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Thursday

For all Peter's big talk to El and Neal about coming out, he knew it wasn't going to be easy, especially after he and Neal had a run-in with an aggressively articulate asshole at the airport. People were unpredictable, bigots and bullies couldn't always be identified in advance, and Peter had zero previous experience with being… not-straight… in public. (He didn't even know the right word for what he was. Bisexual? He wasn't trendy enough to be bisexual.)

Neal was in Paris until Wednesday. That meant Peter had six days to practice coming out, so when they were all together again, a permanent threesome, Peter could impress the others with his aplomb. (Threesome or trio? Ménage à trois? Threesome sounded like it was just sex, but trio made him think of jazz musicians—which was still better than giving their arrangement a French label, with its overtones of kinky weirdness far beyond Peter's comfort zone.)

On his way to work he stopped off at a coffee shop to buy half a dozen of his favorite spice cookies as bribe-rewards. He'd have one cookie for each person he came out to, and by the time they were all gone, he'd be a pro, completely comfortable. El and Neal would be amazed. In fact, he might as well start now.

The woman behind the counter was in her early twenties. Her purple and blue dreadlocks were knotted on her head, and she had an abstract brown tattoo curling across her collarbones under her t-shirt and apron. Her nametag said Zee. If anyone was going to be okay with Peter's new relationship, it was someone like her, and in the unlikely event it went badly, Peter never had to see her again. The stakes couldn't have been lower.

Zee made change for the guy she was serving, and Peter moved up to the counter.

"Yeah?" said Zee.

"Six cinnamon spice cookies," said Peter. "They should keep me going till my—" He hesitated, grasping for an appropriate term. (Boyfriend was too casual; husband suggested legal status; partner was ambiguous. Neal had been Peter's partner for years.) "—my boyfriend gets back from Paris."

Zee picked out the cookies with her tongs and dropped them into a brown paper bag. She twisted the corners and put it on the counter. "That's thirteen-twenty."

Peter wasn't sure if she'd heard. He handed over a twenty and tried again, hot with self-consciousness. "We just got together. He was—"

"Congrats." Zee's expression barely flickered. She gave him a handful of bills and coins. "Have a nice day. Who's next?"

A woman in a business suit moved in, and Peter pocketed his change, grabbed his cookies and left, relieved at Zee's casual dismissal. He'd come out to her without any fuss or name-calling and earned himself a cookie. He started to open the bag right there on the sidewalk outside the bakery but then paused, a fixed point in the jostling tide of corporate and government workers of Midtown.

Maybe the stakes had been too low.

He sighed and closed the bag again, resolute. El and Neal wouldn't be impressed by his mentioning their relationship to a service industry worker who was too busy to pay attention. The whole point of practicing was to get good at this. He'd tell someone who mattered.

 

*

 

The night before, El had suggested he go to Diana for advice about being… not-straight… but now that Diana was working in DC, Peter would have to do that over the phone, and as a novice, he figured it would be easier if he told someone in person. Jones was the obvious candidate.

He gave the usual signal as he passed Jones' office (AKA Peter's old office). Jones was talking to the new probie, but he waved an acknowledgement, and a couple minutes later he stuck his head around Peter's door. "You wanted to see me?"

"Yeah." Peter turned away from his computer and rested his elbows on the edge of his desk. "Yeah. Come in."

Jones eyed him curiously, then came in and shut the door. "Caffrey giving you trouble?"

"No, nothing like that." Peter leaned back in his chair, trying to recapture the confident, bulletproof feeling he got when he and Neal and El were all together. Wishing Jones were as perceptive as June and Mozzie, who hadn't even needed Neal to spell it out. There had to be an easy way to say this, but for the life of him he couldn't think what it was. The bag of cookies sat on his desk, mocking him. Maybe if he started from the beginning. "Neal's decided to stick around. He's going by a new name now—Victor Moreau."

"Moreau as in Kate Moreau?" Jones' eyebrows shot up. "He still carrying that torch?"

"No. I don't know how he ended up with it, but it's nothing to do with Kate." Peter grabbed a pen so he'd have something to do with his hands.

"So he's coming back to White Collar as, what, a consultant?" Jones was frowning now, trying to puzzle it out. "Does that mean you're going back to field work? You really miss the van that much?"

Peter acknowledged the joke with a wry smile. "Actually, he's going to be working with El at Burke Premiere Events."

"Huh," said Jones. He sat down and pulled his chair closer to the desk. "Peter, I know it's none of my business, but you really think that's a good idea? I mean, you've got to know how he feels about Elizabeth."

That was as good an opening as Peter was going to get. He swallowed, his mouth dry, and croaked, "Neal's moving back to New York to live with El and me. As our, uh, boyfriend."

"Oh," said Jones, blankly. Then, "Ohhh." He held up a hand. "I didn't realize. So, you and—? All three of you? That's what the con was about?"

"The con was to bring him home," said Peter, "and I'm grateful to you and Diana for being part of that. The rest—we didn't talk about it till Monday, after Neal's paperwork went through. He's a free man now."

"And officially dead," said Jones.

"Hence the change of name," said Peter. "I suppose I should get used to calling him Victor."

"Seems appropriate," murmured Jones. He stood up and held out a hand. "Congratulations, Peter. I hope it works out."

He sounded less than confident that it would, but Peter stood up and accepted the handshake anyway, blushing and awash with relief for the second time that morning. It had been awkward, but it was done.

"Does Diana know?" asked Jones.

"Not yet," said Peter. "I need to tell her."

Jones grinned. "Let me know when you do, so we can gossip behind your back."

"Will do." Peter grinned back. "Thanks, Clinton."

Jones went back to work, and Peter sat back down at his desk and awarded himself a cookie. He'd really earned it this time, and it was crunchy and spicy-sweet, somehow making him think of Neal—and El too. Of how supremely lucky he was. He dusted the crumbs from his fingers and swiveled toward his computer. An ASAC's email was never done.

 

*

 

"Hi, Diana, can you talk?" Peter had shut his office door again and was leaning against the windowsill, the sun on his back. "I need your advice."

"What's up, boss? Your houseguest clean you out?" She sounded cheerful and brisk, and it was easy to picture the teasing gleam in her eye.

"He's reformed," said Peter.

She laughed. "Whatever you say. What do you need?"

Peter rubbed the back of his neck. "Neal is—"

"Ha! I knew it was Caffrey," interrupted Diana.

"—moving back to New York to live with El and me," finished Peter.

"At the townhouse?"

"Yeah."

"Wait, he's—moving in with you?" She sounded like Jones. Puzzled. Her frown was audible.

"Yeah."

"You mean—moving in moving in?"

"Yeah," said Peter. "With El and me."

"Wow. That's—" Diana hesitated, and there was the click of a door closing. The sense of a smaller space around her words. "Peter, are you sure that's a good idea?"

"We're all sure," said Peter. He couldn't take offence; if he were in her shoes, he'd be just as doubtful, given Neal's history.

"Okay," said Diana slowly. "So I should come up this weekend, then. Someone has to give him the Shovel Talk."

"He's not here," said Peter. "He had to go back to France to tie up loose ends."

"You're sure he hasn't just run away again?" Diana wasn't teasing now. She was obviously concerned.

"Yeah, I'm sure," said Peter.

"Sorry," said Diana, maybe hearing something in his tone. "Sorry, it's just—this is Caffrey we're talking about. He knows how to run."

"Not this time," said Peter. "Trust me, El and I wouldn't be doing this if we thought there was any chance he didn't mean it. And he's going by Victor, now. Victor Moreau."

"That's—"

"Don't say it," said Peter. He dropped his head back against the window.

"Okay." Dina was silent a moment, then added, "So—was there actual advice required, or was that just an excuse to call and tell me about your big gay love?"

Peter grinned. "I do need advice, actually." He sat at his desk and deactivated his screensaver. "I'm looking at an email invitation to the Bureau Commendation Dinner on the 27th."

"And you want to take Neal."

"Neal and Elizabeth," said Peter. "As my dates."

Diana hmmed. "You know, this is a longer conversation than I think either of us has time for right now."

"Give me the Cliffs Notes version."

"Honestly, if it were me, I'd get the extra ticket but keep my reasons unofficial."

"Plausible deniability," said Peter. "That's—not what I expected you to say."

"Hey, I'm all for visibility and making a statement, but maybe give yourself a couple of months to find your feet first," said Diana. "Make some gay friends, get a support network in place. Enjoy the honeymoon. There's no good way to walk it back once it's out there."

"We've talked about it," said Peter. "We already decided to come out."

"Sure, but there's different kinds of coming out. There's telling your friends, your close colleagues, maybe your family, and those are all good things to do. That's part of living your life. But if you want to take on the Bureau—"

Peter's certainty faltered. "Is it really going to be a problem?"

"I don't know." Diana sighed. "No institution is perfect. I'm just saying most people wait more than a week before they make a formal announcement."

"Three days," said Peter.

"My point."

"Okay, I'll think about it," said Peter, subdued. "Thanks, Di."

"Any time. I didn't mean to rain on your coming-out parade. Like I said, this is a longer conversation."

"I know, and I appreciate it." Peter stared at the RSVP line in the email; words which would have seemed so innocuous only a week ago, and now they felt like a challenge. He mentally shook himself and tuned back into the phone call. "He gets back Wednesday, by the way. Come up next Friday and you can give him the Shovel Talk then."

"You've got a deal," said Diana. "Oh, and Peter?"

"Yeah?"

"Congratulations. I mean it. If anyone can get the infamous Neal Caffrey to settle down, it's you and Elizabeth."

Peter smiled, comforted as much by the warmth in her voice as her words. "Don't forget the boy," he said. "He's definitely a selling point."

"Kids will slow anyone down," Diana agreed. "I've got to go. Talk soon."

Peter hung up and swiveled to stare thoughtfully out the window for a long moment, hardly seeing the buildings or the bright blue sky. Being with Neal seemed natural and right when it was the three of them, and it was easy to fool himself the rest of the world would agree, but that was obviously naïve. Which was fine. They'd work through it, weather whatever anyone threw at them. It was just—deflating.

On the other hand, he'd earned another cookie. He fished one out of the bag and called El. "Hey, hon, what are you and Mikey doing for lunch today? I'll meet you."

"That sounds great. We could use an excuse to get out of the house." El sounded harried. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, of course. Everything's fine."

Her voice softened. "You miss him."

"It's only been a day," said Peter, trying to scoff and failing.

"One down, six to go," said El. "And then he'll be back for good."

Peter blinked, suddenly conscious of the sunlight warm on his face, like a promise that everything would be better when Neal got back. "Yeah, six to go. I'll see you at twelve. Love you, hon."

He shoved his phone in his pocket, finished his second cookie of the day and straightened his shoulders. It was nearly nine o'clock, and he had work to do.

 

*

 

A couple of hours later, he was wrestling with a particularly stubborn spreadsheet when someone knocked on his door. "Delivery for Agent Peter Burke."

"I'm Burke."

The guy in the doorway was wearing a green baseball cap and a matching t-shirt with the name of a deli on it. A familiar deli. One of Neal's favorite lunch places. He dumped a small hamper on Peter's desk, and when Peter tried to tip him, waved him off. "It's taken care of. Enjoy."

Inside the hamper were two bottles of fresh OJ, a turkey on rye, a deviled ham on wholegrain labeled "FOR PETER" in emphatic capitals, a tub of mashed potatoes with cheese and some cooked carrots, and three raspberry chocolate muffins.

Peter bit his lip, trying not to grin like an idiot, and sent Neal a text: Seems like I have a secret admirer.

The reply only took a few minutes. Not so secret. I miss you guys.

Hey, at least you're spared the delicious aroma of deviled ham.

Smallest silver lining ever. Give my love to El and Mikey.

Will do. We miss you too. Peter sighed, equal parts happy and wistful, and turned back to his spreadsheet, but he didn't get far. Ten minutes later Diana called again.

"I just talked to my friend, Rayne. She's in a triad too. They've been together a couple of years. She's invited you three over for dinner sometime soon, and I think it's a good idea. Can I give her your number to set it up?"

"I don't know." It felt weird to have dinner with strangers just because they had this one thing in common. Did loving Neal have to mean they suddenly belonged to a whole new subculture, with its own language and etiquette? Couldn't it just be about the three of them? On the other hand, El would like it; she enjoyed meeting new people, finding out what made them tick. And Neal—

Peter didn't know how Neal would react. In the past, he'd only really socialized with strangers as part of a con or a case, but he'd been in the anklet then, working for the Bureau. He kept his friends close, but Peter was suddenly unsure how gregarious Neal Caffrey—or Victor Moreau—actually was. "I'll check with the others."

"Okay, but—" Diana hesitated. "It's just, you're going to get reactions to being with Neal that you never had with Elizabeth. Not all the time, but it will happen."

"Way ahead of you," said Peter, and told her about the run-in at the airport.

"Exactly," said Diana. "And you'll need people to talk to. It's a lot of pressure to put on your relationship, if you don't have other friends. I wish I could be there."

"We're talking now," Peter pointed out. "But yeah. It would be nice to go get a beer. DC's gain is New York's loss."

"So what we're saying is your timing is terrible," said Diana. "You should have jumped Caffrey years ago when I was still around to advise."

Peter snorted. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."

"Okay, well, let me know when you decide about dinner. If it helps, Rayne's husband and their girlfriend are both lawyers at Grantham Marks and Associates."

It did help a bit—at least they were from Peter's world in other ways too—but he stayed firm. "I'll get back to you."

"Okay, boss. Whatever you say."

Peter hung up with a smile and checked the time. It was eleven-thirty, which meant he had time to finish working on the spreadsheet if he knuckled down and focused. Then he could meet El with a clear conscience. He tapped the lunch hamper for luck and turned back to his computer.

 

Friday

Peter sat across from Hughes. It was the same restaurant where they'd met before the Empire State Building fiasco, before Peter had ended up behind bars. He'd only seen his former boss a few times since then, but he still counted him a friend and ally. If Peter wanted a second opinion about coming out to the Bureau, Hughes was the obvious choice. "Reese, it's good to see you."

"Peter." Hughes signaled to the waiter, and they ordered coffee. When they were alone again, Hughes smoothed down his tie and looked at Peter. "Nothing's wrong, I hope."

"No, not at all." Peter forced himself not to fidget. "The opposite, actually. It's Caffrey—he's alive."

Hughes' eyebrows shot up. "You knew him better than anyone, but you also identified the body—" He held up a hand to ward off Peter's denials. "Fine, what makes you think it's not a copycat?"

"I'm not talking about a case." Peter stretched his neck out discreetly. "Neal faked his death to avoid reprisals from the Pink Panthers. He—You could say he unofficially put himself into WITSEC. He spent the last year in France under an assumed name, and now he's coming home to live with El and me. As our boyfriend."

Hughes regarded him narrowly. "You're sleeping with him."

Peter nodded, and would have said more, tried to frame it better, but the waiter was bringing their coffee.

When he'd gone, Hughes stirred a spoonful of sugar into his cup and looked up. "I have to say, Peter, I think Caffrey made the right choice to leave, and you'd do better to let him stay dead. You know as well as I do that ongoing mentor relationships have a tendency to become personal, just like with therapists and their patients. To act on those feelings is to take advantage of your position."

"I'm not his mentor anymore," said Peter. "We were partners."

"You gave him moral guidance and oversight, such as it was. I watched you cross line after line for him—"

"You said sometimes you have to redraw the lines to stay inside them," Peter reminded him.

"When you were going after a crooked senator. This isn't about justice, Peter. This is a bridge too far." Hughes lips were a thin line. "And what about Elizabeth—you really think what you're proposing is fair to her? To your son? You're a father now; you should be setting an example."

Peter's cheeks were hot. "This is for all of us. It's what Elizabeth wants too."

"Did you give her a choice?" Hughes leaned back. "If I'd known it would come to this, I never would have authorized Caffrey's work release in the first place."

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Reese." Peter sipped his coffee and put it down unfinished. There was no point prolonging the conversation. He stood up. "I hope we can still be friends."

"So do I." Hughes stood to face him. "Be careful, Peter. Don't throw away everything you've worked for, for Neal Caffrey. Not again."

Peter straightened his shoulders and left. There was a park down the block, and he sat on the edge of the fountain in the sun, watching droplets catch the light. As physically tense as if he'd just been in a fight. He knew he should call El or Diana, but when he got out his phone, his fingers scrolled to Neal's number.

"Hey, Peter." Neal sounded happy, pleased to hear from him. "What's up?"

"You got a minute?"

"Hang on." Neal said something rapid in French, and a woman replied crisply.

Peter watched the fountain and the passersby hurrying on their way to work, and slowly the stiffness eased from his neck and shoulders. Hughes' reaction had been a shock, especially after Diana and Jones' ready acceptance, but he had Peter's best interests at heart, and everything he'd said had been reasonable. They were concerns Peter himself had been pushing aside since the moment he and Neal first kissed.

Now they were out in the open.

"Okay, I'm all ears," said Neal. "Talk to me."

"Reese Hughes just chewed me out for sleeping with my ex-CI," Peter told him. "Said I was abusing my position."

"What? How did Hughes find out about us?"

"I told him. And you know, he's a good man. I respect his opinion. It made me realize—"

"Peter," Neal interrupted, "whatever you're about to say, don't. At least wait till I get back, so we can talk about it properly."

"Calm down."

"Not if you're going to—"

"I love you," said Peter, clearly enough to break through Neal's protests. "Talking to Hughes made me realize—"

"Peter."

"—there's nothing anyone can say or do that will change how I feel," said Peter. "Or how glad I am to have found you again." He'd needed to hear the arguments and criticisms to know that he could stand firm when faced with the worst possible interpretation of his actions. He might be less sure about coming all the way out of the closet now, but he was a hundred percent confident in his choice to be with Neal. No regrets.

A long, loud sigh came down the line. "You couldn't have led with that?"

"Not as dramatic." Peter grinned.

That earned him a reproachful snort. "You owe me for that."

"Hey, any time you want to collect, you know how to find me," said Peter, as suggestively as he could manage in a public place in broad daylight.

"Peter, did you just give me permission to track your phone?"

Peter laughed out loud. "Whatever makes you happy, Sundance. Oh, and for the record, Jones and Diana send their congratulations."

"You've been busy." Neal sounded pleased but cautious. "Be careful, okay?"

"Don't worry about me. I've got backup." Peter stood up and started toward Federal Plaza. Given his breakfast date had been cut short, he might as well head in early and get a jump on the surveillance reports.

"Backup," echoed Neal. "You mean Jones? Good to know he's keeping an eye on you."

"I mean Elizabeth. She's got a mean left hook." Peter pressed the phone closer to his ear. "You take care too. We'll see you soon."

He hung up, and when he got to the office, he ate a spice cookie. Three down, three to go.

 

Saturday

"Oh, honey, look! This one has a tie drawer," said El, from the next row over. They were in the bureau section of the furniture store where they'd bought their bedroom suite a few years ago, and they were looking for a chest of drawers for Neal. Peter had suggested Neal could share with him, but El thought it would make him feel more welcome if he had his own space. "And anyway, hon, you know what he's like with clothes. A couple of drawers isn't going to cut it."

Peter had Mikey in the strap-on baby carrier. They skirted a French country style suite that just looked badly painted to Peter's eye and came to her side. The dresser in question was very similar to Peter's but with an additional shallow drawer divided into cubes. "Neal had a tie drawer in his desk at work," said Peter. "I think Diana returned them to June after the inquest."

"We could ask June for them back, if she still has them, and put them in here as a surprise," said El. "A welcome home present."

"Can I help you?" A shop assistant with violently red lipstick and penciled-on eyebrows had snuck up on them. "This whole section is twenty percent off this weekend, if you buy two or more items."

"We already have his and hers dressers," said El.

Peter winked at her. "Now we need his and his and hers."

The shop assistant beamed at them. "Oh, for your son. What a handsome little man." She glanced at the open tie drawer and added, "A lot of couples use the compartments for other things: socks or booties or little t-shirts."

Mikey reached toward her, trying to grab at her blouse.

"Actually, the dresser's for our boyfriend." Peter took out his wallet without waiting for her reaction. "Give us twenty percent off, and we'll take it. When can you deliver?"

"Oh, uh, I'll just, uh—" She blinked at him, and then at his credit card. "I think we can manage that. If you'll come this way, I'll check our delivery schedule."

As they followed her over to the counter, El elbowed Peter. "That was smooth."

"Practice pays off," said Peter, feeling liberated and smug. "I just earned myself a cookie."

 

*

 

"Okay, explain the cookie," said El, once they were home and Mikey was down for his nap.

Peter put the kettle on for El's tea and made coffee for himself and told her about coming out to Diana, Jones and Hughes. "And there was a girl at the bakery near work, but that didn't count. I don't know if she heard me."

"Wow, you've been busy," said El. "I've only told Yvonne so far. I guess a part of me's concerned people will think I'm selfish or—or greedy. Bogarting all the best men. Being an irresponsible mom."

"Hughes thought I was selfish," said Peter, taking her into his arms. "He thought I'd strong-armed you into it."

El hugged back. "He should know me better than that. I don't strong-arm so easy."

"That's how I knew he was wrong." He held her tight, grateful for her strength of character, her determination. She'd never agree to a change in their marriage if she didn't want it too. "I'm honored to be part of your harem."

She grinned up at him. "Ooh, I should get you some veils so you can dance for me."

The kettle whistled, and they broke apart to make the tea and then sat side by side at the breakfast island with a plate of cookies. Sadly, the brown paper bag was still on Peter's desk at work. That had been an oversight.

"So," said El, sounding more businesslike, "I figure we'll wait until Neal has settled in and then have Trey and Sheila and Lucas and Will over for dinner." Trey and Sheila were the unofficial social organizers of Cobble Hill; they knew everyone. Lucas and Will had recently moved into the area with their nine-year-old daughter, Caitlin. "We'll give Neal a chance to charm everyone's socks off, and then let the truth slip."

"I should've known you'd have a plan," said Peter.

"Of course, just because Lucas and Will are gay, that doesn't mean they'll automatically approve, but I have high hopes. And Trey and Sheila will be an easier sell if they're the ones who get to spread the gossip to the rest of the neighborhood." El rolled her eyes. "They can show off how open-minded they're being."

"Sounds good," said Peter. "That just leaves family."

"Yeah." El sipped her tea. "You know, I feel like there's a difference between coming out and being out."

"You don't want to tell your dad," said Peter.

El sighed. "I'm supposed to be the good, respectable daughter. Anne's the flakey one. And you saw how Dad was with Mozzie—"

"Your dad loved Mozzie," said Peter.

"Yeah. I think he wanted to lock him in a lab and run double-blind psychological experiments and then write an Oliver Sacks-style book about him."

Peter grinned. "To be fair—"

El swatted him. "And I know Neal isn't Moz, but—he's Neal. I don't want Dad psychoanalyzing him over breakfast."

"You weren't so protective when you introduced me to your parents." Peter was mostly teasing, but he was curious too. There was something at the core of El's reluctance to subject Neal to her father's piercing gaze.

"I know." She stared into her teacup for a moment, then met his eye. There was a rueful tilt to her mouth. "Because I knew you wouldn't leave me, no matter what."

"Hon—"

"Neal's run so many times, and now he's in Paris with all that history, all those museums and beautiful people—" She put down her cup. "What if he doesn't come back? Or what if he does but he can't handle living with us and Mikey?" She shook her head and scrunched up her mouth, gathering her composure. "I know, it's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine. It just seems like, I don't know, borrowing trouble to bring my dad into the mix."

"Well, we don't have to. We can wait to tell our families. Invite them for Thanksgiving, launch a charm offensive and break the news then," said Peter, borrowing her plan for Trey and Sheila. He stood up and drew her back into his arms, looking down at her, loving her so much it was like an ache. "And as for Neal, a wise woman once told me sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. But he's coming back, hon. I know he is."

"I know." She leaned into him. "I was just having a moment. I think telling my parents is more than I can handle right now."

"Well, there's no hurry," said Peter. "We've got the rest of our lives to figure it out."

 

Monday

Peter walked out of the MetLife Donor Center on Park Avenue, his useless Donor ID card still in his hand. Every eight weeks since Pratt tried to have him killed in a car crash, he'd given blood. He hadn't needed a transfusion then, but he'd come close, and he'd only missed donor appointments when he was in prison and that one time he was out with the flu. He knew most of the staff by sight, if not by name. The medical and travel history screening had always been a meaningless formality.

In the space of a week, he'd gone from valued donor to permanently excluded. (Or perhaps he hadn't. He'd been too humiliated to ask if their definition of oral sex included giving, receiving or both. It didn't matter.) And El was tainted by association too, both of them rejected because they'd made love with Neal and each other.

Peter had never been bureaucratically excluded from anything, deemed demographically unworthy. It was so impersonal, it was impossible not to take it personally, and there wasn't a single damned thing he could do about it.

His phone rang, and he thumbed it off without looking, in no mood to talk to anyone. He wanted to take a long, hot shower and scrub off the rejection, or go for a run until he'd sweated it out, but he couldn't face going back to the office to change.

He looked around at the lunchtime streets full of strangers going about their business. How many of them would think it was reasonable for the Blood Center to turn him away? It was an FDA regulation, after all. The city—the whole country—flowed around him, dismissive bordering on hostile.

He took a deep breath and tried to shake it off, but there was a bitter taste in his mouth, so he started walking, turned left and then right, and went into the first bar he found, the Vander Bar, with a floor-to-ceiling picture of the Chrysler Building on the wall. He wasn't usually a lunchtime drinker, but he had to do something.

He took a seat at the bar and ordered a double shot of bourbon, and the tanned, twenty-something bartender raised an eyebrow and poured.

Peter sipped his drink. All the news stories he'd ever heard about gay rights suddenly applied to him: gay marriage, gays in the military, AIDS, employment and housing discrimination. He'd thought being married to El meant he could opt out, but he couldn't. He loved Neal. He wanted Neal. That was part of who he was.

"I'm bisexual," he said out loud, and winced at the sexual part. It was too clinical and blunt. "I'm bi."

"Good for you, mate," drawled the bartender in an Australian accent.

Peter couldn't tell if the response was genuine or sardonic, but he didn't care. "Got any scissors?"

The bartender fished around behind the bar and produced a pair of plastic-handled scissors, and Peter cut his Donor ID card into strips, and the strips into tiny squares like confetti. He left them in a heap with the scissors, half his whisky and a five dollar tip and walked out again. He was different, but he was still himself, and there were demands on his time he couldn't ignore.

He went back to work, set up a regular donation to the Human Rights Campaign through their website—there was only room to list one partner, so he left those fields blank—and returned the call he'd ignored earlier about a meeting that afternoon with the DoJ.

Then he called Diana. "Your friend Rayne. You can give her my number."

"Will do." Diana's voice was reassuringly normal, warm with amusement. "Did Elizabeth talk you into it?"

"No, this is for me. You were right—there's a lot to get used to. Thanks, Di."

"Anytime, boss," she said, serious now. "I mean it."

Peter hung up and looked at the crumpled bag on his desk. There were two cookies left, and they were going stale. And he'd missed out on his snack at the Blood Center. What the hell, the bartender counted.

 

Tuesday

Peter stared at the cookie bag. There was one left, and Neal was due back tomorrow, but he couldn't think who else he could come out to. Practice had made it both easier and harder; he had the phrases down pat, but he was aware now how discomfiting the reactions could be.

That was no excuse. He'd set himself a goal, and he wasn't going to back down.

He leaned back in his chair and sighed. In the conference room next door, Jones and Simpson along with an FBI interpreter were interviewing a witness from Quebec. He could hear the rhythm of their voices through the wall but not what they were saying. It gave him an idea.

When they ended the interview, Peter went to his doorway and beckoned to the interpreter. "Marie? I need a favor. Can you teach me how to say 'welcome home' in French?"

He waved her into his office, but she stayed where she was, tilting her head so her sharp blonde bob grazed her shoulder. "That depends. Who are you speaking to?"

Peter felt his color rise. If the wrong person were in earshot, he might be about to come out to the whole office, but he forced himself to go over to her without looking around. "My boyfriend."

She smiled apologetically. "I asked because 'welcome' translates to 'bienvenue,' but it isn't standard usage between people who are familiar with each other."

Peter nodded. "So what should I say?"

"You can say 'glad to see you again'—content de te revoir—or hmm, if it's a combination of 'I'm glad to see you,' and 'mi casa es su casa'—"

"Yes," said Peter. "That one."

"Then—bienvenue chez toi," said Marie.

"Banvenue—"

"Bienvenue," she corrected. "Bienvenue chez toi. Would you like me to write it down?"

"I'll record it on my phone. Bienvenue—"

"—chez toi."

"Bienvenue chez toi," said Peter, and repeated it again into his phone in case he forgot. "Thanks, Marie."

"De rien," she said, with a smile. "You're welcome."

When she'd gone, Peter went back to his office and ate the last spice cookie. His framed photos of El and Mikey watched over him, and the old one of him and El. He needed a new picture of his family, one that showed all four of them. The thought gave him a warm glow.

The week had been more eventful than he'd expected and certainly more eye-opening, but Neal would be home in less than twenty-four hours. Then the real adventure—their life together—would begin.

 

END