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An Engraved Invitation

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“My wife is visiting her folks for a few days,” Peter Burke announced to the conference table full of FBI agents. “So I warn you, if you don't wrap this case up, we're working late again tonight.”

Amid the general groans, Peter thought he could risk a sideways glance at Neal. Inconclusive. He had his half-wry, half-appreciative smirk on—the one he wore when Peter did something clever that he, as an adversary, would have had to respect.

The intern came in, bearing a wobbly tower of pizza boxes, and the ragged complaints turned to surprise and pleasure. As the meeting broke up into an impromptu lunch line, Neal strolled over to where Peter was standing. “First the stick, then the carrot. Nice.”

Peter smiled. “We'll have this cracked by 4.”

“Is Elizabeth really out of town?”

Peter nodded.

“And you're not joining her?”

“Thank God,” Peter confirmed. “We're saving my time off for a real vacation, and it's too long a flight to just join them for the weekend.”

“And her father scares you to death,” Neal chimed in as if he was just completing the list.

“And her father scares me to death,” Peter agreed.

“You know he can't take her back now,” Neal teased.

“I know that,” Peter agreed. “but does he?”

“Do you want to...get a drink after work?” Neal asked. It was their old pattern, from before, so he felt safe enough to mention it in the office.

Peter pretended to think it over. “Yeah,” he allowed. “I'd like that.” He gestured at the rapidly diminishing stack of boxes. “Don't you want any?”

Neal shook his head. “Once you've had real Italian pizza it's not the same. And I don't want grease on my tie.”

*******************

Peter was wrong; it took them till 5:30 to crack the case. In his defense, he hadn't allowed for their suspect getting himself stuck in an elevator. They could have starved him out eventually, but Neal got bored with waiting, climbed down the cable and, as he put it, “dropped in—literally.” The fact that Neal couldn't actually arrest the man when he got there—or, if it came to that, shoot him—was a point that seemed to have slipped his mind. Fortunately the man was so dumbfounded by Neal's sudden appearance that Caffrey was able to fiddle with some wires behind the control panel and saunter out on the ground floor into the waiting arms of the FBI.

Not literally that time, unfortunately. Peter would not have minded getting his hands on Neal—to make sure he was whole, and then shake him until his teeth rattled.

A drink after work turned into dinner. Neal insisted on taking Peter for what he called authentic Neapolitan pizza. Peter figured Lombardi's, the Little Italy staple, but instead Neal directed him to a sleek little Greenwich Village place with a name that Peter couldn't pronounce and didn't try. It seemed far too new and upscale to Peter to be authentic anything, and some of the toppings were just silly—not to mention the prices. Still, considering some of the things Neal considered food, Peter figured he and his wallet were getting off easy. He could even, hallelujah, drink beer. He had to admit, after one bite, that the pizza was damned good.

Neal had preempted the greasy tie issue by abandoning his coat and tie altogether, and rolling up his sleeves. Peter wasn't sure how the risk of grease down the front of his shirt represented an improvement, but his nerves weren't up to Neal stripping to the waist in the middle of a West Village eatery, so he didn't ask. Besides, Neal even ate pizza gracefully. Well, considering. There was still the occasional dangling strand of cheese, but somehow he managed to make chasing after it more sensual than embarrassing. Peter had stuffed his own tie in the pocket of the jacket he still wore and opened his shirt collar—the beer and the wood fired oven were making him a little flushed. Even Neal had a spot of hectic color over those sharp cheekbones—of course, he'd had half a bottle of Chianti.

Somewhere in the middle of Neal explaining a complicated heist—using the salt, breadbasket, and napkin as props, and also Peter's not-quite finished beer, which made drinking it complicated—Peter looked up and realized the crowd had emptied out around them. An older man caught his eye—waiter magic, or had he been waiting a while?—and brought the check, along with a pair of espressos, on the house.

Neal was always quick with his hands. He beat Peter to the black leatherette folder, but before he could smoothly swoop it up, Peter's hand landed on top of his.

“My turn,” Peter said.

Neal turned his palm over, so they were suddenly holding hands across the table.

Peter's eyes locked with Neal's. He realized his heart was beating faster, and it seemed hard to catch his breath. He was smiling so hard his face hurt, and dorky as it sounded (even in his head), for a minute Peter never wanted to be anywhere but here ever again.

Then Neal carefully, slowly, lifted Peter's hand to his mouth, like they were all alone, and delicately licked a stray splash of sauce from his index finger, and suddenly Peter desperately wanted to be anywhere but here, as long as it had privacy, Neal, and a convenient wall to pin him to.

Peter fumbled a handful of cash into the folder—he was in no mood to wait for change.

“Si dispone di una buona lì questa volta, Neal. Mantenere questo,”[1] the man said to Neal as they headed for the door.

"Sto provendo."[2] Neal muttered back.

The cool air hit Peter's face, waking him up as they headed for the car.

“'This one?'” Peter asked as they climbed in. “How many dates have you brought here, anyway?”

“Jealous, Peter?” Neal teased.

Peter was quiet a moment. “Maybe a little,” he admitted.

Neal's hand landed on Peter's knee and lingered there for a long, reassuring moment.

“Since when do you speak Italian anyway?” Neal demanded, lightening the mood.

“Since I had to chase you from Naples to Milan!” Peter retorted, putting the car in gear. “I know a few words. Just the basics: “Seguire che motorino!”[3]

"Avete visto un giovane uomo stranamente bello che non ha fretta?”[4]

"Meglio assicurarsi di avere ancora il vostro portafoglio"[5]

Neal was still laughing when they pulled up outside of Peter's door.

The laughter died down as Neal focused on where they were. “Oh,” he said cogently. “Satchmo. Of course.”

Peter turned off the engine and sat quietly in the driver's seat.

“Could we—maybe take him back with us? To my place? I can keep him away from Bugsy.”

“We could,” Peter allowed. “Or you could stay here.”

“Do you have a guest room?” Neal asked hopefully.

Peter shook his head. “We turned the second bedroom into Elizabeth's office,” he explained. “We have a pull-out couch. And no, neither of us are sleeping on it.”

Neal was performing some kind of complicated stage business with his cuffs, which was his version of fidgeting uncomfortably.

Peter sighed. “Elizabeth told me I'd have to use this,” he said. He reached over Neal into the glove compartment, pulled out an envelope, and handed it to Neal.

The cream-colored paper was gorgeous, with a rag content higher than some shirts. “Neal”, the outside envelope read, in an understated calligraphic font. The flap wasn't sealed. Inside was another envelope and, within that, a slip of tissue paper.

Beneath that lay an elegant square card, whose copperplate printing read, in its entirety: “What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”

Helplessly, Neal started laughing again.

Below, in her own handwriting, Elizabeth had added, “It's okay, Neal. Promise. Just make Peter change the sheets.”

Automatically, Neal flipped the card over, feeling the indentations on the back. Yes, Elizabeth really had gone to the trouble of having a metal plate hand-engraved just to print a single invitation to Neal to get over his... jitters...scruples...whatever the kids were calling it these days. True, she had an industry discount, but still.

“You don't deserve your wife,” he informed Peter, finally opening the door and climbing out of the passenger seat.

Peter let out the breath he'd been holding and followed. “I know.”

**************************

The weirdest thing about the next morning was how weird it wasn't. Peter had slept a lot better with Caffrey this time—it was his own bed, for one thing, and bigger, for another. Or maybe he was getting used to it. They both woke up with morning wood, and it was nice to be with someone who just knew what that was like, who moved smoothly into a mutual hand job with no more foreplay than a quirked eyebrow. (It still felt backwards to someone who had until recently never gripped a dick that was facing him—a reach-around while he was fucking Neal was far more intuitive—but Peter hoped he was getting the hang of it. Neal hadn't complained, anyway.)

They shared a shower that was a lot less sexy than it had looked in Peter's recent fantasies, but Peter hadn't thought to reset his alarm to leave time for a rematch. Anyway, there was something he didn't quite want to name about Neal matter-of-factly passing him the shampoo and scrubbing his back. And they had three more days to find out if the towel rod was as strong as it looked.

Neal looked pretty ridiculous—and also pretty irresistible—in Peter's borrowed sweatpants, the waist precariously sliding down to rest on his hipbones, but they would swing past June's on the way to work so he could pick up an outfit Jones wouldn't remember from yesterday. And his own toothbrush, because there were limits.

Neal made the coffee—and fresh squeezed orange juice, because he was still Neal. Peter got out his usual morning cereal for both of them, wondering if Neal ever ate anything this plebeian in his own home, but Neal seemed to take it in stride...at least until something heavier than an oat cluster landed in his bowl with a crunch. Neal picked it up and turned it over between his fingers, the oddest look on his face.

“Disappointed it's not another sheriff's star?”

“No, I still have the first one,” Neal responded absently—something Peter doubted he'd have admitted if he'd been paying full attention to his words instead of the object in his hands. “It's a secret decoder ring.”

Peter chuckled. “I'm pretty sure you can crack the code. Why are you so fascinated by that thing? Did you have one just like it when you were a kid?”

Neal finally looked up from the sealed plastic package. “No, and neither did you. These haven't been made since the '60s. They're collectible, especially unopened like this. So either we're eating the world's most expired breakfast, or...”

Peter's forehead crinkled in confusion. “Someone's infiltrated my cereal? Seems like a lot of work to break in just for that.”

Neal started to smile. “I suspect,” he said, “an inside woman.”

********************

After yesterday's triumph, it was a quiet day in the office; combing the cold case files and mostly coming up blank, though they'd put a couple feelers out on a pyramid scheme that reminded Neal of someone he'd met in the Caymans.

Peter cleared as much of his paperwork backlog as he could stand; Neal practiced card tricks on the probies in the break room and Peter pretended not to notice. The way he looked at it, cocky as most of them came out of college, it was a valuable part of their education to get conned by an expert. And Peter knew Neal never kept more than they could afford, even if he had to sneak the balance back into a breast pocket.

Right on the dot of five, for once, Peter collected Neal with a look and they headed home. Neal had offered to leave before him and get picked up a few blocks away, but Peter would be damned if he would act like a cheating husband. They walked out the door shoulder to shoulder, though Peter could feel Jones' eyes on his back.

*********************

Whatever Neal had imagined Peter had planned for Friday evening, somehow watching porn together in his living room wasn't it. Neal wasn't actually a big porn fan. Neither the people, nor the sets, nor the costumes ever lived up to his imagination. He could draw better himself—or just watch it on the inside of his eyelids. After four years in prison, he'd had a lot of practice at both.

Still, Neal didn't think there was much that Peter could ask him that he would say no to anymore—certainly not much to do with sex. Pathetic as it might be, Neal was perfectly happy to do anything that let him sit next to Peter and actually touch him, feel the warmth from his shoulder and thigh where they rested against Neal's.

And for all he knew, this was what straight men did with their—whatever he was. Maybe Peter and his college locker room buddies had sat around and watched girly movies and jerked each other off...and, okay, that mental image was all the porn Neal needed at the moment. College Peter all sweaty from a workout, like that time Peter had stayed at his place and Neal had had to feign a deep attachment to his upholstery to keep from licking the droplets on his collarbone. College Peter coming glistening from the showers, hard and naked and unashamed. One of his teammates, hazy in the steam, sitting on a bench at eye level with his cock, licking his lips... Neal shifted his hips in his suddenly too-tight trousers. Maybe Peter's sweatpants weren't such a bad idea after all.

The movie came on, and Neal got his second surprise of the night. Those were guys on the screen, both of them; and not a pair of implants in sight.

Actually the movie wasn't so bad. It was in Spanish, which meant at least one of them would not have to deal with the terrible dialogue problem. There was even a plot, sort of: two bank robber lovers on the run. It was sweet of Peter to pick something he thought Neal would like. Even though everyone was too young and too skinny for Neal's tastes, and the shirt collars were actively painful to look at.

The time when the older one caught his impulsive younger partner by the throat and threw him against the bank vault door was actually pretty sexy. And the time that he'd come up behind him and bit his neck, and the younger man had just melted back against him without even looking and sort of whimpered. And the time when the older one was driving the getaway car and the younger one went down on him while they raced through the desert... Neal shifted his hips again. From the corner of his eye he saw Peter's hand move. Neal cut his eyes sideways, hoping to watch Peter stroking his own cock—

“Are you taking notes?” Neal demanded. “What are you, critiquing the sheriff's technique at catching them?”

“Something like that.” Peter's hand oh-so-casually fell across the paper, obscuring it. Except that compared to Neal, Peter's oh-so-casual was like a herd of bison dropping a hint.

Neal made a sudden swooping grab at the paper. He missed, landing sprawled across Peter's lap, but the blush that heated the edges of Peter's ears made it all suddenly clear to him.

“You're writing down what I like, aren't you?” Neal demanded. “This is research!”

“I—yes,” Peter admitted.

Neal shifted so he was straddling Peter's thighs, blocking his view of the screen.

“Fuck the movie,” said Neal. “That—” a sideways jerk of his head indicated Peter's little investigatory project and its rather pathetic coverup—“is hot.”

Truth to tell, the intensity of Peter's scrutiny always had been a turn-on, the tiny particulars about Neal that he seized and remembered forever, as if they mattered. The way he put them together to understand Neal better than anyone. Back when Peter had been hunting him, it had made Neal feel like when a beautiful stranger caught you staring in the subway, and you locked eyes instead of looking away. Nowadays, Peter's fascination with any new detail Neal let drop made Neal feel like he was doing a striptease, sometimes, parceling himself out slowly so there would be something left to tantalize Peter with, next time.

Neal nibbled along the edge of one still-reddened ear and ran his tongue inside it to watch Peter shiver. He whispered huskily, “No wonder Elizabeth liked it when you put her under surveillance.”

Peter, a quick learner, leaned forward and sank his teeth into Neal where his neck met his shoulder, and damned if Neal didn't give the exact same whimper the man in the movie had. He was grinding his erection into Peter's as well as he could, trying to ride him through too much fabric, not enough purchase, not enough friction, not enough anything.

Please, Peter,” Neal said huskily.

“I love it when you beg,” Peter said, with the surprisingly wicked smile he produced every once in a long while. He caught Neal by the hair at the nape of the neck and tugged just hard enough to make it clear that Neal wasn't going anywhere Peter didn't want him to.

Neal's eyes went dark with desire. “I love it when you make me beg,” he admitted shamelessly.

Peter slid his hands up under Neal's shirt. “You're going to regret telling me that,” he threatened playfully.

Neal looked deep into his eyes. “No,” he said. “I'm not.”

Peter's callused fingers were rough on his nipples and what Neal was doing with his hips could only charitably be called grinding at this point. Writhing, really, was more accurate. Behind him on the forgotten TV screen, someone with an Argentinian accent was talking about going out in a blaze of glory. Neal was afraid that was going to happen to him, too.

“Condoms? Lube?” Neal asked urgently.

“Upstairs.” And then Peter solved the dilemma of how to get them without letting go by simply standing up with Neal still wrapped around him.

***************************

When Neal's soapy fingers parted Peter's ass cheeks in the shower, he froze. He wasn't—in principle—opposed to this. It was only fair, after all. It was just that he had no experience with it; well, practically none. One of Elle's slender fingers during a blow job when she'd been reading some women's magazine: pleasant enough, but seldom repeated, because having to bother with lube and hand-washing and gloves to cover her nails took away from the moment.

It was just that even Elizabeth's super moisturizing body wash wasn't much of a lube. It was just that Peter wasn't ready, and it might not work, and he didn't want this—delicate, fragile—thing with Neal to be freighted with failure, not yet. Or with stopping. Or with words. So he just stood there with his back to Neal like he was in a lineup and felt Neal's patient, unhurried fingers get every single millimeter of him clean. He wasn't even going in, not really, not like Peter did when he was finger-fucking Neal, half of him as thrilled by the sight of his thick digits disappearing inside something so small as he had been when he first got to third base with a girl in high school—and the other half impatient for Neal to relax enough to take his cock.

And then it abruptly became clear that Peter had no idea what this was, because Neal slid liquidly down Peter's back with a rasp of nails along his spine, and then he was pulling Peter's ass cheeks wider apart, and Peter barely had time to tense before Neal was kissing him, there. Devouring him really, teasing his hole with his tongue like he did Peter's mouth when they kissed, lapping, thrusting with his tongue. Holy fuck, in forty years this had never even occurred to Peter as a thing that people could do, that they would want to, he didn't even know what its fucking name was, and Caffrey's wicked mouth was gentle and relentless and it was too much, not enough, he was pressing his whole body into the cold tile wall in front of him, rock hard cock and all, just for the contrast, for having something solid to hold onto while Caffrey's tongue took him apart.

Neal was gripping Peter's thighs now, burying his face deeper until Peter didn't see how he could possibly breathe. Peter was shaking, he was making high pitched keening sounds that were not exactly manly and that Caffrey would probably mock him for later, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Peter was so close, his balls gone high and tight and one stroke would put him over the edge but he didn't want to paint the wall, not now. “Wait,” he gasped.

He turned around and his heart almost stopped, Neal was so beautiful, on his spread knees, his hard cock hanging heavy between them. He wasn't even touching it. He was staring up at Peter, his lips swollen and red. Peter reached for his cock and it didn't take three strokes before he was coming on Neal's face and Neal was opening his mouth to catch as much as he could, like a fucking baby bird, before the shower washed it away.

There was something about Caffrey on his knees that was doing something funny to Peter's psyche, had him wondering just how much he could push this, how much Caffrey wanted him to. He could tell Neal to take care of himself, down there, while he watched. He could slide one bare foot under Neal's balls and tell him to hump it, like a dog. There was something about those eyes with their wide dark pupils, that aching neglected cock, that said Caffrey wouldn't say no. But—Peter's eyes fell on the anklet. No. There were some questions he wasn't ready to ask, not yet, not the way things were between them. Not until he was sure Neal was thinking with the big head anyway, not without way more talking than Peter was up for this early in the morning.

“Get up,” he said roughly. “Turn around. And hang on.”

It turned out the towel rack wasn't as strong as it looked. But it was weirdly companionable, doing minor home repairs with Neal. The Home Depot was nearly empty – it was too late on Saturday morning for the contractors and too early for the brunching Brooklynites. Neal eyed all the strange gadgets as if he knew exactly what he wanted to do with them, and Peter eyed Neal with fascination, trying to imagine what kind of arcane con could possibly require a ratchet, a length of PVC pipe, and LED lights to achieve.

Peter channeled his childhood watching his dad at work into tiles that were, if anything, rather straighter than the originals, and Neal handed him exactly the tool he needed a second before he needed it. They were as good a team at this as they were at everything else, and Peter didn't know why he was so surprised. Okay, so it was hard to picture Neal as a homeowner, but anyone who could carve stone and cast plaster and stretch his own canvases could certainly handle mastic.

While it cured, they ate eggs and bacon and the much better coffee Neal had brought with him from June's. They took Satchmo for a run in the park. Peter threw a stick for Satch until he'd reduced him to blissful idiocy, while Neal sat on a bench, drinking in the scenery as if he'd never seen it before. Which, come to think of it, maybe he hadn't—Prospect Park was outside Neal's radius, when he was on his own, and like most Manhattanites he seemed reluctant to cross running water anyway.

“They have goats in the summer,” Peter found himself telling Neal.

“Of course they do.”

“Maybe next year...” Peter stopped himself. Who the hell knew if he and Neal would still being doing... whatever they were doing... next month, let alone next year. And why the fuck would he think cosmopolitan, sophisticated Neal would want to see goats, anyway? He was fine when he talked to Neal like his partner. As soon as he tried to flirt, he turned into the idiot who told women they looked thirsty.

Neal didn't seem to mind though. “Maybe I'll feed them your terrible tie.”

“Which one?” Peter demanded before he could stop himself. Neal seemed to have objections to a lot of his ties.

Neal grinned. “Wait and see.”

*******************************

Peter cast a quick, covert, longing glance—at the TV. He was pretty sure Elle would tell him that a man who had his devastatingly gorgeous new lover over for the weekend for the very first time should not be sneaking lustful looks at inanimate objects. But, well, he and Neal had been together every single minute for 48 hours now, and Peter was pushing 40, and he had a refractory period, and the Yankees were in the playoffs. He would watch it later, he told himself, but it wasn't the same.

Neal gave a low, throaty chuckle that pretty well reconciled Peter to missing the game as long as he could fill that throat with something else, right now.

“It's all right, Peter,” he said. “I came prepared.” He rummaged into the patinaed leather satchel that he'd brought in lieu of a normal person's backpack or gym bag, and pulled out what he explained were noise canceling headphones.

“Sit,” he said. “The game's starting. I'll make popcorn.”

Neal came back a few minutes later with a giant bowl of popcorn, plus a beer for Peter.

Peter eyed him suspiciously. “You want something,” he said.

“Yes,” Neal admitted. “But it can wait till half-time.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Baseball doesn't have half-time!...you knew that, didn't you.”

“Guilty,” Neal admitted with no breath of shame at all. “I have to have my fun somehow.”

He put on the headphones—which made him look like an air traffic controller, something Peter didn't think he'd mention if he wanted to get laid that night. Neal sat sideways on the couch, so he could lean back against the side of Peter's broad shoulder, and began fiddling with the ridiculous decoder ring.

It was the 7th inning stretch. Peter muted the TV. He had no interest in listening to 54,000 people sing God Bless America in what felt like at least 54 different keys. He glanced over at Neal. He hadn't—exactly—forgotten Neal was there. It was just that it felt so natural, his weight leaning up against Peter, the subtle scent of his hair rubbing off on Peter's shirt.

Neal was not paying any attention to him at all. He was deep in concentration, working that ludicrous code ring as if it held the secret to something precious. Peter succumbed to temptation and pulled one of Neal's headphones away from his ear. “Wanna get me another beer?”

Neal jumped. Peter was surprised at how proud he was of that. Neal was practically the poster felon for situational awareness. He never forgot his surroundings. So either Peter was sneakier than he thought or—Neal trusted him.

“Bite me, Peter. Get your own damned beer.” That was reassuring. It meant whatever Neal wanted, it didn't require truly epic levels of sucking up, so it probably shouldn't involve jail time.

“What are you doing, anyway?”

Neal sighed and slipped the headphones down around his neck.

“Not watching baseball.”

“And?”

“What does it look like?” Neal wasn't really as cranky as the words sounded. He was just messing with Peter, to get a little of his own back for being ignored for two hours in favor of men in tight pants. Peter had watched enough ball games with Elizabeth to recognize the signs, although Elle usually managed to at least sort of pretend to be paying attention.

“It looks,” Peter said with heavy patience, “like you're decoding a message.”

“There speaks the best the Bureau has to offer.”

“I caught you,” Peter reminded him.

To his surprise, Neal smiled. “Three times,” he agreed, and to Peter's complete shock, nuzzled Peter's shoulder. Being balls deep in this man's ass had felt less intimate.

Peter also wasn't totally sure what Neal was counting as the third time, since he was always vehement that stings didn't count. But it seemed safer not to ask.

“A message from who?” he asked instead.

“Elizabeth.”

Peter had no idea what to make of that.

“What does it say?”

“I don't know yet.”

*********************

The Yankees won. On pure autopilot, Peter snugged one arm around Neal and gave him a quick celebratory buss on the lips, the way he always did with Elle on these occasions. Neal looked startled, but not, on reflection, unpleased.

“Is that why Elizabeth is willing to watch the game with you?” He asked curiously.

“She says she mostly just likes to see me sit still and stop working for once,” Peter said, though he couldn't quite keep a straight face.

“There's two of us now,” Neal said. Peter forbore to point out that there had been two of them before he was fucking them both, too. “We can surround you and make you sit still for something with dialogue.”

Movie night, huh. That sounded... really nice, actually. As long as it wasn't one of those awful Fellini films that Neal liked. Just reading the plot summary gave Peter a headache. “I get veto.”

Neal shook his head. “Elizabeth can be the tie breaker.”

Come to think of it, Peter realized, Neal seemed a lot more relaxed at the prospect of being around Elizabeth than he had since this whole thing started.

“What did the message say?” he asked.

Neal handed Peter the grocery list pad that showed his work. “No takebacks. S. 116.”

Peter grinned. “You ever get the feeling she thinks we're a little immature?”

“Playful,” Neal corrected, in as pure a case of wishful thinking as Peter had ever encountered.

“Anyway, since when does it take you two hours to decode a simple substitution cipher?”

“It took me three minutes to do the cipher. It took me two hours to find the message.”

“Where was it?” Peter asked, curious. He knew he got pretty caught up in the game sometimes, but he was pretty sure he would have noticed Neal conducting a methodical search of the living room—and he definitely would have noticed him leaving.

“On the bookshelf. Elizabeth moved certain books slightly forward.”

“Or the rest back?”

“Now you know what took the two hours. Forward, back, first letter, last letter, author name—there's a lot of permutations, especially when you're not even sure you're not making the whole thing up.”

“So what's S. 116? Sounds like a locker number.”

“It’s a sonnet. Shakespeare.” Neal’s voice changed subtly as he recited from memory:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

“Why is my wife sending you love poems?”

Neal couldn't mistake that tone. “Which of us are you jealous of?”

“Both,” Peter muttered.

“How does that even work?” Neal demanded. He knew he should be reassuring Peter, but he was too fascinated by Peter’s logic—and anyway, it was hard to reassure somebody effectively until you understood what the hell they were worried about in the first place.

“It’s just—you and Elle have so much in common. Paté. Jazz. Fish eggs. Gallery openings.” Peter was running out of examples. “Never forgetting birthdays… Not understanding the designated hitter rule…” Being out of my league in the looks department, Peter added mentally, but had the sense not to say it out loud. “Part of me can’t help wondering if you’re going to wake up one day and realize you’re a better match with each other than either of you are with me.”

Neal was openly laughing at him now, and Peter couldn’t decide if he was more offended or relieved.

“Much as I’ve always wanted a relationship based on foie gras—and by the way, I do understand the designated hitter rule, I just don’t care—Elizabeth and I have only one thing in common that matters: You. Of all the things you could possibly find to worry about—” something in the set of Neal's jaw suggested he had a list of his own alternatives, here—“Elizabeth and me leaving you for each other is not on the table.”

“If you’d asked me two months ago, I would have said you and me was not on the table,” said Peter.

“Peter—you and me was impossible like you coaching the Yankees. Elizabeth and me is impossible like me coaching the Yankees.

“That…actually makes sense,” Peter admitted, adding sheepishly after a long moment, “So does that mean no threesomes?”

“I didn't say that,” said Neal, amused.

“Oh. Well. Okay then.” Peter subsided, whether shamefaced at his irrational paranoia or chewing over that new datum of possibility, Neal couldn't tell.

“If anything, I'm the storm in this scenario,” Neal said, despite knowing it was always a mistake to explain poetry to Peter.

He hoped he was, anyway. He felt like the unseaworthy boat, most days. And he still feared Elizabeth might see him as the remover, to be resisted, and overcome.

Peter's blank look did not shift. Neal gave up and bottom-lined it for him in charmless modern English. “She's saying even if you change—even if I change you, change your marriage—it won't matter. She'll still love you just the same as she did before you met me.”

“I could have told you that,” Peter said, promptly forgetting that he'd been worried about losing her all of a minute earlier.

“Yes,” said Neal. “But I needed to hear it from her.”