For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
The week before Christmas, El was working late when her phone rang. She answered it without glancing at the Caller ID, figuring it was too late for telemarketers or vendors. "Elizabeth Burke, Burke Premier Events," she said, just in case.
El froze. She'd know that voice anywhere, had missed hearing it for almost exactly two years now. "Neal?" she said, breathlessly.
"Yup, it's me. How are you?"
"How am I? Neal, it's been two years! How are you? Where are you? Are you coming home? Damn it, Neal, why didn't you tell Peter before you left?" The final question was the only important one, the one that had kept her awake at night for the last six months. If only Neal had told Peter, if only Peter had known for sure that Neal was coming back, it might have made all the difference. Or maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all.
Neal laughed. "I know, I'm sorry. I just got back yesterday, actually. I'm staying at June's until I find some work and a place of my own. I didn't tell Peter because . . ." Neal sighed. "I don't know. I think I just wanted to travel and not have anyone know where I was for a while."
"Two years, Neal?" she replied. "For two years you didn't want anyone to know where you were?"
"Hey, I was in prison for four years and on a pretty short leash for another four. I thought two was pretty reasonable in comparison. And I was good."
El sighed. "That's not the point."
"I know," Neal said, sounding genuinely contrite. "I'm sorry. Let me start making it up to you guys. Do you have plans for Christmas Eve? I was thinking about cooking at my place. What do you say?"
El bit her lip. "Neal . . ." She stopped. This never got easier.
"El, what is it?" Neal asked after a moment. "What's wrong?"
"Neal, Peter and I separated six months ago."
There was dead silence on the other end of the line. "I'm sorry," Neal said at last. "I must have misheard. I could swear you just told me that you and Peter were separated."
"We are," Elizabeth said. She swallowed against the lump in her throat. "I've been living at the house, he has a place in the city. We're not really even speaking right now."
"But - what - no," Neal said. "I'm not doing this over the phone. What are you doing right now? Can you meet me?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said. She had work she could do - there was always work to do - but the truth was that she was dying to see him. She wasn't sure if she would slap him or hug him when she did, but she wanted to see him more than anything. Peter’s wasn't the only heart he'd broken when he'd disappeared. "Where?"
He gave her the name of a wine bar roughly halfway between her office and June's house and said he'd see her there in half an hour. She packed up and for once decided to leave her work at the office. It was so empty at the house with just herself and Satchmo - emptier than it had ever been, somehow, when Peter worked late. It was better to wear herself out working, she thought, than to stare at the television until she fell asleep on the couch.
She was slightly early arriving at the bar. She ordered a glass of Cava and a plate of olives and Spanish cheese to nibble. Her wine and food had barely arrived when Neal breezed in on a rush of cold air. He looked much as he had the last time she had seen him, his hair just a little longer, the crease between his eyebrows just a little deeper. He spotted her and smiled, threading his way toward her through the tables. She stood up and he hugged her, hard. She hugged him back and felt her eyes fill with tears.
"I missed you," he said into her hair.
"I missed you, too," she said, tucking her head against his chest. "I could just about kill you, you know."
"I know, I'm sorry. Let's sit down." El slid back into her seat, while Neal waved for the waiter. He ordered a glass of Cabernet and then turned back to her. "What happened, El? The two of you were always so solid."
"We were," El said, sadly. It hurt so much to think of how things used to be. "But after you left, things just got really hard. Peter was so angry with you, and he wouldn't talk to me about it. I tried to get him to see someone, and I think Diana and Reese both did, too, but he wouldn't. He was just angry, all the time. And then he started working late."
Neal frowned. "He's always worked late."
She shook her head. "This was different. Before, he worked late when he had to. But after you left, he started working till nine or ten even when nothing was happening." She sighed. "We had a couple of fights about it, the sort of fights we both swore we'd never have. He just got more and more unhappy, and I got really unhappy, and we got stuck in this horrible downward spiral until I couldn't take it anymore. He moved out in June."
Neal stared at her, then looked away, covering his mouth with his hand. "I'm so sorry," he said, looking back at her. "I never meant - I never thought -"
"No, you didn't," Elizabeth said, and felt a suddenly flare of anger. "You didn't think about anyone but yourself. You didn't think for one second about how Peter would feel or how I would feel or how anyone who loved you would feel, never knowing where you were or what you were doing, whether you were even alive, or if you were ever coming back. It ate Peter up inside, and then it ate my marriage."
Neal's wine arrived, at the absolute worst possible moment. Wisely, the waiter didn't ask if they needed anything else, just delivered the glass discretely and then disappeared. Neither of them spoke at all for nearly a minute. Elizabeth was struggling not to cry, and Neal, when she glanced at him, didn't seem to be in much better shape. "I'm sorry," she finally said, when she felt like she could speak. "That wasn't fair."
"Yes, it was," Neal said, roughly. "June said something similar to me when I called her. She said, 'You can't build a life and then abandon it.'" He was silent, staring down into his untouched glass of wine. "Her granddaughter got really sick again last year, nearly died. I should have been there for her. And I should have been there for you, too," he said, looking up. "Maybe if I had been -"
"Maybe," she said. "But I don't know if it'd have made a difference. If it wasn't you leaving, it might've been something else. Maybe Peter and I were a time bomb, just waiting to go off."
"No," Neal said, shaking his head. "I refuse to believe that. The two of you . . . God." He sighed. "Come here." He held his arm out and El scooted over in the booth so she was tucked into his arm.
She turned and pressed her forehead against his chest. "Have you told Peter yet?"
"No," Neal said. "I was hoping you'd help me surprise him." El felt him swallow. "Can I ask . . . you're separated. Not divorced. Is that just a formality or . . . ?"
"I don't know," she admitted, sitting up straight. She took a fortifying sip of wine. "I don't think either of us wants to take that final step. Neither of us is really seeing anyone else - at least I'm not, and I can't imagine Peter is, with the hours he was working. I just couldn't handle living with someone who was so angry all the time."
Neal nodded. "So do you think . . . if Peter were less angry . . ."
El shook her head. "I don't know." She pressed her lips together. "I want my marriage back," she said, voice cracking terribly. "I want things to be like they were. But I don't know if they can be. Sometimes things break and you can't fix them."
"But you also can't not try to fix them," Neal said. "I can't not try to fix this. Let me try, El. Please."
She looked at him. "How?"
"Christmas dinner at my place," he said. "I'll ask Peter. June will be there, too, and a few other people I've managed to round up. You can talk if you want, or not."
El hesitated. She'd told her sister that she would be at her place on Christmas Eve - but under the circumstances she thought Jo would understand. "Yes, all right. Thank you."
"Thank you," Neal said, "for even speaking to me after all this."
El reached over and covered his hand with her own. "We missed you something awful.”
"I know," he said, looking rather subdued. "So did June. I . . . I don't think I ever expected that.”
“Oh sweetie. You didn’t think we would miss you?”
“I’m not used to being missed.”
“Well, get used to it,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Or better yet, don’t. Don’t leave again, Neal.”
“I won’t,” he said, and it had the weight of a promise, of a vow behind it. “I won’t leave again, El. I’m here for good.”
For months after Neal had left, Peter had constantly expected to turn around and see him, grinning at him in his usual self-satisfied way. He made up entire conversations in his head, depending on where they were; sometimes he even dreamed them. On his worst days, he found Neal again because he had to arrest him; on his best, Neal turned up on his doorstep with a smile and a tan.
But months passed without so much as an email, and Peter realized that Neal wasn't coming back. He stopped looking for him in crowds, stopping hoping that the blocked number on his cell phone would be him, stopped hoping for anything at all. Looking back, he realized that was when things with El had begun to slide downhill.
The moment he’d stopped hoping was long past, and so it was a shock for Peter to come home from work and find Neal Caffrey loitering on the front steps of his apartment building. He was chatting with the doorman and folding an origami Santa, if Peter wasn't mistaken. When Peter cleared his throat, Neal looked up. "Peter!" he said, straightening. "Hey."
"Hello Neal," Peter said. "What are you doing here?"
Neal shrugged. "I came home."
"Yeah," Neal said, uncharacteristically serious. "Really. I'm staying with June while I look for work in the private security sector."
"Great," Peter said flatly, as the doorman held the door open for him. "Best of luck with that."
Neal followed him inside. "Listen -"
"No, you listen," Peter said, turning to face him. “You left, Caffrey, without so much as a forwarding address. I have no interest in seeing or talking to you, now that you've deigned to come back. I don't want to hear about where you were or what you're doing. I don't care."
"I don't get a second chance?"
Peter snorted. "Second? I think if I'm generous you're on your twelfth chance by now. And no, you don't." He turned away and punched the call button for the elevator. Go away, he thought. Don't ask me about El, don't ask me about El -
"I talked to El, Peter. She told me what happened."
Peter closed his eyes. "She told you what a terrible husband I am, then. About the bitter, angry, awful person I've become."
"God, Peter, no."
"That's funny," Peter said, wishing the elevator would hurry the hell up. "That's what she said to me the last time we talked."
"Well, that's not what she said to me." Peter didn't respond. After a moment, Neal stepped closer, invading Peter’s personal space the same infuriating way he’d always done. "Look, I know you don't want to see me. I understand why, and I understand you probably don't care how sorry I am. But El and I talked for a long time the other night, and I think you'll want to hear what she had to say."
"I think she and I have said everything we have to say to each other."
"Then why haven't you filed for divorce yet, either of you?"
The elevator opened at last. Peter got in and turned to look at Neal, who stared back so hopefully. "Fine," he said. "Get in."
Peter's apartment was a disaster. Since moving in six months earlier, he'd done the bare minimum of housekeeping necessary to avoid making himself sick. Dishes sat in the sink for days before he did them - there was no dishwasher - and clothes lay on the floor until he got around to doing laundry every few weeks. The living room was tiny and consisted of a TV and a single armchair. There was nothing on the walls.
"Wow, Peter," Neal said, stopping in the foyer to stare. "I love what you've done with the place."
Peter felt his temper flare. "I didn't invite you up here so you could make smartass remarks about my life. If you have something to say, say it. If not, leave. You're good at that." He turned his back to go into the kitchen.
Neal sighed and followed him. "I deserved that."
"Damn right you deserve it," Peter said, digging a beer out of the fridge. He did not offer one to Neal. "What the hell did I do, Caffrey? For four years, I busted my ass keeping you out of prison, which wasn't easy, by the way. And the moment it was over, you were gone. You never said good-bye, you never said thank you -"
"Hey, that's not true," Neal said. "Peter, I will stand here and let you berate me if it'll make you feel better, but I'll be damned if I let you tell yourself lies about what I did or did not do. I did say thank you. I stood in your office and I said, 'Thank you, Peter, for everything.'"
Peter took a swig of beer. "Yeah, stopped by on your way to the airport, did you?"
"I needed some time to myself, Peter. Is that so hard to understand? But I am sorry," he went on, before Peter could reply, "I am so, so sorry that I hurt you. You didn't deserve that. I didn't think it would matter so much, I really didn't. I thought you and El would go on with your lives, and someday I'd come back into them as though I'd never left. If I had known what would happen, I would never have done it. Never."
Peter shook his head. "This isn't what I invited you up to hear. If you have a message from my wife, just spit it out."
Neal sighed. "It's not a message. She told me she misses you. She wants to try again, she's not ready to give up. She still loves you, and I know you must still love her, or you wouldn't be in ten kinds of pain right now. But she can't live with you when you're this angry, and I don’t blame her. Is this how you talked to her, Peter? Is this how you talked to El?"
Peter tightened his grip on his beer bottle. "Yes."
Peter forced himself to look Neal in the eye. "Because you left, and it hurt. I tried to make it stop hurting. I couldn't."
"But that wasn't El's fault," Neal said, very quietly. "It was mine."
"I know," Peter said, and laughed, harshly. "Believe me, I know. But she was there and you weren't. I guess it's true what they say: misery loves company." He shook his head and closed his eyes. "God, I really am as awful as she said I was."
"You're not," Neal said, very quietly. "I know you're not. And you know how I know? Because for four years, you saved me from myself. You're the best man I've ever known, Peter."
Peter had to turn away. He took a long drink from his bottle, and when he finally felt capable, he turned back to look at Neal. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to come to Christmas Eve dinner at June's. I’m hosting. El will be there. So will a few other people, so it won't just be the three of us, but there'll be time for you two to talk, if you both want to."
Peter stared down at filthy kitchen floor. He'd never mopped it, not once in six months. "She wants to?"
Peter swallowed. "Yes. I'll come."
"Thank you," Neal said, and turned to go.
"Neal," Peter called impulsively, when Neal was halfway out the door. Neal looked over his shoulder. "Welcome back."
Neal smiled, brilliant as the sun. Something inside Peter that had been cold for a long time started to thaw in the warmth of that smile. "Thanks, Peter. It's good to be home."
Christmas Eve was clear and cold, with no hint of snow in the air. El left work early to go home and change. She tried on dress after dress, but nothing looked right. By the time she settled on a dark red dress with black heels and the small, tasteful emerald earrings she'd inherited from her grandmother, she was running almost a half hour late and the bedroom looked as though the closet had thrown up on it.
June's mansion was decked out for the holidays, with every window outlined in white lights, wreathes and poinsettias everywhere she looked, and an impressively large Christmas tree in the downstairs sitting room. The maid led El up the stairs to Neal's apartment. She knocked and the door swung open to reveal Neal himself. "Merry Christmas,” she said, smiling and holding out the bottle of wine she’d brought.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, smiling gently as he took the bottle and stepped aside to allow her to come in. “Thank you for coming.”
"Sorry I'm late," she said, accepting his kiss on the cheek.
"Don't worry about it. People are going to be in and out all evening. I didn’t even try to do a formal sit-down dinner, just a simple buffet."
Following his gesture, El saw that Neal's “simple buffet” was actually quite substantial. It looked like Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, including a turkey and a roast, as well as lasagna. "Wow," El said, raising her eyebrows. "That looks amazing. Did you make it all yourself?"
"Yeah," Neal said, looking faintly embarrassed. "I might've gotten a bit carried away. Living out of hotels for two years, I really missed cooking. Anyway, let me take your coat."
"Thanks," El said. Neal disappeared with her coat into the back, and she looked around. The apartment was as beautifully decorated as the rest of the house, with a small tree in one corner and evergreen garlands looped around the walls. It smelled of pine and cinnamon, and an old-fashioned Christmas carol played subtly in the background. June was there, chatting with a gentleman El didn't recognize, and so was Jones, who appeared to have acquired a girlfriend since El had last seen him. There was no sign of Mozzie, but Elizabeth wasn't terribly surprised by that. He and Neal were never as close after the fiasco with the treasure.
She did not see Peter.
Neal reappeared after a few moments. "Help yourself to the food," he said. "The lasagna is roasted vegetable. I've got a few different kinds of wine open. Red or white?"
"Red, please," El said, and then, because she just couldn't stand it anymore, she said, "Neal -"
"He's out on the balcony," Neal said, handing her a glass of wine.
He'd come. Elizabeth hadn't really dared to hope he would. "What should I do?"
Neal smiled. "You should have some food with that wine, maybe talk to June for a bit. She was glad to hear you were coming. And then you should talk to Peter."
El took a deep breath. "Right. Thanks, Neal. I mean it," she added, when he looked like he was about to brush it off.
Neal's smile was decidedly sad. "I'm just trying to fix what I broke. Besides, the two of you . . . you always meant a lot to me."
El reached out to cup his face in her hand. "You mean a lot to us, too, Neal."
"No, I mean - well, never mind what I mean." He hugged her then, hard. He took a deep breath as though he wanted to say something else, but then, after a moment, he simply let it go.
Someone else knocked, and Neal had to leave her to play host. She decided to follow his advice and got a plate of food, though she didn't think she'd be able to eat, and went and sat with June. She and El had always gotten along well, and it was good to catch up. El thought June probably knew what had happened with her and Peter, but to El’s relief, she didn’t ask about it or say she was sorry to have heard. El relaxed by degrees; to her surprise, when she looked down at her plate after a few minutes, she found she'd eaten almost everything on it.
Eventually June was drawn away by someone else, and El found herself alone. There would be no better time, she decided. She swallowed the last of her wine, drew a deep breath, and went out to the balcony.
She'd expected it to be bitterly cold, but standing heaters gave off more than enough heat. Someone had decorated out here, too, with icicle lights and more evergreen garlands. There were three small tables draped in red with lit candles, and at one of them Peter sat chatting with Diana and Christie. He looked older, El thought. Or maybe he just looked more tired.
Diana saw her and leaned over to say something to Peter. He looked up and his eyes caught hers, and El suddenly felt as though the bottom had dropped out of her stomach.
She was vaguely aware of Diana and Christie going inside. Diana said something as she left, maybe that it was nice to see her - El could never remember later. She remembered Peter standing and coming over to her, she remembered that his hands were warm when he gripped hers, and she remembered the cold, sharp shock of tears on her face when she tilted her head back to look up at him.
"El," he said raggedly. "I'm so sorry."
"I forgive you," she said, and kissed him. He startled at first and then kissed her back, one of his hands coming to rest at her waist and the other on the small of her back. She stroked her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck and kissed him until her knees went weak. When he finally pulled away it was so he could hug her. The solid strength of him was so familiar and yet so precious. El pressed her forehead against his shoulder and held him back, as hard as she could.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you, too. Oh God, El . . ."
"I know," she said, holding on to him even harder. "I know."
Eventually they let go of each other long enough to find their way to one of the chaise lounges, which had been dressed up with a red throw for the occasion. Peter sat down and pulled her into his arms. She pulled the blanket across both of them and rested her head on his chest, listening to his beloved heartbeat. She smiled. "Do you remember -"
"Our tenth anniversary," he said. "I was thinking about that before. Neal made that happen, too."
They were both quiet for a while. El tried to think how to say what she needed to say to him, without ruining the moment completely. “You hurt me,” she said at last.
“The things you said, Peter.” She twisted to look at him. “I forgive you, but I can’t forget the way you talked to me.”
“You shouldn’t forget,” Peter said. “I’m sorry, El. I said it before, and I’ll say it as many times as I need to. After Neal came to see me the other night, I spent some time really looking at myself, and I - I didn’t like what I saw.”
“You froze me out. Just when you needed me most.” El shook her head. “I understand you were angry, but I don’t understand why you did that.”
“I don’t know either,” Peter confessed. “I just couldn’t bear talking about it or thinking about it, except I was always thinking about it. And talking about it with you - it should have been all right, but it made me feel awful. I knew you were sad, too, and at first I didn’t want to make you sadder, and then . . . I don’t know. I hadn’t talked about it for so long, I didn’t know how to start.”
“Well, you’re going to start. We’re going to get counseling after the holidays. That isn’t negotiable.” She held her breath; this had been one of their issues, in the month or two before he moved out. He’d refused to see a counselor and had shouted her down any time she’d broached the subject.
To her immense relief, he nodded. “All right.”
“And you need to talk to Neal. You need to tell him what you were going to tell him that night.”
Peter shook his head and tightened his arms around her. "I don't need to tell him. All I need to be happy is you, El."
"Peter," she said, with what she thought was admirable patience, "if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that that is patently untrue. And it's all right," she added, when he started to protest. "I care about him, too, you know."
"You don’t think we should wait? Maybe until after we’ve had a few months of counseling and really have us back?"
"We wouldn’t be getting us back at all if it weren’t for him," she pointed out.
Peter's mouth twisted, and he hid his face against her hair. "I know. If he hadn't come back . . . El, my life without you is a misery."
"Mine, too, honey," she said, stroking her fingers through his hair. “But I mean it, about telling Neal. I think that if we’re going to do this with him, he needs to be part of it from the beginning. His leaving was part of what went wrong between us - not all of it, but a lot of it. I think he needs to be part of working through what happened, too.”
“What if he says no?” Peter asked. “I know you always thought he was in love with me, but he left for two years, El. Without saying good-bye.”
El sighed. “If he says no, then he says no. As long as you keep talking to me, we’ll be okay, and I think - I’m almost certain he would still be our friend. But you need to tell him, and I don’t think you should wait. Do it tonight. Don’t let any more opportunities go wasted."
Peter was silent for a while. "I will," he said at last. "Soon. For now, I just want to be here with you."
They stayed out on the balcony for nearly an hour, talking quietly about small things: their work, their friends and families, Satchmo. All the things El had missed telling him about in the last six months. In time, El knew, they’d get to the hard stuff, and it wouldn’t be easy. But tonight, none of that mattered. Tonight, she felt like anything was possible.
She was just starting to think about asking Peter if they should rejoin the party when the balcony doors opened and Neal stepped out, three glasses of wine in hand. He shut the doors behind him and made his way over. "Hi there," he said, smiling.
"Hi," El said, accepting the glass of wine he handed her. "Sorry for hogging the balcony."
"That's okay," Neal said, pulling a chair over next to the chaise lounge. "June invited everyone downstairs for music and dancing."
"That sounds nice," Peter said, and pressed his lips to El's head. "But this is better."
"So I see," Neal said. "I'm glad. And," he looked down at his wine, "I'm sorry again, for the role I played in what happened. I never meant to hurt you so badly."
El glanced up at Peter, who looked back her. She nodded, and he drew a deep breath. "Neal," he said, "there's still part of the story you don't know." Neal looked up with a puzzled frown. "That night," Peter went on, voice shaking a bit, "after you got your anklet off, I came here to tell you something, but you'd already left. I came here to tell you . . ." Peter stopped and took a long sip of wine. El squeezed his hand, and he continued, "I came here to tell you that I’m in love with you. That we are in love with you."
Neal was staring at them as though he'd never seen them before. "You," he started, and then stopped. "Really?"
"Yes. Really. I don't know if you feel the same," Peter said, stronger now. "But I - we - wanted you to know."
“It’s okay if you don’t feel the same towards us,” El told him. “We'll still love you, and we'll still want you in our lives any way we can have you."
"I never knew,” Neal said, clearly stunned. “How didn’t I know?”
"I didn't want you to know," Peter said. "Not until after the anklet came off. I didn't want you to ever feel coerced."
Neal was silent for a long time. El could feel how fast Peter’s heart was beating, and she stroked his hand beneath the blanket to try and calm him. "When I left," Neal said at last, quietly, "part of the reason was that I wanted something I didn't think I could ever have. And I thought, I have to go, I have to get out, and when I'm over it, I can come back."
"And are you?" El asked, torn between hope and sorrow that they had all hurt each other so badly without even realizing it. "Over it, that is?"
Neal shook his head. "I came back because I realized I was never going to get over it. I was never going to stop wanting what I thought I couldn’t have, and I was just going to have to learn to live without it." He stood up, and El was suddenly afraid he would leave. But Peter caught on faster than she did and shifted them both over so that Neal could sit on the edge of the chaise lounge. "I couldn't stay away any longer," he said, the tips of his fingers drifting over El's cheek. "I missed you both so much."
"And you're staying," El said. "You promised."
"I did," Neal said, and though he was answering her, he was looking at Peter. "I promise, I'm staying."
"Good," Peter breathed, and kissed him. It was so impossibly tender and sweet, almost tentative, it made El’s heart ache. When they finally broke the kiss, they stayed frozen, forehead to forehead, just breathing each others' air. Then Neal moved, but only to lean down and kiss her. It had been so long since El had kissed anyone but Peter, it was a shock: the taste of his mouth, his fingers sliding into her hair, the scent of his cologne. It made a little bubble of arousal burst in her belly, spreading warmth out to the tips of her fingers and toes.
When they finally came up for air, Neal let his head rest on her shoulder, with his fingers tangled in Peter's. El looked up at Peter; his eyes were closed and he looked so calm, so peaceful. El wrapped both arms around Neal and said, "Come home with us tonight?”
Neal looked up at them both. “You both want that? Really? You wouldn’t rather be alone together first?”
“Not tonight,” Peter said. El nodded her agreement. Later, she knew that she and Peter would need time - lots of time - to work things out between them. Some of it Neal would be a part of, but some of it they would need to do on their own. She was certain he would understand and give them as much space as they asked for. But tonight, she wanted him with them. “Come home with us, Neal. Please.”
Neal smiled, and it was like the sun breaking over the horizon after a long, cold winter’s night. “Yes,” he said. “Nothing would make me happier.”