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“I don’t know,” said Kim to Dave, on their side of the booth, “it’s just inevitable, isn’t it?”

“What is?” asked Casey. He had a nice, quiet buzz on; Anthony’s was seasonally appropriate, if a touch juvenile, with black tinsel draped everywhere and a skeleton in a corner behind the bar. Jack must be bumping into it constantly.

“That if you know somebody long enough, sooner or later you’re going to get a crush on them.”

“What?”

“You know. You meet somebody and there’s no spark, or whatever, but you get to know them, and if they’re reasonably nice and not a jerk, sooner or later you’ll think, but what about them? Why not them? It really messes things up.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen.”

“It always does. It’s inevitable. It’s like watching a train coming, sometimes, where you’re just staring at it thinking, no way, that can’t be real. But then it hits you and suddenly you’re just obsessed with, whoever, Nick from Accounting, and next thing you know you’re wondering why you and this person you don’t even necessarily have anything in common with aren’t married with babies.”

“I don’t think that’s ever going to happen to me.”

“Oh, it will. Maybe not now, maybe not for a while, but when it does you’ll be as shocked as the rest of us.”

“Who do you think’s going to get bit by the bug?” asked Elliot wistfully. “Is anybody going to fall madly in love with Dave?”

“Oh, probably Sonja.”

“From Hair?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s gorgeous.

“You think she’s too good for me?” asked Dave.

“No, I think you’ll be a lucky man.”

“What about Dan?” asked Mike. “He’s a good-looking guy.”

“It won’t be you,” said Kim, “he’s not your type.” Mike winked at her and made a kissy face, and she cracked up before sobering. “Maybe Natalie,” she said thoughtfully. “They’re friends, they’re both weird. It would work.”

“She’s Catholic,” said Casey. “He’s Jewish.”

“So was Jeremy, and that didn’t stop her.”

“It might stop Danny.”

“I got a crush like that once,” said Dave. “This girl from college. I knew her for years, no chemistry, nothing, zero, zip. And then one day she came over to help me with moving and I was looking at her, no makeup, all sweaty, and it hit me like a truck. I dropped a chair on my own foot.”

“Was she pretty?” asked Kim with interest.

“For Akron? Sure. For Manhattan? Not a chance.”

“Did you make a move?” asked Mike.

“Yeah.”

“You go out?”

“No. She had not been bitten by the bug.”

“There you go,” said Casey. “Even if you do get bitten, there’s no guarantee that the biting is mutual.”

Kim and Elliot traded an oddly weighted look.

“It’s okay, buddy,” said Elliot. “Someday, someone will suddenly realize they’re into you.”

“I don’t know in what universe you think I’m concerned with this—”

Kim patted his hand. “You’ll meet a nice girl with disturbingly high standards and she’ll lower them for you.”

“I do not need—”

Dave clapped him firmly on the shoulder. “You’re a good guy, Casey. You’re a catch.

“I hate you,” Casey said to him sincerely. “I haven’t hated you this much since the last time you went up against me at Trivia Night.”

“You mean the last time I annihilated you at Trivia Night.”

“Potato, po-tah-to.” Casey sighed, resigned.

“Speaking of which, I think I might go as hash browns this year.”

“How does that even work?” asked Kim, with a mix of horror and genuine curiosity.

The topic changed, but it was a grain of sand in an oyster, a nagging, gnawing irritation that started to take a slow and painful hold: why not Danny and Natalie?

It could happen, Casey thought. Maybe it even should. Natalie and Jeremy were on the long end of an off-again. Natalie was great, Danny was great.

They were both people he liked. He should be able to contemplate the prospect of their hypothetical future relationship with something resembling equanimity.

He couldn’t. He really, really couldn’t.

 

“Natalie looks nice today,” said Casey the next day at work.

Danny didn’t even look up from his notepad. He was wearing his third-favorite sweatshirt, a gray one with some tacky wolves embroidered on it. “Mm-hmm.”

“Don’t you think she looks nice?” Casey probed, like poking a loose tooth with his tongue.

Danny glanced up, half-frowning. “Maybe? Did she do something different?”

“No. I just think she looks nice.”

The look Danny was giving him was the same one Danny gave him every time Casey whacked his head during basketball and Danny got worried about a concussion. Danny worried too much.

“O-kaaaaaay,” said Danny slowly.

“I’m not being weird about this.”

Sure.” Danny nodded too emphatically. “Not weird at all.”

“I’m serious!”

“I know you are, buddy.”

“I’m just saying.”

“That Natalie looks nice today.”

“So you agree.”

“I don’t disagree, but I honestly had not put that much thought into the question. Natalie’s cute. She’s always cute. She dresses well. Ergo, Natalie will, on any given day, look nice.”

“You think she dresses well?”

“Casey, have you had any new head injuries lately?”

“No.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Danny put on a fake-concerned face and waved two fingers in the air.

“As many as you should cram directly up your—”

“Whoa, now, that’s more like it.”

“I don’t have a concussion.”

“You’re acting a little bit like someone with a concussion, though. Why the sudden obsession with whether Natalie looks nice today?”

“It’s not an obsession.”

“Oh, we cleared the hurdle into obsession territory, like, five minutes ago. For you, this constitutes a full-blown situation.”

“Danny.”

“Oh, my God.” Danny’s eyes slowly widened. “You have a crush on Natalie!”

“No!”

“You do!

“No!” Casey yelled back. “You do!”

“I do not!”

“Then it’s just a matter of time!”

Danny tilted his head and stared at Casey in frank and unflattering disbelief. “You have had a head injury.”

“It was something Kim said,” Casey muttered.

“Kim thinks I should have a crush on Natalie?”

“Kim thought it was a possibility that might develop if you worked together long enough.”

“So what Kim was saying was that people who work together, over the long term, might develop romantic feelings.”

“Yes.”

“And you interpreted that to mean that I was inches away from proposing to Natalie.”

“No!”

“Casey, my young friend, I say this with a great deal of affection, you are insane, what is wrong with you, have I at any point said or done anything to indicate that I was harboring secret feelings for Natalie?”

“No. But you might not have known you had them.”

“I might have had feelings of which I was unaware.”

“Exactly.”

“Casey.”

“What?”

“You’ve gone bananas. You’ve lost your marbles. If I were going to date anyone from the office, why would I pick Natalie?”

“Why wouldn’t you? She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s very pretty.”

“I knew it!” Danny jabbed a finger in his general direction. “You do have a crush on her and you’re just using this thing about me to process it!”

“I am not!” The whole idea of processing things sounded like Abby, anyway, but Casey was prepared to let that go.

“Casey,” said Danny, with a certain note of pity, “it would be a bad idea on a whole new level to go after Natalie. You know that, right?”

“I’m not going to!”

“Not just because of the thing with Jeremy, although, to be clear, that alone would be sufficient. He would do things to your car that don’t bear mentioning. However, I think the bigger issue is that she’s completely unhinged. At least one person in a relationship needs to have their head screwed on right. Between the two of you, you don’t even come close to a full deck of cards.”

“Danny, I do not have a crush on Natalie.”

“It’s true that she’s attractive, but she is also on the scary side.”

“I am not now, nor have I ever been, romantically interested in Natalie,” said Casey, right as their door opened and Dana walked in.

She looked back and forth between them and sighed. “You know what, I’m going to go out and come back in and we’re going to have a nice, normal conversation about the Falcons.”

“Are we?” asked Danny with bright, false interest.

She backed out and came back in.

“So,” she said, “about sports,” and after that they did have to work and Danny dropped it. Mostly.

 

“Dan tells me you’re secretly in love with me,” said Natalie cheerfully at Anthony’s that night.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Casey craned his neck to see where Danny was sitting. He was over with Dave and Chris, and he gave Casey a brief salute with his beer bottle while grinning. Casey surreptitiously flipped him off.

“Don’t start that up,” said Jack from his post behind the bar.

“Tell him that.” Casey frowned at his drink. “And I’ll have another. I’ll need another.”

“It’s okay! Lots of people are secretly in love with me. There’s Jeremy, of course, but that’s a topic we don’t have anything approaching enough time to cover today. And William from the bagel cart.”

“William isn’t in love with you.”

“How do you know that?”

“He’s in love with Kim. He asked me once about asking her out.”

“Oh. Well, he’s got good taste. I also suspect Kim might be secretly in love with me.”

“I think Kim likes men.”

“Mostly. But she’s not dogmatic about it.”

“Dogmatic,” said Casey, boggling.

“Narrow-minded.” Natalie raised her eyebrows. “You know, like—”

“I know what it means, Natalie, I just happen to think that describing sexual orientation like a religion is a little—”

“If you don’t like dogmatic, then fine. She’s flexible. She has range.”

Range? She’s not a soprano.

“Actually, she did sing soprano in college. She’s still good! She sang to me in the elevator once.”

“Maybe she is secretly in love with you.” Casey drank the rest of his beer. “I, however, am not.”

“I’m starting to get that impression.”

“I hate to disappoint you.”

“No, no, it’s actually much better this way, because I don’t have to disappoint you.

“You’d turn me down?” Casey felt bizarrely insulted, and when Natalie smirked at him, it was much worse.

“I know it’s difficult for you to believe that any woman wouldn’t be swayed by your wealth and fame—”

“I was thinking more along the lines of my good looks and extensive knowledge of German philosophers—”

“—but not everyone—oh, you poor innocent church mouse, the German philosopher thing is a huge liability in the dating pool. Hasn’t anyone told you that? Someone should really tell you that.”

“It is not.”

“It is.”

“Women like a thoughtful man.”

“No one likes a man who talks about Nietzsche.”

“Hey,” said Casey, genuinely wounded.

She patted his hand. “I’m doing you a favor. Ripping the band-aid off quickly. Just forget you ever read him.”

“There are meaningful questions about the human condition—”

“I’m telling you this for your own good.”

He sulked. Jack slid his new beer to him silently, the better to sulk over.

“Anyway,” Casey said, “I’m not secretly in love with you. It was just something that we were talking about last night that got me thinking.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“Kim was there, and Dave and Elliot. We got to talking about how you can know someone for a long time without getting a crush on them—”

“No one over the age of thirty is allowed to use the word ‘crush,’ I’m sorry—”

“—and then, excuse me, I’m telling this story and I did not ask for your commentary, you can get a crush on them out of nowhere.”

“I’m following you so far. Although it wouldn’t be out of nowhere if someone had a crush on me, it would be because I’m fabulous.”

“So people started making suggestions, you know, for who might end up with these work crushes.”

“And someone suggested you and me?”

“No, someone suggested you and Danny,” he said, with exquisite patience.

She squinted for a second, and then her eyes widened. “So you started asking Dan about me…”

“And he took it completely out of context.”

“Because it was bugging you.”

“Yes.”

“But you’re not secretly in love with me.”

“That is correct. I think we’re now, at long last, on the same page.”

“Yeah,” she said, distantly. There was an unsettling light in her eyes as she stared over the bar at the mirror and bottles beyond. “Uh-huh.”

“Are you even listening to me now?”

“You know it, sport.”

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“I need to see a man about a dog.” She hopped off the bar stool, leaving most of an unfinished Cosmo behind.

“Natalie? Are you all right? Natalie!” he called after her, but when she didn’t return, he shrugged and went back to his drink.

Jack was reaching up for a new bottle of whiskey. Casey said to him, “Sometimes I worry about that girl.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jack replied flatly.

Casey looked over to see Natalie sitting next to Danny. Their heads were close together, and she was talking quickly. Danny was frowning. He was wearing his brown leather jacket, and the faint damp in the fall air had ruined his gel, so his hair was falling over his forehead.

Hm, thought Casey, and obstinately refused to think any more about it. The skeleton in the corner was grinning at him. It put him off his bar peanuts.

 

The next morning when he rolled in, Danny was sitting at the computer, chewing on his thumbnail while he stared at the screen.

“Look at you,” said Casey. “Already hard at work.”

“Hm? Yeah.” Danny clicked something. His elbow was propped up on the desk, leaving him in something like a sprawl, and his hair had that combed-wet look it got when he hadn’t bothered to dry it after his shower.

“Ready to write the whole script by yourself? I can just go home and come back before air time.”

“Sure,” said Danny absently, which was weird.

“Danny.” Casey sat down on the edge of the desk. “Everything all right?”

“What? Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I don’t know, but you’re not listening to me.”

“And that’s unusual?”

“Damn right it is.”

“I’m hurt.”

“Danny…”

Danny pushed back from the computer, spinning the chair to face Casey and putting his hands behind his head. “It’s fine. I promise.”

“Fine-fine?”

“Fine-fine.”

“Okay.”

Danny nodded briskly and spun back to the keyboard.

“Because if it weren’t,” said Casey, “you’d tell me. Right?”

“Right.”

“Because we did all that—” Casey waved between them. “Rebuilding.”

“That we did.”

“And that was for a good reason. More than one good reason. Many good reasons.”

“It was.”

“And you’ll tell me if something’s wrong.”

“Casey. Case. My man. It is fine. I am not in distress, merely thinking over some options that were presented to me, and I’m feeling quite well.”

“Oh,” said Casey, who was suddenly certain that he’d given Natalie ideas.

Danny smiled crookedly at him. “You can relax.”

“Sure.”

Casey started puttering in preparation for his day, and relaxing was not high on his list of likely activities. Someone had decked out Marilyn, their statue who mostly held stray sweatshirts, with a witch’s hat.

 

Danny slipped out of the office ahead of the noon rundown. When Casey made it to the conference room, Danny and Natalie were sitting next to each other. Whispering. He thought he heard Natalie giggle. There was a smile on Danny’s face that he kept trying to suppress, without success.

They were reasonably professional during the rundown. Casey tried valiantly to ignore the queasy feeling in his stomach at the sight of them casually bumping elbows.

After the rundown, safely back in their office, Casey was getting ready to pretend to be totally unconcerned about the situation when Danny said, “Natalie looks nice today, don’t you think?”

Torn between his absolute conviction that Danny was screwing with him, and his desire to appear normal, Casey opened his mouth and after only a few awkward seconds of silence said, “She certainly does, but then, I’m told she dresses well.”

Danny laughed out loud and then went back to working on the script. Casey was outraged, although it would have been hard to say why.

“Do you know what you’re going to be for the Halloween party?” asked Danny, somewhere in the middle of cementing their patter for the piece on the Flames.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Well?” Danny spread his hands. “What’s the costume?”

“I still have that pirate one left over from when we dressed Charlie up as a parrot.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s been a few years since I wore that one.”

“Eight? Nine?”

“Something like that. So I figured, why not.”

“Wear it again, get some use out of it.”

“Exactly. It’s been in my storage unit, taking up space.” Casey’s storage unit, dusty and over-packed, had been no treat to excavate, but he’d retrieved a few things recently and uncovered the costume, and now it was hanging in his closet. Moth-hole free and, he would have admitted if pressed (although no one seemed likely to press him on the topic), a little bit dashing.

“Is that the one where you have the fancy hat?” Danny gestured around his head.

“Yeah.”

“You found the hat?”

“I stored it all together.”

Danny snorted. “Probably neatly folded and labeled.”

“There’s no call to scoff at organization. It’s a virtue.”

“Sure, Martha Stewart.”

“Hey!”

“It’s a compliment, trust me.”

“I find I’m not particularly inclined to trust you. What are you going as?”

Danny shrugged. “Haven’t made up my mind yet.”

“You don’t have a lot of time. You’ll have to start looking if you want to find anything.”

“Oh, I’ve got a couple of ideas, just haven’t settled on one yet.”

Casey spotted a place they could smooth out a transition, and leaned forward over Danny’s shoulder to point it out to him on the screen. Danny was still wearing his usual cologne, Calvin Klein, the same thing he’d worn since the early 90s. Casey had seen the bottle in Danny’s bathroom hundreds of times. Sometimes it tickled Casey’s nose, especially when he got that close to Danny.

He wondered if Natalie liked Calvin Klein.

 

After the show that night, no one was in the mood for Anthony’s. Casey was putting his coat on when Natalie appeared at the office door.

“Hey, Dan,” she said, friendly and pleasant, like someone who wasn’t scheming.

“Be there in a sec.” Danny shrugged on his jacket, the brown leather again. It went well with the corduroy slacks; Danny looked like a refined college professor. He looked very respectable. He looked like someone Natalie should date.

“You two going out somewhere?” asked Casey, trying desperately to sound like this was a matter in which he had only a normal and usual level of interest.

“Just grabbing a drink.” Natalie gave Casey a beaming, innocent smile. His suspicion only deepened.

He opened his mouth to ask whether they were doing this to taunt him, and then he rehearsed the question in his head and heard how it sounded, and shut his mouth again.

“Have fun,” he settled on instead.

Danny gave him a little grinning wave as he left. Casey did not follow them to see where they went, and the idea didn’t even occur to him, because he was a well-adjusted adult man.

Well-adjusted, God damn it.

He went home and re-read his favorite chapter in War and Peace. He fell asleep somewhere in it.

He woke up in a cold sweat. His alarm clock showed, in its neon green numbers, that it was 06:18 AM. He would have liked to disclaim all knowledge of his dreams, but he could still see it, vivid as a picture, as Cinemax, a soft-focus Vaseline-smeared lens, Natalie’s body under Danny’s. He woke up still hard, and he woke up confused, full of a restless anger that had no clear target.

He fell back asleep slowly and with difficulty.

 

“Hey,” said Dana, poking him with the capped end of her pen after one of their impromptu meetings while they sat in Isaac’s office, “why did Natalie ask me whether I thought Danny was cute?”

“What did you say?”

“I said of course he is, I didn’t hire him to be an eyesore to the entire Eastern Seaboard.”

“Very professional.”

“I’d better be. Why did she ask?”

Casey rubbed his forehead. “It’s a long story.”

“Good thing for you I have time.”

So he recounted it, as briefly as possible and leaving out several significant factors, like how he was slowly going insane without being able to pinpoint why.

“Huh.” Dana rolled the pen between her fingers, staring off into space. “You think you gave them ideas?”

“What?”

“Like they’re going to try to date? I mean, they’re both technically single right now. They could. It wouldn’t be wrong. Just weird.”

“It would be really weird!” He was defensive. He didn’t like it.

“They’re both young, professional people. Attractive people. I never thought Dan was Natalie’s type, but she could be his.”

“Hey.” Casey was irritated despite himself.

“I’m not saying he’s not cute! Sexy, even. We get a lot of mail about how sexy he is.”

“I’m starting to get offended.”

“We get more mail about how dignified you are. Fewer women wanting to throw their bras onto your metaphorical stage.”

“Now I’m definitely offended.”

“It’s okay. Danny’s just sexier than you are,” said Dana in a voice that she probably imagined was soothing. Casey glowered at her.

“Thanks, Dana. I mean it. From the bottom of my heart.”

“Can he help it that he’s sexy? He’s got very pouty lips. A good pout.”

“Don’t you start!”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, I don’t see any of this in personal terms. He’s an asset to the show. Him and his pouty lips.” She made a pouty face. It just made her look like a goldfish.

“You look like a goldfish,” Casey informed her loftily. “And for the record, I have a nice mouth, too!”

“See, even you aren’t denying that Dan has good pouty lips. Plush lips. Just a good mouth for television. Little hard to light! Sometimes we get shadows from his beautiful, fluffy lips.”

Fluffy?” He could feel his pulse in his forehead. “You’re just fucking with me now.”

Now, yes, I’m just fucking with you. However, it is true that Dan is sexy and has a nice mouth.”

The door to the office opened. “Hello,” said Isaac. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not a thing,” Casey lied smoothly.

“Don’t you think Dan has a nice mouth?” Dana said.

Isaac looked around his office for a long, quiet moment; walked, leaning rather heavily on his cane, over to the liquor cabinet; liberated his entire bottle of Chivas; and walked out.

“I’ll take that as an agreement!” Dana shouted after him as the door closed.

“It wasn’t,” said Casey with grim determination.

“None of it’s collagen, you know. That’s all Dan.”

“I’ve known him since he was eighteen. I think I’d have noticed if he got lip injections.”

“Would you, though?” she asked. “No offense, but you’re not the most perceptive of men.”

“You’re hellbent on offending me today!”

“You’re just touchy because no one is setting you up with Natalie or talking about your mouth.”

“I do not want to be set up with Natalie!”

“Good, because I’m not doing it.” She tossed her hair. “For multiple very good reasons, might I add, none of which are any lingering feelings on my own behalf.”

“Well, good. I’d hate to think you were still carrying a torch for me!”

“The torch died a long time ago. You are terrible at dating.”

“I am not!”

“You are.”

“I’m very good at dating.”

“You’ve gone on about four dates in your entire life and they’ve all been unmitigated disasters.”

“Not all of them!”

“Name one that went well.”

“The second date with Pixley was good. After I, uh, apologized. For the first date.”

“Where you told her you were in love with me?”

“That may have been part of the reason for the need for an apology.”

“Yeah. Buddy, you are no good at dating.” She paused. “Wait, do you think Natalie really is trying to date Dan? Do you think that’s happening?”

“No! Maybe.”

“Oh my God. That means there’s gossip. There is juicy gossip out there, and I’m out of the loop. Why wouldn’t she tell me? They’re serious. They must be serious.”

“I don’t think they’re serious. I don’t think they’re even actually dating.”

“Like you’d know,” she said witheringly. “Casey, I love you, you know that, in a platonic way, but you have never recognized a come-on or a genuine feeling in your life. You got married because you should. You went after me because you should. You tried to sleep with other women, do not tell me if or how many times you succeeded, because you thought you should. You wouldn’t even know what you actually wanted if it snuck up on you in a dark room and bit you!”

“Why would what I really want sneak up on me in a dark room? Wouldn’t a straightforward, frontal attack make more sense?”

“With you? Please.” She snorted. “Anyway, we should cut this short.”

“Too late.”

“I need to see Natalie about… something.”

“You’re going to ask her about the Danny thing?”

“That may come up.”

“I don’t think they’re dating.”

“I think she’d better tell me if they are or she’ll regret it!”

“What are you going to do, refuse to loan her your shoes?”

“We aren’t even close to the same size! Are you that oblivious, or are you pretending in order to irritate me?”

“Can’t it be both?”

“It can’t.” She sighed in exasperation. “I’m going.”

He sat, still in the chair across from Isaac’s desk, and waited for a few minutes to determine whether Isaac was going to come back. He didn’t. It was a shame; Casey had wandered in for a reason, he wanted to talk to Isaac about the Halloween party, but it could wait.

 

“Have you ever thought about getting lip injections?” asked Casey.

“What?” Danny frowned at him in confusion.

“Lip injections. Collagen. You know, filler, like in The First Wives Club.”

“Who are you, and what have you done with Casey?”

“Goldie Hawn was in it! I’m allowed to know the occasional chick flick.”

“You most certainly are not. Who made you watch it?”

“No one. It was on and I couldn’t sleep.”

“I have never thought about getting lip injections.”

“Okay.”

“Not until now. Why, do you think I need them? Wait, why have you been thinking about my lips?”

Casey thumped his head into the desk a couple of times.

“That didn’t actually answer my question,” said Danny helpfully.

“Dana brought it up.”

“Dana was thinking about my lips? Here I thought Natalie was the only person around here who was secretly in love with me.”

“Dana—you know what, I’m just going to get some work done over here.”

“Did she watch The First Wives Club?”

“How should I know?”

“I don’t know, I’m just asking!”

“I think I hate you.”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

Casey flipped him the bird and tried to focus on his writing.

“Tell Dana I don’t need lip injections,” Danny added after a few moments of pensive thought.

“I am not telling her that. She didn’t think you did.”

“Then why did she bring them up?”

“She wanted to be clear that you had not had them.”

“And you thought maybe I should?”

“No.”

“What’s wrong with my lips?” Danny yanked open one of the file drawers and somehow produced a hand mirror from it. It was the kind Lisa had kept in the guest bedroom in Dallas, with a plastic handle, just in case someone needed to touch up their lipstick when the bathroom was occupied.

“We have a mirror?”

“We have several.” Danny was frowning, pursing his lips at the mirror. Pouting. Danny was… pouting at the mirror. Casey decided to abandon the question of why they had mirrors, and how many constituted several.

“There’s nothing wrong with your lips.”

“But you think I should get filler?”

“No.”

“Then why did you ask if I’d thought about it?”

“Can I plead temporary insanity?”

“Why were you talking with Dana about my lips?”

“It just came up.”

“That is not the kind of thing that just comes up, Casey.” Danny dropped the mirror back in the drawer and closed it with a bang. “You and I have been friends for many years, and not once have we casually discussed someone else’s lips.”

“Claudia Schiffer.”

“That is different and you know it.”

“Naomi Campbell.”

“She is a supermodel and we are worldly men. Why were you and Dana discussing my lips?

Casey sighed, and then sighed some more. “We were talking about the Natalie thing.”

“Oh, good grief, you’re still talking about that?”

“Only in passing!”

“Evidently not passing enough.”

“Look, she happens to be functioning under the delusion that you’re sexier than I am.”

“I think we should stop talking about this right now, before you get all pissy about it.”

“I will not get pissy!” Casey said indignantly.

“You’re already pissy!”

“I am not.” He was, but he was not ready to cede the point.

“You’re talking about my lips with Dana. Something, somewhere, has broken down badly.”

“That was after the sexiness. We were talking about why you’re sexy and she brought up your lips.”

“I’m so profoundly at a loss as to how to respond to any of this.”

“That hasn’t stopped you from responding, I’ve noticed.”

“I’m sexy?” asked Danny, with a certain wistfulness that, hard as Casey tried to ignore it, was somehow appealing.

Casey shuffled some papers and tapped them into a neat brick. He wasn’t sure what they were. “Dana says we get a lot of mail to that effect.”

“How much is a lot? Is it piles? Could I roll around in it?”

“You might catch something that way.”

“Dana thinks I’m sexy, though.”

“She says the Eastern Seaboard seems to agree.”

“That’s a lot of coastal property.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Do you think I’m sexy?” asked Danny, with guileless eyes, and a little self-mocking quirk to his mouth that told Casey he was asking in deadly earnest.

Casey had two options: laugh it off, or answer equally earnestly. Laughing it off would certainly hurt Danny, and good God, he’d done enough of that for any given two or three lifetimes.

“Yes, of course,” Casey said briskly. Breezily. He was a brisk, breezy guy. He was cool. “You’re on television, Danny, there are certain expectations of sexiness that are a part of our work.”

“Oh, so now that I’m sexy it’s our work,” said Danny, but his eyes were twinkling.

“Being sexy is a lot of work. It takes two sets of broad, manly shoulders to carry it.”

“You’re calling my shoulders broad and manly?”

“Perhaps not as broad and manly as my own.”

“Now there’s the Casey I know and love.”

“Can we please, at any point, do some actual work?”

“Do we usually do that? It doesn’t seem like we do.”

“I need to find a way to describe a sports victory that doesn’t use the words ‘crushed,’ ‘obliterated,’ or ‘annihilated,’ but communicates the same essence.”

“Vaporized?”

“See, that’s where you come in handy,” said Casey, turning back to his script. “You have a way with words.”

“Damn right I do.”

“And sometimes you even exercise it in the service of our mutual job.”

“Now, that sounds like a sex joke waiting to happen.”

“What?”

“Our mutual job.”

“You know what, I’m not going there.”

“I’m just saying,” persisted Danny, “it sounds like—”

“Can we assume I also went to middle school and therefore know what it sounds like?”

“I suppose we could, although it would rule out my theory that you were placed here on this Earth as a full-grown adult by an alien species seeking to better understand the nature of humanity.”

“There are days when I wish you’d be abducted by aliens.”

“I wish the same thing every Monday.”

“Danny,” said Casey, getting desperate, “I need to write a script, and it’s so much easier when you are also writing the script.”

“Sounding a little needy, there, Case.” But Danny scooted his chair in closer and helped Casey write the segment about the Flames vaporizing the Oilers.

 

Danny and Natalie started going to eat together. Almost every meal. Where Danny would formerly have invited Casey, or at least brought back sandwiches or stray cartons of lo mein for Casey, he did not.

“Am I in the dog house?” Casey wondered aloud on the fourth or fifth time it happened.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Danny. “You’d never fit in one.”

“I am not a short man.”

“No, you are not.”

“Neither are you, though.”

“Damn right.” Danny straightened up to his full height. “Just because you break the six-foot barrier does not mean I’m not on the taller end of normal.”

“That makes me sound abnormal.”

“If the shoe fits…”

“Eat it.”

“I’m not eating a shoe. That’s not even a saying.”

“No, but it is a whole-hearted invitation.”

“I’m just enjoying some quality Natalie time,” said Danny with a falsely sweet smile. Deliberately, so Casey would know it was a front, and know that he was meant to know. “We don’t hang out enough.”

“Sure.”

“She’s very funny.”

I’m funny,” said Casey, aggrieved, and then sat back for the inevitable mockery. Oddly enough, it didn’t come.

Danny smiled at him. “Yes. You are.”

“Apparently not funny enough to be invited to sit at the lunch table with the popular kids.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. We’re not inviting lots of people.”

“Hmph.” But Casey let it go.

He still didn’t enjoy how they were glued together at the hip at meetings, though. Or how he kept stumbling on them laughing together over jokes he never quite heard in the hallway.

 

Casey was sitting on his couch a couple of nights before the Halloween party, enjoying a restful post-work session of channel-surfing around different bad shows and infomercials, when his phone rang.

He grabbed the cordless off the coffee table, planting his feet back on the floor. “Yello.”

“You are so unquestionably the least cool man on Earth,” said Dana, “I can’t believe it ever escapes anyone’s notice.”

“And a good evening to you too. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I think I figured it out.”

“What?”

“Natalie and Dan.”

“Figured what out?”

“They have a plan.

“That doesn’t sound right. Wait, no, I’ve thought about it for the length of time it took me to say that, and it sounds exactly right.”

“That’s what I thought!”

“What do you think their plan is?”

“See,” said Dana, “I think they’re trying to freak us out.”

“It’s working!”

“And they know that.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“I don’t know! Pretend not to be freaked out? That’s about all I’ve got, actually. We can pretend to be encouraging them, or something.”

“I can’t approve.”

“Oh, you never approve of anything.”

“That’s not true!”

“You didn’t even approve of our Halloween party being at a bar.”

“We’ve had it at the studio before! I don’t see why we couldn’t do it again!”

“The liability—”

“Ugh, you sound like a lawyer.”

“You’d know, you had to talk to enough of them in the divorce.”

“Low blow, there, Whitaker.”

“All my blows are low, it’s a trademark move.”

“No, a trademark move is that thing you do when you have the giant blue margarita.”

Once, Casey. That happened once.”

“Twice and counting. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

“I would never expect you to forget anything that even mildly embarrassed someone else.”

“You call it embarrassment, I call it an artistic tour de force.”

“The thing is,” Dana said, “I can come up with one other reason why they’re doing this, but it doesn’t make sense.”

“What is it?”

“Well, two reasons. One reason is that they really are discovering some sort of romantic spark. I haven’t completely ruled it out. They’re very attractive people, you know.”

“Sure.” He ignored the twist of uncomfortable anger he felt at that.

“Or they’re trying to make someone jealous.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I don’t know who, is the thing.”

“Natalie knows I’m not actually—and she doesn’t seem interested in me at all.”

“It could be Jeremy.”

“He doesn’t work here anymore,” said Casey, for whom that was still a sore spot.

“Maybe she expects him to hear rumors?” But Dana sounded dubious about her own conclusion.

“I can’t imagine Dan wanting anyone to be jealous.”

“You, maybe,” said Dana.

 

It was like running into a brick wall.

 

“What?” said Casey. He was surprised to find that his voice hadn’t changed at all. He still sounded nothing more than mildly curious.

“He might be trying to make you jealous,” she elaborated. “With how competitive you two get, it wouldn’t surprise me. Although you’d think he’d know you’re not into Natalie.”

“You’d think.”

“Anyway, it’s dumb, right? I don’t think that’s the reason. I think they’re trying to freak us out.”

“I have to agree,” said Casey’s mouth on autopilot.

“Good. Well, you should go to sleep. I should go to sleep. What are you doing, watching some commercial for fancy sunglasses?”

“It’s a massage chair.”

“Don’t buy it.”

“I won’t.”

“Okay, good choice. See you tomorrow.”

“You, too.” He hit the disconnect button and let the handset fall.

You, maybe. You, maybe. You, maybe.

He might be trying to make you jealous.

She hadn’t meant it the way he’d heard it. That much was clear. But he’d heard it, and now he couldn’t un-hear it.

What if Danny was—his mind shied away from the thought. It was too much to process, like looking up at the Empire State Building; you had to tip your head back and look at the top, and scan slowly down. You couldn’t see it all at once.

So he thought, that’s ridiculous. Danny likes women. And Danny did, demonstrably, like women. Danny seemed to like women a great deal. Danny spent a lot of time asking women out, going out on dates with them, and presumably sleeping with them, although Casey never asked and Danny rarely told.

(Casey never asked. Casey had reasons for never asking. Surely that wasn’t important, surely Casey wasn’t avoiding hearing about something about which he might not want to hear. He was just uncomfortable with stories about sexual escapades. That was all. He’d been raised to be uncomfortable with that kind of thing. Story.)

Danny liked women, therefore Danny didn’t like men. Right? That argument was unassailable. Kim could be flexible, Kim was a woman. It was different for men. You couldn’t—

He remembered Danny saying, with a casual ease, my friend Rick, he’s bisexual, somewhere in the mid-90s. Early 90s? Rick had been nice, Casey had met him once at Danny’s cramped little apartment during a party, and Casey had been very, very surprised to hear that Rick was bisexual. He’d shut the thought away, thinking only cursorily about it, Huh, maybe Rick’s gay. But Rick existed. Danny believed in Rick’s existence. Therefore, maybe it was possible.

And maybe Danny believed in Rick’s existence because Danny knew something Casey didn’t.

He picked up the cordless again and almost started to dial, but gave it up.

He couldn’t talk to Danny about this, and talking to anyone else would be useless. Worse than useless. It was pure speculation. And even if it was true—

Well. If it was true.

If he was right.

Even if Danny was, he wasn’t. He couldn’t afford to be. He had spent far too much of his life not—he couldn’t be, that was all. That was the approach he had always taken, and it had served him well so far in life.

(Sure, it had served him well. So well he had an ex-wife and a couple of failed affairs. Women who hated his guts.)

If it was true.

He got up to pace the apartment. He couldn’t hold still, thinking about it. He’d never thought about it. It had never, not once, in twelve years, crossed his mind. He’d looked at Danny thousands of times and never once—

(He looked at Danny a lot, didn’t he? He looked. He noticed things about Danny he didn’t notice about anyone else. He noticed the way the light reflected off Danny’s hair. He noticed Danny’s lips, he thought about Danny’s lips. He thought about Danny even more often than he looked at Danny.)

He got back to the couch and sat down on it heavily.

Do you think I’m sexy?

Do I think he’s sexy?

Casey got back up abruptly. He needed a beer. He needed several beers. He would need to get up on time for work. He could have a couple of beers, provided he drank them quickly.

He was drinking the first one—chugging was an undignified word, so it wasn’t what he was doing—when the thought occurred to him that, if Danny was trying to make him jealous, that meant Danny had probably thought about sleeping with him, and he choked on his beer and some came out his nose.

After he downed the second beer, though, it was easier to consider things. He was thinking about things he had not thought about before. He was thinking about things he had not let himself think about. He was thinking about things that were, possibly, maybe, both dangerous (the potential downstream effects of any hanky-panky were vast) and exciting (Danny’s crooked smile, Calvin Klein cologne).

It was easier to consider whether he might, possibly, potentially, be attracted to Danny after the third beer. He leaned back on his couch and tentatively tucked a hand under the elastic of his sweatpants. He let his fingers rest on the soft flesh next to his hipbone, trying to think. He didn’t jerk off all that much and when he did, half the time it was a struggle to come up with a fantasy. He had more luck sometimes just letting his mind go blank.

He wasn’t even sure what men did together. Well, that wasn’t strictly speaking true. He knew all the jokes; he knew there were blowjobs, and butt stuff. Presumably hand jobs as well, or was that too juvenile? He’d never gotten into anything too far to the rear with Lisa—he’d never asked, she’d never volunteered. And with Sally and Pixley, things had been too new for that. It was the kind of favor he hesitated to ask a woman for. He’d certainly never considered anyone touching him that way.

Blowjobs were easier. A safer bet. He could try to picture that. He’d gotten a few in his lifetime—he wasn’t sure whether it had been more or less than his fair share; Lisa had never objected, didn’t mind them as foreplay, and Sally had treated them as de rigueur for their liaisons.

So he closed his eyes. Maybe it was too much to think about Danny, the person, the colleague, the friend, the proper noun, in that way. He could try thinking about men. They’d scattered through his mind before during those moments. He’d generally managed to think about men with women when that happened, though.

He realized with a shock that it was actually easier to think about the men without the women. It took some strange pressure off. He could just think about someone, someone like—oh, like Shane McArnold, who was an asshole, so it wouldn’t even matter if it felt like a violation of some unwritten rule of sexual courtesy. Masturbatory etiquette. He could picture—

Oh, he could picture Shane McArnold, it turned out. He could picture Shane on his knees, he could picture putting his cock into Shane’s mouth, he could very, very clearly picture how good it would be to put his cock into Shane’s mouth and to watch him suck it, watch Shane’s head bob, and he was pumping himself with a tight grip, imagining Shane’s tongue, and then he suddenly remembered that the point of this was to consider whether maybe Danny—

And he was coming, heart slamming in his chest, waves of adrenaline pouring over him in counterpoint to the pleasure.

In the cold light of more rational post-orgasmic thought, he wondered whether, if Danny wasn’t trying to make him jealous, he’d just succeeded at fucking up everything he’d been hanging on to by the skin of his teeth for over a decade.

 It was a distinct possibility. But it wasn’t the only possibility.

He staggered to bed and fell asleep, faster than he had any right to. Orgasms were good for something, at least.

 

Sunlight woke him up the next morning. He hadn’t bothered to pull the curtains all the way before he fell asleep.

He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. He couldn’t think for a minute why today felt different, what had changed. His alarm hadn’t gone off, but it wasn’t that far away.

Then he moved and felt a twinge in a muscle of his inner thigh, and he remembered. It came back in pieces: the thought, the conversation, the mental image of Danny on his knees.

And he was full of adrenaline again, awake in a heartbeat, feeling his stomach sink through the floor.

It had seemed so obvious at night. Of course Danny was into him. But morning made it look different: if the thought hadn’t occurred to Casey before, how sure could he be that it had occurred to Danny? How likely was it that they’d made it twelve years into a friendship without this coming up?

Or had it? Had he missed it?

He searched his memory for any hint, any clue. Any time when—but it seemed useless. All he had was a blizzard of memories, like sitting inside a snow globe, of times when Danny had smiled at him, laughed too hard at his jokes. And maybe that had all been perfectly ordinary.

He couldn’t remember any instances of wondering whether Danny was watching too closely when he changed, or leaning in too close, or any telltale clues he might be able to retrieve from the past.

He was starting from scratch, and possibly ruining everything, and he kept thinking about Danny’s mouth and ended up needing to jerk off again before his alarm went off, which was the most action his dick had seen in months.

 

Casey was proud of himself for how normal he managed to seem when he went in. He greeted Danny exactly as if he hadn’t just been vividly imagining taking Danny’s jeans off. Danny answered absent-mindedly and pointed out that they were going to run into a real problem with their coverage of how Miami was doing in the NCAA rankings.

“The Hurricanes are blowing their competition out of town,” mumbled Danny. “No. God. No, that’s awful.”

Casey kept watching him, was the problem, and he wasn’t always answering at the right times or at the right ways.

But Danny seemed preoccupied, and Casey was grateful for that.

He kept seeing the way Danny’s neck curved as he bent his head over the script, or how Danny fiddled with a pencil, and he’d start thinking about Danny’s hands and next thing he knew Danny was saying, “Does that sound like a thing a human being would say? Case?”

“Say it again,” said Casey. “I need to think about it.”

Danny picked up the piece of paper and read off his revision.

Casey kept seeing. It was a problem. It was going to be a problem.

 

And, naturally, that was the day Casey was coming back from a water cooler break and rounded the corner towards Editing only to hear a familiar voice. He came to a halt, not quite sure what to do, as Danny said, “—Natalie.”

“Sure,” said Elliot easily. “Hey, quick question.”

“Yeah?”

“What is up with this Natalie thing?”

Casey held perfectly still.

“Oh.” There was a smile in Danny’s voice. “That’s gotten around?”

“Well, Dana knew, so.”

“Everyone knew, shortly?”

“Exactly.”

“And you’re asking because…”

“Prurient interest only.”

“I see.”

“And there are some bets riding on it. I have ten bucks that this is to screw with Jeremy.”

Danny burst out laughing. “Can you change your bet?”

“No.”

“I hate to break it to you, but that ten bucks is gone.”

“Is it to screw with someone? I only lose five bucks in that case.”

“It is.”

Casey bit his lip and did an extremely restrained victory dance.

“Although,” Danny added. Casey froze mid-dance.

“Although?” Elliot was much too interested.

“It’s been really great to spend more time with Natalie, honestly.” Danny sounded… warm. A little wistful. There were alarm bells going off in Casey’s head. “She’s great, and I know we all know that, but she’s even cooler than I gave her credit for.”

“Also she’s very hot,” said Elliot.

“She is, in fact, very hot.”

“Although cute might be more accurate.”

“Don’t let her hear you say that.” Danny laughed. “She hates being cute. She’d rather be scary. I think she’d like to rule with an iron fist.”

“Maybe if she wore taller boots?”

“I’ll pass that tip along.” Danny’s voice was indulgent.

“Don’t tell her it came from me.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“I think taller boots would make her seem more intimidating.”

“Just to be clear, are you referring to boots with higher heels, or boots that go further up her legs?”

Elliot must have thought it over for a minute. “Both?”

“I’ll allow it.” There was some muffled laughter, and then Danny’s voice again, getting quieter. “But I meant to ask you about that transition—”

Casey frowned at the wall for a minute. He thought about punching it, but in the end he knew he’d feel ridiculous. His hand would hurt and it wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Casey had never been a master of grand gestures. Not for lack of trying, but for lack of aptitude; where Danny could get away with sweeping a woman off her feet with flowers, chocolate, last-minute trips to exotic destinations, and little-known bistros tucked into romantic corners of the city, Casey was a dinosaur. Or a tank. Inflexible, to an unflattering extreme.

And if Danny was going to get—sentimental, about Natalie. Sappy. If he was going to get romantic, if he was going to develop feelings, where did that leave Casey?

Right where he’d been when he first heard the suggestion. Out in the cold.

He settled for grimacing angrily at the wall and then went back to doing his job. Like a professional. He might be temperamental at times, but he could be a professional. He could snap out of it.

Even cooler than we give her credit for.

Was that a declaration? Did it show any signs of growing into one?

Casey tossed and turned that night and pretended to himself that it was fine, before acknowledging that it was not fine, but the only thing he could think to do about it was grit his teeth and his jaw was getting tired.

 

“Hey,” said Danny as soon as Casey walked in the door, “guess what day it is?”

“It’s not Halloween, Danny.”

“It’s essentially Halloween!”

“It is not. That was on Wednesday.”

“It’s our Halloween.

“It is the date of our Halloween party. That’s not the same thing.”

“You’re such a Halloween humbug!”

“That’s not a cultural reference.”

Danny threw a mini-sized Twix at him. It connected solidly with his chest; he looked down at it as it fell to the floor.

“You’re also supposed to catch things when I throw them at you.”

“I’m not a huge Twix fan. Pelt me with Mars Bars, we’ll see.”

“Three Musketeer?” Danny squinted into the plastic cauldron of candy he was holding. “No Mars, sorry.”

“I think I’m good for now.”

“Suit yourself.” Danny shrugged and ripped open a fun-size package of M&Ms, dumping them into his mouth.

Which gave Casey a rush of something down his spine, and he had to sit down lest it be visible; he got behind the desk in a hurry.

“What’s your costume, anyway?” Casey asked to distract himself.

Danny wagged a finger at him. “That would be telling.”

“It would indeed.”

“I will tell you this, though. You’ll get a kick out of it.”

“Oh, will I?”

“I certainly expect that you will.”

“I’ve been known to defy expectations before.”

“Of course.”

“Hey!”

“For instance, should I expect you to know a name for Celebrities—”

“Oh, shut it.”

Danny laughed. They got down to work. Casey couldn’t stop wondering what Danny’s costume was going to be, and whether it would, strictly speaking, require a shirt.

He thought it probably would. Danny didn’t make a habit out of wandering around shirtless.

Maybe he should.

 

There was a moment on the air that night where Casey was watching Danny wrap up a segment and he had the thought, stunning in its clarity, I want to kiss him.

Danny threw it back to him. Casey turned back to the camera, smiled big at it, and said, “That’s all from us tonight. Tune in again tomorrow night to see more of our collected wit.”

“We pass around a very big hat to collect enough,” Danny added, and winked to the camera.

Once they were out, Danny whooped and pumped one arm. “Party time, baby!”

“Please be less enthusiastic,” said Dana. “Some of us are at most forty percent excited for this party.”

“What’s your costume going to be?” Danny asked her with great interest.

“You’ll see it soon enough.”

“Dan, my man!” Natalie came up behind him to give him a brisk shoulder-pat. “You going to be ready soon?”

“Mere moments, my young friend.” Danny smiled up at her over his shoulder. It was infuriating.

“Mere moments,” Casey sing-songed under his breath with bad grace. Danny flipped him off.

Casey changed in their office. He would have denied hoping to run into Danny there, and having the chance to try to gauge whether Danny looked at him with any unusual interest when he was taking off his pants, but no such luck.

Dana stuck her head in as he was getting the hat with the attached wig settled on his head over the eyepatch. He kept catching glimpses of the dark curly hair out of the corner of his eye and turning his head to see if it was a bug. She said, “Want to share a cab?”

“Sure.” He grabbed his coat and blinked at her. “What are you?”

“A vampire.” She sighed. “Look, I had the cape, and all I had to buy was some teeth.”

“You had the make-up?”

“Not the white paint. But every woman has black eyeshadow and red lipstick.”

“You do look very ghoulish.”

“Thank you. What do you think they’re going to do about Kimander Johnson’s latest bullshit?”

“If they have any sense, they’ll fire him.”

“I don’t see them having sense, somehow.”

The eyepatch messed him up; he walked into the doorframe with his entire shoulder on the way out, and Dana laughed at him, but not too much. Considering.

They chatted pleasantly enough on the short ride to the club. It was a fancy place, Casey couldn’t deny that. The studio had put in a good chunk of change on renting it.

“Calvin said he heard good things,” Dana said dubiously, looking around as she surrendered her coat and got a ticket. Her cape was black velvet, and it kept getting tangled as she turned around too fast. The dress was a nice long black one she’d worn before.

“I might fall down.” Casey tugged at the elastic string on his eyepatch. “I’m mostly blind.”

“You’re half blind. That’s nothing. You came to work with those dumbass Roy Orbison glasses on.”

“The ophthalmologist gave me those! They were to protect my eyes! I needed an exam, he had to dilate me.”

“Yeah, whatever. Oh, canapes!” A waiter was offering her a tray of something shaped like a finger that probably had a cutesy name. She took one and bit into it with relish. “Mmm.”

“How long do I have to stay at this thing?” Casey grumbled.

“You’re a grown man. You make your own choices. And tonight, inexplicably, you decided to dress up as a pirate.”

“Hey!”

“I’m not saying you look bad. I’m just saying I’m a little concerned about any nearby cargo ships.”

“Dana, I could use some confidence building here.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“Ugh.”

“You can leave whenever you want to. Don’t worry about me, I’ll catch a cab home.”

“Fine.”

“You should say hi to some people, though. I think Calvin’s going to be here.”

“Oh, is that why you went sexy for this costume?”

“You think this is sexy?” She smoothed her hands over her hair. “I have to admit, I tried. A little.”

“And it’s a little sexy.”

“Bite me.”

“I thought that was your job, with that costume.”

“Shut up.”

“Go find Calvin, I’m sure he’s wearing something very dashing.”

She blew him a sarcastic kiss as she disappeared. He wasn’t sure how she did that, but she made it work.

The club wasn’t bad. It wasn’t too dark to see at all, though it was pretty dark, and the music was appropriately spooky, and there were black lights here and there. The black tinsel streamers seemed to be placed at random, but perhaps there was a rationale.  

He got sidelined by some people from the network, whom he knew only vaguely, but apparently well enough for them to want to discuss his Super Bowl picks. No matter how many times he patiently repeated that it was too early to call.

He kept glancing around, hoping to find Danny in the crowd.

“And another thing about Ohio,” said a very intense middle-aged man whose name was apparently Gary.

A hand descended on Casey’s shoulder with a powerful grip, sliding up to squeeze his neck, and Casey knew before turning who he’d see.

He had not anticipated the costume.

“Oh, hey,” said Gary with new interest. “Are you guys a group costume?”

“No,” said Casey, as Danny said, “Yes.”

Because Danny was standing with Natalie. Natalie was wearing a blonde wig, very short, and a little green twinkling dress with a tutu, and she was carrying a wand and wearing a purely evil grin. Danny was wearing a pointy little green hat and a green tunic and green tights and slippers and Casey asked in total disbelief, “Peter Pan? You’re Peter Pan?

“And Tinkerbell!” Danny said, doing a ridiculous flourish with his arms to gesture to Natalie.

“And you’re Captain Hook!” Gary was positively beaming now. “Wow, that’s great!”

“I’m not Captain Hook,” said Casey. “I’m a generic pirate.”

“You could have at least gotten a hook,” said one of Gary’s friends reproachfully.

“I’m not Captain Hook.

Danny grinned. He hadn’t moved his hand from Casey’s neck. “Don’t you love this fucking hat?”

“It’s really something,” said Casey it, eyeing it balefully.

“It doesn’t compare to yours.

“Well, this is a tricorn.”

“Yeah, was that a popular pirate thing?” asked Natalie.

“I have no idea.”

“Good,” said Danny. “I was afraid I’d be the only one who didn’t know.”

Gary’s friend honked out a laugh. Casey turned to Danny, hissing, “You did this on purpose!”

“Did what?” asked Danny, much too innocently.

“Made our costumes coordinate!”

“Now, Casey.” Danny gave him a look that was such pure disappointment Casey knew he was full of shit. “Why would I do that?”

“To make me look stupid!”

“You hardly need my help with that,” said Danny.

“Hey!” Casey rounded on Natalie. “At least one of you should admit it.”

“Never,” she said serenely.

“Everyone’s going to think I’m just bad at being Captain Hook!”

“Yeah.” Danny was clearly struggling to contain his laughter. “It’s going to be a real tragedy.”

“I could have gotten a hook if you’d told me!”

“But that would have defeated the point,” said Natalie.

“So you admit that it was on purpose!”

Danny shook his head. “Never.”

“We might have to admit it eventually,” Natalie said to Danny.

“Not if you keep your mouth shut.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go get some snacks.”

“Now that you’ve ruined my night,” Casey called after her, but she just dismissively waved back.

“Come on. Your night is not ruined.” Danny was cheerfully rocking back and forth on the balls on his feet, hands linked loosely behind his back. He didn’t seem to have any functional pockets, although he did have a small knife of some kind tucked into his belt, which raised questions about the club’s security. His tunic was just long enough that Casey couldn’t form any concrete conclusions about whether his tights were fully opaque.

“My night is ruined. Effectively and intentionally, might I add.”

“I will deny any intentions to that effect.”

They were standing too close together. Casey felt hot, like he needed to take off his pirate coat. It was some kind of cheap velveteen in burgundy, and he hadn’t thought much about how he’d look in it until he was standing in front of Danny, who looked ridiculous (who wouldn’t, in a Peter Pan costume?) but also really upsettingly good. (Under it, Casey was wearing one of those white shirts with a ruffled collar, like on Seinfeld, and he was pretty sure he shouldn’t take the coat off if revealing the shirt was the consequence.)

“I hate you,” Casey said.

“You love me.” Danny grinned at him.

Casey stared at him, unable to formulate a response. There was a crazy moment where the world hung in the balance. Danny’s face changed, just slightly, a question starting to dawn in his eyes.

Casey opened his mouth to say something, anything—confirm, deny, it didn’t matter—but that was when Natalie thrust a champagne flute at Danny.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get hammered on the company’s dime.”

“Sounds good,” said Danny, but he was still looking at Casey, and that question was still on his face, and Casey watched as more people came over to talk to them and the moment when he might have said something receded into the distance.

 

Casey kept thinking he needed to find Danny, to do something, say something, but the night wasn’t making it easy for him. For one thing, the giant bowl of fluorescent-under-blacklight punch (it was glowing a radioactive neon yellow-green) had evidently been formulated to strip paint, to the point where a sip could make a grown man’s eyes water, and everyone was drinking too much of it. People who did not normally dance were dancing. Dave was trying to teach Sonja to swing-dance, which was profoundly unfair.

“Hello, Casey,” said Isaac at his elbow while he was grumpily sipping his second plastic cup of disgusting toxic waste punch. (The sign in front of it said, quite clearly, “Toxic Waste Punch,” so he didn’t feel bad about applying the appellation.)

He turned to answer and was struck momentarily dumb. “Hello, Mace Windu.

“Oh, was I supposed to call you Captain Hook?”

“I am not here as Captain Hook. That is a dastardly plot from Danny and Natalie.”

“So you’re a generic pirate?”

“Yes! Thank you.”

“Captain Hook is a little bit cooler than a generic pirate.”

“Isaac, you’re supposed to be on my side.

“I don’t know where you got that impression.”

“You’re my mentor!”

“Several dozen people consider me a mentor. At this point, none of you are special to me anymore.”

“Did Esther come?”

“Do I look like a man whose wife is about to tell him to put down his tray of hors d’ouevres?”

Casey squinted in the gloom at the paper plate (emblazoned with black bat silhouettes on a background of neon orange, how original) piled high with bacon-wrapped assorted crudités.

“…No.”

“I promised her I’d only stay an hour to say hello to everyone.”

“And now you’ve said hello to me.”

“And many of your closest colleagues.”

“Shut up and eat your bacon, old man.”

“Hey, Isaac!” Danny appeared behind Isaac, throwing an arm around his shoulders loosely in an enthusiastic one-sided hug. “How’s things with the Force?”

“I’m becoming one with these cheese things.”

“Casey, what do you call a pirate who skips school?”

“I’m not saying it.”

“Isaac? Any takers?”

Isaac frowned thoughtfully. “Captain Hooky.”

“And he nails it in one! Casey, you have been out-classed.”

“Please tell me you haven’t been memorizing terrible pirate jokes.”

“I could tell you that, but it would be a lie.”

“Save me,” Casey said to Isaac.

Isaac mumbled “No” through a mouthful of cocktail shrimp.

“What did the pirate wear on Halloween?”

“I would rather die than tell you.”

“A pumpkin patch!

“I’m leaving now.” Isaac chucked his emptied plate into a nearby trash can. “I can feel my brain cells dying.”

“Are they crying out and then going silent?” asked Danny with interest.

“No, just crying.” Isaac patted Danny’s shoulder and then gave Casey a firm arm squeeze. “I’ll see you boys tomorrow.”

“Tell Esther I said hi!” Danny called as Isaac departed.

“Suck-up,” said Casey.

“You’re just mad I’m his favorite protégé.”

“I’m allowed to be mad about that. I’m a great protégé! I don’t know why you’re his favorite.”

“I think cool knows cool,” Danny said placidly.

“That’s not what’s happening.”

“You’re not cool enough to know cool.”

“You’re Peter Pan.”

“At least I’m not Captain Hook. Hey, here’s one for you. A pirate walks into a bar with a tiller in his pants—”

Casey interrupted. “He says, ‘Arrr, it drives me nuts.’”

“You’re supposed to wait for the punchline!”

“I will not.”

“You’re bad at waiting for things.”

“You’re bad at punchlines.”

“I’m amazing at punchlines, and furthermore, you know it.” Danny folded his arms defensively.

“Even if I knew it, I would never admit it after a joke like that.”

“How’s Dana doing?”

“I don’t know. She wandered off after we got here. I think she was looking for Calvin.”

Danny’s brow wrinkled. “Calvin?”

“Trager? Our new overlord?”

“He’s not really new anymore.”

“Fine, our current overlord.”

“That sounds very sinister. He doesn’t strike me as a sinister guy.”

“I think you’re wrong. I think he’s perfectly sinister.”

“Now that suggests there’s an optimal level of sinister and he’s reached it.”

“Maybe there is.” Casey shrugged. “Maybe there’s a level of sinister at which one’s appeal peaks. Like a Disney villain.”

“Spoken like Captain Hook.”

“I am not—God damn it, Danny!”

Danny laughed, nudging Casey’s shoulder with his. Casey took a hasty swallow of his punch and almost choked on it.

“I swear, Casey, you are the most easily baited man I know.”

“I don’t think there’s a right way for me to respond to that.”

“None that won’t prove my point, certainly.”

“Do you enjoy setting linguistic traps like that for me? It feels like you do.”

“You know I do,” said Danny, smiling at him, and for a minute Casey felt like Danny had answered an entirely different question.

Had Casey been a smoother and more courageous man, he might have said something meaningful. He might have seized the moment. Instead, he asked, “So what do you think of Natalie going blonde for a night?”

“It’s taking some getting used to!”

“Not that she doesn’t look great.”

“No, of course.”

“But blonde.” Casey shook his head. “It’s a shock.”

“Bit of a shift.”

“An unusual presentation.”

Danny looked out at the room. They had a view of the dance floor, which was something less than crowded. “Not enough liquor yet for people to start dancing?”

“It’s this undrinkable punch.”

“It’s plenty drinkable. Here.” Danny took the cup from him, finished it, and handed it back. “There you go.”

“Am I going to need to call an ambulance?”

“No, but you might need to call a doctor because I’m…” and Danny lowered his voice to really belt it out as Casey belatedly recognized the song. “Too sexy for my shirt!”

“I don’t deserve this,” Casey told Danny’s back as Danny made his way to the dance floor.

Danny wasn’t a particularly good dancer. He wasn’t terrible, as far as Casey could tell, though Casey had to admit his ability to discern that was limited. Casey certainly couldn’t dance, unless you counted the fox-trot, which he had been forced to learn preparatory to an older cousin’s wedding in his early teens. He hadn’t done the fox-trot in decades. It would have been out of place on that dance floor, at any rate.

Dave was a pretty decent dancer, Casey thought. He was dipping Sonja. Dipping looked romantic and interesting. Danny, meanwhile, was just vaguely flinging his arms at the ceiling and hopping around. Normally, Danny only started dancing if there was a young woman handy on whom to lay hands. There were no such women, and Danny, having to make the decision for himself of what to do with his hips, chose poorly.

Not that it was stopping Casey from watching.

“He’s not great at that,” said Natalie sadly.

Casey said, “Blargh! Where’d you come from?”

“The magic was inside you all along, Casey.”

“Natalie, has anyone ever told you that you’re sneaky? I hate to say it, it sounds mildly pejorative, but—”

You’re mildly pejorative.”

“Hey.”.

“You should dance.”

“I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before, and with good reason.”

“You can dance!” Natalie lied with a chipper smile.

“I am many things, but delusional is not yet among them. Natalie. Watch my face. Read my lips. I cannot dance. I know this about myself, and I have accepted it.”

“Doesn’t stop Dan.” She broadly gestured to the dance floor. “Or, for that matter, Elliot.”

“They have different levels of tolerating public humiliation than I do.”

“You could dance. Just tonight. Once. It wouldn’t kill you.”

“How do you know that? Have you authored any research studies on dancing-related deaths? Are you a historian of death by waltz?”

“Casey. I’m trying to do you a favor here.”

“I’m having difficulty seeing it.”

“Dan’s dancing. He could use some company.”

Something complicated and furious flared in him. “Then why don’t you go dance with him,” he said, much more meanly than he’d intended.

“He’s not trying to hurt you.” Natalie blinked at him. “Do you want to dance with me?”

“Not particularly.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“You two,” he said. “You don’t make any sense. You show up in these costumes to make fun of me? You want me to dance? You’re trying to embarrass me, and I’m not falling for it.”

Natalie huffed in exasperation. “Fine. Would you be less paranoid if we all went back to my apartment?”

“Your apartment is four feet wide and the cockroaches have formed a voting bloc.”

“You’ve never been to my apartment!”

“Am I wrong?”

“That’s beside the point.”

“I don’t think we should go to your apartment.”

A crazed glint came into her eye. “You’re right.”

“I don’t like where this is going.”

“We should go to your condo.”

“No!”

“I’m going to tell people to meet up at your condo.”

“Please don’t.”

“Do you have liquor or should we all bring some?”

“How many is we all?

“Afterparty at Casey’s!” she shouted to the assemblage.

“It is not!” Casey yelled.

“Cool,” Chris called back from where he was tapping one foot in time to the music at the edge of the dance floor. “Should I bring beer?”

“Bring beer!” said Natalie.

“Don’t come!” said Casey.

 

Everybody came. Casey gave in once the third person informed him that they were headed to his place and caught a cab home. (How that many people knew where he lived, he was not entirely certain. He suspected Natalie of handing out the information somehow.) Alone, though Natalie had been all for joining him and bringing Danny; Danny had vanished somewhere and Casey wanted to breathe, anyway.

When he got to his condo, there were two people in front of the door—Chris and Elliot—and he sighed and let them in. “All right, guys,” he said. “Zero decorations. Go nuts.”

Which was a mistake, since Chris fancied himself a sound engineer, and next thing Casey knew a Best of Halloween compilation album was in his CD player and the husky tune of when you’re straaaaaaaange filled the room.

He resigned himself to a party. It happened around him with startling speed. Natalie and Danny were the next to show up, and then Dana and Calvin, of all people, and Dave and Sonja and Kim arrived, and some intrepid folks from Graphics. The condo was starting to feel alarmingly cramped, and it was with some relief that he noted the flow of people trickled to a stop after that.

Not that it kept the noise down. The condo was tightly packed and getting warm; Natalie had shown up with a shopping bag full of clanking bottles and some red plastic cups, so everyone was drinking something, whether beer or shots. Some people were still insisting on trying to dance to the music despite its inherent unsuitability for dancing.

Natalie pressed a cup into his hand. “Try this.”

He did. “Is this a vodka cranberry?”

“It’s a Vampire’s Kiss,” she said with the exact intonation of a maître d’ at a nice hotel who was secretly thinking that Casey was a moron.

“That doesn’t seem like a real drink.”

“I saw it in Martha Stewart.”

“I still question its validity.”

“Oh, shut up, it tastes good. Drink it.”

He had found himself a refuge on the couch—people coming and going, flopping down next to him to chat before moving on. It was considerably more comfortable than the office party had been, despite the lack of blacklights and tinsel, and he was starting to feel more warmly disposed towards Natalie. Or possibly just more warm; the combined body heat had turned his condo into a sauna despite the October chill outside.

Natalie herself plopped down on the couch. Her wig was a touch askew. He reached out to adjust it for her and she looked up at him, smiling, with something not quite a smile in her eyes. People were all starting to get to a quieter, more contemplative portion of the evening; Dave and Sonja were talking in the kitchen, voices too low to hear but with a warm rumble to them.

“Just my luck,” she said. “Are you playing with my hair?”

“Your wig was a little—” He mimed adjusting a wig on himself. “I tried to fix it.”

“Oh.” She was silent for a moment. “Did you succeed?”

“Not much.”

She leaned her head back against the couch, drumming her fingers against her plastic cup. “Do you have a secret crush on me?”

“No,” he said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s just as well.” She heaved herself back into sitting up. “You should talk to Dan, though.”

“Talk to him about what?”

“How you don’t have a secret crush on me.”

“Oh, we have talked about that. We have talked that to death.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Does he have a secret crush on you?” asked Casey, too sharply.

She laughed, which made no sense. She rubbed at her eye.

“Careful. You’re going to smear all that glitter.”

“That ship has sailed. I’ll be picking glitter off myself and everything I own for weeks. I’ll still find little bits of it years from now. I have invoked my own doom.”

“Uh.”

“Talk to Danny,” she said. “I mean it.” She got her feet on the ground—she had lost her shoes somewhere, and now was just wearing tights—and stood up. “I love you, you great big dork.”

“I love you too?” He squinted up at her. “Are you all right? How much have you had to drink?”

She patted the top of his hat. “This thing is not as sexy as you think it is, but it’s not not working for you.”

He sat for a few more minutes, the cushion next to him empty, before finally getting up and going to find Danny. It wasn’t difficult, since the condo was not large; he’d seen Danny headed for the fire escape earlier, and indeed, when he found the partially-open window he saw Danny through it. In years past Danny would have been smoking. Abby had changed that.

He watched for a minute. Danny looked—lost, Casey thought. Maybe only lost in thought. He had the knife out of his belt and was toying with it. Couldn’t replace all the habits of smoking, Casey supposed; the hands still needed to be doing something.

Danny looked ridiculous in the outfit. Of course he did, anyone would. But Casey had known Danny back when he was young enough to pull it off.

Casey put his hand on the window frame. “Room out there for two?”

“Hm? Yeah.”

Casey climbed out. Danny shuffled over to make room, and Casey sat next to him. The patch was over Casey’s left eye, so he had to turn a bit to see Danny.

“Nice party,” said Danny, and his breath caught on a laugh. A little cloud of vapor escaped and caught the light from the window and the street.

“It wasn’t my idea.”

“I know.”

“Careful with that thing.”

Danny put the knife back in his belt. They were pressed together, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. They’d sat like that hundreds of times. Thousands. “It’s just a prop. Wouldn’t cut butter.”

“Well, that’s good to know before I ask you to butter something.”

“You want me to butter something?” Danny was grinning, but he was looking straight ahead. The metal of the stair was frigid under Casey’s ass.

“You’d be my first choice for butter delegate, you know that. You cold out here?”

“It’s not bad.” Danny tilted his head up, and for a split second he was Peter Pan, a lost boy, smiling out at the night.

Casey pulled the eyepatch to the side, then off, sliding it carefully under the wig. He held it in his hands. They were cold with more than the weather. “Are you in love with Natalie? Secretly or otherwise?”

Danny’s smile faded, and the corner of his mouth nearest Casey twisted down. “Why do you care so much?”

“Do you know why?” Casey wondered; he really did. There was an awful raw vulnerability in asking.

Danny’s shoulders tensed. “Casey, if you tell me you’re secretly in love with Natalie—”

Casey made an explosive noise of frustration. “Damn it, Danny—”

“Because the only other option is—” Danny stopped; he couldn’t say it. He was clenching his fists on his knees.

“Yeah,” said Casey. His own breath was making spiraling trails upwards in the air. A car honked, punitively, out on the street. They were cocooned from it in their narrow gap between the buildings.

“And that would be crazy.” Danny seemed to notice his clenched hands and clasped them instead. He was covered in goosebumps. “Wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because here’s the thing. I thought—when I met you, I thought you might be—but then you weren’t, you never were. Was I wrong?”

“I think I was wrong,” said Casey.

“You’re wearing a pirate costume.”

“At least you acknowledge it’s not Captain Hook.”

“Not a very good Captain Hook.”

“Can I kiss you?” asked Casey, quietly, either just over or just under a whisper, he wasn’t sure which.

Danny was quiet for a moment, a long moment. “On a fire escape?”

“I’m not picky about that.”

“Good to know you don’t have, like, a thing about fire escapes.”

“It’s all the metal. Gets me going.”

“Casey.” Danny still wasn’t looking at him. “Until—this, this whole thing, whatever it is, started, I had… put you in a box in my head, okay? And I didn’t look at it and I didn’t touch it, and that was fine. And now I don’t… know what to do with it, if that box is something you want to open now. Why now?”

“Because I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know what? How I felt, or—”

“How I felt.”

“So you figured this out, what, last week?” Danny gave a strangled-sounding laugh. “I think you need to think about it more. A lot more.”

“Do you want me to kiss you?”

“Casey.” Danny’s voice was hushed. Barely audible.

“Because if you don’t, I’ll—I can be cool about this, okay?”

“You can’t be cool about anything and everyone who has ever met you knows that.” But that was just Danny joshing him on instinct, because that was what they did.  

“But if you do—I don’t think I need to think about it more.” Casey was figuring it out as he said it, out loud, putting one word after another. It was shockingly hard considering that he spent most of his waking hours lovingly finessing the English language. “I think this is what it’s gonna be. If you need more time, that’s fine. I can wait.” He realized as he said it that he could wait; that, having waited over a decade for this particular lightbulb to come on, he could and would wait longer if Danny wanted to. He didn’t want to, though.

Danny reached up and ground the heel of his hand into his cheekbone. “You took longer than this figuring out lunch.”

“That’s not true.”

“I always thought.” Danny’s voice died on him and he had to try again. “That if we—it would be something crazy, you know, we’d be drunk or we’d go base-jumping—”

“I am never going base jumping as long as I live—”

“—or ice-fishing somewhere and we wouldn’t have to talk about it,” Danny finished, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You are such a pill. Why won’t you go base-jumping?”

“Because I enjoy being alive!”

“People routinely survive base-jumping, I’ll have you know.” Danny had closed both his eyes. He must be freezing, thought Casey.

“You must be freezing,” Casey said, and put his arm around Danny. They’d hugged before; they’d even sat like this before. Long nights, bad nights, when somebody’d been dumped, or the anniversary of Sam’s death.

Danny tensed, but he didn’t scoot away. After a moment’s rigid indecision, he relaxed, invisibly, into Casey’s side.

“People will talk,” Danny said, over-dramatically, like he was on a soap opera.

Casey snorted. “Yeah, well, if I know Natalie that curtain’s pulled by now.”

Danny twisted to look at the window behind them. “So it is. Though someone might just have gotten tired of the draft. You think it was her?”

“She told me to go find you.”

“She told me you were freaking out,” said Danny. “Right after the whole—after it all started.”

“I may have been freaking out.”

“She said she thought it was because you were jealous.”

“There’s a slight possibility that I was insane with jealousy.” Casey self-consciously shrugged with his free shoulder.

“Over a hypothetical future crush I might develop on her.”

“Something like that.”

“You already had us married with babies in Hoboken, didn’t you? How were we raising the children?”

“Jewish but she still got Christmas.”

“How did that even work? You know what, don’t answer that.”

“Hey, Danny?”

“Yeah?” Danny turned to look at him.

Casey kissed him. It was a soft kiss, a very soft kiss, because he wasn’t entirely sure how Danny would feel about it; too soon, maybe, or too much, or too weird after such a long time. And for a minute he thought Danny wasn’t sure how he felt about it, either. Danny breathed in hard through his nose, tensing up again.

Casey kept his lips against Danny’s. “Your move,” Casey whispered.

Danny turned further into him. And Danny kissed back, not much harder than Casey had, careful and asking a thousand questions, and Casey kept trying to say yes. His heart was hammering in his chest. Every place where they were touching felt so warm.

Danny broke away, breathing hard. Casey started to follow and stopped himself.

“You’re.” Danny paused to clear his throat. “You want to do this? This whole thing.”

“I honestly don’t know to what you’re referring—”

“I cannot believe I am even considering this, you pedant—”

“—but yes, yeah, I want everything. I’d go ice-fishing with you.”

“But not base-jumping.”

“No, because, as previously mentioned, I want to stay alive and that is much more difficult to do when hurling yourself at the ground from great heights wearing flimsy excuses for aerodynamic bat suits!”

Danny cracked up. He really lost it, laughing until his eyes watered. Then he said, wiping his eyes, “You’re still wearing that dumb fucking wig.”

Casey reached up and pulled it off. The hat went with. “This better?”

“It’s a little less like a Disney character is trying to seduce me.”

“You’d prefer Ariel? I saw some red wigs in a little place—”

“Shut up.” Danny kissed him. Casey’s stomach felt like it had gone base-jumping without him, but in a good way.

A few minutes later Casey murmured, “You’re still wearing a dumb fucking hat.”

“Hey, I’m even in tights. I committed to this costume.”

“Want to see if everybody left?”

“They definitely didn’t. I can still hear Chris’s CD on.”

“Maybe he left it.”

“You cannot vanish into the bedroom with me at your own party. That’s the opposite of subtle.”

“It’s not even my party!”

“Get back in there and mingle.”

“No,” said Casey, kissing Danny again.

“You go in. I’ll come in eventually.”

“You’re freezing. You go in first.”

“I am a grown man, I’m not going to die of hypothermia.”

“A grown man in tights. You go first.”

“What do I say if anyone asks why we were out here forever?”

“I was telling you about Nietzsche.”

Danny made a face. “Ugh, the sad part is that I think they’d believe it.”

“Go on.”

“You’re in my way.”

“Climb over me.”

“Such a pill!” But Danny got up and went back in through the window, leaving Casey sitting alone on the fire escape in the cold night that was quickly getting colder, wig and hat dangling from one hand, eyepatch looped loosely around one wrist by its elastic band. He slid them back on. The wig was probably crooked.

Casey looked up. There was no visible moon. The streetlights made the sky an unearthly, unhealthy color.

He felt wonderful anyway.

 

An hour later (an unbearable hour, with a vague haze of wellbeing and terror around it), the condo had emptied considerably; it was just Dana and Calvin and Dave and Sonja. (Dave had something blue smeared on his chin and jawline. Sonja, dressed as Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas, looked a bit disarranged.) Calvin was holding Dana’s coat for her. Danny was lying on the couch face-down, apparently asleep, occasionally snoring softly. His arm was sprawled out over the side, knuckles grazing the floor. His hat and dorky shoes had been abandoned somewhere along the line.

“Thanks for having us over,” said Dana.

“I didn’t, but you’re welcome.”

“Close enough. Take good care of Danny.” She nodded over at the prone form. Danny snorted faintly and turned his face to the back of the couch.

“I will.”

She gave him a dry peck on the cheek and then she was gone. Dave gave him a quick hug with a backslap (unusually ebullient for Dave, and Casey suspected Sonja had something to do with it) and Sonja waved on their way out.

Casey turned back to his condo. There was mess, certainly—a raft of bottles rinsed and sitting next to the sink, awaiting their turn in the recycling, but also a few still scattered around the living room—but he’d cleaned up worse from other impromptu parties. There were no suspicious stains on the carpet. A success.

And Danny, on the couch.

Casey unbuttoned his pirate coat, walking slowly to the couch. Maybe Danny was really asleep; maybe he wouldn’t want to be disturbed. But he tossed the coat onto the armchair, and unbuttoned the frilly shirt, too. There was a limit to how ridiculous he thought he could stand being.

He knelt down next to the couch, staring at Danny for a minute longer—the yellow glow of light from the floor lamp in his eyelashes, catching stay bits of glitter left on his cheek and arm that he must have picked up from Natalie—and then carefully put his hand on Danny’s back. Danny shifted and sighed under the touch.

“Are you awake?” Casey asked quietly.

“Yeah.” Danny blinked a couple of times, then twisted his head to look up at Casey.  

Neither of them seemed to know what to do or say next.

“We need a script.” Casey grinned at Danny.

Danny burst out laughing. “Trust you to take a moment—”

“Oh, we were having a moment? I couldn’t tell—”

Danny reached up while Casey was still talking and pulled him down, so he ended up kissing Danny while they were still smiling. Casey’s stomach did that swoop again. It reminded him of being a kid on the swing-set, kicking off with all his might and feeling the pause at the top before hurtling back down. He braced a hand against the couch and wrapped the other arm around Danny’s back.

“You’re too tall,” murmured Danny after a couple of minutes.

“You’re too short.”

“We should move. Or something.”

“You’re not moving. You could move.”

“Yeah, well,” said Danny, running out of steam as he slipped a hand inside Casey’s unbuttoned shirt.

“God,” Casey whispered.

“Are you cold? You’ve got goosebumps.”

“I’m not cold.”

“See, when I said that, I was lying.”

“I just want to—” Casey gave up explaining it and leaned in to kiss Danny again, but this time he put his hand lower, running it over Danny’s tights, following his hipbone and the line of his leg. Danny breathed in, just a short little ah.

Casey kept touching him, touching his ankle, gliding his fingertips back up the curve of his calf, the hollow of his knee; up his thigh and spreading his hand to cup Danny’s ass.

Danny made another short, surprised noise, and Casey couldn’t take it, couldn’t stand it. They’d been kissing and he’d been getting hard and harder, and he moved his hand to the front, covering the bulge at the front of Danny’s tights, where the tunic had ridden up.

Danny was hard, too. Danny gasped when Casey touched him, and Casey molded his fingers around Danny as best he could with the fabric in the way and drew back enough to say, “I want to—”

Danny was blinking at him, looking half-dazed, almost terrified, but he nodded sharply several times.

So Casey used both hands to peel down the tights to Danny’s thighs and, although he had harbored vague thoughts of perhaps giving Danny a hand job, he realized that all he wanted, in that moment, was to suck Danny’s cock, so he shifted to reach it.

As his lips closed around it Danny made a noise that was very satisfying, if stifled by his own hand; Casey bent his head and took more, and more, and Danny started to shake.

Casey had been thinking about this. He’d been thinking about it too much, for days on end, and his own cock was throbbing in time with his pulse as he tried to get even more of Danny’s cock down his throat. Danny made another keening noise.

Casey had to pull off to breathe. He reached down and touched Danny, cradling his balls, running a thumbnail along the side of Danny’s hard, shining dick; now that he was allowed to look and to touch he wanted very badly to touch everything, see everything, do everything.

“God,” said Casey, “I love sucking you, I want you to fuck my face,” and went back down. He felt like he could have stayed there for hours—it was glorious, he loved it, he loved sucking dick—and he might have, if Danny hadn’t been so inspired, and jerkily at first but with increasing confidence started to really fuck his face, thrusting, hands tentatively and then firmly holding his hair. He groaned deeply. Danny’s thighs started to shake, he thrust hard again, and then started to come in Casey’s mouth.

Casey had to grab his own dick and hold it firmly—not yet, not yet—while he swallowed.

“Holy shit,” said Danny, sounding dazed. “You—oh, God.”

“I want you to fuck me,” Casey blurted out. He hadn’t meant to say it. He’d been thinking about it, cautiously.

“Well, I can’t exactly do that right now.” Danny sounded vaguely aggrieved. “You’ll have to wait a little while on that one.”

“Fine, but I want you to.”

“Have you ever been fucked?”

“No, but I have faith in your ability to figure it out!”

“You are,” said Danny, staring, hypnotized, at his mouth, and then he gently laid his fingers against Casey’s lips. “You are really hot.”

“Good.”

“You want me to blow you? You want me to jack you off?”

Casey stared at Danny’s mouth. “God, I, uh, sure. Yes. Either. Both.”

“Okay. Okay. We should—bed? Where’s your bed?”

“You’ve been here before! You know where the bed is.”

“Fuck it,” muttered Danny and scooted off the couch onto the floor, getting thoroughly tangled with Casey in the process. Casey was almost ready to complain about the situation when Danny started undoing his slacks.

Danny got his hand inside, Casey still kneeling above him, and started working him; Casey couldn’t look away from his eyes. Danny’s hand on his cock was doing unbelievable things to him. It was like sex had been before, but better; it was Danny, and he couldn’t imagine, now, how he’d ever thought it was anyone else. How it could ever have been anyone else.

“I want to fuck you,” said Danny, hand still pumping him in long, slow strokes. Too slow. Casey wanted—his hips hitched forward, vainly trying to get more. Danny was obstinately refusing to speed up. “I’ll make you like it. I’ll fuck you with my cock, come in you—”

Casey could picture it; Casey could taste it, and he came at the picture, at the feeling, all over Danny’s chest, the tunic rucked up, exposing his skin.

As Casey collapsed down onto Danny, Danny turned his head and whispered in his ear, “And that’s a promise.

 

When Casey woke up in the morning, he slowly realized that the water was running, and a minute or two later he realized why.

He went into the bathroom—stopped to brush his teeth and to pee—and pulled back the curtain enough to say, “Mind if I join you?”

Danny gestured generously to the shower. “Come on in.”

Casey got into the shower and kissed him, immediately, because he never wanted to stop kissing Danny again. Danny, for his part, seemed completely on board with the plan, and although Casey didn’t get fucked that morning in the shower, Danny did put his pinky finger in, so Casey figured he was that much closer.

Now that he knew it was an option to want it, he couldn’t stop wanting it.

They were eating cereal at Casey’s narrow, cramped table after the shower, Danny wearing a spare set of Casey’s sweats and still looking shell-shocked, when Casey said, “I’m not secretly in love with Natalie.”

“I’m aware of that now.”

“Good.”

“I’m also not secretly in love with Natalie.”

“Even better.”

“I’m, uh.” Danny coughed. “I may have some feelings. For you.”

“I would hope so.”

“After last night, and all.”

“And this morning,” Casey added helpfully.

“And this morning.”

“And tonight.”

“And—what?”

“Maybe this afternoon, I don’t know. We’ve got a day off, we could spend it doing whatever we wanted to.”

“Hm,” said Danny, eyes wide.

“Get some takeout. Watch some shows.”

“Mess around.”

“You could fuck me.”

Danny carefully set his spoon down. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack? You have never, in all the years I’ve known you, talked like this! How am I supposed to adjust? How am I supposed to cope?

“You could cope by fucking me,” Casey said hopefully.

“We just came!”

“That was half an hour ago.”

“I’m still eating! And you’ve never done it. We should start slow!”

Casey shrugged with one shoulder. “If you can’t handle the heat—”

Danny was laughing as he pushed back from the table. “You are ridiculous, for Pete’s sake. Fine, fine, I’ll fuck you, you big whiny baby—”

Casey stood up and knocked his chair over. He didn’t care.

“But if you can’t take it I’m never letting you live it down!” Danny called after him on their race to the bedroom.

In the end it took Danny some effort, and Casey a lot of careful shifting, and gratitude on both their parts that Casey had gotten some things recently at the drugstore that made it easier going. When Danny was in him all the way, Casey breathing hard and clenching his fists in the pillows, Danny said in a high, strained voice, “Okay if I move a little?”

“Yeah,” gritted out Casey. “Yeah.”

And it was okay; it was more that okay, it was better than anything in his life. It was also so much and almost unbearable but in a much different and better way than he might have expected, if he’d known what to expect.

“Oh, God,” Danny said from above and behind him, amazed. “I, I love you.”

“I knew it!” But Casey couldn’t help moaning, and then, when Danny moved fractionally, coming suddenly, jerking back up against Danny while he did, which set Danny off so that he was pulsing in Casey’s ass, setting off another wave of clenching—by the time they were both lying flat again Casey felt like he’d gotten his ass kicked. Or. Well.

“Love you too,” muttered Casey, exhausted. It was easier to say that way.

“You can’t be going back to sleep.”

“We only slept like six hours.”

“Yeah, because you’re, what the hell are you anyway, a sex maniac? Casey.” Danny rolled over and propped his head up with his hand. “Are you a nympho?”

Casey tried to glare at him but couldn’t sustain it and cracked up instead. “Only for you,” he said, which was too close to the truth.

“Well, I am fucked out for a while at least.”

“Want to watch something?”

“Yeah.” Danny found the remote and started clicking around. Casey drifted off, in a pleasant haze.

A thought jolted him back awake. “Wait, did—does Natalie know?

“That I’m secretly in love you? Or that you’re secretly in love with me?”

“Both.”

“Yeah. She—when you flipped out about me and her. She figured it out. She said, and this is a direct quote, ‘Daniel Rydell, today is your lucky day.’”

“She thinks you’re lucky to have me?”

“She had some notion that I might have had a crush on you. At some point. In our history.”

“Like now, and constantly.”

“Something like that.”

“I wanna—” Casey leaned over and kissed Danny again.

“I’m fucked out!” Danny sounded faintly panicky. “I know you’re an insatiable sexual vampire—”

Casey cracked up laughing again. “Just a kiss! That’s all!”

“You’re going to murder me with sex,” muttered Danny, letting his head thump back against the pillow. “And I’m going to be okay with that.”

“It’s not a bad way to go.”

“Are you admitting to your plan to murder me with sex?”

“I didn’t say I was going to murder you with sex, just that it’s not the worst way to die by murder!”

“You’re impossible.” But Danny was watching the television with more interest—oh, he’d stumbled across a college game.

“And now I’m your problem,” said Casey on a yawn.

“Good.”

They’d have to deal with things. Big things, heavy things, station gossip things. That was coming, and Casey could feel it, like any Midwesterner could feel an approaching natural disaster. But fucked-out, with a slow burn in half his body parts, drifting off to sleep, he couldn’t bring himself to mind that too much.

They’d always figured things out before. They’d do it again.