The block of brownstones looked exactly the same as it had the last time Neal had stood on this bit of pavement. There was a nostalgic ache under his breastbone. He’d told himself that he wasn’t coming back here, that he’d made a clean getaway and was living free. His resolve had lasted all of two weeks of being back in New York.
The front steps were the same, the wrought iron rail the same, the dark bricks the same. The paint job on the door was new, but the color was the same. He knocked.
The door opened.
“Oh, hello,” Neal said. There was a little boy standing in the doorway, waist-high, with dark hair and pale skin. “Who are you?” Maybe they had moved. Moz was meant to be keeping an eye on the Burkes but seven years was a long time. Maybe something slipped through the cracks.
“I’m Neal,” the boy said.
Neal blinked. “ I’m Neal.”
“Your name is Neal too?” He had blue eyes and freckles. “There’s two girls in my class named Rita. Rita T and Rita W. I’m Neal B.”
Neal’s heart had started pounding, the same adrenaline pulse of a con beginning to slide out from under his feet. “What’s the B stand for?”
A woman’s voice called from inside, “Honey, is that the groceries? Who are you talking to?” at the same moment the boy said, “Burke.”
Neal looked up, heart in his throat, as El came around the corner of the hall and stopped dead. “Neal?”
The boy turned. “What?”
El blinked hard, and rubbed a hand over her eyes, “My god.”
“Mom?” the boy asked.
“Oh, honey.” She held a hand out to him and he crossed to her obediently, letting himself be hugged against her hip. “Sweetie, will you go to the kitchen for a minute, please?”
The boy went, and El stepped out the front door, checking it was unlocked and carefully closing it behind her. They stood on the stoop facing one another. “Neal, oh my god.”
“Hey.” He suddenly wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Long time, no see.”
“Neal,” she said, a third time, and flung her arms around his neck. Startled, he rocked back a little, and then brought his arms up to hold her. Her hair was in his face and it smelled exactly like he remembered. Closing his eyes he squeezed her tight, nose full of her floral shampoo, her body warm and solid against his.
He was struck by the sense memory of holding her like this, skin to skin, buried inside her with Peter pressed against his back. That one night hadn’t been why he had left, exactly, and it wasn’t why he’d come back either, but it was certainly something he tried not to dwell on too much.
El was sniffling into his neck. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I just.”
“Shh, shh, I know.” He patted her back, and eventually she pulled herself together.
“It’s just a shock,” she said, wiping her eyes delicately with the cuff of her blouse. “What are you doing back here?”
Neal shrugged. “Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. I couldn’t stay away forever.” An old acquaintance had offered him a job doing interesting and even mostly legal restoration work - there was no reason he couldn’t say that, but the prevarication was off his tongue before he could second guess himself, and El seemed to accept it.
“That’s what Peter said about DC.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Neal had timed his visit to catch Peter after work, but of course, hours could be unpredictable. “Still at the Bureau?”
“Yes. He took the department head position after Hughes retired the second time.”
“A promotion? Good for him. Bet he hates it.”
El laughed, watery. “A little. He says someone has to do it though. I don’t think he could stand the idea of adjusting to a new supervisor after all that time.”
Neal nodded, and there was a short silence, traffic rumbling by on the next street over. “You’ve got a kid,” he said, and didn’t add, And you named him after me. It was so big it felt untouchable.
“Yeah. Yes. Our little miracle.” Her eyes were still wet.
“That’s great. So great. I’m happy for you.” A long time ago, not quite sober, Peter had once told Neal how much they’d wanted a kid, how they’d tried for years and considered adopting, but ultimately given up as El’s business had taken off and Peter was promoted, how they’d filled their lives with other things.
“Thanks.” She clasped her hands, visibly gathering herself. “Well, come in! You have to stay for dinner at least. It’s lasagne.”
“How can I turn down Elizabeth Burke’s famous lasagne?”
There were new lines around her eyes and mouth but her smile was exactly the same. “You can’t.”
When she opened the door, the kid was an unobtrusive distance away with a casual stance that was, to Neal, the obvious mark of an eavesdropper. His eyes widened. “Mom? Have you been crying?”
“Only because I was happy. Neal is an old friend who has come to visit us.” El kissed the top of his head.
Things were easy at first. Elizabeth took bread out of the oven and set it in a bowl on the table, and Neal showed the smaller Neal how to fold the cloth napkins into swans.
“Why a swan?” the boy asked.
Neal didn’t have an answer for that. “What do you think we should fold it into?”
“A shark!” Neal said, which led to some experimentation and a lot of laughter.
And then Peter came home.
They were in the kitchen checking the lasagne when the front door slammed and Neal went still, heart thudding. “I’m home,” Peter called, and his voice was so familiar it felt like something was shaking loose in Neal’s ribs. El’s eye caught Neal’s, opening her mouth to say something, hands full of casserole dish, but little Neal was already running for the door.
“Dad! Dad, guess what!”
“What, Junior?” Peter asked, and Neal could hear that he was smiling.
“Your friend Neal came to visit,” Neal announced. “And there’s lasagne.”
“Pass me that trivet,” El said quietly, and Neal reached for the ceramic trivet to put the hot dish down on.
“What?” Peter said, in the hall. Neal felt his shoulders tense.
“Your friend Neal, the one I’m named after. Come on Dad, I’m hungry.”
El pulled off the oven mitts and turned to face the door as Peter appeared around the corner, white-faced. “Hon,” she began.
Peter was staring, jaw slack. Seven years showed more clearly on his face than El’s, but that expression was the same, the one he’d had every time Neal shocked him. At one point, that had been among Neal’s favorite hobbies. Neal Junior was trailing behind his father, looking uncertain.
“Neal?” Peter rasped.
Neal swallowed. “Hi, Peter.”
There was a series of expressions on Peter’s face. Recognition, relief, happiness, anger. Neal watched the emotions flicker over familiar features. “You’re under arrest,” Peter said, finally.
Neal smiled, and opened his mouth to talk Peter out of it.
“Oh, Peter, really?” El said first, coming out of the kitchen and placing a fond hand on Junior’s head.
Neal Junior looked confused. “Why are you arresting him? What did he do?”
“Nothing that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Neal said promptly.
It went over the kid’s head, but got the reluctant huff of laughter he’d been hoping for from Peter.
“No one is arresting anyone,” El said.
Peter looked stubborn. “The Anderson theft is still an open case--”
“I was never--” Neal started
“What’d he steal?” Junior said, at the same time.
And simultaneously, El said, “Peter--”
Neal took three steps closer to Peter. “Amnesty for tonight?” He gave Peter his most charming smile.
Peter met it with a hard look, but he was melting, Neal could tell. “You have to answer all of my questions.”
Neal nodded in acknowledgement of the condition.
“Truthfully!” Peter emphasized.
Neal narrowed his eyes, but then he raised a shoulder and shrugged agreement.
Junior was more persistent. He turned to Neal directly, “What did you steal?”
“I have amnesty,” Neal told him.
“What is that?” Junior asked.
Peter stepped in to answer. “It’s letting someone go free and not prosecuting them– trying them, for any crimes they committed.”
Junior’s lips were pressed together as he thought that through. “So, you did steal something then?” he asked Neal.
“You’ll have to define ‘something,’” Neal told him.
“You’ve only been here an evening and you’re already corrupting my son,” Peter said, arms crossed. “How long has he been here anyway?” he asked El.
“About an hour. Do you boys want dinner or not?”
“Dinner!” yelled Junior, instantly distracted.
Peter rubbed a hand across his face. “Go and set the table, Junior. Neal…”
“It’s weird when you call him that,” Junior said. “You only call me that when I’m in trouble.”
El smothered a laugh, and Neal shook his head wryly. “It’s about the same for me. Let me help you with the plates.” They were still where he remembered them. “I thought you’d have done a kitchen remodel by now.”
“We’ve had our hands full the last few years,” El said fondly, reaching out to tousle Junior’s hair as he got the silverware. He tolerated it for a second before ducking away.
Peter stepped aside as Neal carried the plates into the dining room, and Neal couldn’t help but be aware of the distance between their bodies. To think about the last time he’d been in this house, barefoot in the kitchen with Peter and El, eating dinner together, going upstairs.
This dinner was even stranger than that one. Peter seemed to have decided to pretend that Neal wasn’t there, and he asked Neal Junior about his day at school as El served the salad and lasagne.
“We had to do a sentence worksheet where you finish the sentences with the right word and that was easy, and then we had to take a spelling quiz because it’s Friday.” He made a face. “I don’t like spelling but I did better this week than last week.”
Peter was listening seriously. “And how do you think the last quiz prepared you to do better on this one?”
“That’s a leading question,” Neal said, pointing his fork at Peter.
“What’s a leading question?” Junior asked.
Peter scowled at Neal. “It’s a way of helping people answer.”
“Helping people to the answer you want ,” Neal said.
“ Thankfully , this is a second grade spelling test, not a court of law,” Peter said sourly.
“Actually, this is my dinner table,” El said. “Seconds, Neal?”
“Please. It’s even better than I remember.” He gave her his best megawatt smile and watched her cheeks pinken slightly.
“Can I have more lasagne too, Mom?”
“Finish your salad please, Junior. You too Peter.” Peter cast her a look of betrayal.
When dinner was finished, El shooed Peter into the kitchen to do dishes while she did bedtime with Junior. Neal ended up drying and stacking plates and cups as Peter washed. The house was quiet, the lights off in the living and dining rooms. The two of them were shoulder to shoulder.
Finally, Peter broke the silence. “So. You’re back.”
“Like a bad penny.”
“You can say that again. Here to break the law?”
“Nope.” Neal popped the P. “Just visiting.”
“I’ll be checking Interpol in the morning.”
“I’d expect nothing less.” Holding a clean glass up to the light, Neal checked the shine and wiped it out again.
“Where are you staying?”
Neal shrugged. “Moz was letting me use one of his lofts but I’ve got to move on. He doesn’t like to have any one place inhabited for more than a couple of weeks at a time. And anyway, the only books he has there are translations of Russian philosophers from the Cold War.”
“You’re not staying with June?”
“June’s gone up to the Hamptons with her grandaughter for the summer. It seemed rude to just let myself in.”
“When has that ever stopped you in the past?”
Neal smiled in acknowledgement. “I can always get a hotel room.”
“No,” Peter said, abruptly enough that Neal glanced at him, startled. Peter looked somewhat chagrined. “I mean. You could take the couch. If you wanted. It’s not a suite at the Hilton but...”
Neal considered that, feeling something ballooning dangerously in his chest. He cleared his throat. “Not going let me out of your sight until you figure out the statute of limitations?”
“Damn right,” Peter said, a little hoarse, looking down at the sink.“So. How long are you sticking around?”
Neal shrugged. “Well I don’t want to be too much of a disruption, sleeping on your couch…”
“In New York,” Peter said. “How long are you staying in New York?” His shoulders were tense, his hands still in the soapy water. Neal made his living off his ability to read people, and even after all this time he knew Peter as well as anyone, so well it hurt.
“You mean, am I going to leave again,” he said softly.
“Last time… last time when you left...” Peter stopped himself and shook his head. He pulled the plug and the sink began to drain, glugging.“I just want to know how long you’re staying this time.”
Neal opened his mouth to say just a few weeks -- he didn’t have a return ticket but he had tentative plans in Marseille that he’d put off till next month to come check out the new job -- and instead said, “I don’t know.”
Peter blew out a heavy breath, jaw tight. “Well, until you figure it out the couch is all yours.” Somehow, it sounded like a rejection. “I’ll bring down some blankets.”
“Thanks,” Neal murmured, watching the last of the suds spiraling around the drain.
El woke slowly on Saturday morning which was a rare luxury. Peter was still snoring on the other side of the bed, one hand flug out and cupped against her shoulder. It took several long, warm moments to realize that the reason for the unusual peace was an absence of excited six year old.
El pulled on her robe hurriedly. Neal Junior wasn’t in his room, and she could hear voices downstairs. There was a neatly folded blanket and two pillows stacked at one end of the couch, but no one in the living room.
Neal was at the stove in his boxers and undershirt and the kitchen smelled like simmering tomatoes and cumin. Junior was sitting at the island swinging his feet in his Spider-Man pajamas and when he saw El he exclaimed, "Mom! We're making shake shake!"
"Shakshouka," Neal corrected him. "Do you have the onions ?"
Junior carefully gathered up two small handfuls of green onions from the cutting board and hopped down to bring them to Neal. "It's like eggs and spaghetti," he told El.
"It smells delicious," she said to both of them, bemused. Normally Junior wouldn't eat breakfast that didn't have sugar in it. Granola and plain yogurt with honey was the usual compromise, pancakes on special occasions. Neal stirred the onions into the red sauce, and then helped Junior move a chair closer to the stove so that he could watch Neal crack the eggs into the sauce. They were a matched set, two dark heads tilted at almost the same angle, an uncanny, obvious resemblance. Something felt too tight inside El’s chest, watching them together.
“Hon?” Peter called, shuffling down the stairs in his flannel pajama pants. He stopped abruptly at the bottom, and El saw him take in the kitchen with a barely-visible wince. “Coffee?”
“I put some on.” Neal nodded to the sleek coffee maker in the corner. “Nice upgrade, by the way.”
Peter just grunted, pouring himself a mug. El watched the way his eyes flickered between the three of them, his wife, his son, and Neal, over the rim of his coffee. She squeezed his arm reassuringly as he passed, heading upstairs to dress.
They ate at the kitchen island. Junior proclaimed that it was pretty good but would have been better with noodles, and Neal regaled them with descriptions of restaurants he’d had the dish in all over Europe. Peter spent most of the meal looking sour, although the coffee helped. Neal had always talked easily about faraway places, and Peter had never liked having Neal far away. El was fairly certain Neal knew that and did it anyway. He’d never been able to resist an opportunity to get a rise out of Peter. The tension between them was so familiar, so instantly rekindled after so long, that it took El’s breath away just to watch.
After breakfast, Satchmo needed to be walked and Junior wanted to go to the park. “Want to take the gloves?” Peter asked him, and it was Neal’s turn to look bemused as Junior ran to get the softball and the gloves. There was the familiar shuffle of grabbing coats and tying shoes, which Junior proudly demonstrated that he could do himself, although El had to straighten the resultant bow so that he didn’t trip on one over-long end.
At the park, Peter and Junior tossed the softball while El and Neal wandered along the paths with Satchmo. “Of course Peter’s trying to get him into baseball,” Neal said.
“He’s already succeeded. Peter coaches Junior’s Little League two nights a week in the summer.”
Neal huffed a laugh. “I’m not surprised.” They stepped off the path to make room for two mothers with strollers, jogging and chatting. “Did you call him that even before I showed up? Junior?”
El nodded. “Usually. It… well. It was a little strange to call him Neal, that’s all. We were used to Neal being…” she shrugged, “you.”
Neal didn’t say anything to that, just looked over at where the two of them were playing. “He’s a good dad.”
“The best,” she agreed.
“Last time I saw him with a kid that age he had no idea what to do.”
“Well, he’s had some practice now. Having one of your own is a bit of a crash course. You should have seen how terrified he was at first.”
Neal laughed. “He’s always adapted well under pressure.”
“I was a mess too. It’s terrifying to suddenly have this little life in your hands, especially after we tried for so long and thought we’d never get to have a kid. Our little miracle, one shot to take care of him. But Peter and I figured it out together.”
Neal had his hands shoved in his pockets, wearing a magazine-ready smile, but there was something wistful around the edges. He looked back over at the grassy knoll where Junior had missed the ball and was chasing it. “You’re a lucky woman, Mrs. Burke.”
El’s heart squeezed. “I know.”
At home, El made an early dinner while Peter checked some work emails. Neal was in the living room playing cards with Junior, and it was an unusual treat to cook without him underfoot.
Peter stepped out to take a call, and El poked her head in the living room. “Food will be ready when your dad is done. What are you playing?”
“It’s called find the lady,” Junior said. They were seated on the floor on opposite sides of the coffee table, with three cards laid out face up between them.
She raised her eyebrows at Neal. He shrugged innocently at her. “It’s a game of memory and dexterity.” He shuffled the deck with a flourish and laid out three cards face down. “Ok, one more time, Junior. Here’s the lady.” He flashed the queen of hearts in the middle of the three cards.
Peter poked his head in from the patio. “Are you teaching my son criminal behavior?”
“No,” Neal called. “Now you put your fingertips on the corners of the cards, like this, and slide them across the table. You should always be touching all three cards at once. Watch.”
Coming into the room, Peter grabbed Neal’s wrist and tilted it up to look at the card concealed in his palm. “Junior, this is what’s called a con, or a scam. Neal is going to teach you how to move the cards dishonestly.”
“You mean to cheat?” Junior asked, eyes wide.
“That’s right,” he said, sternly. “Neal, you are on no account allowed to teach my son card sharping.”
Neal’s head was tilted back to look at Peter. “What are you going to do, arrest me again?”
“I’ve got the handcuffs in a drawer right over there.” Peter jerked his head at the end table, tugging on Neal’s arm for emphasis. Neal moved easily in response, rocking a little on his knees, letting Peter tug him off balance as if he were about to be pushed down on the coffee table and cuffed. He was looking up at Peter, eyes dark, lips slightly parted.
El saw the moment Peter recognized it too, saw the way his pupils dilated and he shifted his stance suddenly, chest heaving. It was a reaction he’d had to her many times, one of her favorites. She felt a little thrill of heat in her belly herself, watching the moment snap between them.
But Junior was sitting on the other side of the coffee table, watching, and Peter remembered at the same moment she did. He dropped Neal’s arm abruptly and cleared his throat, just as El said, “Dinner’s on the table!” as brightly as she could.
Junior scrambled for the food, and Peter mumbled something about the bathroom. Neal looked up at her and gestured to the coffee table. “I think I’ll just sit here for a minute,” he said, managing to look sheepish and pornographic at once.
Since they’d had a late breakfast and an early dinner there was time afterward before Junior’s bedtime. Peter vetoed a movie.
“Can we have a dance party?” Junior asked, bouncing.
“Of course, darling,” El told him. He’d brought the concept home from a playdate with one of his school friends, and it was a current special interest of his. El went to put on a Raffi CD.
“A dance party?” Neal said, and El heard Peter reply, “It’s good exercise.”
“Neal, dance with us!”
Neal got up to dance with much more alacrity than Peter ever displayed, and mimicked Junior’s flailing dance moves with good humor. Junior was sweaty and delighted. Neal took off his sweater and draped it over one of the kitchen chairs, then continued dancing with Junior in his white undershirt. El swayed around the living room, patting Junior on the head when he whirled past her, and watched Neal and Junior. Peter was still watching from the couch.
Junior’s dancing was all creativity and little patterns, bopping from one side of the room to the other, involving his entire body with every move. It was good for wearing him out. Neal was joining in the same spirit, but even in his casual dancing with a six year old, his feel for the rhythm of the song was evident. He stepped in time with the beat, he moved smoothly and with coordination.
Junior grinned at Neal as they danced in front of each other, and Neal grinned back, and El couldn’t help smiling helplessly at them. Then Junior ran over to Peter and said, “Come on, Dad!” and took Peter’s hand and dragged him into the middle of the living room with them.
Neal twirled Junior around, and then offered a hand to El and spun her around as well. El tried to let Junior spin her next, which required some complicated switching of arms due to their difference in heights. Neal turned to Peter with his hand outstretched to spin him, and Peter glared for a moment before permitting it.
The adults tired before Junior did, flopping down onto the couch while he still spun around in circles. Neal lasted the longest, but when he had also collapsed onto the sofa, running a hand through his hair, El took charge. “Bedtime!”
She turned to Peter. “I’ll do bath; you’re up for the story.”
In the tub, she washed Junior’s dark hair, shielding his eyes from the rinse water, and wondered what Peter and Neal were talking about downstairs. She could still vaguely hear Raffi playing. She wrapped Junior in a fluffy yellow towel, tickling him a little bit, and heard Peter on the stairs.
Junior ran out of the bathroom to greet Peter. “PJs,” El heard Peter tell him, and the two of them went into Junior’s room. El hung up Junior’s towel and went back downstairs.
Neal was standing at the stereo. The Raffi stopped as El hit the last step, and she watched Neal put another CD in the machine. He had long fingers.
Ruth Etting’s voice spilled out of the speakers, singing Smoke Gets in Your eyes. El smiled. It was one of her favorites.
Neal turned around from the stereo and smiled back. He opened his arms wide in an invitation, and she stepped into them.
The song was slow, and the dancing was slow. They were very close. One of El’s hands was grasped warmly by Neal’s, her other hand was on his back. She could feel the warmth of his body through his thin cotton undershirt. His hand on her waist felt very warm, and then she took a step closer, and their chests brushed together, and her cheek rested on his shoulder.
“This is nice,” she said quietly, remembering. It seemed like all she had done all day, remembering that night seven years ago. It was all she had done since Neal had arrived at the door the day before, she supposed.
Neal was humming along with the song. It reached the chorus, and he sang it softly into her ear. He had a nice voice. It was the kind of ridiculously romantic moment that deserved other circumstances. It deserved better than their living room with the coffee table pushed to one side and El in her weekend jeans. They should be out somewhere, El thought. On a rooftop patio in the summer, with a band and the stars overhead. But Neal seemed to bring romance to where he was, regardless.
“You smell good,” Neal said, his breath warm against her face.
He smelled good, too, some sort of undoubtedly expensive cologne, all warm from dancing with Junior. El moved the hand that was resting on Neal’s back slightly, and tugged his undershirt loose from his pants so that she could slide her hand underneath it to rest against his skin, instead.
Neal made a noise against her ear, still moving in time with the music.
And then she heard the creak of the stairs.
Neal must have heard it too - the two of them looked over at the same moment to see Peter on the bottom step.
The room was dim and Peter’s expression was locked down hard, jaw tight, but El had spent the better half of her life learning to read her husband, and she resisted the impulse to start back guiltily out of Neal’s arms. They hadn’t been doing anything, not really -- but her heart was pounding as if they had been and she knew her cheeks were flushed. Neal’s bare skin was sweat-damp against her palm at the small of his back.
Peter stepped a little further into the room. “This is sweet,” he said, voice rough, and El heard anger and jealousy and desire tangled up in it, saw that tangle reflected in his dark, intent gaze.
She stepped back more deliberately from Neal’s embrace and tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. “Hi, hon.”
Neal grinned guilelessly. “Peter. Care for a dance?” It was impossible to tell when he smiled like that whether he believed his own innocence.
“I’ll pass,” Peter grunted. He stalked around them to where he’d left his beer on the coffee table, not taking his eyes off the two of them. Most of the time he moved casually through the world -- her sweet, middle aged husband who coached Little League and made pot roast. Sometimes though, he moved like a trained gun-man, like someone dangerous. It never failed to make El’s panties wet. She could still feel the ghost of Neal’s touch through her shirt where he’d been holding her.
Neal was watching Peter with a tiny, secret curl to his mouth, like he thought he knew what Peter was thinking too, and maybe he did. After all, Neal was the only other person in two decades who had seen her husband this turned on. And certainly Neal knew what Peter looked like pissed off. What Neal probably didn’t know, given the limited experience of that one night they’d all spent together, was how searingly hot Peter could be when those two things overlapped. El had never understood the appeal of make-up sex until she’d started dating Peter Burke.
The CD finished, and spun into stillness with a little whirr. All three of them started, and El laughed a little, adrenaline high. “I should finish washing up from dinner,” she said, because the alternative was to suggest they fuck on the couch, and her expert appraisal of Peter was that he wouldn’t take it well, even though he was obviously thinking the same thing.
“It’s almost time for bed,” Peter agreed, even though it wasn’t close to a reasonable adult bedtime.
Peter stayed in the living room while El loaded the last of the dishes into the dishwasher and started the cycle. She couldn’t hear what they said to each other, but when she came out, the sheets were laid out on the couch again, and Neal was unbuttoning his jeans, already in his undershirt. Peter’s back was deliberately turned. Neal caught her eye as she came in and shimmied his pants off his hips, leaving him in just his boxers. She felt a pulse of heat in her gut and swallowed hard.
“Have a good night, Neal,” she said, taking Peter’s hand and tugging him toward the stairs.
“Night,” he echoed, sitting down on the edge of the couch.
Upstairs, she shut their bedroom door quietly, mindful of Junior sleeping down the hall, and pressed up against Peter. His hands were warm and broad on her hips. “C’mon,” she mumbled in between kisses, tugging on his shirt until he stripped it off. He growled against her lips, guiding her backward toward the bed and helping her down gently onto the mattress even though his grip on her thighs was rough as he pushed her legs apart and knelt between them.
Her panties were soaked, peeling stickily away from her crotch as Peter tugged them off. Locking her knees around Peter’s hips she dragged him down, fighting with his belt buckle. He was swearing softly in her ear, equally frantic.
Restless energy that had been buzzing under El’s skin all day finally coalesced into something tangible as Peter sank inside her easily. They were face to face, kissing dissolving into panting, El’s arm hooked around Peter’s neck, holding him close, his hands on her legs, spreading her open. Hips rolling steadily, Peter mouthed down her jaw, nipped at her throat, not enough to mark where it could be seen but knowing she loved it, clenching around him and arching, exposing more of her neck for him to kiss and bite.
“Fuck,” he gasped, “you smell like…” She knew what he meant to say, knew from the way he choked the sentence off and fucked into her harder. She thought of dancing with her cheek on Neal’s shoulder, his nose brushing her hair -- the faint, expensive cologne he wore. She smelled like Neal, and Peter groaned like he was dying, hands gripping her thighs hard enough to bruise.
He got her off with the efficiency and skill of twenty years of practice, as good as -- god, better than when they’d first been married. El came with a hand over her mouth, wishing there wasn’t a kid in the house, wishing she could yell loud enough for Neal to hear them all the way downstairs.
Afterward, they hauled themselves back out of bed to brush their teeth, and despite his orgasm Peter was still being prickly; responding monosyllabically when she asked him if he’d moved her face cream, and only perfunctorily pecking her cheek when he crawled under the covers beside her, clicking the lights off. He wasn’t annoyed at her or Neal so much as at himself, she thought.
They lay shoulder to shoulder in the dark, both awake and aware the other was awake also. Finally, El said quietly, “Are you thinking about…?”
“About what?” Peter grunted, and she huffed an exasperated laugh. As if any of them had been thinking of anything else all day.
“About that night. You remember.”
The sheets rustled and the mattress shifted as Peter rolled over. “It was a long time ago,” he said eventually.
“Have you talked to him about Junior?”
“What about Junior?”
El twisted her head on the pillow to look toward him. Peter was just an inscrutable lump of shoulder in the dark. “You know what.”
Peter huffed. “Have you?”
“Not really. Do you think he’s guessed?” she asked, staring up at the blue shadows on the ceiling. They rarely talked about this, about the thing that had seemed so obvious when she’d held the positive pregnancy test in her hand a month after that night with Neal, when she and Peter had spent so many years trying. The thing that had only been more clear as Junior grew, all dark hair and big blue eyes. Everyone said he looked just like El, but that wasn’t exactly true. Not the whole truth.
“He can count,” Peter mumbled.
They rarely talked about it because it wasn’t important. Neal Caffrey had left to lead a glamorous, criminal life without them, just like Peter had always been afraid he would, and Neal Junior was their little miracle. There was nothing that needed to be said.
Except Neal Caffrey was downstairs on their couch right now.
Reaching out blindly across the bedsheets, El found Peter’s hand, and his fingers closed around hers, squeezing tight.
If Peter had been forced to say what was the strangest part of having Neal back in his life, he’d have said how little seemed to have changed. Seven years and the trials of fatherhood made the last time he’d seen Neal Caffrey seem like a lifetime ago, but here he was in the kitchen making toast and it was as if only a few weeks had passed. Neal looked almost the same, a few more smile lines around his eyes, still stunningly beautiful. His feet were bare on the kitchen floor. For some reason it made Peter’s chest ache.
After breakfast, Peter cleared away the dishes, and then said to Junior, “Hey bud, your mom and I have some work to do. Do you want to get your legos out, or sit at the table with us? You can color.”
Junior pouted. “Can’t Neal play with me?”
“Neal’s going to be helping me.”
“I am?” Neal raised his eyebrows.
“Yes. Junior? Legos or coloring?”
“Coloring,” Junior said reluctantly.
“Run get the stuff,” Peter told him, pulling Junior’s booster seat up to the dining table.
“Sorry, I’ve sprawled everywhere,” El said, gathering up some of her scattered papers into a messy pile. She had her laptop and dayplanner open as well. “I had to dig up some invoices from last month and my filing is all over the place.”
Setting his own work laptop and briefcase down at the other end of the table, Peter leaned down to kiss her cheek absently. “No problem.”
“What’s this work you need my help with?” Neal asked, sliding into the chair beside Peter’s with his coffee cup in hand.
Peter popped open the briefcase and pulled out a stack of blue files. “Cold cases.” He dropped them in front of Neal with a snack. “Make yourself useful.”
“You just carry these around with you?” Neal asked. “Wow, you really need a hobby.”
“I coach Little League, that counts,” Peter said. “I’m doing an evaluation, to see if any of these cases can be re-opened. Since I’m in charge now.”
“Already ruling with an iron fist,” Neal said, but he was flipping open the top file, pushing his hair out of his eyes. Neal was wearing one of Peter’s shirts, he noticed, an old one that was a little too small around the middle now. El must have dug it out of the closet for him. Peter stared, distracted, at the softly worn cotton of the collar gaping open.
Junior returned, carrying scratch paper from the printer and his enormous, treasured box of 152 crayons, which he showed proudly to Neal.
Neal made appropriate noises over the colors, and then tapped the case file he was holding. “Hey Peter, you should look again at the cousin’s account statements.”
“What did you notice?”
“Look.” Neal leaned over, pushing the file between them, his elbow in Peter’s space, arm brushing his side. “The pattern of transfers strongly suggests to me another hidden account somewhere.”
“Huh. See, this is what I keep you around for.” It came out accidentally, but Neal didn’t seem to notice the slip, just smiled.
All four of them worked quietly for a while. Peter managed to get all the way through his unread emails, which was a feat even on a Sunday. He kept being distracted by the dream-like unreality of having Neal Caffrey at his dining table on a quiet weekend morning with his family. Occasionally Neal would point out something in one of the cold cases, and Peter dutifully made note. El tapped rapidly at her phone and laptop, and Junior scribbled with his tongue between his teeth.
Eventually, he held up his drawing. “Look!”
“This is good,” Neal said. “You’ve got an eye for color.”
“Do you like to draw?”
Neal’s mouth quirked. “I do.” He pointed at a chaotic swirl of brown and green. “What is this?”
“Grass,” said Junior, adding some purple to the mix.
Neal nodded sagely. “That’s a good grass color. It also reminds me of the river in the spring.”
Junior looked up, wide eyed. “But water is blue!”
“Is it?” Neal feigned shock. “You’d better go check.”
Junior stared at him for a second and then scooted out of his booster seat. A minute later, Peter heard him dragging the kitchen step stool to the sink and the water turning on. A moment later he yelled, “Mom! Dad! Water’s not blue! Water’s not any color at all!”
El looked up, smiling. “It sounds like quiet work time is over.”
Peter pointed at Neal. “You started it. You can play with him. Junior, pick a game to play with Neal.”
Coloring abandoned, Junior hauled out the box to play Connect Four, and presented it to Neal. Neal dutifully set it up on the coffee table while Junior bounced in anticipation. Satchmo, who was slow these days, lay on the carpet beside them.
Holding up one of the plastic coins, Neal vanished it with a flourish, making Junior gasp and grab for his empty hand.
“Do it again!”
Neal winked and pulled the coin out of Satchmo’s ear. Junior squealed. Satchmo’s tail thumped, and Peter felt his heart thump too. The two of them looked so alike, grinning at each other.
It had always been impossible not to see Neal in Junior, but now, with them together, he was noticing traits of Junior’s in Neal. Not new things, but things he had become more familiar with in his son than in Neal, with Neal gone. The way Junior instantly charmed people, smiled so they smiled back at him -- Neal had that too. The way everything was an exciting game to Junior -- that had been true from the very beginning, when Neal handed Peter a green sucker.
“Where’d it go?” Junior asked as Neal spread his empty hands again. He grabbed ungently for Satchmo’s ears until Satchmo shook him off.
“Go ask your dad.”
Junior bounded to his feet and Neal got up behind him. “Dad! Where is it?”
“I don’t know,” Peter told him, lifting one eyebrow at Neal.
“Right sorry, my mistake,” Neal said, leaning past Peter to get his coffee cup, which he had left on the dining table. He patted Peter’s shoulder casually, and then said, “Oh, what’s this?” As he lifted his hand away Peter felt Neal’s fingers barely brush the shell of his ear. It sent an abrupt, electric shiver down Peter’s spine, straight to his cock the way fewer and fewer things did this side of fifty. Neal was holding a red plastic Connect Four tile.
Junior shrieked happily and Neal grinned, face close to Peter’s, eyes inviting Peter to share the thrill of the trick. Something fluttered in Peter’s stomach.
There had been years of his life when he’d been certain El was enough for him. Then there had been Neal, who had never really been his to keep but it had hurt all the same when he’d gone, especially after that night -- that tiny taste of what could have been. And then there was Junior, too precious for words.
Neal was showing Junior how to palm a coin, which Peter felt he should disrupt just on principle, but he found himself transfixed. The precise, graceful movement of his hands; his strong forearms with Peter’s shirt rolled up to the elbow; the curve of his mouth; his familiar eyes. Peter’s son’s eyes.
Looking at the two of them together, Peter felt an upwelling of irrational terror, that he might lose Junior someday to the same wanderlust that had taken Neal. He tightened his grip on his coffee mug so it scalded his palms, scolding himself. All parents felt that way about their kids growing up; it was a little early to get hysterical about an empty nest.
Dropping the coin, Junior started to frown, discouraged, and Neal said, “It’s okay, try again,” sounding so much like a parent that Peter’s chest ached sharply. He wondered suddenly if Neal had other children out there. Probably not -- Neal was normally detail-oriented enough to be careful, and in any case Peter had always suspected Neal preferred men, but all it would take would be a few months with a Sara or an Alex or a Kate, to have another sweet, blue eyed child running around in the world.
Junior managed to do a simple palm exchange without dropping the plastic coin, and beamed at Neal. Neal ruffled his hair. Peter’s heart contracted again.
He shook himself. Apparently all it took was Neal Caffrey showing up back in his life to start him thinking about ridiculous things.
Eventually, Junior announced, “Play now,” and pointed to the game.
Junior won the first round on a sneaky diagonal. Connect Four was currently his second favorite game after Go Fish, and Neal clearly hadn’t played anything like tic tac toe in ages. But Neal had an eye for patterns, and he won the next two games neatly. Peter watched the furrow in Junior’s brow deepen, his lower lip pouting out, and knew what was coming. When Junior lost the third game in a row, he burst into tears.
Neal threw him a helpless, panicked look.
“Hey, Junior.” Peter crouched down on the rug, a little stiffly. His knees weren’t what they used to be. Junior crawled into Peter’s lap and Peter rubbed his back. “Remember what’s important about games?”
“Having fun,” Junior sniffled. His eyes were red and wet, scrunched up unhappily. Peter sometimes suspected Junior of crocodile tears, and when he did, he wondered whether that was normal childhood deception or some kind of predisposition of biology.
“And what do we do when we lose?”
“Keep playing,” Junior mumbled, tipping his head against Peter’s chest.
Peter squeezed him, proud. “That’s right.” Neal had gotten El pregnant, but Junior was Peter’s son.
“Hon,” El called, “I’m going to run some errands this afternoon. There’s a new bakery in midtown I need to try before a client meeting tomorrow.”
“Bakery!” Junior yelled, tears forgotten, launching himself up out of Peter’s lap. “Mom, can I come? Mom! Can I come to the bakery?”
“Manners,” Peter said.
El laughed as Junior scooted into the dinning room to tug at her leg. “Do you want to be my assistant today?
"He's just going to say all the cakes are good," Peter pointed out. "And then he'll be on a sugar high."
"A sugar high is just a myth," Neal commented, putting away the Connect Four pieces, "perpetuated by psuedo-doctors in the '70s."
"Thank you, Doctor Spock," Peter sighed.
Junior was a whirlwind of excitement over the prospect of cake tasting, and it took half an hour to get him and El out the door.
With the house quiet, Peter took the opportunity to actually focus on his work. Neal finished with the cold cases, noting a couple more places for investigation, and then wandered over to the bookshelf. The silence was companionable. Domestic.
Eventually Satchmo whined, and Neal got up to let him out the back door. “Your patio looks like an auto shop exploded in miniature.”
Peter lifted his head from his laptop, glancing at the mess of toy cars on the patio. “Uh, yeah. Hazard of parenthood.”
Neal nodded at his work. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Peter leaned back and stretched. “Nah, I’m about ready for a break anyway.” Getting up from the dining table, he picked up his mug. Afternoon sunlight streamed across the room. The coffee had gone cold. “You want another cup?”
“No, thanks.” Neal whistled Satchmo back inside. “Junior did this?” He was looking at one of Junior’s abstract finger paintings from pre school that El had framed and hung by the door. “He really does have an eye for composition.”
“Wonder where he gets that,” Peter said, lowering himself onto the couch and abandoning the coffee. It wasn’t normally something he’d joke about, but sometimes Junior’s affinity for art struck him as enormously, cosmically funny.
Neal sat on the opposite side of the couch, one knee drawn up, bare foot tucked under his other thigh. His face was pensive. “Six and a half, huh?” he said quietly. Peter grunted acknowledgement. There was a short silence and then Neal said, “I wish I had been here.”
“You could have been,” Peter said, and then bit down on his tongue. The thought had been so close to the surface of his mind all weekend, it just slipped out.
“I didn't know. You could have told me.”
Peter shook his head wryly, because the memory would always hurt, but it was water under the bridge now. “You didn't exactly leave a forwarding address.” As he moved his head, Peter caught a whiff of Neal’s cologne on the couch cushions, and had a vivid, heated sense memory of the same scent on El’s neck the night before. “What was I supposed to do, send a letter to the Louvre addressed to the Cat Burglar? Hire a sky-writer in Milan?” He couldn’t help smiling.
Neal huffed a breath, not quite a laugh. “I suppose not.” His gaze was intent, both familiar and inscrutable. He’d always looked at Peter like that sometimes, and Peter had never been certain what he was thinking when he did.
“Neal,” Peter said, enjoying how Neal looked at him. “Come here.”
Neal obeyed, moving carefully across the couch toward Peter. The obedience made the pit of Peter’s stomach heat. Neal was talking--he was always talking. “Do you--”
“Be quiet,” Peter said, and he wrapped a hand around the back of Neal’s neck and kissed him.
Neal went momentarily still with shock, making a small noise in the back of his throat, and then surged forward into the kiss. His mouth was familiar, even after all this time, and desire coalesced in a hot throb in Peter’s gut. Neal had never been his to keep, but Peter wanted this too much to resist any longer. If this was all the time he got with Neal, well. He was going to make the most of it.
Neal was leaning in, almost over-balancing them on the couch, practically in Peter’s lap. Peter gripped Neal’s shoulders to steady him, feeling the muscle of Neal’s arms shift beneath his palms. Neal’s eager hunger was making Peter hard. Everything about Neal was making Peter hard right now.
Peter buried his fingers in Neal’s silky hair, not quite gently, and felt Neal’s hips jolt, erection dragging against Peter’s thigh. Peter groaned and tugged harder, making Neal whine. This was probably a bad idea; it was going to hurt when Neal walked away again, but that was going to hurt anyway, and right now Neal was in his lap and that was all that mattered.
Sliding his hands under Neal’s thighs, he shifted their weight and tipped Neal backward onto the couch, coming down on top of him. Neal made an approving noise against his lips, thrusting his hips up. Nipping at Neal’s lower lip, Peter pulled back, feeling his cock throb in his jeans. His cheeks were flushed and his mouth wet, dark hair tousled where Peter’s fingers had gripped it. His knees were spread on either side of Peter’s body, one foot on the floor, the other leg pressed to the back of the couch. He was visibly hard in his pants. Looking like sin was a professional skill of Neal’s, and Peter wanted to wreck him.
Grabbing both of Neal’s hands, he pressed them above Neal’s head, against the arm of the couch. “Don’t move.”
Neal moaned, arching against him, wrists flexing in Peter’s grasp. “Peter…”
“Shhh. Keep your hands there.”
Neal’s lips parted on a gasp, head tipped back, but he kept his hands where they were after Peter released his wrists. Bending down to kiss at Neal’s exposed neck, Peter began popping the button’s on Neal’s shirt--Peter’s shirt that Neal was wearing. He could feel the vibrations of Neal’s noises in his throat, could feel the way his breath hitched when Peter nipped him.
With the shirt open, Peter lowered his head to bite at Neal’s collar bones. He wanted to mark him, leave bruises so that even when Neal was gone he would still have this moment etched on his body. Peter bit down, sucking on the tender skin over Neal’s clavicle, and then high up on his pectoral, and then beside his nipple. Neal was making steady, soft sounds. “Uh, uh, uh, oh.” Peter’s pants were uncomfortably tight, and he rubbed himself against the couch cushion as he licked one of Neal’s nipples.
Neal’s body jolted, cock pushing against Peter’s stomach, through his pants. Peter lifted his head. “Stay still.” That made Neal moan out loud again, but he obeyed and it made a hot thrill twist through Peter. Neal, the inveterate rule-breaker, holding himself in tense, excruciating stillness because Peter said so.
Fumbling with Neal’s pants, Peter got his belt and zipper open, closing his fingers around the hot, hard length of Neal’s cock. It was deliciously slick at the tip, a detail that had featured in Peter’s fantasies many times since that one night together - how much Neal leaked when he was turned on. “Stay,” he repeated. Bending over, Peter swallowed Neal’s dick as deep as he could, both because his mouth was watering for it, and also to stop himself saying something he’d regret, like please stay.
Neal gasped, a tremor wracking his body. The muscles in his thighs jumped under Peter’s palms, trying to stay still. Peter was decades past coming in his pants, but the intoxication of Neal following orders, combined with the salty-bitter taste and weight on his tongue had Peter humping the couch cushions like a teenager in the back seat after prom.
Neal was whimpering steadily, leaking in Peter’s mouth, hands flexing and curling above his head. He was getting close and Peter was trying to decide if he was going to let Neal come, or if he had the patience to open him up and fuck him first, when the key scraped in the front door.
They jolted apart. Neal nearly kneed Peter in the face trying to pull up his pants, while Peter cast around frantically for something to cover his own obvious erection with. He ended up with a throw pillow on his lap, while Neal clutched his unbuttoned shirt closed over his chest and drew his knees up to conceal his still-undone fly. The front door opened.
“Honey, we’re - oh,” El said, breaking off, one hand still on the door knob.
Junior slid past her. “Dad! There was a Superman cake! We didn’t get to try that one but there were lots of others!” He stopped, brow wrinkling a little, confused with his parents. “Dad?”
“Junior, hon,” El said, holding out a cardboard bakery box, “Take these into the kitchen for me, please.”
When the boy had gone, Neal stood, holding his pants up with one hand, and nodded toward the bathroom. “I’ll just, uh. Excuse me.” He slipped away leaving Peter alone on the couch feeling unreasonably guilty.
He cleared his throat, but still couldn’t figure out what to say. El raised her eyebrows. “You and Neal talked, I take it?”
“Uh. When you say talked… ”
She looked amused. “I see.”
Junior came back in from the kitchen, somewhat subdued. “Dad? What were you doing with Neal?”
Peter froze again.
El ruffled Junior’s hair. “They were just having some grown up time. Run up to your room and you can have half an hour on the iPad ok?”
“Yes!” Junior yelled, perplexity forgotten, and pounded up the stairs.
“So,” El said, coming to sit beside Peter on the couch.
He blew out a breath. “Yeah.”
“You know it’s okay, right?” El asked, putting a hand on his knee.
Something tight loosened in his chest. “Yeah. But.”
Peter shook his head. “It’s the same as it’s always been. Sooner or later, he’s leaving. And I...” He broke off, knowing El understood the rest of the sentence.
“Oh, hon. It sounds like you do actually need to talk to Neal.” She squeezed his leg. “I know he’s tempting, but try to keep it in your pants until you actually resolve something.”
Neal spent a little more than ten minutes in the bathroom, while El got sandwiches started in the kitchen. When he came down the stairs he was perfectly groomed, only a healthy flush of color on his cheeks giving him away. He glanced at Peter and then away, blushing darker. At Neal’s age, Peter probably would have taken his turn in the bathroom to take care of himself, but age had made erections less stubborn and distracting. He just sighed, rubbing his damp palms against his jeans and watching Neal going to help El in the kitchen.
When lunch was ready, Peter went upstairs to get Junior, who was on his bed with the iPad, engrossed in a game.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You should try to eat something anyway.”
Junior pouted at him. “My tummy hurts.”
“If you’re feeling sick you can have a Tums and try to take a nap.”
“I’m not sleepy, I’m just not hungry.”
Peter sighed. He made a habit of never saying “I told you so” to his wife, but the cake had been a bad idea. “Some real food might help your stomach ache.”
“But Daddy,” Junior whined. “I don’t want to eat.” His eyes were so blue.
Running a hand through his son’s silky, baby-fine hair, Peter felt for a fever briefly. Junior was fine, just full of cake. “I’ll talk to your mom.”
“He says he’s got a stomach ache,” Peter said, downstairs.
El pursed her lips. “Some real food might help.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“I’ll make him some ginger tea,” El said. “He can take a Tums and lie down if he’s really sick.” She bustled into the kitchen to put the kettle on. “You boys go ahead and eat, don’t wait for me.”
They sat down at the table, opposite one another. Neal chewed his sandwich. Peter picked at his. Traffic rumbled by on the street outside. The kettle whistled in the kitchen. Mugs in the cabinet clinked, and the hot water hissed as it was poured over a teabag. Satchmo whuffled under the table and set his head on Peter’s shoe. El passed through the dining room with the steaming mug, and cast them both a meaningful look. The stairs creaked.
“So,” Peter said.
Neal raised an eyebrow, mouth full.
“El thinks we should talk,” Peter said.
“El’s usually right.” Putting the sandwich down, Neal licked crumbs off his fingers. Helplessly, Peter watched his tongue.
“Well?” Neal prompted.
Peter rubbed a hand over his chin. “That night.” They had been celebrating after a stressful case that El had gotten tangled up in, drinking excellent wine in the living room, all sprawled together on the couch just like Peter and Neal had been that afternoon. El had been teasing the two of them about something or other, Peter didn’t remember anything except Neal laughing, and El leaning over to kiss him. The three of them had stumbled into bed, and in the morning, Neal was gone. He’d been distant at work, and then a few days later everything had happened, and then Neal had been gone for good. “You left.” Somehow, that was all he could find it in himself to say.
Neal shrugged one shoulder. “I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.” The look on his face was one Peter recognized -- an uncertainty.
“We wanted you to stay.” Peter cleared his throat. “I. I wanted you to stay.”
Neal looked down at his half-eaten sandwich. “When I left, you didn’t try to find me.” He wasn’t talking about the morning after, anymore.
“I thought you were dead,” Peter said, hearing his own voice crack, and watching Neal flinch ever so slightly. “And then by the time we got your postcard… I had other things on my plate,” he added and saw Neal absorb that silently, too. “Anyway, I hunt criminals, not…” He bit down on the rest of that. What was he going to say? Not runaway lovers? Not friends? “You clearly didn’t want to be found,” he finished, stiff.
Neal winced. “I admit I… left some unfinished business. Clearly. But I thought it would be… easier.”
The next words were hard to push out but Peter was a grown man, and he’d learned that some things had to be spoken. “If you didn’t want to be with us, you should have just said.”
“If I didn’t want to…” Neal trailed off, blinking at him. Peter forced himself to stare back, feeling as if every muscle in his body was locked tight. Neal’s gaze flickered, and he licked his lips, a nervous tell. “Peter, I… I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to be with you and El.”
Peter couldn’t make those words make sense. He shook his head slightly. Neal swallowed. “I mean, I left because I thought it would be easier for you. With the warrant, and the prints--and--I was scared.” He laughed uncomfortably. “But the thing with you and El…you two are so good together, and it wasn’t as if…” Neal gestured between the two of them. “You’re you and I’m me, and I never thought…I didn’t want to…mess anything up.” He looked like a boy, big-eyed and remorseful. He looked so like his son that Peter’s heart clenched.
“You’re telling me,” Peter said slowly, “that you left because you were afraid to try?”
“You’re the one always telling me to be careful.” His voice was small. It made Peter want to wrap him up and take care of him, and shake him by the neck simultaneously.
“I’ve never known Neal Caffrey to be too afraid to go after something he wants.”
Neal met his gaze, jaw working. Finally he said, “Most things I want aren’t that important.”
Peter huffed out a breath, looking down at his plate. The thrill of the chase was the first thing he’d come to love about Neal, when Neal was just a thick case file and the memory of a stunning smile. But after Peter had caught him, that feeling never really went away. Even when Neal was right beside him, anklet on, Peter’d had the sense that he was just out of reach, always on his way somewhere. At some point the chase had stopped being a thrill and become a terror, the terror of loss and heartbreak, and all Peter’s best intentions hadn’t stopped him falling into bed with Neal, and into the inevitable. And, god help him, he wanted to do it again, even knowing it would hurt that much worse when Neal walked away again.
“Why’d you come back, then?” Peter asked, voice rough.
Neal quirked an approximation of his normal smile. “You know what they say. Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker.”
“Skip the bullshit.”
“I got a job offer.”
Peter felt his blood pressure spike. “If you break the law on American soil...”
Neal raised both hands, interrupting. “A legitimate job offer! Private restoration.”
Private restoration sounded dangerously close to forgery, but whatever else it was, it wasn’t probably cause for arrest. Peter subsided, glaring. “I’m sure you get lots of job offers,” he said sourly. “Why this one? Why now?”
“It’s not a gig. It would be long term.”
That settled in Peter’s gut like a stone. “You’d move back.”
Neal nodded slowly. “I’d move back.”
“Is that why you’re here? Here , I mean.” He gestured around the Burke house.
“I can’t visit my old friends socially?” When Peter refused the bait, Neal sighed. “I can’t come back to New York if things are--” he gestured between them.
“You want a promise I won’t arrest you?”
Neal shook his head. “I wouldn’t turn down amnesty, but that’s not what I mean.”
Peter swallowed. His throat was dry. “What do you mean?”
Whatever Neal was about to say was interrupted by El coming down the stairs. Peter let out a breath. She took in the two of them frozen at the table. “Everything okay?”
Peter nodded. “How’s Junior?”
“He’s fine, he just had too much cake. I’ll try to feed him something later this afternoon.” She looked expectantly between them. “Did you two get a chance to talk?”
“Sort of,” Peter said. “Neal is considering moving back to New York. Permanently.”
El raised her eyebrows. “That would be a big change.”
Neal flashed his professional smile. “You know I could never stay away.”
She perched her hip on the table. “We didn’t know that, actually,” she said mildly, and Neal wilted a little.
“I’m sorry I stayed away for so long,” he said, and Peter, after a decade of watching Neal lie, knew it was true. “I… I didn’t know.”
“You have to tell us what you want, Neal,” Peter said, and Neal gave him a pained look. One of Neal’s talents as a con man was giving others what they wanted so gracefully that everyone assumed it was Neal’s idea. He didn’t like to truly take the lead. Peter waited impassively.
Looking down at his plate, Neal said softly, “I’d like to… try again. What we started.”
“Things aren’t the same as they were then.”
Neal glanced at the stairs. “I know that.”
“It wouldn’t just be…” Peter trailed off at a loss, because it had never been “just” anything, with Neal. It had been too much from the very beginning; an obsession, a love affair. That was the problem, really. “You would be becoming part of the family.” Silently, El squeezed Peter’s hand.
Neal bobbed a little, nervous nod. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the French doors, making him glow like a painting. “I know.”
Peter was quiet for a moment. “I don’t have temporary family members. Not with Junior in the picture. He can’t have people coming and going out of his life.”
“I know,” Neal repeated. “And I know you don’t really have a reason to believe me, if I say I would stay.”
“Honey,” El said, “Peter has been ready to believe you for a long time. You’ve just never said it.”
Neal opened his mouth.
There was a soft thud of footsteps on the stairs, and Junior peeked around the corner. “Mommy? I’m hungry.”
The rest of the afternoon was excruciating. The last time Peter had so urgently wanted his son out from underfoot was on his and El’s last anniversary, when she’d given him a peek at her lingerie that morning, and Peter had spent the rest of the day on edge. At least then they’d had a babysitter coming and a whole evening to themselves.
After spending an hour on the couch sketching while Junior colored with crayons at the coffee table, Neal announced that he was going out. “Nooo,” Junior moaned, “Don’t gooo,” and El clucked her tongue, running interference while Neal put his jacket on.
“Keep working on that landscape, Junior,” Neal said. “I’m excited to see what you’ve done with it when I get back.”
Peter felt an irrational flicker of fear, watching Neal walk toward the door. Neal must have seen it on his face. “I am coming back,” he said. “I’m just going to talk to some people. You all do dinner without me.” El caught Peter’s gaze as the door shut behind Neal and shrugged, eyes soft.
They fed Junior and put him to bed a little early because he was yawning at the table. When Peter came downstairs after pajamas and three picture books, El had a bottle of good wine out on the table, unopened. Silently, Peter went to sit beside her on the couch. Satchmo shuffled over and flopped down at their feet, panting noisy, geriatric breaths. El tipped her head against Peter’s shoulder, and he breathed in the familiar scent of her hair.
It was a little past nine thirty when the lock on the front door clicked softly. “Did you give him a key?” Peter asked, and El laughed and shook her head. Peter tried to scowl but found himself too distracted by Neal, hair rumpled by the spring breeze, cheeks pink as if he had been walking. He shrugged out of his coat and held up a bottle of wine, grinning when he saw the bottle on the coffee table.
“Great minds,” he said, sauntering over. His smile was dazzling, but Peter had known him long enough to see the nervousness underneath.
El scooted to one side on the couch and patted the cushion between them. “Come sit.”
“I should uncork this, it would be best if it breathed a little.”
“Leave the wine,” El said, “We’ll have it after.”
Neal raised his eyebrows. “After?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He sat.
“You’ve already mastered the first rule of the Burke house,” Peter said.
“Listen to Elizabeth?” Neal asked.
“That’s right.” Peter and El faced one another with Neal between them. The house was quiet. Their knees were touching.
Neal fiddled with his cufflink, eyes down. “I took the job.”
El sucked in a breath. “Oh, Neal. Does that mean...”
He gave an approximation of his aw shucks smile. “Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker.”
“But Neal,” she leaned forward urgently, one hand on Neal’s thigh, “you mean you’re staying? For good?”
“Looks like.” The concealed uncertainty on Neal’s face made Peter’s heart squeeze. “Not that that means I have any expectations of you two. I’m coming back for lots of reasons. It’s interesting work, solid legality; I’ll get to see old friends again…” He trailed off. El’s eyes were wide, looking at Peter. Peter leaned forward and slid his fingers into Neal’s hair. It was thick and soft, a little shorter than the last time he’d touched Neal like this.
“Peter?” Neal whispered. His eyes were so blue. Just like El’s. Just like their son’s.
“Neal,” Peter whispered, and kissed him.