Elizabeth half-falls out of the cab, dragging her emergency suitcase. It's so cold that her body locks up for a second; she has to make herself breathe before she can make herself move, and that takes a while. It's six-thirty, December eleventh. Elizabeth Anne Kuklinski Burke is a registered accountant who runs a side business as an event planner out of her spare bedroom. She has quarterly reports to write, a regional office winter holiday party to put together, and a husband in the ICU at the Denver Medical Health Center.
Nobody knows what happened. Or maybe they do, now. They didn't five hours ago. Or if they did they weren't telling Elizabeth. Peter's latest ridiculously bright-eyed, pencil-skirt-wearing probie didn't give too many details, just told Elizabeth in a low tone that maybe she should hop the next flight and get here ASAP and--
Elizabeth knows what that means.
The hospital is overcrowded and confusingly laid out. It takes Elizabeth fifteen minutes and an eternity of frustration to find someone who can point her to the ICU. She comes out of the elevator steeling herself up so she won't burst into tears in front of the doctor, but when she gets to the front desk the bored-looking nurse eyes her suitcase skeptically and tells her that there's going to be a shift change in twenty minutes. She won't be able to see Peter until it ends. In two hours. Then she actually rolls her eyes when Elizabeth blankly protests, "You must be kidding."
Elizabeth stares. She doesn't start shouting or burst into tears. The nurse stares back, impatiently. She doesn't say anything like "Hang on a second, you're Elizabeth Burke? So sorry, go right in." Which puts them at a conversational impasse.
"Thank you," Elizabeth finally says, and walks away, dragging her suitcase.
Back in the elevator, Elizabeth stares at the round plastic buttons, ringed with grime. She skipped lunch. There weren't snacks on the plane. She's running on adrenaline and a gritty triple espresso that she slugged down at the airport. She should go get something to eat, relax, and come back in two hours. She should.
She hits the button to go up a floor instead.
On the third floor she ducks into the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror. After a while she takes out her contacts and puts on her emergency reading glasses, big thick horn-rims she picked on impulse, because she thought they were kind of librarian-chic sexy, and has regretted ever since. She changes out of her Jimmy Choos and her pantsuit into running shoes, jeans, and an oversized sweater. Lastly she washes off her makeup, takes off her earrings, and twists her hair back into a bun. She's not sure what to do with her suitcase, so finally she just stashes it behind the tall orange trashcan in the corner. She doesn't really care if someone walks off with it. She needs to see Peter right now.
Crazy thoughts flash through her head-- she'll duck and roll to get past the desk, or steal a white coat and a clipboard and pretend to speak only German-- but no James Bond shenanigans are actually required. Elizabeth hangs out in front of the elevator until she hears the bored nurse's chair roll away to the other side of the desk, then she falls in one step behind another pair of nurses who just got out of the elevator. She copies what they do: casually steps to the dispenser on the wall, rubs hand-sanitizer over her hands and wrists, grabs a mask from the dispenser and straps it over her face, then strolls off down the hall.
She doesn't know where she's going but she doesn't have to walk around looking like she's lost for very long. Peter is in the second room on the left. It's a tiny little suite, with just a small bathroom in a niche tucked behind the door, a narrow counter with a deep sink against the wall, and a high rectangular window throwing moonlight over the bed.
Elizabeth leaves the lights off and moves to Peter's side, pressing her lips together to mask the instinctive choke of shock as she gets a good look at her husband. At first she thinks she's in the wrong room, this can't be Peter, but the denial only sticks for a second. His poor face, oh no--
He has two black eyes, major shiners, and a goose egg the size of a golf ball on his forehead. His right leg is in a thick cast under the blanket, and he's clearly sedated. She watches him breathe for a while, and it should be comforting but it's horribly unsettling. Peter doesn't sleep like this: flat on his back, breathing slow and quiet. Peter rolls around and mumbles and twitches. He sleep-cuddles Elizabeth. He steals the covers. He kicks. Chasing rabbits, Elizabeth always teases. Chasing Neal Caffrey, she'd said once, and Peter had laughed and said "I'd have a better shot at the rabbits."
Oh God, Elizabeth can't take this. She can't even watch E.R. without wanting to throw up. Peter baby wake up I need you oh God. She doesn't say it out loud. Instead she reaches for Peter's hand, careful to avoid brushing the spot where the IV needle is taped in, and rests her hand over his. If she can make Peter stronger by willing it, if there's even a chance that he can sense that she's here for him... She stands like that for a while, eyes half-squeezed closed against the tears, hot breath muffled under the surgical mask.
Maybe the nurse was right, maybe she should have waited. If Peter weren't unconscious, or if there were a doctor here taking up her attention, telling her things and expecting her to listen and respond, then maybe it would be easier to be strong. But Peter is so horrifyingly still and Elizabeth feels so alone. She takes a deep breath and lets go of Peter's hand. Tugging her mask down for a moment, she leans over the bed to brush her lips, gently, against his cheek.
"Get better," she whispers, then replaces her mask. Turning away, she lifts Peter's chart from the hook at the end of the bed, peering at it through her glasses and the dim light. Once she's half-decoded all the chicken scratch and technical terms, what it seems to come down to is a broken right femur, two cracked ribs, bleeding around his right lung, and a mild brain contusion. "Mild" should be soothing, but Elizabeth has a horrible suspicion that "mild brain contusion" is going to turn out to be something like "slightly pregnant."
No spine injuries, though. No neck injuries, no skull fractures. That's something. Elizabeth lowers the chart, takes a deep breath, and hangs it back on the end of the bed. She only misses the hook twice. The metal of the clipboard clangs against the foot of the bed, and she freezes. Something squeaks out in the hall. Shoes. And they don't sound like nurse shoes, they sound like dress shoes, and now there are quiet voices, coming closer--
Elizabeth panics. She glances around, then ducks into the bathroom, leaving it cracked open an inch or two. She can still see Peter, but no one will be able to see her unless they walk right up to the head of the bed and then turn around. Just to be safe, she presses back into the shadows, curling her hands against the cold metal handrail built into one wall of the bathroom.
"--right in here, Agent Wilkins," someone says quietly as the door swings open. "If there's anything else you need, just press the call button, here."
"Oh, I will. Thank you." Wilkins says, his voice muffled by his surgical mask but still low and smooth.
"I mean if you'd like a coffee, I could get you a coffee. I could do that right now, actually. I'm--"
"No, no. I'm fine. Really, thank you, Ms..."
"Jiang. Call me Pearl."
"Pearl. That's nice," Agent Wilkins says, his voice softening further. Elizabeth makes an incredulous face behind her own mask. She doesn't know any Agent Wilkins, so he must be local. Still, even if he isn't personally upset by Peter's condition, he could still save the flirting for after hours. "Thank you, Pearl. I'll be fine."
"Okay," Pearl says breathlessly. Elizabeth rolls her eyes. The door clicks shut.
Everything is quiet. Then Agent Wilkins lets out a long, slow breath. Elizabeth can hear a funny brushing sound, like he's scrubbing his hands over his arms or something. It's actually just occurring to her that she's being kind of silly. Why is she hiding? She's Peter's wife, his healthcare proxy-- if they're letting other people in, why not her? It's probably best to come out before someone finds her. (Call her cynical, but Elizabeth suspects that if she tremblingly lifts her chin at Agent Wilkins and blinks back a few brave tears, he won't tell anybody that she snuck in. He sounds like that type.) She opens her mouth--
"Damn it, Peter," Agent Wilkins says, rough and rueful, and Elizabeth freezes. "I told you. I told you Diaz Zoreda wasn't someone you wanted to-- God damn it." She can hear the chart scrape against the metal hook as he pulls it off the end of the bed, and she can hear the thin pages flipping back and forth as he peruses the chart.
Eventually the chart goes back on its hook with a clang, and Wilkins' shoes squeak as he approaches the head of the bed. All Elizabeth can see is that he's tall and dark-haired, and his suit doesn't fit him very well.
"I don't know if you can hear me, Peter," Wilkins says, almost too quietly to be heard over all the hum and whir of the equipment around the bed. "But let's face it, if anyone could..." He stops, shaking his head, and reaches out. Elizabeth shifts to the left, tilting her body without moving her feet, and watches as Wilkins extends a steady hand. Careful as an explosives expert defusing a bomb, he uses the edge of his thumb to brush one sweaty spike of hair off Peter's forehead, away from the lump, and Elizabeth just knows.
She's only seen a few pictures, hasn't known his face all that long, but it's him. Of course it is.
"That's Neal Caffrey?" she'd said, startled. There was a whole ecosystem of paperwork growing and living on the dining room table: piles of receipts laid across maps and timelines, photographs and transcripts laid out in solitaire stacks, mug shots peeking out of bulging folders. Peter was in the middle of throwing out one angle of attack and implementing another, meaning everything was in complete disorder. At least to the untrained eye. Elizabeth had just been coming over to rescue a half-empty mug of cold coffee before Peter elbowed it into a pile of irreplaceable evidence, and was stopped dead in her tracks by a crisp black-and-white surveillance shot. The man in the picture was wearing a sharp white button-down shirt, open to the second button. He was talking to a blonde in sunglasses, somewhat shorter than he was, and he was bending, turning slightly to look up at her, being careful to look directly into her eyes. A heavy watch emphasized the strength and grace of his hand, raised in an illustrative gesture: palm up, fingers spread.
'CAFFREY AND MOREAU' was written at the bottom of the page in Sharpie, with 'MOREAU' scribbled out, rather irritably, in ballpoint, and 'NO IT ISN'T' in Peter's handwriting under that.
"Huh?" Distracted, Peter glanced over, then dove back into his compulsive paper-sorting. "Yeah, that's him."
"You didn't say he was so..." Elizabeth shook her head.
"So what?" Peter asked, after a moment.
"Pretty!" Elizabeth said. Peter scoffed under his breath. "I mean, wow."
"Yeah, I... didn't really notice." Peter didn't look up from his extremely interesting papers. His voice was heavy with irony. Elizabeth laughed and kissed him on the cheek.
After that she'd made Peter's new obsession a bit more of a priority. Before seeing the picture, she'd just slotted Neal Caffrey in as one more thing Peter's brain couldn't let go of, and amusing yourself while your spouse hunted down the greatest international art thief of the age was certainly classier than being a football widow. She'd never been concerned about it, not really. After seeing the picture, well. She still hadn't been concerned, but she was maybe a little more... cognizant of the possibilities. And that meant doing her own research, being a little more available for Peter to bounce ideas and hypotheses off of, that sort of thing. Of course the problem with learning more about Neal Caffrey was that the more you learned, the more you liked him. Peter definitely did. Elizabeth even suspected sometimes that Peter maybe admired him a little.
She's not sure how to feel now that she knows that it's mutual.
Neal stands there for a long while, silently, then takes a deep breath.
"This... well, this is from Kate," he says, and moves closer. "Mostly."
Elizabeth watches, wondering if her eyes are going to get stuck this wide open as Neal tugs his surgical mask down to let it hang under his chin, glancing quickly back over his shoulder at the door. From this angle all Elizabeth can see is a thin slice of cheekbone and five o'clock shadow, the curve of one dark eyebrow. He braces one hand on the metal railing of the bed, leaning over and down, tilting his head to angle his lips towards Peter's cheek.
"FBI. You're under arrest," Elizabeth snaps out in her best impression of Peter's humorless son of a bitch tone.
Under pretty much any other circumstances Caffrey's reaction would be absolutely goddamn hilarious. He snaps upright, spinning to face the bathroom door, bracing himself one-handed against the rail of Peter's bed, but so gracefully that it doesn't shift a millimeter under his weight. It's like nothing so much as a cat falling off the tv-- the speed with which he regains his dignity just makes it that much funnier.
He takes a step forward, and Elizabeth bangs a hand out, slamming the bathroom door open. There's maybe an inch of clearance between the foot of Peter's bed and the edge of the open door, which means there's no way out unless he vaults the bed. She can see him considering it, and then she can see when his attention shifts to her as a person rather than as a threat.
"Mrs. Burke," he says. "...Hi."
Elizabeth bursts out into stifled hysterical giggles, giddy with emotion and adrenaline, and tugs her mask down off her face, sucking in air. Neal shifts back, still caught between fight and flight. Then he takes a breath. Adjusts his suit jacket. Smiles. God, he really is that handsome.
"What are you doing here?" Elizabeth says, bewildered.
"What are you doing hiding in the bathroom?"
"What are you doing kissing my husband?" That comes out louder than a whisper, and Neal's eyes flick to the hallway. They both freeze.
Neal moves swiftly, taking her wrist and turning her. He ducks into the bathroom and pulls Elizabeth after him like a dance partner, her back right up against his front, squeezing in so they both fit. Elizabeth's still hanging on to the edge of the door as he reels her in, and she stills it as it closes, resting her hand on the latch until she's sure it won't fall open again when she takes her hand away. It's very dark and very close. Neal's arm is snugly around Elizabeth's waist, holding her close against his body. As the footsteps approach, his other hand lands and rests, very gently, over her mouth.
A prickle of something that's not exactly fear goes up and down Elizabeth's spine. The rollercoaster of emotion she's been on is making her feel a little light-headed. Somehow it helps to know Neal isn't exactly unaffected either-- which is to say, that's probably not a roll of quarters in his pocket nudging up against her hip. She'd be flattered-- she is sweaty, jet-lagged, wearing her ugly emergency glasses, and six years older than Neal-- but she knows his reaction probably has more to do with adrenaline than proximity. Still. Right now she'll take whatever emotional boost she can get.
The door to Peter's room creaks open a second time, and someone moves around the room, checking the chart, then studying a few of the machines and devices and making a few notes. Elizabeth can feel Neal breathing, very slow and shallow, against her back, but she can't hear anything, not even right there against her ear. Suddenly it hits her again that she really has no reason to be hiding. She has a perfectly good reason and possibly even a right to be here, whereas Neal Caffrey-- Elizabeth closes her eyes. Suddenly she can hear exactly what Peter would say about all this, and suddenly she desperately needs him to wake up so that she can tell him this whole insane story and he can confirm her expectations by saying something sweet and cynical like, "You think a couple of hospital security guards could hold Neal Caffrey for a New York minute? Be nice, honey, spare 'em the humiliation."
She can hear Peter's voice clear as anything, hear him doing that 'tough guy cracking wise' thing he does. She can feel the way he'd lay a kiss on her temple afterwards, smiling that bashful, only half-ironic smile. She can't quite keep a sob from building in her throat. Neal holds her closer, moving his thumb slowly to stroke her cheek. It could be creepy or comforting. Elizabeth decides to let it be comforting.
The nurse puts the chart back at the foot of the bed, and stands there for a second, seemingly thinking. Finally she 'hmms' to herself and leaves again.
Neal doesn't breathe out or take his hand off Elizabeth's mouth. She sniffs, closes her eyes and leans her head back against his shoulder, letting him hold her up. This is the warmest, most comforting sensation she's felt in what seems like years, she's loopy with adrenaline and stress, and Neal's stolen so much of her husband's time and attention that right now it almost seems logical that he should take it on himself to pay a little of it back, to stand in and do what Peter would do, if he were able. She turns around in Neal's arms, presses her face into his chest, and quietly starts to cry.
Neal, to his credit as a conman or maybe just a nice guy, follows Elizabeth's lead. His arms come around her immediately, and he strokes her hair and improvises perfectly nonsensical but comforting murmurs. He smells clean and anonymous, like hotel soap, and he feels like he's literally radiating sympathy and understanding, and Elizabeth finally understands why Peter calls this man maybe the most dangerous con he's ever chased. He really is that good.
"Shhh, shh, Elizabeth," Neal tells her, "he's gonna be fine, he's gonna be all right, shh. Elizabeth..." He strokes a hand down her back, gentling her. She can also feel him kind of trying to tilt his pelvis away from hers, but the handrail behind his thighs makes it a bit of a lost cause. "Um," he says, even lower, "that's my cellphone, by the way."
"Mmhmm," Elizabeth says. "It's amazing how small they make those things these days, isn't it?"
Neal's hand freezes. He actually misses a beat, and then he starts petting her back again. "I see why Peter likes you... What's he call you?" he asks, tipping her chin up with his thumb. "Liz? Beth? No, you're not a Beth. Ellie?"
"I see why he likes you," Elizabeth pushes her glasses aside, knuckling tears out of her eyes. "And he calls me Elle."
"Elle," Neal says, mulling it over. "That's chic. Different. I... He likes me?"
Elizabeth nods, tucking her head down against his chest again. "Oh, you two have quite the little mutual admiration society going on."
Neal laughs into her hair. "Speaking of, uh-- The kiss. That was just a thank you. Not to say that Peter and Kate are-- Or that Peter is doing anything you wouldn't approve of, I mean, professionally, or otherwise--"
"Shh," Elizabeth says. "Neal. Shh."
Elizabeth sighs. She can't help noticing that Neal's now called Peter by his name more than once-- Peter, not Agent Burke or even Burke. Just Peter.
"You should go," she finally says, lifting her head to look Neal in the eyes.
He looks back. "I really should."
The moment draws out. Neal takes a breath and shifts slightly, and Elizabeth steps back, giving him some space.
He turns to go, and she catches his wrist. "Is there anything you want me to tell him?"
He goes still as stone under her hand.
"Or give him, from you?" Elizabeth challenges. "Anything from Kate? Or mostly from Kate?"
Neal turns and there's nothing smooth and graceful about it this time. He grabs her by the arms and steps close, their bodies almost colliding in the dark as he kisses Elizabeth hard, on the mouth. Something snaps between them, there in the dark, like a steel guitar string breaking. Elizabeth feels it low in her belly, feels it running all over her skin like electricity. She wraps her arm around Neal's neck and pulls him down for a better angle and almost simultaneously shoves him back with her other hand, stumbling away and almost tripping. When her back hits the wall it nearly knocks the wind out of her.
They stare at each other in the dark. Elizabeth hopes Neal can't see her face any more clearly than she can see his.
"I'll go now," Neal says. Just his voice, low and hoarse, sends a combined shiver of lust and guilt shooting down Elizabeth's spine.
"Are you going to tell Peter...?"
Elizabeth doesn't see him again for six years.
She opens the door, vaguely curious about who could be out there knocking at this hour, and of course it's Neal Caffrey, blue eyes sparkling in the clear gray morning light. Grinning.
He looks older, but he looks good. Elizabeth had thought-- well, she doesn't exactly know what she expected four years of prison to have done to Neal Caffrey. At least as far as his looks are concerned, it's an improvement, and she hadn't seen much room for improvement before. His hair is a bit longer, stray bits falling into his face and giving him a boyish look, but his features are sharper than they used to be. He's skinnier than Elizabeth remembers, or maybe it's just that his suit fits better. A lot better. As she drags her eyes back up to his face, Elizabeth sees that he's been giving her the once-over, too. Neal, hilariously, pretends like she actually caught him looking her up and down-- as if she would have caught him if he hadn't wanted her to. He quickly flicks his eyes away, maybe even blushing a little.
Blushing on command! Elizabeth is envious. That's got to be useful.
She puts one hand on her hip and one hand on the doorframe, blocking Neal's way in. Symbolically, anyway. "Can I help you?"
"Mrs. Burke! We haven't met! I'm Neal Caffrey." Neal's voice is loud and earnest. He sticks out his hand. "May I speak to your husband?"
Elizabeth glances down at Neal's ankle. "Should you be here?"
Neal accepts that she's not going to shake his hand and pulls it back. Elizabeth rewards him for that with a smile. Then he steps up onto the top porch step and leans in, the kind of cheap subconscious manipulation that door-to-door salesman use. Elizabeth tilts her head up, doesn't retreat an inch, and smiles wider.
"Seriously, where's Peter?"
"Peter's in the shower. Should you be here?" Elizabeth repeats.
"I should absolutely be here. I cracked the case." Neal actually bounces a little on his heels. "I know who the Dutchman is."
"You ID'd the Dutchman?" Elizabeth jumps a little as Satchmo comes loping out from the kitchen and sticks his head around her knees, sniffing curiously at Neal.
"Aw, who's this?" Neal goes down on one knee on the doorstep, sticking his hand out for Satchmo to sniff. Once he's been found acceptable, he runs his hands over Satchmo's head, flopping his ears around and then scratching behind them just the way that Peter does. Satchmo's eyes squeeze nearly shut in delight and he lurches forward, smudging his nose across Neal's cheek and licking at his jaw. "Aww, hey, you! You're so friendly--" Neal tilts his head, reading the name off the tag, "--Satchmo. Yes you are. Yes you are. Good Satchmo."
"You work fast. How'd you manage it?" Elizabeth asks, looking down.
"Most dogs like having their ears scritched," Neal says, not looking up.
"How do you know who the Dutchman is, Neal?"
"How do most people know what artist did anything?" Neal scritches around the edges of Satchmo's collar. Satchmo woofs happily.
"I don't know, they--" Elizabeth stops. "Wait. You're not saying he signed it?"
"Let me in, Elle," Neal says, aiming those big blue eyes up in her direction. "I'll show you what I found."
Elizabeth raises an eyebrow.
"Let me in, Mrs. Burke," Neal corrects himself instantly, obediently. "Please." Elizabeth barely resists the urge to reach out and scritch behind his ears. And that's just the urge she's currently willing to admit to.
"Elizabeth will be fine," she says. "Come on in. You want some coffee?"
"I would love some coffee, thank you," Neal says, rising and following her through the living room. She catches him glancing up at the stairs as they pass. They can both hear the shower running upstairs. "So," Neal says, "should we just kiss now and get it over with? You know, we've got to do something to resolve this sexual tension between us, it's--"
Elizabeth can tell that he expects her to protest, maybe to laugh. To get defensive or disbelieving. Instead she thinks about it, then gives him a sly look. "Peter's about six minutes into his shower, which means we've got about eighteen, maybe nineteen minutes before he comes downstairs, ready to hit the streets..." Neal's eyebrows rise. Elizabeth pouts. "That's hardly enough time for anything really fun. Rain check?"
"Rain check," Neal stutters.
"Done!" Elizabeth says brightly, and goes into the kitchen. "Take your jacket off, Neal, stay a while!" she tosses back over her shoulder.
This, she thinks, is going to be interesting.
When Peter comes downstairs to find them giggling on the couch together, he's not angry, but he pretends to be. He's keeping Neal on a short leash. That's pretty much his entire Theory of Neal, really: keep him on a short leash. Elizabeth sympathizes, but if he really wants to modify Neal's behavior, then the plan needs a carrot as well as a stick, doesn't it?
That's as good a justification for being nice to Neal as any, she supposes.
When Peter makes Neal go out and wait for him in the car, Elizabeth calls after him as he goes, "Nice to finally meet you, after all these years!"
Peter gives her a wounded, "what are you trying to do to me?" look. Elizabeth makes a face back, not sure whether she's pulling off "I have no idea what you could possibly mean" or "I'm deeply and sincerely sorry" or "really, you knew I was like this when you married me."
Peter seems to get the message anyway. He glances over his shoulder to see Neal disappearing into the garage, then leans in to kiss her cheek. He leans in further to whisper into her ear: "So we're actually gonna pretend you two just met?"
"I think it's really darling that Neal thinks he's pulling one over on you," Elizabeth whispers back. Darling, and a little sad in some ways. Elizabeth and Peter don't lie to each other, but clearly that's not Neal's baseline assumption when it comes to relationships. "Don't you?"
"Oh, yeah," Peter says, voice low. "I think it's darling that my wife and a felon are conspiring behind my back--"
He's still not actually angry. Elizabeth kisses him again, this time on the mouth. She can feel Peter trying to hang on to his frustration, but soon he's smiling into the kiss.
"Elle, don't," he says when he pulls back, still smiling, a little goofy with it. "I gotta go to work. I gotta be a hardass today. Especially today."
"That's right. You go be a hardass, honey," Elizabeth says encouragingly.
Peter rolls his eyes and kisses her cheek one more time. "Love you."
"Love you," Elizabeth calls after him as he goes. "Have fun! Take care!"
She doesn't just mean that Peter should take care of himself, either.
Six years later is Elizabeth and Peter's fifteenth anniversary-- well, sixteenth, but they're spending two weeks in France, which is what Peter had always promised Elizabeth they'd do for their fifteenth. Work had interfered, and she'd given him an extension, and now here they are in Marseille. So who's counting?
Neither one of them has seen Neal Caffrey for two years. Which isn't surprising, because Neal Caffrey has been dead for two years. It was very sad; he died just four months short of completing his extended sentence as Peter's informant, consultant and general dogsbody. Speaking of which, no body had been found when they'd dragged the harbor, and there were occasional whispers for a while afterwards that maybe Caffrey wasn't dead. Rumors that maybe he'd just pulled off his most impressive escape. Most people considered that kind of joke to be in pretty poor taste. And a year went by, and then two, and Neal Caffrey didn't pull any more heists, and most people figured that he probably really was dead. The tracking data from Neal's anklet had never really been arguable, not to mention the audio from the wire he'd been wearing. Peter had sent Neal onto Dossena's yacht, in the persona of a slightly shady forensic document examiner. And Neal had been there when the bomb had gone off. Case closed.
Peter and Elizabeth's hotel had been described on its outdated website as charming and quaint. Elizabeth of course had understood that to mean 'small and old,' but apparently in French it actually meant 'really, really small and really, really old.' Peter had bet Elizabeth last night that he could stand out on their balcony for ten minutes and spot at least one drug deal. She'd poured another glass of wine and suggested a better use of his time.
They sleep in until noon. Peter rolls over and strokes his fingers through Elizabeth's hair. Elizabeth smiles.
"You ready?" she says, curling up against him.
"I'm as ready as I'm ever gonna be," Peter says into her neck. He doesn't sound cynical. He sounds... exultant.
He sounds happy.
Elizabeth's hand is shaking slightly as she applies her eyeliner.
Peter stands behind her, straightening his tie and watching her in the mirror. He smiles. "You're beautiful."
"Shh," Elizabeth says, drawing a perfect curve under one eye, then the other.
Finally they're ready. Peter helps Elizabeth fasten the clasp of her necklace, she strokes her hand over his tie, and he tucks a stray wisp of hair behind her ear. They go down to the hotel's breakfast room together.
Neal is sitting at a little table for two, next to a window that looks out onto the narrow cobbled street. It would probably have been too much to hope that he'd actually be sitting with his back to the door. But at least he doesn't see them right away. Distracted by his thoughts, gazing out at the street, Neal doesn't even twitch until they're almost halfway to the table, and then he looks up and does a classic double-take, hands going to the arms of his chair. He only sees Peter, at first, which Elizabeth notices but doesn't really mind. He's probably been expecting Peter, somewhere in the back of his head for the last two years. He hasn't been expecting her. When Neal's eyes do slide over to Elizabeth, he frowns, eyebrows coming together slightly. Then he relaxes, or at least he appears to.
"Mr. Tabernacle," Peter says evenly. He pulls out the empty chair for Elizabeth and pushes it in behind her, then drags another one over for himself. This puts Elizabeth across from Neal, and Peter next to him.
"You're supposed to be in Florence," Neal says. His voice is level, but he clearly isn't comfortable with the way that Peter is blocking his route to the room's only exit.
"We wanted to surprise you," Elizabeth says. She looks over the list of drinks and appetizers in front of her. "What's good here?"
"I recommend the pears in spiced wine. Peter..."
"You weren't under the impression that I actually bought that Tom Sawyer scam for a goddamn second, were you?" Peter asks, almost absently, as he leans towards Elizabeth, looking over her shoulder at the wine list.
"Look, I didn't plan to..." Neal begins. Peter scoffs, dismissing Neal without even looking up. Neal laughs too, a little angry and a little desperate. He tries again. "It's just-- When it happened, Peter, the opportunity was too good. I had to take it, it was-- No, you know what? I won't apologize. Not for that. I'm-- I'm grateful for everything you did, the both of you, but I saw my chance and--" He leans back in his chair, staring out the window again. "I have a good life here, Peter. I really do." Elizabeth sees him bite his lip, grimace. He won't beg. Not Neal. He won't have changed that much.
"Hm," Peter says. "Are the mussels any good?"
"No," Neal says. Elizabeth wants to reach out and hold his hand, but she doesn't. Not yet. "Not at all, really. Why are you here? How did you find me? Was it Mozzie, did Mozzie sell me out?"
"You think I'm here to bring you in?" Peter looks up, locking eyes with Neal for the first time since they all sat down.
Of course that's when the waiter comes over to take their order. Neal looks at Peter, pauses, smiles slightly, then orders for all three of them in flawless French.
The waiter nods approvingly. They all wait for him to leave.
"If you're not here to take me in..." Neal says, quietly.
"We're not here for Kate, either," Elizabeth says it as gently as she knows how. Neal still flinches.
"How could we be? She's not here, is she?" Peter asks, though he already knows the answer. Probably better than Neal does.
Neal shakes his head, glancing sharply out the window. Elizabeth's heart aches for him. Waiting, all this time, and once again he's been lied to and let down.
"She's not coming, is she?" Peter keeps firing, leaning across the table and cocking his head, interrogation-style.
"If she were, she would've been here three days ago. I waited. I thought..." Neal stares at Peter, tired and irritated and oddly touched. Bone-tired, by the looks of it. "You knew we'd arranged to meet here. You knew she wouldn't come, and you knew I'd wait. So here you are, on the third day... why, Peter? What could you possibly want from me at this point?"
"Neal, for Christ's sake, what do you think?"
Neal just looks at Peter in frustration, then to Elizabeth for help. He looks a bit like an animal in a trap, an animal that can hear the hunters talking over its head and perhaps can sense that its fate is being decided. He looks dangerous.
"You've been keeping your nose clean the last two years, Steve," Elizabeth says. She's going to get this done if she has to drag them both kicking and screaming across the finish line by their ears. Or assorted other parts. "What's that about?"
"There's good money in art restoration these days." Neal smiles tightly. "Especially if you have a reputation for being squeaky clean."
"Steve Tabernacle doesn't even do business with people who know people who do business on the shady side of the street," Peter says. "I know that. What I don't know is why?"
"Maybe I got tired of getting shot at and blown up and pushed out of windows. Maybe I wanted something a little calmer."
Peter grins. "Maybe you never met an adrenaline rush you didn't love."
"Maybe you were a better influence on me than you thought," Neal grins back. It's really more of a snarl.
Elizabeth sighs, slips her left foot out of her shoe and runs it up the inside of Neal's leg, rubbing her toes against the back of his calf.
His head jerks up and he stares.
"Neal," she says. "Tell him why. Tell the truth."
Neal exhales, shuddering. "Peter, how stupid would you look if it turned out I was still alive and back to my old tricks? That I'd conned you one more time and gotten away with it? What would happen to your career, to..." He grits his teeth. "I couldn't... I haven't... I've stayed clean." He flinches, then waves a hand. "Mostly. Nothing anyone could ever trace. Steve Tabernacle is clean," he says, more firmly this time.
"Oh, I know." Peter smiles, eyes crinkling affectionately. Elizabeth beams and reaches across the table to squeeze Neal's hand, slipping her foot back into her shoe again. He lets her take his hand, still vaguely unsettled.
The waiter comes back with their wine and a plate of cheese and grapes and berries and artistically arranged bits of sliced fruit. Neal's hand twitches under Elizabeth's, but she doesn't let go, doesn't pull her hand back.
The waiter leaves again. Peter sips his wine, makes a half-approving face. Elizabeth sips hers, and raises her eyebrows at Neal, impressed.
Neal drinks half his glass in two deep swallows and nearly misses the table when he sets it down again.
"Where are you staying?" Peter asks, one elbow on the arm of his chair, the bowl of the wineglass balanced carefully in his hand. "Here?"
"God, no," Neal says. "I have rooms at the Oustau De Baumaniere." Peter laughs, and Neal grins sharply. "Even with me, Peter, sentiment only goes so far... Oh my God, you two aren't staying here, are you?"
Elizabeth and Peter exchange glances. Elizabeth's is amused, and Peter's is guilty.
"Peter!" Neal tsks. "A rat hole like this? For your late fifteenth anniversary?"
Peter shrugs one shoulder. "We're still packed, aren't we, Elle?"
"I am," Elizabeth says. "Oh, Neal! Do you have couches in your suite? Maybe we could stay with you!"
"Maybe we could order up a fold-out bed or something," Peter suggests, voice low with humor.
"You two..." Neal's eyes narrow. "You aren't..."
"I'm calling in my rain check," Elizabeth says, rapping her knuckles on the table.
"You gave her a rain check. That first day you came to the house. Not the first day you met," Peter says, then clears his throat. "And if you remember, you gave me one, too. Once." Elizabeth watches Neal's eyes go even wider as Peter takes another drink of his wine. Setting his glass down, he takes Elizabeth's other hand, blushing slightly. "What?" he says defensively. "You think we don't talk about this stuff?"
"You haven't been writing bad checks again, have you, Neal?" Elizabeth nibbles at a strawberry, blinking innocently.
"I have never kited a check in my life." Neal glances at Peter for confirmation. Peter glares. "Well, I was never convicted of kiting checks."
"I guess you're going to have to pay up." Elizabeth smiles.
"No pressure," Peter says, suddenly serious, and Elizabeth looks over at him, concerned. "I have two train tickets in my pocket, Marseille to Florence. Like I said, we're still packed, and the train leaves tonight. If this is too-- I know it's complicated. We just-- I just don't want you to--"
"This isn't a shakedown," Elizabeth summarizes, squeezing Peter's hand reassuringly.
"Peter," Neal chides. "You're such a bad liar. You don't have any train tickets."
"What do you mean, I don't have--" Peter checks the pocket of his jacket. Then he checks his other pocket. "You--" Realization dawns over him, beautiful to see, and Elizabeth starts to laugh.
Neal opens his eyes wide, as pure and unthreatening as a blue summer sky, and then he grins, a toothy, arrogant Neal Caffrey 'gotcha' grin. Elizabeth has missed that smile. Peter's hand tightens on hers.
Wow, Elizabeth thinks. They're really going to do this. After all this time. It's really going to happen.
"One condition," Neal says, holding up a finger.
"What's that?" Peter says suspiciously.
Neal draws out the moment by leaning back in his chair, lifting his chin and smiling a superior smile. He looks good, Elizabeth thinks. He looks... lighter, somehow, than he did before they came over and sat down.
Something agrees with him. Maybe it's the wine. Maybe it's freedom. Maybe it's us, she thinks.
"Catch me," Neal says, and stands up.
"Excuse me?" Peter says, drawing it out, but he's already tensing for the chase.
"Five minute head start," Neal says, pointing his finger at Peter again. "Then you come after me. And you catch me. You brought your cuffs, didn't you?"
Peter sputters gorgeously. Elizabeth raises an eyebrow. "And what am I doing while you two are playing cops and robbers?"
Neal grins at her. "You didn't happen to bring a pair of those sexy librarian glasses...?"
Oddly enough, of all the things that have been said today, that's the thing that makes Elizabeth's jaw drop. Peter pokes her in the ribs. "I told you those glasses made you look hot!"
"I haven't--" Elizabeth shakes her head, looking back at Neal, and worn those for years stays unsaid, as Neal is already halfway across the room. He pushes aside a curtain, shoves open a creaky, narrow window with a view of rows of overflowing trash cans, and climbs gracefully out into the alley. Peter is already turning, heading for the door, and Elizabeth grabs him by the arm. "Honey, play fair. Five minutes!"
Peter passes a hand over his face and mutters something unintelligible. He sighs, plants his hands on his hips, turns around impatiently, then grabs his wineglass and finishes it in one swallow. Then he takes Elizabeth in his arms and gives her the kind of blazingly perfect kiss you get maybe a couple of times in a lifetime. If you're lucky.
Elizabeth considers herself lucky.
"Gotta go," he says afterwards, perfectly unromantic, perfectly Peter. Elizabeth drops bonelessly back into his chair and watches him dash for the door.
After she collects herself, she starts rummaging through her purse for a couple of bills to leave on the table. Then after that she'll go talk to the concierge. There's got to be a convenience store or something around here where she can go buy a pair of reading glasses. She has the feeling that she's going to need every advantage she can get.
She has the feeling that this is going to be fun.