I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone? ~ The Writer, Stand By Me
“That's the dumbest question I've ever heard,” Neal Caffrey said as he spun his marshmallow just above the campfire, letting the flames lick it to a perfect toasty brown. His best friends, Peter Burke and Mozzie Jefferies, both threw half-roasted marshmallows at him, but he ducked them with the same ease and agility he used when avoiding the bullies at Monroe High. Having just turned thirteen, Neal was the youngest student in school, having skipped a couple of grades already.
“Which two guys would you pit against each other in a fight, Caffrey?” Fifteen-year-old Peter gave him the look that all younger brothers are familiar with, a mix of exasperation, devotion, and affection. In the seven months that Neal had been living in the Ellington's home as a foster child, Peter had taken him under his wing and formed a bond with the kid. Sure, Neal drove him crazy sometimes, running off half-cocked and getting himself into trouble, but he also got to see the other side of Caffrey; the intelligent but terrified kid whose mother was institutionalized, leaving him alone in the world.
“Certainly not Superman and Spider-man.” Neal sat up straighter while he nibbled on his food. He read his share of comics, but he didn't care to speculate on the fighting skill level of fictional cartoons.
Mozzie glanced between the two of them and sighed. “He's going to say something like Da Vinci versus Einstein. A battle of the minds.”
Neal rolled his eyes. “Was not. Shut up.”
Laughing, Mozzie pointed at him with the bottle of wine he'd smuggled out of the locked cabinet in Byron's office. “Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.”
“Like you weren't going to say Mark Twain and... and... Orson Scott Card or someone.”
Mozzie's eyes flashed. He hated it when Neal mocked his literary tastes. “Hey, Ender's Game is a classic!”
Peter stepped in before they came to blows. “Guys, come on. It was a stupid question.”
They all fell silent for a few minutes. The fire crackled between them as they settled in for the night. It was almost completely dark out, a few days off from the new moon, and Peter's watch told him that it was nearing eleven thirty.
Bored, Mozzie pulled a book and a mini-flashlight out of his knapsack. Within seconds, his nose was buried in a worn copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.
“So,” Neal said, looking over at Peter, “what's up with you and Elizabeth Mitchell?”
“What d'you mean?” Peter leaned back against a tree, aiming for nonchalant.
“You've been sitting with her at lunch and walking her home after school. Texting her at all hours. Jessie told me that you transferred into AP English because Elizabeth's in that class.” Neal's observational skills were legendary. When he'd arrived at the Ellington's home, he had been withdrawn and more or less mute. When he'd finally started interacting – first with Peter and Mozzie, later with June and Byron, and even later with Diana and Sara, the other two kids in their foster home – they'd been shocked by the things he'd picked up about them all. It was kind of fascinating, if you didn't think about it too hard.
Peter shrugged. “We're friends.” He hoped the kid would let it go at that, but he knew better. Neal was worse than a dog with a bone.
Keeping eye contact with Peter, Neal considered his next question. He wasn't willing to let Peter off the hook on this one yet. “Are you going to ask her to prom?”
“No. We're not juniors or seniors, so we can't go to prom. Why are you so interested all the sudden?”
That's when Neal looked away with a shrug of his own. “I dunno.”
Mozzie eyed them over his book. “First love is a little foolish and a lot of curiosity,” he offered up the George Bernard Shaw quote like it was the answer to the whole conversation.
Both Neal and Peter shot him perplexed, and slightly annoyed, looks.
“It's not first love. It's not even love.” Peter stood and paced away from them, throwing his hands up in frustration. “We're. Just. Friends.”
Neal nodded and shrugged again. He hunched into his jacket and dug around in his own backpack for something to occupy his hands and his mind. Coming up with a couple of sheets of paper, he started folding one of them into an origami fox, a cunning and often solitary animal.
Peter frowned and crouched down beside the younger boy. “Everything okay, Neal?” he asked quietly. The three boys shared a room, so there wasn't much they didn't know about each other, but Peter would rather not draw Mozzie's attention from his book unless necessary.
“Yeah, sure, fine.” Neal didn't look up. “Why?”
“You're doing that thing again.” Peter waved his hands over Neal's body in a way that indicated he was talking about Neal's posture and attitude.
Neal scoffed. “I'm not doing that thing. I'm practicing origami for art class.”
“Elizabeth and I are just friends,” Peter repeated. “You and I are best friends-”
“I heard that,” Mozzie interrupted.
Peter flipped him the bird without looking away from Neal or missing a beat. “-and I'm not going to let some girl mess that up. We'll always be best friends. Okay?”
Neal looked up and locked eyes with Peter's, searching them for any falsity or deceit. It had been hard for him to put any trust in Peter, much less the amount that he had in the teen now. He didn't know what he would do if Peter ever betrayed that. “Okay.”
Mozzie threw a handful of M&Ms at them, breaking the tension. “People do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
“We're not ignoring you, Moz,” Neal said, sighing. “And that's not even the quote.”
“How would you know, plebian?” Mozzie knew that Neal hated being called any sort of name, and, if he were honest with himself, he was a little jealous of the friendship between Peter and Neal. He had his own bond with the kid, but the two of them were practically brothers now.
“It's pronounced plebian,” Peter corrected, glaring at Mozzie for a moment. Neal wasn't in the right headspace for teasing, and he hoped the other boy would cut it out.
Mozzie rolled his eyes and went back to his book. He was annoyed with himself for stooping to such a petty level, but sometimes he just couldn't help himself.
It wasn't long before the fire started to die down, and the boys crawled into their sleeping bags. They'd decided to forgo the tent for their first camping trip of the summer – school had let out only a week ago – so they all had great views of the stars.
Neal lay in the middle and listened while Peter talked about Orion and Scorpio and Mozzie argued that the story was really about Orion chasing the Pleiades. As a bit of an insomniac, Neal rarely slept through the night, but he found something comforting out here in the wide open spaces with his best friends on either side and gods and hunters and animals keep an eye on them from above.
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