"You'll be fine," said El, tucking an unopened packet of condoms and a tube of lubricant into Peter's overnight bag. "You're overthinking this, honey."
Peter hung his suit bag on the back of the bedroom door and came over to her. He took her in his arms, comforted by the warm familiar feel of her hugging him back. "If you don't want me to, you just have to say so. I swear, El—"
"I want you to," said El. "And you want to. You've been waiting for this for years now. Neal's parole is over, you're going out of town so you'll be on neutral ground. A nice hotel—"
"We'll still be on the FBI's dime," said Peter. "The hotel won't be anything fancy."
"You don't need fancy," El reassured him. "This is Neal. If he wants to, he'll make it easy for you, and if he doesn't, he'll just say no and take it as a compliment. No big deal."
Peter eyed her. "Great. Thanks, hon. Now all I'll think about is him turning me down. You know how bad I am at flirting."
"You'll be fine." El stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. "This isn't flirting; this is telling him how you feel. And remember—I want a full report, whatever happens."
"I love you," said Peter, pulling her close. "I don't suppose you want to come with us."
"Honey, I'm not seducing Neal on your behalf." She laughed up at him and smoothed away his worry lines. "Maybe one day, but I think this is something you have to sort out between the two of you first."
Peter sighed and tried to ignore the snakes squirming in his gut. He knew El was right—they'd been saying the same thing, back and forth, for a month—but now that the hour was nigh, the prospect of trying to introduce romance into his partnership with Neal was thoroughly intimidating, even if he was pretty sure Neal would welcome it. Still, he was Special Agent Peter Burke, and he wasn't going to chicken out. El was right. He could do this. They didn't get a lot of out-of-town cases, and who knew when the opportunity would come up again.
Pittsburgh was dank and unappealing, and it took them three days to find the art thief, the search culminating in a fraught foot chase along the bank of the Monongahela River, and then they stayed up all night tracking down the missing art. It was nearly noon on Friday by the time they'd logged all the evidence. Peter said, "I need a nap before we go anywhere. We can head back to New York tomorrow."
"I thought you'd be desperate to get home to Elizabeth," said Neal.
Peter didn't have an answer for that. He missed El like he always did when he was away, but being with Neal was definitely compensation, and this was his chance to find out if Neal felt the same—if only he could find a way to broach the subject.
"Fine," said Neal, apparently giving up on a reply. "Another night in the Steel City. Where shall we eat tonight?"
"That Italian place around the corner from the hotel," said Peter, and then instantly regretted it. Italian food would inevitably lead to a clothing disaster that would ruin the mood. Trying to seduce Neal when Peter had Bolognese sauce on his tie was doomed; Neal would never let him live it down. And that reminded Peter of another clothing disaster, the blame for which Peter was placing at El's door, and which was already a fait accompli. He reluctantly shelved the seduction entirely. There'd be other opportunities.
Neal was looking at him oddly.
"What?" said Peter. "Come on, I'm tired."
The Italian restaurant was a little shabby, but the food was good, and Peter relaxed again. The case was over, they were off-duty, and he was with Neal. He drank half a bottle of red wine and looked across the candlelit table. Neal wasn't the kid Peter had let out of prison all those years ago. He was a man now, independent and here of his own free will. But his smile was quick as ever, and his gaze was curious, as if he could see Peter's intentions swirl like time-lapsed clouds before a storm.
They talked about the case, about Bureau politics and personal gossip, anything and everything, and then Peter still hadn't dripped sauce on his tie, so he said, "You look—" Not lovely. Don't say lovely. "—good. You look good tonight."
Neal stopped, his fork laden with artfully coiled linguini. "Peter?"
"What?" said Peter, trying on Neal's innocent expression for size. "I'm just saying." But his heart was in his throat, and his cheeks were hot.
Neal put down his fork and leaned forward. His eyebrows drew together. "Peter, are you finally making a move on me, here, in a cheap Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh?"
Peter swallowed. "It's not that cheap." He scratched his neck, courage wavering. "No. I'm not."
But he couldn't look away, and a small grin curved Neal's mouth. "Mm-hmm."
Peter glanced to either side to make sure no one was listening. They were alone. There was no reason to back down, not really. "What if I were?"
Neal's grin widened, and he put his napkin on the table beside his plate. "I think I'll skip dessert."
It was raining lightly on the short walk back to the hotel, but they shared Neal's umbrella and took their time. Peter felt awkward and gangly, his nerves throwing him off so he could hardly think. It filled his vision, the knowledge that soon the waiting would be over and he'd be kissing Neal.
"Elizabeth?" asked Neal quietly.
Peter glanced sideways, glad of the chance to explain. "Has given her blessing."
"I always knew she was an exceptional woman," said Neal. He seemed serene, as if this were just another ordinary evening, and Peter itched to loosen that tie and mess up his hair, to disturb his calm. Neal returned his gaze with a mocking glint as if he were reading his mind and added reproachfully, "We've been here three days, Peter."
Peter shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to restore his own composure. "We were working."
"We're always working."
"We were in the middle of a case," said Peter. "I didn't want—if you said no—"
Neal stopped and turned to face him. "Let me put your mind at rest. I'm not going to say no."
"Okay." Peter took a deep breath. "Good. Why didn't you say something sooner?"
Neal started walking again. "You're the one who's married. You had to be the one to make the first move."
"Oh." Peter hadn't thought of it like that. Neal wasn't usually one to abide by rules.
Neal shrugged and seemed to retreat into his raincoat. "I thought if you were that way—my way—inclined, you'd have given me a hint years ago."
"You've only been out of the anklet for two weeks."
"You were waiting for the anklet?" Neal sounded surprised.
"Yeah, what did you—" Peter broke off as they reached the revolving door of their hotel. "Never mind, never mind."
Neal led the way to his own room, and Peter followed. They took off their raincoats, and Neal hung them in the bathroom with his umbrella while Peter looked around. Neal's room was pretty much the same as his, but meticulously tidy. Even the suitcase was hidden away.
"Expecting company?" said Peter, whose room was significantly more lived in.
Neal smiled. "Be prepared."
"You were never a Boy Scout." Peter went over to him. The air hummed with tension, and Peter wasn't sure if something was wrong, or if it were merely the awkwardness of making the transition from partners to lovers. "Neal, is this what you want? We don't have to."
"I want this," said Neal quickly. "That is—what exactly are we talking about, here?"
"We're talking about I love you." Peter laid his hand on Neal's lapel, his thumb settling into the narrow vee between suit jacket and tie, against the fine, warm cotton of Neal's shirt. He met Neal's gaze and forced himself to lay it out there plainly, how much he could offer. "And as you know, I'm married and I love my wife. So we're talking about finding a way to have both those things coexist, if you—"
"I do," said Neal. "I—you know."
"I know." It was plain he meant I love you too, and while Peter would have liked to hear the words, maybe that was too much to ask this soon. It was enough to know it, to have certainty blaze through him like a fire. Peter moved his thumb in the vee, slipping it under Neal's tie just above the tie pin, becoming increasingly aware of the lean, vital body in there. His pulse picked up, and he cleared his throat. "Whatever happens, whatever you choose, you're part of my life. We're family."
"Okay," said Neal. "Kiss me." His gaze was clear and dark, and they'd been so close for so long that in the end, it was almost effortless to take that final step, to bring their bodies together. Peter bent his head and met Neal's mouth, soft, hot, challenging, and if he'd known before how easy this would be, how right it would feel, he never could have kept his hands to himself all these years.
They lay on the bed together and kissed. Neal was unbuttoning Peter's shirt with fumbling fingers when Peter suddenly recalled clothing disaster number two. Dammit. He squirmed and pulled away slightly. "I'll just, uh—" He sat up. Go and change into something more comfortable.
"I only just got you here, Peter." Neal's objection was laced with concern. "Second thoughts already?"
"No, I just—" Peter closed his eyes. If he insisted on retreating to the bathroom, that would only make a big deal out of it, and Neal being Neal, he'd find out sooner or later. Peter lay back down, looked at him and tried to maintain some semblance of dignity. "El packed my underwear. I think she thought—"
One of Neal's eyebrows shot up, and he grabbed at Peter's belt and worked it open. Peter didn't try to stop him, but a second later when Neal dissolved into giggles, he wished he had. "Seriously?" said Neal, through his mirth. "Peter, that's adorable!"
Peter's face heated up, and he made a silent vow to kill El later. "They were a gift."
Neal rolled onto his back, still laughing.
"I suppose she thought they'd break the ice," muttered Peter sitting up and balefully eyeing his boxer shorts. They were bright blue, covered in cartoon beagles wearing sunglasses and emblazoned with the words "Hot dawg!"
"Ice broken," said Neal. He hiccupped. "Crushed into tiny pieces. Are you sure those weren't attempted sabotage?"
Peter shook his head. "The other ones she packed were normal. If I'd been paying more attention, I could have worn these yesterday when it didn't matter. I just didn't notice until today."
"You could have gone com—" Hiccup. "—commando."
"Not my style," said Peter.
"But those are?" Neal started giggling again. "Those are."
Peter felt like an idiot, but they'd got this far, and he wasn't going to let his stupid shorts ruin everything. Besides, the one benefit of Neal losing his cool was that his clothing was in disarray, his hair mussed up and his face flushed. He looked touchable and physical, far from his usual immaculate self. Neal hiccupped again.
Peter got to his feet and yanked his shirt over his head. He stripped out of his pants and the offending underwear and peeled off his socks. He took off his watch and set it on the nightstand, leaving himself completely naked.
Neal was watching, his grin fading. His hiccups seemed to have stopped too. He made a choked sound and, still lying down, hastily divested himself of the rest of his own clothes. "Come here."
Peter couldn't stop touching Neal. They moved together, and Neal murmured something quiet against his neck and then lifted up, grinning, and said, "Hot dawg" in such a fondly teasing tone that Peter heard it as an endearment—and dreaded its longevity as such.
He rolled Neal onto his back and held him there by his shoulders. "Okay, tell me what I have to do to lay the ghost of those damned shorts to rest."
Neal laughed and craned up to kiss him, sweet hot kisses that stole Peter's breath. Then Neal pulled him down and murmured in his ear, "Fuck me, and I'll never mention them again."
"All right. Yes." Peter collapsed down on the bed beside him and clasped his neck, drawing him into another kiss, dirtier now, sliding his hands down the long slope of Neal's back to his waist, his ass. Damn, they should have gone back to the other room. El had packed supplies. What were the chances that Neal had brought anything?
But Neal was stretching across, his stomach taut and well-defined as he reached to pull an unopened packet of condoms and a small tube out of the nightstand drawer. Peter felt a white flash of jealousy, gone as quickly as it started, and scolded himself: he had no rights over Neal, no reasonable expectation of monkhood. They were here now, together. Whatever had come before, it was better not to ask. Maybe Neal was just being prepared.
"Boy Scout," said Peter.
"Optimist," said Neal, correcting him. He dropped the supplies and his face grew soft and serious. "Peter—"
"I know." Peter touched his cheek. "Me too."
It was overwhelming, the reality of Neal's body hard against his, Neal's mouth, Neal's hands mapping their way down Peter's spine, fingers biting into his hip. They'd been through so much together, knew each other so well, there was only this left to learn: the sigh on Neal's lips when Peter drew away to put on the condom; the low groan, sounding almost anguished, when Peter slid one lubed finger into him, then another. Peter hadn't done this in nearly two decades, but it wasn't something you forgot. And, finally, the slow persistent push into Neal's hot, tight body.
"I'm breathing," said Neal. His hair was stuck to his sweaty forehead, and his expression was brilliant—not quite a smile, but pleased, satisfied, possessive. "I'm good. You can move."
"I'm an old man. Give me a minute." Peter reached down to trace the line of his lower lip.
Neal smirked. "You're not that old, hot dawg."
"Oh Jesus." Peter rolled his eyes. He pulled out and thrust in more sharply than he would have if Neal hadn't been teasing, and Neal gasped and arched up to meet him.
"If that was supposed to be a disincentive, you're doing it wrong." He gripped Peter's wrist, urging him into a hard, steady rhythm. "God, th—that's good. I knew you'd be good—no way Elizabeth'd put up with less."
"Do you always talk this much?" asked Peter, his passion edging into exasperation.
Neal raised an eyebrow. "You should know."
"I mean during sex."
Neal grinned wickedly. "What's the matter? I thought you liked to multi-task."
"For some things." Peter had wanted Neal for years and he'd been anticipating having him for months, hoping. Now they were finally here, his body was singing with it. He wanted this first time to be perfect, and if Neal kept distracting him like this, it would be over before it started. In the future, they could talk during sex—hell, they could recite Shakespeare if that was Neal wanted—but right now, Peter needed to concentrate. And if anyone could shut Neal up, it ought to be Peter. He just needed to summon enough brainpower to figure out how.
He shifted his weight to one side, his thrusts briefly losing traction as he did so, and used his free hand to caress Neal's face, slide his fingers into Neal's mouth. Neal's eyes fluttered shut and he obligingly sucked on them, but Jesus, that was no help either. Too good, too much, and the tight circle of Neal's lips brought all kinds of dirty images to mind. Peter ground his teeth, struggling for control, and snatched his hand free, lightly grazing his sensitized fingers over Neal's teeth.
Neal was laughing at him again, his eyes heavy-lidded and wicked, yeah, he knew exactly what Peter was trying to do. Peter looked back down at him, at his Neal, flushed and open, letting Peter—wanting to be fucked by him. All his brilliance and mischief and sensuality laid bare. Partners. They really were partners in every sense. As much by instinct as design, Peter dropped his hand to Neal's cock and began to stroke him.
Neal's mouth opened, but no words came out. Every trace of humor and mischief was wiped from his face, and for a long minute they moved together in silence, just the rustle of bedclothes, the creak of the bed, the brush and slap of skin on skin. It was intense and perfect. Then Neal grabbed at Peter's hand and said, "Wait, wait, wait—"
He scrunched his eyes shut and clenched down so hard that Peter stopped moving, almost from necessity.
"Neal?" It came out halfway between a yelp and a gasp.
Neal took a deep breath and opened his eyes, and they stared at each other for a long moment, joined where Neal was gripping both of Peter's wrists, where Peter's fingers were wrapped around Neal's taut, hard cock, and where Peter was buried deep inside him. Peter felt as if Neal was pulsing through him at all those points, as if their entwining were the physical manifestation of a deeper bond. As if Neal were loosening his self-control, his façade, and letting Peter all the way in. Peter couldn't kiss him from this angle, but he relinquished his cock and stroked up over his belly instead, up to his chest, over his heart.
"So," said Neal softly, breaking the silence, "kind of a Kodak moment, here."
Peter snickered despite himself. "I don't think I'd frame this over the mantelpiece."
"What if someone painted a nice, innocuous copy of a Turner on the other side?" Neal batted his eyelashes in mock innocence.
Peter shook his head slowly, suffused with a heady mix of arousal, exasperation and love. Only Neal. "Have I ever mentioned that you're incorrigible?"
"I don't think it's ever come up," said Neal. "Speaking of 'coming up', you want to keep going?"
He'd relaxed so gradually that Peter only realized now that he could move again. Peter nodded, and Neal hitched his hips, but then stopped.
"Hold that thought." He pulled off cautiously and swung his leg across so he could roll onto his side. Peter watched, vaguely adrift without the connections of their hands and cocks, but then Neal looked over his shoulder, his expectant expression as much an invitation as his bent knee and exposed ass.
"Like this?" Peter moved to lie behind him, half on top of him really, and entered again, relieved to be back inside, anchored by the intimate clasp of Neal's body. It was quieter this way, the strokes abbreviated and deep, and Neal groaned wordlessly and pushed back, meeting Peter thrust for thrust. Even better, the position freed Peter to hold Neal and kiss his shoulder and the side of his neck, to feel the hot press of their bodies together and to explore down his side, between his thighs and up to gently jack him off. They still didn't last long, either of them, but it didn't matter like this, because they were close, so close, and when Neal came, he twisted his head around to kiss Peter messily, saying something against his lips that might have been I love you.
Afterward, they lay catching their breaths, Neal's head on Peter's shoulder. Peter caught himself stroking Neal's hair as if Neal were El, and then decided it was okay. Neal and El were alike in some ways and very, very different in others, but Peter was always going to be himself. He didn't have to tailor his habits depending on who he was with. He raised up and kissed the top of Neal's head.
Neal moved to the pillow so they were face to face. "Hey, was this your idea or Elizabeth's?"
"The feelings are mine," said Peter. "They have been for a long time. It was El's idea that I act on them. Why?"
"I just wanted to be sure." Neal propped his head on his elbow and rested his other hand on Peter's chest, his thumb idly stroking Peter's collarbone. "Before we left, she said, 'Have fun,' and she winked at me. There's not a lot in Pittsburgh that merits a wink."
A few things clicked into place. "Hence the condoms."
Neal grinned. "Be prepared." He snuggled closer and kissed the corner of Peter's mouth, his lips soft, the faint scratch of his stubble a potent reminder that this was new and different. "All this time," he said softly. "I wish you'd said something."
"I wanted to, so many times," said Peter. It was true. The last year, in particular, had been an endurance test; if he'd had El's permission then, he wasn't sure he'd have managed, but he and El hadn't really talked about it until a month or so before the end of Neal's sentence. Peter hooked his ankle around Neal's leg to haul him even closer and felt a callous where the tracker had been. "We're here now."
Neal bit his jaw, nuzzled his ear and then let his head flop back on the pillow. "Now I want dessert. Room service? I hear they make an excellent baked cheesecake."
"Go ahead." Peter ruffled his hair indulgently and watched Neal reach for the phone and order two servings. It was so easy between them, their friendship extending to encompass this new development. As soon as Peter thought that, concern for the future started to edge in.
Neal sat cross-legged next to him, still stark naked and looked down knowingly. He poked Peter in the shoulder. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah." Peter sat up too. "No. I don't know." He sighed.
Neal's mouth curved. "Covered all the bases there, Mario. Talk to me."
Peter made a face. "I worry—"
Neal snickered and took his hand, twining their fingers.
"Shhh," said Peter, scowling. "I'm trying to say—I worry that this isn't fair to you. Elizabeth, work—I can't give you—You deserve more than I can give."
"Have I asked for more?" Neal shifted to lean against him. "What if I don't want more?"
Peter ran his finger lightly down Neal's throat, over his Adam's apple to his collar bone. "Are you just saying that?"
Neal pulled them both under the covers and looked at him seriously. "Okay, listen. There was a time, years ago, when I dreamed about settling down in the 'burbs. Get a dog, have kids, a nice, normal life. But it's different now—I have friends, I have a job. I have a life, and it's not normal, and I like it that way." He smoothed gentle fingers across Peter's forehead. "I'm happy. If I can have this too, that's all I need, Peter. It's all I want."
Something tight unclenched in Peter's chest. He pulled Neal into his arms and kissed him. "This is all you want."
It was too easy. Too good to be true. And that thought was confirmed when Neal hmmed and said, "Well, maybe one other thing."
Peter raised his eyebrows, and Neal gave him a grave look.
"Can I have your shorts?"
Peter dropped his head to Neal's shoulder with a groan. "Oh God."
"A romantic souvenir of our first time together," said Neal earnestly.
"I'm serious, Peter!" said Neal, managing to keep his sober expression in place another second or two before a giggle escaped.
Peter lifted his head again, only so Neal would see him roll his eyes. "Fine. You can have them—"
Instantly, Neal bounded out of bed, grabbed the cartoon shorts and pulled them on. They hung low on his slim hips, and his face and chest were flushed with mirth. Peter grabbed him and wrestled him back onto the bed.
"You didn't listen to my conditions," said Peter. "You can have the shorts—" He pinned Neal with his gaze, and Neal's chest heaved with laughter. "—but only if I get to call you Hot Dawg," Peter finished, triumphantly.
Which made Neal laugh so hard, he nearly fell off the bed.