A Closer Eye, Part Five

by J. Rosemary Moss

~oOo~

Neal gave Satchmo a sympathetic grin as the dog padded into his room and jumped up on the bed beside him. Poor guy had been sitting outside Peter and Elizabeth's room for at least half an hour, locked out.

"I know how you feel," Neal said as he stroked the dog's head. "Peter owns me too--but I'm not allowed in his room either."

Satchmo gave him a mournful look.

"Or his bed," Neal added with a mischievous smile, remembering Peter's face when Neal had assured him that they didn't have to have an affair.

Satchmo yawned and settled down.

"That's just as well, right?" Neal continued. "If I fell too far into the 'other spouse' role, things would get . . . complicated. I don't know about El, but I don't think Peter can handle that kind of complication."

He paused, considering, and then smiled again. "To be honest, I'm not sure I can handle that kind of complication," he confided. "Besides, I have to think about Kate."

Satchmo nudged him, but otherwise declined to give his opinion.

Neal sighed, but then managed another smile. "I'll still have to flirt with him at every opportunity," he said. "And I'll have to keep needling him. He needs me to test his limits--I can't have him getting too comfortable."

Satchmo yawned and shut his eyes.

"Yeah, you're right," Neal said. "I'm too tired to think this through tonight. It's just that--I want to stay, Satch. Not all the time; I like my place at June's. But it's not my home. I want a home to crash in. You know, someplace where they have to take me in."

"I think you found that."

That wasn't Satchmo answering. Neal's grin deepened as he looked up at Peter, who was standing in the doorway, just visible from the lamplight in Neal's room. He was in a ratty pair of sweats and a t-shirt. If Neal hadn't known how clueless the man was about his appearance, he would have been flattered that Peter felt comfortable enough to allow Neal to see him in such a state.

"I knew you were there," Neal said as his smile grew smug.

Peter raised his eyebrows. "Is that why you left your door open? You wanted me to overhear?"

"That and I don't have the heart to lock Satchmo out." Neal paused to shake his head in mock dismay. "You're a cruel master."

Peter smiled, but didn't take the bait. Instead he crossed over to the bed and sat on the foot of it. Satchmo let out a happy squeal and promptly turned around so he could put his head in Peter's lap.

Neal frowned at the way the dog ruthlessly abandoned him. "Traitor. And Peter doesn't even let you share his bed. I'm the one who puts up with your dog-breath."

"I'm the one who feeds him," Peter pointed out.

"You feed me while I'm here--can I put my head in your lap? You can pet me too."

That got a reaction. Peter actually reddened, eliciting a triumphant grin on Neal's part.

"Looks like I found the limits of your comfort zone," he gloated.

"Yeah," Peter admitted.

"And that was surprisingly tame. But don't feel bad. You were a good sport about the dance."

"You were a gorgeous partner," Peter shot back.

Neal laughed appreciatively. "Your armor is back in place," he said as he saluted the agent, "but I'll find a way to pierce it again."

"Do me a favor and don't try too hard."

Neal shook his head. "No promises." Then he paused as his face grew serious. "So you don't mind me crashing here from time to time?"

"El and I would love the company from time to time--but don't do anything to hurt her."

He raised his eyebrows at that. "Peter, I'm crazy about Elizabeth. I wouldn't--"

"If I have to throw your ass back in prison, she'll be devastated." He paused for a moment. "I won't be too happy either."

Neal looked away. "You still don't trust me not to break my probation."

Peter sighed. "Let's just say I don't trust your romantic gestures."

Neal turned back to him and stared at him. "I see," he said at length. "Can I ask you something?"

Peter nodded.

"I'm not planning to run," he explained, trying to keep his voice even. "I don't want to break my probation. But if something went wrong--anything--and I ended up back in prison, would you . . . I mean, would I ever see you two again?"

"Yes," Peter answered--and there was no hesitation in his voice. "You'd see us as often as I could arrange it, and El would be sending you care packages at every opportunity. But it'd be like having a son or a little brother behind bars . . . or a spouse."

The agent paused and shook his head. "Don't screw up, Neal. If you go back inside, you won't be the only one hurt."

Neal stared at him for another long moment, unsure how to respond. In the end he just nodded.

That seemed to satisfy Peter. He stood up and turned off the bedroom light, as if Neal was a kid he had just tucked in. Then he walked back to the door. "Night, Neal."

"Wait--am I still grounded?"

"Yes."

Neal grinned as he heard him walking back to his own room. Satchmo got up to follow him, but soon returned. Peter must have locked him out again.

"Tough luck, Satch," Neal said as the dog jumped up beside him. "But don't feel bad. Usually I just have to put up with his lectures at work. Now he puts me to bed with one."

The dog nudged his face under Neal's hand.

"You're right," Neal said, obliging him by scratching behind his ears. "He's entitled. And I don't really mind. It's the price of being home, I guess."

The dog didn't say anything. Presumably that meant he agreed.

Neal closed his eyes and nestled under his covers as Satchmo settled down at his side. He was soon asleep. As if out of habit, he dreamed about ways to scam the insurance company and launder his housing allowance to Peter.

~The End~