Warnings: child homelessness, allusions to past child abuse.
Neal didn’t like to admit to being outsmarted, but there were times when he knew he’d missed someone else’s maneuver until it was too late. No matter how hard he tried, paying attention to everything all the time had proven humanly impossible. That being said, he damn well should have noticed when El and Peter started cajoling Brendon, Spencer and Gee to stay more and more nights in their house, rather than the gallery. Ryan and Mikey were foregone conclusions if the other three went, but the other three were—as much as he hated to admit it—easier marks. Despite all of Neal’s best attempts, they still had the annoying ability to trust.
Which was how, before he was even sure how it had happened, Bob was saying, “Maybe we oughtta consider, y’know, giving the Burkes a break on having to heat a house and a business twenty-four seven.”
Neal could see where that was only logical. The less problematic he and his were, the longer they would likely have somewhere warm to hold out through the last of the winter, and somewhere where meals were dependable. Neal had heard Gee laughing the other day, full-bellied and purely amused. Ryan could be charmed into saying more than two sentences a day, currently. Even Eliot had begun not always keeping his hands in fists. Neal knew they all needed this.
There was a conundrum to the decision, however, because regardless of how much the Burkes saved on utilities, having a bunch of kids overrun what had no doubt been a quiet and comfy home before said kids’ appearance in their lives was hardly the route to not getting turned over to the system.
Parker dropped into the conversation—literally, Neal was pretty sure she’d found a way to climb into the rafters and get back down again—to say, “They have a big dog.”
Eliot crossed his hands over his chest at this news. Parker tilted her head and then said, “If they put you in a cage, I’ll blow their house up.”
Eliot blinked. Parker scampered off again, to who only knew where. Bob said, “At some point, we’re probably going to have to make a human out of her.”
Neal said, “One problem at a time.”
Bob said, “Then take your own advice. We’ll figure out the next step when we’re all in one place again.”
Neal looked at Eliot, who shrugged. Neal nodded. “Okay. Homebound we are.”
As Neal had suspected it would be, having all of them in one house was a tight fit. Ryan, Brendon and Spencer could all squeeze onto the double in the guest room, with Mikey and Gee bunking on an air mattress next to the bed. Parker and Eliot fit on opposite ends of the couch, and Bob was at home curling up on the armchair. Neal assured Elizabeth he was fine with a sleeping bag on the floor. He was, too. He’d slept far worse places for far less reason.
Mike kept trying to get him to trade off for the air mattress, but as much as Neal could generally go with the flow about things, separating Mikey and Gee, for any reason, made his skin tingle unpleasantly. Ryan offered the same for the bed at one point, but Neal well knew what happened if one of the three woke without the other two right next to him in the middle of the night, and that was a surefire way to get themselves kicked back into the system.
Eliot said, “I used to sleep in a cage,” and so, occasionally, Neal traded places with him, but not often because, well, as Neal pointed out, “Kinda means you deserve at least a couch, these days.”
Bob and he also traded a few times at first, but Bob had some kind of muscle or tendon or something problem in his wrists that acted up way more the colder it got, which meant nights after the floor, he could barely hold a cup of coffee in the morning. After a while, Neal just said, “I’m not feeding you your breakfast,” and refused to relinquish the floor.
Some mornings, he woke up, and Parker was on the floor with him, inside the damn sleeping bag. How she managed it was beyond Neal. He knew it wasn’t an offer to switch, though. If Neal got on the couch, she’d end up there. Whatever drove her to come to him, it had nothing to do with where he was.
By two weeks in, Neal had organized everyone into a functioning home-care crew in order to make Peter and Elizabeth’s lives infinitely easier, if more crowded. Ryan, Brendon and Spencer were in charge of keeping the house spotless, largely because Brendon could make almost anything fun, Spencer was good at it, and Ryan could reach practically anywhere between his skinniness and length. Mikey and Gee both knew the basics of their way around a kitchen, and Eliot proved interested in—and quick at—learning, so the three of them were in charge of grocery shopping and providing meals. He, Bob and Parker made sure the dog got walked, trash was put out, mail was brought in, dry-clean was taken and picked up, and any and all other sundry details they could possibly take off the Burkes to-do list.
Elizabeth picked up on the arrangement pretty quickly and pulled Neal aside to sit him down and say, “We didn’t do this for the sake of having house elves.”
Neal had considered several reactions. In the moment, he discarded them all for the noncommittal, “But Gee and Mikey both make such good house elf names.”
It had gotten her to laugh, but then she shook her head and said, “Neal.”
So he tried earnest and charming, “It’s our way of saying thank you.”
It wasn’t. It was their way of saying, keep us, but she didn’t need to know that. Either it would work or it wouldn’t. Asking not to be thrown away generally only meant trash day would come earlier in the week.
Elizabeth didn’t react correctly, though, going quiet and sad, which hadn’t been Neal’s intention in the least. He touched her hand. “Elizabeth?”
She dredged up a smile and told him, “Kids aren’t supposed to say thanks for having somewhere to sleep, Neal.”
Unsure of how to spin that, he shrugged and cajoled, “You saying you mind having the laundry done for you?”
She laughed a little, rolling her eyes, and although Neal was smart enough to know he wasn’t off the hook, he was desperate enough to hope she would forget, move onto bigger and better “adult” type things, and he and the others would get to stay if not because they were wanted, then because they were at least not too inconvenient.
On the nights when Peter came home frustrated over a lack of progress, or Elizabeth was upset over the loss of a sale, and Neal could easily see the potential for disaster if they had to trip over a kid or two, he packed the five who stayed in the bedroom up there, got Bob to stay in the utility room, where he wouldn’t be in the way—and where he could play with Satchmo to keep himself occupied—and made Eliot promise to keep Parker out of sight, however he managed that. Half the time, Neal honestly didn’t want to know what the two of them did.
Neal himself spent those nights in the nearest subway station, which was about a mile, but easily walkable and provided shelter. When it warmed up, he’d be able to stay closer, keep a better eye on things, but for the moment, this was the best he could do.
Those nights ate at him, the fear that something would happen while he wasn’t there, and they would lose each other was enough that often he walked back and hid as best he could behind the house until morning, when he sneaked back in, as though nothing had happened, praying a good night’s sleep was all that was needed for things to get back to as normal as they ever were.
Peter caught Neal sneaking out on one of those nights, which was sloppy, and Neal was infuriated at himself, but also aware Peter paid more attention than he seemed to, caught details other people missed. It was what made him a good researcher. Peter all-but dragged Neal back into the house and said, “Wanna explain why Bob is curled up in the utility room like a pet, you’re planning on spending the night outside in balmy twenty-three degree weather, I have no idea where Parker and Eliot are, and none of the kids upstairs have so much as come down for a snack?”
Neal almost said, “I don’t know where Eliot and Parker are, either,” as a way to keep things relatively honest and possibly distract Peter. In the end, though, he tried the simpler, and equally honest, “It seemed as if you and Mrs. Burke could use some space.”
Peter looked at Neal for a long moment, and Neal made himself stay still. Peter didn’t seem violent, per se, and he’d certainly never been so before, but Neal knew all too well that drawing attention with motion was a good way to spark that kind of thing. But Peter’s glare only softened in the face of Neal’s attempt to be invisible while standing right-the-hell-there. Finally, he said, “Space is nice, but neither of us needs it so badly that all of you need to pull a disappearing act for us.”
Neal smiled gamely. “Well, our treat, then.”
Peter frowned, but all he said was, “Find Eliot and Parker.”
“Sure,” Neal agreed. Nothing like asking for the impossible.
Neal, Gee, Bob and Eliot all helped out at the gallery from time to time. Bob and Eliot were both strong enough to help with the boxes that sometimes had to be moved, and other basics that gave Elizabeth more time for business details. Gee had a good eye for what paintings would work where, and what was really up and coming and what was just overhyped. Neal was good at math, at the bookkeeping end of things. One of the days they had all gone to help, leaving Mikey and Spencer in charge at the house, they returned to find Peter home surprisingly early, Parker and Brendon missing at first glance, and an impeccably dressed man at the dining room table with Peter.
The moment Elizabeth saw their guest she grinned. “Harvey. It’s been a while.”
The Harvey Person stood as Elizabeth moved in for a hug. He said, “You look fantastic, Elizabeth.”
Neal glanced at where Ryan, Spencer and Mikey were sitting on the couch, looking not particularly afraid, but not entirely sure of things, either. Neal mouthed, “Parker and Brendon?”
“Hide ‘n go seek,” Spencer mouthed back.
“You can stop gossiping about us behind our backs and join us at the table, if you’d prefer,” Elizabeth called out, having returned with bowls of fresh-popped popcorn and fruit.
It wasn’t that Neal didn’t trust Brendon, but they didn’t usually put Brendon in charge of Parker, because, honestly, she was wilier. Neal hesitated for a second. Eliot said, “I’ll find them.”
“Find his kid, too, then,” Mikey said softly, tilting his head toward Harvey. “Mike, tiny for an eight-year-old, sandy-blond hair.”
Eliot nodded, and slipped off. The rest of them made their way toward the chairs now set around the table. There weren’t enough in the dining room set, so it was a hodge podge mixture of furniture. Neal pretended not to feel like it was a metaphor.
They had just barely settled in with bowls for the snacks and glasses of water when Eliot reappeared with Parker and Brendon at his side, and a pint-sized kid on his shoulders. Said kid almost tumbled right off Eliot when he saw Elizabeth. Eliot caught him and put him on the ground so he could run to her, with a delighted, “Aunt El!”
Elizabeth caught him up and put him on her lap. “Hey kiddo. Wanna snack?”
Mike looked at Harvey, and Neal caught the extra dose of permission seeking that no normal kid granted their parent. Foster, then, probably. Maybe, given how well the kid knew Elizabeth, an actual adoption. Either way, it made Neal uncomfortable, the way having someone who wasn’t either Peter or Elizabeth, or at least Diana and Clinton, who knew about them, in the house did.
That discomfort ratcheted up about ten times when Peter said, “This is an old friend, Harvey Specter. We went to college together. Mostly, he’s a corporate lawyer, but he learned the city’s foster system the hard way.”
There was a story there, Neal knew, because Harvey Specter, with his suit that cost more than all the electronics in the Burke house put together, wasn’t the kind of guy who fostered a kid out of the goodness of his heart. What Harvey Specter was, though, Neal thought, watching Harvey watch Peter, was a guy who knew how to get what he wanted from situations.
Neal made himself pay attention. Elizabeth picked up where Peter had left off, saying, “We know that all of you have had bad experiences in the system.”
Beside him, Neal could feel Gee tightening his grip on Mikey. Elizabeth took a breath. “But if we could take you on officially as fosters, we could get you back into school, make sure you were safe, legally.”
There was a moment of silence before Peter asked, “Will you let us? Or are you going to run if we try?”
Neal watched as Ryan, Spencer and Brendon huddled in on themselves, not talking, but communicating all the same. Gee and Mikey just clutched at each other. Eliot tried for invisibility, while Parker looked furious but also, sad. Bob was watching Neal. Neal held his gaze for a moment and then focused on Harvey. “Did you forget to mention that the state will never allow it?”
Harvey smiled thoughtfully. “I pointed out they’d need a bigger place for the state to even consider it.”
Neal read into the statement. Harvey had tried to do a hell of a lot more dissuading than just that piece. Peter and Elizabeth, then, had been thinking this over for a while, had made this decision at some point, and Neal had missed it entirely.
Parker spoke up, her scowl now directed at Harvey. “They ain’t gonna get a new house for a bunch of runaway kids, so why’re you even asking?”
“Aren’t,” Gee said gently. Eliot, on the other hand, edged in front of Parker. It was almost subtle.
“Why not, Parker?” Elizabeth asked, the question genuine, the way she always was with Parker. It made Neal’s chest hurt.
“Duh,” Parker said. “Nobody likes kids like us ‘cept kids like us.”
Something darkened in Harvey’s eyes as Elizabeth blinked hers. In the end, though, it was Peter who said to Harvey, “Know any good real estate agents?”
Neal made himself breathe. Maybe the adults didn’t like hearing it, but Parker was right, and every kid in the room—with the possible exception of Mike—knew it. One problem at a time, he told himself.
Neal figured—and Bob and Gee agreed—that the first issue to be taken care of was figuring out a way to keep Eliot safe, since fuck only knew what would happen if they tried to register him with the state. Parker wasn’t going to be separated from Eliot, so they would have to go together. Neal was pretty sure the state would let the Burkes keep five kids, possibly even six, so if he just found something for himself and maybe Bob, the other five would be safe, if not his anymore. Neal didn’t let himself think about that last, pissed at himself for even beginning to believe there was some universe in which he got to keep Gee and Bob and his stupid, makeshift family.
Once he’d scouted a place that would keep Eliot, Parker and himself out of the worst of the winter’s excesses and give them access to a number of active dumpsters, Neal worked on saying goodbye to the others without having them realize what he was doing. Other than Gee and Bob, none of them knew about the plan to leave, and to keep Eliot safe, Neal had declined to tell Gee and Bob where they were going. The last thing Neal needed, though, was Mikey ruining Gee’s and his chance at actually going back to school, Ryan, Spencer and Brendon missing the opportunity to be safe and taken care of. In the end, both Neal and Bob agreed that Bob needed to stay and take care of the others for as long as he could. Neal promised to check in from time to time to make sure Bob didn’t need somewhere to go.
Neal spent days drawing with Gee, letting Gee keep Neal’s drawings. He curled up and read with Ryan, danced to the radio with Brendon, played in the snow with Satchmo and Spencer. He watched cartoons with Mikey, and strange sports with Bob.
Neal took Eliot and Parker and slipped away after Peter and Elizabeth’s second house-shopping expedition, when they came home dispirited and tired. The three of them stayed until the house was asleep, and then put to use skills that had gotten a little rusty, but were too deeply ingrained by this point to disappear in a few months of easy living.
A couple of miles out, Eliot scooped Parker up and they kept going, going and going until they arrived at the spot Neal had found. Safely inside, Eliot smiled tightly, and made a bed spot for himself and Parker. Neal found a responding smile for him, did his best to make his own corner comfortable, and settled down to sleep.
Being out in the cold night after day after night was harder than Neal remembered it being, but he figured he wouldn’t notice once he got used to it again. Parker talked about missing the others, but didn’t complain about the accommodations, and Eliot didn’t talk much at all. Between Parker and Neal, they brought Eliot up to speed on the ways they’d taken care of themselves before the Burkes, since he’d been too sick and disoriented to help much back then.
Neal stole himself a pack of chalk and drew on the walls, the floors, anything to make their hidey-hole feel a little less gloomy. It wasn’t what Gee could have done, but Eliot seemed to like it, so Neal considered it a job well accomplished.
Eliot taught Neal and Parker the basics of defending themselves, which had the extra bonus of keeping them all warm. Neal rescued some magazines from a dumpster and kept up teaching Eliot how to read. Parker skulked around during these lessons, knowing the basics, but picking up new words here and there.
It wasn’t bad, really. He wasn’t alone, which was more than he could say for a number of times in his life. It would warm up within a month, he knew, six weeks at the worst. Neal reminded himself regularly to count his blessings, and stop thinking about what never could have been.
Neal hadn’t counted on three things: 1) Ryan and Brendon freaking out over Neal, Parker and Eliot leaving, 2) Peter and Elizabeth having the same reaction, and 3) Harvey Specter having a private investigator on his payroll.
Neal had managed quite handily over the years at evading government authorities, but he’d never gone up against a PI, especially one he was unaware he was trying to elude. She found them in less than three weeks.
Neal panicked, not knowing who the woman in the doorway of their squat calling for them was, or what she wanted. He doubted all three of them could get out without her noticing, but Parker definitely could, and Eliot might be able to hide if Neal distracted her. Neal moved quietly and relayed his thoughts by way of hand gestures. Parker caught on, but refused to leave them, so Neal was stuck with getting the two of them to hide as best possible and creating a distraction.
Unfortunately, the woman was good, and caught Neal as he slipped out into the open, still hatching a plan for leading her away. She took him down easily, but, he noted gratefully, did not have a gun. She said, “I’m Vanessa Massey, I was hired by Peter and Elizabeth Burke. Where are the other two?”
Neal blinked up at her. “Peter-- Peter and Elizabeth hired you?”
“Harvey Specter gave them my name. According to my photos, you’re Neal. There are some kids who are super worried about you.”
Neal fought the frown that wanted to break free, keeping his face blank. Massey sighed and called out, “Parker! Eliot! I’ve got Neal.”
Neal tried struggling again, then, hoping Eliot would be smart enough to keep Parker back, let what happened happen. A second later, Eliot and Parker came ambling out and Neal was so frustrated he could have cried.
Parker canted her head. “Are you really from Peter and Elizabeth?”
“I really am,” Massey said.
“What do they want?” Eliot asked softly.
Massey was the one to blink at that. “They want you to come back.”
Neal couldn’t help himself, so he was glad to hear the others ask right along with him, “Why?”
Massey looked down at him, over at the others, and then down at him again. Finally she said, “Make you a deal: come with me and ask them yourselves. And if the answer isn’t what you wanna hear, they have to hire themselves a different PI next time.”
Neal looked over at Eliot and Parker. Softly, Parker asked, “Would I get to see Bob and Brendon and Mikey?”
Eliot just shrugged in Neal’s direction, not saying a word. Neal closed his eyes. “You have yourself a deal.”
Mikey was on Neal the second he walked in the house, checking him over everywhere, enraged eyes coming up to meet Neal’s for a moment before he pulled Neal close, holding him tight enough it hurt a little to breathe. Neal didn’t fight, he stood and took it, and then did the same when Ryan, Brendon and Spencer repeated the process. The next thing he knew he was being pulled away by Peter, who really was checking him over, like a professional. Peter’s face was drawn and worried and angry and Neal stayed really, really still as he said, “It was my fault.”
“Shut up, kid,” Peter said as he hugged him just the same as Mikey had. Uncertain of what to do, Neal did what was easiest, and, if he admitted it to himself, what he wanted to do the most: he clung.
Elizabeth was next, evidently done fussing over Parker and Eliot for the moment. Neal could see that Parker, now caught up in Peter’s arms, was thoroughly baffled by everything going on. Neal couldn’t blame her; he wasn’t much clearer on what, exactly, was happening.
Elizabeth was crying, but not loudly. The only way Neal could tell was that her voice shook when she told him, “You pull something like that again, you little shit, and I will find you myself just so I can be the one to kill you with my bare hands.”
It was hard to take the threat seriously when she was all-but rocking him in her arms. He murmured, “Sorry.”
He hadn’t meant for it to come out sounding like a question, but it did, a bit, and she shook him and said, “We found a house, Neal. We found a house and we’re going to make this work, because if we can’t, we’re taking all of you and fleeing to Bora Bora.”
Neal tugged hard enough that she let him go, at least to the length of her arm. She kept hold of his shoulders. He looked at her for a long time. “There aren’t a lot of research facilities in Bora Bora, I don’t think.”
Her smile was wet, but it managed to shine, even so. “Plenty of beaches, though. We’d have fun, don’t you think?”
Neal didn’t know what he thought anymore. In his experience, adults didn’t work their hardest to find street trash when it ran away, unless they wanted someone to keep beating on. He said the only thing he could say: “I’m afraid they’ll find Eliot.”
Peter didn’t move from where he had Eliot tucked against his side, Eliot allowing it, even seeming somewhat comforted by it. “Not gonna happen. PIs aren’t the only people Harvey knows. Nothing’s getting close to any of you.”
Surprisingly, it was Bob who spoke the words Neal really, really couldn’t; Bob who had to be coaxed to say much of anything. “At least until you get tired of us.”
There wasn’t even any accusation in his tone, Bob was just stating a fact as he knew it, as they all knew it; everyone but Peter and Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s hold on Neal tightened, although not so much as to hurt. She looked at Bob to say, “You’re not a pair of shoes. And even if you were, trust me, Peter’s got a few pairs he’s had since med school.”
“Shoes are useful,” Ryan spoke up, shocking the hell out of everyone, since Neal was pretty sure Ryan had never spoken directly to either Peter or Elizabeth.
Brendon chimed in, “Or at least fun.”
Elizabeth looked as though someone had slapped her. Neal wanted to apologize, but found he couldn’t, simply wasn’t able to undermine what the quietest of them had finally found the courage to say. Peter swallowed and said, “Listen to me, all of you.”
They were listening. Neal could have told Peter that they were always listening. Not listening got a kid beaten, or worse.
“I know when you first-- Those first few days, I know I wasn’t exactly welcoming.”
Elizabeth laughed softly, more sadness than amusement in the sound. Peter continued, “But that’s because I jumped to conclusions that were wrong. I was wrong.”
Neal found himself looking at Gee, who seemed as bamboozled by the fact that an adult was admitting fault to them as Neal felt.
Peter said, “Even when El and I are tripping over you, or someone’s being too loud, or eating us out of house and home, even those times? My first thought is not, ‘we could kick them out.’ That’s not even my second or third thought. But when the three of you were missing? I couldn’t stand knowing I wouldn’t have to join in the hunt for Parker to get her at the dinner table, or wouldn’t have Eliot to explain football to, or that Neal wouldn’t be driving me crazy by showing me up to El all the time.”
Neal opened his mouth to say he hadn’t meant to, that hadn’t been his intention, but then the words really sank in. Instead he just stood there, mouth open, staring at Peter. Peter smiled, a quick flash of teeth. “You’re part of us, now. And you can’t just run out. It’s not fair.”
“Life isn’t fair,” Spencer pointed out.
Peter nodded. “We know, kiddo. For you guys more than most. But it’s time the score got evened just a little, yeah?”
It occurred to Neal that even if he agreed, he didn’t really know how to trust them to follow through on their word. Maybe he had at one time, but everything since had taught him the foolishness of that, and he couldn’t quite find it in himself. The question, he thought, was whether even the chance of this was enough to try.
He cast his gaze around the room, the weight of Elizabeth’s hands oh-so-perfectly heavy on his shoulders. He took a breath and nodded. “Yeah.”