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.
“Hey, Diana,” Neal said, leaning against her desk. “Got a minute?”
Diana didn’t look up from her computer. “Not really, Neal. What do you want?”
Not an auspicious beginning, all things considered, but Neal had expected as much. “I need to talk to you. Can I buy you a latte?”
She turned her head and gave him a look. “Whatever it is, the answer’s no.”
Neal grimaced. “Probably, but I’d like you to at least hear me out first. Come on. Ten minutes, tops, and if you still say no, at least you got a free latte.”
Diana sighed. “Fine. But this had better be good.”
Neal smiled, careful to make it reach his eyes. “It is.”
Five minutes later, he and Diana were ensconced in a window seat at the good coffee shop a block and a half down from the Bureau. Diana had a decaf mocha and a chocolate mint chip cookie. Neal had a nonfat vanilla latte. “Ten minutes, you said,” Diana said. She glanced at her watch. “Go.”
Neal took a deep breath. “Will you be my new handler?”
Diana paused with her mocha halfway to her lips. “What are you planning that’ll piss Peter off that badly?”
“Nothing, I swear,” Neal protested. “It’s Elizabeth’s job.” In as few sentences as possible, he told her what Peter and El had told him. “So that’s it,” he finished. “I don’t want Elizabeth not to have this because of me, but I also really, really don’t want to go back to prison. Will you be my new handler?”
Diana sighed. “It’s sweet, what you’re doing,” she told him, “but don’t you think Peter already suggested this to Hughes? If I were a viable option, someone would have asked me already.”
Neal nodded. “I know, but if I made a show of good faith, if I promised I wouldn’t run -” Diana snorted. He sighed. “Yeah, okay. But I thought . . .” He hesitated. He had only one card to play, and once he played it, there was no turning back. This is stupid, he thought, not for the first time. He was giving up everything - well, almost everything - so that two of the people he cared most about in the world would leave him. But Neal had been operating on the because I want it principle his entire life, and this was his chance to show he could do otherwise.
Neal drew a deep breath, closed his eyes, and plunged onward. “What if I let them shorten my radius?”
Diana blinked. “What? Shorter than two miles?”
“A mile. A half mile, even.”
Diana turned her coffee cup between her hands, once clockwise, twice counter-clockwise. “What if their counter offer is house arrest?”
Neal let out a long breath. “I don’t think I could do it,” he said honestly. “A leash that short, I’d end up running out of claustrophobia.”
“Hmm.” She turned to gaze out the window. Neal sipped his coffee and let her think. It was a better reaction than he’d ever thought he’d get. “If I agreed to do this,” she said at last, looking back at him, “there are a few things you’d need to understand. I’m not Peter. I don’t think you realize what sort of political capital Peter has spent the last two years, keeping you out of prison. If you run, I can’t protect you. If you run, I can’t protect me. I’d be collecting unemployment and you’d be behind bars. So the stunts you pull with Peter, you couldn’t pull with me.”
“I know,” Neal said.
“I know you know,” Diana said with a sigh. “I’m just not sure you can behave.”
“I can,” he said, straightening his spine and gripping the edge of the table. She raised an eyebrow at him. “I can try,” he amended. “I know what I’m asking of you. I do. If it weren’t Elizabeth, I never would. But I can’t be the reason she doesn’t get to have this. I can’t.”
Diana cocked her head to one side, studying him. “Why do you care so much?”
Neal smiled, dissembling. “What do you mean? It’s Elizabeth. Of course I care.”
Diana shook her head. “There’s no of course about it. I’ve worked with a lot of CI’s, Neal. What you and Peter have . . . it’s very unusual. I’m not sure you realize that. It won’t be the same with me. I’m not going to invite you over to hang out on the weekends or go for a beer after work.”
“I know,” Neal said, very quietly. And he did. He was giving it all up: Thursday night dinners and Monday night beers, a place he could go when he was lonely, where he knew he would be welcome. His safety net. Peter had done - and would do - a lot to keep him out of prison, Neal knew. Far more than he should. He couldn’t ask that of Diana. If he screwed up, it’d be entirely on him.
Diana was looking at him as though she could read every thought flitting through his mind. It was disconcerting. Neal wondered if he’d actually lost control of his expression for a few seconds. He smiled charmingly. “So you’ll help me talk to Hughes?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“Of course that’s what I want,” Neal said. He drained his coffee cup. “I wouldn’t have shelled out for your mocha if it wasn’t.”
Diana didn’t look like she believed him for a second. That was all right, Neal decided. She didn’t have to. Hughes had to.
Neal waited until Peter left the office the next day for lunch with Elizabeth, and then went in to make his case. Diana let him do almost all the talking. Hughes sat back in his chair, watching Neal with his unnervingly keen gaze, and then looked past him to Diana. “Do you trust him?” he asked her.
Diana shrugged. “No further than I could throw him. But in this case, sir, I think he’s telling the truth.”
“And why should I think this isn’t a con, Caffrey?” Hughes asked, steepling his fingers. “You get rid of Peter, the only man who’s ever been able to catch you, and then you give us the slip.”
Neal shrugged. “All you’d have to do is pull Peter back from San Francisco and he’d catch me again. Definitely not worth all this effort.”
“But Burke’s wife is?”
“Yes,” Neal said, steadily.
Hughes stared at him. Neal stared back, willing himself not to look away. He had a lot of practice looking a mark in the eye and lying; it was harder to look someone in the eye and tell the truth, to lay all the cards on the table and hope they didn’t fleece you.
Hughes shook his head at last. “Strangest thing I ever heard, and I’ll be damned if I don’t believe it. But it’s not up to me. I have to pass it up for approval.”
“But if you recommend it -” Neal said.
“Yes,” Hughes said, looking as though he were already having second thoughts. “If I recommend it, it will likely be approved, so long as Peter signs off on it as well, of course. You’d be on a half mile radius for six months while you and Agent Berrigan get used to each other, and then we’d re-evaluate.”
Neal smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
Hughes shook his head. “Don’t thank me yet, Caffrey. I’m not doing you a favor, I’m doing Peter one. And believe me,” he added, with a hint of something faintly unpleasant in his eyes, “if you make a fool of out Agent Berrigan, or me, or the Bureau - there will be no second chances.”
Neal nodded. “I understand, sir.” There was no going back, now that he’d set this in motion, and it could very well end in prison for him if he blew it. He’d just have to be careful, he told himself. Most people went their entire lives without ending up in prison, or even anywhere close to it. He could do this.
Hughes waved him off impatiently. He was clearly dismissed, though Diana stayed behind. Neal wondered what else might change. He hoped like hell they wouldn’t re-think his arrangement with June. If he was going to be on a half-mile leash, it had better be one with silk sheets and a view of Manhattan.
After that . . . nothing happened. Neal waited impatiently for some sign from Hughes or Diana, but no one said a word to him about it for three days. And then on Thursday, just as he was wondering if it was worth saying something to Hughes, he walked in from lunch with Peter, and saw ADC Bancroft sitting in Hughes’s office.
“What’s Bancroft doing here?” Peter asked, frowning.
“No idea,” Neal said, a little too innocently. Peter’s eyes narrowed. They narrowed even further when Hughes gave Neal the two-finger call sign and gestured for Peter to stay where he was. Neal gave Peter a shrug and bounded up the stairs. Hughes shut the door behind him.
“Sir,” Neal said, shaking Bancroft’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You too, Neal,” Bancroft said genially. “Reese, will you give us a minute?”
“Of course,” Hughes said, and with a single, narrow-eyed look of his own at Neal, let himself out of the office.
“So, Neal,” Bancroft said, seating himself in Hughes’s chair. “I hear you want to change the terms of your arrangement.”
“Can you tell me a little bit about why?”
Feeling a bit like a kid who’d been called to the principal’s office, Neal explained as well as he could. He knew it sounded crazy, but he’d sold crazier ideas in the past. He hadn’t known Bancroft for very long, but he already knew the man had a BS detector that rivaled Peter’s, so he kept the wide, innocent eyes to a minimum and tried not to lay it on too thick. He liked Elizabeth, he said; she’d always been kind to him. He felt it was unfair that she should have to turn down this opportunity because of him.
“Hmm,” Bancroft said when Neal had finished. “Well, I’ll be honest with you, Neal. There’s been concern that this is some con you’re running. Hughes doesn’t think so and neither does Agent Berrigan, but there are those who think you’re good enough to have hoodwinked the entire New York office. Are you?”
“Am I good enough?” Neal replied with a calculated smile. “Yes, sir. I’m good enough. But I didn’t. I’m not happy about going to a half-mile radius, but I’m willing to do it for Elizabeth.”
Bancroft nodded. “And how do you feel about changing handlers?”
“Fine,” Neal said easily.
Bancroft snorted. “Now you’re lying. Don’t do that with me, Neal. Just don’t.”
Neal resisted the urge to squirm. “Yes, sir.” Bancroft nodded, then sat back, hands folded over his stomach, waiting patiently. “I’m . . . not happy about that, either. Don’t misunderstand me, I like Di - Agent Berrigan. We work well together.”
“So I’ve heard,” Bancroft said. “But that’s not what I asked you.”
“I know.” Neal swallowed. “I trust Peter,” he said, plainly. “More than I’ve trusted anyone in - years. At least.”
“He caught you,” Bancroft observed mildly. “Put you away for four years.”
“I know. That’s why I trust him.” Bancroft raised an eyebrow, and Neal shrugged. “It’s possible I’m a little messed up.”
“Just possible,” Bancroft said, eyebrow still raised. “Look, Neal. I’m going to be very honest with you. I want to grant your request. Agent Berrigan thinks your intentions are genuine, and Hughes thinks so, too. But I have bosses, and they want a guarantee that you aren’t going to run and embarrass the Bureau.”
“The half-mile radius isn’t enough?” Neal asked, slightly annoyed for the first time in all of this.
Bancroft shook his head. “Not for them. Seriously, Neal, can you look me in the eye and tell me there is no possibility you might run?”
Neal shook his head. “No,” he said, “I can’t. I always want to run, and it’ll be harder without Peter here. I know that. But I also know what would happen if I did run. Peter’s caught me twice, there’s no reason he couldn’t catch me again. Tell your bosses that this is a risk for me, too.”
Bancroft nodded. “Good. I was hoping you realized that.” He reached over and pulled a form Neal hadn’t noticed toward him. On it, he recognized Hughes’s and Diana’s signatures. Bancroft signed his name, then pushed it across to Neal, pointing to one of the dotted lines. Neal read through it quickly; sure enough, it would transfer responsibility for his custody from Peter to Diana, effective at 5:00 p.m. on Peter’s last day at the New York office.
He didn’t let himself think about it too hard. If he did, it would all be over. He signed it.
“Good,” Bancroft said, looking pleased for some reason. “Now all we need is for Peter to sign off on it. Would you like me to talk to him?”
“No,” Neal said, picking the form up. “I’ll do it. Thank you.”
Bancroft nodded. “Good luck, Neal. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
For some reason, that made Neal feel a little better.
Peter was waiting for him, trying and failing to appear as though he weren’t lurking in the hallway. “In my office,” he said, the moment Neal emerged from Hughes’s office.
“No please?” Neal said with mock offense.
Peter glowered as he shut the door behind Neal. “Don’t play games with me, Neal. My boss’s boss just called you into his office and talked to you for twenty minutes. Why?”
Neal shrugged and held the form out. Peter sat behind his desk and took it from him. He read it once, frowned, and read it again. And then a third time.
“I started thinking,” Neal said, very quietly, when Peter showed no sign of looking up any time soon, “and it’s really just not fair that Elizabeth has to give up so much for me.”
Peter looked up at last. And then he kept on looking, staring at Neal as though he’d never seen him before. “This is a trick, isn’t it? You’re playing a trick on me. It’s a con.”
“It’s not a con,” Neal said, seriously.
“There’s no way Hughes would reassign you. He doesn’t trust you enough.”
Neal sighed. “I had to make some concessions. One, in particular.” Peter raised an eyebrow. Neal grimaced. “Half a mile. But only for six months,” he added hastily. “Just while Diana and I get used to each other.”
Peter looked well and truly stunned now. “Half a mile? You’d do that for El?”
“For El,” Neal agreed, and then, deciding that if he’d gone that far, he might as well go the rest of the way, “and for you. Anyway,” he leaned back and crossed his legs, “you’ll love San Francisco. It’s beautiful. Remind Elizabeth to talk to me before you go - I want to give her a list of restaurants and museums for you to hit. Er. Visit. The San Francisco MOMA, the De Young. I want postcards. If I’m stuck on a half-mile radius, I have to live vicariously through you.” He controlled his mouth, with an effort. Peter was still staring at him. Neal didn’t know what to think about that; he’d half-expected Peter to be pissed he’d gone behind his back to Diana and Hughes, but Peter seemed . . . well, he wasn’t sure that pleased was the right word. But Neal had surprised him, that much was clear. “Well, come on,” he said at last. “Aren’t you going to sign it?”
Peter looked down at the form. “What if we decide not to go?”
Neal shrugged. “Then it never goes into effect. But you’ll go,” he added, knowing it was true.
Peter hesitated. For a moment, Neal almost hoped he wouldn’t sign it. That he’d dig his heels in and find some ridiculous reason to say no. But the moment passed; he bent and scrawled his name across the last blank space. This is what you wanted, Neal reminded himself harshly. “Good, ” Neal said, reaching across to take it, “I’ll let you call Elizabeth.”
Peter cleared his throat. “Yeah. I - yeah. Look, I’m probably going to head home early. Why don’t we call it a day? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Neal raised his eyebrows. “You don’t have to tell me twice. Give her my congratulations, will you? She’s earned it.”
Peter nodded. Neal let himself out, handed the form over to Hughes, grabbed his jacket and hat and split before anyone could ask him where he was going. He had limited time left on a two mile radius, and he was going to make the most of it.
It wasn’t until hours later, while standing in front of a painting at his favorite small, soon-to-be-out-of-bounds art gallery, that it really hit him. There was something about the painting that reminded him of Peter - nothing he could put his finger on; the thing was postmodern as hell - but there was something. The curves, the colors - they reminded him of Peter’s suits.
He stood staring at it, that mundane shade of gray, feeling a tightness in his chest. The worst part wasn’t going to be the radius. And it wouldn’t be missing them, either. The worst part would be that he didn’t even have the right to miss them. They’d send him postcards from the SFMOMA gift shop with notes on the back about how much Peter had hated it, or they’d send him brief emails every two or three months about what they were up to. Peter might call to consult him on a case. But Neal wouldn’t have the right to call them late at night, just to ask about their days. Peter wouldn’t call to ask for advice on what to get El for their anniversary, and El wouldn’t call to ask his opinion about a dessert wine to pair with crème brûlée. He’d be a fond memory for them, if that.
Neal abruptly lost his appetite for art or anything else. He caught a cab back to June’s, not even bothering to stop to pick up dinner. He sent Mozzie a text saying he had a headache and was going to have an early night; he told June the same thing once he got home and headed upstairs.
Safe in his apartment, he opened a bottle of the same Chianti he’d decanted for Peter and El on Saturday night, poured himself a very full glass, and sat on the balcony to contemplate the New York skyline and how very much being unselfish sucked. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. He wished he hadn’t made it the first time.
Except . . . he kept thinking about how El’s face must’ve looked when Peter told her, how delighted she must have been. If El was happy, Peter was happy. And if they were happy . . . .
Well. No. Neal wasn’t happy. He could admit that much to himself.
He’d drunk half the bottle and was sprawled on one of the chaise lounges, trying to find the energy to get up and go to bed, when there came a knock at the door. He sighed. It was probably June, checking up on him. “Come in!” he called.
It wasn’t June. It was El.
“Elizabeth,” he said, sitting up and attempting to look as though he hadn’t just been drinking alone on his balcony.
“Neal,” she said. She looked strange, much less put together than usual, as though she’d thrown clothes on and come over on a whim. Her face was also very odd; it looked caught, somehow, between laughter and tears, and her voice sounded the same. Rough.
“Is Peter with you?” Neal asked at last, when he realized El was just going to keep on staring at him if he didn’t say anything.
She shook her head and took a step toward him. “He told me what you did.”
Neal knocked back the last of the Chianti in his glass and stood, steadying himself on the chaise lounge. It was possible he’d had more than half the bottle. “It was nothing,” he said, letting the bottle dangle carelessly from his hand. “You didn’t have to come all the way over here to thank me.”
“Yes, I did. Neal, you’ve no idea what it means, that you’d be willing to give up so much for me.” She reached out and caught his hand, pulling him around to face her. “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “It was nothing,” he repeated.
“It wasn’t. Peter told me - half a mile. That’s not nothing for you. Don’t try and tell me it is.”
Neal shrugged again. “Only for six months,” he said, wishing she wasn’t looking at him with her eyes so wide and open, wishing her couldn’t smell her jasmine perfume, wishing he hadn’t drunk so damn much wine.
She squeezed his hand. “Then why are you drinking?”
He froze. “It was a nice night,” he said, focusing his eyes on the patch of bare wall just to the left of her head. “I had a glass of wine on the balcony. Then I had another. It wasn’t anything to do with you.” He extricated his hand and took the bottle into the kitchen. “Would you like a glass?” he asked politely.
“No, thank you.” He nodded, corked the bottle, and put it away. She was watching him again. “Would you like to know where Peter is?” she asked at last.
Neal shrugged. “At home, I assume. Your home. Yours and his.”
“Mm,” El said in agreement. “Yes. Sleeping off three double Scotch on the rocks. He drank them under the guise of celebration,” she added wryly, when Neal looked up in surprise, “but I know what celebration looks like on Peter and that wasn’t it. So you see, when I come here and find you three-quarters -”
“Two-thirds,” argued Neal, nonsensically.
“- of the way into a bottle of wine, I have to wonder.”
“Wonder what?” Neal asked, dropping tiredly onto the sofa. He was suddenly exhausted. Red wine hit him like that occasionally. He hoped it wouldn’t leave him with a headache.
El seated herself next to him, tucking her feet up beneath her. “If you and Peter are drinking for the same reason. It’s hard to miss the fact that I’m the only one genuinely pleased about this.”
Neal gave her a look. “I just agreed to go to a half-mile radius. Pardon me if I’m not leaping for joy.” He shrugged, slumping further into the sofa. “Peter’s probably just having trouble getting used to the idea. Give him some time, he’ll get over it.”
El shook her head, her mouth a thin, unhappy line. “I’m not sure he will.”
“I am. Stop worrying, El. Think about San Francisco. It’s going to be amazing. You’re going to be amazing,” he added, and this time he did look at her. It was the first true thing he’d said to her since she’d come in the door. “You’re going to fly. The city will never know what hit it.”
She smiled, tilting her head to one side, so her hair fell dark and thick over her shoulder. “And what about you?”
Neal shrugged, smiled. “You know Diana. I’ll be in very capable hands.”
“Diana’s good,” El agreed.
“Yeah,” Neal said, letting his head tilt back to rest against the couch. “She’s very good.”
“She’s not Peter.”
Neal closed his eyes. “No,” he said, because it was hard to see the point in of lying, “she’s not.” He opened his eyes, lifted his head, and looked at her. “Why did you come here, El?”
She shook her head, swallowed, and looked away. “Because tonight I watched my husband drink himself stupid, and all the while he was telling me how proud he was of me and how happy he was that I got to have this after all - and he was lying. He was just . . . miserable.” She looked down at her hands. She was twisting her wedding band round her finger. “So I came over to ask if you knew why that might be.”
Neal sighed. “I wish I did. You know Peter - sometimes it takes him awhile to get used to an idea. He has to examine it from all the angles. This all happened very fast.”
“Too fast, maybe?” she asked, in a voice that was oddly gentle. “Did you have time to think of all the angles?”
Neal flashed her a smile. “I always do. Look,” he added, because if he didn’t give her an ounce of honesty, she would never let it go, “I’m not going to pretend it’ll be easy. But Diana and I will get used to each other. You deserve this, El. Stop looking for reasons not to have it.”
She nodded. Her eyes were still bright, but the tension around her mouth eased. “Yeah. Maybe it is just nerves. I’d decided it wasn’t going to happen, and then you pulled a rabbit out of your hat.”
Neal gave her his most disarming smile. “Neal Caffrey, magician, at the service of beautiful women everywhere.” She laughed, even though the joke wasn’t that funny. “Seriously,” he said, smiling, “go home, pour some water into Peter so he’s bearable tomorrow, and start planning your life in California. Don’t worry about me.”
She looked at him for a long time before nodding. “All right,” she said. She leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you. I won’t forget this, Neal.”
He kept smiling as she gathered up her purse and left. Once she was gone, he let the smile fade. He could have told her, he thought. He could have said, I want you to be happy, but I don’t know if I can do this without Peter. She wouldn’t have thought less of him. But he would have thought less of himself. “I’ll be fine,” he told himself aloud.
It rang false even in his own ears.
Peter’s last day at the New York office was rainy, wet, and cold. There was a good-bye party planned for the afternoon - catered by the Greatest Cake - but Peter spent the morning alternately packing up his office and sitting in briefings with Hughes, Jones, and Diana. Neal watched from his desk as the pictures and diplomas slowly disappeared from Peter’s walls. They were leaving very early on Saturday morning and wouldn’t reach California until Thursday or Friday. They were driving because of Satchmo, and because Elizabeth had been a deprived child who had never properly experienced the miseries of a road trip.
The house in Brooklyn was mostly packed up, Peter had said, save for a few things they had decided to leave behind. They weren’t renting it out, at least not yet. This made no financial sense at all, as far as Neal could see, but Peter had said that place they’d found in the Bay Area was smaller and significantly less expensive. “We want to wait and see how things go with El’s business before we make any major decisions,” Peter had said, when Neal had asked. Neal had shrugged and let it go. They could clearly take care of themselves - and each other - just fine.
Elizabeth showed up with the sheet cake at three, and the office gave up all pretense of this being just another day. Hughes made a speech, which was oddly touching, and then Diana made a speech, which was hilarious, and then everyone was suddenly looking at Neal.
He smiled widely. “To Peter,” he said, lifting his plastic cup of champagne. “The only man who ever caught me. And to Elizabeth, who puts up with him. Tell me, have you bought him his first pair of flip flops yet?” Elizabeth laughed and shook her head.
“San Francisco,” Peter said, frowning in mock annoyance, “not LA.”
Neal grinned. “All the same. I wish you both all the luck in the world. To Peter and Elizabeth!”
Everyone echoed him and drank. Neal drained his cup and poured himself another. He let himself go on social autopilot, smiling and laughing and charming without paying the slightest attention to anything that was being said, until Elizabeth sidled up to him with two plates in hand. “Cake?” she asked.
“Thanks,” Neal said, accepting one. Chocolate with raspberry filling. Not what Neal would have chosen for himself, but it was Peter’s party, not his.
Elizabeth bumped him with her hip. “I should be thanking you. You own the bakery, after all.” He shrugged. “Are you all right?”
He glanced at her. “Of course. Why do you ask?”
She gave him a look. “Because someone should.”
“I told you before -” Neal began.
“Don’t worry. I know. Well, I do worry, and so does Peter, and we’re not going to stop just because we’re in California.”
Neal didn’t quite know what to say to that. “Thanks,” he said at last, “but I’m really -”
“- fine. Yes. So I’ve heard.” Elizabeth sighed. “Well, don’t leave without saying good-bye to Peter.”
“I wouldn’t,” Neal said, stung.
She nodded. “Good. And look, I just want you to know -”
“Elizabeth,” Hughes said, appearing suddenly at her shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt, but I haven’t had the chance yet to say congratulations.”
“Oh,” she said, turning towards him with a smile, “thank you, Reese.”
“I spent some time in San Francisco, you know, back in ‘83 . . .”
Neal slipped away, grateful for the diversion. He ate his cake, then perched on the edge of his desk doing card tricks. He lost himself in handling the deck, letting the cards flow from one hand to the other, the familiar, stock phrases on his lips. He attracted a small crowd, then a larger one, and was able to relax, slowly, under the attention.
He could have gone on for hours, but eventually the crowd dwindled. When he finally put the deck away, it was 5:15 and the office was mostly empty. Hughes was in his office on the phone, El and Diana were looking at reviews of San Francisco restaurants on Diana’s computer, and Peter was in his office. Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, caught Neal’s eye, and looked significantly toward the stairs. Neal made a face but did as he was told. Putting it off wouldn’t make it any easier.
He knocked lightly at Peter’s door. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Peter said. “Come on in.”
Neal closed the door behind him. “You all packed up?”
Peter nodded. “I think so. Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Neal said. Then, “Peter -”
They both stopped. “You first,” Peter said at last.
Neal shrugged. “I just wanted to say . . . I know I can be a real pain in the ass -” Peter snorted “- and almost anyone else would’ve tossed me back in prison at least five times over. Thanks for putting up with me.”
Peter smiled. “You make life interesting. It won’t be the same in San Francisco without you.”
“It won’t be the same here without you,” Neal replied.
Peter nodded, looking awkwardly down at his cardboard box of personal items. His diploma from Quantico, obviously the last thing he’d packed, was peeking over the top. “Look . . . thank you. I know I didn’t say it at the time, but it’s an incredibly generous thing you did for El. Neither of us will forget this.”
Neal raised an eyebrow. “That sounds ominous.”
“I’m serious,” Peter said. He looked serious, Neal thought, as serious as Neal had ever seen him, including both times he’d arrested him. Peter drew a deep breath. “If anything happens -”
“It won’t,” Neal said, defensively.
“No, I mean - if something goes wrong and you need help - El and I have a word.”
“Azaleas,” Neal said, raising his eyebrows.
“No, that’s for if I’m all right. This one is for if I’m not all right. It’s ‘lucky tie.’”
“Of course it is,” Neal said with a sigh.
“Don’t be a smartass,” Peter told him. “I mean it. If something goes wrong -”
“But if it does,” Peter said, firmly, “that’s all it’ll take. An email, a phone call, ‘lucky tie,’ and I’ll be on the next flight.”
Neal noticed they had both been very careful to avoid actually saying if you need me. “Thanks, but it won’t be necessary.”
“You never know,” Peter said. He held his hand out; Neal shook it. “Take care of yourself.”
Neal nodded. “You too, Peter.”
Peter picked up his briefcase and his carton, gave the room one last glance, and left. Neal watched as he picked up El downstairs. She looked up at the office to wave and blow a kiss at Neal, and then they were gone.
Ouch. Neal had known this would hurt. But he hadn’t realized how much. Neal stood for a minute in the middle of Peter’s - of the office, and then went around the desk to drop tiredly into the chair. There was no one to boot him out of it now.
Neal let himself slump further in the chair. Then he frowned. Taped to the sliding drawer for the keyboard, where only someone sitting behind the desk could see it, was a bright yellow index card.
N- Look in the top drawer. - P.B.
He was nothing if not obedient. Neal opened the top drawer.
Peter had left him the rubber band ball.
He reached in and took it out, gave it a toss. Then he sat, looking at it and not thinking much of anything at all, except that he really hoped this stopped hurting eventually. It was going to be hard to keep up his end of the bargain with Diana if he had to go around feeling like this all time.
“Hey,” Diana said. Neal looked up. She was leaning against the doorway, coat already on, bag slung over her shoulder. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” Neal said, smiling. He held the rubber band ball. “Look what I inherited.”
Diana grinned. “I got his Quantico pen.”
“Ooh, lucky. I always knew you were his favorite.”
Diana shrugged. “I was just about to leave. You want to grab a bite?”
Neal raised his eyebrows. “It’s Thursday. Isn’t Thursday date night?”
“Yeah. But I told Christie I’d be a little late. We’ll catch a movie later. Come on,” she jerked her head in the direction of the elevators. “Greek food. My treat.”
“You don’t have to,” Neal said, even as he stood, ball in hand. “I thought you wanted to have a normal CI-handler relationship?”
Diana shrugged. “Yeah, well. I might’ve decided normalcy is overrated. Besides, you look like someone just kicked your puppy.”
“I do not,” Neal said indignantly.
“You totally do,” she said with a grin, shaking her head and stepping back to let him by. “So come on, let’s grab some food and a couple beers, and I’ll drop you at home.”
She waited for him as he got his coat and hat and slipped the ball into his desk. He wished, briefly, that Peter had left him a photo instead. He could sketch them from memory, though. Maybe that’s what he’d do with his first weekend on a half-mile radius. It was maudlin, he knew, but he deserved a couple days to be maudlin. It wasn’t as though there was anyone to whom he could admit how much this would affect him.
Then again, maybe there was someone. Neither of them spoke until they were in the elevator, both of them silently watching the floor numbers tick by. Then Diana said, “It’s okay to miss him, you know. I’ll miss him, too.”
Neal carefully didn’t look at her. “Not like I will.”
There was a beat of silence, and then Diana sighed. “No. Probably not.”
The elevator opened. “Greek food, you said?” Neal asked.
“Yup. I know a great place. Outside your radius.”
“Just like everything else,” Neal said, with a long-suffering sigh. “Lead on, then.”
It was amazing how short half a mile was. Two miles had sometimes felt short, especially when the Musée d’Orsay’s post-Impressionists exhibit had come to the Guggenheim and Neal had had to wait until someone from the division could take him. But half a mile was downright suffocating. Anything he actually wanted to do or see was just out of reach, including most of the city’s best galleries and museums, not to mention all the restaurants. Mozzie was happy to bring take-out when he came, but it wasn’t the same - especially since Moz almost always took the opportunity to point out that this situation was of Neal’s own making.
“Half a mile,” he groused, while handing over saag paneer and lamb masala from Neal’s favorite Indian restaurant, a mere ten feet outside his new radius. “And for the Suit.”
“Not for Peter, Moz,” Neal finally said in exasperation, because he was so very tired of hearing Mozzie say all the crap that was running through his own head. It wasn’t as though he could do anything about it now, even if he’d wanted to. “For Elizabeth.”
That had shut Mozzie up. Mostly.
Peter emailed him. So did El, actually. Neal wasn’t sure how to handle this at first. He’d expected to be left behind, no matter what either of them said. But Peter emailed every couple of days with tidbits from cases he was working on and observations about San Francisco (which was nice enough, he said, but would never hold a candle to New York). El sent pictures: of the townhouse they were renting in Oakland, of the two of them out and about, of Satch at the dog park. Once she even emailed him photos of a dinner she’d cooked, pasta with prawns and scallops. Peter worked late, but I thought you might appreciate it, she wrote.
Neal wrote back, but he never had much to say. How was he? Fine. How was the Bureau? Fine. How were he and Diana doing? Fine. Everything was just fine.
He was bored out of his skull.
Boredom was the enemy, Neal had learned in prison. Boredom led inevitably to a spiraling down into what Mozzie called “the dark place.” So he kept busy, or at least as busy as he could within half a mile. He took to planning elaborate cons he knew he would never pull, the sort that required a crack team of specialists and six months of prep work, plus another two to three for the execution. Sometimes Moz helped; this was the sort of thing they’d done before Neal had gone to prison, only back then the planning hadn’t been so hypothetical. He supposed it might not be hypothetical for Moz, but whenever he asked about his work, Moz just said it was better for them both if he didn’t know.
It hurt, but Neal suspected Moz saw his voluntarily shortened radius as the final step in his transformation into a Suit.
He painted. He did a Dali-esque interpretation of the view from the balcony, then a still life in the style of Van Gogh, of his fedora, a half empty wine bottle, and a single glass. He did a series of Matisses from memory and signed them with a flourishing NC.
Three weeks after Peter left, he painted Kate for the first time since she’d died.
He took his time sketching, deciding on just the right composition. Standing, sitting, or lying down. Wearing jeans, an evening gown, nothing at all. Close up, far away. In the end, he portrayed her in her favorite shade of blue with their wine bottle beside her. It took him nearly a week to get her eyes just right.
He was only a little surprised to find that he had no desire to keep the painting for himself. He sent it, anonymously, to her only living relative, an aunt in Connecticut.
Peter and El had been gone a month and a half when Neal found himself working from one of the photos El had sent him. It was the two of them at a gala El had thrown at the San Francisco Opera House. Peter was wearing a tux that actually fit and El looked stunning in red. Neal pinned the photo to his easel and did a series of sketches; the first was a direct copy, but the others were variations on a theme.
It was hard to draw two people kissing, Neal discovered. It was even harder to paint two people kissing; the shadows were tricky. Still, he persisted, steadfastly ignoring the part of himself that knew this was beyond unhealthy. As coping mechanisms went, he decided, there were worse. Still, he kept the canvas covered, and once he was done he hid it away, where Moz wouldn’t find it and mock him for it.
It wasn’t enough. All the planning and painting in the world couldn’t make up for losing the museums and galleries. Painting Peter and El didn’t even begin to make up for not being able to see them every day. It didn’t make up for all the evenings his phone stayed silent, for all the times someone knocked on his door late at night and it was June or Mozzie. His nightly glass of wine became three or four, and then the entire bottle. It was the only way he slept, some nights.
That didn’t last very long. Diana had been his handler for less than three months when she cornered him in the men’s room one morning. Neal was bent over the sink, splashing water on his face, when she barged in.
“Uh,” he said, raising his head, “what are you -”
“Save it. What’s your problem, Caffrey?” she demanded.
“Problem? There’s no -”
“This is the second time this week you’ve come to the office hungover. It makes you look bad and it makes me look bad. Rule number one of this partnership, in case I wasn’t clear from the very beginning, is that you don’t make me look bad.”
“I know,” Neal said. He leaned against the sink. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“You never pulled this shit with Peter. Why with me? You think I’m softer than he is? Think I’ll let you get away with it?”
“It’s not about you versus Peter,” Neal told her. She raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, all right, it might be a little bit about you versus Peter. But I swear I’m not trying to make you look bad.”
“Then what are you doing?” she asked. “Because this can’t go on.”
Neal sighed. “I’m bored,” he said plainly. “I know,” he added, before she could respond, “I agreed to half a mile, but that doesn’t mean I have to love it. I’m not -” He stopped. Maybe this was where Diana told him he was too much of a hassle after all. Their closure rate wasn’t quite what his and Peter’s had been. Maybe it really wasn’t worth her putting up with his crap.
“What?” Diana asked.
“I’m not sleeping very well,” Neal said quietly, not looking her in the eye.
Diana’s lips parted. “Ah.”
“It won’t happen -” Neal started.
Neal blinked. “What?”
Diana gave him her best you’re being dim look. “Saturday mornings, from nine to noon. You choose a gallery or a museum that’s outside your radius. I drive. And in exchange, you stop coming to work looking like you slept under a bridge. See a doctor if you need to, but quit self-medicating.”
Neal blinked again, so surprised that it took him a second or two to get his facial expression back under control. “Oh.”
“Don’t thank me,” she told him. “It’s not like I have much choice. You’re useless to me hungover.” She turned and left without another word.
To Neal’s surprise, it worked. The first Saturday, they went to the Guggenheim, the second, to MOMA, and the third to an art installation out in Brooklyn he’d seen written up in the New York Times. Diana was surprisingly good company; she was knowledgeable about art and far more interested in it than Peter had ever been. It was never quite enough time, considering they had to factor in travel to and from, but he knew better than to say anything. If nothing else, he finally had something to write about in his emails to Peter and Elizabeth.
He and Diana were nearly four months into their probation period when Neal checked his watch one Saturday morning - they were at an Art Deco exhibit at a hole-in-the-wall gallery Neal had discovered a few months before Peter had left - and realized it was 12:15 and Diana hadn’t said a word about leaving. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” he asked. She and Christie almost always had plans in the afternoon; like Thursday evenings, Saturday afternoons were sacred.
“Not really. Thought I’d give you some extra time today.”
Neal glanced at her sideways. “Well, you won’t hear me arguing.” But he found he couldn’t focus after that. Art was interesting, but people were more so, and Diana Berrigan with nowhere to be on a Saturday afternoon was downright fascinating.
“I think I’m done here,” he said, fifteen minutes later. “Want to get lunch? There’s a deli a few doors down I like. I’ll buy.”
“Sure,” she said with a shrug.
The deli was crowded. Neal bought their food to go - pastrami on rye for him; roast beef on wheat with horseradish cheddar for her - and jerked his head toward the door. She followed him out. “There’s this little park nearby, one of those private ones, for residents,” he said, leading her down to the next corner. “Locked, but no guards.”
“I’m not climbing a fence,” she said dryly.
Neal gave her look. “Would I climb a fence in these pants?”
“Yes,” she said flatly.
“All right, yes,” he agreed, “but only for the right incentive.” A Manet, for instance. “Not for a park. Trust me.”
She snorted but followed him without further argument. They crossed the street, went down another block, and turned down a short side street that dead ended into the park gate. The gates were wrought iron, old, ornate, and beautiful, and that was probably why the old-fashioned lock had never been replaced with something more modern and secure. He handed the bag of food to Diana, pulled out his lockpick kit, and made quick work of it. “After you,” he said, holding the gate open for Diana.
“Locks are just there to make life interesting for you, aren’t they?” she said, handing him the bag of food as she stepped past.
He shrugged. “On a half mile radius, I have to make my own fun.”
She rolled her eyes but didn’t bother to hide the smile that quirked her lips. Looking back, Neal realized she hadn’t done much smiling lately. He’d chalked it up to her being sterner with him than Peter had been - like a new teacher trying to establish her authority with an unruly class of eight-year-olds, he thought wryly - but now he wasn’t so sure.
It was a beautiful day, the first really warm one they’d had this summer. Neal found a nice little grassy knoll for them with an unoccupied bench and a good view of the duck pond. He sat down and handed Diana her sandwich, lemonade, and a couple of napkins.
They ate in companionable silence. Neal was itching to say something, but Diana didn’t react well when she felt manipulated, and he’d long since learned that he couldn’t charm her without her cottoning on. If she hadn’t wanted him to know, she wouldn’t have given him any indication to begin with. All he had to do was eat his sandwich and keep his mouth shut and eventually she’d say something.
Eventually she did. “Break-ups suck,” she said succinctly, packing the second half of her sandwich away in its bag.
“I’m sorry,” Neal said, with genuine sympathy. “Was it the New York thing?”
“That,” she said, “and also the long hours thing and the afraid for my life thing.” She shrugged. “She moved back to DC last week. It’s where her family is. We left it open, but she hasn’t called.”
“Have you?” Neal asked, pointedly.
She shot him a look. “Yes. Twice. Went to voicemail both times.”
“Yeah. Anyway,” she said, straightening her spine and lifting her chin, “I figured you’d find out somehow. No one else knows, and I’d rather they didn’t.”
“You know I can keep a secret,” he said, smiling.
She snorted. “Yeah, I do. Don’t think this is going to be every Saturday now,” she added, poking him in the chest. “Just because I got dumped doesn’t mean I don’t have a life. I have better things to do than follow you around every PoMo gallery in New York making sure you don’t get handsy.”
“Wouldn’t dream of thinking otherwise,” he told her. “But thanks for today.”
She shrugged, looking away. “It’s the first Saturday since she left.” Her mouth twisted, and for a moment - a split second, no more - Neal glimpsed how hurt she was.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, quietly. “Being left behind -”
“- sucks,” she said. “Yeah.”
Neal grimaced his agreement. He didn’t find himself staring up at Peter’s office as often anymore, but there were still days when he came in and expected to find Peter waiting for him, impatient because Neal hadn’t magically known he wanted him there fifteen minutes early.
The emails were becoming more sporadic. Neal told himself that was only natural, they were settling in and making a life for themselves in San Francisco. But it stung a little, every time he opened his email and there was nothing from either of them.
They were both quiet for a while. Eventually, Diana cleared her throat. “So, I’m going to ask you something, Caffrey, because I’ve just gotten way more personal with you than I ever wanted to. You don’t have to answer, but you should know that if you do answer - I don’t care. Not in any way that’d cause problems for you.”
Neal looked at her warily. “Okay,” he said.
“Are you in love with Peter?”
It was only because Neal was very, very good at what he did that he managed not to choke. He laughed instead. “Am I what?”
Diana wasn’t laughing. “In love with Peter. Don’t worry, it’s only obvious to anyone who’s spent the last four months watching you like her career depends on it and has a finely honed gaydar. Since I’m the only one in the office who fulfills both those criteria, I think your secret is safe.”
“I’m not gay,” Neal protested. “I like women.”
Diana’s look sharpened. “I notice you didn’t say you don’t like men.” Neal shrugged. “So. Are you in love with Peter?”
Neal looked away, fixing his eyes on a young family strolling through the park. He thought about the last four months, about that night on his balcony with El, about the painting hidden away in his apartment. “I might be,” he said at last. “Almost definitely might be.”
“Knew it,” Diana said, faintly triumphant. She bumped his shoulder with hers. “You could have worse taste, you know. He’s hot in a holster, and have you see him in blue jeans?”
“Not often enough,” Neal said, mouth going a little dry as he remembered Peter in blue jeans that fit - thank you, Elizabeth - behind the wheel of a stolen Lamborghini. Neal had been inappropriately turned on throughout that whole case, but at the time he’d chalked it up to the excitement of the con.
Diana laughed quietly. “Well, don’t worry. I’m not going to say anything to anyone. But I thought it might help to know I know. Because yeah, getting left behind -”
“- sucks,” Neal finished. “It really, really does.”
“Yeah. But you know,” she added, drawing a deep breath, “that’s life. You obviously haven’t sat around crying over it, and I’m not going to, either. Come on.” She stood. “We can swing by that European market you like on our way home.”
Despite Diana’s warning, their Saturday morning field trips got longer. They almost always included lunch and often an errand or two or three to places that were outside Neal’s radius. They never talked about Christie again. They talked about Peter, sometimes, but it was general, friendly. Two friends talking about another friend who had moved away. It was almost as though their conversation that day in the park had never happened. Neal was more relieved than disappointed.
Another month went by. They caught an art thief and a team of forgers, and then, in the middle of a stifling August, Neal came in to work one morning and found a surprise waiting for him in Hughes’s office.
“Good morning, Neal,” Bancroft said, extending his hand. Neal shook it, glancing subtly to Hughes. Hughes looked more bemused than annoyed, but Neal wasn’t sure he should be relieved just yet. “How are you?”
“I’m well, sir. Yourself?”
“Good, good. Tell me, is there a good place to get a cup of coffee around here? I’m tired of the FBI swill.”
Neal glanced at Hughes again; Hughes nodded. “The shop down the street makes a decent latte.”
“Excellent, lead on. Reese, we’ll talk when I get back,” Bancroft said, and before Neal quite knew what was happening, Bancroft had shepherded him down the stairs, through the bullpen, and into the elevator.
“You shouldn’t look so worried,” Bancroft told Neal. “I’m not here as the harbinger of bad news. I was in New York for a conference, and I decided to check in with you, see how you and Agent Berrigan are doing. Hughes was telling me you two are almost as good as you and Peter.”
“Yes, sir,” Neal said, wondering - not for the first time - if that almost was going to come back and haunt him. He and Diana had a seventy-three percent closure rate, which was certainly well above the Bureau’s average. It was also twenty percent below what he’d averaged with Peter.
Bancroft bought their coffee, and they sat at the same table Neal and Diana had when Neal had asked her to take over for Peter as his handler. Neal thought about opening the conversation himself but decided to wait. He’d never gotten anywhere trying to charm Bancroft, and he didn’t think that was going to change now. Regardless of what Bancroft had said, he’d come here for a reason, and Neal would only find out what that was by keeping his mouth shut.
Bancroft sipped his latte and leaned back, apparently in no hurry to get down to business. “I have a grandson,” he said at last. “Jamie. Six years old. He’s learning to ride a bike, and my daughter emails me videos. Do you remember learning how to ride a bike?”
Neal shook his head. “I’ve never learned.”
Bancroft eyebrows shot up. “Never?”
“No,” Neal said, hoping there were no follow-up questions. He didn’t want to admit that there’d been no money for bicycles when he was a kid, nor much room to ride them in the trailer park he and his mom had lived in. He hadn’t been deprived, and he definitely hadn’t been neglected, there just hadn’t been any extras.
“Huh,” Bancroft said, eyeing him. “Well, I realized the other day that I don’t remember learning to ride a bike. I know I did, at some point, but I don’t remember it. Anyway, I’ve been watching these videos of Jamie. He started off with training wheels, and when he got less wobbly, my daughter took them off. But my son-in-law was holding the back of the bike the whole time, up and down the street, over and over. Then one day my daughter was standing there with the camera and my son-in-law let go of the bike. Jamie didn’t realize it at first, he thought his dad was still holding on. Then his parents started clapping and he realized no one had a hold of him anymore. And do you know what happened?”
Neal could see where this was going. “He fell off?”
“He fell off,” Bancroft agreed, nodding. “He could ride the bike, that part he’d mastered, but he didn’t believe he could ride it. And so he fell off anyway.”
Neal nodded. “So you’re here to make sure I haven’t fallen off.”
“Not quite,” Bancroft said, smiling. “I’m here so I can tell my boss that you haven’t fallen off. Have you?”
“No,” Neal said honestly.
“Not recently.” It was even true. As bored as Neal was, as badly as he wanted his two mile radius back, the thought of actually pulling a heist had lost a lot of its appeal. Mostly because he kept imagining the look on Peter’s face when he found out about it. Not to mention Diana’s.
Bancroft nodded. “Good.”
Neal blinked. “What, that’s it? You’re not going to pull my tracking data and grill me on where I’ve been?”
Bancroft shook his head. “That’s not how it works anymore. I’ll admit I was concerned about this situation at first. I think you have a lot of potential, but your previous choices didn’t speak very well of your ability to make good judgments without someone like Peter telling you what they were. But you’ve done well with Agent Berrigan - almost as well as you and Peter did - and, well, let’s just say I don’t anticipate a problem re-instating your two mile radius when your probationary period is up.”
That was a relief to hear, but he’d said it again - almost - and Neal decided he couldn’t let it go. “Thank you, sir,” he said, “but will there be a problem because I dropped from a ninety-three percent closure rate to a seventy-three percent closure rate?”
Bancroft laughed. “Neal, I would give my right arm for all of my teams to have a seventy-three percent closure rate. The issue isn’t you; it’s that Agent Berrigan has ten years less experience than Peter. Someday she’ll be just as good as he is, but she isn’t there yet. I know that, Hughes knows that, and we’ll be happy to explain it to anyone who doesn’t see it for themselves. Got it?”
Neal allowed himself to relax. “Yes, sir.”
Bancroft glanced at his watch. “Damn, I need to be getting back for a panel.” He stood up. “But I’ll be in touch. Anything you need,” he fished a business card out of his wallet, “feel free to give me a call, all right?”
Neal took the card. “Thank you. And thanks for the coffee.”
“No problem. Stay on the bike!” Bancroft told him, and left.
Neal sat at the table, staring out at the pedestrians streaming past the window on the sidewalk. It was ten o’clock in New York; seven o’clock in San Francisco. Peter was probably getting ready to leave for the office, if he hadn’t left already.
Neal finished his coffee and headed back to the office. There was a stack of cold cases waiting for him.
Three days after Bancroft’s surprise visit, one of the cold cases suddenly heated up. Within twelve hours, they’d cracked a mortgage fraud case from four years ago that had stymied Peter and his team. Once they’d managed to connect all the dots to get a warrant, the rest was easy. No one even pointed a gun at Neal. It’d been months, in fact, since he’d found himself at gunpoint. He worried he was tempting fate.
“Come on, Caffrey,” Jones said, when all the bad guys were in custody and the paperwork was finally filed. “Diana and I are going out to celebrate. You’re coming with us.”
It was a Thursday night but the bar was fairly quiet. They snagged a table in the back and Jones went to get the first round. Neal immediately started practicing palming the coasters; they were an awkward size and shape, but he could just about manage it. He was concentrating so hard that he didn’t even realize Diana had pulled her cell phone out until she said, “Hey, boss. You’ll never guess what Caffrey, Jones, and I did today.”
Neal looked up. She grinned at something Peter - Peter - said and launched into the story of how Neal, slogging through a stack of cold cases yesterday morning, had come across the file and made the connection between that case and one he’d read the week before. Neal ducked his head, a little embarrassed by how proud she obviously was of him. It wasn’t very exciting, as cases went, but Neal knew Peter would appreciate the hard work and intuition that’d gone into cracking it.
Jones had returned with the drinks by the time Diana finally wound down. She paused to listen to Peter, then laughed before removing the phone from her ear. “Neal, Peter suggests I put you on an all mortgage fraud diet, since you did so well with this one.”
Neal pulled a horrified face. “Tell him that diet would give me indigestion.”
She held the phone out. “Tell him yourself.”
Neal narrowed his eyes at her. Her smile widened slightly and she shook the phone at him. Neal took it. “Peter,” he said, even as he tried to dampen a sudden rush of nerves. “Hey.”
“Sorry, not Peter,” El’s voice said warmly, even as Neal heard Peter say, muffled, El, give that back! He grinned. Oh hush, I’ll let you talk to him eventually, he heard her reply. “I understand you had a good day.”
“If any day that involves mortgage fraud can be called good,” he said with a grin, “then yeah, I did. We did. How’s San Francisco?”
“Beautiful,” she said. “Amazing. Foggy in the mornings.”
“And your business?”
“Fantastic,” she said, and launched into a description of an only-in-San Francisco hippie-dippy outdoor charity auction she’d organized in July at the Palace of Fine Arts. She’d emailed him pictures and told him a little about it already, but that paled next to hearing about it in her own voice. Neal relaxed into his chair, feeling muscles uncoil that he hadn’t even realized had been tense. “I’ve got four more events lined up already,” she finished, “just because of that one.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Any luck getting Peter to agree to retire and be a kept man?”
She laughed. “That’s the last thing I want. You know how he gets when he’s bored. He’d DIY every room in the house and it’d end in divorce. And now he’s making a face at me,” El added, “because he thinks we’re making fun of him.”
“Which we are,” Neal pointed out.
“Well, yes,” she agreed. “Anyway, I’ll let you go. I’m sure the two of you have important FBI business to discuss.” I want the phone back when you’re done, he heard her tell Peter as she passed the phone over.
“Hey, Neal,” Peter said, warmly. “Congratulations.”
Neal swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “Thanks. It was mostly Diana and Jones.” Neal glanced over at the two of them, but they seemed to be distracted - Jones was trying to explain to Diana why baseball was, in fact, the most awesome sport; Diana, having grown up mostly overseas, remained baffled - so he slid out of his seat and headed outside. He didn’t want the first real conversation he’d had with Peter in months to be a group effort.
“That’s not how Diana tells it. Things’ve been going well, then? You’re keeping busy?”
Neal pushed through the glass doors of the bar and strode out into the warm, humid, late-summer air. “Very busy. Diana’s a strict taskmaster.”
“Stricter than me?”
“Much,” Neal said, grinning as he leaned against the building. He’d barely had the chance to so much as sip his wine, but he felt flushed and a little giddy. He didn’t know if it was solving the case or talking to Peter, but he had his suspicions. “And she can’t be bought with Italian roast.”
Hearing Peter’s laugh again after so long did strange things to Neal’s insides. “No, it’s not coffee with Diana. But everyone has their weak point.”
“I’ve yet to find hers. You wouldn’t happen to know, would you?”
“I might. What’s it worth to you?” Peter asked.
“What’s your price?”
“Two pounds of June’s Italian roast.”
“Done,” Neal said. “Spill.”
“Dark chocolate. Very, very dark chocolate, upwards of seventy percent. A bar of that and she’s yours for at least as long as it takes her to eat it.”
“Nice,” Neal said appreciatively. “Thanks, Peter.”
“Just don’t tell her I told you, she’d kill me.” Peter drew a breath. Neal waited. “Seriously, Neal,” he said after a moment. “You’re all right?”
Neal swallowed. “Yeah, of course.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t called - El kept telling me to, I just didn’t want to interfere with you and Diana getting used to each other.” Peter’s voice was quiet and firm now, and seemed to fill up a space inside Neal’s chest that had been empty and aching since he’d left. Peter hadn’t stopped caring, Neal realized with a surprising amount of relief. When had he started worrying about that?
“It’s all right,” Neal said. “Things have been - well, I won’t say the half mile radius has been a walk in the park - literally, most of Central Park’s out of my radius - but it’s almost over. No lucky ties necessary, Peter. I’m fine.”
“Good,” Peter said. “Well, El’s clearing her throat at me impatiently, so I’ll hand you back over to her. It was good talking to you, Neal.”
“Yeah,” Neal said, a little horrified when his voice came out rougher than he’d expected. “Feel free to call.”
“You, too, Neal. I mean it. Talk to you soon.”
There was the muffled noise of the phone changing hands, and then El said, “I won’t keep you long, but I wanted to let you know we’re going to be back in New York for Thanksgiving. We’ll be at my sister’s on the actual day, but we were hoping we might see you Friday or Saturday.”
“Count on it,” Neal said, smiling. “It’s not like I’m going out of town or anything.”
El laughed. “I guess not. Well, take care of yourself. I don’t want to hear third hand about you jumping out some fourth story window onto an awning.”
Neal grinned. “Elizabeth, I promise that if I am forced to defenestrate myself, I’ll call and tell you about it personally.”
He could practically hear the eye-roll in her voice. “I suppose that’s good enough. We’ll talk soon, all right?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Neal hung up. He slumped back against the side of the building, a little drained. It had been almost startlingly good to hear their voices again, but he had to stop wishing for things to which he had no right. Thanksgiving was months away, and it was so little compared to the day-to-day contact he craved, but he had to learn to be content. That was what normal people did; they accepted what they couldn’t have and moved on. He could learn to live like other people, he told himself. He could learn not to always be wanting something more. Maybe contentment wouldn’t suck as much as he thought it would.
Neal had tried not to wonder if Peter actually would call him again. When a week went by with only a brief email exchange about a job Neal had allegedly pulled in Venice that Peter thought might’ve inspired his current case, Neal decided he might not. But then his phone rang late in the evening the next Wednesday, and it was Peter. Neal sprawled out on a chaise lounge on the terrace, closed his eyes, and listened to Peter telling him about the series of art forgeries he was investigating. “God, I wish you were here,” Peter finished at last, and Neal couldn’t help the little jolt of pleasure he got from that. “I’d love to send you undercover against these people.”
“They wouldn’t stand a chance,” Neal agreed, tipping his head back against the chaise lounge. “Not against Caffrey and Burke.”
“Burke and Caffrey.”
Neal grinned. “Sure, Peter.”
“Anyway, I should go,” Peter said. “Stay out of trouble, all right?”
“No promises,” Neal said, and hung up.
The next Wednesday, Neal called him. El answered Peter’s phone and spent ten solid minutes ranting about idiot caterers before handing it off to Peter. They talked about how Neal would be back at a two mile radius in less than two weeks, and what he planned to do once he was. “First thing, a walk in Central Park,” he said, “and then I’m going straight to that little sushi bar I took you and Elizabeth to that one time.”
“Really?” Peter said. “I’d’ve thought you’d beeline to the MOMA the first chance you got.”
“Nah, Diana and I were just there a couple weeks ago. But she’s allergic to iodine and Mozzie won’t eat raw fish, so there has been a severe lack of sushi in my life since you left.”
“The things I’ve sacrificed for you. You’ve no idea,” he sighed, deliberately long-suffering.
Peter laughed, but his voice was entirely serious when he said, “We do know, actually. Truly, Neal. It’s made El so happy to be here, to see what she can do.”
“It’s nothing,” Neal said. “And anyway, it’s almost over.”
“Yep,” Peter said. “Well, I should let you go. It’s late there.”
It was - nearly a quarter past eleven. But Neal still wanted to tell him no, wanted to keep Peter on the phone for hours until he’d made up for all the months of silence. But that’d have given the game away for sure, and El had told him at least three times that he should count himself lucky; Peter barely managed a fifteen minute phone call with his mother once a week.
“Sure,” Neal said.
“Stay out of trouble, all right?”
“No promises,” Neal said, and smiled to himself as he hung up.
The next week would’ve been Peter’s turn to call, except Neal and Diana had an overnight undercover job. It went perfectly until suddenly it didn’t, and their backup was still two minutes away when Neal’s good luck regarding guns and people not pointing them at him abruptly ran out.
There was a bullet in Neal’s thigh and another one in his shoulder.
He knew this, just like he knew he was lying on concrete, like he knew Diana had shot the guy who shot him. He knew it, but he didn’t believe it. The pain hadn’t hit yet; he didn’t feel much of anything at all.
“Neal,” Diana said breathlessly, landing on her knees beside him.
“Hey, Di. We get him?”
“Shut up,” she told him. “Caffrey’s down,” she snapped into the transmitter in her watch even as she was reaching to put pressure on his thigh. “Jenkins shot Caffrey. I need an ambulance now!” She pressed down and Neal almost bit through his tongue smothering a yelp. There was the pain, hot and sharp and bright.
“Did it hit the femoral?” he asked, not bothering to lift his head.
“Yeah, because in my free time, I’ve been going to med school,” Diana snapped at him. “How the hell would I know?”
He was starting to feel light-headed. There were sirens now, in the distance, and footsteps pounding closer, but he didn’t think he was going to be conscious when they got there. Not that he was complaining. Passing out was starting to sound like a decent plan. Everything was going to hurt like a bitch for a while. Unless he died.
“Di,” he mumbled, because lying on the ground with two bullets in you was a terrible time to try and learn to be content with your lot in life, “tell Peter - if I don’t - tell Peter -”
“I’ll call him as soon as they put you in the ambulance,” she said. “Lucky tie, right?”
“Yeah. Lucky tie. It’d be a good time for one of ‘em. But . . . what we talked about that day in the park. If I don’t - tell him for me? I never did. Want him to know.” He tried to draw a deep breath, came up short against the pain, and settled for a shallow one, fighting the dark encroaching on the edges of his vision. “Please.”
“Yeah,” Diana said. “Of course. Hey,” she added, lightly slapping his face. “Stay with me. Neal! Stay with me!”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and let himself go.
He came to once in the ambulance, a perfectly awful experience he hoped never to repeat. He let himself go back under and hoped he wouldn’t remember it later. When he woke again, he was in a dim hospital room, alone, hooked up to monitors. He groaned weakly and fumbled around for the call button. Fortunately, someone had thoughtfully left it more or less right under his hand; he hit the button on the third try and closed his eyes, exhausted even by that small effort.
The nurse who answered his call was named Gail. She was short and plump and brusquely gentle as she took his vitals. Neal thought he remembered her from the time Peter’d been poisoned. Peter had been in the ICU for a night, and Gail had bent the “family only” rule to let Neal in to see him. He hadn’t even had to charm her. She said she saw plenty of police officers in her line of work, and she knew better than to get between a cop and his injured partner. Neal hadn’t corrected her. He’d been too busy counting Peter’s heartbeats.
“You gave us quite a scare, Mr. Caffrey,” she told him as she fed him an ice chip on a spoon. “The bullet grazed your femoral artery, and you lost quite a lot of blood at the scene. You’re lucky; one centimeter to the right and you wouldn’t have made it. You’ve had surgery on your shoulder as well, to remove the bullet and repair some of the damage.”
“Oh,” Neal said, not sure what to do with that information. He filed it away for review when he was less stoned. “What time is it?”
“Nearly eight in the morning.”
Gail smiled kindly. “Agent Berrigan was here for most of the night, but she left about half an hour ago. She told me to tell you she had to go in to the office, but that she’d called your landlady and she should be here soon.”
“Oh,” Neal said again. Diana’d discharged her weapon, Neal remembered. No; she’d shot someone. Killed him, probably. Lots of paperwork when that happened, and a debriefing or three, plus therapy. Diana’d love that.
“She also told me to tell you,” Gail went on, “that she took care of your lucky tie. She said you’d know what that meant.”
“Oh,” Neal said, closing his eyes. “Yeah. Good.”
Gail’s hand patted his, gently. “Get some rest.”
He slept and woke, slept and woke. There were no windows in his little ICU cubicle, and he had no idea what time it was. Didn’t much care, either. The first time he woke, June was with him. She told him he was fine and held his hand until he fell asleep again. The second time he woke, he was alone, and he fell asleep again before the pain could cut through the drugs. Gail came in and took his vitals, but he was barely awake even for that. She made a satisfied noise and left. Neal slept.
When he woke for the fourth - or was it the fifth? - time, someone was holding his hand. He knew right away that it wasn’t Peter; the hand holding his was too small to be Peter’s. Diana or June, he thought with a pang of useless disappointment. But when he opened his eyes, it wasn’t either of them asleep in the chair beside his bed.
It was Elizabeth.
She stirred when he tried to draw his hand away, and made a groggy, protesting noise. Then she lifted her head and smiled. “Hey, you’re awake,” she said, reaching out to recapture his hand.
“Seems so,” Neal said. He frowned at her. “What’re you doing here?”
Her smile dipped a little in one corner. “Not who you were expecting, I know. Peter’s in the middle of something at work right now. Believe me when I say it made him crazy that he couldn’t come.”
“But,” Neal said, and then stopped. His brain felt all muddled. It didn’t make any sense for El to be here, he knew, but he couldn’t manage to think it through well enough to ask the right questions. “Sorry,” he finally said, because there was definitely something in all of this to be sorry about.
“Don’t be sorry,” El said. She reached out and brushed his hair out of his face. “Nothing for you to be sorry about, Neal. You haven’t done anything wrong. Now get some rest, all right? They’re going to move you to a regular room tomorrow.”
Neal managed to hold his eyes by sheer force of will. “Don’t go,” he said, turning his hand over to grab El’s. He squeezed, weakly. “Hate . . . waking up alone.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” El said, squeezing back.
“Thanks,” Neal mumbled, and let his eyes fall shut. So tired, he was so tired. Then he opened his eyes again. “Moz . . .”
“June called him. Don’t worry, Neal. Just sleep.”
He couldn’t have disobeyed her even if he’d wanted to. After that, every time he woke, El was there, reading a magazine and holding his hand. Once, he woke to her on her cellphone. Peter, Neal thought blearily, but he slid back under before he could say anything.
He was more alert when they woke him up to move him to a real room and was startled to learn that nearly two days had passed since the shooting. “When did you get here?” he asked El, frowning.
“Yesterday afternoon,” she said, rubbing her thumb over his knuckles. “We got the call around three in the morning, and I was able to get a flight out at eight.”
“You - that’s - you didn’t have to,” Neal said, weakly. He could hardly wrap his mind around it, what she’d done for him. He certainly hadn’t done anything to deserve such loyalty. Far from it.
“I know, sweetie,” El said, “but that isn’t the point. I wanted to.”
Neal was about to protest - not that it would have done much good, seeing as she was already here - but an orderly showed up then, and Neal didn’t have the chance. Neal was glad to leave the ICU behind, even though it meant saying good-bye to Gail; his new room had a TV and, more importantly, a window. Neal had missed daylight.
It also had a phone, which rang only minutes after Neal had settled in, with El ensconced in the bedside chair once more. Neal frowned at El, who smiled, shrugged, and handed the receiver to him so he wouldn’t have to stretch. “Hello?”
“Neal,” Peter said, voice ragged with relief. “Thank God. How are you?”
“I’m . . .” Neal paused to consider. “Well-medicated,” he decided at last.
Peter gave a somewhat shaky laugh. “I bet you are. But at least you’re in a real room now.”
“Yes,” Neal sighed, “though I doubt the food will be any better. I appreciate having a window, though. And a phone. How did you get this number, anyway?”
“El texted it to me. Is she there with you now?”
“Yeah, she is.” Neal frowned suddenly, clear-headed enough now to understand why that didn’t make sense. “Actually, why is El with me? Not that I’m complaining,” he added hastily.
“I couldn’t come,” Peter said, sounding as though he were making a painful confession. “I’ve got this case and the takedown’s tomorrow. Without me it would all fall apart. I’m so sorry, Neal.”
“Hey, it’s all right,” Neal said, surprised at how obviously torn up Peter was about it. “It’s okay, really.”
“It’s not,” Peter said. “I made a promise to you.” He drew a deep breath. “Anyway, I’ve already put in for personal leave starting Thursday. This case should all be wrapped up by then, except for the paperwork, and I can file that from the New York office. El will have to come back to San Francisco - if she hasn’t told you, she has a gala this weekend - but I’ll be there. We can -”
“Wait, wait, Peter, stop,” Neal said, wondering if the pain meds were messing with his mind to the point of hallucination, “what are you talking about? You live in San Francisco. I can’t ask -”
“You’re not asking. We’re offering.”
“Then I can’t accept,” Neal said, even though it just about killed him. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. It’s not right. It’s too much.”
“Why not?” Peter asked quietly. “Neal, you went to a half-mile radius for us. We both told you we wouldn’t forget that.”
“But . . . but your jobs -”
“Both have branches in Manhattan, as it happens,” Peter pointed out. “I can request a temporary transfer if necessary. Stop arguing,” he added, as though he could somehow hear that Neal had opened his mouth. “This is what’s going to happen. El is going to be with you until Thursday. Then I’ll fly out and she’ll fly back here, at least through the weekend. I’m going to stay in New York until you’re back on your feet. Non-negotiable.”
Neal closed his eyes. “It might be awhile.”
“Then I’ll be there awhile.”
He swallowed. “You don’t have to -”
“I know I don’t. I want to. Look,” Peter added with a sigh, “you know how bad I am at this sort of thing, but . . . I’ve missed you. When I got the call that you’d been shot -” Peter stopped and drew a deep, ragged breath. “I don’t know what they’ve told you, but you lost a lot of blood at the scene, and there was a little while when it didn’t look good. You scared the hell out of us. So now you’re going to shut up, take it easy, and let us look after you. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Neal managed to say through the lump in his throat.
“Good. I have to go now, but I’ll call this evening. Tell El I love her, will you?”
“Yeah, sure thing, Peter. Bye.” El took the phone from him and hung it up. Neal stared down at his hands, which kept blurring in and out of focus. He felt the mattress dip as El settled beside him. “He said he loves you,” Neal told her thickly. “I’m sorry . . .”
“Hush,” El said, passing him a Kleenex. “Those drugs will really knock you for a loop.”
Neal gave a brief laugh. “Yeah, sure.” He looked up at her. “I missed you both, so much. I didn’t know how much it’d hurt until you left, and then I just . . .” He shook his head. “Thank you,” he finally said, because he knew better than to try I’m sorry again. “For coming.”
She smiled. “I know I’m a poor substitute -”
“No,” Neal said instantly. “No, don’t think that, El. Never think that.”
She nodded, seriously. “Okay. Rest a bit more, all right? I need to call Diana and June and let them know what room you’re in, and I might get a cup of coffee while I’m at it. Jet lag’s starting to catch up with me.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said, grateful to her for giving him space. She kissed him on the forehead and left. He stared after her once she’d gone, feeling suddenly a little shaky. He’d never expected - he’d hoped, yes, he’d be lying if he said that he hadn’t hoped Peter would come. But he’d only hoped for a few days, a long weekend at most. He’d never anticipated this. It was the kindest thing anyone had ever done for him, and he hadn’t conned either of them to get it. It was . . . overwhelming, even a little frightening. And God help him, but he was so unutterably grateful, he thought he might cry. Again.
He slept for most of the afternoon, but by that evening, he felt well enough for visitors other than El. Mozzie and June came by for a joint visit before dinner, bringing with them an overnight bag of essentials from the apartment, a quart of hot and sour soup, a potted orchid, and Tiles of Fire VII. Neal smiled and nodded and let June, Moz, and El carry the conversation while he floated along on a current of Percoset. Moz and June didn’t stay long on account of Moz’s hospital phobia, but it meant a lot to him that they’d come.
Once they’d gone, El came and sat on the bed, settling herself carefully beside him. It couldn’t have been entirely comfortable for her; the bed was narrow and Neal was taking up most of it, so she was perched on the edge a bit precariously. But her position let Neal lean his head against her arm and breathe in the faint smell of her skin, so he wouldn’t complain if she didn’t. “I talked to Diana a little while ago,” she said, bringing her hand up to stroke Neal’s hair. He made an inquiring noise. “She didn’t think she could get away from the office before visiting hours were over, but she’s going to come tomorrow morning, before she goes in.”
Neal frowned. It was strange, he thought, that Diana hadn’t come by yet. “Did she sound okay? She’s not in trouble, is she?”
“I don’t think so,” El said, “but I get the impression things have been complicated at the office. She seemed relieved to hear Peter was going to be around for a while.”
Neal grimaced. “Jenkins would’ve been a big fish and probably would’ve let us land even bigger ones. I’m not surprised they’re giving her a hard time.” He leaned his head back and yawned. “Think I’m too tired for more visitors anyway.” He smiled up at her. “You don’t count.”
El smiled and pressed her lips to the top of his head. “I’m glad to hear it. How are you feeling, other than tired?”
Neal considered this question carefully. “Sore, but I don’t care very much. My leg isn’t too bad. My shoulder hurts more.”
She nodded. “Your surgeon came by while you were sleeping. He said he’d be by again tomorrow to talk to you about physical therapy for your shoulder. You’ll probably need a few months of it to get the full range of motion back.”
Neal didn’t respond. Physical therapy for his shoulder. He could barely walk right now - definitely couldn’t climb the stairs at June’s - and he’d only have one good arm for the foreseeable future. He couldn’t even lift a paint brush. What would he have done, he wondered, if he’d said lucky tie, and Peter had said, “Sorry, no time! Best of luck”?
“Neal?” El said, gently. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, just . . .” He swallowed and finally went with the truth. His brain wasn’t working well enough to come up with anything else. “If you hadn’t come - if you and Peter didn’t care -”
“You’d have been fine,” she said, stroking his hair back from his face. “You have other people, too, you know. Diana and Clinton and Mozzie and June. They all care about you. June would have let you stay in a downstairs guestroom, or Diana would have had you stay with her. Mozzie would look after you. Clinton would drive you to PT. You’d have been all right.” She reached down and took his hand. “But you don’t need to worry about that, because I’m here now, and Peter will be here soon.”
He nodded, but before he could think of anything to say - thank you was starting to feel inadequate, not to mention repetitive - the nurse showed up with his evening pain medication. He swallowed it obediently; once the nurse had gone, he shifted carefully over so El could wedge a bit more of herself onto the bed. She brought her legs up and let him curl into her. It was the most intimate he’d been with anyone in years, he realized. Since Kate, before prison. He should have felt guilty for that, he reflected. She should have felt guilty for that. But somehow, it seemed neither of them did.
When Peter called a little after eight o’clock, he expected El to pull away. Instead she tugged the receiver over between them and put her head down close to Neal’s so they could talk to him together. Neal let them do most of the talking; the Percoset was kicking in and he felt tired and groggy and content to listen to the timbre of their voices.
He was nearly asleep when he heard Peter say his name, once, twice. “Mmm?” he managed.
Peter laughed, gently. “I just wanted to say good night. Tomorrow’s going to be busy, so I might not get to call until pretty late, your time.”
The takedown was tomorrow, Peter had said. “Be careful,” Neal said, firmly, if also somewhat woozily.
“Yes,” El said, “be careful. Call me as soon as everything is over, I don’t care what time it is here.”
“Of course. Good night, you two.” His voice dropped. “Love you.”
Neal just barely managed not to reply. He knew, of course, that it hadn’t been meant for him, but it made him feel warm and well, glowy, for lack of a better word, anyway. If this was the closest he ever got to having Peter and El, it was still pretty good. It was almost worth getting shot.
“Love you, too, hon,” El said. She reached across Neal to hang up the phone, then dropped her head down to rest her forehead against Neal’s uninjured shoulder. “Sometimes I really hate his job. I realize it could be so much worse - he could work in Organized Crime - but it just -”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me,” Neal said, trying to make her smile.
She laughed weakly. “I guess not. He’ll be fine,” she said, decisively. “He’s always careful, and he’s got good people watching his back. Just, fair warning: I’m going to be a wreck tomorrow until I hear from him.”
“It’s okay,” Neal said. “Hey, why don’t you call June and go shopping or something for a while tomorrow? You shouldn’t stay cooped up in here, you’ll go crazy.”
El looked indecisive. “Are you sure? I actually need to go out to the house and make sure it’s habitable for you and Peter.”
“I’m sure,” Neal said. That night, after El had left, he texted Moz and June, asking them to surprise her at her hotel the next morning and take her out to breakfast. Mission: Distract Elizabeth accomplished, he allowed himself to fall asleep.
Diana showed up the next morning, as promised, while Neal was still awkwardy eating breakfast with his left hand. He was oddly gratified by the hug she gave him. “How’re you feeling? I’m so sorry I haven’t made it sooner,” she added, before Neal could answer. “I knew Elizabeth was here, and things at the office have been . . . hectic.”
“Hughes is pissed,” Neal translated.
Diana sighed, sinking into the bedside chair. “Sort of. He’s got pressure from above, which is - yeah, okay, he’s pissed. He’s not particularly pleased you were shot, but I get the impression that the higher ups are more annoyed about Jenkins. It’s just a lot of posturing, though. I’ll be fine. How are you?” she asked Neal again. “Everyone’s been asking me about you.”
That was nice to hear, Neal admitted to himself. “Tired,” he said. “Groggy. Sore. But also, you know, alive, so I can’t really complain.”
“And Peter’s coming back,” she added, smiling at him.
“Yeah,” Neal said, and couldn’t help smiling. “That doesn’t hurt.”
Diana nodded. She studied him, silently, and finally said, “Neal, you’ll be careful, won’t you? This situation with Peter - well, technically he’s not your handler anymore, but if anyone finds out . . . there would be questions about how far back your relationship went, and it might get ugly. For you and Peter, but also for Elizabeth. I just don’t want to see any of you hurt.”
Neal frowned at her. “You know it isn’t like that. Unless . . . oh God, Diana, did you tell him?”
“No,” she said hastily, “but I’m the one who called to tell him you’d been shot. Neal, I’ve heard Peter angry before, but I’ve never heard him so scared.”
“I’m his friend,” Neal said, a little weakly.
Diana squeezed his hand. “Yeah, you are. But I’d feel a lot better if you promised me that whatever happens, you’ll be careful.”
Neal thought about curling up on the bed with Elizabeth, Peter’s voice between them. I love you, Peter had said, like he was saying it to both of them. “I promise.”
She nodded, apparently satisfied, and they talked office politics until she had to go. Things were not as fine as she said they were, Neal discerned, but she could take care of herself. Peter would go to bat for her if it became necessary, but Diana seemed determined that it wouldn’t be. Neal decided there was only so much he could worry about while on prescription narcotics and let it go.
He slept for most of the morning, until his doctor came by around noon and made him do a number of painful exercises to determine the range of motion in his shoulder. She seemed tolerably pleased, at least, and made noises about discharging him in the next couple of days. After lunch, he dozed off again; when he woke, Elizabeth was in the chair by his bed, flipping through a gossip magazine.
“Hey,” he said groggily, “you heard from Peter yet?”
“Not yet,” she said, setting the magazine aside. “Still too early. How’re you feeling?”
“Mmph,” he said. She shifted over to the edge of the bed and he curled toward her. “Better now that you’re here. How’s the house?”
She sighed. “Quiet. Lonely. Empty. Thanks for sending Moz and June. Having them there made it easier. We’d left the guest bedroom mostly intact, for situations like this, but that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing left in the kitchen. You guys are going to be eating a lot of takeout off of paper plates.”
“We could stay at my place.”
“Up four flights of stairs?” El countered.
“Your bathroom is upstairs,” Neal pointed out. He shrugged his good shoulder. “Whatever’s easiest for you and Peter. I don’t care, really.”
She nodded, then eyed him silently for a moment. “How’s your head?” she asked at last.
“My head?” Neal said, confused.
“In terms of fuzziness from the drugs.”
“Oh,” Neal said. “It’s not bad, actually.” They’d switched him to Vicodin that morning and he felt much better. Vaguely functional, even.
“Good,” she said. “Scoot over.”
He scooted. She climbed up beside him and put her arm around his shoulders. He leaned into her with a sigh. “I need to talk to you about something,” she said, “but I didn’t want to do it while you were all drugged up.”
“Mm,” Neal said, too comfortable to really be worried.
She drew a deep breath. “I need to talk to you about how you’re in love with my husband.”
Neal froze. “I,” he finally said, “I’m not - El, I wouldn’t -”
“Sweetie, shh,” she said, laying two fingers across his lips. “Think about it. Would I have flown across the country on a moment’s notice to be with you if I were angry?”
Neal forced himself to look at her. Her eyes were unbearably kind. He looked away. “How long have you known?”
El bit her lip. “I think since that night I came to see you, after Peter told me what you’d done. You were both so miserable, and I knew it. But I wanted the opportunity so badly . . .” She shook her head, ruefully. “I tried to tell myself I was reading too much into things. Even when I knew I wasn’t.”
Neal swallowed. “Does Peter know?”
El brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. “Yes. It took him a lot longer to figure it out, of course. I love the man, but he’s not very emotionally aware sometimes.” Neal huffed a laugh, weakly. “He made himself miserable for months,” she added, “refusing to call you.”
“I hated that,” Neal admitted, closing his eyes, “not hearing from him. Or you. I lived for your emails.”
“Oh sweetie,” El said, stroking his hair. “I’m so sorry about all of this.”
“No,” he said firmly, opening his eyes to look up at her. “Don’t be sorry, El. I’m glad you guys went. I couldn’t have stood being the reason you didn’t get to have something like this. I’m okay, really. It’ll be better now, knowing I can call Peter.”
“And the part where you’re in love with him?”
Neal shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll get over it.”
“It’s not a cold, Neal,” El said, sounding faintly exasperated. He shrugged, glanced away. He couldn’t stand to see her looking at him so kindly. She could afford to be kind, he thought with a twinge of bitterness. Peter was hers. “Let me ask you this, then,” she said, when he didn’t reply. “How do you feel about me?”
Neal looked at her sharply. She stared back at him, face impassive. “I . . .” he started, but she laid a finger on his lips.
“Honestly,” she said. “Don’t worry about my feelings or try to figure out what the ‘right’ answer is.”
He nodded, and she took her finger away. “You’re El,” he said, hoarsely. “I think I’ve been half in love with you since the day I showed up on your doorstep and you invited me in for coffee. You and Peter together, you’re . . . I never wanted what you have, because I didn’t even know it existed.” He had to stop and swallow. El’s eyes were suspiciously bright. “Peter’s shaped me into who I am. I know that. But you - you make me want to be better, because the only thing worse than letting Peter down is knowing I’ve disappointed you.”
“Oh sweetie,” she said again, and pulled him into her arms.
He buried his face in the crook of her neck, breathing her in. “What do I do?” he asked, voice muffled against her shoulder. “What can I do, besides try to get over you both?”
She pulled away to cup his face in her hands. “Have us,” she said simply.
He stared at her. “What? You’re not - you can’t - El, you’re not saying what I think you’re saying, are you?” She couldn’t be. And even if she was, he reminded himself, there was still Peter. Peter, who liked rules and regulations, and who would undoubtedly have a number of things to say if Neal admitted to being in love with him.
El stroked her thumb over the arch of his cheekbone. Then she dipped her head and pressed her lips to Neal’s. Neal’s eyes slid shut and he wondered, briefly, if this was a dream brought on by the drugs.
And then El’s phone beeped.
Neal opened his eyes as she slid off the bed to get her phone. She sagged in relief. “Text from Peter,” she reported. “He says, ‘All’s well, except for the bad guys. I’ll call you tonight. Love you.’ Thank God,” she added, setting the phone on Neal’s bedside table.
“Yeah,” Neal said, a little dazed.
She sat down on the bed beside him, not nearly so close this time, and took his hand in hers. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Peter and I will care about you regardless. I want to make sure you know that. But if you want it - well, we’re here for the having, sweetie.”
Neal tried to smile, but he didn’t think it came out very well. “Did you have this conversation with Peter, too?”
She shrugged. “In a slightly altered form. You two need to talk. I can’t do it for you.”
“You’re not afraid that we’ll . . .” Neal searched for the right word. “Implode?”
El shook her head. “A little implosion might do you both some good. I’m not worried.”
“Well, that makes one of us,” Neal said. It’d been easier, somehow, knowing it could never happen. Knowing that it might was frightening. He shook his head, looking up at her. “How can you be so certain about this?”
“I’m not,” she told him.
“Then how can you be so - so brave about it?” he asked. “You’re not afraid you might lose what you have?”
“No,” she said simply. “I’m not. You don’t want to steal my husband, and you couldn’t if you tried. I have . . . concerns. Mostly about power imbalances and trust issues. But I’m not afraid of losing what I have. You won’t ruin us, Neal.”
She sounded so certain that Neal almost believed her, even though his track record said otherwise. He stayed silent, and after a moment she moved from the bed to the chair, where she picked up a magazine and started reading the especially terrible bits of Hollywood gossip to him. She didn’t seem to expect a response, and he was glad; he didn’t have the mental capacity left even to smile or laugh when she paused.
You won’t ruin us, she’d said, as though it were an irrevocable fact.
He really hoped she was right.
Neal slept badly and woke tired. Breakfast was watery, tasteless eggs, and no one dropped by to distract him. He thought about texting June or Mozzie, but they had their lives, too, and they couldn’t stop living them just because he got shot.
Hospital life was starting to wear on him. It was bland, boring, and exhausting. There was nothing to think about besides Peter’s imminent arrival. His plane was scheduled to land at 7:35 this morning, and he and Elizabeth were planning to have breakfast at the airport before she flew out. Given rush hour traffic, Neal didn’t think he’d get to the hospital before 10:30 or 11:00.
Neal spent the first hour after breakfast alternately flipping through El’s abandoned magazine and attempting to find something worth watching on TV. He spent the second hour asleep, with the magazine open on his chest, and Judge Judy providing a bizarre running counterpoint to a dream about Peter, Diana, and a talking parrot in the FBI office.
He woke to the slow realization that he wasn’t alone. Someone nearby was breathing and rattling a newspaper, just enough to twitch at the edges of his awareness. El, he thought blearily, and then remembered that she’d left that morning.
He dragged his eyes open. Peter looked like a guy who’d just come off a cross-country red-eye flight: tired, a bit sweaty, his t-shirt and jeans rumpled, and just about the best sight Neal had ever laid eyes on. He hadn’t realized until that moment how much he’d wanted Peter with him. El was great, but Peter was Peter. Peter meant safety, meant it was okay for Neal to let his guard down.
“Peter,” he said hoarsely.
Peter dropped the newspaper immediately. “Hey,” he said, leaning forward to grip Neal’s good shoulder, “Hey, Neal. How are you?”
“Better,” Neal said, with a sigh. “Thanks for coming. And for sending El. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”
Peter shook his head. “Don’t mention it.” He shifted onto the bed and rested his hand on top of Neal’s; Neal resisted the urge to roll towards him, to curl his body around Peter’s. “I’ve been there, and the idea of letting you go through that alone - it wasn’t an option.”
Neal frowned. “When were you -”
“About a year before I started working your case,” Peter said. “I got grazed by one bullet across my right flank,” he put his hand on his side, “and the other one buried itself in my thigh.”
“Ouch.” The still-healing wound in Neal’s own thigh twinged in sympathy.
“Yeah,” Peter said. “But El told me you’re doing well. She said your doctor is talking about letting you go home tomorrow?”
“Yeah, that’s what she said yesterday.”
Peter nodded. “Things at the house will be a bit spartan, since most of it is totally empty at this point. But the guest bed is big enough for two, and I don’t mind sharing if you don’t.”
The last bit was said in a rush, as though Peter just wanted to get the words out. His eyes didn’t quite meet Neal’s as he said them but stared fixedly about two inches to the right. Neal swallowed, then turned his hand over to grip Peter’s. “Sharing’s fine with me,” he said. More than fine; the idea of curling up with Peter sounded like heaven. It’d been so long since he’d shared a bed with anyone.
Peter looked at him, some of the tension around his eyes easing. “Good,” he said softly. “My leave was approved. I have a few things to do at the office this afternoon, but then I’m off duty for at least a week.”
Neal shook his head. “You really don’t have to do that, you know. You’ll be bored out of your skull stuck at home with me.”
Peter smiled. “The one thing I can count on with you, Neal, is that I will never, ever be bored.”
There was a sudden, unexpected tightening in Neal’s chest. He drew a deep breath. “I missed you, Peter.”
Peter nodded, his expression softening in a way Neal had never seen before. “Yeah, me too. But you did good without me. You and Diana are a great team.”
Neal smiled. “Yeah, she and I do all right.”
“Better than all right.”
“Better than all right,” Neal agreed. He hesitated, frowning. “Hey, Peter . . . is she okay?”
Peter sighed. “There’ve been some politics at the Bureau. Nothing you need to worry about. She and I have it under control.”
Neal wasn’t sure he believed him. “You’ll tell me if I can help, won’t you? I owe her a lot.”
Peter nodded. “Don’t worry about it, at least not for now.” He glanced at his watch. “Get some rest, all right? I have to go into the office to file some paperwork and check in with Hughes. I’ll be back in a few hours. Might even bring dinner.”
“My hero,” Neal told him with an exaggerated sigh.
Peter hesitated. For a moment Neal thought he might kiss him, maybe just on the forehead, but in the end, Peter ghosted his hand over Neal’s hair, too lightly to be called a caress, and left.
As promised, Peter returned that evening, Chinese food in hand. They bickered amiably over who got the last dumpling, until Neal shamelessly played the I’ve been shot card, and Peter caved. El called just as they finished eating; Peter didn’t climb up onto the bed, much to Neal’s disappointment, but he did put El on speaker so Neal could talk to her, too.
She missed them both, she said. The house in Oakland was too empty.
“I -” Neal said.
“Don’t you dare apologize, Neal,” she said immediately. “This isn’t your fault, and we want to do it for you. Don’t we, Peter?”
“Yeah,” Peter said, and rested the palm of his hand on the crown of Neal’s head. “We do.”
Neal was quiet during the rest of the conversation, content to listen to Peter and El talk about mundane, domestic things. He felt as though a part of him that had been small and shriveled up was suddenly full to bursting. And when El wished them good night and said, “Love you both,” it was all Neal could do to squeeze out, “Love you, too” past the lump in his throat.
Peter hung up, then sat, silently, while Neal tried to get himself under control. “Stupid drugs,” he muttered, and drew a deep, slightly shuddering breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Peter said. “It’s taken me months to get used to the idea. It really wasn’t fair of us to spring it on you while you were flat on your back.” He looked suddenly worried. “You know that - I mean, we don’t - we’ll still care, Neal, even if you don’t want - um.”
Neal decided to take pity on him. “I know, Peter. And I do want. You’ve no idea how much I want.” He let out a long breath and rubbed a hand over his face, grimacing. “I wish they’d let me leave tonight. I don’t sleep well in this place, and I feel so disgusting. I can’t wait for a real shower and a shave.” His face itched with stubble.
“I could help you take care of at least half of that, you know,” Peter said. “There’s a razor and shaving cream in your overnight bag.”
Neal sighed. “I know. But I can’t stand long enough to do it.”
“Who said anything about standing? All we need is warm water and a towel.” Peter got up without waiting for a reply, disappeared into the bathroom, and came back with a basin full of water in one hand, a washcloth in the other, and a towel slung over his shoulder. He seated himself on the edge of the bed and paced the basin and the washcloth on the bedside table. “Lean your head back,” he told Neal in a low voice.
Neal blinked up at him and wondered if they’d gotten his evening dose of pain meds wrong. “You don’t have to -”
“I know I don’t,” Peter said quietly. “Lean your head back.”
Neal hesitated. But in the end, he did as Peter said. After all, he almost always did as Peter said, and even when he didn’t, he always wanted to.
He closed his eyes. Peter spread the towel across his chest and used the tips of his fingers to turn Neal’s face one way, then the other. He pressed the warm, damp cloth against Neal’s cheeks, his upper lip, his chin, down his throat. There was the hiss of the shaving cream, and then Peter’s hands followed the path of the cloth. Neal’s breath caught, his heartbeat quickening. He thought of his hands on Peter’s wrist, fastening his cufflinks, the beat of Peter’s pulse beneath his fingers.
The rasp of the razor against his cheek was impossibly loud. Neal forced himself to keep his eyes closed. He felt its gentle scrape, then the sounds of Peter rinsing it out in the water. Down his cheek, careful over the jut of his chin. Short strokes on his upper lip, and then his throat. Neal had to lean his head back even more so that Peter could get the right angle, and he thought of how exposed he was, offering his throat to a blade held by Peter.
He had to hold his breath so that he wouldn’t gasp. His arousal was almost entirely cerebral; his body was too exhausted to manage anything so extraneous as an erection. But that hardly mattered. What mattered was that this wasn’t frightening; Neal was, in fact, as far from frightened as he’d been since he’d been shot. Maybe since a lot longer.
Scrape, rinse; scrape, rinse. Neal relaxed slowly under Peter’s quiet, focused attention, and he was nearly asleep when he felt the drag of the washcloth, cooler now, over newly exposed skin. He sighed and opened his eyes. “Peter,” he murmured.
“Tomorrow,” Peter promised him. His voice was low, intimate. Neal suppressed a shiver. Peter dropped a kiss on Neal’s forehead, his lips dry and warm against Neal’s skin. “Just you and me.”
Neal slept much more easily that night.
The first day that Neal spent at the Burkes’ echoing, empty house was a little surreal; excepting a phone call from a harried-sounding Elizabeth, there was no intrusion from the outside world. He and Peter lay together on the bed in the guestroom, Neal on his back to save his shoulder, Peter propped on his side facing him, talking about Neal’s life in New York without them, and Peter and El’s life in San Francisco without him. In the late afternoon, with the AC humming in the background, Neal told Peter about the portrait of him and Elizabeth in his apartment.
“I should’ve known then,” he said, looking up at the ceiling to avoid looking at Peter. “I don’t know how I didn’t.”
“How’d you realize, if not then?” Peter asked.
“Diana asked me,” Neal replied, and felt Peter tense.
Neal shrugged. “She told me she didn’t care, not in any way that’d hurt me. We had a moment. We haven’t talked about it since, except one time in the hospital, before you came.” Peter nodded and relaxed. Neal looked at him. “How’d you figure it out? El?”
Peter shook his head. “I was . . . upset when we left. I had a dozen reasons why, but none of them were true, and El and I both knew it. I kept telling myself it’d get better, and it did, after I had a few days to settle into the San Francisco office.” Neal nodded. That made sense. Work settled Peter, just like painting settled Neal. “But I was still upset, and I didn’t figure out why until . . .”
Neal waited, but when Peter didn’t continue, he finally prompted, “What?”
“I had a dream,” Peter said, the tips of his ears turning pink.
Neal smiled, delighted. “About me?”
“No, about Mozzie. Yes, about you!”
“Was I naked?”
“Parts of you might’ve been,” Peter admitted grudgingly. “It freaked me out. El noticed, but it was two days before I let her pin me down and drag it out of me. And then she knew already! It was . . . anticlimactic.”
“I bet,” Neal said, smiling fondly. “She’s smarter than both of us, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” Peter said. “Are you just figuring that out?”
“Hey, you have a ten-year head start on me! And I’m on pain meds!”
“I suppose that is true.”
They fell silent; Peter’s hand crept toward Neal’s on the bed, covered it. Their fingers tangled together, and Neal rubbed his thumb over Peter’s wedding band. “Peter,” he finally said, “what are we going to -”
“No,” Peter said, his hand tightening on Neal’s. “Not tonight. We wait for Elizabeth.”
“No,” Peter said, and Neal knew he would not be moved. He was right anyway; they needed Elizabeth for that conversation. Even if Peter had been authorized to negotiate, so to speak, Neal thought the two of them would only screw it up without her.
But “no talking about the future” didn’t mean “no touching” or even “no sex.” Not that sex was really on the table at the moment. Other things were, though, and so later that evening, while eating dinner on trays in bed, spaghetti and sauce off paper plates, Neal kissed Peter. Reached over, snagged him by the back of the neck, pulled him down, and kissed him.
And kissed him and kissed him.
Neal hadn’t really been worried there wouldn’t be any zing between him and Peter - there’d been zing between them for years - but if he had been worried, this kiss would’ve laid all those fears to rest. By the time Peter finally pulled away, Neal was breathless and tingly and damning guns all over again. If it hadn’t been for his leg and his shoulder, he’d have had Peter pinned to the bed by now. As it was, Peter would never go for it, and even Neal had to admit that it wouldn’t be a very good idea. But he fell asleep that night with Peter’s arm slung carefully over his stomach and his face tucked against the crook of Peter’s neck and slept better than he had in months.
On the second day after Neal got out of the hospital, Peter went out and bought a discounted TV and a Blu-Ray player so they wouldn’t go crazy. They spent two hours arguing over what to put in their Netflix queue and another half hour over what to watch, before Peter finally caved and let Neal put on a documentary about Leonardo da Vinci. Neal, who’d had a pain pill after lunch, lasted ten minutes before falling asleep with his head resting against Peter’s side, which was more or less what he’d intended all along.
He expected to wake up to Die Hard or one of Peter’s cheesy, feel-good sports movies. He hadn’t expected to wake up alone. He lay still, listening for Peter’s presence in the house. Within a few seconds, he identified Peter’s low rumble and relaxed. But he wasn’t on the phone, as Neal had expected; someone else was in the house as well - Diana, Neal realized, after a few more moments spent listening.
He sat up, carefully, and climbed out of bed, moving very slowly. His thigh was healing well, but he had to be careful not to rip the stitches, and he hadn’t tried the stairs yet.
“- Hughes won’t allow it,” Peter was saying when Neal paused at the top of the stairs, listening.
“Hughes might not have a choice, Peter.”
“I won’t allow it.”
“You might not have a choice either.”
Diana sounded tired. Bureau politics, Peter had told him. Nothing to worry about. Except it sounded like maybe it was time for Neal to start worrying.
He used the bathroom and took his time making himself semi-presentable. He got rid of the scruff that’d accumulated since the shave Peter had given him in the hospital two days ago, and brushed his teeth thoroughly. He would’ve liked a proper shower, but that took a considerable amount of work, for both him and Peter, and so he decided to forgo it for now.
Peter was waiting for him when he emerged from the bathroom. “Hey,” he said. “Good nap?”
“Yeah,” Neal said. “Diana’s here?”
Peter nodded. “She’s going to stay for dinner if you feel up for it.”
“Yeah, sure,” Neal said. Peter turned to go, but Neal reached out and snagged his wrist. “Peter. What’s going on?”
Peter sighed. “We’ll explain over dinner. Pizza all right?” Neal nodded.
Peter helped him downstairs with an arm around his waist. He hobbled into the kitchen to find Diana finishing a beer at the rickety card table Peter had dug out of storage. Peter helped him sit and elevate his leg, and then went to pull the pizza out of the oven. In what Neal assumed was a concession to his convalescence, there was also a salad, which looked like it’d been more or less dumped straight out of a bag.
“Hey,” he greeted Diana.
“Hey, Neal,” she said, smiling. “You’re looking better than the last time I saw you.”
“Yeah, feeling a lot better, too,” he said, slumping into one of the folding chairs. “How’re you? And you don’t get to tell me not to worry this time.”
She made a so-so gesture with her beer bottle. “The consensus from above is that I shouldn’t have shot to kill with Jenkins. Hughes is taking heat for it, so I’m taking heat for it.”
Neal grimaced. “I’m sorry.”
Diana smacked him - gently - upside the head. “For once, Caffrey, it isn’t your fault. Save your apologies for when it is.”
“Right,” he said, smiling gently. “Duly noted. So, what kind of heat are we talking about, exactly?”
Diana started to peel the label very carefully off her beer bottle. “A disciplinary hearing, possibly.”
Neal raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that overkill? Jenkins had just shot me. You were protecting - wait.” Neal stopped. “You were protecting me. If it’d been Peter on the ground, or Jones, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
“Maybe not,” Diana admitted. “OPR’s been asking me a lot of questions about how we worked together and how much time we spent together outside of work. I called it in every Saturday morning when you left your radius, let the Marshals know we were together.”
Neal stared. “They’re not implying -”
“It seems they are. I was too candid at first, I think. It never even occurred to me they’d think that.”
Neal didn’t know whether he should be more insulted on Diana’s behalf or his own. If and when he had a secret affair, he would be much better at hiding it than that. “But you’re gay. You’re out.”
“Yep,” Diana said, “I am. But you’re Neal Caffrey. And they know that three months after I took over your supervision, my girlfriend moved back to DC.”
Neal leaned back. Peter, who had clearly heard all of this already, set a paper plate of pizza and salad in front of Neal, but Neal barely saw it. “Diana, that’s just - ugly.”
“You’re telling me. Thanks, boss,” she added to Peter, when he put a plate and another beer in front of her. She speared a tomato with her fork, her mouth set in a firm line. “You’ll be okay,” she said. “Peter will make sure of that. No matter what happens, even if they send me down to bank fraud, you’ll be fine.”
“But you’re a good agent,” Neal argued. “They wouldn’t knock you down to bank fraud just for this.”
Diana shrugged. “I don’t know what they’d do. They’re really pissed about Jenkins. They don’t have enough to fire me, but they wouldn’t have to. A disciplinary hearing would be humiliating, and they could still transfer me.”
“But.” Neal stopped. Then he turned to Peter, who was sitting down with his own plate of pizza and salad. “Peter, can’t you do something?”
Peter sighed. “I can vouch for Diana’s character. I can provide statements about the working relationship you two had when I was here. But as Hughes keeps reminding me, I’m not a member of the New York office anymore, and I haven’t been for six months. I’m limited.”
“It’ll be fine,” Diana said decisively. “Let’s just eat, all right? I can’t talk about this anymore.”
Neal nodded, and Peter swiftly steered the conversation to other topics, telling an amusing anecdote about a case he’d gone to LA for in June. Neal listened with one ear, while the rest of his brain whirled away - albeit only at half-speed, thanks to the painkillers.
Later that evening, while Peter put Diana in a cab, Neal slowly made his way upstairs. He brushed his teeth, changed into a fresh pair of pajamas, and lay down on the bed. A few minutes later he heard Peter climbing the stairs. Peter came in and sat down beside him on the bed, and Neal shifted over so his head rested against Peter’s hip. Peter’s hand came to rest on Neal’s head. “It’s ironic, isn’t it,” Neal said after a while, “that Diana is the one being accused of having an affair with me.”
“She’s not being accused of anything,” Peter corrected. “An accusation would be easier to fight. An implication is harder.” He let out a breath. “I need you to promise me something, Neal.”
Neal looked up at him. “What?” he asked warily.
“I need you to promise me you’ll stay out of this.” Neal frowned and opened his mouth to reply, but Peter held his hand up, stopping him. “No, listen to me. You are far more vulnerable than Diana is. The worst, the absolute worst that could happen to her, is that she could be fired, and they won’t do that. They couldn’t, not without sending the entire New York White Collar office up in arms. But you could be sent back to prison.”
“For what?” Neal demanded.
“They’d find a reason,” Peter said darkly, and Neal glimpsed for the first time the slow boiling anger underneath his calm exterior.
“But what if I just spoke to Hughes,” Neal said. Peter shook his head. “It’s Hughes, Peter.”
“Hughes can’t always protect you. He couldn’t protect me from Fowler.”
Neal shook his head. He would not leave Diana hanging. Not after everything she’d done for him. “Peter, there has to be something I can do.”
“There isn’t,” Peter said, “that’s why I didn’t tell you before. You might be called on to testify. If you are, we’ll talk to a lawyer. But you have to promise me that you won’t do anything stupid.”
Bingo. There was his out. Peter hadn’t said not to do anything - just not anything stupid. Ergo, if Neal thought of something that was smart, he could do that and not break his promise. Really, Neal thought, Peter should know better by now. He sighed. “I won’t,” he said, with palpable reluctance.
“Good,” Peter said. He brushed his hand over Neal’s hair. “I’m going to wait up for El to call. Do you mind if I put the TV on low?” Tonight was the gala she’d gone back to oversee; Peter’d gotten a text from her earlier saying that everything was falling apart at the last minute.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Neal said. Even having to listen to Field of Dreams or Bull Durham as he fell asleep was worth getting to doze off with his head in Peter’s lap, and probably getting to talk to El when she called.
Neal woke to a pitch dark room and a pang of disappointment: he must have slept through El’s call. The TV was off and Peter was sound asleep beside him. The bedside clock showed 2:14 a.m. He turned gingerly onto his back and tried to figure out what had woken him. He’d had a thought, in that not-quite-awake place. A thought about Diana and - oh.
It wasn’t the first time the back of Neal’s brain had solved a problem while he slept. Of course, most of the time the problems had had to do with circumventing particularly tricky security systems. This one was a bit simpler, and a lot less exciting, but it wasn’t stupid. Peter might argue otherwise, but Peter couldn’t stop him.
It was not, however, the sort of plan Neal could put into motion at 2:14 a.m. He’d have to wait until tomorrow when Peter was out of the house. Neal closed his eyes, snuggled just a bit closer to Peter’s warmth, and went back to sleep.
Unfortunately, getting Peter out of the house was easier said than done. Neal had never seen Peter so content to just putter. By the afternoon, he’d cleaned the rain gutters and hacked his way through the tangle of weeds in the backyard. A few subtle hints about being out of milk went unregarded, though Neal supposed that was better than drawing suspicion. In the end, he told Peter he was tired - true enough - and going upstairs to take a nap.
“Want some company?” Peter replied, looking up from where he knelt in El’s ravaged flowerbed.
He was drenched in sweat; Neal didn’t even have to fake a grimace. “Nah, I’m good. Take your time and, you know, feel free to shower.”
Peter grinned. “Okay. Let me know if you need anything.”
In the guestroom with the door shut, Neal sat down on the bed and pulled his wallet and his cell phone out of the drawer in the bedside table. In the wallet was a business card with a handwritten number on the back.
It rang twice before someone answered. “Bancroft.”
“Hello, sir,” Neal said. “This is Neal Caffrey.”
“Neal!” Bancroft said, sounding surprised but also rather pleased. “How are you? I heard you got pretty badly hurt on your last case.”
It wouldn’t hurt to play the sympathy card here. He’d been injured in the line, after all. “I’m doing much better, thanks,” Neal said, easing himself back on the bed. “It’s been a rough few days, though.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Bancroft said. “Well, it’s good to hear you’re on the mend. If there’s anything I can do, I hope you’ll let me know.”
“Actually, sir, that’s why I was calling. There is something you can do for me.” Neal paused, strategically. “And I think you know what it is.”
Bancroft was silent for several beats this time. “Neal,” he said at last, “I’m sure you know I can’t comment on an internal investigation.”
“I understand, sir,” Neal said. “And I’m not asking you to comment on anything. I just wanted to remind you that the last time we spoke, you told me that in ten years, Agent Berrigan would be as good an agent as Peter.”
“Yes,” Bancroft said slowly. “I did.” He cleared his throat. “As it happens, I was planning to come up to Manhattan for a few days in the near future. It may be possible for me to move my trip forward a bit. If I arrived Thursday morning, do you think you would be well enough to come in to the office for a few hours? I’d like us to talk in person.”
It was Monday now. Thursday was three days away. Neal’s shoulder twinged in protest. He ignored it. “Yes, sir.”
“You may also have to sit with someone from OPR.”
“Should I consult a lawyer?” Neal asked, remembering what Peter had said to him the night before.
“If you like. I suspect it will be primarily so that you can independently corroborate Agent Berrigan’s story. It isn’t likely to be pleasant, but if you’re worried about ramifications for yourself, I assure you, you needn’t be. You’re a valuable asset to the Bureau. Whatever happens with Agent Berrigan, I will make sure that you don’t suffer for it.”
“As reassuring as that is, sir, that really isn’t my concern here.”
“No, I do understand that. We’ll talk more on Thursday, Neal. Take care of yourself.”
“Thank you, sir.” Neal hung up, then leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Maybe this wouldn’t help anything; maybe he was exposing himself and Diana to further scrutiny for nothing. But he had to do everything he could for Diana. She’d risked so much for him when she’d really had no reason to.
Neal actually did nap for a couple of hours after that. He woke to the smell of bacon frying, and staggered downstairs to find Peter cooking an enormous omelet. “There you are,” Peter said. “I was just going to wake you. Breakfast for dinner.” He divided the omelet in two and slid half onto each of the two plates that stood ready on the counter. There was a stack of toast and a plate of bacon already on the table, along with milk, orange juice, and Neal’s evening medication.
They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes. Neal was surprised to find himself truly hungry for the first time since he’d been shot. Perhaps feeling as though he’d actually accomplished something useful with his day was good for his appetite. He managed to clean his plate, awkward as eating was with his left hand, and ate an extra slice of toast, before topping it all off with a pain pill and an antibiotic.
Peter wiped his mouth, folded his napkin, and set it on the table. “I got an email this evening,” he announced. Neal glanced up, raised his eyebrows. “From ADC Bancroft. Apparently I am to deliver you to the office on Thursday at 9:00 a.m. for the meeting you scheduled with him.”
“How about that,” Neal said.
Peter shook his head. “Dammit, Neal. I thought I told you not to do anything stupid.”
Neal shrugged. “I didn’t. Bancroft likes me. And frankly, you’re not my handler anymore.”
“Yeah,” Peter said with a sigh. “I know. I still wish you hadn’t done it.”
“I’d have done the same for you,” Neal told him. “Diana and I are a team. I can’t let her go through this alone. She deserves a hell of a lot more from me than that.”
Peter smiled faintly. “I know.” He shook his head. “I missed a lot while I was gone, didn’t I? Well, if this is what you want, I’ll take you, but I still think it’s a risk you shouldn’t have to take.”
Neal shrugged. “What are they going to do, arrest me?”
Peter pinched the bridge of his nose. “Neal . . .”
“That’s what worries me,” Peter sighed, sounding resigned. He stood to clear the table and rested his hand briefly on Neal’s head before moving to the sink. “The good news is that while you’re in with Bancroft, I’ll be picking El up from the airport. She booked a red-eye this afternoon for Wednesday night. When you’re done, whatever happens, we’ll both be there.”
That was . . . unexpected. Both the news and the sentiment. Neal swallowed. “That’s great. Thanks, Peter.”
This time, Peter put his hand on Neal’s shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t thank me. That’s what partners are for, right?”
Neal closed his eyes and leaned his head against Peter’s wrist. He thought about Peter and El, Diana, Mozzie, and Kate: all the partners he’d ever had. Despite the prospect of facing OPR in three days, he didn’t think he’d ever felt as safe as he did right then. “Right,” he said.
Thursday morning, Neal woke Peter early and made him help him shower, shave, and dress in his favorite of Byron’s suits. Neal had to walk with a cane over any sort of distance and his injured arm was in a sling, but he decided that could only work in his favor; he was not above using cheap reminders of what he’d sacrificed to win Bancroft’s sympathy - and, more importantly, OPR’s. Not that OPR was likely to have much sympathy for a trouble-making criminal consultant like himself. Still, it couldn’t hurt.
But he’d be damned if he’d do it wearing anything but his best suit.
“You’re not doing it right,” Neal said, glaring down at Peter’s hands as they knotted his favorite tie.
“I’m doing it fine,” Peter said. “You think Bancroft is going to care whether you have a half Windsor or a full one?”
“These things matter,” Neal said, frowning. “Peter, just -” He raised his hands unthinkingly and winced as pain shot through his shoulder. “Goddammit,” he muttered, closing his eyes and breathing through the pain.
When he finally opened his eyes again, Peter was watching him. “I didn’t see you take your pain meds at breakfast,” he remarked.
“I’m fine,” Neal replied. Resigned, he let Peter finish knotting his tie. He supposed Peter was probably right; the knot of his tie was unlikely to make much of a difference. But there wasn’t a hell of a lot else he had control over right now.
“You’re not fine,” Peter said, giving the tie one last tug. “You’re in pain. This is too soon.”
“I don’t have the option of waiting for it not to be too soon,” Neal said, not bothering to deny it. Peter saw through him too easily. “Look, it won’t take more than a couple of hours. Pick El up, have a nice breakfast, and by the time you’re done I should be, too.”
Peter studied him, his mouth a flat, grim line. Then he pulled Neal forward - carefully - into a hug. “Be careful,” he said into Neal’s ear. “Don’t do anything stupid. I don’t -” Peter stopped. His grip on Neal tightened briefly, and then he tried again. “I don’t want to have to visit you in prison, you got that?”
“Yeah,” Neal said, and pressed a kiss to the corner of Peter’s mouth. “I do.”
Bancroft was waiting for Neal when he got off the elevator. Peter had wanted to come up with him, but Neal told him he wasn’t a kindergartner on his first day of school and he could walk himself up, thank you. “Good morning, Neal,” Bancroft said. “How are you?”
“Sore, sir,” he said honestly. And getting more so the further he got from last night’s pain pill. But they made him fuzzy, and fuzzy was the last thing he wanted to be in front of OPR and Bancroft.
“I’m sure,” Bancroft said. “We’ll get this over with as quickly as possible. I’ve taken over the conference room for the duration. There’s an Agent Gibson here from OPR who would like to speak to you. I’ll be in the room, but I’m not allowed to interfere. All right?”
Neal nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
Bancroft led the way through the bullpen and up the stairs to the conference room. Jones caught Neal’s eye and gave him a smile and a surreptitious thumbs up; Diana looked like she wasn’t sure whether she should hug him or smack him. Mostly, she looked too tired to do either. Neal tried to look reassuring, but the rather wry look she gave him in return made him suspect he might’ve ended up more in the neighborhood of nauseated.
Agent Gibson was not quite what Neal had expected of an OPR agent, given Fowler and his goons. Fowler had been a bully and not a very bright one at that. Gibson looked to be in her forties, with auburn hair just beginning to go gray. Her eyes, when they met Neal’s, made him feel like a bug that’d just been skewered on a pin. “Mr. Caffrey,” she said, standing. “I’m Agent Maureen Gibson. It’s good to meet you. Thank you for coming in - I know your recovery isn’t complete yet.”
Neal shook his head and seated himself. “It wasn’t a problem.”
“This conversation is going to be recorded,” she said, indicating a small recording device in the middle of the table. “Is that all right?”
Neal didn’t suppose he could really say no. “That’s fine.”
“Good.” Gibson sat, reached over, and pressed a button on the side of the recorder; a red light went on. “Agent Maureen Gibson, August 31st, 2010. This interview is pertinent to the investigation into the shooting of Thomas Jenkins by Agent Diana Berrigan. Please state your name,” she added to Neal.
“And what do you do for the FBI, Mr. Caffrey?” Gibson asked.
“I’m a criminal consultant on a work release,” Neal said. From there, guided by Gibson’s careful questioning, he went into more detail about the deal he had struck with Peter, before moving on to the work he’d done with Diana. It was deceptively easy to answer her questions, but he was careful in how he answered her. She was OPR and sharp as a tack; he didn’t need any reminding that just because she didn’t look or act like Fowler, that didn’t mean she couldn’t send him straight back to prison if she wanted to, or have Diana fired.
The first roadblock they ran into was when Gibson asked him why he’d asked Diana to be his new handler. Neal frowned. “As I said, Mrs. Burke -”
“No, why did you ask Agent Berrigan, specifically,” Gibson clarified. “You’d worked closely with Agent Jones as well, but you never approached him. Why Agent Berrigan?”
That gave Neal pause. He had to think about it; the truth was that he wasn’t sure why he’d never considered Jones. From the moment he’d hatched the plan, he’d known Diana would be the best choice. “I trusted her,” he said at last, slowly.
“You didn’t trust Agent Jones?”
“I trusted Agent Berrigan to be firm with me,” Neal said, more sure of himself now. “She’s tough but fair.”
Gibson raised an eyebrow. “So you asked Agent Berrigan because you felt she’d be stricter with you than Agent Jones?”
Neal nodded. “Yes. Though to be honest, I didn’t really think about it.”
Gibson made a notation on her pad. “Very well. Now, Saturday mornings. Nearly every Saturday morning for four months, Agent Berrigan made a call to the U.S. Marshals to let them know that she was taking you out of your radius. What were you doing during those times?”
Neal shrugged. “Going to art galleries, mostly, as I’m sure the Marshals could tell you, seeing as they have access to my tracking data. Sometimes we went to lunch afterward.”
“Sometimes, in fact, you spent nearly the whole day together.”
“We’re friends,” Neal said evenly. “Being on a half mile radius was difficult for me. Getting to leave it on Saturdays kept me from going crazy.”
Gibson raised an eyebrow. “You must be very close friends with Agent Berrigan indeed, for her to be so willing to give up such a large chunk of her limited free time.”
Neal shrugged. “I consider Agent Berrigan a good friend. You’d have to ask her what she thinks of our relationship. But if I may ask a question of my own - why is OPR so interested in this? Is there anything illegal about us going to art galleries and lunch outside my radius?”
“No,” Gibson said. “Not in and of itself. But there has been . . . some concern expressed. As I think you know, considering you asked for this meeting.”
Neal frowned. “Yes, I’m aware of the nature of this concern. And I’m sorry to disappoint you, Agent Gibson, but I’m afraid that our Saturday outings were very boring. Nothing that should worry OPR at all.”
She did not look the least bit swayed. “I think you’d better leave that to me to determine. Now, Mr. Caffrey. Let’s talk about some of the cases you worked with Agent Berrigan. I see here that you were responsible for bringing in Charles Grubbs a few months ago. Tell me about that case, please.”
Talking about cases was comparatively easy. Relieved, Neal let himself relax into storytelling mode, and once he was done talking about the Grubbs case, he went on to others. He was careful not to be too entertaining and to highlight cases where Diana actually had had to rein him in. From the wry look on Gibson’s face, he wasn’t fooling her, but she let him go on talking - giving him plenty of rope, Neal suspected.
Eventually she did break in. “Thank you, Mr. Caffrey, that was very informative. Now. Thomas Jenkins.”
“Diamond smuggler,” Neal supplied. “Shot me twice.” He indicated his thigh and his shoulder.
GIbson pursed her lips, looking unimpressed. Neal had the feeling she might be losing patience with him. “Quite,” she said. “And he is now dead.”
“Yes. Agent Berrigan shot him after he shot me.”
“What was your goal on the Jenkins case, Mr. Caffrey?”
Neal smiled. “The same as always. Catch the crook. That is what we do here, after all.”
Gibson did not return his smile. “Just Jenkins?”
Neal shrugged his good shoulder. “We suspected he was part of a much larger operation that was smuggling blood diamonds out of Africa and into the black market here in the U.S. We hoped that he might cut a deal that would help us get some of the higher ups in the operation.”
“I see. And will that be possible now that he’s dead?”
Neal raised an eyebrow. “Can a dead man cut a deal with the FBI?”
“You know what I mean, Mr. Caffrey.”
Out the corner of his eye, Neal saw Bancroft stir. He reminded himself that it wasn’t just his freedom at stake, but also Diana’s career; he didn’t have the right to play fast and loose with that, no matter how annoying Gibson’s leading questions might be. “No, it isn’t possible.” He didn’t add that the organization would be harder to infiltrate the second time around. The organization would be very suspicious of anyone coming in from the outside for a long time to come. “On the other hand, as the one bleeding out on the concrete at the time, I don’t care all that much. Jenkins still had his gun. He was still shooting at us. Agent Berrigan made a call, and it saved my life.”
“I see,” Gibson said noncommittally. “Well, thank you, Mr. Caffrey. You’ve been very helpful.”
Neal glanced at Bancroft. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” Gibson confirmed. “We may want to talk to you again, but that’s all for now. Thank you for your cooperation. It will be taken into account when your parole hearing comes up next year.”
That sounded a little ominous. “Thanks,” he said warily. Gibson gathered her things, shook Bancroft’s hand, and headed out. Neal saw Diana look up as Gibson passed her desk without so much as an acknowledging glance. Diana twisted around to look up at them. Neal shook his head, trying to convey his uncertainty.
Bancroft moved his briefcase to the seat Agent Gibson had just vacated and opened it, removing several files from it to lay on the table. “How are you feeling, Neal?” he asked. “Would you like a cup of coffee before we start?”
Neal sighed. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
Neal used the few minutes Bancroft was gone to do some deep breathing. By the time he returned with two cups of coffee, Neal felt better. Having something to hold made him feel better still. The interview with Gibson had given him a jolt of adrenaline that’d covered up the pain in his shoulder, but now that the adrenaline rush was fading, the pain was back with a vengeance. He wished he’d thought to at least bring his pills to take once the interview was over.
“Well,” Bancroft said, seating himself at the table, “that went relatively well. You kept your temper but didn’t let her walk all over you. I’m impressed.”
“Thank you, sir.” Neal sipped his coffee, trying to appear relaxed. Futilely, he suspected. He was too worn out to really put his game face on. “Do you have a sense of what OPR is going to decide?”
Bancroft nodded. “I’ve seen these sorts of investigations before. They’re unpleasant, but if there’s no evidence of ill conduct, OPR has no choice but to conclude the investigation in the agent’s favor. Admittedly, they’re fighting extra hard on this one; someone with a lot of clout is angry about the Bureau losing its way into to Thomas Jenkins’s organization, and I don’t think I have to tell you that you’re not OPR’s favorite person either, given your dealings with them in the past. But in the end, neither you nor Agent Berrigan did anything wrong, and they’re going to be forced to admit that. Agent Berrigan might get a slap on the wrist, but that shouldn’t hamper her career. In fact, I’ll see that it won’t.”
Neal let out a long breath. “Good. That’s good.”
“Very good,” Bancroft agreed, nodding. He paused, shifting papers around in front of him, until he found the one he was looking for. Neal eyed it, but couldn’t read the heading upside down. “However, there has been some discussion of your work release.” Neal went very still. “OPR finds the idea of you and Agent Berrigan continuing in your current arrangement to be . . . unpalatable. I believe they would find this entire situation easier to swallow if you agreed to change handlers.”
Neal frowned. “To whom? Agent Jones?” As much as Neal liked Jones, that idea just didn’t feel right, somehow. Jones was too . . . amiable. Neal wasn’t sure he could nail his ass to wall the way Peter and Diana did, and he’d be the first to admit that he needed that at times.
“Perhaps. There may be other options you haven’t yet considered.”
Neal shook his head. “I don’t want to change handlers. Diana hasn’t done anything wrong, and we work well together.”
Bancroft raised an eyebrow. “And if you were ordered to?”
Neal shrugged his good shoulder. “Then of course I would agree. I don’t want to go back to prison. But if anyone asks my opinion, I think Agent Berrigan would be the best choice.” Neal leaned forward. “Sir, we both know that sometimes a punishment doesn’t look like a punishment, and black marks don’t have to be visible to still be effective. How will it make Diana look if I change handlers? Are you really going to let OPR bully one of the best junior agents at the Bureau just because they can?”
Bancroft held his hands up. “All right, Caffrey, stop trying to sell it. I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime,” he added, glancing down into the bullpen, “it looks like your ride is here.” Neal turned and saw Peter and El had just come through the glass doors into the office. They were immediately swarmed by people. Neal felt his shoulder twinge and hoped they wouldn’t want to stay too long. He needed a painkiller and a nap.
Bancroft must have known that as well, because he didn’t waste any more time. He promised Neal he would do what he could, then ushered him out of the office and down the stairs. Elizabeth gave him a brief hug and turned back to Jones. Neal caught Diana’s eye, and she jerked her head toward the hallway. Neal glanced at Peter and El, but they were both deep in conversation; he ducked out of the bullpen and headed for the men’s restroom.
Fortunately, It was empty. Neal leaned, wincing, against the counter and waited. Perhaps thirty seconds went by and then the door swung open and Diana came in. “Hey,” he said, forcing a smile.
“Hey yourself,” she said. “Jesus, Neal, you look like hell. Was it that bad?”
He shook his head. “I skipped my morning Vicodin so I’d be alert for the meeting. The pain’s starting to wear on me.”
“I bet,” she said. She hesitated. “How did it go? Did Bancroft say anything?”
“He seemed to think it went well. He was . . . optimistic.”
Diana let out a long breath. “Good. Optimistic is good. Right?”
“Yes,” Neal said, smiling, “optimistic is good. It seems OPR wants me to change handlers. Or at least, Bancroft thought everything would be easier if I agreed to a switch.”
Diana frowned. “That . . . wouldn’t be so bad. Jones could supervise you, and the three of us would still be able to work together.”
“Yeah, but - I told him I’d prefer not to. It’s not fair to you, and we work well together. Besides, Jones is a bit of a softie.”
“You might be surprised, Caffrey,” Diana said with a wry smile. “I don’t think he’d be the pushover you expect. But I guess we’ll just wait and see.”
The door to the bathroom opened. “Neal?” Peter called, sticking his head in. “Are you - uh. Hi, Diana.” He glanced between the two of them, then appeared to give up. “Neal, you ready?”
Neal nodded. “Yeah.”
“Hey, Caffrey,” Diana said, reaching out to squeeze his uninjured shoulder. Neal glanced back at her. “Thanks. For meeting with OPR, I mean. You didn’t have to.”
Neal shook his head. “Don’t thank me. I owe you a lot.”
She nodded, some of the tension in her face easing. “Then I guess we’re even. I’ll call you tomorrow.” Neal nodded and let Peter escort him out to the elevator, where Elizabeth was waiting.
“So, do you and Diana often have meetings in the men’s restroom?” Peter asked him in the elevator.
“It’s been known to happen,” Neal said with a smile. “She just wanted to know how it went.”
“And how did it go?” El asked.
“Good,” Neal said. “I think. I’ll tell you about it in the car.” He glanced at Elizabeth, who smiled back at him warmly. “And I think we have a few things to discuss, too.”
“Not here,” Peter said in a low voice, just as the elevator doors dinged. He and Elizabeth ushered Neal through the oncoming throng of people and into the parking garage. “Let’s get you home first, Neal. You need lunch and a pain pill.”
“It’s not that bad,” Neal protested, allowing El to bundle him into the front seat and stow his cane in the trunk.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Peter said, sliding into the driver’s side, “but you look like a strong breeze could blow you over. I’m not having a serious conversation about our future while you’re exhausted and in pain.”
“You’d rather I was loopy?”
“Hush, you,” El told him, tapping him lightly on the top of his head. “Lean your seat back.”
Neal blinked. “Why?”
“Trust me. Lean your seat back.”
Neal shrugged and obliged, realizing only then that this put his head more or less in El’s lap. She looked at him from above, upside down. “Hi,” she said softly.
He smiled up at her. “Hi. Missed you.”
She smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “Missed you, too. Both of you.” She stroked a hand through his hair again, scratching her fingernails very lightly against his scalp.
“Mm,” Neal murmured. His eyelids suddenly felt as though they had ten pound weights attached to them. “That feels good.”
Despite his promise to tell them about the meeting, Neal dozed most of the way to Brooklyn, aware of very little except for El’s fingers in his hair. He roused when they pulled into the driveway, blinking blearily. He let Peter help him out of the car while El grabbed her suitcase and the cane out of the trunk, and then leaned on him - possibly more than was necessary - on the way up the front walk.
“Wow,” Elizabeth said, upon seeing the card table and folding chairs in the kitchen. “I love what you’ve done with the place. Tell me there’s something in the fridge besides leftover pizza.”
“There’s salad,” Peter said, a little defensively. “And sandwich fixings. I’m not as hopeless as you think.”
“Oh hon,” El said, standing on tiptoe to kiss him, “you’re exactly as hopeless as I think. Now,” she added, turning to Neal, “sit down. I’ll fix you something to eat and you can tell us how the meeting went.”
Neal sat. El brushed her hand over his hair on her way to peruse the contents of the fridge. Peter seated himself next to him, took the cap off the bottle of painkillers, and shook one out onto the table. “So, from the way Diana was acting, I take it the meeting went fairly well,” he said, as El slid a glass of orange juice across the table toward Neal.
Neal swallowed the pill, washed it down with a sip of juice, and said, “Bancroft is cautiously optimistic. He thinks Diana will escape with a slap on the wrist at worst. But he also thinks OPR would be happier if I agreed to change handlers.”
Peter nodded. “Hughes told me as much when I spoke to him about the situation earlier in the week. I said I didn’t think you’d be thrilled with the idea.”
“I’m not. I don’t know who they’d give me to except Jones, and I don’t think that’d be a good idea.”
El set a plate with a sandwich and a pile of pretzels in front of Neal. He picked up half the sandwich on autopilot, bit into it, and abruptly realized he was starving. El sat down on his other side and put a hand on his knee. “What if,” Peter asked, “there were another option?”
Neal frowned at Peter. “Like who?”
Peter reached out and took Neal’s hand in his. “Like me. I’ve put in a request for a transfer back to the New York office. I’ve already spoken with Hughes about it. This isn’t public knowledge yet, but he’s set to retire in a couple of months. They’re going to offer me his job. How would you feel about going back under my supervision?”
Neal stared at Peter, not quite willing to believe what he’d heard. “But what about El’s business? What about your life in San Francisco? You can’t live on opposite sides of the country, you’d hate it.” It really wasn’t going to work, he realized with a sudden, sinking sensation in his stomach. Peter and El hated being gone from each other for even a few nights; they’d get tired of living so far apart very quickly, and what would happen when they did? After the last few days, Neal didn’t have many doubts about Peter’s feelings for him, nor El’s, but if it came down to it, he knew they would both choose each other.
Peter squeezed his hand. “You’re right about that. But that’s not what we’re thinking of doing.”
“It’s not?” Neal said.
“No, sweetie,” El said. “It was pretty clear to us after the first couple months that San Francisco was going to be a temporary situation. It’s great, but it’s not New York. It’s not home. This is sooner than we’d planned to come back, but we’ve talked about it, and we both think this is the right decision.”
“But what about your business?”
El shrugged. “I’m going to rack up lots of frequent flyer miles, but I can deal with that. I needed to be out there while I was getting the business off the ground, but I hired a great manager a few weeks ago. Once she’s fully trained and has her feet under her, she’ll be able to handle the day-to-day running of the business in San Francisco. I’ll fly out for VIP meetings and events and do the rest by phone.”
“But,” Neal said, and stopped. If all the obstacles involving El’s business were removed, then his answer should have been obvious: yes, of course he wanted Peter as his handler again. Peter knew him better than anyone, and they worked together seamlessly. At their best, they were unbeatable, and Neal had liked that feeling.
But he and Diana were good, too. Not unbeatable, but good, and with Peter supervising the team, they’d be better than ever. She’d just had her name and her reputation dragged through the mud on his behalf, and Neal suspected that even if she were officially cleared, if he agreed to change handlers it would be taken as an admission of guilt - a tacit and vague admission, to be sure, but an admission nonetheless. No one would say a word and nothing would happen; Diana wouldn’t get fired or knocked down to bank fraud. But there were other, more subtle ways to punish someone. She might be given less interesting cases or get passed over for promotions. Peter would do what he could, but he had supervisors to answer to as well, and all his personnel decisions had to be approved from on high.
“The thing is, Neal,” Peter said, after nearly a minute of silence, “El and I know what we want. What we don’t know is what you want. We think we know, but we’re not sure. And none of this goes any further until you tell us - honestly,” he added.
Neal looked down at his plate. He was regretting the sandwich, which now sat like a lump in his stomach. “I don’t want to go back under your supervision,” he said at last, lifting his head to look Peter in the eye. “Partly because Diana doesn’t deserve to be punished, even indirectly, but mostly because I don’t want to be your CI anymore.” He swallowed. “I’m in love with you. I want to be your partner,” he looked to El, “in as many ways as you’ll let me.”
There was a moment of stark, still silence. Then Peter reached out, hooked two fingers in the knot of Neal’s tie and pulled him forward to kiss him. The kiss deepened, became something complex that made Neal’s toes curl. Then Peter broke away and leaned their foreheads together. “We want that, too. And we’ll figure it out, Neal. Whatever we have to do - whatever needs to happen, we’ll figure it out. We might have to agree to a temporary situation, but once I’ve been promoted, I can reassign you to Diana.”
“But what if OPR -”
“Then we’ll deal with OPR,” Peter said firmly. “Trust me?”
“Yes,” Neal said, and kissed him again. They leaned together, forehead to forehead. “Yes,” Neal whispered again. “I trust you.”
“Ahem,” Elizabeth said after a moment. “Do I get my kiss, too?”
Without hesitation, Neal turned and snagged her hand in his, pulling her toward him. He kissed her long and deeply, nothing like the chaste press of lips they’d exchanged in the hospital. She seemed a little surprised at first, but she adjusted with flattering alacrity, and by the time Neal let her up for air, she was breathing hard. Peter, Neal noted with satisfaction, was glassy-eyed from watching them.
“Wow,” El said breathlessly. “Too bad about your shoulder.”
“Give it a few more days,” Neal said with a smile. “I’m sure between the three of us, we can come up with something.”
Kissing was an excellent distraction, but eventually Neal realized that he was still exhausted from last night’s restlessness and that morning’s ordeal. El had been too keyed up to sleep on her red-eye, so the two of them decided that an afternoon nap was in order. They overrode Peter’s protests that he wasn’t tired and dragged him upstairs with them to the guest room, where, for the first time, the three of them went to bed together - a phrase that in this case was sadly non-euphemistic, Neal reflected. El ensconced herself happily between himself and Peter and curled up with her head on Neal’s uninjured shoulder, Peter wrapped around her from behind. Neal closed his eyes and let himself drift off, content, for once, that all was right in the world.
Two hours later, he was rudely woken from the best sleep he’d had in weeks by the sound of his cell phone ringing. He tried to bolt upright but found himself hindered by simultaneous protests from his injured shoulder and El, who was just as disoriented as he was. Unsurprisingly, it seemed Peter hadn’t stuck around once he and El had fallen asleep.
“What the -” El mumbled in groggy irritation.
“Sorry, my phone,” Neal said, reaching for it on the nightstand. He blinked to try and clear the cobwebs from his brain well enough to read the screen. When he saw who it was, he woke up in a hurry. “It’s Bancroft. That was fast. Yes, sir?” he said into the phone. El pushed herself up on her elbow.
“Good news, Neal,” Bancroft said with a smile in his voice. “I spoke with Agent Gibson this afternoon. She is prepared to close the investigation into Agent Berrigan’s conduct.”
Neal broke into a grin. “Thank you, sir. That’s good to hear.”
“She is, however, going to recommend a change in handler for you. I assume that you’ve spoken to Agent Burke, and that it won’t be a problem.”
“Yes, sir, I have spoken to him. In all honesty, I still think Agent Berrigan is a better choice. Once Agent Burke is promoted, he’ll no longer be a field agent, and I should be paired with someone who is.”
“A compelling argument,” Bancroft said, “but one that I think you should save for six months down the line, once this has all blown over. All right?”
“Yes, sir,” Neal said, attempting to sound obedient. Based on the tiny snort of amusement El gave, he wasn’t sure he’d succeeded.
“There will also be a commendation added to your file,” Bancroft went on, “which will be taken into consideration at your next parole hearing.”
Somehow, Neal doubted it would make a hell of a lot of difference, considering all the other stunts he’d pulled, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt. “And what about Agent Berrigan? Does she get a commendation, too? She saved my life, sir.”
Bancroft gave a dry chuckle. “Neal, I’ve not gotten this far without knowing when to pick my battles. Agent Berrigan is getting out of this without a disciplinary hearing or a black mark on her record, and I think you’re going to have to count that as a win.”
“Yes, sir,” Neal said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Call me if you need to, Neal - and stay on the bike.” Bancroft hung up, and Neal was left holding his phone.
“That sounded like good news,” El remarked.
“Very good news,” Neal said, sagging back against the pillows in relief. Then he swung his legs over the side of the bed and used the bedpost to haul himself to his feet. “Peter!” he called down, hobbling carefully to the stairs.
“I know,” Peter said, appearing below. “Diana just called me. She and Jones want to go to dinner to celebrate. Are you up for it?”
Neal started a little as Elizabeth wrapped her arms around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder the way she did with Peter. He relaxed into her arms, turning his head to kiss her cheek. “Yeah,” he said, “I am.” He closed his eyes, breathing in the sleep-softened scent of El’s skin, then opened them to look down at Peter, who was beaming. “Let’s go celebrate.”