Title: Living Proof (read @ AO3)
Fandom: White Collar
Pairings: Peter/Neal, Peter/Elizabeth
Word Count: 29,000
Summary: The thing about Neal is that he is always in Peter’s personal space. “Hello, Officer,” he says, batting his eyelashes in a way that probably even a sixteen-year-old knows isn’t actually seductive. Teenage hooker AU.
Warnings: See above – this is not Pretty Woman. Frequent and semi-graphic discussion of, but no explicit depictions of, sex between a minor and an adult; implied past child abuse; violence toward minors.
Notes: This is not, not, NOT an accurate depiction of how law enforcement or social services actually work (if there was ever actually any doubt in anyone’s mind!). Wild fictional liberties have been taken.
Beta-read by laulan, who takes the gold medal in patient explanation and kind reassurance, despite my stubborn insistence on arguing with half of her suggestions – all remaining mistakes are definitely my fault.
The thing about Neal is that he is always in Peter’s personal space.
Tonight, he melts out of the shadows draping the alley’s brick walls, and somehow ends up just two inches away from Peter’s face.
“Hello, Officer,” he says, batting his eyelashes in a way that probably even a sixteen-year-old knows isn’t actually seductive.
“Hey, trouble,” Peter greets him, narrowing his eyes – Neal ducks his head with a pleased grin, the way he always does when Peter says that. He likes it, which means Peter should probably stop saying it, but that’s a losing battle anyway.
“You look good tonight,” Neal purrs, looking him up and down.
Peter sighs. “You say that every night,” he reminds Neal.
“And you never say it back.” Neal is trying to pout, but his eyes are dancing, and nobody’s fooled.
Peter’s not a tall man, but Neal barely comes up to his nose – he’s just sixteen, so probably he’s still got a few inches to grow, if he lives long enough to get the chance. He’s in his usual uniform—tight, worn jeans and a white t-shirt that’s damn near see-through. It’s a little chilly out tonight, and that shirt’s too thin to provide any real warmth, but Peter knows better than to offer the kid his jacket. The one time he’d given in to his stupid instincts, he’d spent half an hour chasing a laughing, red-cheeked Neal up and down alleyways and fire escapes. Oh, he’d never actually doubted that Neal would give it back – it was more the when and the how that had him cursing and puffing his way through a maze of alleys.
Then he’d made the mistake of actually catching Neal, which ended with Neal panting into his lips from half an inch away, invading Peter’s space like—
Well, like he is right now.
“Back,” Peter says, rolling his eyes and performing his finely-honed teen-prostitute separation technique: two fingers in the middle of the forehead, and a firm but gentle push until a professional level of space is re-established.
“You never let me have any fun,” Neal complains.
“Yeah, because that’s what I’m here for,” Peter mutters dryly. “Fun.”
“You could be.” Neal’s back in his space again, looking up at Peter through his lashes—not hard to do when he’s so short. “That’s what I’m here for,” he says, low and intent.
Peter sighs. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, long-suffering, and prods Neal in the forehead again. It works about as well as it ever does: better than anything else Peter has tried, but not even close to permanent.
“I didn’t see you last night,” Neal complains, fiddling with one of the empty belt loops on his jeans and shooting Peter a wounded look. Peter refuses to let it move him.
“I’m allowed to have a night off now and then, Neal.”
“No, you’re not,” Neal declares, like Peter is the one being unreasonable – his lower lip is sticking out ridiculously. “I missed you.”
Peter snorts, and crosses his arms. “I’m sure you found something to do with your time.” As soon as he’s said it, he hears himself and winces – Neal confines himself to just a grin, and the words, “Several somethings,” uttered with as much breezy innuendo as he can pack in. “But it’s not the same without you,” Neal continues, looking forlorn. “Officer Minkell was doing the rounds.”
“What’s wrong with Officer Minkell?” Peter asks. He likes Susan, and she’s been on this job for longer than Peter’s been legal to drive. He can’t imagine her giving Neal any trouble.
“Nothing!” Neal assures him, holding out his hands placatingly. “We had a nice talk. She wouldn’t tell me your name, though.” He pouts – Peter raises an eyebrow and says, “Good.”
“Come onnn, Officer…” Neal throws himself back against the brick of the alleyway, bouncing a little against the wall as he whines at Peter pitifully.
“Not gonna happen,” says Peter, man enough to admit that he’s enjoying himself a little.
“I’ll do anything,” Neal promises, voice dark and eyes full of heat where they hold Peter’s. “And when I say anything, I mean—”
“Please don’t finish that sentence,” Peter says, without any real hope, and Neal’s mouth twitches; for a second, he pauses, eyes flicking up and to the left, calculating. Then he offers generously, “I’ll promise not to finish that sentence if you tell me your name.”
Peter laughs, and his breath makes a cloud around his face in the chilly night. “Good recovery.”
“Not a chance.”
Neal huffs out the beginning of a laugh – the kind of fond, exasperated sound that’s usually Peter’s stock in trade. “Come on, Officer Burke, there’s gotta be something…”
“There’s one thing,” Peter says, reluctantly – Neal’s eyes light up like Christmas and he gravitates closer to Peter again, just outside of Peter’s personal space radius.
“You can tell me, Officer,” he says, with wide-eyed sincerity. “I don’t judge. I’ll try anything.”
Peter rolls his eyes, then takes a deep breath and says, for what feels like the hundredth time, “I still have that business card—”
“Not this again,” Neal groans, with all the drama of a two-bit Hamlet, wheeling away from Peter and lifting a hand theatrically to his forehead.
Doggedly, Peter continues, “Her name is Shawna, she’s very nice, she wants to help – it’s her job—”
“Don’t you get tired of doing this over and over again?” Neal asks, and there’s an edge starting to grow under the teasing in his voice. “I know I sure do.”
Peter hesitates. Neal’s walked away before, when he’s pushed it, just dropped the conversation dead and taken off, and he doesn’t want that to happen again, but…
“You don’t have to commit to anything,” Peter says, quiet. “You could just talk to her, see if maybe—”
“Wow, are we still talking about this?” Neal asks, his voice so heavy and hard with forced boredom that Peter feels it hit him like a baseball bat. Pointedly, Neal picks up a discarded piece of paper off the sidewalk and peers at it. “Who buys five value packs of chocolate pudding, a pineapple, and two canisters of fish food? And nothing else?” He waves the receipt at Peter, who sighs.
“Okay, Neal,” he says wearily. “Okay.”
He turns away – his appetite for this conversation is gone, and this isn’t exactly the only alleyway on his beat. It’s chilly enough out here that his hands are stiff, and he shoves them in his pockets, harder than he has to.
Peter doesn’t hear any movement, but suddenly he feels something warm against his back – and when he turns, the warmth moves with him. It’s Neal’s hand, on his shoulder now. Neal’s chin is down, throwing his face into shadow – Peter can’t read his expression at all, but the curve of his shoulders and the scuff of his sneaker on the concrete are apologetic.
“Hey,” Neal says softly, eyes flicking up to Peter’s face, then back down to the pavement. “Don’t be mad. It’s—sweet. You’re sweet. I just don’t…” Peter waits for him to finish the thought, but Neal leaves it there, and shrugs. Peter wishes he knew what words fit in that empty space.
“I’m sweet, huh?” he asks, cracking a smile – when Neal glances up and sees it, he relaxes, and leans into Peter flirtatiously.
“Positively delicious,” he affirms, eyes dancing.
Patiently, Peter removes Neal’s hand from his shoulder, and Neal’s face from his personal space, for what feels like the fifth time tonight. He teases, “I thought I was a big meanie who spoiled all your fun.”
Neal smiles, but he doesn’t come back with the smart remark that Peter’s expecting – just watches Peter, silently, something warm in his eyes. His arms are crossed across his chest, and Peter can’t help noticing how little meat there is on his bones, or the goosebumps all up and down his skin on this shivering night.
“You deserve better than this, Neal,” Peter says – it doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s what he’s got. Neal’s smile turns wistful, and he turns his face up, out toward the cloudy, bitter sky, though his eyes are closed.
“It’s nice, sometimes… that there’s somebody out there who believes that.” Then Neal shoots Peter a sideways look, grinning. “Even if he is a big meanie who spoils all my fun,” he concludes, spell broken.
I wish you believed it, Peter thinks, but all he says is, “Good night, Neal.”
“Good night, Officer Burke,” drifts out of the darkness behind him as he walks away, and Peter smiles in spite of himself.
Susan likes to joke sometimes that they’re basically just babysitters with guns in this precinct – well, Peter thinks to himself, usually it’s a joke. Tonight, not so much. Robinson is chauffeuring around these two detectives, and Peter, the rookie, gets all the fun of being left behind on the street to guard the car. It’s not what Peter had pictured when he signed up for the Academy, but then, none of the rest of it has been, either.
Speaking of which…
Peter had taken thirty seconds – all right, sixty at the most – to go check out a weird noise just down the block, and of course when he gets back, Neal is leaning against the hood of the squad car. As soon as Peter sees him, he hooks a thumb in his empty belt loop, dragging the waistband of his jeans down on one side; the move is supposed to look casual, but Peter’s not dumb enough to think it’s an accident that the denim sags down far enough to make it perfectly plain Neal’s not wearing a damn thing under it.
“Nice wheels, Officer. Want to give me a ride?” Neal’s voice is dripping with suggestion, and the angle of his hips against the hood of the car is as subtle as a beckoning finger. Peter sighs and narrows his eyes.
“Do you have a list or something? Of ridiculous come-ons? Because you never seem to run out, but I never hear you repeat one—”
Neal grins, wide and dirty, and declares, “Oh, I can go all night long.”
“So that’s a yes, then.” Peter rolls his eyes. “Stop loitering on police property, and for God’s sake, pull your pants up.”
“Oh – sorry, Officer. I didn’t realize I was distracting you,” Neal says, smirking – he doesn’t pull up his jeans, of course, but he at least stops dragging them down, and he and Peter trade places; Peter leaning against the car, Neal bouncing on his toes just on the edge of Peter’s personal space.
“Seriously, though – a car. You’re moving up in the world.”
“It’s not mine. I’m on car-sitting duty,” Peter explains.
“Ouch,” Neal laughs. “Bo-ring.”
“Yeah, the glamorous life of a beat cop,” Peter says, with a rueful smile.
“Well, at least you have me to entertain you.”
Peter raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, thank god for that.”
Neal huffs. “I can go, you know,” he tells Peter, frosty as a snubbed society lady, and Peter shakes his head before he can even think about it, saying, “No, no, don’t go.”
“I knew it,” Neal announces, looking pleased with himself. “I knew it.” He lifts his arms in the air and starts a little twirling dance, making some kind of hilarious raise-the-roof gesture that makes Peter laugh so hard he’s bent double against the hood of the car.
“Shit!” Neal suddenly dives for the ground – Peter runs up to him, worried. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just – dropped something,” Neal says, stuffing whatever it was in the back of his jeans. Peter gets a glimpse of it.
“Oh, your… book, or whatever.” Peter’s seen Neal with the spiral-bound book a couple of times before – curious, he bends down and tugs it out. Neal snatches it back, glaring, and they have a little tug of war before Neal successfully pries it back out of Peter’s hands and shoves it back in his waistband, pulling his t-shirt down over it and narrowing his eyes at Peter balefully.
Peter grins. “This is a nice change – me getting under your skin for once.”
A slow smile spreads across Neal’s face – he sets a hand deliberately on the front of Peter’s thigh, and Peter is suddenly very aware that Neal is on his knees in front of Peter, looking up through long eyelashes with a wicked, incendiary smirk.
“Under my skin, huh?” he murmurs, voice low and rough – his eyes are magnetic, flame-blue, and the knees of his jeans are damp and gritty.
“Up,” Peter replies, rolling his eyes and grabbing the back of Neal’s shirt, pulling him upright like picking up a puppy by the scruff of its neck.
Neal whines like a puppy, too, when Peter deposits him summarily on his feet. “I liked it down there,” he complains, shooting Peter a sly look.
“You’re incorrigible,” Peter informs him.
“What does that word actually mean?” Neal frowns inquisitively. “Like, where does it come from? How do you ‘corrige’ somebody?”
“If anybody could figure it out, it would be you,” Peter mutters.
“Oh, Officer,” Neal coos, batting his eyelashes ridiculously, “you say just the sweetest things.”
Peter cracks up, and Neal joins him. His laughter is like birdsong, like his eyes – bright and clear.
“Burke!” A voice breaks through the laughter, and Neal startles. Before Peter can say anything, the kid fades away into the shadow of a nearby fire escape. It’s Robinson and the detectives – they’ve got a suspect with them, and Peter resigns himself to walking back to the station. As soon as the car is gone, Peter looks around for Neal – probably he vanished the minute Robinson showed up, but he gives it the old college try anyway. When Neal is nowhere to be seen, Peter turns to head for the station.
“I want you to know,” Neal’s voice says from over his shoulder (of course he couldn’t come out when Peter was actually looking for him – that would be too easy, Peter thinks, heaving a mental sigh), “that I absolutely hate wasting time. And so while I was waiting for your friends to leave, I spent the time pondering the very important question of what you might do to ‘corrige’ somebody, and I came up with some really inspiring possibilities.”
Peter stops and turns, an expression of disapproval already fixed on his face, and nearly chokes at Neal’s own expression, glowing dramatically in the light of the streetlamp. It’s more than a little disturbing how easily Neal can put on an air of sheer angelic innocence – how quickly his eyes go wide and earnest, and how even Peter, who knows fifty kinds of better by now, is almost sucked in for a half-second. “Don’t list them for me,” he says preemptively – still wearing his painted-saint look, Neal pulls in a breath through his artistically parted lips, and Peter braces himself—
“Now will you tell me your name?” Neal asks, grinning, sidling into Peter’s space like always. “Because I can go on, I really can, but I wanted to give you this opportunity to—”
“You never give up, do you?” Peter shakes his head, half-admiring, half-amused – he detaches Neal from his side with practiced ease and laughs at Neal’s betrayed pout.
“Hey, there are a lot of people in the world who would kill for this kind of devoted attention,” protests Neal, hovering at the edge of Peter’s radius, arms hanging gangly at his sides.
“Yeah, well, there are a lot of weirdos in the world,” Peter mutters.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Neal replies, and the cynical tone in his voice brings Peter up short, reminds him…
“I guess not,” Peter says gently.
“I mean, I could tell you stories…” Neal recovers, pulling his shiny plastic smile back on – Peter shakes his head and says with feeling, “Please don’t.”
Neal laughs. “You’re so negative, Officer Burke – you’re always ‘Don’t do this,’ ‘Don’t do that,’ don’t, don’t, don’t…” He shakes his finger at Peter with every “don’t,” and it turns into a chant, Neal dancing in little circles around Peter, singing “don’t, don’t, don’t,” with great glee while Peter tries to be offended and just ends up laughing.
“That’s me. Just call me Officer Don’t.”
“I will now. You wait and see.” Neal’s attempt at a threatening tone of voice is ruined by the big grin stretching across his face. “Until you tell me your real name, it’s Officer Don’t from now on.”
Peter rolls his eyes. “So, forever, then.”
“You’ll tell me eventually,” Neal says confidently, and Peter cocks his head to one side, curious in spite of himself.
“And what makes you say that?”
Neal winks. “I’m very persuasive.”
And, of course, he’s in Peter’s space again.
“Good night, Neal,” Peter recites, shaking his head and detaching Neal yet again. Neal grumbles but lets himself be detached.
“Leaving so soon?”
“Believe it or not, I do other things at night besides spoil your fun.”
Neal raises an eyebrow. “Oh, do tell.”
Neal wrinkles his nose. “Just work things?”
“I’m leaving,” Peter declares in a loud voice.
“Good night, trouble,” Peter says—fond in spite of himself—he doesn’t wait around to see Neal’s pleased smile follow him out of the alley, but he knows it’s there anyway.
Usually, Neal sees Peter long before Peter sees Neal, so it gives Peter a bit of a kick to ask, “What are you wearing?” and see Neal whirl around, eyes wide. When he sees that it’s Peter, he grins, and reaches a hand up to the brim of his hat .
“It’s a hat,” he says, unnecessarily, grin growing crooked and sweet. “Do you like it?”
The orange chemical light of the streetlamp strokes Neal’s face – his blue eyes look up at Peter from under the brim of his hat, an old-fashioned grey felt fedora like you might wear with a bespoke suit, and it takes Peter’s fucking breath away.
The hat turns Neal’s face into one of those optical illusions where, depending on how you look at it, you can see the young woman or the old woman; all at once, Peter can see the man Neal will grow up to be, the way he’ll grow into those sharp cheekbones and God, Peter thinks, he’ll be a heartbreaker. At the same time, Peter can’t help but see what a boy Neal is, the hat just slightly too big for him and falling over his eyes, a kid playing dress-up in his older brother’s clothes.
Some of this must show on Peter’s face, because Neal’s ink-smear brows draw down slightly, and he asks, “What?”
“That hat is ridiculous,” Peter says, and Neal’s face clears, a blue sky at midnight.
“Now, now, Officer,” he teases, looking up again from under the hat brim – it’s killing Peter. “Not everyone can be as stylish as I am.”
“Thank God for that,” mutters Peter – Neal leans in and perches his elbow on Peter’s shoulder.
“I do have excellent taste,” he says.
“In hats, in men…” Neal offers, with a breezy wink.
In a low voice, Peter says, “And the guy who gave you this? You pick him out with your ‘excellent taste?’” He reaches up to trace his thumb over the warm, pink curve of the black eye hiding in the shadow of Neal’s hat brim.
Like the quick outward snap of a bird’s wing, Neal’s hand is flying up, trapping Peter’s hand against his cheek, a charade of a caress. Peter starts to pull away, but Neal’s surprisingly strong, and Peter can feel the creases of Neal’s smile against his palm as Neal laughs at him and clings onto his hand for the thirty seconds it takes Peter to realize that he’s got six years and fifty pounds at least on this kid, and it’s his own damn hand anyway, thank you very much.
“You kidnapped my hand,” he huffs, shaking it out theatrically like Neal’s long, slender pickpocket’s fingers had somehow crushed his own, sturdy ones.
Neal’s eyes sparkle with amusement. “You touched my face,” he points out.
“I touched your bruise.”
“Which was on my face.”
Which is, all right, true, but totally not the point – Peter glares and accepts it in good grace when Neal turns his head into the curve of his shoulder and laughs.
“Yeah, yeah, kid, yuk it up,” Peter grouses.
“I’m touched, Peter—literally,” Neal says, putting on a wide-eyed, solemn face.
“No,” Peter says, quietly—because the angle of Neal’s head has exposed the bruise again, and it’s a whopper: ugly purple and green and mottled around the edges. It makes Peter’s eye hurt just looking at it. He knows better than to reach out, this time, but he keeps his gaze steady when he says, “Neal, that’s not touched, that’s—”
“That’s not funny, Neal.”
Neal sighs theatrically. “And again with you not thinking my jokes are funny. Why is that?”
“Because this isn’t a joke, Neal,” Peter snaps, frustrated. He prods Neal in the forehead until Neal’s spotlighted in orange streetlight glow, and—sure enough, the black eye’s just the easiest to spot. With better light, Peter can pick out other dark shadows on Neal’s bare skin – a splotch of stippled eggplant purple on his upper arm, and—Peter’s stomach drops when he sees it—a dark, wide band around Neal’s throat, faded but unmistakable.
“Jesus,” he breathes, and reaches out a shaking hand – he catches himself a second before his fingers make contact with Neal’s bare neck, but Neal flinches anyway. “Jesus,” Peter repeats, louder, feeling a low, hot anger start to bubble in his gut. “What the hell is worth this? Tell me, Neal,” he demands, harsh enough that Neal takes a step back, eyes wide. “You could be killed—”
“I had it under control,” Neal says, voice thin and words fast enough that they can both tell it’s a lie.
“Unbelievable.” Peter shakes his head until he can’t tell if it’s Neal’s bruises or the vertigo that are making him feel like he’s going to vomit.
“Officer…” Neal tries, pleading, holding out a tentative hand.
“Do you even care?” Peter asks, over the buzzing in his ears. “Whether you get killed out here? Is this some kind of—”
“Screw you, yeah, I care,” Neal says, chest heaving. His eyes are narrowed, and the line of his back is defensive, sharp. “You don’t know the first thing about me, I have people depending on me, okay—”
That doesn’t make a damn bit of sense to Peter until he remembers—“Those kids I see you around with sometimes?”
“That’s right—” Neal snarls.
“What, your little hookers-in-training—”
Neal stumbles back, breath rattling in his throat, and Peter wishes to God he could stuff his hasty words back down his gullet, but before he can even draw air to apologize, Neal has turned on him, his back up like a kicked cat’s.
“Screw. You.” Neal’s voice is savage, raw. “I’m the only one who tricks,” he spits. “Is that what you think – that I’d let them do this? That I’d let guys—”
“But it’s okay for it to happen to you,” Peter says, flat as pavement.
“They’re just kids—” Neal replies, voice cracking.
“You’re just a kid—”
And God, he is, Peter thinks painfully – Neal looks so small like this, cornered and bruised. He sounds desperate when he says, “They’re little kids, they’re—they shouldn’t have to—I’m the oldest. I take care of them. I know what I’m doing.”
“And do they? Do they know what you do?”
“I don’t bring it home, if that’s what you’re asking,” Neal says tightly. “If you’re asking, do they know that I trick, then yeah, they do. I don’t try to hide it from them. They’re not stupid.”
“And what do they think about that?” Peter’s genuinely having trouble wrapping his head around it. He doesn’t mean it as a dig, but from the way Neal glares at him, that’s how it came out.
“What do they think?” A terrible tiredness comes over Neal’s face, and his voice is low when he continues. “They think they have warm, mostly clean clothes to wear. They think they have almost enough food to eat, and a safe place to sleep. They don’t judge me, or treat me like I’m a piece of shit because of how I make all that happen – that’s just you, Officer,” he finishes bitterly. It’s meant to sting, and it does.
“Neal, I don’t—” Peter stops to collect himself, then tries again, more calmly. “I don’t think less of you for what you do, Neal. I don’t like it. I hate it,” he admits. “But not because I think—it’s because it’s hurting you, Neal, you’ve gotta see that.”
“Yeah, well,” Neal shrugs, avoiding eye contact with Peter. “Life hurts.”
“Yes,” Peter concedes, then adds quietly, “but sixteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to know that yet.”
Neal steps closer to Peter, just a little, and he studies Peter’s face without trying to be surreptitious about it – Peter tries to wear his sincerity where Neal can read it. It’s impossible for Peter not to study Neal right back; impossible for his gaze not to catch on the bruise hiding in the shadow of the brim of that ridiculous hat; impossible for the sight of it not to punch through Peter’s sternum like a nail through drywall. Hesitantly, Neal’s body language opens up again, like a flower, and he comes closer to Peter – close enough that, normally, Peter would push him back. This time, Peter doesn’t even think about pushing him away.
“Well… I’ve always been precocious,” says Neal, summoning up a watered-down version of his usual grin.
“That’s one word for it,” Peter mutters. Neal cracks a tentative smile, and Peter feels something in his chest unknot.
As a peace offering, he says, “Tell me about them. Your kids.”
Neal chews on his bottom lip. “I don’t know what you want to know. They’re runaways.”
“Yeah. We stick together. We all have to stick together, out here. Stupid not to.” He shrugs. “I mean, some people are stupid. But—Miranda and June, and Tana – that’s them. Um—my kids. And the others, like Terry and Kim—they understand.”
And Peter hears what Neal doesn’t say: that for all his good intentions, Peter never will, not really. Peter’s childhood wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, sure – his dad died when he was eight, and Peter’d somehow gotten it in his head that that meant he was the man of the house. Every time Mom put back some pretty scarf in a store and said, “Too showy for me, Pete,” Peter knew it was really because they couldn’t afford to do more than pay the bills (and sometimes not even that), even with Paula’s babysitting and his own paper routes and lawn-mowing. He’d felt like his dad was looking down at him from heaven and was… disappointed. But Peter never doubted for one second – not one – that he was loved.
Somewhere in Neal’s past is a slow drip of poison that nursed him on the thought that this life – this mindblowingly cruel, shitty life – is somehow something that he deserves. Peter will probably never be able to put a name or a face on that poison, but it wouldn’t really matter if he could – he still wouldn’t understand. He’d still be standing on the outside of the hall of mirrors, reaching in.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” Peter says, and feels bad that it took him this long to say it.
Neal’s eyebrows lift a little, and then a sardonic blankness falls across his face. “I’m not your girlfriend, Officer Burke. You don’t have to make nice with me.”
“It’s not ‘being nice.’ I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I don’t have the right,” Peter admits, and it costs him something to say it – Neal seems to see that, because his face softens. He says, “Believe me, I hear worse – get called worse.”
“Well, you shouldn’t.”
“Well, I do.”
“Well, not by me,” Peter says stubbornly. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he repeats. “And I said some things—some things I shouldn’t have said, and I—”
Neal shakes his head. “Seriously. You don’t have to apologize. I’m not—I’m not that easy to bruise,” Neal says, then catches himself, remembering – his eyes go wide, and his hand rises almost to his throat before he yanks it down, his face broadcasting oh, shit loudly enough that Peter swallows down his own reply. There’s nothing he was going to say that Neal hasn’t thought of, anyway. “I—I should go,” Neal stammers, and Peter doesn’t know what it means that, for once, Neal is the one walking away, and Peter’s the one being left behind.
“Okay, Neal,” he says, as gently as he can, and because he can’t help himself, “Stay safe. Please.”
“Sure,” Neal murmurs, and he doesn’t meet Peter’s eyes again. He just backs away, gaze down, until the hungry alleys swallow him up and the sound of his footsteps and the white smudge of his t-shirt, distant, could just be Peter’s imagination. For the first time, Peter can’t stop the thought—I might never see him again. And I would never even know for sure why—from creeping into the back of his mind. It stays there until his head hits the pillow in the morning, and his dreams are grey and heavy, like concrete, or hovering rain.
It’s depressing how familiar the sound of flesh striking flesh has become to Peter since taking this job – he runs toward it, picking up speed when he hears a cry of pain. He rounds the corner into the alley just in time to see a thin man in a blue button-down shirt backhand Neal across the face, hard enough to put Neal on the ground.
Both Neal and the other man look up sharply at the sound of Peter’s footsteps. When Neal sees Peter there, Peter expects him to look relieved. Instead, he’s battered by the flash of naked, miserable shame that crosses Neal’s face before he looks down quickly, hiding his expression.
“Do we have a problem here?” Peter says dangerously. No one moves.
“I said, do we have a problem here?”
“No, Officer,” Neal mumbles, “no problem.”
“That’s funny – because it kind of sounded like there was a problem.”
The tall guy is trying to blend into the brick wall, and Neal still won’t look at Peter. Peter gets right up in the guy’s face, and says, “I don’t think I’m making myself clear, asshole. If you’re not out of my sight in five seconds or less, we are going to have. A fucking. Problem.”
The guy hightails it out of there. Neal is still on the ground. He still won’t look at Peter.
“Sorry,” he says, so softly Peter can barely make it out.
“Did you just apologize?” Peter asks, bewildered.
“I—” Neal falls silent. Slowly, he brings a hand up to his face.
“Okay, that’s it,” Peter decides. He grabs Neal by the arm and starts dragging him.
“What are you doing?”
Peter says, “I’m bringing you in on suspicion of solicitation.”
Neal gapes at him, mouth hanging open unattractively. “Oh, come on! You’re kidding me, right?”
“Officer—! No way, no way—”
“Yes way,” Peter says grimly. He can tell Neal believes him when he starts trying to jerk his wrist out of Peter’s grasp. He’s wiry for his age, and motivated, too, but Peter is not in the goddamn mood, and he tightens his grip carefully but surely until Neal gives one last, petulant yank and gives up, glaring.
“This sucks! You can’t do this!” Neal sputters.
Peter raises an eyebrow and keeps tugging Neal along steadily behind him. “Oh, I really can.”
Neal digs in his heels, and when Peter turns his head to look back at him, Neal’s glare is pointed enough to jab right through Peter’s already-frayed calm.
“I know,” Peter bites off, “every night, that you get treated like crap by these guys, but I don’t usually have to imagine it so goddamn vividly, all right? For the rest of tonight – for the rest of this one night – you’re not getting knocked around by any more assholes in leather shoes.”
Neal snorts, giving Peter a jaded look. “No, I get to get knocked around by assholes in police badges, instead.”
“Neal—.” Peter sighs. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
Neal sulks – there’s no other word for it, and if Peter were a better man or a better cop, he would turn right around and march Neal to the station without another word, to hell with Neal’s opinion of the situation or his tender feelings.
Instead, Peter takes a deep breath and says, “Look, don’t think of this as being arrested – this of this as a golden opportunity to spend the next several hours sexually harassing me.”
Neal brightens. “When you put it like that…”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Peter mutters, rueful.
At the station, Peter manfully ignores Susan’s amused look as he takes Neal’s prints and enters Neal’s—doubtless fake—name and vital data into the system. As he expected, the only thing that pops up on the screen are Neal’s past priors for loitering and solicitation.
“Any chance I could get you to give me your real name?” Peter asks, resigned to the “no” he gets.
“It wouldn’t pull anything up anyway,” Neal elaborates.
“No one ever reported you missing?”
Neal shrugs, and doesn’t meet Peter’s eyes. “In order to be missing, you kind of have to be missed.”
When Peter was a kid, his whole world had been founded on the bedrock of his mom’s and his sister’s love – friends had come and gone, sure, but Peter had always known that if he’d been unaccounted for, even just for a day, his mother would have sent out a goddamn search party. He’d taken for granted the fact that he was precious to her – and it was a fact, the way “air is breathable” is a fact, and “the sun produces light” is a fact. He doesn’t know what to do with the casual, scabbed-over pain in Neal’s eyes, so old and at home there that it almost looks like a friend.
Neal’s watching Peter too steadily, and Peter doesn’t know how to meet that gaze any more now than he did two minutes ago, so he mutters something about paperwork and goes to hand some forms to Susan. While she flips through them, she says, fake-casual, “It’s a devil’s bargain, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I used to do that all the time – bring street kids in and hold ‘em overnight so they weren’t turning tricks. The good side is, they weren’t turning tricks – simple enough. The bad side is – they weren’t turning tricks. Meaning rent wasn’t getting paid, meaning food wasn’t getting bought – condoms, warm clothes. Your kid in there is falling behind, every minute he sits in lockup.”
“I know,” Peter says, and he does. It’s the only reason he doesn’t haul Neal in here every damn night. “But tonight I just had to. Anyway, he’s not my kid.”
Susan snorts. “He follows you around like a puppy dog – it’s kind of adorable.”
Peter mutters something unintelligible even to himself, and blushes.
It’s a slow night, so it’s not hard for Peter to find an empty cell to stash Neal in. There’s no guarantee it’ll stay empty, though. So when Neal says, eyes wide, “You should stay in here with me. Who knows what kind of dangerous characters might come in here and try and take advantage of me?”, Peter grumbles, “Yeah, right,” but he sits down on one of the other benches because the hell of it is – Neal’s not wrong.
Neal sprawls out across the bench, throwing his arms over his head. When he sees Peter’s watching him, he grins, “Like what you see?”
“Jesus, kid, I can see your ribs. You need to eat more.”
“Are you offering to feed me?” Neal licks his lips in a way that’s probably supposed to be provocative – Peter’s not impressed.
“The vending machines are right across the hall,” he says dryly, making as if to get up – Neal pouts and says quickly, “No, don’t—”
“That’s what I thought.” Peter settles back against the wall again. “Seriously, though, Neal – you look like a skeleton. Eat something now and then.”
“I eat plenty. Some nights, all I do is eat.” He smirks at the look on Peter’s face, then puts on a mock-tragic frown. “It’s so sad how you never think my jokes are funny.”
“Neal,” Peter says quietly. “This isn’t good. Not for you. Not for anybody.”
“And where do you think I should go instead?” Neal shoots back, eyes hard. “Back home?”
Peter suddenly feels old. He leans back against the concrete wall behind him and admits, “I don’t know. Given that the way you live right now is apparently still preferable to whatever was happening to you back there, I’m going to guess not.”
“You guess right,” Neal replies, soft but bitter.
“But there are shelters, programs—I still have the number of that social worker who does outreach at the precinct—” Peter tries – Neal cuts him off with a sharp look.
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”
“I know that,” Peter says. And he does.
“Then why keep trying to… save me?” asks Neal. he looks genuinely curious, like Peter is a peculiar relic of some bygone era or a quaint visitor from some backward country.
“Same reason you keep trying—pathetically—to flirt with me, probably,” Peter mutters.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” Neal says, smiling.
Neal shrugs on an air of casualness, and Peter leans back a little, narrowing his eyes. It fits him like everything else he wears: too tight, too adult. Trying too hard. “You could, you know, for real,” Neal says, his voice breezy, silky – but as long as Peter can see his eyes, Neal will never fool him. “You always could—can. On the house.”
This isn’t a joke, or a tease – not Neal’s usual virtuosic whirl of charm and filth. It’s a statement of fact, and Peter grimaces, because he can’t help but know it’s true.
“Yeah, I know all about the ‘cops get freebies’ rule – and it’s disgusting, by the way—”
Neal looks honestly surprised. “Oh. Yeah, that’s true, but – that’s not why. It’s—I like you,” Neal says, and he shrugs while he says it but the words come out soft.
“Yeah, right,” Peter says, snorting – he’s thinking of how he’s dragged Neal in here and locked him up on a working night, how Neal lashes out every time Peter can’t help seeing something bright and undented in him—but Neal takes it as a more general statement of disbelief, and he looks taken aback for a second, then wounded.
“I do.” Neal props himself up on his elbows, narrowing his eyes at Peter. “I can… like people. Just because I fake it with them doesn’t mean I don’t have—that everything is fake—what, you think I’m not a real person who can like things, who can feel real things anymore—”
“No, geez, Neal—that’s not what…” Peter stammers, upset – that’s so many hundreds of miles away from what Peter had been thinking, what Peter could ever think. Neal’s heartbreak has never been that he feels too little.
“That’s not what?” Neal prods. “What?”
“That’s not what I was thinking,” Peter tries to explain. “I was just thinking about how I—but then again,” Peter says ruefully, “you’re a major pain in my ass, and I like you, so I guess it’s not that hard to believe.”
Neal sits halfway up on his elbows, looking at Peter. “You like me?”
“God help me,” Peter says, letting the admission go – Neal’s eyes are bright and his smile stretches all the way across his face.
“God knows why.”
“You liiike me,” Neal sing-songs, but his voice is soft and thrilled under the teasing tone.
“Yeah, yeah,” Peter grumbles.
“You like me best,” Neal decides, and Peter laughs, asking, “Best of what?”
“Mmm, best of anything you want,” Neal purrs, stretching again, smile still Cheshire-wide. “You’ve got to admit there’s a lot to like.”
“I don’t have to admit any such thing—”
“Come on, Officer – I like you, you adore me—”
“Oh, it’s adore, now, is it—” Peter says, amused.
“—it’s late at night, we’re all alone…”
“In a cell,” Peter points out.
“You say that like it makes this situation less pornographic, not more.” Neal’s lips twitch. “That’s so cute. Or possibly kind of tragic. You really should let me widen your horizons. And when I say horizons, I mean—”
“Oh, God,” Peter moans.
“Pro bono publico. Out of the goodness of my heart. Come on, Officer Burke, what do you say?” Neal licks his lower lip slowly, so slowly, leaving it pink and shining – his eyes lock on to Peter’s and don’t let go. “I can tell,” he says, lower, intent, “You’ve never had anyone like me – never had it the way I could give it to you—”
“Neal, I’m a professional and a goddamn adult—” Peter starts, taking a breath to really get rolling, but—
“I know, I know.” Neal waves a hand in the air languidly, not even looking at it, eyes still on Peter. “Come on, Officer – you know it’s your fault for making it so much fun. I mean, the look on your face…” Neal trails off, smirking, and Peter rolls his eyes.
“You wouldn’t even know what to do if I ever actually said yes.”
“Oh, no.” The change comes back over Neal’s face and body so fast it’s like a streetlamp popping – his hips cant against the bench, his left arm dangles, long and pale, over the edge. He looks five years older and not even close to old enough. “Trust me,” he says, voice suddenly deadly serious. “I’d know exactly what to do. Best you’d ever had.”
“I don’t have people, Neal,” Peter says, frustrated at losing him to this angular, hard-eyed creature again – but the change doesn’t last long in this incarnation either. In the blink of an eye, Neal’s just a big-eyed kid again, lolling around on the bench, hand hanging casually an inch from the concrete floor.
“Never?” he says, painting shock across his face. “Officer Burke… are you a virgin?”
“What?” Peter sputters. “Neal, this is not an appropriate conversation—” Because all of the others have been totally appropriate, hah—
“It’s okay if you are, you know,” Neal says earnestly. “I can take care of that for you. I can be a good first time – I’ll make it nice for you, a nice first time—”
“Like yours was?” Peter counters, then wishes he could swallow the words again – Neal looks like Peter slapped him. Slowly, he pulls up the thin blanket and turns on his side, facing Peter but not making eye contact.
“Maybe it was,” he says, obviously trying for defiance, voice tremulous. “You don’t know. For all you know, it was—“ Whatever word would have come next dies in his throat. His hand clenches on the blanket, and he looks lost for a moment, in whatever memory Peter just shoved him back into. His eyes flicker back up to meet Peter’s, and he looks very grown-up, for just a minute. “It wasn’t,” he says, and Peter nods, aching, and says, “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Neal says quietly, but it is. Not Peter’s fault that someone, somewhere, took from Neal when they should have given, should have shared, but Peter’s fault for saying stupid things again, clumsy, hurtful things.
“I shouldn’t—” Peter tries, but Neal just shakes his head. He murmurs, “I don’t want to—it’s okay, but I just want to. Talk about something else. Something…”
Peter flexes his hands against the cold plastic of the bench underneath him, and nods carefully. “Sure, Neal. Okay.”
But Neal doesn’t say anything for a while. His eyes are open, so Peter doesn’t think he’s falling asleep, but Neal is quiet and still. Peter doesn’t see him like this very often; Neal is always in motion, Neal is motion, flitting and flickering and darting in too close or just out of reach. Eventually, Neal shakes his head and seems to snap out of it. He rolls to lie flat on his back, locking his fingers together across his stomach and smiling.
“What would it be like, with Officer Burke?” Neal muses, looking speculatively at the ceiling, a wicked smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Officer Burke is a fine, upstanding man.”
“Come on, Neal—”
“You can’t stop a man from dreaming!” Neal parries, gleeful – Peter huffs.
“You’re not a man.”
“I am so!”
“You realize the fact that you just said that proves my point, right?” Peter asks with irony. “You’re a boy – you’re a child—”
“Not in any way that matters,” says Neal, dark circles under his piercing eyes, and Peter can’t, can’t believe that’s true.
“In every way that matters,” he insists. Neal just sighs and looks back up at the ceiling.
“Boring. Where was I? Oh, yes, upstanding Officer Burke. You would take me home to your apartment—”
“I would do no such thing—”
“It wouldn’t be a very big apartment, because police officers don’t make much money, but it would be clean, and the bed would be all made. It wouldn’t be a very big bed – poor Officer Burke, he sleeps alone—”
“My girlfriend will be surprised to hear that,” Peter says, giving Neal a narrow-eyed look—he shouldn’t let it get to him, but it does, the way that Neal assumes he knows everything about Peter. At the sudden uncertain look on Neal’s face, Peter thinks, Serves him right.
“You—have a girlfriend?”
“No,” Peter admits, still irritated. “What, you’d care?”
The color slowly falls out of Neal’s face, and his lips part just barely enough for breath – Peter’s seen men stabbed who didn’t look this hurt.
“Neal,” his words stumble, “Neal, I’m sorry—”
Neal doesn’t look at him – doesn’t do anything but breathe slowly and ignore Peter as hard as he can for a long minute. Peter stays frozen and mute on the bench – he’s been too careless too many times tonight with Neal’s—with Neal. The least he can do is let Neal have his quiet for as long as he wants it.
Eventually, Neal says, “I tell myself it doesn’t bother me. I know—I know they’re married. I always know which ones are married. Some of them don’t even take off their wedding rings. I’m not—not the marriage police. If it wasn’t me, it would be one of the others: Terry, or Luke, or Kim, or anybody else out there, they’d find somebody—it’s nothing special about me, they’re just looking for a hole to fuck—”
“Neal…” Peter barely recognizes his own voice.
“They’d find somebody to cheat with. And anyway, married guys pay better. That’s—what I—what I tell myself—”
Neal breath is shuddering in and out of him like his fragile ribs are a ship about to be dashed to pieces in a storm – his eyes are dry, but so, so red, and so old, and so full of things that don’t belong there. Peter sits down on the corner of Neal’s bench, by his head, and tries to find the right apology for this. It doesn’t come, even when Neal turns his head to the side, just enough that a lock of his hair falls across Peter’s hand, and whispers, “I’d care.”
“I know you would,” Peter whispers back. “I shouldn’t have said that, that was a shitty thing to say—”
“If you were married,” Neal says, still not looking at Peter, still blinking his reddened eyes over and over. “If you were married, you—you wouldn’t cheat.”
“No,” Peter says softly. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“If you took me home,” Neal says, in the smallest voice, cheek flat against the hard bench and eyes looking nowhere, “you would—you would push me down on your not-very-big bed, and you would—you would be nice.”
“You wouldn’t call me names.” Neal’s chest is shaking now, and still he stares straight ahead, lost. “You would take my clothes off and—and put your hands on my bruises and be gentle with them—”
“Please, Neal, don’t—” Peter’s own eyes are hot and blurry, and his chest is a thousand times too tight.
“And after,” Neal says, one wet track trailing across the bridge of his nose, “You would—you would let me stay for a little bit. Just a little while. In the bed—you’d pull the covers up over me, and I’d be warm. Just for a few minutes.”
Peter can’t help the noise that comes out of his throat then – he puts a hand over his face, and somehow manages to choke out, “Neal, stop. You have to stop.”
“What?” Neal nudges himself up on his shoulder a little, and looks up at Peter, eyes unfocused. Two glistening lines cuts diagonally across his cheek. “Why? You’re not—not turned on—”
“By a starving sixteen-year-old’s heartbreakingly low expectations?” Peter finishes savagely, because the alternative is to say, I would give anything to make you want more than that from me—from anyone. I would give anything to stop you breaking my heart. “No, strangely, that’s not doing it for me.”
“I’m not starving,” says Neal, and, “Yeah, well, you’re not sixteen, either,” Peter guesses grimly; Neal looks away. He sets his head down on the bench again – his left temple is against Peter’s thumb now. Peter knows better than to think it’s an accident, but he doesn’t move his hand.
In a voice barely above a whisper, Neal asks, “Would it—would it be like that?”
And Peter is as gentle as he knows how when he answers, “It wouldn’t be like anything, Neal – because you’re a teenager and I’m a police officer and an adult, and I wouldn’t be taking you home to begin with. Or anywhere else. And I think you know that.”
“I know,” Neal says, and somehow that’s what makes the tears start to fall in earnest. “I can think about it, though. It doesn’t hurt anybody to think about it,” he tells Peter, shaky but defiant, and Peter can’t say anything to that.
“Get some sleep, Neal.”
“Will you stay with me? Just in case?”
“Yeah, Neal. I’ll stay.”
Neal wriggles around on the bench until he’s lying on his side facing the wall. Peter helps him spread the thin blanket over himself, and waits until Neal’s breathing slows and evens out to run a light hand over his hair – once, twice. Neal doesn’t wake up.
When Peter’s shift is up, he packs up the paperwork he’d been working on and shakes Neal’s shoulder. Neal squints up at him, bleary-eyed.
“Hey, I’m off,” Peter whispers. “You can go, if you want – or you can stay and sleep. I’ll lock the door behind me.”
“Sleep,” Neal mumbles, eyes sliding closed again already.
“Okay, Neal.” Peter tugs the blanket back up over Neal’s shoulders. He’ll have a quick word with Susan on the way out to make sure she keeps an eye on Neal. As he locks up, he gives Neal one last, long look. Curled up on the bench, head tucked into his neck and arms folded up close against his chest, he seems so incredibly small. One safe night, Peter thinks, out of how many? When he gets home, it takes Peter a long time to get to sleep.
(on to part two)