From his office, Peter watches his agents toast Neal with the Bureau's finest cat-litter coffee, wondering if he should go down and join them.
It'd be dishonest. He's not exactly happy Neal's tracker is finally off, and he can't go down there and fake a smile and have a coffee with them. Neal will only need half a second of looking at his face to know something's wrong, and despite his own feelings Peter still doesn't want to wreck this for Neal.
He's so caught up in his thoughts that he doesn't notice Neal's come upstairs until the man clears his throat. Peter does his best not to jump, turning away from him in irritation. "Can't they put a bell on you or something?" he mutters reflexively, then curses inwardly as he realizes how that would sound, today.
Apparently Neal's good humor is enough of a buffer against Peter's ill-thought words, because he just laughs and sits down on the corner of Peter's desk. "Don't you wish."
Peter manages a kind of smile, leaning against the glass of his wall.
Neal's bright eyes are understanding, to Peter's surprise. "You do, don't you? Wish it weren't over."
It hurts to hear him say "it's over" so plainly, but Peter pushes the little dagger cut of regret away. This is Neal's day, he thinks. Don't ruin it. Trying to smile and doing a better job of it this time, Peter jokes, "You can't blame me for wanting to keep tabs on you. It's pathological by now."
He grins. "I know." Neal reaches across Peter's desk for his hat and absently begins to spin it in his hands, his eyes never leaving Peter.
Peter shifts, not a little awkwardly. "Thought about what you're going to do?" He tries to make it sound like a less loaded question than it really is.
Neal looks away, then, his eyes fading as he stares into the middle distance. "Yeah," he says a little absently, thinking. "Yeah, I'm gonna go."
Peter blinks. "You're leaving?" The minute it's out of his mouth, he feels stupid. He hears the ridiculous, childish, Neal Neal please don't go in his voice and hates himself for it, but for some reason this is a blow to him.
He'd really thought Neal would stay.
Neal's eyes snap to him, faintly surprised and (Peter thinks, he's not sure, but he thinks) a little touched by Peter's slip. "I mean, go traveling. For a while." He shrugs, always an elegant gesture on him somehow. "I've been stuck with a five-mile radius of Manhattan for four years, Peter. Before that I was in jail for another four..." He shakes his head, smiling, and Peter can already see the plans in his head, the excitement (the distance, he thinks with another pang). "Yeah, I need to get away."
Peter shoves his hands in his pockets, managing a rueful sort of smile. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I'm actually going to miss you."
Neal grins swiftly at him. "Why, Peter, I'm touched." Then the grin fades to something softer, something real. "I'll miss you, too," Neal says, like he means it, and it's a mark of how far they've come in four years that Peter believes he does.
Peter straightens, suddenly uncomfortable with how much he's feeling right now. "You'll come over for dinner before you go, right?" he asks brusquely, shoving his hands in his pockets.
Neal stands, too, nodding, his face mirroring Peter's sudden, uncomfortable seriousness. "Should say goodbye to Elizabeth."
Peter nods stiffly. "Yeah."
There's a short, awkward silence.
"So are we gonna hug, or--"
"Drop it, Neal."
- - -
JFK is packed to bursting, and Peter can barely hear himself think as he watches his wife hugging Neal goodbye.
He's a little grateful. His thoughts are pretty gloomy right now.
"Oh, take care, sweetie," Elizabeth sighs, holding Neal at arm's length and brushing his hair back from his forehead. "Have fun. Don't forget to write."
"I won't," Neal promises.
"And stay out of trouble," Peter adds gruffly, crossing his arms over his chest and giving him a look. "I swear, Neal, if I get one whiff of art heists or--"
"Peter." Neal doesn't roll his eyes, however much he looks like he dearly wanted to. He's smiling, though--seeing straight through Peter, as usual. "Is this your way of saying you'll come get me if I'm having too much fun without you?"
Peter grins. "You know your life's going to be boring without me on your tail."
Neal snorts. "Boring like a world tour is boring. Yeah. Sure."
They regard each other for a long moment, neither wanting to give first, and then Peter sighs, reaching out one arm and pulling Neal into a short, sharp hug. "I'll see you around," he says simply.
Neal nods against his chest, blinking a little too hard when he pulls away. "Yeah. Yeah, you too."
Then he smiles, brilliant, infectious, and sets his hat on his head. "Goodbye, Agent Burke. Mrs. Burke."
Peter hooks an arm around his wife's waist, and smiles back. "Goodbye, Neal."
They watch him until he disappears into the press of people, and Peter can't stop himself from wondering if they'll ever see him again.
"Don't worry, Peter, we will," Elizabeth says, smiling a little sadly up at him.
Peter loves it when she reads his mind. It saves him the trouble of voicing a lot of things he really doesn't want to say.
- - -
Neal doesn't call.
But one day a box appears on the doorstep, slightly crumpled and marked with OVERSEAS stickers.
Peter's almost afraid to open it. Thankfully Elizabeth comes home, takes one look, and tells him he's being an idiot as she rushes for a pair of scissors.
It's a beautiful set of Italian dishware, handmade in Firenze, and Peter nearly has a heart attack until Elizabeth pulls out the gift receipt thoughtfully tucked away amongst them.
A familiar script has scrawled, For Peter's blood pressure, and peace of mind. on the back.
There's also a sloppy (and cheeky, and welcome) Love, Neal. XOXO below it.
And a package of Italian roast, tied with a ribbon.
It doesn't fill the Neal-shaped empty place in his heart, but it helps. It helps a lot.
- - -
Peter should rephrase that. When he says Neal doesn't call, he means, Neal doesn't call for a month.
He's lounging on the couch, Elizabeth making pasta in the kitchen, when the phone rings. "Honey, can you get it?" he calls without looking up from the paper.
"Get it yourself, Peter."
Peter grins (it was worth a try) and reaches over to snag the phone. "Burke residence."
"Elizabeth told you to get it yourself, huh?"
Peter sits up so fast he almost knocks over the coffee table. "Neal?"
He hears a huge gasp from the kitchen, and dishes clatter as Elizabeth scrambles for the extension. "Neal!"
Neal laughs, the sound achingly familiar, and Peter feels a little dizzy for a second. "Miss me?"
"Only a lot." Elizabeth comes into the living room, sitting down next to Peter and wordlessly gripping his hand.
"Where are you?" Peter demands without thinking about it. He doesn't mean it in a so I can come find you and drag you home where you belong way, more of a just curious way, but it comes out kind of wrong. And at any rate, there will always be some element of the former in Peter's interactions with Neal. It's just how things are.
"Oh, now, that would be telling, Peter." Neal sounds like he's enjoying this. Peter would smack him, if he weren't so far away.
Elizabeth pats his cheek soothingly as Peter presses a hand to his face in mock-despair. "He's just jealous, Neal."
Peter snorts. "Please. Living a life of leisure jet-setting around the world? Does any part of that sound like I'd enjoy it?"
"Hey. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it," Neal says. His voice is distant, with that weird staticky whoosh that overseas phone calls get all the time.
"Neal, are you on the beach?" Peter asks in disbelief.
"It's gorgeous, Peter," Neal says dreamily, and now that he's listening for it Peter can hear seagulls. "I wish you could see it."
"Me, too," Elizabeth sighs, leaning against Peter. He lies back against the couch, pulling her halfway on top of him, and she rests her head on his chest, both of them still pressing the phones tightly to their ears. "Neal, come home. It's so quiet without you."
Neal exhales heavily, regretfully. "Not yet, El."
Peter briefly wonders when Neal picked up that nickname, then just as quickly decides he doesn't care. If there's anyone that he won't mind calling her that, it's Neal. "Still too many sights to see?" he says lightly, trying not to dwell on Neal's words, trying not to ask the then, when? that's hovering on his tongue.
He laughs, and oh, Peter misses that sound. Neal's laughed more in the past few minutes of phone conversation than he used to in months. Peter feels like a collector, sometimes, of the rare and priceless artifacts that are Neal Caffrey's unguarded moments. "Something like that." Neal sighs, a deep, contented sound, and suddenly Peter knows with absolute certainty that Neal is the happiest he's been in a long time.
"Don't be a stranger," Peter says finally. He doesn't want to pressure him to come home--not now, not when he sounds so happy--but he misses him. He does.
"I won't," Neal says swiftly. "I promise."
"Our door's always open to you," Peter adds, knowing it's understood but needing to say it anyway.
Neal laughs. "I know. Listen, I've got to go, but--take care, Peter, Elizabeth."
"Bye, Neal," Elizabeth says softly, and Neal's end of the line goes dead.
Peter lets out a long breath, and despite the warmth of his wife, he suddenly feels very lonely.
Elizabeth looks up at him, her eyes a curious mix of warmth and sadness. "He sounds happy."
"He does," Peter admits with a sigh. "Happier than he ever was here."
El tilts her head. "I don't think that's true," she says after a long moment, leaning back against her husband's chest. They're quiet for a long, reflective moment, then Elizabeth says, "You really miss him, don't you, Peter?"
He thinks about it, and his eyes drift shut. He's tired. Everything's harder without Neal around. "I think," he says finally, "that I've had Neal Caffrey in my life for so long that I literally don't know what to do without him."
She sits up, then, and studies his face for a long moment. Wordlessly, she kisses him, and Peter feels better.
- - -
Postcards begin to filter into their mailbox, a new one every few weeks. Peter knows Neal won't send them anything until he's long gone from wherever, but it's quite the gesture, from him, to not only leave a trail but send it right to Peter.
Elizabeth came home from the craft store the day after Neal's sixth postcard came with a cork board and a box of colorful tacks. They've started a sort of collage with Neal's letters--amazing things, really. Italy, Argentina, Morocco, Greece--he's hopping continents, and Peter wonders if it's a whim or reflex that keeps him running even when he's free.
Peter takes them down every now and then to reread the notes--he's made a career out of deciphering Neal Caffrey; it's nice to have fresh samples on his hands.
Dear Elizabeth and Peter--
Have you ever been to Greece? Time stops here, I think. It's always sunny and warm, so beautiful it's surreal. And the history, the art--it's amazing. I copied a few busts the other day, just to keep my hand in--stop looking at me like that, Peter--maybe I'll send them along.
I miss you. I'll call soon.
Love, Neal. XOXO
That postcard had come tucked inside a packet of papers--sketches, of trees and villas and tumbling ruins--no busts, to Peter's relief, though his heart did skip a beat when he found a charcoal self-portrait slipped into the mix.
Neal's hair is growing out. Peter likes it.
Elizabeth didn't comment on the hair, but Peter knows she approves. She had Neal's sketches framed, and hung the landscapes throughout the house. The self-portrait, she hung over the bureau in their bedroom.
Peter talks to him sometimes when a tough case is bothering him, or he needs his friend's advice on something. He knows Neal so well that it's easy for him to imagine the other half of the conversation, and that usually frees something in his head. (It's more than a little ridiculous, he knows. He doesn't really care.)
One day, he's lying on his bed, feeling particularly lonely--Elizabeth's in San Francisco, and Satchmo's sulking because Peter had actually wanted to eat his own sandwich for a change. His eyes fall on Neal's sketch, and he purses his lips, really not wanting to be so pathetic that he's talking to a picture. Again.
"Boy, I bet you'd love this," he grumbles. "Can't wait to tell you."
As if on cue, his cell phone rings. Peter lifts it to his ear, hoping it's Elizabeth saying she hates San Francisco and is on the first flight home--
"Did you like the sketches?"
He closes his eyes and leans back, grinning. "Hello, Neal."
"Hey, Peter. Elizabeth home?"
"She's in California."
"Damn," Neal says. He actually sounds a little upset. "It's more fun talking to you both."
"You could always call back," Peter points out, and actually has to wonder for a moment if he'll have Diana tap his phone or not. He does want to know where Neal is--the last time he cared this much, Neal had just stolen a priceless da Vinci sketch from under his nose and Peter had broken half the things in his hotel room out of frustration--but for some reason, it feels more important that Neal want to tell him himself.
"Nice try, Peter." Neal's amused. "You going to have Diana tap it?"
Peter exhales heavily. "No," he says, and means it. "No, I won't."
"Nice of you." From Neal's end, Peter can hear the unmistakeable sound of a huge crowd of people, and for a moment he wonders if Neal's in New York again. The surge of excitement he gets from even the thought worries him, a little.
"So where are you this time?" It's worth a try, Peter thinks, even if Neal won't answer him.
Neal snorts. "I can tell you where I'm not, anymore," he says, a smile in his voice. "Belize."
Peter sits bolt upright. "Neal, did you break into the villa we stayed in?" He should be furious, he knows. But instead he's almost vaguely impressed. Neal has corrupted him.
Neal makes an "eh" kind of noise that usually accompanies that rocking "kinda" hand motion. "They let me in."
"After you conned them."
"I have to keep--"
"Your hand in, I know."
"Peter," he says in an injured tone, that you insult me little lilt that he always pulls. "You're not gonna want me anymore if I'm no good."
Peter feels an I'll always want you on the tip of his tongue, but there's no way that would come out right. "You were pretty good after four years of prison," he says instead. "I think you'll be fine in your skill set without needing to practice."
Then he actually realizes what Neal said.
A warm feeling that he can't put a name to fills his chest. "You still want to--"
"Why not? I mean--" There's a pause, and he can hear Neal swallow. "If you'll still--"
"Yeah!" Too eager. Smooth, Burke.
It's simultaneously one of the warmest and most excruciatingly awkward silences of his life.
Finally, Neal says lightly, "So where did you hang the picture of me?"
Peter casts wildly around for a lie. "Kitchen."
He rolls his eyes. Dammit, Neal. "All right, I'll give you a hint. I'm looking at it right now."
Neal thinks for a moment. "I can't hear cars, so you're not outside. You're not in the living room. No running water, so not the bathroom or the kitchen. No Satchmo, so not downstairs--" Neal breaks off, an incredulous silence forming as Peter shrivels and dies of embarrassment inside. Then he laughs, sounding delighted. "You put it in the bedroom?"
"Elizabeth hung it over the bureau, I didn't--"
"Do you talk to me?" Neal asks, more excited than he was when those stupid college kids spent a week on his life and times. "Do you pretend I'm there when you can't break a case?"
Peter rubs the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "I knew this was a terrible--"
"Do you stare longingly at my face? How do you like the new hair?"
"I'm hanging up this phone right now."
He hears Neal practically choking on laughter as he hits "end".
He does not, however, move the sketch. El would kill him.
- - -
"Boss, is that Neal?"
Peter glances up from the file he's reading. "Huh?"
Diana nods to the small square tucked in the corner of the picture frame on Peter's desk. "That."
Peter freezes. "No," he tries, grabbing for it, but Diana's faster and snags the whole frame from his desk.
She stares at it for a moment, then to Peter's surprise, laughs, taking the little photo out and checking the back. "Oh, that's cute."
He flushes. "Give me that," he mutters, half-standing and grabbing it back. Elizabeth's picture is sharing space with a single frame cut from one of those photo booth strips--Neal, with his sly grin, waving. The Japanese characters on the back wall are the only clue to his location--that, and the scribble on the back. Hope you like these. Tokyo's crowded, I had to wait forever for this booth.
Peter slips the photo back into the front corner of the frame and sets it back in its place, feeling curiously defensive. "Don't say anything," he warns Diana.
But she's smiling, and all she says is, "He only sent you one picture?"
Peter half-shrugs. Diana doesn't really need to know that the rest of the photo strip is tacked to Elizabeth's corkboard collage at home, next to the paper crane it had come with: Neal with a new hat, Neal blowing them a kiss, Neal holding up a sheet of paper that reads Love from Japan. XOXO, Neal.
- - -
He's been running on bagels and coffee for...going on ten hours now, and Peter is ready to crack.
Money launderers should not be this much trouble. How could the surveillance detail have been so stupid as to lose them? Oh, heads were going to roll for this--
His cell phone rings. Peter doesn't look away from his map of the city (possible safe houses, possible drop points, possible moving routes) as he reaches for his phone and flips it open. "This is Burke."
"Ooh, I know that voice. Bad day?"
He knows that voice, too. Peter leans back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You could say that. This isn't really a good time, Neal."
"Yeah, I know, bad case. I called the house, El said you hadn't been home since last night." Neal's voice is peculiarly soothing. "Talk to me, Peter. I can help."
Peter exhales heavily, closing his eyes. He can, at that. "Money launderers. We've been on the case for almost two weeks, they're moving almost all of the dirty money in south Manhattan."
"You could say that. We were doing fine until some idiot--" Peter hurls the words out of his open office door, feeling some small satisfaction at the tiny cringes he sees in the bullpen below. "--On the surveillance detail lost the leaders today. They're moving the money tonight and we were supposed to let them lead us to the drop site when they scoped it out today, but--"
"Some idiot," Neal fills in, sounding almost exasperated as Peter feels. "That's so sloppy." There is no greater insult from Neal Caffrey, and Peter feels marginally better. "So you guys are pulling an all-nighter trying to figure out where this is going to be?"
Peter glances through his office wall to the conference room next door. Jones is waving him in, the rest of the team drifting in for what Peter privately thinks of as a let's just bang our heads together and see what falls out session. "Yeah. I called a team meeting, we'll see what we can think up--"
"Can you put me on speakerphone?" Neal says a little too quickly, before Peter can say the I've gotta go they both know was coming. "I want to help."
Peter grins, unwinding himself from his desk chair and crossing to the door. "Don't tell me you're bored."
"Please." Neal has his I'm offended tone out again. "I spent all day exploring Beijing, Peter. Not that I'm there now," he adds hastily, "I was catching a plane. But now I'm spending the night in a very expensive hotel, and would love to see what I can do to make your life easier."
Peter rolls his eyes as he enters the conference room. "Whatever you say." He chooses not to comment on that "very expensive hotel" bit--he's done such a good job of not thinking about how Neal's financing his little world tour, he doesn't really want to start now--and plugs his cell phone into the speaker on the table. "All right, Neal, you're on speaker. Everyone, you remember Neal Caffrey."
"How could we forget," Jones drawls, and Neal laughs, genuine affection in his voice.
"Okay, guys, fill me in," he says happily. "What kind of game are we talking here?"
Peter can't help but smile as he watches his team fill Neal in on the scheme they stumbled on, Neal listening attentively and asking all those little questions none of them think to ask. He's almost forgotten how much he trusted Neal to make the impossible cases possible. Just listening to him, hearing that familiar intensity in his voice, the intrigue and excitement of a game worth playing, Peter feels--no, he knows that they're going to solve this. Neal will solve this.
"No, they're not going to want to move out of their comfort zone," Neal is saying, correcting one of the Harvard kids' assumptions, Peter's sure. "This is an established racket, they're going to stay where they know." He pauses, thinks for a moment. "The one. Sorenson. He's a banker, right?"
"Yeah," Peter answers, glancing at the file. "We think that's how they're--"
"Getting the clean cash, yeah." Neal finishes his sentence without seeming to think about it, his voice thoughtful. "What bank?"
Jones rattles off the name, but Peter's staring at the phone, wishing he could see through it and see Neal, see the gleam in his blue eyes as he neatly unravels this case Peter's been smashing his head against for a week.
"There's an abandoned warehouse two blocks from his bank," Neal says suddenly, and Peter snaps his fingers at one of the guys to get him a map. "They'll move there."
"No," Diana disagrees, shaking her head at the phone. "Caffrey, we checked it, it's too unprotected--"
"It's only a temporary drop. The money will be gone by tomorrow morning, they can afford a dozen guns to cover the place until then." Neal sounds absolutely sure. "And it's easy to get lost in. I hid there for about six hours once when I was trying to lose a tail, and--"
"Do not finish that sentence," Peter orders, not looking up from his map.
"Sorry, Peter." Neal's not even pretending to sound apologetic. "But that's where your money's going."
"It fits," Peter confirms, turning the map around so the table at large can see it. "Well, you all heard the man, why are you still here?" There's a flurry of movement as the team jumps up, heads out, and Peter unplugs his phone and lifts it back to his ear, grinning broadly. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around, Caffrey."
"Ha-hah," Neal says humorlessly, his tone growing serious. "Listen, Peter--be careful. I wasn't kidding when I said it's easy to get lost in there."
He nods. "I will be."
"Do." Neal sounds a little worried, and Peter wishes he were here. Busting bad guys without him...it's never felt quite right. "Bring your sidearm. And if it turns into a shootout, promise you'll--"
"Neal." Peter smiles. "I'll be okay."
"Okay." Neal does not sound reassured. "Good luck, Peter. Be safe."
- - -
He gets home six hours later, exhausted and elated. It went down exactly like Neal said it would--except for the shootout, which never actually came down to shots fired. Though the sidearm had come in useful all the same.
It's getting on to eleven at night--which wouldn't be the latest he'd been out at work, if not for the fact that he'd been there for almost twenty-four hours. Peter's careful not to be too loud as he opens the door--in case El's sleeping, not that she usually does when he's out on a case. But neither El nor Satchmo greets him at the door, and Peter's more than a little perplexed.
Then he hears the voices upstairs. Elizabeth's--and a man's voice, a little tinny and scratchy, like a phone on speaker.
Peter smiles, and climbs the stairs very, very quietly.
"...Know what you mean," El is saying, laughing, and the bedroom door is cracked just enough that Peter can see her, lying on their bed. Satchmo's curled up next to her, and Elizabeth's phone is resting on the pillow next to her head. Peter takes a moment to just enjoy the scene--the two of them, waiting up for him--and then he realizes they're talking about him. "Honey, you know he's not good at feelings."
"Some feelings he's just fine with," Neal says, his voice warm with laughter, too. "Did either of us ever tell you about the first time we met face-to-face?"
"Ooh, no," El says eagerly, sitting closer to the phone. "When was this?"
"He'd been on my trail for about a year, and finally he ran me down in San Francisco," Neal begins, and Peter knows what story Neal is telling. Oh, no. Not one of his better moments, he'd thought, but apparently it made an impression on Neal. "I was at a gallery, of course, being Nick--"
"I like Nick," El teases him, propping her chin up on her hand.
"Yeah? I do, too. He's a classy guy. Anyway, I'm Nick, right, sizing up my mark, and then all of the sudden behind me I hear--" Hidden behind the door, Peter mouths the words, shaking his head. "'Well, Mr. Caffrey, fancy seeing you here.'"
"Oh, no," Elizabeth groans, laughing. "Blew your cover?"
"Completely." Neal doesn't sound all that upset, though. "And so I turn around, and there is FBI Special Agent Peter Burke, smirking at me. He thinks he's got me. But I play it cool, because I've got four different escape routes out of this gallery, and I already know I run faster than him. So I reply, 'Hello, Agent Burke. Have you seen the manuscripts they have here? I heard they're from Antioch.'"
It still makes Peter's blood boil to hear that, but Elizabeth lets out a peal of laughter. "Neal! That's like teasing Eliot Ness about how long it took him to catch Al Capone."
"He'd just blown my cover, I was little pissed. Anyway, you'll never guess what he said."
Peter smiles to himself. This, he was proud of.
Neal's voice lowers, and Peter loves the intensity in his tone. "He looks me in the eye, smiles, and says, 'I'll see you swing, Caffrey.'"
Elizabeth lets out a little sigh, pressing a hand to her breast. "Oh. Mmm."
Neal laughs a little shakily. "You're telling me. I dreamed about that for a month. Didn't stop running for one, either. Our Peter's a little terrifying."
"And gorgeous," El adds.
"Especially when he's being terrifying."
Peter flushes. He's eavesdropped long enough on this conversation, he decides, and raps on the door with his knuckles before sticking his head in. "You two aren't talking about me, are you?"
Elizabeth gasps, leaping up and running to him. "Peter!" She throws her arms around him and kisses him, and Peter hears Neal's sigh on the speaker.
His partner's voice is tense with relief on the other end of the phone. "Are you okay? How did it go?"
"Just like you said it would," Peter tells him, sitting down next to the phone with his wife in his arms.
"Naturally." Neal's tired underneath his cocky edge, and Peter frowns at the clock.
"Neal, what time is it wherever you are?"
Neal makes a noncommittal sort of noise.
"Neal." Elizabeth glares at the phone.
He groans. "Going on four in the morning?"
Peter has to smile as he flops back against his pillow, bouncing the phone slightly, his head next to Neal's voice. "You waited up for me."
"I couldn't sleep."
Elizabeth lays down on the other side of the pillow so the phone's between them, twining her fingers in Peter's on the covers. "Can you sleep now?"
There's static on the phone as Neal lets out a breath. "Yeah. Think so." His voice is soft, and he already sounds sleepy. "Goodnight, Burkes."
"Goodnight, Neal," Elizabeth says gently.
"Goodnight, Neal," Peter echoes (and for a strange moment, wishes Neal were here so he could say it in person).
He's long suspected Neal Caffrey can read his mind. So Peter's only a little surprised when Neal mumbles, "Wish you were here," before the line clicks dead.
Elizabeth looks sadly at the phone for a moment, then sits up and looks at her husband. Her tone is suddenly businesslike. "Peter, we need to talk about what's going to happen when Neal gets home."
Peter frowns at her. "What do you mean, when Neal gets home?"
Elizabeth gives him a pitying look. "Oh, Peter. Honey, I know you're not really that clueless."
Peter rolls over, covering his eyes with his hand. He's exhausted and really doesn't want to be talking about whatever confused feelings he has for Neal Caffrey right now. "El--"
She holds up a hand, understanding, and leans over and kisses him. "Okay. We don't have to talk about it now."
"Thank you," Peter sighs. He's already starting to fall asleep, just lying here, his wife next to him (and Neal an ocean away--even tired, Peter can add time zones together; Neal has a safe house in London, and with five hours difference, Peter's fairly sure he has to be there).
"Just..." Elizabeth settles down next to him, and neither of them are getting out of their clothes tonight. They're going to fall asleep right here. "Just don't leave Neal hanging. He's going to follow your lead, Peter."
"He always does," Peter murmurs, and drifts into sleep.
- - -
The postcard from Paris comes to the office, in Peter's business mail. He's lucky he didn't have one of the probies pick up his mail, he thinks as he sits down at his desk; the XOXO Neal that Neal always scrawls at the bottom of his notes might have been hard to explain.
He smiles at the picture for a moment--it's not the usual Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe, but a tiny, narrow street full of cafes and antique shops, and it's so perfectly Neal--and then flips it over. Neal's usually smooth writing is jerky, bumpy, and Peter has to squint to make out the message.
Sorry for the mess, I'm on a train.
This is going to be my last letter, I think--it's been fun, but I guess we all have to grow up sometime.
And then it's smudged, water damaged and washed out, the ink running because it's a stupid postcard and would it kill Neal to write an actual letter with a damn envelope for once, and Peter can't make out anything but "I", with an apostrophe, and "so" and then a lot of smudges that might have an s, and an o, and maybe an r, and the simple Love, Neal at the bottom. No Xs or Os. Just Love, Neal.
Tell Elizabeth I'm so sorry?
Peter has to read it a few times before he accepts that he is holding this postcard in his hands, that it is in Neal's writing, and that it's real.
And that he's furious. And upset. And did he mention furious?
Neal really had him going this time. If he wasn't going to come back, he could have just said so, stringing them along like this for months is just cruel--
Something burns in the back of his throat and Peter has to put the postcard down, resting his elbows on his desk and pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. Damn it. Damn him.
He jerks upright, pretending he was just rearranging his files or rubbing out a headache or anything that's not what he was really doing. "Yeah, Diana?" His voice is rough. He hates himself.
He dares a glance up, and she's standing in the doorway, confused and a little concerned, a folder held a little out from her body. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm fine. That the case file?"
She hands it over, and her eyes fall on the postcard. "Is that--"
"No." And he grabs it off his desk and crams it into his briefcase. Maybe later he'll take it out, and stare at it, and try to find a different meaning than the plainly obvious one--but right now he just wants to forget Neal Caffrey ever existed.
He doesn't tell Elizabeth. He can't. It'll kill her. "Just a bad day," he says when she asks, over dinner that night.
"Honey, don't lie to me." Elizabeth reaches over and covers his hand with hers, trying to get him to look at her. "What is it? You look awful."
He shakes his head, taking his hand away. "Just leave it, El." Even if he wanted to tell her, what could he say? That Neal--his Neal, their Neal--decided freedom was more important than him? That he's just upset because something he was always afraid would happen actually did? That he's been angry and distracted and depressed all day because he feels like Neal Caffrey tore his heart out and stepped on it?
No. Of course he can't.
She's silent for a long moment, then leans over and kisses his forehead. Peter's throat burns again, and he closes his eyes. "I love you," El says, taking his hand again.
"I love you, too."
- - -
It's been three days since Neal's postcard came, and Peter has been living in his own private hell. He can't keep things from Elizabeth. It kills him. But Neal's postcard is stuffed at the bottom of his briefcase and it's not coming out until Peter is one hundred percent sure that he's not going to break down when he tells El. He's not even close to fifty percent yet.
It's gonna be a while, he thinks as he heads home, letting the Taurus do most of his driving (he deliberately pushes thoughts of Neal nagging about his terrible driving out of mind). It might not ever happen.
The blinds are still closed in the living room, he notes as he pulls up, which means El's not home yet. He's ashamed that he's grateful. Every minute he doesn't see El is one more minute that he doesn't have to lie to her.
Satchmo's not waiting for him at the window, Peter notices as he unlocks the door. Great. Even his dog doesn't want him anymore. And his key's sticking. This week is terrible. It's all Neal's fault.
Finally the door opens, and Peter slams it behind him as he enters. He drops his coat and briefcase on the couch, too tired to put either away right now, and his gaze lingers on the briefcase, wishing he could see through it to Neal's postcard. He's read it fifty times. Every time he hopes it'll say something different.
"So, you lied to me."
Peter's head comes up sharply.
Neal Caffrey is sitting at his kitchen table.
Is sitting at his table.
Neal's here, with his charcoal suit and blue tie and silver tie bar and his hat on the table and Peter's dog curled around his legs and his hair and his eyes and his smile.
Neal is smiling at him and Peter doesn't know what to say.
"Did I?" he says finally.
Neal nods, pointing at the lock on the door. "You said your door would always be open to me. I had to pick that."
"You--" Peter doesn't have words. He does not have words. He is completely confused and completely elated and he really should be furious at the man (for leaving, for making Peter think he wasn't coming back, for picking the lock on his damn door) but Neal is here and that makes everything else irrelevant. "Why are you here?" he manages to ask, staring at him. "Your postcard said you'd--"
"Yeah, sorry it took so long," Neal apologizes, grinning up at him. "I had to tie up some loose ends before I flew back to the States--"
Peter holds up a hand. "Shut up. The postcard. I thought you weren't coming home." Now he's angry. Neal thinks he can jerk him around like that? No. Peter has been in hell for three days. Neal can't just waltz into his house and fix it all with his smiles and his eyes.
Neal frowns. "Peter, what are you talking about?"
Peter mouths wordlessly at him for a moment, then turns and digs the damn thing out of his briefcase, crossing to the table and throwing it down. "That. Right there. Tell Elizabeth I'm sorry? What did you think I'd--"
And Neal laughs. He actually laughs. He is laughing at Peter and Peter is going to kill him. "That's what you thought it said?"
Peter takes a deep, steadying breath. "Yes," he says through his teeth.
Neal shakes his head, staring at the postcard, then looks up at Peter and smiles. "Peter," he recites, "Sorry for the mess, I'm on a train. This is going to be my last letter, I think--it's been fun, but I guess we all have to grow up sometime." His smile widens. "Tell Elizabeth I'll see you soon." His eyes are warm and bright and bluer than Peter remembered them being. "Love," he finishes, pushing his chair back and rising to his feet, on a level with Peter now, "Neal."
Peter stares at him, that second meaning he'd been so desperately searching for now obviously, painfully apparent.
Well, he feels like an idiot.
"I'll see you soon," he repeats, staring at Neal.
Neal is impossibly gorgeous when he smiles like that.
Peter lets out a breath that might be a laugh, joy swelling in his chest as his eyes roam over Neal, taking in his face, his eyes, the minute differences that six months stamp on a person. "It's been a while," Peter says finally.
Neal nods gravely, his eyes alight as he traces them over Peter, studying his face. Up close, Neal looks a little nervous. "Yeah. Six months, give or take."
And he can't hold it in anymore. Peter grins. "Hi, Neal."
Neal beams at him. "Hello, Peter."
And Peter laughs and reaches for him, one hand closing on his tie and yanking him forward. Neal's hands hit his chest and Peter's other hand comes up to frame his jaw and he's kissing Neal, and Neal makes a tiny sound in his throat and leans into him and kisses him back, and Peter has been waiting for this moment for six months.
It's even better than he thought it would be. Neal's fingers are clenched in his shirt, and Neal's hair is smooth under his fingers, and Neal's five o'clock shadow is scraping his chin, and he smells like expensive cologne and tastes like coffee and is here, not in Belize or Tokyo or London but New York, in Peter's dining room, in Peter's arms.
"I missed you," Neal whispers, and Peter rests his forehead on Neal's and breathes him in. He's here. He's home.
The door opens and closes behind him. "Peter, you're home early--" Elizabeth stops dead in the doorway, and Peter and Neal break apart, Peter turning to her with a smile.
"Hey, Elizabeth," Neal says a little breathlessly, and El's hands fly to her mouth.
She throws her purse and coat down and dashes across the room to them. Neal snatches her up into a hug, and she laughs with delight as she throws her arms around him. Neal actually lifts her off the ground with the force of his embrace, and he's certainly stayed in shape over his vacation, Peter thinks. El laughs again, beaming down at him, and she frames his face with her hands and kisses him enthusiastically. Neal seems only pleasantly startled, and Peter wonders if they'd talked about this without him. He doesn't mind, not with these results. They're a beautiful sight together, with El's hair brushing Neal's cheek and his lips moving gently on hers, both of them radiating happiness and affection when they finally break apart. "Oh, Neal, oh, sweetie, you're home," she laughs, holding him tightly as he sets her down with infinite care. "Peter, he's home!"
"I know," Peter says, leaning against his table and watching El and Neal smile at each other. He's grinning, too. Like an idiot. He can't help it. "Took him long enough."
Neal shrugs, looking back at him. "Had to know what I was giving up." The tone's achingly casual, but his eyes aren't.
Peter processes that little statement, the implicit declaration. His eyes narrow, his head tilting slightly, and a slower, even wider smile spreads across his face. "Oh," he says.
Neal stops himself from rolling his eyes with obvious difficulty, and Peter's reminded of the last time he saw Neal do that, at the airport when he was leaving. Full circle, he thinks dryly, and some things about their relationship will probably never change, despite the rather titanic tectonic shift that kiss a few moments ago had been.
Ah, hell, "titanic," who is he kidding. This shift has been coming on for so long it's more like a glacier than an earthquake.
Neal's giving him a familiar exasperated look, and Peter wonders if the obvious affection has been there the whole time, if he's only just now letting himself see it. Neal's tone is dry, but Peter knows him well enough to hear the fondness under the very real frustration. "Yes, 'oh,' you completely oblivious, feelings-backward, pathetic excuse for a--"
Peter cuts him off with another kiss, smiling despite himself, as El laughs beside him. She and Neal are still holding each other, and Peter marvels at how easily he fits into that embrace, each of them sliding an arm around him as he steps into their space.
Neal's grinning against his lips as Peter pulls away. "FBI agent," he finishes, and brushes his lips against Peter's again, twisted in a smirk though they are. Always needs the last word, that Neal Caffrey.
Peter's willing to let it go, though, just this once, and he rests his forehead against Neal's, tugging Elizabeth closer until she leans against them both. For a moment, a blessedly peaceful moment, he just stands there, holding them close, breathing in Neal and feeling El close, and he feels--not complete, not whole or any of those other stock phrases, but--
Okay, maybe complete, just a little.
"Welcome home, Neal," he murmurs, and Neal smiles up at him.
"It's good to be back," he says, and for the first time since he's known him, Peter believes him unreservedly.