Neal isn't sure why he came here. He regrets it already. But he also has a feeling he'd regret it more if he hadn't.
He has the cab let him out a block or so down the street from Peter and El's house, mostly from a paranoid fear that Peter might see it out the window and then he'd be stuck. He's made too many decisions lately without leaving himself a back door to get out.
He walks to the Burkes' townhouse through the humid summer night, in shirtsleeves with Byron's jacket draped over his arm. Halfway there he stops in his tracks, belatedly realizing that he should have brought some sort of hospitality gift. At the very least he could've picked up a bottle of wine. Maybe he could call another cab and have it run him to the nearest decently stocked vintner's ... no, that's just silly, and maybe it would look like he's trying too hard.
He should have called first.
He shouldn't have come at all.
Warm lamplight gleams through Peter and El's living-room curtains. The air is crisp with barbeque smoke, and when he listens as hard as he can, there are quiet voices coming from the back patio. Peter laughs -- he'd know Peter's laugh anywhere.
Neal mounts the steps to the Burkes' front door. He stands for a while with his hand poised above the door, then lets it drop. Instead he turns ... ready to go ... and then sits on the top step.
For a while he opens himself to the night, just listening and inhaling and soaking it in. Hardly a car has passed on his entire walk. Children are playing in someone's backyard, laughing and shouting in their high sweet voices. It's the sort of neighborhood where people borrow cups of sugar from their neighbors and stop to chat on the sidewalk. The sort of place where he might have imagined buying a house with Kate and raising kids.
The sort of place he's never lived in his life -- the sort of place where people like him don't go except to steal things: money, credit cards, lives.
He fingers his cell phone in his pocket. That cab can't have gone too far ...
The door opens and a block of lamplight falls across him. "No wonder Satchmo's been restless," Peter says behind him, sounding amused and curious, but not at all angry. "Were you planning to sit out here all night?"
Neal looks over his shoulder. Peter is framed in the golden light, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, with a beer in one hand. He looks casual and relaxed and ... normal.
"C'mon in," Peter says.
So Neal does.
He hasn't been in the Burkes' house since Keller, since the treasure, since El got away from her kidnappers and he and Mozzie followed Peter home. And he finds himself hanging back, looking around surreptitiously. He's not sure what he's looking for. In any case, all traces of the chaos in the house have been wiped away. Of course. It's been over a week; it's not as if the Burkes are going to leave their living room in disarray.
Still, it's a little unnerving to see everything exactly like it should be: pictures hanging straight on the walls, a vase of flowers on the coffee table. Like none of it ever happened. If only it was so easy, Neal thinks, to erase the past as easily as smoothing scuff marks from a rug.
"El," Peter calls, "we have a guest. Looks like we'll be needing that other steak after all."
Neal hasn't seen El since that day, either. And he hasn't talked to her since before the kidnapping, before the discovery of the treasure, before things went from normal to disaster. Sudden panic rushes up and chokes him. This was a mistake. I shouldn't have come ...
At the very least he should've brought a bottle of wine so that he'd have a polite, neutral conversation opener.
But there's nothing to do about it now; he's swept along by Peter into the brightly lit kitchen, where El is stirring a bowl at the counter, a glass of wine resting next to her elbow. She glances up, and she looks perfectly normal, perfectly Elizabeth. Her hair is tied back in a sloppy ponytail and there is a smudge of flour on her nose.
Forcing himself to meet her eyes is harder than any con he's ever pulled.
And yet, there's nothing but the warm, welcoming smile and the sparkle of delight that he's always gotten from her. "Hi, Neal," she says brightly, just like always, and she reaches for a bottle of wine and passes it to Peter, who's already getting a glass down from the cabinet. Then the glass is in Neal's hand and Peter, after giving El a quick kiss on the cheek, is heading out to the patio with a large shallow dish of marinating steaks in his hands.
Neal hesitates, not really sure whether to follow or to stay, and before he can decide, the screen door swings shut behind Peter -- expertly using his knee to block Satchmo from following -- and Neal is left alone in the kitchen with El.
"Rice pilaf sound okay?" El says, scraping the contents of the bowl into a baking dish. She pops it into the microwave with a faintly apologetic look -- the microwave is not generally a cooking implement in Caffrey's world and they both know it, but he doesn't have the words to tell her that he doesn't care; right now he'd eat frozen microwave burritos if he could eat them at her table. "Grandma Mitchell's recipe. And there'll be ice cream for dessert. You should've called; I would have made a pie."
"Rice pilaf is fine. I --" His voice cracks a little. Sheer nervousness. He mentally smoothes himself down, tries to pretend this is just like any con job ... but it's not, and somehow he's lost the art of lying to himself. "I didn't want to impose," he tries to explain.
It's the stark truth, but he's never been good at truth, as evidenced by the fact that now he feels like an idiot on top of everything else. If calling to ask for a dinner invitation would have been a bit of an imposition, then showing up unannounced has to be ten times as much of one.
But neither of the Burkes looks unhappy to see him ... or, for that matter, surprised.
And there had been an extra steak, all marinated and ready to go.
El turns and looks at him, and he looks back at her -- trying, he knows, to find the marks of last week's trauma on her face. She looks tired, and there are blue smudges under her eyes that he'd give his life to erase. And she also looks sad, but it isn't until she speaks that he realizes at least some of the sadness is for him, not for herself.
"It's never an imposition," she says gently.
The screen door swings open, Peter once again using his leg to block Satchmo from escaping into the night. "Steaks are on," he says, wiping his hands on a dish towel.
El's grin returns, sweeping the sorrow away from her face, though vestiges of shadow linger in her eyes. "Neal, speaking of traditional family recipes, you're about to taste the Burke secret barbeque sauce, passed down from father to son through three generations of Burke men. I hope you're prepared to make properly appreciative noises."
"It always wins first place at the neighborhood barbeque contest," Peter says, sounding smug as he picks up his beer.
Neal is not quite able to keep the look of horror off his face at that mental image. "What does the winner get?" he can't help asking.
El laughs. "A ten-dollar Home Depot gift certificate. It's mostly for the bragging rights, I gather."
"Damn straight," Peter says, taking a swig of his beer.
And Neal, to his utter dismay, feels a prickling behind his eyes that he hastily fights back down. Of all the ultimate social nightmares, he is not about to burst into tears in the middle of the Burkes' kitchen.
It's just that he thought he'd never have this again. Even after they got Elizabeth back, even after he and Peter worked their first case together post-treasure, he never would have dared to dream that he'd get it all back.
There's still a little brittleness beneath the surface. Ever attuned to the social undercurrents around him, Neal can sense it in the way Elizabeth's laugh is a little too loud, the way that Peter is a little more hesitant with his casual touches on her shoulder or hip or back. He can feel it in himself, too -- right now his own confidence in Peter, the constant awareness he used to feel that Peter had his back, is as shaken as Peter's confidence in him.
He can tell that, between the three of them, they aren't quite done with the sudden awkward silences when an unexpected conversational minefield opens up under their feet. Like, say, the silence that's settled on them now, when none of them seems to be able to find anything to say.
But they're finding their way back. And tonight, feeling the warm circle of the Burke household expand to encompass him once again, he believes for the first time (deeply, 100%, right down to the bone) that they'll make it. The past can't be erased, can't be fixed, but maybe it's possible to come through the storm -- through all the lies and betrayals, all the times they've hurt each other and failed each other -- and find smooth water and clear skies on the other side.
He's never really tried. When things start to fall apart, he's always just left, or been left -- Kate was never good at fixing things either. It's a new idea for him, this notion that maybe something can be broken and then put back together even stronger than it was before.
El clears her throat, breaking the silence. "Someone should keep an eye on those steaks."
And so they drift out to the patio with their drinks, into the warm summer night, and talk of inconsequential things: a difficult client of El's who keeps ordering new flower arrangements and then canceling them; an upcoming art theft case that Peter thinks Neal will like. How the Yankees are doing. Whether they'll have an early fall.
Down the block, the same kids, or maybe different ones, are still playing in someone's backyard. Someone else has their window open, releasing the chatter of a TV program into the night.
Peter is slouching and relaxed in his patio chair, all lazy smiles and the slight slurring thing he does when he's tired. El has, for once, shed the hint of sadness she's worn all evening; perhaps only for the moment, she looks as content and centered as she's always been -- safe, Neal thinks, she knows she's safe. Peter flips the steaks and Neal promises to buy him the most stupid-looking apron in all of Target for his next birthday, and El brings them all more drinks which probably means they're going to be half drunk before the food's done.
It's only the sort of normal suburban stuff that normal suburban people do.
And Neal wouldn't trade it for all the art in all the museums in the world.