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He goes to work the next morning and sits on his bench and waits for Neal, who walks over midday, nonchalance radiating from every line of his body. Except for his tense hands, which always give him away. Burbage has been hollering at him about it for days.

“So,” Peter says. “The master of the revels has withdrawn his favor from Ruiz’s production.”

“Very interesting,” Neal says, in a tone that implies it is, in fact, anything but.

“Apparently, a stolen bible was found in his possession.”

“A book of hours,” Neal corrects. “Or at least – that’s what the word is on the street.”

Peter stares at his folded hands, resting on his open ledger, and he wonders if he can really afford to call Neal on his deception. If the Globe can afford it, if he and Elizabeth can.

“No,” he says softly. “Word on the street is that it’s a bible. That’s the word on the street, and in the courts, and in the official report that was filed.”

“Huh,” Neal says with a shrug. “We must have different sources.” His face is bland and unconcerned.

If Peter hadn’t been staring at Neal’s hands looking for hints of his mood he wouldn’t have noticed it. The edge of a bandage, poking out from the bottom of his sleeve, a quick flash of white. He grabs Neal’s wrist and the other man tenses immediately. He pushes Neal’s sleeve up carefully over the bandage.

“What’s this?”

“Cut myself shaving.”

The lie is insulting. Neal’s got a brand on his palm and a wound on his wrist, and Peter – Peter can’t not look. There’s a limit to what he can turn a blind eye to. He peels the bandage back gently. Looks at the marks before gently smoothing it back down.

“Ruiz had two guard dogs, last time I visited,” he says, his thumb smoothing small circles over the fabric.

“I’ll keep that in mind, should I ever visit his estate.”

Peter lets go of his wrist and almost lets him walk away. “Neal?”


“Thank you.” Because the balance of his ledger has always been precarious and Neal may not know his letters but he’s got his numbers down. “Neal?” he calls again after his retreating back.


“You ever do something that goddamn stupid again, and I’ll see that you’re flogged for it.”

Neal smiles fondly at him and Peter feels overwhelmed by useless anger. “You’re welcome.”

An hour later a messenger from the court arrives, bearing a belated invitation to perform Hamlet for her majesty. He sends back a polite acceptance. And keeps the invitation. Holds it for a while, weighing it in his hands – the thick velour, the raised lines, a single grain of sand stuck in the ink. They’d sent it off before it had a chance to dry.

He opens a blank folio and files it away. Puts the folder in the bottom of his lowest drawer and wonders what else Neal will bring him, what other impossible gifts he won’t be strong enough to refuse.

He does his best, after that, to create some distance between them. To go back to his old routines.

It feels as though he has been living someone else’s life – new and exciting and a lie – and going back to his old one is a shock. He goes home every day for lunch, stops watching rehearsals, does his work in Will’s cramped office with the door closed. Stops doing everything that would bring him close to Neal.

He’d rather be a poor producer than a failed husband.

Opening night comes a week to soon, as always. Elizabeth never comes to the first performances, because every time she has, something’s gone terribly wrong. So he’s sitting in the audience alone (keeping an eye on Neal’s strange bald friend who’s lurking in a corner) when everything goes sideways. Neal’s corset tears during his fight with Hamlet. A seam down the side begins to split as Burbage pushes Ophelia down to the floor, the sound of it rips through the air.

They manage to stumble through the rest of the scene with Neal keeping his right arm tight against his side to hold it up. And it lasts through the following scene, too, since all Neal has to do is sit and watch the play-within-a-play. But towards the end he can see the clumsy, last-minute stitches beginning to come apart again.

When Neal re-enters in the next act, he’s wearing a different gown. A different corset. One of Augustine’s old ones – and it is much too small. He remembers when Neal had tried it on, how quickly it had become unbearable, and he wants to call an end to the whole thing. Wants to stand up and get onstage and tell Neal to cut it out, because he can already see Neal struggling for air. His breath is coming in fast, shallow bursts – no one else in the audience seems to notice (and, indeed, it is almost fitting for Ophelia’s mad, rambling songs) – but during a pause Neal looks right at him. Neal always knows where Peter’s sitting – during rehearsals, he used to look up and roll his eyes or grin or make faces. Today he just looks scared.

Peter pushes his way through the crowd and out of the theatre, runs around the outside, and through the back entrance. He arrives backstage just in time for Ophelia’s last song. He curses how long it is (curses Will for having written it in the first place) and waits, his fingernails digging painful crescents into his palms, and watches Neal struggle to breathe. It’s maybe five minutes from the moment Neal looked at him until he gets backstage. Five minutes of counting down the seconds and watching Neal’s face flush and then go pale. Watching his chest rise and fall at a pace that is much too fast.

He sings his last song and he sounds terrible, and frightened, and hurt. The audience is completely silent. It’s the best performance Neal’s given yet. And as soon as he exits the stage, he collapses.

Cruz is there, too, but when Neal falls it’s Peter who catches him. He glares at Cruz and the lone stagehand who’d run over, and they make themselves scarce. He supports Neal’s weight with one arm and pulls the knife from his belt with the other. He ignores Neal as he tries to get away, fighting Peter’s grasp, lightheaded and disoriented (a glint of sharp metal coming closer to him). He’s sobbing for breath, high, panicked sounds.

“Calm down,” he whispers, pressing Neal against the wall with one hand and cutting the laces on the corset with the other (and just the laces, only a few extra seconds - they can be replaced cheaply. Satin can’t).

He has to cut the knot on the corset, it’s pulled too tightly to work out. He nicks Neal’s skin with the point of the knife and it drips on the white cotton. He throws the corset to the side and holds Neal upright, his hands on Neal’s bare skin. Pressing him up against the wall.

Words from the now-familiar script echo through the thin wall, it’s all that separates them from thousands of viewers.

Neal’s first free breath is loud. Loud enough that Peter immediately claps a hand over his mouth – Ophelia drowns, offstage, she doesn’t suffocate, and he’d hate to confuse the audience. Hate to step back. Step away.

Neal’s gasping for air around Peter’s hand, holding himself up on Peter’s shoulders, and then he’s just crying. Peter’s holding his hand over Neal’s mouth and his tears run down the edge of his hand, over the tips of his fingers. He’s been missing Neal since the first day they didn’t eat lunch together, missing him every time he worked in his office for more than an hour without some ridiculous interruption. He honestly hadn’t thought that Neal would miss him the same way.

“Peter,” Neal sobs, out of breath and out of line and alone. And Peter wonders where Neal has been eating lunch the past week, where he’s been spending all of the time he used to spend with Peter. Wonders how hard it’s been for Neal, awkward and unexpectedly abandoned, while Peter’s been soldiering away in the solitude of Will’s office.

Neal’s fingers are digging into his shoulders painfully tight. His eyes are wide and red and creased with pain, he takes his hand from Neal’s mouth when his breathing steadies and just – just holds him. They slide to the ground, Peter’s back against the wall. He gives Neal as much comfort as he can. Wraps his arms tight around shaking shoulders, knowing that he’s the cause of Neal’s pain, knowing he can’t do anything to fix it.

When the play draws to a close Cruz approaches with Neal’s hastily reassembled corset in her hands. “The bows,” she whispers. “He’s got to go back out.”

Watching Neal pull himself together is excruciating. Peter knows how he works, how easily he slips in and out of character, Ophelia a familiar mask to wear. But not today. He stands up slowly, stiff and ungainly, he looks like an old man trapped in someone else’s body. His make-up’s run and Cruz wipes it away. Helps him into the corset, her hands calm and capable.

Neal looks back at him (still sitting crouched against the wall) before he enters the stage. With his make-up gone and his eyes still red, a loved, familiar face. In pain. Peter looks away first. And sits there as the audience cheers and claps and yells.

He’s never wanted to cheat on his wife before. Not for more than a handful of little moments – a daydream born from a glimpse of a prostitute’s breasts or a pair of strong thighs, watching the actors rehearse a love scene. He loves his wife. And he wants Neal. He leaves before the actors exit the stage, the tumultuous applause following him out the door and into the busy London streets.

It’s already late by the time the afterparty begins, and the mood is high. The first performance was a success, the performance for the queen so close they can practically taste it, all of their weeks of work finally come to fruition. The wine flows freely and the musicians play loudly (if not particularly well) and loud laughter fills the pub.

He’s on his own for the night. Or not on his own, exactly, not with Neal plastered against his side and everyone else rotating around their corner booth. Burbage pops in and out every so often, always with a new woman on his arm. Jones and Cruz only stay for a few minutes before disappearing up a small staircase together. Will arrives about an hour later and delivers a terrible revision of Hamlet’s speech. “To pee, or not to pee.” He’s drunk enough that the answer is a run to the bathroom as soon as he’s finished.

When the press of smoke and noise gets to be too much he and Neal slip out the back into a seldom-used courtyard. The sounds from inside are muffled by stone walls, the buzz of it contrasting oddly with the stillness of the air, the clear starry sky.

He leans against the wall and stares up at the sky. “So. We did it.”

“It would seem so.”

“You were magnificent,” Peter says, because he was. “Will is already planning what he should write for you next.”

“Something where I don’t die halfway through, I hope.”

“But you die with such flair.” Neal elbows him and he laughs. It echoes, the small stone overhang bringing their sound back to them. “You exceeded my expectations,” he says, and it sounds a bit more private, a bit more proprietary than he’d meant.

“We should go back in,” Neal says. He pulls Neal towards him before he starts to leave.

“You really were great.” He tries to give Neal a hug. Neal, for some reason, evades his grasp and starts toward the door. “Come on,” Peter says, with a roll of his eyes. “It’s just a hug, you were wonderful tonight – ” he tugs Neal towards him and when their torsos are pressed together he feels Neal’s cock against his thigh.

It doesn’t seem real until he says it. “You’re hard.” Neal doesn’t pull back. He just stays in the circle of Peter’s arms, stiff as a board, and nods. The curls of his hair brush against Peter’s cheek. “Because of me?”

“Yes, because of you.” Neal voice cracks halfway through and he tries to twist out of Peter’s grasp. “But it doesn’t have to mean anything. I know you don’t – ”

Neal’s cock fits perfectly in the palm of his hand. From the tips of his fingers to the base of his thumb, he curls his hand around it, brave in his curiosity.

There are layers of satin between his hand and Neal’s erection. He doesn’t know if the heat he feels is real or imagined, but he can feel the burn spread through his hand, his body, the flush of his face. He knows he doesn’t imagine the involuntary jerk of Neal’s hips.

He doesn’t know when or why he decided to do this but now that he’s done it, it seems – terrifying. They stay frozen in that moment. Neal doesn’t move, Peter doesn’t know how. If nothing happens he can take his hand back and the night air will cool his body down, they’ll drink until they can’t remember that this ever happened, Neal takes a shaky breath and Peter squeezes him gently. He gasps, and Peter wants to kiss him. Wants to feel skin against his palm instead of satin to see how the sensation compares, wants to know what Neal looks like when he’s not in control.

It’s intoxicating. Being able to feel the evidence of Neal’s attraction, to literally hold it in his hand, at once foreign and familiar.

“You can’t,” Neal gasps, “I know, you’re not – ” his eyes are wide, Peter’s mouth still tastes of cheap wine, the courtyard’s empty and quiet and Neal’s starting to move, slow, steady undulations of his hips, as if his body and his mind parted ways the second Peter touched him.

Peter’s not hard, not even halfway, but he feels it all throughout his body when Neal brings his right hand down and places it on top of Peter’s. Increases the pressure. It’s nothing like getting Elizabeth off, nothing like when he pleasures himself, it’s – somewhere in between. Someplace he didn’t know existed before he met Neal.

He grasps Neal’s cock as tightly as he can and Neal’s mouth falls open, his eyes flutter shut and then back open again. Peter lets Neal sets the pace and just watches. Learns what Neal looks like as he loses himself to pleasure, as it starts to overwhelm him, learns what Neal looks like when he comes. He looks beautiful. Mouth and eyes closed tight, muffled noises escaping from between his clenched teeth. It sounds like it hurts. It looks like it hurts. Neal presses their hands against himself even harder.

After he comes, he curls forward. Presses his forehead against Peter’s shoulder and shudders through the aftershocks.

It’s not until Neal looks up at him, flushed and unsteady in the aftermath of his orgasm, that it seems real. It’s not until Neal’s eyes do their familiar flicker from Peter’s eyes to his lips and then back again that he remembers where they are and who he is. Not until Neal tilts his face and leans into the last few inches that separate them that Peter pulls away. “I have a wife.” It feels like a surprise. “I have a wife,” he whispers into the dark of the courtyard, the sound of his voice masked by the sounds of celebration within. “I didn’t – I shouldn’t – ”

He knows what Neal looks like when he comes. And now he knows what Neal looks like when he’s heartbroken.

“You can’t,” Neal agrees, even though Peter just did. “I understand.” He stumbles, backing away. Sticky with his own come, still reeling from his orgasm. Peter steadies him without thinking and Neal doesn’t pull away from Peter’s touch. Just leans into his side for a scarce, unbearable second. “I understand.”

Neal goes back inside. Peter goes back home.

He sits in the dining room until sunrise. Three or four hours, give or take. Sitting in a stiff chair in the dark, the blur of the wine fading, a throbbing headache taking its place. Three or four hours and when Elizabeth comes downstairs for breakfast he still hasn’t figured out what to say.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, as soon as she sees him. He wonders what he looks like. A figure in the dark. He feels like a ghost; voiceless and terrible. “Did something happen? Is Neal okay?” She hurries over to him, holds his hands and stares into his eyes. The only light in the room is from the first streaks of dawn through the window. Elizabeth looks radiant.

“I have been,” he says, and he chokes on the words. She strokes his cheek soothingly and he jerks away from her. He hates himself for bringing Neal into their lives, their home, hates himself for ruining it. It takes every bit of his strength to keep talking. He’s never felt weaker before in his life. “I have been unfaithful.”

Such an odd word he thinks, as Elizabeth freezes, her mouth open and her hand outstretched. Unfaithful when he’s never been more full of prayer. It’s not his faith that’s fled, he knows. Just his honor.

“With whom?” she asks. Her voice is ugly with tension “For how long?”

“Neal,” he answers. Her hand is quick and sure, the sound of it crisp and exciting. His cheek burns but she doesn’t move again.

“For how long?” she repeats.

“Only once. But it was – we – it’s been there for longer.” He’s known that it was more serious that a crush for weeks.

She sobs, and he feels whatever was left of him crumble to shame. She continues a moment later, voice deceptively soft. “You know that I don’t like your work. You travel so much. Work such long hours. I feared – I feared the loss of time, Peter, about losing money and security, but I – ” He realizes that she’s crying a moment before she steps out of his reach. “But I never thought I’d lose you.”

Unfaithful, he thinks, as she turns around and walks away. He’ll have to ask Will about the word. Its origins and double meanings. And maybe years down the road he’ll see his confusion mirrored in some romantic comedy, cleaned up by Will’s words, clarified by the stage. Maybe then it will make sense.

He wants to ask Neal about it, suddenly, foolishly, ask him if he thinks it’s Peter’s heart or head or lack of faith that brought them together, that’s tearing his life apart.

Tears spill down his face and splash on his folded hands and he thinks about the look on his wife’s face. He has betrayed his faith, yes. His faith and his church and his vows and his wife of ten years, the woman who has stood by his side through more struggle than success. He has been unfaithful. He’s broken the most important promise he ever made.

She didn’t lose him. He lost her.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-06 03:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] afiawri.livejournal.com
I just wanted to say how powerful I found the suffocating scene. That was truly beautiful.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-24 04:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hoosierbitch.livejournal.com
*happy dance*

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-03 06:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coffeethyme4me.livejournal.com


(no subject)

Date: 2011-01-17 05:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hoosierbitch.livejournal.com

Thank you.