Written for the collarkink meme over on Livejournal.
It'd been two weeks, three days, and seven hours since he'd run coatless from his office. Two weeks to the day since he stood by a hole in the earth and watched them bury his future. Eight days since the last relative left him to a house filled with silence and memories. Three days since the sheets had stopped smelling like her shampoo. One day since Satchmo had stopped waiting at the door for his mistress to come home.
She had stopped by the office that evening to bring him a decent dinner since his team had been staying late tracking das Gespenst. He had kissed her goodbye and told her not to wait up. That was the last time her saw her. When he arrived at the hospital, all he saw was a dead body. The El he loved was gone; only the broken shell remained. "The spirit gone, man is garbage." He remembered her quoting that from one of her favorite books. He remembers the tone of her voice, and the conviction and sadness in her eyes as she read him the passage, but he can't remember the title. Such a small detail to forget, but so much more significant now that memory is all he has left.
It had been two weeks ago that he'd placed a single stargazer lily on her casket before they lowered it into the ground. They were her favorite, though he hadn't always known that. He remembered giving her a bouquet of tulips when they were dating, so proud that he had figured out her favorite flower without having to ask. She hadn't had the heart to tell him for weeks that the tulip centerpiece he had seen on her table was a sample for a client. She had always been understanding like that.
Everything after that moment is indistinct. He barely remembers standing by her grave until the last shovel was laid on top of her. He can hardly remember the chill biting through layers of somber cloth. But he does remember the warmth of a single hand on his shoulder, a solid weight that stayed with him until they were the only two left standing by the fresh-turned earth hours after everyone else had left. He remembers sending Neal home that night, refusing to look him in the eye or let him speak. He had heard empty platitudes all day, and that was fine. He could deal with that. But Neal could crack his defenses with a single look from those earnest, blue eyes. And Peter couldn't afford to break. Not now.
It's been two weeks, three days, and seven hours since he'd left the office, and now he has to go back and function like a man who hasn't just lost the center of his world. Hughes had told him to take as much time as he needed, but what he needed was something to occupy his time. Everything at the place he used to call home reminds him of her. He starts working later, coming in earlier. He doesn't eat. He's hardly slept. He cut himself off from everyone who cares about him. And he doesn't feel a thing.
"Caffrey, where are those notes on das Gespenst?"
"What notes, Peter? You write a lot of notes. You should really get a Blackberry or something."
"The notes I wrote down that night before…the notes with possible associates," he managed to say without flinching, a feat which Neal still cannot manage. He distantly recognized that he should be proud of himself for beating the conman at his own game.
"Ah, those notes," Neal said quickly. "You put them in your coat pocket."
"Good." Peter went to retrieve the coat he left behind that night from where it had lain forgotten, tossed in a corner where he wouldn't have to see it, wouldn't have to remember why it was still there. He pulled the papers out of his pocket and handed them out to Neal, Jones, and Lauren. "I want you to check up on all these people. I want to know where they went, who they talked to, and how much they've spent in the past three months. Check up on anyone who's had contact with the same people or been to the same places and anyone with suspicious activity in their accounts. If anyone's bought so much as the same brand of toothpaste, I want to know it."
Cruz stopped flipping through her stack as her eyes widened. "Boss…" she said quietly, not quite knowing how to continue.
"Problem, Agent Cruz?" Peter snapped. "The longer we wait the colder this trail gets."
"I know, sir, it's just…" she held out a piece of paper that didn't match the rest. It was slightly smaller, and the top of the sheet was cut to resemble the shape of a flower. Peter recognized that stationery. It was Elizabeth's, the kind she liked to slip into his jacket pockets or next to his sandwich just to let him know she loved him. She must have slipped it into his pocket before she left that night. Before the accident. Before she died.
He took the piece of paper with numb fingers, only vaguely aware of Neal shepherding the other agents out of the room. He felt Neal come to stand beside him as he read her note.
Catch this guy soon, Sweetie. Satchmo misses his daddy. We love you.
Peter didn't notice when he started shaking or when the tears started running down his face for the first time since that night. He didn't notice when his sobbing became so violent that he could no longer stand. He didn't notice when Neal shut the door and moved him behind the desk away from the ever-present windows so that no one but he would be witness to Peter's grief. All he could see was her smile and the heart at the end of the note and the ridiculous drawing of a paw print she insisted was Satchmo's signature. He had known, but hadn't truly realized until now. She was gone. She was gone and she could never come back.
When Peter came back to himself, he was on the floor behind his desk. Neal had him cradled in his arms and was rubbing slow circles on his back. Peter appreciated that he didn't try to say any words of comfort. He knew that it wasn't okay and he wouldn't be alright. Not for a while at least, and even then never the same. He lifted his head from where he had buried it in Neal's neck and sniffed. It was never pretty when he cried. He accepted the handkerchief Neal offered.
"I snotted on your suit," he heard himself say, dabbing Neal's shoulder with the handkerchief.
"Don't worry about it," Neal gave him a small smile as he helped him off the floor. "You feeling okay?"
"I really don't know."
"Yeah. Come on, let's get you home."
He let Neal lead him out of his office. As Neal walked down the stairs, he looked at Jones and sent a glance towards Hughes' office. Jones nodded to him that it was already taken care of. Neal never moved his hand from its position on Peter's back.
Neal was an excellent driver. Smooth acceleration, smooth stops. He didn't weave in and out of lanes, and he never yelled at another driver. It drove Peter crazy. He needed something to pull him out of his pain for a minute, any sort of shock to take him away from himself. But Neal remained quiet as he drove Peter home, opened his door, and let him inside, afraid that he might do something to make it worse but unwilling to let his partner suffer alone any longer. They sat in silence for a long while, Satchmo sitting at Neal's feet.
"You know you can't keep pushing us away."
"I'm not pushing anyone away."
"Yes you are. You didn't talk to anyone while you were away. I checked. And you haven't said more than two words not case-related to anyone since you've been back. And you yelled at Lauren. You never yell at Lauren. You only yell at me, which you also haven't done. Don't tell me you're not pushing us away!"
"And what if I am? Do you have any idea what this is like? Everywhere I go people give me these pitying looks like I can't see what they're doing. And then it's either 'let's avoid the subject of the dead woman' or 'if you need to talk, I'm here for you.' Why can't you all just back off and let me do my job!"
"Because we want to help you."
Peter jumped up from the couch with Neal following. "Great. You want to know what would help? What I really want? I just want to forget. I want to forget everything. I want to forget that night. I want to forget the phone call. I want to forget that desperate drive to the emergency room only to find her dead. I want to forget the hell that was the last few weeks. I want to forget the empty house and the fact that the recording on the answering machine is almost all I have left to remember her voice!"
"Peter, you can't just forget her –"
"And why not? It's my grief. Why should the way I deal with it matter to you at all?"
Neal grabbed his shoulders and forced Peter to look at him. "Because it just about killed me this afternoon to see you broken and know there's nothing I can do to fix it. We care about you, Peter!" he shouted. He continued more softly. "I care about you."
Peter didn't know who leaned in first. The kiss was chaste, just a soft touch of the lips, a simple reassuring contact. He felt Neal's hands tighten in his shirt as he leaned further into the kiss. Neal jolted out of the moment as Peter's hands came to rest in his hair. He quickly pulled back from Peter, flushed and flustered.
"Peter, this isn't –"
Peter cut him off. "Please. I just – I need –" he trailed off, unsure of what he was trying to say. He was on the verge of turning away and telling Neal to forget it when Neal spoke.
He stared at Neal. "Just like that?"
Neal smiled and stepped forward to cradle Peter's face in his hands. "Just like that." He leaned in to kiss Peter sweetly. Peter's body took over then, leaving his mind to try to catch up. They stumbled awkwardly up the stairs, neither willing to break contact. Neal noted but didn't comment when Peter steered them past the master bedroom, the bed where Elizabeth had slept, and continued to the guest room. As Peter shut the door he pulled Neal closer, seeking refuge in his mouth, a temporary escape in his body.
They maneuvered their way to the bed, Neal falling backwards onto it, blue eyes staring up at him. Elizabeth's eyes had been blue. No. He couldn't think about that. Those memories were not allowed here. The preparation was clumsy. He had never been with another man. That was good. The difference was less likely to remind him of all his times with El. He focused on that difference. Neal was lean muscle and sharp angles. He could feel the stubble on Neal's cheek rub against his skin as Neal kissed his way from mouth to collar bone. El had been all soft skin and curves. Stop! He had to focus on Neal. Neal was solid. He could hold Neal. El was just a memory, and he couldn't hold a memory.
The sex wasn't slow or gentle. Peter thrust hard, desperately trying to lose himself in Neal's body. Neal gave him everything he couldn't bring himself to ask for, softly kissing his face and running light fingers comfortingly over his arms, his back, his face. Neal stroked his hair as Peter sobbed his climax into his mouth. Neal kissed his eyelids as he cried himself out for the second time that day. And Neal held him as he fell asleep, painting pictures only he could see as he trailed his fingers over his partner's back.
The next morning Peter awoke in a bed that was not his own. He took a few moments to orient himself. He was in bed in his guest bedroom, and he was alone, though someone had carefully tucked the blankets around his sleeping form. On his bedside table was a small origami heart with the words "open me" printed on the outside. On the inside he found a letter from Neal.
Much as I would like to stay, I know you can't deal with the aftermath right now. And before you start blaming yourself you should know you have nothing to feel guilty about, either about Elizabeth or me. You feel like you've cheated on her memory (yes, I do know that because I know you). But I also knew Elizabeth. She was the strongest, most loving, most accepting woman I've ever met.
Peter saw a hastily blotted spot on the paper where Neal must have cried. He had forgotten how his wife's death must have affected the other people around her. Elizabeth had accepted Neal into their lives with open arms despite his criminal record, and Neal had adored her.
She wouldn't want you to stop living your life, and she certainly wouldn't begrudge the man she loved a small moment of comfort.
As for me, I would do anything for you. Elizabeth was not the only person in this world with a deep, abiding love for you. You are my partner. Just know that you don't have to be alone. And if and when you ever feel you're ready, I'm here. I'm always here for you.
Peter wasn't ready, not nearly so, and he didn't know when he would be. But he did know that one day he and his partner would explore every connotation of that word. For now, he simply gave a watery laugh as he read the rest of Neal's letter.
Next time you have to buy me dinner first.
In case you were wondering, the book quote is from Catch-22, one of my all-time favorites. Go read it.