Work Header

your favorite old-fashioned fairytale romance

Work Text:

(from Merriam-Webster dictionary, online edition)

imprint: [noun] \'im-,print\ : something imprinted: as
1 : a mark made by pressure
2 : an indelible distinguishing effect or influence
3 usually capitalized : a rarely occurring bond between two persons, expressed psychosexually and physiologically, that is widely theorized to be triggered by an initial skin-to-skin physical contact, although the exact mechanism is unknown : colloquial : one who is part of an Imprinted pair. <He is my Imprint>
see also : imprint [verb]

(from Certain That It Happens All The Time: The Imprint In Imagination And Creation)

"Baker's estimate, which is held by many in the field to be high, puts the incidence of Imprinted persons in any given population to be one in twenty thousand. And yet, for all its rarity, Imprinting has shaped human culture to a remarkable degree. It has legal protections, widely recognized symbols (the design of Imprint rings is almost globally consistent, the Möbius band having proved to be a potent visual metaphor), and a body of inconclusive but tantalizing scientific research into its psychology and physiology. It has inspired the arts for as long as we can trace them back in the record of human history. Imprint-related news and real-life accounts routinely garner a wide audience. It seems that the experience of Imprint is one that many long to understand, and to know personally, however statistically unlikely that may be. There is no known genetic pre-disposition to Imprinting, and no ideal set of circumstances that leads to Imprinting can be contrived by the hopeful. Imprinting represents human chance--or fate, if you prefer--in its purest form. It is everyone's possibility and no one's certainty.

The result of this is that there are many passionately held and sometimes contradictory beliefs about Imprinting which are expressed textually and sub-textually in our narratives. Broadly drawn, we conceptualize the Imprint both as the magic bullet that kills fear and loneliness, the answer to life's questions--a picture of unity, but more than that, of ever-present comfort, if not downright coziness: and conversely, as theia mania, the coup de foudre, the arrows that pierce the flesh and will not be drawn out. The pain suggested by these metaphors underlies narratives from the Arthurian romances, to Bonnie and Clyde, to the novels of James M. Cain."


IMPRINT REGISTERED: 09/18/99, between Burke, Peter David, and Mitchell, Elizabeth Marie, at the New York City Office of Registry, followed by a civil marriage ceremony. Proof of Imprint per test (Murray-Robertson, A14.2), ID#I-476-23, on file at 141 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013.

When it happened for Peter and Elizabeth, as they got used to telling nosy people who asked, they were on their first date. Then they would try and change the subject, because as Elizabeth said, "it gets a little old, realizing strangers are trying to mentally cast you in their favorite fairytale romance."

"Especially since I'd look like an idiot in tights," Peter said. "Although El would make a great princess." There might be friends relaxing on the couch, wineglasses on the coffee table. Because of course, they told a few people, select people, the full story. Most of them would laugh at the image of Peter as a Disney prince.

"No way," Elizabeth said. "Wearing that tiara all the time would be a bore."

It wasn't until after that first date that Peter realized he hadn't really touched Elizabeth until the moment it happened. "He didn't even shake my hand," Elizabeth recounted. "I thought he was just charmingly shy, but later I realized it was because he needed to be sure that I wasn't in on the robbery at the gallery."

"Hey, I am totally charmingly shy," Peter said.

"And professional, honey," Elizabeth said. "Don't forget professional." The friends on the couch would laugh at that, too.

He had been nervous about going out with her--Peter was not great at the first date stuff--but their conversation flowed so easily he forgot that he was terrible at flirting. She smiled at him. She had a beautiful smile. By the end of the meal, they were trading stories about unfortunate college romances.

"So I did what any youthful idiot does who needs to make a doomed romantic gesture," he said over the coffee cups and empty dessert plates, "and has seen 'Say Anything'."

"You didn't," Elizabeth said.

"Oh yes, I did indeed," Peter replied. "Boombox and everything. Didn't work out quite the way I had hoped--I got popped on a noise ordinance." Elizabeth put her hand over her mouth; her eyes were crinkled with suppressed laughter. She snorted a little. He realized he found that adorable, and continued, "But that wasn't the best part. The best part was, first, I am pretty sure she was the one who called in the complaint on me."

"Aw, that's terrible," Elizabeth said. "I think your gesture was sweet. Not at all stalker-y." Peter grinned.

"I know, right?" He touched his forehead. "Not a clue. Oh, and then--wait, this part is good, too--then I had to appear before a judge to pay a fine, and wouldn't you know it, that judge was still on the bench when I joined the Bureau and started making court appearances. And he remembered me, which was even more embarrassing than my original Lloyd Dobler impression. He'd say, 'seen any good movies lately, Agent Burke?' whenever we saw one another in the hall." They were both laughing now. She reached over casually to touch his hand where it rested on the table.

"Did you--" She stopped abruptly.

Peter didn't realize what was happening; he just thought to himself, if just touching her hand feels this good, I wonder what sex would be like, and then, oh. I never would have guessed this could happen to me. He felt simultaneously buoyant as a soap bubble and weirdly calm. His palm turned up--of its own volition, apparently--and he was staring at their clasped hands. He looked up at her startled face.

She was alight, radiant, the most amazing woman in the room, in the city. In the world. Her eyes were wide and very bright as she looked back at him.

"Oh boy," Elizabeth said, whisper soft, and then she drew a deep breath. "This is going to be so much fun."

September 2009

Elizabeth was right, of course. It was more fun than Peter could ever have imagined.

January 2002

Neal spotted Mozzie sitting on his usual bench from halfway across the park. He was either fending off the bright Roman winter sunshine by wearing a bucket hat and dark sunglasses, or attempting to look inconspicuous. If it was the latter, his vivid teal neckerchief sort of negated their effectiveness.

"Hey, Mozzie," Neal said as he dropped onto the bench. Mozzie jumped a little. "Love the scarf."

"Names!" he hissed. Neal waved a hand in apology, and he looked slightly mollified. "If you like, I can take you to the shop where I got it--a very exclusive place, and yet, amazingly poor security. Oh, and I've got a line on someone who can handle that transaction we discussed."

"Great," Neal said. "How soon will you know?"

"Friday." He hemmed and fidgeted a bit.

"Anything else going on?" Neal watched quizzically as Mozzie made a series of faces that he couldn't quite decipher.

"I've got some information that perhaps falls under the heading of gossip--"

"I've told you, no one should read the New York Post while they're in Italy," Neal said.

"But," Mozzie continued, in a tone of dignified offense, "as much as I scorn gossip, even about Feds, this is interesting." He sniffed.

"Okay, I'll bite," Neal said, after a pause.

"You know that suit in the New York office's white collar crime division? The one who made the news a couple of months ago because of that big insurance scam he took down?" Mozzie sighed tragically over the untimely demise of such a beautiful insurance scam.

"Burke, yeah. He's only been there a couple of years, right?" Neal said. "What about him?"

"You've heard the rumor that there was an Imprinted Fed." Neal nodded. Mozzie's voice was conspiratorial. "It's him." Neal felt the same little jolt he always did when he heard about anyone's real-life instance of Imprinting. And as always, he avoided thinking about how much of the jolt was curiousity, and how much was jealousy.

"Lucky guy," he said, finally. "Who's his Imprint?"

"A woman," Mozzie said. "Who is also now his wife."

"How'd you hear about this?"

"Remember Billy Two Tone? Things got hot for him and he had to get a straight job for a while, so he clerked at the Imprint testing clinic in midtown. He was there the day they first came in." Mozzie fell silent for a moment. "Billy said that Burke isn't just insurance, he also works forgery and art crimes." More silence. "And that he's supposed to be really good at all of them."

"We've got nothing going that would raise a flag in New York," Neal said.

"But that won't be true forever," Mozzie replied. "It's a small world, my friend."

They both watched as a woman chivvied several kids past their bench, saying, "andiamo, bambini." Neal adjusted his fedora and stood up.

"Thanks for the update," he said. "I'd better get back."

"Tell Kate I said hi," Mozzie said, and then screwed up his face in comic dismay at having said her name out loud.

"It's okay, Moz," Neal said. "I'll do that."

March 2002

The technician who met him at the door to the clean room had thinning hair and a slightly pinched look. He held a battered plastic tray in one hand and a pair of latex gloves in the other.

"There's a possibility of reaction to certain metals, so you'll need to take your watch off to handle some of the evidence, Agent Burke. You can put it in here--" and he gestured with the tray.

Peter undid his watch clasp. The tech said, "You'll need to take your ring off as well." Peter's Imprint ring had slipped around on his finger, the identifying twist hidden from view. He hesitated and the tech rattled the tray at him officiously, so he took a breath and turned the ring, working it over his knuckle. It was the first time he had taken it off since Elizabeth had put it on his finger, almost three years ago. When he had it in his palm he looked up at the tech, who was staring at it with a dull flush on his cheekbones and appearing much younger and more uncertain.

"I, uh," he stammered. "Sorry,'s just, the director is a hardass about clean room protocols and..." The babbling was familiar. It wasn't the first time Peter had a reaction like this from someone. He and El called it the "wow, you're Imprinted" freakout.

"It's all right," Peter said. "How about I just keep it here?" He patted his jacket, indicating the inside breast pocket; if he put the ring there he figured he might still be able to feel it, light against his chest.

"Sure, okay," the tech said. "Yes." He appeared to have moved through "embarrassing motormouth" and into the "awestruck envy" part of the freakout curve. He swallowed and opened the door, saying, "The others have just gone in, so--"

"After you," Peter said courteously.

After they'd checked out the evidence on his latest case (inconclusive), there was a demonstration about handling and identifying the printer inks and papers most used by bond forgers (long and a little tedious). Peter found himself shifting, concentrating on not putting his hand into his pocket to touch his ring. When the demo was over Hughes lingered, talking to the lab director and some bigwig from another agency, clearly doing bureaucratic PR. Peter quelled his impatience by strolling around the lab, looking at the objects on other benches. One of the techs was using a large magnifier to pore over a yellowed page covered in drawing--several studies of a man, sketched out in generous, confident lines. It had a familiar look. He watched from a discreet distance as the tech concentrated on a mere quarter-inch section of the page, before she sat back and huffed a sigh, massaging a spot between her brows with the bent back of her wrist. He cleared his throat, and she looked at him.

"Sorry if I distracted you, I just--" he waved vaguely to where Hughes and the others were still deep in conversation. "Is that--it looks like Rembrandt school." She cocked a quizzical eyebrow at him. "I like the Dutch masters," he explained, and finished belatedly, "I sometimes work art crimes at the FBI. Peter Burke." He remembered not to offer to shake her gloved hand.

She said, "You have a good eye, Agent Burke. It's not just Rembrandt school but Rembrandt himself, if you buy the provenance and the attribution."

"Which you don't," Peter guessed.

"No, I don't. My money's on it being a forgery. But the problem is it's also just about perfect." The lower half of her face was mostly hidden by a mask, but Peter could tell she was scowling. "So far, anyway. He's good, this guy. He's very, very good."

"Sure it's a he?" Peter said.

She shrugged. "It almost always is, isn't it?" She bent back over the drawing, moving her magnifier to study the next quarter-inch. Hughes was gesturing to him from the other side of the lab.

"Good luck, Ms.--?" Peter said.

"Li," she answered, without raising her head. "Nice to meet you."

He left with Hughes and, once outside, put his ring back on. The slight feeling of strangeness from having taken it off lingered in his bones, making him feel unsettled for the rest of the afternoon. Eventually, he would think of that incident as his first faint glimpse of Neal Caffrey. But for a little while, he just thought about the drawing. Mostly he remembered how beautiful it was, and hoped that it was real.

September 2009

So, his evidence on the Dutchman had gone up in smoke and plaster dust and the warden of the supermax was an idiot, but maybe at least one of today's messes was going to turn out okay. When Peter got out of the car in front of the apartment building, he spotted a Rolls Royce parked down the block. It was way out of character for the slightly down-at-heels neighborhood, but it was exactly Neal's style. He looked up at the building. A woman balancing a toddler and a bag of groceries was struggling with the door. He went up the steps and held it for her, and then followed her in. The mailbox for number 307 had the initials "K.M." on its label. He radioed the marshals out front and told them to hold until he sent the all clear.

On the third floor, he tried the door. It was unlocked.

As he entered, he could see a man's leg in dark pants, sprawled on the floor. The rest of him was hidden by a support pillar. Then he moved, and the edge of his white clad shoulder and dark head slipped into view as he turned slightly, toward the sound of Peter coming down the hall. Peter let out a breath. Neal wasn't on a freighter leaving the harbor, or on a plane to a country with no extradition treaty. He was just sitting on the floor of a barren room in his undershirt, holding an empty wine bottle.

"Kate leave you a message in that?" Peter asked, as he approached cautiously.

"The bottle is the message," Neal said, not looking at him.

Once he was sure Neal wasn't armed, Peter gave the "all clear" into his radio, and then said quietly, "What's it mean?" He tried not to sound kind. He knew Neal well enough to know he didn't want pity.

"Goodbye. It means goodbye." He set the bottle down, carefully deliberate. He sounded broken, like someone Peter didn't know.

Peter turned his gaze to the far wall. "They're gonna give you another four years for this."

"I don't care," Neal replied, muffled, and then he looked up and managed a little hiccup of laughter. "That's the same suit you were wearing the last time you arrested me." It was almost a relief to have Neal make fun of his clothes. Peter didn't want to feel bad for him. Neal wearily levered himself up off the floor. As he came closer, his expression changed to sharp interest, and then he was reaching cautiously toward Peter's shoulder. Peter held very still, watching Neal's hand hover over his dusty jacket, which was scattered with a few of the odd synthetic threads that had exploded out of the Dutchman's safe deposit box.

"You know what this is?" Neal asked as he lifted one of them off of Peter's shoulder with a sure, delicate touch. His voice had gotten stronger.

"No idea," Peter said. "I got it from a case I was supposed to be working on before they yanked me off to find you."

"If I tell you what this is, right now, will you agree to meet me back in prison in one week?" Neal said, fast and intent, and then he smiled, as if it was no big deal, "--just a meeting." It was such a classic Caffrey delaying tactic--Neal would bargain with the hangman on the way to the gallows--that Peter was about to say no. Then he thought about the exploded bank vault and no evidence, and how Neal was both smart and in such a tight spot that he might actually give up something useful, and changed his mind.

"Okay," he said. "As long as you're right." There were faint sounds from the stairs. The marshals were on their way up.

"It's the security fiber for the new Canadian hundred dollar bill," Neal said quickly, and the mystery fiber slipped between their finger tips as he handed it over. The edge of Neal's hand brushed Peter's.

Such a small touch, that whisper of skin against skin, but the rush of incongruous sensation that followed was vividly familiar. For a split second, he couldn't quite place it.

Well, it had been ten years.

Peter heard the thunder of the men coming through the door like vengeance. He had the crazy urge to shout at them to wait, to stop. Then full understanding--certainty--of what was happening, what had already happened, broke over him in a cold wave. Neal's eyes were locked onto his. He looked shocked and desperate, all calculation gone. When the marshals put the cuffs on Neal, possessive rage shook Peter to the core, and he had to step back before he hit someone. It all happened so fast, too fast. He felt as if he was listing in a cruel wind, about to fall.

"One week," said Neal in a strangled voice. If he sounded broken before, now he sounded like a man staggering at the very edge of endurance. He wouldn't turn as they pulled him along, forced them to frogmarch him backwards as he stared at Peter, stared until he disappeared through the door. He looked small between the broad shoulders and the bulletproof vests.

When the room was quiet, Peter stumbled over to the pillar where Neal had been slumped and leaned against it. Then his knees wouldn't hold him and he slid down to the floor. Kate's bottle tipped over, rolled to a stop against his foot.

There is no way this is actually happening to me, he thought. He breathed, breathed, and then he said out loud, "oh, shit."

Tiptree tugged at his unnecessary vest. It was crowded in the back seat, with him and Johnson flanking Caffrey, but it had been stressed that they were not to take any chances on him slipping out of their grasp. He'd looked at the guy's sheet before they picked him up, and saw why--Caffrey's usual play was not guns, but guile. The rep for slickness and glib charm now seemed a little exaggerated, though. Caffrey had stumbled as they escorted him down the stairs to the street and, after his last words to Burke, had been entirely silent. Tiptree glanced over at him; his cuffed hands were dangling between his knees, his shoulders slumped. He was shaking almost imperceptibly and didn't seem to be breathing right.

"Hey," he said. "Caffrey." Better make sure the guy wasn't about to pass out on him.

Caffrey raised his head. His pupils were the size of dimes and he was ghost white. Crap. Tiptree really didn't want to have to take him to an emergency room.

"Johnson," he snapped. Johnson had been a corpsman in the Marines. He quickly put one hand on the back of Caffrey's neck and another on his wrist.

"Caffrey, if you feel faint, put your head between your knees," he said. Caffrey bent over obediently and after a tense thirty seconds, Johnson said, "His pulse is strong. Just keep breathing, okay, Caffrey? Nice slow breaths."

He mumbled, "'m okay." The two marshals exchanged glances over his back. Guess some cons never got used to being arrested.

It was 5:55. Peter sat at the dining room table with his jacket on, a beer sweating and going flat in front of him. He'd remembered to put something under it to protect the wood surface of the table. It was a menu flyer for El's favorite pizza place; the logo was a cartoon of a fat guy in a comic mustache and a chef's hat, bearing a pizza box. The box had red wavy lines radiating from it. He thought it made the box look radioactive, but he guessed that was to show that the pizza was hot. They'd ordered from there, five, no, six days ago, when they'd come home and jumped each other and then had been too hungry to make dinner.

El would be home soon. Maybe everything would be okay. He looked at his watch. It was 5:57.

At 6:12, there was the rattle of her key in the lock. Satchmo was already waiting in the front hall, tail wagging. The door hinge squeaked. "I need to oil that," Peter thought.

"Hey Satch, hi," he heard her say. He stood up, bumping his hip into the table. He didn't know what to do with his hands. Elizabeth came into the living room and slung her bags onto the couch before she turned and saw him. "Hey honey, you're home early," she said happily. With a glance she took in the beer and his jacket and his face, the way he was standing there, and said sharply, "What's wrong?"

Peter walked over and put his arms around her, too relieved to speak for a second. As soon as he'd seen her, he knew for sure that at least one thing was okay, one thing hadn't changed. Their Imprint held; Neal hadn't shown up and usurped it, broken it somehow with the touch of his careless, clever hand.

She hugged him back strongly, and said, muffled against his shoulder, "Tell me."

"We'd better sit down," Peter said. "I had to go after Neal Caffrey today."

Some time later, they were still sitting at the dining room table. Elizabeth still had her coat on; her eye makeup was smudged from where she'd rubbed her eyes, and Peter loved her so much he couldn't breathe right. He had said, "Caffrey--Neal--and I Imprinted on each other this afternoon." She was shocked--hell, he was still in shock--and struggling with it, but she never once asked him if he was sure, or could be mistaken.

"I don't know how this could happen," he said, after they had exhausted the scant details of those few minutes in Kate's empty apartment. "Two Imprints? How is that possible?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe you should get the test?" she asked. "The Murray-whatever-it-is test, that we had to get when we registered."

"Murray-Robertson. A14.2," he said automatically. "That occurred to me. The thing is, without," he hesitated, "--Neal there with me for the interview part, all they can do is a blood test, and I don't think it's going to be very useful. It will probably just show an existing Imprint, and since I already have one with you--" He spread his hands. She nodded in agreement; it was painful how careful she was being, how calm.

"You're probably right." She thought for a moment. "Maybe a doctor. Is there such a thing as an M.D. who specializes in Imprinting?"

He shrugged helplessly. "I have no idea. It seems counterintuitive, like--say I've got red hair. It kind of sets me apart, but hey, it's my hair--every once in a while, I see somebody else who has red hair, too. Why would there be a special doctor to treat redheads?"

She smiled at him a little. "And then suddenly, your hair turns green."

"Yeah," he said wearily. "Just what I always wanted. I'll see if I can track down a doctor." She didn't move, her face didn't change, but her eyes welled up and tears began to slide slowly down her cheeks. Elizabeth cried so rarely that it never failed to make him feel like his world was ending, and now it seemed like that might actually be true. He was kneeling by her chair in an instant.

"Oh, El," he said, "I'm so sorry."

"I'm sorry, too," she said. "It's hard for me, but I think it must be even worse for you." They put their arms around each other, and he hid his face in her neck. He didn't pretend not to understand what she meant. At some sub-cellular level he could feel Neal, across miles and concrete walls, and he wanted him so badly. Even in Elizabeth's arms--Elizabeth, to whom he belonged, body and soul, without barrier or question. Still. Always.

The noise of the barred doors clanging shut and the buzzy voices across security intercoms were painfully loud. The weight of the shackles they had put on him dragged. During the 'welcome back to prison' cavity search, Neal tried to go to a protected place in his head, but it was filled with images of Peter Burke, and he couldn't help shying away. The guards were thorough, but not abusive; he still ended up clammy-skinned by the time the search was over. They took him to medical, where his blood was drawn to check whether he had taken any drugs on the outside. The lights in the little exam room were very bright.

The nurse who drew his blood peered closely at him, and then pushed him back to lie on the padded table and said, "wait here." It was a pointless command, but Neal vaguely appreciated the momentary fiction that he had a choice in the matter. He waited. A harried looking doctor in a crumpled white coat came in, peered into his eyes, and applied a stethoscope. Neal answered his questions truthfully. No, he hadn't taken anything. No, he hadn't drunk alcohol. Yes, he had eaten some food this morning. No, he wasn't feeling sick. If he thought about saying to the doctor, "I did Imprint on the Fed who arrested me, though," it was only for the brief bleak pleasure of imagining his reaction. They kept him until the preliminary results of his blood test came back negative, and then released him back to the guards, who walked him into the cell block.

Everything he'd had in his cell was gone, except for the tally he'd kept on the wall. He lay on the bunk, facing the marching rows of hash marks, four vertical lines and a diagonal slash, four lines and a slash, where he had counted down the days.

Once, a long time ago, he and Kate had smoked some hash that was unexpectedly laced with something else, maybe opium. Kate had taken off her clothes and wandered around the apartment, having a wonderful time, but Neal was not so fortunate; he lay on the couch and shivered and waited for it to be over. He remembered feverishly wishing he could speak, could call out to Kate, who seemed impossibly far away. He felt kind of like that now. He curled into himself and turned over, away from the wall of his days.

It turned out Neal was right--the fiber he'd pulled off of Peter's shoulder was the security fiber for a Canadian hundred dollar bill. Now everyone--and that meant everyone, all the letter boys from Ottawa and D.C.--wanted to know how it had gotten into the Dutchman's safe deposit box. Peter was back at the prison in less than seventy-two hours, not a week, after many angry people had yammered at him. He tried to think about the yammering, not the way his chest tightened in anticipation as he went through the prison security checks. He had worked so hard these past couple of days to maintain his fragile detachment.

The room they gave him to talk to Neal in had the usual grim decor. Barred windows, scarred tables. He propped himself against the window sill, away from side of the room where they would bring Neal in, and waited. It seemed like a long time before he heard footsteps coming down the hall.

He'd had a crazy hope that it was all some neurological anomaly that would evaporate as soon as he saw Neal again. That hope died the moment Neal walked through the door. A prison guard followed him in and stopped, stood with his back against the wall of bars. Neal walked slowly over to the center table and sat down. He had dark circles under his eyes, and was carrying a file folder. From the look on his face, he might have been nursing the same hope as Peter, with the same result. They stared at one another silently for a moment, before Neal tipped his head down and ran his hands through his hair, back over his head, as if he was trying to wipe away a headache. The shiny dark strands looked soft. Peter's fingers twitched.

"Jesus Christ," Peter muttered. It was like his nerve endings were on fire. Neal looked up. For a moment, his expression was as naked as it had been in empty apartment.

"Okay, here's what we do," Peter said. "We talk about the job. Tell me how you knew about that fiber."

Neal's face closed up, and then he smiled humorlessly. "C'mon, Peter, it's what I do. How upset were the Canadians?"

Peter's laugh was short. "Oh, very. Well, as upset as Canadians get." He carefully stepped a little closer, testing the space between them. The desire to touch Neal ratcheted up, and he gritted his teeth against it. "So, I agreed to a meeting. We're meeting."

"I can help you catch him," Neal said.

Neal's file folder, it turned out, was full of legal citations. And a page of specs for a tracking anklet--"to keep the Bureau happy," Neal said. They sat across from one another and passed papers back and forth.

"You can get me out of here," he went on. "Especially now. There's case law, precedent--"

"And if I do, and the second you're out you take off?" Peter said. He felt ambushed by the turn this conversation had taken. Thoughts of having Neal on the outside, having him near, being responsible for him, had torn through him like a hurricane, muddying his calm and dredging up unnameable things.

"How can I?" Neal said. "Where would I go, when it feels like I--" He swallowed the last words and then said, his voice dropping low, "I can't leave."

"It's an Imprint, not a pair of leg irons, Neal," Peter said, just as quietly. It took some effort to say the word out loud. "People have been known to overcome it." Neal gave him a disbelieving look. "Yeah, I know that's rare."

"Rare," Neal said flatly. "Try somewhere between 'once in a blue moon' and 'never'. I can quote you statistics, if you'd like."

"Like I said, rare. What do you mean anyway, what statistics?"

"The prison library has a few books that aren't about the law, you know. I did all kinds of research."

"Good for you. It doesn't change the fact that you have a bad habit of doing the impossible," Peter said.

"Not this time." There was a silence, and then Neal added, "It's been three days of hell."

"Tell me about it," Peter said dryly.

"Okay, I will," Neal snapped. "You're on the outside, with--you're outside, and I'm in here, wondering if I'm ever going to see you again. That research I mentioned--well, I was able to get some hints about what might happen to me if you never showed."

"I said I'd meet with you," Peter said, stung.

"Yeah, well." Neal dropped his eyes. "That was before."

Peter leaned over, gripping the edge of the table so that he couldn't reach across it. "Neal, look at me. I wouldn't do that, okay? It's not any easier for me. I wouldn't do that to you."

This silence was longer, broken only by the scrape as the guard standing by the door shuffled his feet. Peter tried, unsuccessfully, not to stare at Neal's hands. When he looked up, he saw that Neal was staring at his mouth.

"I used to want it," Neal finally said softly. His voice was like rough silk. Mistaking Peter's tiny flinch, he went on, "yeah, I'm one of those idiots. I'd fantasize about it sometimes, with Kate--I knew it didn't work like that, but I'd imagine that one day we'd wake up and touch each other and everything would change. Everything would be perfect." His voice got harsher. "Kate didn't believe it really happened. She thought it was the worst kind of con--the kind that suckers played on themselves. So I stopped."

"She's not alone in thinking something like that," Peter said.

"Yeah, I know," Neal said. "But they're wrong, aren't they. They're all wrong." He closed his eyes. "It's not like I thought it would be."

"I'm learning some new things myself," Peter said. Then curiousity got the better of him, and he asked, "How did you think it would be?"

"Romantic?" Neal said. "I guess. But this feels--not prosaic, exactly, but. Like a fact. Like gravity, or knowing the sun will come up. That's huge, and everything relies on it, and I never question whether it's true."

Peter remembered the first night with Elizabeth, how they went to bed like they had been doing it for years, got up in the morning, went and registered their Imprint, started making arrangements to get married and move in together. The possibility of doing anything else had never occured to him. Then he realized that, fairly shortly, he was going to have to walk out of the prison and leave Neal behind. And not touch him. He felt a little sick.

"What does Elizabeth--?" Neal asked, waving his hand vaguely between them. Peter looked at him. "I know you talked to her about it. C'mon, you know all about my life, I can't know anything about yours?"

"She's confused, like--" Peter made the same vague hand waving gesture, attempting to encompass the truly epic amount of confusion that the three of them now shared. "Okay, though. She's a strong woman, and it didn't change our--that." It was horribly frustrating, murmuring in code for the benefit of the guard. And discussing his and Elizabeth's Imprint with Neal felt like a betrayal.

"Good," Neal said, in what sounded like complete sincerity. "I'm glad." Peter knew his face went skeptical at that, because Neal added, "It's true. I didn't want to cause--I don't want you to lose anything, because of me." He looked a little startled, as if he was just realizing the truth of that himself. "Huh. Is this how it works?"

"Yes. Maybe. Hell if I know how it works, not anymore," Peter said. He tried not to feel warmed by Neal's words. "But it doesn't matter. I can't let you out of here."

"That's actually pretty sweet," Elizabeth said that night, when he recounted this conversation.

"Yeah, maybe," Peter said again. He shuffled through some more of the pages in Neal's case file. Neal's case file was big.

"Not sweet?"

"Well. Neal isn't cruel, or vindictive, not that I've ever seen," Peter said slowly. "But I've only seen some sides of who he is, and some of those are hard to ignore. Here's a thing I'm figuring out about this, and I didn't think I had anything left to learn--this is the possibility that no one wants to really think about when they line up to shake hands with a thousand strangers at one of those Imprint-hopefuls rodeos."

She nodded and said as if quoting, "If I Imprint on someone, he will be essentially good. He will be my prince."

"Unless, oops, guess what, he's a criminal. A thief or a murderer."

"Then received wisdom would dictate he must be Robin Hood." Elizabeth got up and poured herself a some wine from the bottle they had barely touched at dinner. "Neal's not a murderer," she said gently. "You told me before he never even carries a gun." He noticed that she was making a point to call him "Neal", too, and was grateful.

"No, but he is a thief," he said. "And a liar. And a con man. Definitely not Robin Hood."

"Apparently, he is also a romantic," she added. "And you like him. You've always liked him." It was not an accusation--just a statement of fact.

Peter had words inside pushing at him, pushing to be said, but it was hard to get them out. He took a deep breath. "The hell of it is, I keep thinking I could have stopped it. Not taken the damn fiber. I could have pulled an envelope out of my pocket and let him drop it in there." He looked at her. "You know I didn't want this, right? Whatever I've felt about Neal over the years, there's no part of me that wanted this. But I feel responsible anyway."

"Oh, honey," Elizabeth said. "Of all people, you and I know that's not how it works. You might as well feel responsible for the color of your eyes." She ran her fingers lightly across his temple. "Or your newly green hair." She was quiet for a moment. "You've been close to Neal before, right? Physically close, I mean." Peter nodded. "What if you'd touched him when you arrested him four years ago? Or what if he had done his time and then come to see you four months from now, so he could say, 'Thanks, Peter, I've learned my lesson,' and shake your hand? And then--" she made a popping noise, and mimed an explosion.

"So very unlikely," Peter said. "I mean, the 'thanks Peter' part. The rest of it--I just don't know, El."

She said very slowly, weighing each word, "Well, maybe we need to think about this like it was something--. Something we were never going to avoid." They had never used words like "fated" or "destined" in the ten years they had been together. "Lucky", yes, but at heart they were both pragmatists.

"Maybe you're right," Peter said. "Where does that leave us?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth said. "Not feeling guilty, I hope, there's a good place to start. Focus on the practicalities. If you get him out, can he help you catch the guy you're after?"

"Yes--if he wants to, if I can trust him--I think he can," Peter said. "Those are big ifs, though."

"Well, then, make your decision on those terms. You have a responsibility, and I trust you to do the right thing."

Peter swore he'd be up to bed soon. Elizabeth leaned over the back of his chair, her arms around his shoulders in a tight embrace, before climbing the stairs. She felt exhaustion creeping up on her, and her own words--something we were never going to avoid--echoed in her head as she brushed her teeth.

Although in ten years, she had never said "destiny" to Peter, she'd had a girlfriend who insisted on saying it every time the subject of Imprinting came up. Shelly was a tempestuously emotional sort, and Elizabeth could never make her understand how that word felt like hubris. Once, while Elizabeth had borne sympathetic witness as Shelly wept over the painful breakup of her latest love affair, Shelly had turned on her furiously. With a voice full of tearful resentment, she had said, "it's like you don't appreciate what you have."

Standing in the bathroom, looking at Peter's razor and her facial cleanser and the towels that were a housewarming present from her mother--all the artifacts of their life--Elizabeth felt again her awful shock at the unfairness, the wrongness of that statement, how it had been like offering someone a hug and then being slapped. She had gaped at Shelly, finally saying, "I'm sorry for what you're going through, but you couldn't be more wrong." Then she left. And although she was not prone to dramatic gestures, and had never in her life ended a relationship that way, she did not see Shelly again.

"This is so messed up," Elizabeth said in the mirror. "I swear that I appreciate everything I had." Then she covered her face with a towel and whispered, "that I have, that I have," while crying as soundlessly as she was able, so that Peter couldn't hear her downstairs.

It didn't matter, of course. He knew anyway. He came upstairs and found her splashing water on her face, and led her into the bedroom. They lay spooned together on the bed, while she stared into the darkness.

"Peter," she said quietly. "I know that right now you're frantically second-guessing whatever decision you made downstairs, because I was crying in the bathroom."

"El--" he started, sounding wrecked.

"No, listen. I get to cry some about this. Crying about this is totally fine. What is not fine is you making panicky bad choices because of my crying. You've got to let me have that. Promise me."

He finally said, "I promise." Elizabeth knew there was more, but she waited for him to find words. She was getting drowsy by the time he spoke. "What happens after?"

"After," she said muzzily.

"Yeah," he said. "If we catch the Dutchman, and Neal gets a conditional parole to work with me going forward." He paused. "And I see him every day." He sounded painfully guilty, and she was suddenly wide awake.

"Then you see him everyday," she said. "And sometimes you have sex with him." She rolled over to look him in the face. "This is not about the possibility of--" she almost wanted to laugh, it was ludicrous, and still so endearing, "--you cheating on me, you understand that, right?"

He was silent.

"Your Imprint with me is the thing that's really hard to imagine sharing," she said. "There's nothing that I've done or experienced in my life that has affected me more."

"Me neither," Peter said hoarsely. He took her hand.

"So--I can deal with the sex." He smiled a bleak little smile at that. "I know. I know. It doesn't make me--happy. But it's a small price--it's no price, actually, to keep you whole and alive and healthy," she said seriously.

"I'm okay," he said. It wasn't too convincing. Time to drive the point home.

"I did some research, in case you're feeling all noble and self-sacrificing," she said. "About what eventually happens to people who are completely cut off from their Imprints. It's nothing good, I promise you." She ducked her head under his chin, and wrapped her arm around him. From his silence, she guessed that he had been thinking about this himself. "How bad was it today, leaving the prison after seeing him?"

"Bad," he said softly.

"Well, it will only get worse," she said, holding him a little tighter, "and the only way out is through."

Lights out in the supermax. From where he lay on his bunk, Neal could hear Bobby's slow footsteps approaching as he did his cell check.

"Neal, you gotta turn that off," Bobby said softly.

"Can I get one more minute, Bobby?"

"Okay, one minute."

"Is it midnight yet?"

"Yeah," he sighed, "it's midnight."

Neal sat up, stood up, and moved slowly over to stand in front of his tally wall. He groped for the stub of crayon that he'd found on the floor, the one thing they'd missed when they cleaned out his cell, and rolled it in his fingers. The last hash mark he'd made was the fourth in the group. He lifted his hand to draw the diagonal, and now it counted off five days. For a moment he just looked at it. The cell's single naked bulb hung in his face, the light stinging his eyes, and his vision blurred. Then he slashed violently through all the tally marks, huge sweeping lines, barking his knuckles on the rough plaster. One sweep of his arm caught the light bulb, breaking it and abruptly plunging him into darkness. He kept slashing at the wall.

"Shut up, bitch," someone yelled distantly.

Neal breathed heavily, lacing his hands behind his head and wrapping it in his forearms. His eyes slowly adjusted. He bent down and groped among the glass shards for the crayon he had dropped, and turned to the other wall, the wall above his bunk. He planted a hand at shoulder height and leaned in, as if to kiss someone unseen, whose back was against the wall.

His other hand was steady as he made the first new tally mark at eye level, pressing the crayon hard, and then harder into the wall as he went over it again and again, making it darker and thicker. The crayon began to crumble in his fingers, so he stopped. He dropped his head, closed his eyes, and held onto what was left.

In the following days, Peter filled out paperwork, talked to Hughes, filled out paperwork, went before a judge, filled out paperwork. He exhausted himself running extra miles, because then he could will himself to sleep a few hours. He needed be on his game at the Bureau; he needed to look like someone who could be trusted with supervision of a criminal informant.

Elizabeth reorganized Burke Premier Events' billing system and made a list of new vendors she wanted her assistant to check out. She got three different dithering clients to make final decisions about venues, wine selections, and appetizers, simply because of the expression on her face when she presented them with options. At home, she put away summer clothes and got out winter coats for airing. She gave Satchmo a bath. She went grocery shopping and bought too much food, as if she were preparing for a siege. Or a guest.

She read novels in bed using a little book light she'd never needed before, while Peter twitched next to her, in the grip of dreams. Each night he reached out for her in his sleep, and she whispered, "shh, I'm here, it's okay." She herself slept fitfully, sometimes.

Neal felt like a bug in amber--being in prison always messed with a person's sense of time, but for him time seemed to have stopped entirely. He didn't sleep.

Several long days later, Neal was informed that he was to be released into the temporary custody of the FBI, under the supervision of Agent Peter Burke, to serve as a consultant in a current FBI investigation. If it went well, there was a possibility of a conditional release into custody for the remainder of his sentence. He signed endless forms; he received endless speeches about his many obligations under these very unusual circumstances; he got an ugly and uncomfortable tracking anklet. When the moment finally came, and he walked out through the prison door, it was as if he could breathe again after a long time under water. Even though Peter stood next to his car as if it were a protective bulwark, and seemed to only want to lecture him from a distance of thirty feet, it didn't matter. None of it mattered when he was finally sitting next to Peter, with no prison guard and no orange jumpsuit, and nothing separating them but the gearshift. He turned to look at Peter, and asked the question uppermost in his mind.

"Why'd you agree to do this?"

"Because," Peter said after a long pause, "my wife thinks you're a romantic."

Okay, so. There was maybe more than just the gearshift. But it still didn't matter. They pulled out through the prison gate, and got on the road heading into Manhattan. The empty road, which was lined with unplowed fields of dirt and a few ragged cottonwood trees, could have been the Appian Way or the road to El Dorado, it looked that good to him. "Where are we headed?"

"To take you to your new home," Peter said. "But first, we have to see a man about a horse."

The man with the horse, it turned out, was a psychologist who had done research on Imprinting. He had an office in a small private teaching institute in the west seventies, on a quiet, mostly residential street. Peter had to circle the block to find parking. It was an old building. The stairs creaked as they walked up to the third floor. They stopped in front of the closed door that bore a little card that said Emil Hirsch. Peter lifted his hand as though to knock and then dropped it. For the first time that Neal had ever seen, he looked really uncertain, almost frightened. On impulse, Neal took his hand and held it. Something warm and thrumming woke up at the touch. Peter looked at him and then looked away. This time, when he moved, it was to knock. But he also kept hold of Neal's hand.

"I'm not an M.D., you understand," Dr. Hirsch said, after he showed them into his office. His suit was old, but beautifully tailored. "I can conduct the standard interviews, but I can't administer the blood tests."

"I understand," Peter said. "We'd just like to hear your opinion of our situation." Neal nodded his agreement. The word "unofficial" went unspoken. Peter had said in the car, "I need somebody to tell us something concrete and off the record. I'm bending so many rules not telling my superiors about this, even with all the regs that cover Imprinting as a privileged circumstance." He had sounded a little frantic, and Neal was not about to object.

Dr. Hirsch interviewed them each separately, one of them waiting outside the office while the other answered questions and described the events of the past few days. Neal was still experiencing the glossy high spirits that had carried him out of the prison, and found everything interesting, from the months-old magazines in the waiting area to the questions he was asked. Some of them, like, "Do you have a favorite color?" and "Do you have any allergies?" didn't seem to have much to do with Imprinting. Dr. Hirsch had an admirable poker face as he took notes on Neal's anwers. When they were done, he opened the door and called to Peter, while Neal wandered over to the tall window that looked down into the street. School must have let out; there were kids with backpacks on the sidewalk. Peter came over to stand next to him, their sleeves touching. Neal, who had thought himself perfectly calm, felt his shoulders drop and his spine melt, just a little.

"Please sit," Dr. Hirsch said after some uncounted seconds. He was watching them, not unkindly. He moved to sit behind his desk, while Peter and Neal took the facing chairs next to each other. "In my opinion, in spite of the fact that Mr. Burke has an existing Imprint with his wife, you have Imprinted on one another." He looked back and forth between them. "You will have to have this verified at one of the clinics, of course. But I think there is no doubt."

"Okay," Peter said.

"After we spoke on the phone yesterday, I did some investigation," he continued. "I could find no contemporary confirmation of someone with two Imprints. There are a few, very few, anecdotal accounts, but the details are quite sparse and not necessarily reliable. What you are experiencing is so rare that I cannot advise you from the scientific literature."

"What are the details?" Neal asked.

"As far as they go, in essentials, like your own. An existing Imprint and a new Imprint that does not supersede the old. Not surprisingly, there is no consistency of age or gender. Imprints are less predictable than a lottery. Only one of the accounts mentions any personal history past the instance of the second Imprint itself. A Florentine woman who shared an Imprint with her husband, a government official, subsequently Imprinted on a previously unknown woman who was a visitor to their home."

"What does it say happened?" Peter asked.

Dr. Hirsch hesitated before saying, "It dates from the fifteenth century, and is translated from Latin." He picked up a piece of paper and read, "And then the three that were so afflicted were visited by an angelic charity, and afterward their affliction was lifted and they were restored to harmony." He set the paper down. "It's unclear if 'affliction' means the Imprint, and if so, which Imprint, or what 'harmony' might mean in this context. I should also tell you that this account is originally from a natural history that credits the existence of unicorns and basilisks." Neal wondered how good the translation was, and if that mattered.

"So, it's a myth," Peter said.

"Not at all. Just not corroborated by evidence. Beyond that, this kind of complication has served as a useful plot device in a few novels and Hollywood movies, but that is not much help. I'm sorry," he said, more gently. "I wish I had more facts for you."

"Me too," Peter said. "But I appreciate you taking the time."

Dr. Hirsch waved his hand. "I should thank you for the extraordinary opportunity, as a researcher, to speak to you about your situation. In any case, I believe your Imprint can be registered, and recognized under the law, although you realize that there may be drawbacks to doing so." Neal was a little thrown by that, until he went on, "Public records, notoriety, tabloid scrutiny. The National Enquirer has an Imprint beat reporter. Oh, that reminds me," he opened his desk drawer, "this is the name of a lawyer who specializes in Imprint case law, should you need that kind of assistance." He held out a card. Neal was closest, so he took it and glanced at it before passing it to Peter. Paolo Monteverde, it said, in tasteful type, followed by an address in midtown. He could feel his fizzy ebullience deflate a little.

"Thanks," Peter said, and they left.

"It's like a wedding ring," said the droopy-mustachioed character behind the desk, when he noticed Neal trying to unobtrusively scratch the ankle that bore the tracker. "You get used to it." Beside him, Peter tensed.

"And your wife says I'm the romantic," Neal whispered. The flophouse lobby was depressing as hell, but he reserved the right to make jokes. The situation pretty much required it. Mustache Man propped his foot on the desk and tugged at the leg of his elderly jeans. He was wearing a stylish combination of black shoes, white socks, and tracking anklet. He grinned in brotherly solidarity.

"Here you go," said Mustache Man, handing Neal a room key. "Snake Eyes," he added, clearly dubbing Neal with a sort of criminal honorific. Neal had been called a lot of things, but that was a new one. Mustache Man took the two of them in with a practiced eye and grinned. Neal could feel Peter tense some more.

"Let's go," Peter said, and led the way to the elevator. Neal hesitated a moment, surprised. He was hyper-aware of the fact that there was a room in this place where he could shut the door and be alone with Peter--and a bed--but he had more than half-expected Peter to avoid that. He got on the elevator, and it wheezed them up to the fourth floor. In the room, Neal left Peter to decide whether to shut the door or not, and went to the bed and sat down, testing the mattress. Lumpy. Peter stood inside the open door with indecision written all over him, and then closed it.

"Here," he said, holding out a thick accordion file. "Homework." Neal had to get up to take it from him. "Oh, and this, too," he dug in his pocket and held out a cell phone, "it's Bureau-issue, and for me to talk to you. So, fair warning--don't call anyone else on it who you don't want showing up on the logs." Neal nodded, and put the phone in his coat pocket. Mozzie would kill him if he called on anything but a burner, in any case. Peter looked around the room. Neal felt that further scrutiny of their surroundings could only put a damper on the moment, so he quickly stepped forward, into Peter's space, close enough to compress the file he was still holding between their chests.

"Hey," he said, and kissed him. Peter was still, and then leaned in.

Neal had intended to keep it light and soft, but it quickly got out of hand. He became aware that he was clutching Peter's coat when the file folder smacked to the floor. Peter had his arms around Neal. Neal worked his thigh between Peter's, and the two of them rutted and pushed and groaned into each other's mouths. They shuffled a few awkward steps, and Neal felt the bedframe against his leg. He toppled them slowly onto the bed. The weight of Peter on top of Neal, pinning him down, pressed out every stray thought, every memory of pain and uncertainty, and washed them all away in a rush of fierce urgency. Now he was only conscious of the solidity of Peter, his scent, the heat of him. Neal gasped out "please," and arched up against him.

"You," Peter said, "you--" He held onto Neal's wrists and kissed him. Neal squirmed and pulled his left hand free, snaking it under Peter's coat, his suit jacket, clawing at his shirt where it was tucked into his pants. Getting Peter's belt undone was beyond him, so he simply groped for the hardness at his crotch. Peter reared up and clutched Neal's thigh, urging him on. Neal wound both legs around Peter, and then--then it was hard and fast and perfect, Peter thrusting against him and saying his name. He was a dark shape above Neal, outlined by the weak overhead light. The sounds Neal made were loud in his own ears; he didn't care. He was so aroused that even the stuttery pressure against his cock through the layers of clothing was maddeningly good, and when he came, it was sudden and graceless and overwhelming. The corners of the dingy ceiling went blurry and shadowed at the edges of his vision.

The light came back, brightened against Neal's closed eyelids. He opened them and realized Peter had rolled off of him, to lie next to him on the bed. "I didn't want to do this here, not now," Peter said hoarsely.

It messed a bit with his post-coital haze, but "here" and "now" seemed like promising qualifiers, so Neal got control of his voice enough to say, "Yes, okay. I get it. I'm not sorry, though." He decided to take silence as agreement. All he wanted to do was lie here like this forever, clammy and sticky and fully-clothed on a cheap scratchy bedspread, with Peter Burke beside him. After drifting a bit, he remembered to ask, "Does that mean we can go someplace else? Do I have to stay here?"

It was the wrong thing to say, or maybe the moment was gone in any case. Peter sat up, stood up, and buttoned his coat. Neal sat up, too, and said, "Hey."

Peter's face was expressionless as he said, "If you can find someplace else that costs seven hundred a month or less, then be my guest. As long as it's within your two mile radius. I'll see you tomorrow morning. Don't forget your homework." He stood for a moment, and then as though impelled, he leaned over and kissed Neal. And then he left.

Neal sat on the bed and stared at the door for a moment after Peter closed it, then lay back down. The need to go out and find some clothes had been upgraded from "pressing" to "absolutely required." He had spotted a thrift store at the end of the block that might be a good place to start. He realized, after lying there for another ten minutes, that as well as feeling--if only temporarily--drowsily sated and content, he didn't want to get up as long as the warmth of them together lingered on the bed.

"Christ, she's right," he said out loud. "I am a romantic." He made himself get up and assess his sartorial situation. His underwear was a loss, but the dark pants didn't show anything, fortunately.

Peter was in the Midtown Tunnel before his hands stopped shaking on the steering wheel. He thought he was back to normal by the time he walked in the house, but Elizabeth, who was sorting laundry on the couch, took one look at him and stood up.

"Come on," she said. "Upstairs." He followed her, ashamed, relieved, resentful and grateful all at once.

"El," he said, once they were in the bedroom, and she was briskly stripping him of his tie and shirt. "You don't have to--"

"There's no 'have to'. There's only 'want to'," she interrupted. She stepped back and pulled her sweater over her head. When her face reappeared, she looked determined, and serious. "Among other reasons, I'm reasserting my claim."

"Okay," he said. "Okay." And he gave himself up to her.

Elizabeth crept out of the bedroom with Peter's cell phone in her hand. She closed the door softly. Behind her, Peter was sleeping as though he'd been mickeyed. She went into the bathroom and got her robe, splashed some water on her face and brushed her teeth. Feeling armed, she went downstairs and sat on the couch among the piles of laundry. She held the phone in her hand for a while. Satchmo came in and leaned against her knee.

"What do you think, Satch?" she said. "Is this a bad idea or a good idea?" He whined a little and nudged her. "Yeah, me neither. But if I don't do something, I'm afraid your daddy is going to snap like a wishbone." She scrolled through the contacts until she found the one she was looking for.

"Hello," came a cautious male voice. She had wondered what he sounded like. Now she knew.

"Neal, this is Elizabeth Burke," she said.

"Is Peter alright?" he said quickly.

No, she thought. She was happy it was his first impulse to ask, though. Maybe this would work. "Yes, he's okay. I'm calling because I think we need to meet. And talk."

He was silent for a few heartbeats, then said, "Can you hold for just a second, please?" She heard his voice, muffled as though he had covered the phone, and what sounded like a woman's voice in response. Then he was back. "Alright. I mean, yes. That's probably a good idea."

"Good," she said. "Can you come to the house tomorrow morning, early?"

She could hear his surprise when he said, "That's...well, ye-es, okay. If--I assume Peter will be there, too."

"Yes," she said. "I'll make breakfast." She could hear how she sounded exactly like she was setting up a meeting with a client to go over seating charts and floral arrangements, and had to swallow a slightly hysterical impulse to laugh.

"Mrs. Burke," Neal said, with audible warmth, "I have always suspected that you were an exceptional woman, and now I know."

"I think you'd better call me Elizabeth," she said, and gave him the address. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."

Peter was taking a shower. The smell of the brewing coffee was floating up the stairs. Elizabeth was in the bedroom, keeping tabs on the street in front of the house as she made the bed. She saw a cab pull up and a dark-haired man get out, and nipped quickly downstairs before he could ring the doorbell.

"You must be Neal," she said, opening the door. The surveillance shots that she had seen scattered across her dining room table didn't do him justice. He was wearing a black turtleneck and a carefully controlled expression. His eyes looked very blue. "I'm Elizabeth. Please come in."

"Thank you," he said.

She led the way into the living room, and waved a hand toward the couch. "Have a seat. That's Satchmo." Satch waved his tail and sniffed the knees of Neal's trousers. "Can I get you some coffee? How do you take it?"

"Black, please, that would be great," Neal said. He perched on the edge of the couch, and automatically reached out to pat the dog. When she came back with two mugs, she deliberately sat next to him.

"Cheers," Neal said, lifting his mug. He tasted the coffee and made a pleased face. "Thank you, this is very good." She lifted hers in acknowledgement and they sipped in silence. It felt not unlike being on a blind date, until he set his mug down and turned to her.

"This feels like meeting the in-laws, or something," he said.

"Or something," she agreed.

"I want you to know that whatever we do, however we handle this, it's important to me that Peter is okay," he said. "Which means you need to be okay, too."

She nodded. "And you. I really don't know how to handle it. Not yet, anyway. I think that's something the three of us are going to have to work out."

"Yes," he said. "Thanks. For. Just, thanks." He was still sitting very upright. She felt impatience sweep through her, at him, at herself, at the stiff formality that seemed to have them both in its grip.

"Well, this is not getting us anyplace," she muttered. His controlled expression cracked a little, and she said, "Stop thanking me. You're his Imprint, too, and you're going to be having sex with my husband. We have to truly be allies. Not antagonists."

His posture softened, and he said, "I agree. I just can't quite--believe it."

"I mean it," Elizabeth said. "I wouldn't say it if I didn't."

"No, that's not what I meant," Neal said. "I believe you. I just don't know how this happened. Why--" He stopped. She got the feeling that what he left unsaid was something like, "why me?" She didn't tell him that the question was unanswerable; she didn't need to.

"So," Elizabeth said, finally. She could hear Peter's cell phone trill, distantly, as she held out her hand to Neal to shake as though they were making a vow--like allies, like comrades. He smiled at her, a smile that was sweet and genuine and sort of heartbreaking, and took her hand.

Peter groped across the half-made bed for his ringing phone. He heard Jones say, "It's Jones, Caffrey's anklet activated, is he with you?" and felt his pulse start galloping like a horse.

"I'm coming," he managed to say, even though his head was full of nothing but Neal, god, no no no. He grabbed his jacket and bumped the wall in his haste to get down the stairs. "El, I've got to go, Neal's--" and then he stopped short, because Neal was sitting on the couch, holding Elizabeth's hand. "Jones, it's okay, Caffrey's with me," he said vaguely into the phone, before hanging up. He walked toward them. Some detached observant part of him noted their expressions, how closely they were pressed together, the way his pulse slowed again and all of the tension he had felt for the past week left his body in a single, startling whoosh.

"Peter," Neal said wonderingly.

"Oh, honey," Elizabeth said. She was beaming, exactly like that night, that first night. "Guess what?"

Peter could hear his heartbeat. He took a step forward, then another. Neal and Elizabeth stood up. He reached for their outstretched hands.

"And then," Neal would say later on to the very good friends on the couch, "after all of that, we just stood there staring at one another and holding hands, like we were about to play ring around the rosy."

"It was like, 'uhhh, what now?'" Peter said, pulling a parody gobsmacked face.

"We had been trying so hard to be rational and careful and respectful of each other's feelings, and--basically, we were just steeled for disaster. And then, poof!" Elizabeth said.

"More boom than poof, I think." Peter said. "It was sort of like a very localized and benevolent hurricane."

"A tornado," Neal amended. "We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore."

"Then two minutes later, the phone rang and it was the Bureau, and Peter and Neal had to run off to follow up a hot lead on the bad guy," Elizabeth said. "I barely saw either of them for the next three days."

"Fourteen hours a day," Neal groaned. "And no time to go to the clinic and get the official paperwork we needed to appease the FBI, so that I could actually move into the house without throwing up red flags on the tracker. We figured it would look bad if the marshals kept having to call to find out what the hell I was doing in Brooklyn."

"I used up every single one of my minutes. I haven't spent that much time on the phone with a boy since I was in high school. Much less two boys," Elizabeth said.

"June swore she was going to tranq me," Neal said.

"June," Elizabeth said fondly. "At least we got to know June."

"And hey, we got the guy," Peter said. "Pretty fast, too. I was highly motivated."

"Yeah," Neal said. Elizabeth smiled. "We got him."

Let us feast as three
and drink our wine
from the same cup

(Translation from archaic Greek lyric fragment. Author unknown.)


IMPRINT REGISTERED: 10/01/09, between Burke, Peter David; Burke, Elizabeth Marie (née Mitchell); and Caffrey, Neal George, at the New York City Office of Registry. Proof of Imprint per test (Murray-Robertson, A14.2), ID#I-478-01, on file at 141 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013.

Epilogue--November 2009

It was the bluest water she had ever seen. The breeze lifted the fronds of the palms that sat at the corners of the beach pavilion and the whispering, rushing sound had lulled her in a luxurious trance when she felt something cool touch her arm.

"Here's your drink," Peter said.

"Mmmm," Elizabeth said sleepily. He bent over and kissed her forehead. Ice clinked as he set the glass down next to her. "This chaise is so comfortable. Wanna share? There's plenty of room." She looked up at him; he was scanning the beach.

"Where is he?" he asked.

"Over there," she said, pointing slightly off to the left, and out into the water. She didn't even need to look, now. It was something that had happened, soon after. She always knew where they were.

"I see him," Peter said. "He's a fish."

"A dolphin," she agreed.

"An octopus, more like," he grumbled comfortably. "Eight arms to hold us."

"Mmmm," she said again, meaning something different this time.

"I love Belize," Neal said, suddenly popping into view in front of the pavilion. "It's my new favorite place." Water was running in rivulets down his skin. He quickly stripped off his trunks and stood there dripping everywhere.

"Hey, towel," Peter said. "No pavilion sex for the soaking wet." Neal grinned at them, and reached for a towel.

"Is it time for the pavilion sex already?" he asked. "I need to be more specific. This pavilion is my new favorite place."

"Last night it was the dining room," Peter said.

"Well, honey, that table is the perfect height," Elizabeth said.

"We should get one just like it at home," Neal said fervently. "And put it in the bedroom." He helped Peter stack cushions into a sort of ziggurat. It was something they liked to do in the pavilion. "I'd like to be in the middle, this time, okay? I want to be surrounded on all sides by Burkes." Peter dropped his cushion and turned, pulling Neal into a tight embrace and kissing him. Elizabeth reached for Neal's hand, lacing their fingers together. Their rings clicked; his was still very shiny.

She lay back on the top layer of cushions. Neal's mouth on her thighs was warm, followed by the cool damp touch of the strands of his hair that brushed her skin. When he licked into her, her head fell back, seeing the roof of the pavilion, the palms, the sky beyond. She could hear the sounds of Peter sucking Neal, while his hands were running softly up her calves. Neal groaned against her, and gasped something indistinguishable. The white clouds swam in her vision.

She felt the moment that Peter entered Neal, the shudder that moved from one to the other to her, and when she was about to come, she reached for his hand again. Neal held onto her tight, and Peter reached across Neal's back to take her other hand, and joined like that, hand to hand to hand, the three of them flew. Into the blue blue heart of that sky.