Charlie spent the ride in the ambulance watching his dad's hands twist and twist around each other, unable to reach out for what they wanted most. The short ride to the hospital stretched out like the sour wail of the siren as they sped through the streets. Danny hadn't moved, hadn't opened his eyes since taking the blow to his head and Charlie didn't dare look at his pale, still face, didn't dare close his own eyes, afraid he'd see again the glittering metal smashing into Dan, see the sick look on his dad's face, feel the dead weight of Dan's limp body in his arms. Charlie's eyes stung and he wished he was a little kid again, able to crawl into his dad's lap and have him make it all better with a hug and contraband candy.
When he saw his dad standing in the middle of the waiting room, clipboard in one hand, pen clenched tightly in the other, looking completely lost, Charlie realized that he was going to have to be grown up for a little while yet.
Dan was gone for two weeks. He called Charlie every day and asked him about everything except Casey. He talked about everything apart from how he was doing. Charlie thought he sounded tired. "I miss you," he told him, even though he wasn't a girl.
"I miss you, too," said Dan.
"Come home," Charlie didn't say.
Charlie learned to wake when his dad came home from work and would go to sit with him. After the first time, Casey didn't complain that he was up late on a school night and didn't try to send him back to bed. They watched late night/early morning crappy TV. They never talked, never even hugged, but Charlie made sandwiches and watched to make sure they were eaten. When he went to catch another couple of hours of sleep before his alarm, Charlie would hear the low murmur of his dad's voice. The phone-calls never lasted long, but they didn't seem so fraught any more.
Two weeks and two days after he left, Dan came home. He looked crappy but his eyes lit up when he saw Charlie and Charlie decided to forgo his whole body-bubble, personal space boundary issues for a long, tight, warm hug. The dull weight that had sat low in his stomach for the last sixteen days lessened with each squeeze until Charlie barely registered its presence.
"Is it okay?" he asked, not sure of what he was hoping for.
"I don't know," said Dan. "The truth is, Charlie, that being an adult sucks. That sometimes you don't get the choice between what hurts and what doesn't. Sometimes you have to pick what hurts the least and go from there. I have hope, though." He smiled. A real, proper, 100% genuine Danny smile. "A whole lot of hope."
Charlie smiled back.
"God, you two, seriously, could you be more obvious?" said Charlie, kicking the door closed with a foot as his dad and Danny dropped each others' hands, guilty expressions plastered across their faces. "Be more careful."
Casey's expression changed, face set in defiance. He grabbed Dan's hand, lacing their fingers together. "I don't care."
Reaching across the starched white sheet with his other hand, Dan gently disengaged them. "Yes," he said, voice tender, and Charlie winced as he recognized the almost imperceptible sadness hidden in his eyes, "you do care, Casey. And that makes me care."
For a second, Charlie thought his dad was going to protest, but he let his hand fall to his lap and looked away, saying nothing. Charlie handed him a coffee and dropped a paper on the bed. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't had to be careful about what he said and to whom about his Dad and Danny. He couldn't remember a time when he didn't know how much that sucked.
"Want me to read you the news, coma boy?" he said to break the silence that was threatening to take on the weight of all the words already spoken; the kind of silence he hated.
"Does it count as a coma if it's only a few hours?" asked Casey.
Charlie shrugged and waved a hand over his all-black ensemble. "Do I look like a doctor to you? They have to wear white." He shook open the paper and flipped a couple of pages. "Coma sounds way more impressive than un- Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!" He stared at the page, willing it to dissolve under his glare. It didn't. Still no luck with the superpowers then.
"Charlie, unless the world is ending, I don't want to be hearing that language, okay?"
With deliberate care, Charlie folded the paper back and then in half before turning it around and handing it over to his father. "Yeah, it maybe is?"
He wrapped his arms around himself and gripped tightly, trying to stop his hands shaking. That picture. That stupid asshole with the stupid fucking cell. He should have chased him down and broken the phone and the guy's nose, not necessarily in that order. It couldn't be clearer: Danny lay cradled in his dad's arms, Casey's lips touching Danny's forehead, hand brushing through his hair. Love so fierce it roared from the page. This was it, what Charlie had been scared of for years. The end.
"Fuck," said Casey quietly, passing the paper across to Dan.
"Fuck," said Danny and, "At least they caught my best side." The paper fell from his loosened grip and he turned his face away, mouth curving unhappily.
Charlie reached for his hand only to find his dad's already there.
Casey wasn't around when Charlie got up for school the morning after the fight but there was nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was that Dan wasn't there to make him drink his OJ and eat something substantial. Charlie did it anyway, because he didn't want to make Dan unhappy, despite the fact that he'd never know. He went to school worried, made worse by the fact that there was no one he could talk to about it. Secrets. They always bit you in the ass.
Dan was still not home when Charlie got back and Charlie couldn't find any indication that he'd been there all day, the piles of paper in Dan's study covered with a thin film of dust, no empty coffee mugs in the sink. Charlie swung his backpack onto the counter because he could and then shifted it to the floor, guilty.
He made himself a simple dinner of spaghetti-o's and toast, only burning it a little. Homework with the TV on was another one of Dan's no-no's but Charlie figured that he'd been fairly quiet on the teenage rebellion front recently so why the fuck not? (He pretended not to notice as he pressed mute after ten minutes.) School-work dispensed with, Charlie idly flipped through the TV channels, waiting for Sports Night to start. He should maybe get to see one of his parents today, even if it was on TV. When the show started he regretted his decision. His dad looked like crap; tired and sad, despite smiling for the camera, and that could only mean that everything had stayed broken. Charlie was about to switch off and head to bed when he had the sudden impulse to keep watching, the thought that his dad might make the special signal for him like he used to. The one that said, hey, I love you, everything's good, now go sleep.
He watched until the last credits rolled and into the commercials. There was no signal.
Charlie woke in the night and stumbled out of bed to go to the bathroom (that would teach him to drink Coke past ten). Halfway down the hall he heard his dad's voice. Maybe Danny was back! Charlie stood still and listened. It didn't take long to figure out that he was hearing one side of a phone conversation and his stomach squeezed with disappointment. Even straining hard, Charlie couldn't make out the words, but the tone swung from cajoling to bitter and back again. It didn't sound good.
That night Charlie dreamed he was out sailing with Dan on a wide, blue expanse of water. A sudden wave crashed against the boat, tipping it violently and Dan fell overboard. Horrified, Charlie threw him the life preserver but Dan couldn't find a grip and it floated away on the choppy waves. Charlie held out a hand, reaching and reaching but it was no use, Dan was borne off by the current and Charlie was left alone with salt water on his face.
The second morning Charlie woke with no smell of brewing coffee in the air, no annoying humming from Dan as an accompaniment to his breakfast, he decided to brave the lion's den.
"Dad," he said, standing diffidently in the doorway to his dads' room, "Where's Danny?"
He watched as his dad struggled out of sleep, blinking as he tried to figure out what to palm Charlie off with. Whatever it was, there was no way Charlie was going to buy it.
"Um. Hey, Charlie." Casey coughed to clear his throat. "There was ... there was a family emergency."
Charlie looked at him with his best 'yeah?' look and Casey broke the gaze, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand.
"We had a fight."
Honesty. Charlie could work with honesty. "I know. When's he coming back?"
"I don't know if he is."
Charlie resisted the temptation to regress and do the whole screaming tantrum thing. "I miss him," he said, instead.
Good, thought Charlie. Time to step it up. "Why'd he go?"
"It's complicated, Charlie."
"I'm not five." And hadn't he already proved that with the not-throwing a tantrum thing?
"No. You're not. He's ... I'm ... sometimes it doesn't matter how much you love someone if they want something you can't give."
"Can't or won't?"
Charlie watched his dad crumple like paper. It was weird how he felt like the only grown up in the room, like if how he could figure it all out, how come his dad couldn't?
"Your father is a coward, Charlie. A real coward."
That was a start, at least. "Maybe you should tell him that."
Well, okay, then. Every journey of a thousand miles and all of that. Charlie turned to leave and then paused, there was one more thing he needed his dad to hear. "Oh, and dad?"
"I am his son, you know."
"Which makes you a coward and a jackass."
Casey's spine straightened as he began to bridle but then drooped again in an admission of defeat. He passed his hands over his eyes. "That's me."
"Fix it," said Charlie, sounding gentler than he'd expected. His dad sighed.
"What's today's tally?" asked Dan, a brittle edge to his voice.
Charlie looked up from the table where he was attempting his AP Chemistry homework without much luck to see his dad slump into a chair without kissing Dan hello. He looked exhausted, black shadows under dull eyes that moved constantly. Charlie suppressed a shiver and lowered his head again, trying not to attract attention.
"Two op-eds, five letters to the editor, three invitations onto talk shows, including Ellen and I lost count of the e-mails and letters."
"Any in support?"
"Well, there's Ellen." Charlie heard his dad sigh. "Some." His voice brightened. "Some people out there, you hear their stories and they're just I don't know they make me feel proud and a coward all at the same time."
"Better that than ashamed," said Danny. "You're not reading the other stuff, are you, Casey? You're not paying attention to all that hate-filled crap the terrified homophobes of the world spew out when they're trying to force their penis fear on everybody else?"
Charlie's head came up at that and he saw his dad crack a small smile. It was the first one he'd seen since the paper came out and it didn't reassure him as much as he'd hoped.
"Penis fear, Danny? What, that's like the reverse of penis envy?"
"Whatever," said Dan, waving it off with a hand. "You didn't answer my question."
The smile disappeared and Charlie quickly looked down at his book again, the equations and formulas splitting and coalescing into bizarre new forms in front of his eyes. He blinked them straight.
"I read some," said Casey eventually. "I know, I know, I shouldn't, but I couldn't help myself. I'm not as strong as you, Danny, I never have been. It was ..."
"Educational?" Dan asked tautly. "Horrifying? A laugh riot? And how did it make you feel, Casey? Like you're less than a real man? Like you're ashamed of us? Of me?"
Charlie's stomach clenched and he sat still as a rock, breathing shallow and as quiet as possible, desperately trying to stay unnoticed. This wasn't his fight. This had never been his fight. He was just a potential civilian casualty.
"Dan, please. I can't. Not now." Charlie heard his dad stand. "I have to get back; Calvin wants me to talk to some people in marketing. Something about re-branding. I don't know what he wants from me a new, improved, bi sports anchor for the twenty-first century every home should have one."
"He's trying to support you, jackass, let him."
"I know," said Casey and he sounded so weary that Charlie had an impulsive urge to put him to bed with a stuffed animal and one of those weird go-to-sleep-now-you're-safe-in-the-womb-look!-heartbeat CDs.
He heard the creak of a chair closely followed by another and then the quiet sound of cotton sliding against cotton. Then silence: a different quality this time, softer, smoother, though still frayed around the edges. Charlie allowed himself the smallest of glances, peering up through his bangs, catching Dan whispering something into his dad's ear, something that made Casey nod and tighten his grip around Dan's back. Charlie gave them their moment back and the next thing he heard was the door clicking closed, followed by footsteps down the hall and another, more muffled snick of a door.
Taking a deep breath in, Charlie finally straightened up. He was alone.
In bed, Charlie couldn't sleep. The thing was, Dan and his dad, they didn't fight, they didn't throw stuff, they bickered and sniped but it didn't last. It never lasted. All that expensive therapy has to be worth something, Dan said. So tonight was different. Different and scary. Charlie hated the secrecy thing, knew Dan hated it, too. But he wasn't a kid any more and he knew he couldn't make things simple just by wishing it, and if he didn't agree with his dad's attitude at least he got it. Well, some of the time.
The fight replayed itself on a loop in Charlie's head, despite himself. It froze him to the stomach and he felt like he was a little kid again when his mom and dad fought. Before the divorce. No, he thought though he was aware he was panicking not two broken families, he wasn't supposed to be a statistic. He remembered sneaking into his parents' room and climbing into bed with them, taking each of their hands and making them meet on his stomach and wondered who he had been trying to reassure him or them. Before he knew it he was halfway down the hall trying to figure out some excuse for going in.
"That's not even the point, Casey." Charlie stopped dead, his hand just short of the door. He should go back, he'd done enough intruding. "Are you being this dense on purpose? Because I'm sure you weren't born this way. I'm not asking you to come out to the world tomorrow, I'm asking you whether I mean enough to you for you to come out as my partner, ever." Yeah, Charlie wasn't going anywhere. "I'm asking if I'm always going to be skulking in the background of your public persona, if I'm family or just the unpaid help that helps bring up your son. I'm asking what I mean to you, Casey, and what that means you're willing to do for me."
"Danny, god, you know I love you, but it's hard, don't make me..."
"Don't make you what? Don't make you think about someone other than yourself? Don't make you consider how your words, how your actions, how your lack of action hurts me? That's not love, Casey, that's convenience."
"What do you want, Danny? Tell me and I'll give it to you, I swear."
"I want a timescale, Casey. Down to the millisecond. Six years, I've done things the way you wanted because that was the way I got to have you and I was grateful we even got that far. I'm tired of hiding now. I'm done."
Charlie stared down at his feet as if he could force them to move with his eyes. He needed to go now, this was too much, too private. Not a toe twitched. He tuned back in to Dan's voice, stuffing the guilt into his special mental space labeled 'McCall Repression'.
"... deny me, it's a thousand million pinpricks all over my body. Just tell me when you're going to stop caring about the opinion of ... of Bob in Alaska more than you care about me. Tell me when I get to have a real-boy boyfriend, Casey, tell me when the Blue Fairy is coming for us."
Dan stopped and when his dad did not take up the slack, Charlie felt the dead air stretch and stretch until it was infinitesimally thin.
"Can't you even lie to me?" Dan's voice was plaintive and Charlie's stomach knotted with fear.
"Do something, Dad," he urged under his breath, but there was no way of getting through, no connection and he heard a scrabbling, scrambling sound and then drawers opening and shutting.
"I have to get out. I have to get out now, Casey." Dan sounded panicked and Charlie's stomach twisted in sympathy.
"Are you coming back?"
There was no answer.
Jolting back to himself, Charlie scuttled back to his room, shutting his door with extreme care before collapsing onto his bed. He lay perfectly still until he heard the front door closing, heart beating wildly. What the fuck was going to happen to them if Dan was gone for good? A white ball of rage swelled in Charlie's chest, pushing at his ribcage and making it difficult to breathe. How could his dad let this happen? What was wrong with him? Didn't he understand that Danny was the best thing that had ever happened to the two of them?
He sat up and swung his legs off the bed before realizing that storming into his dad's room and yelling wasn't going to do any good, because this thing this stupid, dumbass fight that didn't even need to exist in the first place if his dad would just quit being such an asshole and get with the program, already wasn't his business. And god, how much did he hate being mature enough to understand that?
Charlie grabbed his pillow and started punching.
"I made grilled cheese," Charlie cajoled through the closed door. "With tomatoes."
He leaned his head against the wooden door frame, tapping out a tune on the door in place of a knock. It felt like he hadn't seen Dan in days, he was always holed up in the study when Charlie got home from school and all Charlie could ever here was the steady click of a keyboard and sometimes the low murmuring of Dan's voice.
The hate-mail had started arriving at the apartment, now, and Charlie had taken to checking the mailbox before he left for school and as soon as he got home, removing anything that looked suspicious. He had a bag full of unopened letters stuffed under his bed, waiting for an opportunity for him to dispose of them. Charlie favored burning. He didn't think they deserved any better.
"On the phone," called Dan. "Be with you in a minute. And stop that tapping, it's demented and annoying."
"It's Panic," protested Charlie, stopping anyway.
"Demented. Annoying. I rest my case. One minute."
Charlie rolled his eyes as he pushed off the door frame and wandered back to the kitchen. He knew exactly what Danny had on his iPod, he wasn't fooling anyone.
It was more like five minutes before Dan showed up, leaning over Charlie's shoulder to grab the last grilled cheese.
"Cold now," said Charlie. "You should have come when you said."
"I have a mother, thank you, Charles. Cold is fine." Dan took a big bite and chewed with his best mmm-tasty-cornflakes-TV-ad face. Of course, the effect was totally spoiled when he managed to choke on his mouthful and ended up spitting most of it out into the sink, but Charlie was willing to give him points for trying.
"Are you okay?" he asked, as Dan, red-faced and wheezy, collapsed into a chair.
"Apart from the close brush with death where my only child failed to leap to my rescue?" Dan coughed, wiping his running eyes. "I'm good."
And before Charlie could stop himself, he asked, "And you and Dad? Are you good, too?"
Dan reached out and touched Charlie's cheek for a brief second, too quickly for Charlie to remember he had personal space issues but long enough for him to dread the answer. They'd been here before.
"I wish I could tell you," Dan said. "I wish I could say, 'yes, we're fine, why would you worry?' I'm in it for the long haul, I can tell you that. But you remember- Your father is under a lot of pressure, I don't know what will happen."
"Are you scared?" Charlie looked down at his bitten fingernails.
"You know what I don't get," said Charlie, "I don't get why public opinion is more important than loving someone."
"I don't know why, Charlie," said Dan, standing and clearing the plates, "But sometimes it is."
Dan's eyebrows moved from puzzled to angry and really, Charlie couldn't blame them. "What? What are you talking about? Of course I'm going. Have you lost your mind?"
"No. You shouldn't come."
There was a clatter as Dan's cutlery dropped from his hands, rebounding off the plate and onto the table. He shoved his chair back with a hard scrape that shivered through Charlie's bones. "Oh god. Oh my god, it's the gay thing."
Now it was Casey's turn to shove back his chair. "It is not."
"What is this, Casey? Am I not your family?" The way Dan's voice vibrated made Charlie think of Enola Gay flying over Hiroshima. He didn't want to consider that thought too closely.
"Charlie, go to your room."
"I'm not five," said Charlie on auto-pilot, already standing. Some things you just did not want to get between.
Charlie's room was the first down the hall. He toyed briefly with the idea of doing what they expected him to do close the door, ignore the fight (strike that. Discussion), do his own thing and then tossed it aside like the worthless garbage it was. This was his family and this was big and possibly bad. He left the door ajar, just enough so he could close it quickly and unnoticed should either his dad or Dan pass, and leaned against the wall, listening.
"What do you think I'm going to do? French you in front of god and everyone? In what part of your addled brain do you think I'm suddenly going to jump your bones in public? I'm not expecting you to hold my hand, just let me be part of it. Lisa wrote plus one, she's expecting me."
"She didn't write your name, Dan." Charlie hated that low, implacable monotone. It accompanied many of his life's worst moments so far.
"No, she didn't. She was being discreet, the postal service isn't known for its efficiency."
"She was giving me an out."
Charlie winced. Not good, Dad, not good, he thought.
"God, I can't believe you even think that. I can't believe you're taking it." Dan's voice got a little muffled and Charlie imagined him standing there, head in hands and curbed the impulse to go out there and tell them to get over themselves.
"You don't even like Lisa."
"How is that even close to the point? That's so far from what this is about that it's gone into orbit around the Horsehead Nebula. She's my son's mother, why wouldn't I want to be there for him, for her? It's a wedding. You know, a happy time where people gather and celebrate?"
The resonant percussion of china on graphite accompanied Casey's exclamation. "Oh, for fuck's sake, Danny! He's not your son."
And then there was silence, the only sound in Charlie's ears the rapid beating of his own heart.
There were things he'd had to be taught, like don't tell anyone your dad shares a room with your Uncle Dan. There were things he'd worked to understand, like how what seems like giving in on the surface can actually be a sign of strength, and there were things that were instinctive, that Charlie just knew, like how everyone held inside them miniature A-Bombs stenciled with the names of those they loved and containing The Thing That Must Not Be Spoken. He knew the devastating power of these bombs, had seen it first hand many years ago and felt his knees shake as the ripples spread outward from the epicenter.
He almost missed his father's soft words.
"Danny, I'm sorry."
"No," said Dan, his voice harsh and strange to Charlie's ears. "No. You don't get to take that back. I can't ... I can't talk to you any more right now because I'm frightened I'm going to say something dumb just to hurt you and that won't solve anything. Won't even make me feel better."
Then there were heavy footsteps and Charlie ducked out of the way quickly enough to not be seen as Dan went past and into their bedroom. A minute or so later, he was still standing against the door when he heard the falsely bright intonation of bad sitcom acting and the grating sound of a laugh track. He wandered into the living room not really knowing what he wanted to do, what he could do. Casey was slumped on the couch, Charlie could only see the back of his head.
"Dad?" he ventured.
"Not now, Charlie," said Casey and Charlie thought he'd never heard him sound so tired.
"Hey, Charlie. It's Dana." Charlie blinked, adjusting. He'd been expecting his dad when the number of the studio lit up on his cell screen.
"Hey, Dana. 'sup?"
"Charlie, I need you to do something for me. I need you to make sure Dan watches the show tonight. Can you do that?"
"I'm not five Dana, I can turn on the TV by myself and everything."
"Sorry, Charlie." He could hear the smile in Dana's voice. "I didn't mean to come off as patronizing, it's just this is incredibly important. Dan has to watch. You too."
"This isn't like the time Elliot told him that Hilary Clinton was coming on the show to talk about youth and sport and made him sit through a special on European soccer waiting?"
Dana's laugh was a sharp crack that made Charlie flinch a little from the phone. "No, I promise. No soccer. Not even local highlights. Just get Dan in front of the TV at eleven. Okay?"
"Sure. We watch most nights anyway."
"Good. Great. Thanks, Charlie."
"No problem. Bye, Dana."
"Bye. Oh, and enjoy the show. It's going to be one of our best."
Charlie hung up. Dana had had a manic quiver to her voice, like she was trying to stop something bubbling over, but then this was Dana and manic was her middle name. (Well, officially it was Marlene, but manic worked way better.) Who knew what she was excited about this time? A ping from Charlie's laptop distracted his thoughts and it wasn't until he'd signed off that he remembered what he was supposed to do. Five minutes to spare. Charlie blew out a sigh of relief.
Dan was lying on the couch reading when Charlie turned on the TV just in time to see Casey toss to Bobbi Bernstein in the pre-credits sequence.
"Do we have to tonight?" asked Dan. "My head thinks it got whacked again, not sure I want to be listening to over-excited and verbally challenged sports stars."
Charlie shrugged and slumped into a chair, clutching the remote. He was going to be ready for anything, up to and including a full-on war for TV control.
"Fine. Always wonderful to have these conversations, though it's hard for me to get a word in." Dan slid his bookmark into his book and put it down, sitting up and curling his legs under him.
"Whatever," said Charlie, flicking his hair. "Verbosity does not equal intelligence. I'm watching the show now."
"You're lucky I love you, baby McCall," said Dan.
Charlie wasn't twelve and easily riled these days. Also, Dan wouldn't let him win since Charlie had started getting shoulders to match his height. "Show," he said and pointed at the screen where Casey was debating the possible seeds for Selection Sunday.
The show was good but nothing out of the ordinary and Charlie was beginning to wonder why Dana had been so insistent when the segue to the C-break was Bobbi saying, "Stay tuned for a special announcement when we return," somber-faced. This was it, whatever it was, and Charlie sat up, pulling up his legs and hugging his knees to his chest. He glanced across at Dan who seemed perfectly relaxed. Charlie felt almost affronted by his attitude until he remembered that to Dan this was just another show. He clenched his jaw to stop himself blurting something out so he could have company in his nervous anticipation, if only for a few seconds.
The Sports Night logo faded and then Casey's face was filling the screen, pale even under the stage make-up, but he looked determined and strong and in a blinding flash, Charlie knew what was coming. Torn between fear and hope he turned up the volume.
On Casey's day off they always sat down to dinner together; it was one of Dan's rules. Charlie didn't get to skulk off to his room with a sandwich or a slice of pie, and Casey didn't get to eat standing up at the counter while reading three papers simultaneously. Otherwise, Dan always said, they'd never have any quality family time together and, though Charlie and Casey poked fun at him and called him 'Mom,' they both secretly agreed.
"So, Charles McPherson McCall," said Dan, digging into his pile of potato "Not my name," muttered Charlie, resigned "Are you intending to wear the family tartan at the wedding? Give your mom away in a kilt?" He beamed at Charlie through a mouthful of mash.
"Not even if you cold-called my three favorite bands and got them to play a benefit. Stop." Charlie held up a hand. "To play for my benefit. No kilts. Also? What family tartan?"
"Is it the idea of the sporran that gets to you, Charlie, or the thought of a breeze up your skinny legs?"
Charlie speared a green bean and narrowed his eyes at Dan before turning to look at his dad, swiftly changing his expression to one of Xtreme-innocence (it rarely paid off, but it was worth a try). "Didn't someone in this room who is neither you nor me have some kind of trouble with his tux pants a few weeks back? I seem to recall a ricocheting button? And ducking before I wound up scarred for life?"
Casey's fork stilled in mid-air.
"Hey, it was a loose thread," Dan defended, jabbing his knife in the air as if to prove a point. He paused. "I sewed it back on, right? Casey? Did I sew it back on?"
Casey laid down his fork with deliberate care, eyes not moving from the curving tines.
"Earth to Casey. Did I sew the button back on my pants or am I going to have to figure out what I did with it?"
Charlie stuffed his mouth full of chicken. Domestic crap was so not his thing. He wondered if he could get permission to go to FLC the next weekend. Maybe if he promoted the 'it's in a church' aspect and downplayed the whole thing where it was in the Bronx and his dad had forbidden him to set foot there without an adult after that time when he came home without his brand new sneakers and with a blood blister the size of a silver dollar on the ball of his foot.
"I don't think it's a good idea you go." Casey's quiet voice cut right through Charlie's plotting. His head snapped up and he saw Dan's eyebrows draw down into a puzzled frown.
"I beg your pardon?"
Casey looked up and met Dan's eyes, the set of his mouth hard. Charlie knew that look. That was the classic McCall heels-in, do-not-deviate-from-the-righteous-path look. What the hell was he playing at?
"I don't think you should come to Lisa's wedding."
"Some of you will know that two weeks ago I was mugged while walking home from the movies. Some of you will know this because of a photograph that appeared in the press the following day. A picture of myself holding an unconscious Dan Rydell."
Now Dan wasn't relaxed. Not even remotely. He was sitting bolt upright, one hand gripping the arm of the couch so tightly his knuckles were white.
"Since the picture was published both Dan and I and people here at Sports Night from the Managing Director, Dana Whittaker, to Monica, the poor woman who has the misfortune to pick out my clothes, have received a volume of hate-mail that could best be described as tidal. I must say that the homophobic contingent in this country is remarkably inventive when it comes to ways I and those who know me, should die. I'm sure they could put that imagination to better use.
"What the hate-mail had in common was that they were wrong about one thing. I am not gay."
Charlie heard the sharp intake of breath from Dan and was by his side in an instant, reaching for his hand. Personal space could take a running jump. Dan held on fiercely.
"I am not straight, either," continued Casey. "And it is ridiculous in more ways than I can express that I should have to define my sexuality for anyone other than myself, and, perhaps, those closest to me. To be raged upon and vilified for who I may or may not choose to sleep with is as absurd as despising the sky for being blue or water for being wet.
"If I listened to the people whispering hate, if I listened to the people whispering caution I could easily deny that the incident was anything more than a friend concerned for another friend a best friend but to do that would be to deny the best part of myself. Dan Rydell was my on screen partner and best friend for many years and has been my lover, my soul-mate, the man I go home to, a second father to my son for the past seven years."
"Seven years which have been marred by one thing and one alone: fear. It was the fear of what would happen to my son, to Dan, to me and my career if people discovered our relationship that made me stop myself reaching out to take his hand in the street, made me hand his unconscious body to my son and it was this fear that made me less of a man. Not whom I have chosen to love.
"And now the decision to stay in the shadows is taken out of my hands and I find myself almost grateful to the people who have nothing better to do than despise others who do not conform to their idea of what is good, what is normal, because the worst has come and you know what? I do not fear it. I will not let it make me ashamed. I will not hide any more.
"Nor am I longer content to work in sports, where violence between men is seen as something beautiful and love between two men, or two women, as something hateful. It is a mixed up world indeed where this stands as truth and one of which I do not wish to be a part. I hope that by speaking out I will have touched some of you, perhaps made Bob in Alaska rethink his convictions, or some kid in the minor leagues realize that he, too, can stand tall. My journey does not end here, it is only the beginning.
"My name is Casey McCall and for the last time here at Sports Night I bid you a good night." Casey paused and then a slow smile spread across his face. "Danny," he said. "Do not move an inch. I'm coming home." With that, the credits rolled and the camera panned out and around to show the studio floor crowded with people, cheering and clapping, Casey in the middle of it all, being hugged by Bobbi.
"Oh. My. God," said Dan, thick-voiced, still clutching Charlie's hand.
"Oh my fucking god," said Charlie.
"Language," said Dan on automatic Parent mode.
"Come on, Dan, if ever a situation needed cursing as emphasis, this would be it."
"Fair point," said Dan, his voice cracking on the second word. "Fuck." He collapsed against the back of the couch, Charlie following suit. "Charlie," he said, "Your dad. Fuck."
Charlie deliberately didn't look at Dan if he'd been crying he wouldn't want anyone to look at him but he squeezed his hand, the sweat between their palms causing him to slip a little. "I know," he said and his chest swelled with pride.
Charlie dropped the mail on the counter and swung his backpack up next to it.
"Bag. Floor. Juice?" said Dan, obviously on auto-pilot, sorting through the mail. "Nice envelopes," he said, passing a thick, creamy one across to Charlie. "Wedding invites, right?"
Charlie ripped it open, and pulled out a card embossed with gold lettering.
"U-huh," he said.
"One for you and one for Casey. You know, if I didn't know how much Lisa depends on my being there, I'd feel quite slighted." Dan's tone was wry but warm.
"Slighted? Been reading those old English books again? Also, delusional much?" Charlie reached across to the pile and tore open his dad's envelope, ignoring Dan's squawk of protest. He pulled out the card and waved it under Dan's nose. "See?" he said. "Plus one. Mom spent like a whole day trying to figure out if she should put your name on there or not. It was a whole thing. A whole, boring thing."
"A day, Charlie?" chided Dan, grinning, pulling a carton of juice out of the refrigerator. "Do they even teach you young folks about hyperbole at school?"
"Never. Or is that always?"
"Drink your juice, enfant terrible," said Dan, filling a glass and pushing it across to Charlie, "And then tell me what nefarious deeds you got up to at school today."
Charlie combed his bangs over his eye with practiced ease and hoped Dan was taking a random stab in the dark and had not heard about the Home Ec Vaselining incident. He barely noticed Dan's finger running across the opened envelope.
When Casey came home in record time he still had streaks of make-up on his neck and face and his shirt was buttoned up wrong. None of that mattered though and before the door was even closed his arms were wrapped tight around Dan and Charlie and they stood in a silence glowing with happiness. After a minute, Charlie remembered that he didn't do hugging and that he ought to use that tact he'd been working so hard on developing. He disengaged.
"I gotta sleep. School night. Stupid proud of you, though, Dad." He knuckled Casey's head. "Don't make me regret it now."
"No chance," said his dad, barely tearing his gaze from Dan. "Love you, kiddo."
"Ack," said Charlie, heading off to his room. "Too much love in this house. Let's take it behind closed doors, please."
Charlie settled his earphones in and turned up the volume on his iPod. He had about nine hours of battery left that should do. God, he hoped it would do. He smiled to himself: not too much love, he thought, just exactly enough.