The one year anniversary of Kate’s death fell on a completely normal Tuesday. Neal got up, dressed, and went to work, stopping for his usual coffee on the way. They were between cases, and Peter probably would’ve given him the day off if he’d asked, but he hadn’t. He hadn’t said a word about it. Neal wasn’t sure that Peter even remembered what day it was, and he was torn between wanting Peter to remember - wanting someone to remember - and wanting to avoid having to talk about it.
Mozzie would’ve remembered. And even if Kate hadn’t been Mozzie’s favorite person, he would’ve gotten Neal blind drunk and sat with him while he cried. But Mozzie had gone out of town three days earlier on urgent, unspecified business, and so Neal was on his own.
He could talk to Peter, Neal thought. Peter would listen without judging, and he’d take Neal out for a drink or two, though he wouldn’t get him drunk. But he didn’t particularly want to talk to Peter. Talking to Peter reminded Neal that when Kate’s plane exploded, he wasn’t about to tell Peter good-bye and turn his back on him; he was about to choose Peter over Kate. Out of everything that had happened that day, that was the one thing Neal still hadn’t come to terms with a year later.
By the end of the day, Neal was pretty sure that Peter had remembered. He’d asked how he was doing one time too many, and sometimes Neal glanced up and caught Peter looking at him, watching him, as though he expected him to break down crying in the middle of the bullpen. At six o’clock, Peter told him to head on home. Neal thought about arguing, but he didn't want Peter to think he had to keep an eye on him. He walked back to June’s, even though it was cold and getting colder, remembering how the wind had whipped across the airfield that day.
It took him nearly forty minutes to get home, and by the time he got there he was frozen through. The house was warm, though, and the climb up to the fourth floor helped him unfreeze a little. He let himself in, thinking that he might watch a movie and drink a glass of wine and hopefully fall asleep early, waking up tomorrow morning when it wasn’t the one year anniversary of Kate’s death.
He did not expect to find Elizabeth Burke making dinner in his kitchen.
“Hi there,” she said, looking up from where she stood chopping something - mushrooms, it looked like. Neal just stood there, blinking. “Dinner’s going to be a couple minutes. I hope you’re hungry, I’m making pizza. Glass of wine?”
“Uh, sure,” he said, finally moving. “Elizabeth, not that I’m not glad to see you, but what are you doing here?”
“Making dinner,” she said, sprinkling the chopped mushrooms over the pizza. He frowned, and she gave him a sad half-smile. “I know what day it is, sweetie.”
“Oh,” Neal said. He sat down at the table and let himself slump, just a little. It’d been a long walk back from the office, and he was still cold. But the apartment was even warmer than the house was. El slid the pizza into the oven, set a timer, and brought two glasses of red wine over to the table.
“Was this Peter’s idea?” Neal asked.
“No,” El said. “And he isn’t joining us, at least not for dinner. He’ll pick me up later, but he’s having drinks and dinner with James Shattuck from NYPD.” She turned her wine glass slowly between her hands. “I thought you could maybe use some TLC from someone who wasn’t involved in everything. Someone who doesn’t have an opinion about Kate, and who’s just willing to listen.”
“Oh,” Neal said again. He looked down at his wine glass, and then sipped at it. It was a nice, mellow red he thought he’d had at the Burkes’ house before - nothing too heavy or unusual. “Thank you.” He looked away, unable to meet her eyes. Honesty was a skill he was starting to acquire, but it was still painful at times, and it didn’t help that in a certain light and at a certain angle, Elizabeth looked a bit like Kate herself. “It’s hard sometimes,” he admitted. “Mozzie and Peter both think she didn’t care, but they didn’t know her like I did.”
“No, they didn’t,” El agreed. “And I didn’t know her at all. Tell me about her? If you want,” she added, a little hastily. “If you’d rather talk about something else -”
“No,” Neal said, quickly. “No, I want to talk about her.” Just how much he hadn’t realized until that moment. He hadn’t talked about her in months, he realized; about wanting to find out who’d killed her, yes, but not about her. No one had asked him, and he hadn’t wanted Peter and Mozzie to look at him in pity. But Elizabeth didn’t look like she pitied him. She just looked patient.
It took Neal a moment or two to decide where to begin. “I met her on a job,” he said at last. “I was there to con her boss, and the last thing I needed was to fall for her, but it happened anyway, much to Moz’s dismay. When the job - ended, I told her who I really was, and she decided to come with me.” Looking back, Neal had to wonder how much of that had been true feelings for him and how much of that had been a lack of any other options. Career opportunities for Vincent Adler’s PA were probably pretty thin on the ground. But even if she hadn’t loved him then, he believed that she had come to love him later. Trusting him, though - that was another story. Neal wasn’t sure she’d ever really trusted him.
“And she . . . worked with you?” El asked, sounding uncertain.
Neal had to smile. “Yeah. She was a born con-artist, she just hadn’t had the chance to realize it yet. She had a face you wanted to trust, and she wasn’t a bad hand at forgery either.” Not as good as Neal had been, but she also hadn’t had as much practice as he’d had. With time, she might’ve been one of the greats. It was possible she was, in fact; he knew almost nothing about how she’d kept herself afloat while he was in prison. “We had some great times.”
El settled back in her chair, her glass of wine cradled against her chest. “Tell me about them,” she said.
“I probably shouldn’t.”
El waved this away. “This is between you and me. What Peter doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Neal took a long sip of wine and then drew a deep breath. He told her about Venice and the Antioch manuscripts, and then about Paris and a certain painting in the Musée d’Orsay that hadn’t actually been painted by Monet at all. He told her about how they’d plotted out how they’d steal the “Mona Lisa” if they were going to (which they weren’t, because Kate loved the classics but that was a cliché), and how he’d stolen a ring for her in Edinburgh and planned how he would propose to her someday - not at the top of the Eiffel Tower, not on a gondola in Venice, but right here in New York.
His voice broke at the end of that story. It was pretty late by then; the pizza lay mostly demolished between them, and they’d drunk the entire bottle of wine El had brought and started on one from Neal’s own collection. El reached out and covered his hand with her own, and the two of them sat for a moment, just breathing, until a knock at the door broke the spell.
El stirred. “That’ll be Peter,” she said, and sure enough the door opened, and Peter walked in.
“Hey, Peter,” Neal said, scrubbing a hand across his face in an attempt not to look like he’d just been crying.
“Hey, Neal. Did you two have a nice evening?”
“We did,” El said, standing to greet him with a hug and a kiss. “How’s Captain Shattuck?”
“Not bad,” Peter said. “Are you ready?”
El looked at Neal. He nodded, even though the truth was that he really didn’t want to be alone just yet. But he couldn’t ask her to stay any longer, not when they all had to be up the next morning and she’d already done so much more than he’d ever expected.
But El being El, she saw straight through him. “I think I want one more glass of wine,” she said, seating herself at the table again. She reached for the bottle, but barely poured herself any. “Hon?”
“No, thanks, not if I’m going to drive us home,” Peter said. “I will have that last slice of pizza, though.”
Neal breathed quietly, not saying anything, but simply grateful that the two of them were giving him some time to pull himself together before leaving him on his own. And even after they’d left and Neal lay alone in his bed with thoughts and memories of Kate, that sense of gratitude warmed him.