“Lucky,” muttered Brad and snorted again.

But they didn’t garner too many sideways looks as Dan shuffled Brad into the kitchen. He liberated a bag of frozen peas from the freezer and got Brad settled in a chair. Once the peas were where they needed to be (and he had to hope the wedding rental fee included the peas), Dan turned back to the industrial-sized stainless steel sink. “You want some tea? I’m going to make a cup of tea.”

Brad grunted vaguely. Dan got out two mugs, filled them with the water, and put the first one into the microwave.

When he turned back around, Brad was watching him narrowly. “Thanks,” said Brad, in a cold, clipped voice.

“You’re welcome.” Dan blithely ignored the bitterness; he knew a thing or two about what embarrassment felt like. “I knew you weren’t feeling chipper, but man, inflicting the Macarena on us? That’s a low blow.”

Brad laughed, half-unwillingly. “It’s a fun dance for everyone.”

“Most of us had managed to get it out of our brains, thank you very much, and now here it is again, taking up residence.” Dan had started poking around while they were talking, and he finally found some teabags in a cupboard. “Cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Seriously,” said Brad. “I’m fine. It’s fine.”

“I know. Orange pekoe okay? I think it’s the only kind they have.”

“Sure.”

The microwave beeped. Dan dropped the teabag in and set it in front of Brad. “Don’t burn your mouth.”

Brad didn’t dignify that with a response.

Dan microwaved his mug of water and popped in his teabag, and then sat down across from Brad. He didn’t say anything. Neither did Brad, for a little while, as they sipped their tea.

“Don’t suppose you’d pour me another glass of whiskey,” said Brad, at length.

“Not a chance.”

“Even if I promise not to climb on any more tables?” Brad smirked at him, head tipped down just enough that it ended up looking—well, like a come-on, really.

“Even so.” Dan cleared his throat. “You’ve done enough damage to yourself for one evening.”

“I feel fine.”

“Tell it to your tailbone tomorrow when you try to get out of bed. It’s going to hurt like a son of a bitch.”

“Where’s your friend?” Brad asked. There was still an oddly bright glint to his eyes. He didn’t sound as drunk as he must have been. “He was on you like Velcro all night.”

“He’s probably stuck talking to little old grandmothers about the weather. He’s Midwestern. Polite like that.”

“Polite. I get it.” Brad looked back down at his tea. “I can’t—” He stopped and sighed, running a hand over his face, pausing to pinch the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe he’s married.

“Yeah,” said Dan, because to add anything else would only have highlighted the woeful inadequacy of his response.

Brad’s hair was almost sort of red in the bright kitchen lights, a burnished glow shining through the brown. Brad looked up and caught Dan looking.

They stared at each other in silence.

“You said—” Brad stopped himself. Dan realized he was holding too still, waiting to hear what Brad was going to say. He made himself relax, consciously, as if he were on air. “You said it’s going to be okay.”

“Yeah,” said Dan. “It really is.”

Brad nodded once, jerkily.

“I’m not saying it’s all right all at once.” Dan fiddled with the string on his teabag. “It takes—anything takes time, right? And some of it’s easier than other parts. But—you’re somebody, too. It doesn’t mean this is all that you are. It’s a part. But it’s not the whole picture.”

Brad put a hand over the lower part of his face, hiding his mouth, not meeting Dan’s eyes and not answering.

“We lose stuff,” said Dan. “And we learn to deal with that. We keep going.”

“Fuck.” Brad put his hands on the table and moved to stand up, and immediately hissed in pain and then started laughing, helplessly, still half-bent over the table. “Jesus Christ, that hurts!”

“I told you it would!”

“Get me one more whiskey,” said Brad, smiling crookedly. “So I can drag my sorry ass upstairs and sleep it off. And get one to drink with me.”

Dan, despite some questions from his better judgment, obliged.

 

Casey found them in the kitchen a while later, arguing heatedly about the ’79 Red Sox, and said, “C’mon, Danny, we’ve got to go.”

“Oh. Okay.” Dan pointed a finger at Brad. “No more tables!”

“No more tables,” Brad agreed solemnly. He saluted Dan with a piquant irony as Casey edged Dan out the kitchen door.

The hallway wobbled slightly, and Dan realized he might have had more whiskey with Brad than he’d intended. Casey said something he couldn’t catch.

“What?” he said, too close to Casey’s ear.

Casey sighed. “I said, I’ll drive.”

“Oh. Well, obviously.”

“I don’t want to ruin your shoes,” said Casey. “Where are the ones you wore here?”

“Uh,” said Dan. “Upstairs somewhere?”

Casey nodded decisively. He made Dan sit down in the entryway, and he came back a few minutes later bearing Dan’s road clothes.

Dan felt deeply tired, tired in his bones, and was considering his clothes with a certain fatalistic acceptance of what the snow might do to them. “I don’t know if I’m up for changing.”

“I know.” Casey shook his head and knelt at Dan’s feet. “Lift.”

Dan felt his cheeks go hot, but he lifted one foot obediently, and Casey carefully took off his dress shoe (half of a black leather pair polished to a mirror shine that had cost Dan three hundred dollars, so the care was appropriate) and substituted the much less impressive sneaker that Dan had arrived wearing. Dan kept thinking about the garter, wondering crazily if Casey was going to slide a hand up his calf.

Once he had the shoes swapped out, Casey nodded decisively and stood up. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Dan clung to his hand as Casey pulled him up out of the chair.

The air outside stung his face. It was like a slap, and it brought him back to himself, or at least halfway.

“It’s so cold!” He only belatedly registered that his voice had a distinct whine to it.

“I know.” Casey was searching the darkness in the scattered light emanating from the farmhouse. “Come on. Car’s right over here.”

He managed to get in to his side of the car without any help from Casey, for which he was briefly proud of himself, although buckling his seat belt proved to be a challenge.

Casey said quietly, “You can’t make anything easy, can you?”

“Hey,” said Dan, letting his head loll against the cool glass of the car window, “never say I didn’t make it easy. I kept—I did my job.”

“You walked Tiffany down the aisle like a champ.”

“And I kept Brad from losing his shit at the garter toss,” said Dan, somewhere in his brain aware that he was going too far, but he couldn’t stop. “And talked him down after the table incident. You know he was half an inch from a nervous breakdown. I ought to know, I can spot those a mile away.”

Casey visibly tensed, hunched over the steering wheel as he navigated them out of the parking lot. “Hm?”

“He was—you should have seen him. Did you see him?”

“I think we all saw him, Danny.”

“He was so fucked up about it.” Dan exhaled heavily, letting his head sag back against the seat. “I think he just needed—fuck, whatever. A sympathetic ear.”

“And you’re an ear tonight?” asked Casey dryly.

“Not quite. I stole his cigar.”

“Hm.”

“But I think he needed someone to see him,” Dan said. “And I saw him. That was all he really needed.”

“A sympathetic eye, instead of an ear?”

“Something like that.”

Casey didn’t say anything. Dan could barely see his face in the dim glow of the dashboard.

“I ought to know,” Dan said, very quietly. “I saw him, and I stole his cigar and made him tea, and I’m not sorry.”

“Sometimes you don’t make any sense at all,” said Casey, so Dan stopped talking.

 

They made it back to the B&B safely. Dan staggered once, getting out of the car, but then he got his balance together.

The house seemed all the more welcoming after the bedlam of the wedding; when they made it into the foyer, there was a peaceful calm that felt like a blessing. There were two or three people still up, a fire burning in the library. Casey swerved hard into the kitchen when he saw a light on.

“Oh, there you are!” said Ida brightly. “I saved you some pie. I know, I know, you’re probably still full from the wedding cake—”

“No!” Casey stared at her with wild eyes. “Never too full for pie, Ida.”

Dan laughed. “Is it pecan?”

“Why, yes!” Ida blinked at him.

“Casey has a thing about pecan pie,” he confided to her, probably not as quietly as he’d hoped. “He feels it’s a superlative pie.”

“I have a fondness for pecan pie,” said Casey pointedly. “I can certainly respect and appreciate other forms of pie.”

“I’m glad to hear it’s your favorite, dear.” Ida opened the refrigerator and pulled out two plastic-wrapped slices of pie: perfectly cut, beautiful wedges of sticky, pecan-laden goodness. She opened a drawer to find the forks. “Here you go. I’ll be heading to bed soon, but just ring me up if you need anything.”

“Will do,” Casey said as he sat with unseemly haste, still in his suit, and reached for the pie. Ida was still chuckling on her way out.

Dan sat down more slowly. He sat next to Casey, this time; the whole thing had eerie echoes of sitting with Brad not an hour ago. He pulled the other plate over to himself and unwrapped it carefully.

“Weird, huh,” said Casey through a mouthful of pie.

“What?” Dan was half-annoyed, barely listening. Why did Casey have to eat so loudly? It was like listening to a leaf blower trying to demolish a sapling.

“Sitting around eating. After a wedding.”

“I’m not sure I’m following.”

“We did this, too.” Casey scraped up a streak of filling. “After my wedding.”

“Huh,” said Dan. He had honestly forgotten, but Casey was right: it must have been around midnight, and Casey and Lisa were still between the bouquet toss and the fancy exit with the rented limo, and Dan and Casey had found themselves at one end of the banquet hall while Lisa was doing something about changing into her honeymoon outfit. They’d looked at each other, shrugged, and grabbed an extra plate of cake each.

Casey had been starving then, Dan remembered; no one had let him sit down or get a bite in all night. The destruction of the monstrous white confection had given Casey his one shot at a decent caloric intake for the evening.

And Dan had been looking at Casey—watching him the whole time, watching him eat, watching him smile, cracking jokes to try to make Casey smile. Because Casey was tired, and relieved that the wedding with all its hubbub was over, and now Dan could steal a couple of additional moments with him. And it would always be like that, forever, stealing the time, because now it was official. Now Casey was Lisa’s in a way that included a signed piece of paper and the golden band on his finger that kept catching the light.

“It was a long time ago,” said Casey, talking half to his plate and half to Dan. I wonder, thought Dan, what it is about me that men can’t look me in the eye tonight, but he put the thought down. It wasn’t doing him any good.

“It was,” Dan agreed instead, peaceably. “We were younger men with less flattering haircuts.”

Casey honked a little on a laugh. It probably said something about Dan that he still found it endearing.

“The thing is,” said Casey, “I’m really glad you’re here.”

“Hey, man, me too.” Dan took advantage of having his left hand free to give Casey a supportive yet manly pat on the back. “Thanks for begging me to come along.”

“I didn’t—!” Casey half-strangled himself on his answer before giving up and laughing again. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m trying to say.”

“You’re trying to say something? Don’t let me interfere!”

“You do nothing but interfere.” But there was a warmth in Casey’s smile, as he looked at Dan, that made Dan feel strange things. New things, almost; almost a sort of hope.

“So here’s me, not interfering.”

“I’m trying to say I’m—I had a good time. At a wedding. I didn’t think that was even possible, but thank you for coming with me.”

“And for being searingly witty.”

“Sure, fine, and for being searingly witty.”

“And for being so terribly handsome that I inadvertently saved you from the attentions of any single sorority girls with my mere presence.”

“Hey!”

“Come on, Angela would have been putty in my hands if I’d tried harder.”

“I’m not necessarily disputing that, but don’t you think she could have been putty in my hands, too?”

“You want to marry another sorority girl?”

Casey actually shuddered. “God, no.”

“There you go. You’re welcome.”

“Danny…” Casey had finished his pie. He was just poking at crumbs with his fork. “I really appreciate you.” Dan opened his mouth, and Casey held up his hand. “Don’t—just don’t. Whatever you’re about to say, just let it be, okay? Just… let it be.”

Dan closed his mouth. He’d been about to make some joke. Deflect it. But Casey looked so serious, and the way it felt, tickling around inside his ribs, thank you, I appreciate you, I’m glad you’re here felt too good; too good to be real, too good to hold on to.

He nodded, and Casey relaxed a little.

“You gonna finish that pie?” asked Casey hopefully. Dan laughed and pushed what was left over to him.

“I’m going to hit the shower, man. See you upstairs.”

“Yef,” Casey replied, as best he could through another mouthful of pie.

 

Dan still felt sweaty from dancing, almost itchy now that he’d cooled down, as he grabbed a spare t-shirt and his sweatpants and headed for the shower.

He sobered up somewhat under the hot water. It occurred to him, once or twice, that he might have said things he could conceivably view as a confession of sorts. He decided to let it be.

When he got back to their room, Casey had changed and was reading in his bed.

“Thanks for the ride.” Dan punched up his pillow before climbing onto the bed. The weird cherub clock was growing on him.

Casey hummed noncommittally. “You were there as a favor in the first place, remember? I begged you to come.”

“That’s true. I should hold onto any credit I’ve accumulated.”

Casey couldn’t quite keep a smile from lifting one corner of his mouth. “You might be onto something.”

“I’m so tired.” Dan yawned hugely, as if to support his statement. “I’m going to crash, I think. Have a good night.”

“You, too,” said Casey, without looking up from his book.

It was still early for them, but Dan didn’t let that stop him from crawling between the blessedly clean sheets of his comfortable bed. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

He woke slowly, vaguely aware that he was a) stone-cold sober now and b) shivering.

“Danny?” said Casey softly.

“What? Why is it so cold?” He was whining again, but he was too sleepy to do much about it.

“The heat went out.” Casey sounded hesitant. “Ida says there’s no generator. She’s got the fire going in the living room, but…”

“I imagine the space is limited.” Dan’s brain was starting to catch up.

“Yeah. I mean, we could go down there. If you wanted to.”

“Damn single-pane windows,” said Dan, because that seemed salient at that particular moment.

“Yeah.” Casey seemed to run out of thoughts after that.

 “Ugh.” Dan pulled his quilt further up under his chin. “I’m so fucking cold.”

“We could—” Casey said, and then stopped.

“We could what, learn to tango? Talk to gorillas?” muttered Dan.

“I was going to say, push the beds together.”

“Hm.” Dan considered it for a second. “Yeah, come on.”

“Really?” Casey sounded surprised.

“Yeah, come on, I’m freezing, you’ve got all the good quilts anyway. Share and share alike, right?”

“Sure.” And then there was the sound of Casey pushing his bed over towards Dan’s, and a minute later there was the rush of cold air as Casey consolidated all their bedding and climbed in under it.

Casey had a pair of flannel pajama pants he always liked to wear, and he usually slept in a t-shirt. Dan knew these things, after years of going on location with him. Casey was close to him; almost touching, or just barely touching, along a number of points, and then Casey.

“God, it’s freezing,” muttered Casey, scooting a little bit closer.

Dan had not thought this through. He’d been cold, was his excuse, but he really hadn’t thought it through at all.

They were so close, was the thing. Dan wouldn’t have said anything, wouldn’t have had to say anything, except that they were so close. He could feel Casey’s breath on the back of his neck, and Casey had smiled at him earlier in a way that made Dan feel things, and then Casey draped his arm over Dan’s stomach in a way that was certainly adequate for conserving heat but that felt—anyway, he had to say something.

“Last night,” Dan said. “In the living room.”

There was a pause.

“Yes?” Casey sounded wary, or tired, or something.

“Janelle said something.”

“Oh, did she?”

“Yeah.”

Dan let the silence drag on again for a while. Maybe he’d fall asleep. He didn’t. Casey sighed in his ear.

“What did she say, Danny?”

“She said—she said she wasn’t going to tell anyone.”

“Tell anyone what?” Casey at least sounded appropriately baffled.

“Well, she didn’t exactly say.”

“She didn’t say what she wasn’t going to say?”

“That about sums it up.”

“Does she know she sounded ridiculous?”

“I would agree, except.” Dan swallowed. “I knew what she meant.”

Casey’s arm tightened briefly, then relaxed. “Oh.”

“And I said, ‘It’s not like that.’”

“Did you?”

“Those exact words.”

“Ah,” said Casey.

“So.”

“That’s that, then.”

“Sure.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Except—”

Casey’s arm tightened again. “Except what?”

“Here’s the thing. It’s not like that. Except, maybe it is, a little. Maybe—” Dan licked his lips and steeled himself to say the thing he had to say, if Casey was going to be this close to him, in the dark, if he didn’t want to feel like a coward later in the light. “Maybe I’m like that.”

Casey was holding very still. “Are you?”

“Is it okay? If I am?”

Are you?”

“Yeah,” said Danny, letting it out on a sigh. “And it just, it seems like, with the heat out, you should—you don’t have to—if you want to go downstairs…”

There was an aching moment’s silence. Casey said roughly, “What if I was like that?”

“What?”

“What if I was? Then would—you have to tell me, Danny, would this be like that?”

“Uh.” Dan’s heart, which had already been racing, seemed to be rattling so hard it was in danger of falling out of his chest altogether. “I. What?”

“Never mind,” said Casey, starting to take his arm back. “Just because—”

“It would.” Dan’s voice was too loud for the hushed room. He dropped it back to a whisper. “It would. If, uh, if you wanted it to be like that.”

Casey’s hand landed on Dan’s stomach. Dan’s dick twitched hopefully.

“You have to tell me,” said Casey. He sounded agonized. “I need to—Danny—you’re, I need to know.”

“Okay, I’m going to need a little more information,” said Dan.

Casey’s hand slid down and Dan arched into it, groaning softly.

“That guy tonight,” said Casey. “He’s not. You wouldn’t.”

“What?”

“I’m trying to—I’m in—” Casey hissed out through his teeth in frustration.

“What, in love with me?” asked Dan flippantly, not thinking clearly, not thinking at all except that he wanted Casey’s hand lower, right there, yeah.

Casey went completely still, and slowly began to withdraw his hand from below the waistband of Dan’s sweats.

Dan grabbed his hand to hold it there, and for a second they just hung there in the balance.

“Because,” said Dan. “I, uh, me. Me too.”

Casey said harshly, “Really? Or is it—”

“Come on, how blind can you be, I’ve been—”

“Oh, I’m blind now?” asked Casey. “When you—”

“I’ve always—look, since the beginning, since your shitty wedding, do you know what you look like in a suit, do you know how—”

“I’m not talking about how you look—”

“Well, you better sooner or later,” said Dan, “if you want to keep that hand where it is,” and Casey gave up and laughed, a great big shuddering laugh.

“You better not be jerking me around.” Casey’s hand slid lower and Dan let go of it, and then it closed around Dan’s cock and Dan’s eyes closed.

It was so warm in the cocoon of the blankets. The air was cold on his face, but he was warm.

“If anything,” Dan started, and Casey twisted his wrist viciously. Dan gasped. “Oh, God.”

“I mean it.” Casey’s breath was hot on his ear.

“Oh, God, oh, please. You want me to say it, you want me—”

“Yeah,” said Casey.

Dan ground back against him, and Casey was hard, and Dan choked out, “I’m in love with you, you jackass, I’ve been in love with you, I’m c-crazy about you, and I want you to, uh, oh, God, fuck me, I want you to fuck me,” and Casey gasped and ground his dick into Dan’s ass and Dan felt dizzy, caught between Casey’s cock, through their pajamas, and Casey’s hand on his dick. He couldn’t breathe. It was so good.

“I’m going to make you come,” said Casey, and Dan jerked and whined.

“I’m gonna—oh, God—”

Casey gave him a long, firm squeeze and pull, and Dan came like it was going out of style. He felt that one in his toes, curling, and he tried to fight down the noise, but Casey still huffed a laugh and put a hand over his mouth.

When he stopped convulsing, Casey kissed the back of his neck, the back of his ear, haphazardly. He did take his hand back, and a minute later pressed a Kleenex into Dan’s hand.

“Oh, man,” Dan managed, breathing hard. “Oh, my God. Come—come here.”

He twisted around and caught Casey’s mouth, and in the darkness lit by that faint purple glow of snowfall he thought he had a glimpse of Casey looking surprised; he kissed Casey hard, and then harder, with the cumulative pent-up aggression of well over a decade of stolen looks and furtive fantasies.

Casey made a faint, desperate noise, and his hands dug in to Dan’s hips.

“I want to, uh,” said Dan. “I want to blow you—”

“Jesus Christ!” Casey’s fingers tightened. He might leave bruises. Dan kissed him again. “Yeah. Yes. Please.”

So Dan dived under the covers—it was plenty hot enough, it was a sauna—but he tugged down Casey’s pajamas, breathing carefully, and rubbed his cheek against Casey’s cock. He couldn’t hear Casey very well, through the blankets, but he thought he could read the tension in Casey’s thighs, and he kissed back up the side of Casey’s cock and then took it in his mouth.

Casey curled down, grabbing Dan’s shoulders. It gave Dan more information to work with; Casey squeezing rhythmically as Dan sucked. Moving his head was tough among the enveloping wilderness of blankets, but he got in a few good bobs as Casey got closer to the edge, his muscles tensing, hands tightening, and then Casey gasped as Dan felt the throb going through his cock and he came—and kept coming, for a flatteringly long time—body jerking with every pulse.

Dan swallowed, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and surfaced from the quilts. Casey’s eyes were closed, chest heaving, like he’d just jumped eight or nine hurdles in a row.

Dan watched him for a moment, hand resting on Casey’s chest. Casey licked his lips and reached up to take Dan’s hand in his.

It wasn’t a large gesture, as gestures went, but Dan felt something shift and click into place. That was the words, and it was more than the words.

Casey’s eyes opened, and he smiled at Dan, and Dan smiled back.

Casey’s smile just kept getting wider until he broke into a surprised soft laugh. He ducked his head, still grinning.

“Hey,” said Dan, smile still tugging at his mouth, just to say something, no follow-up.

Casey stretched over and kissed him quickly. Dan felt it like a shock, lips tingling.

“You’re,” murmured Casey, and tightened his grip on Dan’s hand. He stayed rolled on his side as Dan dropped back down to rest his head on the pillow. “I—you know I’m not good with the whole words thing, right?”

Dan rolled his eyes. “Sure, you’re only paid an obscene salary to write—

“You know what I mean.” Casey got his other arm out from underneath him and put it under Dan’s head. “I’m not—I have feelings, all right?”

“Yeah, you and me both.”

“See, it’s—it looks easy for you. Is it easy for you?”

Dan laughed out loud. “I make it look easy.”

“Okay.” Casey smiled at him, helplessly, like a dope. “As long as you know—if I have trouble, you know, saying. Stuff. It’s still. I still.”

Dan snorted. “You can send me a Hallmark card.”

Casey bit his lip, trying to stifle a grin. “You know Valentine’s Day is coming up.”

“In like a month! What is wrong with you?” But Dan knew the way he said it, the words were meaningless. He was half-whispering it from inches away from Casey’s face, smiling hugely, and whatever he was saying, what he meant, and what Casey was hearing, was something else entirely.

Casey kissed him again.

 

They slept surprisingly well, given how cold the room was. But two people, under that many quilts, could keep the temperature bearable.

 

Dan woke up to a kiss. He woke up feeling good. He felt better than he’d felt in years, probably, he thought, and when Casey got out of bed Dan realized that the power must have come back on.

“Breakfast?” he asked hopefully.

“In a little bit,” said Casey. “You can sleep for another twenty minutes if you want to.”

“Okay.” He drifted back off. He had a good sense of time, like anyone who spent years of their life staring at a clock waiting for two minutes to VTR, and he opened his eyes again exactly twenty minutes later.

He got up, stretching, listening to his back crack, and then he had to do a very small and self-contained dance that ended in him doing finger-guns at himself in the vanity mirror. He realized his hair was sticking up in every direction and he was grinning.

So it was a good day. It was going to be a good day.

Casey came back in just as he finished getting dressed. Casey had grabbed a quick shower, and after he closed the door he came up close to Dan and put his hands on Dan’s hips.

Dan smiled at him. “Hey,” he said again, low and intimate.

“Hey.” Casey smiled back, but he looked worried about something. “I, uh, did something, and you don’t have to say—”

“What did you do?”

“I just checked in with Ida, and, uh, we could—this room is open for another night, if we wanted to. Stay.”

Dan raised his eyebrows, considering that. “What about the show?”

“The roads are garbage. Covered in sleet. I could call Dana and tell her we’re snowed in.”

Dan smiled slowly at Casey.

“You know what?” Dan said. “I’m on board. Let’s do it.”

Casey’s face broke into a wonderful smile.

 

A day later, in the car, the heat cranked up, Dan turned on the radio. Casey cut him a dark look.

“Just because we’re—doesn’t mean you own the radio,” said Casey.

“Such a thought would never enter my head.” Dan tilted his head back. “This is, however, some eminently classic rock, and I think even you might enjoy it.”

Casey listened in silent concentration for a moment.

“This is that Tim Petty guy, right?”

Dan choked on a laugh. “Tom Petty. And the Heartbreakers. Yeah.”

Casey nodded. “Well, I like it.”

“I thought you might.” Dan kept watching Casey, just because he could; and he sang along when they hit the chorus, learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.