Peter got out of the car and looked up at the address the GPS had taken them to, 87 Riverside Drive.
"Our vic lives here?" Diana asked, echoing Peter's thoughts. "Seriously?"
"That's his official address in the system, and he gave the same address at the hospital last night."
"Must be one hell of a successful artist."
"Or something," Peter muttered as they climbed the stairs to the grand front door. The picture in the victim's file had been remarkable, more like an actor's headshot than a typical DMV mugshot, and Peter could well imagine how he would find a place in a house like this.
A maid in uniform answered the door, and Peter flashed his badge at her. "I'm looking for Neal Caffrey," he said, aware as he spoke that it sounded like a question, but the maid just waved him and Diana inside.
A well-dressed older woman who didn't look like a relative of Caffrey's approached with some kind of tiny dog in her arms. Those little dogs always gave Peter the creeps. "Can I help you...officers?"
"Detectives Burke and Berrigan, NYPD." He flashed his badge again, then held it open for her to inspect when she raised one sculpted eyebrow. "Does Neal Caffrey live here?"
"Yes, of course. Neal has an apartment upstairs." She walked over toward an impressive staircase. "I'll take you up there, but I can't guarantee that he'll want to speak to you. You don't have a warrant do you, Detective Burke?"
"No. Mr. Caffrey's not in any trouble, we just wish to speak to him about a crime."
At the top of three flights of stairs, which the old lady climbed like they were nothing, she knocked on a closed door without any kind of secure lock Peter could see. "Neal, dear? There are a couple of detectives here who wish to speak with you."
There was no immediate response, and Diana was starting to sigh in frustration when Peter heard soft footsteps. The door opened to reveal a man who bore little resemblance to Neal Caffrey's ID picture. The height and approximate weight were right, as was the eye color, but where the man in the photo had a smiling face that appeared polished to perfection the man in the doorway looked gray and drawn, far older than the two years since the picture had been taken would explain, and he was barefoot in pajama pants and a robe.
"Mr. Caffrey," Diana said, "I'm Detective Berrigan with the NYPD. My partner and I would like to talk to you about last night, if possible."
Caffrey looked back and forth between them, clearly nervous, but Peter didn't get a dangerous vibe off of the man. "The hospital gave you my name?"
"Yes, sir. They're required to give us information about violent crimes," Diana explained. "You left before an officer could take your statement."
"I don't want to talk to anybody. I was stupid, I got mugged. I'm fine."
You don't look fine, Peter thought. "Mr. Caffrey, we believe that the person or persons who attacked you last night has attacked several other men over the last two months, and not all of them have been fine. One man died as a result of his injuries and another is in bad shape. Any information you can give us that would help us catch the perpetrator is very important."
Caffrey looked nervous again, far beyond the usual kind of anxiety that people tended to develop around law enforcement, and Peter didn't get it. This guy didn't have a record beyond a shoplifting charge from when he was 18, and while any kind of violent crime was unsettling he seemed more rattled than the average victim of assault and battery. "I don't know anything," he said.
"Would it be okay if we come inside and ask you some questions?" Diana asked. "You might remember more than you realize."
"I don't know anything," he repeated, shaking his head. "I don't want to talk to you." He looked over to the side, and his...landlady?...cleared her throat.
"I'll see you back down to the front door, detectives." She gestured to the stairs, making it clear that their exit wasn't optional.
"Just one moment," Peter said. The door was almost closed, but Caffrey was still watching them, and Peter pulled out one of his cards. "Please, Mr. Caffrey. If you change your mind, give me a call or come down to the station. The next victim might not be as lucky as you were, and you don't want to have to live with that." Peter pinched his card between two fingers and held it out into the few inches that the door was still open. "Please, for now, just take my card."
Caffrey allowed Peter to make eye contact for the first time, and Peter looked back into his pale blue eyes steadily, calmly, willing him to take the offered card. Caffrey blinked and swallowed visibly, his Adam's apple bobbing in his long neck, then took the card and pushed the door shut the rest of the way. Peter turned away reluctantly and followed his partner and the older lady down the stairs.
"Thank you, Ms.--"
"June Ellington. This my home."
"It's a beautiful home," Diana said. "Can I ask how Mr. Caffrey came to be living with you?"
Ms. Ellington looked at them both like she was about to politely pitch them out the front door, but then she sighed and relaxed her shoulders. "Neal is an artist, very talented. I met him through a children's art foundation that I've supported for years, and we struck up a friendship. My husband Byron passed away a few years ago, and with our daughters grown it became very quiet in this house. When I heard Neal was looking for a new place to live, I offered him the little guest room upstairs, and he accepted. Do you require a copy of our landlord/tenant agreement, detectives?"
"No, that's not necessary. Thank you for your time Ms. Ellington." Diana held out her card. "Please call if we can be of assistance."
Ms. Ellington took the card and ushered them the rest of the way to the front door. Outside, Peter and Diana looked at each other and shrugged.
"Well, that was a whole lot of nothing," Diana grumbled as they walked back down to the street. "Maybe we should've leaned harder on Caffrey."
"And ended up with the old lady's high-priced lawyer coming after us for harassment? I'd rather avoid that." Peter got in the car and thought about Caffrey, the difference between his ID photo and the man in the doorway. "Anyway, I think it would've done more harm than good. I don't know what he's scared of, but I think I got through to him about the other victims. I think we'll be hearing from him soon. I've got a gut feeling about it."
"Far be it from me to bet against your gut. Anyway, I hope you're right. We need to get this asshole."
Peter agreed. A man had been beaten in a similar style every week for the past two months. It got kicked up to Peter and Diana in Homicide when the fifth victim died of his wounds, and now along with one victim in the ground they had another victim in the hospital with a spinal injury. The doctors said he should recover, but he wasn't going home or back to work anytime soon. The rest of the victims had been less seriously injured, but still the beatings had left their marks--bruises, fractures, concussions.
Caffrey's hospital record had indicated bruised ribs and a closed head wound, possible concussion. He had checked himself out and left before further tests could be given and before officers had arrived to interview him and get pictures of his wounds. Peter had a feeling that wasn't a coincidence, and he wished he knew why. The conventional wisdom was that anybody who was scared of cops probably had something to hide, but Peter didn't like to make that assumption. People had all kinds of reasons for their fears, and Neal Caffrey didn't seem like any kind of criminal.
Back at the precinct, Peter did some poking around on the web rather than the police databases and found mentions of Caffrey that confirmed his landlady's story. He was an artist with work hanging in a few galleries around the city, and Peter was no art aficionado but he liked what he saw. It wasn't nonsensical modern art or boring pop art; the few works that Peter could see were beautiful, the kind of thing he wouldn't mind looking at in person.
For a man who didn't consider himself to be very interested in the arts, Peter found himself at galleries and other art-related events fairly often. His neighbor kept setting him up on dates, and it seemed like every gay man she knew was a fan of attending gallery openings and, God help him, performance art installations. Peter knew he could say no, but going on the dates El set up for him was better than spending every weekend alone.
Peter dug a little deeper and found that June Ellington was on the board of Ellen's Place, a foundation that provided after-school and summer classes in the arts to underprivileged children, with a special outreach to homeless teens. Neal Caffrey was listed as one of the instructors/counselors, and there was a photo of Caffrey, smiling radiantly, standing in front of a colorful mural with a group of kids. No matter what kind of search Peter ran, he couldn't dig up any dirt on Caffrey.
He went back to the PD database, but there was nothing beyond what Peter had found before--a shoplifting misdemeanor from 1996 when Caffrey had been 18, a sentence of community service which was completed. Peter wanted more information, but he asked himself what purpose that information would serve, and he had to admit it was personal curiosity not professional suspicion. If Peter was right, Caffrey would contact him sooner or later, and if he didn't there was no reason Peter couldn't try approaching him again. Until then, there were other cases that needed his attention, and he couldn't justify putting more time into investigating a victim's background.
Diana tossed a file across from her desk to his, and if Peter needed a sign to tell him it was time to move on, that was it.
The next morning, Peter had only been in the bullpen for twenty minutes when his desk phone rang with a call from the precinct's front desk. "Burke," he said distractedly as he checked his e-mail.
"Detective, we have a guy here asking for you. Neal Coffee?"
"Send him up to three. I'll meet him at the elevator." Peter hung up and smoothed down his tie, checking it for stains, then shook his head at himself. He got to the elevators just as one of them dinged, and the door opened to reveal Neal Caffrey standing against the back wall. "Mr. Caffrey?"
Caffrey shook himself and hurried out before the elevator doors could close again. "You can call me Neal," he said, though he shoved his hands in his pockets rather than holding out a hand to shake. He was dressed in a sharp suit but beyond the clothes he still looked pretty bad--pale, with shadows under his eyes and lines on his face that Peter was pretty sure came from pain rather than time. Peter couldn't help thinking about those injuries that hadn't been checked out before Caffrey left the hospital, but he was a detective not a doctor, and there was work to do.
"Thank you for coming in, Mr. Caffrey. Neal. Do you mind coming back to an interview room with me?"
"That's what I'm here for, right?"
"Right. I think there's an empty room down the hall this way." Peter gestured in that direction and Caffrey started walking. He wasn't moving very quickly, and he was holding his body stiffly, but Peter didn't know how much of that was injury and how much had to do with whatever was going on in his head. Peter ushered Caffrey into an empty interview room and flicked on the light, and Caffrey winced, lifting a hand to pinch at the bridge of his nose.
"Are you feeling okay?"
Caffrey--Neal--shrugged. "I've been better but it sounds like I could be a lot worse, too. What you said yesterday, that's why I'm here." He walked over to the table and sat down, rubbing some more at his forehead.
"It's good that you came. Do you consent to me recording this interview?"
"Am I in trouble here? Do I--do I need to have an attorney present?"
"You're not in any kind of trouble or under suspicion for any crime here, Neal. You can have an attorney present if there's something you're worried about, but I don't see you having any reason for that. I just want to know what happened to you the night before last."
"Okay." He nodded. "Yes, I consent to you recording this interview."
"Before we start, can I get you anything to drink?"
"No, I just want to get this over with." Neal had his hands clasped together on the table in front of him, his fingers squeezed tight enough that they were turning red.
"Okay." Peter took Neal through the evening of his attack, from where he'd been to what he remembered of the mugging itself and events immediately before and after. He remembered more than Peter had been expecting, with an artist's eye for detail, and while he hadn't heard anything concrete he could use he had ideas for a few avenues to investigate. Neal was describing what he remembered of being found after the attack by a pedestrian who called an ambulance when he stopped and rested his head in his hands, rubbing at his temples.
"Mr. Caffrey? Neal?" When he didn't answer, Peter reached across the table to touch his shoulder. Neal jerked away and sat up, his eyes squinted and his face screwed up in pain. "Neal?"
"I--uh," Neal stammered, then he put his hands on his head again and breathed in tight, too-fast gasps of air.
"Just--just hold on. I'm going to get you some assistance."
Neal shook his head, but Peter didn't know if he was even responding to the words. He picked up the phone, buzzed the department secretary, and asked her to get EMTs there ASAP. He had a bad, bad feeling. Neal moaned and curled in on himself, and when Peter put his hand on the man's back he was shaking. Peter told hold of Neal's arm and tried to tug him upwards.
"Neal, you're hurt. You need to lay down." Peter pulled him up out of the chair but Neal jerked out of his hold and bumped into the wall behind him. He grunted and put both hands on his head again, looking like he was trying to drive the heels of his hands into his brow bone, and when he wavered on his feet and his knees gave way Peter only barely managed to catch him.
Peter threw open the interview room door and shouted down the hall, as loudly as he possibly could, "JEANNIE! PARAMEDICS!" He turned back around just in time to see Neal go stiff and start shaking. "Oh shit, oh shit." Neal was too close to the wall, too close to the furniture, but it was too late to move him. Peter shoved the table and chairs a few feet across the floor then knelt down at Neal's side. He was in the middle of pulling off his jacket to put under Neal's head when the seizure stopped. Peter turned Neal to lay on his side just in time for him to gag and throw up a small amount of liquid before going still, apparently passed out.
Peter called out for help again and spread his jacket over as much of Neal's body as it could cover, and before he could decide what to do next two paramedics rushed into the room. Peter stood back and watched as they checked on Neal and readied him for transport, and when he felt the touch of somebody standing next to him he jerked, startled, only to realize it was Diana.
"You okay? What happened in here?"
"He came in, just like I thought he would. He was almost done with his statement when he got a bad headache and collapsed." Peter clenched his jaw and shook his head. "I knew something wasn't right with him when he got here. I shouldn't have interviewed him. Damn it."
"It's not your fault. You asked him if he was okay?"
"It's not your fault. You're going to follow the bus to the ER?"
"Yeah. Do you think you could go back to that house on Riverside? Let his landlady know what happened?"
"Sure, no problem. I'll go now if you're okay here."
"I'm fine. Go."
Diana left, and a few minutes later the paramedics headed out toward the elevators with Neal. There was nothing left for Peter to do other than pick up his discarded suit jacket from the floor and follow his witness to the hospital.
Peter's rush to follow the ambulance was in vain; even with his badge, he couldn't find out what was going on until Diana arrived with June Ellington. She turned out to be Neal's legal next of kin, and as soon as she checked in with the front desk a doctor came out to get her permission to take Neal in for surgery. Apparently he had a bleed that had been slowly growing in his brain for the last day and a half, and they were relatively sure that once they removed the accumulated blood he would survive. Relatively sure.
Ms. Ellington signed the forms then turned to look at Peter and Diana. "Detectives, I'm sure that it will be quite a few hours, at the very least, before Neal can answer any more of your questions."
"I'll see you back at the station," Diana murmured in his ear before she quickly left.
"That's not why I'm here, Ms. Ellington. In fact, Neal did mostly complete his statement before he--he collapsed. I'm here because I'm concerned about him."
She looked sharply at Peter. "Why?"
Peter opened his mouth then closed it when he realized that he didn't have a good answer. "I don't know. I just--he seems like a good person."
"Well, you've figured out at least one thing correctly, Detective." Ms. Ellington gave Peter another appraising look. "Give me one of your cards, and I'll call you to let you know how Neal is doing."
Peter wanted to stay, wanted to wait, but that didn't make any sense. He had work to do, he had to try to stop whoever had hurt Neal from getting anybody else. "Okay," he made himself say, "I would appreciate that." Peter wrote his personal cell phone number on the back of the card and held it out to Ms. Ellington, who accepted it and put it in her purse.
Peter pushed himself past his unreasonable reluctance and left.
Back at the station, Peter threw himself into reviewing Neal's statement. Contrary to what he had said back at his apartment, that he didn't remember anything, Neal had an unusually sharp memory for details, and with very little prompting he'd given Peter enough information to understand the scene on a multi-sensory level. He combed through what varying level of detail the other surviving victims had been able to give and found what he hoped would be a clue that helped them find their suspect.
Three of the other victims had mentioned an odd smell, something like incense, but that could have meant anything or nothing. Neal, on the other hand, had seemed very certain when he described the smell as clove cigarettes. On its own, that was a significant but not particularly useful detail, but Peter hoped they might be lucky and when he checked the report from the CSU team he started to think that they might actually solve the case before another attack.
The serial assaults hadn't garnered much attention until one of them became a homicide, and then after that the city had a series of rainy weekends that had seriously inhibited the ability of the CSU to gather evidence after the fact. Only the last two attacks had the combination of both sufficient departmental resources and dry weather to allow for a full picture of the crime scene to emerge. Given the number of people who spent time in any given area of any city park over the course of the day, items like discarded cigarette butts rarely had value in an investigation, but the same brand of clove cigarettes had been found discarded at both of the last two crime scenes.
When Peter got the call from Ms. Ellington informing him that Neal had come through his surgery and was expected to wake up, though they didn't know how complicated--or how complete--his recovery would be. Peter thanked her for calling and took a moment to be thankful that Neal's case wouldn't be another homicide before getting back to work.
The lab found DNA on the clove cigarette butts, and the DNA turned up a match in the system--a paroled felon with a history of violence. Peter and Diana led the team that arrested him, and in the man's apartment they found a collection of wallets that linked him to each of the series of attacks. Peter interviewed him, right in the same room where Neal had almost died, and when it became clear even to the idiot suspect that their case was airtight he confessed. He had chosen his victims because each of them had been wearing a nice suit, and in his mind a nice suit meant two things: a man with money in his pocket and a man who thought he was better than everybody else and so deserved a beat-down.
Peter had his own opinion on who deserved a beat-down, but he wasn't that kind of cop or that kind of man. He gladly handed the evidence and the confession over to the Assistant District Attorney, and when he heard that they'd agreed to a plea bargain that would keep the man off the streets for a good long time he was satisfied that something that at least resembled justice had been achieved.
Peter called Ms. Ellington to check on Neal's recovery and to see if he could give Neal the news on the case in person, and she agreed to meet him at the hospital that afternoon. In the hallway outside Neal's room, she cautioned him to be patient.
"Neal's having some trouble with speech right now, and it frustrates him quite a bit, but he can understand you just fine."
"Do they think he'll get better?"
"He already has. The doctors and the therapists seem to think he'll recover almost completely."
"That's good to hear. Thank you."
Peter walked into the hospital room, suddenly wishing he had brought some kind of gift. Neal was propped up in bed with what looked like an old-fashioned smoking jacket pulled on over his hospital gown. He had a large bandage on his head, and he looked like he was asleep. Peter was trying to decide if he should stay or go, when Neal opened his eyes. Peter saw fear in Neal's eyes and he started to step away, but then the fear relaxed into recognition.
"Hi," Peter said, but then he reminded himself that he was in fact visiting in a professional capacity. "Mr. Caffrey, in case you don't remember me I'm Detective Peter Burke. I was investigating your case."
Neal nodded slightly then held his hand up and pointed at himself. He pressed his lips together for a moment then said, "Neal," very clearly.
Peter smiled when he understood. "Right, I'm sorry, you did tell me to call you Neal."
Neal nodded again.
"Neal, I want to tell you that we caught the man who hurt you, and your statement was a big part of making that happen. If you hadn't decided to speak with me, I believe he would have already hurt somebody else by now. You did a really good thing."
Neal's eyes turned bright with tears, but he wiped them away. "Why?"
"Why--why did he attack you?"
Neal nodded, his eyes wide and intent.
"Robbery was his main motive, but he's the kind of man who enjoys violence." Peter wasn't sure if it would make Neal feel better or worse to know the details of the victim choice, but he decided that Neal deserved a real answer to his question. "He chose you and his other victims because you were wearing nice suits."
Neal's confusion was clear on his face.
"In his mind, men wearing nice suits think they're superior to everybody else and because of that he believes that they--you--deserved to be beaten. I'm sorry."
Neal made a sound that could have been a laugh or a sob.
"He's behind bars and he'll stay there for a long time."
Neal nodded and closed his eyes. Peter thought that he might have fallen asleep, but then he opened his eyes again. "Thank," he said, and then after another breath, "you."
"I just did my job and connected the dots. You're the guy who made it possible. Remember that."
A nurse came in then and chased Peter out. Peter told himself that he would come back and try to see Neal again another day, but for a while life became more interesting than usual. One high-profile homicide was followed by a second, and the whole department was focused on solving them. By the time Peter could take time to do little things like buy groceries and take his suits to the cleaners, Neal had gone home from the hospital. Peter told himself that all he really needed to know was that Neal had survived, nothing beyond that was his business.
After all, he had work to do, and it never went away.
Several months later
It was Friday evening, and Peter had only been home from work for ten minutes when he heard the knock at his door that he recognized so well. Sometimes he cursed his neighbor's unceasing efforts to help him have a social life, but he knew that she would stop if he truly asked her to. Given that he and Elizabeth Mitchell had been neighbors for close to ten years now and he rarely said no to her, Peter was pretty sure he was complicit in his own torment. And it wasn't torment, despite what the grouchy hermit inside of Peter wanted to think. El was beautiful and smart, and he was sure that he would've long ago asked her to marry him if he felt that way about women.
Peter opened a beer from the six pack he'd just brought home and went to answer the door. Before Peter could say anything she slipped past him to walk inside.
"Please tell me you don't have plans for tomorrow night," she said as a greeting, her big blue eyes wide and harried.
"I'm really not in the mood for a blind date, El."
She waved that away. "You haven't let me set you up for months, so I've given up on that for now, but I got a pair of last-minute tickets to an event, and I need you to be my date. You know I broke up with Bryan, and I can't take somebody random to this. And you--" She poked Peter in the chest. "--look fantastic in a tux."
"Black tie? Really?"
"Oh, come on, it's not that much less comfortable than a suit and tie. Try heels and Spanx and then complain to me." She grinned, and Peter had to shake his head. He was definitely not taking her up on that dare. "Your tux is clean?"
"Yes, it's clean. What is this event, anyway?"
"It's a fundraising dinner for an arts program for children. Honestly, I don't remember the name, but the tickets are not cheap so it should be fabulous. It will be a perfect networking opportunity for me, and all you need to do is be my plus-one. You might even have fun."
"You never know." Black-tie dinners really weren't Peter's idea of fun but some were more entertaining than others.
"So you'll go? Yay! Okay, I'll let you have your Friday night in peace, and I'll see you tomorrow evening."
"You can stay and watch the game with me if you want," Peter teased.
"No, thank you!" El laughed and walked over to the door.
He caught up with her as she was closing the door behind her. "El?" He waited until she turned around. "Thank you. For inviting me."
Saturday evening, Peter walked into the hotel ballroom where the event was being hosted and looked around at the very bright and shiny crowd. Most days, Peter saw a lot more of the gritty side of New York, and it was easy to forget that this world existed as well. El was on his arm, resplendent in a long, blue dress that hugged her curves perfectly. He walked around the room with her for a while then wandered away when she started talking business. Peter wasn't really paying attention to the crowd beyond the peripheral awareness he could never seem to turn off, his mind busy trying to think of why the organization that was the focus of the benefit sounded so familiar to him.
Ellen's Place. Peter could have seen a mention of the organization anywhere, but he felt like it was something more significant. He was just about to give in to the prospect of figuring it out at three o'clock in the morning when he heard somebody calling his name.
"Detective Burke? Detective Burke?"
Peter turned around, and gaped for a moment at the man saying his name. He was incredibly beautiful--face like a work of art, his tux so perfectly fitted to accentuate his apparently very fit body. And his eyes--they were hauntingly blue and vaguely familiar, but Peter thought he would remember seeing this man before. "I'm sorry," Peter said. "Mr.--?"
"Neal Caffrey." He smiled, though it didn't look quite as genuine as it had when Peter first turned around. "You worked a case, my case--"
"Of course!" Everything about the serial muggings case rushed back through Peter's head. "I'm sorry that I didn't recognize you. You look--" Peter cast around for an adjective to represent the dramatic difference between the man Peter remembered and the man in front of him. "Better. It's good to see you Mr. Caffrey."
Peter reached out his hand to shake, and Neal's hand was strong and warm in his. "Call me Neal, remember?"
"Neal. How are you doing?"
"Better. Really well, actually. I was lucky."
"I'm really glad to hear that."
"Listen, I have to give a speech tonight, and June will come scold me if I don't work the crowd, but I'd like to see you again. If you're interested."
Peter cursed his transparency when it came to his feelings then took it back. He never would have made the first move, for more than one reason, but the thought of seeing Neal again made him want to grin like an idiot. "I'm interested. Definitely." Peter pulled his phone out of his pocket. "Do you want to give me your number?"
"I have yours." Neal smiled sheepishly then took out his wallet and fished out a business card. It was Peter's card with his personal number written on it, and he thought it was the one he'd given to Ms. Ellington at the hospital. "June gave it to me."
"Okay. Okay, call me any time." Peter felt like an awkward fool, but Neal looked pleased.
"I'm sorry to run off, but I'll talk to you soon. I hope you have a good time tonight."
Peter just nodded then watched as Neal walked away, the rear view of his tux just as well-fitting as the front.
"Hey," El, suddenly standing next to him, nudged Peter in the arm. "That was Neal Caffrey."
"I know. I met him through work, several months ago." Peter didn't talk about his cases with El, and that worked well for both of them.
"Oh." She gasped then. "Oh! I had heard that he was hurt. He looks good though. Really good."
"Yeah, he does. He also has my phone number." Peter rocked back on his heels.
"What?" El looked up at Peter then across the room to where Neal was watching them. "Oh my God. All those dates I set you up on, and you landed yourself one of the most eligible bachelors in the New York art world?"
Peter just smiled. He was too happy to hide it and didn't know what else to say. Eventually, they took their seats and after a series of tedious introductions and acknowledgements and general ass-kissing Neal took the stage for his speech. It was difficult to reconcile the sparkling and articulate man in front of the crowd with the haggard man who'd barely been able to put two words together, but the eyes were the same--the energy and the shadows there stayed the same.
"Thank you, all of you, for being here tonight. I'm only one of several people who donate their time to helping children at Ellen's Place, and I'm also only one of the many, many people whose lives were touched by Ellen Parker, but I want to tell you my story." Neal paused then, and Peter saw a tiny crack form in his shiny facade. "I came to New York when I was 17 years old. I had left home with my backpack and a couple hundred dollars. I got off the bus in Port Authority, and from there I was on my own."
Peter's gut felt tight, thinking of Neal so young and in that situation.
"I did some things I'm not proud of. I picked pockets when I didn't see any other way to pay for food and a bed at a youth hostel. I was desperate, and I didn't have a safety net, and then a few weeks after my 18th birthday I got arrested for shoplifting." Neal paused again and tilted his head to the side. "I told you, I'm not proud of the things I did. I had good reasons not to trust the system to help me, so I did what I thought I had to do to survive. I was terrified when they arrested me, beyond terrified when I went to court, but I didn't have a record, so the judge sentenced me to some community service hours and recommended I go see Ellen Parker at the East Side Community Center.
"I went there thinking it was punishment, and my whole life changed. Ellen talked to me, saw that I liked art, and she had me assisting with art classes for younger children. She listened to me and didn't judge me, but she showed me how to do better. She helped me get a job, she helped me finish up my high school diploma, and she helped me find a focus for my life. If I hadn't met her, I'm not sure what would have happened to me, but with her support I went to school and I found both my own artistic vision and my passion for bringing the arts to children and teens."
Neal looked around the room, meeting Peter's gaze for a moment before moving on. "Some of you, quite a few of you were among the donors who helped get Ellen's Place off the ground five years ago. You celebrated with us when we won a grant that helped us expand our services to teens, and you mourned with us when Ellen died. Jus--" Neal paused, and Peter wasn't sure if he was struggling for composure or struggling for words due to lingering results of his injury or some combination of the two. Peter wished he could go up on stage and put a steadying hand on Neal's shoulder, but he had no right to do that.
"Just a little bit less than a year ago today. Our next speaker--Sara Ellis, another member of the staff at Ellen's Place--is going to tell you about the positive effects of arts education on the developing minds of children and what they're missing when schools are forced to cancel those programs. I believe in that part of our mission, but I also believe that our outreach to homeless and at-risk teens is vitally important. It changes lives and saves lives, and one of those lives was mine. If you support us, you help us change the world. Thank you."
Peter felt tears stinging in his sinuses as he applauded with the rest of the crowd. He watched Neal walk off-stage, where Ms. Ellington met him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Peter wanted to be the person standing there; he wanted it to be his arms that Neal sank into. He hadn't felt so strongly about anybody in years--so many years that he thought it might have been more like never--but he realized that those feelings had been there from his first meeting with Neal. Peter would never make any kind of advances on a victim in a case he was working, and so he had all but hidden the feelings even from himself.
But Neal wasn't a victim anymore, and Peter wasn't hiding. He really hoped that Neal didn't make him wait too long for that phone call.
Sunday morning, Peter woke early and went for a run. He wasn't a big fan of running, but he needed to stay fit, and the urge to burn off some nervous energy was overwhelming. He didn't like feeling like some teenage girl waiting by the phone, though it occurred to him as he ran that with his phone zipped into the small pack he used to carry a bottle of water and his keys, debit card and badge he wasn't getting away from anything. The potential of a phone call from Neal traveled with him as he ran through the streets, and when he was catching his breath waiting to cross an intersection he felt his phone buzz against his side.
It could be anybody. He'd left his work cell at home, but Diana would call his personal phone if something important came up. It could be his mother. It could be the pharmacy reminding him to refill his prescription for allergy medicine. It could be a wrong number or a solicitation, but as he scrambled to pull the phone out of its compartment he just knew it was Neal. He didn't recognize the number, but he answered before the phone stopped ringing.
Neal. Peter moved away from the curb to lean against the side of a building. "Yeah, hi. I'm glad you called."
"I probably should have waited longer, but I want to see you, and it seems stupid to wait. To waste time."
"Then let's make a plan. When are you available?"
"What about brunch? Today? Soon?"
Peter looked down at himself, sweating through his shorts and t-shirt. "Well, I went for a run so I'm about two miles away from home and completely disgusting. Give me an hour?"
"Really? Sure! Do you know Rosalee's on Park?"
"I do. See you around 11?"
"I'm looking forward to it," Neal said, then he hung up and Peter stuffed his phone back in its hiding place. He turned to start running home and then thought screw it. With his badge in hand to counteract the fact that he looked like a sweaty maniac, he hailed a cab. After that it was a short ride back home. He hurried through a shower and a shave and used a little bit of the hair gel El had given him and that he rarely used.
He didn't have much time to agonize over his wardrobe so he just pulled on a pair of jeans he knew looked okay, a green, short-sleeved, button-down shirt that he thought was somewhere between dressy and not. He put on his brown casual lace-up shoes, stuffed his wallet, badge and phone in his pockets and left. He was most of the way to the elevator when he turned around and went back to knock on El's door.
He shifted nervously as he waited, but she finally answered the door wearing yoga clothes and carrying a cup of coffee. "Hey, early morning neighbor," she said.
"It's not that early, it's--" Peter looked at his phone. "10:30, shit. Do I look okay?"
She looked at him sharply. "Do you have a date? Already? You have a date!"
"Yeah, and I'm going to be late. Do I look like an idiot?"
"No, but try tucking in your shirt." She nodded when Peter complied. "Better. Go get 'im, tiger!"
Peter didn't need to be told twice. He decided that the subway would be the fastest way to get to Neal's neighborhood, and he managed to have good luck with the trains for once. He walked up to the front of Rosalee's only a few minutes late. His phone beeped at him, and when he looked at it there was a text from Neal. I'm inside at a table on the right.
Instead of texting back, Peter just smoothed down his shirt, took a deep breath, and walked inside. The smell inside the diner reminded him that he hadn't had anything more than a banana before his run, but when he saw Neal sitting on one side of a two-person booth his hunger was forgotten.
"Hi," Peter said, feeling awkward. He sat down across from Neal, and before he could say anything else the waitress came over to fill his coffee cup and ask if they were ready to order. "I just need a few minutes, sorry." She nodded and walked away, and Peter didn't know if he should look at the menu or Neal. All he really wanted to do was look at Neal, but the more he did that Peter realized that Neal's slick confidence from the benefit event wasn't quite in place.
Neal licked his lips nervously. "Before we get deeper into this than coffee, I want to get one thing out of the way."
Peter froze. His imagination supplied the topics Neal could be about to bring up, and none of them seemed good. Maybe there was something terribly wrong with Neal, something Peter couldn't see. Maybe he wasn't actually single anymore or not really interested in Peter or--
"I understand if you want to call this off. Because of, you know, things I said last night."
"Things you said?" Peter shook his head, confused.
"In my speech. The things that I did, picking pockets and shoplifting and all of that. You're with the police, I can see how that would be a deal-breaker."
"What? No." Peter sighed. "You know the kinds of cases I deal with, and yours was less difficult than many. Less...disturbing. I knew about your shoplifting charge, and it didn't mean anything to me. Just knowing your age at the time was enough, but now, knowing the position you were in? I can't judge you for that. Anyway, I doubt you were knocking over old ladies for their social security."
The corner of Neal's mouth twitched in amusement. "No. You know whose pockets I picked? Rich guys. Guys--" Neal shook his head. "Guys in nice suits. I figured they wouldn't miss it that much."
Peter took a moment to figure out what to say. "You were probably right, at least most of the time. You could have done a lot worse. And that was certainly nothing like what was done to you. I'm not saying what you did was right, it wasn't."
Neal nodded. "I know."
"Do you also know that you didn't deserve what happened to you?" Peter looked steadily at Neal until Neal nodded and looked away.
"Most days," he said.
"Okay, well, just forget about this whole calling it off thing. I came here for breakfast, and I think my stomach is starting to eat itself so let's order."
"I can deal with that," Neal said, and he gestured for the waitress to come back over.
Peter never did look at the menu. He ordered french toast and bacon and assumed that was on the menu somewhere. Neal ordered a vegetable omelet, no onions, with rye toast, and when the waitress left with the menus there was nothing between them other than two cups of coffee and the blank expanse of the table.
"Tell me about you," Neal said. "You know a lot about me, way too much probably, but all I know about you is what you do for a living."
Peter shrugged. "I'm pretty boring. What do you want to know?"
"Well, what brought you to the benefit last night? I saw you were with a woman. She looked familiar, but I don't know her name."
"That's my friend, Elizabeth Mitchell. She lives in the apartment next to mine, and she tries to keep me busy." Peter shrugged. "Left to my own devices, I'm kind of a 'couple of beers and a game on TV' kind of guy, but she gets me out there. She likes to make it her project to set me up on dates, but I'm--or I have been--terminally single." Shouldn't have said that, Peter thought, but it was too late.
"So how did you and your friend end up at the benefit?"
"She manages a gallery in SoHo, and one of her regular customers gave her a pair of tickets. She forced me into the monkey suit and commandeered me to be her date."
"I'm glad she did."
"Yeah, me too."
"You know, I kept thinking about calling you. I thought I'd call after I got out of the hospital, but then I wanted to put it off until I was done with rehab and the speech therapist and all of that. And then once I was all the way on my feet again there was so much to deal with. I have an agent who handles the sales of my own work, so that was okay, and I had somebody filling in teaching my classes at Ellen's Place, but there's administrative stuff that I took over from--from Ellen. We missed the deadline for renewal on a grant, and that's why we had the benefit, to fill that gap."
"I'm surprised your landlady didn't just take care of it. That's some house."
"Who do you think put together the benefit? Anyway, she may not be quite as wealthy as you think she is, house notwithstanding. She's our biggest individual donor, and she helps out in other ways as well."
Neal frowned. "Is this an interrogation, Detective?"
Peter sighed and hung his head. "No. I'm sorry. El is always telling me I don't know how to flirt to save my life, and obviously that's true." He looked up to see a more neutral look on Neal's face. "I'm just curious, honest. What you do is fascinating to me."
Neal nodded. "For the record, you do all right sometimes. But okay, yeah, I don't take a salary from Ellen's Place, and I can afford to do that because I don't have rent or a mortgage to pay. I'm making some money with my art, but I'm not exactly taking the world by storm. If it weren't for June, I'd have to take on a regular job, and I wouldn't be able to do what's needed at Ellen's Place. That was the case even before Ellen--" Neal looked away and took a long sip of his coffee.
"I'm sorry for your loss. Can I ask what happened?"
"Cancer. It hit a lot of the kids really hard."
"Not just the kids, I think," Peter said as gently as he knew how.
"She was more my mother than my actual mother was, but--" Neal held up a hand. "That's a story for another time."
"Understood." Peter suppressed the smile that wanted to creep out onto his face at the idea of another time with Neal.
"So, what about your family? Where are you from?"
"I grew up upstate. Pretty ordinary blue-collar family; my dad was a bricklayer, my mom worked part-time as a seamstress. I, uh, I actually was accepted to Harvard, scholarship and all, but then my dad got sick, and I didn't want to go that far away from home. I commuted to the closest SUNY campus, and it definitely wasn't Harvard but I got an education and got to be there for my family. After my dad passed I didn't want to transfer away, but once I graduated my mom talked me into taking some of his life insurance money to set myself up here in the city. She knew it was my dream. Or one of them."
"I'm sorry about your father." Neal looked down at his hands where he was playing with an empty sugar packet on the table. "It sounds like you had a good relationship."
"Thank you, but it was a long time ago. And yeah, I mean it wasn't perfect but he was my dad. I came out to him when it started to look like maybe he wasn't go to make it, and he wasn't thrilled."
"Yeah?" Neal was looking up now, an anxious edge to the interest in his face.
"Yeah, well, he was pretty old-fashioned, but the next day he was up waiting for me when I got home from my job. He told me that what I did, how I lived my life, mattered a whole lot more to him than whether I was queer or not. He told me he was proud of me."
"You were lucky. Some people--some of the kids I work with--it didn't go that way for them. And their parents don't even have the excuse of being from an older generation. They're my age, some of them. Your age."
"I know." Peter wanted to ask Neal more about his background without making it sound like an interrogation again, but then their food arrived. The conversation moved on to safer topics like favorite restaurants and the best kind of bread to use for french toast, and Peter thought it was probably for the best even though there was so much more he wanted to know about Neal. He told himself there would be more dates, more conversations, and he hoped that was true.
After they finished eating, Neal insisted on paying and Peter didn't bother to squabble over the modest cost of two breakfast entrees and two coffees. He walked with Neal back to Ms. Ellington's grand mansion, unsure of what would happen or even what he thought should happen. Standing on the sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs, Neal looked up and the door and then back at Peter. "Come inside with me?"
As much as part of Peter wanted to rush ahead, he knew it wasn't right to go that fast, not when it felt like this could be something real. Honesty seemed like the best option. "I don't think it feels right to go there yet."
"I agree, actually. I just meant inside the house, not my apartment."
"Okay." Peter followed Neal up the stairs, and Neal pulled out a key to the front door.
"There's no staff on Sunday, and June's visiting her daughter this afternoon."
Peter nodded and followed Neal into the cool, dimly lit foyer. Neal pushed the door closed then reached up to touch Peter's face. Peter leaned in and lost himself to the scrape of Neal's stubble, the slight dryness of his lips, the slick pressure of his tongue, the wiry strength of his body. Too soon, Neal stepped back.
"I need to go, but I want to see you again."
"Can you get away for lunch? Tomorrow? There's always the chance that I would have to cancel, but--"
"I have a meeting and then a class tomorrow. Tuesday?"
"Tuesday. You pick the place?"
"I'll text you. Okay. I'm, uh, really looking forward to Tuesday."
"Me too," Neal said, but he opened the front door, and Peter took the hint. He went through the door and waited until he heard the lock engage to walk back down to the sidewalk. Peter had things he needed to do, grocery shopping and housekeeping, but all he could think about was Neal.
It was insane. It was love. Peter just barely had the presence of mind to hope that he didn't screw it up.
On Monday, Peter spent about half an hour composing a text to Neal. He ended up settling on I really enjoyed brunch yesterday. Thinking about you today. He hoped it wasn't too much, or too little. Afterward, he sent the name and address of a sandwich place near work and promised to let Neal know ASAP if he had to cancel. As far as Peter was concerned, there was going to have to be one hell of a hot case and nobody else available to go out on it for him to cancel that lunch date.
Luck was with him, and Tuesday morning was slow, mostly catching up on paperwork with Diana and making some follow-up phone calls. Since he had been late to brunch, even if by a small margin, Peter made a point of getting there early and claiming a table. He sat facing the door so he'd be able to see Neal as soon as he walked in then spent ten minutes checking his phone and worrying that Neal wasn't going to be able to make it for some reason. Right on time, the door jangled and Peter looked up to see Neal walking in.
He was dressed casual but neat in crisp khakis and a blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Peter was wearing his standard suit, but seeing Neal made him realize how warm he was. He stood up to wave Neal over, then took off his jacket as he sat down. Neal had looked happy as he walked in the door but he paused after he pulled out his chair and the easy smile slipped off his face.
"Everything okay?" Peter looked down at himself to see if something was off, but he didn't see anything unusual.
"Yeah, fine," Neal said, though he didn't sound particularly fine. He sat down, but his whole body was stiff, like he was perched on the edge of the chair and ready to run at any time. "So, what's good here?"
"Pretty much anything. I like the roast beef and cheddar a lot, but I can't think of anything I've tried that was bad."
"Okay," Neal said, and it was clear to Peter that something was very wrong but he didn't understand what. He thought that maybe something had happened that morning, but Neal's relaxed smile when he first walked in the door made that seem unlikely. Jessie, the usual lunchtime waitress, came over to take their orders, and Neal ordered the roast beef and an iced tea then sat looking into the middle distance just over Peter's shoulder.
"Neal," he said, and finally Neal made eye contact but his face and body were tense like he was prepared for an attack. "Hey, I know we don't know each other all that well, but something's obviously wrong." Peter thought of that day in the interrogation room and shuddered. "Does your head hurt? Neal?"
Neal's face relaxed just a little bit, and he shook his head. "No, no, I feel fine."
The door jangled again, and a group of uniformed cops walked in. They were young guys, joking around with each other as they headed to a table in the back, and one of them accidentally bumped into their table. Neal jumped in his seat then looked over at the group of uniforms and froze, his eyes wide.
"Neal?" Peter stood and walked around the table, and when Neal turned his head to face Peter he gasped and stood so abruptly that his chair teetered then fell over and landed on the tile floor with a crack like a bat. Neal jumped back a step then turned and ran out the door. Peter went to follow him, worried that Neal would run out in front of a bus or something, but he got his foot tangled in the fallen chair and by the time he made it out to the sidewalk Neal was nowhere to be seen.
Peter sighed and walked back inside the restaurant, uprighted the chair and sat back down. Jessie walked over with their drinks and set both iced teas down on the table. "Is your friend coming back?"
"I don't know. Tell you the truth, I don't know what just happened."
"You think those yo-yo's freaked him out?" She nodded to the table in the back where the young cops sat eating lunch.
"I don't know. Hey, can you wrap those sandwiches up for me, to go?"
Peter looked around the room, trying to see it through Neal's eyes. It all seemed completely ordinary and harmless to Peter, but breaking the scene into pieces he saw something else. The group of uniforms who walked in had only been the icing on whatever bad piece of cake had been going on in Neal's head. There were a few other uniformed cops eating alone at small tables, a bunch of random people, and a few other detectives. Mostly, the problem had seemed to be Peter himself, and he thought he was dressed just like usual in his white shirt and tie and suit pants. But not his jacket, and without his jacket over top the shoulder holster with his pistol in it and his badge on his belt were glaringly obvious.
To Peter, those things were what he wore to work every day. They were far from meaningless, but they were nonetheless ordinary--to him. To somebody who got nervous around police, it would be a nightmare, and Peter cursed himself for forgetting, for not even thinking about it. He tried calling Neal's phone, but it rang until it rolled over to voicemail. He wasn't sure if there was anything he could say to make things better, but he had to try.
"Neal, hey, it's Peter. I think I understand what happened just now, and I'm really sorry. Please let me know that you're okay. Or safe at least. If you need my help, just call. Or text or whatever. I'm sorry, Neal. I hope you're okay."
Stupid, Peter thought, but there was nothing he could do about it. He left a ten on the table for Jessie then paid for the food and left. He handed the bag of foil-wrapped sandwiches to a couple of kids sitting on the sidewalk and went back to work. His appetite for lunch had fled right along with Neal.
As he sat at his desk, Peter's phone finally buzzed with a text from Neal. I'm okay. I'm home. Sorry.
It wasn't your fault, Peter texted back, but Neal went silent after that. Peter sat in front of his computer, and all he wanted was to dig into Neal's history--find out where he had come from, what his family situation had been, what else might have happened in the many years between then and now. Peter's direct access to information was limited, but he had friends in other law enforcement agencies who would do him a favor. He could call Clinton Jones over at the FBI, and he could run Neal's name while they talked about baseball.
Peter had done it before, not to hurt anybody but to sate his own curiosity and to make sure he wasn't putting himself in the middle of a bad situation, but it didn't feel right this time. El had laughed it off and told him that he'd better remember her birthday and her favorite brands of shoes since he'd gone to the trouble of checking her out. Neal, he thought, wouldn't laugh. He would feel angry and violated, and he'd walk away for good. Peter would never be able to keep the search from Neal if their relationship developed into what he was hoping for, so he didn't run any more searches and he didn't call Clinton Jones or any of his other contacts. He felt like he was holding his breath all afternoon, hoping that he'd have another chance at that second date.
At 5:30, Peter was wrapping up his paperwork for the day when a text came through from Neal. Can you come over to my place? If you want.
I'll be there in 20 or so.
If you want something to drink other than wine BYOB.
Peter was glad he had decided to drive to the station that day because the was going to need his car to make this work. In the garage, he locked his badge and weapon in the small safe in his trunk. He didn't have anything other than gym clothes to change into, and he didn't want to go that casual, but he took off his tie, rolled up his sleeves and hoped that without the trappings of his position he wouldn't remind Neal too much of what had happened at lunch. On his way to Riverside, he parked in the loading zone outside of a corner market just long enough to buy a six-pack then made it the rest of the way to the big mansion as quickly as he could without causing an accident.
Ms. Ellington herself met him at the front door, and she looked him up and down before nodding and letting him inside.
"I'm here to see Neal," he said, knowing it was redundant.
"I'm aware of that, but who is it exactly that’s here? Detective Burke? Or Peter?"
"Peter. Just Peter."
She smiled, and he had a feeling he'd passed muster. "Nice to meet you, Peter. I'm June."
"Thank you, June. Can I go upstairs?"
"Neal's waiting for you."
Peter swallowed hard and climbed the stairs. At the top, he found the door open a few inches, but he knocked lightly. "Neal?"
"Let yourself in."
Peter nudged the door open and found a bright airy studio apartment with windows that looked out onto a terrace. Neal was sitting at a dining table with a glass of wine in front of him and the bottle at his elbow. "Hey," Peter said, not sure how he should proceed.
"You can come sit."
"Mind if I stick my beer in your fridge?"
"Go ahead. Might want to bring one with you."
Peter followed directions. He pulled out one beer and shoved the rest of the six-pack in the fridge too quickly to get more than a glimpse of the fridge's contents. He unscrewed the beer cap as he walked over to the table. Neal was slumped in his chair, looking paler than usual though still nothing like as drawn as he'd appeared when they first met. Peter sat down across from him and took a sip of his beer.
"I'm really sorry about this afternoon. I didn't think. I just--I didn't even consider it."
Neal nodded. "I get that. It's your world. I'm sorry if I made a scene in there."
"Don't worry about it. Nobody was paying attention." As far as Peter knew, nobody other than Jessie had noticed the situation.
"Okay." Neal took a long swallow of wine then refilled his glass. "I'm sure you're curious. Unless you've already investigated me and put it all together?" Neal fixed him with a steady look.
"No. When I first got your case, all those months ago, I followed standard procedure and looked you up in our main database. All I got was the information you have on file with the DMV and that arrest from 1996, which I told you I didn't care about."
Peter remembered then that he had looked up Neal online. "Well, I was curious about you. You were, you know, special."
"So I googled your name. I saw some of your art and the website for Ellen's Place."
"Well, I'm not a professional at data mining or anything so yeah, that's all I found."
"I mean, you didn't run whatever other background checks you have access to?"
"No. I thought about it then, but there was no investigative reason to do so. I thought about it again today, but I knew it was wrong so I didn't do it."
Neal looked at him for a long moment, everything in his face and body radiating tension and unhappiness, then he finally nodded and some of the tension in him seemed to disappear. "Thank you. I appreciate that."
"That's not something you should thank me for." Peter took another drink from his beer. He had so many questions, but he wasn't going to ask, not like this.
Neal held the stem of his wine glass and rolled it between his fingers, spinning the base around against the tabletop. "See, the thing is, my father was a cop."
"He wasn't a good cop or a good father or a good husband or a good man. He was never just my dad, you know? It was always clear, from as early as I can remember, that the weight of the law was behind him. The law and his sidearm and the rest of the police force. I followed my mother's lead, tried to stay under his radar, but I wasn't very good at that." Neal drank about half of his glass of wine then wrapped his arms around his chest. "I was trying to wait, to get out of there the right way, go to college, but the beginning of my senior year of high school he found me with a guy. It was bad."
Peter felt sick with conflicting desires. He wanted to take Neal in his arms and make it all okay, and he wanted Neal to stop talking and not say any more. He wanted to find Neal's father and put him against a wall, and he wanted to go back in time and stop it from happening. He opened his mouth but he didn't know what to say, and his beer bottle was almost empty. "Just a second," he said, his throat dry.
Neal didn't react, but once Peter sat back down he continued. "I couldn't really go anywhere for a few days, but I had a little bit of money saved up. As soon as I could, I just left. I bought a bus ticket to New York, and it took me the few hours of that bus ride to realize that I had no plan past getting out of there."
"A few hours. Where--"
"DC. I don't know, I was a dumb kid, I thought that New York would be magically different and better. It wasn't, but I couldn't go back. So I just kind of made it day by day, but I was halfway convinced that my father would have the New York police looking for me. He always made it clear that being a cop meant having the whole police force behind you, and I believed it without even thinking because my mother never called the cops on him, just told me not to make him mad. I worked it up in my mind to where that was all the police. Everywhere."
"Neal," Peter said, his chest aching for that kid.
"And then I was here, and I wasn't like a lot of the kids I ran across--no drugs, I hardly even drank--but pretty much everybody in that world is trying to avoid the cops. I was pretty good at not being noticed and looking harmless when people did look at me which kept me out of trouble for a while. And then I got caught shoplifting." Neal blinked and looked at Peter, seeming to see him more clearly than he had been. "My record, does it say what I took?"
"No, those old misdemeanor records just have the most basic information."
Neal nodded. "I stole a book from Barnes and Noble. I liked to spend a lot of time there, back when they had all those big, comfortable chairs. There was this art book, a fat, glossy thing, and I wanted it so bad. I had bought myself a sketch pad and some pencils, but I didn't have nearly enough money for that book. And I thought, you know, it's a big company, who cares? So I flipped through it, found the inventory tag and pulled it out then stuffed the book in my bag. I thought I was pretty smart, but then the security guard blocked me at the door. I tried to talk my way out of it, but nobody listened."
Neal didn't continue, and after a minute Peter asked, "What happened?"
"They stuck me in a little room, and then a police officer arrived, a young guy in a uniform. I thought I was going to die. I thought that was it."
"The officer? Did he--"
"He took me in. Looking back now, he was decent about it. I was panicking, and he had somebody get me a cup of water, but he still arrested me. The whole time I was in the back of the squad car and then being processed and everything, I kept waiting for my father to show up and finish what he started, but he never did, obviously. I was so afraid and dreading what my father or the other cops might do that I didn't pay a lot of attention to the rest of it. I was a wreck by the time I got in front of the judge, and when it was all over and I got out of there with a sentence for community service I was pretty out of it."
"You were strong to get through it at all."
Neal shrugged. "I didn't actually die of terror, so there wasn't any other option. Anyway, I didn't have any money left at all, and my head was too messed up for me to pick anybody's pocket. I walked around, and when I showed up at Ellen's office in the old community center with my backpack and my court papers I didn't know what to do next. That was the moment when everything started to change."
Neal drank some more of his wine then took a deep breath and there was a hint of a genuine smile on his face when he looked over at Peter. "Ellen happened. I was exhausted, I didn't know what to do, and somehow she just knew. She put me to bed on a pile of exercise mats in her office, and when I woke up she fed me dinner and talked to me for a while then put me back to bed. She stayed there the whole night rather than kick me out."
"She sounds like a really good person."
"She was. She got me into a youth group home, and she got me a job that I could work in with my community service hours. After that, it's not like everything was great but it was livable and then eventually it was good. And, you know, now I'm here."
"I'm glad you're here," Peter said, and Neal did smile at that.
"I'm glad you're here, too. I didn't expect to react that way at lunch."
"I should have realized and planned something else."
"No. I'm an adult, I'm not fragile. Okay? I even deal with the police on a regular basis. Some of the kids I work with have legal problems, but I guess there's a difference between being in my own territory as an advocate for the kids and walking into a personal situation like that. It's not like--" Neal sighed. "I know you're with the PD, of course, and I know you're a good person. I'm not afraid of you, not at all."
"Something just clicked wrong in my head this afternoon, and all I could do was get out of there. I thought I was past that but sometimes things take me by surprise. So, that's a part of things with me, but not very often."
"Okay. You know, if you're trying to scare me away it's not going to work. I've been a cop for almost twenty years, so if you think you're the first friend I've ever had with PTSD you're wrong."
Neal looked surprised for a moment but then nodded.
"So I keep my job out of our time together. I don't have a problem with that."
"I don't want to make you change the way you live your life."
"Neal, I'm not the kind of guy who likes to walk around flashing a badge and carrying my weapon all the time. I keep my shield on me most of the time, but that's in my pocket when I'm off the clock. I don't carry a weapon in my off hours unless I think there's a really good reason. I have a safe in my car and a safe at home."
"Okay." Neal was listening, his face open and calm.
"I know all too well that there are bullies running around in the department, but that's not me. Call me old-fashioned but I'm interested in justice. I want to help people, and I think I do, at least some of the time. And that's why I'm interested in what you do there at Ellen's Place."
Neal nodded, and for a couple of minutes they just sat across the table from each other, the room growing dimmer around them as evening fell outside the wall of windows. "You know, if you're interested, do you want to come visit? Get a tour, meet some of the kids?"
"I'd love to. Maybe that could be our second shot at a second date?"
"I think this should count, don't you? We have drinks, conversation, what else is needed for a date?" Neal smirked.
"You have a point. So, what day would be good?"
"Not tomorrow, but can you get away from work in the afternoon on Friday?"
"Just tell me what time and I'll be there."
"Okay, get there around two. Just you. Not the detective."
"Just me," Peter agreed. Neal looked worn out but far more relaxed than he'd been when Peter arrived. "Hey, um, I wish this hadn't happened the way it did. Hell, I wish everything that happened to you before Ellen had gone a really different way, but thank you for telling me. I know it wasn't easy."
"I don't tell a lot of people, but I didn't think there was any way we could really move forward here without you knowing. Especially after this afternoon."
Peter nodded. "You look exhausted. Are you going to be okay here by yourself?"
"I'll be okay. I'm going to put myself to bed, and I'll probably have a headache tomorrow from the wine and everything, but I can deal with that."
"Good." Peter stood and picked up his empty bottles. "I'll leave you to rest then as long as you're okay."
"I'll see you out." Neal stood up from his chair and stretched. He took the bottles from Peter and dumped them somewhere in the kitchen then met Peter at the door. "Thanks for coming over."
"Anytime. I mean that."
"I believe you." Neal put his hand on Peter's arm, and Peter moved slowly to pull him into a hug. Neal sighed and relaxed into it, but Peter pulled away before he could be tempted to try to go further. It was far from the right time.
"Take care," Peter said as he left, and he felt Neal watching him as he walked away down the stairs. June met him back in the foyer and looked at him patiently.
"Is Neal okay?"
"I think he is. He invited me to come to Ellen's Place on Friday."
"Oh! Then you must have done well. Very much so."
Peter thought about the story of Neal's past, his father especially, and the anger he hadn't let himself really feel earlier spread through his body like a poison. "You know, I'm not a fan of violence, but there's a man I'd like to go find tonight, if I knew where to look."
June raised both sculpted eyebrows then leaned in close and whispered in Peter's ear. "That's already been taken care of." Peter reeled back and saw the steel cold anger in June's eyes.
"Okay," he said, and he knew in that moment that he would never investigate this and that he would try very hard never to cross June Ellington. "Have a good evening, June." Peter left and heard the door lock behind him. From his car, Peter looked up at the high terrace and the windows beyond, and he drove away knowing that Neal was safe.
Friday came, and Peter didn't know how to keep his mind on work. The case he and Diana were investigating was standard fare--some drug dealer had shot some other drug dealer--and it wasn't enough of a challenge to keep Peter's mind off of his afternoon date with Neal. He was excited about the prospect of seeing Neal again, especially the chance to see Neal doing what he apparently loved to do, but there was no way that visiting a children's art center on a Friday afternoon wasn't going to involve interacting with children.
Peter liked kids, in theory. He'd been a kid, of course, and he remembered a pretty happy childhood with his siblings and friends and cousins, but somehow he just had no idea what to do when faced with actual children. Peter did sometimes have to interact with children as part of an investigation, but that usually meant children who were traumatized or grieving, crying or numb, and usually there was somebody on hand to deal with them who had more finesse than Peter. When Peter got stuck interviewing children, it usually ended in somebody coming over and glaring at him; he wasn't sure how it kept happening.
All Peter wanted to think about was Neal--his smile, his eyes, the way his body had felt under Peter's hands when they kissed, the amazing bravery in his heart, his resiliency--but his thoughts kept straying to the rest of the scenario he would be walking into. The possibilities seemed to include being pelted with balloons full of paint, having Neal send him off with his tail between his legs, and having to call an ambulance when he accidentally tripped and landed on half a dozen tiny people. There were so many ways for the whole thing to end in disaster.
He looked up to see Diana watching him from across their desks. "Yeah?"
"What's wrong with you today? Your head is off in space somewhere and half the time you look like you're contemplating your upcoming execution."
"Something like that." Peter laughed at himself and drank some coffee to try to clear his head.
"Come on, spill. I know you're leaving early, so what's the big weekend plan? Dental surgery?"
"No, uh, I've got a date actually."
Diana raised her eyebrows. "That cute neighbor of yours setting you up again?"
"No, I got this one myself, thank you, and this will be our third date. You remember the serial muggings case a while back?" At Diana's confused nod, Peter continued, "You remember Neal Caffrey?"
Diana nodded slowly. "The one who lived in the mansion on Riverside. He had to go to the hospital."
"Yeah. I, uh, ran into him last weekend." Peter thought about Neal in that tux, Neal at brunch, even Neal stressed but opening up to him, and he couldn't keep the smile off of his face.
"Damn, so this is what it looks like."
"What what looks like?"
Diana laughed. "You in love."
Peter couldn't even argue, not one bit.
At lunchtime, Peter left work and went home to get ready. He locked up his weapon and hung up his shoulder holster then changed into cargo pants, a polo shirt and sneakers. He zipped his badge into one of the cargo pockets and when he checked himself in the mirror all he saw was Peter, no Detective Burke. Just the way he was supposed to be.
Peter stood in front of the building looking up at the multi-color painted sign reading "Ellen's Place" that hung over the front door. It was a two-story building, converted from a small factory, Peter thought, but the bright colors had turned the gray old building into something more welcoming. A woman with two little girls walked in through the front door, and after waiting a moment Peter followed.
Inside, everything was covered in bright colors. Children's artwork and more mature work that was probably by older teens, lined the walls, and there were painted footprints on the floor, different colors making paths. Peter wasn't sure where he was supposed to find Neal, but instead of calling or texting him he decided to explore. The first room he looked in had a dozen or more tiny children sitting at low tables making...something. Peter had no idea what. The next room had older children standing in front of a series of easels, most of them looking at something that Peter couldn't see.
Peter heard singing and followed the sound to a room where four teenage girls were standing with sheet music in their hands, singing a capella. Peter didn't know the name of the song, though he recognized it from the radio, but he liked this version better. It was stripped down to just the four beautiful voices, and Peter lost himself in listening for a minute until one of the girls stumbled over a note and they stopped to figure out what went wrong. Peter continued on, and then he heard Neal's voice and he stopped, not wanting to interrupt.
"Listen, hey," he said, "of course I want you here. I was worried when we didn't see you for a few days."
Peter could only hear a vague mumble of response, but he couldn't make himself walk away.
"Yeah, I know. I know. But hang out here for the rest of the day, okay? If you don't want to go sit in the homework room just hang out in here. I have somebody coming to meet me soon so you can have the room to yourself for a while."
Peter took that as his cue to continue down the hall and knock on the door that was labeled with an engraved plastic plaque reading “Neal Caffrey” and a piece of paper with “Interim Program Director” printed on it below that. Neal had tried to imply that he was just another volunteer here, but Peter wasn’t surprised to find out it was much more than that. Peter knocked on the frame of the half-open door, and Neal looked up, his face breaking into a smile when he saw Peter. He held up a finger then stood and turned to face the kid in his office. Peter couldn’t see him or her without going out of his way to look inside the room, and he didn’t want to do that.
“Okay, Jasmine,” Neal said, “I’m going to leave now. Do you want me to shut the door?”
“Yes, please,” a quiet, sullen voice said, and Neal gave her a soft smile before leaving the room and shutting the door behind him.
Neal walked a few yards down the hall, tilting his head in that direction for Peter to follow. When they were away from any doors, Neal leaned back against the wall. He would’ve looked almost like a teenager himself if it weren’t for the hints of gray in his stubble and the experience in his eyes. “Hey, so you found me.”
“I found you. This place is pretty amazing from what I’ve seen so far.”
Neal shrugged off the praise. “The kids are pretty amazing. Do you want a tour of the place?”
Neal walked through the halls with Peter, seeming far more comfortable in his own skin than Peter had ever seen before as he pointed out the classrooms Peter had already seen as well as a small mixed-purpose gym/dance studio. From there, Neal led Peter up the stairs to a hallway that was less aggressively colorful but still well-covered with art.
“We have ten art studios up here, personal studios, and that’s a big part of how we attract working artists to come share their talents with the kids. Studio space is a pretty valuable thing.”
“I can imagine.” Peter wanted to see Neal’s studio, but he didn’t know if he should ask.
“We also have a community area up here for the older kids, with a quiet room for homework and a social room for hanging out, watching TV, whatever. We work with some youth group homes and a couple of shelters that accept young adults so these are kids who have somewhere to sleep but they need somewhere to be. There are some who live with their families too, but it’s not always a great situation for them.”
Peter couldn’t help thinking about what Neal had told him just a few days before, and thinking about Neal being in that position as a child hurt, a physical ache lodged somewhere behind his sternum. He didn’t know what to say, so he looked around at the art on the walls and began to notice that it wasn’t quite the same as the art displayed in the hallways below. Downstairs, the younger children’s art had been mixed some more mature work, but Peter hadn’t seen anything like what he was looking at now. Upstairs, there was much less color, more grays and blacks, sepia browns and blood reds. Peter was drawn to look at an ink and watercolor rendering of a boy’s face, and the pain clear in the expression made Peter’s breath catch.
Peter felt a touch at the small of his back and turned to see Neal watching him. “We, um, it’s important for the kids to know that the darker stuff is okay, too—that what they feel means something. We try to keep things a little more upbeat downstairs because it goes over better with the families of the younger kids, but up here, other than the studio space, the walls belong to the teens, and they decide what goes up. Within reason.”
“That makes sense.”
“So, do you want to see my studio?” Neal raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” Peter followed Neal down the hall and around a corner, and Neal unlocked a door labeled “Studio 3.” Peter walked through the door as Neal turned on the lights, and he stood for a moment just taking in the room. It wasn’t a large space, maybe fifty square feet, but various canvasses were propped on a low shelf made from cinder blocks and a board and supplied were stacked in an old bookcase. A pair of windows looked out over the street, letting in the afternoon sunlight. Peter walked over to look at the completed canvasses and recognized the view from Neal’s apartment, both obscured by the windows and open to the air. There was a painting of trees, dark shapes against the dim night sky, almost-hidden swirls of color moving through the blackness. At the end of the row, jarring after the depictions of nature and buildings, was a portrait of a man in a suit and tie, his face replaced by a glowing gold badge.
Peter recognized that tie. “Is this how you see me?” He kept his voice even, low.
Neal sighed and came over to stand next to Peter. “It’s part of the way I remembered you. I was doing a lot of painting after I got out of the hospital. I couldn’t really communicate well enough or concentrate long enough to work with the kids, but I had a lot going through my head. You were part of that.”
Peter turned to lean back against a bare patch of wall and reached out for Neal’s hand. “About that, are you okay now?”
Neal nodded. “I have a little bit of trouble sometimes when I’m tired, headache sometimes, but I can live with that.” Neal looked down at their joined hands then back up at Peter. “To answer your question, that’s a way that I thought of you, but not the only way. And that’s definitely not how I see you right now.” Neal lifted his free hand and touched Peter’s bicep, just below the hem of the sleeve, his thumb tracing the line of muscle there. “You look really good, by the way.”
“Distracting me with compliments?” Still, Peter couldn’t stop the smile from tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Not a distraction. Just, in the last week of spending time with you, this isn’t what I see.” Neal took his hand away from Peter’s arm to touch his fingers lightly to the front of the painting. “I see this.” He cupped his hand around the side of Peter’s face, and Peter felt his breath catch in his chest. He tugged Neal closer, and then they were kissing. Neal’s mouth tasted like coffee and his body was all lean strength as he pressed closer. Peter felt a hot line of contact from chest to thigh, and he moved his hands down the planes of Neal’s back to cup his hands around the firm curves of Neal’s ass. They were gasping into each other’s mouths and Peter was thinking about how much it might hurt to get down on that concrete floor when they both froze at the sound of a knock.
A second round of knocking followed a few seconds later, accompanied by a voice calling out, “Neal?”
Neal groaned quietly and rested his forehead against Peter’s. “Sorry,” he murmured before stepping away to answer the door.
A kid who looked about ten years old was standing outside the door holding a toilet plunger. “Miss Sara told me to bring this to you.”
“Thank you, Tyler.” Neal took the plunger and hefted it in his hand. “You can go back downstairs; I’ll be right behind you.”
“Okay!” The boy ran off and Neal turned to look back at Peter.
“So you really do take care of everything around here?”
Neal shrugged. “The bathrooms can be a little bit temperamental. And Sara is great but I’m pretty sure she’d handle a live python before she’d plunge a toilet. I’d better get down there.”
As they went back down the stairs, Neal said, “I’m sorry we were interrupted like that.”
“Me too, but maybe we can pick that up again later?”
“I’d like that.” Back on the first floor, Neal started to walk in what Peter assumed was the direction of the rest rooms. “Hey, why don’t you wander around, look at the art, whatever? I’ll come find you when I’m done playing fix-it guy.”
“Okay.” Peter wanted to offer to take care of it for Neal, but he had a feeling that Neal would rather just handle it himself. “I’ll be around.”
Neal nodded and took off down the hall, swinging the plunger as he went, and Peter stood looking around. He heard a rhythmic pounding coming from the direction of the gym so he walked down to investigate. Scoping out the situation from the doorway, Peter saw just one kid, a boy around fourteen with neat braids flat against his head. He was standing several feet away from the wall, hurling a basketball at the wall, catching it on the bounce and throwing it again with both hands. The kid’s face was tight, like he was torn between crying and whipping the ball at somebody’s head. Peter hesitated but then walked in, trying to keep himself relaxed and non-threatening. Not the cop, just Peter.
The boy caught the ball again then held it as he stared at Peter. “Who’re you?” he said, voice higher than Peter had been expecting.
“My name’s Peter. You looking for somebody to throw the ball around with or you want to keep beating up the wall?”
“Are you a new volunteer or something?”
“I’m thinking about it.” That was the truth, even if Peter hadn’t really considered it until the last hour. “Do you know Neal?”
“Duh, everyone knows Neal.”
“I’m a friend of his, and he was showing me around but he had to go take care of some things. I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to art, but I like playing ball.”
The kid nodded. “I suck at art too, but Neal lets me hang out here anyway.” He dribbled the ball in place. “My name’s Reggie.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Reggie passed the ball over to Peter, and they started playing one-on-one. The kid played with an intensity born of the anger Peter had seen when he first walked in, but after several minutes Peter saw a couple of smiles cross Reggie’s face. Reminding himself that this was not an interrogation, Peter asked a question as he passed the ball. “So, what had you playing one-on-one with the wall earlier?”
Reggie shrugged and dribbled the ball. “Everything. My mom. She wants me to stay at home but I hate it.”
Peter nodded and took a turn with the ball before asking, “What do you hate so much?”
“She won’t call me Reggie and she yells at my little brother if he does.” He frowned, looking miserable, and it seemed to Peter that there had to be more.
“So what does she call you?”
Reggie caught the ball and dribbled it blindly, fixing Peter with a look that he thought was supposed to be tough but actually looked a lot more like fucking scared. “GINA,” he said, and then he whipped the ball up at the backboard and let it bounce off across the floor. He crossed his arms over his chest and wouldn’t look back at Peter. “She won’t stop calling me Gina.”
Oh, Peter thought. “I can see how that would hurt,” he said. Keeping half an eye on the upset kid, Peter went over to collect the ball. “How long have you been asking her to call you Reggie?”
Reggie shook his head. “Since I was ten. And I’m sixteen! Almost.”
Peter dribbled the ball in place and tried to figure out what to say. "That doesn't seem fair." Peter tossed the ball up and through the net, and Reggie caught it but then just dribbled it while looking down at the floor. "Do you have friends here who call you Reggie?"
He nodded. "Yeah, everybody here does."
"What I'm thinking is that maybe your mom will come around, maybe she won't. But you're almost old enough to decide how you want to live and who you want to be around. And you have people here who care about you and see you the way that you are." Peter's heart raced; he didn't know if what he was saying was too much or too little or completely wrong.
Reggie shrugged, looking less angry if not particularly happy. "But I suck at art."
"I don't know about that, but you don't suck at basketball. Come on, show me your four-point shot." Peter watched and caught a fleeting grin when Reggie made the basket. Peter heard a sound behind him and turned to see Neal standing in the door to the gym, his face lit up with a soft kind of smile Peter had never seen on his face before.
"Hey, Reggie," Neal called out, "there's going to be a dance class in here soon, but there's a small group upstairs getting ready to watch a movie if you want to head up there."
Reggie nodded and took the basketball over to the rack in the corner. "Thanks for the game," he said as he walked back to the door.
"Thanks for not tossing an old man out of the gym."
Peter got another hint of a smile from Reggie, and then the kid was off down the hall toward the stairs. Peter turned back to see Neal still looking at him with that odd, soft expression on his face. "What? Did I screw it up? I know I'm probably not supposed to--mmmmf." Neal's hand over his mouth put a stop to Peter's babbling.
"You were great. Reggie doesn't usually talk to anybody. I didn't even know he was having problems with his mom. You were--you were great." Neal dropped his hand from Peter's mouth to his chest.
Peter ducked his head. "Seems like a nice kid."
"Yeah, I think so too. You know what else is nice?"
"Since I conquered the toilet beast Sara is going to cover things for the rest of the day. You want to get out of here?"
"Oh God, yes. I mean, this is a great place, but yes."
Peter walked with Neal back to his office then waited in the hallway while he slipped inside to grab a small messenger bag. They walked out into the warmth of the late afternoon, and Peter said, "What do you think about going back to my place? I'm not too far, over the bridge in Queens."
"What, are you scared of June?"
"I'm terrified of June, though I think she's great. But I don't know, I like the thought of seeing you in my apartment. On my furniture."
Neal nodded slowly. "Sounds good. Honestly, I'm starting to like the thought of seeing you anywhere."
Peter thought he was going to hurt himself, holding himself back from making a spectacle in the street. Together, they walked briskly to the subway station and jogged down the stairs. They found seats on the train and sat with their knees bumping, Neal talking about...something, art classes. Peter just listened to the sound of his voice overlaid with the groan and screech of the train. When they got to Peter's stop, up on the elevated tracks now, they walked off together and shared a look of frustration at being stuck behind some slow people on the stairs. Finally on the street again, they hurried down the two blocks to Peter's building and then into the elevator.
They were alone, just the two of them in the small space, but Peter didn't want to start anything he'd have trouble stopping. He took Neal's hand, and when the elevator opened he tugged Neal right out into the empty hallway. Neal laughed, but he held on as Peter unlocked the door and they stumbled into the apartment together.
"God, Neal, I hope this is okay because I want you so damn bad."
"That's definitely okay." Neal unbuttoned his vest and let it fall to the floor as they hurried back to Peter's bedroom. They undressed quickly, dropping pants and shirts, underwear and socks in a mingled pile next to the bed. Peter stared at Neal's body, his thoughts fuzzing over with the desire to touch everywhere, be everywhere all at once. Neal was angular but covered in a healthy layer of muscle, beautiful cock half-erect, rising from a nest of neatly trimmed hair.
Peter put his hands on Neal's waist, his thumbs riding over the slight bumps of his hip bones, and pushed Neal down to sit on the bed as he sank to his knees on the floor and touched his lips to the head of Neal's cock. He reached out with one hand and groped blindly in his bedside table until he found a condom, but the touch of Neal's hand on his wrist stopped him before he could open it.
"I want you to fuck me. I want to--I want to come with you inside me." Neal's eyes were intent, the blue more piercing than ever, and all Peter could do was nod.
"Okay," he said, feeling strangled by the need to be inside Neal now that he'd been invited. He watched as Neal knelt up on the bed and moved some pillows to lean on as he sank down, the curve of his ass offered up to Peter, a dizzying gift. "Okay, okay," Peter whispered to himself under his breath as he found the bottle of lube and pushed his arousal aside enough to take his time getting Neal ready. He wouldn't cause Neal pain--not by choice, not ever.
Neal was patient with Peter's preparations, and as Peter worked his fingers inside Neal began to roll his hips up to meet Peter's touch, little humming moans answering Peter's questions. "Is this okay," he'd ask, needing to be sure. "Does this feel good?" Neal said yes with his voice and his body, and when he was as ready as he could be Peter rolled the condom onto himself, smoothed on a coating of lube and knelt up behind Neal.
He petted his hands from Neal's ass up the plane of his back to his shoulders and back down then wrapped his hands around Neal's hips and pushed inside with a long, shaky murmur of, "Oh my God." It had been a long time, more than a couple of years, since he'd done anything other than blowjobs and handjobs, and none of those guys he'd gone on dates with had been anything like Neal. None of them had meant much of anything.
Neal meant so much that Peter could barely restrain himself from saying things that would be too much, too soon, too naked, even when they were stripped bare, making love in his bed. Peter knew he wasn't going to last very long, not nearly as long as he wished he could. He reached around to take Neal's cock in hand and worked him in time with the thrusts of their hips. All he could hear was the slap of sweaty skin on skin, the panting gusts of their breaths, the beat of his heart in his head, then Neal whimpered and came, his body shaking under Peter's, his come wet on Peter's hand.
Right on the edge, Peter took hold of Neal's hips with both hands again and a few more thrusts send him over that edge. He squeezed his eyes closed as he trembled through his orgasm, and as he relaxed down on top of Neal's lax body he marshalled the presence of mind to hold onto the condom as his soft cock slipped out of Neal then tie it off before dropping his head to Neal's back as he caught his breath.
When he could put his thoughts together again, Peter rolled off of Neal and saw that he was either asleep or nearly so, his bangs damp and wild, hanging in his face. Peter tugged the comforter and top sheet down to the bottom of the bed, taking the damp spot with it, then pulled the sheet up as he slumped back down next to Neal and gave in to the pull of sleep.
Peter woke first, and all he could see at first was hair, glossy brown hair tumbling in every direction where Neal's head was pillowed on his chest. Peter liked the feeling of that weight on him, moving with each one of his breaths, and Neal's breathing sent soft gusts of air across Peter's skin. Peter moved slowly, lifting his hand to run his fingers through Neal's hair. It was still a little bit sweaty at the roots, soft along the length of the strands, and Peter could have lulled himself back to sleep with the sensation of Neal's hair slipping through his fingers but then Neal mumbled something and began to wake.
Peter could feel the moment when Neal realized where he was; he shifted his legs then went still, barely breathing. "Hey," Peter said, keeping his voice low, "good morning."
Neal sighed and opened his eyes, tilting his head to look up at Peter. "I know we didn't actually sleep that long. Did we?"
"No, I don't think so." Peter groped for his alarm clock and turned it to face him. "No, it's almost five-thirty. Do you need to be somewhere?"
"Nope. I can get out of your hair if you need me to, though."
"Not at all." Peter shifted and pivoted his hips to put himself on top of Neal and kissed his throat, tasting the dried sweat on his skin. Neal laughed and tipped his head back into the pillow, lengthening the column of his neck and giving Peter more room to work. Peter gasped at the sensation of Neal's fingers on his back, light trailing touches that almost tickled but instead teased Peter's nerves with the promise of more.
His own breath unsteady, Peter pressed the tip of his tongue to the hollow of Neal's throat and felt the beat of Neal's pulse. He touched his lips there and felt that rhythm inside him. He felt Neal's erection press up into his thigh, and he pulled back far enough to look Neal in the eye. "I wish I could go again this soon but there's no way, no matter how goddamn turned on I am."
Neal smiled. "I can go take care of this in the shower, if you don't mind me using your bathroom."
"I don't mind you using my bathroom, but I sure as hell mind you taking care of this yourself when I'm on hand to do it." Peter reached down between them to wrap his hand around Neal's cock and began to work it, slowly jacking his length as he bent and kissed Neal's throat again then worked his way down over Neal's sternum to his chest. Neal shuddered at the first touch of Peter's teeth on his nipple, and he arched his hips up, urging Peter into a faster rhythm.
"Yeah," he said breathlessly. "Please." Sweat broke out over his chest as he got closer, and when Peter swiped his thumb over the head of Neal's cock he gasped and came, trembling under Peter's hands, under his body. Peter rolled to the side and leaned up on his arm to watch Neal put himself back together. He licked his lips as his breath grew steadier, and he opened his eyes to look up at Peter with a wry smile. "Well, I definitely need that shower now."
"How about I go shower first while you," Peter coughed lightly, "recover? Then you shower and after that, dinner?"
"Dinner sounds great." Neal reached up and shoved playfully at Peter's chest. "Now go before I start trying to go again."
Peter laughed and climbed off the bed. "I'm going. Don't fall back to sleep!"
"I'm too hungry for that." Neal ran his hand over his flat stomach, and Peter turned away before he decided to try for another round himself.
When they were both showered and dressed again, Peter and Neal agreed to get dinner at an Italian restaurant down the street from Peter's apartment. Peter didn't want to rush Neal into spending the night this soon--after all, it had only been a week, even if Peter felt like they'd been seeing each other for much longer--but he wasn't ready for the date to be over yet. They were on their way down the hall when the elevator dinged and El stepped out, looking startled for a moment before smiling.
"Hey." Peter looked back and forth between them, feeling awkward about how to proceed. "I guess you two haven't been formally introduced but, uh--"
El rolled her eyes and slapped Peter lightly on the arm with her bag then held out her hand to Neal. "I'm Elizabeth Mitchell, nosy neighbor and manager at the DeArmitt Gallery."
Neal laughed and shook her hand. "Neal Caffrey, new boyfriend and I think you know the rest."
New boyfriend. Peter couldn't contain his smile and he put his hand on Neal's back, pulling him closer.
"It's a pleasure to meet you Neal." El winked at Peter. "I'll let you two get on with your evening. My DVR is calling my name."
"Actually, we're just headed down the street to, uh--" Neal looked over at Peter.
"Antonio's. You're welcome to come eat with us if you don't have plans tonight."
El looked over at Peter, and Peter nodded. He had the selfish urge to keep Neal all to himself, but if he was going to make this thing with Neal into a real relationship--which he very much wanted to do--then it made sense for Neal and El to get to know each other.
"Thank you. I'd love to! I'm desperate to change out of these heels, so why don't you two go get a table and I'll join you in a few minutes?"
"That works for me. We'll have a glass of wine waiting for you." Peter had been out with El enough times to know what she liked.
"That would be great! Okay, I'll change and be right there." El hurried off down the hall to her door, and Peter hit the button to get the elevator doors to open up again.
When they were on their way down to the lobby, Neal glanced over at Peter. "I hope you don't mind that I invited her along."
"Of course not. She's the reason we met up again, so I think I owe her a lot more than a glass of wine and dinner."
Neal smiled and looked away, then nodded. "I do too," he agreed quietly.
They walked down the street with their shoulders brushing together casually then got a booth at Antonio's and ordered drinks. They were still chatting over the menu options when El slid into the seat across from them. They all placed their orders then continued talking, and El and Neal turned into fast friends. The chatter slowed down while they all ate, and Peter managed to interject something useful now and then, but he stayed quiet more often than not. He thought he might have felt left out of their discussion of art world politics and gossip if he hadn't found it so enjoyable to watch the two of them talk, both of them bright and engaged and flirtatious without any intent behind it.
Neal stopped in the middle of laughing at something El said about a mutual acquaintance of theirs and looked up at Peter. "I'm sorry, this is probably completely boring for you."
"Not at all." Peter shook his head and put his hand on Neal's thigh under the table. "I'm just taking it all in. And besides, I could be happy watching you for hours." Peter bit his lip, cursing himself for being corny, but Neal looked pleased as he put his hand on top of Peters, lacing their fingers together.
"Aw, it's too bad there's no violinist in this place. Somebody ought to serenade you two." El smiled, looking pleased with herself, then drained her wine glass. "I'm going to head back to make my date with my couch. It was lovely meeting you, Neal."
"It was my pleasure," Neal said.
"We can walk you back if you give me a minute to pay the tab."
El held out one hand. "I think I can manage, but thank you. And thank you for dinner!"
"I owed you one," Peter said. He watched El make her way to the front door then leaned back against the booth seat. "So, do you need to leave or do you want to get coffee?"
"Coffee, definitely." Neal ordered a latte while Peter ordered regular coffee, and the relative silence in the wake of Elizabeth and Neal's banter felt slightly awkward but not uncomfortable. "You know, it's hard to believe it's only been a week since the gala."
"I know. I want--" Peter shifted in the seat and sighed. "I want a lot of things, and I'm not sure how to know what's too much."
"I want a lot of things, too. How about if we're just honest with each other? I'll tell you if it feels like too much, too fast to me, and you do the same?"
No such thing, Peter wanted to say, but he thought that might be too honest. "I think that sounds like a good idea. I care about you, and I don't ever want to make you uncomfortable."
Neal shook his head. "I told you, I'm not delicate. And I think a little bit of being uncomfortable is good for people sometimes. I know you weren't comfortable at Ellen's Place today but you were great. If I hadn't already--" Neal cut himself off and looked away.
"If you hadn't already what," Peter asked softly.
"I think that might fall under the category of too much, too fast."
"Okay." Peter had a feeling he knew what Neal had been about to say, and it made him feel warmer inside than the coffee already had. "What do you think about me driving you home?"
"I think--" Neal took Peter's hand again. "I think I'll take a cab because if you drive me home I'm going to invite you in, and today has been amazing but I think we need some time to catch our breath. Or I do."
"I think you're right." As much as Peter would have loved to spend the whole weekend with Neal, there were other things that he needed to do, and they didn't have to smother each other one week into the relationship. Peter wanted this to be a long-term thing, and if they were talking about forever they could sure as hell afford to take their time.
Neal called a cab, and they finished their coffees and settled the tab while they waited. As they walked out to meet the cab, Peter held himself back from asking Neal to stay but he couldn't keep from catching Neal's arm and pulling him into a kiss. His mouth tasted of sweet milk and bitter espresso, and when they pulled apart Peter read the same reluctance to leave in Neal's eyes.
"Call me," Neal said, his voice rough, as he opened the door to the cab and got inside. "I'll see you soon?"
"Definitely," Peter said. "Definitely." The cab pulled away and Peter watched until it was indistinguishable from the surrounding traffic.
Peter walked into Ellen's Place, carrying a stack of three bakery boxes. He followed the smell of food and the sound of voices down the hall to the gym, which was full of folding tables and chairs and more people than Peter had expected. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Peter hadn't been able to get away from work in time to help set up for the Ellen's Place Thanksgiving potluck, and he'd been afraid a case would keep him at the station too late to attend at all, but he and Diana had wrapped it up in time for Peter to pick up the pies he'd ordered and get to the celebration before the meal started.
The crowd in the gym was a mixture of Ellen's Place staff and resident artists, children who took part in the art classes, parents of those children, and teenagers who took refuge at the center. It was an unusual kind of family, but Neal was in his element, working the crowd as he made his way over to Peter.
"I'm so glad you made it! Let me take those." Neal took the stack of boxes from Peter and handed them off to a teenage boy along with instructions on where to take them, then turned back to Peter and leaned in for a quick kiss. "Thank you for coming."
"I didn't want to miss this. And anyway, you're coming to Thanksgiving with my family tomorrow; it seems fair that I should eat with your family today."
Neal looked around the room with a soft smile then nodded. "I'm glad you're here. Do you mind if I leave you to your own devices for a while?"
"Go do your thing." Peter watched as Neal hurried off to the makeshift serving area then looked around the rest of the room at the festive chaos.
In the handful of months that he and Neal had been together, Peter had gotten to know the adults who worked at Ellen's Place along with several of the teenagers, and he was working on putting together a fledgling sports program. Diana had surprised him by volunteering to help out as well, and between the two of them they'd rounded up enough donations from around the precinct to fund the purchase of some new equipment. Peter made his way around the room, talking to some of the kids who had been showing up for his semi-organized basketball games, and when it was finally time to eat he dragged Neal away from the serving table.
"Come on, relax and eat for a few minutes. You look like you've been running all day."
Neal sighed and took a bite of some kind of casserole. "I have, but it's worth it. Anyway, I can rest on the drive up to your mother's house."
"That's true." They were planning to leave late in the evening, hopefully late enough to miss the worst of the holiday traffic. The thought of introducing Neal to his family made Peter smile, and Neal caught him at it.
"What? Do I have something on my face?"
"No. I'm smiling because tomorrow I'll be spending Thanksgiving with my family and with you, and life doesn't get a lot better than that, as far as I'm concerned." Peter shrugged; he still worried about pushing Neal too fast, but he was starting to trust that whatever they did together, it wasn't going to be wrong. "I just have a lot to be thankful for, I guess."
"So do I," Neal said soberly. "Every day." He reached across the table to take Peter's hand, and as they met each other's eyes Peter saw the weight of all the things that had happened in the past year. Then Neal smiled, and Peter saw the darkness pushed away to make room for the joy of the present moment.
Peter hoped that he could be a part of that joy forever.