El tied the used diaper into a bag and threw it in the trash. "Time for some fresh clothes for you, Neal-Mikey-MonsterPants," she told her son. "Let's see if you can keep them clean for more than an hour this time, what do you say?"
He answered with a grin and an ear-splitting shriek, and she shushed him, distracting him with Mozzie's bear, Mozart, who had become an instant favorite.
"I'll make a deal with you, okay? You can listen to Springsteen so long as you don't tell Daddy, and in the meantime, Momma's going to check her email." Neal Michael's face scrunched up as if he were considering the bargain and wanted to negotiate terms, and El laughed at him. "So adorable. Such an adorable little monster, with his secret E Street habit. Daddy's going to be so proud."
El was saving the information that their child preferred Peter's music collection to her own. Peter's mood was variable, however much he tried to hide it, and it was useful to have a piece of good news she could let slip if he was feeling especially down.
Mozzie's visit seemed to have both buoyed him up and put him on edge. He'd had his Neal Caffrey box out again last night, sifting through memories when he was supposed to be putting the dishwasher on. And he'd volunteered to help with both night feedings, a sure sign he was sleeping badly.
She put on Born to Run and settled her son on his play mat, then reached for her laptop, all the time holding memories of Neal Caffrey at arm's length. She couldn't afford to dwell on what had happened, on the part she'd played. She had to be here for Peter and the baby.
She was logging on when the front door slammed open and a tall, charcoal-suited blur raced up the stairs.
"Honey?" El called after him. She turned off the music so her voice would carry. "Is everything okay?"
"Nothing's wrong," Peter called back, his voice muffled. There was a creak followed by a thump: the sound of the attic stairs coming down. More footsteps. El put her laptop aside, went to shut the front door before Satchmo made a break for it, and resigned herself to postponing her internet time until Neal Michael's afternoon nap.
"Do you have to get back to the office or can you stay for lunch?" she called.
The baby was babbling at Satchmo, apparently introducing him to Mozart.
"El, there's something I have to tell you." Peter came back down with a stack of file boxes. "It's going to sound crazy, but just keep an open mind."
"Oh honey, no. You need to stop." Those were his other Caffrey boxes, the ones El had made him put away six months ago. "It's been a year. I need you to focus on the future, not—"
She broke off. He was smiling. There was a spring in his step.
"I'm focused on the future," he said, and dumped the boxes on the table. Boxes of mementos and photos, a sliced-in-half tie, a toy catapult and a plaster bust, some case files. El already knew the contents; there was nothing there she needed to see.
Guilt made her cross. She checked on Neal Michael and said briskly, "Well, I'm making lunch. Do you want a sandwich?"
"Yeah, thanks," said Peter, digging through the case files. He pulled out a sheet of paper, then another, then a third and a fourth.
"What are those?" asked El, curious despite herself.
Peter fanned them like a poker hand and held them up. "Neal Caffrey's death certificates: Panama, India, California, New York."
El went cold. Denial was another manifestation of Peter's grief, and a bitterly cruel one. She should have kept him away from Mozzie.
"The California one's my favorite." Peter held it out to her, but she folded her arms. "Listen to me, El. He planned it, he planned all of it. I just found a shipping container on the dock full of clues."
"He planned to die?" El shook her head. "I don't believe it."
Peter wasn't listening. "Neal Caffrey's greatest con. One more death certificate, and he swans off to Europe, no one the wiser."
Neal Michael started squealing for attention, and El picked him up and hugged him, but her attention was on Peter. "He said we were his family. He wouldn't have put us through the last year by choice. You identified the body. Hon, I'm begging you, don't start down this path."
"He might have done it, if he thought he was protecting us," said Peter. "The idiot."
El froze. "What are you talking about?"
"You know I told you the Pink Panthers have a nasty reputation. If Neal thought they'd made him as the mole, if he thought they'd come after his friends, he might have decided it was the only way." Peter jerked his head to the side. "He pulled stupid stunts for me before."
Bribing the federal prosecutor. That had been El's fault too: she'd given Neal permission. Do whatever it takes. She'd never regretted it, even though it had cut Peter up inside and caused a serious rift in his and Neal's friendship. The price had been worth it to have Peter free. But these last months of mourning and heartache couldn't have been planned, not unless Neal were punishing them, and Neal hadn't been vindictive. "He would have told you. He would have sent you a sign."
"You would think," said Peter. "But this is Neal we're talking about, always running just when his sentence is nearly up. And then yesterday we finally close the case, take down the last of the Panthers, and the Bordeaux turns up on the doorstep and leads me to the shipping container. It all fits. I'm telling you, El, he's alive. I can feel it."
El hooked out a dining chair with her foot and sat down, overcome with a maelstrom of emotions. Peter was watching, waiting for her to share his relief. A glow in his eyes after so much darkness.
"If you're right, when he comes home I'm going to give him hell for what he put us through." A whole damned year. Neal Michael was burbling worriedly, picking up on their tension, and El closed her eyes, overwhelmed, and held him tighter, rocking him. "Shh, shhh, it's okay, babycakes."
Peter sat down beside them. "He's not coming back, hon. If he meant to come back, it would have been him on the doorstep, not a bottle of wine. That was goodbye."
El leaned against Peter and let Neal Michael clutch her finger. She breathed in the soft smell of talcum and baby, trying to tame her fury. It just burned brighter. "I'm going to kill him."
After lunch and Neal Michael's feeding, Peter called Diana and Clinton to meet him at the storage container. He hadn't told them yet. "Neal Mikey and I are coming too," said El. "I want to see it."
There was a still a chance Peter had invented this, that grief was playing tricks on him, but stepping into the container erased that possibility: all the pieces were here.
"I need you to process the artworks," Peter was telling Clinton. "And we'll have to be discreet. The brass can't know about this."
El hardly heard Clinton's reply, too mesmerized by the bullet hole in the mannequin. The jagged edges that could have been flesh. The lack of blood. Neal Caffrey's greatest con, Peter had said, as if he didn't mind they'd been the marks.
"Can you believe this?" asked Diana, coming to stand beside her. "I kept beating myself up for letting him and Keller slip away from the bust that day. I even thought Keller must have kidnapped him, and I should have stopped it. And now I find out it was all a plan." She sounded exasperated, but her lips curved up.
"There's no doubt, then?" The notes on poison, the bullet casings, the photos and art. "Mozzie couldn't have put this together as part of a conspiracy theory?" Peter had explained about the Queen of Hearts. Maybe Mozzie had left it here to sign his work like any great forger.
"The key was in Neal's personal effects," said Peter. "He did this."
El had Neal Michael in the strap-on baby carrier, and he looked around at the sound of his name, knocking his sunhat off his head. El caught it before it fell to the floor.
"So what now, Peter?" asked Clinton, hands on his hips. "Are you going to go after him?"
"Please tell me you're going to make him pay." Diana's eyes gleamed.
Peter hesitated for a fraction of a second. He glanced at El and their son, and she knew what he was going to say. "I'm a family man now. I'm not going anywhere. And I can't use FBI resources to find him without raising eyebrows. The release paperwork was never filed with the DoJ, and I don't want D.C. getting wind of this and sending another Kramer or Collins after him."
"You're going to let him get away with it?" Clinton held up the newspaper with its headline about the Louvre. "You know he's probably gone back to his old ways."
"We don't know," said Peter. "He might have been teasing when he left that."
Diana snorted. "I'll bet you a missing twenty-three million he hasn't gone straight."
"We have to do something," said El. "We can't just leave him out there." She was still mad and she needed to yell at him, but it was more than that: she wouldn't really believe he was okay until she saw for herself.
"We should give him a taste of his own medicine," said Diana. "Make him think Peter's dead and see how he likes it."
"Run a con on him?" Peter grinned at her. He'd taken off his suit jacket and slung it over his shoulder. He looked ten years younger.
"Using everything he taught us," said Diana with relish. "But we're going to have to do it in the next three days. My movers are scheduled for Friday morning."
Clinton was frowning. "It won't work. We can't con him if we can't find him."
"No problem." El pushed between Peter and Clinton and plucked Mozzie's Queen of Hearts from where it sat, propped against a painting. "I can find him."
Clinton had to get back to his surveillance detail, and Peter had a meeting, so El turned to Diana. "Do you want me to come over? I can mind the kids while you pack."
"That would be fantastic, you have no idea. I left Theo with my neighbor when Peter called, but she's teaching a Pilates class at two. It's going to be so much easier when I get to D.C. and can make my parents babysit."
"I bet they can't wait," said El, secretly relieved her own folks lived so far away. But then, she wasn't a single mom. Parenting was hard work, but she and Peter could manage between them. "During the Pink Panthers case, when I was pregnant, I told Neal I couldn't handle being a mom without Peter. I told him to keep Peter safe. I always thought that was what had got him killed."
For months she'd pictured Keller double-crossing the FBI, and Neal going after him to stop him because of her, because of what she'd said. The scene had haunted her in sleepless hours, left her clammy and nauseated until she'd forced herself not to think about it anymore. To focus on her baby and Peter who were still there, who needed her.
"It wouldn't have been your fault, even if it had happened that way," Diana told her. "Caffrey was always racing off without backup and getting himself in hot water."
"You blamed yourself," El pointed out. "So did Peter. We all did." Tricked into taking responsibility for an illusion. But if it were true that Neal had arranged his own death to protect them from the Pink Panthers, he'd been acting on El's instructions. I need you to keep him safe.
Neal may have been the architect of Peter's grieving, but she had commissioned the design.
She shivered and looked over her shoulder at her son, strapped securely in his car seat. "We should have thought twice before we named you after a con artist," she told him. "Neal B. and Neal C. It's about to get really confusing." He kicked off one of his shoes.
"Only if Caffrey comes back to New York," said Diana.
El was determined. "He has to, so I can wring his neck."
Diana laughed. "Get in line."
They reconvened at Diana's place that evening among stacks of boxes and suitcases, because Theo was restless due to the upheaval and Neal Michael would sleep anywhere so long as he had his toy lion, Tootie.
Diana got Theo settled and came back in to call for pizza. Neal Michael had fallen asleep sprawled on Peter's chest and was leaving a drool mark just above his nipple. El slipped a cloth under his cheek before it got any worse.
Clinton looked around the circle. "So, I'm having second thoughts," he said. "Making Caffrey think Peter's dead—that seems pretty mean. I mean, this is real life, not a comic book."
"Spoilsport." Diana wrinkled her nose.
"I was thinking the same thing," said Peter. "It's appealing in theory, but it's taking it too far."
"Stooping to his level," said Clinton.
El flicked her fingernail against the stem of her wineglass. "Mozzie once said the perfect con gets you everything you want. So—what is it we want?"
"Payback," said Diana. "For the paperwork, if nothing else."
"To make sure he's not on another big ticket crime spree," said Clinton. "The thought of all those European museums—" He shook his head.
"I just want him to understand what he put us through," said El. "Really get it." Not that he could. A short-term con would never compare to living with Peter's haunted looks, or the months when he'd closed himself off, pretending everything was fine but refusing to talk about it.
Peter took a deep breath. "I'm going to bring him home."
They were all quiet a moment. El tried to imagine life with Neal back in New York, drawing Peter into his daredevil adventures. Toward the end it had felt like a tug of war, with work and Neal on one end and Peter as the rope. But Peter was a father now; he wouldn't let her down. And it would make him so happy. He didn't have a lot of friends, and Neal had been special.
"He can't come back as Neal Caffrey," said Clinton. "He well and truly burned that identity. And if he's in Europe, it's going to take a serious emergency for him to risk crossing the Atlantic."
"What if we made him believe Peter's been kidnapped?" suggested El.
"It would have to be a credible threat," said Peter. "I don't want him thinking we've lost our edge since he left."
"We have our pride," agreed Diana. "We could say Alan Woodford escaped from prison and came after you."
"The head of the Pink Panthers?" said El.
"Yeah. And we never saw it coming," said Clinton. "You think that would scare Neal into hopping a flight to JFK?"
"Wild horses wouldn't keep him away," said Diana. "If he buys it."
They all exchanged glances. "Are we really doing this?" said El.
Peter looked at Clinton. "You still think it's going too far?"
"I don't," said Diana. "We're talking forty-eight hours tops. And anyway, he started it."
The pizza arrived, and they schemed while they ate. Once they'd sketched out the bare bones of a plan, Peter said, "We're going to need Mozzie's help."
"You think the little guy will go along with it?" asked Clinton. "Won't he take Neal's side?"
Diana shrugged. "The last year was rough on him too. He only visited Theo twice, but he was like a different person."
Clinton looked surprised. "I assumed he was in on it. Wouldn't Caffrey have used him as his inside man?"
"Neal didn't need an inside man to fake his death," said Peter. "He needed Mozzie to react naturally. Me too."
El squeezed his arm. "So when did Moz find out? Now I think about it, I'm pretty sure he was saying goodbye when he visited yesterday. He mentioned something about an appointment with destiny."
"He didn't know when I saw him the day before. He said—" Peter shook his head. "He didn't know. So sometime between Mozzie's meeting me and visiting my house, Neal contacted him, and Mozzie left the playing card in the container."
"And the Bordeaux on our doorstep," said El. "That adds up. He's probably winging his way to France as we speak."
"Okay. But how do we recruit him?" said Clinton.
"I can make contact," said El. Everyone turned to her, and the communication system was so typically Mozzie, all codes and obscure references, that she knew they'd laugh, but she told them anyway. "I have to advertise a bread box on eBay with specific keywords in the description."
"Of course you do," said Peter.
"Bread box is Mozzie's safe word," El explained. "He has an automatic alert set up. Once he's confirmed it's me, he'll call."
"He'll tell Caffrey," said Diana. "And then our nefarious scheme will be dead in the water."
El shook her head. "We have a code for that. He won't tell Neal if I include the right keywords."
"My wife, the international espionage agent," said Peter, teasing her.
She winked. "My husband, the budding con artist."
"This isn't a career change," said Peter. "It's a one-time deal."
"Consider it a leaving gift to me," said Diana. "The White Collar gang rides again, one last time. This is going to be a blast." She clinked her beer bottle against Clinton's.
"I'll get in touch with Sienna from HR about that video." Clinton held up his hand before they could reply. "I know, I know. Top secret, need to know. I'll tell her we want it for an in-house White Collar training exercise. That's her specialty."
"Perfect," said Peter. He rubbed his hands together. "Let's get this show on the road."
Later that night, El searched the internet for a picture of an antique bread box and posted it to eBay, and then she and Peter went to bed.
"We need to talk about Neal," said El, lying next to Peter in the dark.
"Which one?" said Peter, and El could feel the excitement fizzing through him. Even if Neal Caffrey didn't come back, or he decided not to stay, the knowledge that he was still alive had turned Peter's world right-side up.
She clenched her fists at the guilty lurch in her stomach. "Exactly. We gave Neal Mikey his name to honor Neal, but now it feels like that was part of the con too. Every time I think about it—"
"Well, we could change the boy's name to Captain Puddlepants, but he'll get some strange looks on the subway," said Peter. "Not to mention when he starts school he'll outrank most of his teachers."
"We should call Neal Caffrey that: Puddlepants Caffrey. It would serve him right."
"Whoa, you're mad." Peter drew her into a bear hug.
"Well, you're not. I'm fuming for two." But she relaxed in his arms, despite herself. "I'll get over it, and our payback con is definitely helping. But whatever his reasons, Neal tricked us into mourning for him, and right now when I hear his name I just want to throttle him."
"It's the monster's name too," said Peter. "But you know, we already call him Neal Michael or Neal Mikey half the time. If it makes you feel better, we can drop the Neal for a while. He can be plain old Mikey. MikeyB. The Mike Monster. Give it to Mikey."
"Michael Troublemaker Burke."
"Oh no," said Peter. "Now you're naming him after Caffrey all over again."
She snorted, then sighed and cuddled up against him, grateful he was taking her feelings seriously, even while he goofed around. "Thanks, hon."
He pressed a kiss to her head. "Anything for you."
Mozzie called El's cellphone at twenty to seven the next morning, when Neal Mikey had just finished his morning breastfeeding. She handed the baby off to Peter and stayed in the easy chair by his crib, where she'd spent so many hours over the last months, including a few unintentional all-nighters when she'd fallen asleep instead of going back to bed. The call was from a blocked number, but at this time of the morning, it could only be one person. "Hi, Moz," she said. "Please tell me Neal doesn't know you're—"
Mozzie interrupted. "Before you say anything, I have to remind you this is an unsecured line. And rest assured, this call is code Hand-Painted."
El thought fast. He wouldn't help them if she couldn't work on his terms. "We got your card," she said. "That was very thoughtful of you."
"You're welcome. And?" There was faint traffic noise in the background.
"How's Paris?" said El, taking a chance they'd correctly deduced both his destination and the speed with which he'd get there.
"Full of jarring joie de vivre and fragrant lactose-laden cheese," said Moz impatiently. "Neither of which I really appreciate. Not to mention the time difference. El, if you wanted to talk about Paris, this wouldn't be a private call. What's the emergency?"
"Well, we need some ingredients for a cocktail, and we were hoping you could help us out," said El. Peter was listening in with raised eyebrows, but she was busy sifting through everything Moz had ever let slip about his life of crime, searching for the right words. She'd fill Peter in later. "Kind of a Memphis Media Muffle with a twist?"
"A Memphis Muffler," Moz corrected, but he sounded intrigued. "And who exactly are you planning to invite to your cocktail party?"
"Our mutual friend AKA Lazarus."
Mozzie didn't reply.
"He gave us all such a generous gift, we feel like we owe him," she added hurriedly. "I'm sure you understand."
There was a huffed breath. "Go and buy a burner phone. Use cash. Email me the number at the Haversham address."
"Got it," said El. "Thanks, Moz." She disconnected and turned to Peter. "We need a burner phone."
Mikey was half-dressed, chatting to Peter and wriggling like a worm, and Peter was holding him in place while eyeing El curiously. "Okay, but first tell me two things: what is a Memphis Media Muffle, and when exactly did you learn to speak Criminese?"
El grinned. "I'll take Satch out and get the phone. You finish getting Mikey—"
"Puddlepants," said Peter.
"—MonsterBee into his clothes." She went over and kissed her son and then her husband, leaning into Peter for a minute before she roused herself to action. "Come on, boys, we've got a lot of work to do today."
"You may speak freely," said Mozzie, when he called a few hours later. "Tell me your plan."
"Okay," said El, "but first, you should know you're on speaker. Peter, Clinton and Mikey are here too." They were sitting around the dining table, with Mikey in his high chair doing a baby's jigsaw puzzle, trying to put animals into the right-shaped holes.
"Suits," said Mozzie in greeting.
Clinton cocked an eyebrow at El. "Mikey?"
"He hates everything," said Peter. "Hey, Mikey! You like it?"
Mikey grinned wetly, oblivious to his name change. He was trying to cram the dog into the whale hole.
"Can we move this along? My absence will be conspicuous in about six minutes." Mozzie still sounded irritable, but El didn't think it was directed at them.
"Okay," she said again. "So the plan is to con—Wait, what name is he using now?"
"I'm not giving his name to the FBI," said Mozzie. "I do have principles."
"Fine, Neal then. We want to con Neal into thinking Peter's been kidnapped by Woodford. We're preparing a phony CNN report that Woodford's escaped from Supermax, Diana's putting together a New York Times webpage to corroborate the story and give some more details, and we can also provide a staged audio feed from Theo's room, with Diana and Clinton discussing the situation and talking about how Peter was taken. We need you to feed the faked media to Neal and make sure he doesn't check the real news."
Mozzie hmmed. "You realize he'll probably take the first flight back to New York."
"We know," said El.
Peter leaned toward the phone. "That's the plan."
Mozzie didn't respond.
"So will you help?" said Clinton.
"I'm thinking," snapped Mozzie. He sighed. "The joie de vivre is ringing très hollow. It's positively grating. Okay."
"You're in?" said El. "Awesome."
"Thanks, Mozzie," said Peter.
"Is there anything else you need from us?" said Clinton.
"Only an iron-clad guarantee this isn't a government plot to wrap him back up in chains," said Mozzie. "I'm counting on you, Suit, and if you let me down, I will be extremely displeased."
"No Bureau," said Peter. "You have my word."
"And mine," said El.
Clinton nodded. "Neal made good on his deal to capture the Panthers. He's earned his freedom."
Mozzie's tone lightened. "In that case, upload the files to Dropbox and send me the link. I'll see what I can do." There was knocking in the background, someone calling Hey, Moz. Are you in there? An unmistakable someone. "I have to go," said Mozzie and disconnected.
Mikey was chewing experimentally on the cat puzzle piece. El picked him up and cuddled him. "You hear that? Your Uncle Neal's coming home."
"If it works," said Peter. "We're talking about conning a con."
"If anyone can pull this off, it's you two and the little guy," said Clinton. "You know Caffrey best. It must have been a real shock, yesterday."
"Yeah," said Peter. "How's our timeline looking?" He clearly didn't want to talk about it. Some wounds ran too deep for words, and a revelation like this couldn't magically erase the scars.
El buried her face in Mikey's hair for a moment, waiting out the stomach lurch that hit her every time she thought about Neal's great con. Logic told her he must have been planning it for weeks before the bust, meticulously putting everything in place. But logic was nothing when weighed against Peter's months of missing him. It was her fault.
Clinton was telling Peter about the CNN video. "They've got Alayna from Marketing acting as news anchor. She's good, looks like a pro. And they're taking the ticker from the latest CNN broadcast to make sure it's up to date. Should have it ready by this afternoon."
"Great. Thanks, Jones." Peter put his phone on the table and called Diana on speaker. "How's the webpage coming?"
"Just putting the ads in place now," said Diana. "I suppose I shouldn't include one for a haberdasher, or a banner for the latest exhibition at the MoMA."
"Restrain yourself," said Peter. "We'll meet at your place at four-thirty and run through the material, record the staged audio from Theo's room and upload it all for Mozzie."
"Then it's in his hands," said El.
"Assuming he doesn't double-cross us," said Clinton.
"Cons are more fun when I get to intimidate someone," said Diana. "Can't I stake out the airport and greet Caffrey's arrival with a SWAT team?"
"Quiet, you," said Peter, fond but firm. "We play this one straight and simple, and we involve as few people as possible."
"We promised Mozzie it wasn't a government conspiracy," El told Diana. "We're strictly off-book."
"Okay, fine," said Diana. "But I want to be there for the yelling."
The faked CNN broadcast was convincing; the segment started with a mugshot in the corner of the screen while an anchor explained that Woodford had overpowered a guard, and then segued into a discussion of prison security statistics, comparing New York with other states. El sat next to Peter on Diana's couch and hugged Mikey, taking comfort in his cheerful incomprehension and solid little weight. Keller had orchestrated Peter's kidnapping from prison; Rebecca's accomplice had taken Neal while Rebecca was still inside. Retaliation from the Panthers was all too plausible, even without the jailbreak. A voice in the back of her mind whispered it was good they were bringing Neal home; he'd kept Peter safe for her before and he'd do it again if she asked. But assigning him the role of protector had got them into this mess and hurt everyone. That wasn't the answer.
She was grateful when Peter slipped his arm around her. She leaned her head on his shoulder and pretended to make Mozart talk to Mikey, shutting out the broadcast.
"It looks good," said Diana, studying the screen critically. "What did it cost you?"
"Couple of bottles of single malt, couple of 'I owe you one's," said Clinton. "Let's see this webpage."
Diana opened her browser. She'd made a homepage with a Prison Break by Alan Woodford of International Thieves' Syndicate, The Pink Panthers headline just below a story on corruption in the New York State Assembly. Clicking the headline took them to a second page with the full story. Diana and Clinton must have coordinated, because the details were the same, and she'd used a different photo of Woodford.
"Open the real site too," said Peter, and Diana did, flicking between them. The fake one was perfect.
"Wow, I'm impressed," said El. "Please don't ever decide to con me, you guys."
Diana grinned and turned to Clinton. "You ready to make the recording?"
"Yeah." He opened the case he'd brought and took out a bug and a receiver. "The receiver has recording capabilities. We can copy the audio onto the computer and upload it for Mozzie."
"Okay, someone has to go and plant the bug in Theo's room," said Diana. "I want to be method about this, and that means I shouldn't know where it's placed."
"I'll do it," said Peter.
"Let me," said El. "I'll see if I can guess where Mozzie would put it." She gave Mikey to Peter and took the bug into Theo's room, where he was sound asleep clutching a purple My Little Pony. Diana hadn't started packing his things yet, probably to avoiding unsettling him, and El scanned the shelves of books, the toy boxes and the bright framed prints on the walls. There was a mobile hanging from the ceiling and a rack of colored balls in different sizes under the window. Where in all of this would Mozzie plant a bug?
On the wall by the light switch hung a print that looked like a book cover. It had a picture of a rocket and the earth on a black background, and the title Lunarcy in large white letters. That was Mozzie's style. She hooked the bug on the back of the frame and set it carefully against the wall, making sure it was still hanging straight.
She went back into the living room. "All set."
"Right," said Diana. "So, Jones, you've come over to break the news to me in person? Are we recording? Let's do this."
El sat back down next to Peter and reclaimed Mikey, and Clinton went to stand on the doorstep. Peter pressed 'Record' and signaled they were live, and Clinton knocked that hard FBI knock.
Diana answered the door and led him back to Theo's room. "Hey, Jones. What's going on?"
And then their voices came over the receiver. "I've got some bad news," said Clinton, speaking quietly so as not to wake Theo. "Woodford's taken Peter."
"We don't know. Peter left the office at six and never made it home. We found his phone in the bushes in Federal Plaza, and traffic cams show Woodford in the area, but he'd covered his plates. We don't have much to go on."
"Jesus," said Diana, sounding shocked. "Have you told Elizabeth?"
"Yeah, we've got agents watching the house. Look, I know you're in the middle of packing for your move to D.C., but we need you on this," said Clinton. "Can you get a sitter?"
Peter shifted on the couch next to El, so he could get his phone out of his pocket. He dialed, and over the receiver, Clinton's phone rang. Clinton answered, said a few words, then, "Okay, I'll be there ASAP." He switched tone, talking to Diana again. "We've got a ransom demand. It's definitely Woodford."
"Proof of life?" said Diana. They were coming out of Theo's room now, the audio getting fainter.
"Tight visual, no audio," said Clinton.
"I'll call my neighbor." Their voices faded through the speaker as they came down the hall into the living room.
Peter stopped the recording and looked up. "And that's a wrap."
"How was it?" said Diana. "Do we get the Oscar for Best Neal-Baiting?"
Clinton smirked and raised his eyebrows. "Was the audio clear?"
"It was perfect." El buried her face in Mikey's hair. "I'm just thanking God it was fiction." Mikey pushed her away and grabbed at her blouse, catching a strand of her hair and tugging it hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. He was getting hungry.
"I'll tidy up the beginning and end of the recording and we can upload it," said Clinton, rolling up his sleeves. "Diana, can I borrow your laptop?"
Clinton plugged the receiver into the laptop, and El freed her hair and latched Mikey on for a feeding, using the physical closeness to settle herself as well as her son. And if she was uneasy, knowing the performance was a sham, how would Neal feel? For the first time, she wondered if they were going too far.
"I'm having qualms," she murmured to Peter. "Are we being too harsh?"
He kissed her temple. "If it brings him home, it's worth it. And if it doesn't, we'll tell him the truth in a couple of days."
Two days versus twelve months. It was a drop in the ocean. "Okay. Let's do it."
"Excellent," said Diana. "Now someone please take that bug out of my son's bedroom."
Two days later, El was clearing away after lunch while Mikey chewed on a board book and listened to Springsteen when there was a knock at the door. Peter was upstairs with the work he'd brought home. El took a deep breath, shook her nerves from her fingertips and went to answer.
He seemed taller, which was ridiculous, and older, which was trite. He was wearing a battered tan leather jacket and casual fit jeans, and he had a beard flecked with gray. He'd lightened his hair. He could have been a stranger, any anonymous traveler, but then he took off his sunglasses to reveal that familiar blue gaze, smudged with shadows.
Her throat closed up, tears stinging her eyes, and she shook her head unable to speak. Clenching her hands until her fingernails scored her palms.
"Oh God, Elizabeth." He surged forward, enveloping her in a fierce hug so tight she couldn't breathe. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's all my fault. I'm so sorry."
Satchmo ran over, barking, and Mikey started crying over the sound of "Glory Days." El shoved Neal away so she could suck in some air and hauled him inside, through to the living room, where she turned down the stereo and picked up Mikey, rocking him as she turned back to Neal. The fact of his presence was overwhelming. "It's really you."
"Yeah, I know it must be a shock, and I'll explain everything later," he said over Mikey's cries. "I thought disappearing was the only way to stop the Panthers from retaliating, but obviously—" He swallowed hard and shook his head. "I'm here now, and Moz is finding out everything he can about Woodford. We'll get him, I promise." He dropped his sunglasses on the coffee table and ran his hand over his tired face. Stepped closer, frowning. "I didn't see any agents outside your house. There should be agents. You need protection."
Mikey's screams faded to sobs and hiccups, and he burrowed into her. El rubbed his back, soothingly. "Neal, there's something you should know—" she started, but he interrupted.
"Elizabeth, don't take this the wrong way, but everyone I've ever been in love with is dead now, except for you. Peter was—" He took an unsteady breath and put his hand on her arm. "I don't expect anything from you, just let me stay here and keep you and your son safe. Please."
El's mind whirled. Neal must have misinterpreted the con, convinced himself that Woodford had murdered Peter. And he'd said— "You were—I mean, I knew you loved Peter, of course, but in love?"
Neal's gaze wavered. "He never told you."
"He didn't know," said El, with a sinking feeling, conscious of the baby monitor on the table. She and Peter had switched the microphone for the speaker that morning so if Neal showed up today, Peter could listen in on his arrival before making an entrance. At the time it had felt like part of the game; now it seemed unfair.
"He did. It doesn't matter now." Neal made a swift, dismissive gesture and bent to see Mikey's face. "Hey, little buddy, I'm here to protect you and your mom, okay?"
Mikey had calmed down now he was being held. He tugged on the neck of El's blouse, stretching the fabric, and she dislodged his fingers and met Neal's eye. "Neal, it's not what you think. Peter isn't—"
"He's right here," said Peter, running down the stairs in his shirtsleeves. He strode toward them, beaming. "Hello, Neal."
Neal spun around, his hand dropping from El's arm. His face slack with surprise. "Peter!"
And then they were hugging, just as hard and desperate as Neal had embraced her. Peter's eyes were closed, Neal's jacket crumpled under his hands as they clung together. El bit her lip, her earlier fury transformed into joy for them and for herself. Neal was alive, and that meant Peter would finally be okay. He'd be here and happy, one hundred percent.
Eventually Neal pulled away and swiped his hand across his eyes, visibly pulling himself together. He smacked Peter on the arm. "Look at you, all in one piece."
"That's my line," said Peter, grinning.
Neal shook his head. "I don't understand. Moz heard Diana say the FBI arrived too late. Woodford had already fled the scene, and you were—finished."
"Sounds like Moz went off-script," said El. "I guess we should have expected that."
"Woodford's in prison where he belongs," said Peter. "We decided the only way to get through to you was to speak your language."
Neal blinked. "It was a con? Wait, Diana and Jones were in on it too? And Moz?"
"Yeah." Peter gripped Neal's shoulder for a moment. "Not so nice to be on the receiving end, is it?"
"Putting it mildly." Neal folded onto the couch as if the energy had drained out of him. Satchmo went over to say hi, and Neal absentmindedly rubbed his ears, "Hey, boy," and looked up at Peter and El. "The last year."
"Twelve damned months," said El. Righteous indignation sparked again. "Do you have any idea what it was like? The hell you put us through? Take the last twenty-four hours and multiply it into weeks and weeks."
Neal flinched and leaned forward, hands dangling between his thighs. "I thought Peter would investigate."
"What?" El's anger curdled in her stomach. With every revelation came a new reason to blame herself.
"I left the key, Luc tailed me and took photos, there were clues in my financials and my phone records. I thought Peter would have it figured out in a week. When I didn't get word—" He glanced at Peter and shrugged helplessly. "—I assumed you'd decided to let me go. Decided you were better off."
"You know better than that," said Peter.
Mikey squirmed in El's arms like a muscular octopus, but her moves to contain him and settle him down were automatic, distracted. She fought down nausea. "It's my fault. I didn't let Peter investigate."
"Why?" Neal frowned. He still seemed a stranger in a lot of ways; twelve months had changed them all.
She sat down next to him. "We knew what had happened: the ballistics matched Keller's gun." It hadn't been like David Siegel, where the FBI had been in the dark about murderer and motive; but even with knowledge, with closure, Neal's death had been a hundred times worse. "And Peter was—he was torturing himself. Blaming himself. So I told him to stop."
I need you, she'd said. The baby and I need you to be here for us. She'd used their son.
Peter moved the coffee table back a foot and sat on it, facing them. His knees almost touched Neal's, and his voice was a low rumble. "Whatever was going on, whatever you were doing with Keller under Wall Street that day, I decided it was better not to know. I wanted to remember the best of you."
Neal's mouth softened, and he snorted a quiet laugh. "I suppose I deserve that."
A blind eye and a selective memory had always been the greatest gifts Peter could give Neal, but in the end Neal had counted on Peter's suspicion and relentless curiosity. El wanted to hug them both, but she was pinned down with Mikey. She settled for touching Neal's arm.
He covered her hand, gave it a warm squeeze and let it go.
Her breath caught. She'd never been aware of Neal before, not like this. He'd been Peter's CI and her knight. He'd flirted with her sometimes, but she'd known it was a game. Anything more would be a terrible complication. She cleared her throat. "So what's your name now? Mozzie wouldn't say."
Neal grimaced. He pulled a passport out of his back pocket, weighed it in his hand a moment and gave it to Peter. "It's not what it looks like."
Peter opened it and looked up slowly, eyebrows raised. He passed it to El, who held it up out of Mikey's reach. The photo pre-dated the beard. This was the Neal she knew. It took her a moment to notice the name. "Victor Moreau?"
"I didn't choose it," said Neal. "It chose me."
"At least it's not Victor Perdue," said Peter gruffly. He stood up. "I'm putting coffee on. Anyone?" He barely waited for an answer before heading for the kitchen.
"Give him time," said El. "It's been a bumpy ride."
"I don't know if—" Neal shrugged. "I don't want to get in your way."
"You're not, and you're not going anywhere," said El. "Now, what do we call you: Victor? Vic?"
"Neal. I've missed it."
"Okay," said El. "Welcome back from the dead, Neal."
He gave her a quick smile, then looked away. "You bought a new couch. Nice." He cocked his head at Mikey. "You're a lucky guy. Your mom has excellent taste."
Mikey grinned and waved a sticky fist in response.
It was a deliberate distraction on Neal's part, and El went with it. "He thinks it's good that you approve of the couch," she said, "because it folds out, and you're sleeping on it."
As if on cue, Neal's phone buzzed with a text message. He checked it. "June's invited us to dinner tonight."
Peter came in with a tray and overheard the invitation. He set the drinks on the coffee table. "It's Diana and Theo's last night in the city before they move to D.C. We thought you might want to catch up if you got here in time."
"I'm sure June can accommodate them," said Neal. He helped himself to the nearest mug.
El tilted her head. "Clinton too?"
"The more, the merrier." Neal was obviously comfortable inviting guests to June's house, and El wondered if he planned to stay there, in his old apartment. It would make sense—the townhouse was crowded with baby paraphernalia, and Neal was a man who liked his own space—but she bit her lip all the same. They'd only just got him back.
Peter looked at his watch. "Well, I need to get some files together and drop by the office this afternoon. I wish I could leave it till Monday, but bureaucracy waits for no man."
"I need to buy some supplies," said Neal. When Peter looked enquiring, he elaborated, "Toothbrush, change of clothes. I didn't really plan ahead."
"I'll give you a ride into town," said Peter. "Give me five minutes." He took a couple of gulps of coffee and headed upstairs.
El opened her mouth to offer to accompany Neal on his shopping trip, but she had stains on her blouse and Mikey was hungry. She gave up. "Okay."
"I'll see you at June's at six." Neal pocketed his passport and met her gaze. Whatever he saw on her face made him smile faintly. "I promise."
Tension bled from her shoulders. Neal kept his promises. "We'll see you there."
Mikey's grumblings turned into vociferous complaints, so she picked him up and sniffed him. "Ugh. You need a change of clothes too, babycakes."
Neal grinned. "Are you going to introduce me?"
"Neal, this is Mikey," said El, making a split second decision to stick to the easy answer for now. "Mikey, this is your Uncle Neal. You can get better acquainted when you're more congenial." She took him to the changing table in the corner of the dining room. "Neal, could you hit play on the stereo? It calms him down."
A moment later, guitar music jangled in the air. It was the end of "Glory Days". El's brain stuttered for a moment, remembering years of Peter and Neal bringing work home, excitedly discussing cases with her, making breakthroughs, glowing with triumph after a successful bust. Those had been glory days for sure. Mikey's chatter brought her back to the present, and she dealt with his dirty diaper, deliberately not looking to see if Neal were watching. She'd never seen him with a baby before—she didn't know if his interest was genuine or polite. And Mikey was such a big part of their lives now, it was hard to imagine being friends with someone who didn't love him too.
"Okay, hon, we're off," said Peter, striding in. He'd put on his suit jacket and old yellow tie, and he had a stack of work tucked under his arm. He kissed her cheek, smoothed Mikey's hair and turned to Neal. "Ready?"
"Your lucky tie, Peter?" said Neal, bemused and slightly pained. "You haven't retired that monstrosity?"
"Nope," said Peter. "And look, it's still bringing me luck. Come on, Tim Gunn, you can give me fashion tips in the car. Hey, by the way, this dinner party isn't going to involve singing is it?"
"Only if you're volunteering," said Neal. "Which, please do."
The door closed behind them, shutting off their banter, and El finished changing Mikey and sat on the floor with him, giving him half her attention while she thought about Neal—familiar and new, theirs and not theirs, finally home—and wondered what he would do next.
At El's insistence, they were early for dinner. "I want to be there when Diana arrives."
The afternoon's various revelations had knocked her off-course, preventing her from scolding Neal as she'd intended. She wasn't even angry anymore really, but she could still get vicarious catharsis from Diana's remonstrations. Peter snorted as if he knew exactly what she was thinking and bundled them into the car, leaving Satchmo to guard the house.
Apparently Mozzie was on butler duty at June's. He answered the door, greeting them, "Suit, Mrs. Suit and Baby Suit!" and ushered them into the parlor, where Neal and June were ensconced on a loveseat, speaking in low voices. Neal had freshened up and changed into khakis and a white linen shirt.
Peter offered to take Mikey, so El passed him over, tucked Tootie into the neck of Peter's sweater and made sure he had plenty of wipes, and she went to greet June. "It's so good of you to have us," she said. "How have you been?"
"Suffering through a terrible opera season," said June with a twinkle in her eye. "Excuse me if I don't get up. It's very good to see you, my dear, and the little one. And I understand from Mozzie that we have your Machiavellian scheme to thank for restoring Neal to us."
"It was a group effort," said El.
"El's Five," said Peter. "Six if you count the boy here, but he was only acting in a supervisory capacity."
"Team mascot," said El, patting Mikey's back. "Pivotal to our success."
"Next time, I'd rather be on the crew," said Neal. "Just saying."
Mozzie poured them each a glass of champagne, and El was about to ask if he or Neal knew any good six-and-a-half-person cons when the doorbell rang. Mozzie went and returned a few minutes later hand in hand with little Theo. Diana was with them, carrying an oversized bag which she stowed in the corner.
"Diana," said Neal, standing to greet her.
She punched him hard on the arm. "That's for Peter. And this is for Mozzie." She punched his other arm.
"Ouch," said Neal without rancor. "Good to see you too. If it's any consolation, you and Jones were extremely convincing talking about Peter being kidnapped."
"It's some consolation, but I'm going to stay pissed at you for another hour. Don't try to sweet-talk me out of it." Diana asked Mozzie for lemonade and took a seat next to El. "I'm driving to D.C. tonight," she said, explaining her choice of beverage.
Theo was running around the room with his My Little Pony, showing it off to June and Neal and Mozzie.
"You wouldn't rather wait till morning?" asked El.
Diana shook her head. "I like driving at night. No traffic, and Theo will sleep right through if I'm lucky. Mom said she'd leave a key out."
They were comparing notes on D.C. and keeping a careful eye on Theo's investigation of the room when Clinton arrived, still in his work suit. He told Peter surveillance on the latest case was going to continue through the weekend, and then he tossed Neal a small gift-wrapped package.
"Aw, you shouldn't have," said Neal. He tore open the tissue paper, and a cheap anklet slid out. "Really. You shouldn't have."
"Thought you might be missing your jewelry." Clinton smirked.
Neal held the pink and purple heart-shaped beads up to the light. "And that I'd transformed into a thirteen-year-old girl, apparently."
"Welcome back to the land of the living." Clinton clapped him on the shoulder much more gently than Diana had and went to get a drink.
Neal sat down again, and June took the anklet and fastened it around his wrist. "It suits you, darling."
"Please tell me that's equipped with GPS." Peter was holding Mikey and watching the proceedings with a warm, mellow expression. El knew he was glad to have his team reunited.
Diana looked up from steering Theo away from the bookshelves. "You can always track his phone, boss."
"Oh, that's why you haven't given me your new number." Peter sent Neal a humorous look.
Neal leaned back, crossing his leg over his thigh, and draped his arm along the back of the love seat behind June. "I'm a free man."
"Legally, you're a dead man," said Diana.
"Same difference." Neal raised his champagne flute in a toast. "No more work release, no cause for a warrant."
"As far as we know," said Clinton, claiming an armchair.
Neal brushed that aside. "Which means, Peter, that you can't use the FBI as an excuse to track my movements anymore."
"Did that guy just call me a stalker?" Peter asked Mikey. "I think he did." He fixed Neal with a mock glare.
Neal grinned. "If the binoculars fit."
El laughed at them. Theo had given up on the bookshelves and was investigating Mozzie's shoe laces, tugging at them and probably making them damp and sticky, but Mozzie didn't seem to mind; he bent down and started demonstrating different types of knots. And from the vantage point of Peter's arms, Mikey surveyed everyone with approval and waved at El.
"So, Caffrey," said Diana, "what have you been doing with yourself? Knock over any museums lately? And think carefully before you answer—I've got a lot riding on this."
Neal sipped his champagne before he answered. "Actually, I spent most of last winter working as a ski instructor at Klosters."
Peter snorted. "One of the most exclusive ski resorts in Europe. Of course you did." He sounded indulgent.
"It was legit," said Neal.
"Imagine my dismay," said Mozzie, as an aside to June and El.
There was no chance Neal could have found employment somewhere like Klosters without forged credentials and references, so he and Moz probably meant Neal hadn't been scamming wealthy tourists.
Diana pouted. "Damn. Peter, will you take an IOU for twenty-three million?"
"Consider it a leaving gift," Peter told her.
"See, Caffrey?" said Clinton. "If you say goodbye before you run off, you get gifts."
An awkward atmosphere descended on the room, but it was soon dispelled when June's maid announced that dinner was served.
She was the same maid El had seen on her previous visits, and June wouldn't employ anyone without first ensuring they were loyal and discreet, but it still reminded El of the risks. When they were seated around the table with a sumptuous feast laid out before them, Mikey changed and in an antique high chair probably worth thousands, and Theo propped on Diana's lap, El looked across the table at Neal. He gave every sign of being relaxed, his guard completely down.
"It isn't the same difference," she blurted.
"What isn't?" said Mozzie.
"Whether Neal's free or officially dead. It's not the same."
Peter was putting vegetables on a plate for Mikey, but he stopped. "El's right. You died before the paperwork was processed."
"So?" said Neal.
"So if the Bureau finds out you've pulled a Ken Kesey, I don't want them coming after you," Peter told him.
"Hear, hear," said Mozzie.
"Well, I don't want the Pink Panthers coming after you," said Neal, "so we're even."
"The Panthers are locked up for life," said Peter. "Our best forensic team went through Woodford's office with a fine-tooth comb. We got all his contacts, Neal, I guarantee it, and we were able to link them to multiple crimes."
Clinton nodded. "I get monthly reports from the prisons notifying me of visitors and any sign of suspicious activity. We're on it."
Diana looked up from trying to tempt Theo with a buttered roll. "It's our job. We're very good at it."
"You're telling me to have faith," said Neal, giving Peter a small private smile.
Peter smiled back. "Yep."
"But that doesn't solve the problem with Neal's freedom," said El doggedly.
"Why am I getting déjà vu?" muttered Clinton.
Diana shrugged. "I can complete the paperwork when I get to D.C., but it'll raise eyebrows."
"Yeah, you need to have a reason," said Peter, "and it has to come from someone outside the Bureau."
"Well—speaking off the record, naturally—I for one would be happy to con the FBI on Neal's behalf," said June, radiating regal respectability.
El grinned at her. "Perfect."
Clinton winced. "Does it have to be a con?"
"Call it a gray area," said Peter. "We're just talking about giving some bureaucratic wheels a kick-start. June, you'll need to identify yourself as Neal's next-of-kin and put in a request that the papers be filed posthumously."
"Maybe inspired by the anniversary of his death?" suggested El. "You want to be sure he died a free man."
June sighed. "It's going to make me seem terribly mawkish, but I suppose that can't be helped. I'll make the call first thing Monday morning."
Neal gave her a warm smile. "Thank you, June."
After dinner, they retired back to the parlor, but it wasn't long before Diana said she had to hit the road.
"I'm coming with you," said Mozzie. Theo was sitting on his knee, playing with a toy camera.
"No, you're not," said Diana. "I am not letting you anywhere near my parents' house."
"It's late," said Moz. "I can share the driving and take the train back tomorrow." El realized he hadn't been drinking all evening; he must have been planning this.
Diana scowled, but Peter said, "It never hurts to have backup," and Clinton and El nodded agreement.
She caved with theatrical reluctance. "Fine, but we're not playing opera in the car, and you're not giving Theo any tips on how to evade the law."
"Deal," said Mozzie.
"Aww, happy families," said Neal. He was putting a good face on his jetlag, but El got the feeling he was only staying awake out of politeness and sheer force of will.
Diana smacked him on the arm again. "Take care, Caffrey. For what it's worth, I'm glad you're not dead."
"Thanks. Have fun in D.C."
Next Diana said goodbye to Clinton and Peter. "Keep in touch."
"Count on it," said Peter. "You're our inside man in Washington now."
"Always," said Diana. She crouched down and stroked Mikey's hair, where he was sitting at El's feet, holding her hands. "Bye, Neal. Take care of your mom and dad for me."
Neal Caffrey blinked and looked at El, who picked up her son and sat him on her lap, fussing over him to hide her self-consciousness. "His full name is Neal Michael Burke," she said. "Moz didn't tell you?"
"We had other things to discuss," said Mozzie loftily, which presumably meant Mozzie had been punishing Neal for the year-long con and hadn't wanted to give him the gratification.
Neal's jaw had dropped, but he recovered and licked his lips. "You named your son after me."
"Don't get excited," said Peter. "He goes by Mikey."
"For the last two days," murmured El, letting herself enjoy Neal's reaction. He seemed thrown and a little awed, as if he'd been given a solemn responsibility. Peter would appreciate that too.
"We both have namesakes," Mozzie told Neal. "Let's hope they grow up as ambitious and talented as us."
"And as law-abiding as their parents," said Diana, crankily. "I'm leaving now. Are you coming or not?"
June smirked, and El met her eye, sharing the joke. Diana and Peter were so similar sometimes, both acting prickly to mask their affections.
Neal was watching El. "What?"
"Nothing." She looked around. Mikey was tired and restless, and it had been a long few days for the rest of them. Even Clinton was wilting. "We should go too. Honey, would you get Mikey's things?"
In the ensuing bustle of goodbyes and thank-yous, El didn't have time to ask Neal if he was reclaiming his apartment upstairs, but then they were out the door, walking to the car, and Neal was at Peter's side carrying Mikey's toy lion and an overnight case as if there'd never been any doubt.
"You're happy," said El, once Mikey was tucked into bed, and Peter had let Satchmo out and made sure Neal had everything he needed downstairs.
Peter hung up his lucky tie. "Yeah." He came over and hugged El. "Three days ago he was dead, and now he's sleeping on our couch."
"The whole family under one roof." El pulled back to wink up at him.
He looked exhausted but at peace, and he smiled with that special warmth that was just for her and bent to kiss her, the kind of kiss that made her feel loved and safe. They broke apart to finish changing into their nightclothes.
"Did you know he's bisexual?" asked El, deliberately casual. They'd had the baby monitor set up so Peter could hear Neal's arrival, but they hadn't talked about it yet. And Peter had once known everything about Neal, from his shoe size to what kind of milk he liked in his Italian roast. Surely he must have been aware of something as fundamental as his sexual orientation, even if he hadn't known he was the subject of Neal's attraction.
But Peter was hanging up his suit, and he just said, "He was my CI. I was too busy bailing him out of one mess after another to worry about his love life."
"He's not your CI now," said El unthinkingly.
Peter's ears turned pink in the lamplight, and her heart beat a little faster, whether out of jealousy or an odd twist of excitement she wasn't sure. Neal had held the lion's share of Peter's attention for so long, it certainly wouldn't be the first time she'd been jealous of him.
Peter threw his shirt into the hamper and bent his head to unfastened his watch strap, a process that didn't usually require such concentration. "Once a handler, always a handler."
El swallowed the obvious double entendre and took pity on him. Whatever was going on, whatever feelings Peter was experiencing, too much had happened lately for a sensible conversation now. They could deal with it when they were rested. She slid into bed and waited until he joined her. "Well, I like the beard," she said lightly.
"Yeah. Hmm." Peter switched out the light and pulled her against his side. "Does he seem taller to you?"
"Yes! What's that about?" She snuggled closer. "Everything okay?"
"I'm beat," said Peter. "'Night, hon."
They were quiet for a while, but despite the long day, El's brain was working overtime. "Do you think he's really gone straight?" she asked the darkness.
Peter sighed softly. "I don't know. I hope so."
"Well, Moz must think so," said El. "He wouldn't have helped bring Neal back to New York if they were about to plunder the Prado together."
"Good point." Peter sounded half asleep, and El stopped talking for his sake, but she lay awake for a long time thinking about the man downstairs.
Mikey was down to one feeding a night, usually between twelve and two A.M., but the dinner party had thrown them all off schedule. El woke at quarter to three and went to check on him.
He was lying with one plump arm flung up by his ear, his eyelashes fanned peacefully against his cheeks. She stood by the crib and watched him for a long moment, savoring how he was at once part of her and his own very willful person with Peter's curiosity and her penchant for parties. He'd changed everything and brought so much love into their lives.
And completely ruined her sleep patterns. She was up now, tired but not sleepy, and her breasts ached; she decided to express so Peter could bottle feed later. It was past three by the time she brought the milk downstairs to put in the fridge, and she moved quietly so she wouldn't wake Neal. If they hadn't taken out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room a few years earlier, she would have made tea, but it wouldn't be kind to their guest to turn on the lights and bang around, especially on his first night here. She could get by with a glass of water.
But when she closed the fridge, she heard Neal talking quietly in the other room, and she poked her head around the doorway. He was sitting up in his pajamas, talking on the phone in the dark.
"Oui, oui, c'est promis. Je suis désolé." He looked up and added rapidly, "Je dois y aller. Oui, merci. Au revoir." The phone's screen illuminated his face as he disconnected. "My landlady in Paris," he explained. "She was concerned."
El nodded. It had been a year; of course he'd made a new life. She was glad of the darkness obscuring her expression. "You're awake."
"My body clock can't tell if it's mid-morning or the middle of the night," said Neal. "You?"
"Baby," explained El, over-cheerful. "Can I tempt you with a cup of tea?"
"Please." Neal reached for his dressing-gown, and El retreated to the kitchen, switched on the spotlight over the counter and boiled the kettle, aware of him moving around behind her, of the way his hair had curled onto his forehead in the glow from his phone, and the breadth of his shoulders. The soft shiny fabric of his pajamas. But he was their friend, Peter's friend, and the things she needed to tell him were too important to be swept aside by inappropriate distractions.
They sat across the breakfast island from each other, and El poured the tea. "I need to talk to you."
"Sounds serious." Neal's words were light, but there was a wary look in his eye, and El recalled every time she'd sat him down like this in the past.
"It is." She curled her hand around her mug, finding comfort in its warmth. "Neal, I've used you to protect Peter, over and over. That wasn't your job, but I needed you and you came through for me."
"I would have done it anyway," said Neal.
She smiled to ease the ache in her heart. "I know, and I appreciate it. But—" She took a breath and let it out slowly, steeling herself. "I think I made you feel you were, I don't know, expendable. And that wasn't fair or true, and I'm sorry. Can you forgive me?"
Neal covered her hand on the counter. It was hard to read his expression through his beard, but his gaze was steady and generous. "Elizabeth, there's nothing to forgive."
"When you died—" El turned her hand so they were palm to palm and held on, remembering. "I thought it was my fault. That you'd gone after Keller because of what I said. And then we found out it was all a con, and I was furious for everything you put us through."
Neal's grip tightened, but he didn't say anything.
"But in the end, you were doing what I asked you to. Protecting us." She looked at their clasped hands for a moment, felt her heart turn over, and raised her chin. "Now I have a new job for you: stay. Even if it's just for a few weeks."
Neal gently withdrew from her hold and drank some tea. "That's not a good idea. I'd be in the way."
He'd said something similar earlier. El thought about the old tug of war, both of them vying for Peter's time and energy, but things had changed since then. And after the last year, it was worth the risk. "You really wouldn't. We both missed you."
Neal stilled, then tipped his head sideways. "About what I said earlier, when I first arrived."
"The L word?"
"Can we forget I said that?" said Neal.
"Of course, consider it forgotten," said El. Her mug was too hot now, scalding her fingertips. She put it down. "Now, will you stay?"
Neal's answering smile was only slightly wistful. "I'm home. I think I can stay a week or two."
El got up and hugged him, casual and friendly like she would have done in the old days. "Welcome home."
She came downstairs the next morning to prepare Mikey's breakfast, while Peter changed and dressed him. The couch-bed was folded away, and the living room fastidiously tidy, with the bedding and Neal's overnight case stacked in the corner the only sign he'd been there. The kitchen was empty too, but there was a note in Neal's neat block letters propped on the breakfast island, next to the beaded ankle bracelet from Clinton:
Slipped my anklet and kidnapped Satchmo. Will return with breakfast at 8AM. Text if you need anything else. XOXOX
The bottom of the note bore a mobile number which El saved into her phone, smiling, and then she turned on the stereo and swayed her hips to "Dancing in the Dark" while she made Mikey's oatmeal. It was the weekend, the sky was clear and sunny, and all was right with the world.
Peter brought Mikey down, dressed in his dinosaur t-shirt. "Hon, why do you keep playing the Boss?"
"Mikey's a fan. Must run in the family."
"Good to know you've got taste," Peter told Mikey, angling him into his high chair.
El kissed Peter and blew a gentle raspberry into Mikey's downy blond hair. "Good morning, monster. Hungry?"
He chatted happily, bouncing to the music and pointing at the fruit bowl, and she halved and de-stoned a cherry for him.
Peter looked around. "Where's Neal?"
"Oh, he left his phone number. Do you want it?"
"What?" Peter stiffened, the smile falling from his face. "Where did he go? Dammit, I can't believe he up and left without saying goodbye."
"He took Satch out. Would you relax?" El gestured to him to watch Mikey and went to put the kettle on for tea and set the coffeemaker going for Peter, handing him Neal's note in passing. "And no, you are not going to trace his phone. Feed your son."
Peter took a deep breath, and she handed him Mikey's favorite spoon with the fox on the handle.
"We had a talk early this morning, and Neal's promised to stay for a couple of weeks." El poured the drinks and sat next to Peter. "So you don't have to worry he's going to disappear again."
"A couple of weeks?" Peter glanced at her, but Mikey was demanding his attention. A few spoonsful later, Peter said, "Now he's back, I hoped—"
He trailed off, but El knew what he meant. That Neal was back for good. That Neal's world would shift to revolve around them again. "I know," she said. "But we can't expect him to camp out on our couch forever. He's a grown man."
"It's wouldn't be forever," grumbled Peter. "When Mikey goes to college, Neal can have his room."
El grinned. "Hon, that's seventeen years away."
Then she saw his face and realized that, beneath the jokes, he was genuinely upset. She rubbed his shoulder. "He's made a life for himself. His landlady even called to check up on him. You really want him to stick around?"
Peter was silent for a moment, then blew out a frustrated breath. "I thought he'd want to."
Mikey banged his sticky hands on the tray of the high chair, and "My Hometown" started playing.
"He doesn't have a radius anymore, hon. He can go anywhere." When Peter didn't reply, she continued, "If we let him go, he'll come back. There'll be vacations. We can visit him in Paris, take Mikey up the Eiffel Tower."
Peter was wiping Mikey's mouth and hands and the high chair. "Yeah."
But it wouldn't be the same. They were both thinking it: it would never be the same for any of them. After the last year and with the official end of Neal's sentence, there was no going back to the way things had been, and given the heart-stopping dangers and nagging frustrations of Peter and Neal's partnership, El thought that might be a good thing, at least from her point of view. But it was still hard to let go, and she didn't know how to make it better for Peter. "Hon, are you going to be okay when Neal leaves?"
Peter blinked as if he were bringing himself back, focusing on the scene in front of him. He picked up Mikey and brought him over to El. Met her eye squarely. "I'll be fine," he said. "You two are my world. You're all that matters."
The last year had put lie to that, but El accepted it for what it was: Peter's commitment to his family. She squeezed his arm. "I love you. And just think, it'll be like Diana. Neal can be your inside man in Paris." She finished her tea and checked the time. Seven-thirty. "I'm going to take a shower."
On her way upstairs, she skipped the CD back to "Dancing in the Dark".
In the safety and privacy of the shower, with conditioner in her hair and hot water sluicing down her body, El let herself seriously consider for the first time that Peter might not just love Neal as a friend, but might actually be in love with him. Even if he didn't think of it in those terms, his affection bordered on obsessive. Everyone knew it: Diana, Clinton, Mozzie, El herself. None of them had been surprised at Peter's ready forgiveness of Neal's con, or his wanting to bring him home. Peter had risked his life, his career and his own freedom for Neal, time and again. And he'd always liked smart. And apart from being a man, Neal was exactly Peter's physical type.
It hadn't been an issue when Neal was Peter's CI. Peter was too upright, too responsible to consider such a thing. But Neal was an independent man now, free to make his own decisions. They were equals.
So it came down to just two questions: whether Peter was capable of being sexually attracted to men, and secondly, whether he could be in love with more than one person at a time. Because there was no doubt that he loved her; the alternative was inconceivable.
And given that, combined with his obsession with Neal, the second question pretty much answered itself. Peter had a big heart, he'd proven that already. Which left the first question: Peter's sexuality. And even knowing her husband as well as she did, that wasn't one El could answer on her own.
She rinsed her hair and shut off the water. Downstairs the front door closed and Satchmo barked, setting Mikey crying out delightedly.
El started to dry off, the slight roughness of the towel making her skin tingle, and a third question struck her: what did she want? How did she feel about her husband potentially being in love with Neal? Did she want their lives more entwined? Neal was respectful and loyal, fun and attractive, and since his accidental admission of love when he'd arrived, she'd been undeniably aware of him. It might only take a small nudge to tip her into reciprocating. But did she want that? Would it be fair to any of them?
Even if by some miracle of fate they did all find themselves in love with each other, there was no guarantee of a happy ending. Peter's job relied in part on his respectability, and a ménage à trois with Neal would be the farthest thing from respectable El could imagine. Exciting, scandalous, romantic and probably turbulent, yes; practical, no. Or Neal might not want them both equally or together. And she and Peter were parents now; they had to think about what was best for Mikey. And if Peter and Neal partnered up at work again, dragged each other into the inevitable life-threatening situations—
The obstacles were endless. El's life was picture-book perfect as it was. Only a fool would mess with that.
Her reflection stared back at her from the bathroom mirror, wide-eyed and flushed from the shower. Absolutely, definitely from the shower. She studied her thirty-eight year old body critically. She didn't think of herself as vain or insecure, and she was in good shape, but Neal was probably as much of a connoisseur of women as he was of wine and art. It was easy to be with Peter, who loved her unconditionally and had known her since she was young, but how would Neal react to stretchmarks and occasional leaks of breast milk?
Hypothetically, of course. This was all hypothetical. And too risky to contemplate. Someone would get hurt. And anyway, Neal had been overwrought and probably hadn't meant it. And Peter was probably straight, his adulation of Springsteen notwithstanding.
She hurried to get dressed, still caught in an eddy of speculation and uncertainty but hungry enough that she was prepared to put her questions on hold until after breakfast.
An elaborate spread was laid out on the table by the time El got downstairs. There were glossy pastries and a variety of freshly sliced fruit. Burke Premiere Events couldn't have done better. Peter was sitting at the table reading to Mikey while Neal coaxed delicious aromas from the coffeemaker.
"Mm, smells amazing," said El. "What is that?"
"An Ethiopian blend," said Neal.
Peter looked up from Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. "He's gone off Italian roast."
"I like variety," said Neal. He was wearing a green polo shirt and different jeans from yesterday.
El selected a thick slice of apple and bit into it, its juice tart on her tongue. "So, are we eating?" she said, sitting down. "I'm starving. Hon, maybe give Mikey some banana."
Neal poured the coffee, and Peter moved Mikey's play mat closer so they could keep an eye on him while they ate. He seemed happy enough with his half banana and his fire truck and the purple-spotted ball with the bell inside.
El buttered a croissant and sipped her coffee. Heaven. "What do you want to do now you're here?" she asked Neal. "We have some chores we have to attend to, but otherwise our weekend is wide open."
"You're not working this weekend?" Neal glanced at Peter with mock incredulity.
"We've learned to delegate. Try not to faint with shock," said Peter, and bent to stop Mikey from feeding his banana to Satchmo. "No, buddy, that's yours. Dogs don't eat people food."
"Yvonne took over my business when I went to D.C.," said El, "and what with one thing and another, I never went back." Saying it aloud was disquieting. It had been over a year, and yes, Mikey took up a lot of time and energy, and she loved being able to give him so much attention, but she missed the bustle of work, managing people, the sense of accomplishment when an event came together. She took another bite of croissant. "So what's the plan?"
"Your favorite coffee cart relocated to Sherman Square last year," Peter told Neal. "We could grab a cup, go to the Park. And if we felt like stopping by the surveillance van, I'm sure Jones wouldn't mind."
Neal liberated some strawberries from the fruit platter. "Actually, Moz gets back from Washington around eleven-thirty, and we were going to take a tour of the top five museums outside my old radius." He hesitated. "You could come with us."
"That sounds great." El hadn't been to an art museum in far too long. "We can introduce Mikey to Impressionism."
"Wonderful," said Peter, but he didn't really seem to mind.
"That gives us three hours to clean up." El drained her coffee cup, eager to get moving. "Hon, you take upstairs, I'll take down?"
"How can I help?" said Neal.
"Babysit." There was challenge in the tilt of Peter's chin.
"Is this payback for condemning you to an afternoon of art?" Neal looked amused and relaxed. "No problem. Hey, Mikey, I've got some great anecdotes about your dad you need to hear."
Peter snorted. "This should be good."
"Et je vais te le dire en français, pour qu'il ne comprenne pas ce que je te dis," added Neal without missing a beat.
Listening to Neal talk to Mikey in French added a pleasantly cosmopolitan air to cleaning the living room and kitchen. El didn't speak the language herself, but she knew enough Spanish that she could make out some of what he was saying. She soon twigged that he was reading Where the Wild Things Are, translating as he went, and she laughed under her breath. Mikey was talking back, asking questions in his own baby language, and upstairs Peter was singing "Born in the U.S.A.". El started humming too, filled with happiness free of the shadows of the last year.
She cleared away the breakfast dishes and the toys that were dishwasher-safe and set the dishwasher going, then disinfected the countertops, flying through the chores. These days, everything took twice as long as it used to, and she'd put that down to tiredness and the extra clutter and mess that came with having a baby in the house, but not having to keep an eye on him while she worked definitely helped too. Maybe parenting was really a three-person job.
El paused in the middle of sorting the mail and other papers by the microwave. Maybe it could always be like this. Maybe Neal would stay if they asked.
That was a pipe dream. Whatever Peter said, Neal couldn't become a permanent fixture on their couch. He deserved to have a life of his own, a real life, not to live in the shadow of theirs.
"Incoming," called Peter, and the bundle of the week's used sheets and towels dropped over the bannister.
El glanced into the living room, where Neal was sitting on the floor with his back against the couch, holding Mikey on his lap and explaining about time zones. He was talking English now, quiet and soothing, and Mikey seemed fascinated by his beard and was grabbing at his chin. There was a damp patch, probably saliva, on Neal's shoulder.
"Everything good?" said El.
"Peachy," said Neal. "You know, he looks just like you. Tu es complètement adorable, tout comme ta maman." He stroked his thumb down the soft fuzz of Mikey's cheek, and El's throat tightened with love for both of them.
She swallowed. "We think he has Peter's nose, but it's too early to say for certain. He'll be hungry again soon. You want to give him a bottle?"
"Sure," said Neal. "Whenever you're ready. We're good here, aren't we?" He waved Mikey's hand for him, and Mikey grinned.
I could watch them forever, thought El. And then, I want his arms around me. She turned and gathered up the laundry to hide her reaction. This wasn't the infatuation she'd half-expected might hijack her, turbulent like adolescence, all flirtation and driving sexual attraction, easy to dismiss. This was deep and rich, a thousand shades of recognition, belonging and need. It was family.
She and Neal had talked about being family before, and she'd meant it up to a point, but it had always hinged on Peter, how important he was to both of them. This new feeling, this love, was for Neal alone, direct and fundamental. And in two weeks he'd leave, and there'd be a hole in her family. In her life.
Everything would be different now if only she'd let Peter investigate Neal's death. If Peter had found the storage container and uncovered the truth a year ago, maybe they could have brought Neal back then, when he was still essentially Peter's CI. He would have been Mikey's Uncle Neal from the beginning, young and teasing, and El would have only ever seen him as a friend.
She shook herself and went to put the laundry on and empty the dishwasher, telling herself it was a temporary madness. She had Peter and Mikey, and an array of friends and acquaintances. She had her business. She didn't need Neal too.
She heated milk for Mikey while she mopped the floor, and then steeled herself to take the bottle through, wanting to see them again but afraid Neal would sense her confusion. He couldn't know—that would only complicate matters even further. She pinned a smile on her face and grabbed her phone. If he was leaving in two weeks, she could at least get pictures.
They met Moz for lunch at a restaurant in the West Village. Peter had Mikey in the baby carrier, and Neal volunteered to bring the baby bag, so El was unburdened for the first time in months. She almost skipped along the sidewalk, determined to seize the day and enjoy the hell out of it.
Having bonded with Mikey, Neal addressed most of his remarks to him, which Peter clearly thought was adorable and only made Mozzie shake his head a little.
"You had an uneventful journey, I hope," said Peter.
Mozzie bowed ironically. "Teddy has been safely delivered into the arms of the Establishment."
"By which you mean Diana's parents?" said El.
He waved his hands. "They're former diplomats! You can't get more Establishment than that. The damage they could do to that child's critical faculties is horrifying."
El grinned. "You realize his mom is a federal agent. I'm sure the damage has already begun."
"Don't remind me," and "Excuse me?" said Mozzie and Peter respectively, in contrasting tones of indignation. Then Neal showed Mikey the menu and recommended he try the duck confit with grilled artichoke hearts, which distracted Peter. They bickered amiably, and Neal snuck El a conspiratorial grin so she knew he'd done it on purpose.
They didn't linger over their meal, and Mozzie directed them to the first of the museums on their list, where Neal provided a running commentary on the art, directed at Mikey and interspersed with questions from Peter.
El hung back with Moz, and they compared opinions on the exhibits, which was almost engaging enough to keep El from watching her boys and speculating about Peter's feelings.
Moz stopped in front of a Sargent. "You know, the security is this place is non-existent. You could take this right off the wall and walk out, and no one would stop you."
"Peter would," said El, giving him a sideways smile. He wouldn't tell her such things if he meant to act on them.
Mozzie huffed. "That's why this was supposed to be a tour sans Suits."
El rolled her eyes. "How exactly did you and Neal select your top five museums for this retrospective?"
"Obviously, Neal ranked the candidates according to his artistic tastes, and I ranked them by the laxity of their security precautions. Then we correlated our lists."
"Obviously." The portrait in front of them depicted a dark-haired woman in a flowing white dress, holding a bouquet of wild flowers, staring out of the frame; she was nothing like Kate really, but her direct gaze brought to mind certain file photos. Well, Kate might be long gone, but Peter wasn't the only person left who had influence over Neal. "Moz, are you ever going to let Neal retire?"
"And do what?" Moz was studying the portrait—or possibly assessing its steal-ability.
"I don't know," said El, as they strolled past the next portrait and paused in front of its neighbor. "Whatever he wants. You know he won't find what he's looking for through heists and cons."
"No, I know he hasn't found it yet." Mozzie scowled at the overdressed children in the painting in front of him in silence, then they moved on again. Peter and Mikey and Neal had already passed into the next room. Finally Moz added, "It's not like I can force him. It's against my principles to hold people at gunpoint. If he wants out of the life—"
There was a wealth of middle ground between holding a gun on someone and supporting their choices, but Mozzie was hardly going to make this easy, and El couldn't blame him. He and Neal had been through a lot together, and it was always painful to end a partnership; she'd seen that firsthand. "Does he want out?"
"Has he told you what he was doing in Paris?" Mozzie looked particularly owlish, even for him.
"Well." Moz hurried her along to catch up with the others and refused to say any more on the subject.
After museum number two, Mikey made it clear he'd had enough, so Peter and El left Neal and Moz to continue their tour and went home, where El fed Mikey and then Peter took him upstairs to put him down for his nap. El made coffee and started planning dinner.
Fifteen minutes later, Peter came down with the baby monitor speaker, and they collapsed on the couch with their coffee. Peter seemed preoccupied. He'd been quiet in the car too. El nudged him. "Everything okay?"
"Mmm." He frowned and rested his coffee cup on his knee. "I was just thinking about Neal. It's not the same as Diana."
"I know." El's pulse fluttered at the base of her throat, beating a tattoo of hope and confusion. Peter was her husband, her own. They had the best marriage out of everyone she knew. They were parents now. So how had she come to this place where she was holding her breath, hoping he'd confess to being in love with someone else? With a man? It was crazy and reckless. But she couldn't control her own heart, let alone his. All she could do was deal with the feelings as they happened. "Tell me."
"Diana's got her feet on the ground. She can handle herself. And the Bureau and her parents will give her backup when she needs it." Peter was still frowning, tracing the pattern on his mug with his thumbnail. "Neal goes from one hot mess to the next without pausing for breath, and I can't be there to keep an eye on him and make sure he's safe if he's off gallivanting around Europe. That's why I want him to stay."
El leaned into him, disguising her disappointment and feeling the tension in his body. Peter was straight. His relationship with Neal was still that of handler and CI, even now. She'd known that deep down, and it was useless to wish otherwise. "Hon, are you sure you're not still seeing Neal as he was when he was in the anklet? You were responsible for him for a long time, but it's been a year now. We don't know who he's become since then. Maybe he's learned how to stay out of trouble."
"He's still Neal Caffrey." Peter looked stubborn.
"AKA Victor Moreau," said El. "Has he mentioned what he's been doing in Paris? Moz asked if I knew."
"No, just the ski instructor thing." Peter looked thoughtful. "You think he's hiding something? That should make for some interesting dinner conversation."
"If he's willing to tell us," said El. "Just please don't use any of your FBI interrogation techniques. He's our guest."
"He's Neal," said Peter, but he was more relaxed now his curiosity had been roused. "He'll tell me."
Mozzie followed Neal home for dinner. Neal came into the kitchen while El was stirring the spaghetti Bolognese. He put two bottles of wine, one red and one white, and a gourmet non-dairy cheesecake on the breakfast island and then looked around.
"What are you after?" said El.
"Corkscrew." Neal pointed to the counter in front of him. "Pretty sure it used to live here."
"It doesn't see as much action these days," said El, fishing it out of its drawer. "Old married couple with baby—it's hard enough to stay awake in the evenings as it is." She tossed it to him.
"Thanks." He caught it easily, but rather than opening the wine, he produced a paper bag from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. "Got you something."
"You didn't have to." El slid her finger under the tape to open it and shook out a museum postcard of an oil painting. It was the Seine at night, inky blues and blacks, and the golden globes of streetlights. He might as well have written Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here! on the back. She ran her finger over the lines of a bridge in the background. "It's beautiful. Thank you. Wait, why are there two the same?"
"One for you, one for Mikey to drool on," said Neal. He took one copy off her and stuck it to the fridge door with a round-faced panda magnet, and she watched, struck again by how much he'd changed. The bravado, the restless energy, the slightly dangerous vibe that for years had kept Peter alert for trouble and her own trust limited to "when it counts"—they were resolved now, as if Neal were a Chinese cube puzzle whose final piece had been missing the entire time she'd known him, making him unstable. Now with the key finally in place, his confidence was real and grounded, and he seemed at peace. Freedom had made him whole.
Which made him dangerous in a different way, temptation personified, and El had to grip her hands together to keep from going to him, wrapping her arms around him.
He stepped back from the refrigerator, evaluating the placement of the postcard, which was a glimpse of a magical land in a sea of appointment reminders and cards and grocery lists. He turned and caught her eye, and his eyebrows flew up in enquiry.
"Oh. The beard," said El, trying to sound normal. "I'm still getting used to it." In fact, it looked natural, part of this new Neal. The scatter of gray hairs caught the light as if he were in a perpetual spotlight, like a movie star. A fantasy.
Neal rubbed his cheek. "What do you think?"
"It suits you." El took down four wine glasses and checked the time. Mikey wouldn't need feeding again for a couple of hours; she could have one glass. "I'll have red, please."
"Coming right up."
Over dinner Neal and Mozzie held forth about the rest of the museums they'd visited that afternoon, and others they still wanted to see, and Mozzie said that June planned to invite them all for dinner again soon, but once they were sitting around in the living room—Peter and El on the couch with Mikey, and Neal and Moz in armchairs—Peter asked, "So what have you been doing with yourself since the ski season ended?" and Neal answered without so much as a token show of prevarication.
"Have you heard of Cécile Roche?"
"Of course they have," said Mozzie. He looked from Peter to El. "The internationally renowned rare book and manuscripts dealer?"
Peter tilted his head at Neal, who nodded.
"She also runs a private auction house. We met at Klosters."
"Convenient," said Peter drily.
"Not really. There was a power outage at the hotel, and we were stuck in the elevator with four other people for nearly an hour." Neal picked up Mikey's toy fire truck and turned it over in his hands. "She was wearing a very beautiful pendant that contained a genuine fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we got to talking, so after the power came on, she bought me a drink, and one thing led to another."
"I bet it did," said Peter.
El elbowed him.
"She offered me a job working for her and her wife, Louise," said Neal, making it clear he was valiantly suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. "Their authenticator was retiring, and once I proved my abilities, she made me a very generous offer, including the use of a small apartment over the auction house on the Rue de Seine."
"Your landlady," said El. That explained the phone call. Of course Cécile would be concerned at Neal's sudden disappearance, if she was his employer too.
"I don't believe this," said Peter. "It's June all over again." Mikey was digging between the couch cushions for something. Peter picked him up and distracted him with a toy.
"Twenty years younger and gay, but otherwise, pretty much." Neal shrugged modestly. "She has an excellent staff. I'm working with people at the top of their field."
"Are they nice?" asked El.
"They are. You'd like them, especially the auctioneer, Claude. He's very droll."
"I'm glad." Glad that Neal's new friends were talented professionals who respected his contribution, working in the most glamorous city in the world. Glad he'd found a replacement for the team at White Collar. How could a domestic life in Brooklyn compare?
"Do they know who you are?" asked Peter.
Neal leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. "Cécile and Louise know everything. Louise promised to break my kneecaps if I try to defraud them in any way. The others know me as Victor Moreau. It's an industry built on trust. If word got out Cécile employs a convicted forger, her reputation would be in shreds." He looked at them gravely. "No one can find out."
El nodded, promising her discretion.
"You made a clean start." Peter's expression was cryptic.
"It's what I needed."
"What it is is an appalling waste of talent," Mozzie burst out. Then he caught El's eye and sighed heavily, folding his arms. "Oh fine. Neal, I hope you and your legitimately acquired priceless sixteenth-century manuscripts are very happy together."
Neal's eyes gleamed with amusement. "Thanks, Moz. That means a lot. And it's not all lab work. In the last few months, we've turned two forgers and a fence over to the police."
Mozzie groaned and drank deeply from his wine glass.
Peter was watching Neal. "You've made a clean start," he repeated. "I'm proud of you."
Neal's answering smile had an edge, but any further reply he might have given was lost in a yawn, and El, who could take a hint, suggested they all have an early night.
"It's been a long couple of days, even for those of us who haven't jumped time zones," she said. "Neal, why don't you take first shot at the bathroom."
"That's my cue to leave," said Mozzie.
Peter gave Mikey to El and stood up. "Satchmo and I will see you out."
"Sounds like Neal's been doing pretty well for himself," said El as she and Peter got ready for bed. "Staying out of trouble. He even has friends and a job to go back to."
"It does sound that way." Peter toed off his shoes, frowning.
"So you can stop worrying about him," said El, with a hint of malice. "It is like Diana."
"I'll never—" Peter pulled his t-shirt over his head and didn't finish. "Do you think he's avoiding spending time alone with us?" he asked instead.
"Mozzie missed him too, this past year. I'm sure the two of them have a lot to catch up on," she said, the reassurance automatic. Then she realized Peter might have a point. It was hard to tell with only a day and a half to go on, but already Neal had invited them to the dinner party at June's and the museum tour with Moz, and he'd brought Mozzie home with him for dinner tonight. And Peter knew Neal better than anyone; if he suspected something was up, he was probably right.
"I think he's asserting his independence," she said, sliding into bed. Her conviction grew as she thought it through. "He wants us to know he's graduated from being a CI. That he can make it on his own."
Peter pulled on his pajama pants in silence. "The last thing he said to me a year ago was that we were best friends. Friends look out for each other."
"Exactly," said El.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean maybe Neal's looking out for you by letting you go," she said. "You have other responsibilities now. Maybe he doesn't want you to have to worry about him on top of everything else."
"Then he should stay here when I can keep an eye on him." Peter stood at the foot of the bed, his shoulders tense, hands clenched at his sides. He looked as if he wished he could go downstairs and handcuff Neal to the couch right now. Not that it would do him any good; Neal was an expert lock picker. Even the anklet had been a token gesture. His real bond had been his loyalty to Peter, and he'd finally slipped free of that when he pulled his last big con.
"I want him to stay too, hon," said El, oversimplifying to a fault, "but sometimes friends move away. Now we know he's alive, we can keep in touch. We'll Skype."
A muscle in Peter's jaw tightened.
El tried a sympathetic smile. "Hasn't he earned the right to live his own life, however he wants?"
"Of course he has." The words scraped out of Peter like it hurt to have to say them. He stared at her for a moment, his eyes shadowed, and then turned abruptly to the door. "I'm going to check on Mikey."
El started to get up, to follow him and comfort him. Or to challenge him, ask if she and Mikey weren't enough to keep him happy anymore. But the hypocrisy of her indignation kept her rooted to the mattress. She was experiencing the same feelings he was—if anything, hers were worse, because she didn't just want Neal to stay, she wanted him in her family and in her bed.
Anyway, Peter obviously needed to be alone. The low rustle of his movements came through the baby monitor. The sounds of pacing.
Lurid schemes sprang to her mind, arrangements where she convinced Peter she should sleep with Neal. Under normal circumstances Peter would be appalled by infidelity, but if it kept Neal in New York, he might decide it was worth the price. And Neal—how would he react? Would he find it exciting or be shocked by the suggestion? Would it tear down the pedestal he kept her on? Did he even want her, really, or was it all about Peter?
She took a deep breath and deliberately lay back down, pulled up the covers, switched off the light and evicted all such dangerous thoughts from her head. This was the real world. She and Peter weren't swingers. They weren't modern like that. Outré sexual adventures could ruin them, or at the very least damage their marriage down to its foundations. Better to live with losing Neal than to risk losing Peter too.
She pressed her face against the cool pillow and fell asleep, still waiting for Peter to return.
Peter brought Mikey through for his night feeding, and El breastfed him while still half-asleep, so she woke well-rested the next morning. Rain was pattering on the roof, accentuating the sense of their bedroom as a refuge from the elements, both meteorological and emotional, and Peter was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. The anguish of the night before had apparently given way to introspection.
El took his hand. "How're you doing, hon?"
"Fine. I mean, I don't know." He turned his warm brown gaze on her. "I was actually just wondering if I could convince you to move to France. I know, that's crazy."
"A little bit stalkery maybe, especially since neither of us speaks French. But it could be fun. You could work for Interpol, and I could get a part-time job at a gallery. We could buy Mikey and Satchmo matching berets and eat escargot at sidewalk cafés." She moved forward and kissed him gently. "I love you."
He gathered her into a bear hug. "I love you too. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry." El held him tighter, giving them both the privacy and the security they needed to say what had to be said. Nerves clutched at her, but she pushed them aside. "I already know you love Neal. What I don't know is if you're in love with him. If you want him."
Peter went very still, his arms like steel bands around her. "Yeah, I do."
"Okay. That's okay." She pushed him away just far enough so she could kiss him again, pouring all of her tenderness into it, even though he was still frozen in place. "For the record, me too."
Peter stared blankly as if he was braced for her to say something else entirely. He breathed a dry laugh and relaxed a fraction. "I should have known. That's good, I guess?"
El sighed with profound relief, as her anxiety drained away. The truth was out, and the world hadn't ended. "We're in this together."
"Always," said Peter. "You know, when you went to D.C. and I stayed here, Rebecca accused me of choosing Neal over you, but I couldn't do that, not then, not ever."
"I know," said El, because she did. She'd never for a second doubted him. That was the one thing that would get them through this. "Were you in love with him back then?"
"I didn't think about it." He glanced at her, then lowered his gaze. "I didn't let myself think about it. But after he died— some things came into focus."
"Oh hon." If she'd known he was carrying that secret on top of his grief, she would have tried to help, but she would have been hurt by it too, jealous of a dead man. Peter had been shielding her, and there was no point in reproaches now.
Over the baby monitor, Mikey started talking and banging something against the side of his crib. They only had a few minutes before he demanded attention. El focused on her husband. "So, your best theory so far is emigrating to France, huh?"
Peter took her hand and pressed it over his heart, looking wretched. "It feels like a second chance, El. I can't just let him walk out of our lives again."
She rubbed his chest, finding her strength in reassuring him. "We'll figure something out. What's got you so torn up?"
"You," he said. "Mikey. You were right, what you said last night. I have responsibilities. We're married, and we're parents, and I'm having inappropriate—" He reddened. "Thoughts. About someone else."
"Parents do all kinds of crazy things," said El. "And I will always love you, no matter who else you fantasize about. But I know what you mean about Mikey." Their lives had been stable and safe since Neal left; the ideal environment for an infant. Any change could only be a risk. And a house full of dirty diapers, two-AM feedings and crying babies was hardly seductive anyway. "Hon, if Neal stays in New York, will that be enough for you? Being in the same city, having him be Mikey's Uncle Neal?"
"How it was, working together for the Bureau? That's all I could ask."
The prospect of Peter and Neal's working together again brought up all the old fears, but Peter looked so hopeful and eager, like Satchmo with his eye on a bone, that El couldn't help laughing. "I think that's probably up to him, don't you?"
"I suppose." Peter rolled his eyes humorously, just as Mikey began to cry.
El sat up. "I'll go."
Peter caught her arm. "So, do we have a game plan?"
"We make Neal feel welcome, act like perfect hosts, and hope we can convince him to stay." She grabbed her dressing-gown, feeling optimistic. It was so good to have talked it out with Peter and sloughed off all that guilt. No more secrets. If the worst happened and Neal left again, they could console each other.
Peter nodded. "Okay. We can do that."
"And other than that, we sublimate like crazy." She winked and went to take care of their son.
It rained all day. When El came down with Mikey, Ella Fitzgerald was on the stereo, and Neal was mixing pancake batter. His hair was damp. "'Morning," he said. "Juice?"
"I think we're out of juice," said El. "I need to go to the store today." She put Mikey in his high chair and kissed his forehead. "But first of all, I have to feed the monster, don't I?"
Mikey babbled cheerful agreement, pleased with the attention, and tried to stand up in his chair. She sat him down again.
Neal poured her a glass of OJ. "I picked some up when I took Satchmo out. Also bacon. I'm making crepes."
"That sounds delicious," said El. "You're a very considerate guest." She touched his shoulder on her way to get Mikey's bib, enjoying how the contact felt both innocent and illicit. Everything was different now Peter knew. The stakes were still high, but she had the safety-net of her marriage firmly in place.
Neal retrieved Tootie from where Mikey had thrown him under one of the bar stools. "I try." He put the toy lion on the high chair tray and crouched down to hold Mikey's hand. "You're not very scary for a monster."
"You haven't seen him have a proper meltdown yet," said El. "Trust me, it's scary."
"Does it happen often?"
"Only when it's incredibly inconvenient. I think he has a sixth sense." El put Mikey's bowl in the microwave and watched it turn, needing a chance to compose herself. Seeing Neal be tender with Mikey took her breath away, filling her with joy and imminent loss. Two weeks wasn't nearly enough. "If you like, I can make the crepes, and you can feed him."
"Absolutely," said Neal, so that's what they were doing when Peter walked in, freshly showered, with the Sunday paper in his hands.
"El, do I need to take Satch out? Oh, hey." He halted, obviously as struck by the scene as El had been, and she went over and put her arm around him, sharing his appreciation.
"'Morning, Peter." Neal spared them a quick glance. "Watch out, Mikey, I know that look. Your mom's about to break out the camera again." He wiped Mikey's chin and coaxed another spoonful into his mouth.
"No, Momma has to rescue the crepes," said El, returning to the stove. "Peter, where's your phone?"
Peter had already dropped the paper on the counter. "I'm getting video." He leaned against the breakfast bar near Neal. "You know, if you want a career change, we have an opening for an au pair."
Neal looked amused. "I doubt I'd pass your stringent vetting process."
"Yeah, you would."
"He vetted my OB-GYN," said El. She turned the latest crepe onto a plate and set it on the counter in front of Peter, then gave him a quick hug from behind.
Peter stopped filming Neal and Mikey, and put his phone away. "I'm serious."
"Right," said Neal, lightly. "Anyway, you couldn't afford me. My rates have gone up a lot since I worked for you." He put the spoon down and wiped Mikey's face and hands. "I think we're done here, aren't we, buddy?"
Mikey wriggled and cried out, trying to get down, and Neal pulled him free of the high chair and tried to hold him, but his face was red, and he started screaming. Neal looked dismayed. "Sorry, I don't know what I did."
"Swap you," said El, giving him the spatula and taking Mikey. "Sometimes he just needs to be on the ground, don't you, babycakes? Hey, hey, there, it's okay. Here's Tootie." She grabbed the lion and took them both to Mikey's play mat, spending a few minutes distracting him with his fire truck and Mozart. Nothing helped until she switched the music to Springsteen. Then his wails subsided.
When she came back, two crepes with bacon and syrup awaited her. She sat down with a sigh. "Wow, I could get used to this. Neal, are you sure you won't reconsider Peter's offer?"
Neal just smiled. "More juice?"
He snaffled the business section of the paper from Peter to read while he cooked. Peter was scanning the international news. El grabbed the lifestyle and society pages to see what her business competitors had been up to and kept half an eye on Mikey. After a while, Peter moved onto sports, El got news and Neal turned off the oven, sat down and took the arts supplement. In the background, Springsteen sang "Streets of Philadelphia."
Peter's phone broke the peace. He took the call, then folded his section of the paper. "That was Jones. They're breaking up a black-market diamond exchange this afternoon. According to our surveillance intel, the guy has a safe hidden somewhere in his office, and they're going to use an imager to try and find it."
"Tech trumps old-fashioned detective work," said Neal. "Ain't it the way."
El was pretty sure they were all thinking about James and the Empire State Building, and the scanner Neal had borrowed to find the lost evidence. She gave Peter an encouraging smile to dispel the ghosts of the past. "Why don't you guys go and help Clinton out?"
Peter raised his eyebrows at Neal. "How about it? It'd be like old times."
"I thought you were a master at delegating now," said Neal.
Peter shrugged. "I can make an exception. A hidden safe full of diamonds sounds right up your alley."
Neal went and poured himself another cup of coffee. "I appreciate the thought, Peter, but I've retired from crime and law enforcement. But I'm fine if you want to go. You don't have to entertain me. Mikey's got that covered."
He went to sit in the living room, on the floor with his back against the wall next to Mikey's play mat, and picked up Mozart, so he didn't see Peter's face fall, but El's heart went out to both of them: Peter was a picture of disappointment, and something must be bothering Neal too, or he wouldn't have been so blunt. He'd raced to New York when he thought Peter was in trouble; he obviously still cared. Why was he pushing him away?
Maybe they just needed to spend some time alone together. She could help with that. "Well, if you guys are staying in, you can look after Mikey. I'm going to take a bath."
She kissed Peter, rubbed his shoulder and left them to it. Opportunities for self-indulgence were few and far between these days, and much as she was concerned for Peter and Neal, an uninterrupted hour alone luxuriating in a bubble bath while the rain drummed on the window was extremely appealing.
"Now raise him up by his ankles," Peter said.
"Oh man." Neal was at the changing table with his back to El, but the grimace in his voice was unmistakable.
Peter smirked. "Hey, you offered to change him. If you want to chicken out just because things are a little stinky, that's fine."
"Shut up and give me another wipe," said Neal.
El snuck past while they were distracted and curled up in an armchair, still warm and relaxed from her bath. A closed sketchpad lay at one end of the couch, a nearly-completed crossword at the other, and the TV was muted on ESPN while Springsteen continued to play on the stereo—"Brilliant Disguise" now. Neal's theme song, she thought, and then wondered if that were still true.
Anyway, whether or not Peter and Neal had been talking, it looked as if their interlude had been companionable until Mikey interrupted.
The rest of the day was just as low-key. Moz turned up after lunch, and he and Neal played chess and kept an eye on things while Mikey took his nap, and El and Peter took the opportunity to run out to the grocery store. Peter talked about making pot roast, but in the end they ordered pizza, and Mikey chewed on a crust and got tomato sauce all over his face.
"He looks like something out of a horror movie," said El. "Let's get you cleaned up and ready for bed, okay?"
Peter pressed her back into her seat. "I've got this. Neal, you want to lend a hand?"
"Sure," said Neal. "You never know, I might need these skills someday."
"Oh, you're considering my job offer after all," Peter teased, as they took Mikey upstairs.
El didn't hear Neal's reply because Mozzie was talking. "So, Neal seems smitten."
El blinked. Since the confusion of his arrival, Neal had been strictly friendly. "I'm sorry?"
"With his namesake." Mozzie helped himself to another glass of wine. "You know, June once told me Byron didn't dream of going straight until their first daughter was born."
"It certainly raises the stakes," said El. For her and Peter too. If it weren't for Mikey, they could take the risk and make a move. See if Neal was willing to be with them for real, and if so, whether they could make it work with three. But Mikey was an irrefutable fact, and she couldn't regret him.
Mozzie was waxing nostalgic. "Neal wanted to have kids with Kate, you know. I thought it was a fantasy, that guys like us don't belong at the PTA, but I guess people can surprise you. Maybe he'll meet someone and finally get to have a family of his own."
"Maybe." El curled her feet up under her and fiddled with her wedding band. She'd been supportive of Neal's romantic endeavors in the past, but that had been the old Neal. If he stayed in New York now— It was totally unrealistic to expect him to stay single forever, and if they were friends, she'd have to be happy for him, but the idea of him in love with someone else made her restless and tense. It'll get easier, she told herself. It's just because it's new. She sighed and changed the subject. "So what are you going to do, now Neal's alive but he's retired?"
"I may open a curio shop," said Mozzie. "Or I may find myself another front man. I don't suppose you'd consider embarking on a voyage of extra-legal discovery, El? You have the makings of a creditable con."
"I'm flattered, but I'm a mom now," said El. "Besides, I hardly think Peter would condone my walking on the wild side."
"The fact that you'd even consider telling a Suit—" Mozzie gestured outrage with his free hand. "I rescind my offer."
"Anyway, I'm going back to work soon. I think it's time." El brushed at a stain on her blouse. The last few days had highlighted the contrast between the world out there, full of glamorous adventures, and the current constraints of her life. Mikey was a blessedly accommodating baby most of the time. She could juggle both.
"You know, event planning could be the perfect cover," started Mozzie.
"I don't think so," said El.
Mozzie held up his hands in surrender. "Your loss."
"You think the plan's working?" asked Peter, when El slid into bed with him later that night.
She tried to smile. "You mean our ingenious plot to lure Neal into staying in the city? I think there may be a flaw in our logic."
"I know we'd be happier if he stayed," she said, "but what if he'd be happier in Paris. Aren't we being selfish?"
"This is where his friends are. It's his home." Peter sat up, frowning. "Did he say something?"
El made a face. "No, but you know what they say: if you love something, set it free."
"There's another school of thought that says if you like it, you should put a ring on it," said Peter. "I heard that on the radio."
El snickered at Peter, of all people, quoting Beyoncé, but it was a momentary distraction. "I just think, you know, I want him to be happy. But if it can't be with us, then I'm not sure I can stand to watch. Does that make me a terrible person? I mean, can you imagine him bringing a date here for dinner?"
"He's done it before," said Peter. "Sara?"
"That was before." El pulled him back down to lie with her and pressed her face to his shoulder. "I know it's selfish, but it's how I feel."
He stroked her hair off her forehead. "So, what, we've got two weeks to convince him to join the priesthood?"
"Something like that." El pulled away a little. His gaze was warm and sympathetic, his mouth turned up at the corner. She touched his cheek. "You're awfully cheerful, considering."
"Yeah. Seeing him with the boy, showing him how to do things—that's been really great. It makes up for a lot." Peter gave a small shrug. "I'm just glad to have him here."
"I know. And he's really taken to Mikey." There was no easy answer. And it wasn't like they could decide Neal's life for him anyway. She chewed her lip for a moment. "Hon, I'm thinking about going back to work, maybe a couple of days a week."
"Good for you," he said. "Are you sure you're ready?"
"I think so. I'll take Mikey in with me." She'd have to set up his mat a safe distance from the glassware, but there weren't many other hazards at the showroom. When he started crawling, she could get a playpen. And she'd be back in the city, at the heart of things. "We can meet you for lunch sometimes."
"That sounds great." Peter hugged her. "Let me know if there's anything you need." He turned out the light.
"Oh, I will. And if it gets to be a lot, I can always hire more staff. 'Night, hon." El cuddled against him sleepily. Mikey kept her busy twenty-eight hours a day, it felt like, but there wasn't a lot of intellectual challenge to mothering an eight-month old, just an ever-evolving routine and a struggle to keep on top of it. Going back to BPE meant she'd have something to keep her mind busy, to distract her if—if it transpired that she needed distracting.
Breakfast on Monday didn't have the leisurely extravagance of the weekend, but Neal had walked Satchmo again, so it was still less rushed than usual.
El poured herself a second cup of coffee. "Hon, can Mikey and I get a ride in with you? I want to go and see Yvonne."
"Of course," said Peter. He raised an eyebrow at Neal. "What about you? Got any plans?"
"I thought I'd continue my museum tour, but I'll get a cab later." Neal finished his toast, then looked at El. "You know, I saw there's an exhibition of art by children's illustrators, Seuss to Sendak. Mikey might like it."
"Perfect," said El. "I'll call you when I've finished at the showroom and we can meet up."
"If I can get away, I might join you," said Peter, standing up. He opened his briefcase and started checking the contents.
"I'd have expected you'd be glad to be spared more endless trudging through galleries," said Neal, teasing.
"Oh, I don't mind." Peter snapped his briefcase shut and returned the look. "It's worth it for the company." He bent and kissed the top of El's head and stroked his thumb down Mikey's cheek, making both of them smile up at him.
"Of course," murmured Neal. "Fun for the whole family."
"I hope you're including yourself in that," said El, but he was clearing away his breakfast dishes and didn't reply.
Yvonne squealed when she saw her. "El! And baby Neal! Ahhh, it's so good to see you!"
"You too," said El, laughing. She put down the bag of muffins she'd brought with her and gave Yvonne a side-on hug around the baby carrier. "He's going by Mikey now, by the way. Long story."
"Mikey." Yvonne held his tiny hand. "It suits him. Anyway, come in, sit down! Tell me everything. Jeannie's out consulting with a caterer, and Sheri Maddison's coming in at nine-thirty to discuss her wedding anniversary party, but we've got heaps of time till then."
"And gallons of tea," said El, pulling a thermos out of her bag. "Breastfeeding makes you so thirsty, you wouldn't believe." She grabbed the muffins and Yvonne got mugs from the kitchenette, and they went to the couches at the back of the showroom. "How's business?"
"All weddings, all the time." Yvonne made a face. "Good thing we have the patented El Burke Wedding Management System. It keeps us on track."
El laughed again. "It's just a checklist."
"It's a checklist and a flowchart, and it's saved my ass more times than I can count." Yvonne stopped, embarrassed. "I mean, really, everything's under control. You don't have to worry."
"Great." El let Mikey grab her finger and tried not to feel left out. Yvonne and Jeannie didn't need her here, but just walking into the showroom made her feel more focused and businesslike. "In that case, this might not be good news: I'm thinking of coming back a few days a week."
"Oh, awesome!" said Yvonne, her face lighting up. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I love the unfettered power of running this place, but honestly, the job is so much less fun without you."
El beamed at her. "I've missed you too."
"And we're so busy, and William from the Oswald Group asked if we could do their annual gala again, and I didn't know if we could handle it." She took two muffins out of the bag and handed one to El. "And I'm not supposed to say anything yet, but off the record, Jeannie's pregnant, so—"
"Oh wow," said El. "That's great news! We are going to have our hands so full."
"I know!" Yvonne grinned. "You love that."
"These days, my hands are never empty," said El, breaking off a piece of muffin for Mikey. "Maybe we need to set up a staff crèche."
"Excellent idea. So when are you coming back? Tomorrow? Say tomorrow."
"I was thinking I'd start the week after next, for two or three days a week," said El. "I don't want to tread on your toes though."
"Tread as much as you want," said Yvonne firmly. "It's your company, and I'm completely toeless. Yay, we're getting the band back together!"
"With Mikey on percussion, isn't that right, babycakes?" said El, rubbing his back. "It's going to be great."
She stayed for the meeting with Sheri, using Mikey as an excuse for not being more smartly dressed. She and Yvonne slipped back into their old routine with ease, and after Sheri left, it was a pleasure to be there, working together to realize their shared vision. Then Mikey started getting hungry.
"We're going to need a changing table for the bathroom," she told Yvonne. "And, oh, a bunch of other stuff."
"Jeannie can take care of it. Just send me a list."
"You're the best." El handed over the notes she'd made. "I should warn you, Mikey's a big Springsteen fan at the moment. We might need to play that sometimes."
Yvonne laughed. "That's perfect. I can't wait to see Sheri's face when she walks in here to 'Born to Run.'"
One feeding, a diaper change and a two-and-a-half-block saunter through the sunny streets of midtown later, El met Neal outside the Seuss to Sendak exhibition. He was wearing sunglasses, a grey-blue marl t-shirt and khakis, and he smiled at the sight of her. "Wow, what happened? You look like you won the lottery."
"I just had a really good meeting with Yvonne," said El, blushing. "I'm going back to work in a couple of weeks. I think it's going to be really fun."
She saw him register the timeframe—a couple of weeks would be after he left—but he just said, "Congratulations! Should we celebrate with brunch or do you want to check out the exhibition first?"
He took the baby bag and shouldered it without asking.
"Exhibition, I think. Monster boy is fed, so I want to take advantage of his current state of contentment." El checked Mikey hadn't kicked off his shoes, and they went inside. "Wow, this is a change of pace from Saturday."
The children's art was unabashedly colorful and for the most part cheerful, matching El's spirits. There were quirky animals and characters in strange costumes, a weird moonlit landscape with a pirate ship sailing through the sky, a Noah's ark. El pointed out a dog to Mikey, "Look, it's just like Satchmo, see?" and Neal hooked his sunglasses over the neck of his shirt and found a pastel depiction of a bear that was as lopsided and pre-loved as Mozart.
They reached a selection of Dr. Seuss artworks. "It's strange seeing you in casual clothes all the time," said El, breaking a silence that had gone on too long. "Have you given up suits for Lent?"
Neal shrugged. "The suits were Neal Caffrey. I'm Victor Moreau now, back in Paris. And here—the whole point of my last con was to convince the Panthers I'm dead, so here I'm incognito."
"Like a spy," said El, not questioning him, even though the bad guys were all safely locked away. There must have been more to Neal's disappearance a year ago than just fooling the Panthers, or he would have let Mozzie in on it. And Peter. "Is it very different, being Victor?"
Neal's mouth curved up. "It's definitely a change of pace. I'm not always trying to distract someone or impress them with my brilliance. The suits were part of the pizzazz."
"A very effective part," said El.
"I still indulge from time to time. I mean, you can't live in Paris and not be stylish, and nothing says stylish like a well-made hat."
"But you don't need them anymore."
"I changed; my circumstances changed. Sometimes you have to shed a skin." Neal led the way into the next room and started telling Mikey about the brushwork in a painting of some fat bumblebees, but El was distracted, thinking over what he'd said.
Neal had left his whole life behind and become someone new. Had he ever done that before? How much of the Neal Caffrey she'd known had been armor to protect him from the indignities of his position and the dangers of working with the FBI? How much rebellion against his sentence? The Devore had always marked him as an outsider at the Bureau. Now he was finally allowing himself to relax and fit in with those around him.
"Well, for what it's worth, I like this new you," she told him, interrupting his treatise on painting. She was about to say more when footsteps sounded behind her, and Neal looked toward them.
"Peter," he said. "How did you find me? I knew I shouldn't have given you my number."
"I didn't track your phone. Would you relax? You're getting as paranoid as Mozzie." Peter gave El a quick kiss hello and stuck his hands in his pockets, looking pleased with himself.
Neal raised his eyebrows.
"I traced El's phone," said Peter. "She doesn't mind."
El grinned. "Is it lunchtime?"
"Yeah, I've got a couple of hours." Peter checked his watch. "There's a meeting at two I can't get out of. You want me to take Mikey for a while?"
They got lunch from a deli and went to eat in the park, sitting on the grass in the sun. The ground had dried, and there was a light warm breeze. Mikey grabbed at El's arm and toppled forward, knocking his hat off in the process, and she replaced it for the hundredth time that day.
"You guys look like a phone company commercial," said Neal.
The crinkles around Peter's eyes deepened. Then, fittingly, his phone rang, and he answered it. "Yeah? Okay, great. Thanks, Di. Talk soon." He hung up and locked gazes with Neal. "June made the call. Diana's processed the paperwork. You're officially free."
Neal took a deep breath. "So that's that."
"Congratulations," said Peter. "You did it."
El half expected them to shake hands or even hug, but neither moved a muscle. "This calls for a real celebration," she said, when she couldn't bear the tension any longer. "We need cake."
Peter broke eye contact and cleared his throat. "I know just the place. Isn't there a bakery near here?"
"The Greatest Cake." El clapped her hands. Neal had owned it for few months, and the new proprietors had kept the name—as well as improving the quality of the baking. BPE sometimes commissioned wedding cakes from them.
"La Grande Evasion," said Neal. "Perfect."
But Mikey chose that moment to start crying, quickly escalating to all-out screaming punctuated with sobs. El winced, glad they were outdoors rather than in a restaurant or the BPE showroom. Neal looked worried, but Peter and El had been through this many times before. Peter joggled him up and down, trying to soothe him, and when that didn't work, unfastened the baby carrier and passed him to El to see if her mother's touch would do the trick, but Mikey refused to be consoled.
"Poor, poor monster boy," said El. "Too much excitement for you. Someone needs a nap. Hon, I think we're going to have to go home."
Peter checked his watch. "I'll drive you. I've got time."
Mikey sobbed and hiccoughed and sobbed some more.
"He might be dehydrated," said El when they got to the car. "Neal, I think there's a water bottle in the bag."
Neal fished around and produced the bottle, and El sat in the back next to the car seat on the drive home, trying to convince Mikey to drink.
"Are you sure he's okay?" asked Neal over the screams.
"Ah, this is only a category one," said Peter. "He'll be fine. You should see him when he hits three or four—he can take out trees and power lines."
El had to smile, despite the decibel level. In the early days of parenting, Peter had freaked out nearly as much as the baby, desperate to find a way to fix him, and every time Mikey cried, El had wanted to cry too, out of love and tiredness and despair. Now they went into containment and damage control mode like it was business as usual. They'd come a long way in eight months.
Peter put the radio on to see if that would help and turned it off again when it didn't. Neal didn't say anything.
It took El and Peter another forty minutes between them to put Mikey down for his nap. When they came back downstairs, Neal was standing in the middle of the living room, still holding his sunglasses, and he was staring at the couch and his overnight bag, which was packed away in the corner where he'd been keeping it during the day, with the pillow and his sketchbook and pencil balanced on top. He looked tense, but being around a screaming baby could have that effect on anyone, especially if they weren't used to it.
El put the baby monitor on the coffee table. "Phew, I need a cup of tea after that. Is Mozzie coming over this evening? Maybe he could buy us a cake."
"He's going to June's," said Neal.
"I have to head back to the office," said Peter, getting out his car keys. "I can pick one up later. What do you want—chocolate?"
Neal turned to them abruptly. "You know what, I should just go."
"Go where?" asked El, already anticipating his answer: Mikey's screams had been too much, and Neal had decided to relocate to his old apartment. It must be hard sleeping on the couch with no privacy to speak of. And maybe it was for the best: he might be more likely to stay in the city if he surrounded himself with his old things.
"Back to France. I can get a flight this evening." He gave her an apologetic half-smile.
El's throat closed up. She'd been counting on the next two weeks to figure out how to let him go. Or if he stayed, how to turn this need for him into something more like friendship. She couldn't lose him yet. She wasn't ready.
"What are you talking about? You only just got here." Peter clapped Neal on the shoulder. "Screaming babies make everyone a little crazy. Why don't you have a cup of coffee with El, and we'll talk about it later when I get home."
Neal inhaled sharply, but his voice was even and reasonable. "I've been here all weekend. No one's dead or in danger. And I can't—I don't belong here anymore."
That first night, he'd said he was home. He'd promised her two weeks. El crossed her arms, wanting to intervene but knowing her motives were suspect. If he needed to go, she should let him, for his sake.
Peter wasn't giving in so easy. "Why? Look, whatever the problem is, just say it. We'll figure it out."
"You know what it is." Neal took his bag from the corner and tucked his sketchbook inside. He put on his sunglasses. "Come on, Peter, let me leave with what's left of my dignity."
"Humor me," said Peter. "Spell it out."
"All right." Neal flushed beneath his beard and raised his chin, turned to El. "It was always a juggling act between us—"
She tightened her arms, hugging herself, recognizing immediately what he meant. "A tug of war."
"Right, yeah." Neal took off his glasses again, his expression bleak enough to break her heart. "And yours is the legitimate claim, I've always known that, but I—I was starting to want to win by any means necessary." He looked away, and lowered his voice, saying to Peter, "After you handed me off to Siegel, I started taking things to get your attention."
Peter was motionless, tense from head to foot. "So you left because of me. You faked your own death because of me."
"Because of both of you," said Neal harshly, as if he wanted to hurt Peter with his words. "I couldn't stand being on the outside looking in anymore. I missed you more than—" He squared his shoulders, and his voice steadied, became determined. "But it was so much easier not to be here. And if I leave now, we can go on pretending. We can be friends. I'll visit. You can come to Paris for vacations. But first, Peter, you have to let me go. Right now."
Peter paled. After a long moment he raised his hand and dropped it. "You're a free man. I can't keep you here."
Neal took a step back. He nodded and picked up his bag. "Okay, so I'll be in touch. You've got my number, and Moz can—"
"But you know, just because you can leave, doesn't mean you have to," said Peter, speaking right over him.
Neal stopped, his jaw tightening. "Did you hear any of what I just said?"
"Yeah, I did. Every word." Peter met his gaze head on. "El?"
She knew what he was asking: for the chance to tell Neal how he really felt, to make him stay. And the sheer fact that he, Peter Burke, who wore his responsibilities like a suit of armor, was willing to take that risk spoke volumes. El felt dizzy, assailed by the reasons, the logical, sensible, responsible constraints that had been holding them back. In the end, they all boiled down to Mikey.
The knowledge of what Neal was going through was agonizing, and Peter's desperation, and her own, but she couldn't put any of their needs above those of her son. Even if it made them miserable, Mikey came first.
But what was the risk, really? Upheaval, uncertainty, the chance of heartache—weighed against the certainty of misery. Parents were supposed to set an example for their children. Did she really want Mikey to grow up thinking it was better to be normal and safe than to be happy? To be afraid to take love when it was offered?
Peter was a pillar of courage and determination. She trusted him and her own judgment, and she trusted Neal—with them and with her son. He was already part of the family. She'd already promised him he wasn't expendable.
"Are you sure?" she asked Peter.
"I'm sure." Peter was watching Neal, as if he thought he'd vanish otherwise.
Neal looked between the two of them, questioning what was happening, and El walked up to him, put her hand on his cheek, feeling the spring of his beard against her palm, and reached up to kiss him. Her first kiss with another man in over fourteen years, and she'd been ridiculous to ever think of it as infidelity when it was so clearly an expansion of her marriage, not a betrayal. His lips were warm under hers, he smelled clean and fresh, and his beard tickled her face, and she wanted him so much her mouth went dry and her body ached. But he was still, barely kissing her back. He didn't understand.
She leaned away. "You know, he even talked about moving us to Paris to be near you."
That put a crease between Neal's eyebrows. "Neither of you speak French."
"That's what I said."
"I could learn," said Peter, gruffly. "I'd rather not have to."
Neal dropped his bag and his sunglasses and caught El close, pulling her hard up against his gorgeous body, cupping her head and pressing her face to his shoulder. His heart was pounding loud enough she could feel the tremors through his chest, and her own thudded against her ribs, syncopating. Desire and the thrum of emotion in the air made her breathless. Then he loosened his hold, let her go. "Peter." He sounded torn. "I can't go back to how it was."
Peter's gaze was steady. "No one's saying that. This isn't about the anklet or being your handler. We've all changed since then, and I wouldn't go back if I could. But here's the thing: the whole time you were dead, I never stopped missing you, every damned day. And then you came back, and I thought—" He shook his head. "I thought I've got the perfect life already, with El and Mikey. Everything I wanted. I have no right to ask for more than that."
Neal blinked hard and looked away. "I know."
"But I'm a lucky sonofabitch. I married an amazing woman who knows a good thing when she sees it. And so do I. So I'm asking anyway." He moved closer, kissed El's temple, and gripped Neal by the shoulder, demanding his attention, compelling as the sun. "I love you, Neal, and I want to be with you. You can leave, you can disappear and go anywhere you want, but if you do, I know I'll always regret it."
Neal's lips parted. He checked in with El, who found herself shaken by a new doubt. He and Peter had been inseparable for years, so in sync, and Peter had been openly possessive. "Are you sure you can share him with me?" she asked Peter
He didn't hesitate. "That's the only way this works. And I want to."
El believed him. She was the one who'd reacted badly to Neal's hypothetical future dates, not Peter, and they shared everything else. It was only natural to be afraid, but fear was a terrible reason to shy away from her heart's desire. She took Neal's right hand and Peter's left, both of them hot and tense. "Then I think I've made my position pretty clear."
Peter was staring at Neal like he was trying to read his mind. "You want to do this? Stay here with us?"
Neal shook his head wonderingly. "I never wanted anything more."
His hold on El's hand tightened, and he leaned in to take Peter's mouth, softly at first, their lips parted but careful, and then with gathering intensity. Peter pulled him close, responding so passionately her breath caught at the sight; excitement twisted low in her belly. The two men she loved, and she could have both of them, their hands and mouths, their bodies, all that attention on her. She flushed with anticipation. And she could watch them with each other. They could be happy. It was an impossible wealth of riches, the shimmer of love and generosity spilling into the days to come. Peter's car keys fell to the floor as he made a rough, aching sound and wrapped his free arm around Neal's waist, deepening the kiss, so obviously moved by eroticism that El wondered how she could have ever doubted his desire. Neal stroked his thumb along Peter's jaw and kissed him harder as if trying to devour him.
The sight of them and her own need drew El forward, pressing in, and they opened their embrace to her, Peter meeting her mouth lushly while Neal pressed kisses down her neck and pulled her to him. She moaned, but Peter raised his head, flushed and breathing hard. He glanced at the clock on the mantel.
"Dammit, I have a meeting at two I can't get out of." He ran his hand over his head, frustrated. "If I'm not there, White Collar's budget will take a big hit next year."
"The Federal Bureau of Interruptions strikes again." El gave a deep sigh, sharing his frustration even while she accepted the inevitable. "Oh well. We'll still be here when you get back. Right, Neal?"
"Definitely." Neal dropped his head to Peter's shoulder and took a long, unsteady breath. "Wild horses."
"Well, thank Christ for that," said Peter. He smoothed Neal's hair and kissed him again, long and deep. "I'm too old to learn French."
"You're not that old," said Neal.
El grinned. "He really isn't."
Peter disentangled himself from the embrace and retrieved his car keys from the floor where he'd dropped them. "I hate that I have to go."
"But you do." El kissed Neal, partly to put on a show for Peter, as a preview of coming attractions, and then Peter himself. She patted him on the ass. "Have a good meeting, hon. Hurry home. And don't forget to bring cake."
The door shut and a few seconds later, they heard the car start up and drive away. Neal opened his arms and said, "Come here," as if he were testing out a new superpower, not sure if it would work.
She went to him at once, sliding her arms around his waist, glad to be holding him. He was still aroused, and her blood was hot in her veins too, but she felt oddly shy all of a sudden. "We shouldn't do anything without Peter. Not this first time," she murmured into his chest.
"I was just thinking that," said Neal, tilting her face up. "You know, the FBI has cramped my style many times, but this may be their most egregious offence yet." He pressed a ripe kiss to her lips. "You still want tea?"
"I do." But she didn't move, mesmerized by the warmth in his eyes, his eyelashes, his expressive mouth. He was so close, so loving. How hard it must have been for him to repress all this and play the role of platonic guest. She stroked down the side of his throat to the nub of his collar bone. "How're you doing, babe?"
His mouth curved. "Little bit blindsided but in the best possible way. You?"
"Snap." She pulled him closer and kissed him again. "Happy. Relieved. Nervous. Thirsty. And there's so much we need to talk about—" The distinct sound of Mikey waking up came through the baby monitor. El breathed a rueful laugh. "But that's going to have to wait. I'll get the monster, you make tea?"
"Deal." Neal kissed her and let her go without complaint. She watched him for a moment as he headed for the kitchen, admiring his grace, anticipating getting naked with him, and then she turned and ran upstairs, letting excitement and happiness propel her.
She got to Mikey's room breathless and grinning, and picked him up and hugged him. "Hello, babycakes. Feeling better? Momma's got some crazy good news."
He laughed and grabbed at her face, and she kissed his little hands and his nose.
"That's right," she told him. "Now you're going to have three parents to torment. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?"
She took him downstairs and breastfed him on the couch, and when Neal came through with the tea, he sat next to them, and she leaned into him as much as she could without disturbing Mikey.
"He only fell asleep fifteen minutes ago," said Neal.
"This is what it's like now," said El. "We disrupt his routine, we pay the price. Are you sure you're up for it?"
"I was just marveling at his stamina." Neal put his arm around her. "You guys, all three of you—you're everything I ever wanted."
"Oh, babe." She wished she could erase the heartache of the past. But without that, he wouldn't be the man he was, and they'd never have made it here. "Peter thought you were avoiding being alone with us."
"Separately, I could handle it, but seeing you together killed me. You were so out of reach, I might as well have been watching through a telescope from space." He looked pensive and then grinned. "And now here we are."
"You know, I hadn't completely ruled out Peter's idea of moving to France. Get a nice pension on the Île Saint-Louis and stalk you all over Paris, with occasional pit stops for diaper changes and croissants."
Neal kissed her shoulder through her blouse. "So you're sure about this? You're not just going along with it for Peter's sake?"
He was only half-teasing, and El wished she had her hands free so she could demonstrate properly how she felt, but she had to settle for words. She made them as honest as she could. "If he'd been able to let you go, I wouldn't have stopped you. I had all these ideas about being a mom and being respectable. Trying to do the 'right' thing. And I would have missed you, and I don't know. Maybe we'd have figured something out eventually, or maybe I'd just have lived with it. But as soon as we took this step—" She caught one of Mikey's hands, letting his strong grip anchor her. Aware of Neal's body, warm and real against her side, only a few layers of clothes between them. "I'm in. I love you, and you're family, and it feels right. Not just for Peter, for me too. You're the piece I didn't know was missing, but now I know, there's no going back. Even if we fight, even if the world falls apart, I'll love you. So we have to make it work, okay?"
"We will," said Neal. "Whatever it takes."
It was an extravagant pledge, and if the old Neal had made it, she would have worried he'd try to mold himself to what he thought they wanted, losing himself in the process, or wondered if he were conning her. But this new Neal had made it clear he was his own man; he'd set boundaries with Peter. If they had to compromise, they could negotiate on an equal footing.
"Whatever it takes," said El, meeting his commitment with her own.
They sat together in silence for a while, a man, a woman and a baby: to a casual observer, they'd look like a typical nuclear family. How long would it be before someone assumed Neal was Mikey's biological father, and would Peter mind when they did? El herself was both obscurely excited by the prospect and a touch defensive on Peter's behalf. And if everything worked out, what would it be like for Mikey, growing up with a mom and two dads? Would it make him feel special or just different? El could imagine the years ahead—two devoted fathers playing ball with him, helping with his homework, embarrassing him in front of his friends when he got older.
Mikey finished feeding, and she burped him and sat him on the play mat with Tootie and his fire truck. He burbled and grabbed his counting book with the penguin on the cover, apparently wanting something to chew on. It was already gnawed around the edges. She patted him and went back to the couch, collapsing with a sigh. She could do with a nap herself.
Neal passed her a mug of tea. "What are you thinking?"
"Logistics. Coming out, sleeping arrangements, storage. Mikey." She wrinkled her nose and yawned. "Sorry, that's not very romantic, is it? Call it an occupational hazard."
"You don't have to apologize," said Neal. "I'm not looking for romance. Historically speaking, I've found it tends to end in disaster."
Kate and Rebecca were both dead. Sara had moved away. "I'm sorry," said El. She let their ghosts fade, then took his hand. "So if not romance, what do you want?"
Neal sighed silently. "Just this. Love. Trust. Family. Something real."
With perfect timing, an unmistakable stink wafted over from Mikey's direction.
El couldn't help but laugh. "Well, it doesn't get more real than that."
"Exactly," said Neal, with a grin. "Thanks for making my point, buddy." He stood up. "I'll get this. You relax and drink your tea."
El watched with amusement as Neal lifted Mikey onto the changing table, holding him at arm's length. The idea of a third person to help with the baby was luxurious. Really, every household should have three parents per child.
Of course, three adults meant three sets of adult feelings to consider. El bit her lip. "There are going to be teething problems, aren't there?"
Mikey chuckled, and she shook her head. "No, I'm not talking about you." She waited until Neal could spare her more attention. "I mean all of us. Learning to share. How to get what we need. And if you go back to working with Peter—"
"I told you, I've retired." Neal kissed Mikey's forehead and sat him on his play mat. He went and washed his hands, and when he came back, he turned on the stereo, lowered the volume so they could talk comfortably and returned to the couch. "Listen, I know how hard it was for you before. You were right, it really was a tug of war, and there were way too many close calls. But Peter's got a desk job now, and I've changed, and—" His voice cracked. "It won't be like that this time, I promise."
El snuggled into him, relieved and touched by his understanding. "Peter will be disappointed you're not going back to the Bureau."
"I'll make it up to him." Neal waggled his eyebrows.
"Oh, I'm sure there'll be compensations." Her cheeks heated at the thought. Only a few more hours and they'd all be together, they could make love. She put her hand on his thigh, partly to steady herself, partly to tease them both. He was in terrific shape.
His eyes darkened in response. "For you too, I hope. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to compensating you."
El shivered. "This is going to be really good, isn't it? Like, mind-blowingly, epically—"
He put a finger to her lips to stop her. "Don't. We have to wait for Peter."
"Okay." She caught his hand, kissed his knuckles. "Then tell me a secret. One I can't tell anyone else."
"For your ears only." He caught Mikey's ball, which had rolled against his foot, and gave it back to him, then shifted to face her. "Okay. When I first got to Europe, I wasn't sure I could go straight. I was trapped between worlds. If I hadn't met Cécile and Louise, I don't know where I'd have ended up."
"I'd like to meet them," said El. When he didn't reply, she knew there was more to the story than just telling a secret. "You're going back."
"I have to, just for a little while. I mean, picture it from their perspective: the ex-con you hire ups and leaves without any warning? You'd have to verify every item in your care, every item you'd traded, for due diligence."
"I get it," said El, but she couldn't suppress a pang. Whatever he'd said about romance, Paris was a seductive city, and he'd made a life there. But they couldn't put a GPS tracking anklet on him or send an escort. If you love something set it free. If he chose not to come back, she and Peter would have to find a way to accept it.
El was playing with Mikey when Peter got home. Peter had two bunches of convenience store roses under his arm, a bottle of wine and a cake box, as well as his briefcase. He unloaded onto the coffee table and bent down to Mikey. "Hey, Earl Weaver, any more tantrums on the infield?"
"He's been an angel," said El.
"Good going, buddy. Keep it up and you might get cake." Peter chucked his cheek lovingly, then turned to El and gave her one set of flowers. "These are just—for everything."
"Love you too." El kissed him, hiding a grin. Peter's romantic gestures were always hit-or-miss. Sometimes he swept her off her feet, making her feel like the luckiest woman in the world, and sometimes, well, it was the thought that counted. "Thanks, hon."
Peter looked around. "Where's Neal?"
"He offered to make dinner," said El, and raised her voice to add, "And it smells amazing."
"Hi, Peter, I'll be through in a second," called Neal in response, but he sounded as if he had his hands full, so El picked up Mikey, and Peter gathered the rest of his gifts, and they relocated to the dining room.
El put Mikey in his high chair. "It's time for your dinner anyway, isn't it, kiddo?"
He babbled agreeably, a completely different creature from the howling red-faced baby he'd been that afternoon.
"These are for you," said Peter behind her, and she turned just in time to catch Neal's expression when presented with the second bunch of roses. He looked completely stumped.
"I, uh. Thanks?"
Peter's ears turned pink, but he didn't let embarrassment hold him back. He cupped Neal's face and kissed him, and maybe he intended for it to be a quick welcome-home-glad-to-see-you kiss like he'd exchanged with El, but Neal promptly pushed him against the breakfast bar and leaned in, and Peter's chest heaved, and they started making out as if they'd been starving for each other.
Mikey clapped his hands, and El giggled. "I agree. Eight-point-three from the American judges."
The guys broke apart, self-conscious and somewhat disheveled, and Neal hurried to the stove where at least one saucepan was sizzling.
Peter tugged at his tie. "I should get changed."
"Yeah, but first you might want to put those roses in some water," said El, who was enjoying herself hugely. "Both bunches."
Neal sent her a quizzical look that was the absolute last straw, and El dissolved into gales of laughter. "Oh my God," she said, when she could breathe again. "This is going to be so much fun."
"Great, mock the romantically impaired idiot who brought you gifts," said Peter, good-humoredly. He looked at Mikey. "Nothing's ever simple, Puddlepants. I thought flowers were foolproof."
Neal rubbed his shoulder. "There's a knack to it. I'll teach you."
"It's okay, hon," said El. "Neal tells me he's not into romance." She kissed them both quickly, side-stepping Neal's attempt to prolong the embrace, and put Mikey's vegetables in the microwave.
Peter gestured at the cake box. "I hardly dare ask—" But Neal peered inside and declared it acceptable.
Peter disappeared upstairs and came back barefoot in his best jeans and a maroon t-shirt, looking hot enough to make up for a dozen convenience store bouquets and a lot more relaxed. Neal whistled appreciation, and El winked at Peter and handed off the baby-feeding to him so she could open the wine and set the table. "After dinner, we need to talk."
"Elizabeth has an actual agenda," Neal teased her over his shoulder.
"I make lists, okay? It's what I do." She poured two glasses of passable pinot noir and passed him one, and then got herself a glass of juice.
"We do have a lot to sort out," said Peter. "Come on, Weaver, just your beans and three more pieces of carrot. Yum."
Neal served dinner—rich, sweetly scented murgh makhani on basmati rice, with a side of steamed vegetables arranged as artfully as a recipe illustration—and they sat down to eat. Mikey was occupied with a banana and seemed happy enough.
"This smells like heaven," said El, picking up her fork.
But before any of them could take a bite, Neal rested his elbows on the tabletop and looked at Peter. "We can talk later, but I need to tell you straight up, I've booked a flight to Paris on Wednesday."
The color drained from Peter's face, leaving him alarmingly gray. "Dammit, Neal—"
"Hon, it's okay," said El quickly. She kicked Neal under the table, but he was already explaining.
"It's just for a week. I'm not going to disappear again, but I have to see Cécile in person to hand in my resignation. I owe her that. I can't start a new life with a whole of lot loose ends behind me."
"You've done it before," grumbled Peter, covering his eyes while he recovered his composure.
"Yeah, and it was a mess, I think you'll agree." Neal squeezed his arm.
"Right," said Peter. He dropped his hand and kissed him across the corner of the table. "Do what you have to do, and then come home to us."
"Even if I have to swim the whole way."
Neal's mouth was red from the kiss, terribly distracting, but Mikey was still with them, smearing the last of the banana on his high chair, and anyway, El was starving for actual food. "Great," she said. "Now let's try to get through this delicious meal without anyone having a heart attack. Because that would really ruin dessert."
El gave Mikey another breastfeeding, and Peter and Neal put him to bed while she cleared away the dishes and listened through the baby monitor to Neal reading Goodnight Moon with dry interjections from Peter, who was still prickly about Neal leaving again. Peter was a man who liked to keep his loved ones close where he could protect them, and in the past he'd been able to control Neal's movements. It was going to take time to recalibrate their dynamic, but El was confident they'd weather the transition. The guys had been through worse, and the payoffs were obvious this time.
The important thing was that any temporary tensions didn't affect Mikey, and given how careful of him both of them were, El didn't think that would be a problem. She added it to her mental agenda anyway, to be on the safe side. At the rate the list was growing, they'd be talking all night.
Or they could prioritize. Neal was up to "Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere." She still had a few minutes. She let Satchmo onto the patio, gave the dining table and high chair a quick wipe, and went into the living room to consider their options. If they went upstairs, they'd have to be quiet so they didn't disturb Mikey as he was dropping off. But there were alternatives; it wouldn't be the first time she and Peter had taken advantage of the couch.
She bundled Mikey's toys under the changing table, moved the coffee table against the wall, folded out the couch and put some jazz on the stereo. A couple of candles on the mantel, the vase of roses, and the lights dimmed down, and the mood was set well enough. It didn't have to be perfect, it just had to get them in the right headspace.
Then there were practicalities. She set a box of tissues on the coffee table and texted Peter, Bring the condoms.
Her palms were sweaty, her nipples tight. They were actually going to do this. Have a threesome with Neal. How did that even work? Sex with Peter was easy and practiced: they knew each other so well, there was no self-consciousness or hesitation. Bringing in a third body, a third set of feelings, desires and expectations, seemed so complicated. So debauched.
But the third person was Neal, whom they both loved, who fitted easily into the rest of their lives. Maybe the sex would fall into place too. Maybe it would just be incredibly hot. She remembered sitting next to him on the couch that afternoon, the muscles of his thigh under her palm, his reaction proving how much he wanted her, and she felt a sharp twinge of lust between her legs. She took off her shoes and pantyhose and made herself comfortable on the bed.
Neal appeared first. Tall, sexy, dark-eyed. There was a stain on his polo shirt that made El's heart clench, a reminder that this wasn't the old Neal; this was a Neal who would let himself be vulnerable and imperfect. Who was free to love them. He stopped in the doorway, taking in the room. "Hey."
"Everything okay up there?" said El, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Yeah, Mikey's nine-tenths asleep." He came toward her. "Everything seems pretty okay down here too."
"I don't know how much enthusiasm the couch can withstand," said El, "but I'm really interested to find out."
A faint grin touched his lips, but mostly there was that dark intensity in his gaze. He sat on the edge of the bed, tucked her hair behind her ear and leaned in to kiss her with a hunger that made her breathless. His hand brushed her hip. "I've had dreams like this. You're so beautiful."
"You too," she told him. He'd barely touched her, and she was already aching.
He looked over his shoulder, saying, "Where's Peter?" just as Peter came downstairs with condoms and lube in his hand.
"Right here." His voice was low and hoarse, like it got when he was really turned on. He tossed the supplies onto the bed and knelt near both of them, on the floor. Put his hand on Neal's knee and took El's hand.
"Contraception is one of the items on the agenda, but for now, condoms," said El.
"Of course," said Neal. He was breathing shallowly, but when Peter kissed him, he didn't soften; neither of them gave an inch. This wasn't the open desire from the kitchen earlier. From where El lay, this looked as much a battle as a kiss. There were so many lines they were crossing here—the previously impervious boundary of their marriage bed, the shift from CI and handler to lovers, Peter's sexuality. It was only natural they'd both be defensive. They should have taken it slower, talked first.
At least, given prevailing wisdom about threesomes and jealousy, it was promising that she herself wasn't contested ground.
Neal made a faint frustrated noise and Peter kissed him harder, and El decided to intervene. Tussling might get them there in the end, and it would definitely get them off, but she wanted this first time to be generous. She wanted to make love.
The couch creaked as she moved to sit behind Neal and slid her hands under the hem of his shirt, smoothing across his belly. He softened at her touch. "Hey," she told him. "I love you."
Peter broke away, panting, and she met his eye. "I love you too," she told him. "And you love each other."
Peter ran his hand up the outside of her leg, under her skirt, and rested his forehead against Neal's, catching his breath. The tension in the air could have powered all of Brooklyn. "Let's slow this down," he said.
"Yeah," said Neal.
"Or we could get naked," suggested El, helpfully. "That could be good too."
They both grinned, which was what she'd been going for, and Neal said, "One at a time. I want to savor this."
"Okay." Peter sat back on his heels and pulled his t-shirt over his head.
El could feel Neal's reaction, the quiver that ran through him at the sight of Peter's torso. The anticipation thrumming under his skin.
"Your turn," said Peter.
El grabbed Neal's shirt and stripped it off him as if she was doing a magic trick. She threw it aside and ran her hands down the long muscles of his back, kissed his shoulder. Breathed in his warm male scent. "Mm, definite improvement."
"Now you," he said, twisting to meet her mouth.
El unbuttoned her blouse, refusing to feel self-conscious. Neal was watching her. Peter was looking at Neal, his gaze greedy and lingering. "Have you ever done this before?" he asked.
"Had a threesome? No," said Neal.
"Been with a man," said Peter.
"There were a couple of guys before Kate." Neal turned back to him. "Nothing serious, just one-nighters. Handjobs and oral. You?"
Peter blew out a breath. "That's actually a relief. I thought you might be expecting the works. Not that I'm not interested in that, but—"
"Not yet," Neal finished for him.
"You've never been with a man before."
"Just tell me what you want." Peter nuzzled his neck. "We'll figure it out."
"We're getting there," said El, dropping her blouse and maternity bra on the floor. "And if improvisation doesn't work, there's always Google."
Peter was looking more confident now, and Neal was starting to relax. El wriggled out of her skirt and lay on her side in the middle of the fold-out bed in her panties. The move got their attention, just as she'd hoped.
"Shall I get the laptop or do you have a plan?" asked Peter in his deep rumble.
"I want you both to fuck me," she said. If they could work together getting her off, it would help defuse the tension. Oh yeah, her motives were totally altruistic. "Neal first. Is that okay with you guys?"
"More than okay. I'd like to see that." Peter lay down behind her and kissed the side of her neck, and Neal shucked off his pants and stretched out in front of her. He was hard and beautiful, and his hand shook as he stroked carefully down her side and eased her underwear from her hips.
"How are you so smart?" he asked.
"Years of practice." She hitched her leg over his, bringing them together, and bit his jaw gently through his beard, feeling his arms come around her, the hot slide of his body and Peter's behind her. A dizzying abundance of skin.
"Come on, babe," she murmured. "Show me what you've got."
"Not that this is a competition," said Peter in her ear.
Neal laughed, but it turned into a groan part-way through. "If is it, I think El's winning." He rocked against her and slipped his hand between her legs, teasing her clit, fingers sliding into her making her gasp.
Peter scraped his teeth down her neck until she cried out softly. Everything was sensation and tenderness, every touch exquisitely erotic. She felt full, bursting with it, her body hot and tight and ready, and then Peter handed Neal a condom and the next minute he was easing into her, right up hard inside where she needed him, and the dark ache turned crimson and flared hotter and hotter as they moved together, and Peter swore encouragement. It felt like Neal was leaving his mark everywhere he touched—between her shoulder blades, the small of her back, and deep in the core of her where it had only been Peter for the longest time—and she was so glad to have Peter here with them, so glad it was the three of them together. Joy and pleasure pulsed through her veins, and she grabbed Neal's biceps and hung on as the couch creaked and shook.
Neal was watching her with awe and love, all the while moving inside her. "I can't—" he stuttered. "Oh God, El—"
And she felt it all—the power of his desire for her, the heat between them, the pressure building and deepening with every thrust, tangling them together in an inexorable undertow, as if she was drowning in his love.
"Nearly," she said, begging him to hang in there, and then Peter cupped her breast, teased her nipple, and everything crashed together like cymbals, her body ringing and shimmering, her mouth messy on Neal's, welcoming his tongue, hungry for everything he was giving her.
He stiffened, his groans mingling with her cries and Billie Holliday on the stereo, and he came inside her, and it was so good, so perfect, she was breathing in sobs by the time they were done. She collapsed back onto Peter, pulling Neal with her so she was sandwiched sweatily between them.
"Wow," said Peter.
Neal wiped the bangs from his forehead. "That's my line. You okay there, babe? You didn't break anything?"
"Don't know, don't care," mumbled El, delirious with the heat still glowing through her, all the way out to her limbs. "This was a really good idea."
"I'm so glad you had it." Neal raised his head from the slope of her breast and kissed Peter over her shoulder. "How about you, Butch? Okay?"
"Five percent jealous, ninety-five percent enjoying the show," said Peter. "And the funny thing is, I don't know which one of you I'm most jealous of, which is—"
"Probably a good thing," said El, pulling his arm around her waist. His erection was a solid weight against the top of her thigh. What would it be like to have both of them at once? That was something they could work up to. Right now, she was wiped from just this—having Neal fuck her in Peter's arms. "I'm really sorry, hon," she said, twisting to face Peter. "I think I'm tapped out."
"I'm not surprised." He kissed her. "Next time."
"If I can be of service," said Neal. He reached past El and drew a long slow line down Peter's chest and belly. "I'd really love to blow you."
El felt Peter inhale, the way his cock twitched in anticipation. "Knock yourself out," he said.
There was no jockeying for the upper hand now, just teasing and desire. El basked in her afterglow, congratulating herself on neutralizing the tension, and watched as Neal disposed of the condom and straddled Peter's hips. Peter was still wearing his jeans. Neal ran his hands up and down Peter's torso, learning new territory. That sense of wonder was back, as if he half-expected this would all be snatched away. Then he moved up, planted his forearm by Peter's head and held himself over him. "So, I guess this must be what coming home feels like."
Peter's face crumpled. He hauled Neal down into his arms. "Whatever you need. Anything, you just have to ask."
"I'm good," said Neal. "Really, really good."
Their kiss was long and earnest, slowly turning sultry. Then Neal shifted down, spread his hands wide on Peter's belly as if he were trying to touch all of him at once, and unfastened Peter's jeans. Peter's cock was flushed and full, and Neal licked his lips and raised his eyebrow. "No underwear?"
"I didn't want to slow you down."
"Good call," said Neal. "Also, extremely hot." He shuffled down to settle between Peter's knees and slid his lips over the head of Peter's erection, quickly falling into a steady rhythm.
"Oh." El squeezed her thighs together, shocked by a surge of renewed arousal. "Speaking of hot."
Neal winked at her without stopping, and she choked on a laugh and cuddled into Peter's side, wanting to be there for him like he'd been for her.
He raised up on one elbow so he could see too, and he sounded like he was having trouble breathing. "Jesus, Neal."
Neal rubbed his belly in a soothing gesture, then scratched lightly through the hair there, and Peter growled something incoherent and desperate.
"I can't wait to see him go down on you too," El told Neal. "That's going to be amazing. He has a very talented mouth, you may have noticed. And I'm pretty sure we can figure out a way for you guys to both fuck me at once. There's a lot of possibilities here."
Neal huffed through his nose, and Peter collapsed back onto the couch and grabbed El's arm in a death grip. "Hon. Save it."
But it was too late. He let loose a string of curses, arched off the bed and came in Neal's mouth.
Neal let his cock slip free, swallowed and sent El a newly respectful look. "You're evil."
"He loves it. It keeps him on his toes." She grinned unrepentantly.
Peter was still catching his breath, but he managed, "Right now he's on his back. Apparently I'm going to have to up my game to keep up with you two. Neal?"
Neal scrambled up the bed and flung himself into Peter's arms. They kissed deeply, and Neal pulled back, looking down at Peter with contentment and a measure of triumph. "That's one off the bucket list. I've been wanting to do that for literally years."
"You were my CI." Peter squirmed.
"Even before that," said Neal. "That particular fantasy significantly pre-dates falling for you."
"Ooh," said El. "Did I feature in this fantasy too?"
"From the moment I met you," said Neal, promptly, and she wasn't sure if he meant it or was just being gallant, but it didn't matter.
She stretched luxuriously. "I feel incredibly good. And incredibly lucky. Time for more cake."
"So, first item on the agenda," said El, when they were back on the folded-out couch, still naked, with three bowls of cake and ice cream and a sheet draped over their knees. "We should totally send customer feedback to the couch manufacturer. It survived the three of us excellently."
"We can write an endorsement for their website," said Peter. "Neal can draw illustrations. Is there anything else we need to figure out tonight?"
"I don't think so." El ran through the list in her head: mostly ground-rules and household management. "Maybe how out we're going to be?"
"Out of what?" said Peter. "Our minds, on a scale of one to ten?"
El was pretty sure he was being deliberately obtuse, so she passed that one to Neal with a glance. He elbowed Peter. "Out as in 'of the closet.' You're sleeping with a guy. You're in a threesome. A lot of people like to keep that kind of thing private. And that's without factoring in the whole ex-con, ex-CI aspect."
"It could affect your career, hon, not to mention what our parents would say." El patted him, and turned her focus on Neal, to give Peter time to mull that over. "Who do you want to tell? I'm guessing Mozzie and June."
"And Cécile and Louise. Everyone else thinks I'm dead anyway."
Peter put his spoon down. "Not quite everyone. There's Diana and Jones."
"Tell them whatever you want," said Neal. "That's your call."
"I'll probably tell Yvonne and my sister, Anne," said El. "Anne will be shocked at first, but I'm sure we can win her over." She took another bite of chocolate cake. It tasted even richer and more decadent than it had earlier.
Peter was poking his ice cream, still processing. He frowned.
"What is it?" said Neal.
"I just never thought of myself as closeted," he said slowly. "This is the twenty-first century, we're not cheating or breaking the law—is it really that big a deal?"
"It will be to some people," said Neal. "I mean, the marriage equality movement's made a lot of progress, but when do you ever hear anyone talk about threesomes or more? Most people just don't get it."
"Screw those people," said Peter. "I've got the two smartest, most amazing people in New York in my life. I'm not ashamed of you, and I don't want to hide. And we're not working together, so there's no reason the Bureau should care."
El's heart swelled with love for him. "Well, I'm fine with coming out," she said. "It might cost me some clients, but it will attract others. I anticipate a lot of gay weddings in my future. Neal, what do you think?"
"Do I want to hold hands with you and kiss you in public? Definitely. That's the dream." He rested his head on Peter's shoulder. "I'm proud of you guys for not wanting to keep me secret. It means more than I can say. I just hope it doesn't cost you too much."
There was a hesitation in his voice. Peter must have heard it too. "And?"
"And I'm not so sure about bringing Neal Caffrey back to life." He tapped his spoon thoughtfully against the edge of his bowl. "Even if I'm officially free now, that identity comes with a lot of baggage."
The stigma of a prison record, not to mention all that loss. Ellen was gone and James had betrayed him; El guessed Neal no longer had any reason to want to be tied to the past, not if he could bring them with him into the present.
Peter pursed his lips. "You know, you did a lot of things you can be proud of under that name. A lot of good work. Are you sure you want to give that up?"
"It doesn't have to be about giving anything up," said El. "I mean, we called Mikey 'Neal' until last week, remember."
"That's true," said Peter. "It's just going to take some getting used to."
"A rose by any other name." Neal had finished his own cake and was stealing some from Peter's bowl. "I've been Victor for a year now. You can still call me Neal in private if you want. What else is on the agenda?"
"House keys, contraception, division of household chores, pressure valves, Mikey—"
"Pressure valves?" Neal looked intrigued.
"Well, I was thinking that Peter and I are going to find it strange if we don't get some time together alone, preferably without the monster boy, and I'd really like to spend time with you, just us, and I'm sure you and Peter would too."
Neal leered at Peter, and El grinned.
"Not necessarily in bed, but that's up to you. But on top of that, new relationships and moving in together—it's all pretty intense. And now there's three of us, I'd like to make sure we each get some alone time too, without Mikey. Some downtime. I don't know if that'll be hanging out with Moz, or a late night stakeout or poker game. Whatever you guys need. Parenting can get really claustrophobic, and this isn't a big house to start off with. And we have the luxury of there being three of us now."
"That's six nights a week we're not all together," Neal objected.
"Not necessarily," said El. "My work hours are flexible. I might go to a spa for an afternoon or take a walk in the park while you look after Mikey. I'm sure Moz will lend a hand if that feels like too much responsibility to start with."
"You've been walking Satchmo in the mornings," Peter pointed out to Neal. "And El's right about parenting. You're going to need some time out, trust me."
Neal nodded. "I do."
El reached across Peter and took Neal's hand. "So, Victor, if you're not going to work for the FBI, have you given any thought to what you do want to do when you get back from Paris?"
"You're really not coming back to White Collar?" Peter's mouth turned down. "I thought you liked being on the team."
Neal turned to face him and nearly fell off the bed. He caught himself gracefully, put down his bowl and gestured to them both, but El could tell he was primarily speaking to Peter. "Look, I don't just want you guys, I want what you have. And it's been brought home to me repeatedly that I can't have that if I'm chasing bad guys. For some reason, they always want to chase me back, and people I care about get caught in the crossfire."
Peter's eyes narrowed. "Look at you. When did you get so risk-averse?"
El expected Neal to retort something about Rebecca or Kate, or Keller's kidnappings, or Senator Pratt, but what he said was, "Maybe since I didn't have to convince the FBI to keep me out of prison."
Peter went still. "What are you talking about?"
"My parole agreement depended on our closure rate. You and Hughes made that clear from day one," said Neal.
"And it did, more than you know." Peter scowled. "But we never said you had to throw yourself into—"
"Look, I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it," Neal interrupted firmly. "I loved being your partner. It made me who I am." The tension from earlier was rising again, threatening to swamp the warm intimacy of the occasion.
El knew they had to talk it out. She just hoped they'd be careful with each other. "Guys."
Neal took a breath, and his voice went light again. "It's easy to play high stakes when you've got nothing to lose, but it's different now."
Peter didn't look reassured. "So all that time—all through your work release, that was an act?"
"Peter, no." Neal leaned forward and kissed him soundly. "That was me. That was the me I needed to be to get the job done. But can I get some credit for nearly four years' exemplary behavior at Rikers, when we both know I could have walked out any time I wanted? I wasn't lying to you when I was your CI, and I'm not lying now."
"You deliberately put yourself in the line of fire over and over." Peter looked angry and upset.
"And I've no regrets about any of it," said Neal. "It's like— Okay, when did you first know you liked guys?"
"A year ago. One year and four days." Peter's tone was flat.
Neal blinked. "Right. And when did you tell Elizabeth?"
"Two days ago, but that's not the same."
"It is," said Neal. "You are who the situation demands you to be. It's not a con artist thing; it's a people thing. Even you."
Peter was obviously struggling with this. Then he rolled his eyes. "You're going to be a lot more trouble now I can't boss you around, aren't you?"
"On the plus side, you get extra blowjobs—among other things." Neal kissed him again and sat back, looking somber. "One year and four days, really?"
"Grief can be a real eye-opener." Peter shrugged.
Neal clasped Peter's thigh through the sheet. "I thought you'd investigate. I left the key."
"I know." Peter huffed a breath and drew Neal down next to him. "What's done is done, all of it. We're here now, and I couldn't ask for more."
"Me either," murmured Neal. "This is one hell of a silver lining."
El sighed contentedly. "Speaking of being here now, you know the bed upstairs is bigger, more comfortable and closer to the bathroom."
"Time to relocate?" said Peter.
None of them moved. El was waiting for the urge to brush her teeth to outweigh the comfort of the moment and the delicious languor of her body. She suspected the others were doing the same.
Neal smothered a yawn. "Domestic bliss," he said, with supreme satisfaction.
Peter called Clinton to cover for him and took Tuesday off work, and they lazed around the house all morning, feeding and playing with Mikey and drinking endless cups of Ethiopian coffee while Neal told Peter and El about Klosters and Paris. Around eleven they roused themselves to start packing some things away—rarely used books and a few art prints to the attic, two bags of clothes into the car to be donated—to make room for Neal's belongings, but it was slow, distracted work between keeping an eye on Mikey and the fact that every time El got close to one of the guys, they ended up making out—in the bedroom, on the couch, on the stairs, and one time in the bathroom doorway—and she found Neal and Peter locked in embraces more than once. It was like a low-key orgy of affection, and she was flushed and joyous with it, walking on air and persistently turned on.
At one point, she went upstairs in search of packing tape and came back to find them haggling.
"I'm keeping the death certificates and the greeting cards," said Peter.
"Okay, but the severed tie goes," said Neal, equally firmly. "You only took it in the first place because you were pissed at me."
"What's going on?" said El, coming up behind Neal and sliding her arms around his waist. He was holding the toy catapult.
"Neal's making me downsize my souvenirs," said Peter, gesturing at the three boxes on the couch.
"You can keep one box." Neal held up a finger. "Only the good stuff. Make it count."
"Oh, I will. But first I need to—" Peter swooped in and kissed him, and El leaned against Neal's back as Peter's arms came around her, hugging both of them together. The catapult fell to the floor.
She closed her eyes, unutterably grateful for this ending to one of the most painful chapters of her life. Even relegated to the attic, those boxes had haunted her and Peter, but now the ghosts were gone.
"Blue skies ahead," she said, and edged between the guys to give and receive kisses too.
Mikey caught their collective good mood and was on his best behavior, and the sun was shining, so in the afternoon the four of them took Satchmo to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Neal texted Mozzie to meet them so they could tell him the news in person, and he arrived half an hour later with June and a small hamper.
"Shall we adjourn to the picnic area?" Moz said grandly. "The refreshments are to celebrate Neal's official freedom from the grasping hands of the State, by the way."
El helped unpack a thermos of tea and five gold-rimmed bone china cups and saucers, and scones with little jars of jam and clotted cream, while Neal and Peter stood by, distracting Mikey. June observed them all shrewdly, then beckoned Neal to stand beside her where she sat. She took his hand. "Darling, I suspect two lots of congratulations are in order."
He grinned down at her. "How did you know?"
"Know what?" said Moz, peering at Neal. "What have you done now?"
June looked smug. "Elizabeth is wearing the anklet Agent Jones gave you, and Peter hasn't glared at Mozzie once since we arrived. So I'm right, then?"
"Astute as always," said Neal.
"Sweet mother of Riesling." Mozzie sent El a betrayed look. "This is why you wanted him to retire."
"I just want him to be happy," she said. "Turns out, that's with us."
"You know, by rights it really should be Peter wearing the anklet," said June, "if only for the symmetry."
Neal nodded. "We tried that, but it looks better on El."
El snickered. In actual fact, the clasp had caught in Peter's leg hair and made him swear, so she'd volunteered to be his proxy.
Mozzie sighed with a shake of his head and poured the tea. He handed a cup to Peter. "Suit. My qualified felicitations. I suppose this makes us family of sorts. In-laws." He snapped his fingers. "Better yet, out-laws."
If he expected Peter to be put off, he was disappointed. Peter smiled, clapped him on the back and said, "Thanks, Mozzie. I guess it does. Is there coffee in that hamper or just tea?"
"Tea," said Mozzie. He looked from Peter to Neal to El and perked up. "If you ever need an officiant."
"You'll be the first to know," said El.
Mozzie took that as his due. "Oh, and if your next child is a some kind of mutant Fed-con hybrid, I reserve the right to do genetic testing on him or her."
"No," said Neal and Peter in unison.
Mozzie pouted. "Strictly non-invasive. It would further the cause of science, Neal."
"No. And by the way, I'm going by Victor now."
"Well, one thing hasn't changed," said Mozzie. "You still set your sights on impossible targets and succeed against the odds."
"And you still have excellent taste," said June.
Mozzie gestured assent graciously. "That too. At least fifty percent of the time. I suppose the Suit was a non-negotiable part of the deal. So what are your plans now you're moving back to the city?"
All eyes turned to Neal. El had asked him the night before, but that conversation had veered off-track and the question been forgotten.
"Oh." Neal grabbed Tootie from the grass where Mikey had thrown him and gave him back so Mikey could immediately drop him again. "Actually I was wondering whether Burke Premiere Events would consider engaging a stylish, resourceful, hard-working jack-of-all-trades with a mysterious past."
It was the perfect gift El hadn't known she wanted. She met Neal's gaze, awash with the excitement of a new life with everything arranged exactly to her liking.
Peter and Mikey sat down next to her, and Peter elbowed her in the ribs. "Just don't expect him to listen to anything you say or stay out of trouble for longer than the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee."
"As you can see, I come with excellent references," said Neal, rolling his eyes.
"But for all that," said Peter, ignoring the interjection, "you'll have the best time of your life, and you'll probably end up falling head over heels for the guy."
There was a resounding silence, while El blinked at him. "Hon, I'm impressed. That was almost romantic."
"Alarmingly so," said Mozzie. "Apparently we should have brought champagne and strawberries rather than tea."
June sipped from her cup and watched them like a benevolent goddess.
Neal came to lean against Peter's back, squeezing his shoulder, but his main focus was still on El. "What do you say, boss?"
"Partner," she corrected. "And I'll have to run it past Yvonne, but I suppose it is my turn to enjoy the Working With Neal Caffrey Experience. Sorry, the Victor Moreau Experience. But for the record, event management can get just as cut-throat as white collar crime. It's not all silverware and seating charts, you know." She took Neal's hands, beaming up at him. "We're going to run the hell out of this town."
Neal pulled her a little way from the picnic table, and twirled and dipped her like she was Ginger Rogers, making her laugh delightedly. His arms were strong and safe around her, his eyes bright. "We can make beautiful parties together."
Peter fed Mikey some jam-smeared scone. "Just so long as I don't have to attend all of them."
Mikey spat out the scone and began to cry.
"Oh dear," said El. "Not again."
"Give him to me," said Mozzie, reaching out. "I can help."
"No, I've got this," said Neal. He leaned in to talk to Mikey. "Aw, buddy, don't cry. You just want your dad to sing you a Bruce Springsteen song, don't you?"
Peter narrowed his eyes. "I'm not singing. You sing."
"I'm a tenor," said Neal. "Mikey likes gravelly baritones. It has to be you."
Mikey's sobs grew louder. Even Mozzie looked daunted. June had been drinking her tea with the serenity of someone well past taking responsibility for crying infants, but now she eyed Peter with interest. "Can you sing?"
"Go on, honey," said El. "Try it, or we'll have to take him home."
"Oh fine," said Peter, and to Neal's evident delight, began to sing "Human Touch" slightly off-tempo but in tune.
After a couple of lines, Mikey stopped crying to listen, staring at Peter with big puzzled eyes. June applauded. Mickey hiccoughed. El started laughing.
"That's it for you now, hon. You're our secret weapon."
Neal leaned between Peter and El and used his thumb to wipe the tears and jam from Mikey's cheeks. "He always was."
They made love in their actual bed that night. Peter and Neal took turns going down on El until she lost count of her orgasms—three or four or five, all blending into each other, building and ebbing and curling through her in rolling shimmers of heat and thick syrupy pleasure. At first she muffled her moans with her hands so she wouldn't disturb the baby, but by the end she was burying her cries in a pillow. Finally, she had to push Neal's head away, too sensitive and wrecked to take anymore. She was buzzing, her limbs ached, and her throat hurt from yelling. The air was thick with the smell of sex. Peter pressed his mouth to hers, and she tasted her own salt-musk, and Neal's arms came around her waist and he gently kissed the back of her neck. They held her while she came down, until she stirred and told them, "Go on. I want to see you."
Peter kissed her once more, then climbed over her, and she rolled onto her back to watch, too zoned out to process what they were saying to each other, aware only of their voices, the quiet confidence threaded with sharp glittering need. They were on their sides facing each other, rocking together in a slow, steady rhythm, and El had an excellent view of Neal's tapered back, the tan line low on his waist, his pale ass flexing, and Peter's hand splayed across his spine, urging him closer. Artistic, she thought vaguely. Hot.
In theory Peter was facing her and she could have caught his eye, but he was utterly absorbed in Neal, in kissing up his neck to the neat line of his beard, and then Neal brought their mouths together in a slick gleam of tongue and wet lips, and Peter ground out something low and hungry and rose up on one elbow. Their thrusts sped up, gaining urgency, shaking the bed.
Peter's hand inched lower on Neal's skin, his middle finger sliding into Neal's crack, and El almost reached out to join in, to tease and be part of it, but she couldn't move, too weary and mesmerized, as if she were stoned. Neal wriggled, or maybe shuddered, and apparently took the opportunity to start jacking Peter off, and then Peter joined in, both of their elbows pumping, the air filled with bitten-off groans and heavy breathing and the desperately erotic rustle of skin and bedclothes.
They were staring into each other's eyes now, getting each other off, together on every level, too wrapped up in each other to notice her. For a split second, jealousy stabbed El right in the heart. She couldn't breathe. Tears sprang to her eyes. Peter was her husband; why had she ever thought of letting someone else touch him?
It passed in an instant, seeming laughable immediately after. She loved them both. They all belonged to each other. The certainty was just as visceral as the jealousy it replaced. And the guys weren't ignoring her—she'd been the recipient of their attentions for the best part of an hour. She could reach out now if she wanted and be included again.
Or she could lie here, sated and glowing, and vicariously enjoy their absorption in what they were doing. She moved—but only to sit up against the headboard for a better view.
There was probably no way to transition from a couple to a threesome without some growing pains, she decided. No way to choreograph their love-making so no one ever felt left out. They could talk about it later.
Peter and Neal's movements rushed and blurred, need driving them on, bringing them together. Last night had been gratifying, but this was partnership, intimacy, acceptance and gratification. El bit her lip at the sound of Neal's moan. Whatever Peter was doing, it was working. Neal's free arm was wrapped around Peter's neck, and he was riding Peter's fist, and Peter was flushed right down his chest, his eyes dark and huge and loving. He released a ragged breath, and their rhythm broke.
Peter came first, surging forward into a kiss, and Neal followed soon after, vocal and heartfelt.
El smirked. Between her own sizeable damp spot and Peter and Neal, they were going to have to change the sheets before they could sleep. Just as well there were three of them to keep on top of the laundry.
Peter slumped onto his back, and Neal echoed the move so they were lying side by side with Neal's arm still around Peter's neck.
El bent to kiss Neal's temple. "Thank you," she told him.
"You're unbelievably welcome." He swiped the sweat from his face and wrapped his hand around her ankle. "What for?"
She shook her head, unable to explain even to herself the wordless growing feeling that beyond these random pangs and doubts—like landmines set to deter them on the road—lay something unimaginably beautiful, unfolding out ahead of them.
Neal's plane was at eleven, check-in at nine. Peter stood at the door with the car keys while Neal said goodbye to El and Mikey. Mikey twisted in El's arms and grabbed at Neal's chin.
"He loves your beard," El told him.
"Bye-bye, buddy. Be good and I'll bring you bonbons," Neal told Mikey and kissed his cheek. Then he kissed El, gentle and lingering. "Same goes for you."
She grinned and put Mikey on his play mat so she could give Neal a proper grown-up hug. "We'll see you in a week, babe. Travel safe. I love you."
"El, there's something I need you to do for me." He kept his arms around her and lowered his voice, making it private between the two of them.
"Be here waiting when I get back." His lips quirked wryly, and El nearly joked back, but she caught herself just in time. He'd been alone so long, and as he'd said, his history with romance ranged from bad to catastrophic. Only time could prove this love would be the exception.
She met his gaze, letting him see into her heart. "I promise."
Peter was subdued that evening, and after they bathed Mikey and put him to bed, they curled up on the couch together, using the TV as an excuse to cuddle.
"It's only a week," said El. Both the guys seemed more conflicted about Neal's temporary absence than she was. A week was short enough, and it seemed fitting to have some time alone with Peter, a kind of reverse honeymoon bookending their life as a couple before they started this new adventure. El loved Neal—he was kind, and she trusted him, and he excited and thrilled her—but that would never take away from what she and Peter shared, the deep and abiding love they'd built their lives on. In the end it was that foundation which made everything else possible, from parenthood to opening their marriage. She wanted to honor it in private, just the two of them. She laced her fingers through his. "I'll just have to think of some way to distract you from missing him."
He smiled at the innuendo and hugged her closer, but he still wasn't completely at ease.
She turned so she could see him properly. "Hon, what's wrong?"
"It's nothing." Peter fixed his gaze on the TV screen, pretending an interest in the procedural that was playing, but she refused to let him duck the question. If they started hiding their feelings now, problems would only fester.
He sighed. "When I dropped Neal—Victor—off at the airport, I kissed him goodbye."
Peter shifted restlessly. "There was a guy there with young kids, and he said—It doesn't matter."
"Oh, hon." El put her arms around him, filled with a rush of white-hot fury for a total stranger. "I'm so sorry. People are assholes."
"That's what Neal said." Peter hugged her back. "I guess I thought—I don't know. It's 2014. We live in New York. No one gives Diana any trouble."
Not that he'd seen anyway. Peter, her beloved, was sometimes oblivious to interpersonal tensions—unless they were relevant to a case, of course. El kissed his cheek. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, yeah." Peter looked surprised. "I mean, I—I feel incredibly lucky to have you and Neal. I just wanted to make sure you felt the same. That you're okay with your husband not being straight anymore. Never mind, I know it's stupid. I'll make tea."
"It is stupid." El grabbed his arm to stop him and knelt on the couch so they were eye to eye. "Babe, I love you just how you are, I don't care what anyone says. You're smart and loyal and stubborn and thoughtful. You're exactly who I've always wanted you to be. And Neal belongs with both of us." She put her arms around him. "Our lives are changing, and it's going to take some getting used to. Yes, I have moments where I get jealous, but they're just moments. They pass. And actually, you know, I think it worked out unbelievably great—my husband's bisexual, and your wife is a pervert who finds it really hot to watch her guys get down and dirty together. I mean, what are the odds?"
"I'm not actually sure the laws of probability apply around Neal," said Peter. He seemed brighter already, a weight lifted. "Thanks, hon. For everything."
El swallowed a snarl. "You didn't happen to get that airport asshole's name or, I don't know, his license plate? I could set Mozzie on him."
"Forget him. I've heard worse on account of my badge." Peter raised a humorous eyebrow. "Some of it from Mozzie."
She smiled reluctantly. "Okay."
"We're good." He stroked her hair.
"Always and forever." El sat down again, forcing her ruffled feathers smooth. She muted the commercials. "By the way, have you told Diana about Neal and us yet? Because you know, she might be a good sounding board for that kind of thing. She's been out for quite a while now." And more importantly, El trusted her implicitly to have Peter's back. "She could have some pointers."
Peter smiled crookedly. "You're really smart."
"That's why you love me." El flirted with her eyelashes.
His gaze darkened, and he lowered her onto the couch, following after. "One of many, many reasons."
"Hon, have you seen Tootie?" Peter was in the living room packing the baby bag while El changed Mikey.
She fastened the diaper and noticed with dismay that there was a juice stain on her sleeve. "Have you tried behind the couch? All of the toys seem to end up there at the moment."
"Got it." Peter came through, followed by Satchmo, who was clearly hoping it was walk-time, despite having gone out an hour ago. "Are you about ready? Neal's flight gets in at ten."
"I just need to change real quick. We've got time." She handed Mikey to Peter, who sat on the floor with him.
She was halfway up the stairs when the front door opened. It was Neal, lugging two large suitcases as well as his overnight bag. He set them against the wall and stood up just in time as she squeaked and flew back down into his arms. "You're back!"
"I took an early flight." He looked tired, but his kiss was enthusiastic. "Hi, gorgeous."
"Hi," she said, grinning. "You're back."
"Yeah." Neal let her go and was immediately engulfed in a bear hug from Peter. "Hey, man."
"Hey." Peter held Neal's head against his shoulder for a long moment. "What are you doing here?"
"Early flight," said Neal, stepping sideways and keeping one arm around him. "Thought I'd save you the drive to the airport."
"Everything go okay?" asked Peter.
"Well, I had a hilarious run-in with Interpol at Charles de Gaulle," said Neal and stopped when he saw Peter's expression. "I'm kidding. Everything's good. Cécile and Louise send their best wishes."
"Hilarious," said Peter, but that seemed to break the spell. "Have you eaten? Come in, I'll make you breakfast."
"That would be great." Neal rolled his shoulders. "I might shower first, though. Where's the monster?"
"Stay still, he might come to you," said El, leading the way into the living room, where Mikey was disappearing under the coffee table. "He's learning to crawl. Nothing is safe."
She extracted him and picked him up, and Neal stroked his cheek, making Mikey squeal in greeting.
"Hi, buddy. I got you something." Neal pulled a gift-wrapped parcel out of his messenger bag.
Mikey grabbed it and flung it straight onto the floor, and El said, "Yep, gravity still works. You want to go to Neal?" She handed him over with a rueful grin. "Sorry, we're getting better at saying Victor in public, but I can't help thinking of you as Neal."
Neal grinned. "Just between us, neither can I." He evaded Mikey's clutching hand and kissed his head, and El retrieved the gift and opened it herself, discovering a beret and a baby t-shirt that said J'adore Paris.
"Fabulous! We can give him a paintbrush and dress him up as Manet for Halloween."
Neal laughed, then grimaced. "About that shower—"
"Can we take a moment first?" said Peter.
"Yeah." El drew them into something that was halfway between a huddle and a hug, so glad to have all her boys in her arms. Even Satchmo came over, tail waving, to see what was going on.
Peter removed Mikey's hand from Neal's chin so he could press a kiss to Neal's mouth. "Welcome home," he said. "Bienvenue chez toi. And I hope that's all the French I'll ever need."
Neal's eyes lit up with amusement. "Nice. You get someone to teach you that?"
"One of the interpreters at the Bureau." Peter leaned his forehead against Neal's temple.
"Misappropriating FBI resources," said Neal. "Just like old times."
"It's traditional," agreed El. She kissed him too, savoring his lips against hers, the promise of wonderful things to come. Her whole family finally together for real. "Welcome home. Now we can start living happily ever after."