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Promises, Promises

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They’re halfway through the drive home from the Campbell farm when Veronica realizes that she’ll be coming home to an empty house.

She’s cold. Her body’s always run a little below normal temperatures and it’s always driven Peter to distraction and discontent, acting in counterpart to her warming measures. She turns the heat up; he opens a window. She piles on an extra set of blankets; he strips down. It used to make sleeping and driving together a struggle and joint showers an impossibility. But tonight -- tonight she can’t seem to get warm, the memory of Spencer trapped somewhere Veronica couldn’t get to her still too fresh. All of the arguing in the world couldn’t change the fact that there was nothing they could do, and the second she and Peter had climbed back into the car, Veronica had turned the heat on full blast.

Peter hasn’t so much as touched any of the controls since.

“She won’t be there.” In her peripheral vision, she sees Peter glance over at her briefly before turning his attention back to the road. “Spencer,” she clarifies. “She won’t be there when I get home.”

He’s quiet for a moment before he offers up a reply. “I can take Third Street,” he ventures, and there is something so, so careful in his voice. “Swing by the apartment first.”

She tries to draw breath but comes up short, chest feeling tight at the thought. He’d agreed to move out, last year, had given her space to take care of Spencer, but the house has felt… stifling in his absence. There are things she won’t touch, places she won’t go -- the den, for one -- but there are times when it feels like there’s too much space for her to try and fill without him. Now, he’s offering her the chance to not have to do it on her own.

And... truthfully, Veronica really, really doesn’t want to be alone -- at least not tonight.

No more secrets, she’d said, and Peter had agreed.

“The barn,” she says finally, exhaling slowly. “You can sleep in the barn.”

And so Peter stays.

* * * * *

Peter gets the text from Veronica when he wakes up on Saturday morning, and there’s a general sense of urgency around it, but he figures taking an hour two to make his way over to the house probably won’t hurt. Most of their interactions in the last two months have been limited to calls or texts or the occasional e-mail; he’s only seen her in person a handful of times since he moved out, and well.

Being around her and not being with her hurts more than he ever could’ve imagined. Long distance for a couple of years during undergrad was a walk in the park compared to this.

He hadn’t lost her yet, back then.

So this morning, he takes the extra hour or two to grab breakfast at the club and pound the pavement at the tennis courts, the sound of each thwack of his racket against the balls satisfying to his ears. It takes a good hour of hitting balls across the court (more land against the net than he’s proud of) before his aggravation feels quelled and his stomach stops churning.

He wants to see her. He does. It’s just… hard.

This is a thing he can’t fix.

He takes a little longer in the shower than normal, lets the heat work out some of the tension in his muscles before turning the temperature all the way down to ice cold. She’s still his wife, after all, even if only for a few more months. Twenty-eight years of admiring the curves of her hips and the spark in her eyes and the playful twist of her mouth isn’t something he can just get over in the span of a couple of months.

He thinks he’s reasonably well put together when he finally arrives at the house late that morning, but the second she opens the door to him, he sees the walls go up in her eyes and it’s like someone takes a knife to his sternum and drags the sharp edge all the way down.

Fuck.

He feels off-kilter as she steps back to let him into the house, and he’s glad, for a minute, to not have to look her in the eyes so he can regain his bearings.

That’s before he sees the box of his things on the kitchen counter.

His eyes linger on the contents of the box -- what he can see from this angle, anyway -- and realizes that she’s packed up the rest of his desk for him. There’s the rest of the files from his drawer, the few framed photographs of the girls, a golf ball balancing precariously on top. He wonders, for a moment, if Veronica’s planning on reclaiming the space of the den as an office for herself, and it’s only then that he realizes why she would need to in the first place.

He’s hurt her so much.

“Is this all you wanted?” he asks, tongue tacky and dry in his mouth. “I could’ve come by when you weren’t home, if you just wanted me to pick up --”

“No,” she interjects quickly, maneuvering around him to sit on one of the bar stools on the opposite edge of the island. “That’s not why I asked you here. This was just… convenient.” He swallows down and around the word and tries not to focus on the fact that this is what he’s been reduced to in her world, but he doesn’t trust himself to speak yet. “I wanted to talk to you about Spencer.”

He forces himself to meet her eyes then, concern pushing past the pain. “Something wrong?” he asks. “Did she get to London okay?”

“She’s fine,” Veronica assures him, waving a hand dismissively. “I’m hoping things will stay that way for a while.”

“Alison?”

“Alison,” she affirms with a heavy sigh, resting her head in her hand. "The DA’s office is offering her a plea bargain. One of the conditions is that she names her accomplice.”

Dread settles in Peter’s stomach, old and familiar. “You think she’ll name Spencer?”

“I don’t know,” Veronica admits, and it’s only then that Peter notices the dark circles under her eyes. He wonders if she even slept last night. “I think Alison could name any one of the girls and it would be dangerous. That’s why I told Spencer to stay in London a little longer.”

“Good,” he replies, and it’s not lost on him that this sort of legal dance they do is almost like being on autopilot by now -- particularly where Spencer’s concerned. “What do you need from me?”

“I need you to do a little --” She stops, closes her eyes and swallows hard, and Peter knows she’s thinking about Jessica’s body in their backyard. “Reach out to your resources in the DA’s office,” she says instead, eyes fluttering open tiredly. “We have different contacts in that office. I figure if we both ask around, one of us is bound to come up with something useful. If the police have their suspicions as to who Alison’s accomplice was, we might be able to be proactive about organizing a defense for one of the girls.”

“We wouldn’t be able to represent the others,” he points out. “Too much conflict of interest.”

“No, but we can certainly point their parents in the right direction,” she argues. “After everything the girls have been through together, we can do that much.” Some of the walls in her eyes come down at that, broken apart by the ferocity of fight he’s grown familiar with over the years. He’s not surprised that it’s extended to Spencer’s friends -- hell, she’d even extended it to Alison, at one point or another -- but it’s always been fiercest when it comes to their own daughters. He’d seen it with Melissa when Ian was missing, and again when Melissa had confessed to keeping her miscarriage a secret. He’s seen it with Spencer time and time again in the last four years: the pills and Alison, A and Radley, and every criminal accusation in between.

The fact that Veronica can’t recognize the same fight in Peter anymore -- the fact that she feels like she has to argue to get him to step up to bat for their daughter -- is more than enough to tell him that he’d made the wrong choice in keeping Melissa’s secret from her.

God, when did things get so fucked up?

“Was that, um -- was that all you needed?” he asks, clearing his throat a little to try and maintain some sense of composure. “Just my contacts?”

She meets his eyes for a minute, and it takes longer than he expects for the walls to go back up. “Yes,” she says finally, sitting up a little straighter and breaking eye contact. “That’s all.”

The knife drags down, down, down.

He nods his affirmation instead of speaking; any words he could offer up right now would feel trite, and it’s clear, at this point, that she’s done talking to him for the time being. So he reaches for his box of things wordlessly and doesn’t bother saying goodbye, and it takes more effort than he’s proud of to try and force air back into his lungs.

When he unpacks the box later that night, he finds a small, crisp white envelope with his name penned in her handwriting along the outside. Inside is a plain and simple birthday card -- no sentiments, no specific form of address -- with her name signed along the bottom.

And still, Peter smiles.

* * * * *

Veronica comes home on Monday evening severely irritated. It’s been less than a week since Spencer was taken, but the handful of days Veronica has spent worrying have been more than enough to cause her nerves to start to fray apart. She hasn’t been sleeping well -- neither has Peter, if the dark shadows in his eyes the last few mornings are any indication -- and thinking about work has been a near impossibility. But she’d made the effort to do something today because sitting around the house not being able to help find her child has done nothing but cause her pain. So she’d gone into the office for a few hours to pick up some of her case files and pass off a few to her colleagues, and, okay, she may have stopped in at the police station to try and talk to Toby. But she’d been met with Tanner’s stoic hard line instead, and the whole thing had been infuriating enough to the point where she was three blocks away from the house before she realized that she’d forgotten to go grocery shopping like she’d planned, which means she has nothing in the house for dinner tonight and all she’s had to eat today was half a muffin this morning so of course she’s starving and --

She stops just past the threshold of the kitchen, case files in hand and purse dangling limply from her fingers as she takes in the sight of Peter staring blankly at the smoking, charred contents of one of her glass casserole trays. “What happened?” she asks, momentarily forgetting her irritation.

Peter glances over at her briefly before shifting his gaze to a cookie sheet sitting on top of the stove, and while she follows his gaze easily, it takes her a minute to realize that the items stuck to the tray and absolutely burnt to a crisp may have been slices of bread in a former life. “I tried to make dinner,” he answers, looking back at her.

Veronica arches an eyebrow. “I can see that.”

“I… may have almost burned down the kitchen,” he admits, and there’s something… off about his delivery. He’s trying to pass it off as a joke -- she still knows him well enough for that -- but there’s something almost painfully honest in his eyes, and it takes her a moment to figure out what it is.

He’s… upset.

She narrows her eyes, contemplating. She can’t imagine that he’s actually upset about nearly burning down their -- her kitchen, but this isn’t the normal sort of brooding or mood swings she’s used to with Peter when he gets like this. She’s used to a glass of scotch on the rocks and raised voices and giving him space to cool off, but there’s something in his expression that tells her he doesn’t want her to leave.

Something in her heart cracks open a little, and so Veronica stays.

“Okay, look,” she sighs, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, “I have had… a day, so here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to clean up this mess -- soak the pans properly, Peter, or you are going to be the one replacing them -- and then open up a bottle of wine. I am going to put this away and take off my shoes, and then I’ll order takeout from Kaffir. Deal?”

The corner of Peter’s mouth twitches like he wants to smile. “You were only out for a few hours,” he points out. “Was it that bad?”

Veronica inhales sharply and tries not to think about the empty bedroom upstairs. “Wine,” she says pointedly. “At least one bottle. Soak the pans. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

She avoids the den and makes her way upstairs instead, deposits her case files and purse on the small table in the corner and blessedly kicks off her shoes. She considers stripping off her make-up and changing into something more comfortable, but she’s… hesitant to let her guard down that much around Peter. It’s silly: they’ve known each other for over three decades at this point and been together for nearly as long. Having him stay with her over the last few days while Spencer has been… missing has been surprisingly easy, all things considered -- like falling back into routine. She still knows him reasonably well, still trusts him -- to a small degree, anyway. It’s just -- they haven’t even been separated a full five months, yet.

She’s not entirely sure she trusts herself, yet, and she hates him for making her feel this way.

She hates that falling out of love isn’t as easy as she wants it to be.

In the end, she leaves both her dress and her make-up on and pads down the stairs barefoot as she dials the number for Kaffir. She doesn’t bother exercising restraint in ordering tonight -- not if she’s drinking -- but she surprises herself with how far she’s already letting herself go tonight after she places an order for tom kha. It’s Peter’s favorite, the coconut soup, not hers, and she hadn’t even really given it a second thought before adding it on. It rattles her enough to the point where she plucks a freshly poured glass of wine from the counter and downs it all in one go as the person on the other end totals up her -- their order, and Veronica resolutely ignores the way Peter arches his eyebrows in response.

The few minutes it takes her to get the total and wait time for delivery are enough for a good buzz to settle in around the edges, but she’s still a little irritated and on edge (and worried, always, always worried) by the time she hangs up the phone. “They said it’d be over an hour until delivery,” she sighs, setting her phone down on the counter. “Something about spring break and college kids back in town.” Peter merely hmms in response and reaches for the bottle to refresh her glass before finally reaching to sip out of his own. She takes her second glass a little slower than her first and glances over toward the sink where he’s -- thankfully -- soaked the pans as requested. “What were you even trying to make?” she asks.

It takes him a minute to reply. “Your mother’s lasagna.”

She wrinkles her nose in confusion and turns back to look at him only to find his gaze resolutely fixed on the wine in his glass. “Why?” she asks carefully.

He’s quiet for a minute, clearly deliberating over something, before he takes a surprisingly large drink of his wine and looks back up at her. “It’s your favorite of her recipes.”

She pauses mid-sip, stomach twisting unpleasantly as she regards him over the rim of her glass. “Peter,” she says slowly, setting her glass down on the counter, “if this is some sort of attempt to make me feel better...” She tapers off, hoping she’s made the implication clear for him.

It’s his turn to regard her curiously over the rim of his glass now, though, but he doesn’t set his down. “You… forgot, didn’t you?”

“Forgot what?” she asks, and it comes out sharper than she’d intended.

“It’s… your birthday,” he says quietly, and all of the air leaves Veronica’s lungs at once.

Oh.

She opens her mouth to offer up a reply but nothing comes out. “It’s okay,” he reassures her, pushing her wine glass closer to her in encouragement. “With everything that’s been going on with Spencer, I don’t blame you for not remembering.”

Carefully, she reaches for her glass again. “You did, though,” she counters, taking a careful sip and trying not to down the whole rest of the glass immediately at the thought of Spencer. “You remembered.”

Peter shrugs, twirling the stem of his glass briefly before taking another sip. “You remembered mine, last month,” he argues.

Veronica huffs disbelievingly, breath warm from the wine. “I packed up your desk and left a card in the box,” she reminds him. “I hardly think that qualifies.”

“And nearly burning down the kitchen does?” Peter chuckles, lifting his glass to take another drink. She fumbles for words, here, unsure exactly where this is going, but any words she may have had die on her tongue when the light catches against something on Peter’s hand.

He’s still wearing his ring.

He’s still wearing his ring, and it’s stupid, she knew that, has known it for months, but it’s enough to make her feel off-kilter, in this moment. It’s all of this -- the ring and the burnt birthday dinner and the flowers on their anniversary just after they’d separated and the fact that he’s sleeping in the barn while their daughter is missing -- which throws everything into sharp, stark contrast for her. Even in their separation with a divorce looming on the horizon, this is a promise that Peter clearly intends to keep.

For the first time in what feels like a very, very long time, Veronica finally sees Peter.

She runs her thumb over the band of her own ring and tries to remember how to breathe.

Her silence is enough to put an end to his brief bemusement, though, and she doesn’t miss the way his eyes grow clouded again before he shifts his focus to the bottle of wine and empties the rest of it into his glass. “Look, Veronica,” he sighs, setting the bottle down on the counter again. “I know that I have done… more than enough to lose your trust, but can you please just try to take me at face value when I tell you that I honestly just tried to make you dinner because it’s your birthday? Because you had a crap day and our daughter is missing and I thought that -- for both of us -- it might be a nice thing?”

She sets her glass back down on the counter and swallows around the lump in her throat, tongue feeling like cotton in her mouth, and still she can’t seem to make her words work. “I --”

“I don’t want to argue with you,” he mumbles, digging in his pocket and unearthing his wallet before tossing it onto the counter. “Just -- here, use this to pay for dinner. I’m going to take this glass out into the barn,” he says, plucking his now too-full glass from the counter and taking a step forward to move around her. “Let me know when the food arrives, yeah?” The request goes in one ear and out the other, heart thudding in her chest as he brushes past her --

And then her hand is gripping his arm and her lips are on his, and the moment, it seems, is hers for the taking.

He inhales sharply against her, clearly caught off guard, but he leans into it and presses in close until the small of her back hits the edge of the island counter. It startles her, but only a little, and there’s barely a breath between them before she claims his lips again and he responds in kind, hand curling carefully around her hip. It’s the not-so-gentle clink of his wine glass against the island counter that pulls her out of it enough to break the kiss, but neither of them pulls back too far, noses bumping gently. Peter’s answering exhale is shaky and uneven, his voice a little scratchy when he speaks. “You, um -- you’ve had a fair bit of wine,” he murmurs, and if things were different, she swears he’d be teasing her about being a lightweight.

And… he’s not wrong, exactly. The near two glasses she’s had in the last five minutes are ones she can definitely feel at this point, her vision a bit blurry around the edges and her sense of touch amplified. But this -- this version of Peter she can see so, so clearly right now -- is all she’d wanted when he’d blinded her with lies last autumn, and when everything else feels like the rug has been pulled out from under her, she finds that maybe this is what she needs right now.

She doesn’t want to let go.

“I don’t care,” she breathes, and without a second thought, she leans in to recapture his lips with her own. It’s more calculated this time; she curls her free hand up and around to the back of his neck, nails dragging lightly through the hair at the nape. Peter responds with nearly equal fervor, grip on her hip tightening a little as he presses flush against her. He presses a harsh kiss to her mouth and breaks; again and she chases after him; again and it’s a staccato of a kiss-kiss-kiss that leaves her dizzy with want --

“Okay, stop, stop,” he gasps, pulling back far enough to prevent her from kissing him again. “This isn’t -- I can’t. I can’t do this,” he says, and just like that, his hands are gone.

Breathless, she reaches back and grips the edge of the island counter with both hands to anchor herself, heart beating out of time. “I left you,” she says, and it’s thoughtless but they’re beyond that now, she thinks. “I was the one who left you.”

“That’s the point,” he huffs, mirroring her position against the opposite counter momentarily. “This would -- you would regret this come morning. And I don’t -- I won’t let you do that again. I won’t be a mistake you make twice, Veronica.”

Her heart lodges in her throat.

He won’t look her in the eyes anymore and it’s then that she knows he doesn’t understand. Whatever secret he’s kept regarding Melissa -- that hadn’t been the reason she’d left; it’d been the final straw. She’d told Spencer, back in November, that leaving Peter was about years of lies instead of just one. And while the truth of that has seemed to sink in with Peter over the last five months, she thinks he’s colossally misunderstood where she’s been coming from. Her relationship with Peter has been one of many things that’s made her life so very full over the years. Every lie he’d told had carved fractures into their relationship, but it hadn’t made her regret the life they’d made together.

She didn’t regret her choice to stay.

And the fact that Peter clearly thinks that she’s regretted the last three decades of her life -- the fact that he’s carried around the weight of that for the last five months -- leaves an unpleasant taste in her mouth. She doesn’t want him to go on thinking that, can’t let him -- not with Spencer missing, not when Veronica is the one who kissed him a minute ago, not when all she wants is for him to stay. But there’s a disconnect between her mind and her mouth, wine warm in her system and heart hammering in her throat, and once again, no words come out.

For a moment, the Peter standing in front of her is twenty-two and terrified that he’ll never be enough.

And then Peter pushes away from the counter, clearly on his way out the door again, and Veronica turns her brain off. She cuts him off again before he can so much as turn toward one of the doors, a hand anchored on either side of his face to force him to meet her eyes. “You’re not a mistake,” she whispers. A beat and she swallows down, voice level and low and warm. “You were never a mistake.”

Everything about Peter’s answering kiss is gentler than any of the ones that came before it, his hands warm and solid as they smooth across the span of the small of her back and pull her closer. She shifts a little against him and angles her head to deepen the kiss, the stubble of his five o’clock shadow scratching roughly against her palms. It’s that -- the simple reminder that he hasn’t shaved in a few days -- which pulls her part-way back to the present, the ghost of him living and breathing in the skin beneath her touch. And she wants him -- god, she wants him, doesn’t want to let go, doesn’t want to overthink this at all, so she parts her lips under his mouth and forgets how to breathe, lets the air in her lungs build as her chest feels tighter and tighter and --

And then his hands are a firm anchor on her hips as he pulls away from her for what she hopes is the last time tonight, his eyes dark and his chest heaving, his pulse racing against her hand. His hesitation is fading fast -- she can tell by the way his thumbs sweep up and over her hipbones -- but he still has that look in his eyes he did when she first walked in a little while ago, the one that hasn’t totally gone away all night.

He’s afraid.

“Are you sure?” he asks, and it’s confirmation enough that this will be the last time he hesitates tonight.

And when nothing else in her life feels certain at all, Peter is the one thing she knows she can be sure of. So it’s with steady hands and a breathless smile that Veronica presses in close again, an ache building between her thighs. “I’m sure,” she murmurs against his mouth, lips just shy of capturing his for another kiss, “that I want you to get me out of this damn dress already.”

Peter smiles into the kiss she takes, and it’s no time at all before his fingers are tracing the zipper of her dress up along her spine.

The next few moments are hazy blur as they start to divest one another of clothing: he’s exceedingly careful as he pries the dress off of her curves and casts it over the back of the armchair; her fingers fumble with his button-down and his belt, tugging and pulling and pushing as they trip and stumble their way to the couch. She breaks away from his mouth with a hot huff and turns her attention to undoing his pants, faltering a little when he shifts his mouth to suck marks onto the skin of her neck. She groans in appreciation, unable to care about keeping up appearances. She can’t even quite feel the shift in temperature on her skin now that she’s been stripped down to her lingerie, wine warm and vibrating under her skin. She barely manages to dip her fingers into his waistband before he’s helping her along, quickly shucking his pants off before claiming another kiss.

The wine feels heavier in her veins with his weight on top of her as he presses her into the couch cushions, desire a pulse between her legs as he settles between them. She feels dizzy as he steals kiss after kiss, hands gripping her hips tight. She can feel him hot and hard against her even through the few layers of fabric they have left, and she bucks up her hips in answer, seeking friction. He inhales sharply, kisses her harder and presses her deeper into the cushions and it’s all she can do to grip his arms tight for purchase.

The wine has nothing to do with her wanting.

He breaks the kiss just before she’s about to, both of them gasping into each other’s mouths, but his mouth is gone only for half a moment more before he’s shifting down and pressing hot kisses down her torso. He lingers at her breasts but doesn’t reach around to unhook her bra, just traces his tongue down the valley before continuing down. She arches up off of the couch a little as he smatters kiss across her stomach, but she settles once he presses his lips against the inside of her thigh, fingers hooking into the waistband of her underwear with purpose.

And the wine hasn’t fully settled yet, doesn’t take away the sharp twist of anxiety in her gut at the sight of his head between her thighs as he starts to pull her underwear down. “Wait,” she breathes, reaching out a hand to still his movement. Peter arches an eyebrow but does as he’s asked, waiting, and once again, Veronica finds herself fumbling for words, fuck. “You don’t have to -- I don’t want you to do this because you --”

“Veronica,” Peter murmurs, mouthing at her inner thigh again and god, she wishes that didn’t feel as good as it does, she cannot focus. “You said you were sure you wanted me to get you out of that dress.”

“I know,” she huffs, toes curling into the cushion as his lips drift closer to her center. “I did -- I do, but that’s not --”

I’m sure,” Peter sighs, fingers dancing delicately around the edges of her underwear, “that I would really like to bury my face between your thighs right now.”

She surprises herself with the laugh that bubbles up out of her. “Always blunt when you really want to be,” she quips dryly, leaning back against cushions and pillows with a smile. He answers her smile with a smirk of his own, pulling his hand out from under hers to resume tugging her underwear off. She remembers her earlier hesitation upstairs at changing into something more comfortable and removing her make-up, remembers the way she’d felt uncomfortable at the thought of letting her guard down that much around Peter right now. It seems ridiculous now that he’s kissing his way back up the inside of her thigh; she’s more exposed to him now than she has been in months and --

Fuck,” she gasps out, hand curling around the edge of the couch as Peter finally, blissfully dips his tongue inside of her and drags up. Five months, five months and then some since she’s had him like this -- had him in any way at all -- and she suddenly feels the longest dry spell they’ve ever had more acutely than ever. Again, he dips his tongue into her entrance and drags his way up her labia, wet and warm. Again, and Veronica exhales, shaky and uneven. Again, and again, and she is aching now that he’s filled his own absence, her free hand moving to tangle her fingers in his hair.

Peter’s eyes flick up to meet hers at the familiarity of her movement, and for a moment, it’s as if they’ve spent no time apart at all.

Any last vestiges of hesitation are now gone.

He resumes his attention to her sex with renewed fervor, mouth shifting so he can tongue teasingly at her clit. She gasps out a groan at the spark of intensity, hand gripping his hair tight, and it takes everything in her not to immediately buck her hips up against him. She feels the mild vibration as he moans against her and grips the edge of the couch a little tighter, toes digging painfully into the cushions to keep her grounded.

And then his fingers are at her entrance, barely lingering before dipping inside, and all self-restraint is now out the window. She inhales sharply as his fingers press up and in, breath half-caught in her lungs, and it’s enough, it’s more than enough. She doesn’t need more, doesn’t need a third, doesn’t need him to curl and search and press to make her feel good. Five months and then some makes this -- the simple stretch and pressure and movement of his fingers -- more than enough to satisfy what she knows is not just a mere itch. But she doesn’t care, she doesn’t, not with the buzzing and brimming beneath her skin, not with Peter here with her now and her whole world narrowed and focused to the way it feels to trust him like this. She bucks up into his hand and his mouth, thighs tightening around his head just a little as she asks for what she doesn’t need. “More.”

Peter gasps against her, shifts and presses in closer and licks his lips. She clenches involuntarily around his fingers as his stills them, impatient in her wanting, but he doesn’t leave her waiting long. He dips his head back down quickly, flattens his tongue against her clit and licks with renewed vigor, each stroke of his tongue broad and firm and -- “God,” she chokes out, thighs beginning to quake around him. “Peter --”

The please never even makes it out of her mouth as he wraps his lips around her clit and sucks, has her gasping and arching off of the couch a little as pleasure pulses and builds behind her belly. She feels herself tighten around his fingers, heightening every press and drag as he curls them inside of her, pressure increasing as he sucks harder at her clit and fuck, fuck, fuck. Wine weighs down in her chest and she aches for his hands on her breasts and five months without his touch; she’s missed him so much more than she ever thought she would and Peter again falls from her lips, breathless and desperate. She digs her nails into his scalp without thought, close, close, she’s so close, but she comes up to the edge, falls back when he uses his free hand to pry hers away from his head -- a silent plea.

Peter laces his fingers with hers and she’s right back at the edge again, feels her impending orgasm coiling tighter and tighter, and then the light catches and glints off of his ring, and Veronica falls.

She curls up and in, muscles in her abdomen tense as she comes with a breathless shout. Peter guides her through it, mouth and fingers slowing in tandem with the way she crests and flows and ebbs. She tries to jerk away from his mouth as she comes down, more over-sensitive than she’d been expecting (and it’s the wine, the wine, the wine, god, the wine feels like it’s permeated every pore of her skin, christ), but she can’t quite manage it with how burrowed against the couch cushions she is. She whines low in the back of her throat and squeezes Peter’s hand, hoping he gets the hint. He follows her lead -- he’s been following her lead all night -- and pulls his mouth away first, fingers still inside of her as he waits for her muscles to relax around him.

She relaxes her hand around the edge of the couch and grows pliant against the cushions, head tossed back against the pillow as her vision blurs and swims and dances. He gives her a moment, and then another, and by that point the wine has consumed her to the point of fading her nerves around the edges, fuzzy and a little more distant. Gently, he slips his fingers out of her; she can feel more than hear the way he tries to catch his breath, each puff of air warm against her thigh and laced with arousal. She doesn’t start when he rests his cheek against the inside of her thigh, merely shifts and blinks and looks down at him tucked comfortably between her legs.

She can see the question in his eyes that he won’t give voice to -- hesitation, fear. He still thinks she’s going to push him away, that she’s going to change her mind and say no. He’s still giving her an out, still operating on one mistake after another, doesn’t want to cause her further pain, and the second she starts to piece together the potential vehemence of whatever feelings he still has left for her, she leans into the depths of the wine she’s drunk in order to drown, brain burning off into quiet for the rest of the night. “C’mere,” she murmurs, tugging at his hand gently to pull him back up on top of her.

He’s gentler about it than before, more careful with his weight, but she can still feel him hard and thick and hot as he settles between her legs again. His lips graze her shoulder, fingers toying with her bra strap, but she’s done with waiting, done with hesitation and apprehension and worry. The wine has burned most of that to background noise at this point, has driven her to distraction, and she needs this, needs Peter to keep up, needs him here with her. She exhales heavily as she runs her hand down the expanse of his back before snaking a hand up beneath his undershirt, grasping and tugging until he goes with her pull and peels it off. Again, her hand trails back down, nails a light drag against his skin before she digs in a little deeper, pressure blunt and firm. He gasps haltingly, hips stuttering against her, and even through the fog of the wine, she manages to arch an eyebrow, making her intention plain.

Peter’s hesitation gives way to haste, finally, and it’s with a general sense of urgency that he shucks his underwear off and leans in close again. He kisses her hard, off-center, before trailing his lips down again, doesn’t bother removing her bra even as he breathes hot and wet over the swell of her breasts. He reaches for her leg, adjusting, and the wine has made her sluggish enough to relinquish the lead and follow, instead. She anchors a hand on his shoulder, half-arching toward him for a kiss, but he’s lined up and pressing inside before she has a chance, a choked-off gasp escaping her throat unbidden. He nearly matches her with his own muffled groan, his arms shaking as he struggles to keep himself propped up.

Peter’s name falls reverent from her lips, and for the first time in nearly half a year, Veronica’s heart beats without walls.

He surges forward for the kiss she’d tried to take, any last vestiges of hesitation gone as he settles them skin on skin and pushes her back into the cushions. She draws half a breath between each kiss, chest feeling tight as he presses in close. He reaches for her hip and hoists her leg up and around, hips snapping forward hard. Her answering whimper is muffled by his mouth as he draws back out and pivots forward again, each thrust less restrained than the last. She’s not sure she could come again, just from this, not with how admittedly drunk she knows she is now, but fuck if it doesn’t still feel good. The way she stretches around his cock feels different than his fingers, wider and more shallow; pleasure blossoms up and out with each thrust, the blunt pressure of bone against bone causing her to curl her toes into his calves.

Her hands scramble for purchase on his body -- his ass, his back, his arms, his neck, anywhere, any part of him -- as she breaks for air, dizzy with desire and her vision blurry with his face this close to hers. Again, she tosses her head back, neck exposed to his teeth, tempting. She’s half-leading again, she realizes, but she can’t bring herself to care, not when he follows, licks and sucks and bites at her pulse point in a way that has her arching beneath him again. His hips falter as he presses in hard and lingers, slowing to a gentle rocking. “Close,” he breathes against her neck, words tumbling out of him in a rush. “I’m close, it’s been months, I don’t think I can --”

“I don’t care,” she says, not for the first time tonight. She sinks her hands into his hair again, gripping gently and guiding him impossibly closer. I don’t care tumbles from her lips again, rushed and urgent this time, and his hand comes up suddenly, smacks against the arm of the couch and grips it tight, knuckles turning white. He mutters out a broken fuck as his hips pick up pace again, every snap sharper, quicker than before. He practically buries his face into her neck, breath hot and heavy against her skin as he drives into her and -- “God, yes, there,” she moans, reveling in the way the new angle manages to hit just right. She smacks a hand against the small of his back to anchor herself against him, grips his hair a little tighter and closes her eyes, breathing his name one more time.

And then Peter’s hips pivot forward once, twice before he stills, arms shaking and shaking as he presses his lips against her ear and comes with a broken cry of Roni, soft and quiet and reverent.

That gets her to snap her eyes wide open, hand going lax in his hair as her mind starts to piece back together.

He’d called her Roni.

The wine isn’t hitting her as hard, now, fading to a gentle buzz around the edges, and she finds herself suddenly more hyper-aware of everything -- how much heavier his body feels on top of hers now that he’s come inside of her; the way his arms have stopped shaking; the way his hand strokes softly against her side, his skin still remarkably cool to the touch; the way her chest feels tight, lungs burning as she struggles to breathe because Roni, Roni, Roni, fucking hell.

All at once, Veronica is twenty years old again, terrified and wanting desperately to not be alone in this.

She tries to draw in a deep breath and fails; once more and it’s better but still difficult with his weight on top of her. She makes to touch him to try and prompt him off of her, but she pauses before she touches him, surprised by the way her hand is shaking. She flexes her fingers in an effort to calm her nerves, once, twice, three times before she thinks she’s got it under control enough to the point where he won’t notice. She taps his back, gentle but firm, and turns her lips toward his ear. “Up,” she murmurs, not unkindly. “Need some air.”

It takes him a few seconds, but he obliges with a deep breath and a groan as he lifts himself off of her and pulls out. He’s a little off-balance, she can tell, but he’s not as bad off as she is, didn’t have as much wine, so he still has enough presence of mind to reach for a tissue off of the coffee table to clean her up so they don’t make a mess of the couch. But that’s as much as he can be bothered with, it seems, because he wads it up and tosses it on the table without so much as a second glance before he’s settling back in. But this is better, easier; he’s not quite so overwhelming, and it’s easier for her to breathe. He shifts, though, only half on top of her now, his hand resuming his gentle stroking of her side.

She just had sex with Peter.

She just had sex with Peter.

She needs more wine.

“We should, uh, get dressed,” she murmurs, inhaling sharply as Peter reaches out to tuck her hair behind her ear. Her brain goes a little fuzzy around the edges, words failing her as his thumb trails along her jawline before he pulls his hand away again. “Dinner,” she adds, trying desperately to stay focused and not let herself overthink this. “It’s -- I don’t know how long it’s been since I called. We should get dressed before the delivery person arrives.”

Peter doesn’t seem nearly as off-kilter as she feels, body lax and eyes warm. “We should get dressed,” he agrees, but he makes no move to get up. “Clean up. Have some water.”

“And wine,” Veronica adds, much more quickly than she’d intended. “We should open another bottle of wine.”

His eyes narrow just a fraction at that, like he’s trying to get inside of her head and figure her out. But his study of her lacks the usual cold calculation she sees when his mind is at work; in its place, she finds a spark of… curiosity, she thinks, one she hasn’t seen in ages. It’s the one he gets when his interest is caught and piqued, a challenge accepted and a game at play. But it’s softer around the edges -- it has always been softer around the edges when it comes to her, like she’s a partner in this game he plays, a mystery to be uncovered.

She recognizes the look in his eyes, knows it well; she can’t afford to dwell on what she suspects it might mean.

Not tonight.

Not now.

“Wine,” he says finally, though he sounds a little reluctant. “And some water.”

It’s awkward for a few moments as they detangle themselves from one another and clean up the mess they’ve made, plucking clothes from where they’ve been carelessly discarded throughout the room and tugging underwear back on. She leaves Peter to the guest bathroom downstairs while she retreats to their -- her own upstairs, tossing her dress aside to take to the dry cleaners later. She takes longer than is strictly necessary cleaning up in the bathroom upstairs, finally choosing to remove her make-up and wash his come off from between her thighs.

She grips the edge of the bathroom counter tight and finds she can’t quite look herself in the eye.

She had sex with Peter.

She exhales, slow and heavy, as her mind tries to piece itself back together. She’s not -- she’s not ashamed of it, doesn’t feel guilty about it. She’d wanted it, wanted him, and she’d made the choice to go after what she’d wanted. It doesn’t have to mean anything more than fucking if she doesn’t want it to.

She’s not sure if she wants it to or not.

And she’s not equipped to handle thinking about it or trying to figure out exactly how she’s feeling or what it is that she wants. Veronica knows enough of her own shortcomings, knows when she doesn’t have enough information on hand to feel comfortable enough making that kind of call. And tonight, she can’t -- she won’t, not when the world starts to spin around her again, not when the air is still thick with lies untold and there is an empty bedroom down the hall.

Veronica’s heart lodges in her throat.

She really, really doesn’t want to be alone right now.

Peter is still downstairs.

She takes a deep breath and tries to bring her heart back down to rest, forces herself to look in the mirror and focus on the here and now. This -- this is a thing that she can control even if all she does is go after what she wants, what makes her feel comfortable, safe. Allowing herself this, enjoying Peter’s company -- these are things she doesn’t have to overthink right now. She doesn’t have to talk about them.

Not now.

Not tonight.

Not if he doesn’t try.

So it’s with an empty stomach and fatigue settling in around the edges that Veronica emerges back into the bedroom to finish getting dressed. She’s halfway to her dresser when she sees something rumpled underneath the dress she’s set aside -- Peter’s button-down. She’d brought it up with her on accident, but it’s oddly… comforting to see it up here, the memory of her fingers working nimbly to get him out of it still fresh in her mind. She reaches for it now and finds it still warm, the vague scent of his cologne mostly gone but still familiar to her senses.

She doesn’t overthink it, shrugs it on over her shoulders and works on pulling the buttons together as she makes her way back downstairs.

She’s just missed the delivery person, she thinks, if the various cartons and containers now adorning the kitchen island are any indication. Peter’s mostly dressed again -- underwear and undershirt, at least, pants draped over the back of one of the living room chairs for the time being -- as he pulls plates down from the cabinets. Veronica’s mouth quirks up into a smile in admiration as he reaches for them, his legs long and lean and more sculpted than they were back in November, curve of his ass deliciously on display.

She nearly mentally chastises herself for that -- she’s forty-five, for crying out loud -- but she stops herself before she can fully manage it. She’s an adult; she doesn’t have to feel bad about wanting him.

Not tonight.

Not now.

Spencer’s name is an echo in the back of her throat, and that’s the thing that’s riddled with guilt and laced with anxiety and worry. Veronica tries to swallow around it but it sticks, a thick, painful thing that suffocates and silences and stings tears into her eyes. Her gaze falls to the island again to where her requested second bottle of wine has been opened and used to freshen up her glass. She gravitates toward it, feet carrying her quickly across the room, and by the time Peter turns around to look at her, the wine is already burning its way back down her throat, her lips stained red. He blinks a little at the sight of her in his shirt, clearly caught off guard, but he recovers quickly, takes a breath and turns his attention to portioning out their meal.

Good, she thinks. He’s not ready to talk about this either. She can work with that.

She grazes her lips along the rim of the glass, touching but not tasting, each note settling on her tongue in time. He reaches for the container with the coconut soup and pries off the lid, and it’s his turn to quirk his lips up into a smile when he looks inside. “You added tofu to the tom kha,” he chuckles.

Warmth blossoms in her chest at that, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the wine. She levels a look at him over the rim of her glass and tries not to let her amusement show. “Well, someone has to put in a little effort to keep you alive,” she mutters.

A beat passes as the words linger in the air between them, settling and splitting open as they shift from playful banter to the potential of bad news, and Veronica feels the swell of sadness in her chest a split second before recognition dawns in Peter’s eyes. “Veronica --”

“Can we just… not do this tonight?” she breathes, setting her glass down on the counter and closing her eyes for a minute. “Can we just -- I’m worried about her, Peter, and I know you are, too, but I just… do not have it in me to entertain the what-ifs tonight. Not like that -- not when it hasn’t even been a week.” The counter is too cool to her touch as she grips it tight, her heart feeling like it’s beating behind her eyes. She exhales slowly, takes a breath, does it again --

And then Peter’s hand is brushing against hers, his lips pressing softly against her temple, and every breath Veronica takes comes that much easier, feeling lighter in her chest. “I know,” he murmurs, anchoring his free hand against the small of her back. “The not knowing is -- that’s why tonight I tried to --”

“I know,” she breathes, an echo to his own. Slowly, her eyes flutter open, feeling heavier than before, and she squeezes his hand in kind. “Let’s just… do that, okay? Just have dinner and wine and try not to go there tonight.”

Something shifts in Peter’s eyes when he pulls back to look at her -- it’s that look, she knows it’s that look, and she really hopes that he stays as unequipped to handle this conversation as she is tonight. But eventually, the corner of his mouth twitches up into a faint smile, and his hand is a warm, welcoming weight against her back when he nods his assent. “Deal.”

Things get… well, she hesitates to say easier, because they don’t, not really, but the rest of the night is decidedly less fraught with tension. They don’t talk about Spencer (much, anyway), they don’t talk about their little tryst on the couch; they don’t talk much more at all, actually. And in a way, that kind of… works for them better than if they’d tried to put their cards on the table. Portioning out tom kha and spring rolls and curry and pad see ew, working their way through a second bottle of wine (and water, at Peter’s insistence, because he knows her well enough to know that she’ll have a horrendous hangover in the morning if she doesn’t balance out the alcohol), curling up on the couch and switching the t.v. onto a John Hughes marathon -- they’re things that, altogether, do exactly what Peter had intended from the start.

It’s a nice night.

(The sex is another story -- that may have actually been the highlight of the evening with how fucking good it was -- but it definitely didn’t detract from the evening, that’s for sure.)

She loses track of time after a while; she thinks it may be well past midnight at this point, but it doesn’t really matter all that much, not if she’s going to be working from home for the unforeseeable future. And she’s… content here, really, toes tucked against Peter’s thigh, the wine still a warm weight around her even as she sobers up. They’ve reached Pretty in Pink in the marathon, admittedly one of her favorites (he’d taken her to the theater to see it for her birthday, the year she’d turned nineteen), but she’s only half paying attention, eyes dropping and fatigue settling in around the edges. It doesn’t escape Peter’s notice; he nudges her leg gently with his own, prompting her to look at him. “You’re fading,” he says, his tone clearly brooking no argument.

She smiles sleepily at him -- or at least she thinks she does, anyway -- before a yawn consumes her, jaw cracking a little with the force of it. “A bit, yeah,” she chuckles, unwilling to fight him on this.

“Go upstairs,” he urges, reaching for the remote to turn the television off. “I can clean up down here before I head out to the barn.”

Her smile falters at that. The thought of going upstairs -- of cold sheets and a bed with too much space and an empty room down the hall, of being alone -- isn’t one she’d been entertaining tonight, not since she’d obliterated whatever line was drawn between them and kissed him in the kitchen earlier. Things have -- well they haven’t changed, exactly, but things between them have definitely shifted tonight. The rules she’d set in place last week feel less appropriate now, in desperate need of revision. And it’s not -- she’s not ready to have that conversation, not the full one, anyway, but she’s not willing to disrupt the new balance they’ve created, not ready to be alone.

She’s not ready to let him go again.

And now more than ever, Veronica is done with thinking for the night. So it’s with surprising ease that she shifts closer to him and rests her chin on his shoulder, hand anchored innocently on top of his thigh. “You could sleep upstairs,” she offers, low and quiet. “You don’t have to -- you can come sleep upstairs, with me.”

He turns ever so slightly to glance at her, the look in his eyes more transparent than it has been all night, but it doesn’t frighten her this time, doesn’t set the wheels in her head in motion or spark anxiety that frays her nerves apart. She lets him look at her, open and honest and affectionate, and for the first time all night, she doesn’t try to hide when she looks at him in return. “You sure?” he murmurs, eyes flicking down to her lips.

There’s that hesitation again, but it’s easier to navigate this time, borne out of respecting boundaries instead of fear. And while the rest of the world spins around her, Veronica leans in and presses her lips to Peter’s and takes back the lead. “I’m sure.”

And so Peter stays.

* * * * *

Chapter Text

In August, light lingers longer, but tonight, the summer sun has long since dipped below the horizon, leaving Peter with only a lone lamp to light his solitude. Even in the dim glow, he can see the way light reflects and refracts against the ice in his glass. He’s nearing the bottom of what has become his nightly glass of scotch, but the effect isn’t quite the same as it had been when he’d first started this little routine earlier this summer. It doesn’t surprise him -- he’s been doing this for over a month now, after all -- but it does have him reevaluating the whole thing.

Maybe he should have another.

That’s as far as his train of thought goes, though, before there’s a knock on the den door. “Come in,” he calls, half-expecting it to be Melissa seeking more ill-advised freedom. But when the door swings open with a slow, eerie-sounding creek, Peter is more than surprised to find Veronica lingering in the doorway.

It doesn’t escape his notice that she will not cross the threshold into his office.

“Hey,” he breathes warmly, unable to help the smile that tugs at the corner of his mouth. He straightens up a little, pulls his fingers away from his sweating glass.

“I’d like to talk,” she says without preamble. “Not here. Out in the living room.” She’s turning around and heading back down the hallway before he can even think about refusing her. He wouldn’t -- especially not now -- but it’s another stark reminder of the fact that their marriage is operating on her terms right now.

(It’s another reminder of how badly Peter has screwed up.)

Still, she’s talking to him, at least, and the fact that she’s sought him out -- while not entirely comforting -- is enough to prompt Peter out of his chair and the den.

He leaves the rest of the scotch behind.

The living room, too, is dimly lit, only the fireplace casting a warm, orange hue over the open space. It’s quiet out here, auspiciously so, and it takes Peter a minute to place why that’s so odd to him right now. “Where are the girls?”

“Out,” Veronica sighs, coming to a halt on the opposite side of the room. “Melissa’s out at the movies with some friends.”

“Friends,” Peter echoes dubiously, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yes, friends,” Veronica affirms, folding her arms over her chest. “Spencer’s next door -- I know, I don’t like it any more than you do, but she wanted to spend the night at Alison’s and I wanted the house to ourselves tonight. The girls have overheard more than their fair share of arguing.”

“So… this is still an ongoing argument, then?” he ventures tentatively, deliberately not mirroring her stance. “Because I’ve got to tell you, I really don’t want to --”

“Not an argument,” she amends. “A… discussion.”

He forces a tight smile, still steeling himself for her anger and accusations. “Is there really a difference in this particular case? Every discussion we’ve had about this has always warped into an argument, if it didn’t already start there. And I’ve told you before, I’m not sure what else I can do here, Veronica -- I have apologized over and over --”

“I know,” she interjects quickly, and it comes out softer, less sharp than he thinks she intended or he was expecting. She rolls her shoulders back, looking uncomfortable, but she doesn’t unfold her arms. “I think… I only have one question left.”

That catches Peter off guard. They’ve been arguing about this for weeks -- confessions bleeding into accusations as she’s tried to process his prior infidelity and convey just how much he’s hurt her. The idea that all of that is nearing its end -- that Veronica is nearly ready to make her choice as to whether or not to forgive him for this, whether or not she’ll stay -- is enough to make his stomach churn. Somehow, thought, in spite of his unease, he finds himself almost wishing he’d brought the rest of his scotch.

Almost.

“Okay,” he agrees with a sigh. “If it’ll help.”

Something akin to annoyance flashes across her face, but she masks it fairly quickly -- or tries, anyway. He knows her well enough to know when she’s throwing up walls, can see it in her eyes, but there’s something… off about it this time, something different. She still looks uncomfortable, but there’s something else there, too, like she’s nervous to even be asking.

For a minute, Peter wonders if Veronica’s afraid of him.

“After it happened,” she ventures carefully, not quite looking him in the eye for a second, “after Ken and -- after they moved to Georgia and I came home from Boston, when you… proposed,” she says, starts and stops and somehow looks him in the eye. His breath catches, chest tightening at the thought of where she might be going with this. And all at once, he feels like she’s looking through him, searching for a memory she’s been struggling to find. “Why did you -- why then?” she amends. “Did you ask because you felt guilty?”

It’s like a sucker-punch to the chest, one that startles the breath from his lungs even though he’d suspected it was coming. Protest bubbles up like bile in his throat but he swallows it down. She’s earned her doubt, he knows this, and it doesn’t matter how his guilt eats at him because he’s the one who made the mistake. And his guilt, his remorse and apologies -- all of it only means something if Veronica is willing to entertain it. And as bleak as things seem in light of her question, the fact that she’s asked it means she’s left the door open.

It means he hasn’t lost her yet.

Still, the question is enough to make him feel unsteady on his feet, so it’s with a shaky exhale that he moves to sink down on the couch, elbows resting on his knees. “Of course I felt guilty,” he says carefully, and even though he expects the way she inhales sharply, it still stings. “But that’s not why I did it -- not why I proposed,” he amends quickly.

Veronica takes a deep breath, like she’s trying not to turn this into an argument. “Okay, let’s… say that I take that at face value,” she sighs. “If you didn’t ask because of your guilt, then why did you?”

Peter fights the urge to narrow his eyes in incredulity, patience wearing thin. “After Jessica told me she was pregnant, after she and Ken left, I knew I had a decision to make. I knew that I had a choice. And I could’ve -- I knew I could’ve walked away at that point. I knew I didn’t have to keep trying to make things work between us.”

“Okay, I’m going to stop you right there, Peter,” she interjects harshly. “Do not sit there and try and make what you did sound fucking noble.”

“I wasn’t -- do you want me to answer your question or not?” he counters, suddenly suspicious that maybe he’s walked into an argument anyway.

“I want you to be honest for a change,” she implores, sounding tired. “I don’t want you to talk about this in a way that’s supposed to make me feel sorry for you or grateful that you decided to tough it out with me. Don’t condescend to me, Peter, we’re not in court.”

“I’m not trying to,” he insists, feeling just as tired. “I’m trying to answer your question. You’re the one who’s decided your best defense is a good offense.” The words are out of his mouth before he’s really though them through. He inhales sharply, ready to backtrack and try to keep the peace, but Veronica looks equally startled by his minor outburst. He’s given her ammunition for the argument they’ve been trying to avoid, he’s sure of it, and there might not be anything he can do to pacify her now. “Look, Veronica --”

“No,” she says, holding up a hand. “No, you’re right. I’m not… really giving you an opportunity here, not if I really want an answer,” she admits softly, relaxing her posture a little. “You… decided to stick it out with me. Why?”

Peter relaxes a little in turn, grateful for the allowance. “I’d just started law school,” he sighs, running a hand through his hair. “What was happening at the time -- that wasn’t in either of our plans. We talked that through a hundred times.”

“And yet you stayed.”

“I stayed,” Peter echoes, warmth blossoming in his chest. “And it wasn’t because I felt guilty or obligated or any of the other things I’m sure you’ve thought about.” He hesitates for a beat, breath caught in his lungs as the memory settles in full force around the edges, and all at once he is twenty-two, his hands shaking in the dark. “I stayed,” he murmurs, “because every time I tried to envision what I wanted my life to look like, none of the details mattered except for one.” Another pause and this time it’s Veronica whose breath is caught in her chest, and Peter doesn’t miss the way she swallows hard in apparent anticipation. “I wanted a life with you in it. The alternative wasn’t one I was willing to take into consideration.”

A log shifts in the fire, cracks and pops and thunks quietly, and in the flickering light, Peter thinks he sees Veronica’s eyes grow wet. “And now?” she prompts, voice thick.

It takes every ounce of self-restraint Peter has not to get to his feet. “Now the choice is yours,” he says, as much as it pains him to do it. “Now you’re the one who has to decide what you want your future to look like.”

Her eyes narrow a bit at that, betraying her hurt. “Except it’s not just my future, is it? It’s the girls’, too. Mine, theirs, yours -- ours. Whatever I do impacts all of us. What you did makes my decision so much bigger than yours ever was. How is that fair, Peter?”

“It’s not,” he rushes to reassure her, leaning forward a little. “It’s not fair. I screwed up, I know that, but that’s not -- if this decision is anything but yours, it just makes the whole thing worse.”

“Peter,” Veronica breathes, shoulders falling, “you got another woman pregnant. How does it get worse than that?”

He runs his fingers through his hair again, fisting tight in frustration before letting go. “I can’t go back and change what I did --”

“I know you can’t,” she says, and her voice is altogether gentler than before. “That’s not what I’m asking.”

“Then what are you asking?” he sighs, resting his head in his hand. “What do you want from me?”

“You keep asking me that,” she says, voice sounding strained. She doesn’t look away from him, but he can tell it’s a near thing. “Maybe I should be asking you the same question.”

He can feel his heartbeat slow as he lets his hand fall away, clarity finally dawning on him. He forces himself to breathe evenly -- in, out, rest, again -- before pushing himself to his feet. This -- this is doubt of an entirely different kind, and they’re close, he thinks, to finally getting to the heart of the matter. If he’s right, then he’s not the only one who feels uncomfortably young tonight.

(If he’s right, he has hurt her far more than he ever could have imagined.)

“Is that what you think?” he ventures carefully, moving around the coffee table to stand directly in front of her now. “Do you think that just because all of this is out in the open now that I’ve suddenly stopped wanting this? Do you think that now that you know the truth, I can just use it to opt out? That I’ll just leave because it’s convenient?”

Veronica takes half a step back and but seems to think better of it and stops, but he can see her better like this, notices what he’d only guessed at before. He can see the tears brimming on her eyelashes, notices the way her chin trembles slightly, but it’s only when she finally uncrosses her arms and wraps them around her middle instead that Peter knows he’s hit too close to home. She opens her mouth and then shuts it, whether to rethink her choice of words or try to pull herself together he doesn’t know, but when she does finally answer him, her voice is barely there at all. “I honestly don’t know anymore.”

The admission forces the air out of his lungs, and he clings to the last remnants of restraint he has left, forcing himself not to move -- not yet. “Are you -- is that what you want from me? You want me to fight?”

She does break eye contact finally, but judging by the way she sighs heavily and reaches a hand up to rub at the back of her neck, it’s more out of frustration than discomfort. “I don’t want you to grovel, Peter --”

“That’s not what I meant,” he interjects quickly, all last vestiges of hesitation gone now as he takes a step toward her. That gets her to look at him again, and he can see in the way her expression shifts that he’s caught her off guard. “You want me to fight for this.” Her eyes narrow, just a little, but she’s holding back, trying to keep her emotions in check. Her hand falls down and away from her neck, flutters anxiously at her side before making to settle back at her waist and that’s all he needs to close the distance between them.

His hands come up to rest gently against her forearms; she tenses, clearly considers pulling away, but she’s made up her mind, he can see it in her eyes -- she’s refusing to let him make her feel uncomfortable. He can see her more clearly now than he has in what feels like ages -- still every bit the twenty year old who had planted her feet on the ground and forced the world to move around her -- and for half a moment, it’s enough to take his breath away.

For every fracture he’s made in her heart, she has earned the right to see the marks she’s left on his.

“Veronica,” he says, trying and failing to keep his voice steady and clear, “I have spent every day for nearly eighteen years fighting for this - for you, for us, for our family, for this life we built together. That hasn’t changed just because you know the truth about Jason now,” he insists. It’s her turn to catch her breath now, her swallow audible as she half-glances in the direction of the backyard -- toward the DiLaurentis’ place next door. But Peter’s figuring this out, he knows: this isn’t about them but what they represent, and if he has any chance at all of salvaging what they have, he has to keep Veronica’s attention in the here and now. He ducks his head a little to try to get her to look at him again, careful not to get too much closer. “I haven’t stopped fighting in the last month while we’ve been trying to figure this out.”

That’s the thing that gets her to look at him again, hurt and hesitation a blended and blurred mess in her eyes. Peter knows that look, he remembers seeing it on the train platform almost eighteen years ago right down to the day when she’d gone back to Boston. And for a moment they are suspended in time: her at twenty, him at twenty-two -- on the precipice of a changing tide. And it’s that -- this, now -- which throws him the most off-kilter, mind spinning as the reality of the situation actually sinks in. He wasn’t ready to lose her at twenty-two; he’s still not ready now.

He doesn’t think he ever will be.

Not for the first time, he longs for the scotch he’d left in the den -- to finish what he’d started, to pour another glass, something, anything. He swallows the burning desire down and forces himself to wait it out a little longer, knowing he needs to lay the rest of his cards on the table.

She needs his heart laid bare.

He moves his hands down thoughtlessly, wanting a more intimate touch, but he stops just shy of his goal at the way she tenses under him. He settles for a relaxed, barely-there grip around each wrist, instead, and forces himself not to take her hands in his. “And… even if you decide not to stay,” he murmurs, quiet and low, and the words on his tongue are poised with pain, “it still won’t change. I’m still going to wake up in the morning fighting.”

Veronica closes her eyes against the words, and the sharp edge of her doubt lances through him like a knife to his lungs.

He can’t fight like this -- not when he’s wounded and bleeding out -- so it’s with every last ounce of composure he has that Peter runs his thumbs down along the backs of her hands before letting go. He turns, his breathing growing short and stilted and uneven again as he takes a step forward and then another, the burn in his throat nearly rendering him blind as he starts to make his way back to the den, longing for a drink --

“Wait.”

A harsh breath startles out of Peter’s lungs, but he stops, and he thinks he’s doing something resembling normal breathing when he turns back around to face her, eyebrows arched in silent expectation even as he braces for the worst. She’s looking at him again -- really looking at him this time -- and her words seem to come easier now than they did before. “I -- look, I know I’ve asked this before, but… I need to hear it again.” Peter narrows his eyes, confused and more than a little curious, but it’s enough to patch up the pain in his chest, enough to bring his heart back to rest. The next words are harder for her -- he can tell by the way she wraps her arms around herself a little tighter -- but she forces them out anyway. “After the DiLaurentis’ moved in next door,” she says, “you swear to me that nothing else happened between you and Jessica?”

And all at once, Peter’s hope reignites: he is not the only one who has been worried about loss.

He’s slow, careful about the way he approaches her again. They’re still on her terms in regards to all of this, and the last thing he wants is for her to push him away because he’d moved too close too fast. He’d worried about doing it earlier when he’d prompted and pried real reasons out of her, trying to get down to the root of the problem. But a little push in the right direction, he thinks, may put their world back into place. Standing in front of her, he doesn’t reach for her arms or hands again; instead, he guides them both back to center and anchors a gentle hand on either side of her face. “I swear.”

When Veronica kisses him, it feels like coming home.

He lets her lead, follows her down and in as her lips press warmly against his. A brief break for breath and she’s back again; once more and she unfurls, hands finding his waist and gripping with surprising ease. He runs his thumbs up and over the apple of her cheeks, a gentle graze in reply, and he’s met with the wet trail of tears that have finally fallen. He presses in a little more insistently, drawing the kiss out longer than the others; she rocks up on her toes as she arches a little closer to him, but that’s as far as she lets it go. She breaks off with a soft gasp, presses her palms flat against his abdomen but doesn’t push him away. “Okay,” she breathes, voice a little uneven, “I still… need a little time to ease back into this.”

He doesn’t smile, not yet, but he brushes his nose against her own, feeling a little braver than before. “But we will?”

She pulls back a little, just enough to look at him properly, and even though she’s been crying, her eyes are clear. “Every family has secrets, right?”

He does smile at that, wry and twisted, but he bites back the chuckle bubbling its way up his throat. “I think we’ve proven we’re pretty adept at keeping them, if the Melissa thing is anything to go by,” he reasons.

She scoffs, derisive and dry, but she’s fighting back a laugh, too, he can tell. “Well, let’s hope we end up in a retirement home before that one manages to get out.”

Somehow, he thinks they won’t be that lucky, but the shift in priorities is enough to break his smile wide open, bright and uninhibited as he leans in to ghost a near-kiss against her lips. “So you’ll stay?” Peter murmurs, and Veronica meets him in kind, smiling into the kiss she takes.

“I’ll stay.”

* * * * *

It’s a week -- a week of regular visits to the police station without news; a week of a dwindling appetite and a glass of wine at night; a week of Peter occupying what used to be his half of the bed and curling around Veronica at night; a week of thoughtless kisses and a handful of non-conversations -- before the calm of their carefully constructed eye of the storm finally passes over them.

Veronica walks into the house on the first Tuesday evening in April feeling considerably less irritated than she has in the last couple of weeks. She’d actually gotten to talk to Toby today instead of Tanner (he’d looked about as tired as she’s felt), and while he hadn’t been able to give her much information, the little she’d managed to get out of him -- the fact that Andrew Campbell’s disappearance has led to the police investigating him and his family more seriously -- was enough to make her feel like at least something is being done. It’s not much -- it doesn’t bring the girls home safe -- but it’s better than the aimless dart throwing the Rosewood PD has been doing lately. And it’s enough to make Veronica’s irritation fade to a quiet, simmering buzz in the background.

At least until she walks into the kitchen and sees Peter perched on the living room couch opposite a (really rather unnecessary) crackling fire, a glass of scotch on the rocks sweating onto the coffee table.

The sight is enough to root her to the spot for a moment, anxiety ripping through her as she sucks in a breath. Logically, she knows the response is practically Pavlovian, conditioned to a fault, but it’s not one she’s had to deal with since November -- not like this. And given the state of things between them in the last week -- the heated nights and burning kisses, the warm mornings and fleeting touches -- Veronica can’t say that she’d been expecting things to shift so suddenly. And Peter -- Peter usually has a very specific, loaded reason for his brooding binges, and the prospect of one now settles in her stomach like lead, heavy and thick.

She forces herself to take a breath, reminding herself that she’s just come from the station -- he can’t possibly have gotten bad news in the time it took her to drive home. “Peter?” she ventures carefully, not quite ready to take another step into the room just yet. She hears him draw in a breath of his own as he turns to look over at her, but there’s a gentle warmth to his eyes -- the same one that’s been there all week -- that puts her a little at ease. She takes a step forward, then another, and it’s only as she sets her purse on the kitchen island and gets a little closer that she realizes his smile -- however welcoming -- is tight around the edges. “Is something -- did something happen?”

Peter shakes his head. “Not unless you heard something while you were out.”

“No, not really,” she answers, because it’s enough of the truth to matter; she can convey the rest of it to him later. He nods once in acknowledgement but says nothing, his eyes growing a little distant and distracted. She narrows her own eyes in return, gaze flitting between Peter and his untouched glass quickly before she settles her hands on her hips. She’s not looking for a fight here, but neither of them has the patience to beat around the bush at the moment if something is really wrong.

Well, something else, anyway.

Veronica resolutely does not look at the framed photographs atop the fireplace mantle.

“Did you pour that for a reason?” she asks finally, nodding at the glass on the table.

Peter blinks rapidly back into focus, glancing at the glass briefly before shaking his head. “It was, uh -- it was supposed to be liquid courage,” he chuckles dryly, sinking back against the cushions. “And then I… decided against it, I guess. I wanted a clear head.”

That’s… new, and honestly a little encouraging, all things considered, so Veronica makes her way over to the couch and sits down next to him, toeing off her heels and tucking her legs up under her. “For what?” she sighs, propping her head up on her hand against the back of the couch.

She feels him tense next to her, fingers flexing as his hand spasms a little in what is clearly an aborted attempt to reach for the glass on the table. His head turns toward her, just slightly, but he doesn’t manage to quite look her in the eyes. “We… need to talk.”

Anxiety flares quick and wild against her sternum, but Veronica tamps it down almost immediately. She’s not willing to jump to conclusions and throw up walls again -- not yet, not when she’s not sure where he’s going with this. “That almost never leads to a pleasant conversation,” she remarks mildly, hoping to take the edge off a little.

He tsks a little, a near chuckle that sends a little thrill of satisfaction through her, but it hasn’t taken the edge off completely -- not yet. He turns toward her a bit more, looking up at her -- around her, near her, really, still not quite meeting her eyes. “I just thought -- with everything that’s been going on the last couple of weeks…”

That is decidedly more definitive for her, a clear creeping towards talking about this -- whatever it is they’ve been doing in the last week -- in a way that makes it all the more real. And beyond the fact that they both have clearly found comfort in one another’s company while Spencer’s being -- while she’s missing, beyond the fact that it has been simple and easy and effortless and Veronica hasn’t had to stress or worry over yet another thing and what it might mean, this is not at all a conversation that she’s ready to have with him right now. “Peter,” she murmurs, sucking in a breath.

But it doesn’t even really seem to land with him; he’s still barely looking in her direction, eyes still unfocused and distant. It occurs to her then that maybe this isn’t going where she’d thought it was. Peter has clearly prepared for this -- has some big speech or explanation he’s gone over in his head -- and while that alone usually does not bode well for them (Jessica springs to mind, first), Veronica can’t help but wonder if maybe he’d meant what he said. Maybe he does want to talk -- to discuss something with her. And while she can’t say she’s at all surprised by the way he’s prepped himself (it’s a hazard of the job, really, and she would’ve done the same -- has done it, in the past), in a strange way it makes her feel almost… grateful.

The days have gone silent, one after another, but Peter engaging his mind -- engaging her means he’s not willing to give up, not yet.

Twenty-five years in, and Peter is still fighting.

“When we were at Toby’s apartment,” he says finally, speaking slowly, “and Ezra Fitz warned us that our secrets were in those boxes too, you asked me to make a promise. No more secrets, remember? No more -- no more lies?”

Veronica studies him curiously, eyes narrowing in discernment again. She’d asked that of him, true enough, though the lying -- the request not to lie had been more implied than anything. And while there’s a distinct enough difference between withholding the truth and outright lying -- one that they’re both well aware of at this point -- she knows probably better than anyone just how bloody of a trail both can leave behind. “Yeah,” she answers quietly. “You agreed.”

“I did,” he affirms, his eyes finally coming into focus as he meets her gaze. “In… the spirit of that agreement, I think -- I think I owe you this one. You deserve to know the truth about what really happened in November.”

Veronica swallows hard, her breath coming out stilted and uneven as she lifts her head from her hand and sits up a little straighter. “Peter,” she says carefully, every bit a warning, “you swore to me that you didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Jessica.”

“That’s not -- I didn’t,” he reassures her, angling himself on the couch to face her a little better. “That’s not what this is about. It’s about… the night that Alison went missing.”

She just barely bites back a huff of annoyance, confusion clouding any clarity she might be able to garner from the vagueness of his words. “You’re not making any sense,” she says, trying to remain patient. “That was what, over two and a half years ago? You said this was about last November.”

“It is,” he sighs, shifting to get a little more comfortable. “It’s about both, but it’s --”

“Do not say complicated,” Veronica interjects, patience wearing thin. The warmth in his eyes hasn’t gone away but she does not like this, does not like the way anxiety churns her stomach and bites at the edges of her skin.

“-- involved,” Peter supplies instead.

She takes a breath to center herself back to something resembling calm, trying desperately not to fidget. “Okay,” she says tersely, “why now then? Why haven’t you said anything before?”

Something shifts in his eyes, then, clouding his irises, but it’s not cold, not even close. He’s… Upset isn’t the right word here this time she thinks, but it has that same sort of stark sense of exposure that she’d seen when she’d walked in on him at the kitchen island on her birthday last week. He’s not throwing walls back up either, and while the sheer liberty of his feeling so openly rattles her, it also draws her nearer, a tantalizing tether. “It’s not exactly… my secret to tell,” he explains, and the words come out slow, stilted. “And…” He stops, eyes narrowing just a fraction as he studies her face, and there’s something else there now too -- traces of genuine concern. “Once you know, Veronica, you can’t… unknow it.”

“I don’t understand,” she says, nose wrinkling a little. “If it’s not your secret to tell, then why is it so important that you be the one to share it with me now?”

“Because I’m the reason you didn’t know to begin with,” he admits, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck. “But it wasn’t -- it shouldn’t have been my call to make, exactly, not on my own. And every time I try to look at it differently -- to try and be less… independently-minded about the whole thing -- I honestly can’t figure out whether or not this is something you would have wanted to know. So,” he huffs, running a hand through his hair again before shifting to try and get more comfortable, “in the interest of honesty…”

This, she recognizes; this is guilt. And while she believes him when he swears that he had nothing to do with what happened to Jessica, associating guilt with Peter and his actions has never settled quite well with her -- and for good reason. But… his guilt is almost never the driving force behind his choices, only one of the motivating factors. She can sense that here with… whatever it is he’s biting back, and not for the first time in the last week, Veronica thinks she can see Peter more and more clearly than she has in the last several months combined -- years, even.

The Peter in front of her is still -- then, now, always -- twenty-two, ready to step up, gather the pieces of broken bridges, and start to piece together a path forward for them both.

(She does not dwell on what that might mean in light of… the state of things in the last week.)

“I’m listening,” she prompts quietly.

She can’t quite gauge Peter’s reaction to that, but that’s all he needs for the hesitation and stalling to come to an end. He runs his palms over his thighs and draws in a breath, clearly steeling himself for whatever little speech he’s prepared for this. “The night that Alison went missing,” he begins, “there was so much we didn’t know, things we didn’t learn the truth about for ages. We didn’t know there was another girl in the yard. We didn’t know Alison made it out alive. We didn’t know about Jessica’s part in everything, that she --”

He cuts himself off abruptly, but it’s not enough to stop her from sucking in a sharp breath, fingers fluttering up to toy with the chain of her necklace. She drops her gaze, just for a few seconds, but it’s enough for her to see Peter’s hand reach for her briefly before he seems to think better of it and stops, jerking back more sharply than she thinks he intends. She flicks her gaze back up, sees him draw in a breath and open his mouth -- probably to apologize for reminding her -- but she shakes her head. “I know,” she murmurs. “Keep going.”

He’s still quiet for a minute, though, eyes narrowing a little like he’s trying to figure out how to navigate a minefield. “We don’t know who assaulted the girls,” he says finally. “We don’t know if it was one person or two separate people. But… we do know that it wasn’t the same person -- or people -- who buried them.”

It’s Veronica’s turn to narrow her eyes a little, still confused. “We don’t know that for sure,” she argues. “Alison couldn’t have possibly known whether or not Jessica had anything to do with what happened to Bethany, she was --” And here Veronica stops, clarity dawning on her as the pieces start to come together: the careful language he’s been using; the distinguishing between what they know and what they don’t; the fact that this is a secret he’s kept for months; the weighted look in his eyes. “But you do,” she breathes, handing falling from her necklace. “You know what happened to Bethany?”

“I don’t know who assaulted her,” he reiterates, and he’s hedging, just a little, until the last.

“But you know who buried her,” she rasps, and Jessica is the fire that burns Veronica’s throat raw.

Another breath, this one much more weighted than any of the ones that came before it, and it’s only then that she realizes that for all that Peter has seemed -- has been sincere about wanting to be honest with her, there is also a part of him that very much does not want to be sharing this with her. She understands why better now: simply knowing this could land him in hot water, legally -- her too, if she chooses to hear it. That alone is reason enough not to have said anything, but something twists in her gut, unsettling her. She needs more information, needs to be able to put the pieces together on her own before she can give it a name, and that only happens if she chooses to take the risk.

To trust him.

Peter shifts closer to her on the couch -- just slightly, just enough so that their knees touch. “That summer, Melissa and Alison were at odds over Ian,” he reminds her unnecessarily. “That night, Melissa went next door to confront her about it.”

“But Alison wasn’t home.”

“No,” Peter agrees, nodding, “but she wasn’t in the barn either, obviously. At that point, I don’t know if she was still out or if Jessica had already --” Another abrupt stop, his face pinching like he’s disappointed he can’t avoid approaching that particular mine, but it doesn’t land with Veronica the way it normally does -- not this time. “That doesn’t really m-- that’s not the point, anyway. The point is that when Melissa was on her way back home, she… stumbled across a body. Blonde hair. Yellow top. And she saw --” He stops, swallows hard and rubs roughly at the back of his neck. “She saw Spencer walking away with a shovel.”

Veronica shivers, the smoking heat of the fire feeling virtually non-existent for a moment. “Spencer didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Bethany Young,” she reminds him, pitching her voice low in warning.

“I know that,” he rushes to reassure her. He makes to reach out a hand toward her, but he stops himself again, clearly cautious. “But Melissa didn’t -- not back then. She… panicked,” he breathes, sounding exhausted, and Veronica’s heart picks up pace in her chest. “All she could think about was protecting her sister.”

And with breath caught her chest, Veronica sits up a little straighter and leans forward, mouth slightly agape in disbelief. “Peter,” she says, voice shaking, “are you sitting here trying to tell me that Melissa buried Bethany Young?”

Peter’s eyes slip shut, his answering exhale also shaky and uneven, and it’s almost enough of an answer -- almost. “She thought it was Alison,” he explains, and it’s every bit the defense he means it as.

The breath startles out of her lungs at that and she shifts away a little, breaking the point of contact between them. “That doesn’t matter,” she breathes harshly. “Peter, Melissa buried someone alive --”

“She didn’t know,” he emphasizes, opening his eyes. “Melissa didn’t know Bethany was still alive.”

“Do not --” She stops, swallows bile back down and tries to breathe evenly, heart beating out of time as the gravity of the situation starts to sink in. “Do not sit there and lecture me about the ways the law splits hairs over the differences between homicide and murder, Peter. It doesn’t change the fact that Melissa is still responsible for --”

“I know --”

“And the fact that we know is --”

I know.”

Veronica huffs out a harsh breath, hand gripping the edge of the couch hard in an effort to anchor herself because this isn’t happening, this cannot be happening right now, not with Spencer -- “When did you find out?” she asks, unable to help snapping at him in an effort to keep her mind from straying and betraying her. “When did Melissa tell you… what she’d done?”

The weight in Peter’s eyes is back in full force, and Veronica recognizes it for what it is: regret. “November,” he answers quietly, clearly done with beating around the bush. “The night we found out Alison was still alive. The night Jessica --” He stops himself again but it’s less careful this time, and she wonders if maybe he’s as sick of almost saying it aloud as she is of remembering it.

The breath in Veronica’s lungs feels like ice now, her heartbeat slowing, and it’s only half a moment more before she’s pushing herself up off of the couch and moving to the other side of the coffee table, hands anchored on her hips as the pieces fall into place. “And you didn’t think,” she says, voice dangerously low, “that any of this was worth mentioning to the police around Thanksgiving was Spencer was arrested?”

Peter shifts on the couch to face her, eyes following her as starts to pace back and forth in front of the fireplace, but he doesn’t move to get up. “Veronica,” he says, voice careful and even, “I spent months grappling with the fact that no matter what I did, one of our daughters was looking at facing some serious prison time. It wasn’t like there was a preferred option of the two.”

She halts in her pacing, twisting to level him with a look. “Did it ever occur to you that whatever this… A’s motives are might be about what happened that night? That this might be about what happened to Bethany Young?”

“Of course I have,” he insists, gentle and quiet and it is infuriating the way he’s trying to placate her. “I have spent almost every waking minute since we found out that A took the girls thinking that, but it’s not like I had a choice, Veronica.”

“And yet you made one anyway,” she says coolly, hands fluttering restlessly at her sides before she finally decides to fold her arms over her chest. She takes a half-breath to try and steady herself and fails, eyes stinging with the threat of tears. “Do you realize that things might never have gone this far if you’d shared what Melissa confided in you? That A might never have felt compelled to after the girls like this if the truth had gotten out?”

Peter deflates a little at that, something shifting in his eyes. Slowly, he rises from the couch, but he doesn’t take a step toward her -- not yet. “You cannot honestly be standing there trying to hold me accountable for A’s actions, Veronica. That’s not fair.”

She sets her jaw against the trembling of her chin, indignant to the last that he is saddling her with something this monumentally life-altering. (He didn’t, the back of her mind supplies. He offered, in good faith, and you pulled it out of him knowing the risks -- and Veronica pushes the thought down, down, down.) “I’m sorry,” she bites out, “fair went out the window when you decided to protect one of our daughters over the other.”

A soft breath escapes him, broken and startled, and the shifting in his eyes betrays something far more genuine than she wants to see right now: hurt. “I can’t believe you’re accusing me of that,” he murmurs.

“It’s not an accusation -- it’s a fact,” she clips, taking a step toward him, closing in. “You threw one kid under the bus for the other.”

Something flashes in Peter’s eyes -- white-hot and angry -- and for a moment, any trace of the warmth she’s started to become reacquainted with in the last week is gone. “Okay,” he replies, matching her step with one of his own, and there’s no mistaking the bitterness in his tone, “if those are the rules we’re playing by here, then what you’re doing? Wishing I had gone to the police with Melissa’s secret? Condemning me for keeping my mouth shut? That’s the same fucking thing. You’re throwing one kid under the bus for the other.”

It hits her just as badly as if he’d raised a hand to her, leaves her knees shaking and her lungs struggling to work properly. Veronica takes a very deliberate step back, tears stinging at her eyes worse than ever. “Fuck you,” she whispers, forcing herself to look him in the eyes before taking another step back. She turns and brushes past him roughly, hurrying up the first few steps so she can make her way upstairs.

She hears him sigh, the floor creaking a little as he clearly turns to face or follow her, she’s not sure which. “Veronica, wait, I didn’t mean it like --”

No,” she spits viciously, whirling around on the steps to look him dead in the eye again. “No, honestly, Peter, fuck you. You don’t get to decide what’s fair. You don’t get to try and claim the high ground by arguing that protecting Melissa by keeping her secret was something noble. You don’t get to pass moral judgement on me for being upset when that -- that sociopath is holding Spencer and her friends captive and tormenting them. You don’t get a choice,” she says, and she falters, voice tapering off as her stomach churns and the tears finally brim on her lashes. “You made your choice already, Peter. You don’t get to make this one now -- especially not for me.”

She lingers there for a moment staring him down, hand gripping the banister tight. And all at once, it’s like any traces of the anger that had consumed him just a minute ago have evaporated into thin air. Now, all that’s left is that same warmth broken open in Peter’s eyes that she’d found comfort in this past week, but the sight of him so transparent is unwelcome now, making her sick to her stomach. “Veronica --”

Don’t,” she says sharply. He does not get to obliterate the world beneath her feet and then try to catch her while she falls. He does not get to act as an anchor when he’d kept this from her, the fact that Melissa had -- had -- “Do not follow me upstairs,” she warns, turning away from him as her stomach flips again and her vision starts to blur. “I honest to god cannot look at you right now, Peter, do not come upstairs tonight.”

She’s up the stairs without another word or glance back in his direction, taking them two steps at a time.

She stumbles her way into her bathroom once she’s upstairs, fumbling half-blindly for the light switch as the tears in her eyes brim and well and wait. She sinks down onto the floor in front of the toilet hard, the rug doing little to soften the blow to her knees as she pushes the lid open with a too-loud clatter. She grips the edge of the bowl tight enough that she’s sure her knuckles are turning white and she struggles to breathe, chest heaving as her anger starts to dissipate. Peter lied; he kept a secret that obliterated every last ounce of trust she had in him, kept a secret that made her say this is one too many and fucking file for divorce because Melissa -- she’d buried --

Veronica vomits violently into the toilet, and the tears in her eyes finally spill over and fall.

She’s gasping for air at the end of it, shaking -- god, she’s shaking horribly with the aftershocks, and even as her vision starts to clear, she can still hardly see straight. She closes the lid clumsily, unsteady on her feet as she rises far too quickly for her own good and grips the edge of the counter tight. She grapples for the faucet, splashes water onto her face and swills it in her mouth before spitting. It doesn’t help -- the taste of bile is still bitter, thick and tacky on her tongue -- but when she finally manages to catch a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, she thinks she understands why it’s lingering.

There is guilt in her eyes.

Fuck.

Eyes slipping shut, she turns back around, hands fumbling for purchase as she slides down, down, down, back pressed firmly against the cabinets. She pulls her knees up to her chest and rocks a little, trying valiantly to get her breathing under control and her heart to come to rest.

Spencer’s name sticks in the back of her throat like a ghost caught in the in-between, and Veronica swallows down the words she cannot speak: I’m sorry.

Chapter Text

The paper cups are warm against his hand and his arm even with the sleeves as he balances them precariously. He reaches awkwardly around with his free hand, digs around in his back pocket until his fingers find the thin key card and pull it out. A swipe and a soft beep and the door clicks open for him, and Peter lets himself back into the hotel room.

They’re exactly where he left them a little while ago, curled up together on the bed, but Melissa’s burrowed down low, head resting in Veronica’s lap as her chest rises and falls with the easy breath of sleep. Veronica doesn’t glance over at him when he comes into view, her eyes distant and unfocused as she gently cards her fingers through Melissa’s hair. “I brought you tea,” he murmurs quietly, careful not to wake Melissa as he sets Veronica’s cup down on the nightstand closest to her. “Decaf.”

At that, she glances over at him, smile soft and sleepy and lacking her usual warmth. “Thanks.”

Peter glances down at Melissa, just for a second, before opting to take up residence in one of the armchairs nearby. He exhales, heavy and uneven and altogether exhausted, and Veronica’s gaze, too, falls back to their eldest daughter. She looks… small, Melissa, jarringly so, the sudden thinness of her frame tearing at him in places that make him feel twenty-two all over again, and for a few still moments, she is nothing but his daughter, breaking new life into the places he is most afraid.

He forces the flare of emotion back down his sternum and tucks it away; the promise he makes to deal with it later is hollow, empty at best. Carefully, he sucks in a breath and glances down at the cup he’s holding, turning it again and again in his hands. It’s small, the cup of coffee, but one he knows he needs if he’s going to make it back to Rosewood tonight. But he can’t think about leaving, can’t use the bottom of the cup to measure time until he figures out what the hell he’s supposed to do here, how he’s supposed to leave this.

This is not something he can fix, and in the absence of agency Peter is forced to face failure at every turn.

“Do you think she was angry?” he asks finally, gaze still trained on his cup. “Back in November? Do you think that’s why she waited so long to tell us? Because we didn’t— We weren’t exactly sensitive, Veronica,” he sighs, rubbing at his temple slightly, “when it came to the funeral.”

She doesn’t respond, at first, the silence carving out a bigger space in the air, but when he glances back up at her Veronica shakes her head almost imperceptibly, fingers still carding idly through Melissa’s hair. “No, we weren’t,” she murmurs in agreement, “but we also didn’t— We were only working with the information we had, Peter. I don’t think she faults us for that. I think she just… didn’t know how to cope, much less tell anyone about it.”

“And this was coping?” he presses, waving vaguely in the direction of Melissa’s suitcase where the fake — where she’d left her lie, earlier. “Whatever this… charade was, like—”

“Like what?” Veronica says, and there’s an edge to her voice where there wasn’t before, a challenge issued before she even deigns to finally meet his eyes. “Like she didn’t feel comfortable enough with us to be honest about it? Like she felt compelled to be the person everyone expected her to be? Because if you want to feel guilty about something, Peter, feel guilty about that.” A beat, and then, “I know I sure as hell do.”

“That’s not fair,” he argues, and it’s a tired, gentle thing he thinks takes her by surprise. “We gave her all the time and space we could to try and work through everything.”

“Yeah,” she says, and the edge twists into something a touch more bitter. “We gave her plenty of space, Peter. What good was that if she didn’t know what to do with it?”

“What else were we supposed to do?” he asks, hates the way it’s tinged with desperation.

The air is thick, heavy and overwarm, has his throat dry and rough around the edges. For a minute she just… looks at him, expression (frustratingly) impassive, before she closes her eyes and sighs, soft and worn. “Nothing, it’s not— this isn’t about you, Peter,” she says, and it’s almost a kindness, really, a reassurance in place of the derisive chastising he thinks it could’ve sounded like. “I… had suspicions,” she admits, “after the funeral. Just… every so often I could tell that something was off, that she was holding something back. She’d take longer to respond to things, like she— god, Peter, like she was looking for the right answer because that was all she knew how to do, like she was on fucking autopilot half the time.”

Clarity starts to creep in around the edges of his exhaustion. “And you wish you’d said something instead of letting her… perform,” he says, and the word tastes like poison on his tongue.

Her eyes flutter open at that, her expression riddled with regret, or maybe remorse (both, either, the difference between the two hardly matters anymore). “I could see her struggling, at Christmas,” Veronica says, a pained, aching thing that claws at Peter’s already frayed nerves. “That whole morning I kept looking at her and it was like— like she knew she was drowning but she couldn’t find the breath to ask for help. It— even her voice sounded different, and I didn’t…”

It’s Veronica’s turn here to falter, to struggle to find the words and fight against weight flooding her lungs, water welling in her eyes. “I should’ve said something,” she says, and it’s an admission he thinks she shouldn’t have to make. “I just—”

“You didn’t know what to do,” Peter supplies, fingers feeling numb as he adjusts his grip on the cup. “You didn’t know how to help her.”

“I feel like I should,” she breathes, gaze drifting, falling to Melissa once more. She’s quiet for half a moment, fingertips grazing lightly along Melissa’s cheek, but even in the middle of something tender Peter sees the way Veronica works her jaw against the memory flaring up against her sternum. “I know… I know what it can feel like,” she settles on, and it is not lost on him, not at all, that she’s fallen prey to the same careful construction the same way Melissa had. “I was a little older, but it’s not like she knows that. Even if she did, maybe she— maybe I couldn’t understand.” A beat, and then, “Once was more than enough. I can’t even imagine how she must have felt, the second time around, especially without him.” There’s the slightest of pauses there, before the last word, Ian’s name like ice around her throat.

And like fire, all Peter knows how to do is burn.

“Don’t do that,” he mutters, and it comes out sharper than he intended, has her looking back over him, curious and guarded and trying very hard, he thinks, not to be hurt. “Don’t… be me, okay? When it happened to you I didn’t— I didn’t know what to say, or what to do. I didn’t have a fucking clue how to help you. I still don’t.”

Her brow wrinkles a little as she considers him. “Peter—”

“Let me finish,” he insists, setting his cup down on the table next to him and leaning forward a little. “I didn’t know what to do but I was also just… hesitant to even try.” And fuck, now it's sunk its claws into him, that crafting of words, has honesty feeling like failure at every sharp turn. “I felt like if I did I would just end up dragging you down faster. But what I couldn’t see then — what I didn’t realize until long after — was that you weren’t drowning at all. You were treading water. And somewhere along the way Melissa learned how— from you.”

The corner of her mouth twitches up, like she wants to smile, but there’s still reservation in her eyes, like she can’t quite figure out how to interpret it. “You say that like it’s not a bad thing.”

Peter huffs out a humorless laugh and threads his fingers through his hair. “I don’t think there’s room for discussion on morality when we’re dealing with survival.”

Her lips twist this time, a wry thing that feels like anything but a smile. “And the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Peter.”

His eyes narrow, just slightly, as he tries to figure out what lies beneath that she’s left unsaid. “And if Melissa was already there,” he counters, careful to keep his voice gentle as his gaze flits briefly back down to their daughter curled up against Veronica’s side, “then maybe lying was the only way she could climb her way back out.”

It’s like causing a sharp crack in invisible ice: Veronica falters, expression falling into something altogether more melancholic, and it doesn’t at all escape his notice that her hand has stilled in its soothing touch against Melissa’s hair, face. “And… she learned that, from me.”

It’s his turn to falter this time, chest twisting at the careful hesitation in her voice (in the way it hovers on the brink of hurt, questioning and unsure). “That’s… not what I meant.”

“No,” she agrees and it’s faint, barely there but it lingers in the air between them. She pauses, just for half a minute, glances over at the cup of tea he’d brought her and then reaches for it, letting her lips hover over the rim. “Doesn’t mean it’s untrue.”

Maybe this isn’t something he can fix, but he’ll be damned if he leaves her alone with the pieces.

Not like this.

He tries to stay quiet as he retrieves his cup and makes his way over to the bed, not wanting to wake Melissa. Carefully, he reaches over, pries the cup out of Veronica’s hand once she’s taken a sip and sets the pair of them back down on the nightstand. Half out of instinct, half out of habit he reaches for her hand but resists the temptation for a little longer. It’s not without difficulty: it’s all he wants to do, now that he can see Melissa up close again, and all the ways she’s suddenly too-thin for him to feel safe touching (because he breaks, and burns, and he cannot, cannot fix this).

“Look,” he murmurs, swallowing hard as he catches a glimpse of the contents of Melissa’s suitcase out of the corner of his eye. “Maybe what she did wasn’t the right thing to do but...it’s what worked, for her and… for what it’s worth? She’s not lying now.” A beat, just long enough for his fingertips to graze along the back of Veronica’s hand, and Peter forces himself to meet her eyes. “When she was ready, she called you, first.”

“And I,” she sighs, turning her hand under his until their palms touch and their fingers slot together, “called you.”

Peter exhales sharply, fingers twitching slightly with the effort not to squeeze her hand tighter. “I… don’t have any answers for you.”

There’s something almost… wistful and maybe melancholic in Veronica’s smile when she glances up at him again. “I’m not asking for any.”

“Then what do you want from me?”

It’s her turn for her hand to jolt a little, like she wants to reach for him but second-guesses it halfway through. Her thumb shifts, grazes along his wedding ring and it’s that, oddly enough — a gesture they’re supposed to find comforting — that unsettles him the most. It’s impossible, at that, not to notice the way Melissa’s curled into her, to linger on the curved that bleeds into memory. More than ever Peter finds his heart an echo of twenty-two, caught in the in-between.

“To be here,” Veronica answers, almost too-soft, and she has never asked anything of him that he couldn’t give, in the end.

“And now?” he prompts, thumb catching over the edges of the stones on her ring.

“Now,” she sighs, squeezing his hand briefly before reaching over to grab his cup of coffee from the nightstand, “you’re going to finish this and drive back to Rosewood. I know you have to be in court in the morning.”

He hesitates a little in taking it from her. “I don’t… want to leave if either of you wants me to stay. Melissa—”

“Melissa,” Veronica says, gentle but still firm, “wants everything to go back to normal— or, as close to normal as she can get, anyway.”

Again, his gaze shifts down to their eldest daughter and lingers. She’s still asleep, or seems to be at least, but the easy, rhythmic rise and fall of her chest isn’t enough to push away the memory of her curling into his embrace mere moments after he’d walked through the door. It’s hard to really feel warm even with the cup back in his hands, and he only just manages to suppress a shudder at the ghost of her shivering in his arms.

“I don’t doubt it,” he says finally, turning the cup in his hands again and forcing himself to look away. “I just— If that’s really what she wants, I can’t help wondering why she didn’t say anything sooner.”

There’s something all too knowing in Veronica’s eyes when he meets them again. “Because saying it out loud makes it real,” she murmurs, brushing a stray lock of hair out of Melissa’s eyes. “And… you were right. Surviving means finding a way to cope. For her, coping meant lying for a little while— even if was to herself. She lost so much all at once, I think she just… wasn’t ready to move on.”

“And you think she’s ready to move on now? Because she finally told someone?”

Veronica draws in a sharp breath but Peter doesn’t miss the way she swallows hard at the question. “I don’t know,” she admits, and it’s softer than he thinks either of them were anticipating.

Peter nods idly, glancing down at the cup in his hands. “If I leave tonight,” he ventures after a minute, “what are you going to do?”

Veronica quirks a smile at him when he looks up, tired and tight around the edges. “I’m going to finish building the stairway for her,” she says, sounding resigned to the task, “and lie.”

His gaze drifts back to Melissa’s suitcase— to the fake belly now discarded among all of her other things, and all at once his stomach feels hollow, aching at the realization of what it really means.

His granddaughter died before she even drew her first breath; all Melissa can do now is keep breathing, and Peter, well. Peter will do what he does best, and put his family first.

Jason, he thinks, will have to wait.

“You’ll call,” he asks, looking back at Veronica if only to try and center himself, “if you need me?”

Veronica’s smile softens around the edges, and Peter’s breath comes a little easier when her hand settles on his knee. “I’ll call.”

He recognizes it as the dismissal it is, leans in to graze a soft, warm kiss against Veronica’s temple and murmur same goes for Melissa and give her my love, yeah?. Veronica nods as he pulls away and he forces himself not to linger, refusing to dwell on the loss of warmth in her touch.

Tonight, all he has to do is drive. Tonight, all he has to do is make sure he makes it home.

When the door clicks shut behind him, Peter finds he wants nothing more than to stay.

* * * * *

Peter doesn’t go back to the apartment.

He should — he’s back to sleeping in the barn as it is, and it’s clear Veronica wants nothing to do with him right now — but he just… hasn’t. It’d started on a technicality; she’d only told him not to come upstairs, after all. He hadn’t even begun packing up his things the next morning when Tanner had shown up unannounced at the house asking all sorts of questions (most of which he answered, because Veronica still looked too ashen to speak). As aggravating as Tanner’s (seemingly) nonsensical third degree had been, it’d also been a blessing in disguise, for him. Telling Veronica the truth about Melissa and Bethany Young had only amounted to Peter’s best— which, of course, is always his worst.

He breaks, and burns, and his girls bear the scars, all of them.

Tanner’s inquisition had been like dropping ice on top of a wildfire: enough to quell and calm and contain, but not enough to snuff out the spark that started it all. In the aftermath there’s been only smoke, and Veronica has been frozen blind.

Choking on his own lies is no less than what he deserves.

So he should’ve gone back to the apartment, and he didn’t, and Veronica has barely spoken two words to him together in the last week, much less asked him to leave. He’s kept to the barn, for the most part, and it’s been… well, not fine, really, but tolerable.

At least until he pulls up the DVR on Wednesday night and realizes that there are two unwatched episodes of the current season of Game of Thrones, and the person he’s supposed to watch them with is still, after three weeks, being held captive god knows where by some sick, twisted sociopath.

His thumb hovers over the buttons of the remote as his eyes shift from screen to Spencer’ smile in snapshots above the fireplace. It’s impossible not to linger once his gaze lands upon his favorite of the bunch — age five, with pigtails and handlebars — but the sight of streamers gives him pause, and it’s not long at all before he finds his focused pulled to the kitchen table tucked away in the corner.

To the first edition of Catcher in the Rye he’d miraculously gotten his hands on as a gift for Spencer, and not for the first time today it sinks in that his little girl is not a girl, anymore.

She is eighteen, today, and with adulthood comes not the freedom she should have gained, but chains to hold her down.

Toby had told them A likes to play with dolls, after all.

Fuck.

He’s turning off the television and moving to grab the book from the table before he can even really think it through. He should wrap it, he thinks, and leave it in her room so it’s ready and waiting for her when she’s fo— when she comes home. And that’s… a little silly, perhaps, and not entirely logical, but the thought of a future with her in it is about the only real direction he’s had since she was tak— since she went missing.

No wonder Ken and Jessica packed up and moved nearly halfway across the country after Alison went missing.

(There are days he wonders now, though, if Jessica ever gave Ken a choice, given her involvement.)

Of course there’s nothing in the barn he could use to wrap the book properly, which means he’s left with one of two options. He could venture out into town to pick up some supplies — probably the wiser of the two options, considering how woefully empty the fridge in the barn is right now — but the prospect is… not daunting, exactly. Going out in public right now requires more energy than he thinks he might be capable of. Leaving the hou— the property means potentially dealing with police and reporters and gossips alike and Peter is just… tired. Tired, and maybe a little paranoid, and he just does not have it in him to think about the inevitable rumor mill at work if he so much as ventures out of relative solitude to fucking by wrapping paper.

For once, he wishes it didn’t matter so fucking much how things looked.

Not going into town means he’s left with only one option and while it’s not exactly enticing, he’d rather brave the aftermath of his own firestorm than run the risk of sparking a new one.

Let him be burned, for a change.

So it’s with gritted teeth and a flutter of nerves that Peter tentatively makes his way back into the house. It’s late, and the only light on downstairs that he can see is the small, dim one over the stove in the kitchen. It’s entirely possible Veronica’s already turned in for the night. If he just stays downstairs, he can probably avoid disrupting the pseudo-peace they’ve managed to manufacture. It shouldn’t be that difficult: unless Veronica did a major organizational overhaul in the last six months, he’s pretty sure there’s a closet off of the living room in the front of the house where she’d always stored crafting supplies. He can be in and out in a couple of minutes, tops.

And then he sees a dim, soft-yellow light spilling through the crack in the door to his office— the den, and all of that goes out the window.

Veronica does not like going into the den.

He hasn’t left the barn in close to three days.

If something’s happened — to Spencer, or even to Melissa — Veronica would tell him unless… she couldn’t. Either way, Peter does not like the prospect of facing whatever waits for him on the other side of that door but… If it’s the latter, he can’t just leave her there.

In the blink of an eye, he’s twenty-five all over again and seeing red, and his heart lodges in his throat.

He will never, never be ready to lose her.

Peter swallows around the lump in his throat and gently pushes the door open a little, his grip on the book tightening as his eyes adjust to the light. “Veronica?”

His gaze lands upon the empty, red-stained glass first before shifting to the equally empty wine bottle next to it. His eyes shift, follow the curl of her toes up along her legs toward her face to find her eyes and expression distant and vacant. Dread settles in the pit of his stomach at the sight, old and too-familiar, and he’s not entirely sure if he finds it easier to breathe or not.

Well, shit.

His palm feels sweaty, tacky as he adjusts his grip on the handle, and it’s not without difficulty that he takes a breath to steady himself. “Veronica?” he tries again. “Are you—” He stops when he sees her heels discarded nearby, and only now does he notice the smudged mascara beneath her eyes, the wrinkles in her blouse where it’s come untucked from her slacks. “You’re.. dressed,” he says needlessly. “I didn’t realize you’d left.”

Barely a few beats, and then, much to his surprise, “I went to see Ashley Marin today.”

“Oh.” He pulls his hand away from the door handle for now, trying not to cringe at the way it rattles with release. “How… is she?” he asks, and it’s awkward, trite beyond belief but they haven’t been in touch with the other girls’ parents nearly as much as is probably good for them. Byron and Ella seem to be on the same page, and while Pam is alone in that house she at least can call Wayne when she needs to. Tom’s doing fuck-all as far as Peter knows, so it’s really only Ashley, out of all of them, who’s been on her own throughout all of this.

Peter suddenly finds himself increasingly grateful that Veronica’s let him stay these last three weeks, even if they haven’t exactly been on speaking terms lately.

“Well,” Veronica says, just shy of a scoff, “I was there all of fifteen minutes before she passed out on me.”

“Yeah, I don’t think any of us have been sleeping particularly well lately,” he mutters, rubbing tiredly at the back of his neck.

“I imagine not,” she murmurs back, “but she… literally passed out on me, Peter.” She hesitates for half a beat, long enough for his breath to catch and her gaze to begin to shift toward him, but she doesn’t quite end up meeting his eyes. “Fell down the last couple of stairs and might’ve hit her head a little, I’m not really sure. It was kind of hard to tell.”

“Jesus,” he breathes, and he’s honestly a little startled at how uneven his voice sounds. He takes two steps into the room without really thinking it through and sets the book down on top of his desk (not his, not his, not his). It takes more willpower than he’s proud of to give her space and not settle down next to her. “Is she okay?”

“Depends on your definition of okay,” Veronica sighs, resting her head back against the wall and closing her eyes. “She doesn’t have a concussion but they’re keeping her overnight at the hospital anyway.”

“Just in case?”

“I’m sure that’s part of it,” she says, but there’s something… off in her tone, “but it probably has more to do with the fact that she’s apparently lost almost fifteen pounds in the last three weeks than anything else.”

Fuck.

This time he doesn’t hold back, gives into the impulse to sit down next to her and gently nudges the empty bottle and glass out of the way. He does manage to exercise a little restraint, in not reaching for her, but it’s a near-thing— it’s always a near fucking thing when it comes to her.

If he’s still supposed to be getting over her, he’s definitely doing a shit job at it.

He’s not sure he’s capable of anything else, anymore.

“I wouldn’t call that okay,” he says finally.

Again, she surprises him, her lips twisting into a wry, hollow little smile that looks anything but pleased. “Neither would I.”

Peter narrows his eyes slightly and takes a minute to look at her— really look at her, now that he’s closer. He can see the way her fingers twitch every few seconds or so, and she’s trying, he realizes, to control the tremors rippling through her. There’s something almost halting about the way she breathes, like it’s catching at the end of each one, and all at once he recognizes her hollow little smile for what it is.

This isn’t performance so much as it is survival, and Veronica cannot lie in order to keep from drowning.

No more secrets, she’d made him promise, and the low light of the desk lamp catches off of the stones of her wedding ring.

In the end, he settles on, “Are you okay?”

Again, it’s trite, and mostly rhetorical all things considered. What happened to Ashley has clearly left Veronica more than rattled, but the way she sucks in a sharp breath at the question is enough to tell him she’s not going to answer it— at least not right away. Her eyes flutter open, gaze landing somewhere in front of her instead, but it’s not until she pushes herself away from the wall slightly that Peter realizes just how deep into this she is.

The wine was really only the beginning.

“Is that… a first edition?” she asks, voice piqued with genuine interest.

Peter follows her gaze to where he’d left The Catcher in the Rye atop his desk (not his desk). “Yeah,” he says, fainter than he’s really comfortable with. The corner of his mouth twitches up into something resembling a smile when he looks back at her, heart skipping a beat at the smallest of sparks in her eyes. “I got it for Spencer,” he explains, “for—”

“—for her birthday, yeah,” she says, equally as faint. “I remembered.”

The vestiges of his barely-there smile falter, vanish, his face crinkling into a frown at the slight edge to her tone. “I… wasn’t trying to imply that you’d—”

“I know,” she dismisses, but it sounds… tired, like she’s scraping the bottom of the barrel at having to perform (or thinking she has to, anyway). Again, he takes a minute to just… watch her, try and gauge where she’s at, but when her head falls back against the wall and the spark in her eyes dims his breath comes a little easier.

He’s… relieved, honestly, at how rapidly she seems to be approaching her breaking point. It’s a sick, twisted thing, he knows— he knows, to be more at ease when she’s anything but. It’s just— the longer she performs, the fewer pieces he’ll have to work with when she does inevitably fall apart. The longer she keeps her walls up, the harder it’ll be to try and actually help her, and at the end of the day it’s the only instinct Peter knows he can follow— to take care of his girls.

If he waits too long, well. He knows what that looks like. He knows how it ends— with a girl falling down a rabbit hole, and a grandchild in a grave, and papers filling an empty house, waiting for him to sign his name.

Veronica is still wearing her ring, and hope breeds eternal misery.

“She would like that,” Veronica says at last, startling him out of his reverie. “Spencer— she’d like the book. She started a collection of—”

“—of first editions, yeah, I know.” A beat, and then, “She will like it,” he says, and judging by the way Veronica tenses next to him, it hasn’t escaped her notice that he’s using the same tactics to jar her out of them. “The book— I think she’ll really like it.”

“What if she can’t?” she asks, and there’s something so remarkably calm about the way she says it that almost lulls him into a false sense of security. “What if— Peter, what if she’s dead?” Veronica’s breath catches around a gasp first, once she’s said the words aloud, and in the blink of any eye there are tears brimming quite suddenly on her lashes.

Fuck, fuck, shit.

“She should be here,” Veronica insists, voice thick, bordering on desperate. “I knew how much today meant to her and I can’t— What if she didn’t make it this far, Peter? What if—”

“Okay, okay, stop,” he interjects firmly, reaching for her hands without a second thought. He turns her toward him as gently as he can, grip tightening as the tears spill onto her cheeks. “Spencer is not dead.”

“You have no way of knowing that,” she argues, voice pitching a little high and shit, shit. Very rarely does Veronica ever approach anything even remotely resembling hysterical, this is bad, this is too deep, this is—

This might be beyond his reach.

“We’d know,” he insists. “A wouldn’t be able to resists rubbing it in our faces.”

“Oh, don’t pretend like you’re some sort of expert on A now that you’ve talked to Toby and Caleb and dug through Ezra Fitz’s boxes, Peter,” she says somehow still derisive even as she pulls a hand away to rub uncomfortably at one of her eyes. “You don’t know anything more than I do, unless you’re holding out on me again—”

“I’m not,” he promises, surprised at how gentle it comes out against the flare of guilt in his chest. “But we know A likes to make things hurt,” he says, flexing his fingers against the temptation to take her hand back. “It’s why this whole thing has gone on as long as it has. How much more did every twisted game or threat hurt the girls just because they couldn’t talk about it? Why would A deny themselves the satisfaction of seeing the pain they caused?”

“Like this isn’t enough,” Veronica laughs, bitter and hollow and slightly more hysterical than before, shit, shit. “Like A isn’t getting some sort of sick, twisted satisfaction out of us not knowing where they are or if they’re okay or—” She laughs again, higher, slightly broken, and he doesn’t miss the way her chin trembles against fresh tears even as she smiles. “Like this isn’t a fucking game,” she says, pulling her other hand away from him. “Schrodinger's Spencer, step up and place your bets. Open the box to find out if she’s—”

Stop,” Peter says firmly, his tone brooking no argument. “Spencer is not dead.”

“I promised her,” Veronica says, sharp and strained and trying very hard, he thinks, not to flat out scream at him. “Back in November, we packed and I promised— I promised her I’d always take care of her, Peter.” His stomach twists unpleasantly at the reminder of coming home to an empty house— to the beginning of what he’d thought was the end, and the wound Veronica’s doubt had left back in February breaks open fresh now. “What— what kind of mother does that make me, that I couldn’t even keep my promise to—”

“Hey,” he says, reaching out to settle a hand on her shoulder. She shrugs him off almost immediately, shaking her head and closing her eyes against more tears. “You can’t hold yourself responsible for A’s actions either, Veronica. That’s not fair.”

He regrets the words as soon as they come out of his mouth, the echo of fair went out the window when you decided to protect one of our daughters over the other ringing in his ears. Even when he’s trying to do the right thing— to be kind, his best only ever amounts to his worst. The immediate impulse to try and backpedal is proof enough of that, but just like before, he barely gets the chance to suck in a breath, her name poised on his tongue before she’s taking back control.

God, he’d almost forgotten how good she is at that.

“Then why does it feel like we’re being punished?” she says, and it takes him half a minute to realize it’s not a question. “Nothing about any of this is fair. Nothing about any of this is normal. It’s not like there’s a self-help book for what to do when your child is kidnapped—“

“Veronica, no one expects any of us to—”

“To what?” she challenges. Her eyes blink open but she still won’t look him in the eyes, and they’re close, he thinks, to the last wall crumbling. “To put on a brave face? To leave the house every day and go to work and being a functional, contributing member of society? To sleep at night and not think about the empty bedroom down the hall? To— to just trust that the Rosewood PD is going to do something comptent for a change? Which— I know, that’s unfair,” she admits, the edge in her voice not quite as strong. “They’re doing more than we are, and it’s not fair to Toby but—”

“Why are you here?”

Her face crinkles into a frown at the interruption but she doesn’t relent, not yet (and she is afraid, he realizes, of what might happen if she finally meets his eyes). “What?” she asks, snappish and distracted and almost.

“Why are you here?” he asks again, struggling to keep his temper in check. “Why did you come into the den?”

That throws her off more than anything else: he can see it in the way she tries, fails to blink a few tears back, roughly brushing them away. “I don’t know, today was just…” She waves her hand idly in lieu of the words she can’t quite seem to find, her voice altogether softer, less strained, and only now does it strike him just how small she looks. “The whole thing with Ashley and the hospital was just… draining. When I finally got home I just…”

“You just?” he prompts, feeling the flare of frustration fade below his sternum as he waits her out.

A beat, and then, marginally annoyed, “I still couldn’t bring myself to go into Spencer’s room. Not yet. The den was just… easier.”

“Easier?” he echoes, brow knitting in confusion.

Again, she hesitates, twisting her hands idly as her gaze falls once more to The Catcher in the Rye. “This was the closest I could get to you.”

Slowly Peter turns his body toward hers, unable to help indulging his curiosity. “That doesn’t make any sense. You could’ve just come out to the barn,” he reasons, noting the way she swallows hard at the argument. “Why didn’t you—”

“Because you were right,” she says, words practically tumbling out of her in a rush. She tries to take a breath to steady herself and fails, ends up exhaling shakily as she finally unfurls and stretches out a leg in front of her. “Last week,” she says, and it’s his turn to struggle for breath at the reminder. “Last week when you— when we argued,” she amends. “You called me out on being a hypocrite in wishing you’d said something before.”

“Veronica,” he says, careful even in earnest, “I didn’t mean it like—”

“I know what you meant,” she dismisses, and that’s… debatable, Peter thinks, but he doesn’t press the issue for now. “I just— I tried so hard to keep Spencer from getting too involved in all of this, you know? I let her stay in another country just so she’d be away from Alison’s trial. I did everything I could think of to keep her from getting arrested again, Peter, and none of it fucking mattered. It wasn’t—” She stops abruptly, gaze dropping to her hands still twisting, and twisting. He can hear more than see how hard she swallows, distracted by the way her tongue pokes out slightly to wet her lips. “It wasn’t fair of me to imply that things could have gone differently,” she admits, softer still, “if you’d said something.”

It’s as close to an apology as he thinks either of them is going to get, he realizes, and his stomach turns over. He wasn’t exactly thrilled at the accusations she’d thrown at him last week — it’s why he’d lashed out at all — but he doesn’t blame her for being angry. It’s why he’d kept it from her for so long in the first place, particularly after she’d made the decision to leave. At that point, the damage was done; there wasn’t any sense in throwing gasoline on top of the fire he’d started.

The thought that she feels the need to apologize to him for what he’d done to her tastes like ash in his mouth.

It… may be too late for him, he thinks, to do something as trite as apologize.

In the end the most he can muster up is a wry ghost of a smile as he too, looks away, and offers up an olive branch. “Nothing about any of this is fair,” he reminds her, forcing himself not to fidget with his ring.

A doesn’t fight fair,” she argues, and in spite of her evident exhaustion there’s still enough conviction in her voice to startle him into looking at her again. That’s… new, and honestly a little encouraging, given how haphazard her downward spiral seems to have been tonight, but he knows better than to push too far, too soon. She’s quiet for a minute, hands stilling in their absent, anxious movement, before she finally, fully meets his eyes. “I don’t want to be A.”

It’s all the permission he needs, but the words that bubble up in his throat — why did you want me — get caught halfway up, twisted and morphed, and in the end all that ends up coming out is, “Why didn’t you come out to the barn?”

It’s her turn to quirk a wry little smile at him again, still hollow, but there’s something else there, something… more that he can’t quite name. “To be fair,” she murmurs, and he’d almost laugh out loud if she didn’t look away again, “I didn’t exactly want to see you for a while after you insinuated I would’ve thrown Melissa under the bus to protect Spencer. I guess... I figured you probably wouldn’t want to see m—mmph.”

His mouth is on hers before he even really thinks it through, hand gripping the curve of her jaw gently to turn her face toward his. Her lips taste like cherry, rich and bright and bold, but that’s all he gets, just a taste, before she’s inhaling sharply and wrapping her fingers delicately around his wrist to pull him away. He takes a second to catch his breath, swallows hard at the way her eyes have grown clouded. Sorry tumbles out of him almost automatically and it’s… mostly sincere, but again, that’s as far as she lets it go.

“Don’t,” she says, a half-whisper that’s a little rough around the edges, and Peter can do little more than knit his brow in confusion before she’s leaning in to claim a kiss of her own, off-center and firm as her hand curls around to the back of his neck and oh, oh.

Oh.

His throat burns with the ghost of scotch nearly seven years old and Peter remembers, all too well, the night she’d pulled him out of this room to see the cracks he’d caused in their foundation— the way they’d fissured into her heart and left her with scars of doubt.

Veronica has always been the one with the choice to leave, and time after time all Peter ever does is give her more reasons to doubt his desire to stay.

Reluctantly, he’s the one to break the kiss this time— or, he tries, anyway, her name caught on the end of a breath, but she’s capturing his lips with hers again before he can manage more. His fingers sink into her hair, seeking purchase. It only prompts her into kissing him a little harder, and he can’t help the way his breath hitches in surprise when her thigh presses against his. Peter finds himself reaching for her on instinct, hand settling at her hip. His fingers slip against the silk of her blouse, curl around to where it’s come untucked from her slacks and oh, oh. There’s a sliver of skin exposed there he hadn’t noticed before, warm and tempting and shit, shit, he shouldn’t—

Veronica’s lips part in a startled gasp but it’s not… doubt, he realizes. Can’t be doubt, not with the way she arches slightly into his touch, not with the way her fingers curl into the collar of his shirt. Her breath is warm against his skin when she pulls away, thumb grazing softly against his cheek. He only just manages to suppress a shiver, hand squeezing at her waist and if she weren’t so close, he’d swear there’s a smile pulling at her lips. “I… don’t have any answers for you,” she says, hesitant and unsure.

He can still taste her on his tongue: salt and cherry and familiarity, and it’s the kitchen he thinks of first— of the sight of her in his shirt, and a glass of wine in her hand, and a look in her eyes that plainly said please, don’t ask me what this means. The kitchen, first, and a hotel room, second, and the weight of her hand in his in the face of a problem he can’t fix, and in the end all Peter can do is offer her the same comfort she’d given him, a little over a year ago. “I’m not asking for any,” he murmurs, tucking her hair behind her ear.

She huffs slightly in reply, clearly a little exasperated, but it’s dull, muted around the edges by the way she leans in to clumsily rest her forehead against his. “Then what do you want from me?”

Slowly, he reaches back to take the hand curled around his neck and pulls back enough to look at her properly. “Have you eaten today?”

Veronica shakes her head and drops her gaze to their hands, her thumb idly tracing the lines across his palm. “No, I—” She pauses, just for a second, but there’s derision in her tone where there wasn’t before. “I guess I wouldn’t have eaten with Ashley even if she hadn’t ended up in the hospital but I just… haven’t had much of an appetite.”

Peter swallows down and around the sudden lump in his throat and squeezes her hand. “C’mon, up,” he prompts, groaning slightly as he shifts to try and stand up. “Let’s go see if there’s anything left in the kitchen.”

She goes with his pull but she’s slower, a little less stable once she’s on her feet (and there’s the wine catching up to her). “Peter,” she sighs, “I’m really not all that hu—”

“Roni.” Her hand tightens in his, a harsh breath escaping her, and this time the way she avoids his eyes stings more than it did before. Immediately he regrets not keeping his tone in check, and he can’t quite find comfort in the fact that she hasn’t pulled her hand away— not when his grip is fighting the way she’s swaying slightly on her feet. “A already got to the girls, and Jessica and— and now Ashley Marin. Don’t…” He stops, teeth digging into his lower lip in anxious anticipation now that he’s let Jessica’s name slip, but Veronica doesn’t so much as flinch at the reminder, and Peter feels tension unfurl in his chest. “Don’t… let A take you down, too.”

It’s her turn to swallow hard again, and while she still doesn’t meet his eyes yet, she doesn’t pull her hand away either. “I hated leaving her there,” Veronica breathes, and it takes him a second to realize she’s talking about Ashley being in the hospital.

“Is she alone?”

Veronica shakes her head. “Pam was with her when I left. I think Ella’s going to see her in the morning.”

“Okay,” he says, thumb caressing along the back of her hand in an attempt to get her to relax a little. “We can go see her after lunch whether or not they discharge her. Ella will let you know if anything changes before then.”

“Peter, you don’t have to—”

Roni almost falls from his lips again but he bites it back and reaches for her other hand instead. “Right now, this is one of the only things we can do,” he says, hesitating slightly at the way her hand tenses in his. “We can help make sure Hanna has someone waiting for her when she comes home, too.”

The ease with which she slots their fingers together makes his traitorous heart skip a beat, and when she steps into his space Peter finds he can breathe a little easier. When Veronica finally meets his eyes he can see her smile at last — it’s small, barely there, but it’s warm, soft around the edges — and it takes more willpower than he’s proud of not to give into the urge to kiss her again. She only holds his gaze for half a moment, though, before she’s curling in close and tucking her face against his neck. “Will you stay?” she asks, soft and low, and she has never asked anything of him that he couldn’t give, in the end.

“I’ll stay.”