Oh, The Places You'll Go

in your game, your rules, you choose to win or lose

Notes: I have no idea why I wrote this, beyond the fact that I thought it would be cool to do an illustrated fic. Set post-canon, but with flashbacks (aren't you surprised) so there are a couple of spoilers. Thanks go to phoebesmum and lordessrenegade for betas. Best in the biz.


Dan can't sleep.

It's not too hot and it's not too cold. He's not thirsty and he doesn't need to pee. Work's no more stressful than usual and there's nothing — again, beyond the usual — he's chewing over in his brain. He just can't sleep.

It's been like this for weeks now. He lies still under smooth covers — tossing and turning gets him nowhere, he's been there, done that. He's also done pills, both herbal and prescribed, warm baths before bed, lavender oil (which made him feel slightly nauseated and reminded him of old ladies), hot milk, sheep counting (though he changed to meerkats on the fifth night on the grounds that the incessant baaing was keeping him awake), and that thing where you imagine yourself on a black lake in a black boat on a starless night. Nothing works. He's pretty much exhausted all the options. And now he's pretty much exhausted.

Dan sighs. He realises he's only one tiny step away from bad poetry, the staple occupation of the long-term insomniac. Either that existential angst stream of consciousness crap:

A deep golden blue spread
Upwards towards the far off light.
Weaving, like a snake in a trance it moved
Forward and through.
The blackness of the world shocked and surprised,
Nothing had ever been seen like this …

Or sappy love poetry:

Always there, I just can't shake you,
Wonder what you're doing now.
Picture you, dark eyes shining,
Smiling for some girl, not for me.
Need your arms to enfold me,
Keep me near you, a satellite
Basking in reflected glory …

No, no, no, no! That way madness lies. Also shame and the inability to see himself any more as a writer of any style or substance.

Dan twiddles his thumbs, then takes a minute to reflect on exactly how bored he must be to actually twiddle. Thumb wars with Charlie are one thing, but general twiddling? It's been some time. There was that time when the lumber sports final overran for two hours and Dana and Sally spent at least one of them in Isaac's office battling over whether Sports Night went on at all or they just kicked to West Coast Update. He's sure there was a fair amount of thumb twiddling then. And cursing, he muses. Lots of cursing.

Dan decides to play a game in his head: that could while away enough time for the sun to rise so that he can feel like the night is over and it's OK to get up. What to play? Solitaire? Too difficult to keep track of all the cards — besides, he'd only cheat and it would all come out on the first go round. Where's the challenge? Monopoly? No. He's already tired and fed-up; he doesn't want to add paralysed with boredom to the mix. Chess? Not a bad idea. He used to play with Sam. Thinks he may even be able to remember some of the classy moves. He sets up his mental board. White or black? He decides to play white with the left side of his brain and black with his right. Not that he has any clue how to go about that, but it sounds good. First move.

chess 1

OK. Good move, white. You've staked out your territory in the center, opened up a couple of lines of attack. Beat that, black!

chess 2

Like that was entirely unexpected. Now the two pawns are stuck there, unable to go past one another, like two dithering old men trying to side-step each other on the street, constantly excusing themselves then feinting the same way. Over and over again.

chess 3

Cunning! See, now the white knight (or Dan, as he is known to his friends) has put the black pawn in danger. Black's got to strike back or they're one down before the clock's ticked a full minute.

Just a few moves down the line and Dan brings out the white queen.

chess 4

She scoots across the board, monarch of all she surveys. Kind of like Dana, Dan thinks. And that's where it all goes wrong because now Dan's mind is full of Dana as the White Queen, yelling 'Off with their heads!' and the whole game descends into a riot.

chess 5

By the time Dan's fevered imagination has had its way, Dana's the only piece left standing.

chess 6

Dan imagines the evil smile on her face as she wipes her bloodied sword on her white dress. He screws up his eyes — chess is clearly far too violent to soothe him to sleep. He needs to pick an easier, gentler game. He remembers sitting at the kitchen table with Sam, spinner shooting off across the tiled floor, scrabbling around under cupboards and the blatant cheating call of 'Six!' each time it was found. Chutes and Ladders it is. He has a vivid memory of the board they used to use, an old one — family heirloom probably — telling a moral story: good deeds sent you up ladders; bad deeds sent you down chutes. Sometimes Sam and Dan used to play the game back to front, just so the bad kids got a chance to redeem themselves.

chutes 1

There. Behind his closed eyes, the image is almost as perfect as the real thing. He spins. Three. Damn! How is it that even his own imagined spinner never gives him a six? He shouldn't have to cheat in a made-up game. That's not right.

chutes 2

He spins again. One. Yes! A good deed sends him up a ladder.

Dan gives a satisfied sigh and twirls his imaginary spinner again. Two. And…No! Straight down a chute. He fumes the fume of the unfairly treated.

chutes 3

Of course, Dan reflects, it's his pretend game. He could change the outcome if he wanted. Get rid of the chutes, double the ladders. But it's not the way the world works is it? You go up a ladder — chances are that the next step you slide down a chute. And if you're Dan it's a garbage chute and it takes three days to shower the smell of rotted vegetables away.

He stops in mid mental twizzle. Furrows his brow. Up a ladder, down a chute. Up ladder, down chute. This seems eerily familiar somehow. For some reason an image of Casey, best friend and partner, springs unbidden into his mind. Yes! thinks Dan. Chutes and Ladders: just like him and Casey. You think you're getting somewhere, then …

Oh! thinks Dan. It's a revelation. Casey and him, it's not an indeterminate relationship at all — it's a board game! In Dan's sleep-deprived state that explains a lot. So where would it all start? And where is it going?

Dan throws off the covers and goes in search of a paper and pen. Why not? He's awake anyway, might as well make good use of his time. He rips a page off a pad and takes it into the kitchen. Whilst he waits for the coffee machine to chug itself into life he rummages through a drawer to find a ruler. Might as well do this properly. At the table, steaming mug by his side he draws himself a grid. Prints 'START' on the first square. So far so good. He's bent over the table, pen gripped in left hand, tongue tip protruding the tiniest bit from the right side of his mouth. He's the picture of concentration. There's a few seconds of intense scribbling and then he sits back to survey his work in progress.

dan's chutes 1

Dan taps the pen against his lip. He remembers.

*

Dan took his first internship at a paper in LA. His initial initiation was a whirlwind. He was introduced to what he felt must have been at least several thousand different people, given their name, job title and salient bullet points by the researcher with whom he'd been buddied to learn the ropes.

"This is Scott. He's features editor, he hates exclamation points with a passion only surpassed by how much he loves the proper use of semi-colons. Never bring him coffee after 6pm or you'll bring down the wrath of his wife upon us all."

"This is Summer. She's assistant editor for fashion, she will never speak to you again after today as you're not dressed head to toe in labels."

"This is Claudia. She's the PA to the big boss. We all know she secretly runs this place. Always run ideas by her first, she'll stop you making an idiot of yourself."

Somewhere in there he was introduced to Casey. He didn't make much of an impression, Dan's head by this time feeling like it was on information overload. But after a couple of weeks it became clear that Dan's metier was sports and he was assigned full time to the sports desk where Casey was working as assistant editor. Dan thought he seemed like a nice guy, but a focused one — he didn't seem to have much time for anything other than work. He was unfailingly polite to Dan, unlike some of the other jackasses who thought interns were born without brains but bore the uncanny ability to carry more than four cups of coffee at one time. He was also cute in a dorky kind of way. And if his pants clung to his ass in a particularly inviting fashion, Dan sure as hell was not noticing.

It was a regular Monday morning meeting. Dan was lounging against the wall, notepad in hand as story ideas were kicked around.

"I'm hearing things about the America's Cup," said Casey. "To be honest, I don't have much idea what's going on, but it sounds like it could be a good story. Maybe we should look into it."

"Sure," replied Mel, head of the Sports Desk. "We seem to be in a dry spell while we're waiting for the Olympics to kick off. You want it?"

Casey shrugged. "Why not? But I don't know anything about sailing. Might need some help with the research."

Dan raised his hand.

"Yes, Dan?"

"I. Um. I know a fair amount about sailing, sir. And I'm pretty up to date on the Cup. I could help."

"Casey? That OK with you?"

Casey looked over at Dan and smiled, his teeth biting his bottom lip. It's not love if you just want to tear his clothes off, Dan thought and then caught himself. He wondered if he'd made a big mistake.

"Sure," said Casey. "Welcome on board, Dan."

"Aye aye, Cap'n," replied Dan and then cursed the non-appearance of a hole to swallow him up.

"So," said Casey, back at his desk after the meeting dispersed, "what do we know?"

"How much do you know about the America's Cup already?" asked Dan. "Don't want to teach you to suck eggs."

"I've always wondered if anyone actually ever allowed themselves to be taught to suck eggs. I can't think of anything more disgusting."

"Being taught to suck rotten eggs?"

"Fair point." Casey picked up a pen. "Assume I know nothing. It would be a valid assumption."

Dan grinned and gave Casey a potted history of the competition.

"And so that brings us to last year," he said. "America, otherwise known as Dennis Conner, won back the cup from Australia in February. Now, there's no rule that says a challenge must be issued or accepted within any specific time frame. Conner was planning to wait until 1989. Probably because this is not a cheap hobby — unless you're doing it in the bath — and also it takes a whole lot of time to design and test a boat and learn to sail it as a crew. But in July this New Zealand banker, Michael Fay, sent out a challenge. He wanted to race in a 90-foot monohull. Bear in mind that since, like, I don't know, years ago, they've been racing 12 metre boats so Conner knocked him back and it ended up in court. The judge decided that it was a valid challenge but failed to say what type of yachts should be raced and how many races there should be in the series. Now this was in November and the date was set for this September. Ten months to design, build, test the boat. Crazy.

"In January, Conner's team announced they were going to build a catamaran. You know what that is, right?"

A nod from Casey and Dan continued.

"There's no contest. A catamaran eats up the water in a way that no big monohull can. It's light and fast and maneuverable — a complete mismatch with the New Zealand boat. It's a toss up to decide whether the design was chosen to piss Fay off or because it just wouldn't be possible to design and build a 90 footer in the time left. Fay, as everyone expected, took it back to court — he'd already used the original challenge words to get his challenge accepted, to make sure he didn't have to sail in any preliminary matches — this time he thought he could get them to make Conner change his boat. It's going through the courts now.

"In the meantime, Conner's had two 60 foot cats on the water up at San Diego — one soft-rigged, one hard. As far as I'm aware he's not chosen one yet. And that's where we are."

"So if Conner gets his way America will hold on to the Cup?"

"No contest."

"Seems a bit unfair."

"Yeah, well it's not really in the spirit of things, but then neither was the challenge. Conner himself said that the race would be bizarre — less to do with sailors and sailing and more to do with design and technology. The new world against the old, I suppose."

"That's the angle," said Casey, banging his pen on the desk with enthusiasm.

"What?"

"New versus old. What the guys who started it all would think of what's happening now. We've got to go to San Diego."

"We do?"

"We do. I want to meet this Conner guy."

"You want me to come?"

"Sure. We're partners in this, right? Besides, I need you to translate all the boat-speak. As far as I'm concerned, a boom's a kind of mic and a sheet is something you put on the bed."

Casey paused and looked up at Dan, who was perched on the edge of the desk. He cocked his head to one side.

"That's all right, isn't it? I mean, if you don't want to, or you've got something else to do …"

A furrow had appeared between Casey's eyebrows.

"No," said Dan. "I mean yes. I mean, I'd like to come with you. It'll be. Yeah." He stumbled to a halt.

He smiled at Casey. The furrow had disappeared; Casey was grinning back. Dan felt his heart clunk in his chest. Oh dear, he thought.

112 miles from LA to San Diego down Interstate 5. Congestion at the Orange Crush. Plenty of time to talk and discover all the things they had in common. Dan got into the car at LA with a possible crush and got out in San Diego with a bad case of hero-worship and a semi hard-on that he couldn't seem to shake. Primed by Dan, Casey asked lots of intelligent-sounding questions and, interview over, Dan watched in awe as the crew put the hard-rigged catamaran through its paces. They worked seamlessly, the 60-foot boat moving through the water almost as if it wasn't there. Dan felt a fierce longing to be out there with them, the smell of salt water in his nose, the tackiness of it on his hands, the breeze through his hair. It brought back memories of childhood, of joy and escape. And of Sam. Dan's eyes clouded. Just then a warm hand gripped his shoulder, giving him a little shake.

"Dan. Danny. Come on dreamer, we need to head back. Miles to go before we sleep and all."

Dan didn't answer for a second, enjoying the sensation of Casey's hand on his shoulder. Then he blinked fast several times, shoved his hands in his pockets and turned round with a smile.

"Want me to drive?" he asked. "You can start putting the story together on the way back. Save some time. Then we'll maybe have time for a drink afterwards." He hoped he hadn't pushed too far.

"Me? Corrupt minors? What were you thinking?" Casey slung his arm round Dan's neck and propelled him towards the car. "That's a yes, by the way," he added.

When Mel complimented Casey on the piece at the next department meeting, Casey made sure Dan's contribution was noted. Mel swivelled his chair to look at Dan.

"Good work, Rydell," he said. "You two make a good team."

And that was that. From then until the end of his internship Dan was assumed to be Casey's intern. And that suited Dan just fine. He enjoyed every minute, letting his crush run rampant because he knew that come September he'd be back at Dartmouth and would probably never see Casey again. He was, after all, just an intern. By day they'd work and laugh and argue, by night Dan would jerk himself off to thoughts of Casey's versatile mouth all over him, Casey's long fingers working inside him.

Casey took Dan out for a drink on his final night in LA.

"It's going to be weird without you being around," said Casey. "No one else gets my jokes."

"That's because they're not funny, Casey. I merely provide sympathy laughs."

Casey poked out his tongue.

"Oh, very mature, McCall."

"It'll be weird, is all." Casey's eyes slid away from Dan's face to some far corner. Dan looked at him for a second then dropped his gaze to his glass.

"Yeah, it will," he agreed.

"You'll be back at school with a whole bunch of hot freshmen girls to chase. You'll barely remember us in a couple of days."

Dan met Casey's gaze and held it.

"I don't think so."

Casey's eyes slid away again. He patted his pockets and pulled out a pen.

"Paper?" he asked.

Dan provided him with a beer mat. Casey scribbled on it and handed it back to him.

"My number," he said. "I'm not… don't…I mean, it's useful to have contacts and I." He paused and drew breath. "I like you, Danny. You're good company and you're smart and funny and I've liked having you around. I'd prefer it if you didn't vanish off the face of the earth. I'd like to think we're friends." Casey stopped and smiled a half-smile.

"Friends," echoed Dan. "Yeah, definitely. Thank you. I'm…yeah." He knew he was grinning stupidly but he couldn't stop. Not just an intern after all.

A week after he returned to Dartmouth, Stars and Stripes US-1 won the America's Cup, soundly beating the New Zealand opposition. Dan picked up the phone to call Casey, tell him to keep following the story, that it wouldn't end there; there would be a legal challenge. It wasn't that he wanted to hear Casey's voice, no, not that at all.

"Hello," said an unfamiliar female voice.

"Hi," said Dan, "is Casey there?"

"No, he's down in San Diego. Some boat thing. Who's speaking?"

"My name's Dan. I used to work with Casey. Who are you?"

"Lisa. His fiancée. Can I take a message?"

Dan's knuckles whitened around the receiver.

"No," he said. "No message."

*

Dan winces. Still hurts after all these years. Lisa. He drains the coffee, nearly the wrong side of lukewarm and studies the board. What's next? Down at the bottom of the chute he'd learnt to control his crush (for years he'd never named it anything else, he wasn't that stupid) and everything had chugged along nice and easy for a long while. But then. He scribbles again.

dan's chutes 2

*

He drops his head to the table with a thunk. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Because it wasn't the Jaegermeister, it was love. And he knew that and he knew Casey knew that and for one solitary night it had seemed as if everything was going to be all right. Only it wasn't.

*

The St Crispin's day speech had not gone down well with the hotel staff. Oh, they didn't say anything, but there were definite looks cast in their direction. So Dan hauled Casey to safety in the elevator.

"No more Jaegermeister for you," he admonished, removing the bottle from Casey's hand.

"But Reggie White said I should have it." Casey made a poor attempt to wrest the bottle from Dan's grip.

"Reggie White wants to spread the joy. I'm not sure he wants you to spread your guts out all over this elevator, so leave it alone." Dan held the bottle aloft and grabbed Casey's flailing arm. For lack of somewhere else to put it, he draped it over his shoulder. Casey immediately tucked his thumb into the collar of Dan's shirt. Dan shivered a little as Casey's skin touched his. The reaction was not lost on Casey.

"Cold?"

"Yes. No. It's August. A little." Dan was saved by the opening of the elevator door. He twisted Casey round and pushed him out.

"Come on," he said. "There's a lovely cup of coffee with your name on it."

"Really? The cup says Casey? I like that. How'd it know I was coming?"

Dan shook his head, grateful that his room was not far. With one hand still clutching the bottle of Jaegermeister and the other propping Casey up, it was not the easiest task to open his door. Still, he managed it eventually. Pouring liquid-Casey on to the bed, Dan called Room Service and ordered two coffees.

"I'm going to get some ice," he said. "If you feel the need to throw up, please try to do so in the appropriate receptacle. And I'm taking the Jaegermeister with me, so don't even think about it."

It was a quick trip to the ice machine; Dan couldn't have been gone more than a minute. When he returned, Casey's clothes were on the floor and he was curled up under the covers, snoring. Dan put the ice and bottle down and sat in a chair watching Casey sleep.

They'd known each other for five years now — Dan's crush refusing to go away despite the presence of a fiancée, then a wife and then a son. Finally, Dan had admitted to himself that his feelings went far deeper than a crush. Unrequited love, so hopelessly romantic, so utterly hopeless, and yet he didn't seem to be able to stop himself.

The coffee arrived swiftly, the murmuring exchange between Dan and the waiter bringing no response from Casey except a slight shift. A lock of hair fell into his eyes. Dan hovered by the desk watching him. For about thirty seconds he resisted the urge. He's completely passed out, he reasoned, it's not like he'll know. He crossed to the bed. Kneeling beside it, he reached out to brush the hair off Casey's face. And if his fingers lingered a little too long on warm skin, who was to notice?

Casey did not stir. He looked so young, the flush of sleep smoothing out his face. Almost without thinking Dan leant forward and placed a gentle kiss on Casey's forehead. This time Casey shifted a little under him and Dan sprang away in shock as Casey mumbled, "Come to bed, honey."

Dan froze. Casey obviously thought he was addressing Lisa. If Dan moved away now and didn't do as Casey asked, Casey might open his eyes, might remember where he was, might realise that those lips against his skin had been Dan's, not Lisa's. If Dan did as Casey asked — Dan couldn't. Could he? What was he supposed to do? An icy hand gripped his chest making it hard for him to get his breath. He did not move. Could not move. Casey opened his eyes. Red-rimmed but sharp, they looked straight into Dan's.

"Come to bed, honey," Casey repeated.

Dan remained rooted to the spot, the slight flaring of his nostrils the only sign that he was not, indeed, a statue. Casey was very, very, very drunk. Casey was hallucinating. Casey was out of what passed for his mind. Casey was…reaching out his hand and stroking Dan's face. Letting his thumb drag across Dan's lower lip. Speaking in a low, slurred voice.

"'M tired, Danny. Come to bed. Let's sleep."

"Casey." Dan's voice held an edge.

"Danny," Casey's voice was patient now, as if he was addressing his small son, "come to bed. There's plenty room. I have to sleep now, I can't argue with you." He turned over, pulling the covers back on the empty side of the bed.

Without a word, Dan rose, stripped to his shorts and climbed into bed beside Casey. He pulled the covers up tight under his chin and lay rigid as a board at the edge of the bed. Too rigid, he thought, cursing his body's inability to behave. Casey, on the other hand, had moved again and lay sprawled on his back, one arm flung above his head, one stretching out towards Dan. In fact those fingertips were almost touching his hair — Dan's scalp was electrified with anticipation. This wouldn't do. He tried to squirm away, but there was not enough bed to squirm to and he fell to the floor with a thud.

Casey laughed.

"Dumbass!"

For a second, Dan wondered if the best option was to flee the room and wander the corridors in his boxers until first light. But Casey's highly unmanly giggles were infectious and Dan joined in, clambering back onto the bed.

"C'm'ere," Casey said, reaching up to grab Dan's arm, pulling him down so that his head was pillowed on Casey's chest. Casey's finger lightly traced the outline of Dan's ear. It was either give in to the moment or watch his own head explode with confusion, Dan realised. He chose the former.

"I'm very drunk," Casey said.

"I know."

"And very tired."

"I know that too."

"And I very love Charlie."

"It may surprise you to learn I'm aware of that also," Dan's arm found itself draped across Casey's stomach despite his best efforts to keep it under control.

"And I very love Lisa."

You can't die from a kick in the stomach, Dan reminded himself.

"So I should hope," he said, fingers freezing in mid-stroke of Casey's side.

"And I very love you." As a friend. Dan heard the unspoken words. Or he thought he did. Why couldn't he just take pleasure in what he had?

"I very love you too, Casey."

"I know that."

"That is because you are wise and omni-whatever-it-is — all-knowing. Now what was that about sleep?"

"Yeah. Sleep. Sleep is good. You stay there. Sleep too." And with that, Casey tipped his head so that his cheek rested against Dan's hair and was asleep in seconds. It took Dan much longer, but eventually he, too, drifted off.

It was still dark when he woke. They had both shifted in their sleep and now Dan lay pressed up against Casey's back, one leg crossing Casey's at the ankle, arm over his waist, face nuzzling into neck. He pushed himself up, resting his head on his hand, looking at Casey's face bathed ghostly green in the light from his radio clock.

"Oh, god, I love you," he thought and immediately sensed a stillness in the room, like the memory of an echo. He realised he could no longer hear Casey breathing and it occurred to him that maybe he hadn't thought it after all. Maybe he'd actually said it. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Had he woken Casey? Had Casey heard anything? How much? He couldn't still hear the grating breaths of a drunken man asleep. How long ago had that stopped? Dan became acutely aware of his arm thrown over Casey's side, of the press of his cock hard and hot against Casey's back. With extreme care he began to pull back only to find a hand gripping his wrist, holding him in place.

"Don't you dare move." Casey's voice was deep and sleep-fuddled.

"I'm not your wife, Casey." Dan did his best to keep his tone light and teasing.

"And don't I thank all the powers in the universe daily for that. One Lisa is quite enough, don't you think?"

Dan let out a nervous giggle and refrained from adding "more than enough."

Casey trailed Dan's hand down over his boxers, Dan's fingers sketching the unexpectedly hard outline of Casey's cock. Dan swallowed, his mouth dry and tasting faintly of aniseed. Casey increased his force on Dan's hand, moving it up and down a little. Dan could feel spreading dampness on the cotton. He squirmed, but it made things worse as he pressed himself against Casey's ass. He thought he should probably breathe at some point.

"Um. Casey?" Oh god, he really wanted just to let things flow, see what Casey was up to, but there was the Jaegermeister and — he spat mentally — Lisa and probably several hundred reasons why Casey didn't really want to be doing this. "What, erm, what's going on?"

With his other hand Casey fumbled by his head, hitting the switch for the bedside lamp. Dan screwed up his eyes against the lamp, feeling Casey shifting under him. When he opened his eyes again, Casey was mirroring his position, the light behind him casting his face in shadow. Unreadable.

Not that unreadable. He took Dan's hand and replaced it where he obviously thought it belonged. Dan almost recoiled in shock as skin met skin. Casey's lips twitched.

"What's going on, Casey?" Dan repeated, his fingers curling reflexively around Casey, beginning to stroke without thought.

"Didn't you take Sex Ed?" Casey had his fingers hooked into the waistband of Dan's boxers. He pulled the material forward, releasing Dan before he started to tug them down. He got as far as Dan's thighs before abandoning the task and refocusing his efforts on Dan's cock. The first touch made Dan jump nearly out of his skin and Casey laughed, disappearing under the covers to finish the job he had started. He re-emerged, hair tousled, cheeks flushed, and headed straight for Dan's lips. They kissed, two starving men, arms crushing ribs, hips interlocking, legs twisting. Dan broke off for breath.

"What's going on, Casey?"

Casey shook his head, chased Dan's mouth for another kiss, captured and conquered. Dan understood. It was Casey's turn to break off, gasping air into his lungs.

As Dan pressed his mouth against Casey's neck, he whispered, "Don't ask, don't tell."

Casey shoved at Dan, rolling him onto his back. He straddled Dan's thighs, pushing them together. Leaning forward he kissed Dan, deep and heavy, pulling back and replacing his tongue with his fingers. Dan sucked at them greedily, loving the way they filled his mouth. Long, elegant, talented fingers that Casey took back, Dan mewling a little in disappointment until he felt them twisting into the crease between his thighs, nudging his balls with bony knuckles. Felt them grazing against the sensitive skin, skimming the very beginning of his ass crack. And then they were gone from there too and Dan had no time to regret their loss as Casey licked his hand again, passed it over his cock, took his weight on his arms, dipping close, so close as he pushed his cock into the space vacated by his fingers. Dan felt the tip of it track blindly against his skin and his own cock pulsed with excitement.

With each thrust into this makeshift hole Casey's hips bucked forward, his pubic hair, damp with sweat rubbing Dan's cock with perfect friction, the base of Casey's cock massaging Dan's balls. Dan gazed at Casey's face, trying to take it all in, the bent head, intent expression, the way his lips moved soundlessly, the beads of sweat gathering on his forehead, his upper lip. Dan desperately wanted to part his legs, to have Casey buried hip deep inside him, but Casey's thighs held his in iron grip and he satisfied himself with letting his hands wander down Casey's back and over his ass, feeling the muscles clench and unclench under his fingers.

A bead of sweat dropped onto his chest and Casey lapped it up, then breathed over the track he had made, not breaking his stride. The warmwetcool of it made Dan groan and Casey raised his head, meeting his eyes. Dan smiled, intimate but shy and Casey smiled back. And in the lamp light Dan saw it there in his eyes. All the answers ever given to all the questions ever asked. He was overwhelmed; his arms found themselves wrapped round Casey's neck, pulling him down for a kiss, warmwetslick. Dan pushed his cock up into Casey's hard belly, rubbing himself without sense, without rhythm, tightening his thighs around Casey's cock. It was all too much — too much sensation, too much emotion, too much need, too much possibility. Dan pushed at Casey's chest, opening up some distance between them, holding his gaze as his orgasm hit him like an atom bomb, evaporating everything but the imprint of Dan on the world.

"Danny!" Casey seemed to have found his voice just in time as he grabbed Dan's hand, fingers flexing as the second bomb exploded.

Untangling themselves with care they lay side by side, hands clasped, hearts hammering, wordless. Dan, finding parts of himself floating in the ether, put himself back together again.

"I think I should maybe clean up," Dan managed after the world righted itself. "I'm a sticky mess, and not in the nice way like a cream donut."

"You are a donut," threw out Casey lazily. Dan levered himself onto his haunches, standing and walking down the bed rather than risk spreading the rapidly cooling damp patch on the sheet beneath the hollow of his thighs.

"Donut," repeated Casey as Dan jumped to the floor.

He didnít take long, a quick piss and a perfunctory scrub with a flannel. Throwing a towel over his shoulder he wandered back into the bedroom. Casey had already righted the bedclothes, plumped the pillows and was propped up against the headboard, chest hairs curling damply. It was a gorgeous sight.

"But what about the, um, patch?" Dan slid the towel off his shoulder and waved it.

"Covered," said Casey, yanking back the covers and allowing Dan to see a familiar pair of boxers covering the scene of the crime.

"Literally. Thank you so much. You couldn't have used your own?"

Casey shrugged. "Your side of the bed, your shorts."

"That's a rule now?"

"If you haven't figured out I'm making this all up as I go along, then more fool you, Danny." Casey smiled briefly, the smile not making it all the way up to his eyes and then he looked away. Dan knew this was when he should feel frightened, because Casey was still Casey, straight, married, imperfect, scared, and Dan was well aware that in the grand scheme that was Casey's life he may rate Most Valued but he also rated Most Expendable. He wasn't frightened though, because now there was proof and how could anyone, even Casey, walk away from that?

"Making it up, huh? Remind me again how many imaginary friends you had as a kid?" he teased as he climbed back into bed, reaching over Casey to turn out the light before wrapping Casey's arm around his own neck and snuggling into his chest. Casey's thumb lightly stroked the close-cut hair at Dan's hairline.

"Danny, I just want you to know …" Casey seemed unable to finish his sentence.

"Shhhh," said Dan, stroking Casey's belly with gentle sweeps. "It's OK. You don't have to say. I know."

And with Casey's heart beating fast and strong under his cheek, Dan thought he did know, and he smiled.

He stayed in that position for as long as he could. Eventually, too used to sleeping alone and no longer assisted by alcohol, he had to turn to settle himself to sleep. Casey slid down the pillows and Dan drifted off to the sensation of Casey's warm hand pressed against his back.

When Dan woke the second time, he knew immediately that he was alone. The bathroom door stood wide; there was no way Casey was out of sight in there. The floor was clean of his clothes. He was gone. Maybe he's gone to get breakfast, thought Dan. Or pack — after all, it was only a couple of hours until they were headed back. Maybe he didn't want to wake me. The phone will ring any minute now.

He was still hanging on to the belief that it was all going to work out just fine after the first cup of coffee had turned into a second, had turned into a long, hot shower, had turned into shoving his clothes any which way into his duffel without hearing anything from Casey. Dan checked the clock; the team had agreed to meet in the lobby for a debrief with the NFLPA lawyers at ten. It was five to, he had to go. He stopped at the mirror, ran his hand through his hair, winced at his pinched-faced reflection and headed out.

As Dan stepped out of the elevator he saw Casey was in the lobby talking to Vince, the production assistant. Dan saw the minute twitch of Casey's head that told him he'd been spotted. His stomach dropped like lead as Casey turned his back to him. Dan was flooded with a mild sensation of panic. Last night, it had been too much and now he'd lost Casey for good. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Now if all these people could just vanish so he could bang his head against the wall and wail in despair. He seemed unable to move, staring at Casey's back as if he had X-ray vision and could see right through to where Casey's heart should have been.

"Dan!"

A broad-shouldered, moustached, smiling man was walking towards him. Dan attempted to pull himself together.

"Gene," he said, holding out his hand. "Good result for you guys yesterday. The players must be glad they've got you pulling for them." He smiled, his eyes darting repeatedly from his companion's face to Casey's back. Casey and Vince were standing close now — difficult to tell, but they were probably looking over some papers. All Dan could see was the two heads bent together. He felt sick.

"Squads of the best lawyers, that's the answer," Gene Upshaw replied. "That, and being right, of course."

"Of course." Dan watched as Casey put his hand on Vince's shoulder, shook him a little, laughed. His stomach lurched.

"Dan? Are you OK? You don't mind me saying you look like shit. Too much celebrating with my boys last night?"

Dan felt the bile rise. He clamped his lips tight and his hand even tighter on top of them. Gene, father of three, was quick to react. He took Dan by the elbow and half-walked, half-dragged him to the rest room just off the lobby. He even lifted the seat. Dan threw up until there was nothing left. Nothing physical. You can't throw up self-hatred, no matter how hard you try.

"Reggie and the Jaegermeister, was it?" asked Gene.

"Something like that," said Dan, standing and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

Dan counted. Casey said exactly thirty-one words to him that day from when he stepped into the lobby until they parted at Fort Worth: Casey to go home to his wife and son, Dan to nothing.

The middle of the night — when fantasies become real. Twenty-four hours before, Dan had held his fantasy, solid and warm and true. Now he sat alone in the dark, the only arms holding him his own. Maybe Dan had been foolish to think that something so fragile, a night orchid, could withstand the harsh light of day.

It would take a long, long time and a huge amount of patience on Dan's part to regain the footing he had lost that night. He never knew why Casey had run so far, so fast — Casey's thirty-one words had included "God, Jaegermeister is evil. Can't remember a thing past the fourth shot. Hope I didn't embarrass myself." Dan had never worked out if that was the truth or a lie. In the end it didn't matter. He was never going to risk losing Casey's friendship again, if he had to cut out his heart to do it.

*

Dan shakes his head. The high was so high and the low so low they should cancel each other out, but they don't. Some people, he realises, think unrequited love is the best sort — it can't be tarnished, can't die, be killed, never has to be more than it is. What the hell do they know? He gets up and paces a little. Feels the presence of the coffee. It's while he's standing over the toilet mindlessly humming the Python song about one-eyed trouser snakes and thinking tangential thoughts about boa constrictors that it occurs to him what the next ladder should be.

*

dan's chutes 3

Dan's Tammy Wynette moment doesn't even come close to demonstrating how glad he was to see the back of Lisa. Such a perfect name to hiss. He's sufficiently self-aware to know he never really gave her a chance, but enough of a student of human nature to know that she was a total bitch who never deserved Casey. He grins. Maybe that was a lot from column A and nothing from column B. But the ladder he's drawn doesn't just rest on the wall of the divorce. There was more to it than that.

*

After Casey's divorce it took some time for him to regain his Caseyness. Sure, he was more like his old self around the office, but after work he would decline invitations for a drink and head back to his new apartment. Alone. Several failed attempts at cajoling him into coming out had led Dan to the conclusion it was best to leave well alone. Casey had done the right thing. He had done the only thing he could. Maybe it was taking Casey some time to realise he was better off without Lisa, but there was nothing to stop Dan going out and celebrating Casey's divorce every night since the final papers arrived.

Dan was under no illusions — the divorce changed nothing between him and Casey, but he figured that it would be some time before Casey was ready to date again, there would be lots of time to hang out. Just the two of them. And that was an idea he could get behind.

So there he was, sitting at the bar, signalling to Jack for another beer when a familiar voice floated over the top of his head.

"And one for me, please, Jack. I'll get these."

"Casey!" Dan turned and smiled warmly. "I thought you went home."

"Got halfway there and realised I'd forgotten something."

"What?"

"You."

Dan's heart would have thunked, but he'd had enough alcohol to take the edge off, and the number of times Casey had said things like that over the years without meaning anything by them had given his heart a much higher thunk threshold. Instead he rolled his eyes.

"Bored, were you?" he asked.

"Little bit," admitted Casey and reached past Dan for his beer. He squeezed himself in between Dan and a hair-tossing blonde, his thigh pressing warm against Dan's leg. He didn't seem to notice.

"Thanks, Danny," said Casey, tipping his bottle towards Dan in salute.

"For what?"

"For being there. For kicking my ass when I needed it. For backing off when I needed that. It's appreciated, you know?"

"So what you're saying is that I'm a fantastic friend."

"Don't push it."

"A much better friend than you could ever hope to be."

"Hey!"

"I accept your apology." Dan tipped his bottle in return.

"I didn't apologise. I said thank you."

"Same thing."

"Is not."

"Is."

"Is not." Casey gave Dan a playful shove. Dan's balance was precarious; the stool wobbled and began to fall. Dan tried to grab the bar to steady himself, but Casey was there first, grabbing Dan's arm and pulling him upright with such force that Dan's head banged into Casey's chest.

"Ow! Fuck! Ow!" Dan rubbed his head.

"Oops. On the other hand, I did save you from certain death, so that's got to be worth something."

"Certain death?"

"Oh yes."

Dan narrowed his eyes, still rubbing at his ear. "Ow?"

Casey pressed his lips together and smiled in what he obviously hoped was a winning way.

"Ow," Dan repeated.

"Don't be such a baby." Casey pulled Dan's hand away. "It's your ear?"

Dan nodded.

"I notice you don't ask after the well-being of my chest after your concrete head collided with it."

"I'm more concerned that my eardrum burst on impact and now I'll go half-deaf and I'll have to sign with one hand and speak out of the corner of my mouth."

"You," said Casey, running his fingers lightly over Dan's ear, checking for damage, "are a lunatic."

Dan said nothing. He was busy instructing his body to behave itself. His body was pretending to be the half of him that was deaf. He grabbed at his beer bottle, grasping it tightly, the cool, damp glass giving him some other sensation to concentrate on. Something completely different from the warm, dry, soft fingers tracing the outline of his ear.

"Um, Casey?"

"Yeah," replied Casey, far away.

"Everything OK with my ear? It's not bleeding, or hanging by a thread, or turned into broccoli or some other brassica-type vegetable?"

"Seems fine," Casey said, letting his hand drop away from Dan's ear, but only as far as his shoulder. He leaned sideways against the bar, his hand remaining where it was — a welcome weight.

Words flew between them like sparks of electricity, Casey punctuating his sentences with little pats. When the bar began to clear and there was no longer an excuse for Casey to stand so close, he sat on the bar stool next to Dan's, legs splayed in true manly fashion and the punctuation became taps of knee on knee.

It seemed to Dan that the world was brighter that night, the edges sharper, the colours more saturated. Casey was flirting — Dan knew it, and it made his heart sing, but he also knew he was going home alone. Casey was vulnerable, lonely and trying out his new, unclipped wings. There was no way Dan was going to push and risk ruining things once again. He would watch and wait. Zen had nothing on Dan.

So the hours passed in pleasant fashion, Dan enjoying Casey enjoying his divorce. And at the end of the night he steered Casey towards a cab. He'd instructed the driver and stuffed Casey into the back and was turning away when Casey surged out, grabbed him in a tight embrace and planted a sloppy kiss on the ear that was no longer sore. Not now.

"Mine," he said, squeezing Dan hard before letting go and stumbling back into the cab.

Dan's heart thunked.

False dawn, false dawn. Because Gordon Gage, Attorney-at-Law, started dating Dana Whittaker, executive producer of Sports Night and long-time friend and Casey remembered that he had a tradition of jealousy to uphold. Dan didn't think Casey really loved Dana — he thought she was a habit he wasn't ready to break — but what he thought wasn't important. It was what Casey believed that mattered and Casey believed that Dana was breaking his heart. So, as Dan, forgotten, slid down yet another chute, he did what every good friend should do: disparaged Gordon at every opportunity, supported and encouraged Casey in his obsession and went looking for an obsession of his own. Something, anything, to drown out the incessant thoughts of Casey.

He found one. Her name was Rebecca Wells. She didn't seem to like him much, and Dan loved a challenge. He didn't mean to end up caring about her, but he couldn't help himself, and when she stomped all over his heart he was, at least, grateful that the pain he was feeling for once was not manufactured in Casey-land.

*

Dan puts down his pen, makes himself some toast to quell his grumbling stomach. He chews slowly, thinking. Dana was to Casey as smoking was to him — an addiction that you can't shake, no matter how much of a bad idea you know it to be. He knows that pointing this out to Casey would have served no purpose, just like the incessant nagging of Natalie for him to quit once and for all made no impression on Dan's intentions to smoke or not. He knows that the Dating Plan was the single. Worst. Plan. Ever. Deliberately sending the guy you like out to date other women? For six months? The day Dana devised that plan was the first nail in the coffin of the never-to-be-existent Dana/Casey relationship.

Dan smiles. He was so proud of Casey the day he decided he'd been put through enough. Less thrilled with the dating some random blonde named Pixley thing, but he was still Zen — if somewhat wobbly around the edges. Then … He picks up his pen once more.

dan's chutes 4

If Dan was honest with himself, the long chute downwards began for him way before Draft Day, but that was the day that he forced the shove that sent him tumbling all the way down to the bottom of the board. It wasn't Casey's fault — not really — maybe he'd been waiting for Dan to take the initiative and he'd failed, or maybe he hadn't meant for Dan to read so much into his words. But was was Dan supposed to do? The man was more cryptic than the New York Times crossword.

*

"The thing is, Danny …" Casey began. Dan sighed; there'd been several things already and most of them had rather too much to do with a blonde executive producer and not enough with the game he was trying to watch.

"The thing is, Danny, I've got two certainties in life. Charlie and you." He paused. "And the show.

"Three, I've got three certainties in life — Charlie, you and the show. And the knowledge that I never want to see another embroidered pillow again in my life. Four, four cer-"

"Casey," interrupted Dan. "Is there some point to this poor facsimile of the classic Spanish Inquisition sketch? Because it may have escaped your notice, but I am trying to watch the game here."

Casey leaned into the corner of the couch and looked steadily at Dan.

"There's a point."

Something in Casey's tone made Dan pick up the remote, mute the TV and turn to face him. He waited. He'd gotten very good at waiting.

"I've been thinking, you see," Casey held up a hand to prevent the statutory joke. "I was right the first time. If I lost the show, lost my mind, lost everything, right down there at the bottom, when everything else was gone I know that you and Charlie would be there with me, holding out your hands. That knowledge, it's the only thing I know for absolute certain.

"I'm tired of it all, Danny. Of the dating and the games and the being the big man and the smiling for the papers and the eligible bachelor lists that the women's magazines seem to rewrite every other week. And I'm tired of not knowing if the latest woman I've asked out is dating me because they like me or if they like my job and my status. I don't want another Lisa. I don't think I could survive another Lisa.

"But you and Charlie, Danny. You like me just fine. You don't care about what I do or who I do it with as long as I'm still me. So if I decide I'm happy to grow old alone, as long as I have the two of you, then that would seem to be the decision of a man who knows, wouldn't it?"

For a minute, Dan couldn't reply. He sat still, holding the little speech in his mind like a delicate crystal ball in his hands. A beautiful gift, but what was he supposed to do with it? Did Casey even see the fine layers that made up the whole? Were they a figment of Dan's imagination?

"Charlie'll have a family of his own one day," he managed finally. "And you won't be the be-all and end-all in his life any more. What'll you do then?"

"I'll still have you," said Casey and disappeared into the bathroom, muttering. Or singing, maybe? Dan surely hadn't heard the words 'as long as I'm the be-all and end-all in yours', had he?

"But what about the sex? You can't not have sex for the rest of your life," he protested when Casey returned.

"Overrated." Casey reached for the remote and turned the sound back on. Looked like the Packers had just scored a touchdown, but Dan had lost interest.

"Overrated? You're obviously doing it with the wrong people."

"I obviously am," said Casey, studying the screen with an intense gaze. "But seeing as I don't intend to sleep with any more women, I'll never know, will I?"

There was something wrong with Dan's hearing, because he'd heard Casey put the emphasis on 'women' rather than 'sleep'. He wiggled his little finger in his ear.

"Ah," he said, realisation dawning, "we're in Bizarro World. Sorry, I missed the teleportation experience. I mean, I'm not sorry."

Casey turned puzzled eyes on Dan.

"God, Casey, you're the father of a pre-teenage boy ñ he doesn't read comics? You never read them; I get that, Mr I-read-Lord-Of-The-Rings-when-I-was-a-fetus, but Charlie? Perfect comic geek fodder.

"Bizarro? The opposite of Superman? Twisted logic and speaking in opposites?"

A smile lurked at the corners of Casey's mouth.

"Oh, I get it. How about I will not have sex with lots of women?"

Dan translated. His eyes widened and the blood that had been content with just meandering round his body now raced as if it was being chased by the combined forces of all the superheroes he'd ever read about. Casey didn't mean … couldn't mean … Nah.

"You're crap at this game, Casey," he said.

"Not thank you."

"You're far from welcome."

"You suck."

"As do you, my nemesis."

"Nemesis?"

"Meh, it was the best I could come up with on short notice."

"And I'm crap at this game?"

"My house, my rules."

"Are we still in Bizarro World?"

"Were we ever?"

"Weren't we ever?"

Dan wasn't sure what to say to that so he wandered off to grab another beer. When he returned, Casey was yelling at the TV and the world appeared to have tilted back to its regular axis. Dan's half-hearted attempts to concentrate on the game were completely abandoned when Casey reached over and squeezed Dan's neck, his hand lingering a second longer than necessary.

"I really hate you, Danny," he said.

Dan glowed. People in New Jersey should have been able to see the light that was pouring from him.

"Touchdown!" yelled Casey, leaping to his feet and Dan wondered where lost moments went.

Later, Dan leaned against the door frame and watched Casey heading towards the stairs.

"I totally hate you too," he said quietly. Casey kept walking.

Dan stayed up all night trying to figure out what was going on and the next night too. Nothing seemed to make sense. Thinking about it drove him crazy and it didn't help that old, unresolved feelings surrounding his brother's death and Dan's dysfunctional relationship with his parents were beginning to surface, spiralling him into depression. It hurt every day just to get out of bed and he couldn't explain it to the one person who knew him best because he was all mixed up in it too. He knew he was pushing Casey away and Casey's response was to get defensive, put up barriers, leave Dan outside, which of course made Dan feel worse, and so the vicious circle bared its sharp little teeth and the relationship deteriorated.

The moment the words left his mouth, the split second in which blind panic crossed Casey's face, Dan knew he was so far over the line that he'd gone all round the world and was almost coming up on it again. Casey reacted calmly, professionally to Dan's act of on-air sabotage but the second they were off air he ripped out his earpiece and headed straight for Isaac's office without even glancing at Dan. Dan remained seated, silent and still in the midst of the post-show hubbub. So much clamour, so many busy people walking past and by and around him and yet he was invisible, an instant nonentity. He would have stayed even when the studio went dark, until Peter and Paul came in to do that night's show, but Dana stepped out of the shadows, his jacket in her arms. Without speaking and with sad eyes she unhooked his mic and removed his earpiece. A touch on the shoulder got him to stand. Placing his jacket round his shoulders, and taking him by the elbow she steered him out of the building. Dan stumbled onto the street, unable to see anything but the gaping hole he had just thrown himself down and she steadied him, hailing a cab. As one pulled to the kerb Dana touched his face lightly, turned and went back into the building without a word. What could she have said? Dan thought. I've ruined everything this time for sure.

The journey home was enough time for Dan to figure out that there was nothing good left in his life. He'd fucked up with Casey, fucked up with the show, and his whole life was spent running away from how badly he'd fucked up Sam and with his parents. What was the point? Each day was blacker than the one before. If the sun was never going to shine again, what was the point?

Dan found himself at the kitchen table, bottle of pills to his left, phone to his right. He stared at them both for a long, long time — going so far as to remove the cap from the bottle, to tap out the first two digits of Casey's number. In the end both options were too frightening to contemplate and Dan spent the remainder of the night huddled underneath the table.

Dragging himself to the office the next day was like walking over knives. Dan felt like a modern day Moses, the way people parted in front of him, peeling off one way or another, avoiding his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door to the office he shared with Casey. Casey looked up at him. His expression was blank. Dan felt his stomach twist and he had a visual flash of his mom wringing out a sweater after hand-washing.

"Hey, Dan," Casey said, his voice measured and calm.

"Casey, I —"

"So I thought I'd take the post Draft Day analysis and you could concentrate on the baseball. There's rumors coming out of Camden Yards about Cal Ripken — if you want, Kim can chase that up."

"I'm really —"

"Yeah, I better go keep an eye on Jeremy in Editing. He's going to make this the Ricky Williams show if I'm not careful. Seems very fond of him." And Dan was left staring after the door closing on empty air.

Dan's eyelids fluttered rapidly. He could have handled Casey being mad or sad or some weird mixture of the two, but this professional coolness was worse than anything. Because it meant that Casey didn't care enough to get angry or upset. He just didn't care. Dan stood a moment longer then sat down, opened his laptop and started working.

*

Yeah, thinks Dan. Let's move on past that. He'd had worse weeks, at least one, but it certainly ranked almost at the top of the list of Crappy Times in Dan's Life. Fast forward, quickly.

dan's chutes 5

*

When Casey hugged Dan in forgiveness he had said there was repair work to be done. And there was. To Dan it was almost as if they were meeting for the first time, learning each other anew. As writing partners they were still a perfect fit, understanding each other's rhythms and cadences, making each other laugh, but as friends it wasn't quite square one — how could it be with all that history behind them? — but it was close.

Luther Sachs, CEO of Continental Corp had had a bad financial year. Some of his investments had been losing money hand over fist, and the oil spillage in Alaska — well, someone was going to have to pay and that was probably Sachs, despite the hundred or so top lawyers he had working 24 hours a day to get him out of trouble. He had to jettison something and CSC was the obvious choice. The leaked announcement of the sale and the subsequent job offers came at a bad time for Dan. He couldnít imagine working without Casey, being without Casey, but their relationship was still insecure enough for him not to be able to say anything, not to be able to do any more than wax lyrical about weather and Laker Girls and hope like hell that Casey got the hint. Didn't look like he did, and Dan worried that if they ended up on opposite sides of the country they would never get back to where they were.

Casey's relief at the survival of Sports Night and his partnership with Dan was palpable. Dan felt it and began to relax. There was no magic fix; Dan's demons did not vanish in a puff of smoke, they could still be found lurking in alleyways, loitering on street corners, but it stopped feeling like every day was a fight to stay alive. Just when it felt like his life was regaining some sort of equilibrium, Dan stopped sleeping. There didn't seem to be anything to blame, so he blamed Casey. Why the hell not?

*

Dan raises his head from the board, sees the kitchen clock. Well, that certainly helped to pass the time — he's going to be late for work if he doesn't move his butt. He moves it. He grabs another piece of toast to eat on the way and pauses by the table on the way out of the kitchen. The thing is he wants to get to the end of the game, he just doesn't know what the end is, or how to get there. Absent-mindedly he picks up the paper, folds it, and pushes it in his pocket as he heads out of the door.

~

Dan survives the day on caffeine, sugar and banter. Seems no time till showtime and he's changed into his suit. Returning to the office he throws his clothes on the couch. Casey, already immaculately dressed, rolls his eyes.

"Would you — just once — fold the damn things?"

"When it annoys you so much? Not going to happen, my friend."

"You're such a slut."

"Slattern."

"Slattern?"

"I take it you are referring to my perceived untidiness as opposed to the number of people I sleep with. Given modern usage of the term 'slut', slattern would be the better choice. Of course, you Minnesota folks with your strange ways …"

Casey boggled.

"'M just saying," says Dan and leans back on his chair, hands behind his head.

"Slut, slattern, whatever. You're not ten, Danny; learn to pick up after yourself."

"Nah. I'm good," says Dan, twizzling.

Casey gets up with a resigned sigh and goes to the couch where he picks up and folds Dan's jeans.

"See," he says, "simple, and the work of seconds."

It's Dan's turn to roll his eyes but Casey has already picked up Dan's shirt. He holds it in place under his chin, folding the arms in as if he's worked in Barney's his whole life, then releases the collar, letting it tip backwards. He gives the shirt a little shake — no creases, thank you very much. A piece of paper is dislodged from the pocket and falls onto the couch. He picks it up.

It takes Dan a second or two to realise what Casey's got. Enough time for Casey to have unfolded it and be wearing a puzzled frown.

"What's this?" he asks as Dan lunges for the paper. Casey spins round and Dan fails to snatch the game from his grasp. Instead he stumbles and falls against the couch, crushing the perfectly folded shirt.

"Casey!" His voice is high, panicky. "Give it to me."

Casey is back behind his desk — a barrier between them — still staring at the paper. He looks up. Stares at Dan. Dan would like a wormhole to open up in the space-time continuum. It doesn't happen. Fuck.

"This is me, isn't it? You and me. You've made us into a game."

"I can't sleep." Dan's eyes are wide and his heart hammers loud in his ears. "It doesn't mean anything. It's … I can't sleep."

Casey doesn't reply. His eyes drop back to the paper. Here I am again, thinks Dan. Waiting. He tries to control his breathing, but if he concentrates on that the trembling in his hands gets worse. And if he tries to stop the trembling he can't remember what order breathing comes in. It seems a lifetime until Casey looks back up.

"There may be things we need to discuss, Danny."

He reaches for a pen and scribbles on the sheet of paper. He holds it out to Dan. The three steps to get to the desk are man's first steps on the moon. Casey smiles into Dan's eyes but he refuses to be reassured. He takes the paper.

dan's chutes 6

Dan reads it. Looks at Casey, who is still smiling. Reads it again. And again. This means…what? What does it mean? Does it mean it's time to stop waiting, to do something? He looks at Casey once more and there's a light in his eyes that Dan thinks maybe he put there. His heart squeezes, a star collapsing under its own gravity.

"Oh," he says. "The thing is I'm here." He points at a square somewhere along the third row. "And I want to be here." He snatches a pen from the desk and scribbles on the paper, handing it back to Casey.

dan's chutes 7

"But I don't know how to get there," he concludes.

Casey glances at it and keeps smiling as he picks up his pen for the second time. A few quick strokes and he hands the paper back to Danny.

dan's chutes 8

"What're you like at climbing?" asks Casey. "Need a hand?" He's grinning so widely now that Dan can't help but grin back.

"Not fond of heights," says Dan. "I could do with something to take my mind off it."

Casey's expression changes in an instant. He's looking at Dan like he's chocolate cake with chocolate filling and chocolate frosting. He rounds the desk, eyes firmly fixed on Dan's face. No. Wait. Make that Dan's mouth. He's closing the gap between them and then he's crushing Dan's lips with his own, his hands cupping Dan's head like a prize, thumbs stroking across his cheeks. He's screwing with their make-up and there'll be hell to pay from Alison (let's hope she knows how to keep a secret) but Dan doesn't care. He's at the top of the ladder, at the end of the game and he knows he's won. He's won! But Casey's won too and is here — real, solid, warm. Dan's arms go round Casey as their mouths open to each other and he thinks that one day, when he's old and dying, this is the last memory that will cross his mind, this pureness of emotion, this raw joy.

There's a buzz and a voice that cuts into the separate reality they're weaving for themselves.

"First team to the studio, five minutes to air."

They break apart reluctantly, panting. Casey's hands slide to Dan's shoulders. He squeezes them.

"If you can't sleep there's better games we can play, you know."

Dan can't help himself; it's risky and they could be interrupted at any time, but he goes in for another kiss. Casey is ready, willing, and, as Dan strokes along his bottom lip with his tongue, Casey drops his hands to Dan's ass and pulls it tight to him. Dan's fists clench as the hardness of Casey grinds against his own, crumpling the game he is still holding.

That voice again.

"Four minutes to air."

They force themselves apart again, give themselves a shake and a quick straighten of their ties.

"Later," says Casey, holding the door open for Dan.

"Oh yes indeed," says Dan, and as he smoothes his jacket, his fingers unfurl and the crushed paper drops unnoticed to the floor.

dan's chutes 9


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