The car can't go fast enough. Every revolution of the wheels just makes Reebin's words echo in Peter's ears again – "It's your fault my girl's dead, Burke, my little girl. I'm gonna make you feel the way I feel and I'm gonna do it today."
As the car pulls up to the house, Peter's heart jumps – there's Reebin's truck in the driveway, and the front door is hanging off of its hinges.
"Elizabeth!" Peter calls, sprinting out of the car. He has no plan, he doesn't even know for sure Elizabeth's home – she didn't answer the phone when he called – but he'll bash Reebin's head in with his bare hands if that's what it takes to protect Elizabeth.
He hears a woman's scream, and Reebin shouting, and he bursts into the house just in time to catch a glimpse of Reebin standing over Elizabeth with a baseball bat, about to swing – Peter knows there's no way he's going to make it in time—
A gunshot rings out.
Reebin freezes, and his eyes fly wide. He makes a sick gasping noise, then collapses to the floor in front of Elizabeth, and behind him is Neal, holding a gun in an unpracticed grip, and looking almost as shocked as the man he just shot through the heart.
"I was upstairs," Neal says numbly. "Trying to find—I don't remember. It was for June. Elizabeth picked me up from—we were going to make lunch. I don't—I don't like guns," he whispers. He looks at the one in his hand and drops it on the couch like it's a poisonous snake. "I'm not a gun guy," he repeats, still staring at what looks a lot like one of Peter's service weapons.
Peter rushes over to Elizabeth, who looks shaken, but assures him that she's fine as emergency personnel pour into the room and make a beeline for Reebin, lying still on the floor.
"Where did you get the gun, Neal?" Peter asks.
"I know the combination to your gun safe," Neal replies absently. "Is he—is he dead?"
The tired-looking woman who'd been crouched by Reebin's side sits back on her heels and snaps off her blue latex gloves, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand and shooting Peter a look that answers Neal's question better than words could. Neal flinches violently and folds his body down onto the couch next to the gun, eyes blank.
NYPD and FBI start to pour into the room. They stop short, staring, and Peter forces himself to look at his living room objectively, like it's the scene of a crime.
Objectively, there's a dead man on the floor, and a convicted felon a foot away from the gun that killed him, with the FBI agent who owns said gun, and said agent's wife, huddled on the floor too far away and at the wrong angle. There's no ambiguity about who shot Reebin. And that's a problem.
"Reebin was standing over Elizabeth with a baseball bat," Peter says urgently. "I wasn't fast enough. Neal saved her life."
"I'm willing to give Caffrey the benefit of the doubt on this one," Agent Jezewski says, as NYPD secures the scene and techs pour into the room, congregating around the body. "But there's a process, Burke. You know that."
"Wow, exactly where I didn't want to end up again," Neal observes, looking around the visiting room.
"It's not exactly the same," Peter says. "It's still prison, but at least it's a different prison than before." He's trying for something like their usual banter, trying to be reassuring, but from the look on Neal's face, he's not in the mood.
"In Supermax, I had my own cell," Neal counters. "In Supermax, I had contacts, a reputation." His voice is heated, and he looks impatient with Peter's forced cheerfulness. Peter's just grateful that most of the shell-shocked look has finally faded from Neal's eyes – in the days since he killed Reebin, Neal's been in some kind of fugue state, worrying the hell out of Peter, but something about being back in prison seems to have snapped him out of it.
"The hearing will be in two weeks, and then you'll be out again," Peter says, putting all the certainty he can muster into his voice. "It was justifiable homicide, everyone will testify to that, Reebin was a clear and present danger. You didn't have a choice about shooting him."
"How's Elizabeth?" Neal asks, in a blatant attempt to change the subject.
Someday, when Neal gets out of here, Peter's going to make him talk about killing Reebin – to a shrink, if nobody else – but for now, he lets him get away with it.
"She's good," he replies, smiling. "Mad as hell, but good. Thanks to you."
Neal shrugs, looking a little pleased but mostly uncomfortable. "Why is she mad as hell?"
Peter waves a hand in a gesture that he hopes encompasses both Neal's presence in prison and the injustice of same – he'd try to repeat one of Elizabeth's rants, but there's this thing she does with flashing eyes and pursed lips that Peter doesn't think he could ever learn to reproduce in a million years.
"Oh," Neal says, looking surprised, as if it hadn't occurred to him that the woman whose life he saved might be grateful, and concerned on his behalf.
"It's a little bit like having a very short, very beautiful fire-breathing dragon storming around the house," Peter says, and this time, Neal is willing to smile.
"I don't think I said thank you," Peter starts, unsure where to go from there, but Neal shakes his head.
"Just get me out of here," he says, then tilts his head sideways, and adds, "again," with a twist of a smile. "That's all the thanks I need."
"This makes me so mad," Elizabeth declares, as Neal sits down at the table with her, dressed in his bright orange coveralls.
"Elizabeth!" He sounds pleasantly surprised. "I wasn't expecting to see you."
She can tell he means it, too, and that just makes her madder.
"I shouldn't have to come visit you," she tells him, heat underneath her words. "You saved my life. You should be a hero. You are a hero."
He looks more amused than anything. "I'm really not," he says. "I have many excellent qualities, no doubt about that – chief among them, that I'm smart as hell, and that I look terrific in a three-piece suit – but heroism is not one of them, trust me."
"You saved my life," Elizabeth insists, and Neal smiles.
"Yes, but I like you," he says. Elizabeth can't help being pleased at how matter-of-factly he says it. "That's why I did it. Not because it was the right thing to do. I liked you, I didn't care either way about—about Ree—the man who was going to hurt you; it was pretty simple."
"Easy, huh," Elizabeth prods softly.
"Easy," Neal agrees, with something like steel in the back of his eyes.
"So easy you can't say his name." She watches him carefully.
"Reebin," he says quickly and smoothly. "His name was Gus Reebin, and I shot him at point-blank range, and I'm actually fine with that, Elizabeth."
"Uh-huh. And can you say that without your con face on?"she asks evenly.
He meets her eyes steadily. "I don't have a 'con face,' Elizabeth. If I did, Peter would have caught me a long time ago. If you're not good enough to teach yourself to believe that the truth is what you need it to be, you're not good enough to play the game. And I play to win, Elizabeth."
He's leaning forward, his posture intent, with his arms moved up to rest on the table. Before, they'd been in his lap; now that his arms are in view, Elizabeth can see the deep purple bruise that's wrapped around his left wrist, and she can't help but gasp.
"That's… a big bruise," she says – not her finest conversational effort, but in her defense, it really is quite a large, dark bruise, and it looks pretty nasty.
Neal shrugs. "Prison," he says wryly. "Full of pageant queens, Boy Scouts, fluffy bunnies, and Nobel Peace Prize nominees."
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth says softly.
"Not your fault," Neal tells her, shaking his head and smiling a little. "Just don't let Peter throw all my hats away while I'm in here. I know he's been tempted."
"Time's up, ma'am," the guard says to Elizabeth.
She stands up, and tries to hug Neal, but the guard clears his throat and politely reminds her that physical contact isn't allowed, and then she's mad again.
"When you get out of here, I am giving you the biggest hug you can possibly imagine," she informs him.
"I'll look forward to it," he promises. "Don't forget about the hats!" he calls after her as she walks unwillingly away.
"Elizabeth seems to think you're holding up pretty well in here," Peter says idly. He looks at Neal sharply. "Want to tell me how it really is? That's quite the shiner you've got there, and I notice you're hiding your hands and arms under the table."
Neal shrugs. "What do you want me to say, Peter? I'm actually a fairly infamous person, and thanks to Bertelli the dog-loving mobster, everyone in this place knows I work for the FBI now. I'm like the chocolate truffle of things convicts love to hate: crunchy outer shell of 'snitch' and 'traitor,' with a tasty, gooey 'cop' center hidden inside."
Peter knows that the thought of what happens to cops in prison has kept more law enforcement officers on the straight and narrow than any fine, suspension or expulsion ever could.
"That's a hell of a simile," he says.
"If I were a child molester, too, I could have the hat trick, three-in-one," Neal says lightly. "Of course, if I were a child molester, I'd be dead right now. You win some, you lose some."
Neal holds up a hand and shakes his head. "If you could have gotten me out, you'd have done it by now. I can take one more week."
He grins unexpectedly, and if it weren't for the black eye, it might even be convincing.
"What breaks my heart are these… I hesitate to call them clothes; let's go with uniforms. I mean, don't get me wrong, orange is very much my color – it makes my eyes look stunning – but the tailoring is abysmal, and the silhouette is pretty desperately unflatt—"
There's an edge of nerves and maybe even desperation under Neal's usual patter, so Peter just lets him talk until it's time to go.
Before he leaves, Peter puts a hand on Neal's shoulder and asks awkwardly, "If—if something was—if it was really bad, you would tell me, right?"
"Of course I would, Peter," Neal lies smoothly – when he sees Peter flinch, Neal's slight smile fades into cynicism, and he says, "Life's too short to do useless things, Peter. Especially in here. Give my love to Elizabeth."
He walks away without looking back, and Peter very carefully doesn't throw his briefcase across the room, or snap at the guard, or do any of the other pointless things that might make him feel a little less powerless.
Before she visited Neal three days ago, Elizabeth had never seen the inside of a prison – she sincerely hopes that, after the hearing, she never will again. It is as grey and institutional as she'd always imagined, and everyone looks at everyone else with a kind of dull suspicion. Her belongings are searched, her IDs scrutinized – she understands why it's important, but it makes her feel like she's a criminal herself. Of course, for all these people know, she could be.
Outside the visiting room, she takes a deep breath, and puts those thoughts away. She's here to see Neal, and he doesn't need her to tell him how awful this place is. He knows better than she does.
Smiling is easy – she is genuinely happy to see him. Elizabeth walks through the door, beaming, and stops dead. Very slowly and carefully she sits down across from him at the table.
"Peter told me you were doing okay," she says calmly. "I'm going to kick his ass."
Neal looks like a war refugee in an orange jumpsuit – he has a black eye, and other bruises along his jaw and his neck. When Elizabeth looks down at his arms, she can see a red and angry-looking scratch down the whole length of his right forearm and even more bruises on his wrists. He's holding himself like it hurts him to sit upright.
"To be fair to Peter," Neal replies, "I didn't look this bad when he was here. Most of these are… recent."
"That black eye is green around the edges," Elizabeth observes, and Neal grimaces.
"He should have told you about the black eye," he allows.
"You think?" Elizabeth snaps, and Neal winces.
He sounds exhausted when he says, "Don't be mad at Peter. He just wanted to… protect you, I guess."
"What about protecting you?"
Neal looks down at his hands, clasped together. "Peter doesn't like feeling useless. I may have rubbed his nose in it when he was here."
He seems a little distracted – his eyes wander away every so often, and his head keeps sinking into his hunched shoulders. "I—Elizabeth, I'm not feeling so good today. This isn't really—a good time," he says, not meeting her eyes, and Elizabeth's brow furrows.
"Not a good time? What—you have an appointment or something?"
"It's not that," Neal says, with a smile that's too uneven to be charming – it worries her. "It's just—you know, I think maybe Peter's right. I'll see you in a week, at the hearing, and then we'll all hang out and play cards or something, go to the opera. Peter says you like Verdi – you have great taste. He says he took you to the opera on one of your first dates, and he got lost trying to take you home. We'll—what's playing at the Met now? Falstaff, maybe. A comedy."
His hands are unclasped now, and he's wrapped them around his upper arms as though it's cold, even though it actually feels a little too warm in here. He's not even looking at her, lost deep inside his head, and Elizabeth is reminded of something, but can't think what – something important, something bad, from long ago—
When it comes to her she shakes her head, and Neal quiets and looks over at her.
"I just think it would be best – this isn't a good place for you. I'll see you in a week, that's soon enough, and—Elizabeth?" He stops, watching her – he looks a little scared. "Elizabeth? Are you crying?"
She nods, and his face is covered with his confusion.
"It's not—you know I like you. This isn't about that, you know that—" he starts, but Elizabeth just nods again and stands up. She marches over to the guard waiting by the far wall and tells him, with as much dignity as she can summon with her nose stuffy and her eyes wet, "This man saved my life. That's why he's in here. He shot a man who was about to kill me. So I'm going to go sit by him now, just for a minute until it's time for me to go, and if you have a problem with that, I will become a problem for you."
She doesn't wait for his reaction, just goes to sit by Neal and wraps an arm around his shoulders.
"I remember feeling like this," she says quietly. "I'm so sorry, Neal."
"I don't know what you think you know—" Neal begins warily.
"Am I wrong?" Elizabeth asks, stroking his hair back from his face.
He looks away. "No."
He's wearing that sort of half-smile that his face defaults to when he's not sure what to feel – Elizabeth rests her head on his shoulder so he doesn't have to hide from her.
"I suppose it would be pointless—"
"To tell me to lie to Peter?" Elizabeth finishes, and Neal sighs.
"Yeah, well, I'm too short to carry all the guilt myself," she murmurs, trying to make a joke out of it.
"Not your fault. Never your fault," he whispers into her hair, kissing the top of her head. "Just think about it, please. I don't know what he'd—"
"You're wrong about Peter," she tells Neal. "You want him to love you so badly, and you think if he knows, he'll walk away." She holds up a hand to cut off Neal's automatic denial. "If it bothered me, I wouldn't be here," she says, and means it. "But… you're wrong. I know. I know because… it was a long, long time ago," she starts, then stops, not sure how to continue – it's not like she has much practice. She begins again, "When I was in coll—"
"Ma'am," the guard says, walking toward them, "I'm sorry, but your visiting time is up. I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"What?" Elizabeth whirls on him angrily. "Look, a few more minutes won't—"
"Don't, Elizabeth," Neal says, smiling that half-smile again. "It's okay. I'll see you in a couple days, I guess – or at the hearing. I won't mind either way. Kiss Peter for me," he adds, with a smile that's a little closer to real.
"That's my line," Elizabeth mutters, eyes still wet. They stand up, and she wraps her arms around him, glaring defiantly at the guard.
"See you," Neal calls as he follows the guard out of the room.
Alone, Elizabeth sits back down at the table and just breathes for a moment. If she leaves now and goes straight home, she'll have an hour to put her thoughts in order before Peter gets there.
As she walks to her car, she dials the office on her cell phone.
"Nicole? I need some personal time. I don't know how long. Just—postpone everything. No, I'm fine, Nicole."
Elizabeth unlocks the car and squares herself behind the wheel. "It's family stuff," she says.
"Honey, I'm home!" Peter calls, dropping his keys in the basket by the door and shrugging off his suit jacket. There's no answer.
"Elizabeth? Where are you?" Peter asks, starting to get a little worried, but Elizabeth calls, "In here," from the family room. By mutual agreement, they've both been avoiding the living room – if it doesn't get easier soon, Peter thinks, it'll be time to start looking for a new house.
Elizabeth is sitting in her favorite chair – a big, plush thing that Peter can't sit in without feeling claustrophobic. Her arms are wrapped around a brocade cushion, hugging it to her chest, and her face is unusually still.
Worried, Peter perches on one of the chair's puffy arms and kisses her forehead. "You okay, El?"
She leans against him, hiding her face, and asks, "Do you remember what I told you about, the night when you proposed to me? About… what happened to me in college, when—"
"Of course I remember," Peter says urgently – he doesn't think about it much now, but he remembers the mess of emotions that had crawled down his throat that night; how happy he had been that she'd said yes, how fiercely he had wanted to protect her, how helpless he had felt, knowing that he couldn't, that someone had hurt his amazing girl when he had been four states and two years away.
He takes her left hand between both of his, and rubs it as if he's trying to keep it warm – it's probably more comforting to him than to her.
"Is something—did something happen to Nicole, or Richa? Or the intern girl, uh, her name starts with a—"
"The girls at work are fine," Elizabeth says carefully, and Peter takes a deep breath.
"Is it—are you okay?" Peter can't imagine—but she nods, and says, "I'm okay, Peter."
Peter breathes out, and in, and holds her hand, and waits. He doesn't know what's wrong – only that rushing Elizabeth isn't going to make it any easier for her to tell him.
Staring at their joined hands, voice held deliberately steady, Elizabeth says, "I… went to go see Neal today, Peter."
She gives him a long look, and waits – and Peter is a very smart man.
Slowly, gingerly, Peter lowers himself to the floor, sitting at Elizabeth's feet and leaning against her shins. Mindlessly, he rolls his shirtsleeves up, like a parody of someone with a plan, someone who can fix things.
"Peter…" Elizabeth says, but she trails off, and Peter buries his head in his hands, glad that he doesn't have to put this sick, withered, burning feeling into words, or on his face.
Intellectually, Peter knows that, if he's going to blame himself for this he'd have to blame Elizabeth, too – and since this is in no way, shape, or form Elizabeth's fault, it can't really be his either. Looking at his knees from the cracks between his closed fingers, Peter's mind isn't accepting that logic.
"Peter," Elizabeth repeats, more insistently, and she runs a hand over his hair. When he looks up at her, she tells him with absolute faith, "You will get him out of there. You will. You'll do it today. I don't know how. But I know you. And you'll bring him home. Or if he doesn't want to stay here, that's fine, too. But you'll tell him that there's a place for him here – always."
She's right – Peter is getting Neal out of there, and he is doing it tonight. There is something he can do.
He stands up and places his hands on either side of Elizabeth's face, kissing her resolutely.
"I'm driving to Albany," he says. "When I come back, Neal will be with me."
"Good," Elizabeth says. "I love you. Both."
Peter nods, and pulls out his cell phone as he walks to the car.
"This is Agent Peter Burke of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – I need to see Mrs. Casper, tonight. No, just tell her my name. She'll want to talk to me. I promise you that."
Peter is shown into the kind of office that functions more as a museum piece than as a workspace – Neal would love it, Peter thinks, and clenches his fists.
Georgia Casper is seated behind the monolithic wooden desk – she stands when she sees him, and smiles like a reptile. Age has not withered her – she's still one of the most beautiful women Peter has ever seen, but the look in her eyes is ugly.
"Peter Burke. I have to say, I didn't expect ever to see you again, after last time. I believe you told me to go to hell and I told you to go fuck your own self-righteous ass. Does that sound about right?"
Peter doesn't wince – he refuses to give her the satisfaction. "You have a good memory."
Georgia spreads her fingers out on the surface of the desk and leans forward – she is exactly the predator he remembers.
"What can I do for the upright and most noble Agent Burke, this late on a Thursday night? Don't you have evildoers to vanquish?" There's a mocking sparkle in her eyes that Peter tries to ignore.
"I want to ask you a favor," he says, and she raises an intrigued eyebrow.
"That is fascinating, given that you know that I cherish my grudges like fine jewels, and that my hatred for you is the Hope Diamond of the collection. I have absolutely no reason to do anything other than spit in your face and then set you on fire, in that order."
Peter nods – he hadn't expected any different. "I know. There's a man in prison – I need him released into my custody. He's supposed to be there for another week – I'd give you the details but I know you don't care – and I was hoping that you could speak to your husband and he could make some calls."
A tiny smile curves up the corners of her red lips. "On the record, Governor Casper does not tinker with the machinery of justice. Off the record, I'm having a little trouble restraining an extremely unbecoming laugh of delight." She then laughs, of course, and Peter grits his teeth and waits for her to go on – and she will, he has no doubt about that.
"Peter Burke: the stick up his ass is the scepter with which he rules the Kingdom of the Upright and Inconvenient. Peter Burke: the Oliver Cromwell of the New York law enforcement community, toppling monarchs in his quixotic quest to impose the rule of insipid virtue and unbearable piety over all the impure. Peter Burke wants me to bend the law for him, or perhaps even break it. My flexible morals are suddenly very useful to you. It's a pity you didn't feel this way when I was Assistant District Attorney."
"I thought you might find it ironic," Peter says grimly – he's pinned all his hopes on that very outcome.
Shrewdly, Georgia corrects, "You thought I would find it ironic enough that I would give you your favor just for the piquancy of seeing you brought low, and the satisfaction of knowing that, in the end, you needed me. And you are half right."
She tosses a memo pad at him, and Peter catches it.
"Write down the details there. Your prisoner will be released before midnight. And someday, when you least expect it – when you've started to hope that I've died or forgotten all about it – I'll come calling to you. And it will be your turn to bend the law for me."
That's not the worst thing Georgia could have asked for – Peter had honestly expected worse. He would have agreed to worse. He writes down Neal's information, and thanks her, and walks out of her office as fast as he possibly can, his shoulders hunched against the sound of her laughter behind him, his skin crawling.
When Peter gets to the prison and asks for Neal, a guard escorts him up to the hospital wing, where he finds Neal lying in one of the beds, almost as white as the sheets below him.
When they're alone, Neal holds up a hand to forestall Peter's questions.
"I'm fine," he says. "I just… had to get out of there. If someone tells you I'm epileptic, just nod and smile."
Neal shrugs and looks away. "I faked a grand mal seizure. A couple of them, actually."
"You can't fake a grand mal seizure!" Peter hisses, "Especially not in front of actual medical professionals! There's—"
"You know, it's a little insulting how frequently you assume that I'm not actually any good at what I do," Neal says. "By the way, take these out with you in your pockets, would you? I'm not sure I want to find out what anticonvulsant medication would do to a healthy person."
He hands Peter a dozen or so pills, which Peter reluctantly stuffs in his pockets.
"It's a little late at night for a visit, isn't it?" Neal asks – he's watching Peter very closely.
"This isn't a visit," Peter says. "You're leaving."
Neal sits up in the bed, and his eyes are old and tired.
"Elizabeth," he says, sounding resigned. "Do I even want to know what you had to do to get me out?"
"A deal with the devil," Peter says, as lightly as he can. "I have your clothes here – as soon as you change, we can go."
"Seriously, Peter," Neal asks, holding his bag of clothes against his chest, "what did you have to sell to get me out of here?"
"Nothing I wasn't willing to lose," Peter says firmly. "Get dressed."
Armored in his suit and tie, Neal looks less like death warmed over and more like the guy Peter knows, only with the crap kicked out of him. In the car, he says abruptly, "I don't know what Elizabeth told you—"
"Nothing," Peter interrupts. "Just that she'd been to see you, and that something was wrong. Being married for ten years does that for you – half body language, half telepathy, half just knowing the other person really well."
"You've got three halves there," Neal points out.
"She didn't tell me anything, really," Peter plows onward, "so if you don't want to either, that's fine. I don't have to know. But if you want to—"
"If I want to what, Peter? Tell you the gruesome details?" Neal's face is immaculately blank, and Peter is floundering and he knows he's floundering.
"If that's what you want, then yeah," he says, hoping that's the right answer. "Or if all you want to do is get mad and yell, I can do that. Or if you'd rather talk to Elizabeth, that's fine, too."
Peter can feel Neal's eyes on him, probing, weighing, and just crosses his fingers on the wheel and hopes he hasn't screwed it all up.
"How do you feel, Peter? Right now," Neal asks, and there's a little trace of something not so distant in his voice, something Peter doesn't want to lose. He pulls over, because he's got the feeling this answer is going to need all of his attention. He doesn't try to lie, or say what he thinks Neal wants to hear. Neal can see through Peter with both eyes shut.
"At sea," he answers truthfully. "Guilty, yeah, and so mad it scares me, but mostly, just… lost. I don't know what to do, or even if there's anything I can do. I want to help, I want to fix everything, but I can't. Maybe there's nothing I can do, and that drives me crazy." He takes a deep breath and hopes Elizabeth won't mind him talking about things that aren't really his to talk about. "When it was… when it was Elizabeth, when she told me what had happened to her, I felt crazy, angry, pathetic, worthless, afraid, sad, but basically, in the broad strokes, I knew what to do, you know? I knew I was going to love her, and have a home with her, and make sure nothing like that ever happened to her again – I knew that for sure, and that's what I did, and that was the right thing to do, and I'm sure about that, too."
"But you can't do that with me," Neal says, like it's an absolute fact, and Peter takes a deep breath and isn't brave enough to look at Neal when he says, "I want to."
The silence eats all the air out of the stopped car.
"Because you feel bad for me," Neal states.
"Because I think about you all the time," Peter says, and works up the courage to turn and catch the barest hint of something vulnerable on Neal's face, before it evaporates. "But it's… it's up to you. Always. I can take you to June's now. Or home with me. Elizabeth wants to see you."
Neal sits in silence, thinking for a long moment.
"Home sounds good," he says finally. "With you."
Elizabeth meets them at the door and buries them both in one enthusiastic hug.
"I knew you could do it," she tells Peter.
"I should call June and Mozzie, let them know I'm all right," Neal mentions, and Elizabeth waves him toward the phone.
"What did you do?" El asks him.
"Georgia Casper," Peter replies shortly.
"Thank you for bringing him back home," she whispers, wrapping her arms around Peter tightly.
When Neal hangs up the phone, Elizabeth says, "I laid out some pajamas for you in the guest bedroom, and towels and a toothbrush, and—well, basically, I raided Peter's overnight bag. We have three beds in the house," she adds, meeting Neal's eyes evenly. "There's the guest bedroom, the living room fold-out, and… the master bed, where Peter and I sleep. You're welcome to any of them. We have plenty of room," she says quietly, and Neal hesitates, then nods as if he understands more than just the words she's saying.
"Thanks," he says. "I'm pretty tired, so I'm going to hit the hay. I'll close the door, so don't feel like you have to be quiet – you won't keep me up."
He walks up the stairs, and a minute later, Peter hears the door to the guest bedroom close.
"I think we need a new house, Peter," El decides that night when they're lying awake in bed.
Peter's had some thoughts in that direction himself, but he just replies, "Yeah?"
"The living room…" Elizabeth trails off, and folds herself even closer around his body. "It's stupid to have a living room we can't even look at."
"Yeah," Peter agrees.
"Also, Neal needs to be able to have his own room – the guest room is the size of a closet, and that's also where we keep the home office stuff; he needs a room that's really for him, you know?"
"El—" Peter says, unsure where to go from there, unsure what she's getting at or what blessing she might be giving.
"Well, he has June's house, of course," she says briskly, "but if he's going to be here for a while… everybody needs a space of their own, where they can get some alone time and know that they can arrange everything just the way they like it. So I think Neal needs a room of his own. If he wants to stay. He doesn't have to," she adds, more quietly, in a voice that's a little sad, and she strokes a hand down his chest anxiously.
"Elizabeth—" Peter flicks on the bedside lamp, and studies her face. "Elizabeth, I don't—"
"I told Nicole I was going to need a few days for family stuff. Because that's what we are – a family," she tells him firmly. "If that means Neal stays at June's and comes over for dinner and FBI things, that's okay. If that means that Neal stays with us and sometimes you… sometimes you spend the night in here, with me, and sometimes you spend it in Neal's room, with him… that's okay, too. If that means something I haven't even thought of… we can work that out, too. It all depends on Neal," she finishes.
Peter married a strong, smart woman, and he hasn't always been the best husband, but the one thing he has always tried to do is to trust that she knows her own mind. He's trusted her to make her own decisions and run her own life… and his, a lot of the time.
"Okay," Peter says softly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear before kissing her, long and lingering.
"Okay?" she echoes, sounding a little amused at his simple answer.
He shrugs. "It all depends on Neal," he agrees. Neal is the wild card in the deck right now, but then again, Neal has always been the wild card. Peter's pretty used to it by now. It's possible, God help him, that he likes it.
The week leading up to the hearing is characterized by Neal getting progressively more and more tense, which means that he gets progressively more and more cheerful and his smiles get wider and wider and more plastic each day – but he doesn't go back to June's. Mozzie brings over a suitcase full of Neal's clothes and things and falls in love with Elizabeth at first sight, and asks her, in the vestibule on his way out, "Is Neal…? You're taking care of him, right? Because he's crazy, he is absolutely crazy but he's actually, you know, heart of gold kind of thing going on there—"
"We're taking care of him," Elizabeth says, adding in a burst of honesty, "I think. When he lets us."
"That's Neal," Mozzie says, nodding.
The day of the hearing, Neal is bonelessly relaxed and his smile is liquid, and he cracks constant jokes from the moment he shows up for breakfast in the morning until they walk in the courthouse door.
Peter would probably be scared, too, if he had what Neal has to fear from a return to prison. There's no real reason for it, though – Peter and two other FBI agents saw Reebin with a weapon, about to swing at Elizabeth, and many more can testify to Reebin's threats against Peter and his family. It's a cut-and-dried case complicated slightly by the fact that Neal has prior convictions, but Reebin had no living family and there's no one keen to extol the dead guy's virtues, and an FBI agent makes a hell of a star witness.
When the bailiff unlocks Neal's cuffs, there's a split-second where Peter can see that he can't really believe it, but then he grins and says to Peter, "This is a beautiful day, Peter – the American justice system finally recognizes my innocence."
"I don't think that's how the other 280 million people in this country would describe what just happened," Peter grumps, just for the sake of making Neal smile and say, "I guess I'm just special," and mean it.
When they leave the courthouse it's pretty late and Elizabeth refuses to cook, so they bring home takeout Chinese and sit around the dining room table, eating silently except for the occasional, "Does anyone know which one of these is the lo mein?"
Neal breaks a chopstick as dinner is winding to a close, and he refuses to eat Chinese food with a fork.
"We have leftover chopsticks somewhere," Elizabeth mutters, "'somewhere' being the key word there."
"What about the random shit drawer?" Peter asks, and Elizabeth narrows her eyes.
"The odds and ends drawer is the perfect place to look. I'll get it," she offers, starting to get up, but Neal beats her to it, rifling through the drawer before making a pleased noise and holding up two objects: a pair of chopsticks and a deck of cards.
"I know better than to play cards with you," Peter warns, but Neal just shakes his head, grinning.
"Come on, Peter – I would never cheat at cards."
Peter raises an eyebrow, and Neal's smile widens.
"Why cheat when you know you can play honestly and still clean up?"
"Oh, you're on," Peter says, shoving the fried rice to the side and making beckoning motions.
Two hours later, with nothing but moonlight coming in the windows, Neal finishes counting his take.
"Three hundred and five, three hundred and six… three hundred and seven dollars," Neal pronounces smugly, and gives Elizabeth a high five.
Peter scoffs. "Three hundred and seven dollars is nothing."
"We were playing for ones, sweetie," El reminds him, and Peter scowls.
"Oh, and you did better?"
His wife gestures at her stack of Monopoly dollars – shorter than Neal's, but taller than Peter's pathetic pile of three ones and a five.
"I'm just not good at gin rummy," Peter complains.
"That's what you said about poker, blackjack, and pinochle," Neal observes idly, shuffling through the deck, forward and backward, as quickly and easily as a professional dealer.
"You two ganged up on me," Peter accuses, and Neal treats him to a completely ridiculous look of innocence.
"Elizabeth and I just have a good rapport," Neal says, pulling a card out of the middle of the deck and holding it up to his forehead, facing Elizabeth and Peter. "We're practically telepathic. Watch this – I'm going to read her mind." He turns to Elizabeth and instructs her, "Think very hard about this card. I can't see it, so I'm going to have to see it through your eyes. Focus on the card, and only the card." Neal stares at Elizabeth intently for a long second while El stares back.
"It's… the queen of hearts!" he declares, and Elizabeth cheers.
Neal pulls the card off of his forehead, looks at it, mimes surprise, then delivers it to Elizabeth with a flourish.
"For you, Your Majesty."
"How did you do that?" Peter asks, but Elizabeth shushes him.
"A magician never reveals his secrets," she says firmly, looking enchanted. "Do it again!"
"Well…" Neal fakes reluctance and Elizabeth wheedles, and Peter takes a moment just to enjoy the truth behind their smiles.
"I guess Peter and I know each other pretty well," Neal allows, and sticks another card to his forehead. "Now concentrate, Peter – I'm not going to let you ruin my credibility as a psychic. Focus on our connection."
Peter knows he's supposed to be looking at the card – the king of spades – but Neal's eyes, just below it, are almost supernaturally blue, and Peter can't look away. Neal holds his gaze and doesn't say a word.
"Do you see it, Peter?" he finally asks, softly.
"The king of spades," Neal announces, still holding Peter's eyes until Elizabeth claps and breaks the spell.
"That was so great!" she enthuses, and Neal grins. He hands Peter the king of spades and starts shuffling the rest of the deck facedown.
"You know, Elizabeth," he comments, "they say that diamonds are a girl's best friend." His hands blur and a card flies out of the deck, landing face-up in front of Elizabeth: it's the ace of diamonds. "And they also say that a girl can never have too many friends." The two of diamonds flips out of the deck. "But a diamond's just a rock unless it comes from someone special." He sets the deck down in front of Peter and nods at it. "Top card," he says.
Peter turns over the top card to find the three of diamonds, which he hands to Elizabeth, who laughs like a little girl.
"Of course," Neal continues, frowning disappointedly, "some people are stingy, and keep all the diamonds for themselves." Still looking crushed, he reaches into Peter's shirt pocket and pulls out the ten of diamonds.
"How did you do that?" Peter asks, genuinely surprised, but when Neal opens his mouth, Elizabeth says adamantly, "Peter, I will not tell you again. A magician never reveals his secrets."
Way past the time when they all should have gone to sleep, Neal pulls cards out of Elizabeth's hair and Peter's shirt cuffs and the sesame chicken container. He plays more guessing games, and trots out his "pick a card, any card" patter as easily as a professional card sharp. His hands weave in and out of the deck, spread the cards in a perfect arc, and dart into and out of Peter's pockets like birds.
When the old cuckoo clock in the living room chimes midnight, Peter blinks and notices that Elizabeth is gone, and that his body is screaming at him for sleep.
"El—" he says, inquiring – Neal gives him a lopsided smile and answers, "She went to bed about half an hour ago. She kissed me on the forehead on her way."
"We should go to bed, too," Peter says reluctantly, and Neal nods and something tired and a little lonely comes over his face.
He hands Peter the deck of cards. "Shuffle," he says softly, and Peter does. "Now, pick a card out of the middle of the deck without looking at it, and put it face down on the table," Neal instructs. He stares at the red surface of the card against the dark wood of the table, and one corner of his mouth turns up in a sort of half-sad, half-sweet twist.
"Ah," he says quietly.
"What is it?" Peter says, wanting in this moment, more than ever, to know what Neal Caffrey is thinking.
"The jack of diamonds," Neal replies, which isn't what Peter meant, but when he turns the card over, there he is, the jack with the two blue eyes.
"There is no possible way you could have known that," Peter says blankly.
"Everybody loves a magic trick," Neal replies with a smile Peter can't quite read. "They can explain it, they know the rules, they're pretty sure they can figure it out if they just spend enough time, just look at it from the right angle. But there are things that don't follow rules; there are things you can think about forever, and at the end, you still can't figure them out. It's just not that easy." He picks up the jack of diamonds and looks at it for a minute, then lays it gently on top of the deck. "Most people prefer the magic they think they can explain," he says, and there's a finality to the way he says it that makes it impossible for Peter to just sit there, and impossible for Peter to leave.
Peter reaches out to touch Neal's face, to turn it toward him—then checks himself just an inch away, remembering.
"May I?" he asks carefully. "Can I… touch you?"
Something hard comes into Neal's eyes, and he says, "Oh, we're not doing this."
Peter's stomach drops. He stands up and starts to pulls his hand away, trying to blank his face, but Neal grabs his wrist and stops him.
"No, that's—" He looks frustrated. "That's not what I meant. What I mean is that we're not doing this thing where you treat me like I could fall apart at any minute, like I'm fragile or I'm already broken. If you want to touch me, Peter, then touch me." He drags Peter's captive hand to his face and presses it into the skin determinedly. His eyes are burning hot.
"And if you want to kiss me, Peter," he says hoarsely, his eyes flickering deliberately to Peter's mouth, "then—"
He and Peter are always finishing each other's sentences.
Neal's lips are very warm. Peter can tell that Neal is trying to push the kiss, run fast and hard and prove that he's not breakable. Peter lets him, handing it over without a fight, opening for Neal's velvet tongue, until his anger burns itself out, and Peter can kiss him gently, the way he wanted to from the start.
"Come upstairs with me," Neal whispers, and Peter nods silently.
In the cramped guest room, Neal closes the door behind them, then gently pushes Peter toward the bed. Peter sits obediently, up against the pillows, and Neal climbs gracefully into his lap and finds his mouth again. They make out like teenagers, petting each other without any real skill, breaking the kiss to gasp a breath and then diving back in again.
Peter tries to shove himself a little closer to the wall to save his back, but he accidentally unbalances Neal, who starts to fall backward. Peter grabs Neal's wrist to keep him from falling—Neal's eyes fly open and he yanks his wrist back suddenly, his body tense. They both tumble onto the floor and Peter takes a moment to just breathe and think. He sits up and gently picks up Neal's arm, holding Neal's wrist close to his face. It's surrounded by a yellow cuff of bruising the width of a man's hand.
"Bruise," Neal mutters, sitting up and not looking at Peter.
"That's not all, is it?" Peter asks, trying not to sound as gentle as he wants to. "There are things I shouldn't do, I'm guessing."
"For now," Neal says, looking determined, and Peter nods.
"You probably shouldn't… grab me, or try to hold my wrists," Neal says slowly. Peter nods again.
"And you probably shouldn't… put your hands in my hair."
"I did that a couple of times, a minute ago," Peter says, worried and gearing up for an apology, but Neal raises an eyebrow and says, "Not breakable, remember?"
Peter holds his peace – just nods and asks, "Anything else I should know?"
Neal pulls his knees up and rests his chin on them. "Probably," he admits. "There'll be—" He scrubs a hand over his face. "I can try to remember—to put it together now—"
Neal's face is drawn with exhaustion, but Peter can tell that, if he asked, Neal would sit here and dig through it, right now, remembering, running his fingers along the ragged edges to find every fraying thread, however long it took.
"You have any problem with what we were doing before? Besides the hair thing?"
Neal shakes his head.
Wordlessly, Peter climbs up on the bed, still in his wrinkled clothes, and waves a hand at Neal, saying, "C'mere."
Neal drapes himself over Peter's body, warm and strong, and they trade slow kisses until Neal falls asleep on Peter's chest and Peter follows.
When Peter wakes up the next morning, Neal isn't there. Peter steadfastly refuses to worry. He walks down the stairs, still in yesterday's clothes, and hears Elizabeth giggling.
When he enters the kitchen, he sees Neal and Elizabeth watching him with wide grins – it's a little intimidating.
"Peter!" El says in a scolding tone, wagging her finger at him. "You have been a terrible host. Poor Neal had to sleep in his clothes, he hasn't had a shower, and…" she does a very creditable job of pulling a penny out of Neal's ear. "…he hasn't even washed behind his ears," she concludes sadly.
She turns to Neal, smiling. "Was that good?"
"That was great!" Neal enthuses. "The actual sleight-of-hand could use a little work, but the presentation was excellent."
"So much for 'a magician never reveals his secrets,' huh?" Peter asks, grabbing a mug out of the cupboard and pouring himself some much-needed coffee.
"A magician never reveals his secrets except to another magician," Elizabeth corrects. "Isn't that right, Neal?"
"Absolutely," he affirms.
"I have to run – we have no food in the house," Elizabeth explains. "I'll be back with lunch fixings."
"Lunch?" Peter asks.
"It's 10:45," Neal says – at the expression on Peter's face, he laughs and adds, "I took the liberty of impersonating you in a phone call to your boss earlier this morning. They're not expecting you until tomorrow."
"Be good, you two," says Elizabeth, kissing Neal on the cheek and Peter on the lips. "I'll be back for lunch. Then we can start looking at houses."
After Elizabeth is gone, Neal gives Peter a look that he can't interpret. "Houses?"
"Only if you want to," Peter says awkwardly, looking away. "Like I said – it's—it's what I know how to do."
"Huh." Neal appears to think about that for a minute. Finally, he says, "I'm going to get some coffee." As he walks by Peter, he rests his hands on Peter's chest briefly and gives him a brush of a kiss – when he walks away, Peter feels something in his left shirt pocket.
He pulls it out.
"The jack of diamonds?"
"For safekeeping," Neal explains casually, looking at the cabinet instead of Peter.
Peter puts the card back in his left pocket – the one over his heart. "You're a complete sap, aren't you?" he asks, grinning. "You have been all along."
Neal sets down his mug and takes the time to give Peter a long, coffee-flavored kiss.
Breaking the kiss, he says with a raised eyebrow, "Houses, Peter?"
Peter blushes. "Touché."