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Change My Attempt, Good Intentions

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Neal sat at the foot of his bed, legs pulled up in front of him and arms wrapped around them, watching Peter sleep. It was something he did often, though Peter rarely caught him at it. These were private moments, guilty pleasures that were tailor-made just for him. They calmed Neal, grounded him, made him forget about the days when he’d been willing to run from all of this at the drop of a fedora.

Peter looked serene and beautiful in repose. The lines in his face – some of them undoubtedly put there by Neal himself – disappeared, making him look almost deceptively younger with a hint of innocence.

Neal wanted to touch him, glide his fingers down over the broad shoulders and chest peeking out from under the sheet. He was tempted, too, to slip out of bed and grab a sketchpad, to capture this version of Peter Burke so he could have it whenever he wanted it.

He did neither of these things. He simply sat there, listening to the sound of Peter’s steady breathing and basking in the contentment that had eluded him for so many years. Though he'd loved Peter Burke for nearly as long as he’d known him and eventually discovered that the feelings were mutual, they’d judiciously waited to take the next step until Neal completed his sentence.

Since then, though, they'd been making up for lost time. Neal spent many of his nights at the Burkes’ house; even if they were doing nothing more than sleeping, he found their presences reassuring, though for different reasons.

He’d been wary of pursing a sexual relationship with Peter while keeping a more platonic-but-flirty one with Elizabeth, but she actually preferred it that way, which was a pleasant surprise – and a huge relief. She’d sometimes join them in the bedroom and loved snuggling with both of them just about anywhere, but she made it clear early on that she was content with going to the opera or watching a movie with Neal and leaving the sex to her more-than-capable husband.

Neal's tracking anklet had finally been removed for the last time in February, and the upcoming Christmas would be his first with the Burkes since starting their relationship. There were still days when he found it hard to wrap his mind around the fact that he’d been with them almost a year. As improbable as it had seemed for most of his life, Neal Caffrey had actually settled down.

Sometimes when they needed a change of scenery, Peter and Neal spent the night at Neal’s place – just the two of them, with El’s blessing. The previous night had been such an occasion; thinking back on it made his skin tingle all over again. To say it had been amazing would’ve been a vast understatement. A quiet evening in, dinner and dancing, had eventually ended with sex that was equal parts carnal and delightful. The only reason Neal hadn’t ended up waking June was because Peter’s mouth consumed his cries.

With a soft sigh, he slipped back under the covers, this time facing Peter’s naked body. The older man was rock-hard, as he almost always was in the morning. (Neal had discovered early on in their relationship that this was the reason the Burkes had such an active before-breakfast sex life.) Neal ran his fingers lightly down over Peter’s chest and stomach before wrapping them around his erection.

As Neal started slowly jacking him, Peter stirred in his sleep, his eyelids fluttering before finally opening. He blinked a few times to clear his vision, and Neal saw a beautiful combination of surprise and lust in those warm brown eyes.

“Morning, handsome.” Neal leaned up to kiss Peter, giving his cock a squeeze. Peter groaned, his hand moving to thread through the curls at the back of Neal’s neck as he opened his mouth and deepened the kiss, morning breath be damned.

“Mmm. Morning yourself,” Peter murmured when they finally parted, his voice raspy from sleep and desire. He ran his thumb down over the stubble on Neal’s jaw, then let his hand slide down the length of the younger man’s nude body to his hip.

“Do we have time? When do you have to be at –”

Neal cut him off with a kiss, then smiled against his lips. “We always have time for this.” He felt Peter’s own lips curve in response.

Peter nodded down at himself. “I think I want you up here.”

Neal’s smile morphed into a salacious grin, and he pushed the sheet down before straddling Peter’s hips, his own hard length bobbing above his lover’s. Peter reached for the bottle of lube on the nightstand, but Neal waved it off, deciding that a bit of friction – and it wouldn’t be long before they created their own lube anyway – was just what he needed.

As he wrapped a hand around their cocks and started jerking them slowly, his dark, seductive gaze locked on Peter’s, and he arched his back slightly. Peter laid his palms flat on Neal’s tight stomach and groaned.

“Do you even realize how gorgeous you look up there? You look so…”

“What?” Neal’s hand started working them more vigorously, and he marveled at the feel of Peter’s big, heavy dick pressed against his own. Even now, many months into their relationship, there was still a certain novelty to having this particular man in his bed.

“Powerful,” Peter managed between panting breaths. He licked his lips. “Dominant.”

Neal’s eyebrows nearly hit the curls hanging down over his forehead before he was able to school his expression. He gave Peter a teasingly reproachful look. “Shh.”

In truth, the words heated his blood, electrifying him with the feelings they brought out. Peter, forever strong and seemingly filled with as much testosterone as a whole team of draft horses, had always been the top in their relationship. Neal had been dumbfounded, however, when he discovered that there were times when Peter was just as happy handing that power over to his partner, whether Neal or Elizabeth, and letting them have their way with him.

Peter’s favorite – and Neal’s, too, as it turned out – was letting Neal restrain him. It wasn’t for sadomasochistic purposes, as neither of them cared for that, but simply a matter of Peter giving his trust over to Neal, surrendering his control and letting Neal take the lead.

It did something intensely carnal to Neal every time he saw Peter like that, his hands cuffed above his head and a surprisingly serene expression on his face.

There was a similar look on Peter’s face as Neal continued his ministrations, squeezing them and spreading around their precome with his thumb. Peter was beyond words, breathing heavily and lifting his hips, his balls pressing against Neal’s.

With one last squeeze, Neal released their cocks and stretched out over Peter, his hands on either side of Peter’s shoulders. He started thrusting his hips, their aching erections sliding against each other in a familiar rhythm. Peter lifted his head from the pillow just in time to capture Neal’s mouth with his own. The kiss was rough, tongues exploring, teeth nipping, Peter’s cadence of grunts nearly drowning out Neal’s steady moaning.

Neal was close, so close, but he could tell that Peter was holding back, doing everything he could to make sure his partner was satisfied first. It was Peter’s way; it was just something he did. Not this time, though.

“Peter,” he whispered in the other man’s ear; the answering full-body shiver almost made Neal come right then. “Let go.” That was all it took.

Peter came with a sharp cry, his back arching, the sticky warmth spreading over their chests and stomachs. Seeing his lover’s pleasure, hearing his ragged gasps sent Neal over the edge. He finally, achingly found his release, uttering Peter’s name just once before losing himself in the moment.

It was Peter who eventually brought them out of it. “Neal. We need…a shower.”

Neal grinned and kissed him on the forehead before rolling off to lay beside him. “See, it’s those logical reasoning skills that helped make you so successful as an FBI agent.”

“What?” Peter rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, wrecked and incoherent. It took a moment to gather his wits enough to mumble a suitable reply, but it was one that made Neal’s heart skip a beat. “Caught you, didn’t I?”

There was a time in their past when that statement would have been a goad, but now it meant something completely different. “Yes, you did,” Neal said softly. “And I love you for it.”

A broad smile spread over Peter’s face. “I love you, too.” He shifted, then glanced down at himself and groaned. “About that shower…”

“Yeah.” Neal reached up and snagged his undershirt, which had somehow ended up draped over the headboard during the previous night’s activities, then used it to clean the two of them enough to get to the bathroom.

As Neal helped Peter soap up in the shower, running the washcloth over his muscular upper body in a well-practiced routine, he still felt a touch of awe at the whole situation. It was a dream he never thought would come true, being able to share himself and his love with Peter Burke and having that love reciprocated. They’d had their ups and downs, some of which had almost torn them apart for good, but those were in the past.

Here and now, he was spending yet another intimate moment with the man he loved – the man who loved him – and now that he had this, he couldn’t imagine living any other way.

-----

Elizabeth was seated outside in front of her favorite coffee shop when Peter arrived, and he couldn’t help thinking once again that he was such a lucky man. She looked radiant in her long winter coat, and the blue scarf wrapped around her neck and draped down the front complemented her eyes perfectly. She beamed at him when she saw him, and his heart stuttered as he returned the smile.

She stood to meet him and let him pull her into his arms, leaning in for as deep a kiss as he’d allow in public.

“Hi, hon.”

“Hey, honey.” She picked up the cups of coffee on the table in front of her and handed one to him. “You ready, or do you want to sit down for a minute?”

“We should probably go awhile, just in case there’s a line. I need to be back in time to meet with the ASAC from Intelligence.”

She smirked and ran a finger down over the tip of his nose. “You’re just anxious to see how it turned out.”

“No, I’m not.” He tried to keep the amusement out of his voice – and the blush from creeping up his neck. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and steered her in the direction of the specialty gift shop a few blocks away.

“Look at you,” she teased before taking a sip of her macchiato. “Peter, you’re blushing!”

“I’m just a little chilly.”

“Oh, no. That’s a blush.” She leaned up and brushed her lips over his cheek, and he couldn’t hold back a smile. “It’s okay to be excited about this, you know. This is our first official Christmas with Neal as a part of our lives –”

“He’s been invading our lives for years.” Peter hoped the sarcasm would distract her from his anxiousness, but she simply waved off the comment.

“Oh, you know what I mean. I know how important it was for you to get something really meaningful for him, and I think it’s perfect! Am I allowed to say that I’m really impressed that you thought of this on your own?”

Peter removed his hand from her shoulder long enough to clutch his chest, faking a stumble that almost splashed some of his coffee onto his hand. “Ouch. That stings.”

She shook her head and pulled him back over to her. “Now, come on. You know I love you more than anyone or anything in this world, but when it comes to picking gifts, you tend to go with practical instead of romantic.”

“The wine preserver wasn’t romantic?”

“It was very thoughtful, and I do use it,” she conceded, “but romantic? That’s a stretch.”

“Okay, okay.” Peter finally gave in, holding his hands up in surrender. He drank some of his coffee, then looked over at her and smiled, his arm going around her shoulders once again. “You really think he’ll like it?”

“Are you kidding? I think he’ll love it! Honey, it’s obvious you put a lot of thought into it, and it was custom-made just for Neal. He’ll be speechless, at the very least.” She tilted her head, considering. “You might even get a tear or two.”

“Oh, god, no.” Peter cringed and took another sip of coffee. “Do you think it’s too late to return it?”

“Will you stop? I’m just saying that I think Neal will be really touched. He and I were talking about Christmas one day last week while you were in the shower, and I got the impression that it means a lot to him to be spending this one as a part of our lives. As a part of us. You know what I mean?”

Peter pretended to consider this for a moment, but in truth, his heart raced at the thought of Neal being so affected by a gift that he’d picked out by himself. He’d seen the younger man admiring a set of fancy Russian nesting dolls – Matryoshka, he’d called them – while they were investigating a forgery case over the summer, and his lover’s enthusiasm over their intricate beauty stuck in his mind.

When he and Elizabeth had visited her favorite gift shop nearly two months earlier to pick up something for Yvonne’s birthday, and he saw that they offered custom-made sets of nesting dolls, the gears started turning in Peter’s mind. Once he had an idea for the design, he presented it to El, who had squealed in delight – after getting over her initial shock, of course.

The artist was the shop owner’s husband, a quiet sixty-something man with a thick central Russian accent named Ilya. He met with them twice to draw up the initial plans and then get their approval for the final design. He’d listened attentively to Peter’s original idea and only suggested one minor change, an improvement with which a relieved Peter happily agreed.

They’d gotten a call earlier in the week that the set was ready, and Peter had been beyond anxious to not only see the final product, but to get it safely home. And now, El’s suggestion that his gift might bring Neal to tears only served to ramp up his anticipation.

Realizing that she was still waiting for a response, he smiled and tightened his grip on her shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. I just hope he won’t think it’s…I don’t know, weird, maybe?”

She giggled and leaned into him, her free arm going around his back. “See, that’s what I mean. You’re overthinking it because it doesn’t seem practical enough to you. It’s not meant to be practical, honey. It’s romantic, and I’m sure Neal will adore it.”

Peter slowed long enough to brush his lips across her temple. “You know how much I love you, right?”

“I do.” She winked at him, and he could almost predict what was coming next. “And I can’t wait to see what you got me for Christmas!”

He thought about teasing her with a hint, but they’d arrived at the shop, and he settled for just flashing her a sly grin. She huffed in mock frustration and swatted playfully at his chest. His only response was to shrug and hold the door open for her, tossing their now-empty cups in a nearby trash can before following her inside.

“Ah, Elizabeth, Peter!” A middle-aged woman with long, blonde hair pulled back in a bun and a strong hint of a German accent waved them over to the counter. She opened her arms wide, and El leaned over the counter to give her a quick hug.

“Heike, you’re looking well.”

“As are you, but that is always.” She turned her attention to Peter, stretching to squeeze his upper arms. “And you, I think, will be pleased with what I have for you.” She disappeared to the shop’s backroom, and Peter blew out a long breath, trying to keep the anxiety at bay. El glanced up at him, knowing perfectly well what was going on, but she allowed him to keep his dignity.

Heike returned from the back with a white box with tastefully thin green and red lines wrapping around near the bottom. “Here we are.” She slipped the top off of the box and reached inside, carefully lifting out an object wrapped in a ruby-colored silk scarf. “Ilya outdid himself this time, I must say.” She untied the loose knot at the top of the scarf and let it fall open to reveal its contents.

“Oh, Peter,” El gasped, one hand going to her mouth while the other reached for one of Peter’s hands.

Peter was too stunned to speak. He’d been expecting – and had paid for – something better than the usual nesting dolls, standard-shaped with thin vinyl decals on them, and from the looks of the outermost one, he’d gotten more than his money’s worth. Following tradition of starting the set with a woman, it was painted to look like Elizabeth, her dark hair flowing down over the shoulders of a brilliant blue dress that matched her eyes. There were actual waves carved into her hair and dress, giving the surface some texture. The detail was impressive, the resemblance striking.

Heike motioned for Peter to open the outermost doll, and he did, then opened and reassembled each in turn until all five of them were sitting on top of the scarf. The second figure was painted to look like him, the third like Neal, the fourth like the front of the Burkes’ house, and the smallest was in the shape of a heart.

Peter ran his fingertips lightly over the surface of each, almost afraid to touch them. “Oh my god,” he finally managed.

Was hältst du?” Heike was beaming, proud of the work her artist-husband had done.

Peter heard and understood the question, but he had to swallow hard before answering, his voice soft. “They’re…stunning.”

Heike clasped her hands in front of her and let out a little laugh. “Ausgezeichnet!

“Heike, these are beautiful!” El said, picking up the small heart and turning it over in her hands. It was Peter’s favorite piece; he already had big plans for it.

“I’m so happy you like them!” Her voice dropped to a low murmur as another customer came through the door. “I have a feeling your Schatz will appreciate them as well.”

“You have no idea,” Peter mumbled under his breath. The Matryoshka looked like small masterpieces - something Neal might have stolen once upon a time. His lips quirked up in a half-smile at the thought. How times have changed…

As El and Heike began to speak about a Delft vase that El had ordered the previous week for an upcoming wedding, Peter put the nesting dolls back together, forcing himself to be especially careful with them. They were delicate works of art, and Neal was sure to love them. Even Peter himself could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into each one.

The whole way back to the FBI building, El gushed over the Matryoshka and prodded Peter for his opinion, but he stayed mostly quiet until they’d arrived.

“Hon, what’s wrong? You love them, don’t you?”

He turned to face her and smiled. “Absolutely. They’re perfect – better than I expected. I just…” He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know if I can wait until Christmas to give them to him.”

El gave him a relieved laugh and grinned. “You were one of those kids who shook the boxes under the tree, weren’t you?”

Though he rubbed his hands together nervously, Peter returned the grin. “I was pretty damn good at figuring them out, too.” He leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek. “I thought about maybe surprising him. You know, sending him one at a time in unmarked boxes.”

“Ooh, like they’re from a secret admirer?”

“It’s Christmas, El, not Valentine’s Day.” He winked at her and shrugged. “But yeah, something like that. We could maybe put a house key in the next-to-last one, and I’ll still give him the last one myself.”

“With the ring! Okay, this actually sounds exciting.”

Peter nodded, trying not to blush. He’d picked out a gold band for Neal, a commitment ring of sorts, and the heart-shaped center of the nesting doll set had been precisely measured so that the ring would fit around it.

“I figured this way, we won’t be springing it on him on Christmas Day. If he needs some time to, you know, think about it…” Even just saying the words sent a pang of doubt through Peter, and he looked down at his shoes.

“Honey.” El wrapped her arms around him, the bag from the gift shop bumping against his back. “Stop overthinking. Neal will love it – the Matryoshka, the ring, moving in with us – all of it. We’ve been building up to this all year.” She pulled back and kissed him. “It is a good idea to give this to him early, though. That way, we can help him start getting settled in over Christmas break, after he accepts.”

“Oh, god.” Peter closed his eyes and shook his head. “This isn’t going to turn into some big production, is it?”

El giggled and kissed him again, this time firm and lingering. “No, it’ll be wonderful. Just like you.” She laid a hand on his chest and pushed him away gently. “I’ll pick up some boxes and tissue paper on the way home. Now go, or you’ll be late for your meeting.”

Grinning once again, Peter gave her a peck on the cheek. “Thanks, hon. I’ll see you this evening.” He gave her hand a quick squeeze and took a few steps backward, his grin morphing into a grateful smile, before finally turning and heading into the building.

-----

Neal made his way up the stairs to his apartment, wondering to himself when he’d have the nerve to bring up the subject of moving in with the Burkes. As much as he loved his place here with June, appreciated having his own beautiful space to get away when he needed it, the whole back-and-forth routine was starting to get old.

After the night he and Peter had spent together three days earlier, he’d stayed the next two nights with Peter and Elizabeth at their place. They enjoyed spending time together, even if they were just having dinner, watching a movie, or reminiscing well into the night. There were times – more often than not, nowadays – when he felt more at home in their house than he did in his apartment.

Elizabeth had casually mentioned something about converting most of their third floor into a studio for him, a space he could call his own. They’d already gotten a bigger bed that had plenty of room for the three of them, and El was comfortable with taking the guest room when they were in the mood but she wasn’t. They also understood, though, that he’d want more privacy and space on occasion – without necessarily leaving the comfort of the house.

He’d thought it was a great idea and had said so, but then Peter had changed the subject, and it was never brought up again. At the time, he’d wondered if maybe Peter was just feeling threatened by the idea of having another man take up permanent residence in his house. As time passed, though, he’d come to realize that Peter was only trying to make sure everything was just right before taking such a big step. Peter didn’t want to lose him or scare him away. When he’d figured it out, it had actually brought him to tears.

By the time he opened the door to his apartment, he’d made the decision to wait until after Christmas to talk to Peter and Elizabeth about making a permanent move. That way, if they were having second thoughts, it wouldn’t ruin the holidays for them. They’d included him in their Christmas festivities every year since he’d been released into Peter’s custody, but this would be his first Christmas with them as a free man – and as Peter’s lover.

He noticed the box almost immediately, sitting in the middle of his dining room table on top of his credit card bill and an invitation to a gallery show from a client for whom he’d recently done some authenticating. It was white, with small red and green stripes around the bottom, and there was a thin red ribbon tied around it.

Sliding the ribbon from the box, he carefully lifted off the top and was greeted with an object wrapped in a red silk scarf. His brow furrowing, he reached in and pulled out the object, setting the box to the side. His nimble fingers made quick work of the loosely-tied knot in the scarf, and he let it fall, revealing its contents. He instantly recognized it as a Russian nesting doll and his confusion grew.

Frowning, he picked up the lid to the box, then the box itself, looking for writing or other markings. Finding nothing, he searched inside and around the scarf for a note, but got the same result.

He turned his attention back to the Matryoshka, turning it around to get a look at the front of it – and got the shock of his life.

It looked like Elizabeth Burke.

As it dawned on him what he was seeing, Neal took a step back, then another. His eyes darted around the room, looking for anything out of place, and his breathing quickened. He paced away from the table, toward the door, and then back again, running a hand through his hair.

“Shit, shit, shit.” His heart was hammering in his chest, and he fought against the panic rising inside of him. Desperate for air, he hurried out onto the terrace and bent over with his hands on his knees, panting in spite of the bitter December chill. When he straightened back up, his chest was tight and his mind was racing.

This can’t be happening. Not now. Not ever. Please, god, no. Everything’s perfect now.

Neal’s thoughts flashed to Peter and Elizabeth, and he barely managed to bite back a sob that rose so quickly it caught him off-guard. Rushing back inside and locking the door to his room, he did the only thing he could think to do.

The burner phone was hidden in a compartment deep in his closet, one that only he and June knew about. He’d never shown it to Sara or Elizabeth, and certainly not to Peter. Now, he pulled out the phone and, with hands that were shaking so hard it took him three tries to get it right, texted one word to a number he’d committed to memory long ago.

Chort.

Then, he sat heavily on the floor, leaned back against one of the built-in shelves, pressed the heels of his trembling hands to his eyes, and tried not to break down.

-----

“So, what did he say?” El finished wiping down the counter, then turned to Peter, who was sitting at the kitchen island with a beer in his hand and a frown on his face.

“He…didn’t say anything.”

“Nothing? He didn’t even mention it at all?”

“No.” Peter’s voice was softer than it should have been, and El walked around to stand between his knees.

“Do you think maybe he just hasn’t figured it out yet?”

“I doubt it. Neal’s smart, and it looked exactly like you, El. Who else would have sent it?” Peter fought to keep the disappointment from his voice, and he succeeded, but just barely. He took a long swig of beer, then put the bottle down on the bar and wrapped his arms around El, pulling her in close to his body. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow, when he gets the one that looks like me. It should be pretty obvious by then.”

She leaned up to kiss him, and he allowed her to draw him into it, taking comfort in the softness of her lips against his. They were spending the evening truly alone with each other for the first time in weeks. Though Neal was supposed to have dinner with them, he’d begged off, saying something urgent came up and he needed to take care of it. Peter hadn’t asked what it was; since the tracker was removed, Neal’s business was his own, and Peter tried to do his best to respect his privacy. He mostly succeeded.

El had just laughed, saying that he was probably doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. Peter, though, couldn’t help feeling that something was off. He’d learned to trust his gut decades ago, and it was giving him the distinct feeling that Neal wasn’t doing any shopping.

El’s tongue brought him back to the present, touching tentatively at his, her hands putting gentle pressure on his hips. He slid forward on the barstool and let her warmth envelop him, and the feelings in his gut started to give way to the feelings from somewhere slightly lower.

“Mmm.” It was all he could manage when they finally broke the kiss.

El’s fingers went to the buttons of his shirt. The top two were already undone, as usual, and she worked deftly at the others. “Thought you could use a…distraction.” She bit her lip and gave him a smoldering look, and he countered by pushing himself slowly off the stool, his body sliding against hers. Her eyebrows shot up at the feeling of his growing erection pressing into her belly.

“It’s working,” Peter murmured against her lips, his hands sliding down her back to cup her ass.

They almost didn’t make it to the bedroom, leaving their clothes in a trail on the stairs and down the hallway. The bed was much more comfortable than the wall or the floor, though, so it won out.

Peter started at El’s neck, kissing and nipping at the sensitive skin there, before mouthing his way down her body. He teased her clit with the tip of his tongue, allowing a small smile when she squirmed and bit back a scream. His hands went to her hips to keep her from moving, and he continued to tease her, licking and sucking, then blowing on the moist skin as El clawed at the sheets and moaned.

When he sensed that she was getting close, he backed off, kneeling up over her and fisting his erection as she watched. In a well-practiced move, he leaned over and slid into her, and when her head lifted from the pillow, he captured her lips with his. Her hands went around his back, her fingertips digging into his shoulders as she matched the rhythm he was setting.

Peter tried to hold back, to draw out the pleasure as long as possible, but he knew neither of them would last much longer. El was moaning in time with his thrusts, and her hips were trembling under his. He gritted his teeth and held on until she mercifully let go, gasping his name over and over as she came. The sensation of her muscles clenching around his cock was enough to send him over the edge. With one last thrust, he stilled and let out a long shuddering groan as he found his release.

By the time he pulled out and laid down beside El, smiling as she tucked herself up against him, Peter had completely forgotten about Neal’s lack of reaction to the first part of his early Christmas gift. He only managed to hang on in that haze of sated bliss for a few minutes before letting himself drift off. At that moment, the only gift that mattered was the one whose arms were wrapped around him, keeping him warm in the darkness.

-----

Neal let out a frustrated sigh and flashed his best death-stare at Mozzie, who was drumming his fingers on the table as he gave both of the nesting dolls in front of him a thorough once-over. He was already on edge, and the tapping wasn’t helping matters, but Neal fought the urge to snap at his bespectacled friend.

In the months since Neal became a free man, as he’d grown closer to the Burkes, he’d started spending decidedly less time with Mozzie. It was a mutual parting, and they were still close friends, but there were now times when they didn’t see each other for weeks. Mozzie trusted Neal, but he no longer felt comfortable discussing his activities with someone who worked for the FBI in an official capacity – and who was sleeping with a suit. Neal, too, was hesitant to spend as much time with Mozzie as he once had; the temptation to go back to his old life, though it was getting easier to ignore, still tugged at him when he was around the other man.

The tapping stopped, and Moz pushed his glasses up onto his bald head, then ran his hands down over his face. When he looked over at Neal, there was genuine sympathy in his eyes.

“Neal, I…I’m sorry, man.”

“So you think it’s him?”

“It has to be. This level of detail in the Matryoshka, the fact that they look like Mr. and Mrs. Suit, having them delivered one at a time in unmarked boxes. He knows, Neal.”

Neal stood and paced to the windows, swallowing hard. He’d thought that after so many years, all of the ghosts from his past had finally been put to rest, that he and his loved ones were safe.

He’d forgotten about Anton Nazarov.

At the time of Neal’s dealings with him, Nazarov was in charge of the Tretyakovskaya Bratva, a faction of the Russian mafia. Because of their affinity for art – and their trafficking of some of the most high-quality forgeries in the world – they’d taken their name from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Though he’d never wanted to have anything to do with them, Neal and his flawless creations had eventually ended up on their radar.

He’d spent a period of three months – held captive and completely against his will – making them a brilliant collection of Russian masterpieces, including several of Rublev’s icons and a replica of Vrubel’s Six-Winged Seraph that had started to give him nightmares by the time he’d finished it. Neal hadn’t dared to sign any of these works in any way; the last thing he wanted was to ever be associated with them.

After they’d gotten what they wanted from him, the bratva’s leadership had considered killing him, but Nazarov appreciated his talent enough that he’d talked them out of it. Before setting him free, though, Nazarov had promised him that if anyone ever found out about Neal’s dealings with the bratva, he’d personally hunt him down and murder not just him, but his loved ones as well.

The threat wasn’t an idle one; Neal had seen Nazarov’s wrath firsthand, not just in the mistreatment he suffered while held captive, but because Nazarov had forced him to watch such an execution before he was set free. He’d only managed to sit through half of it before he’d vomited and nearly passed out, which thankfully convinced Nazarov that he’d gotten the point.

Nazarov’s calling card was the Matryoshka. He’d have a five-piece set custom-made to depict the loved ones of his target, and he always had them hand-delivered, one piece at a time. The last piece in the set was sculpted into the shape of his weapon of choice; by the time it was received, it was too late. The loved ones were already being held captive, and the target himself was kidnapped and forced to watch the slow executions of his loved ones, to listen to their tortured screams. The target was then beaten to within an inch of his life and left to suffer while a recording of his loved ones’ final moments was played repeatedly in the background, a macabre soundtrack to usher him to death’s door.

Before setting him free, Nazarov had explained to Neal that as long as he never revealed that he’d done forgeries for the bratva, they’d leave him alone and would never contact him again.

“Tell anyone,” Nazarov had told him in heavily-accented English, his dark eyes boring into Neal’s soul, “I will know. I will come for you myself. I find you, I find family. If you receive Matryoshka, is too late to save them.”

Too late to save them.

Looking out over the skyline that had become so familiar to him over the years, Neal fought hard against the tears that pricked at the back of his eyes.

“Who did you tell?” Mozzie’s whispered question startled him, and he jumped, cursing under his breath. He whirled on the other man, eyes wide.

“I didn’t tell anyone,” he hissed. “Moz, I swear I didn’t. I haven’t even…thought about him in years. I…I blocked it out.”

The only reason Mozzie knew about what happened was because they’d taken him captive as well, as an assurance that Neal would finish his work without trying to escape – though his ability to create a perfect counterfeit of Spirits of the Tsars made him just as valuable to them as Neal. They’d never spoken of that time in their lives again, except to come up with a code word to use in case there was ever any sign that Nazarov had returned to haunt them.

Chort. The devil.

Feeling numb, Neal went over to the sofa and sat down, running his fingers through his hair. “I can’t believe…I don’t understand how…” He blinked back the tears that continued to threaten and rubbed the back of his neck.

Mozzie walked over and sat down in one of the chairs across from Neal. “The Suit hasn’t said anything about him?” When Neal shook his head, Mozzie frowned. “And you’re not working on any cases involving the Russian mafia?”

“No. Nothing even remotely related,” Neal replied in a hoarse whisper.

Mozzie took off his glasses and polished them on his shirttail, deep in thought. “Should we tell Peter?”

“No!” Neal looked up sharply, not caring that his friend could see the tears in his eyes. It wasn’t the first time, and if their current dilemma was any indicator, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. “Absolutely not. Moz, if Peter starts running his name, Nazarov will know. If anyone at the bureau gets involved with this, Peter and Elizabeth –” His voice broke, and he stood, making his way over to the counter beside the sink.

As he breathed deeply through his nose, trying to keep the panic at bay, he stared at the wine bottles and briefly considered downing enough of the stuff to make the pain – and the raw fear – go away. Getting drunk wouldn’t help matters, though. It would make him numb, sure, but it wouldn’t give him a plan for saving the lives of the two people he loved the most in the world.

“Neal?” Mozzie said from somewhere close. Neal didn’t turn, his fingers white-knuckling the edge of the counter.

“I don’t know what to do, Moz,” he admitted.

“I could try looking into him. You know I’ve done it before, and I can run it through enough proxies and VPNs that –”

“No.” Neal shook his head emphatically but still couldn’t bear to look at the other man. He was sure if he turned and made eye contact with his oldest friend, he’d start to cry, and that was the last thing he wanted to do. Falling apart wouldn’t help the Burkes either. He had to pull himself together and think.

“What about the old-fashioned way? No technology. It’ll take longer, but I can make sure my contacts know it’s a matter of…” Mozzie trailed off, searching for another way to finish the sentence. “That it’s urgent.”

“Please don’t. I can’t take that chance. I can’t risk –” Neal’s throat closed, and he dropped his chin to his chest, trying to ignore the tear that made its way down his cheek.

Mozzie squeezed Neal’s shoulder and then graciously left him alone. His head was spinning, his chest aching, and a few more tears had joined the first one. He allowed himself to have those, but after they fell, he shut down the rest.

Taking a deep breath, he washed his face at the sink and did his best to compose himself. If he was going to save Peter and Elizabeth, he had to come up with a plan to stop Nazarov, and he couldn’t do that if he let his emotions get in the way.

Neal turned and found that Mozzie himself was now staring out the windows, arms crossed over his chest. He walked up beside the older man and took a deep breath.

“We need a plan, Moz. We’ve got to find him, and we have to make sure Peter and Elizabeth are safe. I can stay with them like I usually do, but we’ll have to find a way to keep eyes on them and the house 24-7.”

“Surveillance cameras?” Mozzie looked over at him, his eyes already lighting up as his brain churned through ideas at its usual frenetic pace.

“That could work, but we’d have to find a way to put them in place without Peter or Elizabeth noticing, even if they’re just outside.”

They hurried to the table, and for the first time since he’d gotten the Matryoshka, Neal was starting to feel again. The dread, anguish, and desperation were still there, as was some of the panic, but something else had joined them. Hope. Just a thread of it, but it was there, and he clung to it like a lifeline as they started to formulate a plan.

-----

“Peter, are you sure there’s not something going on with Neal? Is he sick?” El whispered, concern clouding her eyes.

Peter shrugged. “I don’t know.” He, too, was speaking softly. Neal was upstairs in the shower and couldn’t hear them anyway, but El seemed to be more comfortable whispering about the subject, and he wasn’t about to argue. “He definitely hasn’t been himself, but nothing happened at work. As far as I know, he doesn’t have a fever and isn’t in pain. Took it a little easy at dinner yesterday, went light on the wine, but last night was…pretty damn nice.” A hint of a smile flirted with the corners of his mouth at the memory.

“He still hasn’t said anything about the you-know-what?”

“No.” Peter leaned back against the kitchen counter, and El snuck a quick kiss on her way to the sink. “I’m beginning to wonder if maybe it’s just, I don’t know, scaring him?”

“Scaring him how?”

“El, he’s gotten three of them so far. If he’s figured it out, which I’m guessing he has, he probably understands where we’re going with this. And if not, the next one will make it crystal clear.” Peter smiled in spite of his concern. Giving Neal a house key in the doll that was painted to look like their home was a spur-of-the-moment idea, one he’d thought of after he decided to send each piece separately, but he was proud of it. Still, Neal’s behavior – and the fact that he hadn’t mentioned the nesting dolls, even in passing – was worrisome. And it hurt.

“Well, that time we talked about it, he seemed to be fine with the idea of moving in.”

“That’s true,” Peter said with a nod, sipping at his coffee. “It’s still a really big change for him, though. This is Neal Caffrey we’re talking about. No matter how he feels about us, he doesn’t like being trapped or forced into anything. He always needs an out of some sort.”

El glanced up at him, eyebrows raised. “But honey, we’re not forcing him. We’re just inviting him. Making an offer. Nothing will change between us if he decides he wants to stay at June’s.” She laid her palm flat against his chest, over his heart. “Will it?”

“No, no, of course not.” Peter put his free hand on top of hers and took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to make sure he understands that, though. I guess we’ll have to sit him down and talk about it at some point. For now, though, I just want to get through Christmas.” The lines in his forehead deepened, and his smile faded. “And I’d really like to know why he hasn’t even mentioned the nesting dolls, whether he’s figured it out or not. It’s like he’s hiding them or something.”

“Yeah, I know it’s got to be nerve-wracking for you,” she said with a sympathetic pout. “I’m sure he appreciates them – how could he not – but maybe you’re right. Maybe he figured it out and isn’t sure how to bring up any concerns he has.”

“He knows he can come to me when he has a problem.”

El actually laughed, though she quickly stifled it when a troubled look flitted across his face. “Oh, honey.”

“What? He can.”

“Peter, I know you mean well, but your favorite way of dealing with issues Neal has is to tell him to cowboy up.”

Peter huffed and shook his head. “I haven’t done that in years.” Though he knew he sounded defensive, he also got her point. He and Neal had had their share of discussions over the course of their relationship, but he wasn’t always as receptive as he should have been, and Neal tended to go to El when he had general concerns. Neal had never said anything about it, but Peter knew it bothered the younger man that they couldn’t just sit down and have a long discussion without it feeling like an interrogation – or a confession.

“Maybe not, but you tend to turn that kind of conversation into an interrogation.”

Peter sucked in a sharp breath; after all the years they’d been together, it still occasionally unnerved him when she spoke his thoughts aloud. He was about to reply when it registered with him that he’d heard the shower stop, and Neal had left the bathroom, but he hadn’t yet made his way downstairs. Sensing an opportunity to talk to him alone – preferably without having to corner him – Peter slid out from behind El.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, gesturing toward the stairs.

El nodded and tried to hide her grin. “Go easy on him, babe.”

Peter raised his eyebrows at her but said nothing, wanting to get to Neal before he left the bedroom. Which sounded so much like cornering him.

When he got to the bedroom, he found Neal standing by one of the windows, his fingers pushing aside the curtain and blind just far enough to look out the side. He was naked from the waist up and was so deep in concentration that he didn’t even notice Peter’s approach.

“Neal? What do you see?”

Neal jumped and whirled on him, eyes wide and an oddly guilt-ridden expression on his face. “Dammit, Peter, don’t do that!”

Peter took a step back and held up his hands. “Whoa, relax. What’s got you so jumpy?”

“I’m not jumpy.” Neal sidestepped around him and grabbed his undershirt from the bed. “What, I’m suddenly not allowed to have a coronary when someone sneaks up on me?”

“I didn’t sneak up on you.” Peter frowned at him but tried to keep his tone light. “Besides, this is my house. I’m not sure it would qualify as sneaking to begin with.” He reached out and gently wrapped his hands around Neal’s wrists, stopping him from putting on the shirt. “Not yet.” He let go of one wrist and ran his index finger from Neal’s neck down to his abs, then a little lower, hooking it around his belt buckle.

Neal sighed and shook his head, not quite making eye contact with Peter. “Wait, can we just – I’m not really…” He trailed off and ran his free hand through his hair.

“It’s fine.” Peter’s put his palm flat on Neal’s stomach. “I wasn’t planning on doing anything. We’ve got to get to work soon. Just wanted to admire the view.” His thumb brushed over Neal’s skin, and the younger man shivered.

“Yeah,” Neal whispered, closing his eyes and leaning into Peter’s touch. He looked beautiful, but there was a hint of something in his expression that brought back Peter’s concern. Peter let go of Neal’s wrist and brought both hands up to cup his face, then planted a soft kiss on his lips. Neal gasped, not from lust, but from something Peter couldn’t quite place – something decidedly less pleasant.

“Neal, please…” He trailed off, not quite sure where to go from there, and instead pulled his partner into his arms. It caught him off-guard when Neal sagged into him, wrapping his arms around Peter’s waist and burying his face in the crook of his neck. “If something’s going on, you can talk to me, you know.”

Neal nodded and exhaled, a long and shaky breath that warmed his neck and chest. “Yeah, Peter, I know. I’m – it’s nothing.” He planted a gentle kiss on Peter’s neck. “I’m not feeling the greatest today, that’s all.” He pulled back and looked into Peter’s eyes, flashing him a smile that seemed vaguely forced.

Peter reached up to feel his forehead. Though he didn’t seem to have a fever, Neal was looking a little pale, especially fresh out of the shower. He hadn’t gotten the sense that Neal was lying to him exactly, but there was more to the story hiding behind those mesmerizing blue eyes. He pasted on a smile of his own.

“I love you, Neal. You know that, right?”

Neal’s smile became a little less guarded, more genuine, and he rested his forehead against Peter’s. “Yeah, Peter, I know. I love you, too.” When he leaned back, the earlier cloudiness was gone from his gaze, and he was starting to look like some semblance of the Neal Caffrey that Peter adored.

“Good, good.” Peter kissed him, and Neal reciprocated, his tongue slipping in to dance with Peter’s. It was real and wonderful, and the only reason Peter finally broke it off was because the usual reaction was starting to take place just south of his waist. As much as he wanted to continue down that path, they were already going to be late for work if they didn’t leave soon. Practical Peter won out once again, and he let out a grumble of frustration when he pulled away.

Neal just licked his lips and flashed Peter a sly grin, finally seeming to be back to his usual self. “Mmm. If this is what’s going to happen every time, maybe you should sneak up on me more often.” He winked and turned around to put on his undershirt, even as Peter rolled his eyes.

“For Christ’s sake, I wasn’t sneaking,” He waited until Neal finished tucking in the shirt, then cautiously rested his hands around the younger man’s waist. “Hey, look,” he said, his tone subdued. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to freak you out. Forgive me?”

Neal turned to face him, and there was once again a flash of guilt on his face, along with something more. Sorrow? It quickly disappeared, replaced by a shy, sweet smile that Neal reserved only for Peter and Elizabeth.

“Peter, I’m fine. There’s nothing to forgive.” He brushed his lips across Peter’s. “I’ve just been feeling a little…off, and I’m trying to shake it. The last thing I want is to get sick right before Christmas.” He grabbed his shirt and tie from the bed, then handed Peter the tie before slipping into the shirt and starting on the buttons.

“Hmm.” Peter ran his thumb over the tie, a pricey navy blue silk one with diagonal maroon stripes that he and El – mostly El – had gotten Neal for his birthday. “Your first since we got rid of the tracker.”

Neal finished buttoning his shirt and took the tie, draping it around his neck. When he looked up, Peter was stunned to see tears at the corners of his eyes and, again, that hint of something vaguely remorseful. “Our first,” he corrected, then surprised Peter by wrapping his arms around him.

“Neal, you’re shaking.” The tremor was barely noticeable, but it was there. Peter tried to lean back to look at him, but Neal held him tighter. “You know, I want to help, but I can’t if –”

“I’m scared, Peter.”

The whispered revelation was a shock to Peter’s system. He wanted to ask why, but when he opened his mouth, the words wouldn’t come.

“I – I just don’t want to mess this up.” Neal’s voice shook like his body. “Every time something good happens in my life, something from the past…” He seemed to struggle with his emotions, and Peter stroked a comforting hand over his back. “You and Elizabeth are the best thing that ever happened to me, and I –” He choked up and his whole body tensed against Peter as he tried not to break down.

So that’s it. Peter felt a twinge of relief that it was something so simple, followed by guilt because to Neal, it obviously wasn’t simple. He kissed Neal’s neck, the spot below his ear that drove him wild in other circumstances, hoping it would offer some sort of comfort.

“Okay, it’s okay,” Peter whispered next to his ear. “You’re safe. We’re safe.” He pulled away just far enough to take Neal’s face in his hands. The younger man’s eyes were closed, the lashes at the corners were damp. “Neal, look at me.”

Neal opened his eyes, and though they were red-rimmed, the tears were gone. It took a moment for him to meet Peter’s gaze.

“I promise you, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that nothing ever happens to us. You know I will. You and El are everything to me, and I’ll do whatever it takes to protect you.”

Neal’s barely audible response was almost drowned out by the ringing of Peter’s cell phone. “Who’s going to protect you?”

Peter stared at Neal, head cocked, brow furrowed. Neal saved him from having to answer the question by backing away far enough to reach into Peter’s pocket and fish out the phone. “Jones.” He handed it over to Peter, who reluctantly took it and answered.

He walked away briefly, common courtesy winning out, and when he’d finished the call, Neal had disappeared. Peter found him at the end of the hallway farthest from the stairs, speaking softly into his own phone. When he caught his eye, Neal held up a hand. He listened for a moment, said something else into the phone, then covered it with his hand.

“You go ahead. I’ll be down in a minute.”

Again, there was something off about the younger man’s expression, and the part of Peter’s gut that he fondly thought of as his “Caffrey detector” clenched into a tight little ball. Peter rubbed absently at his stomach, but before he went downstairs, he slipped back into the bedroom the three of them shared.

One of the slats in the blind was just slightly crooked where Neal had been pushing it aside. Peter stepped over and did the same, lifting the curtain and blind far enough to see out. There wasn’t anything unusual about the view, and Peter recognized all of the cars he could see, with the exception of a dark blue Ford passenger van with tinted windows. Out of habit, he made a mental note to check for the van when he got home.

After one last look, Peter let the window treatments fall back into place and left the room. Neal was nowhere to be seen, but Peter could hear his voice floating up the stairs, blending with Elizabeth’s. Both of them sounded happy, like their usual selves, and the knot in his stomach started to loosen.

As he made his way down the stairs, he smiled, putting the earlier concern out of his mind. He’d arranged for the fourth nesting doll, the house with the key inside, to be delivered to the office. This time, he’d be there when Neal received it, and he’d be able to see his partner’s reaction.

By the time they left for work, Neal seemed fine, and the knot in Peter’s stomach had been completely replaced by butterflies.

-----

Neal sat at his desk, head down, pretending to concentrate on the paperwork spread out in front of him. His phone had been buzzing with incoming texts all morning, and he was doing a passable job of making it look like he was networking with some of his contacts about things related to their current case.

In truth, all of them were coded messages from Mozzie, letting him know the whereabouts of Elizabeth Burke. His quirky friend had somehow managed to pull off setting up a complex surveillance network – both cameras and anonymous street contacts – that was well below the radar. Even someone with Nazarov’s pull would have a hard time connecting any of these people with Neal.

If Nazarov was following his usual routine – and it appeared that he was – then Neal would be getting the fourth of five nesting dolls before the day was over. The first three were in the hidden compartment above the mantel in his apartment; for all their intricate beauty, he couldn’t bear to look at them, knowing what they represented.

Nazarov’s next victims.

Neal’s stomach flip-flopped at the thought, and he closed his eyes, breathing through his nose as deeply as he dared. He’d tried to go through his daily routine without letting Peter and Elizabeth know that there was anything wrong, but he was having hard time keeping the façade in place.

Just that morning, when he’d been glancing out the window at the van that Mozzie had somehow procured, Peter had come up behind him nearly spooked him into a heart attack. In the ensuing conversation, he’d almost broken down and told Peter everything. He hated having to hide this from Peter, but he knew if he said anything, Peter would start looking into Nazarov. And if he did that, well…Neal would spend his last moments on Earth listening to an endless soundtrack of his lovers being tortured to death.

Keeping it to himself and waiting for Nazarov to show up seemed like the only solution. When he did, Neal and Mozzie would be ready, and they’d get him before he had a chance to harm Peter or Elizabeth. Then, Neal would finally be able to bring Peter into the situation, and his nightmare would be over.

Sighing, Neal pinched the bridge of his nose and then opened his eyes. His coffee mug was empty, and since he’d only been eating and sleeping enough to keep up appearances, he needed the caffeine now more than ever.

He made his way over to the coffeemaker and poured the last of the standard office swill into his mug. As he rinsed the carafe and grabbed a fresh filter, he glanced up at Peter’s office and saw the older man watching him closely, lips curled in a half-smile. He gave Peter a nod, managed to flash him a grin that felt convincing on his face, then finished what he was doing. After adding a splash of cream to his coffee, he headed for his desk…

…and almost dropped the mug.

The box was plain white, wrapped in a green ribbon, sitting smack dab in the middle of the paperwork on his desk. Taunting him. Haunting him.

Trying to keep the panic from showing on his face, he slowly surveyed the bullpen. Most of the desks were empty; a few of the agents were wrapping up a meeting with Jones and Diana in the conference room, and at least two others had taken an early lunch. Peter was still in his office, so he clearly hadn’t put it there.

He swallowed hard and willed his hands to stay steady as he made his way back to the desk, barely managing to not spill any of his coffee. When it was safely out of his hands, he tried to ignore the box, pulling his paperwork from under it and putting it back into its folder. He risked a glance up at Peter, only to find the man standing at the window, watching him with a curious expression.

Knowing there was no one around to hear him, Neal groaned. If he didn’t open the box, Peter would come down and ask him about it, and that was the last thing he needed. He slid the box off the desk and sat it in his lap, then turned his chair so his back was to Peter’s office.

His fingers were shaking – hell, his whole body was shaking – so badly that it took longer than it should have to get the ribbon off the box. A cold sweat broke out at the base of his spine, and the breakfast he’d forced down to appease Elizabeth was now churning in his stomach.

Somehow, Neal managed to remove the lid from the box, then reached in past the green tissue paper, his trembling fingers closing around the object inside. Though looking at it was the last thing he wanted to do, he forced himself to lift it out of the box, knowing it could hold a clue to saving the lives of the two people he loved most in the world.

The Matryoshka was painted to look like the Burkes’ house. It was beautiful. It was horrifying.

Neal thought he might pass out. He put a hand on the edge of the desk to steady himself, and when he did, a distinct rattling sound came from the nesting doll in his other hand. There hadn’t been anything in any of the other ones he’d received, and he could tell that the object inside wasn’t the fifth and final doll; the sound it made wasn’t wood on wood.

His curiosity got the better of him, and Neal pulled gently on the top half of the doll until it opened. Resting inside was a key, and from the shape, it was clearly a house key.

Neal’s blood turned to ice in his veins, and his stomach lurched into his throat. He hastily put the doll back together and fumbled it into the box.

“Where did that come from?”

Peter.

Neal whirled around in his chair, his wide eyes staring up at the smiling face of the man he loved more than anyone.

“Secret admirer?”

Almost knocking his chair over in the process, Neal stood and dropped the box back on his desk. He mumbled an ‘excuse me’ and barely made it to the men’s room in time to be sick. He’d sensed Peter close behind him in the hallway, but the other man politely waited until shortly after the toilet flushed before he walked in.

“When you’re up to it, go get your stuff together. I’ll take you home,” he said softly, laying a hand on Neal’s shoulder as Neal bent over the sink, washing his face and rinsing his mouth.

“Peter, I’m fine. Probably just something I ate.” Though Neal felt horrible, he didn’t want to let Peter out of his sight. Then again, his partner should be safe here at the office, and it would give Neal some more time alone – or with Mozzie – to figure out what they were going to do about Nazarov. He shuddered and fought hard to keep from retching again. Which, of course, Peter noticed.

“Yeah, try again.” Peter let his hand slide down to the small of Neal’s back, where the sweat was making his shirts stick to his skin. “Neal, you’re soaked.”

“A wind sprint followed by an upchuck marathon will do that,” Neal grumbled, knowing he had to make it at least somewhat convincing.

“Come on. I’ll check in with Jones while you’re getting your things together.”

By the time Neal put away what he’d been working on and donned his jacket and coat, Peter was ready to go. Though its contents – and what they meant – made him queasy again, Neal forced himself to pick up the small gift box on his way out. Peter glanced at it, and his face clouded momentarily with an emotion that Neal couldn’t quite place, but he said nothing.

Though Peter wanted to take him to the Burkes’ house, Neal managed to talk him in to taking him back to June’s. Peter only acquiesced because it would be closer for him to check in or if Neal needed his help, and because Neal agreed to go home with him after work.

“I don’t like leaving you alone like this when you’re sick.” Peter sat down on the edge of the bed beside him and laid his palm against Neal’s cheek. He’d been doting on Neal, helping him change into pajama bottoms and a dry undershirt, and getting together anything he might need for the next few hours.

“When did you go full-on nursemaid? What happened to ‘cowboy up?’” Neal winked and gave him a lopsided grin.

Peter sighed and shook his head. “Why does everyone keep bringing that up?” Though it was obvious he knew Neal was teasing, there was genuine concern in both his tone and his expression. “Neal, I care about you – I do – and you’ve been a little off for the last few days. Have you thought about seeing a doctor?”

“Peter, I’ll be fine. Really. I’ve just…had a lot on my mind lately.” He shrugged and leaned over to kiss Peter’s temple, a gesture that smoothed some of the worry lines on the older man’s face.

“Yeah, me, too.” Peter glanced away, and his eyes fell upon the gift box, which was now in the middle of the coffee table. “You want to talk about that before I go?”

Neal felt his blood run cold, and his stomach clenched. He closed his eyes, trying to breathe through the nausea as his mind raced. Does he know?

Peter put a steadying arm around his shoulders. “Basin or bathroom?” His other hand hovered near the plastic dishpan he’d put next to the bed.

“I…mmm.” Neal shook his head but kept his lips pressed together for another moment. “False alarm, I think.” When he opened his eyes, Peter was watching him with a mixture of concern and, as before, something that Neal couldn’t quite decipher. He leaned against his lover and swallowed hard.

“Neal…”

“I can’t talk about it now,” he whispered. “Can it wait until after I get some sleep and I’m feeling better?” If everything went according to plan – as much of a plan as he and Mozzie had anyway – he’d be able to share everything with Peter the following day.

If Peter was still alive.

His whole chest ached at the thought, and he had a brief urge to beg Peter to stay. He needed to touch base with Mozzie, though, and they didn’t have much time left.

“Okay. Sure.” Peter looked disappointed, but he squeezed Neal’s hand and nodded. “I think you have everything you need. Call or text me if you there’s anything else I can do, and I’ll be back to pick you up after work.” He leaned in and gave Neal a gentle kiss. “Get some rest.”

Neal just nodded, his throat tight, and watched as Peter left. To be safe, he waited until he heard the door close downstairs before grabbing his phone and texting Mozzie.

Think Peter knows something. My place ASAP.

-----

El was already waiting at the café when Peter arrived. She’d ordered coffee for both of them, and she stood to give him a kiss when he got to the table. He tried to force a smile, but she gave him a knowing look and sat down, reaching across the table to hold his hand.

“What’s going on? Is it Neal?”

“How’d you guess?” Peter grunted, taking a sip of coffee. He ran a finger absently around the rim of the mug.

“Oh, hon. Is it about the nesting dolls?”

Peter couldn’t quite bring himself to meet her gaze, focusing instead at a point over her shoulder. “I’m…not sure. He’s sick, but –”

“Wait, Neal’s sick?” When he nodded, El cocked her head, her nose crinkling in thought. “Well, he did seem kind of out-of-sorts this morning.”

Peter sighed and rubbed at his temple, not sure how much more he even wanted to say. The waitress came, momentarily letting him off the hook, and they ordered their usual lunch fare.

“So what happened?”

“I’m not sure.” Peter tightened his fingers around El’s, comforted by the feeling of her warm hand in his. She was his safe place, and at that moment, there was nowhere he’d rather be than with her. “He seemed fine during the morning meeting, and he’d been working on a few things. I had it set up so that when he went to get coffee, Kingery would drop the box on his desk and then head out for lunch.” He looked down at the table, his voice going soft. “He took his time opening it, and when I went down to see his reaction, he took off for the men’s room and got sick. It came on pretty quickly.”

“He hadn’t eaten lunch yet?”

“No, nothing since breakfast except coffee, I think.” Peter forced himself to look back up, his eyes locking with hers. “Do you think it has anything to do with the house key? I mean…” He trailed off, not really sure what he meant. As usual, El seemed to have it figured out even before he did.

“You think the idea of moving in scared him so much that it actually made him ill? I don’t know, Peter. He seemed to love the idea when we talked about it.” She took a sip of her drink. “You don’t think he’s having second thoughts, do you?”

“It’s Neal.” Peter rolled his eyes and feigned indifference. “Your guess is as good as mine.” In truth, he hoped their food would arrive soon so they could just drop the subject.

As much as he tried to keep it from bothering him, there was a vague tightness in his chest. He’d put a lot of thought into the gift and tried so hard to surprise Neal with something he’d like, but it was backfiring in a way that he hadn’t anticipated. And as much as he wanted to push the feelings away, it hurt. Deep down in his heart, in the special place that Neal held there, it really hurt.

Mercifully, El seemed to sense that he needed a break from talking about Neal, so she told him about her morning until their food arrived. Peter managed to choke down his roast beef sandwich around the lump in his throat, barely saying a word as they ate but making a conscious effort to nod and smile in the right places.

When they’d finished, they bundled up and headed back toward the FBI offices, walking arm in arm. Peter had hoped the crisp December air would help clear his head and get him back on track for the rest of the afternoon, but his mind was still trying to puzzle through the situation with Neal and the answers to the questions El had posed.

“Are you okay, hon?” El tugged on his arm, and Peter realized that he’d almost walked past the building. “Should we talk about this? I didn’t think you wanted to earlier, so I didn’t push it, but…” She trailed off and wrapped her arms loosely around him, peering up at him. He almost got lost in the kindness in her eyes.

“I should get back,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’d like to get everything wrapped up early, if I can. I’m picking Neal up after work and bringing him home with me.” He rubbed at the back of his neck, his frustration picking up as he thought about Neal’s refusal to discuss the situation with him.

“Hmm. Well, maybe we can talk with him tonight?” The hopeful expression on her face was gorgeous, and he normally would have grinned like a madman, but he was startled to find his throat tightening instead.

El noticed the change in his demeanor. “Peter? Tell me.”

Peter closed his eyes, mortified that his emotions were getting the best of him, especially right there on the sidewalk in full view of anyone who passed by. He took a few deep breaths and tried to push everything back down, but he knew his control was tenuous.

Finally, knowing he had to face El, he opened his eyes and shrugged. “You want –” His voice faded to a raspy near-whisper, and he pursed his lips, struggling to hold it together. “You want to know the real reason I almost never buy romantic gifts?” He could feel the tears hanging in his eyes, like glittering shards of his heart. When El’s own eyes widened, his voice left him entirely, and he breathed out the last few words. “This is why. I get it wrong, and it hurts, okay?”

Without waiting for a response, Peter gave her a quick kiss and slipped into the building. He made his way to the nearest men’s room and locked himself in a stall, then slumped back against door, covering his face with his hands. After allowing himself a few shaky breaths, he methodically started locking it up and putting himself back together.

When he left the restroom a few minutes later and boarded the elevator, squaring his shoulders and releasing a final cleansing breath, Peter was completely in control. The pain he’d felt only moments earlier had been replaced by a subdued sort of anger. It wasn’t directed at Neal, though he knew the younger man was hiding something from him. Instead, he was mad at himself for not coming out and asking Neal about the nesting dolls – and by the fact that he didn’t just wait until Christmas and give them to him in person.

By the time Peter finished checking in with everyone and sat down at his desk, his mind was made up. He was going to confront Neal that evening, explain everything, and get to the bottom of…whatever was going on. His mood mellowed as he thought about Neal, and he found himself hoping his lover was feeling better.

He practically ached with the need to fix things, to make everything right for Neal’s first Christmas with them. To hold him, to feel the hands of an artist slide up under his shirt, to kiss his way down over the sculpted chest and abs on his way to something he hadn’t known he’d needed so much until it had been given to him.

Allowing himself a small smile, Peter pulled out his phone and sent a quick text to Neal, then got together his notes for the Whitlow case.

-----

Neal paced the floor in front of the terrace windows, hands on his hips, waiting for Mozzie to arrive. It had been a couple of hours since he’d first texted the other man, and he was starting to get antsy. The four nesting dolls sat lined up on the table, almost seeming to mock him. After Peter left, he’d forced himself to bring the rest of them out of hiding and examine them closely for clues.

They were beautiful – obviously handmade and meticulously painted – and he would have been taken with them if the circumstances were different. The only identifying mark he could find was what looked like I Kayuk in Cyrillic lettering on the bottom of the outermost doll. He’d texted it to Mozzie for further research, but the text he received nearly an hour later wasn’t from his quirky friend; it was from Peter.

‘There is not a truth existing which I fear.’ We need to talk soon. Hope you’re feeling better. Get some rest. OVA

In spite of his anxiety, the message brought a smile to Neal’s face.

The Jefferson quote was one of Peter’s favorites, and since Neal had finished his sentence, Peter had started using it as somewhat of a code to let Neal know it was safe to tell him the truth, no matter what that might involve or how difficult it may be for Peter to hear. The sentiments about his health were things Peter would rarely speak out loud, but he wasn’t afraid to share them in secret.

The acronym at the end, though it stood for a common Latin phrase, was something just the two of them shared. El vaguely knew about it but didn’t press them for an explanation, understanding that it was something that was theirs. It was short for Omnia vincit amor – love conquers all. Latin was a weakness for both men; Neal loved it, and Peter could speak it well enough to make Neal’s eyes glaze over. Watching his lover’s lips – those stunning lips – form words in a language other than English was enough to drive Neal wild.

The phrase had a deeper meaning for them as well, because love had indeed conquered all in their life together. It had gotten them through some very rough patches. There were more than a few times, while Neal was still serving out his sentence, when he was sure things were over between them. But their love for each other had gotten them through, kept them together, made Neal certain that when his two-mile radius was gone for good, he wouldn’t stray far. Not from Peter, not from Elizabeth, and not from home.

Neal stopped pacing, slipped his hands into his pockets, and stared out the window. He’d just started to let his thoughts drift to happier times – the night he and Peter had spent together only a few days earlier, in particular – when there was a frantic knocking at the door.

He went to open it, and Mozzie breezed through, panting as though he’d just run a half-marathon. He was carrying a black leather bag, which he dumped on the floor beside the door.

“I come bearing news, mon frère. But first, let’s see it.” The words had barely escaped his lips when he caught sight of the fourth Matryoshka sitting with the rest on the table. “Oh god, Neal.” He sat down in one of the chairs and stared at the figure, his fingers hovering over it as though he was afraid it would burn if he touched it. “You said there’s a…” He trailed off, the tone of his voice rising questioningly at the end, and looked up at Neal.

“A key, Moz.” Neal sat down across from him and nodded. “There’s a house key inside of it.”

“And since it’s inside something painted to look like the Suit’s house, are we assuming it goes to their house?”

Neal nodded and swallowed hard, glancing down at the nesting doll in front of them before looking back up into his friend’s sad eyes. “I don’t even know why this is happening. I didn’t…I didn’t tell anyone.”

“So. How did Peter find out?”

“I’m not even sure he knows, but I think he has an idea.” Neal ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “When he brought me home, he asked if I wanted to talk about this.” He gestured to the carving in front of him. “And then later, he texted me the Jefferson quote.”

“Do you think he went digging?” Moz pushed his glasses up on top of his head and picked up the nesting doll, examining it closely. He shook it, fascinated by the rattle from inside.

Neal tried not to be unnerved – or nauseated – by the sound. “Honestly, no. And even if he did, there’s no way he could have found this. No way. Not unless…”

“Nazarov or one of his sycophants said something. Ratted you out.” Mozzie carefully opened the doll and focused his attention on the key, scrutinizing it without touching or removing it.

“I don’t think he’d do that. Not after threatening to kill me if I ever told anyone.” Neal’s voice was distant, distracted as he thought through the possible scenarios. “And his subordinates wouldn’t dare. He’d do the same thing to them, or worse.”

“Hmm. I think you’re right.” Moz replaced the top of the figure, put it back on the table, and returned his glasses to their usual spot. “I heard stories about amputations…nevermind.”

“Not helping. At all.” Neal gave him an irritated frown. “You said you had news?”

“Ah, yes. First things first, Mrs. Suit got back home safely from lunch, and after I’m done here, I’ll be going back over in the van for my next shift. There’s been no sign of Nazarov so far – not at the airport, at the Suit’s house, or…anywhere. And I found someone who could run his name even more securely than I could. Put all of his aliases through, and nothing.”

“Wait a minute, you ran his name?” Neal stared at his friend in disbelief.

“Neal, if he’s already sent these, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Mozzie waved his hand over the line of Matryoshka between them. “Besides, like I said, this was secure, untraceable. Even for the bratva. But get this – he couldn’t find anything. Not a trace. No information on Nazarov or any of his aliases. It’s like the demon never existed.”

“How does that happen?”

Moz shrugged and pointed an index finger at the smallest of the nesting dolls. “How does a ghost get the key to your beloveds’ house?”

Neal stood quickly and walked back over to the windows, rubbing at his weary eyes with the heels of his hands. He rolled his shoulders back, trying to get rid of the tension he was carrying in them, knowing it was futile.

Mozzie stepped up behind him, and Neal prepared himself for the distraction he knew was coming. “I found the, uh…artist. His name is Ilya Kayukov. Russian immigrant, married to a German immigrant, a Heike Sydow. She owns an import gift shop in the East Village; he makes a variety of Russian painted woodcrafts for her: khokhloma, lacquer boxes, music boxes, eggs, figurines, and of course, Matryoshka.”

“Any connection to Nazarov?” He could barely get the question out past the lump in his throat. All he could think of was Peter and Elizabeth, and the house key, and the fact that it meant Nazarov had access to their house for an untold period of time.

What if he’s already been inside? What if he’s on his way there now?

“My contact hasn’t found anything yet, but he’s working on it.”

Neal nodded, but he couldn’t turn back to look at Mozzie. Not with tears in his eyes. The helplessness was overwhelming, and he breathed through his nose, trying to keep the emotions at bay. When his friend’s hand fell on his shoulder, he almost broke down.

“We’ll find him, Neal. We’ll keep them safe.” Mozzie stepped up beside him but stared straight ahead, out the windows. “The people who are watching them and the ones who are looking for him – I’d trust them with my own life.”

The only thing Neal could manage was another nod. He was trying to steady himself enough to reply when his phone buzzed with an incoming text.

How are you feeling? Breakthrough on Whitlow case. I’ll be an hour or two late. Call or text if you need anything. OVA

Not caring that Mozzie could see him, Neal squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the moisture soaking into his lashes.

“Peter?”

Neal could only nod, and he turned away, slipping a hand over Mozzie’s shoulder on his way by. He walked over to the bed and sat down beside his overnight bag, already packed for when Peter came to get him, full of wrapped presents for Peter and Elizabeth. Ones he might not be able to give them.

After swiping at his eyes and blinking a few times to clear them, he tapped out a reply.

Better, I think. Still a little rough. I’ll be ready when you get here.

He stared at the words, and they blurred as he thought about what he wanted to add. There wasn’t enough room for everything – please be careful, don’t lose faith in me, trust that I’m doing this to keep you and Elizabeth safe. I need you. I love you. I can’t live without you anymore.

Thank you. I hope you know how much I love you.

Satisfied, he sent the message, then made his way back over to the table and slowly sat down. He barely noticed when Mozzie retrieved the bag from near the door and sat across from him.

“How much time do we have before the Suit gets here?”

“More than enough.” His voice was thick with emotion, but that no longer mattered. He nodded at the bag. “You know I still don’t like this, right?”

Mozzie gave him a long, solemn stare before finally answering. “I know. What choice do we have?”

When Neal didn’t reply, Mozzie unzipped the bag and pulled out three items, one at a time, lining them up on the table. He moved the smallest nesting doll aside and slid one of the objects across to Neal.

Neal refused to look at it at first, but his eyes finally settled on the snub-nosed revolver in front of him. He reached out a tentative finger and ran it over the Smith & Wesson logo engraved below the cylinder release. When he was finally able to speak, it was in a low whisper. “Lemon Squeezers.”

“They’re originals. Beautiful pieces. Byron had great taste in concealable firearms.” Mozzie picked up the other revolver and popped out the cylinder, then spun it a few times before snapping it back in place with a flip of his wrist. The sound caused Neal to jump, and he pushed the chair away from the table – away from the gun – and stood.

“I can’t do this now.” His wide eyes shifted from Moz to the revolver and back again. “Give me…give me a few minutes?”

Mozzie watched him for a moment, his expression neutral, before finally nodding. “I’ll check in with my contacts.”

Neal managed to give him a grateful look before escaping back the hallway to the bathroom. He closed the door and leaned back against it, sliding down to sit on the floor, his whole body shaking.

The revolvers and the box of Chiefs Special rounds on the table drove the point home – this was real and this was happening. There was at least a decent possibility that he’d have to fire said revolver at another human being within the next twenty-four hours, and that even if he saved Peter and Elizabeth, he’d be going back to prison for a very long time. The thought turned his stomach, and he wrapped his arms around himself as if he was literally trying to hold everything together.

The phone in his pocket finally buzzed with a reply to his earlier text, and he tried not to drop it as he fished it out.

I love you, too. Unconditionally and without end. Please remember that. Glad to hear you’re feeling better. See you as soon as I can get out.

Neal’s face crumpled, and he let out a soft sob before managing to clamp down on the rest, afraid Mozzie would hear him and know he was falling apart.

He’d felt something for Peter Burke from the first time he laid eyes on him. He’d fallen in love with him in a hangar by the Hudson, with snowflakes and tears intermingling on his cheeks as he listened to the older man telling him something that he’d always longed to hear. That people cared about him, that he made a difference.

And when he’d listened between the lines, he’d heard something else. That he was loved.

Peter very well may have saved his life that day. He’d saved it more than a few times since then. Once he’d completed his sentence, Peter had saved him yet again, showing him that it was safe to stay, to not run, to give himself over to two of the people who’d meant so much to him.

Now, it was his turn to save Peter and Elizabeth’s lives.

With a growl of determination, Neal pushed himself up off the floor and washed his face, then stared himself down in the mirror until he was satisfied. He squared his shoulders and stalked back out to the table, sitting down and fixing Mozzie with a steady gaze.

“You okay?” Mozzie’s eyes never left his. The older man had loaded the revolver in front of him while Neal was gone, but the cylinder of the one in front of Neal was still empty.

“Yeah, all things considered. You know how I feel about guns, but at this point…”

“You’re ready.” It wasn’t a question.

“I am, Moz. I’m prepared to do whatever I have to do.”

Mozzie looked him up and down, then gave him a curt nod. “Good. I should probably be on my way.” He picked up the revolver and slipped it into his coat pocket. “I’ll watch for you to get there. My contacts at the airport still haven’t seen anything, but they’ll be –”

“What’s going on here?”

Both men jumped and turned to the half-open door, where a stunned Peter Burke stood, his eyes taking in the scene before him.

Neal’s heart sank. He knew what it looked like – and if Peter had overheard them talking, what it sounded like. He stood, backing away from the table and the gun with his hands out at his sides.

“Peter, just let me explain. Please.”

He thought Peter would be angry with him, but as his gaze fell upon the table and took in everything there, the older man’s shoulders slumped and he displayed an emotion Neal never expected.

Peter looked…devastated.

-----

The message from Neal had caught Peter off-guard. The first part was innocent enough, but the last line made him grin right there at his desk.

I hope you know how much I love you.

He’d read it a second time, then a third, and he couldn’t stop smiling. Maybe this was Neal’s way of giving him an answer, or at least his way of agreeing to talk things through with him. In any case, it was a start, and a good one at that.

Suddenly, Peter hadn’t wanted to be anywhere but with Neal. He needed to see him, to know that he was okay – that they were okay. There was still some work to do with the Whitlow case, and Diana had already gone home to Theo, but Jones had things under control and had told Peter earlier that he was willing to stay if Neal needed him.

When he’d told Jones that he was going to take him up on that offer, the younger agent had just nodded knowingly and told him to give Neal his best. He and Diana were the only agents who knew outright about the relationship between Peter, Neal, and Elizabeth. Both of them had been nothing but supportive.

The drive to June’s mansion had seemed to take longer than usual, but Peter finally arrived. He’d let himself in the front door with his key, knowing that June was at an early Christmas charity function and the housekeeper was running her usual errands, and made his way quietly up the stairs so as not to wake Neal. As he’d gotten closer to Neal’s room, though, he could hear voices coming from inside. It wasn’t until he reached the landing that he could hear them well enough to recognize the other voice as Mozzie’s.

Even after the anklet was removed, Neal had remained friends with the quirky man, though their relationship had transformed. Obviously, Mozzie no longer let Neal in on any of his more questionable activities, and Neal stopped participating in them. Peter never would’ve thought it could be that easy, but once their romantic relationship started, Neal’s feelings about his old life had changed. He had too much to lose, he’d said, and he refused to risk losing them.

It surprised Peter, then, to hear Mozzie’s voice coming from inside Neal’s apartment, and the first snippet of conversation he heard stopped him in his tracks.

“…how I feel about guns….”

The door was halfway open, and though he couldn’t see Neal, Peter could see part of Mozzie’s back in a chair at the table. As they spoke, their conversation – the guns, Neal being ready to do whatever he had to do, Mozzie getting ready to leave, talking about the airport – all pointed to one thing, but it was something that Peter refused to believe.

As their relationship progressed, Peter had grown to trust Neal. Those first few weeks without the anklet were torturous; Peter went to bed every night harboring a secret fear that Neal wouldn’t be there in the morning. He’d expected Neal to travel and was fine with that, but he was terrified that his lover would just vanish on the wind one day without a trace, without an explanation, without a goodbye. It had taken him nearly two months to get past that, to relax and have faith in the fact that Neal wasn’t going to disappear and take a huge piece of Peter’s heart and soul with him.

That trust was so hard-won that even as he listened, Peter clamped down on that little voice in the back of his mind that said Neal’s running. He wasn’t that man – Neal’s handler – anymore. He was Neal’s lover, and he wasn’t going to jump to that conclusion, no matter how things sounded.

In spite of himself, in spite of that trust, a cold panic started to work its way into the pit of his stomach, and he couldn’t just stand there any longer. He stepped up into the doorway and spoke.

“What’s going on here?”

He looked from Neal to Mozzie and back again. Neal stood and backed away from the table, holding his hands away from his sides in a gesture of surrender – one that Peter didn’t fully understand until he looked at the table.

The Matryoshka were lined up down the middle of the table, though the smallest one was pushed aside. In its place was a familiar orange and black box of Federal Premium .38 special rounds, Chiefs Specials. In front of where Neal had been sitting was the reason he’d moved away from the table – a Smith & Wesson Centennial Model 40, and a vintage original from the looks of it.

Peter took it all in – the nesting dolls, the gun, the ammunition, the duffel bag on the floor by the table, another bag at the foot of Neal’s bed, Neal standing there looking stricken – and his heart shattered. His chest ached with an anguish so strong that it spread down his arms and made his fingers tingle.

“Peter, just let me explain. Please.” There was a tremor in Neal’s voice, a plea for help, and Peter’s gut told him to hear the man out.

“Of course,” he replied, his tone low and neutral. He walked over to the table and picked up the revolver, checking the cylinder and the barrel before putting it back.

“This isn’t…it’s not what it looks like. I swear, Peter.”

“I believe you.”

Neal’s mouth opened, then snapped shut as he processed what he’d just heard.

Mozzie, however, still had his voice. “That’s what you say now, Suit, but do –”

“You should go.” Peter’s gaze shifted to the shorter man, their eyes locking as they stared each other down. “Neal and I have some things to discuss, and this discussion doesn’t involve you.”

Mozzie continued to watch Peter closely, eyeing him up and down for almost a full thirty seconds before finally backing away. He grabbed the duffel bag from the floor and looked over at Neal, who was still standing by the windows. “I’ll be…well, you know where I’ll be, until I hear otherwise.”

Neal nodded, and a look passed between the two men, one that Peter couldn’t decipher. Mozzie almost made it to the door before something else clicked in Peter’s brain.

“Mozzie, leave the gun.”

The other man froze, and Peter knew his assumption had been correct. “The…what?”

“This isn’t a game, Mozzie.” Peter stepped up next to him, as close as he could get without touching him. “Put the gun. On the table. Now.

In one smooth motion, Mozzie slipped the revolver from his pocket, placed it on the table, and breezed out the door. Peter emptied the cylinder and put the bullets beside the now-unloaded gun. He’d been purposely ignoring Neal, but when he finally looked up at the younger man, he was surprised to see his own heartache mirrored in his lover’s eyes.

Steeling himself for a conversation he knew would be painful, Peter gestured to the sofa. “Go sit down, Neal.” Without waiting for a response, he closed and locked the door, then hung his coat and suit jacket on the rack behind it. He walked to the table, vaguely noting that Neal was now watching him from the sofa, and ran his fingertips over each of the nesting dolls before scooping up the loose ammunition. He rolled the small cartridges around in his hand as he walked over to stand before Neal.

“Do you know what these are?”

“Peter, I can explain everything.” Neal’s voice was shaking. His whole body was shaking.

“These are hollow points, Neal. Personal defense rounds. They mushroom when –”

“I know what they do.”

Peter’s jaw clenched, and he stared down at Neal, the anger – the pain – blazing in his eyes. “You can’t have these. Neal, if that gun had been loaded, if you’d had it on you, these could have been your one-way ticket back to prison.” His hand whipped out suddenly, and the bullets flew through the air, landing with a clatter in and around the fireplace. When he looked back at Neal, his partner was pressed back into the corner of the sofa, once again holding his hands out away from his sides, uncertainty clouding his blue eyes.

“Peter, please…don’t.”

“Don’t what?” Peter growled, pacing back and forth next to the sofa with his hands on his hips.

“Please don’t send me back. I was doing this –”

“Is that what you think?” Peter stopped pacing, his wide eyes staring at Neal, and all of the anger drained out of him. “Is that what you really think I want?” His voice broke on the last word, and he turned away to compose himself. When he’d gotten some semblance of control back, he sat at the other end of the sofa and faced Neal, trying desperately to look the other man in the eyes without breaking down.

“Neal, the last thing I’d ever want to do is send you back to prison. But if I hadn’t gotten here when I did, what were you going to do with that gun? What’s so goddamned important that you were willing to risk your freedom, risk our relationship…risk everything?”

Neal closed his eyes and ducked his head, his hands finally dropping into his lap. “You,” he whispered.

Peter flinched as if he’d been slapped. “Me?”

Neal nodded slowly. “You and Elizabeth.” He glanced up, and Peter noticed the deep sorrow –and the tears – in his eyes. “I was doing this to protect you. Please believe me. He was going to kill you both, and I couldn’t tell you, and he’s got a key to your house, and this was the only way I…” His quavering voice broke off in a sob, and the tendons in his neck stood out as he swallowed the ones that threatened to follow. Peter’s throat burned just watching him.

“Kill us?” His voice was low, hesitant, not quite wanting to accept what he’d heard. “Who, Neal?”

“Nazarov.”

Peter’s heart stuttered, nearly stopped. With that one name, most of the pieces fell into place. “Oh, god, Neal.” He looked over at the nesting dolls on the table, then back to Neal, and he knew. He knew why Neal hadn’t said anything about the Matryoshka, why he’d been so on edge, why he’d gotten sick. Why he’d been willing to risk his freedom. “You thought they were from him? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He shook his head slowly and laid a hand on Neal’s knee.

Neal gave him a quizzical frown. “Why are you sorry?”

“Neal, Anton Nazarov is dead.”

“What?” The question came out reflexively, before Neal even had a chance to finish processing what he’d heard. His red-rimmed eyes met Peter’s, searching for a truth he couldn’t comprehend. “That’s…not possible.”

“He’s dead. Contract killing four years ago, we think by a faction of the Turkish mafia. The Tretyakovskaya was wiped out. There were photos and DNA evidence to prove that they were dead, but everything else was covered up somehow. There’s no record of Nazarov’s associates or their activities. It’s like they’re…ghosts. We were tracking him with Sledkom and the Moscow legat for nearly a decade before he was killed. He was using forged artwork as collateral for…” Peter trailed off, growing very cold as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Forged artwork. “Oh, Neal. Jesus Christ.”

In the split second before Neal looked away, Peter saw the truth in his eyes. He wanted to reach for his lover, to hold him and help him work through everything, but Neal didn’t look ready for that. He was still shaking and looked pale, almost fragile. Peter reached for his hands instead, taking them in his, rubbing them to try to warm them.

When Neal finally spoke, it was in a detached whisper. “Ghosts.” His eyes finally came up to meet Peter’s again, and his brow furrowed. “But…the Matryoshka –”

“Are from me, Neal. I sent them.”

Neal suddenly grew very still as his mind tried to wrap itself around what he’d just heard. Peter just watched and waited, his hands squeezing Neal’s. Just when he thought he might have to remind Neal to breathe, the younger man let out a shaky sigh, and his fingers finally curled around Peter’s.

“From you?”

“It was supposed to be an early Christmas present. I wanted to surprise you.” Peter gave him a resigned shrug. “But I guess my presentation was a little off the mark.”

Though he still looked vaguely haunted, Neal slid over until he was next to Peter and managed a wan half-smile. “Don’t sell yourself short. I was definitely surprised.”

Normally, Peter would have laughed, but this situation was about as far from normal as he ever wanted to get. He wrapped both arms around Neal and held him, sighing as he rested his chin on the younger man’s shoulder.

“I’ll return them.” Even knowing what he now knew, it stung to say the words. He’d put so much thought and planning into this gift, and it was truly personal because he’d come up with the design. Once he’d seen the finished product, he’d been so sure that Neal would appreciate the intricate details, the fact that they were totally hand-crafted, even the unique way in which the Burkes were asking him to move in with them.

It tore Peter apart to think that not only had it not gone as he’d dreamed, but that his gift had terrified Neal for days, reminding him of what was likely a very dark time in his life. And if he hadn’t decided to leave the office early and surprise Neal, the misinterpretation of said gift could have sent his lover back to prison. Or worse.

“Peter?”

Neal’s voice pulled him out of his dejection, and he hummed an acknowledgement.

“Don’t.” Neal pulled away far enough to look into Peter’s eyes, and Peter saw something he didn’t expect – gratitude, mixed in with the remnants of his earlier shell shock. “Don’t take them back. They’re beautiful.”

The crease between Peter’s eyes deepened, and he frowned, shaking his head. “You can’t mean that. No. I mean, they’ll remind you of –”

“You.” The intensity in his blue eyes, still wet from the tears he’d refused to let fall, forced the hurt from Peter’s heart. “They’ll remind me of you.” He laid his head on Peter’s chest, and for the first time in days, his whole body seemed to relax. All of the tension drained from him, and he let out a long, weary groan.

“Neal…”

“Not now, Peter,” Neal mumbled against him, the exhaustion evident in his voice. “You’re alive. That’s all that matters.”

Peter nodded and once again struggled to swallow around the lump in his throat. He knew Neal was right; they’d have plenty of time to hash out the details later. The bottom line was, Neal was safe, and his recent uneasiness and refusal to acknowledge the nesting dolls was just a complicated misunderstanding.

Yet even as Neal fell asleep in his arms, all Peter could think about was how wrong everything had gone. He thought of the night before, of how they’d started out making love and ended up fucking, and how it had felt different, frantic. Desperate. Now he knew and it made him ache, made his stomach churn.

Neal had thought it might be their last time. And Peter had allowed it, just figured Neal wanted something a little different. He hadn’t even asked if Neal was okay because he looked great and he acted normal and he fucked like a dream and…he conned his way through it all.

Peter choked back the bile that rose in his throat and stroked Neal’s arm, listening as his breathing evened out, and thought back to that morning. He’d startled Neal – for the very first time in their long relationship, because it was impossible to sneak up on someone who was always one step ahead. And Neal had looked guilty, even uncomfortable in their own bedroom. He’d almost cried at one point, and he’d been shaking as they held on to each other.

I’m scared, Peter.

Every time something good happens in my life, something from the past…

Who’s going to protect you?

Peter clenched his jaw, breathed through his nose, waited until he was sure Neal wasn’t going to wake, then slid out from behind him as gently as he could and went to the bathroom to vomit. It was quick and quiet, and he prayed that when he flushed the toilet, it would wash away the guilt and regret.

As he rinsed his mouth and washed his face afterward, his mind continued to race. He’d sensed something was wrong, but he hadn’t pushed the issue, and Neal was left to suffer with this secret pain for days. And on top of that, Peter himself had been hurt by the lack of response to his gift. He cringed as he remembered how he’d griped to El and barely managed to not break down just hours earlier.

He’d been busy feeling sorry for himself while Neal had been terror-stricken, while he’d made plans that went against everything he stood for in his new life, while he’d resigned himself to giving up his freedom to save their lives.

And now – now Peter cried, leaning back against the closed door. Not for himself and his attempt at a romantic gift, but for Neal.

It’s not what it looks like. I swear, Peter.

Please don’t send me back.

He slid down to sit on the floor, letting himself quietly fall apart, his shoulders shaking as the tears dripped from his chin onto the front of his shirt. True to form, it only lasted a few minutes, and he pulled himself together as quickly as possible so he could get back to Neal.

When he returned to the sofa, Neal was still sleeping soundly, looking young and innocent and safe.

Peter slid in behind him, cradling his beautiful lover in his arms, comforted by his reassuring warmth. Even as he felt his own weariness pulling him toward sleep, he realized that there were a lot of things he needed to ponder in the near future.

In that moment, though, the only thing that mattered to Peter was that the truth had come out and Neal was asleep in his arms, right where he needed to be.

-----

Epilogue - Christmas Eve

“And have yourself…a merry little Christmas…now.”

As the last notes faded, the small group broke into applause – subdued because Theo Berrigan was sound asleep in Mozzie’s lap in the nearby sitting room – and Neal blushed. He and June took a quick bow, and when he caught Peter’s eye, he smiled and gave the older man a wink.

Peter’s own smile broadened, but Neal was startled to see that he was also blinking back tears. He whispered something to El and squeezed her hand, then slid out from beside her and approached Neal.

“That was wonderful, Neal,” he murmured as he walked by, dragging a hand across Neal’s shoulder. Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared into the bathroom behind the stairs.

Though Neal was puzzled by his partner’s sudden sentimentality and departure, he was quickly distracted by Reese Hughes (Neal and June’s impromptu piano accompanist) and his wife, who complimented him on his singing and wanted to know how he’d discovered he had that particular talent. It took him a good ten minutes of half-truth, half-embellishment before Hughes and the other guests were satisfied. He’d caught a glimpse of Peter at the refreshment table in the dining room at one point, but there had been no sign of him since.

When Theo woke soon after Neal’s story, Hughes decided to entertain him with a lively rendition of ‘Baby Elephant Walk,’ and they became the center of attention.

Neal wrapped an arm around El, who was now standing off to the side, and leaned in close to her ear. “Hello, beautiful.” He planted a kiss high on her jaw, and she smiled. “I think we’ve lost your taller half.”

El turned to swat playfully at his chest. “Don’t you mean taller third? And he’s not lost, he’s just temporarily misplaced.” She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest for a moment, inhaling deeply, before leaning back to look up at him. “If you’re looking for him, he said he needed some fresh air.” She raised her eyebrows, and he gave her a knowing nod.

“Sounds good right about now. Okay if I join him?” Neal glanced around at the room full of their closest friends, all of whom seemed wrapped up in the music and Theo’s antics.

“Oh, I think this is probably your best chance, sweetie. Give him a kiss for me.” She cocked her head, and an impish smile crossed her face. “Well, maybe more than one. And I want to hear about it later.”

Neal kept his expression neutral, but his lips brushed lightly over her neck. “Mrs. Suit,” he whispered, the vibrations from his voice making her shiver. “If you weren’t already on the naughty list, I think you are now.”

She threw back her head and giggled, and when Jones turned and raised his eyebrows at them, Neal took that as his cue to leave. He stopped by the dining room for another glass of mulled wine, then backtracked his way to the stairs.

He found Peter in the apartment, standing by the doors to the terrace. One of them was open slightly, and the older man was positioned in the opening, staring out at the skyline. He held a tumbler in one hand, and from the candy cane sticking out of it, Neal guessed it was another Merry Irishman.

Neal put his own drink on the table, then approached Peter from behind. Peter’s head gave a barely-there flinch when one of the floorboards creaked, but he didn’t turn. Neal rested his hands lightly on Peter’s hips and planted a line of soft kisses along the nape of his neck, the short hairs tickling his nose.

“Mmm.” Peter leaned back into him. “Hey.”

“Hey, you. Everything okay?” Neal’s hands slid around to Peter’s stomach, and he rested his chin on his partner’s shoulder.

“Everything’s fine. Just needed to get away for a minute, get some air.” Peter waved his hand dismissively at the door and took a sip of his drink, the scent of mint and whiskey lingering in the air. He pushed the door closed and turned in Neal’s arms, and Neal’s hands moved lower, resting high on the curve of his ass.

“Peter, what you said earlier…thanks.”

“It’s the truth.” Peter’s free hand moved to the side of Neal’s face, his thumb brushing over his ear, fingers weaving through the soft hair behind it. “I love to hear you sing. At first, I wished you’d do it more often, but now…I don’t know. I kind of like that it’s a rarity. Makes it more special, I guess.”

Neal gave him a shy smile and tried to fight the blush that crept into his cheek. “There for a minute, I thought you might –”

“I had something in my eye.” Peter smirked at Neal’s arched eyebrow and took another sip of his drink. “It’s an old house, you know. Dust.”

“Don’t let the housekeeper hear you say that.” Neal tilted his head up and gave Peter a gentle kiss, then whispered another ‘thank you’ against his lips.

Peter walked them close enough to the table to put down his drink, then wrapped his arms around Neal and offered a kiss of his own. This one was deeper, their tongues exploring and tasting, but it was more of a comfort than a prelude to anything more salacious. The warmth of Peter’s broad body – and his kiss – permeated Neal’s entire being, soothing him and making him feel like being wrapped in Peter’s arms was where he truly belonged. When the kiss finally ended, he sighed and laid his head on Peter’s shoulder, nuzzling at his neck.

They stayed that way for several minutes, reveling in the simple closeness. When the silence was finally broken, it was by Peter, who cleared his throat and pulled away far enough to look into Neal’s eyes.

“Can I talk to you about something?”

Neal shrugged and gestured to the table. “Of course.”

They pulled chairs out and moved them to face each other, close enough that their knees were touching. Neal drank some of his wine, then leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“What’s up?”

“Are you sure you want to keep the nesting dolls?”

Neal was startled by the question. He’d thought they’d put it behind them days ago, but Peter’s question – and the troubled look in his eyes – quickly told him otherwise.

“Of course I do.” He reached for one of Peter’s hands and squeezed it. “Don’t even think about taking them back.” A thought occurred to him, and he smiled. “Tell me something. Why did you buy them?”

Uncertainty crossed Peter’s face, followed closely by a flash of something that might have been shyness. He turned his hand over and threaded his fingers between Neal’s. His other hand closed around his drink, and he took a hasty gulp of it, wincing as he put the glass back on the table. Liquid courage, Christmas style.

“I, uh, remembered how much you liked the ones we saw at the Upton mansion. When I found out that El’s friend offered them in her shop, I thought it would be something…” He looked away and rubbed his thumb over Neal’s. “Special. You know, to show you that I do pay attention, that I can appreciate the things you appreciate.”

Neal smiled, warmed to his core by the admission. “And that’s why I want to keep them,” he said softly. When Peter still didn’t look back up, Neal patted his knee, trying to lighten the mood. “Plus, they’re exquisite. Once upon a time, I would have stolen them.”

Peter huffed out a laugh, and his eyes finally met Neal’s once again. “Allegedly.”

Neal shook his head, his grin widening. “You know I love you, right?”

“I do. And I love you, too, Neal.”

When Peter’s gaze threatened to drift again, Neal brought him back. “So what else is on your mind?”

“A lot, actually.” Peter closed his eyes and seemed to be gathering himself. Neal felt a bit of uncertainty blooming in his gut as he wondered what could be so serious, but when Peter opened his eyes, there was relief in them. “I’ve been thinking about the future, especially over the last few days. You know I can retire after twenty years and get my pension, right?”

Neal nodded, suddenly unsure of what direction Peter was taking. “I thought you were a lifer?”

“I did, too, for a long time. I’m not so sure anymore.” He sighed and let go of Neal’s hand, taking a sip of his drink before leaning back and steepling his fingers under his chin. “Neal, we’ve closed a lot of cases over the years, and the more people we put behind bars, the more enemies we make. Even though what happened last week was a misunderstanding, it got me thinking about what might happen if someone with a grudge really did come after us. I don’t think I have to mention any names, but we’ve already been through it, and I don’t want to do that again.”

Keller. Neal covered his disgust by taking a generous drink of wine.

“El’s had some concerns in the past, but she never went so far as to give me that kind of an ultimatum. Now I have both of you to think about, though, and I wouldn’t be quitting – I’d be retiring. It’s a legitimate way to go out.” His eyes searched Neal’s, looking for a reaction.

“You could really give it all up? You wouldn’t miss it?”

Peter shrugged, his expression softening. “I’m sure I’d miss some of it, but with me in the office more now and you only working part-time for the bureau, the thrill of the chase has been gone for a while.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” Neal teased. “You mean it was still thrilling after you caught me?”

“Which time?” Peter hid a mischievous grin behind the rim of his tumbler. Neal rolled his eyes and just barely managed to bite back a sarcastic retort, but then Peter surprised him with a serious answer. “No. Well, it was still exciting when we were working together, but I never got the same thrill out of it that I did when I was chasing you.”

Peter put down his glass and leaned forward again, taking Neal’s hands in his. “You were my brass ring, Neal. For years, I went around in circles, trying to catch you. Now that I have you – in the best possible way – it seems kind of pointless to stay on the ride.”

“Wow. Yeah.” Neal looked down at their hands, then out the window, pondering everything he’d just heard. “So, what will you do if you retire?”

Peter answered without hesitation. “When I retire, I thought maybe I’d go into security consulting. Start my own company, or maybe work for someone else. I have a few years to work out the details.” He squeezed Neal’s fingers. “Know anyone who might want to join me if I open my own firm?”

“I might be able to find someone.”

“You’ll ask him the next time you see him in the mirror?”

Neal chuckled and nudged Peter’s foot with his own. “I think I could be persuaded.”

A comfortable silence fell between them as they sat there and simply gazed at each other, love and contentment in their eyes. It was Peter who finally broke the spell yet again, clearing his throat and letting go of Neal’s hands. He gave the younger man a quick pat on the knee, then reached into his pants pocket with his right hand. When he brought it back out, there was something hidden in his fist that Neal couldn’t see.

“There’s one more thing from last week that we haven’t cleared up yet.”

“The last piece of the Matryoshka,” Neal said with a nod, smiling at Peter’s raised eyebrows. “I figured you’d give it to me when you were ready.”

Peter gave him a doubtful look. “Did El already tell you about it?”

“No, no. I don’t know what it is. I just decided to be patient. For once.”

“Never thought I’d see the day.” Peter moved to the edge of his seat, his knees spread to either side of Neal’s. “I’ll give it to you now, but you can take all the time you need to decide if it’s what you really want or not. If you don’t –”

“Peter, you’re not returning it.”

Peter let out a nervous laugh, though he seemed to have a hard time holding the smile that came along with it. He was starting to look flustered, and Neal was dying to see what could possibly be causing such a reaction.

“It’s a…this is…I don’t want you to feel trapped.” Trapped? “It’s more symbolic than anything, and if you accept it, you’re not obligated to…it’s more of a promise from me, not…damn.” Peter looked down at his fist, and when he looked back up, there were tears barely visible in the corners of his eyes.

“Peter?”

Peter nodded down at his hand, and when Neal looked, what he saw took his breath away.

In the center of Peter’s palm was a small wooden heart, painted bright red. The last piece of the Matryoshka. Around the center was a simple gold ring.

A wedding band.

Neal’s mouth opened and closed, but as unusual as it was for him, he was actually rendered speechless. Thankfully, Peter started rambling again.

“It’s for your right hand. You know, so you won’t get all sorts of questions. ‘Surprise, I’m married.’ And we couldn’t do it legally anyway. It’s not…I’m not trying to force this on you, and if you keep it, it’s only as much of a commitment as you want it to be. Not that I want you to leave – ever. I just…” His shaky voice trailed off, and he took a few deep breaths.

“It’s a promise, Neal. To you, from me and from El. We wanted to give you something tangible, to show you that we love you and that you’ll always have a place with us if you want it. You don’t have to say anything right now if you’re not ready. I can hang on to it, or –”

Neal leaned forward and cut Peter off with a kiss, one hand coming up to rest on the older man’s cheek. It was soft, sweet, and a way to get Peter to stop talking long enough for Neal to get his bearings.

The ring was a huge step, and it was one that normally would have terrified him. If his time with Peter had taught him anything, though, it was that Neal could trust him. Trust him to be true to his word, to give Neal space if he needed it, and above all, to love him.

Not only that, but it was a big step for Peter and Elizabeth as well. They’d always been one of the most amazing couples he’d ever known, and they didn’t need him to make their lives and their marriage happy complete.

But they wanted him.

Neal finally ended the kiss and backed away just far enough to look into Peter’s eyes, which were full of uncertainty, almost painfully so. The ring, looped around the middle of the tiny wooden heart, still sat in the middle of Peter’s now-shaking palm between them.

After taking a deep breath, Neal gave Peter a shy smile and let himself give in to what he wanted. He held out his right hand, steady as a rock, between them. Peter’s reaction was priceless – he simply sat there, his eyes going from Neal’s face to his hand and back again.

“Peter? Do I still have to say yes if this isn’t technically a proposal?” Peter just blinked at him, overwhelmed. “If so, then yes, I’m…willing to give it a try.” He reached down and gave Peter’s knee a squeeze. “I think this is the part where you put it on.”

Peter stared at him with a hesitant kind of hope. “You’re…yes?” When Neal nodded, Peter let out a shaky sigh, his shoulders slumping in relief. He slid the ring off the heart, putting the last piece of the nesting doll set on the table before taking Neal’s hand in his and sliding the ring onto his finger.

For a moment, both of them just looked at it, unsure what to do next. When Neal looked back up at Peter, his mouth was hanging open, and the younger man couldn’t help saying something to lighten the mood. He was filled with joy, and Peter needed to know that feeling, too.

“You should close this, you know.” Neal’s hand came up to cup Peter’s chin, his thumb running over his lover’s lower lip. “You’re a little drunk, I’m a little drunk, and right about now, this looks way too tempting.”

That did it. Peter shook his head and broke into a grin, his eyes shining with relief. “Do you know how crazy you make me?” He pursed his lips and planted a small kiss on Neal’s thumb. “You’re sure about this?”

“I am. And I’m sure about moving in, since I know you were waiting for an answer to that one, too.” He took Peter’s left hand in his right one, threading their fingers together so the rings were side by side. “Look, I talked to June, and she said I can come back here any time I need to.”

Peter glanced down at their hands – at the rings – and then met Neal’s eyes again. “I’m glad you have that option, although I have to admit that I hope you won’t have to use it very often.”

Neal cocked his head and tried to keep a straight face. “You mean you don’t want me to bring you back here for the occasional date night?”

“Crazy,” Peter muttered with a roll of his eyes. “You drive me absolutely insane. But you’re right. Date night here sounds…” He glanced over at the bed, then down at their hands before grinning at Neal again. “Promising.” His expression softened, and he lifted their joined hands up between them. “Not tonight, though. Tonight is about this. And about all of the amazing people downstairs.”

Neal squeezed his hand and nodded. “Yeah, we should probably get back.” He slid his chair back just far enough to stand, pulling Peter up with him, and wrapped his arms around the other man. Peter’s solid bulk was warm and reassuring, and truth be told, Neal would’ve been happy to just stay there all night.

“Peter? Neal?” El’s voice floated in from the landing. “Everyone’s missing you guys down –” She stopped short just inside the door, beaming at Neal as his eyes met hers over Peter’s shoulder. When she held up her left hand and wiggled her ring finger, he nodded and showed her his right hand. “Really?”

The men parted just far enough welcome her into the embrace as she rushed over with a little squeal of excitement. For a moment, they just held each other, their bodies seeming to fit together perfectly. It felt so good, so right, that it caught Neal off-guard and he had to choke back a sudden surge of emotion.

Eventually, Elizabeth leaned back in their arms, looking from Peter to Neal and back again. “See, hon, I knew you could do it.” She gave him a wink before her gaze settled on Neal. “Peter was so worried he’d mess this up or scare you away.”

“El…”

“Oh, honey, come on,” she teased, turning back to her husband. “Neal knows how you get. It worked out, though, didn’t it? You love Neal, he loves you, and that’s what matters.” She gave each of them a kiss. “And I love you both, but we really need to get back downstairs.”

“Of course,” Neal said, leaning into her side. “We’ll be right down.”

She got the hint and ran a finger over the tip of his nose. “Congratulations, sweetie. And welcome home.” It was obvious she wasn’t referring to the apartment, and Neal felt his chest tighten again. He tried to answer but could only manage an apologetic nod. She ran a hand down his arm, doing the same to Peter with her other hand.

“Remember, don’t be long, you two.” She headed for the door, throwing them a knowing look over her shoulder.

“Well, you heard the lady,” Peter said when she was gone. “Are we ready to head back down?”

Neal picked up the wooden heart from the table and placed it safely in his pocket, making sure his emotions were under control before he answered. “Absolutely.”

Peter put an arm around him and turned toward the door, but Neal hesitated. “Neal? You okay?”

“Yeah.” Neal managed a distracted smile before regarding Peter earnestly. “I just, um…I wanted to thank you for last week. For believing me and giving me a chance to explain.”

Peter inhaled sharply and glanced down at the floor, his hand tightening on Neal’s shoulder. “Sure,” he said quietly. “For whatever it’s worth, I never thought…you know.” That you were going to run. “I just couldn’t – can’t – think that. Not anymore.”

“I know.” Neal fought back the tremor in his voice. “And that means a lot to me. Probably more than you know.” They gazed at each other, unspoken volumes passing between them, before drawing strength from each other and pulling themselves together.

Neal finally cleared his throat. “And now…”

“Yeah?” Peter’s voice was rough, but he gave Neal a sweet, beautiful smile.

“Think we have time for a case tonight? June said she hid mistletoe in a doorway somewhere in this house. I think we need to find it before the night is over.”

“Oh, I agree. After all she’s done for us, we owe it to June to solve this one as quickly as possible.” He pulled away and took a few steps toward the door, then held out his hand. “Shall we?”

With one more look around, Neal took Peter's hand and followed him out the door, down the stairs, and into the next chapter of their lives.

***