The thing about Neal is that he is always in Peter’s personal space.
Tonight, he melts out of the shadows draping the alley’s brick walls, and somehow ends up just two inches away from Peter’s face.
“Hello, Officer,” he says, batting his eyelashes in a way that probably even a sixteen-year-old knows isn’t actually seductive.
“Hey, trouble,” Peter greets him, narrowing his eyes – Neal ducks his head with a pleased grin, the way he always does when Peter says that. He likes it, which means Peter should probably stop saying it, but that’s a losing battle anyway.
“You look good tonight,” Neal purrs, looking him up and down.
Peter sighs. “You say that every night,” he reminds Neal.
“And you never say it back.” Neal is trying to pout, but his eyes are dancing, and nobody’s fooled.
Peter’s not a tall man, but Neal barely comes up to his nose – he’s just sixteen, so probably he’s still got a few inches to grow, if he lives long enough to get the chance. He’s in his usual uniform—tight, worn jeans and a white t-shirt that’s damn near see-through. It’s a little chilly out tonight, and that shirt’s too thin to provide any real warmth, but Peter knows better than to offer the kid his jacket. The one time he’d given in to his stupid instincts, he’d spent half an hour chasing a laughing, red-cheeked Neal up and down alleyways and fire escapes. Oh, he’d never actually doubted that Neal would give it back – it was more the when and the how that had him cursing and puffing his way through a maze of alleys.
Then he’d made the mistake of actually catching Neal, which ended with Neal panting into his lips from half an inch away, invading Peter’s space like—
Well, like he is right now.
“Back,” Peter says, rolling his eyes and performing his finely-honed teen-prostitute separation technique: two fingers in the middle of the forehead, and a firm but gentle push until a professional level of space is re-established.
“You never let me have any fun,” Neal complains.
“Yeah, because that’s what I’m here for,” Peter mutters dryly. “Fun.”
“You could be.” Neal’s back in his space again, looking up at Peter through his lashes—not hard to do when he’s so short. “That’s what I’m here for,” he says, low and intent.
Peter sighs. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, long-suffering, and prods Neal in the forehead again. It works about as well as it ever does: better than anything else Peter has tried, but not even close to permanent.
“I didn’t see you last night,” Neal complains, fiddling with one of the empty belt loops on his jeans and shooting Peter a wounded look. Peter refuses to let it move him.
“I’m allowed to have a night off now and then, Neal.”
“No, you’re not,” Neal declares, like Peter is the one being unreasonable – his lower lip is sticking out ridiculously. “I missed you.”
Peter snorts, and crosses his arms. “I’m sure you found something to do with your time.” As soon as he’s said it, he hears himself and winces – Neal confines himself to just a grin, and the words, “Several somethings,” uttered with as much breezy innuendo as he can pack in. “But it’s not the same without you,” Neal continues, looking forlorn. “Officer Minkell was doing the rounds.”
“What’s wrong with Officer Minkell?” Peter asks. He likes Susan, and she’s been on this job for longer than Peter’s been legal to drive. He can’t imagine her giving Neal any trouble.
“Nothing!” Neal assures him, holding out his hands placatingly. “We had a nice talk. She wouldn’t tell me your name, though.” He pouts – Peter raises an eyebrow and says, “Good.”
“Come onnn, Officer…” Neal throws himself back against the brick of the alleyway, bouncing a little against the wall as he whines at Peter pitifully.
“Not gonna happen,” says Peter, man enough to admit that he’s enjoying himself a little.
“I’ll do anything,” Neal promises, voice dark and eyes full of heat where they hold Peter’s. “And when I say anything, I mean—”
“Please don’t finish that sentence,” Peter says, without any real hope, and Neal’s mouth twitches; for a second, he pauses, eyes flicking up and to the left, calculating. Then he offers generously, “I’ll promise not to finish that sentence if you tell me your name.”
Peter laughs, and his breath makes a cloud around his face in the chilly night. “Good recovery.”
“Not a chance.”
Neal huffs out the beginning of a laugh – the kind of fond, exasperated sound that’s usually Peter’s stock in trade. “Come on, Officer Burke, there’s gotta be something…”
“There’s one thing,” Peter says, reluctantly – Neal’s eyes light up like Christmas and he gravitates closer to Peter again, just outside of Peter’s personal space radius.
“You can tell me, Officer,” he says, with wide-eyed sincerity. “I don’t judge. I’ll try anything.”
Peter rolls his eyes, then takes a deep breath and says, for what feels like the hundredth time, “I still have that business card—”
“Not this again,” Neal groans, with all the drama of a two-bit Hamlet, wheeling away from Peter and lifting a hand theatrically to his forehead.
Doggedly, Peter continues, “Her name is Shawna, she’s very nice, she wants to help – it’s her job—”
“Don’t you get tired of doing this over and over again?” Neal asks, and there’s an edge starting to grow under the teasing in his voice. “I know I sure do.”
Peter hesitates. Neal’s walked away before, when he’s pushed it, just dropped the conversation dead and taken off, and he doesn’t want that to happen again, but…
“You don’t have to commit to anything,” Peter says, quiet. “You could just talk to her, see if maybe—”
“Wow, are we still talking about this?” Neal asks, his voice so heavy and hard with forced boredom that Peter feels it hit him like a baseball bat. Pointedly, Neal picks up a discarded piece of paper off the sidewalk and peers at it. “Who buys five value packs of chocolate pudding, a pineapple, and two canisters of fish food? And nothing else?” He waves the receipt at Peter, who sighs.
“Okay, Neal,” he says wearily. “Okay.”
He turns away – his appetite for this conversation is gone, and this isn’t exactly the only alleyway on his beat. It’s chilly enough out here that his hands are stiff, and he shoves them in his pockets, harder than he has to.
Peter doesn’t hear any movement, but suddenly he feels something warm against his back – and when he turns, the warmth moves with him. It’s Neal’s hand, on his shoulder now. Neal’s chin is down, throwing his face into shadow – Peter can’t read his expression at all, but the curve of his shoulders and the scuff of his sneaker on the concrete are apologetic.
“Hey,” Neal says softly, eyes flicking up to Peter’s face, then back down to the pavement. “Don’t be mad. It’s—sweet. You’re sweet. I just don’t…” Peter waits for him to finish the thought, but Neal leaves it there, and shrugs. Peter wishes he knew what words fit in that empty space.
“I’m sweet, huh?” he asks, cracking a smile – when Neal glances up and sees it, he relaxes, and leans into Peter flirtatiously.
“Positively delicious,” he affirms, eyes dancing.
Patiently, Peter removes Neal’s hand from his shoulder, and Neal’s face from his personal space, for what feels like the fifth time tonight. He teases, “I thought I was a big meanie who spoiled all your fun.”
Neal smiles, but he doesn’t come back with the smart remark that Peter’s expecting – just watches Peter, silently, something warm in his eyes. His arms are crossed across his chest, and Peter can’t help noticing how little meat there is on his bones, or the goosebumps all up and down his skin on this shivering night.
“You deserve better than this, Neal,” Peter says – it doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s what he’s got. Neal’s smile turns wistful, and he turns his face up, out toward the cloudy, bitter sky, though his eyes are closed.
“It’s nice, sometimes… that there’s somebody out there who believes that.” Then Neal shoots Peter a sideways look, grinning. “Even if he is a big meanie who spoils all my fun,” he concludes, spell broken.
I wish you believed it, Peter thinks, but all he says is, “Good night, Neal.”
“Good night, Officer Burke,” drifts out of the darkness behind him as he walks away, and Peter smiles in spite of himself.
Susan likes to joke sometimes that they’re basically just babysitters with guns in this precinct – well, Peter thinks to himself, usually it’s a joke. Tonight, not so much. Robinson is chauffeuring around these two detectives, and Peter, the rookie, gets all the fun of being left behind on the street to guard the car. It’s not what Peter had pictured when he signed up for the Academy, but then, none of the rest of it has been, either.
Speaking of which…
Peter had taken thirty seconds – all right, sixty at the most – to go check out a weird noise just down the block, and of course when he gets back, Neal is leaning against the hood of the squad car. As soon as Peter sees him, he hooks a thumb in his empty belt loop, dragging the waistband of his jeans down on one side; the move is supposed to look casual, but Peter’s not dumb enough to think it’s an accident that the denim sags down far enough to make it perfectly plain Neal’s not wearing a damn thing under it.
“Nice wheels, Officer. Want to give me a ride?” Neal’s voice is dripping with suggestion, and the angle of his hips against the hood of the car is as subtle as a beckoning finger. Peter sighs and narrows his eyes.
“Do you have a list or something? Of ridiculous come-ons? Because you never seem to run out, but I never hear you repeat one—”
Neal grins, wide and dirty, and declares, “Oh, I can go all night long.”
“So that’s a yes, then.” Peter rolls his eyes. “Stop loitering on police property, and for God’s sake, pull your pants up.”
“Oh – sorry, Officer. I didn’t realize I was distracting you,” Neal says, smirking – he doesn’t pull up his jeans, of course, but he at least stops dragging them down, and he and Peter trade places; Peter leaning against the car, Neal bouncing on his toes just on the edge of Peter’s personal space.
“Seriously, though – a car. You’re moving up in the world.”
“It’s not mine. I’m on car-sitting duty,” Peter explains.
“Ouch,” Neal laughs. “Bo-ring.”
“Yeah, the glamorous life of a beat cop,” Peter says, with a rueful smile.
“Well, at least you have me to entertain you.”
Peter raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, thank god for that.”
Neal huffs. “I can go, you know,” he tells Peter, frosty as a snubbed society lady, and Peter shakes his head before he can even think about it, saying, “No, no, don’t go.”
“I knew it,” Neal announces, looking pleased with himself. “I knew it.” He lifts his arms in the air and starts a little twirling dance, making some kind of hilarious raise-the-roof gesture that makes Peter laugh so hard he’s bent double against the hood of the car.
“Shit!” Neal suddenly dives for the ground – Peter runs up to him, worried. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just – dropped something,” Neal says, stuffing whatever it was in the back of his jeans. Peter gets a glimpse of it.
“Oh, your… book, or whatever.” Peter’s seen Neal with the spiral-bound book a couple of times before – curious, he bends down and tugs it out. Neal snatches it back, glaring, and they have a little tug of war before Neal successfully pries it back out of Peter’s hands and shoves it back in his waistband, pulling his t-shirt down over it and narrowing his eyes at Peter balefully.
Peter grins. “This is a nice change – me getting under your skin for once.”
A slow smile spreads across Neal’s face – he sets a hand deliberately on the front of Peter’s thigh, and Peter is suddenly very aware that Neal is on his knees in front of Peter, looking up through long eyelashes with a wicked, incendiary smirk.
“Under my skin, huh?” he murmurs, voice low and rough – his eyes are magnetic, flame-blue, and the knees of his jeans are damp and gritty.
“Up,” Peter replies, rolling his eyes and grabbing the back of Neal’s shirt, pulling him upright like picking up a puppy by the scruff of its neck.
Neal whines like a puppy, too, when Peter deposits him summarily on his feet. “I liked it down there,” he complains, shooting Peter a sly look.
“You’re incorrigible,” Peter informs him.
“What does that word actually mean?” Neal frowns inquisitively. “Like, where does it come from? How do you ‘corrige’ somebody?”
“If anybody could figure it out, it would be you,” Peter mutters.
“Oh, Officer,” Neal coos, batting his eyelashes ridiculously, “you say just the sweetest things.”
Peter cracks up, and Neal joins him. His laughter is like birdsong, like his eyes – bright and clear.
“Burke!” A voice breaks through the laughter, and Neal startles. Before Peter can say anything, the kid fades away into the shadow of a nearby fire escape. It’s Robinson and the detectives – they’ve got a suspect with them, and Peter resigns himself to walking back to the station. As soon as the car is gone, Peter looks around for Neal – probably he vanished the minute Robinson showed up, but he gives it the old college try anyway. When Neal is nowhere to be seen, Peter turns to head for the station.
“I want you to know,” Neal’s voice says from over his shoulder (of course he couldn’t come out when Peter was actually looking for him – that would be too easy, Peter thinks, heaving a mental sigh), “that I absolutely hate wasting time. And so while I was waiting for your friends to leave, I spent the time pondering the very important question of what you might do to ‘corrige’ somebody, and I came up with some really inspiring possibilities.”
Peter stops and turns, an expression of disapproval already fixed on his face, and nearly chokes at Neal’s own expression, glowing dramatically in the light of the streetlamp. It’s more than a little disturbing how easily Neal can put on an air of sheer angelic innocence – how quickly his eyes go wide and earnest, and how even Peter, who knows fifty kinds of better by now, is almost sucked in for a half-second. “Don’t list them for me,” he says preemptively – still wearing his painted-saint look, Neal pulls in a breath through his artistically parted lips, and Peter braces himself—
“Now will you tell me your name?” Neal asks, grinning, sidling into Peter’s space like always. “Because I can go on, I really can, but I wanted to give you this opportunity to—”
“You never give up, do you?” Peter shakes his head, half-admiring, half-amused – he detaches Neal from his side with practiced ease and laughs at Neal’s betrayed pout.
“Hey, there are a lot of people in the world who would kill for this kind of devoted attention,” protests Neal, hovering at the edge of Peter’s radius, arms hanging gangly at his sides.
“Yeah, well, there are a lot of weirdos in the world,” Peter mutters.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Neal replies, and the cynical tone in his voice brings Peter up short, reminds him…
“I guess not,” Peter says gently.
“I mean, I could tell you stories…” Neal recovers, pulling his shiny plastic smile back on – Peter shakes his head and says with feeling, “Please don’t.”
Neal laughs. “You’re so negative, Officer Burke – you’re always ‘Don’t do this,’ ‘Don’t do that,’ don’t, don’t, don’t…” He shakes his finger at Peter with every “don’t,” and it turns into a chant, Neal dancing in little circles around Peter, singing “don’t, don’t, don’t,” with great glee while Peter tries to be offended and just ends up laughing.
“That’s me. Just call me Officer Don’t.”
“I will now. You wait and see.” Neal’s attempt at a threatening tone of voice is ruined by the big grin stretching across his face. “Until you tell me your real name, it’s Officer Don’t from now on.”
Peter rolls his eyes. “So, forever, then.”
“You’ll tell me eventually,” Neal says confidently, and Peter cocks his head to one side, curious in spite of himself.
“And what makes you say that?”
Neal winks. “I’m very persuasive.”
And, of course, he’s in Peter’s space again.
“Good night, Neal,” Peter recites, shaking his head and detaching Neal yet again. Neal grumbles but lets himself be detached.
“Leaving so soon?”
“Believe it or not, I do other things at night besides spoil your fun.”
Neal raises an eyebrow. “Oh, do tell.”
Neal wrinkles his nose. “Just work things?”
“I’m leaving,” Peter declares in a loud voice.
“Good night, trouble,” Peter says—fond in spite of himself—he doesn’t wait around to see Neal’s pleased smile follow him out of the alley, but he knows it’s there anyway.
Usually, Neal sees Peter long before Peter sees Neal, so it gives Peter a bit of a kick to ask, “What are you wearing?” and see Neal whirl around, eyes wide. When he sees that it’s Peter, he grins, and reaches a hand up to the brim of his hat .
“It’s a hat,” he says, unnecessarily, grin growing crooked and sweet. “Do you like it?”
The orange chemical light of the streetlamp strokes Neal’s face – his blue eyes look up at Peter from under the brim of his hat, an old-fashioned grey felt fedora like you might wear with a bespoke suit, and it takes Peter’s fucking breath away.
The hat turns Neal’s face into one of those optical illusions where, depending on how you look at it, you can see the young woman or the old woman; all at once, Peter can see the man Neal will grow up to be, the way he’ll grow into those sharp cheekbones and God, Peter thinks, he’ll be a heartbreaker. At the same time, Peter can’t help but see what a boy Neal is, the hat just slightly too big for him and falling over his eyes, a kid playing dress-up in his older brother’s clothes.
Some of this must show on Peter’s face, because Neal’s ink-smear brows draw down slightly, and he asks, “What?”
“That hat is ridiculous,” Peter says, and Neal’s face clears, a blue sky at midnight.
“Now, now, Officer,” he teases, looking up again from under the hat brim – it’s killing Peter. “Not everyone can be as stylish as I am.”
“Thank God for that,” mutters Peter – Neal leans in and perches his elbow on Peter’s shoulder.
“I do have excellent taste,” he says.
“In hats, in men…” Neal offers, with a breezy wink.
In a low voice, Peter says, “And the guy who gave you this? You pick him out with your ‘excellent taste?’” He reaches up to trace his thumb over the warm, pink curve of the black eye hiding in the shadow of Neal’s hat brim.
Like the quick outward snap of a bird’s wing, Neal’s hand is flying up, trapping Peter’s hand against his cheek, a charade of a caress. Peter starts to pull away, but Neal’s surprisingly strong, and Peter can feel the creases of Neal’s smile against his palm as Neal laughs at him and clings onto his hand for the thirty seconds it takes Peter to realize that he’s got six years and fifty pounds at least on this kid, and it’s his own damn hand anyway, thank you very much.
“You kidnapped my hand,” he huffs, shaking it out theatrically like Neal’s long, slender pickpocket’s fingers had somehow crushed his own, sturdy ones.
Neal’s eyes sparkle with amusement. “You touched my face,” he points out.
“I touched your bruise.”
“Which was on my face.”
Which is, all right, true, but totally not the point – Peter glares and accepts it in good grace when Neal turns his head into the curve of his shoulder and laughs.
“Yeah, yeah, kid, yuk it up,” Peter grouses.
“I’m touched, Officer—literally,” Neal says, putting on a wide-eyed, solemn face.
“No,” Peter says, quietly—because the angle of Neal’s head has exposed the bruise again, and it’s a whopper: ugly purple and green and mottled around the edges. It makes Peter’s eye hurt just looking at it. He knows better than to reach out, this time, but he keeps his gaze steady when he says, “Neal, that’s not touched, that’s—”
“That’s not funny, Neal.”
Neal sighs theatrically. “And again with you not thinking my jokes are funny. Why is that?”
“Because this isn’t a joke, Neal,” Peter snaps, frustrated. He prods Neal in the forehead until Neal’s spotlighted in orange streetlight glow, and—sure enough, the black eye’s just the easiest to spot. With better light, Peter can pick out other dark shadows on Neal’s bare skin – a splotch of stippled eggplant purple on his upper arm, and—Peter’s stomach drops when he sees it—a dark, wide band around Neal’s throat, faded but unmistakable.
“Jesus,” he breathes, and reaches out a shaking hand – he catches himself a second before his fingers make contact with Neal’s bare neck, but Neal flinches anyway. “Jesus,” Peter repeats, louder, feeling a low, hot anger start to bubble in his gut. “What the hell is worth this? Tell me, Neal,” he demands, harsh enough that Neal takes a step back, eyes wide. “You could be killed—”
“I had it under control,” Neal says, voice thin and words fast enough that they can both tell it’s a lie.
“Unbelievable.” Peter shakes his head until he can’t tell if it’s Neal’s bruises or the vertigo that are making him feel like he’s going to vomit.
“Officer…” Neal tries, pleading, holding out a tentative hand.
“Do you even care?” Peter asks, over the buzzing in his ears. “Whether you get killed out here? Is this some kind of—”
“Screw you, yeah, I care,” Neal says, chest heaving. His eyes are narrowed, and the line of his back is defensive, sharp. “You don’t know the first thing about me, I have people depending on me, okay—”
That doesn’t make a damn bit of sense to Peter until he remembers—“Those kids I see you around with sometimes?”
“That’s right—” Neal snarls.
“What, your little hookers-in-training—”
Neal stumbles back, breath rattling in his throat, and Peter wishes to God he could stuff his hasty words back down his gullet, but before he can even draw air to apologize, Neal has turned on him, his back up like a kicked cat’s.
“Screw. You.” Neal’s voice is savage, raw. “I’m the only one who tricks,” he spits. “Is that what you think – that I’d let them do this? That I’d let guys—”
“But it’s okay for it to happen to you,” Peter says, flat as pavement.
“They’re just kids—” Neal replies, voice cracking.
“You’re just a kid—”
And God, he is, Peter thinks painfully – Neal looks so small like this, cornered and bruised. He sounds desperate when he says, “They’re little kids, they’re—they shouldn’t have to—I’m the oldest. I take care of them. I know what I’m doing.”
“And do they? Do they know what you do?”
“I don’t bring it home, if that’s what you’re asking,” Neal says tightly. “If you’re asking, do they know that I trick, then yeah, they do. I don’t try to hide it from them. They’re not stupid.”
“And what do they think about that?” Peter’s genuinely having trouble wrapping his head around it. He doesn’t mean it as a dig, but from the way Neal glares at him, that’s how it came out.
“What do they think?” A terrible tiredness comes over Neal’s face, and his voice is low when he continues. “They think they have warm, mostly clean clothes to wear. They think they have almost enough food to eat, and a safe place to sleep. They don’t judge me, or treat me like I’m a piece of shit because of how I make all that happen – that’s just you, Officer,” he finishes bitterly. It’s meant to sting, and it does.
“Neal, I don’t—” Peter stops to collect himself, then tries again, more calmly. “I don’t think less of you for what you do, Neal. I don’t like it. I hate it,” he admits. “But not because I think—it’s because it’s hurting you, Neal, you’ve gotta see that.”
“Yeah, well,” Neal shrugs, avoiding eye contact with Peter. “Life hurts.”
“Yes,” Peter concedes, then adds quietly, “but sixteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to know that yet.”
Neal steps closer to Peter, just a little, and he studies Peter’s face without trying to be surreptitious about it – Peter tries to wear his sincerity where Neal can read it. It’s impossible for Peter not to study Neal right back; impossible for his gaze not to catch on the bruise hiding in the shadow of the brim of that ridiculous hat; impossible for the sight of it not to punch through Peter’s sternum like a nail through drywall. Hesitantly, Neal’s body language opens up again, like a flower, and he comes closer to Peter – close enough that, normally, Peter would push him back. This time, Peter doesn’t even think about pushing him away.
“Well… I’ve always been precocious,” says Neal, summoning up a watered-down version of his usual grin.
“That’s one word for it,” Peter mutters. Neal cracks a tentative smile, and Peter feels something in his chest unknot.
As a peace offering, he says, “Tell me about them. Your kids.”
Neal chews on his bottom lip. “I don’t know what you want to know. They’re runaways.”
“Yeah. We stick together. We all have to stick together, out here. Stupid not to.” He shrugs. “I mean, some people are stupid. But—Miranda and June, and Tana – that’s them. Um—my kids. And the others, like Terry and Kim—they understand.”
And Peter hears what Neal doesn’t say: that for all his good intentions, Peter never will, not really. Peter’s childhood wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, sure – his dad died when he was eight, and Peter’d somehow gotten it in his head that that meant he was the man of the house. Every time Mom put back some pretty scarf in a store and said, “Too showy for me, Pete,” Peter knew it was really because they couldn’t afford to do more than pay the bills (and sometimes not even that), even with Paula’s babysitting and his own paper routes and lawn-mowing. He’d felt like his dad was looking down at him from heaven and was… disappointed. But Peter never doubted for one second – not one – that he was loved.
Somewhere in Neal’s past is a slow drip of poison that nursed him on the thought that this life – this mindblowingly cruel, shitty life – is somehow something that he deserves. Peter will probably never be able to put a name or a face on that poison, but it wouldn’t really matter if he could – he still wouldn’t understand. He’d still be standing on the outside of the hall of mirrors, reaching in.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” Peter says, and feels bad that it took him this long to say it.
Neal’s eyebrows lift a little, and then a sardonic blankness falls across his face. “I’m not your girlfriend, Officer Burke. You don’t have to make nice with me.”
“It’s not ‘being nice.’ I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I don’t have the right,” Peter admits, and it costs him something to say it – Neal seems to see that, because his face softens. He says, “Believe me, I hear worse – get called worse.”
“Well, you shouldn’t.”
“Well, I do.”
“Well, not by me,” Peter says stubbornly. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he repeats. “And I said some things—some things I shouldn’t have said, and I—”
Neal shakes his head. “Seriously. You don’t have to apologize. I’m not—I’m not that easy to bruise,” Neal says, then catches himself, remembering – his eyes go wide, and his hand rises almost to his throat before he yanks it down, his face broadcasting oh, shit loudly enough that Peter swallows down his own reply. There’s nothing he was going to say that Neal hasn’t thought of, anyway. “I—I should go,” Neal stammers, and Peter doesn’t know what it means that, for once, Neal is the one walking away, and Peter’s the one being left behind.
“Okay, Neal,” he says, as gently as he can, and because he can’t help himself, “Stay safe. Please.”
“Sure,” Neal murmurs, and he doesn’t meet Peter’s eyes again. He just backs away, gaze down, until the hungry alleys swallow him up and the sound of his footsteps and the white smudge of his t-shirt, distant, could just be Peter’s imagination. For the first time, Peter can’t stop the thought—I might never see him again. And I would never even know for sure why—from creeping into the back of his mind. It stays there until his head hits the pillow in the morning, and his dreams are grey and heavy, like concrete, or hovering rain.
It’s depressing how familiar the sound of flesh striking flesh has become to Peter since taking this job – he runs toward it, picking up speed when he hears a cry of pain. He rounds the corner into the alley just in time to see a thin man in a blue button-down shirt backhand Neal across the face, hard enough to put Neal on the ground.
Both Neal and the other man look up sharply at the sound of Peter’s footsteps. When Neal sees Peter there, Peter expects him to look relieved. Instead, he’s battered by the flash of naked, miserable shame that crosses Neal’s face before he looks down quickly, hiding his expression.
“Do we have a problem here?” Peter says dangerously. No one moves.
“I said, do we have a problem here?”
“No, Officer,” Neal mumbles, “no problem.”
“That’s funny – because it kind of sounded like there was a problem.”
The tall guy is trying to blend into the brick wall, and Neal still won’t look at Peter. Peter gets right up in the guy’s face, and says, “I don’t think I’m making myself clear, asshole. If you’re not out of my sight in five seconds or less, we are going to have. A fucking. Problem.”
The guy hightails it out of there. Neal is still on the ground. He still won’t look at Peter.
“Sorry,” he says, so softly Peter can barely make it out.
“Did you just apologize?” Peter asks, bewildered.
“I—” Neal falls silent. Slowly, he brings a hand up to his face.
“Okay, that’s it,” Peter decides. He grabs Neal by the arm and starts dragging him.
“What are you doing?”
Peter says, “I’m bringing you in on suspicion of solicitation.”
Neal gapes at him, mouth hanging open unattractively. “Oh, come on! You’re kidding me, right?”
“Officer—! No way, no way—”
“Yes way,” Peter says grimly. He can tell Neal believes him when he starts trying to jerk his wrist out of Peter’s grasp. He’s wiry for his age, and motivated, too, but Peter is not in the goddamn mood, and he tightens his grip carefully but surely until Neal gives one last, petulant yank and gives up, glaring.
“This sucks! You can’t do this!” Neal sputters.
Peter raises an eyebrow and keeps tugging Neal along steadily behind him. “Oh, I really can.”
Neal digs in his heels, and when Peter turns his head to look back at him, Neal’s glare is pointed enough to jab right through Peter’s already-frayed calm.
“I know,” Peter bites off, “every night, that you get treated like crap by these guys, but I don’t usually have to imagine it so goddamn vividly, all right? For the rest of tonight – for the rest of this one night – you’re not getting knocked around by any more assholes in leather shoes.”
Neal snorts, giving Peter a jaded look. “No, I get to get knocked around by assholes in police badges, instead.”
“Neal—.” Peter sighs. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
Neal sulks – there’s no other word for it, and if Peter were a better man or a better cop, he would turn right around and march Neal to the station without another word, to hell with Neal’s opinion of the situation or his tender feelings.
Instead, Peter takes a deep breath and says, “Look, don’t think of this as being arrested – this of this as a golden opportunity to spend the next several hours sexually harassing me.”
Neal brightens. “When you put it like that…”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Peter mutters, rueful.
At the station, Peter manfully ignores Susan’s amused look as he takes Neal’s prints and enters Neal’s—doubtless fake—name and vital data into the system. As he expected, the only thing that pops up on the screen are Neal’s past priors for loitering and solicitation.
“Any chance I could get you to give me your real name?” Peter asks, resigned to the “no” he gets.
“It wouldn’t pull anything up anyway,” Neal elaborates.
“No one ever reported you missing?”
Neal shrugs, and doesn’t meet Peter’s eyes. “In order to be missing, you kind of have to be missed.”
When Peter was a kid, his whole world had been founded on the bedrock of his mom’s and his sister’s love – friends had come and gone, sure, but Peter had always known that if he’d been unaccounted for, even just for a day, his mother would have sent out a goddamn search party. He’d taken for granted the fact that he was precious to her – and it was a fact, the way “air is breathable” is a fact, and “the sun produces light” is a fact. He doesn’t know what to do with the casual, scabbed-over pain in Neal’s eyes, so old and at home there that it almost looks like a friend.
Neal’s watching Peter too steadily, and Peter doesn’t know how to meet that gaze any more now than he did two minutes ago, so he mutters something about paperwork and goes to hand some forms to Susan. While she flips through them, she says, fake-casual, “It’s a devil’s bargain, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I used to do that all the time – bring street kids in and hold ‘em overnight so they weren’t turning tricks. The good side is, they weren’t turning tricks – simple enough. The bad side is – they weren’t turning tricks. Meaning rent wasn’t getting paid, meaning food wasn’t getting bought – condoms, warm clothes. Your kid in there is falling behind, every minute he sits in lockup.”
“I know,” Peter says, and he does. It’s the only reason he doesn’t haul Neal in here every damn night. “But tonight I just had to. Anyway, he’s not my kid.”
Susan snorts. “He follows you around like a puppy dog – it’s kind of adorable.”
Peter mutters something unintelligible even to himself, and blushes.
It’s a slow night, so it’s not hard for Peter to find an empty cell to stash Neal in. There’s no guarantee it’ll stay empty, though. So when Neal says, eyes wide, “You should stay in here with me. Who knows what kind of dangerous characters might come in here and try and take advantage of me?”, Peter grumbles, “Yeah, right,” but he sits down on one of the other benches because the hell of it is – Neal’s not wrong.
Neal sprawls out across the bench, throwing his arms over his head. When he sees Peter’s watching him, he grins, “Like what you see?”
“Jesus, kid, I can see your ribs. You need to eat more.”
“Are you offering to feed me?” Neal licks his lips in a way that’s probably supposed to be provocative – Peter’s not impressed.
“The vending machines are right across the hall,” he says dryly, making as if to get up – Neal pouts and says quickly, “No, don’t—”
“That’s what I thought.” Peter settles back against the wall again. “Seriously, though, Neal – you look like a skeleton. Eat something now and then.”
“I eat plenty. Some nights, all I do is eat.” He smirks at the look on Peter’s face, then puts on a mock-tragic frown. “It’s so sad how you never think my jokes are funny.”
“Neal,” Peter says quietly. “This isn’t good. Not for you. Not for anybody.”
“And where do you think I should go instead?” Neal shoots back, eyes hard. “Back home?”
Peter suddenly feels old. He leans back against the concrete wall behind him and admits, “I don’t know. Given that the way you live right now is apparently still preferable to whatever was happening to you back there, I’m going to guess not.”
“You guess right,” Neal replies, soft but bitter.
“But there are shelters, programs—I still have the number of that social worker who does outreach at the precinct—” Peter tries – Neal cuts him off with a sharp look.
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”
“I know that,” Peter says. And he does.
“Then why keep trying to… save me?” asks Neal. he looks genuinely curious, like Peter is a peculiar relic of some bygone era or a quaint visitor from some backward country.
“Same reason you keep trying—pathetically—to flirt with me, probably,” Peter mutters.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” Neal says, smiling.
Neal shrugs on an air of casualness, and Peter leans back a little, narrowing his eyes. It fits him like everything else he wears: too tight, too adult. Trying too hard. “You could, you know, for real,” Neal says, his voice breezy, silky – but as long as Peter can see his eyes, Neal will never fool him. “You always could—can. On the house.”
This isn’t a joke, or a tease – not Neal’s usual virtuosic whirl of charm and filth. It’s a statement of fact, and Peter grimaces, because he can’t help but know it’s true.
“Yeah, I know all about the ‘cops get freebies’ rule – and it’s disgusting, by the way—”
Neal looks honestly surprised. “Oh. Yeah, that’s true, but – that’s not why. It’s—I like you,” Neal says, and he shrugs while he says it but the words come out soft.
“Yeah, right,” Peter says, snorting – he’s thinking of how he’s dragged Neal in here and locked him up on a working night, how Neal lashes out every time Peter can’t help seeing something bright and undented in him—but Neal takes it as a more general statement of disbelief, and he looks taken aback for a second, then wounded.
“I do.” Neal props himself up on his elbows, narrowing his eyes at Peter. “I can… like people. Just because I fake it with them doesn’t mean I don’t have—that everything is fake—what, you think I’m not a real person who can like things, who can feel real things anymore—”
“No, geez, Neal—that’s not what…” Peter stammers, upset – that’s so many hundreds of miles away from what Peter had been thinking, what Peter could ever think. Neal’s heartbreak has never been that he feels too little.
“That’s not what?” Neal prods. “What?”
“That’s not what I was thinking,” Peter tries to explain. “I was just thinking about how I—but then again,” Peter says ruefully, “you’re a major pain in my ass, and I like you, so I guess it’s not that hard to believe.”
Neal sits halfway up on his elbows, looking at Peter. “You like me?”
“God help me,” Peter says, letting the admission go – Neal’s eyes are bright and his smile stretches all the way across his face.
“God knows why.”
“You liiike me,” Neal sing-songs, but his voice is soft and thrilled under the teasing tone.
“Yeah, yeah,” Peter grumbles.
“You like me best,” Neal decides, and Peter laughs, asking, “Best of what?”
“Mmm, best of anything you want,” Neal purrs, stretching again, smile still Cheshire-wide. “You’ve got to admit there’s a lot to like.”
“I don’t have to admit any such thing—”
“Come on, Officer – I like you, you adore me—”
“Oh, it’s adore, now, is it—” Peter says, amused.
“—it’s late at night, we’re all alone…”
“In a cell,” Peter points out.
“You say that like it makes this situation less pornographic, not more.” Neal’s lips twitch. “That’s so cute. Or possibly kind of tragic. You really should let me widen your horizons. And when I say horizons, I mean—”
“Oh, God,” Peter moans.
“Pro bono publico. Out of the goodness of my heart. Come on, Officer Burke, what do you say?” Neal licks his lower lip slowly, so slowly, leaving it pink and shining – his eyes lock on to Peter’s and don’t let go. “I can tell,” he says, lower, intent, “You’ve never had anyone like me – never had it the way I could give it to you—”
“Neal, I’m a professional and a goddamn adult—” Peter starts, taking a breath to really get rolling, but—
“I know, I know.” Neal waves a hand in the air languidly, not even looking at it, eyes still on Peter. “Come on, Officer – you know it’s your fault for making it so much fun. I mean, the look on your face…” Neal trails off, smirking, and Peter rolls his eyes.
“You wouldn’t even know what to do if I ever actually said yes.”
“Oh, no.” The change comes back over Neal’s face and body so fast it’s like a streetlamp popping – his hips cant against the bench, his left arm dangles, long and pale, over the edge. He looks five years older and not even close to old enough. “Trust me,” he says, voice suddenly deadly serious. “I’d know exactly what to do. Best you’d ever had.”
“I don’t have people, Neal,” Peter says, frustrated at losing him to this angular, hard-eyed creature again – but the change doesn’t last long in this incarnation either. In the blink of an eye, Neal’s just a big-eyed kid again, lolling around on the bench, hand hanging casually an inch from the concrete floor.
“Never?” he says, painting shock across his face. “Officer Burke… are you a virgin?”
“What?” Peter sputters. “Neal, this is not an appropriate conversation—” Because all of the others have been totally appropriate, hah—
“It’s okay if you are, you know,” Neal says earnestly. “I can take care of that for you. I can be a good first time – I’ll make it nice for you, a nice first time—”
“Like yours was?” Peter counters, then wishes he could swallow the words again – Neal looks like Peter slapped him. Slowly, he pulls up the thin blanket and turns on his side, facing Peter but not making eye contact.
“Maybe it was,” he says, obviously trying for defiance, voice tremulous. “You don’t know. For all you know, it was—“ Whatever word would have come next dies in his throat. His hand clenches on the blanket, and he looks lost for a moment, in whatever memory Peter just shoved him back into. His eyes flicker back up to meet Peter’s, and he looks very grown-up, for just a minute. “It wasn’t,” he says, and Peter nods, aching, and says, “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Neal says quietly, but it is. Not Peter’s fault that someone, somewhere, took from Neal when they should have given, should have shared, but Peter’s fault for saying stupid things again, clumsy, hurtful things.
“I shouldn’t—” Peter tries, but Neal just shakes his head. He murmurs, “I don’t want to—it’s okay, but I just want to. Talk about something else. Something…”
Peter flexes his hands against the cold plastic of the bench underneath him, and nods carefully. “Sure, Neal. Okay.”
But Neal doesn’t say anything for a while. His eyes are open, so Peter doesn’t think he’s falling asleep, but Neal is quiet and still. Peter doesn’t see him like this very often; Neal is always in motion, Neal is motion, flitting and flickering and darting in too close or just out of reach. Eventually, Neal shakes his head and seems to snap out of it. He rolls to lie flat on his back, locking his fingers together across his stomach and smiling.
“What would it be like, with Officer Burke?” Neal muses, looking speculatively at the ceiling, a wicked smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Officer Burke is a fine, upstanding man.”
“Come on, Neal—”
“You can’t stop a man from dreaming!” Neal parries, gleeful – Peter huffs.
“You’re not a man.”
“I am so!”
“You realize the fact that you just said that proves my point, right?” Peter asks with irony. “You’re a boy – you’re a child—”
“Not in any way that matters,” says Neal, dark circles under his piercing eyes, and Peter can’t, can’t believe that’s true.
“In every way that matters,” he insists. Neal just sighs and looks back up at the ceiling.
“Boring. Where was I? Oh, yes, upstanding Officer Burke. You would take me home to your apartment—”
“I would do no such thing—”
“It wouldn’t be a very big apartment, because police officers don’t make much money, but it would be clean, and the bed would be all made. It wouldn’t be a very big bed – poor Officer Burke, he sleeps alone—”
“My girlfriend will be surprised to hear that,” Peter says, giving Neal a narrow-eyed look—he shouldn’t let it get to him, but it does, the way that Neal assumes he knows everything about Peter. At the sudden uncertain look on Neal’s face, Peter thinks, Serves him right.
“You—have a girlfriend?”
“No,” Peter admits, still irritated. “What, you’d care?”
The color slowly falls out of Neal’s face, and his lips part just barely enough for breath – Peter’s seen men stabbed who didn’t look this hurt.
“Neal,” his words stumble, “Neal, I’m sorry—”
Neal doesn’t look at him – doesn’t do anything but breathe slowly and ignore Peter as hard as he can for a long minute. Peter stays frozen and mute on the bench – he’s been too careless too many times tonight with Neal’s—with Neal. The least he can do is let Neal have his quiet for as long as he wants it.
Eventually, Neal says, “I tell myself it doesn’t bother me. I know—I know they’re married. I always know which ones are married. Some of them don’t even take off their wedding rings. I’m not—not the marriage police. If it wasn’t me, it would be one of the others: Terry, or Luke, or Kim, or anybody else out there, they’d find somebody—it’s nothing special about me, they’re just looking for a hole to fuck—”
“Neal…” Peter barely recognizes his own voice.
“They’d find somebody to cheat with. And anyway, married guys pay better. That’s—what I—what I tell myself—”
Neal breath is shuddering in and out of him like his fragile ribs are a ship about to be dashed to pieces in a storm – his eyes are dry, but so, so red, and so old, and so full of things that don’t belong there. Peter sits down on the corner of Neal’s bench, by his head, and tries to find the right apology for this. It doesn’t come, even when Neal turns his head to the side, just enough that a lock of his hair falls across Peter’s hand, and whispers, “I’d care.”
“I know you would,” Peter whispers back. “I shouldn’t have said that, that was a shitty thing to say—”
“If you were married,” Neal says, still not looking at Peter, still blinking his reddened eyes over and over. “If you were married, you—you wouldn’t cheat.”
“No,” Peter says softly. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“If you took me home,” Neal says, in the smallest voice, cheek flat against the hard bench and eyes looking nowhere, “you would—you would push me down on your not-very-big bed, and you would—you would be nice.”
“You wouldn’t call me names.” Neal’s chest is shaking now, and still he stares straight ahead, lost. “You would take my clothes off and—and put your hands on my bruises and be gentle with them—”
“Please, Neal, don’t—” Peter’s own eyes are hot and blurry, and his chest is a thousand times too tight.
“And after,” Neal says, one wet track trailing across the bridge of his nose, “You would—you would let me stay for a little bit. Just a little while. In the bed—you’d pull the covers up over me, and I’d be warm. Just for a few minutes.”
Peter can’t help the noise that comes out of his throat then – he puts a hand over his face, and somehow manages to choke out, “Neal, stop. You have to stop.”
“What?” Neal nudges himself up on his shoulder a little, and looks up at Peter, eyes unfocused. Two glistening lines cuts diagonally across his cheek. “Why? You’re not—not turned on—”
“By a starving sixteen-year-old’s heartbreakingly low expectations?” Peter finishes savagely, because the alternative is to say, I would give anything to make you want more than that from me—from anyone. I would give anything to stop you breaking my heart. “No, strangely, that’s not doing it for me.”
“I’m not starving,” says Neal, and, “Yeah, well, you’re not sixteen, either,” Peter guesses grimly; Neal looks away. He sets his head down on the bench again – his left temple is against Peter’s thumb now. Peter knows better than to think it’s an accident, but he doesn’t move his hand.
In a voice barely above a whisper, Neal asks, “Would it—would it be like that?”
And Peter is as gentle as he knows how when he answers, “It wouldn’t be like anything, Neal – because you’re a teenager and I’m a police officer and an adult, and I wouldn’t be taking you home to begin with. Or anywhere else. And I think you know that.”
“I know,” Neal says, and somehow that’s what makes the tears start to fall in earnest. “I can think about it, though. It doesn’t hurt anybody to think about it,” he tells Peter, shaky but defiant, and Peter can’t say anything to that.
“Get some sleep, Neal.”
“Will you stay with me? Just in case?”
“Yeah, Neal. I’ll stay.”
Neal wriggles around on the bench until he’s lying on his side facing the wall. Peter helps him spread the thin blanket over himself, and waits until Neal’s breathing slows and evens out to run a light hand over his hair – once, twice. Neal doesn’t wake up.
When Peter’s shift is up, he packs up the paperwork he’d been working on and shakes Neal’s shoulder. Neal squints up at him, bleary-eyed.
“Hey, I’m off,” Peter whispers. “You can go, if you want – or you can stay and sleep. I’ll lock the door behind me.”
“Sleep,” Neal mumbles, eyes sliding closed again already.
“Okay, Neal.” Peter tugs the blanket back up over Neal’s shoulders. He’ll have a quick word with Susan on the way out to make sure she keeps an eye on Neal. As he locks up, he gives Neal one last, long look. Curled up on the bench, head tucked into his neck and arms folded up close against his chest, he seems so incredibly small. One safe night, Peter thinks, out of how many? When he gets home, it takes Peter a long time to get to sleep.
“Well, this is a first,” Peter declares when he leaves the station to find Neal loitering around outside, clearly waiting for him. “To what do I owe—” Peter cuts himself off before he says “the pleasure,” because you can’t give Neal a straight line like that. Neal, of course, takes it on himself to finish the line, with a suggestive grin.
“—the pleasure? Why, Officer Burke, I didn’t know you cared.”
Peter glares, and sets off down the sidewalk – Neal trots up alongside him.
“It’s my birthday,” Neal announces proudly. Peter raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“Yes, really!” Neal looks injured. “Why would I say it was my birthday if it wasn’t?”
“Oh, I don’t know… to ask me for some wildly inappropriate ‘birthday present’?” Peter says, rolling his eyes. “Or to make some horrible crack about getting spanked once for every year, which, no one even does that anymore—”
Neal is giving Peter a frankly impressed stare. “I hadn’t even thought of that,” he tells Peter. “You have heretofore hidden depths, Officer.”
“Oh, God,” Peter moans, theatrically.
“So what do you say, Officer Burke?” Neal’s wearing his trademark wicked smirk again. “Gonna get me something nice for my birthday? I can think of a few things—”
“I’ll just bet you can,” Peter mutters.
“Don’t. List. Them.”
Neal narrows his eyes petulantly. “I can’t believe you won’t even let me have any fun on my birthday.” Peter snorts, expecting another comeback, but all he gets is conspicuous, wounded silence from Neal’s direction, and when he looks over, Peter can see that Neal has worked himself up into a full-blown sulk – pushed-out lip, hunched shoulders, the whole shebang.
Finally, Peter sighs.
“Come on, my break is coming up.” Peter motions to Neal to follow, and Neal brightens as if somebody flipped a switch, dropping his sulk like an empty candy wrapper.
“Where are we going?” Neal asks, bouncing along behind him excitedly.
“To that diner by the auto repair place, for milkshakes.”
“Like a date?” Neal practically glows.
“No, not like a date,” Peter says loudly, “like an adult taking a kid out for ice cream on his birthday, okay, notice my emphasis on the word kid—”
“I’ve never been on a date before,” Neal confides, sounding enchanted with the idea.
“It’s not a—” Peter sighs and gives up – mostly because Neal is skipping along ahead of him, chirping at a mile a minute, apparently paying attention to not a single word of out Peter’s mouth, but also because…
I’ve never been on a date before, echoes in Peter’s skull, wistfully, and Peter—well, what’s it going to hurt, anyway?
When they get to the diner, Neal charms a window booth out of the hostess with hands shoved in his pockets and a hopeful duck of his head. It doesn’t take long for the waitress to appear, and when she does, Neal doesn’t waste one second telling her it’s his birthday.
“Well, happy birthday!” the waitress replies, giving Neal an indulgent look. “Is this a birthday dinner, or just a birthday treat?”
“Oh, a treat, definitely,” Neal declares, giving Peter a completely unacceptable leer – Peter glowers at him, and tells the waitress they’d like two milkshakes, please.
“Just plain vanilla for me,” Peter says, then levels a finger at Neal, narrowing his eyes. “Not a word out of you, Neal.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Neal’s eyes widen artfully, and he sets a placating hand on top of Peter’s. Peter reaches out his other hand and pointedly removes it.
“And what about you, sweetie?” the waitress asks, beaming at Neal – he beams back just as brightly and says, “Cookies and cream for me, please.”
“You bet, honey. With whipped cream and a cherry on top?”
Peter groans inwardly as glee crosses Neal’s face. “Yes, please,” Neal says fervently. “Can I… can I have more than one cherry?”
“Honey, you can have ten,” the waitress says, looking delighted.
After she walks away, Peter sighs and asks, “What are the odds we can get out of here without you trying to do something lewd with a cherry stem?”
Neal grins. “Do you want me to make you feel better? Or the truth?”
“The truth,” Peter replies – as if he was going to say anything else.
“Zero to none,” Neal pronounces cheerfully. “And I can do a lot better than try.”
Peter resigns himself to his fate and suppresses the urge to cross himself.
“Here you go, Officer,” the waitress says, appearing over Neal’s shoulder with their shakes. “And these are for you, sweetie,” she tells Neal, depositing a shake and a saucer full of maraschino cherries on the table in front of him. The look on Neal’s face when he notices none of them have stems is priceless.
“Thank you,” he tells the waitress tragically, and pokes at the cherries with his spoon, disconsolate, as she leaves.
“What?” Peter prods, enjoying himself immensely, “What’s wrong? Look at all those nice cherries she brought you – there’ve got to be a dozen of ‘em, isn’t that nice?”
Neal mumbles something too low for Peter to hear.
“I don’t actually like maraschino cherries,” Neal confesses, hunching his shoulders and looking guilty.
Peter throws back his head and laughs, loud enough that some of the other diners turn to look. Still chuckling, he snags Neal’s plate and dumps the cherries into his own shake.
“There. Don’t say I never did anything for you.”
“I wouldn’t ever say that,” Neal says quietly.
Peter makes a sort of a harrumphing noise and applies himself to his shake – a waiting silence falls over the table, heavy enough that Peter can tell Neal has something to say. He doesn’t push, and sips at his straw while Neal draws patterns in the whipped cream on top of his own shake with a spoon.
“Miranda and June are gone,” Neal says, without looking up.
“Gone, as in…”
“Gone home. Back to Memphis. I put them on the bus yesterday.”
“That’s… good,” Peter hazards. “Is that good?”
“It’s good,” Neal confirms. “Their mom had been living with this guy, and he—” Neal swallows, and stabs his shake with the spoon. “Anyway, he’s not there anymore. In jail, now. They kept in touch with this teacher from back there and she told them it was okay to come back, if they wanted. And June wanted to try, so.” He shrugs.
“That’s good,” Peter repeats – he’s thinking furiously about what this means, about what it might mean for Neal to have two fewer mouths to feed, two fewer people to feel responsible for, but he’s afraid to bring it up, afraid to push again.
“Yeah,” Neal says, and now he finally starts eating the shake, lifting a hesitant spoonful to his mouth. His lips close around it and he makes a hum of pleasure, closing his eyes. Peter’s throat goes dry as Neal tips his head back, obviously enjoying the cool slide of the ice cream down his own throat. While Neal’s eyes are still closed, Peter flushes and tucks his chin down into his chest, firmly fixing his eyes on the graveyard of cherries in his plastic cup.
“Hey,” he hears. When he looks back up, Neal is grinning at him wickedly and holding up a finger coated in whipped cream, which he smears across his lips and then licks off as slowly and provocatively as humanly possible. It’s self-conscious and dirty and desperately unsexy, and Peter can’t help feeling the contrast, can’t quash the strange urge to tell Neal that he’s never less seductive than when he’s actively trying to be.
He confines himself to snorting, and informing Neal, “That’s not actually hot, in case you were wondering.”
Neal rolls his eyes and mutters, “Maybe not to Mr. Plain Vanilla.”
“Hey!” Peter glares – Neal sucks on his straw as loudly as he can, then sticks his tongue out at Peter like a five-year-old.
“Very mature,” Peter grumbles, but he leaves it at that, letting Neal devote himself entirely to eating. When Neal is done with his shake, and his straw is making gurgling sounds down at the bottom of the cup, he pushes it away and looks out the window.
“Terry is…” He picks up a white paper straw wrapper and fiddles with it, nervously. “He’s started wearing long sleeves. Even at night.”
Peter’s first impulse is to say Good; it’s goddamn cold out there and it’s about time at least one of you kids started dressing like it. But he’s been on this beat long enough to understand, after a slow second, what Neal is trying to say, and it’s got nothing to do with the weather. He restrains the sudden urge to check Neal’s own forearms – there’s nothing he could do about it anyway, if he saw something, and it would hurt Neal to catch him looking.
“I’m sorry, Neal,” he offers softly.
“You’re not gonna arrest him, are you?” Neal asks suddenly, giving Peter a fierce look, which Peter waves away.
“No, Neal, I’m not going to arrest him. Why—“ Peter hesitates, but if this is what he’s started, precariously, to hope it is, then he can’t just let it go. “Why are you telling me this, Neal?”
A terrible tiredness settles over Neal’s face like a heavy wool curtain, and he stops fiddling with the straw wrapper, laying his hands flat on the table.
“I don’t know,” he says in a small, almost defeated voice. “Terry—that’s not going to end, not really. It never does, once somebody starts. And it’s just me and Tana in the apartment now, and she’s—she’s pretty tough, she might be okay if—” He looks up at Peter with a wariness beyond his years and warns, “I’m not saying anything. I’m not saying anything’s going to change. I don’t—but.”
Peter waits, hardly daring to breathe.
“I might ask you,” Neal says, now – finally – meeting Peter’s eyes. “You know, sometime. Not now. But sometime. About maybe—leaving.”
Peter lets out all his held breath in one slow rush. “That would be—whenever you’re ready, Neal. That would be—great.” He doesn’t let his voice shake; doesn’t let himself say more than that; doesn’t demand that Neal come back with him to the station right this instant. But he hopes – God, he hopes.
“Thanks,” Neal says, with a smile that’s gone almost before it starts. He looks a little restless, now that he’s said what he meant to say, and Peter takes that as his cue.
“I’m going to go up and pay the check, okay?”
“How much was mine?” Neal asks, reaching down to his back pocket like he’s going to pull out some cash.
Peter snorts, and says with fond exasperation, “It’s your birthday, Neal – I think I can squeeze two milkshakes into my budget.”
“Hey, I may be cheap, but I’m not that cheap,” Neal says, looking amused – Peter splutters, then gathers his dignity around him, and informs Neal, “It’s a birthday present.”
“I thought it was a date,” Neal protests, eyes dancing.
“It is not a date,” Peter insists – “Whatever you say, Officer Burke,” Neal replies breezily.
Growling, Peter trudges over to the register. There’s a line, so it’s a few minutes before he gets the check paid (with a very nice tip for the waitress who was sweet on Neal), and by the time he gets back to the table, Neal is caught up in that book of his again, his pencil sweeping over the pages. He’s lost in it, and Peter takes the opportunity to come up around behind him and peek over his shoulder.
It’s a sketch – of Peter, of all things, standing in line at the register, looking lost in thought. It’s fairly embarrassing, actually; Neal has caught perfectly the way Peter stands when his feet hurt after a long night of walking and standing, but Peter knows his own face in the mirror very well, thank you, and he’s not as handsome as the drawing makes him out to be. The Officer Burke in the drawing has broad shoulders under his crisp uniform shirt, and large, strong-looking hands – his jaw is square, like a comic book hero’s, and his eyes are deep-set and thoughtful.
“I do not look like that,” Peter announces, and Neal jumps about a foot, slamming the book shut nervously and spinning around to give Peter an irritated look.
“You do so,” he counters. “Don’t peek!”
“That was—really good, though,” Peter says, truthfully. “You’ve got a lot of talent there. Apart from the making me better-looking than I am thing.”
Neal blushes and clutches the sketchbook – because that’s obviously what it is – to his chest. “Thank you.”
“You must draw a lot,” Peter comments, shepherding them out of the diner and onto the dark street.
“I like it,” Neal says shyly. “I always have. I think they’re pretty good.”
“They’re very good,” corrects Peter. “Seriously. I’m impressed.”
“Thanks.” Neal pauses. He opens up the sketchbook, he rips a page out—“Hey,” Peter protests—but Neal closes the sketchbook again and holds out the torn-out page to Peter, shyly.
“For you,” he says. “If—if you want. You don’t have to—”
“I’m honored,” Peter says firmly, taking the sketch. He’s expecting it to be the drawing of himself in the diner, but instead, it’s a self portrait: Neal’s face, unbruised and smiling at nothing, hat falling over his forehead.
“It’s beautiful,” Peter says honestly – Neal looks away quickly, a soft pink blush washing over his cheeks. Nonplussed, Peter rewinds the last thirty seconds—
“The—uh, the technique, I mean,” Peter tries to explain. “It’s very… well done, I mean, the shading—”
“Sure,” Neal says quietly, a barely-there smile warming his lips, and they start walking again in silence. Too soon, they’re back in Neal’s territory. A silver car is idling about a block down – as Peter watches, the passenger’s side window rolls down and waits, open, like a devouring mouth.
“That’s my ride,” Neal says, with a shadow of a smile. Something in Peter’s gut, low and painful, clenches, and he says, “Neal—”
“That’s my ride,” Neal repeats, more gently this time. “Bye, Officer Burke. I’ll see you around.”
“Please,” Peter tries, wearily, but Neal just shakes his head, still with that gentle half-smile.
“Thanks for—my birthday,” he whispers. “It was… probably the nicest. The nicest one I’ve had.”
“You don’t have to go,” Peter says.
“I do.” Neal turns his back and starts to walk toward the car. Then he pauses, and dashes back, and Peter’s heart leaps into his throat, because maybe—
But Neal just darts in and kisses Peter on the cheek before Peter can dodge him, murmuring, “Thanks for my birthday present,” then jogging back down the street to the idling silver car.
Peter turns away so he doesn’t have to watch Neal get in the car. Slowly, he begins the long walk back to the station. After a minute, he lifts a hand to his cheek, and can’t tell if the skin there is a little sticky with ice cream, or if it’s just his imagination.
Her neck is broken – they found her on the ground next to a dumpster, like her body wasn’t even worth the effort to hoist it in. Peter doesn’t know her last name, but he heard Neal greet her enough to know that she goes by Kim.
They call in the detectives, and Susan tells them Peter can track down somebody to identify the body. If Peter had room in his gut for anything but fear, he might feel guilty that he doesn’t even consider pulling in one of the other kids—but the fear is like flames licking up inside of him, and he has to see, has to know—
He finds Neal on his usual turf, and not alone. It’s the hat that catches Peter’s eye, lying upside down in a puddle on the asphalt – the man is so much bigger than Neal that Peter can’t see him hardly at all, blocked by the wall on one side and the john on the other. Peter grabs the guy’s shoulder and rips him away from Neal without a second’s thought.
“Scram,” he tells the guy, barely looking at him – he’s so goddamn relieved to see Neal alive and whole that he just can’t even fucking be bothered.
This guy, though, clearly has some kind of death wish, because he gets up in Neal’s space again and starts bitching about how he wants his money back, how he deserves to get what he paid for, how Neal is nothing but a—
Peter slams the asshole up against the wall, hard – then does it one more time for good measure. “I said, ‘scram,’” Peter explains, surprising even himself, a little, with the smooth menace in his voice. “You can leave in handcuffs or under your own power, but if you make me waste time fucking around arresting you, you’re not gonna like how the rest of your night goes.”
The john looks scared of him – Good, Peter thinks – then tries to cover his fear with a weak sneer; he spits at Neal’s feet, and when he walks away, he plants his foot on Neal’s hat and grinds it into the pavement.
Peter bends down to rescue the hat from the puddle. Neal says quietly, “Don’t. It’s—it’s ruined anyway. It’s okay.”
It’s not, Peter thinks, but all he says out loud is, “How close is your place?”
Neal’s eyes widen, and then he gives Peter a silky grin. “Why, Officer Burke – is that a proposition? Because I would—”
“Don’t give me that crap.”
Neal takes a step back, uncertain. “Officer…”
“I need you to identify a body,” Peter tells him, brusquely, and all the color drains from Neal’s face. He stumbles backward until he hits the wall again, and sinks back against it like it’s the only thing holding him up.
He whispers, “Who?” and Peter looks away.
“If I knew, I wouldn’t need you to identify her, would I?” It’s mostly a lie, but Peter can’t tell Neal, not out here – he might be wrong, anyway. He didn’t get a close look. He hopes he’s wrong.
“Why—why did you want to know where my place is?” Neal asks, voice trembling.
“They’ll probably want to keep you for questioning. You should bring a change of clothes—maybe your sketchbook, something to do.”
“Who is it?”
“I told you—” Peter tries, but the grief and shock are already heavy in the hollows under Neal’s eyes, and when he says to Peter, implacable and old beyond his years, “Officer Burke. Who?” Peter confesses, “I think it’s Kim.”
Neal whimpers, bringing a trembling hand up to his face, shaking his head.
“I could be wrong,” Peter continues, fumbling for words, “I didn’t—don’t know her that well. It might not even be her.”
Neal shakes his head again. His face is crumpled and grey. “Tonio told me Kim didn’t come home this morning—last morning. He wasn’t really worried yet. Oh, fuck. Fuck.”
Peter is silent – he doesn’t know what to say. He can’t imagine where any words would come from, or what good they would do.
“It’s—not far. My place,” Neal says abruptly. “I’ll—be back. Can you, um, stay here, and I’ll—”
“That’s fine,” Peter says. “I’ll call a car to come pick us up.”
When Neal comes back, he’s got a duffel bag slung over his shoulder – it looks heavier than a sketchbook and a change of clothes would explain. Peter doesn’t ask.
The ride to the station is completely silent. Neal spends the whole time looking out the window, and Peter can’t read his face at all. Inside, the detective is as gentle with Neal as she can be – she lets Peter stay with him the whole time, and she asks him if he needs a minute, needs something to drink or eat, anything – but it was never going to be enough to soften the blow when they pull the sheet back and Neal whimpers like a kicked dog.
“It’s her,” he whispers, wrapping his arms around himself, chest shaking with shoved-down sobs. “It’s Kim.”
“Do you know her full name?” the detective asks, and Neal shakes his head – once he starts, he can’t seem to stop; just keeps shaking it back and forth while horrible sounds come out of his throat between words. “I know Kim was short for Kimberly,” he offers, hopelessly – Peter can see that he knows how little it is. “She was from somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, not any town I’d heard of. She, uh—she has two older brothers, and her—her mom died when she was really little, like three or four. That’s—that’s really all I know. Tonio might know more, but I don’t—I don’t think so. She didn’t like to…” Neal trails off, swiping his arm across his nose – the detective silently offers him a Kleenex, which he takes without looking at her. Neal’s eyes haven’t left Kim’s face this whole time. “She didn’t like to talk about it,” Neal finishes quietly, and no one asks him, Talk about what?
The detective talks to Susan about tracking down Tonio, after Peter admits he doesn’t know him. Then she takes down as much of Neal’s info as he’ll give her, and tells Peter to take Neal back home.
Peter tries to sit Neal down at his desk while he arranges for a car, but Neal shakes his head violently and stammers, “I—I can’t—can’t be. In here. Right now. Please, I need to—”
“Sure, sure,” Peter says fast, cursing himself silently. “Some fresh air. Anything you need.”
They end up out around the side of the building, where the secretaries take their smoke breaks – there’s no one out there now. Neal leans up against the brick wall, and for a minute, it’s like all the other times: Neal slouching against the rough brick and Peter fighting the stupid urge to loan the kid his jacket.
Peter tries to keep his voice soft and even when he says, “Whenever you’re ready, I can call us a car to take you back to your place. Or we can walk – I’ll go with you – whatever would be—”
Neal says something quiet enough that Peter can’t make out the words.
“I’m not going back.”
Peter tells his hands to stay in his pockets and his breathing to stay slow and steady; but it’s a lost cause. He bites his lip as he tries to yank his heart back into his chest, tries not to let its wild beating get away from him. Neal can’t mean—he’s not saying—
“That’s why I…” Neal tugs at the duffel, which is hanging from his shoulder. “I packed up everything—everything worth taking with me. I’m not going back to—that. I’m not.”
Peter is choking on the words in his throat – there’s a hundred things he wants to say, but it feels like he’s been wanting this so much he doesn’t trust it to last, doesn’t trust himself not to say something stupid and send it all crashing down.
“So, um…” Neal bites his lip, worries at it, looking up at Peter hesitantly. “So if you still have that number… for that lady you wanted me to talk to…”
“Shawna,” Peter blurts, finally able to get something out past the lump in his throat. “The social worker. Yeah. I have her card – hang on, let me get it out—” Peter forces himself to stop and take a deep breath. He rests a hand lightly on Neal’s shoulder until Neal meets his eyes, and says slowly, “This is good, Neal. Really good. I’m—you don’t need me, or anybody else, to be proud of you, but for what it’s worth – I am. I’m really proud. You won’t regret this, Neal. I swear.”
The movement that flashes across Neal’s face is barely a smile, but it’s enough to make Peter’s heart beat faster again, and he returns it as steadily as he can. When Neal sees Peter’s smile, he blows out a shaky breath and tries one of his own again. This time it looks a little more real. Ducking his head, he asks, “Is there… I know your shift’s not over yet – is there a locker, or—or I could leave this in your car… I just don’t want to drag it around with me while I wait.”
Puzzled, Peter asks, “Wait for what?”
“For—for the end of your shift,” Neal says, and then, “For you to take me home.”
“What?” Peter shakes his head, wondering if he misheard something. “Take you home—Neal, I’m not taking you home, come on, don’t joke around—”
Neal pales, and his voice is bleached and uncomprehending when he stammers, “Joke—I thought—“ He swallows, and tries again. “But I’m talking to the social worker,” he says, sounding surer. “I’m leaving. I packed all my stuff. I’m getting out—so now I—now I stay with you…” Neal’s voice cracks at the end, and Peter’s heart feels brittle and sore.
“Neal,” he tries to explain, “you can’t stay with me. Shawna will find you a place to stay, a shelter, or a foster home, maybe – I don’t know for sure how it’s going to work—”
“No.” Neal’s chin goes up, and his eyes are wide, half-defiant, half-scared. “I don’t want to stay in a shelter, I want to stay with you. Please—I don’t—” His hand catches on Peter’s sleeve, holds on tight. “I don’t take up much space, even the floor is fine, if you don’t have a couch, or if—”
“Neal, it’s not about… about ‘taking up space.’ I’m sorry, Neal. I’m so sorry, I must have—must have said something, or done something, to make you think—but that’s not going to happen, Neal. It would be incredibly inappropriate, on about a hundred different levels—”
“Inappropriate?” Neal echoes, dumbly, like Peter’s speaking a dead language.
Desperately, Peter repeats, “Inappropriate, and—and—just wrong – you’re seventeen, you’re a—”
“A whore,” Neal says, so, so softly. “I know.”
“That is not what I was going to say—”
“But I never thought you cared,” Neal whispers, as if he didn’t hear. “I thought you were different. But you think I’m dirty, too. You don’t want me in your apartment, you don’t want your neighbors to see me—”
“For god’s sake, Neal, that’s not what this is about,” Peter denies, trying not to shout, head spinning from how fast this has all gone to hell. “This is about the fact that—that you…”
“I can cook, I can clean up,” Neal says, voice getting faster, louder, “I can—look, I know you don’t like it when I—but I could. I mean. I know you don’t have a girlfriend right now…” And Peter can see on Neal’s face that he knows he’s making a mistake, that he can see the cliff’s edge coming, but he can’t stop himself from tumbling over. “I could just—nothing hardcore, I know you think of me as—really young or whatever, but—whatever you want.” Neal’s blue eyes are pleading – the curve of his body, the careful, instinctive tilt of his hips, of his jaw, make it perfectly clear what he’s offering, and Peter wants to find something sturdy and smash it into bits and pray for the sound of splintering wood to drown out this feeling, this rushing in his ears.
“Neal, no,” he says, trying to keep his voice stern but not angry. Neal wouldn’t understand why Peter is angry, would assume Peter was angry with him, and nothing could be farther from the truth. “And—Neal… that is exactly why you can’t come home with me. You need to get out. Trying to trade me sex for a place to stay is just the same shit all over again, it’s just as bad—” Peter takes a deep breath and forces himself to start over, to keep his calm. “Neal,” he says, as evenly but kindly as he can, “this can’t be—you need to make a clean break – a fresh start. To start over with a new life, a normal teenage life with normal teenage friends. You can’t do this for anybody else, Neal – not even me. You’ve got to do it for yourself, or it won’t stick.”
“I’ll do it for myself,” Neal says automatically, the words pouring out like a river, desperate: “I’ll make friends, whatever you want, I’ll—I won’t tell you that you can—or offer—I mean, I know you don’t want—I just thought—I’ll do it for myself, I’ll start over, just please let me stay with you, please.”
Neal must read Peter’s answer in his eyes, because his face twists, painfully – there’s so much hurt in his eyes that Peter’s almost relieved to see it pushed aside by anger, and something else that Peter can’t easily name.
“Kiss me,” Neal says, sudden and harsh.
“Kiss me,” Neal repeats, fiercely, his jaw thrust out, and when Peter shakes his head, Neal’s eyes harden.
“You want me to leave everything, call this social worker, but you don’t want to take me home with you,” he spits, cheeks flushed. “You want me to start over, completely alone, you want to abandon me—”
“I want to help you—”
“You want something from me,” Neal snarls, tears dripping down his cheeks, the whites of his eyes showing like a cornered dog. “You want something from me, just like everybody else – well, you should have to pay for it just like everybody else—”
His shoulders are heaving, and he looks so lost, Peter can hardly stand it.
“No freebies on this one, Officer,” he says, like a dare, and Peter feels a perfect stillness within his soul as he nods, once, and brings a hand up to cup the back of Neal’s neck.
The touch of Peter’s hand on his bare skin seems to shock Neal. He doesn’t flinch away, but the hardness washes out of his eyes, and he leans back against the wall, staring at Peter.
“I—I didn’t mean it,” he stammers, as Peter steps in closer, tilting Neal’s face up with a thumb under his jaw. “I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t make you, you don’t have to, I’ll—”
Neal’s lips are soft, soft against Peter’s mouth, sweet and yielding, and Peter should leave it there, he means to leave it there—
But Neal’s breath hitches, and his lips part, and Peter tastes salt and warm skin as he licks into Neal’s mouth, slick and tender, breathing Neal’s breath, Neal’s face as fragile as a bird’s wing in Peter’s cupped hands.
Peter pulls back, breathing hard, leaning his forehead against Neal’s.
“You—you want me,” Neal stammers, looking shocked.
“Yes,” says Peter – no point in denying it now.
“And that’s the other reason why—why you can’t—can’t—come home with me,” Peter says, as gently as he can.
Neal’s mouth is open, red – as wide as his eyes.
Peter takes a step back, re-establishing an appropriate space – a little late now, but he has to believe it still counts. “Take the card,” he says quietly, tucking Shawna’s business card into Neal’s limp hand. “Go inside and call the number, then go sit at my desk and don’t talk to anyone until Shawna gets here – not Bobby, not even Susan—no one.”
Neal hesitantly brings the hand holding the card up to his chest.
“Will I ever see you again?” he asks, and his voice is small and broken-open.
“Look me up in five years,” Peter says – then, cracking a faltering smile, “When you’re a world-famous artist. If you haven’t forgotten me by then.”
“I won’t,” Neal says softly. He doesn’t move, still leaning against the wall where Peter kissed him, eyes still roving over Peter’s face like he’s committing every shadow to memory – he stands and stands, and the longer he waits, the more afraid Peter is that he’ll change his mind, that it’ll all have been for nothing. So he says, “Goodbye, Neal,” and after a long, unreadable look, Neal whispers, “Goodbye, Officer Burke,” and walks away.
Peter doesn’t watch him walk back into the station. He doesn’t follow Neal inside or even stay within 50 feet of the building. He finishes his shift walking through mostly-empty alleys, waiting for the moon to set, promising himself he won’t do anything stupid.
When he gets back to his desk, Neal isn’t there – a quick word with Susan reassures him that Neal did come in, use Peter’s phone, and then sit quietly in his chair. Susan wasn’t there to see him leave, and Peter tries not to think about that.
Peter sits down at his own desk – where Neal was sitting an hour before, he doesn’t think – closes his eyes, and finally lets himself remember. He tries to remember how furious Neal was with him - tries to make himself think back to find the time or the place in the last few months when he must have somehow let Neal believe that he’d be able to come home with Peter. But Peter’s treacherous memory keeps snagging on the silky skin of Neal’s cheek under the sweep of Peter’s thumb, the way Neal’s tiny gasp had melted into a moan when Peter—
Enough, Peter thinks savagely, feeling sick. That’s more than enough.
“Seventeen,” he whispers to himself, and scrubs the back of his hand across his mouth, hard as he can, as if he can wipe away the taste of his own weakness. He opens the top drawer of the desk and pulls out the extra business cards Shawna left him. They wind up in the shredder, because after tonight, Peter doesn’t trust himself not to fish them out of a trashcan in a moment of frailty. No phone calls, Peter tells himself, clenching his hands on the edge of the desk. No accidental-on-purpose checking up, no anything.
Peter meant what he said to Neal – Neal needs to start clean, live a normal teenage life, without his past dragging him down. However much Peter might want to help, and however much Neal might think he wants Peter there now, the last thing a kid like Neal needs is some cop who used to bust him for turning tricks hanging around like a bad penny.
Peter takes a deep breath, resolved, and starts straightening his desk up, buying time for his thoughts to settle before he heads home. Under a stack of blank timesheets, Peter feels something solid, and frowns – when he pulls the object out, he has to swallow hard and blink. It’s a sketchbook, and there’s no name on the cover, but who else’s could it be? And there’s no way it was accidentally left behind – the way it was hidden under the stack of papers makes that very clear.
Ignoring the way his heart is beating double-time again, Peter stuffs the sketchbook in his jacket and clocks out – he doesn’t open it until he’s safely home, and his chest is tight with apprehension when he flips back the cover—
“Oh,” Peter says, softly. Neal had been so angry and betrayed that Peter had half-thought the contents of the sketchbook might be something embarrassing, or cruel – and of course, Neal has always been so ridiculously inappropriate that Peter was resignedly expecting something fairly pornographic, probably with Peter himself in a starring role.
Instead, he gets… pigeons.
“Not really what I was expecting,” Peter mutters, and turns the page. The next drawing is a self-portrait like the one Neal gave him on the night of his birthday, the one Peter has carefully folded in his wallet next to his sister Paula’s photograph. Neal’s not smiling in this one, and his cheek is mottled and swollen with a pair of ugly bruises. Peter presses his lips together and turns the next page faster.
There are more than a hundred pages in the sketchbook, Peter figures, and almost every one has some kind of drawing or sketch on it – the book is almost used up, with just a few blank pages at the end. The drawings cover every subject you could think of – alley cats and fire escapes, Neal’s friends (including, Peter notices with a twist in his gut, the late Kim), Neal himself, and yes, quite a few of Peter. Against Peter’s expectations, none of them are pornographic, but Peter’s still glad he didn’t open the book while he was in the station – the drawings of Peter may not be erotic, but they are unmistakably intimate. There are sketches of Peter’s hands, of just the line of Peter’s jaw; there’s a cartoon of a bug-eyed Peter glaring with disapproval that makes Peter laugh out loud; there’s a candid sketch of Peter gazing at something off of the edge of the page that makes Peter’s breath catch with the quiet affection bound up in every curving pencil stroke.
Peter hadn’t been sure, when he found the book, why Neal had left it – for all he knew, it might have been a fuck-you, or some kind of passive-aggressive attempt to trick Peter into coming after him to return the book – but when he sees the last sketch in the book, the one that Neal must have done while waiting in Peter’s chair, he knows for certain.
It’s not the only drawing of the Neal and Peter together, but it’s the only picture of the two of them that shows something that never happened in real life. Peter blushes when he sees it, because in the drawing, the two of them are – there’s no other way to put it – in bed together. But it’s not what he was expecting: like the rest of the sketchbook, it’s intimate, but not sexual. The drawing shows Peter and Neal, asleep in bed together, fully clothed – Neal in his usual uniform of worn-kneed jeans and tight t-shirt, curled into Peter’s side and head pillowed on Peter’s chest; Peter in jeans and a Giants t-shirt, left arm curved around Neal’s bony shoulders. The covers are kicked all the way down around their bare feet.
Peter’s chest aches as he raises a finger to trace across the details of the sketch, left behind like clues – the fingers of Neal’s left hand tangled tightly into the fabric of Peter’s t-shirt, even in sleep; the shadowy smudge of Neal’s long eyelashes on his cheek; the protectiveness so easy to read in the curve of Peter’s arm cupped like a shield around Neal’s shoulders. The small but tidy bed-- you would—you would push me down on your not-very-big bed, and you would—you would be nice, Peter remembers, and has to blink away the burning in his eyes. At first, Peter had thought that both he and Neal were asleep in the drawing, but as he looks more closely, he notices that the picture-Peter’s eyes are slightly open. Keeping watch, Peter thinks, taking care - and for a minute, Peter wants that so badly he can hardly breathe through the fierce pull of yearning, threatening to drag him down like an undertow beneath the waves. He wants this, what’s in the drawing: this quiet moment, close and sweet and warm, untouched by all the cruel and merciless shit that batters away at them every day. The drawing is an apology, and a gift, and a thank-you – it’s a wish, and a terrible temptation.
“Thank you,” Peter whispers, and tucks the sketchbook into his bedside drawer – he reaches for it twice when he jerks awake, heart pounding and body covered in sweat, half-hoping and half-afraid that none of the last 24 hours ever really happened. It breaks his heart each time.
Peter doesn’t see Neal again after that. He doesn’t ask Shawna about Neal, doesn’t talk to the other kids about Neal. He shows up and walks his beat; does his shift, fills out his paperwork, and feels like he’s walking through seawater with every step. He feels something building up under his ribcage, like he really is walking on the sea floor, with thousands of tons of pressure pressing his bones together – he doesn’t know what it is, but he hates it, and it puts him on edge.
Five days after Neal leaves, Bobby makes some crack about Peter missing his pet puppy pro – probably nothing more than the standard shit they all give each other, really – and Peter loses it, coming up swinging and making it within an inch of breaking Bobby’s nose. He’d have made it that last inch if it weren’t for Susan, stepping in out of nowhere with a warning hand on his chest.
“Burke,” she says, in a voice weary but not unkind. Peter looks down at her face, lined before it should be, and takes a deep breath. Susan stands there for a minute longer – probably waiting to make sure he’s not about to blow his top again. Then she steps away, and beckons him over to her desk.
“You know some financial crime stuff, right?” she asks, rummaging around on her desk. “I remember you told me about something like that.”
“Forensic accounting, yeah,” Peter replies.
“My cousin works white collar crime for Boston PD,” she tells him, offering him a post-it note with a name and phone number on it. “They’re looking for some smart, young guys – I’m going to give him your name.”
“Susan,” Peter starts - not sure what to think, not sure what she’s trying to say - but she cuts him off with a look.
“You’re a good guy, Burke,” she says. “Not everybody is made for this.”
For thirty seconds, Peter wants to fight her, to say, What are you trying to say, of course I’m cut out for this—
But it’s stupid – he doesn’t want to be here, not anymore. If he’s being honest with himself, he never really did – not once the utter fucking hopelessness of it all became apparent to him, sometime during his first full week. The thought of actually investigating crimes, for once—instead of standing by and gritting his teeth, or washing the dirt and blood off of his hands in the ugly aftermath—makes Peter feel twenty pounds lighter. He’d kill for a long, boring shareholder statement to analyze. It has to be better than this. Hell, he should be jumping at Susan’s offer.
So he does.
Susan’s cousin at Boston PD calls him, and gives it to him straight. “I’ve looked over your resume, and I’ll be honest with you, Burke – you’re wasted where you are. But you’d be wasted with us, too.”
Peter takes a deep breath through his disappointment, but the guy goes on to say, “That’s why I’m going to pass your number along to my friend Bart at the Boston field office of the FBI.”
Susan’s cousin’s friend Bart turns out to be Special Agent in Charge Bartholemew Connolly, and when he offers Peter a job – pending background checks and security clearances and fitness tests, but Peter’s not worried about those – Peter does what he should have done all along. He packs up his tiny apartment, says goodbye to Susan and his neighbors, and leaves New York City without looking back.
Peter wasn’t a very good beat cop, which makes it all the more gratifying when he discovers – pretty damn quickly – that he’s a kickass financial crimes investigator. He gets a reputation as kind of a whiz kid, for the first time in his life, and it feels good. When he throws himself into disclosure forms and derivatives analysis, he almost doesn’t notice that he goes home alone to an empty apartment every night and eats takeout with the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
After a year in Boston, an agent named Hughes comes down from New York and tells Peter very plainly that he’s there to poach Peter for his new white-collar crime task force, and Peter realizes, to his complete and total shock, that he actually misses New York City. He gets partnered with a guy named Jorge Villatoro who’s twice Peter’s age and practically has his picture in the dictionary next to the word “grizzled.” Villatoro teaches Peter about art crime, about high-fashion forgeries and bond scams, about the flash of a con man’s smile and the meticulous improvisation that goes into truly solid undercover work.
In return, Peter puts up with all the shit Villatoro gives him about his sad-sack lack of a love life, or really, any life.
“Get a dog or something, at least, kid,” Villatoro says, about five times a day, rolling his eyes while Peter squirms. “One of these days you’re going to choke to death on a piece of Kung Pao chicken in your own kitchen, and nobody’s going to know until you start to smell.”
“You’d miss me,” Peter shoots back, and feels some comfort in the fact that his partner doesn’t contradict him.
Whether it’s actually having somebody around who would miss him, for the first time in a while, or whether it’s the mocking that finally gets to him, it doesn't matter – either way, Peter starts to notice that Villatoro is right. He is a sad-sack. He’s just… not quite sure what to do about it. On their next case, a theft at a small art gallery next to the most amazing bagel place, Peter tries to get some unbiased advice on the situation.
“Can I—can I ask you something?” Peter says diffidently to the gallery’s assistant manager, while the two of them are waiting on some evidence techs to show up.
“Sure,” she replies, blinking. “About… about the paintings?”
“Uh, no.” Peter admits to himself that this may have been a terrible idea, but this woman is so outgoing and easy with people – she seems like the kind of person who’s never had to worry about choking to death on Kung Pao chicken. “It’s, uh, if you wanted to—if you wanted somebody to have dinner with you. I mean, I’m sure you have dinner with people all the time. Probably you have dinner with several someones,” Peter says wistfully, then realizes how that sounded and flushes, mortified. “Forget I said that, I don’t even know what that means. But if you wanted somebody to have dinner with you… how would you, um—”
Her eyes widen. “Are you asking me out on a date?”
Peter is seized by a sudden coughing fit – wheezing and shaking his hands, he gasps out, “What? No! Not—no!” She takes a step back and looks a little hurt, and Peter hurriedly adds, “Not that I wouldn’t want to, or really, anyone wouldn’t want to, because you seem like the kind of person who, like I said, has dinner with people all the time, and also very confident and smart and, uh—”
The assistant manager throws back her head and laughs, and Peter stops and stares. The sound of it is like nothing else he’s ever heard, rich and clear, and he can tell, without really knowing how, that she’s not laughing at him, not in a mean way. Her eyes look right through him, green-blue like the sea.
“…Beautiful,” he finishes softly, feeling something pouring down into the empty chambers of his heart like clean, fresh water. And of course the evidence techs choose right that moment to show up and start asking a hundred questions, and Peter has to supervise them and field increasingly impatient phone calls from Villatoro, and when he looks up, she’s gone, and he realizes he never even found out her name.
It’s Elizabeth Francis. She’s twenty-four. Her favorite color is blue. She likes jazz, and owns a turntable so she can play all her mom’s old Ella Fitzgerald records on the original vinyl. She owns fifteen pairs of shoes, but she can afford them on an assistant manager’s salary because she buys at thrift stores.
Thanks to the FBI surveillance teams who have been staking out the gallery and Elizabeth Francis’ apartment, Peter now also knows nearly a hundred other things about her, and it doesn’t even occur to him to think that this might be slightly weird and creepy. It isn’t until Villatoro finds out about the surveillance detail and asks him, incredulously, “Are you stalking this girl, Burke?” and Peter automatically protests, “No! Geez, Jorge!” that he realizes, with a sinking feeling, the answer might actually be Uh, yes.
Fortunately for Peter, the last day of the surveillance detail is also the day Peter finds out two more wonderful and fascinating things about Elizabeth Francis: first, she likes Italian food; and second, she actually seems to like Peter.
Peter’s not very good at relationships – maybe he never was, or maybe it’s just that the only romantic relationship he’s had since college was with a sixteen-year-old male prostitute whose heart Peter broke without even knowing it – but Elizabeth is patient with him, so patient. She seems to find him charming and sincere – Peter’s painstaking efforts to cook her a nice dinner that still somehow ends up looking like a scale model of Pompeii after the volcano; Peter’s old-fashioned habit of pulling out her chair and taking her coat, which he kicks himself for every time, since she’s so strong and smart and modern and can obviously pull out her own damn chair, thank you. (Months later, he confesses this to her, and she gently informs him that it’s because she knows that he knows that she can pull out her own damn chair that she doesn’t have to pull out her own damn chair, and that’s why she thinks it’s sweet).
Six months after their first date, back at Peter’s apartment at the bottom of a tall bottle of red wine, Elizabeth says in a voice that’s almost a whisper, “Sometimes you look so sad, Peter. I know it’s not me. But I wish I knew why. I wish I knew what put that crack in your heart.”
Peter picks up her hand, and lays a kiss in the palm, and goes to get the sketchbook.
He doesn’t know what to say about it – doesn’t know what he can say, so he just hands it to her mutely. At first he stands up, looking out the window, feeling like a puppet with its strings all tangled and knotted, but after the first few minutes of hearing pages turn like stones falling, like bells tolling, Elizabeth says, “Come sit with me, honey,” and he does.
“These are so beautiful,” she murmurs, flipping through the pages slowly – sometimes her fingers hover over the paper, like she wants to touch, but is afraid to smudge them. “They’re the same as the drawing in your wallet, aren’t they?” she asks – when Peter raises his eyebrow, she raises hers right back and reminds him, “I looked in your wallet while you were in the shower. You put me under federal surveillance. For weeks.”
“Touché,” Peter mutters. “Yes. They’re—they’re all—it’s a self-portrait. His name was – is – is Neal. I knew him back when I was a cop. He was sixteen. I was in love with him,” Peter admits, and god, that’s hard to say. “I know that sounds bad, I know it—”
“So explain it to me,” Elizabeth tells him, without censure or forgiveness, face blank and expectant.
So Peter does. He tries to be ruthless with himself, with the truth – he doesn’t gloss over Neal’s age or his own, the power imbalance between them, his feelings of failure, the kiss that shouldn’t have happened and that he can’t regret. He tries to keep it factual, terse – but the truth is all over those pages and it spills out of his lips helplessly.
When he’s done--when he feels wrung out like twisted cloth with nothing more to give--El says gently, “It sounds like he was a really special kid.”
“He was,” Peter replies, throat tight.
“I’m sure, wherever he is now, he’s a really special man.”
“I—I think so, too,” says Peter, although it’s probably more accurate to say he hopes so.
There’s a pause – Elizabeth takes a breath and holds it, stroking a hand carefully over the cover of the sketchbook. Her eyes make jokes out of the walls around Peter’s heart, like always.
“You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Peter confesses, guilt raking its teeth down his spine.
“Are you in love with me?” she asks, and Peter has to turn his head and stare, because, “Yes,” he says, and “Yes, God, El—so much. So much, sometimes, I can hardly breathe.”
“Then that’s what matters.”
As if that’s the final word on the subject, she tugs him closer on the couch and lays her head on his shoulder, closing the sketchbook.
“You’ve got a big heart, Peter,” she says confidently. “There’s room in there for more than one great love.”
Another pause settles over them – comfortable and easy, this time. It feels like home.
“I don’t deserve you,” Peter whispers – El gives him a stern look.
“Hey, mister – that’s my decision to make.”
And Peter accepts that, and they fall asleep like that on the couch, his arm around her shoulders, her head resting in the crook of his neck, a dark and grinding weight suddenly lifted off of Peter’s chest.
He wakes up the next morning to find El still sitting on the couch, leafing through the sketchbook again.
“These really are incredible,” she comments. “We should frame a few of them. For the walls of our new apartment.”
“Our new apartment?” Peter echoes, amused and pleased.
“I’ll take that as a hint,” Peter says, mouth turning up at the corners – El’s eyes twinkle in reply.
“I think a hint is usually more subtle than that,” she tells him. “That might have been more of a… decree.”
“Decree, got it,” Peter says obediently. A year later, they’re married, and Peter wakes up every day knowing he’s the luckiest man in the world.
When it gets to be five years, Peter has to admit to himself that he’s getting… nervous. Hopeful, maybe. Both. “In five years, look me up,” he remembers saying, and he spends a whole seven or eight months jumping every time the phone rings and it’s a number he doesn’t recognize; every time the doorbell rings unexpectedly.
But the unknown numbers are just telemarketers, and the person at the door is just a neighbor with a missing cat, and eventually Peter has to take a deep breath and put it on the shelf.
He knows it’s a two-way street – he knows he could look up Neal; El has gently talked around it a time or two, and Peter knows she thinks he should, but won’t push. Part of him wants to. But, he tells himself, there’s a reason Neal hasn’t come looking for him. Maybe it’s a good one, maybe it’s a bad one, but whatever the reason, Peter has to respect it. It’s Neal’s decision – it has to be.
Sometimes, in the car during his commute, or on long stakeouts, Peter likes to imagine what Neal might be doing now: where he might be, who he might be. He’d be about 23 now, newly graduated from college, hopefully. Peter likes to think of him traveling the world, maybe, with his sketchbook in Milan, in Prague, studying all the great masters and charming little old ladies in cafes with his phrasebook French.
Or already ensconced in some MFA program somewhere, one of those young guys who’s always got a splotch of paint in some hard-to-reach place – behind his ear, on the back of his elbow. Maybe he’s got an apartment full of easels, and a pretty, no-nonsense med student girlfriend with glasses and a ponytail; over late Korean takeout dinners they watch House together and she rants about all the medical inaccuracies while he pretends to listen, and laughs, and sketches the way her hair falls across her face. Maybe he’s already told her about who he used to be. Maybe she figured it out on her own, and kept quiet, and wrapped her love around his scars like bandages until he was ready to say the words. Maybe he’s getting ready to buy a ring – maybe she is.
Peter hopes that’s how it is. That Neal, happy and loved and full of purpose, wouldn’t want some ghost showing up out of the shadows behind his eyes, stirring up things he’d tried to bury.
Those are Peter’s hopes. Nights when the rain falls down heavy on the roof and Elizabeth sleeps sound like it’s a lullaby and Peter can barely stand to close his eyes, he thinks about what else he might find if he went looking for Neal – Neal still in the game, eyes colder and harder, arms ropey with track marks; worse—worst—Neal dead, a crooked-necked songbird at the foot of a dumpster, for some cop to find in the morning and think another piece of trash with the rest and never know how much Neal deserved. Peter is pretty sure he could survive knowing that, could survive finding that out – knowing Neal had taught him how much human beings could take and still keep breathing. But Peter’s heart isn’t just his to put on the chopping block anymore. And he’s afraid, and if that makes him a coward, then he’s a coward. He makes his peace with it, most of the time.
The party isn’t Peter’s scene – not even a little. El would be comfortable here – hell, she’d be in her element – but Peter always hates going to this kind of thing, where the wait staff are better dressed than he is, and the canapés probably cost more than his wedding ring. Back when they were first married, El had dragged him along to the parties she planned, on the theory that he’d eventually learn to like it; after seven years of marriage, though, she knows better.
No, the only time Peter has to show up at this kind of caviar-and-quail’s-eggs shindig is for a case – and it’s a hell of a case this time. Villatoro had been up to his eyeballs in a blood-diamond smuggling ring, and Peter had been putting in twelve-hour days on an insider-trading lead – it was the new kid, Jones, who’d put the right pieces together and pointed out that their two sets of dirtbags were actually the same pack of dirtbags. They don’t have enough to nail said dirtbags on either charge yet, though, so tonight, Peter and Villatoro and about a dozen undercover agents scrounged from other departments are sipping champagne, planting bugs, and putting names to faces.
The guest list is pretty heavily weighted toward old white guys who have names with Roman numerals at the end, squiring around trophy wives or escorts half their age – men who get described as “silver-haired” in the first paragraphs of business-magazine profiles, when their hair is the same damn grey as everybody else’s. It makes Peter’s neck itch.
Or… something does. Ever since he arrived, Peter hasn’t been able to shake this strange feeling, something just slightly… off, maybe just out of the corner of his eye. It feels like—like he’s just wandered past a conversation and caught a snippet of words that might or might not be a line of poetry, or like the string quartet in the corner slipped a line of “Born to Run” into Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet. Like there’s something he should recognize, but not.
On one of his sweeps of the room, Peter notices something that hadn’t popped out at him before, above the grey comb-overs and the exquisite updos. Everyone here is well dressed, and a three-piece suit is de rigueur, but a hat, Peter thinks, raising a mental eyebrow, is probably a bit much. Peter takes a few steps toward the man in the trilby, then stops dead in his tracks, because—
Over the past ten years, there have been a lot of times when Peter has thought, for a second or more than a second, that he sees Neal – the jump of his heart, the singing of the blood under his skin, those things never fade, but they always go hand-in-hand with the slow hiss of deflated hope after a closer look. Peter waits for the sinking sensation, for his ribcage to settle back into place, because that’s what he’s used to, that’s what his heart has trained itself for, but – it doesn’t come.
It doesn’t come, and Peter blinks, and blinks again, and it’s still Neal there in front of him. He's slightly turned away, buttoned up in a soft gray three-piece suit, face impossible to read; still Neal. Different, of course, after ten years, but…
He’s grown into his limbs – when Peter saw him last, he was gangly, but his long legs and the smooth angle of his arms are graceful, balanced. He wears the suit like he was born in it, and the hat fits him now, sitting on his head at a jaunty angle. All the promises of his teenage face – those wing-like cheekbones, those sky-blue eyes – have come true. He’s beautiful.
There’s a hand on the small of his back, attached to a wrist banded by an expensive watch and an arm covered by an exquisitely tailored sleeve. It looks like a possessive gesture, but it’s not – the man’s left hand is as casual on Neal’s torso as his right hand is on his champagne flute. His body language is clear – to this man, the glass and the human being are the same: objects. Accessories.
Neal is laughing, head thrown back, eyes sparkling; but even with ten years and four yards distance, Peter can tell it’s fake.
“Dates?” he remembers Hughes snorting, during the briefing for this op. “If a date is paid by the hour, then sure, they’ll be bringing dates.”
Neal is whispering something in the other guy’s ear, something that makes the guy swallow hard, and draws a secret curled smile across Neal’s lips. It goes through Peter like a dull, rusty knife, all the way through his belly to his vertebrae – he can’t feel anything but the hole in his gut where it feels like all his insides are pouring out, hot and slick and acid, leaving him hollow.
And it’s right at that moment – fuck it all, but of course it is – that Neal looks up, and his eyes catch on Peter’s face.
His eyes widen, and his lips part – yeah, there’s no doubt he recognizes Peter, and Peter just—
He can’t. He just can’t.
Peter turns away and stumbles toward the restroom, stammering automatic apologies as he blunders his way across the room. Inside the restroom, he closes a stall door on himself and leans back against it, trying to breathe. He wants to shut his brain down, wants to slam a cage down over the frantically running rats chasing themselves around in there; but his chest is on fire and something old and beloved in his heart, something he touched for luck so many times that it’s worn smooth and shining, is cracking down the middle.
Someone opens the restroom door, and closes it behind them – when Peter hears the sound of a lock turning, he closes his eyes for a moment, then steps out to face the music.
It’s Neal, of course, standing in front of the locked door, hands shoved in his pockets, wearing a ridiculous hat and a shy, hopeful grin. Like old times, Peter thinks, for a second, and it almost makes him punch the wall.
“Hi,” Neal says softly, taking a step toward him.
“You’re alive,” Peter says. His voice sounds thin – he can’t seem to draw in a full breath. “That’s… I’m glad to see that, at least.”
Peter can hardly bear to look at him, and can’t bear at all to look away.
“At least?” Neal echoes, frowning – he looks confused, hesitant.
“I thought…” Peter’s voice cracks – this is stupid, this is stupid, he’s done so much other good in his life, accomplished so many other things; how can this one thing— “I thought—I made a difference,” Peter chokes out. “I thought I’d really—that I’d helped.”
Neal’s eyes flash with pain, and he says quickly, “You did, you—please, I just—”
“You going to try to tell me Mr. Rolex out there is your boyfriend?” Peter says, bitterly. “You want to tell me you’re—you’re in love?”
“No.” Neal looks at the floor.
“All this time I thought I made a difference, I thought you’d be—better off than—”
“You did, I am—” Neal tries, sounding desperate.
“Well, you’re not starving anymore, so I guess that’s an improvement,” Peter tries, swallowing around the sourness of it. “But here you are on that guy’s arm, letting him put his hands all over you—”
“It’s not what it looks like.” Neal takes a deep breath. “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this – I’m not supposed to tell anyone this, but… I—I’m undercover for the FBI.”
Peter’s brain doesn’t process that. “What? No, you’re not – I’m undercover for the FBI!”
Neal’s eyes widen – “Wait…” – and Peter’s own stupid brain finally starts ticking again.
“Wait, the new transfer from Philly—” he begins, not ready to believe yet, but wanting, wanting…
“Neal Caffrey,” Neal says softly, with a crooked smile. “Pleased to meet you. Again.”
“You weren’t supposed to be in until next week…” Peter says, still not trusting this – but Neal says, perfectly plausibly, “They offered me the chance to jump in on this operation at the last minute, and I took it – I wanted to get a head start on meeting my new coworkers.”
“Not so new,” Peter says. He takes a deep breath, and it feels like it goes all the way through him to the floor, taking his old wounds and heavy doubts down with it.
“No,” Neal agrees, matching Peter’s rueful smile. “So you must be Agent Peter Burke.”
“Burke’s not an uncommon name.”
Peter’s hands are jammed into his pants pockets, but Neal’s toe is scuffing along the polished stone floor, and it makes Peter feel a little better, knowing he’s not the only one feeling a little nervous. He asks, stammering a little, “And is, uh… Caffrey your real name?”
“Real enough for government work,” Neal says, with a crooked smile that invites Peter in on the joke. He pauses, and takes a deep breath. “There’s… a lot that I want to say, that I want to ask—”
“But we’re in the middle of a job,” Peter finishes, grimacing.
“But… later.” Neal’s eyes, soft, make it a question – Peter promises, “Later,” and Neal stands up straighter, nodding.
“You could… drive me home, maybe. If you drove here, I don’t know…”
“Yeah,” Peter says, quickly. “We could do that. I’d, uh—I’d like that.”
Neal smiles, then unlocks the restroom door and slips out. Peter blows out a long breath and leans over the sinks, setting his hands on the marble countertop, trying to ground himself. Instead, Peter finds himself grinning – first at the gleaming faucets, then up at his own reflection. If anyone came in, Peter thinks idly, they’d think he was a complete lunatic.
He doesn’t give even half a good goddamn. It’s Neal. Neal, alive and well, out of the game – into a different game, a dangerous one, but still. Neal with a good job, Neal with a purpose; Neal confident and smiling and… well. Peter can admit it: beautiful. More beautiful than ever, really. Neal’s right – there’s so much they need to tell each other, so many questions to ask – but that can all wait. There’s bad guys to catch, and Neal alive and okay, and it’s enough. It’s so much fucking more than enough.
The plan is that the Bureau will use the info from tonight’s op for a bust in one week, at the next shareholders’ meeting, so they can catch all the big fish in one net – of course, it wouldn’t be the FBI if everything actually went according to plan.
Peter only gets the FUBAR signal from Villatoro about two seconds before the shouting starts and the badges come out – no surveillance op is ever supposed to turn into a sting, but when you’ve gotta move, you move. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter sees Neal’s “date” panic, and shove Neal against the wall, hard – without a thought, Peter’s running, ten years rewound in an instant, seeing rough brick instead of tasteful cream stucco and a thin white t-shirt instead of a three-piece suit—
In four elegant, efficient movements, Neal pins the guy’s arm behind his back, sweeps his feet neatly out from under him, plants a knee in his back once he’s down, and cuffs him – the whole process takes maybe as many as ten seconds, and Neal’s not even breathing hard, kneeling on the suspect’s back like he just happened to enjoy the view down there.
Peter stumbles to a halt and swallows – for some reason, his mouth is really dry. Neal raises those blue, blue eyes to look up at him and grins. “You were coming to rescue me?” He looks charmed, and Peter blushes. “That’s so cute.”
“Sorry,” mutters Peter. “I—I should have known you could take care of yourself.”
Neal shrugs. “No big deal. Now you do. Know, I mean.”
“Yeah. Now I know.”
The suspects get rounded up and shepherded into the elevators and then into the waiting vans out front – when Hughes tells the agents they’re free to go, Peter looks around for Neal, but doesn’t see him.
He snags Villatoro by the sleeve. “Hey, have you seen Caffrey? The new guy? I was supposed to give him a ride home.”
Villatoro raises an eyebrow and says, “Yeah, he was heading out for the garage – he asked me which car was yours. I want you to be real proud of me, ‘cause I swear to you I did not say one word about what a fugly piece of shit it is, or how the side view mirrors don’t match, or how the air conditioning’s been broken for—”
“Yeah, your self-restraint is an example to us all,” Peter calls over his shoulder, rolling his eyes. He’s not actually at all surprised to find Neal leaning against the hood of the car, hands tucked into this pockets, grinning.
“Hey, Agent Burke,” he says, voice lilting, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Nice wheels. Want to give me a ride?”
Peter probably shouldn’t laugh, but he does – and it must be all right, because Neal laughs with him. He unlocks the car and pulls off his tie, tossing it in the back seat; Neal tells Peter his address, and giving directions keeps the conversation going for a few minutes, but eventually there’s not much more you can say about New York traffic, and silence settles in. It’s not an uncomfortable silence, but Peter wouldn’t exactly call it comfortable, either – there’s a charge hovering in the air, like static, or like the cool that settles in near the ground after it rains.
Peter takes a deep breath. “What happened? After – after,” Peter finishes awkwardly, not sure what words to put in the empty space.
Neal looks out the windshield, but not like he’s avoiding Peter’s gaze – just like he’s watching something moving in the distance. “Shawna was—I didn’t actually see a lot of her after those first couple days. I got assigned to a caseworker named Letty, and she was great. I call her every Sunday, and she just about cried when I told her I was back in New York. She got me into this magnet high school for the arts, which—” Neal shrugs, and makes an apologetic face. “I liked it, and it was better than a regular school would have been, but it was still high school, you know? For someone like me, it felt like… kid stuff. So I overloaded my schedule and did summer school and a bunch of independent studies and got out of there pretty quick. College was better.” Neal smiles, and corrects himself, “A lot better. Everyone was reinventing themselves. I majored in Studio Art, but there was this law enforcement officer who had made a big impression on me,” he says teasingly, shooting Peter a look, “so I took a couple criminal justice classes, and I liked them enough to double-major.”
“That’s an interesting combination,” Peter observes – Neal grins.
“The FBI art crime unit in Philly thought so. That, and my… checkered past – caught the interest of a recruiter, and…” He spreads his hands. “Here I am.”
“The Bureau doesn’t recruit straight out of college much.”
“True.” Neal nods, and squints out of the side window idly. “Well, when I solved the Gardner heist in my senior thesis, that sort of got their attention.”
“That was you?” Peter gapes. “In your senior thesis?”
“Well, one of my senior theses,” Neal says modestly. “I told you I was precocious.”
“Yeah, well, no doubt,” Peter says, impressed. “I’d better watch out for my job, young hotshot like you transferring in.”
Neal flashes Peter a pleased, slightly embarrassed grin, then asks quickly, “How about… how about you?” Peter tries to explain in as few words as he can – his story’s not as interesting as Neal’s but Neal seems to disagree, and asks a flattering number of questions about Peter’s past cases, about Villatoro and Hughes. Well, that part makes sense – Hughes will be Neal’s new boss, after all, which is kind of strange and wonderful for Peter to wrap his head around.
When he pulls up in front of Neal’s building, Neal says quietly, redundantly, “This is me,” but he doesn’t make any move to leave the car. Peter’s glad – it gives him a chance, now that he doesn’t have to watch the road, to turn and really look at Neal. After all this time, he can still hardly believe it – Neal, sitting in the front seat of his car like this is something that happens all the time, like they’re friends. There’s dark stubble along Neal’s jaw, which never used to be there, and the bare beginnings of lines at the corners of his blue-sky eyes.
“You look… like an adult.” Peter immediately feels stupid, but Neal’s smile is pleased, and he just says, “Ten years will do that for you.”
“It looks good on you,” Peter admits – that makes Neal smile even wider.
“You, too. You’ve got a little grey, just… here. I like it. Makes you look… distinguished,” Neal declares, teasing, reaching up a hand to brush across the hair at Peter’s temple – on ten-year-old instinct, Peter rolls his eyes and catches Neal’s hand, but then… well, he finds himself sitting in the front seat of a car holding Neal’s hand. It’s just like old times and nothing like old times, and it goes on longer than Peter should probably let it, but Neal is the one to look away and pull back his hand.
“So. You’re married,” he says lightly, nodding at Peter’s ring.
Neal huffs a surprised laugh, saying, “Uh, no. No.”
“Heading in that direction?”
“No,” Neal says, smiling and shaking his head. “There’s, uh, nobody. Not right now.”
Peter blinks – no, Neal still looks the same: still a kind of gorgeous Peter didn’t think even existed outside of glossy magazine ads. “I find that hard to believe.”
“You’d be surprised how limited a market there is for boyfriends with dangerous, 70-hour-a-week jobs and my particular kind of… baggage,” Neal says with a twist of his lips.
“You’re worth it,” Peter replies – he doesn’t even have to think about it.
For some reason, that makes Neal clear his throat, and blink quickly for a few seconds – he looks at Peter and then away, and it’s dark in the car, but Peter thinks he sees something naked and raw in Neal’s eyes anyway… maybe something Neal thought the dark would hide.
“Not everyone is as lucky as you,” Neal deflects neatly, with a flash of a smile gone too quickly for Peter to figure out if it’s real. “Tell me about your wife.”
Peter decides to let him get away with it – he’s not sure he has the right to push. And besides, Peter’s always happy to talk about El. He pulls out his wallet, opens it to El’s picture, and passes it over.
“Elizabeth,” he says simply, proudly, and Neal nods and replies, “Beautiful,” with a smile. Suddenly, his eyes seem to catch on something, and the smile falls off of his face.
Carefully, Neal’s fingers close around the yellowed paper tucked behind El’s photo – he pulls it out, and unfolds it, and then just… stares, looking lost.
“You—you kept this?” he whispers.
The sketch is falling apart, after being folded and unfolded so many times, and the lines are a little smudged and faded – but the sweet, knowing line of Neal’s penciled grin still makes Peter’s breath catch.
“You kept this… all this time?”
“Neal—” Peter is surprised. “Of course I kept it, I kept all of them – hell, I have half a dozen of them framed—”
“I thought—I really thought… you would forget me. Ten years—” Neal sounds raw, and young.
“Ten years,” Peter agrees, feeling the weight of them – good years, great years, most of them. But missing Neal had made them long. “Yeah, it was ten years, but still… I couldn’t forget you, Neal. Not even if I tried. And I never wanted to try,” he finishes, scraped and scoured by honesty.
Neal looks up at him, so unsure, eyes pleading. The silence that hovers in the air is breakable, and Peter doesn’t touch it, lets Neal decide when to wipe it away. “I thought you would want to forget,” Neal says softly, looking away. “That’s why I never—” Came looking for you, Peter finishes, even though Neal doesn’t complete the thought. “I knew you would have all this – great job, beautiful wife, happy home—kids, maybe. I didn’t think you’d want—well.” Neal looks down at his own folded hands and offers a half-smile – it’s the first time tonight that Peter’s seen any hint of the old bitterness in his face. “Some teenage hooker who sexually harassed you for a few months showing up out of the blue, reminding you—“
“I thought the same thing,” Peter admits, rasping. “I missed you – God, Neal, damn near every day, but I thought… the same thing. I thought you’d have your new life, and you’d want to put everything behind you, forget all the awful stuff—”
“Not all of it was awful,” Neal interrupts, quietly. “Not… not all of it.”
“You were not,” Peter says, and this is important, he needs Neal to know this, “just ‘some teenage hooker who… sexually harassed me—‘”
“Yes, I was,” Neal points out, and his smile is wry but unbitter, and Peter admits, “Well… yes, you were. But you were—you were a lot more than that,” he says, and this is the important part. “You were. To me.”
Neal’s smile breaks across his face as light and sweet as a closed-mouthed kiss. “I’m… I’m getting that,” he tells Peter, voice careful but warm. “And I’m…” Peter waits for him to finish the thought, but eventually Neal just shakes his head and says, “Thank you.”
“For what?” Peter asks, because he doesn’t think Neal owes him a damn thing—doesn’t want Neal thinking he owes Peter a damn thing. But Neal just quirks up his smile until it’s gently crooked and says, “For the ride home.”
“Oh,” Peter says, although he doesn’t really believe that’s it for a minute. “Well. You’re welcome.”
“I’ll see you at the office tomorrow… Agent Burke,” Neal murmurs, unfastening his seat belt and opening the car door.
And for some reason, Peter’s nerves freeze up and he can’t help himself, he can’t breathe until he says, “Peter. Please. After ten years… call me Peter.”
One foot out the door, Neal pauses, and smiles a little to himself, and says quietly, “Peter. Yes.” He meets Peter’s eyes straight on. “Good night, Peter.” And Peter can’t help but smile back, even as Neal steps out into the night, shuts the car door behind him and walks away.
Elizabeth comes to the door to meet him, and reaches for his coat, asking, “How was the party?”
Peter stops; stands like a statue, mind working, trying to figure out how to put tonight into words.
“Honey?” Elizabeth blinks at him, looking worried. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Not—not in a bad way,” she amends, eyebrows darting down. “Sort of like… a good ghost, like you’ve seen—”
She gasps, stepping back and staring at Peter, wide-eyed. “You found him,” she exclaims. “Oh my God, you found him.”
“How do you do that?” Peter demands, equal parts impressed and terrified.
“I know you really well, sweetie,” she says, dismissively. “Is he okay? Is he—”
“He’s better than okay,” Peter assures her, unable to rein in the smile growing on his face. “He’s great.”
“Oh, honey,” El says, her voice wobbling. She brings a hand up to her throat, and a smile breaks across her face like a sunrise. “That’s so wonderful. Oh, that’s—oh, I’m so happy, Peter. I knew it. I knew you would find him someday.”
“You did,” Peter agrees – she had always believed, always had the faith.
“Was he at the party?” she asks.
“He’s actually—uh, he’s a new transfer. To the New York office. He’s an agent – an art crime specialist.”
Elizabeth’s mouth drops open for a second – when she recovers, she gives him a playful shove, and says, “Sounds like someone made a big impression.”
Peter flushes and mumbles, “I suppose.”
El raises an inquisitive eyebrow. “Is he single?”
“Wait… he told you he’s single?” El demands. “Just like that?”
“Well, yeah,” Peter says, nonplussed. “We got to talking, and—”
“What are you doing here?” El asks, throwing up her hands at him – Peter throws up his hands right back and says, “I don’t know – because I live here, maybe? Because this is my house, and my beloved wife is here – who was worried about me – and my dog, and my bed—”
“And all of that will still be here tomorrow,” El replies, quiet but strong.
Peter’s eyes widen, and he doesn’t know what’s showing on his face—hell, right now he doesn’t even know what’s going through his brain—but she holds his gaze and says, “Don’t look at me like that, mister. You were thinking it, too.”
Appalled, Peter shakes his head and the words tumble out of his mouth—“El – I wouldn’t, you know I would never—”
“Peter!” El has her hands on his shoulders, and she shakes him a little, just enough to cut off the stumbling flow of words. “I do. I do know that. And this is complicated – I know that, too. But in some ways, it’s also very simple.” She moves one of her hands up to rest against his cheek, and her face is so radiant with fondness that Peter has to blush, and glance away for a second.
“When I fell in love with you," she tells him, "I fell in love with all of you: with your love of justice, and the way you kiss me at the front door when you come home from work, and with those horrible deviled ham sandwiches you make on Tuesdays… and with that picture in your wallet. He has always been a part of our lives – you’ve been in love with him for as long as I’ve been in love with you, and now you finally have a chance to make things right, to be happy—”
“I’m happy now,” Peter says, because it’s important that she knows that, that she believes it, and believes that he believes it.
“I know you are.” Her smile leaves him soft and warm at the edges, like butter left in the sun. “And I am, too. And if I thought that letting you go to him tonight would mean that… that I would lose that…” A shadow passes over her face, but she shakes it of, and meets Peter’s eyes again. “—then I wouldn’t. But I said it back then, and I’ll say it now, Peter: your heart is big enough for more than one great love.”
“Loving someone… you can’t help that,” Peter says, swallowing, “but acting on it—”
“Peter.” El shakes her head. Her eyes are patient and clear. “I’ve known this was coming for a long time. After five years came and went, you started to think you’d never see him again, I could tell. But I never believed that, not for a minute. So I’ve had a long time to think about this, about what it would mean—for you, for us—when Neal finally came back into your life. And if there’s some reason, from within your own heart, why you think you shouldn’t go over there tonight… well, that’s one thing. But don’t you dare hold back on my account, Peter Simon Burke,” she concludes, eyes flashing. “I will not have it.”
Peter rubs a hand over the back of his neck, looking away. “I don’t even know if—if he still wants…”
“He does,” El says firmly.
“You don’t know that.”
“He told you he was single,” she says, eyes widening like Peter’s being deliberately dense. “He’s still in love with you.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Peter says, throwing up his hand again – El catches them, wraps her own hands around them, and shakes them lightly. With great fondness, she tells him, “Peter. Just accept the fact that I know these things. And that, as much as I love you and you are a dear and very bright man, you really… you don’t.”
Peter has to admit that she is right.
El reads his decision on his face, and nods, smiling. “I can’t wait to meet him,” she says decisively, grabbing his coat and folding it over his arm. “Now go get him, tiger.”
“Oh, El,” Peter says, embarrassed.
Peter’s memory is good enough to get him back to Neal’s building, and his badge is good enough to get him past the doorman. Now he finds himself in a quiet, dimly lit hallway, standing in front of a closed door, frozen at the last minute – he’s here, and he knows Neal is on the other side of that door, but for some reason he can’t bring himself to knock.
What if Elizabeth’s wrong? he frets for a minute – but then he laughs at himself. If Elizabeth’s wrong, then he tells me to get lost, or he offers me a beer, or he realizes I’ve got the wrong idea and tries to break it to me gently, and we’ll be friends. And that will be good – God, so good. That will be great. After all this time, to be friends again. And he means it, and that’s what gives him the heart to raise a hand and knock.
After a minute where Peter’s heart lives in his throat, the door opens, and Neal is standing there. At first Peter’s so relieved to see him again that he flat-out doesn’t notice anything except Neal’s welcome face, and the way his eyes brighten when he sees Peter on his doorstep.
Of course, then the rest of Peter’s brain finally gets his attention, and he swallows, hard, because—
“You’re—uh, were you asleep?” Peter asks helplessly, because Neal is bare-chested and barefoot and bare everything except for a pair of worn, soft-looking grey FBI sweatpants that are sinking dangerously low on Neal’s slim hips. That’s… a lot of skin, Peter thinks, as his mouth babbles, “You were. Or you were about to be. Trying to sleep. I’m sorry, of course you were, it’s late, I should go and let you get your rest—” He looks warm, Peter’s treacherous brain whispers. Touchable. Addictive.
Neal looks amused, but there’s a wariness under it that makes Peter think he might have made a mistake. “I wasn’t trying to sleep,” Neal demurs, “Too buzzed, still – I always am after a bust, for at least a few hours.” He doesn’t move to let Peter in, and his posture is loose but poised in the doorway.
“Me too,” Peter confesses, trying to feel his way through this conversation by pure blind beginner’s luck. “I can’t ever sleep after an op until I’ve had some time to wind down.”
Neal hums in noncommittal agreement, and his eyes never waver from their lock on Peter – probably not for the same reason I can’t tear my eyes away from him, Peter thinks ruefully, trying desperately not to get distracted by the perfect deep rose color of Neal’s nipples.
There’s a moment of quiet as Neal studies Peter and Peter waits for some kind of verdict, some kind of clue.
“You’re at my apartment,” Neal says eventually.
Peter nods. “I am.”
Neal cocks his head to the side and asks, with careful evenness, “Did I forget something in the car?”
“No,” says Peter.
The wariness that’s been treading water in the back of Neal’s eyes rears up, and his voice is dead quiet when he asks, “And what about your wife?”
If you were married—the memory hits Peter like the twinge of an old broken bone when it’s about to rain. If you were married, you—you wouldn’t cheat.
Peter takes a deep breath. “When I told her I’d found you again, she told me she can’t wait to meet you, handed me my coat and all but shoved me out the door,” he confesses – Neal looks surprised for a minute, and relieved; then he tucks his chin down and laughs.
“You picked a good one,” he says, giving Peter a fond look through his eyelashes.
“She picked me,” Peter corrects – he never forgets that, never lets himself take it for granted.
“Even better,” replies Neal, with a soft smile. “Please. Uh, come in.”
Neal steps away from the door, and Peter steps through it, close enough to feel the heat pouring off of Neal’s bare skin. Peter bites his lip and valiantly tries not to notice. He turns down Neal’s offer of beer or wine, and waits – Peter came here; it’s Neal’s move now.
“Did she—Elizabeth, did she know about… about me?” Neal asks, then bites his lip. “That sounds presumptuous.”
“It’s not presumptuous,” Peter says immediately, shaking his head. “You were probably… the most important thing that had ever happened to me, back then.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets, and tells the truth as best as he remembers it. “She knew I was carrying a lot of… a lot. So I told her everything, early on. I—I showed her the sketchbook,” Peter recalls, suddenly feeling queasy, “I’m sorry, I know it was supposed to be—“
Neal holds up his hands, taking a step toward Peter. “Please, no—it was a gift. Unconditional. For you to do… whatever you wanted with it,” and Peter relaxes a little at the sincerity he can read in Neal’s tone, Neal’s eyes.
In a quieter voice, Neal asks, hesitantly, “Did she… like them?”
“She thought they were beautiful,” Peter assures him. “She’s the one who thought of framing them. I think we have… six up on the walls right now.”
Neal takes in a breath, then pauses before saying, “The—the last one? Did you…” He trails off, biting his lip again. Peter doesn’t even have to think about it.
“No,” Peter says, low. “No. That one is… private. I wouldn’t put that—for everybody to—no. That one stays in the book.”
Neal blows out a breath, and he says, “It would be fine. If you had,” but they can both tell he doesn’t mean it.
Peter should be looking around the apartment, commenting on it, maybe – it’s full of gorgeous art that Neal probably painted himself (including one large painting that Peter hasn’t been able to get a good look at but suspects, embarrassingly, shows Peter himself). But it’s taking all of Peter’s brainpower to try and hold down a meaningful conversation while Neal’s loose grey sweatpants slip ever farther down his hips and Peter’s terrible brain keeps telling him that there’s enough skin showing that it’s now a definitive fact that there’s no way Neal could be wearing underwear under there. He is painfully aware that he’s standing in Neal’s apartment still wearing his suit jacket and his freshly-shined shoes, while Neal is lounging, bare-chested, against a doorframe, the muscles in his torso shifting in an incredibly distracting way.
“Could you maybe…” Peter can already tell that this sentence is going to be a terrible mistake, but his mouth keeps moving anyway, “…um, put some clothes on? It’s kind of – uh, distracting, and—”
“Is that really what you want?” Neal asks, head tilted, considering. He crosses his arms casually over his bare chest, and even though Peter knows, knows, that it’s a ridiculously transparent ploy, he still can’t stop his eyes from greedily eating up the flex of Neal’s arms and the soft shadows they create against the rest of his pale skin. Peter’s mouth goes dry.
“No,” he confesses, hoarsely, “No, that’s not really what I want.”
Neal’s eyes go half-lidded, and his spine melts against the doorframe, and Peter’s walking toward him before he even knows what he’s doing.
“I thought not,” Neal says, and just a hint of a pleased smile flits across his lips before vanishing into a mask of seriousness. “What do you want?” he asks, as if Peter hasn’t been wearing it on his sleeve all goddamn night, and for the past ten years besides.
Peter’s hand barely shakes at all as he lifts it to Neal’s cheek, brushing the pads of his fingers up Neal’s cheekbone to the soft skin at the corner of his eyes. “This. You.” And somehow those short, clumsy words make Neal look suddenly so unsure, so hopeful, that Peter has to kiss him, has to tangle both his hands in Neal’s dark hair, step into the warmth of his body, and see if his lips are as soft as Peter remembers. Neal surges up to meet him, hands splaying hungrily across Peter’s back. Peter hardly has to tilt his head down anymore to catch Neal’s mouth in a dizzying rush of ember-hot kisses, stealing half-breaths that leave Peter dazed and gasping.
“Bed,” Neal mumbles into Peter’s jaw, tugging him backward through the doorway he’d been leaning against – “Yeah,” Peter replies mindlessly, fumbling with his jacket, then dumping it on the floor behind him. Neal’s fingers are dancing over the buttons of Peter’s shirt, but for once, those clever fingers are clumsy, and eventually Peter huffs out a breath and just yanks at the damn thing; buttons go flying.
Neal raises an eyebrow. “Have someplace to be?” he asks, face blank but voice humming with amusement.
Peter flushes. “No. Just…” He touches Neal’s face again, memorizing with his fingertips the parts that have changed and those that have stayed the same. “Just… waited long enough, you know?”
“Oh, I know,” Neal says, eyes rueful, full of barely banked heat. “Believe me, I know.” From the way his hips keep twitching against Peter’s thigh, grey sweatpants tented out and already showing a dark, wet spot, Peter guesses he probably does, at that. Peter’s been half-hard since… well, since Neal opened the apartment door looking like a goddamn wet dream, if he’s going to be honest with himself, and it’s all he can do not to just rut up against Neal like he’s in heat.
Neal gives Peter a nudge, and now Peter can feel the bed against the back of his thighs. “Well, the wait is over,” Neal murmurs into Peter’s cheek, his smile as clear against Peter’s skin as if Peter could see it with his own eyes. Just as Peter finally gets his damn shirt off, Neal gives him a look full of sinful promise and sinks to his knees at Peter’s feet.
Peter panics. He wasn’t expecting—well, his expectations were pretty vague, and now he thinks that might be a problem, because it all seems so fast now, so abrupt, and what if Neal thinks—what if Neal thinks that Peter thinks—
“I didn’t—I didn’t come here for this,” he blurts, tugging ineffectually at Neal’s shoulders, trying to pull him up. Then, having a sudden attack of honesty, he amends, “Well, I did. But not this specifically – that probably doesn’t even make any sense – and you shouldn’t feel like you have to—we can just talk. I don’t want you to feel like you—”
“Peter.” Neal stands gracefully, and meets Peter’s eyes while Peter tries to shut his stupid mouth and keep it that way. He gives Peter a patient smile, and sits on the side of the bed, patting the space next to him. “Sit with me.”
Wordlessly, Peter sits.
“Peter, I’m only going to say this once, because it sounds like the title of a horrible Lifetime movie, but: I was a teenage prostitute.” Neal’s mouth twitches, then he sobers again. “And it was… bad. And it left me with – like I said, a lot of—baggage. But there was this cop.” A small smile hovers over Neal’s lips, reddened from kisses. “He was kind to me, and smart, and kind of a stick-in-the-mud, and he never made me feel like—” Neal breaks off, and Peter can feel his gaze, as warm and real as fingers tracing the planes of his face. “And I fell in love with him.”
Color starts to rise in Peter’s cheeks, and he draws a breath to speak, but Neal reaches out and sets careful fingertips against Peter’s lips; Peter stays quiet.
“And yeah, I was a teenager,” Neal acknowledges, wry lines creasing at the corners of his eyes, “and so it was all crazy and out of proportion and felt like no one had ever felt so much in the whole history of the world. And when I got out, and got older – both of which I owe to you,” Neal adds, his eyes serious, “I realized that all teenage love feels like that, and that eventually I’d feel love for other people and stop feeling like I could never be happy without you.” He shrugs. “I was right about that part. I loved other people, and I was happy. But I also thought that, when that happened, I’d eventually… stop being in love with you. And that part—” Neal pauses, and draws his fingertips back across the bedspread between them. “That part never happened,” he finishes, meeting Peter’s eyes.
“I should be sorry about that, but I’m not,” Peter croaks, his throat raw with words held back. His fingers are aching to reach out and touch, but he presses them against the bed and keeps still.
“Why sorry?” Neal asks, with a crooked smile. “I’m not.” He shrugs again – a beautiful, boneless motion that makes the shadows shift against the smooth bare skin of his chest. Peter’s heart thumps, heavy and helpless.
“Anyway, that’s my story,” Neal concludes, “and there’s a lot of it that’s… not very nice, and a lot of it that I haven’t told you, but none of it – none of it – means that I’m not qualified to make my own decisions about what I want in bed.”
Peter nods, carefully and slowly – he thinks he understands. “Got it,” he says.
“Good.” Neal huffs out a laugh, shooting Peter a rueful look. “How about you? Any lengthy speeches you’d like to make?”
“Nah,” Peter says, smiling back. “Just—just want to say that I think ‘I fell in love with a teenage prostitute… and I—I never got over it’ is an even worse Lifetime movie title.”
“Or an even better one, depending on the way you think about it,” Neal offers, eyes twinkling.
Neal leans forward, and Peter gets to find out for the first time what it’s like to kiss Neal’s laughter – it’s a sip of champagne and starlight, addictive, and Peter chases that taste until he runs out of breath and has to pull away, panting.
“You’re going to break me,” he groans – Neal grins with a dash of his old bravado and says, “I haven’t even gotten started yet.”
He reaches behind Peter and starts stacking up pillows on the head of the bed – Peter watches with bemusement and takes the opportunity to strip off his undershirt and belt.
“Doing a little last-minute interior decorating?” he asks, unzipping his slacks and shoving them down his hips.
Neal shakes his head and pushes Peter back against the pile of pillows with a wide, mischievous smile. “Trust me,” he says, flashing his bright white teeth and pulling Peter’s underwear and slacks down around his knees, “You’re going to want a good view for this.” And in one liquid motion, he slides down the bed and swallows Peter’s cock.
“Fuck—fuck, Neal—” Peter’s brain melts in a white flash, and his hips jerk up unconsciously – Neal’s hands come up to hold Peter’s hips down with a strength that shouldn’t be surprising, now that Peter can see the wiry power in his arms and shoulders. He’s wearing the kind of smug, self-satisfied smirk that would make Peter’s blood boil if he weren’t watching it—God—stretched around his fucking cock, cherry-red and slick with spit – yeah, it’s making his blood boil, all right, just in a completely different way.
Every new twist of Neal’s tongue, every groan that he pulls out of Peter’s chest, every time he pulls back to suck hard on just the head like he somehow knows how much that drives Peter crazy – they all come with a piercing blue-eyed glance that says Enjoying the show? It makes Peter want to—as much as Peter still has coherent wants anymore, beyond yes, fuck, that, more, more—makes Peter want to fist a hand in Neal’s hair and—well, not be the gentleman he ought to be.
Peter’s had blowjobs before, okay – lots of them, thank you very much – and this is… something else. Whatever Neal’s doing to him is to normal blowjobs what jet fuel is to iced tea. Neal’s showing off for Peter, and in the corner of Peter’s brain that isn’t in complete nuclear meltdown, he thinks it’s actually… kind of sweet, how Neal is trying to impress him. He tries to keep his eyes open, but Neal knows exactly how to keep Peter riding right on the edge of almost too good, and Peter’s drowning in it, losing control. His fingers are aching – he’s twisted them so tightly in the sheets to keep from grabbing Neal’s hair that he doesn’t know if they’ll ever unlock again.
“There,” Neal says, pulling off with an obscene slurp and a satisfied grin. “Now you’re warmed up.”
Peter gapes and tries to pull his brain back online enough to form coherent sentences. “That was a warm-up?”
Neal’s smile is small, pleased, and private. “That was the plan. But I can finish if you want.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Peter says, because it’s true, and it’s always better to be honest. (It may also have something to do with the fact that his brain hasn’t entirely unmelted. And that there’s a strong possibility it never will.) “I mean, I’ve never been with a guy before, so I don’t have any… What?”
Neal is giving him kind of an odd look. “Really?” he asks, and Peter doesn’t understand why his voice is so soft. “Never? But…”
“After you, I didn’t date anybody until Elizabeth,” Peter says, then replays his words and corrects, “After I met you, I mean, because we weren’t dating—”
But it’s a lost cause. “Whatever you say, Peter,” Neal says, with a curl of a smile. Peter pointedly ignores him and continues, “So, no, there wasn’t—haven’t been any other, uh – men. Is that—is there something wrong?” he asks, because Neal is studying him closely, eyes full of something Peter can’t name.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” Neal says, shaking his head. “Just—I kind of went to town on you there.” He sounds wary, a little – maybe even guilty, which is nuts, completely nuts.
“I didn’t mind,” Peter says fervently. “Believe you me.”
Neal smiles. “Good. That’s good. But still. I’m so used to—to you being careful with me. I didn’t think that maybe… it’s me who should be careful with you.”
He’s watching Peter with a thoughtful expression, and Peter draws him down into a slow, comfortable kiss until Neal’s body relaxes against him, warm and strong.
“We’ll be careful with each other,” Peter whispers when Neal pulls back for a breath, and Neal smiles, small but purely content, and says, “Yes. Yes.”
“So what do you want? What was the plan before I shocked you with my inexperience?” Peter teases.
“You didn’t—” Neal starts, before Peter cuts him off with a kiss, laughing. One isn’t enough, so he and Peter chase each other’s lips until they’re breathless, foreheads plastered together.
“I want you inside me,” Neal says into the inch between their mouths, and Peter answers, low, “Yes.”
Neal pulls open the bedside table drawer and pulls out a clear bottle – he holds it out to Peter, and Peter… well, Peter has a purely theoretical idea of how this is all supposed to proceed from here, but he’s got a sneaking suspicion that “purely theoretical” may not get him all that far.
“I don’t really know… much about this part,” he confesses – Neal just grins, popping the cap on the plastic bottle with his thumb.
“Let me handle it, then. I don’t mind.”
Peter props himself up on his elbows, frowning. “You sure? I would, I just don’t want to hurt you—”
“Peter.” Neal gives Peter a fondly exasperated look. “As you can probably tell by now, I kind of have a thing for… showing off for you. This is not going to be a hardship, believe me.”
Peter thinks about Neal taking down that suspect earlier tonight, all coiled steel and elegant violence; about the smooth, magnetic lines of Neal’s bare body, lounging in the doorway; about a laughing teenager, red-cheeked, perched on a fire escape and grinning down at Peter from on high like a lost angel; most of all, about the melancholy smile bisected by a line folded and unfolded and folded and unfolded through the years until it was as worn as the leather wallet that kept it safe. “You don’t have to put on a show for me,” Peter says quietly. “Everything you do is beautiful.” Neal’s head jerks up, his eyes open and unguarded, and he gives Peter a shaky smile before burying his face in Peter’s shoulder for a long minute.
“You just say things like that,” he mutters into Peter’s skin – Peter lets a smile tug at his lips, and tips Neal’s chin up for a slow, luxurious kiss. He can feel Neal’s fingers brushing up his sides, along his throat, tracing shapes on his chest with touches light as feathers – by the time he notices that the touches have stopped, Neal is already groaning into Peter’s open mouth, ragged and velvety, and Peter can see now that Neal’s right arm is bracing him over Peter and his other arm is working, rhythmic—
“P-Peter,” Neal hisses, shuddering, throwing his head back – Peter can’t help but take it as an invitation, biting down and scraping Neal’s unmarked skin with his teeth until Neal gasps above him with something that might be real pain. Quickly, Peter jerks back, cupping Neal’s cheek and searching his eyes, but Neal shakes his head and manages a rueful smile.
“It’s nothing. It’s just… ah—b-been a while for me.”
Peter still finds that hard to believe – damn near impossible, now, with Neal flushed and moaning above him, but he can’t quash the low wolfish voice in the back of his mind that says, good. He ignores it as much as he can, and urges Neal gently, “Well, hey – don’t be in such a rush. I’m not going anywhere.”
Neal smiles, a little hesitantly, and whispers, “Good,” like an echo of the voice in Peter’s own head. Satisfied, Peter lets himself get lost in Neal’s distracting skin, the dance of his muscles, and the wrecking heat of his mouth until Neal calls his name.
Peter’s still out of it enough that when Neal sits back, straddling Peter’s thighs, Peter follows him mindlessly, tracing his tongue across the notch in Neal’s collarbone. Neal pushes Peter back gently with a hand on his chest; with his other hand, he reaches into the bedside table drawer and pulls out a condom.
“Every time,” Neal says, holding Peter’s gaze, implacable. “Forever. No matter how many tests come back clean. Even after ten years.”
“Okay,” Peter replies, heart sore for Neal, for all the scars he wears that no one can see unless he lets them. “Absolutely, sure.” He reaches to take the condom from Neal, but Neal pulls it back with a grin.
“Allow me.” He tears the wrapper open with one smooth jerk. Then Neal pulls out the condom, which is all well and good, but when he starts moving down the bed again, Peter tells him honestly, “If you put that on with your mouth, that’s probably gonna be the end of the night for me.”
For a second, Neal looks surprised – then he grins and says fondly, “You know me too well.” Quick and efficient, he rolls the condom down Peter’s erection, finishing with a playful, close-mouthed kiss to the tip. “There.”
“Thank you,” Peter murmurs, catching Neal’s hand and pulling him up alongside Peter for an appreciative kiss. He sucks Neal’s pretty lower lip, then bites it gently, tugging until it turns blush-red again. The low pulse of urgency in his groin ratchets up at the way Neal yields to the kiss, his whole body turning toward Peter like a flower to the sun, so open and giving, and Peter can’t wait any more. When he pulls away from the kiss to pant, “How do you want—?” Neal looks dazed, a little wrecked.
“I—l-like this, like—” He turns away, on his stomach – as Peter sits up to follow, Neal slowly pulls one leg up underneath himself, then arches his neck back, meeting Peter’s eyes with a look that turns Peter’s brain into white-hot ash.
“Neal. God,” Peter whispers, strangled – his eyes don’t know where to look, his hands are drunk with Neal’s skin. He has to touch everything at once: Neal’s long, long legs, the sinful curve of his arching spine, the vulnerable softness nestled behind his ear or tucked into the inside of his elbow, and finally, the secret shadow in his cleft, shining and slick with lube—
“Peter, please—” Neal’s voice is ragged and careless, his eyes pleading. “Please, please, Peter, I need you—”
“Now,” Peter says, his control fraying, thinning to the finest point as he covers Neal’s body with his own, feeling nothing but Neal’s silken skin underneath him and Neal’s breaths like the ocean. “Like this?” he asks, hooking his right arm over Neal’s shoulder and down, until his hand is over Neal’s heart, and wrapping his other arm around Neal’s waist, sturdy and sure.
“Like anything,” Neal gasps on the ghost of a hysterical laugh, sounding about as close as Peter is to losing his mind, “just now, Peter, for god’s sake, now—”
“Now,” Peter breathes into the side of Neal’s neck, and pushes inside.
Neal is so tight, so tight that Peter’s torn between instinctive concern and just losing his goddamn mind. He keeps it together, sliding in slow and steady, listening to Neal’s breathing under him, until he’s fully sheathed, then asks, “All right?”
“Yes,” Neal whispers quickly, bringing one hand up to tangle his fingers with the hand that Peter has set over his heart. “Just—I just need a minute—”
“Yeah, of course.” Peter takes a deep breath and tries to keep himself steady, controlled – just a little bit longer. Aiming to distract them both, Peter murmurs, “Look at you,” loosening the arm around Neal’s waist and stroking his hand down Neal’s sweat-damp chest, his graceful ribs. “You make me crazy. You’ve always made me crazy.” His hand slipping lower, Peter finds Neal’s cock, just half-hard – he wraps his hand around the base and starts a slow, comfortable stroke, coaxing him back to full hardness, encouraged by the low whine he hears building in Neal’s throat.
“That’s good,” Neal moans, “that’s—really good, oh, Peter…” His hips start twitching, little instinctive jerks that drive him forward into Peter’s hand and then back onto Peter’s cock – Peter bites his lip and forces himself to stay still, to wait, but it feels like heaven and he knows if he could only move, it would—
When Neal breathes, “Come on, Peter, yeah, now—” Peter tightens his hold on Neal’s upper body and lets himself go.
Neal is coming alive, coming apart underneath him, making sweet, filthy little noises in the back of his throat. Peter trails kisses down his jaw, straining further and further until Neal twists around and finally Peter can kiss his mouth. It’s electric, like they’re somehow completing a circuit, making something whole and pulsing grow in between all the places the two of them are touching. As good as Neal’s whimpers and moans sounded, before, Peter is knocked flat by how good it is to lick them out of his mouth, to taste their vibrations on his tongue.
It’s almost perfect – Peter’s hips are settling into the rhythm of the blood he can feel racing through Neal’s veins, Neal’s breathing is going ragged – but Neal is having a hard time matching Peter’s rhythm, and his knee keeps slipping on the sheets. He breaks away from the kiss to swear, and his knee skids out sideways again. Peter shakes his head and slows his thrusts for a minute, reaching down.
“Easy there. I’ve got you.” Peter cups the back of Neal’s thigh in his hand, and carefully draws it up, up, until the muscles are quivering in his palm and Neal’s knee is almost touching his shoulder. “I’ll hold it for you. All right?”
“Yeah. Yes,” Neal mumbles, sounding halfway between embarrassed and too sex-addled to care – when he squirms and rolls his hips back shamelessly onto Peter’s erection, Peter has a half-second to think gratefully, looks like sex-addled won, and then he’s lost to the rhythm again.
Neal’s thigh fits in Peter’s hand like it was made for him – when Peter’s thrusts start to speed up again, Neal moan and bucks, and Peter can tell without a word that the angle is better like this, for both of them. Neal is panting, keening, throwing his head back, and Peter can’t help sucking a sweet red bruise into the beautiful bared column of his neck. His fingers dig in to Neal’s thigh, reflexively, and Neal shudders, clenching around Peter in turn. They’re feeding off of each other’s pleasure, hearing nothing but the pounding of their own hearts and the sounds slipping past their lips, sounds that aren’t even trying to be words anymore.
When Peter comes, it shakes him all the way through, like everything inside him has been turned into molten glass and then turned upside down. His hands spasm on Neal’s body, grasping, probably too hard, but Neal doesn’t flinch – he just moans approvingly into Peter’s lips, his hand flying faster on his own cock until he follows Peter over the edge with a choked-off moan. His spine twists in a breathtaking arch, and his face is lit up from within, glimmering with sweat. Peter just holds on as tight as he can, marveling at being allowed to touch, and hold, and keep, after all this time and all the ways it could have gone wrong. He doesn’t even think of letting go – not for a second.
Gradually, Neal starts to stretch out, and Peter slips his hand out from under Neal’s thigh, letting Neal roll over until they’re face to face. Peter gets rid of the condom as Neal gently mops them both up with his sweatpants before tossing them on the floor. Neal’s movements are slow and endearingly graceless now, and his eyelids are drifting shut. Peter takes the opportunity, unwatched, to let his hand wander, stroking up the strong line of Neal’s thigh; his spent cock, slack and vulnerable; the graceful crest of Neal’s hipbones; the way his waist fits perfectly into Peter’s hand; the elegant ripple of Neal’s ribs under the smoothness of his skin; his flat pink nipples that make Peter’s fingers itch to tease them up into tightness again—
“If you’re thinking there’s going to be another round,” Neal murmurs without opening his eyes, his voice gratifyingly hoarse, “then you have vastly overestimated my stamina.”
Peter blushes, and forces himself to stop groping Neal – he stammers, “that’s—that’s not—I wasn’t—”
Neal’s eyelids flutter and then open, and the smile he gives Peter is mischievous.
“You’re messing with me,” Peter realizes, narrowing his eyes – Neal smiles at Peter, sleepy and satisfied and utterly without remorse, and nods, letting his eyes slide shut again.
Peter’s best—maybe his only—weapon against Neal’s mischief has always been sincerity. “Just reminding myself how lucky I am,” he says, feeling the truth of it in his bones, still a little unable to believe his own good fortune – it’s good to say it out loud, to make this real. The way it makes Neal blush is just a bonus.
With the blush comes a slight tell-tale shiver – they’ve both worked up a good sweat, and as it evaporates, it’s starting to feel a little chilly. Peter frowns, tugging the comforter up to their waists and reaching out an arm to pull Neal in closer against his body. Neal settles his head on Peter’s chest with a low, satisfied hum, and Peter wraps his arm around Neal’s shoulder, gathering him close. This, here, now – the rise and fall of Neal’s living, breathing chest against Peter’s own ribs, and the quiet trust in the way Neal relaxes in the circle of Peter’s arm – this is the answer, Peter thinks. To some question that Peter never knew how to ask, or some prayer that Peter could never find the words to make – not long-sought, because Peter hadn’t gone looking for Neal, even if maybe he should have; and not long-awaited, because Peter hasn’t been waiting for Neal, he’s lived his life; but deeply, deeply beloved. Because even though Peter hadn’t searched for Neal, or waited for him, Peter had loved him, has loved him, for ten long years, and never faltered. This isn’t something that Peter fought for, and it’s probably not even something he deserves, but it’s more than he ever thought he’d have, and it’s not something he ever plans on letting go.
Neal suddenly huffs out a breath of laughter. “Remind you of anything?” he asks, looking up at Peter with an amused glint in his eye.
Remind me of what? Peter almost says, but then he remembers – the last sketch in the book – and his heart aches with a gentle, unbitter twinge. Neal hadn’t gone looking for Peter either, or waited for him—but the proof is there, if Peter ever starts to doubt, that Neal, like Peter, knows about carrying around the warm and welcome weight of a love that’s carved in deep.
Chest tight, Peter makes himself say dryly, “I think in the original, we were both wearing a little more clothing.”
Neal’s mouth twitches, and he tease, “Maybe in the one I left for you…”
“Uh-huh.” Peter rolls his eyes and nips lightly at Neal’s answering grin – he lets Neal draw him into a deeper, slower kiss, and doesn’t take it personally when Neal pulls back to yawn, looking bleary and sated.
“I’ll—I’ll draw a companion piece,” Neal promises, and Peter smiles, pressing the shape of it into Neal’s forehead.
“I’d like that.” He likes the thought of it a lot – he’d still never dream of putting either of them on the wall, for just anyone to see, but… just for Peter, to be able to hold the now up next to the then, equally beautiful—
“I’d like that a lot,” Peter repeats. Neal is already asleep, but that’s all right. Peter can tell him in the morning. They have time. There’ll be time.
In a world so hard and dirty,
So fouled and confused,
Just searching for a little bit of God’s mercy,
I found living proof.
- Bruce Springsteen, “Living Proof,” Lucky Town