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An Allocation of Regret

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They were back at June's after a companionable dinner at Sal's, sitting in deep leather armchairs in front of the fireplace, sipping Napoleon brandy from cut crystal snifters. The two cousins had caught up on each others lives, the conversation light, touching mostly on generalities; nothing too serious. Nothing that had the ability to scale the emotional walls both men kept around themselves as unconsciously as breathing. But it was what they hadn't spoken of that was sitting squarely between them now.

Neal looked down into the amber depths of his brandy, absently swirling the liquid around the glass. Sighing, he looked over at Ezra, who seemed hypnotized by the flames in the hearth. "I'm sorry, Ezra."

Ezra looked over at him sharply. "And pray tell, for what exactly are you apologizing?"

"You're an ATF agent now."

"Thank you for pointing out the obvious, Neal, but my current employment is not something for which I am sorry."

"I know that." He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. This wasn't going the way he'd planned. He was supposed to be an expert; smooth talking for a living. "Damn it, Ezra, you loved your job with the FBI, you were the best. It was my fault, wasn't it, what happened?"

Something flashed in Ezra's green eyes, before being carefully and completely smoothed away. "I never said anything happened," he countered blandly.

"It was what you didn't say. Come on, Ezra, there's a lot of people you can get away with lying to, but I'm not one of them. You taught me better than that."

The other man smirked. "And dammed annoying it is too." Sighing, he leaned over, elbows on his knees, brandy snifter clasped between his hands. "It wasn't your fault, Neal. The die had been cast months before; our connection just gave the bastards the final nail for my proverbial coffin."

Neal gripped the glass in his hand, not sure if he wanted to know the answer to his next question. "Did Peter have anything to do with trashing your career?"

"Agent Burke?" Neal nodded, and Ezra straightened, looking at him in surprise. "Now isn't that something?" Chuckling at Neal's expression of confusion, he added, "You trust him, and you're halfway to thinking of him as a friend."

Neal began to protest. Trust? Ezra was crazy! Neal Caffrey didn't trust anyone, especially not the FBI agent who had put him away. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement; that was all. It was! He stared at his cousin, not liking the smug, know it all look in his eyes one bit. "That's stupid," was the only brilliant thing he could think to say.

"No, my dear young cousin, not stupid at all." Shifting in his chair, he pinned Neal with his gaze. "You can let people into your life, rely on them, belong. It is a singular feeling, the bonds of friendship and acceptance. Do not deny yourself that now you've been given a second chance."

Snorting in disbelief, Neal threw back the rest his brandy, placing the empty glass on the table between them. "You, Maude Standish's son, are telling me to trust?"

"Yes, I am, Neal. And for the record, Agent Burke had nothing to do with what happened. We spoke during his pursuit of you, and he was completely satisfied that I had no knowledge of your criminal activities or whereabouts. But it was enough to give those that wished me ill the ammunition they required. Peter Burke is a good agent, a good man. And I warrant he'd be damn fine friend, if you'd only let him be."

Neal nodded, having a hard time finding his voice. Finally he said, "I'm still sorry, Ezra. If I could change it all, I would. You didn't deserve what happened to you, and I regret my part in it."

"I know you do, Neal. But you know what? I'm not sorry. I wouldn't trade the life I have now for anything. So in a way, you did me a favour."

"They mean that much to you, the men you work with?"

"They do. You see, Neal, I allowed myself to trust, and the rest, well, it fell into place."

"The rest?" Neal's face brightened. "Who is she?" he demanded.

Ezra just smiled, raising a brow. "Let's just say she's someone with whom I'm exploring the possibilities, and leave at that for now, shall we?"

"Okay, as long as I get to meet her one day." He flashed his cousin a saucy grin.

"I promise."

A comfortable silence fell, both men deep in their own thoughts. Finally Neal spoke, breaking the spell, "I'll think about what you said."

"I know you will, Neal, you're a clever young man," Ezra replied. "And I have every confidence that you will take this second chance you've been offered and turn it into a winning hand."

Neal picked up the bottle of brandy from the side table, refilling his glass and raising it. "To the good life, Ezra."

"The good life," Ezra returned his cousin's toast, "and endless possibility."

"Ezra?"

"Yes, Neal?"

"Second chances come with champagne, Mediterranean villas, and Italian sports cars, right?"

End