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Upper West Side Fairytale

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Five crispy one-hundred dollar bills.

 

Neal stared at the money in his hands and asked himself -- and not for the first time -- if this was really all worth it.

 

"Well?"

 

The word was softly spoken but held an edge of danger and warning. Neal looked up, tried his best to smile at his client, and stuffed the money into the too tight leather pants. "Thank you, sir."

 

His client chuckled. "Is that all you have to say?" He sounded amused.

 

Neal frowned. "I'm not sure what else you want me to say," he hedged while he was looking for his tee shirt. "I provided a service and you paid me for it. You even got an additional twenty minutes or so and I'm not charging extra so really, you should be thanking me."

 

His client laughed out loud at that. "See? That's why I like you, Nick. You've got spunk."

 

Neal pulled on his tee shirt -- tight and white and faded so it was almost see-through -- and made sure that he looked semi-presentable. At least he hadn't been thoroughly fucked this time around. Or gotten roughed up. Vince liked to mark him on occasion.

 

Then again, spending a good two hours standing motionless in a corner, half-naked, just to be ogled like a piece of meat, wasn't a whole lot better. Just standing there, Neal had felt like one of Vince's marble statues. Maybe that had been his client's kink for the evening. Either way, the whole thing had freaked him out pretty badly.

 

"Well, I guess I'd better be going now," Neal muttered, suddenly in desperate need for some fresh air. Just as he passed his client, who was lounging in his expensive leather chair wearing nothing but his silk robe, Vince wrapped one hand around Neal's wrist - loosely but firmly.

 

Neal knew better than to continue walking.

 

"Will I see you again tomorrow?"

 

"Actually, I've had my quota of weirdness for this week," Neal said with a disarming smile. "You wanted to see me tonight. Saturday's not our usual hook-up time, Vince, but I cleared my calendar for you."

 

"I still don't understand why we're not exclusive," Vince said, looking displeased. "You don't need anyone else."

 

"And that's not your decision to make. We've been over this." Neal gently pulled on his wrist but Vince held on tight.

 

"You know," his client said philosophically, "I was supposed to be at this stupid event tonight. Was the guest of honor, actually. But I would so much rather spend my evening with you than waste hours of my time having idiots sucking up to me just so they can get their greedy hands on my stuff." He squeezed Neal's wrist.

 

Neal gave a pained smile and bit his tongue to keep himself from pointing out that he wasn't part of Vince's "stuff". "Well, you do have a lot of nice stuff," he said evasively instead, waving at the numerous pieces of art in his client's apartment. "No wonder people covet it."

 

Vince chuckled. "Ah, Nick. If only you knew how nice my stuff is. But I can't expect you to appreciate great art, now can I? You're just a pretty fucktoy." He released Neal's wrist and gave his leather-clad ass a sharp slap instead. "I'll text you."

 

Knowing when he was dismissed, Neal didn't waste another moment in his client's presence and instead rushed to leave the apartment.

 

He really needed some fresh air.

 

 

 

Neal had a love-hate relationship with New York.

 

While it was undoubtedly his favorite place in the world, he hated the fact that it was so damn expensive to live here. As a struggling artist -- and really, all he ever wanted to be was an artist -- it was all but impossible to survive. He had tried waiting tables or working as a sales assistant in a department store. Any and all of the odds jobs he's had didn't help him make ends meet.

 

Selling his ass on a regular basis, however, did the trick.

 

Neal sighed softly. He didn't consider himself a prostitute. Or a rent boy. Not really anyway. Granted, at first he had turned tricks, giving quick blowjobs in back alleys or someone's car for a twenty here and there. But one night he got lucky -- if you could call it that -- and ran into Vince. Or, more precisely, Vince literally ran into him. Apparently, Vince liked what he saw, instinctively knew what Neal was, and took him to his place for a night of debauchery.

 

Neal didn't have to work for the rest of the month.

 

Vince was generous, for the most part. And Neal wasn't greedy. He just wanted enough to get by. The rent for his small apartment up in Washington Heights wasn't astronomical, and rooming with Moz -- who sometimes paid his half and sometimes didn't -- helped. They both liked good food and good wine though. And Neal's art supplies cost a fortune.

 

Thanks to Vince, Neal met a few other affluent clients. He didn't have to work on the streets anymore; a few meetings a month were enough to earn the money he needed. And really, he and Vince were almost exclusive these days -- though Neal would never admit to it. Vince was a bit of a psycho and already too possessive for Neal's comfort.

 

Neal stopped at a street corner and stared into the night sky. Light pollution in the city made it impossible to appreciate the stars but he could still see a few of them twinkling above. The night air wasn't really fresh -- it was too hot and stuffy for that -- but he preferred to walk a couple of miles before taking the subway home. Spending time with Vince always left him a little unsettled and he felt the need to walk it off.

 

At this time of night, the Upper East Side was surprisingly quiet. Granted, there was still traffic once he turned on Madison, but there was a lot less honking and tire screeching than he was used to during the day. It was almost peaceful, all things considered.

 

Neal smiled to himself and idly entertained the thought of walking all the way home. He wondered how many miles he would have to walk for that. Moz would probably know. Moz knew everything.

 

That reminded him that he still had to let Mozzie know his job was done for the day. Or, as Moz would say, let him know that he had, "escaped the bastard's clutches one more time". Neal shook his head in fond exasperation while he pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Moz really didn't like Neal's part-time job, but was too busy "getting to the bottom" of his many conspiracy theories to hold down a real job and earn enough money for Neal to stop turning tricks.

 

On my way home Neal texted while he was waiting at a red light.

 

I hope you're taking a cab! came the prompt reply.

 

Neal smiled at his friend's mother-henning. No, Moz. Subway. Walking, for now.

 

NO NAMES!!! flashed on his phone's display almost immediately, causing Neal to chuckle. Then, a few moments later, Moz texted, We talked about this. Stay safe.

 

I'm a big boy. Don't worry. Should be home in 90 mins or so. Neal knew he'd be home much quicker if he took a cab but he was enough of a Scrooge not to waste money on a ride. Besides, the semi-fresh air felt good. Heck, just walking felt good, especially after standing completely still for a couple of hours just so Vince could get his rocks off.

 

It's already late. Come home. I have something to show you.

 

Great. Another conspiracy theory. Neal sighed.

 

The light turned green and he crossed the street, only to reconsider. He was near the 97th St Traverse and could easily cross Central Park at this point. This would take him to the 96th St subway station where he could catch the A or C train home.

 

Mind made up, he turned around and waited to cross Madison when he heard a horribly loud metallic screeching noise. He looked up sharply, scanning the street for anything unusual.

 

I think someone's trying to torture their car he wrote to Moz.

 

Unless it's a cab, I'm not interested came the petulant reply. Neal could almost see the pout on Mozzie's face.

 

Another screech made him wince. He searched for the origin of the horrific noise and saw a beautiful, silver classic car slowly rolling toward him. It took Neal a moment to realize why this car seemed so familiar; it looked like an exact replica of James Dean's Porsche Spyder.

 

Holy shit, someone's killing a vintage Porsche! Neal quickly texted. He received no reply -- not that he had expected one.

 

Staring in total disbelief as the car inched its way closer to him, Neal wondered what to do.

 

The light turned green for him to cross Madison, so it was no surprise that the car stopped next to him, but Neal still jumped a little when the driver leaned across the seat and directly addressed him. "Excuse me?"

 

Neal, in complete awe of the car, came closer. "Little bastard," he whispered reverently, staring at the car.

 

The driver frowned. "Excuse me?" he asked, sounding offended. A second later, he chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, you mean the car. Yes, it's one of the remaining couple of original Spyders they manufactured. Now, uh...I was wondering..." The man trailed off, looking slightly sheepish.

 

Neal's professionalism kicked in and he quickly assessed the situation. The car was a total show-off prop, and the man was wearing a ridiculously expensive suit and a Rolex on his wrist. Even his haircut looked expensive. But the man had an understated air about him, like someone who had a lot of money but didn't feel the need to talk about it.

 

Maybe they could find a secluded place and Neal could offer the guy a quick blowjob. Another fifty would buy him some of that expensive charcoal he'd been coveting lately.

 

Plastering his best 'come hither' smile on his face, Neal sauntered over to the passenger side and leaned down. "What were you wondering?" he asked in a sultry tone, making sure that his one stubborn lock of hair fell artfully across his forehead. It usually drove his clients crazy.

 

The man didn't seem to really pay attention. "Yes, well, I was wondering... Do you know where the Ritz-Carlton is?"

 

Neal blinked, surprised by the question. Well, at least the hotel seemed fitting. "Of course I do."

 

"Well, do you know how to get there?" the man asked, now slightly impatient.

 

Neal's smile widened. "Yes, I do." It was always so much fun, teasing out-of-towners.

 

The man stared at him in disbelief. "Well, would you mind telling me?"

 

"Sure. That'll cost ya twenty." Neal flashed his brightest smile.

 

"That's preposterous!" The man looked outraged. "I was told all I had to do is drive straight down the street. I'll just continue doing that until I get to my hotel."

 

Neal chuckled. "You could do that. In that case, you'll end up in Yonkers sooner or later, fair warning. And really, who wants to do that?"

 

"Yonkers?" The man looked confused. "What do you mean?"

 

"Well, you're on Madison right now. See?" Neal pointed at the nearest street sign. "You're going north. You should be going south. So, you're either going to turn right at the next chance and then right again so you can go back down Park Ave or you turn left and then left again on Fifth. Though you gotta be careful because you can't turn right on Fifty-Ninth from Park Ave, which is where the Ritz Carlton is. And even if you take Fifth Ave and don't miss your right turn on Fifty-Ninth, you're still screwed because the hotel is on your left-hand side and it's impossible to do a U-turn there."

 

Neal saw the man's eyes glaze over slightly.

 

"So, alternatively, you could cross Central Park using Ninety-Seventh right here," Neal continued, pointing at the street sign, "drive down Central Park West, make a right on Sixty-Second, turn left on Broadway until you get to Columbus Circle, turn off Fifty-Ninth and voila, you're on the right side for the Ritz-Carlton."

 

The glazed look intensified.

 

"So, that information was worth a twenty." Neal held out his hand and smiled brightly. "Or you'll pay me fifty and I'll get in and show you the way in person."

 

The man stared at Neal in disbelief. Finally, he muttered, "That's highway robbery."

 

Neal shrugged. "Technically, we're not on a highway," he pointed out reasonably.

 

"Roadside ambush then." The man glared for a long moment, then waved at the passenger door. "Get in."

 

Neal grinned and jumped into the car. "Wow," he said, clearly in awe. "What a beauty."

 

The man shrugged. "What a pain in the ass," he countered and, as he tried to shift into first gear, caused another screeching sound. "See what I mean?"

 

Neal winced at the sound of metal on metal and held on for dear life when the car made an impressive jump forward. "You want to take a left turn," he said, a little breathlessly, and then squeezed his eyes shut when the man made a sharp left turn without checking for traffic. An angry driver honked at them from behind. "You also might want to check the rearview mirror before turning," Neal added.

 

"I'm too busy figuring out this damn car," the man muttered, trying yet again to change gears without stepping on the clutch. The resulting noise was earsplitting.

 

"I think you left a transmission back there," Neal commented, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder. "Have you never driven a stick before?"

 

"No." The man glared at the stick-shift while they were waiting at a red light. Then he looked up at Neal. "Have you ever driven a Porsche?"

 

Neal's jaw dropped.

 

 *****

 

"You seem like a pretty trusting guy," Neal commented while carefully changing gears. The car was a dream to drive though he had to admit that it was more than a little nerve-wrecking to be behind the wheel of such a priceless car.

 

When the other man gave him a blank look, Neal gestured at himself in the driver seat. "Oh." The man shook his head. "Not trusting." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "More frustrated and annoyed, really."

 

Neal frowned. "If you don't like the car, why did you buy it?" he asked carefully.

 

"It's not mine. It's a company car."

 

Neal hit the brakes hard and stared at the man in disbelief. "What the hell kind of company do you work for?"

 

The man chuckled. "Auction house."

 

"Oh. Like Sotheby's?"

 

"Ellington's actually. But yes, it's something like Sotheby's." The man shrugged. "Most people have never heard of us."

 

Neal's eyes widened. "Of course I know what Ellington's is," he exclaimed, looking excited. "You specialize in auctioning and commissioning high-end art." He smiled brightly. "I'm really interested in art so I keep tabs on this sort of thing. I mean, Sotheby's is world-famous for auctioning off a handful of famous paintings but for the most part, they're making money with whatever they can get their hands on. Ellington's focuses on the good stuff."

 

The man chuckled at Neal's apparent excitement. "Don't let anyone at Sotheby's know how you feel about them," he cautioned.

 

Neal flashed a bright, cheeky grin. "Don't worry, I don't socialize with those people."

 

The man actually laughed out loud at that. "Thank you," he finally said. "I needed a good laugh after the evening I've had."

 

Neal cast a sideways glance at his passenger, his professionalism taking over again. Aside from getting to drive a priceless car -- which was a bonus he would be cherishing for the rest of his life -- he had initially gotten in to earn some money, after all. "Looks like you could use a bit of relaxation." He let his right hand drift from the stick-shift to the man's thigh. "I could help you with that, you know?"

 

The man gave him another blank look, then let his eyes drop pointedly at Neal's hand until Neal pulled it back.

 

Cursing himself for apparently having read the situation wrong, Neal concentrated on the road.

 

"How much longer till we get to the hotel?" the man asked after a few moments.

 

"This is Columbus Circle up ahead," Neal said, pointing. "So, another minute or two tops."

 

"Perfect."

 

 

The rest of the drive was spent in silence. Neal parked in front of the hotel entrance. "Well, here we are, I guess," he mumbled.

 

"Yes, we are." The man watched as a valet approached the car. "Well, thank you for coming to the rescue." He held out a hand. "I'm Peter, by the way."

 

"Neal." Neal had no idea why he gave the man his real name, not his usual "Nick" alter ego. Maybe because Peter had shown no signs of interest in Neal's profession. Or maybe it was because he instinctively felt that Peter was a good man. They shook hands. "Well, thanks for allowing me to drive this beauty."

 

"You can have the damn car for all I care," Peter groused, causing Neal to chuckle.

 

They were interrupted by the valet opening the door on the driver's side. Reluctantly, and with one last caress to the steering wheel, Neal got out, Peter following suit.

 

"Here's your money." Peter held out a fifty dollar bill. Neal blinked in surprise. "For driving me here," Peter clarified. "Remember? Roadside ambush?"

 

Neal chuckled and took the money. "Right. Thanks."

 

"So, uh...it's pretty late. You'd better take a cab home." Peter pointed at the money in Neal's hand. "You should have enough for that now."

 

Neal grinned. "You sound like my paranoid roommate. I'll take the subway." He gestured in the direction of Columbus Circle. "Shouldn't take too long."

 

They both seemed reluctant to part ways for some reason, but there was nothing left to say so finally, Neal gave a little wave and walked away.

 

He was almost at the subway station when he heard his name being called. Surprised, he turned around and saw Peter jogging after him.

 

"Hey. Uh." Peter stopped in front of Neal, slightly out of breath. He looked shy and embarrassed. "I was wondering... I mean, maybe I read the situation wrong but..."

 

Neal began to smile. He made sure that nobody was close enough to overhear them and asked, "A quick blowjob to let off some steam or would you prefer something more...carnal?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

 

Peter blushed crimson, which charmed Neal to no end. "What's the, uh, going rate these days?"

 

"BJ costs you fifty." Neal licked his lips suggestively. "Anything else, two-hundred an hour. No bareback. No kissing on the mouth. Kinks cost extra."

 

Neal didn't think it was possible, but Peter blushed even harder. "I've never done this sort of thing before," the man stuttered, which Neal could actually believe. "And I can't believe that I paid a blowjob's worth of money for you to drive me to my hotel."

 

Neal laughed at that. "Took longer than a blowjob, probably, but it was definitely more fun. At least for me." He grinned. "And it was easier on my jaw."

 

Peter's eyes widened when he got the reference and he cleared his throat noisily. "Uh...how much for...the entire night?"

 

"The entire night?" Neal looked surprised. "An even thou."

 

"That's not really cheap."

 

Neal shrugged. "It's a bargain. Five hours' worth of service for an entire night? Unless you kick me out of the room at an ungodly hour, you'll get seven or eight hours."

 

"But you'll be sleeping some of these hours," Peter countered.

 

"Well, that entirely depends on you, doesn't it?" Neal shot back with a grin.

 

Peter immediately looked flustered. After several long moments, he said, "Deal."

 

"Cash only in my line of work, Peter. Do you have that much cash or should I drive you to the nearest ATM first?" Neal grinned cheekily.

 

"Don't you worry about my cash flow," Peter said, patting his chest, indicating the wallet in his jacket's inside pocket. "So, deal?" He held out his hand.

 

"Deal," Neal agreed with a smile. He shook hands with Peter and began to walk back towards the hotel.

 

Peter shrugged out of his suit jacket and wrapped it around Neal's shoulders. "This will look a bit less suspicious."

 

Neal smiled to himself. "If you say so."

 

 *****

 

"Wow. A suite. Nice." Neal stopped in the middle of the room and looked around.

 

Peter shrugged. "It's not even close to being one of the more spectacular suites the hotel offers."

 

"I'd say it's pretty spectacular," Neal countered, staring out of one of the windows which overlooked Central Park.

 

"If you're into this sort of thing."

 

Neal's eyes widened. "You're clearly not a New Yorker," he said, looking mock-outraged. He pointed out the window. "This is amazing."

 

"Well, I'll give you that. But I didn't come here to stare out of a window. I'm here to conduct business."

 

"Right." Neal nodded, then walked over to Peter. He let his hands caress down the other man's chest. "So...any special requests?" he asked with a seductive smile.

 

"Actually, a bit of space," Peter replied, taking a step back. At Neal's confused and slightly hurt look, he immediately added apologetically, "I need to make a couple of phone calls. Why don't you get comfy in the meantime? The bathroom's through the bedroom over there, in case you want to freshen up. Or feel free to watch some TV if you like."

 

"Oh. Okay. Sure." Neal smiled and quickly excused himself to use the bathroom. "Holy crap!" he exclaimed, not caring whether or not Peter was already on the phone. "This bathroom is bigger than my entire apartment!"

 

"In that case, make the most of it!" Peter yelled back with a chuckle.

 

Neal stared longingly at the huge bathtub, fantasizing about taking a long soak in it, but instead hastened to take care of business and freshen up a little. He didn't want to smell like Vince while serving a different client, after all.

 

Peter was busy on the phone when Neal came back into the living quarters, so he plopped down on the couch and began to channel surf. With one eye on the TV, he quickly texted Moz to update him on the change of plans.

 

FYI, picked up another client. Will spend the night.

 

Are you insane? Get your ass home! came the immediate reply.

 

Neal chuckled. Remember the car torturer? He's staying at the Ritz and hired me for the entire night. Easiest money I ever made. Will text again tomorrow on my way home.

 

You really need to find a new line of work, mon frère.

 

Neal could hear the disapproval in Mozzie's voice and smiled. Good night, mom. He turned off his phone before Moz could scold him any more.

 

 *****

 

Half an hour later, Peter found Neal sitting cross-legged on the couch, totally engrossed in what was playing on the TV. It took Peter a moment to realize that it was a documentary on the painter Raphael, and Neal was muttering the occasional and rather unflattering comment under his breath whenever he felt that they got something wrong.

 

Clearly amused by this, Peter got comfortable in a nearby chair and spent the next few minutes just watching Neal, who was so focused on the documentary that he didn't even realize that Peter was sitting there.

 

After yet another mumbled criticism, Peter couldn't help but chuckle. "Someone really does know their way around art," he commented with a nod of approval.

 

Neal looked up, startled. "Sorry," he said. "But it really drives me crazy when people get even basic facts wrong. This is supposed to be a documentary, not a mockumentary."

 

Peter smiled. "Well, they're minor inaccuracies. Most people wouldn't even notice them."

 

"Yeah well, I'm a bit of a Raphael aficionado so I do notice." Neal scowled at the TV and then turned it off, focusing his entire attention on Peter. "So, business calls taken care of?"

 

Peter nodded. "Had to update my boss," he said with a shrug. "She's not very happy, to say the least."

 

"Oh? What happened?"

 

"Well, there's a potential client who is going to sell his mansion in the Hamptons. He's an art dealer and owns one of the world's largest private art collections. We're hoping to get contracted to auction off the art he intends to sell."

 

"Wow." Neal looked suitably impressed. Then he frowned. "But you didn't get the commission?"

 

Peter shook his head. "Still working on it. We held a gala tonight in his honor where I was going to dazzle him with my charm." He gave a quick self-deprecating smile, and then sighed. "He didn't show up. The guest of honor was a no-show."

 

"Well, that just sucks. I'm so sorry." Neal cocked his head. "Where does the Spyder fit into all this?"

 

"Hmm? Oh, the damn car? The man's got a love for antique and classic cars. My boss was hoping the Spyder would impress him."

 

"And instead it left you stranded in a city where you don't need to drive at all in a car that you had no clue how to operate." Neal flashed a cheeky grin.

 

"Funny man," Peter retorted, and then shrugged. "I still have a few days before I go back to Chicago. I'll make it work."

 

"I'm sure you will," Neal said, his voice full of conviction. He slowly dropped to his knees and crawled sensuously towards Peter, his eyes hungrily locked on Peter's crotch. "For now though," he added in a throaty whisper while opening Peter's pants, "let me take your mind off work."

 

 

 

Neal woke to the distinct feeling of someone staring at him.

 

"Stop ogling the merchandise, you perv," he muttered, burying his face in the pillow.

 

There were a few moments of silence before an amused voice said, "I thought I paid for the privilege of ogling the merchandise."

 

Neal was wide-awake immediately and sat up, a shocked look on his face. "Oh crap. I'm so sorry, Peter. I thought you were my roommate."

 

Peter, leaning casually against the open door, clad in nothing but a fluffy bath robe, raised an eyebrow. "You and your roommate seem to have quite an interesting relationship."

 

"You don't know the half of it." Neal rubbed a hand across his face. "Again, my apologies. Feel free to ogle." He spread his arms invitingly, showing off his naked torso.

 

Peter chuckled. "Why don't you wrap up the merchandise for now and join me for breakfast?" he suggested, gesturing at a bath robe that was lying across the foot of the bed. "I'm sure you're hungry."

 

Neal was surprised to hear his stomach rumbling. "Starving, actually."

 

"No wonder. It's almost eleven-thirty."

 

Neal's eyes widened. "What?"

 

Peter grinned. "I take it as a compliment. I clearly wore you out after two rounds of vigorous sex." He looked pleased with himself.

 

"Three, if you count the blowjob." Neal grinned back and got out of bed. Quickly donning the bath robe, he followed Peter into the main room where a ridiculous amount of food was waiting for them. He stared at it in disbelief. "Did you steal the entire buffet from the hotel restaurant?"

 

Peter shrugged and poured them both a cup of coffee. "I didn't know what you liked so I ordered a bit of everything."

 

"Wow." Neal sat down at the table and tried to decide what to eat first. He finally snagged a bran muffin and began to nibble on it.

 

They sat in companionable silence for the next couple of minutes, which surprised Neal. He usually tried to avoid spending an entire night with a client because of the awkwardness of the next morning, the one-last-fuck-for-no-extra-money discussion and the fact that his job just looked a damn sight more bleak in the harsh daylight. Of course Vince sometimes insisted on him spending the night and Neal obliged -- but even after a couple of years of working for Vince, he had never felt the easy camaraderie and friendly vibe he had almost immediately shared with Peter.

 

Neal found that he could really get used to this.

 

He also realized that this one-time thing with Peter had basically ruined his job for him, compared to any other client.

 

"So, I have a proposition for you," Peter suddenly said between bites of bacon and eggs.

 

"Oh?" Neal raised an eyebrow. "Sounds kinky. Please elaborate."

 

Peter chuckled. "Nothing kinky about it, I'm afraid. Well, unless we make it into something kinky." He frowned in deep thought.

 

"Okay, now I'm intrigued. What is it?" Neal popped a strawberry into his mouth and chased the juicy droplets clinging to his lips with his tongue. He felt pretty smug when Peter got distracted by this simple yet effective movement.

 

It took Peter a moment to regain his composure. "Hmm? Oh, right. Well, I talked with my boss again this morning while you were still sleeping. She wants me to stay and try to close the deal with our elusive client. Since I'll be in town for longer, it will also give me the chance to catch up with existing clients, visit some collectors and gallery owners."

 

Neal nodded to show he understood though he still had no idea what any of this had to do with him.

 

"So I was wondering...do you have any plans this upcoming week?"

 

Confused by this apparent non-sequitur, Neal frowned. "Uh...not really?"

 

Peter looked almost bashful. "Would you like to spend it with me?"

 

Neal's eyes widened almost comically. "Come again?" he asked in disbelief.

 

"Well, yes, that would hopefully be part of the package."

 

It took Neal a long moment to understand the reference. He slowly began to grin. "You're asking me to spend the entire next week with you? Here?" He waved at the hotel suite. "And especially there?" He pointed in the direction of the bedroom.

 

"Well, I do have to work," Peter conceded. "And I would love to have you accompany me."

 

Neal frowned. "At work? While you're meeting clients?"

 

"Why not?"

 

"Well, because of..." Neal trailed off, staring at Peter, and then gestured between them. "Because of the obvious?"

 

"Honestly? I'm openly gay, Neal. And most people who have even remotely anything to do with art are either gay or at least very gay-friendly. So nobody is going to bat an eye when I'm introducing you as my 'plus one' at an event." He held up a hand when Neal opened his mouth to protest. "However, from what I gathered after watching you correct an actual documentary on Raphael, I'm assuming you have quite a bit of knowledge that might come in handy while I'm visiting clients. You said you had a thing for art so I'm thinking it's not just focused on one particular Italian painter?"

 

"Well, no. I wouldn't be presumptuous and actually call myself an artist though this is what I like to do most. Painting and drawing, that is. Started to try my hand at sculpting lately." Neal shrugged, looking slightly unsure. "I do think I have an extensive knowledge about art. I just seem to soak it up. But that doesn't qualify me to accompany you on any business meetings."

 

"You'd be surprised how many people in my line of business claim to be experts and know diddly-squat. You'll be fine."

 

Neal snorted out a surprised laugh at Peter's dry comment. "But what would your boss say to me just tagging along?"

 

"She completely trusts me. If I tell her that I'm bringing you along so that young gay gallery owners and little old ladies have something pretty to look at while I'm using my silver-tongue to divest them of their best pieces, she'll wholeheartedly approve it."

 

"Little old ladies?" Neal echoed doubtfully.

 

"You'd be surprised how many of our clients are little old ladies. They're old money or married rich. These families invested in art back in the day. These ladies will want to pinch your cheeks as soon as they set eyes on you. I could introduce you as my apprentice."

 

Neal still didn't look entirely convinced but nodded slowly. "If you think so."

 

"You don't have to," Peter immediately reassured him. "I just figured it might be something you'd be interested in."

 

"What if I said no?"

 

"Then you'd probably get rather bored waiting for me here all day," Peter replied with a shrug. "Not that you'd be tied down or anything -- of course you could do something else while I was busy during the day. Go home and spend time with your roommate or use the fitness center in the hotel or just veg out in front of the TV and critique more documentaries." He smiled slightly.

 

Neal thought about the possibilities. The offer seemed too good to be true, and honestly, Peter might be able to open doors for him during the upcoming week, introduce him to gallery owners that might be willing to show his art or collectors who might want to buy his paintings. All that aside, he'd get to just spend more time with the man, and quite honestly, the sex had been pretty damn fantastic.

 

"Well, I might have to double-check and clear my calendar, but sure, why not?" Neal shrugged casually, not even trying to hide an excited grin.

 

"Perfect." Peter looked genuinely happy. "Okay, one last minor detail." At Neal's raised eyebrow, he elaborated, "Payment."

 

"Oh." Neal thought for a long moment. He had never made any arrangement of this kind and had no real idea what to say. "A whole week, you said?"

 

Peter nodded. "I'm currently looking at flying back to Chicago next Saturday. If I don't manage to close the deal until Friday, there's no reason to waste any more time here."

 

"Hmm, okay." Neal frowned, thinking. "Ten thousand dollars for the whole week."

 

Peter snorted. "That's a bit high, wouldn't you say? I was thinking more like five thousand."

 

Neal cocked his head. "We're talking about seven nights here. You just paid a thousand dollars for last night. That makes it seven thousand for seven nights. Considering that you also get the days, too, ten thousand for the week is a pretty sweet bargain."

 

Peter regarded him for a long moment. "Good point regarding the nightly rate, but you're free to spend most days as you like. I'd be happy to have you join me but I'm not going to pay extra for that time. Seven thousand." He held out his hand.

 

Neal didn't even have to think twice. "You got it," he said excitedly, shaking on it.

 

"Perfect." Peter looked delighted. "Let's finish breakfast and get ready. We're going shopping!"

 

 

 

They went down to the lobby and Peter made a beeline for the concierge, a young woman. Neal saw that her name tag said Elizabeth.

 

She smiled politely as they approached and gave Peter a welcoming nod. "It's good to have you back, Mr. Burke," she said. Then her eyes traveled over to Neal and she took in his outfit. "And I see you're entertaining a guest." Her tone of voice was perfectly calm and yet cutting.

 

Peter looked slightly flustered. "That's not a guest. Neal is my nephew." He almost managed to say this without a stutter. Almost.

 

"Certainly, sir," Elizabeth replied blithely. "Any family member of Mr. Burke is, of course, always welcome at the Ritz-Carlton." She gave Neal a perfectly polite smile though her eyes called bullshit. "So, how may I help you?"

 

"Well, I was wondering, where can we find high end clothiers here in the city?" Peter asked.

 

Elizabeth's eyes sparkled. "Well, that depends. Are you looking for your usual attire or for something your nephew apparently prefers to wear?"

 

Neal looked down at himself. The leather pants were so tight, they looked painted on. His threadbare tee shirt was also so tight that his six-pack and defined pecs were clearly visible. That was another reason why he normally hated spending the night at a client's -- leaving the next morning in his "work clothes" made it pretty clear just what kind of job he was working.

 

"My usual attire. Neal was out partying last night and we need something a bit more formal for him."

 

Elizabeth smiled warmly. "I know just the place," she said. "It's not even very far, on Madison."

 

Peter's face fell. "I'm not a big fan of that street," he muttered under his breath, causing Neal to laugh softly.

 

Elizabeth looked slightly confused but quickly recovered. "I'll have the hotel's car service  waiting for you outside in two minutes," she said. "Fred will take you to Firth and Sons. I'll call ahead and let them know you're coming. They normally only serve customers with prior appointments, but don't worry, I'm good friends with the 'Sons' portion of them." She smiled again and picked up the phone on her desk.

 

"Holy crap, that's a whole other league of 'high end'," Neal whispered as they walked through the lobby towards the exit. He looked nervous.

 

"Don't worry about," Peter said, resting his hand in the small of Neal's back.

 

"Look, I get that I need something else to wear. We can just quickly drop by my apartment and I can pick up something."

 

Peter smiled reassuringly. "Please don't take this the wrong way, Neal, but I doubt you have the kind of wardrobe we need."

 

Neal didn't know how to respond, so he just quietly got into the back of the limousine that was waiting for them outside, and allowed himself to be driven to Firth and Sons.

 

 *****

 

The reception at the clothier was cautious but friendly. Once the owner realized that Peter was planning to spend "an obscenely ridiculous amount of money" -- as Peter put it -- in his shop, all personnel began to swarm around him and Neal.

 

Several suits and a tuxedo later, Neal felt dizzy. "Do we really need all this stuff?" he whispered to Peter, who just grinned at him.

 

"Every man should own three good suits, Neal," he lectured, adjusting the cuffs of his own new shirt.

 

Neal's eyes widened. "Wait. Does that mean I get to keep these?"

 

"But of course." Peter looked around until he found the tailor. "So, you will be able to provide us with the custom tailored shirts for my friend by tomorrow evening?" he pressed.

 

The tailor nodded. "Yes, sir, absolutely. I'll get right on them and have them delivered to your hotel by six o'clock." He gave Neal a long glance. "Ah, to be this young and slender again."

 

Peter smiled. "I was never this slender. Or young." He and the tailor shared a chuckle. "Okay, we still need some shoes and accessories."

 

"Cufflinks and tie bars?" the tailor asked. "I'll send someone over with a collection."

 

Neal, in the meantime, had been browsing through the store and found an assortment of hats in one corner. He had never worn a hat before -- heck, he didn't even know if he could pull off wearing a hat without looking absolutely ridiculous -- but he still picked up a fedora and put it on at a rakish angle. He turned around and flashed a bright grin. "Hey, Peter. What do you think?"

 

Peter's pupils visibly dilated as soon as he saw Neal, and he swallowed hard. Twice. "Sold!"

 

 *****

 

Afterwards, they decided to "slum it" at Barneys where they bought underwear, socks and tee shirts as well as some other essentials.

 

"Keep in mind that I only planned to stay here for a couple of nights," Peter reminded Neal as they climbed back into the limousine. "Most of my clothes are back at home in Chicago. I had to go shopping whether I wanted to or not."

 

"I hope you have a big expense account," Neal commented, rifling through one of his Barneys bags. He still couldn't believe what Peter had paid for a simple pair of chinos.

 

Peter smiled. "My boss is very generous and wants to keep me happy," he said. "Though your outfits are entirely paid by my own money."

 

"Why?" Neal looked genuinely curious. "Why would you do all this? We've known each other for less than twenty-four hours."

 

Peter leaned back in the buttersoft leather upholstery and regarded Neal calmly. "Doesn't feel like it, though. Does it?" he asked softly.

 

"No. No, it doesn't," Neal admitted with a small smile. "Still doesn't explain why you're buying me a whole wardrobe."

 

"Well, consider it my good deed of the day. Or pretend it's some sugar daddy roleplay if that makes it easier." Peter shrugged agreeably. "Personally, I just felt like it. I enjoyed buying these things for you."

 

"I was never into roleplay," Neal replied quietly. "Especially never got the appeal of a sugar daddy scenario. I like a person for who they are, not what's in their bank account."

 

Peter smiled, looking pleased. "I'm glad to hear that."

 

"Well, I'll never be able to repay you any of this but I sincerely thank you for your generosity." Neal stroked the thin cashmere sweater Peter had insisted on buying and smiled shyly.

 

"And as I said, it was my pleasure."

 

Neal sighed softly and sat back. "Okay, change of subject. Why the tuxedos?" He could understand having to wear a suit while going out with Peter -- whether during the day on business meetings or in the evening if they planned to dine at a nice restaurant -- but a tuxedo?

 

"You might not have heard it but I actually didn't buy them," Peter said. "Both tuxedos are on loan, thanks to the generous amount of money I left for all the other stuff. So please be careful while you wear yours. I'm sure old Mr. Firth will have my head if either one of his tuxedos isn't in perfectly pristine condition when we give them back."

 

"I'll try not to dump pasta sauce on it then," Neal deadpanned. "But again, why tuxedos? That's a bit of an overkill, isn't it?"

 

"Not for where we're going tonight," Peter said with a smug smile.

 

"Oh?" Neal's interest was piqued. "And where is that?"

 

"The Met."

 

"Another gala at another museum?" Neal asked in confusion. "Still trying to woo your client with the same trick that didn't work the day before?"

 

Peter frowned in confusion. "Museum? Oh, you mean the Metropolitan Museum of Art?" When Neal nodded, Peter began to grin. "No, the other Met. We're going to the opera tonight."

 

 *****

 

They stood in front of the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, and Neal stared at it in awe.

 

Peter gave him a fond look. "I take it you've never been here before?"

 

"No. I mean, yes. I mean, I've walked past here countless times but I've never actually been inside." Neal barely managed to pull his eyes away from the building. "This is a first for me so it's a bit overwhelming," he admitted, then added with a slightly embarrassed grin, "Well, it's also the first time I'm wearing a tuxedo so there's that."

 

"Well, that's a damn shame," Peter replied, reaching out to adjust Neal's bowtie just so. "Because I think you look absolutely stunning in it. Sexier than in your leather pants."

 

Neal raised a disbelieving eyebrow at that. He knew that the leather pants made his ass look like a perfect peach.

 

"Okay, granted. Just as sexy," Peter conceded with a grin. "A different kind of sexy but still sexy as hell."

 

Neal chuckled. "Okay, I'll believe that." He looked at the building again, getting a little nervous. "So, shall we?"

 

"Absolutely." Peter placed his hand in the small of Neal's back and gently steered them towards the entrance.

 

"Why the opera?" Neal suddenly asked.

 

"Hmm? Why not?" Peter shrugged. "I haven't been to the Met in several years and I'm lucky enough to stay in a hotel where Elizabeth is the concierge. She can get you tickets for everything, even the most popular sold-out Broadway shows. So I asked her to organize two tickets for tonight and she did." He grinned.

 

Neal nodded. "I get that but...why the opera? Why not, I don't know, a Broadway show?"

 

"Would you like to see a Broadway show? I'm sure Elizabeth can make that happen for us." When Neal shook his head, Peter shrugged. "Well, personally, I love the opera. Most people either love it or hate it. I love it. I don't get to go often so I figured I'd indulge myself."

 

Peter stopped to watch Neal take in the interior of the building. The younger man was staring openly at everything, from the grand staircase to the décor. Peter smiled.

 

"Once I realized that I had to spend another week in this godforsaken town, I decided to make the most of it and reward myself with wine, women and song." At Neal's raised eyebrow, Peter elaborated, "Well, excellent food with good wine, a strapping lad instead of women and, well, song." He waved at their surroundings.

 

Neal smiled. "Sounds like a good plan. Thank you for inviting me."

 

Peter inclined his head. "Thank you for being part of my reward."

 

Neal ducked his head shyly in reaction.

 

"So, are you one of the people who love or hate the opera?"

 

"I'm not sure." Neal shrugged. "I've never been to one."

 

Peter looked surprised. "You haven't?"

 

"No, but I'm looking forward to it. I mean, I've listened to bits and pieces of different operas. Who doesn't know the classics, right? But I've never actually seen an entire production." Neal cocked his head. "You seem surprised."

 

"Well, I kind of am," Peter admitted. "Not sure why but somehow I thought you would be well versed in classical music. I mean, you're so knowledgeable about art that I guess I figured you loved all kinds of it."

 

"Oh I do. I love music, mostly jazz and classical, but I wouldn't call myself an expert on it. Far from it. I can appreciate a good piece of music or a good performance by an actor or dancer, but I don't really know anything about this kind of stuff."

 

Peter nodded. "Makes sense. I guess you had to focus on something during your studies and you chose art over music."

 

"Studies?" Neal echoed in confusion.

 

"Yeah. During college. I figured you had a degree in art history."

 

Neal chuckled and leaned in, as if to share a big secret. "Peter, I'm a high school drop-out. I never went to college."

 

As Peter stared at him, completely dumb-founded, Neal asked himself why he had shared this particular bit of information. He never told any of his clients anything as remotely personal as this. But then again, Peter wasn't just a client, was he? And with Peter, he was Neal and not Nick, his alter ego who usually dealt with clients. Nick could be whoever Neal wanted him to be. He adapted Nick's likes and dislikes based on his client's wishes. Nick was a fantasy he sold to his clients. Neal, on the other hand, was his true self, and he found himself sharing bits and pieces of his true self with Peter almost against his better judgment.

 

It took Peter a few seconds to regain his composure. Finally he just said, "Well, if you acquired all of your expertise knowledge without any kind of formal education, then you're one hell of a prodigy."

 

Neal smiled brightly.

 

 

 

It turned out that Neal was one of the people who loved opera. It was all but impossible to stop him from talking about it, the emotions and the drama of the production, the talent of the singers, the entire experience of sharing perfect seats in a box with Peter.

 

In the end, Peter found the only way to shut Neal up: he fed the younger man his cock and made him suck it for a long, long time.

 

After a short recovery phase, Peter made Neal ride him until they were both too exhausted to form a coherent thought, and they fell asleep, tangled in each other's arms.

 

 *****

 

Neal slowly blinked his eyes open and squinted blearily at Peter, who was standing in front of the bed, fixing his tie. "You're awake," Neal finally said in slight disbelief.

 

Peter seemed amused. "Yes, I am."

 

"You're also already dressed," Neal said, narrowing his eyes.

 

"Nothing much gets past you, does it?" Peter grinned before he broke into a huge yawn.

 

Neal squinted at the alarm clock on the nightstand. "It's not even six-thirty," he exclaimed. "Why the hell would you be up and at 'em already?"

 

"Because it's Monday and I have a job to do." Peter downed the last of his coffee and put the empty cup on the nightstand. "And just FYI, it's even earlier for me because my body is still on Chicago time. So it's really five-thirty for me."

 

"You're a masochist," Neal mumbled, burying his face in his pillow.

 

"Yeah well, I'm a masochist who has a video conference with a Japanese client scheduled at seven-thirty. I'll spend most of the day in the office so feel free to do whatever you like. Mrs. Ellington told me that her assistants will have a schedule ready for me by the time I leave so prepare to spend the next few days visiting galleries, museums and private buyers with me."

 

Neal just muttered something into his pillow and pulled the covers over his head.

 

Peter chuckled and reached out to tousle what little he could see of Neal's mop of hair.

 

"If you get hungry, feel free to order room service. Of course, if you'd rather go outside to eat, or if you just want to take a stroll through Central Park or whatever you do on your day off, go ahead and do it. I'll have someone from reception bring up an extra key card so you can get back into our room whenever you like. Okay?"

 

"Mmmm."

 

Peter rolled his eyes in amused exasperation and poked Neal's side. The younger man squeaked and pulled away, giving Peter a stink-eye. Peter was unperturbed. "Did you hear anything I just said?"

 

"Room service. Central Park. Extra key card."

 

"Well, that's the gist of it, at least." Peter pulled out some money and put it under the empty coffee cup. "Consider it advance payment so you can treat yourself a little if you like."

 

Neal didn't even move. He just "mmmm"ed again.

 

"Not a morning person, I see," Peter commented dryly. "Okay, I should be back by five the latest. We'll go out to dinner so don't spoil your appetite during the day, okay?"

 

"Won't," Neal mumbled into his pillow. "Miss you already."

 

Peter stopped short at that, wondering how sleep-deprived Neal had to be to say something like that. On the other hand, even though he was clearly tired, Neal sounded sincere. "I'll be back before you know it," he said quietly, leaning down to press a quick kiss to the top of Neal's head. Then he quickly left the suite before he could change his mind and crawl back into bed with the younger man.

 

 *****

 

It took Neal a while to really wake up, and he spent the next five minutes trying to replay what had happened between him and Peter in the morning. Some of it seemed crystal clear; other parts were fuzzier.

 

He did remember that he had the day to himself -- which sucked on a variety of levels he didn't even want to contemplate or admit to himself -- and he remembered that Peter had kissed him. Well, the top of his head -- the rule about no kisses on the lips still stood, after all -- but it had felt sweet and innocent and intimate at the same time.

 

And a very small part of him, a part Neal refused to analyze, wished that the kiss had actually been on his lips.

 

Neal sighed and sat up in bed, slowly stretching himself. He spied the money on the nightstand and remembered Peter leaving cash so Neal could spend it however he wanted during the day. He picked up the money and realized it was five crispy, brand-new hundred dollar bills. A flashback to Vince's apartment two days ago -- had it only been two days? -- shot through Neal, but he realized that Peter's money didn't feel like dirty cash given for services rendered. It felt more like pocket money, like money given by a lover who enjoyed spoiling him.

 

Neal quickly squashed this train of thought and went to take a long, hot shower.

 

 *****

 

After a hearty breakfast and texting Mozzie to give him an update, Neal decided to make the most of his free time and go shopping. He now had enough money to buy himself some of the high-end art supplies he had always wanted.

 

First, though, he went down to the concierge desk and gave Elizabeth a sealed envelope. He had put the thousand dollars he had earned the first night with Peter into it and asked Moz to pick it up. Their rent was due soon and Moz was, as usual, short on money. "Good morning, Elizabeth," he said with his most charming smile. "How are you doing?"

 

"I'm doing fine, thank you for asking. How are you doing, Mr. Burke?" At Neal's confused look, Elizabeth elaborated, "I assumed you and your...uncle had the same last name. My apologies for presuming. So you are his...sister's son?"

 

"Something like that," Neal said evasively. "Just call me Neal, okay?"

 

"Certainly, sir. So, how may I help you, Neal?"

 

"Well, this envelope here?" Neal pointed at it. "A friend of mine is going to come pick it up later today. His name is Moz though he might give you a different name. He's a bit...unusual. Distrustful. It's nothing personal, don't worry." Neal tried to smile reassuringly. "Anyway, he'll drop by later and I want you to give him this envelope. It's important that he gets it. And only him, nobody else. Can you promise me this?"

 

"Of course, Neal. I'll make sure of it." Elizabeth dutifully placed the envelope into a drawer.

 

"Don't worry, you'll know it's him as soon as you see him. And, uh, I apologize in advance for any weirdness you might encounter." He pulled a face at the sheer thought of Moz pulling another one of his conspiracy-related stunts in the middle of the hotel.

 

Elizabeth looked amused. "I'll keep that in mind." She suddenly remembered something. "Oh, before I forget. Your uncle asked me to make sure you take this with you in case you leave the hotel." She handed Neal a key card. "Enjoy your day in the city."

 

 *****

 

When Peter got back in the afternoon, he found Neal sitting on the windowsill, a sketch pad on his lap and a concentrated look on his face.

 

"Well, this sure is a sight for sore eyes," he commented with a smile, loosening his tie.

 

Neal looked up, startled, and immediately smiled back in welcome. "How was your day?"

 

"Pretty boring, for the most part. Exciting for a little bit. I closed the deal with my Japanese client and managed to get my elusive Hampton client on the phone. He agreed to discuss the matter further tomorrow so I have a conference call with him at two." Peter looked pleased. "Other than that, my boss was right. Her assistants delivered big time." He pulled out several sheets of paper. "My itinerary for the rest of the week. We'll be pretty busy the next few days, Neal."

 

"That sounds great, Peter." Neal made to get up but Peter crowded him, forcing him to stay in place.

 

"What are you drawing?" Peter asked curiously. He looked at the sketch pad and gasped. "Neal. This is absolutely beautiful."

 

"It's nothing," Neal mumbled, looking slightly embarrassed. "I was just drawing this." He waved outside the window at Central Park.

 

"Yeah, but look at the details. This is truly stunning." Peter was clearly impressed. "Would you mind if I keep this?"

 

"Really?" Neal looked surprised. "It's not even very good. I was just doodling."

 

"If that's doodling for you, I don't want to know what a real drawing looks like."

 

Neal ducked his head shyly. "Thank you," he said quietly, carefully removed the drawing from the sketchpad and handed it over.

 

"I'll have this framed," Peter said, clearly meaning it. "And as thank you for giving me your masterpiece, I'm taking you out on a fantastic date."

 

They both didn't comment on Peter's slip-of-the-tongue -- as if a client would take out a hooker on a date.

 

They also both steadfastly ignored the fact that underneath the Central Park drawing, there was a very life-like and gorgeous portrait of Peter in Neal's sketchpad.

 

 *****

 

The date turned out to be dinner in a tiny Italian restaurant that served the most amazing seafood, and then going to a jazz club. Since Peter didn't know much about the local scene, he let Neal decide where they should go. The look of excitement and pure joy on Neal's face was enough reward for Peter but as it turned out, getting to listen to live jazz, performed by talented musicians, for a couple of hours was the highlight of his entire day.

 

The vigorous round of sex they both indulged in once they got back to the hotel was the icing on the cake.

 

 

 

The next few days passed in a blur.

 

Neal spent most of his time with Peter, attending business meetings as well as luncheons and dinners with clients. He felt slightly overwhelmed, not knowing what to say or do, but tried his best to be professional. He was courteous and kind, remained unobtrusive but freely offered his opinions when asked to do so. And, just as Peter had predicted, he charmed the socks off just about everyone he met.

 

What Neal loved the most about this new and exciting adventure was that Peter treated him like a person, not a hooker, the whole time. Even when they went back to the hotel suite at night and Peter could have dropped the act, he continued to see and treat Neal as an equal human being, not someone he had bought for sex. Neal realized that it wasn't even an act for Peter; the man genuinely saw Neal as another valid person and treated him with respect and kindness. It was a very welcome change and a startling revelation to Neal; after all the time he had spent with people like Vince, he had come to believe that he really wasn't worth much. Peter changed all that.

 

And even though they spent as much time as they could having sex, they always found time to talk. Neal loved the verbal sparring with Peter, the battle of wits, just like Peter seemed to enjoy being intellectually challenged by someone just as smart as he was. In fact, Peter even once stated that he believed Neal was the smartest man he had ever met, and he sounded utterly sincere saying it.

 

Neal thought this was completely ridiculous and distracted Peter from making any additional outrageous statements by giving him a spectacular blowjob.

 

Sex also became something more for Neal. He knew that Peter didn't feel the same way, but to him, their nightly workouts felt more like making love instead of just sex. It was a dangerous thing to feel or believe in his line of work, Neal knew, but he couldn't help but imagine true feelings being involved. He knew he would get his heart broken in the end but somehow, he felt that it was all worth it.

 

 *****

 

On Friday afternoon, Fred dropped Neal off at the hotel before taking Peter to Ellington's main office for one last meeting. Peter was beyond excited because his elusive client had finally agreed to meet in person. Then again, Neal knew that Peter had consistently tried his best to persuade the client over the phone, calling the man at least once a day. Apparently, his tenacity had finally paid off, and not a moment too soon. Peter was scheduled to leave New York the next day; a fact that depressed Neal to no end.

 

They had decided to stay in and order room service so they could spend their last few hours together alone, and Neal was tasked with getting everything ready and set up by the time Peter came back from his meeting.

 

Neal sighed as he crossed the hotel lobby. He would miss this place and the people working here. In just a few days, he felt as if he had become friends with most of them.

 

Even Elizabeth.

 

She smiled warmly at him as he walked up to her station. "So I hear your uncle is leaving tomorrow?"

 

Neal shook his head with a smile. "I think we both know that Peter isn't my uncle, Elizabeth, so why don't we just stop this charade, hmm?"

 

"All right." Elizabeth nodded, looking serious. "And as a representative of this fine establishment I need to ask you if there are any other uncles or maybe daddies you might encounter and decide to visit here in future."

 

Neal's eyes widened. "No. Absolutely not." He shook his head vehemently. "Peter is special. He's the only one."

 

Elizabeth gave a small smile. "Yes, he definitely is special. And I'm sorry that he's leaving tomorrow because that means I won't see you again either." She reached out to give Neal's hand a quick squeeze. "But generally speaking, management does not want to see you again. In your capacity as...you know, nephew."

 

"I get that. And don't worry. It won't happen again." He sighed softly and gave Elizabeth a sad smile. "I'm going to miss you, too."

 

Elizabeth's eyes began to shimmer and she quickly blinked several times. "Well, off you go," she said brusquely, clearing her throat and trying her best to hide her face behind her long hair. "I've got work to do. I'm busy." She made a shooing motion with one hand while furtively wiping away a tear with the other.

 

Neal ducked his head and smiled at that, but he dutifully did as he was asked and left her station.

 

 *****

 

It wasn't easy, trying to decide which articles of clothing to take with him. Neal stared at the closet and sighed heavily. He knew that Peter had bought everything for him and that he was free to take everything with him, but it just felt wrong somehow. The clothes had been criminally expensive. If he only took the clothes as payment for the week he had spent with Peter, the monetary value would be at least triple of what they had agreed on in cash. Neal just couldn't bring himself to take all clothes in addition to the money he was owed. And the worst part was that Peter expected him to do just that.

 

Neal sighed again, feeling overwhelmed by the situation.

 

At that moment, the door to the suite burst open and Peter came rushing in, a huge grin on his face.

 

"You will never believe what happened," he exclaimed.

 

Taken by surprise but pleased to see Peter so happy, Neal spread his arms wide. "What happened?" he asked.

 

"I closed the deal!"

 

"Wait, what? The Hampton deal?"

 

Peter nodded and Neal whooped in delight. He ran over to give Peter a big hug, and they both laughed. Neal was so excited for Peter that he pulled back and pressed their lips together in a chaste but heartfelt kiss.

 

The instant their lips locked, both men froze, knowing a hard line had been crossed.

 

Peter didn't move, clearly giving Neal the opportunity to do whatever he felt was right, and Neal pulled back after a few seconds. The younger man licked his lips meaningfully while locking eyes with Peter, making it clear that he didn't think it had been a mistake to kiss.

 

This was different.

 

This was special.

 

"I'm really happy for you, Peter," Neal said sincerely. "Congratulations. I know you worked very hard for this."

 

"I couldn't have done it without you." Peter framed Neal's face and slowly, carefully pulled him closer. Instead of kissing Neal, though, Peter merely let their foreheads touch. In a way, it felt more intimate than the kiss. "Thank you."

 

Neal turned his head slightly, just enough to kiss one of Peter's palms. "So, are we going to do anything special to celebrate?" He knew he was going to get his heart broken once Peter left. The kiss had established that, yes, he was in love with Peter Burke. He also knew that he would have to let Peter go, but Neal was going to make the most of the time they had left together.

 

"Actually, how do you feel about extending our contract?"

 

Neal pulled back to give Peter a searching look. Having Peter mention their contract felt like being doused with ice water. The whole thing between them, even after the kiss, was clearly still nothing but a business transaction for Peter. Realizing that hurt like hell, but Neal knew he only had himself to blame. He took a deep breath and tried to focus on what Peter was trying to ask him. "I'm sorry?"

 

Peter didn't seem to notice Neal's confusion or hesitation. He just smiled brightly. "Do you know what the Hampton Classic is?"

 

Now even more confused, Neal just nodded slowly. "Of course. Everyone's heard about it."

 

"Well, my client invited me to attend. It's been going on the whole week already so we actually missed most of it but the weekend is the big highlight anyway. He said to meet him there tomorrow and after spending some time at the Classic we could go to his place and have a firsthand look at everything. We're talking art, Neal, lots of art. Paintings and statues. He's also got antiques and rare books and classic cars. I'm sure I'll have to ask some of my colleagues to help me evaluate everything. I'm the art expert and I know my way around books but the rest should be in the hands of folks who deal with this sort of thing on a daily basis."

 

Neal listened to Peter babble excitedly and tried his best to decipher what the man was trying to tell him. "So, you're going to the Hampton Classic to meet your client there," he began slowly, "and then the two of you are going to the mansion he intends to sell so that you can evaluate the art that you will be allowed to commission and auction off?"

 

Peter nodded, a huge grin on his face. "And you're coming with me."

 

Neal blinked. "What?"

 

The grin on Peter's face slowly faded. "Unless you don't want to?"

 

Neal blinked again. "What? No. No, of course I'd love to come with you. It's just a bit unexpected. And, well, that guy was pretty secretive the whole time. Are you sure he's okay with you bringing your so-called protégé?"

 

Peter smiled brightly. "Absolutely. I told him about you and he's dying to meet such a promising young man." He looked searchingly at Neal. "So, do you have anything planned for the weekend or are you free to join me at the Hampton Classic?"

 

"I only have one question."

 

"Shoot."

 

Neal slowly began to grin. "Do I get to drive the Spyder again?"

 

 *****

 

Neal gave a whoop of excitement as the Spyder sped down the Long Island Expressway.

 

Peter gave him an indulgent look. "You're really enjoying yourself, aren't you?"

 

Neal's smile was radiant. "You bet."

 

Peter reached out and gave Neal's neck a gentle squeeze, then let his hand just rest there. Neal sighed softly and closed his eyes for a quick moment, just enjoying the physical connection. This was how lovers touched each other and showed affection. This was perfect. Something to be savored.

 

"So I was thinking," Peter said suddenly, apropos of nothing. "With a thousand dollars being the going rate for a whole day, I'll pay you an additional thousand for today and, in case we have to go back again tomorrow, another thousand. Is that okay with you?"

 

Neal's smile faded. Peter's statement was matter-of-fact and calmly spoken, and it felt like a gut-punch. Their arrangement was just that -- an arrangement -- to him, with contractual obligations and a payment plan. There were no actual feelings involved. Neal had known all along that he would get his heart broken sooner or later, but the knowledge alone didn't prevent it from hurting like crazy anyway. "You don't have to pay me extra," he replied quietly.

 

"Nonsense. I hired you for a week and now we're extending it by at least a day. Of course I'll pay you extra." Peter gave Neal's neck another affectionate squeeze, clearly unaware of the emotional pain he was causing the other man. "So we're going to meet my client at the Hampton Classic, watch the horseys run and jump for a while, make a little small talk, maybe meet potential new clients while we're at it, and then we'll go to my client's mansion to look at everything he wants to sell."

 

Neal nodded. "Networking is always a good idea at events like these," he said, just to have something as reply.

 

"I'm sure we'll meet some interesting people," Peter agreed. "You'll charm everyone's socks off again."

 

Neal managed a small smile. "I'll do my best."

 

"Oh, did I ever tell you? My client owns a few Raphaels."

 

That got Neal's attention. "Yeah?"

 

"Hmm-hmm. I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself when we go to evaluate the art. Maybe he even has some of your favorites, who knows?"

 

"My all-time favorite Raphael painting is St. George and the Dragon," Neal said. "I know it's privately owned but I doubt it's your client's."

 

Peter just gave a secretive smile. "We'll see."

 

 *****

 

Neal had never been a big fan of horses -- to him, they were too big, too uncontrollable, wild beasts just waiting to trample you -- but he did enjoy himself once they got to the Hampton Classic. The spectators weren't as snobby as he had feared them to be, and before long he and Peter were talking lively with a variety of different people, from small talk about the weather to actual 'shop talk' about art and auctions.

 

Neal was in the middle of talking to an elderly lady about her latest vacation to Italy when he heard Peter greeting someone. "Mr. Adler," he said. "There you are. So nice to see you again."

 

But it was the other man's voice when he answered that made Neal freeze in shock. "I've told you before to call me Vincent, Peter."

 

The men clearly shook hands, quietly talking about Peter's drive up to the Hamptons and how lovely the weather was. Neal stood ramrod straight, his back still turned, and wished himself a million miles away.

 

"And this is my associate, Neal," he heard Peter saying. A second later, he felt Peter's hand on his upper arm, gently but insistently tugging.

 

"Ah yes. The protégé you were telling me about."

 

Neal had no other choice than to turn around and face Peter's client.

 

Vince.

 

He extended his hand and somehow managed to plaster a smile on his face. "How do you do, Mr. Adler?"

 

Vince looked up sharply and his eyes glinted with barely suppressed contempt. A second later, he was all smiles and charm. "I'm fine, thank you. Please, call me Vincent. Nick, wasn't it?"

 

"Neal, actually," Peter said.

 

"Well then, Neal, I've heard a lot about you."

 

Vince still held Neal's hand in a strong grip, squeezing it hard to make a point. What point, Neal wasn't entirely sure yet, but he was sure it couldn't be anything good.

 

"So, would you like to stay here and take in the Classic for a little while?" Vince asked Peter. "It's really something special. I could introduce you to some of my friends and neighbors. Or we could go straight to my place if you prefer."

 

Peter looked torn, so Neal bravely suggested, "Why don't we stay here for a bit, Peter? I've never been to the Hampton Classic and it really looks like fun. Besides, I'm sure Mr. Adler could introduce you to some interesting people. That would be good for business, right?"

 

"Nick here is absolutely right," Vince said. "Sorry, I meant Neal. I have no idea why I keep messing up your name." The smile Vince flashed was smarmy and insincere but Peter didn't seem to see it.

 

"All right. It's settled then. Let's make the rounds."

 

 

 

It wasn't long until Peter was in deep conversation with an elderly couple who were avid collectors of Asian art.

 

Vince seized the opportunity and pulled Neal aside roughly. "What the hell do you think you're doing here, boy?"

 

Neal wasn't sure how to answer. "Well, I..." He made a vague gesture towards Peter.

 

"Yeah, so you're Burke's fucktoy now or what? Is that why you didn't come when I summoned you?"

 

"What? No, I... It's not what you think. Peter and I..." Neal shook his head helplessly. Then he frowned. "What do you mean, when you summoned me?"

 

"I texted you last Wednesday and told you to come to my place. Same thing on Thursday. And then yesterday. After I met with Burke. I wanted to celebrate and could have really used my favorite fucktoy but you didn't even have the courtesy to reply." Vince's eyes flashed with fury.

 

Neal swallowed hard. He had a burner phone that he used exclusively for clients. They usually texted him; on rare occasions they called. Neal hadn't had use for it this past week and had shoved it into one of the shopping bags from Firth & Sons. It needed to be charged anyway and was dead so he hadn't given it a second thought.

 

Until now.

 

"I call and you show up. That's our arrangement, Nick."

 

"No, it's not. I'm not your property, Vince, and we're not exclusive. I don't know how many times I have to tell you that."

 

The anger radiating from Vince was almost a physical entity. "We'll see about that," he snarled before plastering a smile on his face and walking over to Peter and his new potential clients. "My apologies for interrupting," he said, and he sounded calm and collected and courteous. "I was just wondering if I could borrow my friend, Peter, here for a moment?"

 

Peter immediately excused himself, exchanged business cards and said good-bye to the elderly couple. "New clients," he enthused. "Thank you very much for introducing us, Vincent. They commissioned me to find them some very specific art that I already know where to find." He smiled happily.

 

"That's wonderful, Peter. Now, I was wondering if we should adjourn to my place before it gets too late. You have quite a drive back to the city ahead of you, after all."

 

"Oh, absolutely, yes. Lead the way." Peter gestured toward the exit and they all walked to the parking lot.

 

"I think the easiest way would be if you just followed me," Vince suggested. "I live a few miles away from here so it's only a short drive." They stopped in front of a silver Aston Martin.

 

Peter whistled, impressed. "James Bond would be jealous."

 

"James Bond is actually pissed at me because that's exactly his car," Vince replied with a grin. "Where are you parked?"

 

"Over there." Neal pointed. "You see the Spyder?"

 

Now it was Vince's turn to be jealous. "Nice." He looked at Peter. "Is it for sale?"

 

Peter chuckled. "Unfortunately not. Mrs. Ellington would have my head if I gave you that car."

 

Vince shrugged. "Everything has a price, Peter. You just need to figure out what it is." With one last meaningful look at Neal, Vince got into his car and sped off. Peter and Neal scrambled to catch up with him, and in no time, they parked in front of a very impressive mansion.

 

"Wow," Peter said, staring at the building. "I've seen some beauties in my time. I mean, it comes with the territory of my job. But this one? Wow." He whistled softly.

 

"It's a restored farmhouse," Vince explained. "The studio apartment over the garage is used by the guards that are on 24/7 security detail. I have too many invaluable treasures in my home to just trust the alarm system. Even though it's state-of-the-art, of course." He led them into his home and made a sweeping gesture. "Feel free to look around. I'm going to sell pretty much everything you see here. I might keep a few things out of sentimental reasons but in that case I'll exchange them with things I have in my apartment on the Upper East Side." He shot Neal a meaningful look.

 

"Even if you only sell half of everything, it's still going to be a very impressive list," Peter said, clearly awed. He walked into the double story living room and craned his neck to look at the paintings hanging higher up.

 

Neal tried his best to stay close to Peter without being too obvious about it. Vince gave him the creeps on a good day but right now the man was like a bomb waiting to go off.

 

"Hey Neal," Peter called from an adjacent room and Neal dutifully followed him into the den.

 

"What?"

 

Peter just smiled and pointed.

 

There, on the wall across the impressive mahogany desk, hung St. George and the Dragon.

 

Neal gaped. "Is this for real?"

 

"I don't display fakes," Vince said coldly from the doorway. "Of course it's the real painting."

 

"My apologies," Neal hastened to say. "I didn't mean any disrespect. It's just that this is my favorite painting and I never thought I'd see it with my own two eyes."

 

"Huh." Vince gave Neal a long look. "Guess I should've just hung it up in my apartment then, right?"

 

Neal bit his lip and shook his head slightly, begging Vince with his eyes not to make a scene.

 

Peter, of course, was confused. "What do you mean?"

 

"What do I mean?" Vince echoed. "Well, let me tell you what I mean, Peter." He walked over to Neal and wrapped a proprietary arm around his waist. "Your precious little protégé is nothing but a cheap whore and we both know it."

 

Peter stared in absolute shock while Neal cringed visibly.

 

"Well," Vince continued, his tone philosophical, "cheap isn't really a word I should use when describing our darling Nick here, considering the hourly rate he's going for. But it's worth it, isn't it, Peter? His ass is perfection." Vince grabbed one of Neal's ass cheeks and squeezed it.

 

Peter was still at a loss for words and looked helplessly at Neal.

 

"And I don't blame you. I don't mind you partaking in the glory of boytoys. I'm not a bigot. Hell, I regularly enjoy a nice piece of male ass myself. See, but the thing is..." He squeezed Neal's ass again, this time hard enough to make Neal wince in pain. "This ass is mine. Nick knows better. He never should've paraded it around to entice innocent out-of-towners into spending money on him."

 

Peter was still in shock but finally found his voice again. "Now, wait a minute, Vincent--" he began but was interrupted by Vince.

 

"It's quite simple, Peter. You want the commission, you don't touch Nick's ass, ever again. It's my ass and I'll make sure that he finally understands what that means."

 

"You have no right to talk about Neal like that," Peter thundered. "And I'm not going to get blackmailed by you."

 

Neal shook his head and raised a hand in placation. "It's okay, Peter. Let me handle this." He turned to face Vince but found himself in a vice grip a second later, his head held tightly in place while Vince forced his tongue down Neal's throat.

 

Moments later, Neal stumbled backwards, pushed away by a strong hand. It took him a second to get his bearings, just in time to see Peter felling Vince with a powerful right hook.

 

"Peter!" Neal stared in disbelief at Vince, who had landed hard on the marble floor.

 

"You fucking bastard broke my nose!" Vincent bellowed, trying his best to stem the blood flow. "I'll make sure that your career is over, you bastard."

 

Peter looked unperturbed. He reached for Neal and steered the younger man toward the exit. "Come on, Neal, we're leaving."

 

"What? No, you can't... Peter, we can't just leave him here like this." Neal waved at the still bleeding Vince, but Peter shoved him, gently but firmly, toward the Spyder.

 

"Get in, Neal. We're going back to the city."

 

"You assaulted another man, Peter. We can't leave. He's going to call the cops. If we leave now, you'll be officially on the run."

 

Peter shrugged. "I highly doubt he's going to call the cops on me. Vincent Adler isn't a man who lets others deal with his problems. He solves them himself." Peter got into the car and gave Neal a stern look to do the same. Once Neal was seated behind the wheel, Peter calmly added, "He's going to try to ruin me professionally. The cops are the least of my problems. Now drive, please."

 

Neal was too flabbergasted to respond, so he just started the car and drove off.

 

 *****

 

They were getting close to Manhattan when Neal finally broke the uncomfortable silence. "You can't do that."

 

"I can't do what?"

 

"You can't just decide for me."

 

Peter frowned. "I beg your pardon?"

 

"I told you back there that it was okay. That I would handle it. Vince is...possessive. It was my decision to make whether or not to agree to his terms. I was trying to help you. So you have no right to just say no."

 

"I didn't do this for you, Neal. I did it for me." Neal's head spun around and he stared at Peter in disbelief, but Peter just shrugged. "I know that you can take care of yourself. You don't need a knight in shining armor to come rescue you. But do you seriously believe that I'm going to enter into a business relationship with a man who uses another human being like a piece of meat? What Adler did was extortion. You're right, I can't make decisions for you -- or any other person, for that matter. But I can make my own decisions. And I decide that I will not let anyone blackmail me into doing something by forcing another man's hand."

 

"You're an idiot, Peter," Neal said without heat. "You live in a dream world. This kind of shit happens on a regular basis in the real world."

 

"That might be true but I refuse to be part of such a world."

 

They lapsed into uncomfortable silence again for the rest of the drive.

 

 *****

 

As soon as they entered the hotel suite, Neal walked straight toward the closet. "I think I'd better leave now."

 

"Wait. Neal, wait!" Peter rushed over and reached out a hand but let it drop before he actually touched the younger man.

 

"What is it, Peter?" Neal sounded more defeated than anything. He began to pack his biker boots, leather pants and the white tee shirt -- the outfit he had worn the night he met Peter -- into one of the Firth & Sons shopping bags.

 

"Can't we talk about this?"

 

"What's to talk about?" Neal looked over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow, and then grabbed the cashmere sweater. It was just too damn soft and he couldn't pass up taking it with him. But it was going to be the only additional article of clothing that would come with him.

 

"Well, I admit that things didn't go according to plan but..."

 

"Peter." Neal sighed. "I'm sorry that things escalated like that. If I had known that your client was Vince, I swear I would've made sure not to go near him. I know he gets a bit...possessive. This couldn't end well no matter what, and I'm honestly sorry you lost the contract."

 

"I don't care about the damn contract. I'm a big boy, I can handle that. But what about us?"

 

Neal's eyebrows shot up. "Us?" he echoed in disbelief. He walked over to the table where his art supplies were and began to wrap up the charcoal and pencils.

 

"Yes! I mean, you said it yourself. You make your own decisions. Nobody tells you who you spend any time with. Adler wanted you for himself. He wanted to own you, and you said no. This doesn't have anything to do with me interfering--"

 

"You're right. I don't need a knight in shining armor coming to my defense, Peter. I've done this for a long time and I can take care of myself. The fact that you used violence against another man doesn't really endear you to me, not matter how noble the reason." Neal sighed and rubbed his forehead. He felt so tired.

 

"So you don't think we could continue to see each other in future?" Peter asked hesitantly.

 

Neal gave him a level look. "How would that work exactly?" he asked. "You roll into town every few months and we fuck for a night or two before you leave again?" He shook his head and stuffed his sketchpad into the shopping bag as well. He steadfastly ignored the two sketches lying on the desk: one of Peter in bed, propped up against the headboard with his reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose, his naked chest half-hidden by a file he was reading, and the other one of Peter and Neal in bed, spooning after sex, their fingers intertwined and pressed against Neal's heart.

 

Peter spread his arms wide. "Yes?" he ventured. "Something like that? I would hate not seeing you again, Neal."

 

Neal smiled sadly and walked over to the other man. "What you're proposing isn't enough for me, Peter," he said gently. "I want more. I know it's just a fantasy but I was actually dreaming of a happily ever after. We both know that's not gonna happen." He placed his hand on Peter's heart. "I think I've fallen in love with you, Peter Burke, and I'm not going to torture myself by seeing you every few months for a night or two. I'm sorry." He leaned in to place a soft, sweet, innocent kiss on Peter's lips. "So, I wish you all the best but I think we'd better part ways now." He patted Peter's chest twice, gave another sad smile and walked toward the exit.

 

"Wait!" Peter ran after him. "I... I understand what you're saying. I'm sorry things turned out the way they did. I..." He looked devastated and unsure how to proceed. Finally, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. "At least take the money you earned this past week." When Neal didn't move, Peter dropped the envelope into the shopping bag.

 

Neal took a deep breath and, with a forcibly calm voice, said, "You just treated me more like a whore than Vince ever did." He pulled the envelope out of the shopping bag, placed it on the nearest desk and left the hotel suite.

 

 

 

Three Months Later...

 

"I swear to you, Moz, if you forget your damn key one more ti--" Neal opened the door to their apartment, a glower on his face, but stopped short when he saw who had actually rung the bell. "Peter."

 

"Hey Neal." Peter smiled bashfully, clearly unsure of his welcome. "I see you, uh, you've taken up action painting?"

 

Neal frowned in confusion and looked down at himself. There were a myriad of colorful, mostly dried paint splatters all over his jeans and undershirt. "Oh. No, not action painting. I was just..." He waved one hand vaguely behind him where he had been working on his latest project. He shook his head, as if trying to focus on the problem at hand. "Peter, what are you doing here?"

 

"Would you believe me if I said I was just in the neighborhood?" Peter chuckled nervously.

 

Neal just gave him a look.

 

Peter stared at the other man for a long moment and then sighed deeply. "God, it's so good to see you again, Neal." He took a step forward, opening his arms, his intent clear. He stopped just short of actually hugging Neal though, giving the other man the option to accept or decline the embrace.

 

After a couple of heartbeats, Neal took the half-step needed and walked into Peter's open arms. "It hurts to see you again," he told Peter sincerely. "But yeah, it's also good to see you again." Neal stepped back and looked at Peter, steadfastly refusing to admit -- either to Peter or himself -- that he had really missed the other man. "Seriously though, what brings you here?"

 

Peter shrugged. "I wanted to show you something."

 

Neal's eyebrows shot up. "You came all the way from Chicago to show me something?" he asked in disbelief. His eyes dropped to Peter's empty hands and then to the jacket pockets, waiting for the other man to pull out whatever important thing he wanted to show.

 

Peter just smiled softly and shook his head a little. "Do you have some time?" he asked. "Maybe an hour. Two hours tops."

 

"What, now?"

 

"Yeah, if possible." Peter shrugged. "I'd really like to get your opinion on something but you need to come with me."

 

Neal looked torn. Finally, he just asked, "Do I need to rent a tux for that?"

 

Peter laughed softly. "No. You look just fine. Come on." He looked giddy at the prospect of Neal actually agreeing to come with him.

 

"Yeah, okay. Just give me a minute." Neal looked still unsure but quickly grabbed a shirt and his wallet and keys. As they were walking down the stairs, Neal suddenly frowned. "Hey, wait a minute. How do you know where I live?"

 

Peter smiled. "Elizabeth told me that she became pretty good friends with you."

 

Neal narrowed his eyes. "Traitor," he muttered.

 

"She threatened me with bodily harm if I did anything to hurt you. She's very protective of you."

 

"Still a traitor," Neal mumbled, though his lips curled into a half-smile. "So I take it you're staying at the Ritz again?"

 

At that moment, they stepped outside and Neal was greeted by Fred, who held the door of his limousine open for them.

 

Neal actually began to laugh. "Why am I not surprised?" he said with a shake of his head.

 

Fred grinned broadly and tipped his hat in greeting.

 

"Come on, you," Peter said, guiding Neal into the limousine with his hand gently on Neal's back.

 

"Okay, so where are we going?" Neal asked once they started driving.

 

"You'll see." Peter smiled mysteriously. He couldn't keep his eyes off Neal and just stared at him with a besotted look on his face.

 

"You're freaking me out, Peter."

 

"Sorry." Peter chuckled. "So, how are you doing? Are you still..." Peter waved one hand around.

 

"No. I never enjoyed..." Neal made the same gesture. "It was a means to an end. After what happened between us and Vince, I just...couldn't anymore." He shrugged. "I actually have a part-time job now at one of the galleries you took me to." He smiled, looking happy. "Thank you for that."

 

Peter nodded. "So I've heard. I'm glad it worked out for you."

 

"It barely pays the bills but I have enough free time to paint and I get to sell some of my stuff occasionally so that's nice." Neal gave Peter a sideways look. "What about you? I can only imagine how thrilled your boss must have been after the whole Vince fiasco."

 

"Oh, it worked out just fine. Granted, we lost the commission and that hurt financially, but honestly, I wouldn't work for that bastard even if you paid me."

 

Neal ducked his head and chuckled. "Yeah, he has that effect on most people."

 

The limousine came to a gentle halt and Peter rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Perfect. Here we are. Come on." He didn't even wait for Fred to open the door for them; instead, Peter got out of the limousine and held his hand out for Neal to take.

 

Neal got out as well and looked around curiously. They were parked in front of an impressive looking mansion. "Where are we?"

 

"Riverside." Peter used his hand in the small of Neal's back to guide the younger man toward the front door. He opened it and walked in.

 

"Are we allowed inside? Whose house is this? Peter?" Neal followed the other man slowly.

 

"It's fine, Neal. Come on." Peter smiled reassuringly and led him into the sitting room. "What do you think?"

 

"Think? About what?" Neal was thoroughly confused. The house appeared to be tastefully decorated and furnished, though the hallway and the grand staircase were clearly being renovated.

 

Peter stopped in front of the fireplace and leaned meaningfully against the mantel. Neal was even more confused until his eyes fell on three framed drawings that were hanging above the fireplace.

 

His three drawings. The two portraits of Peter and, in the middle, his drawing of himself and Peter in bed.

 

Neal's jaw dropped. "What...? I don't..." He shook his head slowly, frowning.

 

"You see, after the Adler incident, and Ellington's losing the commission, I went back to Chicago. Adler commissioned Sotheby's and started badmouthing my company. I couldn't allow that to happen, of course." Peter gently steered Neal toward the staircase and led him upstairs. "I came back here to, shall we say, set the record straight." He smirked a little while he showed Neal a couple of rooms on the second floor.

 

Neal still had no idea what was going on but he was impressed by the building, especially the high ceilings and the old hardwood floors.

 

"You have no idea how damaging it can be to your reputation when someone suddenly spills the beans."

 

"Spills the beans? What beans?"

 

"Well, rumor suddenly had it that Adler blackmailed Ellington's. He only wanted to commission us once you agreed to put out."

 

Neal's eyes widened in shock.

 

"Well, it's not even really a lie, is it?" Peter shrugged, looking unrepentant. "Everyone had fallen in love with you, Neal. Pretty much the entire art world in New York was shocked and appalled once they heard what Adler had tried to do. They were completely on our side and understood why we turned down Adler, even though he tried to make it sound as if he had fired us."

 

They arrived on the third floor and Peter proudly showed Neal a couple of bedrooms and the library.

 

Neal still had no clue what was going on but he listened intently. Aside from Peter's story time, Neal was suitably impressed by the gorgeous building.

 

"Last I heard, Adler sold not just his mansion in the Hamptons but also his apartment on the Upper East Side. He's now living somewhere in Europe. Switzerland, I think."

 

"Uh-huh."

 

"Anyway, Mrs. Ellington was impressed with the way I handled the situation. She's also getting on in years so she asked me to take over for her. Which, of course, means that I would work out of Ellington's head office."

 

Now Neal finally caught on. "Which is right here, in Manhattan."

 

Peter smiled and opened the door to the top floor. "I figured if I had to move into this godforsaken town, I'd better do it in style." He waved expansively at the building they were in. "I was also hoping that maybe someone very special to me would give me a second chance." He led Neal into the room on the top floor, a loft-like place with studio skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows that offered the view to an impressive terrace.

 

Neal stared with wide eyes. "Wow," he whispered, turning around slowly, trying to take it all in.

 

"Perfect for an artist, isn't it"? Peter asked quietly. "Lots of natural light." He gestured to the skylights. "It's big enough to act as an apartment. As you can see, there's a kitchenette, around that corner is a bathroom and there's also a large walk-in closet. There's even enough room for a nice king-sized bed in that corner over there." Peter pointed before he turned around to look at Neal almost shyly. "Of course it could also just function as a studio for someone living downstairs."

 

It took Neal a few moments to catch on. "Are you serious?" he asked, flabbergasted.

 

Peter began to look nervous. "You told me that you wanted more. That you needed more. At the time I couldn't give you more, but every single day since you walked out of my hotel suite my heart broke a little more." Peter took Neal's hands in his and squeezed them. "The only reason why I accepted Mrs. Ellington's offer was the fact that I wanted a second chance with you, and I would only get it if I lived here."

 

"Peter..."

 

"I know this is sudden. I don't expect you to give me an answer right away or to pack your bags and move in by the end of the day. I just wanted to show you this place." He waved at the room they were standing in. "Hell, even if you decide not to pick up where we left off, you'll always be welcome to come here and paint."

 

"Oh Peter." Neal looked clearly overwhelmed. After a long moment, he leaned into the other man and wrapped one arm around Peter's waist. "So, uh, this is what you wanted my opinion on? This place? This beautiful, gorgeous, amazing mansion?"

 

"Hmm? Oh, actually, no. That's just what I wanted to show you. There's actually something else I need your opinion on."

 

"Oh?"

 

Peter smiled and disentangled himself from Neal's embrace. He walked over to a nearby easel and lifted a cloth, revealing a framed painting. "I was hoping you could tell me where best to hang this."

 

Neal stared in total disbelief at the painting and made a soft choking noise. With suddenly rubbery legs, he walked slowly over to take a closer look. "Is...is this the real thing?"

 

"You mean, is this the original St. George and the Dragon? Oh yes, it absolutely is."

 

Neal just gaped.

 

Peter shrugged, a smug grin on his face. "Adler sold it, I used a straw man to bid on it for me and I won." He placed his hand in the small of Neal's back and rubbed gentle circles with his thumb. "Nobody deserves this painting more than you, Neal. It's yours. You can take it with you and hang it up in your apartment if you want. You can leave it here and enjoy it when you drop by to paint."

 

Neal blinked hard to keep the tears at bay. "Or we could hang it up in our bedroom downstairs?" he suggested with a shaky voice.

 

Peter response was a blinding smile. Then he grabbed Neal, dipped him Hollywood-style and gave him an enthusiastic kiss.

 

THE END