Blaine calls Neal while he's still at the FBI office on the wrong cell phone (well, right for Blaine, wrong for the office), and for a moment, Neal stares at it dumbly before he remembers that yes, he still is Cooper Anderson from time to time. It's pretty much only when Blaine needs him to be. Cooper doesn't talk to his parents anymore, not since the last time he asked them for money, and it's not like he ever talks to his friends from high school. With them, he's content to let them think he's a semi-famous drop-out and mediocre actor instead of a world-famous thief and con man.
With Blaine, it's different. They've been making progress since that time Cooper crashed his high school, and Blaine still sort of needs him around for big brother things. It's not like their parents are any help, and from what Kurt's told him, all of their old friends from glee club are totally useless at advice and general life and/or relationship skills.
Neal ducks into an empty office, composes himself for a moment. It doesn't feel like he's taking off Neal Caffrey so much as he is putting Cooper Anderson back on.
He answers his cell. "Hey, squirt, what's up?"
Blaine's voice on the end is hesitant. "I- You're still in New York, right?"
Cooper considers lying. It would give him time to prepare a more solid backstory, and he could find ways to distract Peter while Cooper's busy taking care of his brother. "Yeah, Broadway's suddenly made a comeback. Decided stick around longer than I thought."
"Oh," Blaine says. "How's that been working out?" It sounds cautious and stiff, overly polite. Sometimes, Cooper is sure that Blaine was a do-over for their parents, the chance to really raise the old-fashioned gentleman they wanted. Cooper always managed to zone out during their various attempts, but, as much as Cooper loathes saying it, some of the old training really did come in handy when he was trying to charm little old ladies out of their Mondrians.
"You didn't really call so we could talk about me, did you, little brother?" he asks.
There's a pause on the other end of the line. Cooper wonders if Blaine might chicken out and say it's nothing before hanging up. "I need your help," Blaine says.
Cooper has a moment where he thinks that maybe Blaine needs to hide a body or that he needs to get out of the country really fast or that maybe he needs to ask Mozzie for help with some kind of shady back alley deal that could go horribly wrong without the right precautions.
But then Cooper remembers that this is Blaine he's talking to, and it's probably something more like, Blaine failed all his classes at NYADA and needs advice on how to keep Dad from disowning him, or Blaine got into another huge fight with Kurt and needs to be convinced that it's not the end of the world. Normal things. Cooper things. "What is it?" Cooper asks, trying to project brotherly love and understanding.
"I need you to help me pick a ring," Blaine says, in one quick rush. "It's just that, all of my friends are his friends too, and they're all horrible at keeping secrets, and I just, I want someone else to go with me, and I need to make sure it's perfect."
Cooper blinks a few times. "Picking out a ring, huh?" He waggles his eyebrows, even though he knows Blaine can't see it. He remembers Blaine when he was a tiny wriggling thing, crying as Mom held him in her arms. Cooper remembers thinking he looked like an alien, small and pink and strange. Now Blaine is old enough to ask his boyfriend to marry him.
"Yes," Blaine says. "I mean, I just graduated from college, and I think-- I think I want this to be the rest of our lives. Together."
"Sure," Cooper says. "It's not every day my baby brother gets married for the first time. I can use this for the next time I play the much cooler best friend in a romantic comedy."
He can hear Blaine's sigh of relief on the other side of the phone. "Thanks, Coop," he says. "Don't tell Mom or Dad, okay? I don't want to bother them unless he says yes."
"No problem," Cooper says, and it really isn't.
When he's done setting up the time and place to meet with Blaine, he takes a moment to collect himself, to become Neal Caffrey again, to straighten his tie and his shoulders and to remember who he is right now. Peter catches him as he's coming out of the conference room.
"Hey, what was that all about?" Peter asks. "That smile can't mean anything good."
Which means that Neal wasn't as thorough as he thought he was being. He almost says, My brother is getting hitched to his high school boyfriend, but Peter doesn't know about Cooper, about Ohio, about Blaine. "A friend of mine is proposing," Neal says, "and he wants me to help pick out rings."
Peter gets this look in his eye, like maybe he's going through his mental rolodex of all of Neal's 'friends' and figuring out if it's classy or not to crash someone's wedding just so you can finally make a few collars on some people you've been hunting down for a long time.
"Not that kind of friend," Neal says.
"I didn't say anything," Peter says, and he almost looks offended at the implication, huffing out a small breath.
Neal raises his eyebrows. "You didn't have to," he says.
"So, who is this friend, really?" Peter says that night before dinner. "You've had that smile on your face all day." He tosses one slice of the carrots he's been cutting into his mouth and chews on it.
Neal's camped out on the couch with Glenda in his lap. Satchmo passed away a few years ago, and Elizabeth got Glenda, the new puppy, from a nearby shelter when Neal and Peter were working on a particularly difficult case and couldn't be around as often as they would like. It's not quite the same, but Glenda is adorable and Neal loves her already. "He's in my acting class," Neal says. "A really sweet kid. He and his boyfriend have been together since high school." As penance for his sins, Neal teaches an acting class every Wednesday at BMCC. He's a free man now, for all that he's still on the FBI's payroll, but it still makes the Feds rest easier knowing that he's being a productive member of society in his free time.
It was Elizabeth's idea in the first place, and while Neal had his own doubts, he's actually better at it than he thought he'd be. It helps that he's actually trying to give good advice about getting into character and how best to work off the other actors around you instead of just spouting off the worst advice he can think of on the spot. Acting in front of a crowd is actually a lot more straightforward than running a con. You know exactly who your audience is at all times, and you know exactly where they are.
Even though he's not expecting it, Neal finds he actually likes his students. They're all so eager and innocent and refreshingly unjaded. Being around grumpy FBI agents and the criminals they're trying to catch doesn't lend itself towards happiness or positivity. Neal can appreciate the new perspective.
And it's a nice bonus that telling Peter that Blaine is one of Neal's students is technically not a lie. He did sit in on Cooper's Master Class, after all.
Elizabeth decides to show up right at that moment. "Who's been together since high school?" She turns off her phone and puts it on the counter.
Peter leans over and gives her a peck on the lips. "One of Neal's students and his boyfriend," he says. He mock-whispers in her ear, loud enough for Neal to still overhear, like a kid on the playground telling a secret. "They're getting married."
A huge smile breaks out across Elizabeth's face. "Oh, that's really exciting, sweetie. Do they need a someone to do the planning for them? I know my rates are probably a little steep, but I can give them a discount for being one of your friends." She wanders over to the couch so she can give Neal a peck as well, different from Peter's, but still sweet all the same. She scratches Glenda's head. Glenda gives a soft, playful bark and jumps out of Neal's lap.
Neal almost wants to laugh at the idea that Kurt would ever let anyone else plan his wedding, but he's not supposed to know them that well. (And it's not like he really knows Kurt that well outside of a few meetings, a few dinners together when Cooper is 'in town,' and Blaine's stories.) "Well, he hasn't even asked his boyfriend, yet," Neal says.
Elizabeth beams some more. "Remember how you asked me?" she says to Peter. She steals a carrot off his cutting board. They've picked up the same bad habits over the years.
"I did everything right, like a gentleman," Peter says. "A nice dinner, a walk through Central Park afterwards. I asked you right in front of the fountain at sunset, because you said it was your favorite spot in the park." He stops chopping vegetables for a moment, looking wistful.
Sometimes it scrapes something raw and fragile in Neal to be reminded that he's come into this relationship late, that it's still easier to feel outside of what they have. He's a literal third wheel. Peter and Elizabeth been married for more than fifteen years, and Neal still feels new at this, an awkward, lumpy addition to the family unit.
As much as Blaine's been through for being gay, for being out, he can marry the person he loves. He can announce it openly to the world.
Neal stands up, and Elizabeth walks over to grab one of his hands, dragging him over to the kitchen so that he can help out with dinner. "Hey," she says, and her smile is soft and kind and understanding. Peter rests a hand on Neal's shoulder. The weight of it is reassuring and solid and calculated, because Peter caught him by knowing Neal as well as Neal knew himself.
Neal smiles, and he grabs a pot so that he can start the water boiling, and he knows exactly where he fits between the two of them.
Blaine is a little jumpy when Cooper meets him at the edge of the Garment District, bouncing on the balls of his feet and fiddling with the strap of his messenger bag. He's much better at keeping his actual feet on the ground than he used to be when he was eight. Back then, he was a ball of restless, annoying energy, and Cooper never knew how to handle him. That was before Neal's first forgery, Neal's first pickpocket, before Neal even existed.
"Hey, Coop," Blaine says. He smiles, one half politeness, one half nerves. "I'm really glad you could help out."
Cooper throws an arm over his shoulders. He doesn't get to do this often, to reach out and touch people with such undisguised affection, and Blaine is still short enough that this isn't uncomfortable at all. "I'm all about the generosity, squirt," Cooper says.
Blaine pulls a face, but he manages to smooth it away. "I know," he says, and Cooper wonders if this is about the fact that he missed Blaine's graduation. He knows Blaine was being sulky and uncommunicative for weeks after that incident. To be fair, Cooper was being held at gunpoint by Russian oil barons at the time, but it's not like he can tell Blaine that or anything.
"So what are you looking for?" Cooper says. He resists the urge to ruffle Blaine's hair. Blaine has been gelling it down since he was five, and he's always been touchy about people messing with it. Cooper thinks he should get some kind of big brother privileges on it, but Blaine remains wholly unconvinced.
Blaine shakes his head. "I know it once I see it," he says. "It's just-- It needs to be perfect. It needs to be perfect for Kurt."
"Of course it does," Cooper says. "Where is the fine Mr. Hummel right now?"
"He's at rehearsals. We have about," Blaine checks his watch, "four and a half hours before he's going to get home, so we better get started."
The first place they go to is expensive and tasteful and pathetically out of Blaine's price range. The store is brightly lit and each piece is tastefully laid out and gentle music is piped in through the overhead speakers, and all of it is as glossy and as slick as a magazine. Blaine spends most of his time sighing at jewelry he can't afford while Cooper considers how difficult it would be to steal it. Not very, to be honest. Upscale jewelry shops have nothing on museums in terms of security.
Then they end up in a sketchy one-step-above-pawn shops sort of place (and it's really amazing how in Manhattan the two are only a few blocks away from each other). It's a little dingy around the edges, but it's not like anyone has ever been arrested here. Probably. Blaine frowns a lot while Cooper tries to figure out which stones are real and which ones are fake. It's about an even split.
"What about that?" Cooper asks, pointing to a gaudy monstrosity that would probably go well with one of those brooches that Kurt likes to wear. It's real enough, and the stones embedded in it are small enough that it isn't all that expensive.
Blaine makes a face and doesn't bother hiding it this time. Cooper thinks that's a little rich coming from someone who still wears bow ties, long after it can be passed over as a silly teenage affectation. "No way." Blaine says. "I think Kurt would kill me for even looking at it." There's something about the way he says Kurt's name, the way it rolls off his tongue with the ease of years of practice, that makes Cooper curious.
"You know him pretty well, don't you?" They've lasted far longer than Cooper would have expected. There was that period of time during Blaine's senior year of high school, but Blaine never told him the details about it. Cooper had mentioned Kurt during one of their monthly phone calls, and Blaine had gotten really quiet and said, We're not together anymore. In those days, Blaine was still awkward around him, careful about what bits of information he would give out and which ones he'd keep for himself. Cooper was a lot more careful not to mention Kurt's name after that, but eventually, Blaine started talking about Kurt again like nothing had ever happened, and Cooper figured that they must have gotten over whatever teenage bullshit they'd been mired in at the time.
"I love him," Blaine says, like loving someone is as easy as that. Love has never been that easy for Cooper, not with Kate, not with Sara, not with Peter or Elizabeth. Hell, not even with Blaine. Cooper's always managed to hurt the ones he loves, one way or another.
Cooper doesn't manage to resist the urge to pat Blaine's hair this time. The gel is stiff underneath his fingers. "You did good, squirt," he says.
Blaine looks away and takes a deep breath, nervous in the way he always was before a performance. "I haven't always been good at it," he says. "I -- I cheated, back in high school. That's why we broke up. It was stupid. I was stupid."
It probably says something about the way Cooper thinks that the first thing he says is, "How'd he find out about it?"
Blaine blinks and his eyebrows furrow. "I told him," he says, like it should be obvious. It stops Cooper short for a moment. The truth has always been a slippery thing for him, something mutable and shifting, something that can twisted for his own ends. It always is for a con man. The good ones, anyway.
They walk back out onto the street together into the New York sunshine. The sidewalks are mostly clear of foot traffic, and it's still too early in the season for the sweltering intensity of proper summer humidity. Cooper thinks this might be his favorite sort of New York, warm and a little green and bursting with possibilities.
Blaine's pulled into himself, like he's prepared for a lecture on being a good boyfriend. His shoulders are slightly hunched, and he turns to look at the street so he can avoid Cooper's eyes.
"Hey," Cooper says. "You want to talk about it?" They walk shoulder to shoulder, bumping each other every few steps.
"I still don't entirely know why I did it," Blaine says. "It was just-- difficult, with him being gone all of a sudden, and then he had this whole other life that I wasn't a part of. I guess-- I guess I didn't have faith that we'd survive it. So I did what I usually, do. I ran. I ran, and I screwed it up so I could stop waiting for the other shoe to drop."
It's sort of nice to see that Blaine is as much an Anderson as any of them. Running away has always been Cooper's preferred method of handling relationships when things get rocky. It's never been particularly difficult for Cooper in his line of work. Their dad also liked to storm out of the house after the big arguments with their mom, but he usually came back. Usually. "And now?" Cooper asks.
"Sometimes I'm still afraid that I'll mess it up again, but I'm not in high school anymore," Blaine says. He stands up straighter, as if just saying the words can have a physical effect. "I know Mom and Dad think we're too young, but we've been back together for four years now. I'm not going to run away from him again. I trust him. I trust us." There's a determined clench to his jaw, a square set of his shoulders. He used to look like this before he got into fights with Cooper, too small and too weak and still unwilling to back down.
Cooper finds himself smiling. "I think you're running in the right direction this time, little brother," he says. He punches Blaine's arm, and a slow smile spreads across Blaine's face, warm and genuine.
"Thanks, Coop," Blaine says.
Cooper says, "Come on. We have some more ring shopping to do."
The rest of the morning is something of a bust. Blaine frowns at everything like he's watching a menswear competition on Project Runway, and Cooper's not the best help because Blaine is being kind of obsessive and picky. He's tempted to think about how he'd run this if it were a con, about how he'd size Kurt up, figure out what he's looking for and dangle it in front of him with a catch attached. Cooper's generally pretty good with jewelry. Most men aren't, so it's an easy in.
He's never tried to size Kurt up, though. Not like that. Being around Blaine is a chance to turn Neal off, and he likes that, likes ending up in their tiny apartment eating something Kurt made and listening to Blaine talk about music and not trying to figure out how someone is going to screw him or how he's going to screw someone else.
They get lunch at Cooper's favorite restaurant in Soho. The weather is nice enough that there are tables out on the sidewalk, and Cooper makes sure to wear his sunglasses while Blaine squints a lot. Blaine talks a little bit more about what he's looking for in a ring, which is both confusingly vague and needlessly specific. Cooper just makes sure to nod in the right places and to ask the occasional relevant question. Somewhere, the discussion shifts towards Blaine's future. Blaine has apparently managed to score himself a part time job as a piano man at a bar in the Upper West Side. It isn't much, but it will help hold him over when he starts going to auditions himself. It's not like Kurt's starring role in a off-off-off-Broadway play is bringing home the big bucks or anything like that yet.
Cooper zones out halfway through Blaine's list of upcoming auditions that he needs to prepare for. It's not like there'll be a quiz later. And if Cooper does miss something important, Blaine will just sigh and roll his eyes and repeat whatever he needs to. It's probably a good thing that Cooper's so distracted, because it means he spots Peter walking down the street towards them before Peter can spot them.
The sensation of seeing him is a little like vertigo, like a con gone pear-shaped, and Cooper needs to reorient himself, to find the right balance between Cooper and Neal to handle the incoming collision. At least this is far better than that time with the CEO of that German bank and Kate and the yacht on the Mediterranean. He won't even need to figure out how to get a chicken onto a boat at three in the morning.
For a moment, Cooper considers just... letting it happen, introducing Blaine as his brother and introducing Peter as his colleague and long-term partner, and then watching them work out the details amongst themselves. It would be easy, in a way, but then there would be the questions and the angry-sad-disappointed look on Blaine's face and Peter's passive-aggressive annoyance. It's even easier to keep everything where it should be, everyone in their own neat little boxes.
He interrupts Blaine mid-sentence and says, "You know what I think? I think you need to practice your accents. I'm betting you haven't used any of them in a while."
Blaine frowns. "Accents?" he asks.
"Your German one could use some work," Cooper says.
Peter seems to have caught sight of them. He smiles and waves, and the pace of his walk picks up. Neal nods and smiles and raises his eyebrows in a way he hopes Peter can read as, hey, this is a wacky coincidence, huh?
Blaine glances in the same direction that Cooper's looking and asks, "Who is that?"
"Just this producer I've worked with before," Cooper says with a dismissive flick of his hand. He gives himself a second to pretend to think about it before letting the realization cross his face. "Oh man, you should really show him your stuff. C'mon, you'll be great."
"Coop, I'm not sure---" Blaine starts, and Cooper can almost see him physically backing out of this whole thing.
Before Blaine can fully voice his objection, Peter shows up at their table. Neal stands and gives Peter one of his most innocent smiles. "Hey, Peter," he says. "I'd like you to meet one of my best students, Klaus." He doesn't look at Blaine at all.
"Hallo," Blaine says. Cooper really does appreciate that Blaine is so much more willing to follow his lead these days, even when he's pretty sure Blaine thinks his lead is stupid.
"Uh, hi," Peter says to Neal. "I just wanted to say hello. Don't let me interrupt your lunch." He shoots Blaine a curious, confused look.
"Nah," Neal says. "It's always great to see you."
"Zis is really a not a problem," Blaine says. "Ve are very glad to have you vith us." His German accent sounds like something out of The Producers, except less subtle.
Even with an invitation like that, Peter doesn't seem to be pulling up another chair. He's wearing the expression he always wears when he suspects Neal of trying to pull a fast one on him. "No," he says, slowly. "I can't stay. There's a bunch more paperwork I need to take care of, and I have to get back to the office." He raises an eyebrow in Neal's direction and Neal can read the, Is this really why you took today off? on his face.
Neal took the day off because Cooper is supposed to be a currently unemployed actor, and Blaine works nights. One of the perks of being an actual employee of the FBI with days off and a salary and everything is that he can do things like this with Blaine officially instead of having to sneak in time between cases. Neal's still a consultant. It's just less of a veiled euphemism now.
"That's too bad," Neal says.
"Vell, it vas very nice to meet you," Blaine says. The expression on his face is overly serious in a way that might read as 'German' if you squint. He holds out a hand and his body language is stiff and formal.
Peter shakes his hand, lingering just a hair too long, and says, "It was nice to meet you too." Neal can see the gears working in his head, but thankfully he leaves before he says anything else, throwing one last wave over his shoulder before he's out of earshot.
Cooper is pretty sure he catches Blaine checking out Peter's ass as Peter walks away, but really, that's more about his brother than he ever needed know, so he pretends not to see it.
"So..." Blaine says when Peter is finally out of view. He looks like he's about to ask a question, but he's too polite to actually ask it. Cooper kind of hates that expression.
"You could stand to tone it down a little next time, squirt," Cooper says. He gives Blaine a comfortable slap on the back.
Blaine rolls his eyes. "That wasn't what I was going to ask, Coop," he says. He sometimes does this around Cooper, gets quiet and serious, and it's not like the annoyance and anger he used to carry around with him when he was still a teenager. It's more like -- thoughtful, like he sees more of Cooper than Cooper wants him to see.
Cooper waits him out, and Blaine turns back to his food, and he doesn't ask the question.
They find the perfect ring that afternoon, or at least, Blaine says it is. The band is thick, with an intricate pattern etched into the metal. The single white stone in the middle is small and cut beautifully. It's not actually a diamond, mostly because Kurt has a thing about blood diamonds, and it's cheaper this way anyway. The whole thing is strong and solid-looking. It's a woman's ring, but it doesn't look fragile or dainty or any of the other things Cooper's associated with women's jewelry before.
The woman behind the register asks Blaine who the lucky lady is, and Blaine corrects her with the sort of patience that comes from long practice. Cooper just shrugs at her knowingly. After they get back to Kurt and Blaine's tiny apartment, Blaine beams at the ring nestled in its tiny box for like an entire hour with the stupidest expression on his face, lovesick in the best and worst sort of way. Cooper has an idea of what that feels like, so he doesn't tease him about it. Much.
Anyway, they got the ring, they got some brotherly bonding in, they managed to dodge Peter somehow. Cooper marks this off as a mission accomplished.
"You know what you need to do now, right?" Cooper says. "You can handle that part?"
Blaine rolls his eyes. "Yes, I am perfectly capable of handling everything from here by myself," he says stiffly, sounding every bit the Dalton man he used to be in that moment.
Cooper slaps him on the back, "Just checking, little brother. If you need some tips on how to make the big day really special, I've got some ideas that the last director I worked with on that dog food commercial didn't want to use."
Blaine snorts. "Thanks, Coop," he says, quietly, "for everything." He's fiddling with the lid of the box in a way that reminds Cooper of him a six years old, restless and unable to keep still for even just a moment. "I'm glad you weren't still in LA today."
Cooper hasn't been to LA in years, and it makes him thinks of the distances, both real and imagined between the two of them. "Just make sure to invite me to your wedding, squirt," Cooper says.
He squeezes Blaine's shoulder, and Blaine says, "Of course I will," like it isn't even a question, because to him, it isn't.
"So," Peter says when Neal gets home that evening. "I'm guessing that was the kid you mentioned a few days ago. He seems nice."
"Yup," Neal says. There's a baseball game on the TV, and Peter's got a bottle of beer in one hand. That's a good sign. It means Neal can be more evasive than usual about his completely legal activities, and Peter will probably let it go, because he's loose-limbed and relaxed instead of wound up and cranky from work.
"I'm also guessing his name isn't really 'Klaus' either."
"Nope," Neal says.
"Are you going to tell me what was up with that?" Peter asks, eyebrows raised.
"The service industry is a great place to try out new accents. Keeps your instrument from getting rusty."
"I'm going to take that as a 'no'," Peter says.
"Sure," Neal says. He presses a soft kiss to Peter's lips. It tastes a little like the beer and a little like the sub Peter must have had for dinner, like a late night at the office while finishing up the paperwork for a case.
Elizabeth comes down the stairs, and Neal feels a rush of affection at the way he can recognize her by the pattern of her footfalls on the floorboards. "I thought I heard Neal," she says. "How did the ring shopping go?" She wraps her arms around his waist and pulls him into a hug that's as familiar as it is comfortable.
"Pretty good. He found one he liked, and he seems really happy with it." Neal twirls her around and a dips her in a way that makes her laugh. Cooper did ballroom dance lessons for two whole months before he managed to wiggle his way out of it, and then Neal had to go back and learn all the steps properly when he was twenty-four and trying to get himself invited to this ball the Prince of Denmark was throwing.
"That's excellent, sweetie," Elizabeth says. "I'm glad you like your students. I told you that it'd be a great experience, didn't I?" Her face is flushed and happy, and she's so radiant it sucks the breath from Neal's lungs.
He thinks about what she -- they -- would say if he told them that Blaine is actually his brother, that he's from Ohio, that his parents are still alive and still wealthy enough to help support Blaine through his post-graduation starving artist phase, that Neal's life is lies built on lies all the way down. "You were right, of course," Neal says. He grabs one of Elizabeth's hands and presses a kiss to the back of it like a proper gentleman. "You are always right."
"Stop making me look bad, Caffrey," Peter yells from the sofa in a way that feels as intimate as a touch. In that moment, even though it's not the name he was born with, Neal Caffrey feels like a truth.
If nothing else, what they have is true. That feeling goes all the way down, too.
To everyone's complete lack of surprise, Kurt says yes to Blaine's proposal. Cooper doesn't get the whole story, because when Blaine calls, he sounds like he's about to faint, and Cooper can hear the sounds to screeching girls behind him. He's pretty sure some of them are cooing, too, but it's a little difficult to tell over the phone.
"I'm sure it'll be an awesomely embarrassing story to tell your kids," Cooper says.
"I really can't talk right now," Blaine says, his voice strained.
"I hope you have a picture of his face when you asked him. You could put it on your wall as a conversation starter. Hey, you could even include copies of it as party favors to all your wedding guests."
Blaine says, "We're not going to do that, Coop."
"C'mon. Did you serenade him in public? I know that's kind of your thing. I'm sure you had access to plenty of backup dancers from his show."
"I am hanging up on you," Blaine says, and then he does. Cooper always counts it as a win when he can get Blaine frustrated enough to be impolite to him. It's a good reminder that no one makes you crazy like family.
"So that was the little brother then?" Mozzie says. He is perched on the windowsill as Neal throws paint at the canvas. Neal doesn't really live in June's loft anymore, but she still lets him use his old apartment as a studio for when he wants to work. There's really not enough space at Peter and Elizabeth's place, and Mozzie still gets uncomfortable around "Suit and Mrs. Suit" no matter how many times Peter turns a blind eye on Mozzie's extracurricular activities.
"Yes," Neal says, because Mozzie is the only one who knows both Neal Caffrey and Cooper Anderson. It's less because Neal trusts him (though Neal does trust him) and more that Mozzie really likes to snoop and is very, very good at it. "He's officially engaged now."
"Impressive," Mozzie says. "He's what, twenty-one now? Such a baby. I remember when he was cute as a button and performing with that chorus of his. You know, the guys with the blazers."
"The Warblers," Neal supplies, "and that's incredibly creepy, Mozzie."
Mozzie sniffs. "They're an a cappella group from an all-boys high school who wear their uniforms everywhere, and they posted that performance on Youtube. I'm sure I'm the least creepy older man who watched that video."
"Not helping your case," Neal says.
Mozzie just breezes by the same way he always does when he does when he doesn't want to talk about something. "So I guess the next question is, what sort of wedding present are you going to get him?"
Neal hasn't really thought about it, yet. He's been thinking about what would be appropriately meaningful for Blaine, since anything he gets from his parents will be expensive and formal and a little cold. "I'm not sure yet," he says. "I'm sure he'll have a registry, but I don't just want to get him a coffeemaker. I want to get him something special."
Neal's known Mozzie a long time, and Mozzie's known Neal a long time, too. Mozzie probably already has Neal's big present all planned out for him, complete with promises not to ever tell Neal how he got... whatever it is. "How about a season's subscription to the opera?" Mozzie says.
Neals's eyes widen. "Orchestra seats at the Met?" Neal asks.
"Orchestra seats at the Met," Mozzie says.
Neal let's out a low whistle. "Those have been sold out for ages," he says, and maybe he's feeling a little put out by the fact that Mozzie's never offered him opera tickets.
"Well, this guy owed me a favor, so it's not even like I had to do anything illegal to get them."
Neal raises an eyebrow.
"Okay, I didn't do anything illegal to get them in this decade, anyway," Mozzie says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Besides, you know he'd like them, and I still owe you for that other thing last week."
Neal sighs. His hands are covered in paint, blues and greens and reds and yellows, blurred and mixed together. He likes the way he looks like this, like he's stripped off all pretense. It's easy being both Cooper and Neal at the same time right here, where he doesn't have to hide one thing or the other. "I'll need to come up with a good story for how Cooper Anderson managed to get ahold of them."
Blaine would probably be a little suspicious about it off the bat. Neal's been in this game long enough to know when the dazzle of the con is beginning to wear off a little bit, when people start seeing the seams. There's this look in their eyes that they get, like they keep adding two and two together and they keep getting five. Usually that's a good sign that Neal needs to split town, but that doesn't exactly work when it comes to your baby brother's wedding.
"You could just tell him the truth," Mozzie says. "I know it's not something I'd usually advocate, what with how I--"
"It doesn't work like that, Moz," Neal says. Cooper and Neal have had completely different lives since he was nineteen, and Blaine's been part of Cooper's since before Neal even existed.
Mozzie gives him a smile that Neal is all too familiar with, a little warm, a little sad, a little wry. It's the smile he wears when he thinks Neal is being stupid. Not about work things, about life things. "It might have to start working like that sooner or later," he says.
Cooper has a PO Box in LA that forwards to Neal's apartment/studio in New York City. Very little mail goes through it, and almost nothing in it is time sensitive. The story that Cooper feeds to Blaine is that he's always on the lookout for new apartments in LA, trying to get a feel for different parts of the city, and it's just inconvenient to have to update his address all the time.
This is an explanation for why Cooper gets his invitation late, but it's not an explanation for why he leaves it on the counter of his apartment where anyone can see it.
It's probably some kind of subconscious thing, an indication that Neal is ready, that he wants to be ready for this, and that's why Neal doesn't put it away when Elizabeth visits one lovely Sunday afternoon. She loves to watch him paint, and she loves his view of the Manhattan skyline, and Neal loves having her here. Peter doesn't have the patience to sit still and watch Neal work like this, but Elizabeth does. She hums and laughs and reads a book a corner, occasionally peeking over Neal's shoulder in a way that should be annoying but isn't, because it's Elizabeth.
She spots it right after she gives him a kiss on the cheek at the door, her eyes sharper than most people give her credit for, even though she is married to Peter. "What's this?" she asks, because she's an event planner and she'd recognize the heavy cardstock, the formal lettering.
Neal's voice catches in his throat as she reaches for it, and his palms go sweaty the way they do before a cover gets blown while on a case. It must be written all over Neal's face, because she stops, eyes focused on him.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I won't read it if you don't want me to."
Neal swallows around the lump in his throat. "No," he says. "It's okay." He almost wants to turn away when she reads it. It's more than enough for Elizabeth to piece things together, to get an idea of what Neal's been hiding from them.
She picks it the folded invitation, startling as a partially-filled RSVP card falls out. "Cooper Anderson?" she asks, reading the card. Her brow furrows.
Neal doesn't say anything, just waits it out until she can read the rest of the invitation.
"Oh," she says when she finishes. She looks up at Neal, and her eyes are soft. "He's not just your student, is he?"
Neal breathes out. "No, he isn't. I-- He's ten years younger than me. He was still pretty young when I left home, and our parents aren't the most-- they're not the most attentive parents in the world." It's easier with Elizabeth than it would be with Peter, because for all that she isn't a part of this life at all, she understands him better in some ways than Peter ever has, and she has never resented him for the secrets he needs to keep.
She turns the envelope over and smiles at the address written there. "LA, huh?" she asks.
"He thinks I'm a struggling film and TV actor." Neal shrugs. "I went to visit his high school once and taught a master class in acting. It was kind of spectacularly awful."
Elizabeth laughs. "I can imagine." She looks down at the RSVP card in her hands. "So you're going, then?"
"Yes, of course," Neal says. "I wouldn't want to miss his big day."
She holds Neals hands in her own, rubbing a gentle thumb over his knuckles. "I know Peter suspected something," she says, "after he met him."
"That German accent really does need work," Neal says, more to himself than anyone else.
"You're going to need to talk to Peter about it, too," Elizabeth says. "He's worried."
He leans forward and kisses her, and she squeezes his hands. "I will," Neal says after he pulls back. "How worried is he?"
"He'll be okay," Elizabeth says. She pulls him over to the sofa so they can sit next to each other, knees and shoulders bumping together. "I think it's sometimes easier for him when he thinks of your past as a blank slate. He doesn't like being reminded that there are still things that you're keeping from us."
"I know," Neal says. He takes a deep breath. "Blaine's pretty much the only thing I have left from that life, and I-- he's a good kid. I need to be there for him." Now that the secret's out, he can't seem to stop talking. It makes him think of uncorked champagne bottles, everything rushing out of him at once.
Elizabeth leans her head on his shoulder and laces their fingers together. "Tell me about him," she says, her voice gentle, and in that moment, Neal loves her so much.
He opens his mouth and begins to speak.
A week later, Neal holds the RSVP card in his hand, spinning it nervously between his fingers. He's in the backyard of Peter and Elizabeth's house -- his house -- and the air hums with the sound cars and children and the first swell of summer. Glenda is curled up at Neal's feet, snuffling in her sleep.
Neal takes the phone out of his pocket and calls before he can chicken out. He closes his eyes as he listens to it ring.
"Hello?" Blaine says when he picks up.
"Hey, Blainey, it's me."
Blaine laughs. "Cooper! I didn't recognize the number. Are you still in New York then?"
"Yeah, I am," Neal says. He opens his eyes, and he's still in the backyard, and Glenda is still sleeping, and he still has a life that Blaine knows nothing about. "You should keep this number if you want to get in contact with me."
Blaine goes quiet. "You're staying here?" He sounds hesitant, unsure.
"I-- yeah, squirt, I am." Neal says. He pushes on before Blaine can ask him why he's doing this. "I also had a question about this wedding invitation."
Blaine clears his throat. "Sure, Coop," he says. "What is it?"
It's harder than it should be, to say it out loud, to put it into words, no matter how vague, but Neal needs to do this. He closes his eyes again. He doesn't need to keep them open anymore to remind him of why he's doing this.
"I know it only says plus one," Neal says, "but is it okay if I bring two?"