Title: I’ll Carry the Key (read @ AO3)
Fandom: White Collar
Warnings: This story is set in New York in the 1920s and does not explicitly deal with most of the more disturbing aspects of the time period, particularly sexism and racism. If you would like to read more about that decision or what went into it, here is an expanded warning/explanation. Criticism of that or any other aspect of this story is always welcome, in the comments of that post or of this story, or by PM.
Summary: 20s AU – flappers, gangsters, escape artists, speakeasies, and the extremely inspiring thought of Elizabeth in a blue flapper dress. In which Neal helps Peter stake out a speakeasy, and things do not go according to plan.
Notes: This story is best if you know the song “Someone to Watch Over Me.” If you have a favorite jazz singer, odds are good that he or she has recorded it.
Written for solar_cat for the help_pakistan auction, who requested a 20s AU and was incredibly understanding about that fact that I was going to have to blow right past the deadline and then some. I hope you like it, solar_cat!
A huge thank you to laulan and alasse for their help with this story.
“I still think this is a little outside the scope of our consulting agreement, Peter.”
Peter rolls his eyes and fiddles nervously with his tie. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
“But I’m still not quite sure why…” Neal mutters mutinously, flicking ash off of the end of his cigarette as he walks.
Music drifts down the street from a half-open doorway behind a cast-iron gate – the sun’s just barely set, and the streetlights haven’t been lit yet.
“I told you,” Peter says, embarrassed all over again. “I can’t go to places like this alone – they can always tell I’m a Fed, just tell, like one of those psychics you run around putting out of business.”
“They put themselves out of business,” Neal protests, and Peter just rolls his eyes again and lets it go.
“Usually, Elizabeth goes with me,” he says, trying not to sound apologetic. “But she’s visiting with Paula and the kids in Cincinnati, so.”
“And you think I can somehow…” Neal trails off, looking amused.
“Oh, don’t,” Peter grouses. “You know you could talk the birds out of the trees and President Coolidge into a fifth of whiskey.”
Neal looks ridiculously pleased at what Peter had meant more as a complaint than a compliment – but that’s Neal, Peter thinks, resigned. Contrary all over.
“A fifth is a lot of whiskey,” Neal remarks.
“I wouldn’t know,” Peter says, pointedly, which would probably carry more moral force if he weren’t asking Neal to help him get into a glamorous and extremely illegal speakeasy, albeit on legitimate undercover law enforcement business.
“You said Elizabeth usually goes with you?” Neal asks.
“Does she wear one of those flapper dresses—short, with the—“
“Yeah,” Peter says wistfully. “With fringe and beads and everything. A blue one. The color—well, about the color of the sky over there,” he adds, pointing off to the left, to the horizon where the sun had just set.
Neal nods, and stares off into the distance, and Peter thinks he’s looking at the color of the sky until he says dreamily, “That’s a nice image.”
“Hey!” Peter glares. “That’s my nice image!” It’s all for show, of course – Neal and El got along like a house on fire from the moment Neal showed up at their house and pulled a pansy out of her sleeve. Neal loves to take El along when he’s out showing up phony supernaturalists – he always says she’s got a face that makes people want to tell her the truth – and El’s always thinking up new ways that Neal can help Peter out; she was the one who suggested Peter take Neal along tonight, actually.
Neal flashes Peter a grin, and hums a tune Peter doesn’t recognize as they walk down the narrow sidewalk and the streetlights come awake as they pass.
Peter takes the chance to simply observe Neal – it doesn’t come along very often. Most people, Peter thinks, look more alive in sunlight or candlelight – Peter’s sister Paula curses “those damn electric lights” every chance she gets, that’s for sure. But Neal is different – the streetlights are good to his face. They whet his cheekbones and paint mysterious shadows where his eyelashes fall and where his lips part. Neal was born for electric light – he’s a new kind of man, the kind of man Peter’s never going to be.
Distracted, Peter catches his toe on a stone and stumbles a little. It jolts him out of his train of thought, and he notices that the tune Neal’s humming has changed; it used to be a light, jazzy little number, but now his voice is meandering around between slow blue notes. His eyes are fixed on something in the distance, and Peter looks around to see if he can catch a glimpse of whatever has Neal’s attention.
The town is livelier around them, now – lots of women in rouge and heels laughing, lots of men in sharp suits hovering around the edges of the women’s conversations, or stepping out of sleek, black cars. There’s too much movement for Peter to be able to trace Neal’s gaze right away, but when they’re forced to stop by the crowd in front of them, Peter sees that Neal is watching one of the girls across the street. He doesn’t get it for a minute – she’s cute enough, Peter guesses, short brown hair, round face… looks a bit like El, really—
Oh, Peter thinks, because he’s been to Neal’s apartment—seen the sketches that hide between books on the bookshelf, or behind boxes on the end tables. Sometimes it’s just the suggestion of a face, and sometimes it’s a full portrait; sometimes in swift pencil strokes and sometimes in slow smudges of soft charcoal, heavy with grief—but always the same dark, mischievous eyes and secretive smile.
“Kate had this black dress,” Neal says, so quiet that Peter has to lean in to hear him. “Short, with these crystal beads that winked when she walked. It was her favorite. I bought her a matching headband, with black sequins and this little tuft of feathers in front – she wore it all the time. She wasn’t the kind of girl who’d wear a gift if she didn’t like it, just to make you happy. So I know she thought it was good—the headband. I liked that about her.”
Peter doesn’t really know what to say to that. “You should… draw it,” he suggests, watching Neal out of the corner of his eye. “Kate, in the dress and the headband. It sounds… nice,” he finishes, wincing – he sounds like an idiot.
But Neal doesn’t seem to notice. “Hey,” he says, cracking a half-smile, “That’s my nice image.” Sobering up, he says softly, “I will. I’d like that. I’ll show you.”
“I didn’t mean you had to show me—”
Neal rolls his eyes. “Of course I don’t have to, Peter. I want to.”
Peter’s still trying to figure out what that means when Neal declares with a grin, “We’re here,” and trots down the brick steps, ducking behind the iron fence and the bushes, to where just a crack of light is winking under a non-descript brown door, hidden from the sight of any casual passer-by.
“Nick Halden,” Neal announces to the suspicious-looking but very well-muscled man that answers the door. “And Peter Edgar Hoover. No relation.”
Peter’s too busy trying to glare a hole in the back of Neal’s head to notice what exactly it is that Neal says to flim-flam the guy at the door, but he must say something right, because a minute later, Neal is tugging Peter by the sleeve into a surprisingly well-lit, lively room dominated by a huge and gleaming oak bar.
“You think you’re a riot, don’t you?” Peter mutters as soon as the guy from the door walks away, leaving them leaning against the bar, observing the room.
Neal’s eyes twinkle, which is a yes. “Does that mean you’re going to read me the riot act?” he asks, trying on a phony-sober expression that doesn’t fit well on his face.
“You’re incurable,” Peter pronounces, and pretends to ignore the way that Neal, once again, takes as a compliment what Peter had meant—well, had tried to mean as an insult.
Turning his face away from Neal, Peter takes in the room – it’s packed, and bigger than he was expecting. Someone’s hung up chandeliers in an effort to class the joint up, but the ceiling is so low that most of the men have to hunch over to keep from winding up with a face-full of glass. The ceiling is higher over the stage, where a band led by a slim black man is tearing up a toe-tapping rag at breakneck speed – the bandleader’s fingers are flying over his trumpet, and even Peter, who would normally rather follow Neal into one of his locked underwater boxes than set one foot on a dance floor, feels his feet itch.
A glass appears in front of Peter’s face, an inch of gold liquid sloshing in the bottom – Peter turns to glare at Neal, but Neal just leans in close and murmurs in Peter’s ear, “There are other places to dance, or hear music, or go out and be seen looking beautiful. People come to a speakeasy to drink, and if you don’t drink, people start to wonder what you’re doing here.”
Neal’s breath is warm on his cheek, flickering like the candles on the smooth-polished dark wood tables, and his voice is low, weaving through the brassy notes of the trumpet solo, and when Peter lifts the glass out of Neal’s hand and takes a swallow, it feels like it’s all of a piece – the burn of the liquor down the back of his throat and the tingle on the tips of his fingers where they’d brushed Neal’s on the glass.
“So who are we looking for?” asks Neal, leaning back, both elbows on the bar – if Peter tried that trick, he’d have booze all over his sleeves, but Neal’s got his own personal magic.
“Mobster,” Peter says shortly – Neal rolls his eyes.
“You could probably hit a baker’s dozen of those in this place just by spitting.”
Peter sighs. “A particular mobster.”
“Peter.” Neal gives him a long-suffering look, which Peter thinks is pretty damn rich, considering. “Are we going to have to resort to semaphore? Charades? Morse code?”
“Excuse me for not wanting to shout the target’s name to the whole room,” Peter mutters. “It’s Semprini, all right? Rico Semprini. He’s supposed to be meeting a contact from Chicago, Portinari, tonight. There’s an agent in Chicago named Fowler who swears he can swap Portinari’s cash out for marked bills, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see him hand the cash direct to Semprini.”
“What does this Semprini guy look like?”
Peter’s only seen him once in person, but he’s studied the photograph in Semprini’s file every day for two months. “Broken nose,” he recites, “pockmarked face around the jaw and chin, deep-set eyes, dark hair.”
Neal rolls his eyes. “Well, since that only describes at least half a dozen of the men in this room, I should be—”
“Hey, you’re that Caffrey guy, aren’t you?” says a loud voice – Peter turns to see a short, balding man in spectacles and an expensive suit peering at Neal, cheeks red with excitement, liquor, or both. His blonde, wide-eyed date is towering over him in her high-heeled shoes. “The escape artist?” the man continues, pushing his glasses up his nose. “The one who shows up all them phony psychics—Mabel, look here, it’s that Caffrey guy!”
“Yes, yes I am,” Neal confesses, with a blinding smile, and Peter curses himself for forgetting that Neal’s not just Peter’s charming, irritating, quicksilver investigative consultant – he’s a goddamn celebrity.
The tall blond woman gives her date an affectionate shove, and chides him, “Harold, you’re being rude. I’m Mabel,” she tells Neal, who’s basking in the attention, “and this is Harold, and we’re very pleased to meet you, Mr. Caffrey, and your, uh, Mr….?” She trails off, giving Peter a look of polite confusion.
“Oh, he’s my assistant,” Neal says blithely – Mabel and Harold make admiring noises.
“Oh I am, am I?” Peter growls.
Neal nods, beaming at Peter. “The very best assistant,” he assures him.
“I’m having a psychic premonition of my own right now,” Peter threatens under his breath. “It’s telling me your life will be very short.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Peter. There’s no such things as premonitions.”
Neal winks at Peter, then turns the full force of his charm on Mabel and Harold, who glow a little at being in the presence of a star. They loved his show, they tell him, and especially liked the bit where he unchained himself underwater.
“It was very daring,” says Harold.
“Your clothes were very wet,” says Mabel, dreamily, with a sort of automatic honesty – two seconds later, her brain catches up with ears and she snaps out of it, blushing. Quickly, she says, “Very daring, yes. And thrilling…that is, the escape. The escape was thrilling. Not your clothes. Um.” She blushes again, but Neal just laughs, not meanly, and bows over her hand, telling her he’s always glad to meet a fan. At their request, he autographs a napkin, “To Mabel and Harold, two good law-abiding folks who I never met, because they were never here – Neal Caffrey.”
Neal succeeds in extricating them quickly and quietly enough that the couple never has the chance to draw more attention to them. When Neal turns back to the bar, Peter hands him his drink with a long-suffering look. Neal takes the glass with a grin. “Thanks, Peter.”
“Well, you know,” Peter says dryly, “I’d hate not to live up to my reputation as the very best assistant.”
Neal doesn’t even have the decency to pretend to look apologetic. “It’s not like I could tell them what you really are,” he points out. “And anyway, Peter…” Neal grins widely. “I’ve got to get my kicks somehow.”
“And dangling upside down off a ten-story building in a straightjacket just doesn’t do it for you anymore, huh?”
“There’s different kinds of thrills, Peter.” Neal’s tone is reproachful, like Peter’s deliberately misunderstanding him.
“Uh-huh.” Peter raises a skeptical eyebrow. “And which kind of ‘thrills’ do you call getting on my very last nerve?”
“The very best kind,” Neal replies, raising his glass to the curve of his lips and kissing the whiskey with his smile.
Peter tries not to smile back, but he can’t help it – he raises his glass in surrender when he feels his lips twitch at the corners and sees Neal’s grin of triumph. It’s fun with Neal, it always is. It’s fun, it’s good, it’s—It’s damn near flirting, Peter admits, and takes a sip of his own drink to try to wash away the little voice in his head that’s asking Damn near?
There’s a sudden commotion at the door – heads turn, the hovering hum of conversation swells, and when Peter cranes his neck to see the man who has just walked in with his entourage, it takes all his undercover experience not to react.
Slowly, Peter faces the other way, and leans over the bar, holding his glass out to the bartender for another drink; it’s something to do, and it hides his face from the men who’ve just walked in the door, but it also puts his face close enough to Neal’s that they can talk without being overheard.
“That’s him,” Peter says, low – his lips just barely brush Neal’s ear, and Neal shivers.
He turns his head subtly, only enough to follow Peter’s line of sight—but when he does, Peter can feel Neal’s body freeze, as if he’s been hit by an electric shock.
“That’s him,” says Neal, staring like he’s forgotten that they’re undercover here, like his natural chameleon instincts have been ripped out of him.
Worried and confused, Peter says, “Yeah, that’s him. Rico Semprini, the target, he’s—”
“No,” Neal says, not much more to it than breath. “No, I mean. That’s him. He’s—he’s the man that ordered the hit on Kate. I’m almost sure. Him or one of his cronies.”
Peter sets his drink on the bar and wraps a cautionary hand around Neal’s arm, as gently as he dares to. He can feel the tension in the muscle beneath Neal’s sleeves.
For a moment Neal doesn’t move – doesn’t try to break Peter’s hold, but doesn’t settle either, doesn’t take his eyes off of Semprini – and Peter waits and breathes. Finally, Neal looks down at the floor.
“I’m not stupid enough to try something here,” he says, and Peter nods but doesn’t quite relax. “I’m not that dumb. And even if I were, I—“ Neal blows out a long breath and lifts his eyes to Peter’s face, insistent. “You’re going to bring him down, right?”
“Him and his whole rotten crew,” Peter swears, hand still wrapped around Neal’s arm. He should probably let go, he’s been holding on too long, it probably looks strange, probably is strange… but Peter can’t shake the feeling that his grip is the only thing holding Neal in one piece. “Every last one of them. That’s why we’re here, Neal.”
Neal nods, and some of the shivering energy running through him settles.
“I trust you,” he says. Peter nods in return, knowing Neal well enough to not take those words lightly.
“Thank you,” Peter replies, eyes locked with Neal’s. He should really let go of Neal’s arm now, because he trusts Neal, too—trusts him not to do something crazy that could get them both killed, trusts the fact that Neal has put his own trust in Peter – he’d like to think Neal has put his trust in the law, or in justice, rather than him personally, but he knows better. He should be letting go, but for some reason—
Neal saves him from himself, spinning around suddenly, breaking Peter’s hold.
“Peter,” he says out of the corner of his mouth. “Peter, face this way. They’re looking right at us.”
Trying for casual and probably missing by 50 yards, Peter turns the other way, staring fixedly at the reflections in the polished brass plate behind the bar, trying to catch a glimpse of Semprini or his men.
Peter throws Neal a confused look out of the corner of his eye, and Neal shakes his head impatiently. “I’m sorry. I forgot the case, forgot everything but—I blew our cover. I’m the one who drew their attention.”
“Neal. I don’t blame you.” Peter leans into Neal just for a second, just long enough to make sure Neal feels him there. “If I’d known Semprini was connected to Kate’s death, I never would’ve brought you along.”
“You’d have been better off,” Neal mutters, eyes fixed on the same polished brass reflections. “Damn, damn, they’re still looking. One of his goons, the bald one – it almost looked like he recognized you.”
“He might have,” Peter admits. He’s been on enough raids that it’s starting to hurt his effectiveness as an undercover operator – it wouldn’t surprise him to know that one of Semprini’s henchmen had caught a glimpse of him before in dangerous circumstances. Peter swears under his breath. “Any ideas on how to get us out of here without turning the place into a shootout?”
Neal gets a faraway look for a minute; as soon as he snaps out of it, he gives Peter a narrow-eyed look.
“There’s a piano in your living room. Do you play, or does Elizabeth?”
“Both,” Peter answers, puzzled. “But how does that—”
“How well do you know ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’?”
Peter’s eyebrows rise. “Uh, pretty well – it’s El’s new favorite song, and I—”
“Great,” Neal says, then flags down the bartender and asks him, “Could you tell Diana that Neal has a favor to ask?”
Peter hardly has time to get out, “What’s going on? And who is—” before the bandleader from before, the slender black man in the tuxedo, slides in smoothly behind the bar and rolls his eyes at Neal.
“A favor?” he asks, in a surprisingly high voice – Peter thinks, wait, he said Diana, but—
But no, now that Peter looks more closely—the tuxedo hides it pretty well, but the person muttering back and forth with Neal, bright golden trumpet dangling from one hand, is definitely a woman. Peter blinks. “Huh,” he says, and knocks back a little more whiskey.
“Thanks, Diana,” says Neal, showing off his dimples – she just rolls her eyes again and says she’ll tell Christie he said hello, and could he please not get any of her band members shot if he can help it.
Neal protests, “Have a little faith!” but she’s already walking away. Peter likes her already.
Neal turns back to Peter. “We’re following her. Come on.”
“We are?” Peter stumbles over a chair leg and curses. “Neal, what the hell is going on?”
“You know what the best place to hide is?” Neal asks over his shoulder.
Peter realizes, with a sinking feeling, that they’re heading straight for the stage.
“Please tell me you’re not going to say, ‘In plain sight,’” Peter groans.
“In plain sight!” Neal exclaims brightly, as if it hasn’t even occurred to him what a terrible idea this is. “Seriously, Peter, trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
“Well, at least that makes one of us,” Peter grumbles as they climb the short set of steps up to the stage, but he’s got a pretty good idea where this is going. “Neal, I’m not as good as these guys, and I can’t play anything fast – these people are going to want to dance, but I can’t keep up with—”
Neal puts his hands on Peter’s shoulders and pushes until Peter has no choice but to sit down, abruptly, on the piano bench. He leans down and meets Peter’s gaze straight-on.
“Peter,” he says. “This is a good plan. Trust me.” He stands up, shrugs, and says, “Well. It’s a plan. It’s definitely better than no plan. Probably. And at least it’s a fun plan. That has to count for something, right?”
“Neal…” Peter growls, but Neal is strolling up to the microphone, letting loose that million-dollar smile.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Neal murmurs smoothly, tilting his head to look at the crowd through his eyelashes. “We’ll get you fine folks swinging again in a minute, but I want to start this part of the evening on a gentler note – I’ve had a request from a fellow who wants to send this sweet song out to a certain brown-eyed girl.”
All the brown-eyed girls in the place give their dates a mushy look, Peter notices, snorting, while all their dates try to look knowing and suave. Neal knows what he’s doing, all right.
He throws Peter a wink, and Peter fits his hands around the first chord, waiting to see what Neal will do.
“There’s a somebody I’m longing to see…” Neal sings, voice low and tender – if Peter had had to guess, before, he’d have thought that Neal, singing, would be like Neal’s escape act: showy, broad, a little tongue-in-cheek. He should have known better. Neal sings like he draws, like he paints, and Peter couldn’t look away if he tried.
He’s not alone – when Neal continues, “I hope that she turns out to be someone to watch over me,” he’s got the whole crowd eating out of his hand, leaning forward in their seats, not wanting to miss a single note. El loves this song, and Peter’s heard her sing it a dozen different times, but as he watches Neal and tries not to look down at his own hands too much, all Peter can think is that he’s never heard it sound so sad before.
The song is supposed to be wistful and full of yearning, but this is more than that, Peter thinks, through the sound of Neal confessing, “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood.” Peter remembers the way that Neal had watched that girl across the street who looked like Kate, remembers the sketches tucked between the pages of Neal’s books like autumn leaves that little kids press so that they’ll never lose their color. Peter remembers, and there’s a hard little knot of aching just under his breastbone as he watches Neal pour out his heart to a room full of oblivious strangers.
When Neal gets to “I may not be the man some girls think of as handsome,” there are some chuckles from the audience, and Neal acknowledges them with a wink. It seems to break his trance, and “But to her heart, I’ll carry the key,” comes with a smile and a rich, slow slide into the low note that ends the line. “Won’t you tell her, please,” Neal appeals to the crowd, holding out his hands, “to put on some speed?” He’s playing to the people now, making the whole room feel like he’s singing just to them, voice warmer, with a satin shimmer to the held notes. Peter admits to himself that if he didn’t know the song by heart, he’d be lost – he can’t stop watching Neal, listening to Neal, even long enough to pay real attention to what his hands are playing.
He blushes at the way Neal turns the “oh” of “Oh, how I need,” into a moan, leaning on the note with an indecent look in his eyes, and busies himself with the accompaniment, staring down at the keys as if they’re going to explain why Peter’s heart feels like a struck string.
At the end of the line, Diana catches Peter’s eyes and cues the band for a trumpet solo – Neal leans back against the piano to enjoy it. Peter can hear his fingers tapping slow subdivisions against the honey-gold wood of the upright’s top; Neal’s other hand is just inches away from Peter’s face, dangling in the place where the sheet music would be if Peter weren’t playing from memory.
When Diana starts to wrap up her solo, Neal murmurs to Peter, “Last stanza again,” and steps up to the microphone again, sure of every gaze in the room.
“Won’t you tell her, please, to put on some speed?” he asks again, slower this time, “Follow my lead – oh, how I need…” He glances at Peter, not enough to draw attention to him, but enough that Peter can feel his gaze like a hand resting gently on his shoulder. Peter thinks he’s been doing a pretty good job following Neal, if he may say so himself, so he gives Neal a look that hopefully says, Yes, fine, I’m with you.
For some reason, that makes Neal smile broader and brighter than anything has all night, and his eyes never leave Peter as he sings the final, “Someone to watch over me,” letting the last two words blossom up the octave as the band swells behind him, full and alive.
Peter’s left hand sits on the last chord because he can’t bear to move – he’s watching Neal, and Neal is watching him, and Peter just sits dumbly and feels his heart beat, pounding out a rhythm that feels as loud as drumbeats in the silence. When the first clapping hand breaks the quiet, he jumps a mile, as spooked as if he’d heard a gunshot; he’d forgotten, for a second, that the audience was there.
Stupid, Peter thinks, there are men out there that want me dead, and takes a deep breath, trying to pull himself together. When Neal looks away, turning his smile on the cheering crowd, Peter tells himself very firmly that it doesn’t bother him at all.
Neal’s used to applause, of course, but he seems genuinely touched by how much the crowd seemed to enjoy his singing—his bows are a little unsteady, and he keeps looking behind himself at the band, as if he thinks the audience is paying too much attention to him and too little to them. As the clapping dies down, Diana makes an impatient, hand-rolling gesture, and Neal wraps his hand around the microphone and purrs into it, “All right, gentlemen and ladies, you’ve been very patient with the sappy stuff, but I know you fine folks came here to dance, isn’t that right?”
The crowd whoops and roars and Peter freezes. Oh no, no no no. Don’t you dare—
“We call this rag ‘The Kentucky Derby,’ because it’s the fastest you’ve ever heard!”
I’m going to kill him, Peter thinks, I’m going to strangle him with his own stupid trick chains…
“Neal!” he hisses, as quietly as he can. “Neal!”
Apparently, ‘as quietly as he can’ isn’t as quiet as he thinks; Neal turns to throw him an apologetic look, but other heads turn, too, and Peter gulps and tries to duck behind the piano. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees one of Semprini’s men staring right at him. Peter tries to angle his head to the side but—
“Hey! That’s Burke! The piano man’s a G-man!”
Peter sees a lot of hands dive inside jackets, reaching for guns, and suddenly Neal is behind him, tugging on his sleeve.
“I think this is the part where we run away really fast,” he mutters in Peter’s ear.
Peter bangs his shin on the piano as Neal drags him away, stumbling and swearing. Neal jumps down from the stage and Peter follows him back through a mess of people milling around the side. Peter can’t see where they’re going, but he knows that they’re running away from the door, and he doesn’t see how that’s going to end well.
“Neal, where the blazes are we—”
And then suddenly Neal is stumbling to a halt in the middle of a dark alley, brick walls rising all around them, cool night air making Peter’s breath catch.
“Back door,” Neal explains, tugging on the crisp white cuffs of his shirt, straightening himself out. “Only 5 people in New York know where it is or where it leads, and—“
The door bangs open behind Peter, and a bullet whizzes by his cheek.
“Or six,” amends Neal, ducking. “Looks like it might be six.”
They both take off running, and Peter tries to ignore the sounds of shouting behind them – he risks a look over his shoulder and swears at the sight of four men pounding down the alley; Semprini had come in with six, and probably had more outside the club, so that means there’s at least four goons unaccounted for, probably coming down a side street to cut them off.
“Four behind us,” Peter pants; he throws a glance at Neal, who nods, mouth tight, just as more bullets come flying down the alleyway. They don’t get close to Neal and Peter, not close enough to scare, but the mobsters’ aim is only going to improve as they start catching up. Peter’s never run this hard in his life – his lungs are burning and the scar in his thigh, from the war, is sending warning stabs down his leg with every step. He gives himself another five minutes, at the outside; probably more like two.
“You have a plan?” he gasps at Neal, who winces.
“I have a gamble,” Neal shouts back. “How about you?”
“I got nothing!”
“Gamble it is, then!” Neal decides, then reaches out one long arm and snags the lapel of Peter’s jacket. “This way!”
He yanks Peter to the right, down an alley barely lit by a few drib-drabs of secondhand moonlight. Halfway through the alley, he dodges left, and pulls Peter into a dark, invisible alcove in the brick wall, barely two feet wide and deep. Peter muffles a grunt as his head hits something unforgiving, and he instinctively jerks forward into Neal, who draws in a swift breath.
“Sssh,” he barely whispers, and Peter holds his breath and tries very hard not to even twitch, as the four goons charge past their hiding place, still running hell-for-leather with their guns sleek, black, and ugly in their hands. He fights against the relief that wants to flood his body and make his knees shake – they may be safe for now, but there’s no knowing how many men Semprini sent after them, or how long they’ll search before giving up. Peter’s ears strain for the sound of returning footsteps, but the seconds tick by silently – his eyes are fixed on the thin strip of alleyway that he can see from the alcove, and Neal’s eyes are fixed on him, tense, waiting.
“We should probably stay here for a while,” Neal whispers, a hesitant note in his voice. His whiskey-sweet breath is just inches away from Peter’s mouth, his hand is still curled tightly into Peter’s jacket, and now that they’re probably not in imminent danger of being murdered, Peter’s free to start noticing, well… a lot of things.
The way his heart is still rabbiting a mile a minute. The way the two of them are pressed together so close that Peter can feel every one of Neal’s indrawn breaths against his ribs. The way his leg hurts so bad that Neal is probably the only thing holding him up right now. The way that Neal is looking at him, eyes wide, pupils huge and dark to catch the last tiny trickle of moonlight in their little hiding spot. The way he’d followed Neal without a thought, out that door and through that alley and into this hole in the wall, pulled this way and that way by that one strong hand and something even stronger.
“Yeah,” Peter croaks. “Stay here. Good plan.”
“They might come back.”
They stay quiet, watching each other even though the light is so dim that there’s barely anything to see. Peter’s leg is feeling better, and he’s not breathing quite so hard, but Neal still seems on edge – Peter can feel every expansion and contraction of Neal’s chest, hypnotic but quick, in and out. Peter’s breathing has mostly settled down, and he wonders why Neal is so out of breath – after all, Neal performs death-defying stunts for a living, and he’s probably in better shape than Peter is, so why—?
Curious and a little worried, he lifts his right hand without thinking and sets it on top of Neal’s own on his chest, tucking his thumb under Neal’s wrist to try to take his pulse.
“Peter…” Neal looks lost, and Peter freezes, suddenly realizing what a strange thing that was to do – inappropriate, they’re practically holding hands—
And then Neal smiles shyly and lets go of Peter’s jacket, twisting his fingers around until they are holding hands, awkwardly, Peter’s thumb and pinky finger still wrapped around Neal’s wrist, Neal’s fingers folded over Peter’s hand.
And Peter realizes he’s perfectly fine with that. Better than fine. He’s suddenly grateful that they’re wedged in a hole in the wall, hiding from angry, gun-wielding gangsters, because if they were in a position where he might actually have to talk about this, he’d be ruined. But this – just standing here, breathing in time with each other, silent and unnamed – this is just right.
“I don’t think they’re coming back,” Peter says after a minute, and Neal pulls his hand back like it’s been burned – Peter feels a tug of regret, because that wasn’t what he meant, he wasn’t trying to—
“You’re probably right,” Neal replies, and it sounds more like a confession than like a relief.
Peter doesn’t know what to say to that, so he fusses with the bottom of his suit jacket to straighten it, and doesn’t say anything at all.
Neal moves first, and Peter follows, stumbling out into the alleyway. Just as they emerge, there’s a clattering sound – Peter whirls, reaching for his gun, and Neal starts to dart off down the alley—
“Mrrrow,” says the source of the clattering sound, giving the two of them a disgusted look that reminds Peter of his sister Paula when he used to put frogs in her bed.
Peter and Neal look down at the cat, and the tin can it’s playing with, then up at each other. Peter starts to laugh, and Neal joins him – it’s probably not even that funny, but they’re nervous and exhausted and very glad to be alive, and it feels good to laugh and to feel like everything is going to maybe be all right.
“So much for hiding in plain sight,” Peter grouses, trying to push the… the… well, whatever that was—or wasn’t—out of his mind.
Neal makes a face that Peter would call a pout if it were on a woman’s lips – Men don’t pout, he reminds himself. It doesn’t really work.
“It bought us time,” Neal protests. “Come on!”
“It bought us time,” concedes Peter, nodding. “And got us a lot closer to the back exit,” he realizes, and when he turns his head to give Neal a measuring look, Neal’s mouth is curled up a little at the corner, and he’s meeting Peter’s look with an amused glance of his own.
“Come on, Peter.” He winks. “I am an escape artist.”
“Apparently,” says Peter, shaking his head admiringly. He pushes himself away from the wall and starts to walk down the alley toward the streetlights down the way. “You escape from locked trunks and speakeasies – you do magic, you debunk phonies, you draw, you sing… is there anything you can’t do?” Peter asks, giving Neal a straight line to flatter himself outrageously – this is good, this is safe, this is how their conversations always go.
“Juggle,” Neal says, without hesitating. “I can’t juggle at all.”
Peter stops dead.
“You’re joking,” he says.
Neal shakes his head. “Nope.”
“But you’re—come on. Anyone can juggle. I can juggle, for Pete’s sake!”
“Not to save my life,” Neal says easily – Peter thinks it would be nice if they could make it through just one conversation tonight without turning Peter’s expectations completely upside down.
“You’re a stage magician!” Peter protests, waving his hands in the air inarticulately. “You grew up in a circus! You’ve gotta be able to juggle – it’s—it’s a law!”
Neal grins. “And I am nothing if not law-abiding.”
Peter refuses to dignify that with an answer, and they walk in silence down the alley toward the street. As they emerge onto the sidewalk, Peter sees Neal’s eyes alight on a box of apples sitting next to a little grubby boy poking at his own knee.
“I’m pretty sure I heard, somewhere in all that, that ‘even I’ can juggle.”
“Oh, no,” Peter says, trying, not for the first time that night, to assert sanity in the face of Neal Caffrey’s plans – it works about as well as all the other times.
Five minutes later, Peter is glaring at three red apples and arguing, “I’m not going to make a fool of myself in front of these people!”
Neal just steps back into the alleyway they’d come from, tugs Peter along with him, and grins. “There. As private a show as anyone could want.” He leans back against the rough brick and makes some kind of hand gesture that seems to mean, go on, I’m waiting.
Peter rubs his thumb over the skin of one of the apples nervously. “I can’t do it with you… staring like that,” he complains.
“Ten minutes ago, we were running from a hail of gunfire, but this scares you?” Neal says, lifting an amused eyebrow.
“Scared—I am not—you—”
Peter huffs, and gives Neal a dirty look, which he seems to enjoy.
“Fine,” Peter snaps, and tries to remember how this goes – he’s the one who taught his niece Rose how to juggle, and that was just last year, so he’s not completely out of practice.
He gets the rhythm of it, lofting the apples with one hand and passing them across with the other – loft, catch, pass, catch; loft, catch, pass, catch. He enjoys the soft thumping sound the apples make when they land in his left hand, and tries tossing them a little higher. He doesn’t think he can take his eyes off of the apples for long, but he chances a look and a grin at Neal, and his heart twists at Neal’s answering look – it’s soft and fond, intent. Neal’s not watching the apples, he’s watching Peter: watching Peter smile with the simple pleasure of it, watching Peter proud of this one little thing.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Peter mumbles, and Neal laughs lightly.
“Like…” Peter grasps after the words, half of his mind still caught up in loft, catch, pass, catch. “Like you—I don’t know, like you care that I’m happy. I mean,” Peter flounders, “we’re friends, I know you care, I care, we both—I mean, like you’re happy I’m happy. I mean, not that I think you’d be unhappy that I’m—I just mean, like—like it matters so much that—”
Peter gives up, looks up at Neal mutely, and doesn’t know how to read what he sees there.
“And what if I do?” Neal’s voice is low, and his eyes hold Peter fast, like a spell, like the kind of enchantment Neal has always sworn could never exist. “What if I do? Care.”
Peter drops the apples.
“Damn!” he swears, kneeling down to pick them up from where they’ve fallen, trying to ignore his stupid flaming cheeks, betraying him. Neal bends down, too, and gently picks up the last of the three apples, putting it into Peter’s hands with its fellows – his fingers brush Peter’s palm, and it feels like an apology.
“Sorry,” he says softly, eyes fixed on the apples in Peter’s hands. “They’re bruised.”
He looks up, then, to meet Peter’s eyes, and Peter stammers out, “I-I don’t mind.” He has a terrible certainty, coming from years of marriage, that there’s another conversation going on here, in a language that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t understand.
“You don’t, do you?” Neal says, studying Peter with a smile just on the brighter side of wistful.
“Mind if things are… a little bruised,” Neal says, his eyes flickering away. “If they’ve maybe had a little rough handling—aren’t shined up nice.”
By the end of the sentence, Neal’s staring down at the apples, but Peter knows they’re not talking about the apples. Probably they were never talking about the apples, Peter admits. That’s Neal all over, again – smoke and mirrors and misdirection and nothing up his sleeve but a shining white rose from nowhere.
And see, that’s what Peter just doesn’t—he shakes his head, trying to figure out what Neal sees when he looks in the mirror.
“You’re the reddest, brightest apple in the whole barrel,” Peter tells Neal. “And if you don’t know that, you’re not as smart as I thought you were.”
Neal looks back up at Peter, eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiles. “You think so, huh? You think I shine a little brighter?”
And if Peter knew him even an inch less well than he does now, he’d take Neal’s joking tone and joke right back and take a cab home and chuckle a little as he takes off his cufflinks, remembering; but there’s something searching in the back of Neal’s eyes, and his hands are shoved in his pockets like he doesn’t trust them not to reach for things he shouldn’t have, like Peter’s answer matters to him – like there’s any doubt what Peter thinks, what Peter’s going to say.
“What if I do? Care,” Peter remembers.
“Neal,” Peter says helplessly, “you’re a goddamn star,” and kisses him.
Neal’s lips are warm and chapped under his, and Neal’s eyes drift shut slowly like he’s dreaming, and Peter’s never kissed another man before. He’d seen two men kiss once—boys, really—scared and murmuring and tender in the shadow of the barbed wire, wiping mud off of each other’s faces as the shells wailed overhead. Peter had waited to be disgusted, or angry, or to disapprove, but all he’d felt was a sharp, hooking ache of envy, and thought, I wish I had—that, whatever it is. God, I wish I wasn’t alone here. I wish I wasn’t going to die alone.
And it’s that memory that makes Peter jump away like he’s been burned, because this isn’t a field by the Ancre, this is a goddamn alley a foot away from a busy street, anyone could see, anyone could know, God, what was he thinking—
When Peter pulls back, he hears Neal say, “I guess it’s true what they say about you G-men.”
And Peter flushes, humiliated – yeah, he’s heard the rumors about Hoover—who hasn’t? But that’s not—
“You really are fearless,” Neal finishes, giving Peter a soft look that he doesn’t deserve; Peter blushes for a different reason now, looking away.
“I’m not, really,” he says, remembering how fast he’d jerked away when he’d realized someone might see, ashamed of being ashamed, because Neal is nothing to be ashamed of, but—
But these aren’t the French trenches, and the Twenties may be roaring as loud as they can, but some things stay quiet; stay behind closed doors.
Desperate for something to do, Peter starts trying to stuff the apples into his pockets—they don’t fit, and he starts shoving harder, frustrated, until Neal’s hands enter his field of vision and gently take the apples out of his hands.
“It’s all right, you know,” Neal tells him, stepping out of the alleyway and back into the main street, which is busy with cars and laughing people stepping out of taxicabs and streetlights blazing.
“It’s not,” Peter says wretchedly. “I wish—I wish I could—” Oh, this is pitiful – he can’t even say it—“I wish I could. K-kiss you,” he makes himself say, and he gets it out, even though it’s so quiet even Neal can probably barely hear it. “I wish I could kiss you, right here, in front of all these people.” He looks up into Neal’s blue, blue eyes. You deserve it, he thinks, but he’s used up his small bravery for tonight.
“You can,” Neal says, and his hand is steady on Peter’s shoulder – he’d do it, probably—kiss Peter right here in the street. He’s the fearless one.
“I can’t,” Peter confesses, and looks away, down at the bricks under their feet – not because he thinks Neal will look disappointed in him, but because he thinks Neal won’t.
“You can,” Neal insists, and when Peter doesn’t look up, he shakes Peter’s shoulder a little, and repeats, “You can! Just… trust me.”
As Peter watches, Neal’s hand dips into his jacket pocket, and comes out with one of the apples – it’s a little bit the worse for wear, but it’s shined up to a pretty red color. Neal catches Peter’s gaze, then slowly, so slowly, lifts the apple to his mouth and takes a bite, his white teeth making a clean crunch as they slice through the rosy skin. He closes his lips around the bite of fruit, chews it for a few seconds, then swallows. Peter’s throat is dry.
“Want a bite, Peter?” says Neal, with a twinkle in his eye, holding the apple out toward him.
Peter doesn’t trust his voice – he just nods, and reaches out a slightly unsteady hand to take the apple from Neal. He brings the fruit up to his lips, and carefully takes a bite, just overlapping the bite that Neal had taken – all these people are walking by, all these eyes are passing over them, looking without really seeing, looking at Peter and Neal by the side of the road, sharing an apple like friends or even strangers might, and never having the slightest clue that right now, Peter knows that Neal’s mouth must taste exactly like this, exactly as bright and sweet and clear as this bite of apple, and that Neal knows exactly what Peter’s mouth tastes like, too. It’s one of the best kisses Peter has ever had.
“That was, uh—“ Peter tries – it comes out a croak, and he clears his throat and gives it another go. “That was—is there anything you can’t find a way out of?”
“I’ve never met a set of chains that could hold me,” Neal says, and hardly believing his own daring, Peter says, “Never?” and wraps a careful hand around Neal’s wrist – friendly, innocent.
“Well. One,” Neal admits, flashing a glimpse of white teeth. “But they don’t count.”
Neal shrugs. “I know who has the key.”
“Oh,” Peter says, surprised. “Oh.” He can’t help blushing, and Neal doesn’t even bother to hide his amused look.
“What makes you think there’s a key?” Peter asks, half to cover up his own flusteredness.
“Oh, Peter,” Neal says, shaking his head and looking up at Peter through his eyelashes, “Don’t you know?”
Neal’s free hand dips into Peter’s pocket, snatches an apple, and throws it at Peter; Peter’s hands reflexively reach out to catch it, and the next thing Peter knows, Neal’s dancing away, eyes laughing.
“There’s always a key,” Neal says, as if it’s the first and biggest truth in the world, and Peter thinks that, in Neal’s world, it probably is.
“The important thing,” Neal continues, “is making sure it’s in safe hands.”
He steps up into Peter’s space, far enough apart that they could still claim to be nothing more than friends, but the look in his eyes makes Peter think dangerous thoughts for a crowded street.
“Is it, Peter? In safe hands?”
“The safest,” Peter promises, risking a quick brush of his fingers down the back of Neal’s hand - Neal takes a slow breath in at the touch, and then steps away, grinning.
“So you’re walking me home, then?”
“I don’t remember saying that,” Peter grumbles, but it’s just for show – the thought of a long, starlit walk to June’s house through the heart of the city, full of thrilling half-accidental brushes of their hands, makes his chest feel five sizes too small. Maybe at June’s house, he’ll ask to make a call from her telephone – somehow he thinks Elizabeth won’t be surprised to hear how the evening turned out, considering she was the one to set it up to begin with.
“But you have to keep me safe, Peter,” teases Neal, ducking his head and leading the way through the chattering crowds pouring through the street.
“Yeah,” says Peter, ruefully, “I suppose I do.” And he sets off down the street, dodging respectable women in knee-length dresses and couples French-kissing in the middle of the street, and a half-dozen automobiles, and a hundred other things that he could never have imagined ten years ago. It’s a new time, Peter thinks, and for the first time, he feels like he’s a part of it, somehow – like the woman singing the slow jazz lullaby drifting through a second-floor window is singing just for him.