Thanks: These stories will always and forever be egelantier's and hers alone, but I do want to throw out an extra thanks for peeps like ivorysilk, hoosierbitch and rufus who have been SUPER encouraging about this series. You guys make my world.
The house Elizabeth and Peter had found was the closest thing to perfection Neal had ever encountered outside of Gee’s drawings, Brendon’s voice, and Parker’s penchant for trouble. Like all of those things, it unsettled him just a bit, even as it drew him in.
It was north of the city, in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, too far for Neal to get back easily should he need, which made him nervous, but he couldn’t help loving it all the same. There were five bedrooms: a master for the Burkes, the one that Ryan, Spencer and Brendon colonized, the one Bob, Gee and Mikey gravitated toward, and the one Neal shared with Eliot and Parker. Some nights, Neal ended up in Gee and Mikey’s room, while Bob stayed with Parker and Eliot. Or sometimes, Gee made his way to Eliot and Neal while Parker went to annoy Bob and Mikey. There were a few other combinations. Elizabeth and Peter either didn’t notice, or didn’t mind.
The final one the Burkes had turned into a studio/office area, where Gee and Elizabeth and sometimes Neal, when he was feeling bold, could paint or draw, and Mikey and Ryan could read to their hearts’ content. The family room had become something of a play room, with board games and other things to tempt Parker, Brendon, Spencer and Bob. Eliot just went wherever he wanted to be most, living by a pattern Neal had yet to discern.
The house had a yard filled with old trees Parker had taught herself to climb within minutes of moving in. Eliot was pretty good at it, too, and Brendon was showing a surprising facility for not falling out of trees, even if he kind of sucked at getting down from them. Satchmo liked to run the length of the yard, Ryan often trailing after him.
The kitchen was big enough that at least three or four of them could help out with meals without seeming to be underfoot. And they could all fit at the table the Burkes found to go in the dining area, a gigantic, beautiful oak piece Neal liked to run his hand along, pretending he could feel the entire history of it, back to the tree it had once been.
Elizabeth let Gee and Neal speak their preferences on new art in the house, even encouraged it, in the case of Neal, who’d been more than happy to let her decorate her own house, the one she was buying so he and his had somewhere to stay. Peter made all of them pick their beds: double or bunk, pillow top or plain. Thankfully, he drew the line at Parker having a waterbed. Neal wondered how obvious it had been that he’d blanched at the mere suggestion.
The house itself wasn’t new by any means, it told stories in the way the wood of the hallway creaked underneath their strides, through the outer window panes of glass that had settled. It had seen things, this house. Neal felt a kinship with it. He wasn’t sure how he was going to manage to leave if it came to that.
Peter and Harvey were college friends, yes, but more importantly, they were college teammates. They’d both been to school on baseball scholarships. There was a baseball diamond in the park that was walking distance from the new house, to Peter’s delight. Harvey would show up on some weekends, tell them the edited version of how the legalities were working out, and then, if weather permitted—and it was early summer, it generally did—they would all walk down to the park.
Elizabeth wasn’t good, but she liked to play, and Mike was an enthusiastic participant, if nothing else. Neal, Mikey, and Ryan comprised the cheering section. Well, Ryan occasionally raised his arms in a way that could be construed as cheering when Spencer or Brendon was playing. Gee drew pictures of them all as zombies playing baseball.
Eliot showed a surprising talent for the game, and Brendon was able to catch better than Neal would have given him credit for. Spencer was just plain good. Parker couldn’t be bothered with the rules of the game, but she liked running around and yelling things at the other players a whole bunch.
It was all so damn normal it made Neal’s skin itch. He was good at covering, though, pretending at normality. Even the other kids could be fooled most of the time. Evidently Harvey was the exception, because sometimes, during a water break, or while they were warming up or whenever, Harvey would saunter over to Neal and say things like, “They want to appoint a guardian ad litem. Male or female?” or “If we have to put you and Gee on the stand, how’s Gee going to hold up?”
The first time, Neal gave him a considered answer. The second time, Neal asked, “Aren’t you supposed to discuss this stuff with the adults?”
Harvey raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m supposed to discuss this stuff with whomever I think will know the information I need to get a judge to sign off on Elizabeth and Peter suddenly running a home for wayward waifs.”
Neal had to give him that, and the fact that at least Harvey seemed genuine in his desire to secure them safety with the Burkes. Cautiously, Neal asked, “How much is this costing them? I know the day-to-day expenses, and how much they bought the house for, but how much for the legal fees?”
Harvey’s smile wasn’t nice. “One arm and one kid.”
Neal knew how to listen to adults, especially adults like Harvey, who made words their weapons. He crossed his arms and waited. Harvey smile flickered into something more amused. “After college, when Peter went to med school, I drafted into the pros.”
Neal blinked. Harvey acknowledged it with a nod. “Peter probably would have, but he blew out his knee in senior year. Anyway, two years in, I make a royal mess of my rotator cuff. Most doctors said I’d be lucky to use the arm again at all in any significant way. Peter went to his mentor and networked out to find the best specialist in the country, and then signed away a year of post-residency work to get the guy to work on me. I didn’t even know until long after. Elizabeth accidentally said something one day.”
Neal swallowed. “One arm.”
Harvey raised the arm in question. “As you can see, works fine.”
“I was a prosecutor after law school, for a long time, actually. One day I’m doing some legwork on a case because I’ve got a tip from one of the guys on the force I think might actually pan out. It’s not supposed to be much of anything, just a look at a site. The drug runners who were keeping it had already been arrested.
“I get in the house and I’m checking this upstairs room for some writing underneath the wallpaper and I can’t get the feeling I’m not alone out of my system. I’m about to just get out of there, call it in, but I’m taking pictures of the writing and I get to a closet door and it looks like the writing might continue, so I open it up and there’s a kid in there. A kid I think might be dead.”
“Mike,” Neal said, feeling cold inside.
“Dead kids were something I talked about in court rooms, but not—“
“Yeah.” Neal nodded.
“I called 911, I called the guy who gave me the tip, I kept calling people because I was freaked out by the silence.”
“Sometimes drug dealers use foster kids as runners. Kids are less likely to get picked up, and you get the added bonus of the state kicking in some money. It’s not that hard to pass inspection, and if you get a kid whose social worker is hit and miss at checking in, you’ve got yourself a pretty good deal. Parker had one of those.”
“I learned.” Harvey took a breath, letting it out slowly. “I had a lot of friends at the justice department, judges who also sat as family judges. I always thought that whole thing about saving someone’s life creating a bond was drivel but I couldn’t leave Mike’s hospital room, not even once he woke up. He was mine.”
The quiet fierceness of Harvey’s claim made Neal re-evaluate him a bit. Still, “We’re not Mike.”
“More than you want to think, kid.” The epithet wasn’t said condescendingly, more just knowingly. “Besides, you are for Elizabeth and Peter. You just don’t see it.”
Neal couldn’t imagine what the expression on his face was. Whatever it was, Harvey just shook his head once, and walked off to get back to the field.
It was less than a month after summer had crept into bloom that Elizabeth and Peter called a “family meeting.” The upshot of these meetings was everyone was expected to be there, and they usually involved cake, or at least the good Trail Mix, with chocolate and dried cherries. So far there had been three: one about chores, one about getting as many personal details as they could in order to pursue legal foster-parenting, and one to ratify the decision of the house purchase.
The meetings were never a bad sign, but Neal couldn’t help the instinct to run and run fast every time one was announced. He had promised he would stay, though, so he was doing his best.
This particular meeting started huge, real pretzels, the kind bought from street vendors, accompanied by three kinds of mustard and a few other relishes of choice. It was suspect, to say the least. Adding the fact that Elizabeth and Peter both looked slightly off their game, and Neal was too nervous to put anything in his mouth.
When they had all settled, Peter said, “We need to talk about school.”
Parker looked disinterested, whereas Neal could tell Ryan was paying attention, even if he didn’t want to seem like it. Eliot was hiding in plain sight, and the rest of the kids ranged from vaguely unsure to willing to hear Peter out.
Gently, Elizabeth said, “We can’t send you all to the same place. Aside from your age differences, you all have considerably different educational needs.”
Peter cut in quickly at the end of her sentence. “But none of you are going to be alone. Whatever we have to do, we’ll make sure of that.”
Neal kept his eyes on Peter, reading him. After a bit, he determined he believed Peter would at least try his hardest. He was willing to take that.
Elizabeth said, “First, we’re going to have an educational firm do some aptitude testing, and discuss the best options for each of you. But we’re also going to have you visit the schools, make your own choices. If nothing is right, we’ll figure out something.”
In the silence, Parker asked, “Can I have that?”
Eliot handed over his pretzel. He hadn’t eaten any of it.
Eliot wasn’t sleeping. Neal only knew because he wasn’t sleeping much either, but Neal didn’t sleep much as a rule. Eliot, on the other hand, had an almost magical gift for sleeping wherever, whenever he could. Neal knew it had come from somewhere, knew he probably didn’t want to know where, but it made Eliot’s lack of sleep all the more glaring.
After about a week, Neal crept out of bed and out the back door, where he found Eliot lying on his back on the grass, staring at the sky. It was a nice night: enough breeze to cool the heavy summer warmth, and clear for stargazing. Neal went and laid down beside Eliot.
After a while, Eliot said softly, “You and Ryan, you’re really smart.”
It had been a long time since Neal had done anything nearing formal education, but back when he’d still been waiting the system out, they’d skipped him ahead several grades. Neal wasn’t certain if Eliot was talking about that, or his street survival skills. Then he considered the comment about Ryan, who pretty much ate books whole, but couldn’t be trusted to go to the store by himself, and decided it was the former. “In some ways.”
“I—I was seven when my foster family sold me. And I was already behind in my schooling, because I’d been moved around a couple of times already.”
“Okay,” Neal said gently.
“I wasn’t very good at it. School. Neal.”
“You don’t know that. Foster kids are notoriously undereducated, and often have learning disabilities go undiagnosed. We’ll just have to get you tested.” Neal put it on his list of sensitive topics that would have to be broached with Elizabeth and Peter.
“Nothing to test,” Eliot said.
Neal frowned. “What?”
Eliot brought his hands up, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can’t read, Neal. I can barely add. Subtraction is—“
“Okay,” Neal said again, mostly to give himself a moment to think.
“Nobody wants a stupid kid,” Eliot said, mostly matter-of-factly.
Without knowing how, Neal found the confidence to say, “Peter and Elizabeth want you,” and mean it. “Also, not knowing how to read doesn’t make you stupid. It just means you need to be taught.”
Eliot was looking over at Neal doubtfully, but his deathgrip on himself had loosened somewhat. Neal reached over and briefly squeezed his shoulder. “If nothing else, I can teach you. But I bet we can find someone better.”
Eliot sat up slowly. The silence of the night stretched until he asked, “Would you go with me? To tell them?”
“Yes,” Neal said. He would have told them without Eliot there, if Eliot had asked. Eliot was braver than that, though. It was something Neal almost envied him.
“I’m really tired,” Eliot admitted.
Neal got to his feet and held out a hand. “Let’s get you to bed.”
Elizabeth and Peter took the news with surprising aplomb, which lead Neal to suspect they’d either known, or had strong inklings. Peter said, “Harvey has a friend on the force who adopted a foster kid with extreme dyslexia about a year ago. He goes to a school that specializes in particularized lesson plans and Harvey says they’ve been very happy with it. Would you be willing to consider something like that?”
Eliot was looking out the window, the same way he always did when he wanted to escape. Finally he asked, “Alone?”
“No, honey,” Elizabeth said. “We think that would work well for Parker, too. We don’t think she’s mainstream-classroom material.”
Eliot tensed up. “Parker’s very smart.”
“You’re plenty smart yourself, mister,” Elizabeth said firmly. “I see the way you measure things in your head when you cook and the way you can figure out any maze presented to you.”
Spencer had an extreme love of all games, but he sucked at mazes, so Peter would regularly get jumbo game books full of Sudoku and wordgames and other types of brain exercises, and Eliot would take them when Spencer was done and demolish the mazes, no matter how complicated. Eliot looked puzzled by Elizabeth’s assertion, so Neal cut in. “The school’s not for stupid kids. It’s for kids who learn differently than others.”
Eliot thought this over for a bit, then asked, “Isn’t that every kid?”
Peter’s smile was amused, but not mean. “You’re just a little bit extra-special, kiddo.”
Eliot was clearly considering this, obviously looking for the mockery in it. Neal could tell the moment he decided there wasn’t any to be found. His shoulders loosened slightly and he said, “I guess I could try it.”
Neal sneaked out while Elizabeth was busy hugging Eliot to death, Peter rubbing at both their backs.
Elizabeth found Neal half-heartedly sketching Parker and Bob playing with Satchmo in the backyard later that afternoon. She sat down next to him under the significant oak. He warned, “I’m down here in case Mikey or Gee falls out. So watch your head.”
She peered up to where Neal knew Mikey was sprawled like a sloth over a limb and Gee was hanging on like a very nervous flying squirrel. Then she looked back at Neal, “Fair enough.”
“Is this about Eliot?” he asked softly. He didn’t see why the adults couldn’t be the ones to deliver bad news, if it came to that, but he knew that was just the way things were.
Elizabeth frowned. “No, Neal, this is about you.”
Neal was glad he was practiced at how to hide, how not to stiffen, or give away uncertainty. Instead he simply said, “Oh,” and sketched out another line.
Elizabeth put her hands on Neal’s, prying away the pad and the charcoal pencil. When she’d set them both aside, she said, “Peter and I, we know we don’t understand, not really. We’ve never had to question our parents’ love for us, except maybe as bratty teenagers when we didn’t get exactly what we wanted, okay?”
Such a situation was an equally foreign concept to Neal, but he had a decent imagination. “Okay.”
“Because of that, we don’t know how to make you understand that this isn’t some Samaritan impulse or a momentary whim for us.”
Neal decided it was okay to let his puzzlement show. “You’ve told me this before. I know.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, Neal. You say you know, because you think that will make us happy. But whenever one of the kids has something they’re afraid to tell us, you’re always there, like you can divert any anger, like you can offer yourself as a sacrifice if need be.”
Neal shrugged. “Gee and I are the oldest, and Gee’s got Mikey to think about.”
“I know, baby. And I know you’ve been keeping them all alive and together all this time—“
Neal opened his mouth to explain it didn’t work that way, they all made that happen. She raised a hand to silence him. “I know you see what they deserve, but haven’t figured out yet that you deserve the same.”
It was the hardest thing Neal had ever done, forcing himself not to shift, not to show any signs of discomfort. He took a breath, giving himself some time to consider how to approach the situation. “Elizabeth, you and Peter, you’re good people. You’ve read my record. Shoplifting as early as seven and that’s just when I was caught. Running full cons by the time I was twelve, and again—“
“You ever do one of those things when you didn’t need to?” she asked.
“Yes,” he challenged.
“Because sometimes it’s fun to be the one who gets to take something.”
Her expression was sad when she asked, “You ever do one of those things from someone who couldn’t afford to be taken from?”
Neal tried to catch it, but he knew his disgust at the idea had flashed on his face before he could stop it entirely. Elizabeth sighed, and put her hand on Neal’s shoulder. “Neal, sweetie, we know you’re not perfect. You’d be annoying that way. You’re already too charming by half for your own good, and gorgeous and smarter than anyone has a right to be.”
Neal flushed and made himself still, not tellingly shy away from her hand.
She continued, “We don’t want perfect. We want that kid who found his brothers a place to stay and a doctor at the most desperate of times. We want the boy who caused trouble just to feel like he had some power sometimes. We want you. We want you to stop thinking that somehow it will make it better if you’re the one hurt or left behind.”
Neal told her honestly, “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
“It’s going to be hard, no doubt,” she agreed. “But not impossible.”
Neal looked away. Elizabeth reached out and pulled him down so that his head rested on her legs, her fingers playing with his hair. “Okay if I keep tabs on Gee and Mikey with you for a bit?”
Neal closed his eyes, locking in the sense memory of her touch. “Don’t let your guard down. They’re wily.”
Peter took a different approach. Neal didn’t figure it out until it was nearly over. Mostly, he just thought Peter wanted his help making sure the first batch of schools were even considerations.
At the first school, they were given a tour of the facility and then met with the principal. Peter held out his hand to shake the woman’s as she introduced herself and responded, “I’m Peter Burke, this is one of my kids, Neal.”
Neal just managed to catch the handshake offered him by the principal, he was too busy trying not to stare at Peter. He forced himself to pay attention, to listen to the questions Peter had, the answers the principal gave. Everything sounded fine, but he couldn’t remember any of the questions he had meant to ask, not even when Peter turned to him and said, “You got anything else, kiddo?”
Neal did his best to think, but everything felt as if it was moving slowly and just a bit off-kilter. Before he was sure what had happened, they were out in front of the school again, just Peter and him. Peter cupped a hand to the back of Neal’s neck and asked, “You all right?”
Neal dredged up his very best smile. “Of course. That’s a nice school.”
Peter said, “Neal.”
It wasn’t Peter’s angry voice, but it was his concerned one, which sucked just as much, maybe more, because Neal was used to anger. He knew how to deal with it. Peter wasn’t buying his smile or his nonchalance, so he tried, “I just didn’t sleep well last night. Excitement. About the schools.”
“Mm. So this has nothing to do with how you froze up when I introduced you as my kid?”
Neal hated honest people. “Peter—“
Peter smiled. “Not a direct denial. Practically an admission from you.”
Neal hated smart people even more than honest ones. “Let’s go to the next school.”
Peter headed off agreeably, but he didn’t remove his hand from Neal’s neck. Neal also hated how very wanted that made him feel.
Ryan didn’t say no right off, but every line in his body screamed it. Brendon came right out and said, “No.”
Peter looked like he was about to speak up, but Neal shook his head slightly, keeping his expression calm. Peter desisted. Neal looked over at Spencer. Spencer glared at him, but Neal was pretty sure he actually deserved that, so he didn’t let it get to him too much. After a moment, though, Spencer looked over at Ryan and Brendon and had a conversation with his eyebrows Neal could only partly interpret. It went something like this:
Spencer’s tilted head and lowered eyebrows, is this really so bad, guys? It’s just during the school day.
Ryan’s tightened posture, yes.
Brendon, aloud, “No.”
Spencer’s firm stare, you guys will be together, with Gee and Mikey, at an art school. Then he did something with his hips that might have meant, and it’s hardly as though Bob’s going to let anything happen to me, but Neal wasn’t sure about that last.
Brendon frowned, still not on board, but not wanting to question Bob’s awesomeness. Brendon held said awesomeness with an almost holy regard and had ever since the time Brendon had sprained his ankle getting away from some perv in a train station, and Bob had unstintingly acted as crutch and carrier until Brendon healed up.
Finally, Ryan said, “But you won’t be there.”
Elizabeth and Peter both blinked at him and then looked away. Neal kept trying to make them understand that the more they made out of it when Ryan talked, the less he did. They were getting better.
“No,” Spencer agreed. “Which means I won’t have to feel like an outcast because the arts aren’t my thing. Instead I can go somewhere where I fit in with math geeks, and Bob.”
Spencer and Bob had both tested surprisingly high for their education level in the maths, prompting Peter and Elizabeth to find a math and science charter for them, which happened to be the school Mike Specter attended. Ryan, Brendon, Gee and Mikey were all being sent to an arts magnet, assuming this conversation went well. Neal was joining Parker and Eliot at a school that handled kids with special educational needs on both ends of the scale. The school had been vouched for by two of Harvey’s detective friends who had adopted foster kids with different needs. Neal’s test scores had been high in everything, but he was years behind curriculum-wise, so it was the best plan any of them had been able to come up with.
Brendon was still Not On Board, clearly. His, “You fit in with us” was petulant, and, Neal felt, more than a little terrified.
Spencer rolled his eyes. “Of course I do, goob. Me going to another school doesn’t change that.”
Brendon and Ryan shared a look Neal read sharply as it might. Unable to stop himself, he said, “It won’t.”
All three of them looked over at him, with Peter and Elizabeth also looking while pretending not to. Neal shrugged. “Some things can’t be broken.”
Brendon’s eyes narrowed. “Everything can be broken.”
Neal looked at Ryan, who was at least considering the proposition. He said, “Most things can be broken. Not all, or Ryan wouldn’t be here.”
Ryan frowned at that. It was a gamble, Neal knew, because Ryan saw himself as broken. But Brendon didn’t. Brendon opened his mouth, then shut it. Finally he said, “Okay, but after high school, nobody gets to keep us apart, not even you.”
Fiercely, Elizabeth said, “Nobody is ever going to part any of you. Never. Not without your express written permission and even then, I’m not sure.”
When Brendon’s smile broke, it was small and uncertain, but real. Ryan, upon seeing it, gave a single nod. Spencer just sidled up beside Elizabeth and made it so she had no choice to cuddle with him. She gave in pretty easily.
On his first day of school, sick to his stomach with nerves and doing his best to hold it together tightly for Eliot and Parker, both of whom needed it, Neal found a note inside the brand new pencil case tucked neatly in his messenger bag. It was on high quality eggshell blue stationary, folded neatly into fourths. He opened it, a little ill at ease that someone had gotten inside the bag without him noticing. He was slipping.
Thanks for being the best big brother and oldest son any parent could possibly want.
Peter and El
Neal neatly refolded the letter and put in safely in one of the many pockets the bag hosted. Then he went to find the others and get them out the door. He was ready.