"Can I borrow a pen?"
Sam looks down at his neat line of pens, then back at the rather un-neat man who'd plopped down beside him. "Sure," he says. He starts considering which pen he can best spare, when the man reaches across Sam's workspace and snatches his nicest, most ergonomically shaped pen.
"Thanks," the man says, slouching back in his chair, twirling the pen carelessly in his fingers. "Who are you?"
Sam stares at him, taken aback by the man's directness. "DCI Tyler," Sam says, nudging forward his conference nametag. He glances at the man's lapel, but instead of the official badge he wears a "Hello, My Name Is" sticker, with "Peter" scrawled on it in green marker. Apple-scented.
Peter raises his eyebrows. "DCI, eh? You must be an ambitious little prick."
"Excuse me?" Sam gapes.
Peter grins and elbows him in the arm. "Just joshin' ya," he say, his Scottish accent making the words run together. He gestures towards the stage where a man in an ugly tie is fuming at his laptop for refusing to show his slides. "You like this stuff? 'Demographic Analysis and Computer Profiling in Twenty-First Century Policing'?" he reads from his programme; the margins of the pages are covered in scribbles and doodles and... is that gum?
"It's informative," Sam replies, hoping that idiot up there will figure out how to use PowerPoint sometime in the next hour. Someone goes up to help him; he's wearing jeans and a t-shirt that says 'No, I will not fix your computer.' Sam puffs out a sigh and slumps a little in his seat.
"Lollipop?" Peter says, offering one.
Sam looks at it dubiously, then shakes his head. "No, thanks."
"Your loss," Peter says, crumpling off the wrapper and giving the red lolly an eager suck. He rolls it against his tongue, and then drags it out with a wet sound, before slurping at it obscenely.
"You sure you don't want one?" Peter asks, waving the wet lolly in Sam's face.
"Uh, no," Sam stammers, feeling suddenly flushed. Too many people in the cramped auditorium, with its struggling central air.
"Chocolate centre," Peter says, and winks at him.
"'m not hungry," Sam mumbles. He stares desperately at the stage, and is relieved when the projector blinks to life, and the title slide appears above the stage. "Finally," he breathes, and straightens up.
Peter frowns around the lolly stick, and slouches lower, spreading his long legs to keep his knees from hitting the chair in front. His left thigh presses against Sam's right. Sam tries to pretend he doesn't notice. Focus on the presentation, he tells himself. You're here for your job, not for back-of-the-classroom antics. Ignore him.
The lights dim as the presentation starts. Slides flash by, with meaningless charts and mindless bullet point lists. Sam tries to stay focused, to be diligent, but the room is warm and the speaker's voice is a droning monotone. Peter's body heat soaks into Sam, and the afternoon begins to tell, making Sam struggle to keep his eyes open. He rubs at his face, takes deep breaths. He should have had a coffee.
He feels a hand on his arm, and blinks awake, blearily. Peter is looking at him, laughter in his eyes. "I don't mind being your impromptu pillow, but you were drooling on my suit."
"Oh," Sam says, dumbly. "Sorry," he mumbles, awkwardly wiping at Peter's shoulder. He straightens up, and wipes at his mouth.
"Told you to have a lolly," Peter says, his own long since finished. His breath smells faintly of sugar and chocolate.
The audience suddenly breaks into polite applause. The presentation is over, and the house lights brighten.
"Can't take much more of this," Peter says, looking disdainfully at his conference programme.
Sam is carefully putting his pens back into his briefcase when Peter stands and tugs at his arm. "C'mon, let's get out of here."
Sam shakes his head. "The next one's on Miranda rights."
"Oh Jesus," Peter says, rolling his eyes. The audience mills around them, most of it leaving. "You think you'll get through that without sugar?"
"I'll grab a coffee."
"That muck?" Peter makes a face. "Wouldn't pay my mother to drink it."
Sam cracks a smile at the absurdity of that.
"Ahh, there you go," Peter says, grinning. He slaps Sam on the back. "Knew there was some life in you." He plucks Sam's briefcase from his hand and begins to shuffle out of their row.
"Oi!" Sam cries, and hurries after him. All his things are in there. His notes are in there.
But Peter keeps ahead of him until they leave the lobby of the conference centre, dangling the briefcase from his long, slim fingers. The moment they step outside, the cool ocean breeze hits them, and Sam has to admit it's a relief.
Before he can demand his briefcase back, Peter drops it back into his arms. Sam clutches at it, then feels foolish.
"C'mon," Peter says again, walking off with long strides. "I know just the place."
Without understanding why, and for once not trying to, Sam follows after.
They end up in a little restaurant whose walls are covered with plastic dolphins and old, black and white photos. Peter insists on ordering them both ice cream.
"Sweet tooth," Sam says, looking at him and wondering.
Peter just smiles. He sprawls back in his chair, the picture of relaxation, and watches the people passing by.
The quiet gives Sam a moment to ask himself what he's doing. I don't know, he replies, but isn't satisfied with the answer. He'd come alone to the conference; no one else was interested, even with the chance to take a long weekend in Southport after the conference ended. Not that he'd really had anyone to ask; his rush to the top hadn't left him with many friends. He'd passed thirty, made DCI, and ended up alone in a hotel room.
"So what are you, then?" Sam asked, breaking the quiet.
"What am I?" Peter echoed, amused. "Nothing so fancy as you. I've been told that a lack of diplomacy will stunt my growth." He leans forward and holds out his hand. "DI Carlisle, at your service."
Sam shakes it. "Lack of diplomacy?"
"I don't keep my pens in line," Peter says, blithely.
Sam fights the urge to flinch. Before he can get properly annoyed, the waitress returns with their ice cream. Peter tucks in, but Sam just pokes at the whipped cream with his spoon.
"Not hungry?" Peter asks.
"I should go," Sam says, and pushes himself up. Peter's hand on his arm stops him.
"Wait," Peter says, suddenly imploring. "I'm sorry."
Sam hesitates, caught by Peter's unguarded apology. He looks out at the afternoon tableau, and thinks about being stuck in an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy room, and is inclined to forgive. He sits down again, and as a peace offering takes a spoonful of ice cream.
"This is actually pretty good," he says, surprised, and then surprised at himself as he realizes how long it's been since he had ice cream. Since he treated himself at all. Since he did something that wasn't about proving himself, wasn't about promotion. Hot fudge and cold ice cream, sweet and rich. He has a flash of memory, of his childhood in Manchester. Lying in bed with a bowl of ice cream, a treat after being ill.
He makes it through half the bowl before he sets his spoon aside. His stomach grumbles a bit, not used to the rich cream, after his usual austere meals.
Peter holds out a roll of antacids, already half-gone. Sam takes two; he chews on the chalky tablets, and washes them down with some water. His stomach settles. "Thanks," he says, self-conscious. He doesn't like to impose on people, to depend on anyone. But Peter simply offered, without even being asked.
Peter scrapes the puddle of ice cream and toppings from the bottom of the bowl, and licks his spoon clean. He tosses the spoon back with a clatter, and drops some money on the table. He stands and stretches, and gestures for Sam to follow.
"Let's take a walk," Peter says, guiding Sam from the restaurant with a hand on the small of his back. The touch is like a spark up Sam's spine, making his breath catch as he's guided to the street. Oh, he thinks, realizing, and suddenly Peter makes more sense. Suddenly he understands what's going on, and if he has any sense he knows he should leave, should excuse himself and get back to the conference. Back to safety and speeches and bad hotel food and an empty room and some deep part of him rebels.
"Okay," he says, the words making themselves, his feet walking themselves, taking him along with Peter to the promenade. What is he doing, what is he doing?
Shut up, he tells the panicking part of himself, shoving it down until he can mostly ignore it.
Peter touches his arm, and again it's like a live wire on his nerves. The panic flares up again, and then goes very, very quiet. He hears his heartbeat pounding in his head.
"You all right?" Peter asks, concerned.
"Yeah," Sam says, and it's true but it isn't true and his head is spinning. He doesn't want to stop, doesn't want to think about what he's doing, because if he thinks about it he'll stop and he doesn't want to stop.
He reaches up, and takes hold of Peter's arm. His grip is too tight, but he can't make his hand relax.
"Shh," Peter says, somehow knowing, somehow understanding. He reaches up and brushes Sam's cheek with the knuckles of his fingers, and then steps back. The ocean breeze is stronger here, and the cold air drags some of the fog from Sam's head.
"I don't--" Sam begins. He doesn't. He doesn't.
"Go," Peter says, softly, words for only the two of them to hear. "If that's what you have to do. Go back and pretend that you don't want this. Pretend you're happy, when I know you're not."
Sam shakes his head. "I don't know you."
"I know you," Peter says, with such belief that it must be true.
Sam's eyes prick with sudden tears. His chest feels tight. It's all too much. And then without warning, and yet so slowly, Peter leans in, and they kiss.
They kiss. Not Peter kissing him. They kiss.
A whimper rises from Sam's throat as he stumbles back. He feels ill, feverish, his body unable to cope with this sudden richness: the taste of Peter's lips, the feeling of being held. "I'm sorry," he rasps, shaking his head, though his very skin is haunted by that touch.
Somehow he makes it back to the hotel. It's a miracle he isn't hit by a car, the way he stumbles blindly through the streets. His hand trembles as he swipes into his room, and he falls back against the door, collapses to the ground. He can't stop shaking.
He barely makes it to the toilet in time to throw up. His mouth tastes of bile and ice cream. Idiot, he calls himself, over and over.
He showers, scouring himself with hot water, as hot as he can make it. It doesn't wash away the memory, or the need, or the fear. He doesn't want to see anyone, doesn't want to go to the conference dinner. He lies in bed and watches television until he falls asleep.
He wakes up with a sour taste in his mouth, and the television cycling through the hotel adverts. He turns over and stares mournfully at the bedside clock. Nine PM. His stomach grumbles at him. He pulls himself together, dresses in the most casual clothes he'd packed, and slips out of his room.
The hotel bar is full from the conference. He walks out into the night, not sure where he's going, or what he wants. The promenade is still lit up for Friday night festivities, neon and flashing lights, people laughing and shouting. His stomach rumbles again, reminding him that he hadn't had any real food since lunch, and he follows his nose to a fish and chip shop on the strip.
Inside, the light seems too bright, too revealing. He quickly takes his food and goes; it's hot and greasy, and he only eats half of it and throws the rest to the seagulls, who squawk and flap over each precious chip. He passes a bar, and decides to go in.
Unsurprisingly, it's a "modern" pub, full of noise and cheap beer. He doesn't really care, and takes his drinks to a small table near a window. He stares out through the dirty pane, watching people walk by in couples and groups. He feels stupid and jealous, and full of regret. He gets drunk enough to blunt the pain, but not enough to be self-destructive. He's seen enough disastrous benders to moderate his self-medication.
His head is buzzing by the time he leaves the pub. The night air is chilly enough to fool him into thinking he's more sober than he is, and so instead of going back to the hotel, instead of sulking alone in his room, he keeps going, further along the strip. He doesn't think about Peter, except when he does. He imagines going home, back to Manchester, back to his lonely flat and his desk and his computer and it all seems utterly pointless. It's all so stupid, what he's done with his life. All that focus, all that ambition, always playing by the rules because he didn't know how to break them, and he has nothing that matters, nothing to hold him.
He turns away from the noise and the lights, and walks out onto the long pier. Looks out at the darkness, the pinprick lights of distant ships. Listens to the waves against the piles, the wind through the metal arches that decorate the pier.
Sam turns around. For a moment, he thinks the shadowed figure is Peter, and his chest goes tight with hope. But the man isn't as slim, isn't as tall. It isn't him, and the disappointment is bitter.
"Hey," he replies, the copper in him sizing the man up, wondering if he's going to be trouble. Probably not a mugger, but he's no tourist.
"Not much here once the tram stops," the man says.
Sam nods, not interested in conversation, but being polite, because he doesn't have to think to be polite.
The man steps closer, and Sam straightens up, a spark of adrenaline clearing his mind. The man holds up his hands.
"No harm, man," the man says, and Sam realizes that he's a boy. Maybe nineteen. What he's doing out here, on a dark pier, talking to-- oh. Oh.
Sam laughs, feeling as though the world is out to make a point to him, today. He could tell the boy the truth, that he's propositioning a copper. Flash his badge and let the boy run off. But something stops him. He relaxes, and the boy steps closer again. In the pale glow of the stars and the far-off streetlights, Sam can see dark eyes, dark hair, pouty lips. The chin is all wrong, too square, and the nose too broad. But in the darkness...
He's thought about it so many times. It would be so easy, to give in, to rent some anonymous room, press flesh against flesh. If he'd come out, he'd never have made it to DCI. He didn't have a choice. Had to pretend, had to deny, had to push it all away. But he knew he could always have had this, if he wanted. A dirty secret, but better than nothing, better than living like a monk, pretending to be just one of the guys. Not that he was ever any good at being one of the guys. But he was never that brave.
The boy steps closer again, sensing opportunity. He smiles, and drops his shoulders, pushes his hips forward. Blatant, Sam thinks, staring, breathing shallow. He's grateful for the darkness, the waves, shadowing him and silencing him and making everything unreal. His hand reaches out, and rests upon the thin cotton of the boy's shirt. His palm feels the heat of him, the muscle underneath. Not as thin as Peter, no, but slim and wiry. Living on the streets will do that. For a moment, Sam feels such pity for him.
Sam closes his eyes, and kisses him. The boy kisses back. Sam opens his eyes, and the boy is knowing, seductive. Sam hesitates, draws back, but the boy follows, presses against him. Sam's back hits the railing.
"Oh, yeah," the boy moans, in a mockery of love. "You like that. You want it."
"No," Sam says, suddenly feeling the wrongness of this, wanting to go home and forget, forget. "I'm sorry--"
The boy reaches his hand down, and cups Sam's crotch, rubs and squeezes the hardness there. "Big boy," he says, smirking.
"No," Sam says, angrily, and pushes him back.
"Fuck you!" the boy snarls, all pretense vanishing in an instant, and he shoves Sam back hard. Sam smacks against the railing, his breath lost, and struggles to fend off the boy as he grabs roughly at Sam's pockets.
"Oi! You there!" someone shouts, and the boy freezes. Looks up, and then to Sam's shock jumps from the pier into the water. He goes down with a splash, and noisily swims away. Sam grabs the railing and pulls himself back to his feet, the back of his head smarting where it clipped the railing. He hears running feet, and looks up. Stares in astonishment.
"Are you all right?" Peter asks, frantic with worry, his hands patting Sam's body in the familiar way of First Aid.
"I'm fine," Sam insists, even as he rubs the back of his head. "Just bruised."
Peter looks at him in amazement. "I didn't think you had it in you!"
Sam gives him a look. "A moment of insanity," he grumbles, and pats at his pockets. "Damn it. I think he got my wallet."
Peter snickers. Then laughs. Sam glares at him.
"Aww, c'mon. You have to admit it's funny. Who goes to a police convention and gets mugged?"
"Me, apparently," Sam mutters. Then he frowns at Peter. "What are you doing here?" he asks, suspiciously.
"Ah, right," Peter says, and has the grace to look ashamed. "I was sort of, ah, following you."
Sam stares at him. "You what?"
"I was worried, all right? I saw you go by the hotel bar, and I thought I'd keep an eye on you. Good thing, too."
Sam sputters at him. "And what if," he says, working up a good outrage. "What if I'd gone with him? What were you gonna do then?"
"I'd have done what any good police officer does when observing a breach of the peace," Peter replied, smoothly. "Arrested him for soliciting and taken you downtown."
Sam's eyes narrow. "Arrogant prick."
"What'cha gonna do about it?" Peter says, and leans close.
And very much without thinking, Sam punches him. Hard, on the chin. Then winces, holding his hand, because damn if Peter's jaw isn't harder than it looks.
"You bastard!" Peter whines, cradling his jaw. "I can't believe you did that!"
To his surprise, Sam finds himself smiling. He laughs, and then keeps laughing, until he loses his balance and lands on his arse, still laughing.
He's still giggling when Peter plops down next to him, rubbing his jaw. "This is going to bruise, you know," Peter says, pouting.
"Should I kiss it better?" Sam asks, before his brain can stop his mouth.
"Yes," Peter says, suddenly sober, suddenly focused, as if Sam is the only thing that matters. It stops Sam's breath in his chest.
They kiss, again. Oh, they kiss. Sam's hands grip at Peter's coat, as if gravity has left them behind, and Peter is his only anchor. He doesn't stop, refuses to stop, won't let go until there's no regret left in the world.
"You're crying," Peter says, gently. His brow wrinkles, a little frown, and he brushes the tears from Sam's cheeks.
"I don't care," Sam says, voice catching on a sob. "I'm sorry."
Peter smiles fondly. "You have nothing to be sorry for," he says, and they kiss again, sweet and long.
Peter's fingers brush the back of Sam's head, grazing the forming lump, and Sam hisses.
"Let's get you back to the hotel," Peter insists, helping Sam up. "I want to get a look at you."
"Do you now," Sam says, feeling daring. Feeling brave.
Peter laughs, and gives an exaggerated leer. "Oh yes I do," he insists, but his hands are gentle on Sam's body as Sam steadies himself, and Peter stays so close as they walk back together.