Carefully, she turned on her side and watched Neal for a moment. He was lying on his back and deeply asleep. His breathing was a little labored, but that was normal these days. There'd been times when they had shared a bed in New York when she'd been convinced that he wasn't even breathing. His entire body had been attuned to keeping as low a profile as possible, and he'd also been a light sleeper. My, how things had changed.
She frowned and thought back twelve months to the day that she'd gotten the call from Peter. At the time, he hadn't given her many details, but Neal had eventually filled in the blanks. They'd been taking down the Pink Panthers once and for all when a gunfight broke out between the FBI and the Panthers. Neal had been shot in the chest, and the initial prognosis had not been good.
By the time Sara's flight landed at JFK, Neal had turned a corner. His recovery would be slow, but he would survive. Now, a year later, he easily caught respiratory infections and had developed an asthma-like shortness of breath when he overexerted himself. He hated it, and Sara always felt helpless when watching him in the midst of an attack, but they were dealing with it together.
He coughed a little in his sleep, and Sara reached out to gently rub his chest. He turned toward her but didn't wake. She was grateful for that. He needed his sleep if he was going to get through all of the errands he needed to run the next day before Peter and Elizabeth's flight arrived. Their friends were coming for their first official UK visit, and Neal had been looking forward to it for weeks.
While Neal had been in the hospital, Peter had put the paperwork through with the FBI to have him released from his anklet. He'd received a commendation for his work in bringing down the criminal network, and his request to move to the UK was put under serious consideration. It had taken a couple of months, but that too had been approved.
Sara had found a two bedroom flat in her price range and was already moved in by the time that Neal arrived. The second bedroom was half Neal's office and half the guest bedroom. Sara herself had a desk in one corner of the living room that she used when she had to bring work home. It helped for them to have some space apart since they were both used to their individual homes and lives.
She sighed and started running her fingers through Neal's hair. He'd grown it out a bit so there were curls at the nape of his neck and around his ears. She loved the feel of the silky strands and had put both of them to sleep countless times like this. Neal didn't so much as stir but, unfortunately, her eyelids didn't grow heavy either.
Dammit, she had to work the next day. Why couldn't she sleep? Neal, on the other hand, peacefully dreaming Neal, had taken the next several days off so that he could play tour guide for Peter and Elizabeth. He had an itinerary all set up for what sights they were going to see and what restaurants they were going to dine at, despite Sara cautioning him about taking them somewhere too fancy with a six-month-old baby.
She looked back at the nightstand on Neal's side of the bed and saw the picture he kept there of the Burke family. It was mostly shadowed, but in the glow of the clock numbers – now reading 2:16 – she could see Peter's arms wrapped around the little boy they'd named Neal.
During the long hours spent in the hospital, waiting to hear news of Neal's condition, Peter couldn't stop thinking about naming his son after the man that had become something more than a friend to him. They were family, and he was bound and determined to honor that bond. Fortunately, Elizabeth agreed, and they had named the little boy after Neal and Elizabeth's grandfather Elijah. Neal Elijah Burke. They'd planned on calling him Eli, but when Neal moved to London a few weeks after the baby's birth, they'd started calling him Neal. She was sure there would be some confusion while they were here, but at least it would be amusing.
If Sara were being honest with herself, she was anxious about having a baby in the flat. She had never had the opportunity to spend any time around kids. It wasn't that she didn't like them; she just didn't know what to do with them. She'd been thrilled for Peter and Elizabeth that they were starting a family, but she couldn't wait for baby Neal to be a little older, a little closer to eighteen than eight months.
She took a deep breath and shifted so that she could lay her head on Neal's shoulder. She really needed to get some sleep, so she tried her best to blank her mind and listen only to his steady, raspy breaths.
The next morning, Neal was already out of bed when the alarm went off. Sara resisted the urge to hit snooze and dragged herself into the shower. She felt marginally more human after she toweled off and wrapped herself in Neal's silk robe.
When she entered the kitchen, he was setting a plate with a toasted bagel and some fruit at the table. "Morning," he greeted, pulling her into a kiss before grabbing the cream cheese out of the refrigerator.
"Morning. You didn't have to make me breakfast."
He grinned and shrugged. "Does it really count as making breakfast if I just slice a bagel and toast it?"
"You cut up the fruit too."
Neal laughed. "Just because you call that cooking…"
"Watch it!" she reprimanded with a smile, which only caused him to laugh harder.
"Hey, is that my robe?"
"I couldn't find mine." She averted her eyes with the lie. She loved his robe, so she'd stuffed hers in the bottom of the laundry hamper so she could wear his instead.
He raised an eyebrow suspiciously but didn't contradict her. Instead, he changed the subject. "I'm going to straighten up around here before I go to the grocery store. Peter, El and little Neal," his grin grew when he said the baby's name, "will land around two this afternoon. I didn't really plan much for tonight in case jetlag hits, so we'll be here for dinner."
"I'll try to be home by six. I'll call you if I get hung up at the office." One of Sara's investigators had been in an accident a few days before, so she'd taken over most of the caseload until it could be properly passed off. She still loved field work, so she'd jumped at the chance to work cases again for a few days, but it meant that she didn't get to take her days off to spend with the Burkes. She'd get to join in on their fun that weekend though, and Elizabeth had assured her that it was okay to work. They understood that it was an emergency situation.
Neal nodded. "I was thinking of making lasagna. How does that sound?"
"Delicious. I'm looking forward to it."
"Great." He grinned and gave her a kiss. "I'm going to hop in the shower."
She watched him walk away with a smile before turning back to her breakfast.
Neal lingered in the shower, letting the warm water soothe his nerves about the impending Burke family visit. In the six months since he'd last seen them, he'd started his own security consulting business while still recovering from the bullet wound that had almost taken his life. More importantly, he thought that he and Sara were ready to move forward in their relationship, and Neal wanted to talk to Peter before he made the next step.
Sara was gone by the time Neal was out of the shower, so he got dressed and double-checked his grocery list against the staples in the kitchen pantry, making the necessary additions. He wanted to make a salad with dinner and needed fresh vegetables for that. Lastly, he checked their wine selection and made a note to see if there were any good Cabernet Sauvignons or Malbecs at the wine shop near the grocery store.
It took over an hour to get everything he needed for dinner, which left him with just enough time to straighten up the flat and make up the guest bed. He also cleared most of the work files off his desk, and shoved it into the corner to make room for the temporary baby bed that Peter and Elizabeth had shipped to him the week before. He had no idea how to set it up, but he pulled it out of the box and had it up in a matter of minutes, which made him feel strangely proud.
Finally, he grabbed his wallet and keys and made his way to the Tube stop nearest the flat. They would take a taxi back from Heathrow, but Neal liked riding the Tube. It was an utterly different experience than the subway in New York. There was something very calming about sitting among the Londoners and letting their accents wash over him on the ride.
He was lingering outside of the baggage claim area when he heard his name.
"Neal!" Peter grabbed him into a huge hug just as Neal was turning to face the older man.
Peter squeezed him tight before pulling back at arms' length and looking him over. "How are you doing? You look good."
"I'm good." Neal smiled. "How was your flight?"
"Long, but not too bad."
"It's my turn!" Elizabeth nudged Peter aside and pulled Neal into her own embrace. "Hey, sweetie."
He returned the hug and said, "El, you're looking lovely today."
She rolled her eyes as they parted. "I look like a woman who's been on a transatlantic flight with a six-month-old, but thank you."
Neal laughed lightly and kneeled down to peer into the stroller that she had been pushing. The baby was sleeping soundly, and Neal took a moment to marry the image before him with the tiny newborn he'd last seen. Little Neal had grown a lot, and his hair was darker brown and thicker now. He was wrapped in a blue blanket, but Neal could just make out the top of the image on his shirt – a red double-decker bus with the word London above it.
His fingers itched to sketch the little boy before he woke, but there was no time for that. "He's so much bigger. How did he handle the flight?"
"Not too bad for the most part. The doctor gave us some tips for take-off and landing, so it could have been much worse." Peter clapped Neal on the shoulder and then motioned toward the doors.
"Do you have all your luggage?" Neal looked down and saw that Peter was pulling a large suitcase on wheels with a smaller one attached to it. Elizabeth was pushing the stroller and carrying a large diaper bag.
"There's one more bag." Peter motioned to the other large suitcase next to him. "Do you mind?"
"No, not at all." Neal grabbed it and led the way out of the terminal.
Once they were situated in the cab, Neal gave them the nickel tour of the famous sites on the way back to the flat. Little Neal woke up about halfway there, but Elizabeth popped a pacifier in his mouth with practiced ease before he could do more than start to put up a fuss.
Neal helped carry the luggage inside and then showed them around. He got them all glasses of water while Peter inspected the portable crib's construction, and Elizabeth got baby Neal out of his carrier.
The baby looked around the new place with wide blue eyes. Neal grinned and made faces at him, which almost immediately won the baby over. Little Neal clapped his hands and giggled around his pacifier until Neal took him from Elizabeth. Then, the baby gave him a wary stare that Neal was sure he'd gotten from Peter more than once when they'd first partnered up.
"Hey kiddo. I'm Neal, which sounds exactly like your name because it is. You see, your daddy and I are very good friends, and he wanted to name you after the best person he knew." Peter snorted, but Neal walked away before he could interject. Elizabeth was unsuccessfully hiding a grin behind her hand. "I apologize now if your dad yells our name while you're here. I'm almost certain it'll be directed at me."
"Damn straight it will," Peter muttered, barely able to be heard as Neal moved into the living room.
He bounced the baby in his arms and took him to the window. "That's London. You're in a whole different country. Your first international trip, and you did it under your own passport. Mozzie would be horrified, but I'm glad you're getting the honest experience. Just don't tell him I said that."
Neal gurgled and spit out his pacifier, but Neal's fast reflexes kept it from hitting the rug. The baby patted Neal's cheek with one hand and stuck the fingers of the other inside his mouth, which meant he almost immediately started drooling down his arm and onto Neal's button-up.
"I’m not going to lie," Neal said, as he pried the baby's hand away from his mouth and replaced it with the pacifier, "that's kind of gross."
"You haven't seen anything yet," Peter remarked from the entryway.
Neal made a face that caused Peter to break into a fit of laughter, which Neal couldn't help but grin at fondly. "He's pretty quiet."
"For now. Just wait until he's hungry, or wet, or tired, or-"
"I get the picture."
"He likes you."
"As if there was ever any doubt."
Peter just shrugged and sat down on the couch. "So, tell me. How are things in London?"
"Pretty good. I'm still trying to get the consultant business off the ground, but word of mouth is starting to get around."
"Just give it a little more time. I'm sure your reputation precedes you."
Neal winced and sat down beside Peter, shifting baby Neal to sit on his lap facing his father. "That might be part of the problem."
"I doubt that very much."
Neal narrowed his eyes. "You've been talking to people, haven't you?"
"I've gotten a few calls, asking about you and your experience."
"And I told them what I've always told you. You're damn good at this kind of thing, and they'd be fools not to hire you."
He grinned and nodded. "Thanks."
"Not a problem. Now, tell me about you and Sara."
Neal took a deep breath and glanced over his shoulder to see if Elizabeth was joining them.
"El's laying down for a little nap. What's going on?"
"Sara and I are doing really well. It was rough when I first moved here. We were feeling each other out, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. I've left her before, and she's left me. But we powered through and made commitments to each other that we would talk before one of us tried to hit the road."
"Yeah, and now, I…"
Peter gave him a minute before prompting, "You…?"
"I want to ask her to marry me."
Peter's eyes grew wide, and he grinned blindingly. "That's great, buddy!"
Neal felt the familiar sensation of fear churning in his gut, and Peter must have seen it in his expression because he reached out to squeeze Neal's shoulder.
"What's wrong?" Peter's face grew even more serious.
"I'm not sure what she'll say."
"Neal, Sara loves you. You two are great together, and you're making it work here and now. I don't think you have anything to worry about."
"Thank you." Neal gave him a genuinely relieved smile.
Peter held out his hands for little Neal who was starting to whine and reach for his father. "What are your plans? How are you going to propose?"
"I thought about taking her to Paris, but I've already proposed on top of the Empire State Building. The Eiffel Tower doesn't feel like the right place to propose a second time."
"This one will be real."
"The first one felt real for a little while," Neal said as he stood up and made his way to the window to look out over the River Thames.
Peter gave him a few minutes of quiet before asking, "Is there somewhere here in London that's special for you two? I proposed to Elizabeth at our favorite Italian restaurant. I wanted to hide the ring in her meal," Peter glared when Neal burst out laughing, "but she ordered the Spaghetti Bolognese."
"Well, the first day that I flew into London, Sara showed me around the city. We walked across the Tower Bridge, had a picnic in Hyde Park and rode the London Eye twice at sunset."
"Hyde Park sounds nice."
Neal nodded. "It reminds me a lot of Central Park, but it's quite a bit smaller. The people, though, are amazing. I've never heard so many different languages spoken at once. And the gardens are beautiful."
He reached behind the couch and pulled out several small canvases. One of them was of colorful flowers, both on the shore and reflecting off of a small body of water.
"This is gorgeous, Neal."
"That was actually done in Kensington Gardens, but it borders Hyde."
"So you think you might want to propose there?"
"Maybe, but it doesn't feel right for Sara. We actually had the best time at the Eye, just holding hands and watching the sun set over the city."
Peter nodded knowingly. "You're both more cityscapes than flower gardens and ponds."
"Yeah, you're probably right."
"So, the Eye?"
"Yes, but I need to make some phone calls. And I'll need your and Elizabeth's help."
Peter's brows drew together. "Our help? What do you mean?"
"I want to do it on Friday, at sunset, while you and El are here in town. You're the closest that either of us have to family, and I want you all to be there. Sara would agree."
Bouncing little Neal up and down in his lap, Peter grinned. "What do you need us to do?"
Neal grabbed a notepad off the coffee table and started jotting down a list of things that would need to get done. He hated to turn Peter and Elizabeth's vacation into so much work, but he knew that their visits would be maybe once a year if he was lucky, and he didn't want to put off the proposal that long. He wanted his friends – his family - there when he did this for real.
That night, Sara arrived home to a lot of laughter and the smell of something amazing in the oven. She stepped into the kitchen to see Neal chopping vegetables for the salad while Peter and Elizabeth sat at the table and chatted with him. Baby Neal was on Elizabeth's lap, playing with a set of colorful, stackable rings. They exchanged greetings and kisses on the cheek.
"Oh, my, he's getting so big," she said when she got a chance to really look at the baby. "Is he walking yet?"
Both Peter and Elizabeth laughed nervously. "That's nothing to joke about," Peter said. "I live in fear of that day."
Everyone chuckled hard at that.
"I'm going to run and change before dinner. I'll be right back." Sara had already taken off her heels, but she wanted to put on something more comfortable to eat Neal's famous roasted vegetable lasagna with homemade Italian bread and to chat with their friends.
"It'll be another ten minutes before the bread comes out of the oven." Neal tossed a handful of chopped carrots into their salad bowl. "I'll pour you a glass of wine though."
Sara nodded and quickly moved back to their bedroom to change. She emerged just as Neal was putting the salad on the table. "Do you need help with anything?"
"No. You can take a seat."
She smiled at her boyfriend and took her usual place, which was beside Elizabeth and the baby. "How was your trip?"
"It was better than I anticipated. This one," Elizabeth tickled the baby's ribs until he giggled and almost lost his pacifier, "slept through much of the flight. Then again, so did that one." She quirked an eyebrow and nodded to her husband.
Sara laughed. "Does that mean when the baby's up at 2am, then Peter'll be wide awake too?"
"Precisely." Elizabeth shifted to put little Neal in the high chair that they'd also had shipped to London for the vacation. She handed him a bowl of dry Cheerios that Neal had poured for him earlier.
"Hey! You napped when we got here."
Neal chuckled at them while he set a plate of freshly sliced, hot bread on the table. Then, he leaned over and kissed Sara, which he hadn't been able to do while she was greeting the Burkes. "How was your day?" he asked softly.
"Busy, but fun."
"Neal told me that you're working recovery again for a few days," Peter said. "Is it like riding a bike?"
"Oh, definitely. I missed the field, and it's been interesting getting back into the swing of things. I'm going to be sad to hand off the unfinished cases once we get the workload redistributed."
"Can't you keep the cases you have now and finish them yourself?" Elizabeth asked while Neal dished out servings of the lasagna.
"Unfortunately, I don't have the time with my regular administrative duties. Since I'd already shifted meetings to take a few days off this week, it was easier to fit the field work in."
"I know what you mean," Peter commiserated as he added dressing to his salad. "I can still do some field work every now and then, but the paperwork takes precedence usually."
"Government paperwork. Sounds thrilling." Neal smirked as he took his slice of bread.
"Laugh it up," Peter grumbled.
"Oh, I will now that I don't have to file everything in triplicate."
"Boys." Elizabeth rolled her eyes and gave Sara a long-suffering look.
"How is Burke Premier Events?" Sara asked, changing the subject a little.
"It's been busy. We're getting into prime wedding and event season."
The rest of dinner was spent chatting amiably and laughing at the antics of baby Neal, who was just as much of an attention lover as his namesake.
Throughout the week, while Sara was working, the Burkes helped Neal put together his surprise evening. Neal sweet-talked the management at the Eye into an excellent price on a private capsule with champagne. Then, Elizabeth consulted with them about the canapés that would be served and made sure that Sara's favorites (and a few of Neal's) would be available.
Then, there was the matter of the ring. As soon as she'd heard the news, June had offered Neal a choice of a two rings in her possession that she knew he liked. Neal had thought it over and decided that he wanted to give Sara something new to represent their new start and new life together.
Leaving Elizabeth and baby Neal to explore the city together, Peter and Neal headed to Hatton Garden to speak with a friend of Mozzie's.
Peter admirably held out about fifteen minutes into the Tube ride before asking, "How's Mozzie taking the news?"
"The news that I'm 'settling down and becoming a slave to a woman'?"
"That bad, huh?"
"Worse. I could forward you the latest in a long line of emails detailing why this is the worst decision of my life."
"Worse than working for the FBI?"
Neal laughed and nodded. "According to Mozzie."
"I thought he liked Sara."
"He does, but he's also currently drawing up a pre-nup that should be…"
"Pretty entertaining reading one day."
They both laughed as they stepped off the train and merged into the crowd leaving the Chancery Lane station.
Mozzie's friend turned out to be an artisan named Pierre, who worked with Neal to sketch a design that was elegant but not overwhelming, much like Sara herself. Pierre promised to have the ring ready by Friday, and the matter of payment would be handled through Mozzie. All Neal could tell Peter was that Pierre owed Moz a favor that had to do with a Princess, her dog, and an Aston Martin.
By the time Friday came, Neal was exhausted and anxious, but he tried his best to hide it from Sara. She was working half the day, but she got up earlier than Neal expected, which was why she found him sitting on the floor of the shower surrounded by steam. His breathing was labored; his body was reacting to the stress of the week by taxing his weakest area: his lungs.
"Neal! What's wrong?" She wasted no time in stripping out of her nightgown and stepping into the shower with him. It wasn't very large, but it was big enough to fit both of them side by side.
"I'm okay, I'm okay. I just need a minute." He was trying to be reassuring, but he could tell that he was failing by the look on her face.
"You need more than a minute. What's going on?"
He shrugged and said quietly, "I guess I just pushed myself too hard this week. I wanted Peter and El to see everything they could see while they were here."
"Oh, Neal." Sara put her arms around him and pressed her lips to his forehead. "They'll come visit again."
He nodded and leaned into her. It felt horrible to lie to her, though it wasn't a true lie. More like an omission of the other half of what they'd been doing. He wanted to surprise her though, and all would be revealed in less than twelve hours anyway.
"You need to take it easy today," she said, turning off the water and helping him to his feet. "Promise me."
"I promise." He sat on the closed toilet lid and toweled himself off while Sara hopped back into the shower and quickly bathed herself.
By the time she left the flat for work, Neal was feeling much better. He'd taken his medication and Sara had supervised him drinking a cup of coffee; the caffeine helped to ease his breathing more quickly than the meds.
Sara must have shared the incident with Peter when Neal wasn't looking because the older man kept a watchful eye on him all day.
Just after lunch, Peter pulled Neal aside and said, "Elizabeth's putting little Neal down for a nap. Do you mind staying in with him? We have an errand to run for tonight."
"That's not suspicious at all."
Peter sighed. "Hush. We'll be gone an hour tops. The baby should sleep the whole time."
Elizabeth entered the living room holding a baby monitor receiver, which she handed off to Neal. "You know, if you want to lay down too, I can't imagine he'll wake up. And if he does, you have the monitor."
Neal couldn't help but roll his eyes. "You guys are not subtle at all."
Peter and Elizabeth shared a brief smile. "We don't know what you're talking about."
Later, on the way to the Eye, Neal and the Burkes stopped at Hatton Garden and picked up the ring from Pierre. It was gorgeous with a 2 carat princess cut diamond in the center with three emeralds down each side of the band. Neal loved Sara in green, and he knew she too liked the color so the emeralds were the perfect accents.
Both Peter and Elizabeth were impressed with the ring, which made Neal feel better about designing one without Sara's knowledge. He tucked the ring box inside his jacket and directed their taxi driver to the Eye.
Once there, they went to work setting up their private capsule. Elizabeth had told the Eye staff that she wanted to do it herself. She spread a white linen tablecloth over the center bench. Then, the three of them set out battery-operated candles, dish of chocolate-covered strawberries, the canapés, and the bucket of champagne.
"I think we're missing something," Peter said with a grin.
Neal looked around but couldn't find anything amiss. "I don't think so."
"What about this?" Peter pulled a miniature zeppelin out of the storage basket in little Neal's stroller and presented it to Neal.
Neal gave him an unamused look, but Peter couldn't stop smiling.
"It's not a Caffrey and Ellis proposal without a blimp."
Elizabeth laughed and squeezed Neal's arm. "I tried to talk him out of it…"
"Sara thought it was ridiculous the first time around."
"It was ridiculous, but it worked. Like most Neal Caffrey schemes." Peter dropped the zeppelin back into the storage basket when it was clear that Neal would not allow the additional item.
Neal laughed at Peter's assessment and then checked his watch. "It's almost time."
"Everything's going to be great." Elizabeth gave him a peck on the cheek and turned him toward the entrance to the capsule. They had about ten minutes before it would reach ground level, and Neal hoped that Sara would arrive on time.
Peter gave him a proud smile and clapped him on the shoulder. "Sara loves you, and she's going to love this. Take a breath and remember that."
Neal nodded and took that breath. A few seconds later, his phone dinged. Sara was at the Eye, waiting for him. The employees knew to bring her to the front of the line, and Neal was smiling broadly when the capsule got the platform. He held his hand out to help her board.
"Hi," she greeted. "Neal, what's going on?"
He stepped aside so that she could see the makeshift table. On the other side, Peter, Elizabeth and baby Neal were facing the Thames, where the sun was setting over the city.
"Sara, you've stood by me through a lot of things, including several very questionable FBI stings, a fake proposal, and a serious illness." He put his hand over his heart for a moment before slipping it into his jacket and pulling out the ring box. He went down on one knee and continued, "You've also forgiven me for things that should never have been forgiven. You are an amazing, strong, resilient woman, and I love you. I will always love you." He opened the box, took the ring out and held it to her. "Will you marry me?"
Sara, with tears filling her eyes, nodded and leaned down to kiss him. "Yes. I love you too, Neal. So much."
To the side, Peter grinned while Elizabeth fought back tears of her own. She was holding baby Neal, who gurgled and smiled at the happy couple.
Neal put his arm around Sara and led her over to the Burkes, where they all shared hugs, happy to be among family to celebrate such a special occasion.