New York in the fall had always been Sara’s very favorite place to be. In the hot, humid, dog-days of August, she lived for the day she’d step outside and feel just the slightest bite in the air. Fall in New York meant leaves turning in Central Park, tea and oatmeal in the morning, and digging her favorite peacoat out of storage. Also, her hair stopped frizzing. That was always a plus.
When the opportunity came up for a trip back to New York in mid-September, Sara jumped at it. She could have sent one of her investigators, but London had endured a gray, dreary summer, and she was looking forward to some color. She booked her tickets and a room at the Four Seasons, and then, not letting herself overthink it, she called Neal. It’d been a little while since she’d last heard from him, but she was certain he’d want to know she’d be in town.
No answer - in fact, it rolled to voicemail immediately, which made her think the phone was turned off altogether. She left a message, letting him know that she’d be in New York and that he should call her.
The trip was last minute, and she had a million things to tie up before leaving. Between one thing and another, it wasn’t until she was on the plane, waiting to taxi down the runway, that she realized she’d never heard back from Neal.
They’d been told to turn off their electronic devices, but they still hadn’t pulled away from the gate. She called him and, once again, it rolled straight to voicemail. “Hey, Neal,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m on my way. I get in to JFK about four o’clock, and if you’re free this evening I’d love to have dinner and catch up. Let me know.” She hung up, turned the phone off, and slipped it into her bag.
There was no message waiting for her when she landed in New York. She stopped in the middle to the concourse, frowning at her phone. She and Neal had left things well enough, she’d thought. They hadn’t communicated a lot since she’d left New York, but the emails they’d exchanged had seemed friendly. Certainly he hadn’t given her any reason to suspect he’d deliberately ignore her messages. Even if he was seeing someone - and she suspected, based on a few things he’d said, that he might have been - that didn’t mean they couldn’t have dinner.
It was strange, she thought, that the phone didn’t even ring. Maybe he’d changed his number.
Well, there was one easy way to find out. Sara called Peter, who picked up on the first ring. “Burke,” he said, sounding harried and distracted.
“Hi Peter, it’s Sara,” she said.
“Sara!” he said. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” she said, smiling. “I’m in New York, actually.”
“Yup, standing in the middle of JFK. I was calling because I haven’t been able to get ahold of Neal. Did he change his number or something? It keeps rolling straight to voicemail.”
There was a long silence then. Long enough that Sara started to get nervous. Maybe Neal had changed his number, and maybe he didn’t want Sara to have the new one. She’d thought they had parted on good terms, but perhaps Neal had thought otherwise. But no - that didn’t make any sense. Something else had to be going on. Something worse.
“Peter,” she said, when she just couldn’t stand it anymore, “what’s wrong? Where’s Neal?”
Peter swallowed, audibly. “I don’t know,” he said, voice hoarse. “Neal was kidnapped, Sara. He’s been missing for a month.”
That night, instead of having dinner with Neal as Sara had hoped, she had dinner with Peter. He met her at a gastropub down the street from the FBI building.
He looked terrible. He’d lost weight in the last month, and not in ways that suited him. His hair seemed grayer, too, and overall he looked . . . the only phrase that really came to mind was weighed down.
“I thought he’d run,” Peter confessed. “I’d recommended the rest of his sentence be commuted, but the request had been denied. He was disappointed and frustrated, and I thought he’d run. But then Mozzie said he hadn’t gotten in touch with him and none of his go-bags were gone. We figured it out pretty fast, but I wasted at least forty-eight hours thinking he’d cut his own anklet, and those forty-eight hours . . .” He swallowed.
They were crucial, Sara knew, in a kidnapping case. “Do you have any leads at all?” she asked.
“A few,” Peter said, dully. “Someone saw him being taken, so we have a description of the kidnapper and of the van. We know they went to New Jersey - a security camera caught them running a tollbooth on the George Washington Bridge. But they could be anywhere now. And after a month . . .”
It was hard to keep hope alive after so long, Sara knew. She’d hoped for days, then weeks, after her sister’s disappearance that she would just suddenly reappear or that the police would find her. But after a month passed, then two, it became harder to believe, especially as she’d watched her parents lose hope. And Emily had run away. Neal had been kidnapped by someone who probably meant him harm.
Sara didn’t know what to say, and Peter didn’t seem to have the energy for conversation. Their food arrived. Sara knew she needed to eat - she’d had nothing since the snack she’d been served on the plane right before landing - but her salad looked distinctly unappealing. She wondered whether Neal, wherever he was, had regular meals. Peter looked just as queasy as Sara felt, eyeing his burger. He pushed the plate away after a few seconds and picked up his beer instead.
“How are you?” Sara asked after a moment.
“I’m fine,” Peter said automatically. Sara just kept looking at him, and after a moment he shrugged, slumping. “I’m . . . not good. I don’t know if Neal told you, but I was up for a promotion. I was going to be a section chief in DC. I’d already decided not to take it when Neal disappeared, but El had a job lined up at the National Gallery - it was too good for to her pass up. She’s been living in DC during the week and coming home on weekends.”
Sara raised her eyebrows. She’d always thought she might end up with a marriage like that, but she couldn’t imagine it for Peter and Elizabeth. “That must be hard.”
Peter looked down at his beer. “I thought it’d be okay, and maybe it would be if it weren’t for everything else, but it’s been . . . rough.” He set his beer down with a thunk on the table and buried his face in his hands. “I haven’t been sleeping or eating. The house is so quiet at night, and all I can think about is where Neal might be, what might be happening to him right then. And -” He broke off with a choked noise.
Sara forced herself not to look away, even though the naked emotion on Peter’s face made her deeply uncomfortable. Peter clearly needed someone to listen. It didn’t make a lot of sense for him to have chosen her, but then, maybe he didn’t have a lot of people to choose from. Neal was gone, and she bet he was hiding a lot of the pain from Elizabeth. He probably didn’t want her to feel guilty for having gone to DC.
“You’ll find him,” she said at last. “You always do.”
Peter stared down into the dregs of his beer, then shook his head. “I don’t think I will, this time. And that failure is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”
In the end, neither of them ended up eating much of anything. But by the time they left the pub, Peter had drunk four beers. Sara suspected that normally, that wouldn’t have been enough to make him unsteady on his feet, but Peter was close to collapse anyway from exhaustion. She ended up having to take his arm to steer him out of the pub, so that he wouldn’t run into the doorjamb. He was barely coherent enough to hail a cab, and Sara decided she couldn’t send him home like that - not to a dark, empty house.
It occurred to her then that she had a suite with a living room and a couch that pulled out into a bed.
Peter was out of it enough that he didn’t even object to her getting in the cab he’d managed to hail until she leaned forward and told the driver to take them to the Four Seasons. “What?” Peter managed.
Sara hesitated, then put her hand on Peter’s wrist, over the sleeve of his jacket. “You need help, Peter,” she said, as gently as she knew how. “I’m here. Let me help.”
Peter stared at her for a moment, and Sara thought he might argue. But he didn’t. Instead he sagged into the seat of the cab and nodded. Sara squeezed his wrist and then let go, turning away to look out the window at her favorite city in the world.
Neal. Where are you?
Sara was awake before dawn the next morning, thanks to the time difference between London and New York. She got up quietly and dressed to work out, placed a room service order to be delivered at seven, and let herself out of the room. Peter, asleep on the foldout couch in her suite, never stirred.
There were a handful of other people in the hotel’s fitness center, but at that hour, no one was trying to talk to anyone else. She ran herself hard on the treadmill, and while she was running, her mind was going. There were things that mattered and things that suddenly didn’t, and her priorities weren’t the same as they had been twenty-four hours earlier.
Priority #1: Find Neal.
Priority #2: Prevent Peter’s imminent mental and physical collapse.
Much further down the list was anything having to do with her job. She’d do what she came here to do, but she didn’t care if she saw London again in the near future.
She arrived back upstairs just as room service got there. She expected the rattle of the trays on the cart to wake Peter, but she found him already up, dressed, and showered, even if he was wearing the previous night’s clothes. She tipped the room service guy, told Peter to help himself, and went to get in the shower.
Peter was drinking coffee when she got out, but it didn’t look like he’d eaten anything. Sara poured herself coffee as well, and helped herself to oatmeal with fruit. “You need to eat something,” she told him.
Peter shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
“You didn’t eat anything last night. You need to eat something.”
“I can’t,” Peter said, looking away from the short stack of pancakes Sara had ordered. “I can’t, Sara. Every time I eat - every time I try and enjoy something I’m eating -”
“You think about Neal,” Sara said quietly, “and where he is, and you wonder when he last ate.” Peter nodded, shortly. “I know, Peter. I know. I’m doing it, too. But I don’t know if you noticed, but you’re making yourself sick.”
“I’m fine,” Peter muttered.
Sara snorted. “Does Elizabeth believe you when you tell her that? Because I don’t.” Peter didn’t answer. Sara slid the stack of pancakes and the syrup over to him, along with a plate of bacon. “Eat something, all right? And while you eat, I’m going to tell you about my plan.”
For the first time, Peter looked moderately interested. “You have a plan?”
“Yes,” Sara said. “But you only get to hear about it if you eat.”
Peter gave her a long-suffering look, but he picked up a piece of bacon and bit into it. “Happy?” he said with his mouth full.
“Yes, thank you.” Sara folded a napkin in her lap and regarded Peter steadily. “Here’s my plan. I have meetings this morning that I can’t cancel, but I’m going to clear my afternoon, and at lunch I’m going to come over to the FBI. You’re going to show me everything you have on Neal’s case, and then together, you and I are going to find him.”
Peter sighed. “How?”
“I don’t know yet.” she admitted. “But you know me, Peter. I’m very good at finding things.”
Peter looked down at his plate. “Sometimes I’m afraid. Of finding him. Of - of what I might find. It’s been a month, Sara.”
“I know it has,” she said, gently. “And I’m afraid, too. But we owe it to Neal. Even if . . .” She stopped, throat closing on the words. “Either way,” she finished at last.
Peter nodded. They finished their breakfast in silence. Peter ate a piece of bacon and half a pancake, along with two cups of coffee with cream. The caffeine probably wasn’t great for him, Sara thought, but she wasn’t his wife, after all. El could worry about his blood pressure and the ulcer he might be giving himself. For now, Sara’s job was to keep him upright and thinking.
Sara’s meeting wasn’t until nine, so she lingered a little longer over breakfast and the New York Times, while Peter finished getting ready. On his way out the door, Peter paused and turned back to look at her.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I was giving up.”
She met his eyes steadily. “We’re going to do this, Peter. We’re going to bring him home.”
He took a deep breath and nodded. Then he left, and all Sara could do for a long minute was sit and stare at the door of the hotel room.
God, I hope I’m right.
The investigation really was thin. They had a description of the kidnapper - dark hair, five-eleven or six feet tall, good looking - and then a description of a plain white van with New York plates. The van had been found, abandoned and wiped of prints. Neal’s anklet had also been found, smashed in a way that made Sara wince. There had been, since then, no communication at all from the kidnappers. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a ransom situation.
They wanted Neal for something, Sara was certain. The kidnappers wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble just to kill him. She had to believe that.
“That’s what I thought, too, at first,” Peter said, when Sara told him that. It was late on the second day; Sara had worked for eight hours at Sterling Bosch and then come to the FBI. Peter had sent Diana and Clinton home an hour ago, and Sara could tell, by the red rims of Peter’s eyes, that it was time to start working on getting him to leave, too. “Every kind of forgery and scheme Neal’s ever been involved with, we’ve been keeping an eye on. But so far there’s nothing.”
“There will be something,” Sara said, with a confidence she had to fight to feel. She knew now where Peter’s defeatism came from. She’d only been at this two days; she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be at it for a month, fighting everyday to keep believing there might be a happy reunion, or anything at all except more and greater grief, at the end of the tunnel.
Peter shook his head. “Not if he refused. If they took him, wanted him for something, and he wouldn’t give it to them . . .” He swallowed. “It’d be just like him. Just like him to go straight right when I need him not to.”
His voice broke. Sara closed the file and stood up. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Peter slept on her couch for the third night in a row. He’d argued a little the night before, but Sara had been firm, and it hadn’t taken much for him to give in. He had a garment bag at the office with a shocking number of options in it that he’d brought to the hotel, confirming Sara’s suspicions about where he’d actually been sleeping most nights.
It was a little odd, Sara knew, and she wondered what Peter was telling El. But he’d been alone with his fear and his grief for too long, and she wasn’t going to let him go on that way if she could help it.
Her bladder woke her in the middle of the night. She got up and padded out into the living room, careful not to let the door shut behind her. Peter was asleep, but he seemed restless, shifting beneath the covers. She’d used the bathroom and was heading back to bed when Peter let out a broken sound that made her freeze in her tracks. It was a small, shattered, animal sound, and as much as Sara would have liked to pretend she hadn’t heard it, she knew that wasn’t an option.
She put her hand on his shoulder, carefully. She was fast, but Peter was much bigger than she was. “Peter,” she said, and shook his shoulder. She grimaced; his pajama top was soaked through. “Peter, wake up, you’re dreaming.”
Peter moaned. Sara shook a little harder, and he came awake with a gasp. “Neal!”
Peter stared up at her for a few seconds, eyes wide and bewildered, and then sank back down into the covers with a groan. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, I was already awake,” Sara said, perching gingerly on the edge of the mattress. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Peter shook his head. “No need for both of us to have nightmares.”
“That bad?” Sara asked.
Peter nodded. “I don’t know what’s worse,” he said, contemplatively. “The ones where I search and search and never find him, and I know that I’m always just a little too late, that I’ll always be a little too late - or the ones where I do find him, and he’s . . .”
“Oh,” Sara said, her voice smaller than she wanted it to be. “Which one was it tonight?”
“The second one,” Peter said. He cleared his throat and threw off the covers. “I’m not getting back to sleep for a while. The fitness center is twenty-four hours, right?”
“Yes, just take a room key.”
He left. Sara went back to bed but she lay awake for a long time - long enough for her to hear Peter come back in and settle back into bed. She forced herself to close her eyes and breathe deeply until she slept.
Peter was noticeably brighter on Friday morning, with the anticipation of seeing Elizabeth that evening. He had better color, and he ate breakfast without prodding. Sara, who had been wondering how Elizabeth could possibly stand to leave him at the end of every weekend, suddenly realized that she might not know how bad things really were. This Peter was thinner than he should be but not gray with exhaustion. He looked tired, but he didn’t look old.
Peter told Sara that Elizabeth wanted her to come to the house for dinner that night, and so seven o’clock saw her climbing out of a cab in Brooklyn, a bottle of wine in hand. She’d had a long day. The constant anxiety, the ever-present, low-level hum of Neal Neal Neal Neal in the back of her head, was getting to her. She suspected that Peter would probably bring some of the files related to Neal’s case home, but Sara thought they could both use a night off.
Elizabeth answered the door when Sara knocked. “Hey, come in,” she said, stepping back. “It’s so good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” Sara said, and then almost squeaked as Elizabeth hugged her, much harder than she was expecting.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said into her ear.
“For what?” Sara asked, resisting the urge to pull away.
“For being here,” Elizabeth said. She squeezed her one last time and pulled away. “And for taking care of Peter.”
Sara shook her head and followed Elizabeth into the kitchen. There was an open bottle of wine on the island, and Elizabeth poured her a glass. “I haven’t done much,” Sara said, accepting it. “And I wouldn’t be here at all if work hadn’t brought me back. I didn’t even know.” And that rankled. She hadn’t said anything to Peter, because clearly he’d had other things to think about. But Elizabeth hadn’t thought to contact her, either, and that stung.
Elizabeth was looking at her like she knew exactly what Sara was thinking. “I know. And I’m sorry about that. It was just - it was such a terrible time. I didn’t know if I should stay or go, and then I was leaving to start the new job.” She looked away, mouth tightening. “Sometimes I still think -”
The front door opened and shut, cutting off whatever Elizabeth was about to say. “Hon?” Peter called, eagerness in his voice.
“In here,” Elizabeth said, and Peter came in. He had a load of files in his arms and take-out bag swinging from his hands; he dropped both unceremoniously on the island before sweeping in and kissing her. Not just a peck on the lips, either.
Sara blinked. She was pretty sure Peter hadn’t even seen her standing there. “I’ll just -” she said, and wandered out of the kitchen with her glass of wine. She let herself out onto their back patio. Their dog, who must have come up with Elizabeth from DC, followed her out there. Sara wasn’t much of a dog person - that much unfettered love and loyalty made her squeamish - but she was glad for the company. “Do they get to be a bit much for you, too?” she asked him, as he lay down at her feet on the porch. He gave her what she imagined to be a long-suffering look in return, and she smiled.
She was only out there a couple minutes before El opened the door and stuck her head out. “Sorry about that. It’s safe to come back in now.”
“Sorry,” Peter echoed, when Sara returned to the kitchen.
“It’s fine,” Sara said, awkwardly. “What’s for dinner?”
“Thai food,” Peter said, and started unpacking the take-out bags.
Conversation over dinner inevitably revolved around the search for Neal. No new leads had come in this week, and Peter was visibly frustrated. But Sara noticed that he was careful to stay optimistic in front of Elizabeth, with none of the sad resignation Sara had seen from him this week. He also ate better than he usually did, though that might have been less about keeping up appearances and more about actually having a better appetite when she was around.
Eventually, Sara asked Elizabeth about her own week to give them something else to talk about. She lit up talking about her job managing venues and events for the National Gallery. It was exhausting, she said, but she didn’t think she’d ever been so challenged in her life. Sara smiled, remembering a time when working for Sterling Bosch had made her feel the same. It didn’t so much these days; administration was challenging, but not in ways that made her feel energized at the end of the day. But it was nice to live vicariously through Elizabeth for a few minutes.
Peter was visibly drooping by the time they moved to the living room with the second bottle of wine, and it didn’t take him long to fall asleep on the sofa. “I should go,” Sara said, then, but Elizabeth shook her head.
“Let’s move this out to the patio,” she said. “Bring the bottle.”
The back patio was quiet, the sounds from the street muffled. The dog followed them out and sprawled out across the flagstones. The fall chill in the air was more pronounced tonight, and Sara pulled her cardigan across her body. She and Elizabeth sat quietly for a few minutes, each sipping their wine. Sara savored the first sense of peace she’d had since she’d spoken with Peter in the airport.
“I have something I need to ask you,” Elizabeth said at last, breaking the silence. “I haven’t had anyone else to ask. Peter won’t be honest with me, and none of our friends really understand. Half of them think it’s crazy anyway, what we’re doing, and even the ones who don’t, they don’t know as much about the situation as you do.”
“Okay,” Sara said, slowly. “What is it?”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Should I quit my job and come home?”
Sara winced. “Elizabeth, I can’t answer that for you.”
“No, but you can give me your opinion,” Elizabeth said. “Your honest opinion. And you can tell me how Peter’s really doing during the week when I’m not here. I know it’s worse than he says.”
“He is different with you here,” Sara said, carefully. “I’m sure he’s told you, but he’s been staying in my suite, on the fold-out couch.” Elizabeth nodded. “I think he hates coming home to this house without you. I think before I arrived, he was sleeping at the office a lot.”
El swallowed. “And the search for Neal? It’s not going anywhere, is it?”
“No,” Sara admitted. “I thought fresh eyes might help. But they have almost nothing.” She turned the stem of her wine glass between her fingers, half-wishing she had something harder to help with this conversation. “Peter’s having nightmares. He thinks he’s never going to find him. He’s hurting, and he’s not taking care of himself. I’m worried he’s going to make himself physically sick before everything is said and done.”
Elizabeth sighed, a faint ghost of breath in the dark. “I knew all of that. Or at least, I suspected. I’m not sure I wanted to let myself confirm it. I have to quit. I can’t let this go on.”
Sara carefully considered what to say. “You love the job, don’t you.”
“Yes, I do,” Elizabeth said. “It’s my dream job. And if I quit, I won’t get the opportunity again.”
“The thing is,” Sara said, “it’s different with an immediate crisis. You drop everything and deal with it. But this is - this might be - a long-term situation. We can’t really know. A lead might come in tomorrow and Peter could find Neal in the next forty-eight hours. Or . . . not. This might be the new normal.”
“God,” El breathed. “I really can’t imagine that. So, what are you saying? Do you think I should quit? Not quit? I can’t tell.”
Sara shook her head. “You need to make the decision that’s best for you and Peter, and only you know what that is. But for what it’s worth - I wouldn’t yet.”
“Why not?” El asked.
Sara was quiet for a few seconds. “Because I don’t think this is the new normal. I think we’re going to find him.”
“What makes you think that?” El asked. “After all this time, what makes you so sure?”
Sara swallowed the last of her wine and set her glass down on the small patio table. “Because someone has to be.”
When the lead finally came, it wasn’t from anywhere Sara expected. Peter didn't call her and say, "We've found him," as she had so often imagined he would. Every time he'd called her, for the now nearly three weeks that she'd been in New York, she'd had a flash of him saying that to her, accompanied by both hope and anxiety. Sometimes, in her head, there was triumph in his voice, and she dropped everything to go and meet him wherever they'd found Neal. Peter would get first crack at hugging him, she thought, magnanimously, but she'd be next in line. But sometimes, in her head, there was no triumph in his voice - just defeat and grief, and she knew that wherever they’d found him, they’d been too late.
But that wasn't what happened. Instead, Winston Bosch stood in front of her desk and said, "Ellis, we've been asked to insure a new Degas and I need you to get it authenticated."
Sara felt a momentary pang, because once upon a time, she'd have gone to Neal for that. But then she realized what he'd said and raised her eyebrows. "A new Degas?"
"Yes, supposedly it was found in the basement of a house in France that just changed hands. Currently half the art world is fighting over it - the Musee d'Orsay wants it, and so does the Degas Museum in New Orleans, and the guy who found it isn't giving it up without a fight. But they all want it insured ASAP, and they all want to know that it's real."
Sara took the file from him. "Am I on an evening flight to France?"
"No," Bosch said, giving her a look. They'd already had this discussion; Bosch knew the situation and was sympathetic - to a point. Sara wondered how long that would last. "The man who found it is a New Yorker and he brought the painting over. Not sure how he got permission for that, but there you have it. He'll meet you tonight at his hotel. I'll email you the details."
"Great," Sara said, opening the file. "Thanks."
There was a slightly grainy photo of the painting on the very top of the file. It certainly looked like a Degas, Sara thought, though it was less gauzy than some of his other work. Impressionists had never done that much for her. Neal had tried to explain to her once why he enjoyed them so much, but she liked a little bit of grit in her art. Still, if the painting really was a new - or rather, long lost - Degas, then that was pretty exciting. Neal would have found it exciting, too.
Sara sighed and closed the folder, then texted Peter to let him know that she probably wouldn't make it over to the FBI that evening.
The hotel room where she met Jake Gingrich, the discoverer of the painting, was lux - far more lux than Sara's own, and hers was nice enough. At first glance, the painting looked authentic, but Sara told him that she was no expert and they'd need to bring in someone who was. She took a high res photo of the painting and told him she'd be in touch in the next twenty-four hours.
"Why wait?" he asked. "We could have a drink in the bar downstairs right now."
Sara, who was glancing through her notes, didn't hesitate. "Sorry, I don't date clients."
"Who said anything about dating?" Gingrich replied, in a voice like velvet.
Sara looked up and fixed him with a hard stare. "I have a boyfriend," she said, in a tone that, despite its evenness, would scream DANGER DANGER to any man who was really paying attention. "I'm flattered, but my answer is no, and if you continue to ask, I will get someone else to cover your case."
Gingrich stared at her for a moment, then barked out a laugh. "Sorry, sorry, didn't mean to offend," he said, holding his hands up. "No drink then. And no dinner tomorrow, either?"
"Definitely not," Sara said, letting her voice reflect the frostiness she felt. "I'll be in touch." Or someone else from the office would be. He'd backed off, but she hadn't liked his pushiness to begin with, and she hadn't appreciated his condescension either.
She stopped and picked up a salad on her way back to the hotel. She expected to find the room empty, but to her surprise Peter was there already. He had a hotel glass with two fingers of scotch in it, and from his boneless sprawl, she could tell that it wasn't his first.
"Should I ask how your day was?" she asked, slipping out of her shoes.
He lolled his head back and forth a few times on the back of the sofa, before he finally looked at her. "Tell me about yours instead."
She unearthed comfortable clothes from her suitcase and went to change in the bedroom, leaving the door cracked so she could talk to Peter through it. "My morning was pretty dull," she said, "just meetings and not very interesting ones, either. I had lunch with an investigator they just hired. She's sharp, I think she'll be good. But then my afternoon got interesting." She padded out of the bedroom in yoga pants and a Smith College sweatshirt and sat down at the table to eat her salad. "Someone claims they found a new Degas. Just turned it up in a basement somewhere. Bosch wants me to authenticate it. I went and met the guy this evening - total snake, but I think the painting might be real."
Peter lifted his head. "What?"
"He tried to hit on me," Sara said, gesturing with her fork. "I said no, and he hit on me again. I got him to back off, but I almost wish I hadn't. My baton's illegal in Europe, it's been months since I used it."
"No, no," Peter said, sitting fully upright now. "A new Degas? Sara, what did it look like?"
Sara blinked at him, then pulled her camera out and found the photo. She showed it to him, and Peter went white. "Peter, what the hell -"
"That Degas," Peter said, sounding choked. "Two years ago, when Moz and Neal stole the treasure, that was the Degas they tried to put on the market. Very few people ever saw the painting. Very few. Sara, the man you met. What did he look like?"
Sara felt her eyes widen. "Five-eleven or six feet tall. Dark hair. Good-looking. Peter," she said, breathlessly, "you think Neal did this painting."
"I don't think it," Peter said. His eyes, when they met hers, were sharp and alive in a way they hadn't been since she'd arrived. In fact, they were blazing. "I know it. He's alive, Sara. He's alive and he's signaling us."
It was amazing how easy it was after that. Peter called the team in and they worked through the night. In the morning, Sara had to go to Winston Bosch and explain that not only was the painting not authentic, it was actually evidence in an ongoing kidnapping investigation - the same investigation that was keeping her in New York. His eyebrows went up and stayed there, but he gave Sara free reign to do what she needed to do.
Investigations into Jake Gingrich led them to a house upstate. Peter was jittery and tense on the drive up, and Sara knew he thought they were going to find Neal. She did, too, but she forced herself to remain calm. A lot of things could have happened. They had been careful not to tip Gingrich off, but he still could have realized they were onto him and jumped ship, taking Neal with him. Or he could have realized they were onto him and done something much worse.
The house was small and run down, the yard neglected. Sara hung back while the FBI busted in and searched the house. She was wearing a flak vest and carrying her baton, but there was no reason to take chances. She circled the house, waving a hand to make sure the agents around the perimeter saw her. The back yard was unfenced and unkempt, stretching out until it hit fields.
The weeds almost hid it, but Sara had spent years training herself to notice things that others didn’t, and a few months in management hadn’t completely destroyed the ability. There was a door in the ground, the entrance to a cellar of some kind. The house was old enough that once upon a time, before the age of refrigeration, the owners had probably used it to store food. She pushed aside some of the weeds obscuring it and smiled viciously. Most cellars didn’t have high end padlocks keeping them shut.
Peter emerged from the house, gun hanging down at his side. “It’s empty,” he said, defeat in his voice.
“Peter,” Sara said, pointing. Peter’s eyes widened.
It took Peter and a couple other agents a few minutes to break the padlock, and then, when Peter went to open the cellar door, they realized that what looked like wood was really steel, with the original wood planks laid over it. Once they got it open, Peter insisted on going first, with his gun drawn. Sunlight illuminated a set of uneven stone steps that led down. Unexpectedly, there was light at the bottom, and Peter, who could see further down the steps than she could, sucked in a breath. Sara moved around behind him and he didn’t stop her.
She could just make out a pale face at the bottom of the stairs, eyes wide and blue. “Peter?” Neal gasped, as though he wasn’t sure. And then, “Sara?”
“Neal!" Peter said, and holstered his gun to run down the steps. Sara stayed on his heels, but let him get first crack at hugging Neal. He’d earned it with blood, sweat, and tears these last two months. He’d barely got his arms around Neal before Neal’s knees gave out. “Whoa,” Peter said, lowering both of them to the ground. Peter grabbed his radio and barked, “We’ve found Neal. Storm cellar in the back. We need an ambulance.”
On its way, boss! Diana’s voice said, tinny through the speaker.
“Knew you’d find me,” Neal mumbled. He was still clinging to Peter.
“I wasn’t sure,” Peter said, as though he was confessing. “I don’t know if I would have if not for Sara.”
“Sara,” Neal mumbled, reaching for her. She knelt, heedless of the fact that the floor - and the walls, and the ceiling, actually - were all packed dirt. She took his hand in hers. It was freezing. “You’re in London.”
She shook her head. “I’m right here.”
“Good,” he said, “that’s, that’s good.” Then he passed out.
“Neal!” Peter said, frantically, patting Neal’s face. But Neal’s eyes were shut, and he was limp all over like a ragdoll. “Neal! Goddammit, where is that bus?”
“Go check,” Sara said. “I’ll stay with him.”
Peter looked at her, then down at Neal, clearly weighing his reluctance to let Neal out of his sight with his desire to go check on the ambulance. “Don’t leave him,” he said at last, as though Sara needed to be told that, and jogged up the stairs to the surface. Sara heard him exchange a few words with the agents at the surface, and then things went quiet.
Sara looked down at Neal. His face was pale, where it wasn’t streaked with dirt. She wondered how long he’d been down here. Looking around, she saw that there was a lantern - the source of the light they’d seen from above - and a small camp bed with a pile of books beside it. They must have let him up sometimes - he couldn’t have forged the Degas down here, even with the trap door open. But how often and for how long? It made her queasy to think about it.
There was nothing she could do about what had been done to him, nothing she could do to make them have found him faster. But there were things she could do for him now. She lowered herself to the ground and shifted his head and shoulders into her lap, laid one hand across his forehead and the other over his heart, which beat against her palm. Then she turned her face upward, toward the light coming through the door, and waited.
Malnutrition. Dehydration. Exhaustion. Fractures and dislocations in the left hand, some old and some recent, which would probably require surgery. Bruised ribs. Various bruises all over, including a fading one over Neal’s kidneys that had the doctor ordering x-rays.
Peter recited the list like a litany, while Sara sat in an uncomfortable waiting room chair and listened. He sounded exhausted, but beneath the exhaustion there was still a note of jubilation. They had found him. He wasn’t unharmed, but he was whole and he was back, and everything else would come with time.
Sara hoped that was true. The doctor had ordered a psych consult immediately upon hearing Neal’s story, but that didn’t mean that Neal would consent to it or cooperate with it even if he did.
It was nearly two hours before they were allowed to see Neal. He was sedated, the doctor told them, but lucid. They could see him one at a time.
Sara let Peter go first. She thought he might be a while, so she wandered down the hallway and got coffee from the vending machine. It was terrible, but it was hot, and it’d help keep her awake just a little while longer. She checked her phone, too, and saw a message from Winston Bosch. She’d called him to let him know what was going on on their way from the house to the hospital. Jake Gingrich was still at large, but he wouldn’t be for long. Neal had given Peter’s team more than enough intel to bring him down.
Sooner than she expected, Peter emerged from Neal’s room. “He’s still awake,” he reported, when Sara raised her eyebrows, “but maybe not for much longer. I thought you’d want the chance to talk.”
“Yes, thank you,” Sara said. She rolled her shoulders once, in a vain attempt to loosen the muscles, and went in.
Neal’s eyes were closed, but he opened them when Sara seated herself in the chair by his bedside. She took the hand that wasn’t splinted and bandaged in both of hers and looked at him. His eyes were glassy, the pupils wide and dark. Someone had washed the dirt off his face, so now he just looked pale. But he smiled when he saw her. “Hey,” he mumbled.
“Hey,” she replied, and smiled in return. “It’s so good to see you, Caffrey.”
“Good to see you, too,” he said, smile dipping in one corner. “Surprising, though. Did Peter call you?”
She shook her head. “I was coming over from England, and I wanted to see you. When I couldn’t get ahold of you, I called Peter to see if you’d gotten a new number.”
Neal’s smile grew a shade more genuine. “You wanted to see me?”
Sara gave him a look. “Don’t make anything of it.”
“Did you want to see me or did you want to see me?” Neal asked, with a hint of his usual smirk.
Another time, Sara would have said something to take him down a peg or two, remind him that he wasn’t God’s gift to women. But Neal didn’t need that right then, so she went with honesty. “Both.”
Neal looked surprised. He’d probably been expecting the cutting remark, after all. But then his smile dipped again. “It might be a while.”
“That’s okay,” Sara said, and brushed a lock of Caffrey’s hair, grown too long in the last couple of months, back from his forehead. “I’m not in a hurry.”
“Don’t you need to go back to London?” Neal asked.
She did. Now that Neal was safe and sound, Bosch was going to start pressuring her more. He’d already said something in his voicemail about discussing a timeline for her return. And Sara had thought that might be okay. Her work here was done; Peter could handle the rest. But she knew now, looking at Neal, that that wasn’t going to be an option.
“No,” she said. “I’m right where I need to be.”
His eyes widened. “Sara,” he said weakly.
Sara leaned down and brushed her lips across his forehead. “Get some rest,” she murmured. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
Neal looked like he wanted to protest, but he also looked like he was three seconds away from falling asleep. He nodded. She kissed him one more time, just to prove to herself that this was real, and forced herself to untangle her fingers from his and walk out the door.
Seventy-two hours later, Gingrich was in custody. Peter was at the office, in charge of his questioning, and so Elizabeth and Sara were the ones to bring Neal home.
He was swaying on his feet with exhaustion by the time they got him inside, leaning heavily on Sara and eyeing the stairs up to the second floor warily. “Let’s all take a break,” Elizabeth said, to Sara’s relief, and helped usher Neal over to the sofa. He couldn’t quite muffle a groan as he sat down, and then it took almost five minutes of maneuvering to get him stretched out on his back, with his injured hand in a sling tucked carefully against his chest. He’d had surgery on it less than forty-eight hours earlier, but the surgeon said he might need another in order to regain anything like full dexterity.
Elizabeth went to see about lunch. Sara started to get up to help, but Elizabeth waved her back down with a glance at Neal. Sara pulled an ottoman over to perch on. “You need anything?” she asked Neal. “Are you warm enough?”
“I’m okay for now.” He reached for her hand with his good one, and Sara took it, pressing it between both of hers. He sighed. “I never got to thank you.”
“Thank me?” Sara said, raising her eyebrows.
“For helping Peter find me.” He looked away, his gaze shuttered. “He told me he’d started giving up before you got here. He said you were the only reason he found me as soon as he did.”
Sara shook her head. “He would have found you regardless. It’s what he does.”
“That’s what I told him,” Neal said, looking up at her, “but he seemed convinced otherwise.”
Sara shrugged. “I really can’t claim credit for it. It was pure coincidence that I ended up being the one asked to authenticate the painting.” A coincidence that suddenly seemed too incredible to be believed. “Wait, it was a coincidence, wasn’t it?”
“Yes and no,” Neal said, smiling a little. “I thought you were in London, but I might’ve planted the idea of using Sterling-Bosch to authenticate the panting in Gingrich’s head. I thought that word might spread and you might make the connection. But it happened a lot faster than I had any reason to hope for.” His eyes slid away from hers, his mouth dipping at the corners, and Sara thought he was remembering those days and weeks, locked away in a hole in the ground. They’d let him up regularly, he said, for painting and as rewards for good behavior. But he’d still spent long stretches alone in the dark, with only his faith in Peter to cling to.
Sara slid her fingers into his hair, and Neal turned his head to look at her. He was looking more at her lips than at her eyes, Sara noticed. She smiled and leaned down, brushing her lips across Neal’s. Neal made a small, almost startled noise, and tried to push himself up to meet her. He broke off the movement with a hiss of pain, and Sara pulled away.
“Damn ribs,” Neal muttered.
“They’ll get better,” Sara said, and went back to dragging her fingers through Neal’s hair.
“Yeah, in like six weeks,” Neal muttered. He sighed, then winced.
Elizabeth came out of the kitchen then with food for all of them on a tray. Neal picked at his lunch and then, eventually, fell asleep. Sara helped Elizabeth clean up, and then she went out to the porch to check her voicemails. Her phone had been buzzing since yesterday, but she’d been resolutely ignoring it.
She was still sitting on the porch when Elizabeth came out, two tall glasses of iced tea in hand. Sara accepted hers and squeezed the wedge of lemon over it before taking a sip. They sat silently together for a minute or so before Sara said, “My boss wants me back in London early next week.” Elizabeth nodded but said nothing. Sara swallowed. “I don’t want to go. I know I should. But I can’t stand the thought of being so far away right now.”
“I know the feeling,” Elizabeth said. “If it helps, I’m trying to get Peter to take some time off, so that he and Neal can both come stay with me in DC.”
Sara glanced at her. “Would they let Neal go?”
“Maybe,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t know. But Peter needs to recover from this almost as much as Neal does, and I don’t trust him to do it here. Not if I’m not here.”
“Yeah,” Sara said. “That might be good for both of them.” She still hated the thought of leaving, but if she knew that Neal was in good hands, then maybe it would be okay. And she could come back. Not right away, but maybe in a few months - for a long visit or even to stay. There were lots of jobs in New York, after all.
She looked down at her phone. “I guess I should book my flight.”
“You don’t seem particularly pleased by the idea.”
“I’m not,” Sara admitted. “But I can’t come to DC and my boss is getting impatient. He was understanding enough while Neal was missing, but now . . .”
“He’s back now,” Elizabeth said, gently. “He’s not okay, not yet, but he will be. And he’s just a phone call away.” Sara nodded. Elizabeth turned so that she was facing her. “You need to do what’s right for you. If that’s staying here, then we’d be glad to have you. But it doesn’t have to be that.”
Sara nodded. Quickly, without letting herself think about it too much, she sent an email to her assistant, asking her to book her travel back to London for early to middle of next week. “There,” she said, setting the phone aside.
“Good,” Elizabeth said with a smile. Sara forced herself smile back and tried to ignore the nagging feeling in her stomach. Making the decision was supposed to make her feel better, she thought. But instead she just felt sick.
Sara’s assistant booked her flight back to London for Wednesday afternoon. By the time she woke Wednesday morning on the fold-out couch in the Burkes’ living room where she’d been sleeping since they’d brought Neal home, she’d more or less talked herself into believing it was the right thing to do. Sara didn’t know how Peter had done it, but he’d managed to get special dispensation for Neal to leave New York. He and Neal were scheduled to drive down to DC that afternoon. There was no reason left for her to stay.
Despite all her misgivings, she probably would have gotten on the plane, if she hadn’t gone to use the shower and nearly tripped over Peter.
“What the - Jesus. You look like death,” she said, unable to help herself. It wasn’t an exaggeration. Curled on the bathroom floor, Peter looked gray and exhausted, with lines on his face that weren’t usually there. He looked as bad as he had when Sara had first arrived in New York, only now he was also sweating. His eyes were glassy, too, and the bathroom smelled faintly of sweat and sickness. Sara wrinkled her nose, then forced herself to stop.
“I’m fine,” Peter tried to insist, in a voice like gravel.
“Right,” Sara said, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning in the threshold of the doorway. “I’d be more convinced of that if you weren’t lying on the bathroom floor right now.”
“I just ate something that didn’t agree with me,” Peter said, rubbing a hand over his face. “I’m feeling much better.”
“You’re running a fever,” Sara replied. “And your color is terrible.”
“I’m fine,” Peter insisted.
Sara shrugged. “Okay, then. Stand up.”
Peter glared. Sara watched impassively as he struggled upright into a sitting position. He got himself there, wedged between the wall and the tub, but then he tipped his head back against the wall and swallowed in a way that made Sara eye the bathroom garbage bin. Peter managed to breathe through the nausea, and he relaxed after a few moments. He opened his eyes to look at Sara and sighed. “You win,” he muttered.
“Believe me, I wish I hadn’t,” Sara said. She wondered how she was going to get him off the floor and back into bed. Then she wondered how the hell he and Neal were going to get to DC. They couldn’t stay here on their own, that was for sure, not with Neal still barely getting around on his own, but Sara wasn’t about to let Peter drive them to DC in his current state either.
The sound of shuffling footsteps behind her alerted Sara to Neal’s presence. “What’s going on?” Neal asked, sounding bleary. “Peter?”
“I’m fine,” Peter insisted. “It’s okay, Neal.”
You are not fine, Sara wanted to say, but she didn’t want to scare Neal. She put her hand on Neal’s wrist and squeezed it gently. “He’s okay,” she told him. “Just a little under the weather.” Neal gave her a disbelieving look, and Sara sighed. She should have known he wouldn’t buy that. “Look, can you stay with him for a few minutes?” she asked Neal. “I need to make a couple of calls.”
“Yeah, of course,” Neal said, going to sit on the closed lid of the toilet.
“I don’t need a baby-sitter,” Peter muttered mutinously. Sara rolled her eyes and went to call Elizabeth.
Elizabeth sighed when Sara told her Peter was sick, but she sounded far from surprised. "I thought something like this might happen," she said. "He hasn't been taking care of himself, and he's not twenty anymore. Sometimes I don't think Peter gets that about himself. But I was really hoping it wouldn't happen until they were both in DC."
"Well, it did. What do you think we should do?"
"I don't know," Elizabeth said. "I can't come up - we have a huge fundraising gala on Saturday night, and I'm still catching up from having taken off when Neal was found."
There was a tension in her voice that made Sara frown. "Is everything okay?"
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. "So far, yes. But sometimes I get the impression - well, my boss wasn't expecting to get someone who goes home to New York every weekend and isn't available to work events, or who keeps having to take off for personal reasons. It hasn't exactly endeared me to her."
"I'm not in Winston Bosch's good graces at the moment either," Sara said dryly. "And I'm going to be even less in his good graces if I do what I'm about to suggest."
"It seems to me there are two options," Sara said. "The first is for me to drive Peter and Neal down to DC this afternoon and try and change my flight to leave from Dulles." She wouldn't get back to London that much later than planned, in that case; a day at most, and she might be able to get a red-eye that evening that would get her into London on Thursday morning. "The second is for me to stay here until you come home this weekend."
Elizabeth sighed. "I think my boss would kill me if I left this weekend. We'd better go with the first option. Is that going to be okay for you?"
"It will have to be," Sara said, a little grimly. "I should go, then - we'll want to leave by noon, to avoid hitting traffic on our way down."
She agreed to text Elizabeth when they left Brooklyn, then called her assistant to ask her to see about changing her flight to leave out of Dulles or Reagan. Her assistant sounded harried and vaguely annoyed, but she agreed to see what she could do.
Upstairs, she found Neal and Peter huddled together on the bathroom floor. She paused in the doorway, eyeing both of them for a moment. She couldn't tell which of them was holding the other one up; in fact, it seemed like neither of them was. Neal was murmuring quietly to Peter, who had his eyes closed and his head resting on Neal's shoulder. But he broke off when she appeared in the doorway and looked up, eyebrows raised.
"I'm going to drive you guys down to DC this afternoon," Sara announced. Peter made a protesting noise, but Sara simply glared at him. "People who can't stand upright don't get to drive themselves anywhere."
"She's right," Neal said, nudging at Peter's shoulder with his. "What about your flight?" he asked Sara.
She shrugged. "I'll fly out of Dulles this evening instead."
Neal nodded, looking almost disappointed. Sara wondered, not for the first time, what she would do if Neal asked her to stay. So far he hadn't. But if he did, if he told her that he needed her and wanted her around, that he loved the Burkes but it wasn't the same as having her there, she wondered what she would say. What she would do.
But he didn't ask. And so after a moment, Sara turned and went to see about packing for all of them.
The drive to DC was very quiet at first. Peter slept in the backseat, and Neal didn't talk much. Sara put the radio on and didn't try to make conversation. At some point, she knew, he’d have to talk to someone. But it’d been just a little over a week since he’d been found, and Sara wasn’t going to force the issue yet. Elizabeth was probably a better person for him to talk to anyway, she thought. Sara just didn’t do comforting all that well.
"Are you looking forward to getting back to London?" Neal asked after an hour or so.
Sara glanced at him. He was staring out the window, and he looked pale and tired. She’d hoped he might doze off. He hadn’t been sleeping well. "Not really.”
He did look at her then. "Really? Why not?"
Sara shrugged. She already regretted her momentary burst of honesty. “I’d rather be here.”
Neal looked away again. “I’ll be okay.”
“I know, I just . . . I wish I was staying.”
“I wish you were, too.”
Neal said it so quietly, Sara almost thought she’d imagined it. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, and thought about calling her boss and telling him that she was sorry, but she wasn’t going back to London. Not tonight and not for a while yet. She’d been with Sterling-Bosch a long time and she’d always done good work for them. She might not be out of a job immediately. Maybe.
“Sorry,” Neal murmured after a moment. “That was . . . sorry.”
Neal was quiet again for a minute. “Peter said he might be able to use all of this to get my sentence commuted,” he said at last. “Maybe if he does, I can come to London for a while.”
“That’d be nice,” Sara said. “I’d like that.”
“It’s funny,” Neal said. His voice was slower now, a little drowsy. Sara glanced over and saw that he was leaning his head against the window. “I used to imagine just disappearing when my sentence was up. It sounded so nice, no one knowing where I was. And now . . .”
“And now?” Sara prompted, when Neal didn’t go on.
“And now, I wake up in the middle of the night and the only thing that makes me feel safe is knowing I’m wearing the anklet.” Neal gave a small laugh. “That’s pretty fucked up, I know, but it’s true. Six months ago there was a lot I would’ve traded for commutation. Now, I’m not so sure.”
Sara swallowed against a sudden thickness in her throat. “You’ll feel differently in a few months.”
“Maybe,” Neal said, dubiously. He yawned. “Is it okay if I sleep for a while?”
“Of course,” Sara said, and reached over to lay her hand on his.
Sara had to stop for coffee about an hour outside DC. If either of her companions had been awake and talking, she’d probably have been all right, but with only the radio for company, she felt herself getting drowsy. She found a Starbucks on the GPS and pulled into the parking lot. Peter and Neal both stirred when the engine cut.
“We there?” Neal asked, lifting his head and frowning in confusion.
“No, I just need some caffeine,” Sara said. “Anyone else want anything?”
“Bottle of water?” Peter said.
“Sure,” Sara said, and twisted around in her seat to look at him. “How are you doing?”
“Okay,” Peter said, but he didn’t look in any hurry to get up.
Neal went in with her. He moved stiffly and slowly after two hours in the car, so it was probably a good thing she’d decided to stop. He asked her to order him an iced tea and went to use the bathroom. She ordered and then took her turn in the bathroom while the drinks were being made. She came out to find Neal putting the drinks in a travel tray.
“Here, let me get that for you,” the barrista said, eyeing Neal’s injured left hand.
“Thanks,” Neal said, awkwardly.
“What happened?” she asked, nodding toward his fingers.
Sara was close enough by then to see Neal twitch. “Car accident,” he said, shortly.
“Thank you,” Sara said, stepping up to take the drinks. “Have a good day.”
“You, too,” the girl said, and waved them off with a smile.
Sara took Neal’s arm. He was trembling faintly. “Neal?” she murmured.
“Not here,” he said, glancing around with a haunted expression. “Outside.”
In the parking lot, he leaned against the car. Sara handed him his iced tea, and reached inside to give Peter his bottle of water and give Neal a few seconds to pull himself together. By the time she looked back at him, he had drained half his iced tea. He still looked pale and wan, but he managed a rueful smile for her. “Sorry.”
She shook her head. “Don’t apologize. Are you okay?” Neal gave a brief, humorless laugh. “Sorry, stupid question.” She sipped her coffee, leaning back against the car. “You know that - if you want -” Sara stopped, took a deep breath, and regrouped. “I haven’t asked, because you didn’t seem to want to talk about it. But if you do want to talk about it, you know that I’m willing to listen.”
“I do know,” Neal said, in a subdued voice. “Come on, I’m okay. Let’s get going.”
They climbed back in the car. Neal leaned his head against the window. Sara caught Peter’s eye in the rearview mirror and shook her head minutely. Peter’s mouth tightened and he sank back against the seat, bottle of water cradled to his chest.
Sara thought they might reach DC without any of them saying another word. But after about twenty miles, Neal broke the silence.
“They used to say that if I didn’t do what they wanted, they’d do it to my right.”
His voice was quiet, but it felt as though he’d shouted. Sara tightened her grip on the steering wheel and caught Peter’s eye again. Peter moved to grip Neal’s shoulder. Neal reached up and covered Peter’s hand with his unbandaged hand. “I knew it was mostly an empty threat,” Neal said. “They needed my right hand. If they decided they didn’t need my right hand anymore, they wouldn’t break my fingers, they’d just slit my throat.”
Sara swallowed. “Neal.”
“But I knew you’d find me before that.”
Sara let out a slow breath. She wanted to pull over to the side of the road so she could hug him. But Peter was already touching him, anchoring him here, with them. Nothing would change what had happened to him. The only thing Sara could really do was get him to DC, where Peter and El would give him the safe haven he needed to recover.
And where she would leave him.
The main advantage of Elizabeth’s apartment in DC seemed to be its location. It was within walking distance to the nearest Metro station, which was only a couple stops from the National Gallery. Also, Elizabeth explained, it was one of the very few places she’d found where she could have a dog as big as Satchmo. It was always meant to be a temporary situation, while she and Peter figured things out, and there just hadn’t been any time to look into anything more permanent.
Sara quickly realized that even if she was tempted to stay, she didn’t have much choice but to leave. The apartment only had one bedroom and one bathroom, and Neal would be sleeping on a fold-out sofa that took up most of the space in the tiny living room. There wasn’t room in the apartment for four adults.
And yet, the closer Sara got to leaving for the airport, the more anxious she became. She kept quiet about it throughout the afternoon, as she and El worked at the kitchen table and Neal and Peter napped together on the foldout sofa while watching TV. She was quiet about it as they ate dinner, and quiet about it as she gathered up her things to leave. Circumstances being what they were, there didn’t seem to be any point in saying anything. Both Neal and Peter seemed more relaxed now, and El obviously had things well in hand.
And yet her gut was screaming at her not to go.
Eventually, she couldn’t put off leaving any longer without real risk of missing her flight. Neal gave her a long hug, pressing his face into her neck. Sara held him tightly. “I’ll see you soon, all right?” she murmured into his ear. “Either I’ll come here or you’ll come to me.”
He nodded. His eyes, when he pulled away, were suspiciously damp, but Sara’s own weren’t much better. She swallowed against the lump in her throat, grabbed her suitcase, and left, forcing herself not to look back.
She thought it would get better once she was on her way to the airport, but the opposite seemed to be true. By the time El pulled up to the curb at Dulles, after an utterly silent ride, Sara felt physically sick.
“Sara?” El said after a minute, when Sara didn’t move to get out of the car.
Sara drew a deep, shaky breath. “I need you to tell me that everything will be okay if I go.”
El put her hand on Sara’s wrist and squeezed. “Neal will be fine. Peter and I will take good care of him.”
Sara nodded. “I know you will.” She’d never doubted that. Which was why it was ridiculous to feel like everything about this was wrong wrong wrong. Neal didn’t need her, and she had a job to do. And yet . . . “I just, I feel sick when I think about leaving.”
Elizabeth’s grip tightened. “Then stay.”
“I can’t,” Sara said, pulling away to lean forward and put her face in her hands. “The apartment is too small, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get fired.”
El was quiet. Behind them, someone honked, and she pulled forward a few feet so they could slide in behind her. “Sara, I can’t tell you what to do anymore than you could tell me what to do. But sometimes I think it’s useful to ask yourself: in ten years, what do you think you’ll regret more - staying or going?”
It wasn’t even a question. “Going,” Sara said, instantly, and sat back, blinking. “Wow. That was . . . clear.”
“What about your job?” El asked. “That’s not nothing. I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort in at Sterling-Bosch.”
She was right. But after a few seconds, Sara shook her head. “Either they’ll support me or they won’t. But I don’t think I can let that dictate this. It’s wrong for me to get on that plane.”
“Okay, then,” El said, and pulled away from the curb.
The vague sensation of nausea that Sara had been feeling all day dissipated almost instantly. She took a deep breath and let her head fall back to rest against the seat. It still wouldn’t be easy - they were still going to have to fit the four of them in El’s tiny apartment for the time being, and she still might lose her job - but deep down, she knew she’d made the right decision.
They got home to find Peter watching Sports Center, with Neal asleep beside him, head on his shoulder. Peter’s eyes widened when he saw her, but Sara held a finger to her lips, silencing him. She went and sat on the edge of the bed by Neal. He stirred and opened his eyes, blinking up at her. “Sara?” he said, groggy and confused. “Didn’t you leave?”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave.”
“Oh,” he said, faintly. He reached for her hand, threading their fingers together. “That’s good. I really didn’t want you to.”
“Well, then,” she said, and brushed the hair off his forehead. She looked up and caught Peter’s eye. He smiled at her. “At least we’re all on the same page.”
The conversation Sara had with Winston Bosch the next morning was short and not very sweet.
“Well,” she said, once she’d disconnected. “I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
Neal and Peter, crowded once more onto the sofa bed to watch TV, were both staring at her. “He didn’t really?” Neal said.
“Yup,” Sara said. “He did.” She set the phone down, more carefully than she wanted to. “I’m officially fired.”
“He wouldn’t let you take personal leave?” Peter said, sitting up.
Sara shook her head. “I think if I were still an investigator, it’d be different. Someone else could step in temporarily, take my place. But they really need me in or out, and I can’t very well run the London office from DC.” She shrugged. “He did say that I should let him know when I’m ready to commit myself fully again, and he’ll see if he might be able to offer me something.” But there was no guarantee, of course, that it would be anything comparable to her former position.
Neal and Peter both looked like they had more questions for her, but Sara suddenly couldn’t stand it. She got up and pulled open the door to the small patio. She sat down in the single folding chair Elizabeth had out there and buried her face in her hands.
The issue really wasn’t money. She had enough money saved to hold her for a long time, especially if she wasn’t paying rent on her London apartment anymore. She’d never bought a place over there, so the money from the sale of her Brooklyn townhome was still sitting in the bank. And she wasn’t worried about future employability; even if she decided not to go back to Sterling-Bosch, she didn’t think she’d have any trouble finding a job.
But there was something deeply frightening about being without a job, not to mention something deeply unsettling about having been fired, even if she knew that when it got right down to it, she’d chosen to leave. She’d known what would happen when she’d refused to get on the plane. It might have been the first time in her adult life that she’d chosen to prioritize something personal over her work, and that scared the hell out of her.
But the alternative was worse, of that she was certain. She imagined sitting at her desk in London, facing an inbox full of problems that suddenly seemed meaningless, knowing in her gut that she had made the wrong decision.
When she went back inside, Peter was sitting alone on the fold-out sofa, and Sara could hear the shower running in the bathroom. She sat down in the armchair that was the room’s sole other piece of furniture and sighed.
“You okay?” Peter asked, muting the TV.
Sara looked at him. “Would you be?”
“No,” he said. “That’s why I asked.”
She shrugged. “I’m not either. But I will be.”
Peter nodded. “You will be,” he agreed. “If it helps - I think you did the right thing.”
“So do I,” Sara said, “it’s just -”
“Hard,” Peter said. She nodded. He swung his legs off the bed. “I’m going to go nap in the other room. You should see if Neal wants to go out for a bit. I think the walls are starting to close in on him.”
Sara nodded. Peter went into the bedroom and shut the door. Sara thought about getting up and going to join Neal in the shower, but it seemed too much. They’d slept the night before on the fold-out sofa together, because there was literally no other place for her to sleep. Though they’d started out carefully not touching, by morning they’d found themselves in a position that was an old favorite: Neal on his back and Sara on her side and pressed up against him, one leg thrown across one of his. But that didn’t mean that he’d appreciate her intruding on his shower.
He came out a few minutes later, towel wrapped around his waist. He still looked too thin, she thought. Thin and tired. There weren’t that many visible scars from his ordeal, but he was no longer the Adonis he’d once been.
“Hey,” she said, a little awkwardly.
“Hey,” he said, pausing in rifling through the clothes she’d packed for him.
“Peter’s taking a nap,” she said. “I was thinking it might be good to get out. Get a bite to eat, celebrate my new life as a woman of leisure. We could visit El at work.”
Neal sat down on the sofa bed. “I don’t know how much I’m up to. But maybe we could take Satchmo for a walk or something.”
“Sure,” Sara said. “Whatever you want.”
They ended up on the path by the Potomac. Neal was moving slowly still, but his gait was a little less of a shuffle than it had been. Sara slipped her hand into his and let him and Satchmo set the pace. They strolled along in silence for a few minutes, watching the water and the people.
“What are you thinking?” Sara asked at last.
There was a beat of silence, then Neal drew in a quick breath. “How glad I am that you stayed,” he said. “And how much I hope you don’t regret it.”
Sara squeezed his hand, then let it go to wrap her arm around his waist, mindful of his healing ribs. “I’m glad I stayed, too. My job was just a job.” Neal made a noise of protest. Sara shook her head. “Remember when I first told you I might move, and you said you just wanted me to be happy?” Neal nodded. “Well, the job didn’t make me happy. I didn’t really let myself realize it at the time, because I’d worked so hard for it, and I wanted to believe that it was enough. But when I came back and found out what had happened to you, I realized that other things were so much more important. I won’t regret it, Neal. I promise you.”
Neal’s arm came up to wrap around her shoulders. “I never thought I’d hear you say your job was just a job.”
“Me neither,” Sara admitted. “And I’m sure in a week I’ll be climbing the walls. But right now this is where I need to be. Where I want to be,” she corrected herself.
Neal didn’t say anything, but his arm around her tightened. The two of them walked on, slowly, and this time Sara didn’t feel the need to ask him what he was thinking.
It actually took Sara much less than a week to start climbing the walls. If Elizabeth’s apartment had been a little bigger, she might’ve lasted longer. But within three days, Sara started to wish for a door that she could close when she wanted to be alone. As much as she liked Elizabeth and Peter, she thought she had a higher likelihood of continuing to like them if she got her own place.
She tried not to let her irritation show too much, and she thought she did pretty well with hiding it. She and Neal left the apartment every morning for a slow stroll along the river with Satchmo, and then, if Neal was feeling up to it, they went to a museum in Neal’s new one-mile radius, sometimes ending up at the National Gallery to meet Elizabeth for lunch. In the afternoons they usually went back to the apartment so Neal could rest. At first, Sara filled the hours Neal was asleep by reading. But pretty quickly, she found herself perusing real estate listings, looking at apartments and townhomes in the DC Metro area.
There were lots of options that looked reasonable. Her things were all in London, and she didn’t have a job, but the biggest problem, she quickly realized, was that she didn’t know what anyone else was thinking. She had no idea what was going on with Neal’s deal. She was pretty sure Neal wanted her nearby, but she knew he also wanted to be close to Peter. And for the past couple of mornings, since he’d fully recovered from the virus that’d knocked him flat, Peter had been in a series of meetings with at the Bureau. Sara didn’t know for certain what they were about, but she could guess: Neal’s sentence for one, and Peter’s continued employment with the FBI for another. Both of those would determine a lot about what all four of them did, Sara thought, so there was no use in doing anything until they got straightened out.
One morning, about a week after they’d arrived in DC, Peter didn’t have a meeting. He asked Neal if he wanted to get breakfast and Neal, after glancing at Sara, nodded. He asked her if she wanted to come, but she waved him off; she was pretty sure Peter needed to talk to Neal, and this was the best chance Sara thought she’d get to talk to Elizabeth.
El had worked late the night before and was going in late this morning. She brought her laptop out to the kitchen table after Peter and Neal left. She’d showered and her hair was damp, but she wasn’t dressed for work yet. Sara joined her at the table with her cup of coffee.
Before Sara could figure out where to begin, El closed her laptop with a faint snap and looked at her. “So. The Bureau is considering commuting the rest of Neal’s sentence.”
Sara blinked. “Oh.”
“But there’s a catch.”
Sara grimaced. “Isn’t there always.”
El sighed. “They want him to testify about what happened to him. Neal gave a statement, of course, but it was a little light on detail. They think that if they could get more, they could put away not only Jake Gingrich, but also the people who were pulling his strings.”
Sara frowned. “I’m not sure that would be good for him. He’s barely talked about it at all.”
“I know,” El said. “So does Peter. He won’t let Neal do something that’d hurt him.”
“I know,” Sara said, though she wasn’t entirely sure it’d be up to Peter. “What about the two of you? What are you doing?”
El shrugged and sipped her coffee. “We’re not sure yet. Neither of us wants to go back to splitting time between New York and DC, that’s for sure. Peter’s talking to the Bureau about options, but they’re not very pleased with him at the moment. First he turns down a position in DC to stay in New York, then he turns around and wants one - none of it’s done him any favors. So we’re also considering a few more creative solutions.”
Sara raised her eyebrows. “Like what?”
“Peter’s thinking about retiring,” El said. “From the Bureau, that is, not altogether. He won’t until Neal’s sentence is commuted or completed, not now. He doesn’t trust them to take care of him. But he’s thinking about going into business for himself. Security consulting, mostly, maybe some private investigation.”
Sara sat back, startled. Peter Burke, Private Eye. That wasn’t something she’d ever thought she’d see. “Wow. That’d be a huge change.”
“It would be,” Elizabeth agreed. “But I know a thing or two about owning my own business. He could use a partner, though.”
It took Sara a second to realize that El’s gaze had grown significant. “Me?” she said in surprise, pressing a hand to her chest.
“It’s just an idea,” Elizabeth said. “Something to think about. You’d start out here in DC, but you could move back to New York eventually, maybe open an office there.” She got up to pour herself another cup of coffee and probably to give Sara a few seconds to absorb everything she’d said. “New York is home for Neal, too,” she said, when she returned to the table, “and I’m sure that in the long term, that’s where he’d prefer to be. But in the short term, I think he’s going to want to stick close to Peter. And Peter is going to be in DC with me.”
Sara nodded, hands tightening around her coffee mug. “So I should have my things shipped here from London. Not here here,” she added, looking around at the tiny apartment. “But to DC.”
“Peter and I are still working things out,” El said, adding milk to her coffee from the carton on the table, “but I think we’re going to sell the house in Brooklyn. We put it on the market before, but we took it off when we realized Peter wouldn’t be coming with me. We’ll buy a place down here that’s big enough for Neal to stay with us if he wants to.”
Sara nodded, thinking carefully. “I’ll probably rent for now. See how things work out.” It felt like she and Neal were feeling their way slowly but surely toward something real. But Sara knew that might well change. The aftermath of a major trauma was not a great time to start building a relationship. And Washington DC was not a place she’d ever considered living. She liked what she’d seen of the city well enough, but it wasn’t New York, not by a longshot. “I have a lot to think about. Do you think I could have some time?”
“Of course,” El said, and opened her laptop again. “Take as much time as you need.”
She needed a lot less time than she’d have thought. In the end, there just wasn’t that much to decide. Neal was here for the foreseeable future. DC wasn’t where she’d dreamed of ending up, but it would do - for now at least.
“Well, what do you think?” Sara asked, standing in the middle of the wide open, empty space that might be her living room. “Can you imagine the furniture from my old place in here? I was thinking the sofa here,” she paced the length of the living room, “and then I might get an armchair to go here. It’s a little bigger than the other living rooms I’ve had.”
“I think it’d look great,” Neal said, looking up at the vaulted ceilings. “Lots of light.”
“I know,” Sara said, and hesitated. “There’s a loft up at the very top. The owner called it a bonus room. It has three windows, lots of light. I thought it might make a nice studio.”
Neal glanced at her. “A studio? Are you taking up painting?”
His tone was teasing, but beneath that, he sounded uncertain. “For you, of course. If you wanted. I know you’re living with Peter and El,” she added, “but I want you to like being here.”
Neal gave her a smile. “I’ll like being here, Sara, I promise.”
“Come on,” Sara said, taking his arm, “let me show you the bedrooms.”
There were three at the top of the stairs. One of them, the master, Sara would actually use as a bedroom; the smallest would get converted into an office, and the third would be a guest room. She was going to have to buy some furniture, she thought, eyeing the guest room again. The DC rental market was competitive, but not nearly as bad as New York, and her money went considerably further here.
“I like it,” Neal declared, wandering out of the master bathroom. “I think you should sign.”
“Me too,” she said with satisfaction, and went downstairs to tell the leasing agent that she would take it.
By lunchtime, she had the keys to her new apartment. Perhaps someday, she thought, it might be their apartment. Things seemed to be moving in that direction. But it would be a while yet before they were there. For now, Neal seemed content to stay with Peter and Elizabeth, and once they moved into the house they’d just closed on out in the suburbs, everyone would be a lot more comfortable.
They caught a cab back to Elizabeth’s apartment. Neal was quiet, as he often was now. Sara found herself reflecting, not for the first time, on the ways Neal had changed since his kidnapping. Some of the changes might fade with time, but she thought others might be permanent. He was quieter, but also more cautious. Not fearful, exactly; he had nightmares, but if he’d had more panic episodes like the one on the drive to DC, she didn’t know about them. But he rarely went out by himself anymore, and never very far. With time, she thought that would get better, but the new found caution might be here to stay.
There had been a time when she’d have welcomed a more cautious Neal. She’d loved him before, but he’d never been steady enough for her. She’d needed reliability more than she’d ever allowed herself to admit. But now, she thought she’d trade all the reliability in the world for a little more of a spark in Neal’s eye, a little more of the old Caffrey impulsivity. But maybe she’d just have to be the impulsive one for a while.
She could do that. Probably.
“I’m thinking about buying a bed,” she announced, when they were nearly home.
Neal glanced at her. “You have one, don’t you?”
“Yes, but it’s in London, so it’s not doing me a whole lot of good right now. And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of sleeping on a sofa in Elizabeth and Peter’s living room.”
“I’m with you there,” Neal said wryly.
“So, I’m going to buy a bed. It can always go in the guest room after mine comes over.” Sara eyed him sidelong. “I think you should help me pick it out.”
“Okay,” Neal said, sounding a little puzzled. But he also sounded willing to play along, so after a stop at home for lunch and some quick internet research, they went out shopping for a bed for Sara’s new place. Preferably one that could be delivered that evening.
They found a bed frame they both liked easily enough, but the mattress was harder. Sara felt like they laid on about fifty of them before they found one they both liked. Neal kept trying to cede the decision to her, but she was insistent. It had to be a bed they both liked.
When they finally found one that worked, Sara didn’t let herself overthink it. She paid for it and arranged to have it dropped off that evening. The furniture store they’d found the bed frame at also offered same day delivery, albeit at a very steep price, so by that evening, they would have a bed in the apartment. They’d have nothing else, of course, but that was all they needed for what Sara had in mind. Well, and sheets and pillows, but those were easier to come by.
“Thanks for helping me pick it out,” Sara said as they sat on the floor of her living room, waiting for the delivery, surrounded by takeout containers. She’d wanted to celebrate with a bottle of wine, but Neal was still taking Vicodin at night for his ribs, so instead they were drinking lemonade.
Neal shrugged. “I had fun,” he said, sounding almost surprised. “It felt . . . normal.”
“Good,” Sara said softly.
They were both quiet for a minute, then Neal cleared his throat. “I was thinking - if I’m not going back to the apartment tonight, I should let Peter know.”
His voice rose up at the end, like he wasn’t quite sure what Sara wanted from him. It was very unlike the Neal she’d known before, who had always acted confident that deep down, no matter what she might say, Sara still wanted him around. Still wanted him. After everything, Sara thought Neal should be more sure of himself than ever with her; she didn’t go around getting herself fired for just anyone, thank you very much. But he wasn’t, and so she would have to be. For now, at least.
She reached over and took his hand in hers, raised it, and kissed the inside of his wrist. Neal shivered and then went very still. “You should let Peter know.”
Sara didn’t expect it to be the best sex they’d ever had, but she still expected it to be good. It had never not been good between them, even at the very beginning when they were still learning each other. So it was a bit of a shock when it . . . wasn’t. She’d known they’d have to be careful; Neal’s ribs in particular were still tender. But that wasn’t the issue, she quickly realized.
The problem was nerves. Neal was nervous. And his nervousness put Sara on edge, especially when nothing she did got him hard.
That was not a problem they had ever had before. It’d happened to Sara a couple of times with other guys, but never with Neal, and it was an unpleasant shock.
“Okay, okay, stop,” she finally said, because the waves of anxiety and frustration coming off of Neal were not turning either of them on.
“I’m sorry,” Neal said, sounding almost near tears. “I just don’t know -”
“Hey, shh,” Sara said, stroking his hair. “You’re still on painkillers, that probably has something to do with it. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay,” Neal snapped, shaking his head. “I want this. I want you.”
“I know you do,” she said, quashing the small part of her that couldn’t help but doubt. “Look, let’s just make out for a while. If that’s all we do tonight, then that’s fine with me. It’s still more than we could do sleeping on the fold-out in Peter and El’s living room.”
“True,” Neal said, smiling ruefully. He kissed her, and she kissed him back, ruffling the short hair at the nape of his neck. He pushed up into her touch like a cat and skimmed a hand down her side to her thigh. Sara pressed closer, pulling Neal over so he was half on top of her, and let herself touch as much of him as she wanted. She trailed her fingernails down his spine, and he hummed against her mouth, sounding pleased.
They made out long enough that the kisses turned comfortable and sleepy, rather than heated. When they finally stopped, Neal tucked his face against the side of her neck. Sara should have felt smothered, but she didn’t. She couldn’t help but think of those horrible days after she’d first arrived in New York, when she’d struggled to believe that they’d ever find Neal. She hadn’t let herself imagine this then, too afraid she’d never have it again. Afraid that it’d been taken from her when she hadn’t been looking, too focused on things that no longer mattered to understand what she’d thrown away.
“Hey, you okay?” Neal asked sleepily, when a hitch in her breathing gave her away.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Sara said. Her voice was thick with emotion, though, and Neal raised his head to look at her doubtfully. “I’m just - I’m glad we’re both here.”
Neal’s eyes softened. “Yeah,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her again. “Me too.” He tucked his face back against her neck again and sighed. Sara closed her eyes.
It had been late summer when Neal had been kidnapped and fall when he was found. By the time everything settled, it was Christmas.
Snow was falling as the cab Sara had caught at the Metro station pulled up to the curb. The neighborhood where Peter and El had bought their house was serious about their lighting competition. Theirs was the least lit-up house on the block, just a few strings of lights around the edge of the roof and the windows, and nothing inflatable at all in their front yard, thank God. The lights were enough to make it look a little bit fairy tale, though, frosted with snow and illuminated invitingly from the inside out.
She’d texted Neal when she’d left the station, so he must have been watching for her. He opened the door as she made her way carefully up the walkway. “Merry Christmas,” he greeted her.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, and kissed him. “How was your day?”
“Quiet,” he said with a smile, stepping aside to let her in. It wasn’t an unusual answer for him these days. Sara would never have believed that Neal Caffrey would enjoy a quiet suburban life, but he was proving her wrong. “Moz and I caught up while I baked things.”
“Ooh, that sounds promising,” she said. She let him take her coat and her overnight bag, and then she slipped her hand into his as they followed the sound of voices and laughter back toward the Burkes’ living room. It was a small gathering: just the four of them, plus Peter’s parents, who’d flown down from upstate New York, and Mozzie. Moz had arrived a week ago; Sara, El and Neal had privately taken bets about how long he and Peter would last under one roof, and which one of them would break first. But Moz seemed to be a lot more relaxed around Peter now that he wasn’t an FBI agent, even if he did insist on calling him “the Former Suit.”
Sara suspected a lot of Peter’s tolerance had to do with how much happier Neal was with Moz around. God knew it helped her to keep smiling whenever Moz started ranting about the moon landing conspiracy to know that Neal was smiling, too.
Peter and El both greeted her with hugs. “No shop talk,” El added sternly with glances for both her and Peter.
“Of course not, El, it’s Christmas,” Sara said brightly. El gave her a doubtful look, while Peter mouthed later behind her back. There were a shocking number of logistics involved in a getting a security consulting and investigation business off the ground, especially since they wanted to be licensed to work in DC, Virginia, and Maryland.
But it was Christmas Eve, so Sara tried to put aside all of that in favor of relaxing with some of her favorite people. She let Neal get her a glass of eggnog, and she made a plate from the platters of goodies he and Elizabeth had set out. She settled into a corner of the sofa with Neal, who immediately picked up an argument with Moz about a presumably theoretical heist. Sara let herself sink against Neal, paying just enough attention as she sipped her eggnog to slip in the occasional comment to bait Moz.
Dinner was delicious, not that Sara expected anything else, given that Neal was the mastermind behind it. The pureed butternut squash soup was sweet, with the perfect hint of curry and spice, and everyone exclaimed over the beautiful rack of lamb. Neal smiled, quietly pleased.
After dinner, everyone else retired to the living room, while Sara and Peter did the dishes together. Out of earshot of El, they did get in a few minutes of talk about the business, just enough for Sara to update him on the search for DC office space.
“We’ll find something,” Peter said, when Sara told him that the space she’d looked at today just wouldn’t work. The location and the pricetag had both been right, but the layout was disappointing. There had only been one actual office, and they needed two. “But I think we should call off the search until after New Year’s.”
“Yes, I agree,” Sara said, reluctantly. Once they got everything sorted out, they wouldn’t be lacking in clients, between people Peter knew from his time at the FBI, people Sara knew through Sterling-Bosch, and people El knew from planning events for the gallery. Sara was getting impatient to start making money, rather than just spending it, and it’d be a few weeks yet before they could take anyone on.
She and Peter were both quiet, washing and drying dishes methodically. It was a companionable, comfortable silence, though, and Sara didn’t feel the urge to break it. She was up to her elbows in suds, attempting to get the roasting pan clean, when Peter said, “I never thanked you.”
Sara glanced at him sharply. “Thanked me?”
“For coming in when Neal was missing. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t arrived when you did. I’m not sure I’d have ever found him.”
“You would have,” Sara said. She had to believe that. “You would have, Peter.”
He shook his head. “Maybe. I was making myself sick, though, and I wouldn’t have stopped if you hadn’t been there.” He paused. Sara heard him swallow, and when he spoke again, his voice was a little rough. “Anyway, it’s Christmas and I wanted to make sure you knew how grateful I was to you. And how glad I am to be going into business with you as my partner.”
Sara looked down at the roasting pan to avoid looking at Peter. “Thank you, Peter. Me too.” She cleared her throat. “I think we need to soak this - some of it’s just not coming off.”
Peter nodded. “Okay. I think it’s good enough for now. Come on - Neal promised pie for dessert.”
Sara dried her hands on a towel and followed him with a smile.
It was after midnight by the time Sara and Neal collapsed into bed. “Hey, Merry Christmas,” Neal mumbled, glancing at the clock.
“Merry Christmas,” Sara said, and groaned. “I think you killed me with food tonight.”
Neal chuckled. “Then my work here is done.” He was quiet for a minute, head resting against Sara’s shoulder. “Dr. Novell says I’m using cooking as therapy.”
“Are you?” Sara asked, turning over onto her side to curl around him. She tried to keep her voice even and to not sound too interested. Neal rarely talked about what went on in the sessions he had with the therapist he had finally agreed to see.
“Probably,” Neal said with a sigh. “Sometimes, especially when I’m home by myself during the day, I get anxious. I’ve tried other things - watching TV or reading or going for a run. But cooking is the only thing that really calms me down. And then Peter or El gets home, and I get to watch them eat what I made.”
Sara nodded. She stroked his leg with her foot, feeling bare skin where the anklet used to be. Neal had been a free man for a little over a week now, and as far as she knew he hadn’t gone any farther than the restaurant in Fairfax where they’d celebrated his commutation. “Any plans for the new year?” she asked, as lightly as possible.
He gave a one shouldered shrug. “Get out a little more. Figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. That sort of thing.” He was quiet. “I really have no idea what I want to do. I’ve been putting off thinking about it, but I feel like I’m not going to be able to avoid it for much longer. I can’t keep living here and doing nothing all day on Peter and El’s charity.”
Sara frowned. “I think you’re being very hard on yourself. Something terrible happened to you, and it hasn’t been that long. You’re allowed to take some time. And you know that’s not how Peter and El think of it. They’re glad to have you here.”
“I know they are,” Neal said, in a subdued voice. “But I don’t want to be a burden.”
Sara shrugged. “Well, I’d be quite happy to have you as my own personal chef.”
Neal smiled. “Chef and cabana boy?”
Sara smiled back. “I was thinking of it more as house husband.”
Neal’s eyebrows went up. “Husband?”
“Or partner,” Sara corrected. “I’m not fussed about the marriage part.”
Neal didn’t answer immediately. Sara wondered if she’d said too much. They hadn’t had many direct conversations about where their relationship was going. But she thought she’d made it perfectly clear that she was serious this time around, and she’d thought that he’d agreed. They were taking things slow, because neither of them wanted to screw things up by rushing, but she’d been sure they were on the same page.
“House husband,” Neal said at last, slowly. “Or stay-at-home dad?”
Sara went very still. That wasn’t something they’d talked about, ever. “Is that something you want?”
“Not right now,” Neal said. “It’s not the right time. But in a year or two . . . maybe. Do you think you might?”
“I don’t know,” Sara said. “Maybe.” She’d never thought of herself as the maternal type, and she’d decided in her twenties that she probably wouldn’t have kids. She’d always imagined herself ending up with someone just as ambitious as she was. God knew she and Bryan would’ve made terrible parents. But she and Neal might not. “Can we talk again in a year, when the business is off the ground?”
“Yeah, sure,” Neal said. He kissed her then, nudging his leg between hers so that their legs tangled together. Sara kissed him back, unhurried and without much purpose. After a few minutes, she could feel him half-hard against her hip, but she’d learned since that first disastrous time that everything seemed to go better if she just let things happen and didn’t put any pressure on either of them.
Tonight, it didn’t really go anywhere, both of them too tired, too full, and too conscious of other people in the house. Eventually, Neal fell asleep in her arms. But Sara lay awake for a while longer, watching as snow slowly built up on the windowsill she could see from the bed.
It was amazing how fast everything had changed. Three months ago she’d have never imagined she could end up where she was now. She regretted what had happened to Neal, of course; he was going to spend years recovering from that experience, if he ever really did. But at the same time, she wouldn’t have ended up here if not for that. She’d be in London right now, probably going to a coworker’s impeccably decorated house for Christmas, and never realizing what she was missing. Never realizing that she could have this, if only she asked for it. Never even realizing that she wanted it.
It was too much to wrap her head around, and it didn’t matter, anyway. That future didn’t exist and this one did. And for that, Sara thought, she could only be grateful.