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Queequeg and Ishmael Road Trip in New Jersey

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"God damn it," Peter said.

It was raining: pouring down in drops the size of handfuls at Niagara rate, and their visibility was limited to the water-hazed taillights of the car ahead. The last time they'd been on a rise, an hour ago, they had seen a limitless stretch of those taillights, and then the rain came down harder and slowed the traffic to an excruciating creep.

"Good thing the rendezvous is already behind us," Peter said. "We'll never make Manhattan at this rate."

Neal thought he was probably right. He was bored out of his skull.

Peter called Diana. "Any word on the traffic?"

"There's a huge pileup about ten miles ahead of you," Neal heard her say. "They say it won't be cleared for another hour."

Peter rubbed his eyes. "Okay. Well, as soon as we get past this bottleneck I'm looking for a motel. Don't expect us in till tomorrow afternoon."

"You want me to -- "

"No, I got it. Thanks."

"You know, there's a Hilton in Atlantic City," Neal said as Peter closed the call. "It's not too far out of our way. I bet I could get us in."

"No," Peter said.

"Peter, the motels on this road are bound to be full up. You heard what Diana said about the weather and the traffic. Now, at the Hilton -- "

"No," Peter said. If he'd said "Absolutely not" that would have been more promising.

"C'mon, Peter -- "

"Look at my face. Do you see 'Keep going' anywhere here?"

Neal considered him with warm attention, and offered him the full head-tilt and winsome smile. Impervious, Peter returned his glare to the immobile car ahead.

It was a good thing Neal didn't flirt with Peter for the sake of getting anywhere. Neal flirted with him because it was fun to tease at the impossible, and because it was a little bit dangerous, and because Peter was living and breathing and Neal was Neal. All of which Peter knew, and he responded with tolerance and occasionally sly amusement, which Neal thought was a decent return on his investment.

But not today. Today he'd been stuck in a car for over six hours with a supremely irritable Peter Burke who was going on no sleep, and it looked like he was going to spend the night with him, too. Neal looked out at the melancholy monochrome of rain and deepening evening.

"They have pay-per-view. You could watch any game you want," Neal said softly.

"Neal."

"Shutting up."

*

"Just one room?" Peter wiped rain off his face and glared at the surly man behind the counter.

"Just the one. Take it or leave it."

Neal flicked water neatly off his raincoat and leaned an elbow on the counter, but removed it at Peter's sharp look. "Hilton," he mouthed at Peter; Peter's glare darkened, and he said to the hotel guy, "We'll take it."

The guy fixed Peter with a faint smirk as he worked up the sale.

Neal saw why when they entered the motel room. He waited for Peter to notice too, which he didn't till he had his raincoat off and his tie loosened. He had his phone in his hand and was about to dial when he stopped. "I thought he said this was a double."

"Well," Neal said, "I guess technically you could say that's a double bed."

"Oh, for crying out loud," Peter said. "Just once I'd like for something to go right today."

Neal broke a cube of notepaper into thirds, hitched himself half-sitting on the low dresser, and started juggling them. "Now, if we were at the Hilton, we could each have our own room with an actual television, and -- "

" -- and we'd be up to our necks in trouble and leave me with an expense report that would take me hours to explain to Hughes, not to mention not getting any actual sleep." Peter neatly swiped one of the note cubes, leaving Neal to catch the others. "Call us in a pizza."

Neal sighed. "Just the latest chapter in the Bed Saga."

"Would you stop that? There is no Bed Saga."

"Three incidents is a core element of mythological story structure, Peter."

"And the amount of jail time I could make you serve would be epic. Call in the pizza."

*

It started a few weeks ago when Peter fell asleep at Neal's apartment, catching up on paperwork outside the office, ostensibly because he was tired of the office but possibly, Neal thought, because Elizabeth was out of town and Peter was disenchanted with solitude.

"You know, there is a bed here," Neal had said when Peter jerked his head up from the file he was reading.

"No thanks," Peter had said. "I'm fine."

"Come on, Peter, you work too hard. When was the last time you had a nap?"

"A what?"

"My point exactly. Take a rest, Peter."

Peter squinted tiredly at him. "What's your angle?"

"No angle," Neal said.

"Right. So I'm not going to wake up to see Mozzie or Alex tiptoeing through here doing something you don't want me to know about?"

"Hey," Neal said, "can't say it won't happen, but such a thing is not on my calendar. Scout's honor."

Peter shook his head, but gave in. To Neal's surprise, he actually took his shirt and tie off, laying them neatly over the back of the chair, and followed it with his belt. He crawled into Neal's bed in his T-shirt and slacks, and was sound asleep within minutes. Neal went back to his book, looking up occasionally to watch Peter sleep. He looked very peaceful.

"You shouldn't trust me like this," Neal murmured, and as if in answer, a knock came at the door.

It was Mozzie. "I've got -- " he said, but stopped at Neal's throat-cut gesture, and looked in to see Peter, who hadn't stirred and still looked cherubically innocent, or at least as cherubically innocent as a seasoned FBI agent could look.

"Can't say I'm surprised," Mozzie said with a quiet grin.

"That Peter's a worka -- " Neal caught on and rolled his whole body as well as his eyes. "It's not like that."

"It was only a matter of time," Mozzie said serenely.

"Get out to the patio," Neal said. "We can talk there."

It was very late and they were down most of a bottle of wine when Peter finally got up and padded out to them in his sock feet, trying to smooth his hair but only making it worse. He saw Mozzie and spread his hands at Neal with a smile. "What did I tell you?"

"Good evening, Peter," Mozzie said. "I'd call you 'Suit,' but you don't seem to be wearing one at the moment."

Peter frowned at him; Neal rose quickly and said, "I'll make you some coffee," before he could comment.

"I think this is my cue to be off," Mozzie said, getting up too.

"What a surprise," Peter said dryly.

"Two's company, three's a crowd," Mozzie said, and Neal turned away from the coffee machine to give Mozzie a look.

"I was here first," Peter said.

"Hence my leaving." Mozzie bowed, smiling. Peter frowned after him and was still frowning when he had gone.

Neal tried to think of something to say, but Peter beat him to it. "You know, never mind, Neal, you don't need to make me any coffee. I think I'll just go on home." He went to the easy chair and began packing files back into his satchel.

Neal watched him button down his shirt with patient hands and sling his tie round his neck. "Look -- "

"So what's the con du jour?" Peter said. "Du soir," he corrected, after a thoughtful moment's contemplation.

Neal waved a hand. "Nothing worth getting up for. I mean," he said, flushing, "nothing interesting."

"Mm," Peter said. He tucked in his shirttails, and Neal looked away, fantasizing about ways to kill Mozzie. "Well, I hope it isn't, because what I've got on my plate's quite enough."

"Tell me about it," Neal said. "Now I'm going to have to put up with Mozzie's innuendoes for days."

"His innu -- " Peter paused in the act of shrugging into his jacket, looked at Neal and then back at the bed. The penny dropped: Peter made the exact extreme eyeroll that Neal had given Mozzie three hours earlier. "Oh, for -- Like that's going to happen."

"I tried to tell him."

"Not too eagerly, I hope. Anyway, he should know better. That's not in the cards. Not in any cards. There is no card like that in the deck."

"Should I be feeling insulted?" Neal said.

"You're not my type," Peter said, picking up his satchel.

Neal felt better, enough to joke along. "Oh, don't," he half-groaned, "don't issue me a challenge like that, Peter."

"I'm not," Peter said, with a faint smile. "I'm merely appealing to your sense of self-preservation."

"Oh. I have one of those?"

"Contrary to evidence," he replied, shouldering the strap, "I theorize that you do. And there is some evidence that you have a sense of my preservation, which is more to the point."

Now that was interesting. And also true. Neal moved aside so Peter could open the door.

"Good night, Neal."

"Good night, Peter."

"Don't let the bedbugs bite."

"Real funny, Peter." Neal closed the door unquietly behind him.

*

Half a pizza and a call to Elizabeth later, Peter was in a much less oppressive mood, which was a relief. Neal amused himself with the stained and frayed motel literature (this was not the sort of establishment that had pictures on the walls) while Peter caught up on his voicemail and rearranged the next day's appointments. Finally Peter got up and plugged his phone in to charge on the nightstand. He turned and shot Neal a grimly mischievous look. "I'm taking this side of the bed," he said, "if you don't mind."

"So we're sharing?" Neal grinned. "We could always flip a coin. One person gets the bed and the other gets the -- "

"I am not flipping a coin with Neal Caffrey for anything," Peter said. "We're sharing. Unless you want the floor." He tossed his tie to the chair.

Neal looked distastefully at the carpet. "No, thanks." He opened his mouth again, but Peter said, "If you're about to say anything with the word 'Hilton' in it, you are sleeping on the floor."

"Got it," Neal said, and retreated to the tiny bathroom. He undressed and folded his suit neatly over the towel rack; the bathroom looked clean but he would never be leaving any clothing on these tiles, not for any money.

When he came back out, Peter was ensconced on his side of the bed, with his eyes closed and his nightstand light out. Neal started to make a prison joke, but remembered in time that it was not too late for Peter to make him sleep on the floor. Neal uncovered his side and sat down.

"Wow," he said, "this bed's like a diving board."

"This must be such a trial for you, Pauline," Peter murmured without opening his eyes. "I know you're used to ill-gotten luxury."

"I can always make up the difference with my imagination," Neal said.

"I could have done without that remark," Peter said, dryly.

"Hey, could be worse," Neal said. "Think if Mozzie were here."

Still without opening his eyes, Peter crossed himself. Neal laughed.

This room was not particularly warm, either in decor or temperature. Shivering in his singlet, Neal turned out his light and slid quickly under the covers.

"I'm not crowding you?" he asked Peter.

"Nope."

"This was a...great idea of yours, Peter. You sure I'm not crowding?"

"Yep."

"Okay. Good night." Neal closed his eyes. Then opened them. "I didn't think to check this room for bedbugs. Did you?"

"Neal, if you can't sleep, you could at least let me sleep."

Neal sighed. "Too late now." He closed his eyes again. Despite everything, he was really rather tired after all. "Night-night."

His only answer was a slow, fricative breath that showed promise of becoming a healthy snore. Neal sighed again, and set his imagination to illustrating a highly colorful adventure in Atlantic City, involving a much softer bed.

*

The nap incident -- which was not an incident -- was regrettable, Peter thought, because he had temporarily forgotten what it meant that Neal had no sense of boundaries. So, several days later when they were devoting a Saturday to combing through some bank files at his house, he looked up from their work to see Neal trying and failing to keep his eyes focused on the file he was reading, and remembered just in time to tread carefully.

"We have a couple hours before we have to go," he said. "Why don't you give me that file and rest for a minute."

"Sorry," Neal said, dropping the file to the coffee table and scraping his hands down his face. "Can't stay awake."

"Would help if you didn't run cons at night and bust up cons by day," Peter said. "Talk about burning the candle at both ends."

"Ha ha," Neal said. He flopped back on the couch and lay still where he fell.

Peter looked at him for a moment, then stood and began gathering files to migrate to the table. "Seriously. Rest up. I can read through these."

Neal didn't move. "Aren't you going to offer me your bed?"

"No," Peter said. "The couch is perfectly comfortable."

"Spoken by a man who knows, sounds like."

Peter didn't dignify that with a response, except to toss a throw pillow at him. Neal caught it belatedly and slid down to curl up on his side.

"Shoes," Peter said, and Neal obediently pried them off with his toes before tucking his feet up.

When he was certain Neal was asleep, Peter went over and lifted the blanket from the top of the couch to drape over him. Then he went back to work.

Some time later he heard Elizabeth approaching the front door and got up to meet her. When she opened the door, he held a finger to his lips and cut his eyes in Neal's direction; El seemed to know at once what was up, because she came in quietly and looked not the least bit surprised to see Neal curled up on the couch asleep. She gave him an affectionate look, and bent to move a curl of his hair that had fallen into his eyes; then followed Peter into the kitchen.

"Long day?" she said.

"Unfortunately not over yet. You?" Peter went to the coffeemaker and pulled out the filters.

"I'm free for the day. Shall I make us dinner?"

"Lovely thought," Peter said regretfully, and she smiled. "We're heading out again in just a minute. Don't know when I'll be home."

"Hence the coffee."

"Yeah."

"Did someone say coffee?" Neal sidled into the kitchen, tousle-headed but provokingly restored to full wakeful cheer.

"Yes," Peter said. "We are leaving soon."

"All the signs point that way. Hi, Elizabeth." Neal crossed to the other side of the kitchen and opened a cabinet unerringly to examine the Burke collection of go-cups.

"Hi, Neal. Sleep well?"

"Like a log. If logs sleep," he said thoughtfully, picking out Peter's favorite and opening it to sniff the inside.

"Departure," Peter said in an ominous tone, "is imminent."

He got Neal his coffee and hustled them out the door with the box of files on his hip, turning back on the doorstep to kiss El goodbye. "See you."

Neal dodged behind Peter's herding gesture and said to Elizabeth, "Oh, and just to loop you in, Peter wouldn't let me take a nap in his bed because he's embarrassed he took one in mine."

Elizabeth looked at Neal interestedly. Peter sucked his teeth and thought about what it'd take to beat the rap for A & B. Then she smiled quizzically at him. "We have a guest bed, honey," she said.

"You're not helping," he told her.

"Bye." She kissed him again, waved at Neal, and went back inside.

"You really can't faze her, can you?" Neal said admiringly.

"It's very difficult," Peter said.

*

Peter had finally gotten warm.

He'd felt the rain crawling on his scalp for several decades, it had seemed, and Neal's crack about bedbugs hadn't helped. But now he was warm, and comfortable, in the way one ought to be when one's slumber wears thin in the morning.

But there were some anomalies in his comfort. For one thing, the bed underneath him was of a firmness very unlike what he expected when he woke at home. This wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't been for the other thing, which was the fact that although he felt the springy warmth of someone else's hair against his cheek, that someone didn't smell like Elizabeth. Peter had a feeling this was going to be a problem. And as usual, Peter sensed that this was somehow Caffrey's fault.

Oh Christ have mercy.

Peter's slumber had worn away completely, and he regretted it intensely. He was now, without moving or opening his eyes, fully aware that he was in a motel bed somewhere in BFE, New Jersey, and Neal was nestled against him with an arm slung over his waist. And far from recoiling, Peter asleep had drawn him in with an arm over his shoulder and his face in Neal's hair.

Definite problem.

Peter opened his eyes. At the same moment, without moving, he felt certain that Neal had waked in the same instant. Time for damage control. Peter cleared his throat.

"We're going to get up now," he said calmly. "And we are never going to discuss this."

"Sounds like a plan," Neal said, his voice indistinct and warm against Peter's T-shirt. Then he snickered.

"Or even mention it," Peter said, more clearly, poking a fingertip into Neal's arm. "Ever. Right?"

"You have my word on it," Neal said.

Peter rolled his eyes. "Your word as a con artist?"

"My word as your friend."

"That'll have to do," Peter sighed, and rolled away to sit up. The sun was blasting in through the weave of the curtains. He pushed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and groaned. "I didn't mean to sleep this late," he said, half-cracking his jaw on a yawn. "We need to -- " But the sharp snap of the bathroom door interrupted him. "Of course," he said to himself, "Caffrey gets to the bathroom first. Of course."

He got out of the bed, shook himself, and stretched thoroughly. Then he went to the bathroom door. "My turn for the bathroom now," he said. "Neal."

"You know, I really have to thank you, Peter." Neal's voice had a stringendo to it that sounded like it might be hilarity. "Even without going to Atlantic City -- "

"Are you laughing?" Peter said, and then, "You're laughing. I can't believe this."

" -- you've managed to give us some high-quality Melvillean comedic entertainment -- "

Peter braced his hands on the narrow doorjamb. "I dare you to tell me which one of us is Ishmael and which is Queequeg."

"You'd look better with the tats and the big harpoon, Peter."

Neal was always at his most suggestive when he adopted that innocent tone. Peter sucked in his lips and willed himself not to think that was funny.

"I'm just saying," Neal said.

" -- Are you going to let me have the bathroom at any point?" Peter said, almost before the words were out of Neal's mouth. "I would like to take a piss some time during the course of this morning."

Neal didn't answer. A moment later, the shower started. Peter realized suddenly that all of Neal's clothes were in the bathroom with him, since that was where he'd taken them off.

"Unbelievable," Peter said. He launched himself away from the bathroom door and retrieved his pants to go and look for a bathroom in the hallway.

*

They got back to New York without incident, if one didn't count the motel's coffee as an incident. Personally, Peter thought it was an incident worthy of investigation by the ATF, but he was willing to let it go.

After the apocalypse of rain, a brilliant sun shone on their return journey. Neal put down his window, laughing, and surfed his hand over the slipstream of their speed, and Peter didn't have the heart to stop him. And it was a luminescent evening, blue and pearl, that found him and Neal and Jones in the van waiting for their mark to show up. Presently the shadow of the man appeared round the corner of the bank. "You're up, Neal," Peter said.

"Thar she blows," Jones said. "The white whale." Then he looked from Peter to Neal. "What?"

Before Peter could think of a response, Neal got up. "Your ability to sense the mental undercurrents of any situation," he said, with a fraternal squeeze of Jones's arm, "is an untapped resource." Jones frowned at him, but he kept moving. At the door, however, he paused and turned back to look at Peter seriously.

"But on second thoughts," he said, "if the story only allows one person to survive, I'd rather it were you." And as Peter stared at him poleaxed, he lapsed into his familiar smile. "But I think it's kind of arbitrary, to have only one person survive."

"It may be arbitrary," Peter said dryly, "but that's kind of the point of tragedy. Not to mention, you couldn't have that quotation from the book of Job at the end."

"Oh, you could quote some other part of Job," Neal said. "Like the part about going to and fro and walking up and down. I like that part."

Peter snorted a laugh. "It figures you'd identify with Satan."

"And this, as I said, is a comedy. Don't wait up for me, kids!" Neal said, and was gone.

Jones said: "I think I just took part in a conversation without understanding a word of it."

"You're not the only one," Peter said, watching Neal jaunt off across the monitor to his rendezvous.

"Did he just compare you to Ishmael?" Jones said.

"Hey, at least I'm not Captain Ahab." Peter kept his eyes on the monitor; he could feel Jones's gaze.

"What happened to you guys yesterday?" Jones said.

"We almost got drowned on the Turnpike," Peter said. "Remind me, Jones, never, ever to take a road trip with Neal again."

"Better you than me," Jones said, with a grin.

*

finis