It was the middle of the night, the moon hanging huge and painfully bright above the ocean, the blackness of the sky in competition with the blackness of the water, and Peter Lowenstein was humming showtunes and trying not to think too hard about what he was doing out on the pier at this hour. The pier, specifically, near Ned Racine's house, on Ned Racine's regular jogging route, no less. He knew this about Ned because he knew a lot of things about Ned, and he knew all of these things because he was his best friend.
And also because he was a little in love with him, but that was never going to happen.
It wasn't going to happen before, when everything was fine and the current heatwave was the worst bit of shared misery that Peter and Oscar and Ned had to gripe about, and it certainly wasn't going to happen now that the defense attorney was almost definitely on the hook for a first degree murder.
A cop, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney walk into a bar...
Peter shook the thought off before his mind could supply a sufficiently catastrophic punchline. Instead, he began to dance, the repetition of the steps providing something simple to focus on. Dancing had always appealed to him. He enjoyed the physical activity, it kept his concentration from spiraling out of control, and it had the added bonus of throwing people off, a weird quirk that could paradoxically make others either uneasy or too comfortable. Either way, they were more inclined to make mistakes. And maybe they'd underestimate him, or think he was a little insane, but that was fine by Peter.
The moon threw itself against the water and split its light across the boards, silhouetting him as he moved. Soon, the thudding of Ned's running shoes across the wood folded into the rhythm of the dance, and the DA reluctantly stilled himself, the conversation already killing him a little before it had started.
"Peter?" the other man asked, panting from exertion yet already extracting a pack of cigarettes from his jogging shorts. The combination of jogging and smoking was... very Ned Racine, Lowenstein mused. Running out of air and opting to catch his breath with smoke.
"What are you doing here?" the man asked, apparently genuinely perplexed.
"I've been looking for you."
"Yeah," Lowenstein said, suddenly unsure of how to approach the subject he'd come here to discuss. He was of half a mind to just forget the whole thing. "You always run this late?"
"Nah," said Ned with a slight smile, like everything was normal, "I'm going to Miami tomorrow. I'm not gonna have time."
As if not having time to jog was the biggest hardship he was facing. Peter almost bought it; Ned wasn't the best defense attorney in the world, but he was good enough to make it sound like he wholeheartedly believed something.
"What's in Miami?"
"I'm closing this real estate deal I've been working on."
Peter nodded, looking out at the ocean, and Ned wordlessly offered him a cigarette. This, in itself, was at least a tacit acknowledgement that things were not, in fact, normal. It was fairly well-known among his friends that the prosecutor only smoked when he was very sad, very nervous, or very drunk. Being two out of the three and planning to complete the trio by the end of the night, he accepted the cigarette.
"You're some kind of health nut," he quipped weakly, before deciding to just go for it. "Matty Walker smokes that same brand. I noticed that."
Ned stilled almost imperceptibly before responding.
"Is this gonna be one of those conversations? Maybe I should have my lawyer present." There was still some levity in his tone. Plausible deniability.
"Buddy, your lawyer is present," Peter replied, dead serious.
The two men looked out at the ocean, silent for a moment.
"You know," Peter continued, trying to remain indirect, "that Edmund Walker was a bad guy. The more I find out about him, the happier I am he's dead. I figure it's a positive thing for the world."
"You're not known for being a hardliner," Ned noted, tone still conversational. Like they were having a benign discussion about their personal philosophies as attorneys.
"Hmm," he agreed, "I have my own standards. I try to keep them private."
He tried to keep a lot of things private. Peter looked away from the other man and stared at the tip of his own cigarette, the ash minutely increasing its purchase.
"As far as I'm concerned, I don't care who killed him. And I don't care who gets rich because of it. But Oscar? Oscar's not like that. His whole life is based on doing the right thing. He's the only person I know like that. Sometimes it's a real pain in the ass, even for him."
He forced himself to glance at Ned, then, to gauge his comprehension, before continuing, "Oscar's unhappy right now. He's in pain."
"Why is that?"
Peter tried not to take this personally, but he was a little hurt by the glibness -- the hallmark of any halfway-decent defense attorney -- being directed his way. At the same time, he knew that the other man's alternative was tantamount to a murder admission.
"Because he likes you," he answered. "He likes you even better than I do."
See? I can lie, too, Racine, he thought darkly, and continued.
"That's why he's been busting his butt trying to locate this Mary Ann Simpson. They finally found her place in Miami yesterday, but the woman herself was gone -- looked like she left in a hurry. Oscar thought any story she could tell might help you. He thinks you need help."
Ned turned, putting his weight against the rail and hanging his head, his body language finally betraying the extent of his knowledge of the mess he was in.
"Someone's putting you in deep trouble, my friend," Peter continued, as gently as possible, "From about three-thirty to five AM on the night Walker was killed, someone called your hotel room repeatedly. The hotel didn't want to put them through, but whoever was calling convinced them it was an emergency. The phone rang and rang, but you didn't answer."
At this, Ned shot a panicked look his way, apparently startled by this information.
"Don't say anything," urged Peter, anticipating some sloppy confession. He'd seen a lot of that type of thing in his line of work, but it was never personal. Any doubts he'd had about his friend's complicity in Walker's death evaporated.
"Save it for some other time. It gets worse. Now someone's trying to give us Edmund's glasses. We don't know who. We don't know what the glasses will tell us. But our negotiations are continuing."
He stepped back, willing himself to emotionally disengage in tandem with the physical distance. It didn't work so well, but it was a start.
“I wish I knew what to tell you, Ned. But I don’t have any good ideas,” Lowenstein sighed, turning. “I’ll see ya,”
“Wait,” said Ned.
Peter turned back around, and the other man looked at him like he wasn’t at all expecting him to do so. Hadn’t thought that far ahead. He’s a real idiot, Peter thought, the usual fondness gone bitter in his throat.
And maybe he shouldn’t have turned around, should’ve kept walking, but then again, Lowenstein always had been a romantic son of a bitch, and being romantic meant that sometimes you broke your own heart and knew exactly what you were doing. His best friend was staring at him, lost, cigarette burning to nothing between his fingers. Ocean rippling moonlight across his eyes like smoke.
“Peter—you want to come over for a drink or something?”
“What about Miami?” the DA said halfheartedly, knowing he’d agree to anything.
Ned smiled thinly and shrugged.
“I haven’t been sleeping much, anyways.”
Somehow, against all odds, they managed to banish the topic of Ned Racine’s legal predicament for the night, and Peter found himself almost having a good time. Ned had opted to break out “the good liquor,” a not-exceptionally-expensive but not quite well-quality bottle of whiskey, and they'd made a significant dent in its contents in no time. The unspoken implication of all of this, of course, was that there might not be a future opportunity to do so. Still, it was nice to have a drink with his friend. Ned had been distant lately, preoccupied.
But now, he was reminiscing, laughing over cryptic shit Oscar had said throughout the years, non-sequiturs Peter had wormed into opening statements -- both on dares and just for the hell of it, and times Ned himself had tried the wrong line on a judge or a waitress. His eyes actually glittered. Lowenstein was fucked.
He’d put on some kind of new-wave cassette that Peter couldn’t picture Ned casually listening to, and he imagined that it was part of some repertoire of material he kept on hand for the ladies. He rolled his eyes at the thought, returning to the familiar bitter-fond-exasperated feeling he only felt around Racine.
An upbeat track started up, and Ned rose from the couch, a little wobbly, sloshing his drink in his haste to set it down on the table. He stepped into the center of the room and flourished his arms, all theatrics.
“I’m stealing your gig, Lowenstein. You’d better watch out.”
He began to sway, clumsy, a parody of Peter’s habitual dancing. Ned was laughing, but he also seemed a little determined, like he was actually trying to get the steps right. He looked ridiculous.
“You’re doing it wrong. That’s not—let me show you,” the prosecutor said, and Peter, feeling the familiar, inevitable sensation of disaster needling at him through the alcohol, stood up from the sofa and set about course-correcting the terrible dance, and if his hands lingered a bit, it was an accident.
“Your arms should be like—this—right, and, no, that’s too stiff, you have to be able to—”
They laughed and fumbled through the song, and for a moment, Peter swore that Ned, smelling like booze and cigarettes and smiling, briefly gripped Peter’s hand with his own when he tried to reposition it.
But just like that, the song was over, and the next one on the cassette was a slow song, a sad song. Probably a love song. He dropped his hands, sick.
“You standing me up? C’mon, man, you know I can’t slow dance, either,” complained Ned as Peter busied himself with pouring another drink, eyes averted, suddenly wishing he had a more complicated task to justify his full attention. Ned shrugged exaggeratedly, sighed.
“Alright, if I butcher this, it’s on you.”
Sometimes Peter sort of hated Ned. He was clueless. His problem had always been that he did whatever he wanted, didn’t really think about other people. Did frivolous things for his own amusement. He could’ve been more successful in life, but he was always rubbing people the wrong way, overstepping, fucking around just to see what would happen next. He could be a restless, self-absorbed son of a bitch, but it wasn’t exactly malicious—not usually. Peter got the feeling that nothing was quite real for Ned. Like he was just biding his time, looking around for something that could hurt him bad enough that he could really feel it.
So sometimes Peter hated him. It was a luxury, to go out and try to get hurt the way Ned Racine did. And lately it looked like maybe he’d finally done it in a way he couldn't walk back from. He almost seemed… pleased about it. Like it was an achievement, to finally dig a hole so deep he couldn’t talk his way out or run away. And what was really fucked-up was that Peter didn’t mind the way the man was as much as he’d like to.
Ned’s mock-dejected voice cut through his increasingly bitter thoughts, and that ghoulish, unseemly note of gleeful defeat was leeching through, or was Peter imagining that?
“I can’t believe it, nobody wants to dance with me…”
Suddenly, the levity of the evening, which he’d known from the jump was mostly an illusion, felt palpably, inescapably wrong. Peter’s stomach turned.
“Cut it out,” he said, a little harsher than he’d intended.
“You’re no fun, Lowenstein,” Ned pouted. “You dance everywhere. Man, I’ve seen you dance at the DMV, and now you don’t want to dance with me?”
“I said cut it out, okay?”
“Fine,” he said, like he was offering a big compromise, “the next song’s fast, we can do that one.”
“We’re not doing any of them,” said Peter, slamming his glass on the table, standing, and decisively jabbing the “stop” button on the stereo. "I should go."
“Hey, what’s the matter?” the defense attorney said, legitimately bewildered.
“How are you… Jesus Christ. Are you serious?”
The mood shifted in an instant. Ned deliberately looked him in the eye for a moment.
“No, I’m fucking terrified, Peter.”
“Please don’t leave.”
And maybe Peter had just been projecting, casting Ned as some sort of masochistic grief-tourist to make himself feel… purer, somehow. Like he was the only one who was allowed to be both upbeat and miserable. Like he’d done more to earn it, with his sorry, more-persecutable pining. He felt like a dick.
“I’m not leaving. Listen, I… care about you, Ned,” Peter said, grimacing.
“I care about you, too,” Racine said easily.
“It’s not the same thing.”
“Oh," he said, getting it and switching tack all at once, "What if it was?”
Ned took a step toward him. Peter backed up, inelegantly hitting a shoulder against the stereo, and he was angry again. That had certainly escalated quickly.
“It’s not. Fuck you, Ned. You don’t get to do this.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right about the second part.”
“I can’t believe you. You're not even— You just—”
The sentence never ended, and so its possible outcomes branched into the room like heat lightning. You just killed a man. You just decided that maybe you wouldn’t mind fucking me because you’re Ned Racine and you'd fuck anyone and you want to forget her. You just don’t understand what it’s like to be me hearing that from you. You just fucked your whole life up, fucked Oscar’s life up, fucked my life up, to get laid, and now you’re trying to do it again?
Ned looked like he’d been struck. Like Peter had actually said all of those things. Maybe he had. He didn't even know anymore.
Lowenstein sighed. Yeah, this was it.
“I mean I love you, you fucking asshole.”
“I’m sorry,” Ned said softly, and kissed him.