At four in the morning, Elizabeth is asleep and cozy warm. At seven, she is drowsy and hot, and by seven twenty, when the furnace has really kicked in, she is awake and suffocating, and weirdly, can't move her legs. It's a Saturday; she was hoping to sleep in a little. She lifts her head from the pillow to look across the bed. Peter is asleep on the other side, sprawled on his back with--there is no other way to put it, and she intends to give him entire rations of shit on the topic--a sappy smile on his face. Neal is curled on his side in the middle between them. Elizabeth has gradually cataloged Neal's sleeping habits in the past two weeks; he tends to burrow into his pillow--at the moment, his face is mostly hidden, his hair falling into his eyes--and doesn't move much, but does huddle close to sources of warmth. Right now, this means her. She looks down the length of the bed. Peter and Neal, long-limbed creatures that they are, leave no room at the foot of the mattress, so Satchmo has squeezed himself in below--and half on top of--her legs. She drops her head back to the pillow. Satchmo snuffles and sighs in ecstasy. He is usually banished from the bedroom when they sleep, but they were preoccupied last night and forgot to close the door. A half second later, Neal sighs in a very similar way and puts his arm across her.
"We're gonna need a bigger bed," Elizabeth says to the room at large.
2. Naming conventions.
Peter still calls Elizabeth "El", of course. Neal does not call her El. Elizabeth and Peter still call one another "honey". Peter calls Neal different things: Neal (most often); Caffrey (at the office, still, sometimes); partner; baby. (But the last is almost always during sex, usually when he is about to come and Neal is drawing it out, teasing him with his lips and tongue and teeth, and it has the sound in it of a supplication--baby. Baby.)
Neal and Elizabeth eventually have a lot of nicknames for one another; she calls him The Hat. And Handsy McHandsalot. Sweetie. At first, Neal is extravagantly complimentary in what he calls Elizabeth, when he doesn't call her by her name--he says, hi gorgeous, hello beautiful. Sweetheart. Then he gets mad one day and calls her the Duchess, and she produces this incredibly unladylike giggling snort, and then he is laughing and the argument is over. It's their first. So after that, he sometimes calls her Duchess. The names that really stick, though, are Pen (for her) and Tune (for him.) Peter never quite figures out where they come from--the two of them try a couple of times to explain but end up laughing too hard, which makes him laugh too hard to be able to listen properly, and then the names just become part of their life and he forgets he doesn't exactly know why. Pen has something to do with a song, and Tune has something to with a flower. Or maybe a movie. Once these names are properly settled on them, Elizabeth signs all of Neal's birthday cards "with love from Pen", and Neal says, "hey, it's Tune" when he calls her on the phone.
Neal doesn't call Peter anything but "Peter". When it all first starts, and he is carefully figuring out his place in their life, he sometimes has trouble calling Peter anything at all, because his throat closes up around the sound of Peter's name. During that time he lavishes what feels like enormous amounts of affection on Satchmo, whom he calls Mo; he adds various words to suit the moment. Mo Food, Mo Walks, Mo Peeing, Mo Petting. Mo Love. When Peter just looks at him and smiles, Neal thinks, "I am as transparent as glass," which is not a thought he is comfortable with, but he gets used to it. And eventually, "Peter" rolls off of his tongue again, easily--said, growled, shouted, whispered, breathed. Peter. Peter. Peter.
3. Lucky bastard.
Peter knows that men do incredibly stupid things for sex all the time. They cheat on their wives with their sisters-in-law and leave the motel receipts lying around. They offer to screw strangers in public places who turn out to be undercover cops. They blow their life's work for a night with a prostitute who has a john with a camera and a will to blackmail. Peter once spent hours interviewing a perp who told him a complicated story about forged currency and a mobster's wife: "She was the one," the perp told him, "It was so wrong, but that's what made it good." The guy was looking at twenty years for fraud and maybe attempted murder, but he didn't even sound sorry.
In the beginning, Peter tries to shine a light on every dark dumb corner of his own mind, asks himself often if he is being incredibly stupid. Neal is good, so good, but nothing about him in their bed or in their life feels wrong. He feels right the way El feels right. Eventually, as their life settles into a shape more satisfying than he had ever dreamed possible, Peter just decides that he's an exceptionally lucky bastard, and mostly stops worrying.
About two years in, they quit using condoms. It goes like this:
Elizabeth is calling out items to put on a shopping list; Peter is writing them down; Neal is hunting for the car keys. Elizabeth comes out of the bedroom with the empty condom box in her hand, and says, "I want to talk about this."
It has never been about birth control, and they all know it. The suggestion makes Peter look cautiously happy; Neal looks like he's been handed something extremely fragile and isn't sure what to do with it. He insists he needs to go get tested. Peter looks like he's about to object. Neal says, "The reason we're thinking about this is because we trust each other. I want you to be sure. I want to do this right."
Elizabeth says, "I think we should all go and get tested. Fair is fair." Elizabeth has an appointment for a check-up with her gynecologist anyway, and doesn't hesitate to tell her she wants to be tested when she goes in.
Peter loves his wife's no-bullshit courage, but doesn't find himself equal to it. He imagines telling his doctor, who is at least sixty and has known him since he was first assigned to NYC by the Bureau, that he wants to get tested for HIV and gonorrhea and whatever else is required; his nerve fails him. Neal takes pity on him, and one afternoon when they are doing some routine follow-up on a case in Brooklyn, Neal takes him into a clinic that does anonymous testing, after having first taken him to an ATM and instructed him to get a wad of cash. Neal goes in for the counseling and blood draw first. Peter sits on a hard plastic chair in the waiting room; it's late in the day, and the place is not very busy. There's a woman talking softly on her cell phone, and a couple of men examining the brochures that the window clerk handed them. Peter has one, too; he resists the temptation to fold it into a paper airplane. When his turn comes, he talks to a middle-aged woman named Gloria who looks a little tired, but listens carefully when he answers her questions about his sexual practices. She seems pleased when he says that he has been careful, and he and his partners have talked about it and are being tested together. Gloria has clearly heard everything, and doesn't even blink at the plural. A few minutes later, while she is drawing his blood, Peter realizes that she is the first person other than El and Neal whom he has come out to. It feels a little weird to use the phrase "come out" in relation to his own life, but there it is, and he wants to take her kind antiseptic-roughened hand in his own and thank her.
He goes back out to where Neal is sitting in the waiting room, which is now otherwise empty. The weak shafts of late afternoon sun coming through the window light the knife edge of Neal's profile. Peter can see that he has folded his brochure into an origami elephant. Suddenly, this clinic visit seems less like something he is doing to humor Neal's lingering insecurity and El's strong sense of fairness. It's more than a moment; it's important. They're not going to get any rituals, the three of them, without making them up as they go along. When Neal stands up, Peter tugs him in and kisses his temple. Neal gives him a look of surprised pleasure, but just says, "Everything okay?" Peter says, "fine," and then goes to the window to pay.
They call with their assigned numbers to get their test results about a week later, and go home and have their first condom-less sex in the living room. Neal rips buttons off of Peter's shirt trying to get it off; Peter gets inside Neal and comes in about ten seconds and feels something less than suave, but Neal just smiles joyously, sweaty and beautiful. El comes home then and makes them all move up to the bedroom; she had gotten her results days ago and says, "my turn now, since you guys kept me waiting."
Unprotected, Peter thinks. He remembers the moment when El said, "we should ask Neal to live with us," and he felt like she was holding his beating heart in her hands. He remembers the feeling of Neal's shoulder against his in that waiting room. He sends Gloria a donation for the clinic's community outreach fund.
5. Bed (part two).
They are on vacation, the three of them, in L.A. Peter and Neal go out there for a case, and when it ends, Elizabeth joins them and they play tourist for a few days. It's their first real vacation together.
They are walking off an amazing lunch by doing a little desultory window shopping in a trendy neighborhood. Neal is making Elizabeth laugh with his comments about the art works in the galleries that they pass. He stops in front of a window that features paintings of enormously distorted breasts and giant erect phalluses in lurid colors, and says in his fruitiest art-critic tones, "Ah, I love the work of an ascetic, don't you? Such minimalism!"
"Yes," Elizabeth agrees. "It makes one never want to have sex again."
"Well, then, we had better move on quickly," says Neal in his normal voice. She looks over at Peter, who isn't saying much, but seems to be enjoying the fact that he is wearing sunglasses and comfortably walking around in his shirtsleeves in February; he looks like his bones are softening, he's so relaxed. When El stops abruptly and says, "oh, we have to go in here," he doesn't even murmur in protest.
"Here" is a store that sells beds and linens and pillows, which it turns out is kind of like saying the Louvre is a place where the French keep paintings. They wander around; she and Neal pick up and stroke a lot of high thread count sheets. Peter is staring at one bed--high pillows, comforter and sheets in sea greens and blues, tumbled artfully to suggest that someone has just gotten out of it, a giant vase of purple hydrangeas on the night stand next to it--as if he's starting to think longingly of a nap. Elizabeth turns a display corner toward the back of the store and is confronted by a minor dream come true. She exclaims "oh my GOD," and tugs them both to stand in front of a bed that is so enormous it looks like they could play tennis on it.
"Wow," Neal says. "Duchess, I like your thinking."
"Wait, what?" Peter says. "El, come on. This won't even fit in our room, look at the size of that headboard!" It's true that the headboard looks like a young monolith, and there are some distractingly ugly protrusions in the form of attached night stands.
"Not the bed," Elizabeth says. "The mattress."
"Can I help you?" asks the woman who suddenly appears behind them. Elizabeth watches as Neal turns and sizes her up in the space of one breath; she doesn't get to see Neal do his stuff very often. He leans confidingly towards the woman, looking charmingly bashful.
"Why, yes," he says. "I believe you can." He takes Elizabeth's hand as if reaching for her supportive presence. Forty minutes later, they have a new mattress, for which Neal has paid a discounted price and which will be delivered at no charge from the distributor in New Jersey when they return home, and the helpful woman is fairly broadcasting her understanding discretion. She even writes down the information for a place that will make the specially sized sheets for the new bed. Elizabeth is overjoyed.
When they get home, the mattress--and a simple platform-style frame--are delivered as promised, and it's so comfortable that Peter forgives Neal for having made him lie on a bed in a store in front of a woman who clearly thought he was the kept man of The Rich Young Business Potentate And His Lovely Wife. "I had to let her think that, Peter," Neal says. "I didn't think you'd want me to tell her you were with the FBI." Satchmo likes the new mattress, too.
6. Other people.
Neal and Elizabeth are at the Met, looking at an exhibit called "The Domestic Interior in American Painting." Naturally, the paintings lead them around to the topic of Peter and his obsession with working on the new house.
"I keep expecting to come home and find a moat and a drawbridge," Elizabeth says.
"Don't give him any ideas," Neal cautions. "When we left today, he had the "This Old House" gleam in his eye, so, you know. Prepare yourself."
"Clinton and Moz will rein him in," Elizabeth says hopefully. Jones and Mozzie have developed an unlikely friendship, and occasionally hang out with Peter on a Saturday and argue over "Restore, Repair or Replace?" Mozzie spirits away pieces of the interior hardware ("this doorknob is nineteenth century! and in great shape! it just needs a little TLC!") and then returns them after they have had "the Mozzie touch." Jones has previously unsuspected carpentry skills, and Neal thinks he has lust in his heart for Peter's table saw.
"By the way, there was a bit of detail in that Sargent that would work really well in the dining room, I think," Neal says. "I've got the tools."
"You're getting to be as bad as he is," Elizabeth sighs.
"Elizabeth?" says a woman who has just walked into the gallery.
Elizabeth introduces them--"Julie, this is our good friend Neal"--and they all go up to the roof to have coffee. Neal listens to the two women talk and admires the view. He loves to watch Elizabeth in settings like this, the buildings of Manhattan behind her, her dark hair gleaming in the sun. Julie is auburn-haired and attractive, and they make a pretty picture. She makes an effort to include him in the conversation, and he gradually realizes that she is sizing him up to ask him out. He is suddenly very aware of how Elizabeth has stopped talking, across the table. He is momentarily thrown, and then astonished at his own obliviousness. In the beginning, he occasionally wondered if he should go out on a date every once in a while, just as a cover, but he could never bring himself to follow through and now it never crosses his mind. At the first opportunity, he drops the phrase "my boyfriend" into the conversation, and that's that--he can almost see Julie's internal "oh, well" shrug. She leaves soon after, saying, "promise to call me!" to Elizabeth, and "Nice to meet you, Neal."
He and Elizabeth ride down in the elevator in silence. He thinks they're leaving, but she abruptly turns into the Egyptian galleries, and when he follows her, she's standing in the deep shadows of a monumental carved wall, staring at nothing.
"Hey," he says. He's not sure what's going on. "It's okay."
"No, it's not," Elizabeth says. "I sat there and watched her hit on you, and I couldn't tell her to knock it off. I don't have that right. I shouldn't even want that right."
"You do," Neal says in agony. The hopelessness in her voice curdles him. "Even if you can't exercise it, you do have the right, Pen." She shakes her head wordlessly, and then he realizes something he should probably have figured out before. "We're married." She looks at him, her eyes brimming. "Oh my god, I'm married." He grabs her and kisses her, a lot, and when she stops crying he says, "Let's go home and tell Peter that we're all married, okay?"
She sniffs and laughs and wipes her nose with back of her hand. "He's going to say, well, duh, you two really took the slow boat, didn't you? and then he'll want us to help him measure some room or move something really heavy."
"Just further proof of how married the three of us are," Neal says cheerfully.
Elizabeth's parents live in the Hamptons, so they see them regularly. Roy and Mary love Neal, and approve of the fact that he is Peter and Elizabeth's "housemate", because "he helps them with the mortgage on that big place, and it's such a great house." (The mortgage is not as big as people tend to assume. The house was a foreclosure, and Neal worked his negotiating mojo on the bank manager. But it's a convenient assumption, so they let it stand.) Because Roy and Mary live close, though, they don't spend the night, and don't have a reason to look critically at the arrangement of the bedrooms. Neal eventually tells them some carefully edited stories about his past, and if anything, they love him more, while Peter practically attains sainthood in their eyes.
"They were a little wary of me, at first," Peter tells him.
"Was it the FBI?" Neal asks.
"Mostly," Peter says. "They're a pair of old hippies." Neal nods and manages not to laugh at the idea of Mary, who runs the art education league in their little hamlet, and Roy, who is a selectman on the town council, as countercultural rebels.
"What?" Peter says. "They still smoke pot. Ask Roy for a blunt the next time we go see them."
Peter's mother, Karen, lives in Cleveland and doesn't fly. Peter and Elizabeth visit her, but Neal doesn't meet her until they have a case that takes them to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Peter calls her and makes a plan to go out to dinner. In the restaurant, Neal observes that she is very like Peter in some ways--both tall, both whip smart. He can sense some past history of conflict and tension, but it seems to be mostly past; they laugh and talk easily, and tell stories about Peter's father, who died ten years ago, and whom Neal knows Peter loved in a deep and uncomplicated way. Peter and Neal don't talk at all about their own history, but they tell a few work stories, and the conversation changes. Karen makes some very insightful comments, and then starts to ask questions about their cases, lots and lots of questions. Her scrutiny, when she turns it on Neal, is both completely polite and completely terrifying. Neal is suddenly sure she has his FBI dossier in her over-sized handbag. He wonders if he did a good enough job of obscuring his part ownership of the house, and resolves to get Mozzie to help him retrace the documents the minute he gets home, maybe set up some kind of anonymous ownership trust. He wonders if she can sense the two kinds of lube that he has packed in his luggage. That old "transparent as glass" feeling is even more uncomfortable when the cause of it is his lover's mother. Then he curses himself for even thinking the word "lover"; he substitutes "husband" and decides that's much, much worse. After that, he resolutely concentrates on the way his socks are itching his ankles, so that he won't think about Peter naked.
She thanks them charmingly for dinner when they drop her off and, finally, they're in the car on the way back to the hotel. Neal feels weakly relieved to have survived the evening, and says so.
"Yeah, well," Peter says, "she was a Federal court judge for twenty years, and you know. Old habits."
"Oh, you are so going to pay for not having warned me about this," Neal says. He ties Peter to the hotel bed with his own neckties--"shut up, they're hideous"--and torments him for hours. They oversleep and almost miss their plane back to New York. Elizabeth says, "what happened to this tie? and this one?" when she's helping them unpack, and laughs very hard when Neal tells her, while Peter looks abashed and mutters, "I can't stop her, she's my mother, okay?"
"It's okay, honey," Elizabeth says. "Neal and I will have fun picking out your new ties."
8. Nine to five.
Diana comes back from D.C. Hughes finally retires permanently--Neal even misses the old bastard--and the upper echelons are doing the management shuffle. Peter is the logical person to take his place, but he doesn't want the job. Jones would be in line for it, but he's moved over to Organized Crime; the rumor is that he will eventually be replacing Ruiz, and the only people who aren't happy about that are the criminals. Since Peter and Neal have the highest solve rate in the department's history, the suits think it wise to listen to Peter's suggestions. Diana has proven herself to be an administrative whiz in Counter-Terrorism, so she comes in as interim departmental director, at least partly on Peter's recommendation. Within about a month, it's clear that she's going to get the appointment permanently.
Within about a day and a half, it's also clear that she has figured out the situation with Neal and Peter and Elizabeth. She calls Neal into Hughes' old office, which is now hers. She has some unpacked boxes on the credenza, but the picture of her partner and their son is already on the desk.
"Tell me it won't interfere with the work," she says.
"Look at our closure list," Neal says. "Then you tell me."
She looks at him steadily for a moment before speaking. "He's still the best agent I've ever seen. I'd have had a problem with this, you know, back when I first met you."
"There was nothing to have a problem with, then," Neal answers easily. He doesn't tell her when her problem would have started, or that he was still wearing the tracker, and strictly speaking, in Peter's custody at the time. He knows she won't ask, and it doesn't matter. If she chooses to press them on rule violations, she can, and they have no good defense.
"Okay," she says. "That's all I wanted to say. Ask Peter to come in here, if you don't mind."
Peter looks tense for a while after that, and Neal thinks that maybe she gave him a hard time. Then her appointment gets confirmed, and suddenly, Peter relaxes. So, not condemnation, Neal thinks. Cover. She's going to make sure that we're safe behind her bureaucratic wall. He says as much to Peter, who actually looks nervous and says, "I can't talk about it."
"Um, okay?" Neal says.
"It's just--" Peter pauses. "It feels like tempting fate. We are the luckiest bastards on earth."
"No argument here," Neal says fervently.
9. Lucky bastard (part two).
Maybe it is tempting fate, because Peter gets shot. It's not fatal; it's not life-threatening; in three days, Peter will be wheeled to the hospital door but will walk to the car, and the scar will start fading to a pinkish white pucker that won't trouble him. But when Neal is hanging onto his temper at the nurses' station by the merest of threads, it feels serious. It feels plenty fucking serious when he tries one more time to get them to let him in to see Peter.
"Only family in an ICU room," the nurse says again, without looking up. She's clearly given up on him. He's not sure if he blames her, because he knows he has Peter's blood on his shirt and seems kind of insane, but he opens his mouth anyway.
"But I'm his partner," he says desperately, just as he has five times before. All of his eloquence, all of his slick talk, has deserted him. "His partner." And then Elizabeth appears at the end of the hall, looking exactly like he feels, except she also looks like an angel of wrath and vengeance. In five minutes, they are both in the room. Peter is asleep; he stirs and mumbles a little at their voices and touches, but doesn't really wake up. There's an IV with a morphine push taped to his arm. They clutch each other's hands, they listen to the doctor who comes in to talk to them. Neal calls the office, although he guesses that Diana and probably Cruz are already on their way. Jones is out of town, he'll have to get hold of him later. He remembers to call Mozzie and June. He leaves the family calls to Elizabeth. Then he goes and finds an empty room, more of a niche, really, with a couch and a chair. It's singularly barren, not a lamp or a magazine in sight. He imagines that the doctors probably use it to tell bad news to families. He's glad it's so barren; if there was a lamp there, he'd break it.
When Elizabeth finds him, he's got his head in his hands. "Hey, Tune," she says, and drops onto the couch next to him. Her presence is both comforting and enraging and he feels like he's losing his mind. He looks over at her; her head is back against the couch, her eyes are closed. There are dark circles under them. She doesn't open them when she speaks.
"The doctor said he's going to be out for a while longer. We can take turns getting dinner, or you could go home if you want to change your clothes." Then, in exactly the same matter-of-fact tone, she says, "I need you to not freak out for a little while, okay? Later, we can take turns freaking out all you want."
"I don't want," Neal snaps. "I want it to be yesterday, I want to get my hands on a gun so that I can blow that motherfucker away, I don't want to have such a hideous demonstration that you and Peter are my fucking hostages to fortune, okay?" He's almost yelling by the time he finishes.
Elizabeth has popped up, her spine ramrod straight, and she snarls right back, "Oh yeah? Well, welcome to my fucking life, every goddamned time the two of you walk out the door and I know there's something, some case breaking..." Her face crumples. That takes the wind right out of him, and he chokes and holds onto her as she cries on him.
"I'm sorry, Pen, I'm so sorry," he says over and over. "It's your turn, take your time." And then he says, "he's okay, he's going to be okay, remember. We're all okay." Because we are the luckiest bastards on earth, he thinks, but he's learned a little wisdom, so he doesn't say it out loud.
10. Bed (part three.)
The first night, Neal lies in the bed and thinks about all of the different places he has slept. On silk sheets in a ducal palace. At the Paris Ritz. On a carpet in a tent in the desert. On any number of lumpy hostel cots. At the Super 8 outside of Reno, where the traffic boomed all night. Once, in Mozzie's storage unit. Next to a lot of willing companions. Next to Kate.
And in all of them, Neal thinks ruefully, I actually fell asleep. Even if I hadn't just had something close to the greatest sex of my life. He turns his head; he can see Peter lying next to him in the middle of the bed, with Elizabeth curled against his other side. They look quite surprisingly ordinary. Peter doesn't look at all like someone who could have just shattered him with kisses, putting his mouth everywhere on Neal's skin with the artless confidence of desire. Elizabeth doesn't look like an acrobatic demon who might have held herself teasingly above him as he strained and pleaded, her labia swollen and hot as they just brushed the head of his cock. They don't look like two people who can make him say the things he said, most of which he can only hazily recall. He is looking so intently at them that it's a second before he realizes that Peter has opened his eyes. He rubs his face and blinks.
"I'm going to get some water," Peter whispers. "Wanna come?" So they get up, Peter carefully disentangling himself from Elizabeth, who rolls away without even a break in her breathing.
"Once she's gone, she'll sleep through just about anything," Peter says fondly. Neal files this away in his newly formed mental category, Notes On Sleeping With Peter And Elizabeth. They go downstairs. Peter runs the kitchen tap while Neal gets glasses. Satchmo comes in from his bed in the living room, and thumps them companionably in the shins with his tail until he's sure they're not going to open the refrigerator. They talk a little, about the case they're working on, about how it's supposed to be warm this weekend. They go back upstairs, where Peter goes into the bathroom and Neal stands indecisively by the bed. The last time he got in, well, he didn't get in so much as fall in, and the details like "which side" were randomly chosen when they all toppled back gasping and drained. The light in the bathroom clicks off. Neal is getting cold.
"Here, try the middle," says Peter. He holds up the covers, and Neal slides in. Peter follows, and the covers settle over them with a warm pouf of air. Neal turns on his side; he can feel Peter spooning up behind him. "Okay?" Peter asks distantly, and Neal, whose eyes are suddenly impossibly heavy, floats up enough to make a sound that means, yes. Yes. He is dreaming. The bed rocks gently as a boat on a lake, taking him to the shore. He can't see it, but he'll be happy to get there. It's a beautiful place.