It was a gray, boring, mortgage fraud morning, the kind that felt like it’d been Wednesday for at least four days. Neal sat at his desk with a pile of cold cases and crossed his fingers, praying for something interesting: a clever bank heist or, better yet, a perplexing art theft at a museum or gallery. Anything that would get him out of the office for a few hours.
He’d had no such luck by noon. He was unenthusiastically contemplating his and Peter’s usual lunch options when the elevator doors dinged and Elizabeth strode out. He sat up and smiled, feeling as though the day might end up being worth something after all; she grinned back and pushed through the doors to the office.
“Hey, Elizabeth,” he said, standing to kiss her on the cheek. “What brings you here?”
“I was hoping to get lunch with Peter.” She stood on tiptoe to try and see into his office. “Is he in?”
Neal nodded. “He’s been in meetings with the higher-ups all morning. I’m sure he’d love to get out for a bit. And if he can’t, I definitely would,” he added shamelessly.
She laughed. “Bad morning?”
Neal tapped the stack of cold cases beside him. “Just really boring. Mortgage fraud. How about you?”
Elizabeth cocked her head to the side, smiling. “My morning was . . . not boring. Not boring at all, actually.”
Neal was about to ask what had happened when the door to the conference room opened. Peter saw Elizabeth and his whole face lit up. Neal glanced at Elizabeth in time to catch the tail end of the smile she’d given Peter - just a shade brighter than the one she’d given him.
Peter jogged down the stairs, shrugging into his jacket as he went. “This is a surprise,” he said. “I didn’t think you were coming into the city today.”
Elizabeth shrugged and stretched up to kiss him. “I got antsy. Complaining?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Shall we?”
“Sure. Bye, Neal,” she said, giving him a wave.
Neal watched them go and felt a twinge deep in his gut. It wasn’t jealousy, not really; he didn’t begrudge them their happiness. But sometimes it was a little hard to be around. It made Neal think about what he’d lost - what he’d never had to begin with. In the end, that had been the hardest part of the whole debacle with Kate and the music box: realizing that it’d all been a long con, that every time she’d lit up for him the way Peter just had for Elizabeth, she’d been playing him, flawlessly.
“It’ll happen for you,” Peter had told him, the night they’d confirmed that Kate had been working for Adler all along. “I was your age when I met El. I’d given up, decided I was going to be married to my work.”
“Yeah,” Neal had said, a little blankly.
“You’ll find the right girl - beautiful, smart -”
“- law-abiding -”
“I hope so,” Peter said with half a smile. “I’m sorry that Kate wasn’t who you thought she was. But you deserve better.”
That may have been so, but it was six months later, and Neal’s love life was still dead in the water. He flirted with everyone, often to Peter’s chagrin, but it was all superficial. He’d met plenty of women who were beautiful and smart, and he’d even met a few who were nice - albeit not many, in his line of work - but none of them measured up.
It’d taken him most of the six months to understand why that was: he wasn’t comparing them to Kate, but to Elizabeth and Peter. When that realization had hit, he’d stopped looking. He hadn’t stopped flirting, because that would only make Peter wonder if he was up to something, but he’d stopped even entertaining the idea that anything might happen. If Peter and El were his standard, he might as well not bother.
Neal beat Peter back from lunch by almost half an hour. He strode in just as Neal managed to find something mildly interesting in one of the cold case files he was perusing - not enough to say something to Peter about, not yet, but it might turn into something. “Good lunch?” Neal asked, glancing up.
Peter opened his mouth, stopped, looked at Neal, and frowned. Neal raised his eyebrows. “What? Whatever it was, I didn’t do it, and I have an alibi. I got sushi with Jones.”
Peter shook his head. “Nothing. Look, it’s dead today. Why don’t you take a few case files and head home?”
Neal felt his eyebrows climb almost all the way up to his hairline. “You don’t have to tell me twice,” he said, reaching for his briefcase. Then he stopped and looked at Peter again. “Is everything okay?” he asked cautiously.
“Yeah,” Peter said unconvincingly. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
Neal raised an eyebrow. “Elizabeth’s okay?”
Peter’s expression softened. “El’s great. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Bright and early,” Neal promised, and escaped.
He didn’t give Peter’s behavior another thought until early the next afternoon. They’d caught a case that morning, thank God. It was a gallery heist: a small statuette had managed to walk right out the door in broad daylight. Neal admired the guts of whoever had pulled it, even if stealing the work of living artists was rather tacky. At the very least, it meant he got to spend the morning out and about with Peter, instead of cooped up at the office.
It also meant that he was sufficiently distracted that it took him the whole morning to realize that Peter was acting just a little bit off. He was more impatient than usual, wanting things five minutes ago instead of right now. But it wasn’t until he snapped at Diana that Neal realized something must actually be wrong. He gave Diana and Jones a look and within two minutes the decision had been made to break for lunch. The room cleared out until it was just Neal and Peter, looking at the glass display case where the statuette used to be.
Peter rubbed his face. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” Neal said. “I’m not the one you yelled at for failing to read your mind.”
“Yeah, I know,” Peter sighed. “I overslept this morning. It’s been messing with me ever since.”
That could be true, Neal reflected. Peter was a creature of habit. Oversleeping could very well make him grumpy for the rest of the day. Being late to the office certainly had in the past, but Peter hadn’t been late. “Are you sure that’s it?”
“Yes,” Peter said, a slight edge to his voice. “I’m sure. And you know, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be your business.”
“Whoa there, Mario,” Neal said, backing up half a step. “I was just asking.”
“I know,” Peter said. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Neal said. He was quiet for a moment. “Look, Peter. Something’s bothering you. You don’t have to tell me what it is,” he added quickly, “but you know that if there’s anything I can do -”
“You can’t,” Peter said, which was as much of an admission as Neal would ever get that there was something wrong. “But thanks.”
Neal shrugged. “Don’t mention it. Come on, let’s go to lunch.”
Neal kept a close eye on Peter for the remainder of the day. Peter made a visible effort to rein in his temper, and the afternoon was somewhat better than the morning had been. But it was undeniably odd. Peter was a tough taskmaster; he expected the best out of his agents, and anyone who didn’t give it got the sharp edge of his tongue. But he wasn’t usually snappish and angry for no reason.
At seven o’clock, while everyone else was packing up to go home, Neal glanced up into Peter’s office. Peter was leaning forward at his desk, cradling his forehead in his palm.
“Peter’s not going home?” Neal asked Diana.
Diana shrugged and finished tucking her scarf into her coat. “He said he wanted to look over the crime scene analysis one more time. Have a good night, Neal.” She left, step quickening as she pushed through the glass doors. It was Thursday night. Thursday night was date night for Diana and Christie.
Neal’s only date was with Mozzie, a chess board, and a bottle of wine. He watched Peter for another minute or two. He’d straightened up, but he was staring off at nothing, twisting his wedding band round his finger. Neal dropped his briefcase and jogged up the stairs to knock on Peter’s door. “Hey,” he said, leaning in, “you onto something?”
Peter looked up. “No, no. Just - wanted to take another look.”
“It’d be better to do that tomorrow, don’t you think?” Neal said, accepting the unspoken invitation. He perched on the edge of Peter’s desk; it didn’t do anything for the tension around Peter’s eyes, but at least he looked more annoyed and less distressed. “You should go home. Have dinner with Elizabeth.”
Peter shrugged. “I texted her and let her know I’d be late.”
“You -” Neal said, and stopped. “You texted her?” He’d never known Peter to text anyone, especially his wife.
Peter waved a hand. “She has a thing. I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Neal snapped his mouth shut. “Right. Well, come over to my place, then. I’ve got beer in the fridge.” He’d even be willing to watch sports if it helped reduce the strain around Peter’s mouth.
Peter gave him a quick, distracted smile. “Thanks, but I’ll have to take a rain check. You’re right,” he added, standing, “I should be getting home.”
Neal nodded. “Tell Elizabeth I said hi. Hey, maybe you guys could come over for dinner this weekend. I’ll make lasagna.”
“Sure,” Peter said. “Just let me ask El and make sure she doesn’t have an event.”
“Great,” Neal said, and left.
But not without one last backward glance. Peter, despite what he’d said about heading home, had sat back down at his desk. He was staring down at the file open in front of him. Neal would have bet the real Map of Vinland that he allegedly still had in his possession that he wasn’t reading a word.
The next morning, Neal stopped by The Greatest Cake to pick up a chocolate croissant to go with the thermos of June’s coffee he’d brought for Peter. He left them both on Peter’s desk and sat down to review transcripts of the interviews with the staff at the gallery. He read them through once, and then a second time, selectively. Something about the assistant manager bothered him.
“Morning, Neal,” Peter said when he came in.
“Good morning,” Neal said, not looking up until Peter was past his desk. He leaned back to watch as Peter went into his office, dropped his briefcase and coat, and stopped short at the sight of the thermos and croissant. Peter looked up, catching him in the act of staring. Neal shrugged, innocently; Peter smiled and shook his head, fondly exasperated. Neal turned back to his case file.
And there he stayed, all morning, because the minute Hughes showed up, Peter was trapped in a meeting. Neal read through all the evidence again, but inspiration failed to strike. He decided it’d be best if he let the back of his brain work on it while he entertained his frontal lobe by testing the relative aerodynamic properties of elaborately folded paper airplanes, much to the amusement of Jones and the annoyance of Diana.
At lunch time the office emptied. Neal waited for Peter, but he walked right past Neal’s desk with Hughes. Bemused, Neal watched them wait for the elevator. Peter was obviously worked up about something; Hughes was listening patiently, but, to Neal’s discerning eye, he remained unmoved. Peter wasn’t going to get what he wanted this time around.
This was . . . interesting. Peter was distressed about something, and it’d started yesterday, when El had shown up unexpectedly for lunch. Neal supposed that El’s visit, Peter’s distress, and his meeting with Hughes might all be completely unrelated, but his instincts told him they weren’t. And Neal had excellent instincts.
He was tempted to sneak into Peter’s office and try and hack his email or see if he might have conveniently left his cell phone behind, but the chances were low that he’d find anything interesting - and much higher that Peter would find out he’d been snooping and be very annoyed about it. He might have to resort to subtler tactics, he reflected.
He spent so long dithering over what those tactics might be that he almost missed lunch altogether. With fifteen minutes before Peter was due back, he decided to grab a sandwich and a soda in the basement canteen, rather than trying to go out. He took them back upstairs to eat at his desk, which at least didn’t smell perpetually of overcooked broccoli, and found Peter waiting for him.
“Where were you?” Peter asked snappishly when Neal got off the elevator.
So much for avoiding a scolding by not going out. “The canteen,” Neal said, holding up his sandwich and soda as evidence. “Is there a problem?”
“You could say that. The assistant manager’s disappeared.”
He’d known something wasn’t right with her. Neal grabbed his hat and coat and caught up with Peter and the others at the elevator, flipping his hat onto his head just as the elevator dinged. He’d eat in the car. “Knew it had to be her,” he told Peter cheerfully.
“Yeah, yeah. Too bad we couldn’t prove it before she took off.”
Neal shrugged. “We’ll get her. We always do.”
They did, as a matter of fact. By that evening, Jennifer Hale was in custody, Jones and Diana had gratefully escaped for the weekend, and Peter was wrapped up in paperwork. Neal grabbed his jacket and knocked at Peter’s door. “Enjoying the perks of a management position?” he asked, leaning in the threshold.
“I can’t tell you how much,” Peter muttered, before looking up. “Tell me again why I don’t make you do this?”
Neal grinned. “And let me forge your signature? That seems like a bad idea even to me. Listen, I’m about to head out. Are we still on for dinner tomorrow night?” He hoped so. It would be the perfect opportunity to figure out what was going on with them.
“Yeah. Seven o’clock all right?”
“Perfect. Good night, Peter.”
Neal would be the first to admit that his culinary abilities were rather unusual. He’d learned to cook in France and Italy, which meant he could make a mean lasagna and a souffle to die for, but his last attempt at scrambled eggs had somehow ended up crunchy. Mostly he lived off of take-out, but every once in awhile, when he felt like showing off and being impressive in an entirely legal way, he pulled out all the stops: sauce from scratch, really good cheese, freshly made pasta (not by him, but still). More than one mark had been seduced by Neal’s lasagna.
By 6:30, the lasagna needed another hour, the salad was in the fridge, and the garlic bread was ready to go into the oven. He changed into slacks and a blue shirt and poured himself a glass of wine while he waited. At 7:03, Peter and El knocked on his door.
Neal was a social creature by both inclination and inculcation. Hosting guests was very much like running a socially acceptable con, or at least it was mildly manipulative in a few of the same ways, and Neal loved it. He poured them all glasses of Pinot Grigio and gently herded them toward the balcony, keeping the conversation light but not superficial. It was a mild spring evening; he’d thought about serving dinner out here, but by eight or eight-thirty it’d really be too chilly to be comfortable.
“That’s just spectacular,” El said, staring up at the skyline.
“Yep,” Peter said. “New York. Home.”
He sounded a little strange. Neal looked sideways at him but couldn’t see him well enough to read his face. He could see El’s face, though, looking up at Peter. Her mouth was twisted into a half-smile, almost a little regretful. “Home,” she said, in a voice that matched her smile. “No where else like it in the world. Is there, Neal?” she added, in a more normal tone.
“Nope,” Neal said. “There are a lot of places I love. Florence. Paris. But there’s just no place like New York. If I had to choose anywhere to be tied down, this would be it. Which I guess is lucky,” he added with a smile and a twist of his ankle.
“Hmm,” Peter said, a hum of agreement. “What about San Francisco? You spent any time there?”
“Honey,” El said, very quietly.
“Not much,” Neal said, watching them curiously. “I haven’t spent much time on the West Coast, actually, though San Francisco is much more my style than LA. But El’s probably spent more time there now than I have.”
“It’s . . . very nice,” El said, in a voice that didn’t really invite any follow-up questions. So Neal didn’t ask any, just led them back to the hors d'oeuvres and turned the conversation to other topics.
By the time they sat down to the lasagna and garlic bread, they’d killed the Pinot Grigio and opened the Chianti. The conversation wandered through a recent case of Peter and Neal’s to a fundraising gala El was throwing in a few weeks to city politics and then to a case Peter and Neal had on their docket currently. By the time the conversation lulled, Neal was slightly drunk and very curious and more than a bit concerned by the underlying tension between the two of them. Just asking them went against all his instincts, but the wine and the food and the almost invisible lines at the corners of El’s mouth combined to convince him to do it anyway.
He waited until they’d all cleared the table and he’d brought out the tiramisu and the dessert wine. Then he said, “All right. I have to ask. What’s going on?”
Peter sighed. “Neal -”
“Hey,” Neal said, holding his hands up, “you have to give me credit for asking instead of snooping through your text messages or hacking your email.” Peter pinched the bridge of his nose. Neal looked at El. “You don’t have to tell me. I’m just . . . Peter’s been a bit -”
“- of a bear?” she finished. Neal shrugged. She looked at Peter, who made an open-handed gesture, as though saying it was her decision. El nodded and turned back to Neal. “It’s nothing, really. I received an opportunity recently. My client in San Francisco wanted to engage me on a regular basis. It was a chance for me to build up a client base out there and go bi-coastal for real. We’ve been - we were talking about relocating.”
Somehow, whatever Neal had thought it would be, that wasn’t it. He grinned at her. “That’s great,” he said. “Really, Elizabeth, congratulations. Or . . .” He hesitated. Neither of them spoke. They weren’t even looking at each other. Or him, for that matter. “Or not?”
“There are some complications,” Peter said, staring at his hands as they fiddled with the stem of his wine glass. “Mostly with me.”
“What, Hughes won’t let you go?” Neal asked, frowning. “That seems unreasonable. I mean, I know for a fact there’s white collar crime on the West Coast.”
“There is,” Peter agreed, “but I have certain duties here.”
“Couldn’t they just transfer someone in?” Neal asked, frowning.
“Not for these,” Peter said.
Neal paused. That didn’t make sense. Peter was outstanding at what he did and the New York office would miss him, but there were other good agents. What duties did Peter have that no one else could take over?
“It’s me, isn’t it?” Neal said. “What does it take to get a convicted felon transferred across state lines?”
“A lot of paperwork,” Peter sighed, “but if that were the only problem, I might be able to swing it. The problem is that the AD who’d be my boss in California is rather more . . . risk adverse, shall we say, than Hughes is.”
“He won’t touch me with a ten foot pole,” Neal surmised. “And Hughes won’t sign off on a different handler for me?”
Peter nodded. “I’ve gone round and round with him about it. He doesn’t want anyone else to be your handler. If I transferred to San Francisco, they’d put you back in prison.”
“Oh,” Neal said, thoroughly quelled.
“But don’t worry,” El said quickly, reaching across to take his hand in both of hers. “I would never do that to you. This opportunity - well, I’d love if I could take it, but it’s not worth your freedom.”
Neal honestly didn’t know what to say. “You -” he started, and couldn’t continue. Who was he to El? He’d done nothing to deserve this sort of sacrifice from her. He forced himself to meet her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he managed.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. There’ll be other opportunities. In a few years, maybe, when you’re out of the anklet.” She squeezed his hand. “Don’t think any more about it, all right? It’s not your fault.”
Neal nodded. After a few seconds of silence, he cleared his throat and changed the subject, but it was hard, after that, to recapture the rhythm of earlier in the evening. Peter and El made their excuses fairly soon after they’d finished dessert, and Neal was almost relieved. He walked them down to their waiting cab and held El’s door open for her when she went to get in. He stopped her then with a hand on her arm and said, “Elizabeth, really - I’m so sorry.”
She touched his face lightly. “It’s all right,” she told him. “I’m not going to die of disappointment. But thank you,” she added, and kissed him on the cheek before climbing inside the cab.
It wasn’t fair, he thought, watching as the cab drove away. It just wasn’t. El had earned this - he’d set up the Channing event, but all the real legwork had been hers. She’d earned every inch of this and then some and she couldn’t have it because of him.
Neal was not big on consequences. Mostly they were for other people, and it wasn’t as though this was something he could have ever foreseen, back when Peter was chasing him and he was pulling heist after heist, walking a tightrope without a net and knowing that at some point he’d fall. The fall had been sort of fun, actually, though prison hadn’t been. But those consequences were only for himself. He’d always made sure Kate and Moz stayed clean. He’d never wanted anyone else to pay for his mistakes.
That it was Elizabeth paying now sort of killed him.
But what could he do? If Hughes put his foot down, there wasn’t a lot Neal could do about it. Unless . . .
Neal put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels, staring up at the starless New York night sky.
Maybe there was something he could do after all.