Be My Host
Disclaimer: Thank you, Jeff Eastin!
An elegantly dressed older women gently laid a garment bag on the counter of a thrift store. Nearby, a young man wearing a pea coat over a plain white tee was rummaging through a rack of button down shirts, frowning. He didn't object to second-hand clothes - vintage, he reminded himself - but the selection of shirts that fit was, well, sparse, if he wanted anything that was even remotely presentable. He glanced toward the counter and moved a little closer as the woman opened the bag and removed a handful of ties.
I've come to donate these, she said.
Those are fantastic, the young man said. The gum-popping girl behind the counter merely looked bored.
Oh, they belonged to my late husband, Byron. He really had great taste in clothes.
May I? he asked, indicating the suit jacket in her hand. Thank you. He studied the lining. This is a Devore. His eyes widened with appreciation of the garment in his hands.
Yes, he won it from Sy himself.
He beat him in a back door draw.
Your husband played poker with Sy Devore. His expression was that of a child learning that Santa really does exist.
He certainly did. And so did I.
Yes. The guys would even let me sit in once in a while on a hand. And I was good. They both laughed. I'm glad to see you appreciate these. I was hoping someone would. I've got a whole closet full of them.
A whole closet? He was slipping the jacket over his tee.
Mmm, hmm, well, actually it's a guest room, but, uh, I haven't used it for anything except for storage for years. He finally got the jacket on. Oh, Byron used to wear that one whenever we went dancing. The neighborhood was, let's say it was much nicer then.
Do you live nearby?
She watched his face carefully as she considered her answer. Not far.
By habit and by instinct he had flashed a brilliant smile. Nine times out of ten it elicited a response that he could read immediately, before they had a chance to pull back. Oh, Byron used to wear that one whenever we went dancing, she had said, her face recalling happy times, but the briefest twitch of her lower lip said just how much she still missed Byron - still mourned his loss. She realized it herself a moment too late. Under normal circumstances she would have been annoyed with her slip. She could hide every expression - facial and body - except for that one, even all these years later. You're an old woman, June, she told herself, giving away your secret like that. But this was not a normal circumstance, and this was obviously not a normal young man. Play the hand out, she thought.
And so, by the end of their exchange, his smile softened to something genuine, even sympathetic. He saw a certain strength in her and an understanding, and recognized that she was clearly reading him, too, and quite thoroughly. She saw his mask of feigned innocence covering anxiety and a trace of quiet desperation - not the kind that would lead to violence, but rather would just stay hidden beneath more and more layers of a carefully constructed facade. Since she had the upper hand she waited for him to speak first.
"I don't suppose you would consider renting your guest room out?" he asked pleasantly as he slipped back into his peacoat. She tilted her head toward him to indicate he should continue. He started to go on, but noticed the store clerk watching them closely. He waved the woman a few feet from the counter, leaving her in the clerk's line of sight, but he himself on the far side of a brick column. He had one shot at this with her, knew that she would see right through any games he might choose to play, and found himself unexpectedly relieved.
"My name is Neal Caffrey. I was released from federal prison this morning on a work-release program with the FBI," he said, realizing as he spoke the words out loud just how completely ridiculous it all sounded. "This," he said, looking down as he pulled up his left pant leg, "tracks my location constantly, so I can't escape custody. Again." He considered, but opted not to tell her about his current living arrangement. Right, he thought, this nice old lady is just dying to hear more about you and the roach hotel - no, motel. He looked back at her, an apology for wasting her time on his lips and anticipating a look of shock, horror or disgust; he did not expect the smirk she gave him, just before she let out a delightfully melodious laugh.
"So, what's the government rate for housing convicted felons these days?" she asked. The expression on his face was worth one month's rent easily.
He recovered quickly. "According to Special Agent Peter Burke, it's $700."
"Hmm, that's not a lot for Manhattan," she said, "but it is a walk-up, and your room would be on the third floor. What were you in prison for?"
"Originally, bond forgery. This, though, is for escaping with three months left on my sentence." He took a breath. "Did you say, my room IS on the third floor?" He didn't want to get his hopes up too much. His motel room was only slightly larger than, but not nearly as clean as, his prison cell had been. He was seriously contemplating finding a homeless shelter in his two-mile radius. Cardboard boxes over the subway grates weren't a bad option, either. "Why would you even consider this?"
"Byron was a felon, too," she said. "Would you like to see the room before you decide?" The twinkle in her eye told him she knew what she had, and it was worth several multiples of the "government rate."
He thought he'd give her an out, just in case. "I have to pick up some paperwork from the motel down the street. I can be back here in ten minutes, I just need to leave Peter your address, or you can call him yourself, if you'd be more comfortable, Mrs. - "
"Ellington, June Ellington. Please, just call me June."
They arrived at June's mansion - there was no other word for it - twenty minutes later. June carried her pug and Neal carried a stack of reports and the garment bag she had planned to donate to the third floor. Her "guest room" was not a single room, but a suite with a kitchenette, a bathroom, a large terrace and a view of Manhattan that was nothing short of magnificent. Kate would love it here, he thought.
"Seven hundred dollars," he repeated.
" Why don't we chat for a bit to work out the details of our arrangement?" She seemed inclined to sit on a loveseat in front of a bookshelf. He, however, looked toward the balcony.
"Could we - ?"
"Oh, of course," and she watched as he nearly bounced past the french doors and over to the wall surrounding the terrace. He stood absolutely still as he took in the view and the air as if he hadn't had either in a very long time. Which, as she knew, he hadn't. She studied him from the doorway. Even through his coat she could see the tension leave his shoulders as he breathed in the cold air, just like Byron used to do. And this boy's smiles - also like Byron's - one would get him into nothing but trouble, and the other would get him out of it. When Neal finally turned around he had an expression of peace on his face that he probably hadn't felt in ages. It changed in an instant to concern. "June, I'm sorry, you must be freezing," he said, and led her back inside. Yes, she thought, he'll be fine here.
They sat down and talked about her expectations of him (for $700 a month he could walk Bugsy, her pug, when she wasn't able to do so herself, and wash her car on the rare occasion that it left the garage and got dusty). Oh, and her granddaughters. She didn't need to do more than look at him fiercely when she said they spent a lot of time with her, but she knew they would be safe with him before they even left the thrift shop. Bringing up her granddaughters, however, was her segue to have him talk about himself. She watched his internal struggle with how much to say, but in the end three thoughts converged, all of which made him open up to her as he had not done with anyone in a very long time. First, she was letting him into her home, and she had every right to know just who was going to be living on her third floor. Second, he knew very well that anything he said to her would never be repeated to anyone, especially if those statements could be used against him in a court of law. Finally, but most surprisingly significant to himself, he hadn't realized until she threw him this lifeline just how lonely he had been since Kate left him in prison. Yes, he could certainly keep secrets, but he desperately needed human contact. He respected Peter Burke, but they were never going to be friends. And his skills were still good enough that he got her to talk about her life with Byron, something she hadn't been able to do with anyone else in a long time, either. By the middle of a comfortable afternoon they felt like two old friends.
"Neal, when's the last time you had a decent meal?"
"I don't really remember - over four years," he said softly.
She stood and started toward the door. "I'll send someone up here to get this place ready for you," she said, extending her hand toward him, "so for today you will be my guest." He pressed her hand to his bent elbow and said, grinning, "be my host." And then, much more seriously, "thank you, June."
A/N: The title of this story is from the song, "Be My Host" from the musical No Strings. Music and Lyrics by Richard the title of a song.
"Step up, my friend and be my host, Step up and offer me a toast. I'm the duckiest little guest you ever met, You're the luckiest, as of yet."*