Elizabeth was on the phone to Yvonne, discussing security for a product launch, when she heard two car doors slam and angry male voices approaching the house. Peter and Neal. It wasn't unusual for Peter to bring Neal home during the day when they were working a case, but Neal wasn't the type to get angry and he never shouted. The way Peter told it, Neal was always the one to defuse tension, to reason his way out of trouble. El tuned back to what Yvonne was saying for a few seconds, but she was too distracted to follow the meaning. "Sorry, my dear, I have to go. I'll call you back."
She hung up just as the front door banged open.
"—drew his fire," said Peter. "Copeland could have killed you, Neal. I could be standing in the morgue right now."
"I wouldn't have let that happen." Neal shut the door behind him and threw his hat toward the banister. It missed and fell to the floor, but he didn't notice, too focused on Peter. "I had the situation under control."
"You don't control the situation." Peter turned on him, still in the entranceway. "This isn't a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you flip to page 34 and die a miserable death, you can't just start over."
There was a tremor in his voice that tugged at El's heart. She went over. "What happened?"
"The suspect pulled a gun, and Neal in his infinite wisdom decided to put himself in the firing line," said Peter, still glaring at Neal.
"And if I hadn't, it might be Elizabeth at the morgue now, and you on a slab," said Neal, quieter now, but no less angry. "Have you thought about that?"
"I was wearing a vest. Your precious Devore wouldn't stop BBs, let alone .38 caliber bullets." Peter clenched his fists at his side for a moment, then put his hands on his hips.
Neal shook his head violently, making a curl of hair fall forward onto his forehead. "I won't just stand by and—"
"You have to," Peter interrupted, advancing on him. "And if you won't, I'm putting you back in prison."
"No." Neal went pale. "You wouldn't—"
Neal had expressed distaste for prison before, but never fear, so El figured there must be something else at work. If his agitation was anything to go by, that something was the need to protect Peter. The showdown with Copeland must have really hit a nerve.
She folded her arms tightly and bit her lips together to keep from interfering. However hard it was to hear, they obviously needed to get this out, to clear the air so Neal could stop feeling answerable for the fate of the world and Peter could drum some caution into him. El was pretty sure Peter wouldn't really send Neal back inside, not after all they'd been through. He'd hated leaving him there after the explosion.
But Peter did sound determined. "I'm responsible for you, Neal. If I can't keep you safe on the outside—"
"No," said Neal. "No, I won't—" He broke off, breathing hard.
"Won't what?" asked El.
"Won't let it happen again." He looked at her, white-faced and grim. "No more mistakes. First Kate, then Mozzie. No more."
"Mozzie's okay. He's getting better." El tried to sound soothing, but it had the opposite effect on Neal.
A muscle moved in his jaw. "And if I'd answered my phone when Peter called, I could have warned him in time and he wouldn't have been shot at all."
"Oh." El unfolded her arms and started to reach for him—if ever anyone needed a hug, it was Neal now—but Peter was already on it.
"You couldn't know that." He took another step toward Neal till they were barely a foot apart and held up his hands. It seemed as if their earlier shouting was still echoing off the walls, but Peter's voice was firm and flat, the contrast almost shocking. "It's not your fault, Neal. It was Larsen's finger on the trigger."
Neal gestured impatiently, refusing to be comforted. "That isn't the point, and you know it. Just—let me protect you. If not for you, then for Elizabeth's sake. The Bureau doesn't have to know."
El ached for him and for herself. For a selfish split second, she wished it were that easy, that she could charge Neal with the duty of keeping Peter safe for her, but— "It doesn't work like that," she said.
Peter didn't look away from Neal, but his hand came out, half reaching for her, maybe without him realizing. "No, it doesn't," he told Neal. "You're not expendable just because you're not married, and I am not going to have your death on my conscience."
"You're such a hypocrite!" Neal blew out a frustrated breath and shoved him hard, pushing him against the wall by the stairs and holding him there, heedless of the heavy mirror, which rattled against the painted brick. "Fine, then you'd better lock me up, because sooner or later, odds are that someone's going to fire on one of us, and I won't let it be you."
El could only glimpse his face in the mirror, but her view of Peter's was unimpeded. He was speechless, exasperated. Concerned for Neal. Loving him. Letting Neal hold him there and making no move to free himself.
"I'd rather it wasn't either of you," said El honestly. She moved in and laid her hand lightly on Neal's arm, making him flinch. The tension in his body was dark and heavy, like a gathering storm. "Neal, honey, Peter knows what he's doing. He's very good at his job. You have to trust him."
"It's not about trust," said Neal, not quite looking at her.
"Then tell us what it is about," said El. "The world's a dangerous place. You can't keep an eye on us twenty-four/seven. You can't preserve us in amber." These were truths she preferred not to think about, but Neal needed to hear them.
He wasn't listening. "If I'd been on the plane, I might have found the bomb in time."
Peter inhaled sharply and covered Neal's hands on his chest. "Or more likely, you'd have died too."
He wasn't angry anymore—El could see that—but he was still keyed up, and his entire focus was on Neal.
A sound that was almost a sob escaped Neal. "At least she would have gone knowing—Fowler had her for months, and I didn't help her. She asked for my stash and I said no. I said no, Peter. I never got to make sure she knew—"
He loved her. The words hung in the air, unspoken. El understood as well as anyone how important it was to say them, and say them often. Every day she and Peter made sure the other knew. But Neal hadn't had the chance; after all he'd been through, with Kate just out of reach, he'd never said goodbye. And now there was no trace of the charming con artist El had come to know; just a broken man, weighted with regret.
"She knew," said Peter, letting his hands fall to his sides.
"How?" Neal's anger flared again, and he pushed Peter back against the mirror with an audible thud. "How could she have known? The last thing she saw was me turning away from her." His hands fisted in Peter's shirt, and he was so strung out that El almost expected him to punch Peter, but he didn't. "I won't let you down," he said fiercely, and kissed him, desperate and raw. El covered her mouth, unable to tear her eyes away from them, her heart beating a complicated rhythm of compassion, pity and desire. She should be outraged, perhaps, or jealous, but there was none of that, though while Peter wasn't kissing back, not quite, he wasn't pushing Neal away either. He gripped Neal's arms and held him there, until Neal finally pulled back.
"El—" Peter sounded agonized.
Her heart went out to him. "I know."
Neal released Peter, and perhaps it was over, the towering emotions dispelled by a lightning-rod kiss, but no. Neal was turning to her now. "Elizabeth, you too. I won't ever—"
He moved as if to kiss her—and God, she wanted him to, wanted to feel the passion and urgency that had so undone her husband; and more—but she caught Neal's hands and held him off. If it ever came to that, it had to be a decision, a conscious move by all three of them. Not driven by uncontrolled need and grief. The consequences would be too far reaching for all of them.
"Sorry." He backed off immediately, and his fractured self visibly started to reform, layers upon layers of control and restraint. He ran a shaking hand through his hair. "God, I—" He looked sideways at Peter, mortified. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Peter told him quietly, a wealth of feeling behind the platitude.
Carefully, gently, El put her arms around Neal and held him. "It's all right." She looked over his shoulder to meet Peter's gaze, and added, making it as clear as she could that she wasn't promising anything by it, "We love you too, Neal. It's okay."