A knock at the door at nine o'clock at night was unusual enough at the Burke house that Satchmo actually lifted his head and barked at the intrusion. Elizabeth was sitting at the kitchen table with a spread of paperwork and pictures for an upcoming event while Peter sat on the couch with a case file and a beer semi-watching the game. They both looked at each other for a moment before Peter stood and headed for the door.
"Reese," he greeted in surprise when he found his boss on the other side. "Come in."
"I'm sorry to come by so late, but I needed to speak with you."
"Of course." Peter took a long look at the other man before motioning for him to follow. "I'll get you a beer, and we can go sit out back."
Elizabeth smiled when Reese entered the kitchen. "Hey Reese. How are Cathy and Emma?"
"They're doing well. Thank you for asking."
Peter grabbed the beers and led Reese out back to sit at their patio table. "Is it safe to assume this isn't a work-related visit?"
"No, it's not," Reese said with a sigh.
Peter relaxed and took a drink of his Heisler. "What's on your mind?"
Peter nodded and waited for Reese to say more. After a minute of silence, it was clear that Reese just didn't know what to say, so Peter took pity on him. "I'm not going to lie to you. Things are going to be tough with Neal for a while. His instinct is to run when the situation feels like it's out of his control, but there's nowhere for him to really run to here, so he's going to try to distance himself until he can come to terms with everything."
Hughes nodded. "He doesn't say much to me or Cathy, but he and Emma get along really well. And he's trying with Michael."
"My best advice is to be patient. You can't push him too hard or too fast. Right now, he's still upset about Kate's death and about the whole Fowler thing. He's trying his best with all of you, but it's easier with Emma first."
"I know that, I do. But it's so damn hard to keep my distance. I want to know everything that happened from the moment that woman took him away, and I want to go back in time and protect him from all of it."
Peter frowned at the desperation in Hughes' voice. Neal, as far as he knew, had never talked to anyone about his childhood or the years he'd spent with Virginia Brooks. Peter didn't want to think that bad things had happened to his friend, but he couldn't come up with any other reason that Neal would be so tight-lipped about it. His heart ached for Neal.
"Has he talked to you?" Hughes asked. "Do you know what happened?"
"No. He hasn't brought it up, and I haven't asked." Peter hesitated before adding, "Did you know that he's seeing a psychologist?"
Reese's eyes widened, and he slowly shook his head. "No."
"Elizabeth and I asked him to, and he agreed."
"That's good. Great, actually." Reese took a long drink from his beer before saying, "Thank you for being a family to him when we can't be. You and Elizabeth."
"You're his family, and he will come to see you that way. It's just not going to happen today or tomorrow."
Reese finished his beer and stood. "Thanks for the drink, and the advice."
Peter suddenly sat up straighter. "I have an idea. Why don't you and Cathy come over for dinner on Thursday? We'll invite Neal, and it'll give everyone a chance to talk on pretty neutral ground."
"Do you think he'll go for that?"
Peter tipped his head toward the kitchen where he could see through the window that El was still working at the table. "I'll put my best agent on it."
Reese cracked a smile at that and nodded. "Okay. We'll see you all on Thursday."
Peter grinned and showed Reese out. As he was putting their beer bottles in the recycling, he explained his plan to El, who whole-heartedly agreed to help the Hughes family get to know each other a little better.
Neal arrived early for dinner on Thursday, so Peter watched discreetly from behind the sports page as Neal rolled up his sleeves and helped Elizabeth chop vegetables for the salad. While it wasn't unusual for him to help El with dinner, it was obvious by his stiff posture and distant expression that Neal was nervous, and perhaps a little worried about how the meal was going to go.
At seven on the dot, the doorbell rang, and Peter answered it while Elizabeth and Neal finished setting the table.
"Reese, Cathy, please come in."
Hughes nodded politely while Cathy held out a bottle of wine and said, "Good evening, Peter."
"Dinner is ready, so go ahead and take a seat. I'll have Elizabeth open the wine."
Elizabeth smiled and greeted the Hugheses before taking the bottle from Peter. There was already a bottle of white open from Neal's nervous fidgeting during the meal prep, but Peter figured that this was a two bottle minimum meal anyway.
Cathy sat down across the table from Neal and smiled. "Hello. How are you feeling?"
"I'm good." Neal probably wasn't lying. The procedure to remove his bone marrow had been just over two weeks ago, and he seemed to have bounced back from it pretty quickly. On the other hand, he looked exhausted and stressed most of the time nowadays.
Peter watched Reese open his mouth and then close it again abruptly. It was strange seeing his boss at a loss for words. Peter did the only thing he knew to do – jump into the conversation. "Elizabeth made Cornish game hens, and I think that she used Neal's recipe for the mashed potatoes. Hon?"
"Oh, I did. He gave it to me after last Thanksgiving. Garlic rosemary mashed potatoes. They're delicious."
Neal raised an eyebrow at Elizabeth before taking a long drink of his wine.
"Do you cook often?" Cathy asked, her eyes still on her son. "It's one of my passions."
Neal shrugged and dragged his fork through his helping of potatoes. "When I have the time and someone to cook for."
"Do you? Have someone to cook for?" Cathy asked the question with an innocently curious tone, but Peter saw the mischievous twinkle in her eye. Neal had a very similar twinkle at times.
Everyone ate in silence for a few minutes. Then, Neal cleared his throat and asked, "How's Emma today?"
"She's doing very well," Reese said with a smile. "She's already looking forward to the day that she can leave the hospital, but she's got another couple of months to go before it's possible."
Cathy added, "She loved the scarf that you gave her on Monday. She's worn it pretty much every day since."
Neal smiled. "I didn't know what colors she liked, so I made a guess."
"Well, purple and green have always been among her favorites."
Neal nodded and Peter felt it safe to step in and start talking about topics like the weather and the Yankees. The Hughes family, like Peter himself, loved the Yankees, and Peter was pretty sure that they could get Neal interested too if they could get him out to the stadium for a real game.
Peter and Elizabeth quickly cleared the dinner dishes and brought out dessert: chocolate mousse with homemade whipped cream and maraschino cherries.
"This is wonderful, Elizabeth," Cathy said after her first bite.
"I can't take all of the credit." El nodded meaningfully at Neal.
Elizabeth laid a hand on his arm, gave it a shake, and laughed. "It's not like you to be modest, Neal."
He smiled, a slow, lazy grin that spoke of too many glasses of wine. "It is my favorite dessert."
Reese shared a knowing look with Cathy and said, "It was my mother's specialty. She made it for everyone's birthdays and for special occasions, and sometimes just because. When you were about six months old, we gave you a taste of it."
Cathy laughed out loud and picked up the story. "That turned out to be a big mistake. You wouldn't eat anything for days. You just spit everything else back at us."
Neal chuckled. He seemed a bit more relaxed now, but Peter thought that probably had more than a little to do with the wine. He hoped that one day soon Neal would be able to spend time with the Hugheses without needing the alcohol booster.
The evening ended not long after the dessert dishes and coffee cups were empty. Neal and Elizabeth saw Reese and Cathy to the door while Peter started on the cleanup. The three of them quietly worked together to get the kitchen and dining room tidied, and then Peter insisted that Neal stay the night. He'd drank a lot of wine, and Peter had been drinking as well. It was better to just swing by June's in the morning for Neal to change than for them to be on the road now. Neal agreed and headed up to the guest room while Peter and Elizabeth made their way to the master.
Peter felt good about dinner. It had been awkward at times, but it had gotten the three of them talking, and that was definitely a good thing. In time, the strangeness would wear off, and Neal would have two families – the Hugheses and the Burkes.