El had three aces. She nibbled her way through the open packet of nacho chips on the table and looked at her cards again. "Wow."
Luck was with her today. The airline had found room for her on the next flight home, and Peter was safe. He was stable. He was sleeping. Neal had insisted on seeing El home from the hospital. She was jetlagged and tense with worry, but there was nothing to worry about anymore and she was home. She'd thought she'd fall asleep the moment the door closed behind her, but Neal followed her in, hovering, concerned, and somehow here they were, sitting at the dining table playing high stakes poker. It had been her idea. She was too wired to sleep yet. It was ten-thirty, felt like seven-thirty. Peter was safe.
The corner of Neal's mouth twitched. "You can't win."
"Only because I've run out of things to bet. I have a winning hand—" El rifled through the magazine from which she'd torn her stakes. "—but all I've got here is a four-page spread about Michelle Obama, an interview with Kathryn Stockett about The Help and an article on work-life balance."
"There's always your jewelry," said Neal.
El was too tired to be sure he was teasing. "I'm not betting my jewelry."
"I won three wedding rings in a single evening, once." He sounded nostalgic.
"I'm not betting my wedding ring," said El, scandalized. She couldn't imagine being that desperate or that reckless. "What would Peter say?"
Neal grinned wickedly. "He'd adjust. I mean, I presume Peter would come with the ring."
El shook her head with a fond smile. Neal's crush on Peter was adorable, and he was so open about it—and so accepting of its futility—that it was impossible to feel threatened or offended. Perhaps he was overstepping their usual bounds tonight, but then, they were both punch drunk with relief that Peter was okay. He was going to be fine.
"Anyway," said Neal slyly, "I thought you had a winning hand."
"And I thought our stakes were supposed to be hypothetical," said El, gesturing at Neal's accumulated pile of magazine pages. "I've already bet a new Mercedes and the Taj Mahal."
"Admit it. You're out."
"No," said El. "There must be something. Oh, I know." She darted across the room and dug into the stack of board games by the disused fax machine, emerging triumphantly with a Get Out of Jail Free card from the Monopoly set. "There."
Neal laughed outright. "If you could get Peter to back it, I'd bite. Hypothetically? Not so much."
"You're not being very chivalrous," said El reproachfully.
Neal shrugged. "You're the one who wanted to learn the subtleties of high stakes poker."
"You're the one who wouldn't play for chips."
"You don't have any chips, and it's more interesting this way," said Neal. "Psychologically."
El sighed long-sufferingly at him. "So what then?"
"I can think of one thing." Neal gave her his innocent look.
El was immediately suspicious. If she'd had glasses, she would've eyeballed him over the frames, but she didn't so she just raised her eyebrows sternly.
"Keeping in mind that you have a winning hand," said Neal.
Neal blinked angelically and suggested, "You could wager a kiss from Peter."
El felt her eyes widen. "Oh, I don't think—"
"Purely hypothetical," said Neal quickly.
El studied him. For all that Neal wore his heart on his sleeve, practically as a decoration, it wasn't like him to be so specific, and there was a wistful note in his teasing. Perhaps the last twenty-four hours had thrown him more than he was prepared to admit. "You'd accept that as a stake?"
"Why not? More fun to fantasize about than the Taj Mahal." He grinned. "I'm kidding!"
His grin was too wide, and she didn't think he was kidding, but it was a hypothetical kiss. She could spare him that much. And she had three aces. "Okay, fine." She grabbed a piece of note paper from the pad by the phone and made it official. "One hypothetical kiss from Peter." She placed it on Neal's latest stake—an advertisement for a diamond-studded Rolex—and said, "I call."
"What have you got?" Neal leaned forward.
El spread her cards on the table: the aces, a seven and a three. "Do I win?"
Neal hesitated, just fractionally, and then folded his cards and put them in a neat pile, face down. "You win."
"Really?" El couldn't quite believe it. Three aces seemed impressive, but she was playing Neal Caffrey.
"Don't sound so surprised," said Neal, mocking her gently.
"I just—" El pulled the stack of magazine pages toward her, the promise of a kiss. "I don't know what I expected. Some kind of magic trick. Cheating. Something."
"You wound me," said Neal ironically, and then his tone turned serious. "I would never cheat you, Elizabeth." El thought he might not be talking about poker.
She eyed his folded cards. "I notice you haven't shown me your hand."
Neal was already reaching for the rest of the deck. He shuffled his cards in, riffled the pack expertly. "One of the rules of poker: never show your hand if you don't have to. It gives your opponent too much information."
"I'll remember that." El watched him handle the cards, his long fingers confident and quick, his secrets folded away among the hearts and clubs. She gave him her own cards, and he shuffled those in too, all her aces. So much luck. El swallowed. "I haven't thanked you for saving Peter's life."
"You don't have to." He didn't look up, didn't meet her eye. For a moment, she thought he was going to change the subject, but then he set the deck down, the cards perfectly aligned, and said as if he were confessing, "You know, Peter insisted I go back for Kent. He was dying, he could've died right there by the elevator, but he wouldn't let me leave Kent behind. You know what he said? 'Do what's right, let the pieces fall where they fall.'"
"That sounds like Peter," said El. She refused to think about what might have happened, how badly it could have turned out. Peter was safe. The bad guys were under arrest. Might-have-beens would only give her nightmares. "You saved him. He's safe because of you. Thank you. Really."
Neal's gaze was eloquent and a little heart-breaking, and it was all getting a bit much for El to handle in her current state of post-panic, light-headed jetlag, so she was almost relieved when she spoiled the moment with a wide yawn.
"Okay, well." She yawned again and stood up, found herself looking down at Neal and overtaken with a wave of affection and warmth. "Neal, you know not everything has to be won, conned or stolen, right?"
He looked up from the table, his expression wry, and she wanted to hug him but she didn't. Instead, she took the note from her pile of winnings, the one promising a kiss from Peter, and crossed out the word "hypothetical". She skirted the table and folded the note into Neal's hand.
He was startled, almost alarmed. "Elizabeth?"
"I don't know if it's redeemable," said El. "That's up to Peter—but you have my permission to give it your best shot if you want to."
Neal looked terribly earnest. "You really don't have to do this."
"I know," said El, and she bent and kissed him on the temple, exactly the way Peter kissed her sometimes. Protective, fond. When she straightened, she realized that tiredness was rising up in her like a heavy wave, and if she didn't go to bed immediately, she was going to end up sleeping on the couch because the stairs were too much. "I have to crash," she said, patting his shoulder. "Let yourself out, okay? Or if you want to take the guest room, help yourself. Sorry, I really need to sleep."
She left him at the table, the promise in his hand, and shuffled off to bed, where there were no nightmares, no terrible things, and when she woke early the next morning, alone in her and Peter's bed, it was with a profound sense of peacefulness. She remembered everything. Peter was safe. Neal had her promise. She had no regrets.