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Girl on the Side

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1. Starting Over

No one said it would be easy.

Sara looked around the cramped living room where boxes of her belongings were stacked along one wall. She was living out of her suitcase, with closet space at a premium in the small Brooklyn apartment.

"You can stay as long as you need to," Callie said, sitting down on the sofa with two glasses of iced tea. "If you ever feel like you're wearing out your welcome, I'll tell you that you're not. Got it?"

"Got it," Sara replied. She'd known Callie since college when they were both in pre-law. Callie stuck with it, and was now a moderately-priced lawyer at an office in Park Slope, while Sara dropped it after her first semester and became a history major.

Sara knew it was a good friendship, but she never knew how good it was until she was divorced, unemployed, and needed a place to stay when she couldn't afford her apartment anymore.

"So what's your first step?" Callie asked.

"Find a job," Sara replied without hesitation. "I still have references from Sterling Bosch, and there are a couple of companies that had been trying to headhunt me for a few years now. It shouldn't take long. I can't imagine that I'll be here for more than a month. I don't want to impose."

"What the hell did I just say? You've been here two hours. You're not imposing." Callie set down her glass and took Sara's hand. "I'm here for you, as long as you need me to be."

Sara smiled. "Right. Sorry. You know me, Callie. I'm not... asking for help isn't my strong suit. But then again, neither is failure, and I've been doing that all the time lately. So, really, this is just branching out."

Callie didn't look impressed with Sara's sudden philosophy. "Girl, you needed out of that marriage. That wasn't failure. And what that asshole did to you is just proof at how much you needed out."

"It just feels like it's so late," Sara said. "I know it's not, but I had a life. Even if most of that life was wrapped up in my job, I had that. Everything I am was wrapped up in that, and I don't have it anymore. I don't even know how to be someone who doesn't work for Sterling Bosch."

"Then figure it out. I know you. You're not going to sit on this couch forever, but if you want to take some time, you can. You don't have to jump into anything if you don't want to."

Sara laughed. "I appreciate that, but I need a job. Even if I find one right away, it'll take me some time to get back on my feet. Unless I can find a great deal on an apartment."

"You do what you gotta do," Callie said. "I know you will."

Sara picked up her iced tea and took a sip. "If I can just get my foot in the door. I don't even need my old position. I worked up through Sterling Bosch. I can do that again. It's better than nothing." She paused, then added, "Well, I'd like to have my old position, but I'll take what I can."

"You don't have to convince me. I know you're going to do whatever it takes. I thought I was a hard worker, and you make me look lazy."

"Well, I'm ready to start my new life," Sara said. She held up her glass in a toast. "To starting over."

Now, if only she felt as confident as she sounded.

2. Chance Meeting

Neal slipped his wallet into his back pocket and took a few steps down the line to wait for his coffee. He smiled at the barista as she set the plastic cup on the counter.

"Thank you," he said, and turned toward the door. He paused, almost doing a comical double take at the woman stepping inside. He grinned and stepped up to her. "Sara?"

She jumped like he startled her. "Neal! What are you doing here?" She put a hand to forehead and laughed. "It's Starbucks, you're getting a coffee. How are you? That's what I meant."

"I'm good," Neal replied. "I'm really good. How are you? You look fantastic."

It was a bit of an exaggeration. Not that she wasn't lovely in her pale blue sundress, but her makeup couldn't cover the dark circles under her eyes.

"Thanks." She stepped up to the counter and ordered her drink while Neal took a step back to admire the lines of her dress her legs from the knees down.

Sara turned back to him and smiled. "So, what are you up to these days? You're off the anklet, right?"

"For over a year now," Neal replied. He moved out of her way so she could get to the other end of the counter. "I'm doing freelance business security now."

"Freelance -- are you doing that thing where you break into buildings and show them all their security flaws?"

He grinned. "That's exactly what I'm doing."

"They do know who are are, right?"

"That's the selling point. And I have some very good references."

"Oh, I see," Sara said, reaching for her drink. "So you're still in contact with Peter, then."

"I see him all the time," Neal replied easily, knowing it was the perfect half-answer. Well, it was the truth, but not all the details. She didn't ask for the details, and giving the bare minimum was habit. Directing the conversation back to her, he said, "I heard you got married."

"I did." She took a sip of her coffee. "And I got divorced. About three months ago."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"I'm not. I should have done three months before that." She moved around him, for the door. "It was nice seeing you, Neal, but I've really got to go."

He reached out and touched her arm, and feeling her skin against his fingers, he remembered how good she felt. "Hey, we should get together sometime. Drinks or maybe dinner."

Sara blinked at him and slowly, she nodded. "Yeah, that sounds nice. Here." She dug around in her bag and pulled out a business card. "Call my cell, the work number's outdated."

Neal looked at the card for a moment before slipping it in his pocket. I'll call you soon," he said.

"Okay. Great." She grinned, and he remembered that smile, too. "I'll see you, Caffrey."

He watched as she walked out the door and into the summer heat. He felt the card in his pocket and let out a long breath.

He was going to have some explaining to do.

3. Opening Up

"Anyone home?" Neal called into the house after he opened the door. Satchmo came running to him, and he knelt down to give the dog a scratch behind the ears.

"In here," Elizabeth replied from the kitchen.

Neal followed the sound of her voice and smiled. She was gorgeous, still in her work clothes, but barefoot, standing in front of the counter, waiting on the coffee pot. "Hey."

"Hey," she said, tilting her face up as he kissed her cheek. "I'm making some coffee, you want some? I couldn't keep my eyes open this afternoon."

"No, thanks," he replied. "I stopped at Starbucks on my way home. After sitting meetings all afternoon, I know what you mean about having trouble staying awake. Sitting in meetings listening to people talk about how great their crappy security is -- it's not what I signed on for."

"You signed on because you like the allure of getting caught," Elizabeth said, poking him in the stomach. "It's not fun if there isn't any risk."

"You know me too well."

She smiled and reached for the pot as the coffee finished brewing. "Maybe you should try napping in the meetings and see if anyone notices."

"Now, there's an idea," Neal replied, pushing the sugar bowl toward her.

"I'm full of good ideas," Elizabeth said. "Like, what do you think of letting me sit on the couch with my coffee and my feet up while you cook dinner?"

Neal kissed her cheek again and smiled. "I think that's a great idea."

"You're too kind. I think we'll keep you." She wrapped her arms around him, and Neal rested his hands on her hips. "I don't think my husband will mind sharing."

"Not as long as he gets his," Neal replied.

Elizabeth laughed. "Yeah, he's funny like that. I love you."

He pulled her into a hug. "I love you too."

Later that evening, over turkey burgers and carrot-raisin salad, Neal listened to Peter talk about his latest case. Even though he wasn't a consultant anymore, he still liked to help Peter when he could.

"How was your day?" Peter asked, when he finished talking about mortgage fraud.

"Long," Neal replied. "A lot of meetings. Though I did run into Sara when I stopped at Starbucks."

Elizabeth reached for the wine to pour herself a second glass. "How's she doing?"

"I don't really know, actually. We mostly talked about me. Though, she did mention that she got divorced recently. But she didn't seem broken up about it." Neal chuckled. "Not that I'd expect that out of her. She's good at covering that sort of thing."

"That's too bad, though, that her marriage didn't work out," Elizabeth said. "I've always liked Sara."

"Yeah, me too," Neal said. He swallowed and slowly said, "I may have done something impulsive."

Peter raised his eyebrows and set down his fork. "Impulsive? You? I don't believe it."

"Very funny. I, uh, I may have asked Sara out."

Elizabeth, who had been about to take a drink, paused with her glass in mid-air before slowly setting it down. From across the table, Peter stared.

When they didn't speak, Neal felt like he had to fill the space with words. "I didn't fully realize that I'd done it until after she left. It kind of slipped out. It doesn't need to be anything serious, it could just be drinks, or even dinner here. It could be casual. It doesn't have to be a date. She just -- she seemed lonely."

Maybe to relieve him from his babbling, Elizabeth reached over and placed her hand atop Neal's. "Do you want to go out on a date with her?"

"I'll do whatever you want me to," he replied.

"That's not what I asked. And be honest. I know that's not your strong suit, but try."

He took a deep breath. "I'd like to, but I don't know how this works. You guys opened to me, but am I open too?"

"I never really thought about it," Elizabeth said. "It's a valid question. What d'you think, honey?"

Peter reached for his beer and took a long drink. "I don't know," he said, setting the bottle down on the table. "This is all so sudden."

"I doesn't have to be," Neal said. "It's not like I'm getting married. It could just be one date. It might not even work out."

"I don't know if I'm comfortable with it," Peter said.

Neal held up his hands. "That's enough for me."

However, Elizabeth watched her husband speculatively, her hand still resting atop Neal's. "You know, you haven't been through this before."

"And you have?" Peter asked.

"Yes, I have. I remember how I felt when you told me you had feelings for Neal. It wasn't the same situation, I had suspected. But when you said it, it was scary. It wasn't just a date, it was feelings. Strong feelings, because you've never had anything else for Neal."

"But that was different. We were in that together."

She shook her head. "It didn't feel that way at the time. It felt like I was losing you."

Peter frowned, his eyes crinkling. "Honey."

"I know," Elizabeth said. "I know it wasn't like that, but the fears were there all the same."

"So I should just say yes?" Peter asked.

"I'm saying that we shouldn't make a decision right now," she replied. "Let's sleep on it and discuss it again tomorrow."

He nodded. "That sounds fair," he said, though he didn't sound completely convinced.

Elizabeth flashed Neal a smile, and he smiled back. He looked across the table and Peter was staring straight down at his plate.

 

 

That night, while they were getting ready for bed, Neal stopped outside the bathroom door, where Elizabeth had Peter cornered. Neal could have walked on, let them have their conversation, but he lingered there.

"Full disclosure," Elizabeth said. "Tell me what you're thinking."

Peter paused for a long time before he finally said, "I think I've always been afraid that Neal has one foot out the door. That he's still looking at how to run. And this is just a step out."

Neal leaned against the wall, letting his head fall back with a gentle thud. That was the absolute last thought on his mind, and it stung that Peter even thought about it. But he had earned it.

"I don't think so," Elizabeth said. "If he wanted to leave, he'd leave. He loves us, and I think that's the end of the story."

"Then why, El? If that's the end of the story, then why does he want to go out with someone else?"

"I'm not sure. I've been thinking about it, and... there are things we can't provide him. Have we ever introduced Neal as our boyfriend to anyone? We haven't told our families. My sister thinks he's our roommate, and said we were a little old for boarders, do you remember that? I know he understands, but it has to hurt. If he had a relationship independent of us, he could have those things. Someone who didn't have to think twice about telling people who he is to them."

Neal brought his hand up to his suddenly tense stomach. How was it that Elizabeth could read his emotions like a book? He hadn't even made the connection between asking Sara out and those feelings of loneliness when he was around their families, or even their neighbors, tip-toeing around the subject, and not being able to touch them freely, even just to brush his thumb across their hand. But as she said the words, the pieces fell into place.

"I don't want him to be independent of us," Peter admitted. "It's been a long time he's been truly independent of me."

Elizabeth hmmed, and Neal imagined she was running her hands up Peter's chest, over his tee shirt. "Maybe it's time. Maybe it's time to trust that he's going to come back."

"Maybe."

"Is it Sara? Would you feel more comfortable if Neal were going out with someone he hadn't before?"

"No," Peter said. "I always liked Sara. She was good for him."

"She still could be," Elizabeth said

Peter sighed. "Maybe we could talk about it again after one date. It could be a moot point if the date's a bust, anyway."

"If this is how he feels, I don't know that it would go away with one bad date. It could be something we're going to have to deal with, no matter what." There was the sound of a kiss, and a moment later, Elizabeth stepped out of the bathroom. She didn't seem surprised to see Neal standing off to the side of the door. She smiled and kissed his cheek. "You coming?" she asked, motioning to the bedroom.

"In a minute," Neal replied. He stepped into the bathroom, and Peter didn't appear surprised, either. Maybe they knew he had been listening.

"How much did you hear?" Peter asked.

"Enough." Neal stepped into Peter's space, but didn't touch him. "If I wanted to run, I would have done it a long time ago. I wouldn't have gotten settled and found a job, and made a home."

Peter nodded, then asked, "Can you blame me?"

"No, not really." He took Peter's hand. "I love you. And Elizabeth. And if you can't trust me--"

"Neal."

"--trust in that."

With his free hand, Peter reached up and touched Neal's face, drawing him in for a kiss. As their mouths met, Neal felt the sharp spark of desire spike, and he wrapped his arm around Peter's waist.

"Mmm," Peter mumbled against Neal's lips, and pulled back. "Are you trying to make me blindly agree to things?"

"You kissed me," Neal reminded him with a gentle smile.

"Oh, yeah." Peter laughed. He stroked Neal's cheek with his thumb. "Do you want to do this thing with Sara because you're missing something here? Is there something El and I can be doing better?"

Neal shook his head. "You guys are the best thing that ever happened to me. This is completely separate."

"Okay." Peter nodded. "Okay. Then... you have my blessing. But you need to tell us what's going on. Not everything, of course, but if things get serious with her, we want to know."

"It's a little premature to worry about that," Neal replied. He pulled Peter toward the door. "Let's go to bed. We can talk all the parameters over with El."

Peter gave Neal's backside an affectionate pat as they walked across the hall to the bedroom. "Does this mean if I meet a pretty girl, I can ask her out?"

"Do you see that happening?"

"Not really, no."

"Then I wouldn't worry about it."

4. First Date

Sara walked into the bar and looked around. It was nice and classy, laid back, with low lighting and little white candles on each of the tables. She smiled when she spotted Neal about halfway across the main room sitting at an intimate looking booth. He was, as to be expected, impeccably dressed in a suit and tie.

He slid out of the booth as she walked toward him. "Hey," he said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. "You look beautiful."

"Thanks," she said, slipped into the booth. Sitting on the table, right in front of her was a single, bright pink Gerber daisy. "Neal, it's beautiful. I can't remember the last time anyone got me flowers."

"It's not flowers. Just a flower," Neal said with a smile. "But it's customary, right?"

"I suppose so," she replied, glad that it was dark in there so he wouldn't see her blush.

Neal got them drinks, and he came back, setting her martini down on the cardboard coaster. "So, are you still with Sterling Bosch? You said your card was outdated."

"Oh, yeah, I'm... I'm not with them anymore," Sara said, pushing a lock of hair away from her face. "I haven't been for a couple months now."

"Did you get headhunted? Where are you now?"

She picked up her glass and took a drink. "Nowhere, actually. I was fired. Well, respectfully asked to resign. They offered me a great severance package, so I took it."

Neal widened his eyes. "You lived for that job. What happened?"

"It's... not a very flattering story. Let's just say that my ex-husband, who still has a job with Sterling Bosch, was angry with the divorce and made our private life very public to all of the employees and I was the only one who looked bad. The company couldn't legally fire me for it, but it was causing a disturbance or something, and, honestly, when they offered me the package, I was ready to get out."

Neal nodded, but didn't ask another question about it, and Sara was grateful. She was still feeling both embarrassment and a hot spark of anger when she thought about it. She'd worked hard for that company, working her way through the ranks since she graduated from college. It pissed her off that the company wouldn't stand behind her. But they were the same people who only sent a generic bouquet of carnations when they thought she was dead. She shouldn't have expected much more this time.

"So," she said a bit too loudly, "how's Mozzie?"

Neal laughed. "Mozzie is... he's Moz. He hasn't changed. He's a little wary of me now that I've gone legit, but he still comes over to drink my wine, so it's not that different."

"You always did have good taste in wine."

"And women."

Sara chuckled and toyed with the daisy. "How's Alex?"

"Ooh, ouch, I stepped into that one." Neal paused to grin. "I haven't heard from Alex in a couple of years. She disappeared, but that happens. She does that. I read about a Renoir stolen from a Paris museum last month that has her name all over it."

"Oh, that was her?"

Neal grinned. "That's my best guess. She's still out there."

"Is that how you thieves keep in contact? Steal something just to say hi?"

"It has been done, but usually it's more about keeping score." Neal sipped at his own glass. "But don't forget. That's alleged thief." He pointed a finger at her and smiled.

"I'll have to see it to believe it," Sara replied. "Are you still living at June's?"

He shook his head. "No, I'm in Brooklyn now. I guess you're not still in your same place either."

"No, Jeremy -- my ex -- and I lived in the city, and I stayed there even after he moved out, but when I lost my job, I had to sublet it. I moved in with a friend of mine from college, just until I get back on my feet. So I'm in Brooklyn, too. Back in Park Slope."

"And now I can come visit you there," Neal said, reaching for his glass. "Since I don't have a radius to adhere to anymore."

Sara laughed. "Yeah, I guess you could. Though, privacy is at a minimum, since I'm sleeping on the couch. And not a very comfortable couch. It's one of those that's meant to look great instead of being functional. But I can't complain. Except that I just did."

This time, Neal laughed. He set down his drink and reached across the table. He took her hand and rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. "This feels good. Do you ever remember why we didn't work out?"

"Because I was an insane workaholic and you were in love with Peter." Sara grinned when, even in the low light, she could see a blush across Neal's cheeks. "How'd that work out anyway?"

She'd meant it as a joke, a little tease at his old crush. She hadn't expected him to smile sheepishly. "It went well," he said. "I actually live with him now."

Sara blinked a few times, letting the words sink in. She pulled her hand away. "You're with -- Peter left his wife? What are you even doing here? What the hell is this? Peter left his wife and now you're cheating on him?"

"No! No, no, no," Neal said, holding up his hands. "Peter didn't leave Elizabeth. I'm with both of them. It's an open relationship, and it's not cheating. They know I'm here."

"What are you doing here? What do you want?" Sara asked, knowing she sounded desperate and hurt. She thought back to the phone call when she and Neal had set this up. He'd sounded as excited as she had felt. Had it been some kind of con? She didn't have anything left for him to swindle.

"I'm here because I want to be," Neal replied. "I want to be here. When I saw you the other day, I remembered how good we were together."

"And your relationship? Your open marriage? What about that? If this is some kind of scam, Neal, just tell me now so I can walk away."

He reached across the table, but he didn't touch her hands. "It's not a scam. What I have with Peter and Elizabeth, it's an open relationship. Open, meaning this is okay. I talked this over with them before I called you."

Sara pulled her hands off the table and placed them in her lap. "So, I had to be approved?"

"No. Well, sort of. "

"Well, that's good," she said, rolling her eyes. "Because I'd hate to be on a date with you when your spouses don't approve."

Neal frowned. "I know the situation can be hard to grasp and if you don't understand it, that's okay. But I want to be straightforward with you. I don't want to string you along. I want to be open and honest with you."

"Honesty, huh?" Sara picked up her martini and took a drink. "That's a good one."

"Believe it not, I've gotten pretty good at it. Be honest with me, and I'll be honest right back. That's the only way this open relationship thing works."

"Fine. You want honesty? You just made me feel really stupid. I was looking forward to this, and I thought you were too."

"I've been looking forward to this all week," Neal said, his voice a calm somber, and she believed him.

Sara sat back in the booth. "So, what is this? Are you looking for a fuck buddy? Or something fun and casual that you don't have to think about? I know we did casual, and I can do that, but... I don't know if it's what I want. Okay, right now it is. I know I'm not ready for anything serious, so I don't know what I was expecting. Other than you actually being single."

Neal smiled. "I may not be single, but I'm not unavailable. And I don't know what I want here either. It's too early to tell. But I know I want to be here with you. And I'm certainly looking for something more than a fuck buddy."

"Why didn't you just tell me about this up front?"

"Would you have gone out with me if you knew that I was dating not one, but two people? It's not the easiest situation to explain. You're only the second person I've told, and Mozzie already had it figured out. Peter and El's families don't know, their friends don't know. We're not... out."

Sara picked up her drink and drank the last of it. She set it down and frowned at the empty glass. "I don't know about this."

Neal nodded. "Okay. Can I get you another drink? You look like you need one."

She laughed. "Yeah, that'd be great."

He got up from the booth and Sara took a deep breath. Neal said it wasn't a scam, and she didn't think it was, but it was still strange. However, it didn't feel wrong. Of course Neal would be able to charm his the Burke's lives. And she knew how he had felt about Peter. It hadn't been a bad thing when they broke up, just a fact in their relationship that Neal was in love with someone else.

Now Neal was seemingly in love with two people. How was this going to be any different than it had been three years ago?

She picked up the flower he'd given her. It was a sweet gesture. He didn't have to do it. He didn't have to do any of this. She ran her finger along the stem and sighed.

What did it mean?

Neal came back and set her martini down in front of her. "I got you extra olives," he said.

"Have to use those conman skills somewhere, don't you?" Sara asked, picking up the chilled glass.

"I don't want to get rusty," he replied with a grin. "You never know when it's going to come in handy. Buying a new car or getting an upgrade to first class."

"Now that you can fly places again." Sara said. She smiled and asked, "Have you done any traveling since your parole ended?"

Neal looked a little surprised, maybe because she didn't want to talk about his relationship anymore, and she didn't get up and leave either. But his surprise only lasted a moment, and he smiled. "Right after, I spent a couple weeks Europe. Mostly moving around Italy, but I took a train to spend the weekend in Paris."

"I love Paris, but it's nicer out in the country," Sara said.

"That's right," Neal said. "You spent that summer in France. What was that, in college?"

She nodded and took a drink. "How was Italy? Believe it not, I haven't been there."

She was interested. Neal had always been interesting. They could at least finish out the date.

As the conversation went on, they ordered appetizers and Neal ordered another drink. "You said you were staying on your friend's couch. Are you looking for a place?"

"I'm looking for a job first," Sara replied as she fished an olive from the bottom of her glass. "I mean, if I could find a great place for under $800 a month, I'd be sold, but that's impossible. I'm not even looking."

"I can make some calls for you, if you'd like," Neal said.

"Do you have a lot of real estate contacts in the freelance security business?"

"No, but I do have contacts. I know people."

She laughed. "What are you going to do? Con some landlord agent into giving me a great deal?"

"Is that a challenge?" He grinned.

"And what would Peter think of that?" she asked.

"He would disapprove," Neal admitted, a bit sheepish. "But what he doesn't know won't hurt him. And, besides, it's not for my benefit."

Sara raised her eyebrows. "Well, it could be. My own place would mean more privacy."

"There is that." He winked at her and smiled.

After their plates were empty and the drinks were finished, Neal paid the check and they walked outside in the humid evening, the exhaust from a passing bus hanging heavy in the air.

"I should go," Sara said.

"When can I --" Neal paused and laughed. "Would you like to get together again?"

She considered him for a moment and nodded. "I had a good time," she said.

"Me too." He touched her elbow and took a step closer. "I'd like to kiss you, if that's all right."

"Is that on the list of approved activities?" Sara asked with a smirk.

Wordlessly, Neal brought his hand up to her cheek. He smiled and leaned in, pressing his lips to hers.

She closed her eyes and remembered how good he was at this.

5. After the Date

When Neal got home, Peter and Elizabeth were sitting on the couch, watching television. It was still early, only just past ten, but it still felt like they were waiting up for him.

"Hey," Elizabeth said, smiling. "How'd it go?"

"It went well," Neal said, slipping his keys into his pocket. He sat down next to her on the sofa and took her hand. "I told her about us, and she was a little pissed at first, I think, when she thought I was cheating, but something... she seemed to get it, I guess. We didn't talk about it a lot tonight, but we will."

Neal remembered how much Sara hadn't liked the idea of needing to approved by Peter and Elizabeth. He couldn't explain how little it was about her, and much more about him. About the three of them, figuring out what open meant and where their boundaries were. About the three of them all getting what they needed.

"So you'll be seeing her again?" Peter asked cautiously.

Neal nodded. "We haven't made any plans, but I think we will be. How do you feel about that?"

Elizabeth looked to Peter and they had a quick, silent conversation with their eyes. She turned back to Neal and said, "We were talking while you were out. It was weird, not having you here. But if this goes somewhere, or if it doesn't, and you end up meeting someone else, there was going to be a lot more of that. But if he want this, we're going support you all the way. Through it all."

Neal looked around her at Peter and asked, "Peter?"

He nodded. "We want you to be happy, Neal."

"I feel like I'm hurting you," Neal replied.

"No, honey," Elizabeth said, reaching up to touch his face. "No one said this would be easy. We're in transition. We just need to keep talking through this. We'll make it."

He kissed her forehead and then stretched his arm across her lap to take Peter's hand. "I love you."

Peter squeezed his hand and smiled. "I love you, too."

7. Moving On Up

Sara woke up on Thursday to a text from Neal: Meet for coffee? Noon?

Smiling, she quickly sent him an affirmative reply and pushed back the blankets. She popped her neck and rubbed at her lower back. She was grateful to Callie, but the sofa wasn't meant to be slept on for weeks.

Callie was already at work, so Sara had the bathroom to herself for a quick shower. She dressed casually, jeans and a red button-down shirt.

Hair dried and makeup done, Sara grabbed her handbag and headed out the door. She and Neal had made a habit of meeting at the Starbucks in the Financial District where they'd run into each other two weeks before.

Neal was already there when Sara arrived, sitting at a table wearing a blue open-collared shirt, with two drinks sitting in front of him. She sat down next to him, and he leaned over to kiss her.

"Hey," he said. "Iced coffee with cream and a shot of hazelnut, right?"

"That's exactly right, thank you." Sara picked up the sweating cup and took a sip. "Perfect. So, what's going on?"

Neal grinned. "I think I found you a place to live. If you're interested."

"Yes, I'm interested! Where is it? How?"

"I told you, I was going to make some calls. I did. I know some very charitable people."

Sara set her cup down on the table, looking at Neal with narrowed eyes. "This isn't some shady criminal contact, is it?"

"Shady?" Neal repeated. "No."

That certainly didn't make her feel any better, but right now she wasn't in a place to be picky. She didn't think Neal would suggest she live anywhere dangerous, or with anyone unseemly.

"So are we going to check it out, then?" Sara asked.

"That's the plan, if you're interested. I mean, you'd have a roommate, and there's a dog. But it's in Manhattan, and it's only $700 a month."

"I like dogs," she replied. "I don't want to own a dog myself, but I like them fine. And $700 in Manhattan? I'll live in the closet. Well, for that price, it probably is a closet. But anything to not be imposing on Callie's sofa. And to have a real bed, and maybe not so much lower back pain?"

Neal laughed. "I think it's a little bigger than a closet. You want to go check it out?"

"Yeah! Let's go now."

They gathered up their drinks, and Neal hailed a cab. When they passed West 51st, Sara turned to him. "Are we going to June's? Your old room?"

Neal grinned. "I told you, charitable friends. And June definitely the most charitable woman I know."

He looked pleased with himself, but Sara felt her stomach churn. "She never liked me after that incident with the police."

"Yeah, I know, but it's a favor to me. It didn't take anything to convince her. She likes helping people. And didn't you say anything to not be on Callie's sofa? You know the room's bigger than a closet."

"I know," Sara muttered, but she didn't feel much better.

At the house, Neal produced a key and let them in without knocking. He lead her upstairs, though she still knew the way well.

"God," she said, looking around as they entered the third floor apartment. "Nothing's changed in here, has it?"

"Not much," Neal agreed. "I guess I don't need to show you around. Bed, kitchen, and the bathroom's back there. You know your way around."

"Yeah..." Sara's eyes settled on a canvas that was hung next to the bed. She didn't remember that being there. Raphael's Saint George and the Dragon. She couldn't help but laugh. "Neal, please tell me that's not--"

"It's not," Neal said, walking over to her. "I forgot that was there. The yellow's too bright here, and see here?" He pointed to a spot in the lower left corner. "The strokes are far too wide. But it's good, right?"

She nodded. "Did you paint this?"

"No. If I had, there wouldn't be those flaws." He slipped his arm around Sara's waist. "Kate painted it. A few months before I moved out of here, I managed to track down her stuff, and some of it was my stuff. She'd packed it up while I was in prison. The painting was among them. It was her favorite, so she painted her own."

Sara raised her eyebrows. "Is that why you stole it? For her?"

Neal laughed. "Since the statute of limitation has passed on it... yes."

She laughed, too. "I'm going to guess that you don't still have it."

"No, not anymore," Neal replied, still smiling. "What would you do with it anyway? Take it to Sterling Bosch and beg for your job back?"

"Beg? No." She grinned up at him. "I'd demand it back."

"Then I wish I had it for you," Neal said. "I'm sorry I don't."

Sara twisted around in his arms and kissed him. "That's so sweet. You'd give me your stolen painting if you could. I'm so glad we're seeing each other."

He laughed. "I'm in luck. Your standards are really low."

She smiled and kissed him again. "Well, you just did me a really big favor here. That's kind of attractive."

"So, does that mean you're taking the room?" Neal asked. "We can move you in right now."

"As long as June's okay with it," Sara replied. "I don't want it to be awkward."

He touched hair and gently brushed a lock away from her face. "It'll be fine. That was a long time ago and she knows you're going through a tough time. And I think the house may be a little empty for her since I moved out. I know Moz comes over sometimes, but--"

"He'll knock before he comes in, right?"

Neal laughed. "I'd lock the door if I were you."

"I can do that." Sara kissed his cheek. "Thank you for this," she said.

He smiled. "I'm just glad I could help."

 

It took a few hours to get Sara's belongs from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, but they got it all there after a couple of trips.

Sara looked around the apartment, with her boxes and suitcases stacked in piles. There it was. Her whole life piled up around a dining room table.

"Hey," Neal said, coming up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. "You want to start unpacking or get some food? I haven't eaten since breakfast."

She turned her head and replied, "If you're hungry."

"You okay?" Neal asked, reaching up to gently take her shoulders in his hands and turn her around to face him. "This is a good thing, right? You didn't have to take it just because I offered. We can move this stuff back to Brooklyn."

"No, no, this is... I want this. It's amazing, but I..." She motioned behind to her belongings. "That's my life. Everything I have is in those boxes. That's it. And now I'm here in this -- this dream of an apartment with you and... Neal, you don't know how bad it was before I ran into you. It was a mess. To have things not only go well, but to start going this great? It's a little overwhelming."

"Well, get used to it," Neal said, grinning at her. "It's going to get better from here."

It was cheesy, but Sara couldn't help it -- his grin was contagious. She laughed and closed her eyes as he pulled her close and leaned in for a kiss. His lips brushed against hers, taking her in slowly, like he was savoring her the way he sipped at the first mouthful of wine from a new bottle. Not nearly as patient, Sara pushed in hard, kissing him deeply, pushing her hand up into his hair.

He leaned back just enough so he could look her in the eye. "You know," he said, his voice dropping low, "we finally have that privacy we've been missing."

She raised an eyebrow. "That's your seduction line, Caffrey? Now we have privacy? I think you can do better than that."

"You're right," Neal replied, unwinding his arms from around her. "Words are overrated." He cupped her face in his hands and pulled her into another kiss, this one this one open and hard. His hands slid down her neck to the top button of her shirt, pulling it open.

Sara's knees buckled. There'd been good night kisses, and even once they made out on the sofa before Callie came home and interrupted them, apologizing profusely as she did. To date Neal Caffrey for two weeks and not, well... it had been more challenging than Sara wanted to admit.

When she found her footing again, Sara took a step forward, forcing Neal to move back. They stumbled toward the bed and fell down on it together in a heap.

"Just like old times," Neal said, grinning up at her as he tugged on her shirt until the next button popped open.

"Except this is my bed now," Sara replied. She pulled his shirttails out from his trousers and started unbuttoning his shirt from the bottom up, quickly revealing that gorgeous stomach. "So you do what I say."

He laughed. "I don't see how that's any different from before."

She started to laugh, but cut herself off. "Shit, I don't -- condoms are in one of those boxes."

"Don't worry about it," Neal replied. He reached down and opened her jeans. "I've been told I have a very talented tongue."

8. Talking About It

Neal was still humming when he got home. He pushed open the door and smiled in surprise to see Peter sitting on the sofa with his laptop. A beer sat on the coffee table, a ring of condensation around the base (and not on a coaster, something he'd never get away with if Elizabeth were home).

"Hey, you're home early," Neal said.

"Yeah, there wasn't much going on at the office," Peter replied. He motioned to the laptop. "I thought I could catch up on some paperwork here. How'd the moving go?"

"It was hot," Neal said with a laugh. "It wasn't bad when you called, but then we moved all these boxes out into a cab and the driver was impatient. I'm going to change."

Peter leaned forward, setting his computer on the coffee table. "You slept with her, didn't you?"

That sounded more like an accusation than Neal would have liked. He stopped on the third step and a slow breath. He nodded. "I was going to talk about it over dinner when Elizabeth was here, but yes, I did." He tried to size Peter up, but sometimes that was hard to do. "How do you feel about that?"

Peter rubbed his hands over his face and sighed. "I don't know. I know I said I was okay with this -- and I was -- but this... I didn't realize how this would feel."

"Do you..." Neal took a deep breath, the weight of the words he was about to say settling over him. "Do you want me to break up with her?"

"No. I don't know." Peter rubbed at his forehead with two fingers, collecting his thoughts. "I want to not be jealous. But maybe I'm not as good at sharing as I thought."

Neal smiled and stepped back onto the ground floor. "You are very possessive. But you manage to share when it's me and El."

"That's different," Peter said.

"How?"

"Because El and I were in it together. You became part of us. It wasn't separate."

Neal licked his lower lip, contemplating his next words carefully. "Would you feel better if, maybe, my relationship with Sara was less separate?"

Peter stared blankly up at him. "You mean... like a foursome?"

"I don't know, Peter. I'm just throwing stuff out there that might make you feel better about it. Maybe if you knew her better."

"I thought the idea was that you wanted something separate. That it was a completely separate thing from us."

Neal shook his head. "No, the idea is that I'm in love with you and Elizabeth. And I like Sara a lot. I want this to work out, but it has to work for all of us. If you're not happy, we have to reevaluate. I can't take and have everything if you're miserable. Then it's not everything."

Peter started laughing. "You can't have everything? You've really come a long way if you're saying things like that."

"Yeah, yeah." Neal grinned and waved him off. "I'm going to change." He went upstairs and brushed his teeth before he changed into lightweight khakis and a green polo shirt. He went back downstairs where Peter was still sitting on the sofa, leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his folded hands.

"Peter?"

He looked up and motioned for Neal to join him. "Come here."

Neal sat down and before he'd even leaned back, Peter was kissing him. Neal moaned and leaned into him, sliding a hand into Peter's hair. He broke off the kiss, but stayed close, still touching Peter's face.

"Are you making sure I still love you?"

Peter laughed, but instead of denying it, he replied, "Maybe."

Neal rubbed his hand over Peter's thigh. "You're stuck with me. Whether you like it or not. This is my home. You and El are my home."

Peter leaned forward, pressing his lips to Neal's forehead. "Thank you," he whispered.

9. Girl on the Side

It took a few weeks, but Sara settled into her new home. Maybe because it was starting to feel like her home and not just some place she was staying, or maybe because June acted like nothing had ever happened to make her not like Sara, and welcomed her completely.

Her whole life had turned into a clean slate.

Neal stayed over two or three nights a week. It depended on his schedule and the schedules of Peter and Elizabeth, but Sara found that she liked it that way. She liked her privacy and her space as much as she liked having him there. They could be involved without being involved.

Or, at least, that's what she had thought.

Sara woke on a Saturday morning to Neal watching her. She laughed and held a hand to her face. "Don't look at me. It's too early."

He grabbed her wrist, pulling her hand away, and grinned. "I like looking at you." He brushed some tangled hair away from her face and kissed her. "Besides, I think we might be past early morning vanity."

"Easy for you to say," Sara replied. "I still can't believe you wake up looking like that."

Neal laughed. "I can't help it. I think my father might have been a bottle of Scotch Guard."

She chuckled and touched his cheek. "Well, I'm going to take a shower. You should cook me breakfast."

"I can do that," Neal said. "How about French toast?" He always cooked because Sara wasn't much of a chef, and he was spectacular. On mornings Neal wasn't there, Sara's breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a banana, unless June brought something up to the terrace.

"Perfect." Sara rolled out of bed and headed to the back hallway. When she came back out after her shower, wearing her cream-colored silk robe, Neal already had two plates waiting for her on the table.

"This smells great," she said as she sat down.

"I hope it tastes good too." He set the skillet in the sink and joined her at the table. He poured coffee, first for himself, and then for her.

Sara started eating, but after a few bites, realized that Neal hadn't touched his. "You okay?" she asked.

He nodded. "I'm fine, just thinking." He picked up his fork and cut into his toast. He looked up at her without even taking the first bite. "This is going well, don't you think?"

"Breakfast?" she asked, though she knew he meant more than that. She smiled and tried again. "Yeah, Neal, I think it's going great. I'm really happy. All right, I'd be happier if I had a job, but everything else is going well. Are we up for our six week evaluation or something?"

Neal laughed. "No, I don't think so. But how would you feel about coming over for dinner tonight?"

"For dinner," Sara repeated. "You mean at your house?"

"Yeah."

"And Peter and Elizabeth would be there."

"Is that a problem?" Neal asked.

"Well... yeah it is." Sara finally set down her fork that she had been holding in mid-air for nearly a minute. "I mean, is that normal? Is that what people do in this situation?"

"I don't know," Neal replied with a frown. "I don't know what's normal or what other people in our situation do. But I know what I want. I want you to come to dinner. I'd like for you to be friends with El and Peter."

Sara laughed humorlessly. "This is ridiculous. Friends? What are we supposed to be talking about? How you like your blowjobs? Maybe they can give me some tips. They've been at this longer than I have."

Neal sighed. "Okay. It was a... bad idea." He cut his French toast into pieces with the side of his fork, but still didn't eat. He just pushed them around in the syrup.

Sara felt her defenses fall around her. She took a sip of coffee, then reached over and took his hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to jump all over you like that."

"Well, if it's a problem, we might as well get it out of the way now," he replied with a shrug.

"It's not... I don't think the idea of being friends with Peter and Elizabeth is ridiculous," Sara said. "I didn't mean that. It's just that through all of this, over the last month or so, I... I try to forget they exist. That when you're with me, you're with me."

Neal turned his hand palm up so he could lace his fingers with hers. "I'm with you all the time. The same way I'm with them all the time. It doesn't change just because I'm here or there."

"It's easier for me to compartmentalize it because I know that..." Sara paused, collecting her thoughts. Neal didn't urge her on, but waited for her to pick the right words. "I know that they're your partners. Your real relationship. And I'm your girl on the side. I don't even know why you're here half the time, because I know you. I know you have what you want with them. You wanted it when we dated three years ago and we broke up over it. I don't know what makes it different now, but I've been trying to not question it because this has been so good."

Neal blinked at her. "I don't know what to touch first, other than how wrong you are about everything, except how good this has been."

"Where am I wrong?" she asked.

"We broke up because I wanted Peter so badly that I couldn't focus on anything else. It wasn't fair to you, and we were both busy as it was. It's different now because I go home to him and Elizabeth and I can be in love with them without it being this obsession. I've always craved the thing I can't have. When I finally get them, I mellow out.

"As far as 'real partners' go," he said, actually using air quotes with his free hand, "that's bullshit. You are most certainly not a girl on the side. I thought we were building a relationship here."

Sara pressed her lips together, not entirely sure how to respond to that. She pulled her hand away from him and placed it in her lap. She toyed with the sash on her robe. "I don't know about that."

Neal swallowed. "Oh."

"No, it's..." Sara looked up at the ceiling for a few seconds, as though she could find the answers there. "It's been easier for me to think that this is casual. I've really tried to not think about it too much, everything with you and Peter and Elizabeth. And after my divorce, I'm... Neal, I'm a little nervous about getting serious."

He stared at her for a moment and then smiled. "Okay, I think the biggest problem we're having here is communication."

Sara raised her eyebrows. "Communication?"

"Part of being in an open relationship is talking about this kind of thing. It's not just open because there are multiple partners, it's about actually being open."

"I don't feel like I'm part of an open relationship. I just feel like I'm in this with you."

Neal shook his head. "Well, you can pretend Peter and Elizabeth don't exist, but they do. And you're part of this, and if you don't want to be, if it's too complicated for you, I can leave right now."

"I don't want to break up," Sara said without hesitation. "But I don't want to jump in and fall in love right now. I'm not ready for it. I like what we have happening."

"I like what we have too," Neal replied. "That's why I wanted more, but I can... relax."

Sara smiled and nodded. "Okay, good. Thank you."

"What about dinner?"

"What do Peter and Elizabeth think of it?"

Neal shrugged. "El thinks it's a great idea, and Peter's... he's been a lot more wary about this. Not just dinner, but the whole thing. I thought, well, El and I both thought that if might help him, to get to know you better. It could help you too, to know them. If that's something you're interested in."

Sara chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "Would we be having a conversation like this one?"

He laughed. "Probably not. It'd be casual. Just hanging out and getting to know each other better. But don't feel like you have to. If you don't want to, it's okay."

She picked up her fork once again. "I'll think about it," she said. "It could be fun. Or horribly awkward."

"Or both," Neal added with a smile. "I promise, they aren't scary. No interrogations -- well, Peter may seem like he's interrogating you, but he doesn't mean it."

Sara laughed. "Well, I'll think about it. Maybe even if we don't do it tonight, we can do it next week."

"We'll see about that," Neal said. "I'll check El's schedule. She works a lot of Saturday nights."

"So tonight really would be best."

He held up his hands. "No pressure."

No pressure, Sara thought, poking at her now-cold French toast. Easier said than done.

10. Eating In

Sara shifted the bouquet of flowers she brought into the crook of her left arm so she could knock on the door. She only had to wait a moment with the evening heat of the sun beating against the back of her neck, when the door opened, and she was greeted with a rush of cool air and Neal's smile.

"Hey," Neal said, reaching out to touch her arm. "Come on in. You look great."

"Thanks," she replied, and tensed as Neal leaned in to kiss her. She turned her face to him so his mouth only caught the corner of her mouth. She knew Peter and Elizabeth were aware of the nature of her and Neal's relationship, but it still seemed like kissing in their home was throwing it in their faces. She and Neal could just be very good friends for an evening.

He smiled, apparently understanding. "The flowers are beautiful," he said, taking them from her.

"Oh, I felt weird showing up without anything. But knowing you, there was already a great bottle of wine."

"They're perfect." Neal turned toward the rest of the house. "Hey, El?"

"Yeah?" A few moments later, Elizabeth came out of the kitchen, and Sara was struck by her beauty. She was dressed semi-casually, in a flowing knee-length skirt and a blue, sleeveless button-down shirt, but it wasn't even her clothes, but how put together she was, and how effortless she made it look.

Sara glanced down at her own outfit, black slacks and an off-white blouse with cap sleeves, and she suddenly felt like she'd dressed all wrong, but she couldn't pull up any outfit in her wardrobe that would have been better.

She'd never been insecure before. It was a new feeling.

Elizabeth glanced at the flowers in Neal's arms and then looked past him at Sara. "Hey, come on in, have a seat, make yourself at home. Would you like a drink?"

Sara took another step into the house and nodded. "That'd be great, thanks."

"Where's that crystal vase?" Neal asked. "The wedding one."

"Oh, it's in the kitchen," Elizabeth replied. "Probably in the back of the glasswares cabinet, but let me take those. You open the wine."

While they traded flowers and wine bottles, Sara sat down on the sofa. She hadn't been in the Burke's home since the last time she and Neal dated. Other than a clearly remodeled kitchen, it looked about the same. Same furniture and art on the walls. She wasn't sure what she expected, if there would be little signs of Neal everywhere, but other than a brown trilby hanging off the coat rack, it appeared to be all the same.

"Hey, you made it," Peter said, coming down the stairs.

"I did," Sara replied. She motioned toward the kitchen. "They're opening wine."

"Good." He stood at the foot of the stairs, then moved away. "I'll... check on them."

Well, at least someone was feeling as awkward about this as she was. Between Neal and Elizabeth, Sara was starting to wonder if she was feeling unreasonably. However, it relaxed her some. She wasn't alone in finding this whole thing weird.

Sara wondered if it might be less strange if she joined them in the kitchen. Maybe that was where they were used to being together while cooking dinner. She remembered it being that way when she was younger, when her family was still together.

As she was contemplating getting up, Neal came out of the kitchen, carrying a glass of red wine in each hand.

"Dinner's almost ready. They'll be done any time now," he said. He handed her a glass as he sat down next to her. "Here you go."

"Thanks," Sara replied. She took a sip and smiled. "It's good."

"I picked it out."

She laughed. "You do have good taste."

"So I hear." He rested a hand on her knee. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Sara replied. When Neal didn't reply, waiting for her to say more, she laughed self consciously. "I'm a little nervous. The situation is strange. No one ever expecting to be sitting at their boyfriend's house, with his... his partners. His primary relationship, as you put it."

Neal smiled. "I wouldn't worry. They don't bite. Well, unless you ask."

She laughed and shook her head. "That's not helping."

He moved his hand from her knee to her cheek. "They want you here. I want you here. It's going to be fine. If you can relax, you might even have fun."

"That's probably a long-shot," Sara said, "but I'll try."

Elizabeth walked out of the kitchen carrying a tray of sandwiches on hearty kaiser rolls. "Dinner's ready," she said with a smile. "Come on over."

They moved to the dining table, with Elizabeth sitting at one end, Peter sitting to her right, and Sara and Neal across from him. They loaded up their plates and the next few minutes were filled eating, and occasional mentions of how good everything tasted.

"So," Peter said, looking across the table at Sara, "how's the job search going?"

"Wow, Peter," Neal said, shooting him a pointed look. "Your tact is showing."

"What? It's a valid question."

Sara bumped her hand against Neal's. "It's fine." She smiled at Peter and shrugged. "It's sort of not, right now. I applied to a couple insurance agencies, but it seems my great references aren't as great as I thought. So now I'm wondering if that's what I want to keep doing, anyway. Maybe it's time for a change."

Peter raised eyebrows. "Have you ever considered law enforcement?"

"You mean a career with the FBI?" Sara asked with a laugh.

"Sure," he replied. "I think you'd be a great candidate."

"And I know you can handle a gun," Neal added.

Sara laughed again. "Yeah, well, there is that. But I don't know about the FBI. Plus, I like living here. I could get transferred anywhere."

"Not if I had anything to say about it," Peter said, shaking his head. "You already have a lot of specialty in my division, you've worked with most of the team, and everyone likes you. I think you'd be a great fit."

"You could be Peter's probie," Neal said.

Peter laughed. "Well, someone's probie. But that's how you learn how to do paperwork."

"And how to forge Peter's signature," Neal added.

"Not that you'd know anything about that," Peter said dryly, but with a fond smile.

Neal flashed him the perfect con man grin. "Of course not. Besides, nothing says vacation like five months at Quantico. It's five months, right?"

Nodding, Peter reached for his fork again. "The training's not bad, though it was a hundred years ago when I did mine, so my memory might be a little foggy."

"You look good for being a hundred," Elizabeth said, winking at him.

"I'll say," Neal added.

Sara reached for her half-eaten sandwich. She didn't have a lot to add to their comfortable banter. In fact, she didn't have anything to add. If she had ever wondered about their three-way relationship, those thoughts faded. The three of them were really made for each other. Now she found herself wondering what the hell she was doing there. What it was Neal could be missing.

Peter, who looked a little pink around the ears, coughed. "Well, if you ever change your mind, Sara. Let me know. I'll actually be a great reference."

"Thanks," Sara replied. "I'll keep that in mind."

After dinner was over, Elizabeth took two plates of cake, chocolate with a fugdey layer in the middle, into the living room, while Sara followed her with their wine glasses. Behind them, Peter and Neal cleared the table and cleaned up the kitchen.

As they started in on their cake, Elizabeth took a bite, and as she chewed it, she looked contemplatively at Sara.

"Is this the 'what are your intentions' part of the dinner?" Sara asked.

"Maybe a little," Elizabeth said, but she was smiling. "We're new at this. It was really different bringing Neal into our marriage. Peter and I had been together thirteen years at the time. Whatever happened, we knew we could weather it. Neal's been with us a year and a half. So this is a little scarier."

Sara hadn't quite been expecting this level of honesty, but Neal had said that was part of the open relationships. Maybe she just hadn't expected it from Elizabeth. She supposed it was her turn to say something, but she wasn't entirely sure what to say.

Luckily, Elizabeth continued. "I take some comfort in knowing that this all just... happened. He wasn't looking for you, he simply found you. I'd hate to think he was missing something here." Her gaze traveled away from Sara, toward the dining room, and Sara followed her line of sight.

As he stacked dishes atop each other to carry into the kitchen, Neal turned when Peter walked behind him. They shared a smile, a private smile, and Peter rested his hand on Neal's shoulder. He said something, and Neal started to laugh. If they moved any closer together, they could be kissing.

Now, that was something Sara hadn't actually thought about. She'd spent so much time trying to pretend that Peter and Elizabeth weren't a part of this, that Neal just went somewhere else when he wasn't with her, that she hadn't considered what Neal's life here was actually like. Neal shared a home with them. He slept in their bed. He slept with them.

She could only imagine how they would look with Peter pushing Neal down onto the table, kissing Neal's neck and jaw, before finding his mouth with his own. She knew what it was like to suck Neal off, and it was so easy to imagine Peter with his mouth wrapped around that beautiful--

Sara broke away from her fantasy. It was inappropriate. Neal might be her boyfriend, yes, but Peter wasn't hers to think about. Not like that.

"They look good together, don't they?"

Sara turned to Elizabeth, who was smiling at her, quite knowingly. "Yeah, I... see this and I wonder why Neal needs me at all."

"He doesn't," Elizabeth replied. "But he wants you. He wants to make it work. And I can see why."

"You can?" Sara didn't mean to sound surprised. Two years ago, she wouldn't have. But now, with a failed marriage, and fired from the job that she'd revolved her entire life around, she often wondered if Neal was with her out of a sense of nostalgia. But seeing his life here, it had to be more than that. He wouldn't risk all this for someone he wasn't truly invested in, would he?

Elizabeth reached up and touched Sara's cheek for a moment. "When you and Neal were together the first time, Peter and I both agreed that you were good for him. If we couldn't have him, we wanted the two of you to work it out."

"Well, I think it worked out for everyone," Sara replied.

"I think it's working out now," Elizabeth said. "This might be the way it was supposed to end up. We're all happy, aren't we?"

Sara looked back across the room, and while Peter had disappeared into the kitchen, Neal was still standing there, holding a stack of dishes. Their eyes met and he winked at her before following after Peter.

"Yeah," she said. "I guess we are."

 

11. In Love With Your Love

It was after sex, but it wasn't because of the sex. Not that it hadn't been great, because it had been. Neal was, and always had been, an incredibly attentive lover. He, ever the con man, talked his way through the whole thing. Even if it hadn't been good, she probably would have thought it was.

But, no, afterward, Sara fell asleep. She could never stay awake after an orgasm. When she woke up, the room was dark except for the yellow light from the street, and next to her, Neal holding his cell phone, typing out a message with his thumbs.

"Hey," she said, pushing a stray lock of hair away from her face. "What time is it?"

Neal lowered his phone, but didn't set it down. The white light showed off his perfectly toned abs. "Almost three. Did I wake you up?"

"No," she replied. "Who are you text messaging at this hour?"

"Oh, Peter. He couldn't sleep either."

Sara paused to digest this information. "Does that happen a lot?" she asked. "That you two can't sleep on the same night? Even if you're completely across town from each other?"

Neal opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He smiled. "I hadn't really thought about it, but it does. If I'm there or here, we have a lot of nights where we're up talking."

She smiled too. "You guys are really connected."

"Yeah, we are." Neal reached over and stroked her hair. "I can tell him I have to go."

"No, it's fine," she replied. She grabbed his hand and laced her fingers with his. "I'm probably going to go back to sleep in a minute anyway." She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his side and snuggled against his hip. "I kind of like it," she mumbled.

He made a surprised noise. "Since when?"

"Since... Neal, what do you think is going to make us work this time? We didn't work before, we broke up, and what's going to make this time different?"

The light from the cell phone had gone out, but she could still see Neal looking down at her. "I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe we're ready this time. We're in different places than we were three years ago. We have different priorities. What do you think?"

"I think... I think I'm scared this time. I think I took us for granted, that you would just be there. That you wouldn't fall in love with someone else instead." It must have been her half-asleep mind that was suddenly loosening her tongue. "This time I'm scared that I'm not enough for you. That you have everything with Peter and Elizabeth."

"I get different things from both relationships," Neal said carefully.

Sara turned onto her back so she could look up at him. "What do you get out of this? With me?"

"Visibility," he replied without hesitation. "I don't get that with Peter and El. We can't be out to the world, and I understand that, but it's a lonely thing sometimes. But I wouldn't have gone looking for someone else. It was chance that we met and you're..."

"Yeah?" she prompted.

Neal smiled. "You're stunning." His phone lit up as another text message came in. He glanced at it and smiled, then set the phone back down in his lap. "You're strong and sensitive, and what didn't work three years ago doesn't matter. We're different people. We've changed and I think we're ready for each other now. Maybe we needed to grow up some."

"I didn't need to grow up," Sara said. "And I'm not different for good reasons. I'm different because after we ended, I married the first man I met. We didn't even date for a month before we got married. It seemed like such a good idea at the time."

"What happened?" Neal asked gently.

She took a deep breath. She hadn't meant to say anything, but maybe she needed to. Maybe it was the one thing left between them. "It was one of those really passionate things that come out of nowhere. I'd never done anything like that before. Not just jumping into a marriage, but I gave myself to him in ways I'd never even thought of doing with anyone else."

Neal squeezed her hand and Sara smiled briefly.

"I knew he was jealous and possessive... I thought I could handle it. Strong. You said that I'm strong, and I thought I was. If I was just strong enough, I could..." She stopped and sighed. "It doesn't matter. He never hit me, I'm sure he knew I'd hit him right back, but he was manipulative. He picked apart all my weaknesses. Every time I thought about leaving, he told me I'd be a failure, that everyone who had said this was a bad idea would be right, and they'd never let me forget it. That if I thought my life was bad now, it would just get worse."

"When did you decide to leave?"

"A fight. We fought all the time, but this was one was different." Sara closed her eyes. She tried so many times to forget it, but where some memories were blurred, others were crystal clear. "He got my gun. I don't know how he figured out the safe's combination, I never told it to him. But we were fighting and when I said I was going to leave, I didn't care what anyone thought, he pulled out the gun and started threatening to kill himself if I left. That I'd be a failure and a murderer, and anything else he could think of. But that time, I left. I knew I couldn't live like this, that this is what our life would be like every day. So I grabbed my purse and I walked out the door. I was already calling the cops when the gun went off."

Neal's eyes went wide. "He did it?"

"No, he just... he wanted to see if I'd come running back. And I didn't." Sara shook her head. "I moved out, got my own place, and put the divorce in motion. It wasn't easy because Jeremy also worked at Sterling Bosch, though in a different area than me. But I still saw him."

"Is he why you lost your job?" Neal asked.

She nodded. "He sent out this video after the divorce was final. It was... this is the humiliating part. It was something we'd made together. You know, that kind of video. He sent it to every single Sterling Bosch employee. I couldn't walk through the office without hearing the whispers."

"So they fired you?"

"They couldn't legally fire me for it. But it was apparently distracting in the workplace. So they offered me a severance package I couldn't refuse to resign. That company... I did everything for them, and whenever I needed them, they spat in my face. It's just as well that I'm out of there, even if I can't find a job now."

Neal wrapped his arms around Sara and pulled her close. "Thank you," he murmured after a few minutes.

"What? For telling you my sad little story?"

"Your story isn't sad. It's yours. But no. Thank you for trusting me. Trusting me enough to be with me. After what you've been through, I'd understand you hadn't."

She smiled. "There's a long list of reasons not to trust you, but that's never been one of them. I know you'd never hurt me -- or anyone -- like that. I know you. The thought never crossed my mind."

Neal pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Thank you," he said again. His cell phone lit up with another text message came through. Neal didn't move for it, but Sara didn't have to see his face through the darkness to know he wanted to, though.

She poked him in the chest. "Get your phone."

He laughed and turned onto his back. He picked up his phone and checked the message. He chuckled. "Peter thinks you're a distraction."

"Mmm, well, tell him I think he's a distraction. It's my night." Sara kissed Neal on the cheek. "But I think it's sweet."

"You didn't answer my question: since when?"

She paused. She was starting to feeling sleepy again, worn out from her storytelling, but she considered her words carefully. "Since I realized that your love for them is what makes this possible between us."

Neal smiled and pushed his fingers into her hair. "I'm so glad you think so."

12. Confrontation

Sara was greeted by several agents as she walked into the FBI office. She hadn't realized she knew so many.

"Sara, hey," Diana said, coming up to her. "How are you doing?"

"Good," Sara replied. "I'm just here to see Peter. But it was good seeing you." She smiled and said farewell to Diana as she headed up to the office. She knocked on the door and Peter looked up, surprised for just a moment before he waved her inside.

"I hope I didn't interrupt you," Sara said, settling in the chair across from him. "It's almost lunch anyway."

"You're fine," Peter replied. "What's up? Have you been thinking about my suggestion?"

"Suggestion?"

"About working here?" Peter's brow crinkled, possibly thinking about what other reasons she would have to stop by in the middle of the workday.

Sara put her hand to her forehead for a second. "Right, no, I mean -- I've been thinking about it, yes, but that's not why I'm here. I wanted to talk to you. About Neal."

"Right. Of course." He straightened up in his chair. "What about Neal?"

She hesitated, suddenly unsure. When she walked into the building, into the office, she had her words carefully prepared, but all those rehearsed sentiments left her mind blank. Finally, she said, "I'm falling in love with him."

It may have been too blunt. Peter paled, but he swallowed and nodded. "All right," he said slowly. "Good for you -- for both of you. I know he's been... for a while now."

Sara had known that, or at least she had assumed. Neal hadn't said anything, but she figured that was out of her "take it slow" benefit, and not because he didn't feel that way. She wondered how Peter knew. Did Neal sit him and Elizabeth down for a conversation like this one and confess his feelings, or did Peter simply know, the way she did? Possibly, he knew before even Neal did. No one knew Neal better than the man sitting before her right then.

When she had paused for too long, Peter said, "If you're looking for some kind of approval, that's not how it works. It's between you and Neal."

"No, I know, I..." She took a long breath. "I know you haven't been completely comfortable with this. With me."

"It's not you," Peter said, and she quickly realized that he wasn't denying that there was an issue. "It's me. I'm probably always going to be afraid that he's going to run. That he's going to wake up one day and realize that this life isn't for him. I always try to keep him as close as possible."

Sara didn't want to tell Peter about Neal. It wasn't her place, but wasn't that why she was here? To find her place? She pressed her lips together, thinking for a moment.

"Whatever you're going to say, say it," Peter said, dry, but not annoyed.

"I want to be a part of this," Sara blurted. "This relationship. I tried, in the beginning, to act like you and Elizabeth didn't exist, that my relationship with Neal was a separate thing, but it doesn't work that way. Being with Neal is being with all of you. You and Elizabeth are so much part of him, that I can't not be a part of this as a whole, if I want to be with him. And I do."

Peter studied her. "So why'd you come to me?"

"Maybe I did want your approval." She shrugged. "Or maybe I just want us to be on the same page. I want us to be comfortable. This is complicated, and I know you know that, but..."

"We should do everything we can to make it less complicated," Peter said.

Sara's shoulders dropped, feeling like a weight was just lifted from them. "Yes. Exactly. Neal told me that part of being in an open relationship is being open. I want us to be able to be open, too. I want -- I want for us to be friends."

He smiled. "I'd like that too. I'm glad you came by today, Sara."

"Me too."

13. One Year Later

Sara followed Peter up the steps as he opened the door to his house. She didn't live there, but after so many months, she was as comfortable there as she was in her own apartment at June's house.

Satchmo barked a greeting, and Peter leaned down to pet him, so he'd quiet. At the noise, Neal walked out of the kitchen, flipping a dish towel over his shoulder. "Hey, beautiful people."

"Hey." Peter gave Neal a quick kiss on the mouth. "I'm going to change."

Sara smiled as Peter disappeared upstairs. Neal wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close, lining his body up with hers. "How was work?"

"It was good," she replied, draping her arms over his shoulders. "He'd never say this, but I have to tell you that your husband was very sexy today."

"Really," Neal said. His voice dropped low, both seductive and teasing. "What'd he do?"

"We finally got Hardy, you remember him? They've been working on him since before I got there.There was a big stand-off, and eventually, Peter wrestled him to the ground when he tried to run."

Neal shook his head. "They should know better than to try to run. It just makes him angry."

"Especially a guy as slippery as Hardy," Sara said. "You know how he feels about those slippery guys."

Brow furrowed with mock puzzlement, Neal replied, "He rehabilitates them and then takes them home to be part of his marriage?"

She laughed and nodded. "Yes, that's exactly it."

Neal kissed her. "I bet you were sexy too."

"I don't know about that. I mostly stood and watched and tried to look intimidating."

"As someone you have intimidated in the past, I'm sure you succeeded."

"Then I will have to take your word for it," Sara replied, pleased to know that at some point, she scared him a little. Maybe that time she had a gun pointed at his head. It was amazing how far they'd come. She kissed him again. "I love you."

"I love you too." Neal didn't pull away, but he looked up as Peter came back downstairs, now wearing jeans and a tee shirt. "Hey, I heard you were especially sexy today."

"What?" Peter asked, and he blinked at Sara, before he smiled. "Oh, when we arrested Hardy? You liked that?"

"Who wouldn't?" Sara said, flashing him a grin.

Peter brought his hand up to rest warm on her shoulder. He turned to Neal. "What's cooking?"

"Bourbon chicken. And El called. She said she'd be late, but I think she'll be home in time for dinner." Neal's words were mundane, but his eyes were shining.

Sara knew he loved it when either his husband or wife showed affection for her. He wanted them to be in one big relationship, but it wasn't that simple. Though Sara loved Peter and Elizabeth, and she knew they loved her, they weren't quite there. It was even more complicated now that Sara was working with Peter.

Even though she'd only been with the Bureau three months after her stint at Quantico, Sara was loving her job. It had the action she craved (all right, she didn't see a ton of action, but it was there), and kept her mentally stimulated. She had no idea how many strings Peter had pulled to get her in on his team, but she put as much of herself into it as she had with Sterling Bosch. Maybe more. If Peter was going to go out on a limb for her, something her former bosses had never done, she wanted to prove him right.

"I need to kick these off," Sara said, pulling away from Neal and Peter. She stepped out of her heels, pushing them under the coffee table and out of the way. And where they would hopefully be ignored by Satchmo.

"You need to wear more practical shoes," Peter said. "You can't chase after a suspect in those."

"These are fine," she replied, and sat down on the sofa. "I've chased suspects in higher heels than these. And I wasn't wearing a pantsuit either."

"Were you naked?" Neal asked, comically wide-eyed.

Sara laughed. "Dresses. I wore a lot of dresses."

He grinned. "Right, dresses." His smile faded as Peter whispered something in his ear, but Neal's eyes stayed with her, bright and happy. Sara couldn't be sure what Peter was telling him, but it had to be something good. It was always something good.

Sara loved this family. She loved how Neal was with Peter and Elizabeth, how they interacted, how they moved together. She loved how she fit in with them, even if it was ever-changing.

They chose to be together. They chose her as much as she chose them, and she was grateful to be a part of it, every day.