Seven Stages 3/3

THE BURKE'S HOME:

"C'mon in. I'll make us some tea then we'll start our book hunt."

Hands in his pockets, Neal stared at the floor as trailed Elizabeth slowly into the kitchen.

"You're not working today?"

"The best thing about being my own boss is that I can take a mental health day when I need it instead of having to put it off until I'm climbing the walls and chewing on the furniture. Sit, sit..." she told him, waving him towards the table. He reluctantly lowered his slight frame into a chair. In the process of filling the kettle, El paused and turned to speak to him. "You do drink tea, right?"

"Oh yeah. I love it. I like coffee, too... but tea is my first choice. You, uh... you don't have herbals, by any chance..."

"Mmm-hmm. Lemon, raspberry, ginger, orange spice..."

"Orange, please."

"No problem." She assured him, finishing the kettle, placing it on the heat and joining him at the table to wait.

"El..."

"No need, sweetie. I forgave you already."

"How can you? I betrayed your trust."

"No you didn't. Peter made a bonehead move, you got angry and you reacted without thinking it through. That's a mistake, not one of the deadly sins."

"Now I have to forgive him."

"Not right away... but eventually, yes. He thought this book would be good for you, like the others seemed to be."

"It was... it will be. I think. He should've told me about it from the start, though."

"If he had you wouldn't have touched it with a ten foot pole and he knew it. I'm not saying he wasn't misguided... just that his heart was in the right place."

"I get it. I'm still mad... but I get it."

When the familiar faint whistle began, El rose, prepared two cups, carefully poured the steaming liquid over the tea bags and returned. With a mischievous grin, Neal slid her mug closer and took a discreet sniff. "Whoa. I love the aroma. What is it?"

"Chamomile and lavender." She responded, retrieving her drink. "Very soothing. If you want..."

"No. I'm fine. Next time, though."

"I'll remember."

"Thank God tea *has* a pleasant scent. Otherwise the wait would make me crazy."

El laughed softly.

"Wine has to breathe, tea has to steep." She observed, making Neal's eyes open a bit wider.

"Huh. That's... wow. They do have a lot in common, don't they?"

"Uh-huh. Like you and Peter."

"Just when I'm starting to relax, she twists the dagger..."

"Okay, okay. Here..." she replied, standing and opening the cabinet door that concealed the trash bin. "Dump your tea bag and we'll head upstairs. You don't take milk or sugar, I assume?"

Neal grimaced.

"Ugh. Would you put Splenda in a glass of good Bordeaux?"

" *I* wouldn't." she chuckled, turning and heading for the stairs. "Not everyone has a wine connoisseur of your caliber for a friend."

Neal, who had begun to follow, stopped in his tracks. Sensing the change, El half-turned to look at him.

"You think of me that way? After all Peter must've told you... the files and reports you've probably seen..."

"All they told me is that you got lost early in your life and never found a working compass or a updated map. You don't use violence, your mind is incredible and your heart is gigantic. That..." she affirmed, touching his face briefly with her free hand, "... is exactly the kind of person I want as a friend."

"But..."

"I told you today doesn't count. Forgiven, forgotten. Now c'mon. I have to pick a new book for you and my tea's getting cold."

Neal sighed and moved up the stairs after her, transferring his mug to the other hand so he could hold the banister. "You probably haven't written your report for 'Proof', yet, have you?" she called back over her shoulder as she strode into the bedroom and set her mug on the nightstand.

"That's a safe bet."

"Did you finish reading?"

"I did, actually. As upset as I was, the adventure and the pace of the story kept me going."

"You didn't get much chance to talk the book over with Peter. Feel like doing it now?"

Neal hesitated, but eventually he entered the room, handed her his tea and dropped cross-legged on the carpet by the bed. She gave the warm mug back and sat down on the edge of the mattress facing him, retrieving her own drink.

"Not much left to say, is there?" he mumbled, deliberately hiding his face under the guise of taking a long sip.

"The primary theme is obvious. I'm talking about the secondary one."

Neal looked up momentarily.

"Which would be?"

"Should I take back my comment about that incredible mind of yours?"

"Maybe."

"Neal..."

"You mean the courage thing."

"Yes. The courage thing."

"There's no connection for me there."

El smiled and ruffled his hair lightly.

"Peter tells me everything, sweetheart. I know about the favor you asked."

Neal scowled into his tea.

"I should go punch him again."

"Tell me about the secondary theme first."

"Beach... he feels like he let his family down by not being what they expected... not following the path his father and grandfather did. He thinks it means he's weak. With that piled on top of still grieving after six months, when it seems like the world is saying he should be out the other side and back in the sunlight already... he's in a pretty bad place at the start of the book."

"No connection?"

"You said Peter told you what I'm looking for, so you know I don't have that problem. There's nobody to follow or not follow... nobody to disappoint."

"Are you saying that not knowing doesn't cause the same feelings?"

"It's better. I mean... do I really *want* to find out my grandfather was a snake oil salesman or my uncle was an infamous grifter? Thank you very much, but I'd rather stay blissful."

El tilted her head and studied Neal for a long moment before quietly voicing her thoughts.

"What if they were painters or sculptors?"

Neal slowly turned an astonished gaze upward and met Elizabeth's gentle eyes, but he didn't speak at first. "Don't tell me you've never considered it." she prompted.

"I learned those things. I worked my ass off to master them." He countered, though she could see in his eyes that he wanted desperately to just agree, to have the deep-rooted faith in himself that she seemed to have found.

"The portraits and statues most of us recognize on sight were all products of training and work, but the artists also had a gift. They had a unique way of seeing the world and a drive to express it that most of us can't even imagine. I spent years in the art world... it wasn't always easy. Don't get me wrong, I loved being there, but sometimes I'd stare at the marble on the pedestals and the canvases in the frames... and wish something like that was in me. I envy you just the same way."

"What? You're a designer, a decorator... you create beauty with color and line and space every day. Maybe they're not hanging digital photos of your events in galleries... but it's still art. You've got no reason to be jealous of me."

El blushed faintly and ducked her head a little. Peter had warned her that if she got into a book discussion with Neal he might, unexpectedly and guilelessly, drop a mind-blowing revelation in her lap, probably right in the middle of trying to present something similar to him. She hadn't fully believed her husband at the time, but was now chagrinned that her doubt had left her unprepared.

"If I didn't, you just gave me one."

"Excuse me?"

"Never mind, sweetie. Back on topic. The point I was trying to make is that it wasn't family that drew you into the life that got you arrested. With all your good qualities I think you're much more likely to find good people in your background. And if you don't then you still have people right here and now who'll support you, care for you and kick your ass into next Tuesday if you wander too far off the right road."

The title of the perfect book suddenly flashed into El's head and a smile blossomed on her face. Then another title came to her, the grin expanded even more and she leapt to her feet, setting aside her mug once more.

"What are you thinking?" Neal questioned, mildly suspicious.

"I have a couple really good ideas, that's all. You stay there and finish your tea. I'll be right with you."

Neal watched her race to the bookcase on the far side of the room and begin a careful, determined search through the lower shelves. It took several minutes, but eventually she found what she wanted and strode back to reclaim her perch on the bed.

"Two books this time. One is short and easy, the other's more the length you've been getting all along."

"Two? Show me the short one first."

Elizabeth held out a squat hardcover book with soft, beautiful illustrations on the cover. Neal accepted it, but his brow furrowed in confusion at the title.

"Uhhh... you can't be serious."

"You bet I am."

" 'The Runaway Bunny' ? Come on..."

"Have you ever read it?'

"Ah... no."

"Then give it a chance, alright? It's a message from me... and from Peter. Second book."

This one didn't confuse Neal, but he was still hesitant. Despite that, he took this one as well.

" 'Pinocchio'. Uh-huh. No ambiguity in your choice this time... Can I watch the DVD instead?"

"Not a chance. This is the original Collodi version. No cute kittens or dance numbers here." She warned him, gently tugging the books out of his hands and placing them beside her on the bed.

"Hey..."

"First you write your report on the Dick Francis book. Once you're done I'll make us both lunch, then you can start on your new assignment." She said, standing and holding out her hands. "C'mon, up."

"Aw gee, Ma..." he mock whined as he allowed her to help him to his feet.

"No arguments, young man. You know where to find the pens and paper downstairs. Go." She ordered lightheartedly, turning Neal and providing a light push toward the bedroom door. Once El was sure he'd gone all the way to the first floor, she dropped back to the bed, shaking and faintly pale, lifted the receiver and dialed.

"Peter..."

"Honey? What's wrong? Is it Neal?"

"No... not exactly. I, ummm... I gave something away. Something we said we never would."

Peter's breath stilled for a moment. He'd been waiting for this ever since Neal had re-entered their lives.

"I know. It's okay."

"We'll never... and it'll mean so much more to him. Every time he sees it, he'll remember..."

"El... it's fine. We only said we'd hold onto the bunny book until somebody came along that needed it. You did good, hon. You gave him something heavier too, though, right? I mean... nice, sweet book and a perfect message, but... not much of an assignment."

El told him. Peter again held his breath just for a second or two before responding. "Oh boy. Hell of a combination. I can't wait to see the report on this one. Was that it? You sounded really shaken up, but..."

"He... he called me Mom. Well, Ma, actually. Still..."

"Yeah, I know. Hearing him call me Dad, even in that sarcastic tone..."

"The book... I think now, maybe... it's where we always wished it could be."

Peter swallowed hard and tried to answer, to assure her that he agreed, but he couldn't make the words come out, couldn't even say a simple good-bye. El swiped warm moisture from her cheeks and, knowing him as nobody else in the world did, filled in the blank space he'd left just as he would have if he were able. "I love you."

END