A/N: Wrote this ages ago (during the gap between S1 and 2, I think, so please forgive any details that disagree with S2 canon), and completely forgot to post it because I am a ditz.
Handshake: damp palms, too hot, a tremble almost too slight to detect. Can't tell whose. Doesn't really matter.
"I'll see you in a year."
"I sure hope so."
"What, are you afraid I'll forget? I'll set an appointment in my phone."
"Don't. Don't - do that. No promises you can't keep."
"Wasn't a promise. Just a reminder."
"You should go."
New York soars around them, pale stone and creeping green, radiant in the midsummer sunshine. The ground spins slowly under their feet.
"I'll see you in a year, Peter."
"Yeah. Enjoy your freedom. You've earned it."
A man's straight, smartly-dressed back marches steadily into the dizzying crowd. Vanishes.
"This is the right thing to do."
"I know, El. I know."
"I'm proud of you."
"Yeah. Still hurts."
Peter stares at his side of the closet. A slender row of dark suits and white shirts, two dozen ties hanging on the rack on the door, the condensed biography of a man with very poor fashion sense. He can't help but hear Neal's voice in his head - That colour belongs on a cheap retro restaurant's upholstery, you can't wear that around me - and has to swallow hard to relax the muscles in his neck.
He's kept a notepad and a pencil on his nightstand for years, because sometimes he figures things out in his dreams which stump him while awake. He can't remember how many times he's woken up to find half-illegible words wandering across the pages, new to his eyes and groundbreaking.
It's probably several kinds of strange and unhealthy, he knows it is, but it doesn't stop him from picking up that pencil, lifting the tie-rack off the inside of the closet door, and making a neat vertical mark on the top left corner of the hidden space.
Day one of three hundred and sixty-five.
Three marks on the closet door behind his ugliest tie, only three, and he's already tempted to call.
The phone number probably doesn't lead directly to Neal. That would make failing too easy. But he's sure that if he tried, he could make his way through the convoluted system of failsafes and reach him. Completely sure.
It's a tricky case. Not the trickiest he's ever worked on, but he knows two sentences from Neal would crack it in a fraction the time it will take him to figure it out on his own. Peter's very smart, one of the smartest, but he's never seen the other side through the eyes of a native. He can think like a criminal, but he doesn't have the same context, so it doesn't really work as well.
It would only take three minutes. If that. Two for Peter to explain the case, one for Neal to do his thing, one hundred and eighty seconds of risk and surrender and mistakes.
"Dammit," he says under his breath, grimacing at the taste of bad office coffee on his tongue. "Dammit."
Eleven marks on the closet door. Peter can't find the pencil. Where did he put it? He checks the bathroom, where there's another notebook, but it's not there and he doesn't want to switch to pen. When the year is up he wants to be able to erase the evidence of his weakness, not just paint over it.
He doesn't have time to go to the corner store and grab another, but he's oddly opposed to just going to work and doing it when he gets home. Frozen, he stares at the bubbles clinging to the sides of the stale glass of water on the nightstand, waiting for his internal record to stop skipping and jump back into the familiar rhythm of his daily march.
"Sorry, honey," Elizabeth says, sweeping back into the room and dropping her nightgown on the floor.
He is momentarily distracted by the lush elliptical sweep of her bare limbs, but only for a moment.
"Had to borrow your pencil; thought of an idea for the Skelnik exhibition this morning and had to write it down. Didn't mean to interrupt your little ritual."
"My what?" he says, instantly regretting it.
She smiles at him, that smile that reminds him about how he can't keep secrets from her, any secrets, ever. She knows. She always knows. He sighs and smiles back, planting a gentle kiss on her graceful cheekbone.
Without another word, he takes the pencil from her, moves the tie-rack, and makes a twelfth mark beside the eleven tidy soldiers already marching across the door.
Three hundred and fifty-three to go.
Peter holds the postcard with both hands, letting it rest on his fingers without applying pressure like it's evidence, or precious, or both.
The postmark says Italy, the painting on it is of a vineyard full of Tuscan colour and joie de vivre, but Peter doesn't believe it for a second. He doesn't know for sure that Neal hasn't left the country, hasn't allowed himself to check, but he wouldn't go to Italy. It's too obvious.
After a moment of nauseous anticipation, he turns it over.
Have decided to travel the world in eighty days. Will send postcards from the interesting places. Expect to see fridge collage when I get back.
"I'll be damned," Peter says. "He actually is in Italy. Maybe."
On his way home from work, he buys a thirty-pack of plain black fridge magnets from an office supplies store and uses two of them to pin the Tuscany card to the bottom-right corner of the fridge door.
When El sees it, she turns right back around and heads out the door, even though she just got home after a long and tiresome day. When she returns, she has a little bag from a local craft store. An hour later the freezer door has a delicate and tasteful construction-paper border, black and white and blue and full of subtle curves and Tuscany card looks lonely, huddled in the corner amid all the empty space above it, but that will change soon.
Peter tucks the newest card - postmarked from Rio Gallegos, Argentina, but the image is of a pretty little church in rural Chile - into its space on the top-left corner, nestled between a magnificent cruise ship and a Japanese temple. There's a tiny bit of space left there for the last card, the one which will tell Peter that Neal is almost home.
He shouldn't be so excited. The year is only a third of the way over, it doesn't matter where Neal is. Won't matter for two hundred and twenty-nine more days.
"Only four days to spare," he says to the colourful fridge. "Pretty sloppy. I bet you could've done it in a lot less if you hadn't insisted on sightseeing."
When he goes to bed, he pulls El's head into his shoulder and pictures Neal on the shores of Patagonia, tanned enough to make his teeth look painfully white when he smiles for the camera, to make his eyes look even more grey and striking, wearing a sky-blue polo shirt with the high mountains as his backdrop, no one around for miles and miles. Neal is a people person, but Peter's always had the impression that he can appreciate the vast ringing silence of a truly empty place. A little context, to make the cities between feel even more intense.
Peter doesn't expect to get many more, but he hopes Neal will find another way to communicate.
The year drags on. He remembers how the last four years passed so quickly, pictures them wearing little winged sandals like Perseus and wishes they'd been more patient with him. If this is how long years are supposed to be, he feels cheated.
The top of the fridge stands out like a little bubble of dream imagery bursting out through the fragile walls of existence into reality, too colourful and lively to fit in with the understated decor of the rest of the apartment. Odd little knick-knacks and pretty things, dozens of them from dozens of cultures, lie scattered and confused all together, all beautiful and odd and wonderful in their own ways. Here an inukshuk hand-crafted of wood and bone and mother-of-pearl; on this side a sterling silver claddagh ring; between them a dozen figurines of various gods and local legends from all over Europe.
Apparently dissatisfied with his whirlwind tour of the globe, Neal is going around again, more slowly this time, taking the time to find every beautiful thing he can reach and sending pictures and souvenirs back to Peter and El.
All these silly little things don't seem quite his style, but Peter chalks them up to the intoxication of freedom and consideration for Peter's less refined tastes.
El takes to wearing the claddagh ring on her right ring finger, an intricate silver ghost standing in strange complement to the solid gold band on the left finger, the one Peter gave her on their wedding day. Every time he sees it he stops and swallows, finding it hard to breathe through his suddenly dry throat.
More than halfway through. The battle of hope and terror still rages within him, but it's worn a place for itself beneath his ribs and most days he hardly notices it.
His therapist throws up her hands and gives up. Peter suppresses a flash of triumph. Months of counselling haven't shaken his conviction. Months of travelling haven't shaken Neal's. Months of exasperation haven't changed Elle's. They're all still here, waiting, facing it head-on and dealing with every wrong thing between them without flinching or retreating.
Peter's glad now that he insisted on this, against everyone's very convincing objections. There were issues, bad things they all needed to deal with - nobody called Stockholm, nobody thought it was that extreme, but he and Neal and El all knew that there had been a power imbalance, and that were consequences to that sort of thing.
Neal is free now, but old habits die hard. Peter has heard that it takes three months to break a pattern, but both of them are very thorough people and could never settle for the bare minimum. So it's a year - a year for Neal to find himself again, as a free person, unwatched, answering to no one. A year for him to figure out what he wants, and a year for Peter and El to figure out what they can fairly ask, if anything.
Only a hundred days and change left. If possible, they seem to pass even slower now, incrementally succumbing to the friction between physics and desire as the numbers count down.
By the time the numbers come down to single digits, Peter thinks, there will be time for entire years of impatience in every hour.
"Heard from Neal lately?" Diana asks casually. "He sent me a few postcards a while back, but they tapered off. I hope he's all right."
Peter feels a flash of irrational jealousy at the thought of other people getting postcards too, but it dies the moment he looks at it. It helps that the postcards were followed, for he and El, by mountains of pretty things and works of art and long letters in Neal's casually calligraphic script, things Diana was apparently never treated to. He's glad Neal has friends. But he can't help wanting special treatment.
"He's fine," he says shortly. "He sends his love from Kaohsiung."
"Taiwan? What's he doing there?"
"No idea. Lots of history there, though, and an art museum. He knows comparatively little about southeast Asian art. Maybe he's expanding his horizons."
"That's our Caffrey."
"Yeah. That's... Caffrey."
Hughes stares at him across his desk, soundproof doors shut tight. "What the hell is the matter with you today? You nearly got Jones shot, and yourself. We can't afford that kind of sloppiness. You should know that better than anyone, Burke."
"I do," says Peter, ignoring the persistent vein throbbing in his eyelid. "I'm sorry. I've been... distracted. Won't happen again."
"It had better not. Shape up or ship out, Burke. I'm not kidding. You're a great agent but you're no good to anyone fogged up. Tell you what: take tomorrow off. Sleep in, go for a long walk, clear your head. Don't come back until you're sure you're fit to work."
"That's not necessary," Peter mutters weakly, kicking himself for even bothering to protest. A day off is exactly what he needs.
Hughes glowers. "That's an order, Burke. Go home."
Giving up with badly disguised relief, Peter nods. "Yes, sir. See you Thursday."
"I hope so."
He pauses only to grab his coat before rushing out of the office and heading for Central Park. He can't think, can't concentrate, and hates himself a little for letting his emotions distract him from the job. Hughes is right; he's not fit to be at work. He's a mess. A year less a day, and he hasn't calmed down at all.
"Goddamnit," he growls, startling a pair of bored pigeons. For the fortieth time that day, he checks his cell. No messages, no missed calls, nothing. He hasn't heard from Neal in a week. No letters. No trinkets. No messages passed through Mozzie. Just silence. Terrifying, unexpected silence. "Goddamnit, Neal, where are you. Don't do this to me."
No one answers. The bench at his back has an occupant, but it's a mousy young woman with her nose in a book, and disguise has never been one of Neal's strong points. She's just a girl with a book, not a brilliant criminal mastermind in a wig.
Peter stays in the park for an hour, then goes home and curls up on the couch with a basketball game. It's not his sport, he doesn't know any of the players and doesn't really care about the outcome of the game, but it distracts him just enough to keep him from chewing his fingertips off until El gets home. She crawls onto the couch with him and huddles against his side, uncharacteristically silent and glum.
At ten-thirty they go to bed and pretend to sleep.
Twenty to seven in the morning. Peter is up, following El through the motions even though he's been ordered to sleep in. He pours her orange juice with eerily steady hands and fidgets a little with the edges of his favourite green housecoat while she putters around the kitchen, studiously pretending everything is normal.
It's not. He feels like he might shake out of his skin at any moment.
Five minutes later, the doorbell goes off. They freeze, knuckles whitening around their glasses, eyes fixed unblinking on the front door.
"You should get that," El says.
"I really should," Peter croaks, but can't seem to make his legs work.
The bell rings again, this time for nearly five seconds, impatient enough to sound desperate.
El takes three steps toward the door. "You should really, really get that."
The first step is the hardest. After he manages that, momentum takes over, and he staggers through the seventeen steps from the kitchen to the door with increasing speed and clumsy feet. Touching the doorknob makes him want to puke, but he ignores the terror and turns it.
The door swings open onto blinding early morning light. For the first handful of moments, it's just a blurry shadow and voice standing in front of Peter.
"I was starting to think you weren't home. Did I wake you?" Neal says. His tone is easy and carefree as always, but there's a tension beneath it Peter recognizes very well.
"No," he says, shaking his head. "We were just having breakfast. Come on in."
Neal removes his hat and steps inside, and Peter finally gets a good look at him. He does have a tan, his eyes are preternaturally pale in the aftermath of the sunlight, and he seems somewhat more comfortable in his skin, as if the world has worn the jagged edges off him and made of him something polished and clear as Tibetan quartz. He's too beautiful to be real, too big to fit in the Burkes' little house.
The door clicks behind him with self-important finality. The world stops for a few seconds.
Then El sweeps past Peter, trailing tendrils of lily-patterned silk housecoat, and throws herself into Neal's arms. Peter can only watch, dumbstruck and dizzy, as his wife presses kisses all over his face and runs her delighted fingers through his dark hair, a bit longer and curlier now than Peter remembers it. "Welcome home," she gasps.
He wishes he could be so honest with his happiness. Then, like a thunderbolt out of a clear blue July sky, he realizes that he can now. He's not Neal's keeper anymore. Neal isn't his prisoner. They're completely unrelated in any way but the most important.
The moment El pulls back to wipe the messy tears off her face with her silk sleeve, Peter strides forward with great determination and drags Neal into his chest, bearish and unapologetic. He lets his arms go wherever they want; the left chooses to curl around Neal's back, while the right circles his shoulder and grips his warm, sun-browned neck. There are dozens of things he planned to say here, rehearsed in front of the mirror and El, but he can't squeeze a single one of his throat.
Turns out he doesn't need them: Neal understands, for once. He pulls away just far enough to put a couple inches of space between their faces, then closes it again with a painfully tender kiss to the side of Peter's mouth, unhurried and ruinously wonderful. When he breaks it Peter feels like crying.
"So, I'm actually starving," Neal says conversationally when he finds his voice. "Have anything more substantial than orange juice? I got off a twelve-hour flight from Hawai'i last night and forgot to eat before I boarded. Please tell me you have muffins or something. I'll even take store-bought."
El rearranges her robe, crossing her arms to hide her shaking hands. "As if we'd be that cruel. There aren't any muffins, but there's waffle batter in the fridge. I was just about to whip some up. Can you wait ten more minutes?"
"For your waffles, I could wait eleven," Neal says with a rakish grin. "It won't make you late for work, will it? I can do it myself if you want."
Peter catches El's line of sight and raises an eyebrow. She winks, and they share an identical smile. "Don't even think about it," she says. "That waffle-iron is my treasure. Nobody touches it. Anyway, Peter's off for the day on mandated leave and I'm about to call in sick."
Neal's eyes go wide. "Is that okay? Aren't you kind of the boss?"
El shrugs. "We haven't got any major gigs. Yvonne can hold down the fort for one day. I haven't taken a sick day in two years; I think I'm kind of entitled."
Though the kitchen isn't really big enough to comfortably accommodate all three of them, they squeeze in anyway and talk all over each other while they wait for the waffles to cook. They all have stories to tell, dozens of them, hundreds in Neal's case, and none of them can wait for later. Even though they logically know they have the rest of the foreseeable future, they can't shake the urgency of the moment, the feeling that if they don't say everything right now they might not get another chance.
When Neal is halfway through his third strawberry waffle, El clears her throat. "We made up the guest room for you," she says matter-of-factly, "if you want to - well, for privacy's sake - and - tell us you're staying, Neal. Please."
For a moment he looks exactly like a stunned child, huge-eyed and thunderstruck. "Can I?" he says. "I mean, aren't I kind of - well. The term 'third wheel' comes to mind."
"You're way too smart to say dumb things like that," Peter reprimands. "Of course you can, of course you're not, we'd be happy to spend all day proving that to you. Reassure my wife that you're not going anywhere, then shut up and eat your waffle."
"Elizabeth, if you say you want me here I'll never leave," Neal promises, a smile softening the raw honesty of his voice, then meekly stuffs another mouthful of strawberries and cream into his mouth.
"What am I, chopped liver?" Peter says. "Doesn't my opinion matter at all?"
"Of course it does. You're just obvious," El says. "No one needs to ask you. Neal, you're staying, and that's final. Now eat your breakfast."
He snaps her a mock salute with his forkless hand and hides his smile behind his stack of waffles, and that's it: the end of the year, the beginning of the rest. Wednesday morning in the Burke-Caffrey household.