Neal knew he’d made a mistake the second he walked in Peter’s door and heard Elizabeth shut the door behind him. Of course, by that time, it was too late.
Kate had liked to think up these elaborate tales about how Neal and Mozzie had met. Most of them involved Neal needing a partner-in-crime and creating Mozzie out of sheer will and magic. Neal never told her she wasn’t far off, only, it hadn’t been magic—it had been desperation.
Neal left home at fourteen. He didn’t like the term “ran away.” It made him think of eight-year-olds who made it two blocks over before trudging home to a mother and father who would be frantic, and feed them soup. Neal walked out of his house with the sixty bucks he’d managed to rake up babysitting for some of the neighbors, two sweaters layered over one another, the carton of orange juice he’d managed to sneak from the fridge, and more bruises than he had any intention of showing anyone, ever.
He hitched his way from the dead-end town that had defined so much of his existence until he hit somewhere that glittered, and then he stopped. He made it over a week in Manhattan before his money completely ran out. After that he resorted to dumpster-diving and watching the thieves in Central Park closely to figure out their tricks.
Later, the whole thing would be embarrassingly cliché to Neal, but he started his pickpocketing career on small guys because they didn’t seem as likely to be able to hurt him, and he just couldn’t bring himself to prey on women. Mozzie was his third mark, and the one who nearly broke Neal’s wrist.
Of course, the moment Mozzie caught sight of Neal—a kid, and a starving one at that—he’d rolled his eyes and muttered, “The noise of wheels and children.”
Neal hadn’t read “Howl” yet. He’d pulled out his best smile, the one that made social workers believe everything was fine, and teachers give him extensions on his homework. “I’m sorry, mister, I thought you were my dad. From the back—“
Mozzie snorted. “From the back nothing, kid. C’mon.”
Neal fought then, considered crying out, because hey, he was a kid being accosted by a weird man in the park. But then the police would want to know where Neal had come from. After a second, Mozzie turned back to him and said, “I’ve got a place out of the wind and know the number of a Chinese place that delivers pretty quick. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“What’s your price?” Neal asked. He wasn’t necessarily unwilling to pay. After all, it wasn’t like everyone on the highway had been up for giving up gas mileage for free, and Neal knew he was pretty. He could use some food and a night of sleep in a warm place. And the guy was short and kind of odd, but he had something that made Neal think he might be fun to talk to; that was worth a lot these days.
“You have to actually listen when I teach you how a real pickpocket does things.”
Neal didn’t miss the fact that the guy—Mozzie, as he introduced himself—doubled back three times and even did a loop at one point before they got to their destination—a rather unimpressive looking three story house. Neal hesitated for a second when Mozzie unlocked a side door that evidently went to the basement. He probably would have run if Mozzie had pressured him—he was fourteen, he’d seen the news—but instead Mozzie just stood back and waited.
It was not-quite-freezing outside, but close enough, and Neal wasn’t eager to jump in another dumpster. He went inside.
The interior of the place was nicer than the outside would have suggested. It wasn’t sumptuous, but it was classy and just a bit on the homey side. Nothing was run down or worn in the way Neal had grown accustomed to.
Mozzie locked the door behind them—five deadbolts that Neal counted. Then he said, “There’s a shower in the back. The hot water’s hit and miss, but it should be all right this time of day. My clothes are probably a lousy fit, but you can wear them until we get your stuff cleaned.”
Neal was roughly one hundred percent sure it was foolish to take his clothes off in the home of an unknown man, but hot water—even just a little bit of it—and cleanliness were too much of a temptation to ignore. He folded his clothes up and placed them on the floor, then got in and used roughly half the bar of soap in the soap dish.
When he emerged, his clothes were gone, but there were clean ones in their place. Mozzie had been right—the fit was terrible, but they were soft and didn’t smell like a bum had lived in them for nearly a month. That was all Neal really cared about.
The promised Chinese was steaming on the table when Neal came out of the bathroom, Mozzie already eating. He said, “Well, c’mon. Join me. Nobody learns anything on an empty stomach.”
Neal ate slowly, even though he wanted to gorge. He had some idea of what would happen if he did. Mozzie took the food away before Neal was really ready to be done, but said softly, “I have a microwave. It’ll keep.”
For the next two hours, Mozzie made Neal work on his stance, his speed, the particulars of body language. Then, when Neal was clearly drooping, he put a pillow and a quilt on the couch and said, “More of where that came from when you can actually keep your eyes open.”
In the morning, Neal wouldn’t even remember his head hitting the pillow.
By the time Neal had woken up, Mozzie had returned with jeans and a button down that actually fit. Neal wasn’t sure how Mozzie had figured out his size, but he didn’t ask, just changed and offered Mozzie a real smile. Mozzie rolled his eyes, “Yeah, yeah.”
Something about his tone told Neal he appreciated it, though. It was weird, considering that he might have the power to gain so much with something so little. He stored the knowledge away. Mozzie’d taken him in for nothing—he wasn’t going to use it against someone like that.
They reheated the Chinese and did a few more practice runs before Mozzie stood and said, “Okay kid. Time to try it out on someone who doesn’t see it coming. Or shouldn’t.”
Neal tried out a totally confident expression. Mozzie laughed, but he said, “You’ll get there.”
Neal believed him. He stood and followed Mozzie to the door. When his feet hit the snow mat just outside the door, his vision tunneled, and breathing became much harder than he ever remembered it being. Someone was saying something, possibly even to him, but all he could concentrate on was the panic welling up in his chest, on trying to get somewhere safe.
Neal woke up on Mozzie’s couch. It took him a minute to figure that out, and then another to realize he’d passed out.
Mozzie reappeared from the bedroom and said, “Oh good, not dead. You could have just mentioned the agoraphobia.”
Neal blinked. “I don’t have a problem with wide open spaces.”
“Just leaving my shitty basement apartment, then. Your taste is a thing of wonder, kid.”
“I’m not agoraphobic,” Neal said, entirely certain it was true. He’d walked out of his own house and onto a bus. That was not the action of someone afraid to leave home—for certain definitions of home.
“Sure,” Mozzie said. And, “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
It had taken the better part of two weeks for Neal to leave Mozzie’s place. He’d pretended, once he was out again and fine, it had just been a one-off.
The pretense had held for another five years, until he lost an accomplice to the same collaborator who had taught Neal to hate guns. It was nearly a month before Neal left his hidey-hole afterward.
The only way he’d gotten out of June’s that first morning was because evidently Neal’s fear of going back to prison was able to override his completely irrational need to tuck himself away after trauma. (He didn’t like applying words ending in “phobia” to himself.) Even so, the first two months of leaving every morning had involved considerable preparation and one or two blackouts.
All things considered, though, he should have known better than to let Peter and Elizabeth take him back to their place after the hospital. If he’d been thinking at all, he would have known better. At least at June’s he had a system for forcing himself out. He was going to have to start all over at the Burke’s.
Peter, probably feeling Neal’s first spike of, fantastic planning, Caffrey, said, “Neal?”
Neal gave Peter the same smile he’d learned how to perfect with Mozzie and said, “Nothing. Just glad to be home.”
Neal waited for Peter to go into the offices the next day. Elizabeth wouldn’t sense his intentions, and Peter wouldn’t even feel him walking outside—it was too close to the house for much of a location change to register. Neal donned his coat and even stole a stupid-looking hat he just knew was Peter’s. It felt strange and uncomfortable on the areas not covered in bandages. Neal refused to think about that.
Instead, he walked out the back door of the house, into the yard. Determining that he was shaky and a little nauseated, but otherwise fine, Neal opened the gate and stepped out toward the front yard. The panic hit immediately and without any semblance of mercy. Neal stumbled back through the gate, but the backyard wasn’t offering the sense of safety it had moments before.
He tried talking himself through it, reminding himself he’d done this time and again. He took a few more steps, although he couldn’t precisely say if they were toward the house, because he couldn’t get a breath. He stopped and forced the thought, “in, out, in, out.”
The last thing he heard before the panic knocked him out cold was Elizabeth shouting, “Neal? Neal!”
Neal woke up on the couch, with Peter clearly in the house and not at the office, where Neal remembered him last being. Neal felt the one-two punch of Peter’s relief and his ire. Peter said, “You scared the crap out of me.”
Neal was still scaring the crap out of Peter, if his read was to be believed. Peter’s fear was different than Neal’s, but certainly recognizable for what it was. Neal took a breath, and reminded himself he’d wanted the two-way fuse, wanted it badly. He just hadn’t exactly considered the way in which he might have to take responsibility for the things he’d never let himself think about too deeply. Unsure there was an appropriate response, Neal tried an affable, if sincere, “Sorry.”
Peter was not appeased. “Where the hell were you trying to go?”
Peter opened his mouth and then blinked. “That truth is a truth that makes negative amount of sense.”
Neal didn’t really want to talk about it. Still tired from the lack of oxygen and generally shaken, he decided to go with basics and sneaked two fingers between the buttons on Peter’s Oxford to stroke at the skin. Peter gently removed the fingers. “When have I ever given you the impression I was that easy?”
“Whenever you’re around Elizabeth?” Neal scrounged up his best “charming scamp” smile.
Peter just rolled his eyes. The undercurrent of amusement Neal could feel was nice, but he wished it were stronger—actually distracting Peter. Instead Peter nudged Neal into a sitting position and sat down next to him. Neal held out for a while, was still technically holding out when Peter grumbled, “Jesus, c’mere.”
Neal did not scramble to be closer to Peter, but he didn’t resist when Peter pulled Neal against him and tucked the blanket Elizabeth had put over Neal more tightly over his shoulder’s. Neal yawned and asked, “Where is Elizabeth, for that matter?”
“Frantic bride on the Upper West.”
“Unfortunate,” Neal said with a shudder.
“I had to force her to go. I think you scared her even more than me, and she couldn’t feel you running out of your own oxygen.”
“I wasn’t running out, just incapable of controlling it properly.”
“Yes, clearly that makes it all better.”
Neal grinned up at Peter, pretending to miss the sarcasm. Peter sighed and ran a careful hand over Neal’s buzz. Neal closed his eyes, not used to feeling Peter’s palm that close to the skin of his head. That was going to take a bit of getting used to.
Peter murmured, “It’ll grow back.”
“Mm,” Neal agreed. It was something else he had no interest in talking about.
“If you weren’t going anywhere, why leave the house?”
Neal sighed. He’d known Peter wasn’t going to let it go, even without feeling Peter’s intent, but a boy could hope. “Fresh air.”
“Your feelings mute out when you’re lying, did you know that?”
Neal did, actually. Something else Mozzie had taught him: Emotions shift during a lie. Best just to tell the truth, if workable, something close, if not. And if neither of those is possible, pick something you’re ambivalent about saying to work the lie.
“I wasn’t trying to escape your do-gooder clutches, Agent Burke. Does it really matter why I went outside?”
After a long moment, Peter said, “To me. To Elizabeth. You can talk to her, if you want. She said she’d be back in a few hours.”
Neal knew one thing, “I don’t want to talk about it twice. When she gets back, I’ll—“
“Sure.” Peter squeezed Neal carefully. “Want me to ask her to bring some gelato?”
“Almond biscotti flavor?” Neal asked hopefully.
“We’ll even let you have a second scoop,” Peter told him dryly.
Neal laughed. “You do know how to spoil all your kept felons.”
When the promised gelato had been delivered, Neal let it freeze his tongue as a measure of comfort before explaining, “Occasionally, after less-than-pleasant events, I have a mild attack of agoraphobia.”
“You passed out face first into my ryegrass,” Elizabeth said, not sounding like she had wholly forgiven Neal for causing a minor heart attack.
Neal looked down at his bowl. “Mild was perhaps not a wholly accurate modifier.”
Neal felt the buildup of complete confusion in Peter until he chose to say, “Most people who have been in prison have claustrophobia, if anything.”
Neal purposely sent a wave of really, that’s what you came up with? at Peter, who winced slightly, but held his ground. Neal rolled his shoulders back. “I thought you liked me because I was special.”
Elizabeth asked, “Wait, so, this has happened before and you went outside without even telling me it might be a problem?”
Neal wondered, vaguely, whether if they thought they could put him outside, he would be sleeping on the porch tonight. He wasn’t sure what Peter got of that, but it must have been something, because his reaction was the emotional equivalent of a growl. Elizabeth slapped the table. “Share, boys.”
Neal waved his hand. “I went outside to fix the problem. My plan just didn’t go quite as expected.”
Elizabeth was clearly Not Appeased. “In all your years of being alive, Neal Caffrey, when has a plan ever gone exactly as you expected it to?”
Neal gave the question some thought. “There was once, but I’m not sure the statute—“
“If you say ‘of limitations,’ Caffrey, so help me G-d—“
Neal grinned at Peter. “It’s back to Caffrey, is it?”
“Boys,” Elizabeth repeated, more sharply this time. They both snapped to attention, a moment of contriteness connecting the two of them through the fuse.
Neal sighed. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth. Truly. I was just going to go out to the front yard; I thought I’d be fine and nobody’d be any the wiser.”
Peter and Elizabeth locked gazes and Neal felt Peter’s shift to uncertainness. Neal asked, “What? I swear I won’t do it again if it’s that big a deal.”
He could find other ways to deal with the problem. He’d always overcome it before, there was really no reason to assume this time would be any different or more difficult.
Peter sighed. “The problem, Neal, isn’t that you did it. It’s that you so clearly didn’t feel you could ask either of us for help, even though you obviously needed it.”
Neal looked between Peter and Elizabeth, united in their expressions of worried consternation. He said, “This wasn’t a trust issue. There are just things I prefer to do on my own.”
It was the wrong thing to say, clearly. Elizabeth’s smile was bitter and half-hearted. “The fact that you think that has nothing to do with trust might be the problem in a nutshell.”
Probably so, but Neal figured that ship had most likely long sailed. He pushed the nearly-finished gelato away from himself. “Either of you want to finish? I’m done.”
Peter and Elizabeth curled around Neal that night to go to bed, which Neal understood was their way of letting him know they weren’t mad. Of course, he only really knew that because he could read Peter’s emotions. Otherwise, he probably would have assumed it was a move to manipulate him. Neal was starting to suspect Elizabeth might have a point about his trust issues.
He woke up with his fist caught in her nightshirt. She was sitting up, but had positioned herself so he could keep clinging. He blinked at the clock, which told him it was well past nine. He could feel Peter shifting through paperwork, making decisions about what to pursue next. Neal made himself loosen his fingers.
Elizabeth looked down at him. “Hey there, sleepy.”
“Yeah, funny what repeated brain surgery’ll do to a guy.”
Elizabeth set aside the catering order she’d been working on and tugged him from bed. “C’mon. Coffee’s still in the pot and I have a craving for herb and tomato frittatas.”
“I never say no to a good frittata.”
“This I know about you, Neal Caffrey.”
Neal smiled and made his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and take a quick shower, careful to avoid the bandages as much as possible. Elizabeth was going to have to help him put fresh ones on either way, but he preferred his head to not be soggy in the meantime.
He made himself look in the mirror as he put on deodorant and got himself dressed in a fresh pair of pajamas. Then he went down to the kitchen, where Elizabeth was almost done with the promised frittata. She looked over and said, “Bandages after breakfast?”
He made a slight face and said, “Thanks.”
He poured himself some coffee, stirred in a dollop of cream and took a sip. Elizabeth waited until he was done to say, “I was thinking that later in the day, you and I could sit on the front steps and read, or talk, or just watch those really accident-prone kids who moved in three houses down.”
“We don’t have to stay out long. Peter would probably have a nervous meltdown if you came down with a cold at this point. Just, you know, get some fresh air.”
“You really don’t have—“
She whipped around to where she was fully facing him. “You’re not on your own anymore. We keep telling you. At first I thought you just weren’t listening, but I’ve realized it’s that you don’t understand. I can’t figure out if you just haven’t got a frame of reference or what, but that’s all beside the point.”
“It is.” Neal wasn’t exactly asking a question, but he wasn’t wholly sure he didn’t need an answer.
She smiled again, then, not her grin or her lazy-Sunday smile or even her mildly-amused one. No, this was the smile she got when she knew she was going to win. “It’s all right, sweetie. I had to train Peter to put his dirty socks in the hamper and rinse the dishes before just throwing them in the machine. Teaching you to remember we’re here for a reason?” She gave him a Look. “Easy.”
They managed to sit and read on the front steps for three minutes before Neal found himself unconsciously grasping the ankle of Elizabeth’s pants. She said, “It’s kind of an interesting science experiment, how quickly you can terrify my husband.”
She hauled Neal inside and deposited him on the couch even as she answered her phone and said, “It’s under control. We’re back inside. And Neal’s completely conscious.”
Neal did his best to send some reassurance through to Peter. If the emotional equivalence of grumpiness he received in return was any indication, he’d managed. Elizabeth got off the phone and sat down next to Neal, snuggling into him just a bit. He buried his head in her shoulder.
She said, “Hey. You did well. You went out there and sat with me. That’s-- We’ve got this in the bag.”
Neal huffed into her shoulder. He rolled his head so he could ask, “Is there something around here I could do that would make me feel useful?”
“I suppose that depends on how willing you are to help me write a strongly-worded letter to a venue of mine.”
“I am fond of strong words,” Neal told her.
In the morning, Neal stole Peter’s robe. It was too big on him and a horrible, ratted terrycloth that he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, except for how it made him feel like nothing in the world could get to him. He knew Peter could tell, but Peter just kissed him briefly and said, “Get some more rest.”
They’d been up half the night with Neal’s nightmares. Neal kissed back. “Sorry.”
“This is what people in relationships do, Neal.”
Not in Neal’s experience, but Neal was willing to grant that Peter was nominally the expert in this field. “I was thinking I’d walk you to the bottom stair. Like a really-half-assed member of a relationship might do.”
Peter granted Neal a quasi-smile. “You sure?”
“No, but when has that ever stopped me?”
Neal made himself slip forward and grab Peter’s hand. He knew Peter would get a read on how completely lame and childish Neal felt, but Peter wasn’t much for kicking while a guy was down. As Neal had expected, Peter just squeezed Neal’s hand tightly and nodded. “C’mon. Nine o’clock waits for no man.”
Neal rolled his eyes. If Peter wasn’t watching over Neal, Peter’d have been at the office well before now. Peter tugged gently and Neal let himself be tugged. They made it to the bottom step, but just barely. Peter tried to let go and said, “Neal.”
Neal looked down to where he had a death grip on Peter. Peter said, “Just take a step back up.”
Neal shook his head, though, concentrating on his hands. One by one, he peeled his fingers back, letting Peter go. Peter put cuffs on Neal—Neal wasn’t Peter’s cuff.
When Neal was standing on his own, Peter said, “You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
Neal managed a shaky laugh. “Isn’t that precisely how we work?”
Peter went on his tiptoes in his own damned front yard in order to kiss Neal once more, light and like a promise. He said, “See you this evening. Stay out of trouble. And don’t get my wife into any.”
Peter grinned, and went on his way.
Elizabeth held up a bucket of Crayola sidewalk chalk and said, “C’mon, we have work to do.”
Neal asked, “Something you just keep around the house?”
She shoved the bucket into his hands and walked past him with nothing more than a smile. Knowing he would sooner or later, he followed. To his surprise, she stopped at the first step. He looked at her. “We’ve made it further than this before.”
“This isn’t about you, Neal Caffrey. This is about the fact that the walkway to my house is dreadfully dull.”
Neal looked down at the bucket. “Dull, you say?”
“Dreadfully so,” Elizabeth confirmed.
“Well, we can’t have that.”
“No, no we can’t.”
Neal set the bucket on the ground and opened it. He thought for a long moment, and then drew out a green piece. He looked up at Elizabeth. “Have any preferences?”
“An original,” she said.
“You drive a hard bargain,” he told her.
“It gets me what I want.”
Neal nodded and began with lines. He wasn’t sure where he was going, really, at first, but always before, when he was drawing for himself, the lines would coalesce, bring him to a place he’d been going to without noticing. This time was no different.
He was on the last step, working away, when Elizabeth said, “Neal.”
He looked over at where she was sitting on the grass. She smiled, “I called your name three times.”
He gave her a sheepish nod of the head. “Sorry, I was—“
“Yeah. I’m sorry to do this, but I have to go to work.”
“Oh. I— Of course.”
They went back inside, careful to avoid Neal’s work. Elizabeth closed the door behind them and Neal took a breath, only to realize he’d been breathing normally the whole time.
Peter came home with Neal’s hat. He set it carefully on Neal’s head. It balanced wrong, and Neal fought the urge to snatch it off. Instead he tilted his head and said, “Hi, honey, how was your day?”
Peter said, “The hair’ll grow back, Neal. And you’ll be back to driving me insane with your charming need to draw every woman in the city into your snares.”
Neal gave a killer smile. “How else am I supposed to keep you interested?”
Neal had to keep his mind carefully blank to hide the cringe he felt at those words. He’d meant “on your toes,” not “interested.” Being outside that long had been more tiring than he’d realized at the time.
Peter said, “Neal,” and Neal could feel his worry, but Neal shook his head.
Neal went up on his toes and kissed Peter. “What’d you think of your new stairs?”
“I didn’t recognize it. Is it actually yours, or am I once again too lacking in culture for the likes of you?”
Neal’s throat caught at the admission of mine. Now that he’d asked what Peter thought, it felt too much like opening himself up. That wasn’t Neal’s style, especially not when in love. After all, Neal was the one who did the whole falling-in-love thing. It was other people who just admired the aesthetics and appreciated the devotion. Well, not so much Mozzie—Mozzie was just honestly, tragically straight. Kate and Alex, though, Neal was pretty sure that was how he had worked in those situations.
“Yours, then,” Peter said steadily, breaking into Neal’s latent panic.
Neal recovered his grin. “Me and the sidewalk chalk—next year’s mod art sensation.”
Peter pulled Neal into his chest. Neal took one deep breath after another while Peter said, “I know one thing. The neighbors are already clamoring after your talents.”
When he got halfway down the walk to the driveway, Neal realized he was drawing metaphors. He hadn’t been paying attention, just going where his hands led him. Mozzie had come over, though, and was standing above, considering. He said, “A boy’s story is the best that is ever told.”
Neal said, “You know I hate it when you quote Dickens at me.”
“Ironic, considering which one of us went through the system, but I was quoting less at you than at your opus maximus, here.”
Neal drew back on himself and kept his eyes on Elizabeth and the front door until the tightness in his muscles that happened every time he stopped drawing even for a second passed. Then he looked, really looked at the cross of Van Gogh and Clyfford Still he had going. Patterns coalesced in his color choices, in the places that were more minimalist, the spots that were less so. He threw Mozzie a smile. “Your attention does you credit.”
“Dare I ask what the rest of this piece looks like?”
“Ask all you want,” Neal said, rooting through the chalk to find the blue.
Mozzie sighed. “Your grasp of present realities is slipping.”
“I did have a few people with their fingers in my brain.”
“Sure, blame your inadequacies on someone else.”
Neal nodded. “Deflection is an important part of a con man’s skill set. This short guy I once met told me that.”
“The wisdom of Yoda, this superior being must have had.”
Elizabeth, who had wandered over with bottled water for Neal said, “That’s a new one. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you guys discuss anything so plebian as Star Wars before.”
Neal took the water to hide his grin as Mozzie launched into an epic explanation of the True Meaning of the Force.
Neal had nearly reached the main sidewalk when Peter got out of his car the next evening. Peter crouched down and politely kept quiet about the fact that Neal was having to concentrate to breathe. When the piece of chalk Neal was holding started to crumble in his hand, Peter took it from him and put it back in the bucket.
Getting to the point of things wasn’t really Neal’s strength on a good day, so he smiled at Peter and asked, “How’s Hughes?”
“He asked how you were feeling a couple of days ago.”
That made Neal glance at Peter. Peter shrugged. “I didn’t want you to feel like it meant he was pressuring you to come back.”
“I’ve been gone for the better part of three months,” Neal said. “My contract states—“
“I know what your contract states. Regardless of what you think of the competence of FBI agents, I do actually read important documents before I sign them.”
Neal poked a little harder than he should have at Peter’s mood, but when he received more amusement than frustration it helped him unwind a little. Neal looked at his hands. “I’m just allowing that it wouldn’t be inappropriate at this stage for him to be a little…impatient.”
“It kind of would,” Peter said. “In regards to me and El, if nothing else. You’re bonded to me. When things go wrong with you, it’s not as if either of us has the desire or even the ability to just sit back and let it.”
Neal wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was afraid even to give rein to the wash of feeling valuable that rolled over him at the words. He must have let go a bit, though, because Peter smiled, small and pleased. Neal told him, “It’s-- The fear’s loosening its hold. It’s just taking too long.”
Peter shook his head. “It’s taking as long as it has to.”
Neal’s gaze ran over the length of his work. “Good thing the walk to your door is considerable.”
Peter laughed softly. “C’mon. Let’s go see what we can scrounge up for dinner. Between the two of us, I bet we can surprise El, yeah?”
“Lemme guess, you’re directing?”
Neal felt Peter’s guffaw before he heard it.
Peter must have known where Neal was, but it was Elizabeth who climbed into the driver’s seat of the Taurus at eleven that night and asked, “Are we going somewhere?”
Neal looked at her solemnly and said, “To the moon, if only we wish. This car will take you anywhere.”
Elizabeth laughed. “And raise your children while you’re on the way. Don’t I know it. Sometimes I think he’s more emotionally attached to this car than to me.”
“I’d reassure you, but…”
Elizabeth slapped his arm, playfully. Then, without missing a beat, she asked, “Reorienting?”
“Something like that. It’s good to have a portable safe space, if you’re the kind of guy who needs a safe space.” He gave her one of his most self-deprecating, and yet aplomb, smiles.
She cupped his cheek with her hand. “We’re all that kind of guy, Neal. Most of us just have the privilege of being allowed to hide it.”
He leaned in, unable to stop himself. “Peter’d probably say that’s what I get for my thievin’ ways.”
The car door opened behind Neal and Peter said, “Peter would say no such thing.”
Neal murmured, “Eavesdropper,” and then there was silence for a moment before Elizabeth said, “Well, no, dear, you probably would.”
Peter made a flustered sound and Neal enjoyed his indignance. Peter spluttered, “Not about this.”
Neal wasn’t sure if Peter meant the unasked-for brain surgery or the agoraphobia. He didn’t ask. That way he could choose whichever he wanted. Instead he looked up and asked, in his most earnest voice, “Will this car protect me from the bad guys, Peter?”
Peter hauled Neal out of the passenger seat and into the house, all the while grumbling about Neal’s lack of respect for the Taurus.
By the time Neal’s sidewalk art washed away in the rain, he could take a walk in the neighborhood, so long as Satch went with him. It was exhausting, which frustrated Neal to no end, but he made it back and without any incidents of hyperventilating. When he’d managed that a few times, Peter insisted they walk the three blocks over to get dinner at the sushi place Elizabeth liked.
Neal had to have sake to keep his heart from exploding, but otherwise, he made it through dinner admirably. Of course, that might have had something to do with how tightly Peter had his knees pressed against Neal’s under the table, or the way Elizabeth had her hand on his back and didn’t move it, not even when it was time to eat.
When they got home, Neal, who might flippantly invite them to bed, or smile a come-hither smile if he was in the mood, but who rarely initiated these types of things, pushed Peter onto the bed and crawled atop him. He glanced behind him at Elizabeth, who was watching, her lips slightly open, cheeks flushed. Neal said, “I could use some help here.”
Elizabeth grinned, slow and wicked. “Oh no, I think you’ve got the situation under control.” She gestured with a hand. “Do carry on.”
Later that week, Elizabeth and Neal ventured to Peter’s office, and had lunch in the conference room. When Neal came into the bullpen, Jones strolled over to him and clasped his hand, pulling him into a man-hug. When Jones let go, Diana was there, her fist waiting. Neal connected his.
Jones said, “Good to see you back, man. This mean we can start picking your brain again sometime soon?”
Neal noticed Jones wince at his own choice of words. He wasn’t going to call the agent on it, though. Instead he smiled, “Next week, I hope.”
It didn’t seem so impossible now that he was here. On the way here, the idea had seemed insurmountable and he’d thought he’d vomit all over Elizabeth’s floorboards, but the minute he’d stepped onto the right floor, he could breathe and think just fine. That was strange. Mozzie, Neal was pretty sure, would be having Neal committed right about now. But it was what it was.
Peter came down the stairs with a smile, and kissed Elizabeth. He loosened all his mental barriers, and Neal’s breath caught at the sheer warmth of the kiss. Neal held up the bag with lunch and said, “We bring goodies.”
The three of them spent the weekend holed up in the house. Neal wasn’t certain that was wise, but he knew he needed the rest if he was going to face his first week of constant struggle against himself, so he didn’t argue.
Monday morning, Neal was up before Peter, unable to sleep. He brewed some coffee, the good kind June had brought over when she’d come to see him. He toasted some bread, spreading it with the sweet butter Elizabeth had bought when she’d realized Neal liked it. He sat on the floor, back to the bookshelves, Satch lying sleepily beside him.
He felt Peter wake. He closed his eyes and let Peter’s early morning sleepiness roll over him. He stayed that way as Peter warmed up in the shower and first opened his eyes. When Peter came down the stairs, he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table, where he could see Neal. Cautiously, he said, “’Morning.”
Pensively, Neal said, “I think, at this stage of hair growth, I’m very G.I. Jane looking. Unusually intimidating.”
“Mm,” Peter agreed. “You’ll scare ‘em all off with one look.”
Neal smiled, more to himself than anything. “We should go, then. Get to work on scaring those bad guys.”
Peter stood and walked over, offering Neal a hand. After a second, Neal reached up and took it. Peter helped Neal to his feet and stole a kiss. Peter tilted his head and considered Neal for a long moment. Whatever he’d been getting from Neal must not have been enough, because he asked, “You sure you’re ready?”
Neal said, “As ever,” but he tightened his hold on Peter’s hand, just for good measure.