Disclaimer: Not mine; written for fun, not profit. All recognizable characters belong to Jeff Eastin.
Set shortly after the beginning of season 2, when Neal is still grieving for Kate. I'm nervous about the new season and wanted to something light to cheer me up!
The Cure for Anything….
…is salt. Sweat, tears or the sea.
Though he would deny it to anyone who mentioned it, Peter Burke was worried about his con artist protégé. He knew that the past few months had been difficult for him, to say the least. Losing Kate had been agonizing, but then being thrown back in jail, with no time to grieve properly or even defend himself against the ridiculous charges of escaping had definitely taken its toll. Neal was always ready with a smile, but his blue eyes had lost a great deal of their twinkle, at least when he didn't have an audience. And there was a brittleness about him that concerned Peter. Their job was too dangerous to not have Neal at the top of his game.
He and El had talked of something they could do to bring back a smile to Neal's face, something to reward the younger man for all of his hard work. Nothing they had come up with seemed quite right, however, so they let the subject drop, only to have one or the other pick it up again after a particularly difficult or stressful case.
Finally, an idea began to form in Peter's mind. Years of reading the younger man's 'tells' and his observational skills as an FBI agent had made him something of an expert on Neal, and now he began to put some pieces together.
He knew Neal loved the water—any time the job took them into galleries or museums, he would notice Neal lingering in front of any painting of a seascape. And if a case took them to a place anywhere near the water's edge, he would find Neal straying so close to the grimy shoreline that he was in danger of ruining his shoes and the cuffs of his overly tailored trousers.
The final deciding factor clicked into place one hot and sticky Saturday, when Hughes called them in to the office unexpectedly when a suspect they had been chasing finally popped up on the radar. Calls to Neal's cell phone had gone unanswered, so Peter had finally resorted to calling up his tracking information. He discovered that Neal was at a health club just at the edge of his radius. When he went to retrieve the younger man, he found him in the large indoor pool, trying to swim laps. It was clear that he must be a regular, since his anklet didn't seem to be attracting much attention.
In spite of the noise and heat in the large space, not to mention the overwhelming smell of chlorine, Peter found himself just watching his young friend as he glided effortlessly through the overcrowded lanes, every bit as sleek and graceful in the water as he ever was on dry land.
With some reluctance, he finally caught Neal's attention and pulled him from the pool, ducking as Neal laughed and shook himself like a puppy, spraying Peter's suit, already damp with humidity, with a fine mist.
Pretending to scowl and hurrying the man along to the dressing rooms to change with a towel snap to his swimsuit-covered backside, Peter finally hit on the perfect thing to pull Neal out of his gloom.
It might be a little tricky to get it arranged and he would need Hughes's approval, but Peter knew their agent in charge had developed a grudging soft spot for Neal, and would most likely agree to his proposal. He couldn't wait to tell El his plan, knowing she would back it fully.
Neal came out a moment later, his hair still curling at the ends with moisture from the pool. He gave Peter an odd look and Peter realized that he was doing a poor job hiding the excitement he felt about his brilliant scheme. Fixing his face with a bland expression, he herded Neal into the car, ignoring the younger man's inquiring looks.
Convincing Hughes to go along with the plan took even less time than he would have expected. Though Neal might be surprised to hear it, Peter knew the older agent still felt more than a little guilt that he had been unable to prevent the con man's return to jail after Kate's death and Fowler's betrayal and had readily agreed to Peter's suggestion. Once he had the green light for the upcoming weekend, it would be a simple matter to arrange the rest of the details, and he knew El would be more than happy to help with those.
Once he was freed from the office and Neal's ever more curious looks, he was able to fill El in on his idea. Predictably, she was as excited as he was. Neal had come to mean a great deal to both of them, a fact that Peter still had trouble wrapping his head around.
For once, Mother Nature smiled on him—the long range forecast was for beautiful weather for the weekend and it only improved as the week went on. Peter knew there was no way to entirely surprise Neal, but he hoped to keep the details under wraps as long as possible. Deciding to go with a partial truth, he told Neal they would need to pick up a statement about a possible case from a witness out on Long Island, and that Hughes had told them to go on Friday and take the rest of the day off.
Peter was happy to see a bit of Neal's old spark when he heard they were going to be able to escape the heat of the city, and the younger man was even happier to hear that El was going to come along for the ride. The promise of a real lunch—at a place that didn't serve their meals in bags—made his smile grow even wider.
By the time Friday arrived, the summer heat was fully upon the city. Peter had told Neal to be ready by 6:30, since traffic was notoriously terrible heading out to Long Island on the weekends. He also urged him to forego the usual suit, and settle for 'business casual', though his natural grace made even the khakis and dark polo shirt he was wearing look elegant.
Peter noticed a transformation in Neal as soon as they left the city. Whether it was the change in scenery or the prospect of heading to the island that brightened his demeanor, Peter was happy to see it. They chatted as they drove, with Neal leaning forward from the back seat to stick his head in between the seats to comment on something Peter or Elizabeth had said. Peter growled at him to sit back and keep his seat belt tight, but inwardly he cheered to see more enthusiasm than Neal had displayed for months. Neal perked up even more when Peter revealed their destination was nestled right in an exclusive community in the Hamptons.
Traffic was unusually light, so they made it to the island in good time. The GPS on the Ford guided them to their destination with a minimum of trouble. They pulled into a large, circular driveway of a beautiful ocean front home, catching a glimpse of the blue Atlantic behind the house.
Neal once again leaned forward. "Ah, Peter, I hate to tell you, but there's no one here."
Pretending to be concerned, Peter turned to the back seat, "How do you know that? We haven't even knocked yet."
"I've had a lot of experience in…observing…"
"You mean casing," Peter interrupted.
"Po-ta-to, po-tah-to," Neal shot back, unrepentant. "Anyway, I don't think anyone has been here for a while."
"Well, I guess we might as well find out," Peter replied, keeping up the pretense as he climbed out of the car and walked up to the imposing front door. Neal and El followed, enjoying the lush landscaping and salty air.
Stepping up to the front door, Peter turned to Neal with a grin on his face, mirrored by El's behind him.
He held up the key that Hughes had given him the day before.
"Surprise! We aren't meeting a witness here to pick up a statement. This place is ours until Sunday evening."
Neal looked at them blankly. "What are you talking about?"
El moved closer to him and laid a hand on his arm. "We've been worried about you, sweetie. You've had such a difficult few months," she said gently. "Peter wanted to do something for you, so he arranged for us to borrow this house for the weekend to give you a break from the city."
The young conman's eyes widened. "You mean we're staying here? For the whole weekend? But what about my clothes? I don't even have a toothbrush!"'
Peter grinned and hit the button on the keychain to open the trunk. "I think you'll find everything you need in there. We had a couple of helpers."
Neal still looked dazed. "Helpers?"
"Mozzie and June helped pack a bag for you for the weekend. Mozzie dropped it off at our house last night. I haven't checked, but he assured me you would have everything you need. He even threw in a couple of bottles of wine that you like."
Neal's eyes strayed to the beach, just visible behind the house. "I haven't seen the ocean in almost five years," he said almost too softly to hear. His eyes came back to meet Peter's. "We're really going to stay here for the weekend?" he asked, almost afraid to believe it.
"Yep! So let's check out our new digs. This place was confiscated from a drug dealer, and the bureau has kept it to use as a safe house until the courts can figure out exactly what happens to it next."
With that, Peter turned the key in the door and pushed it open.
El linked arms with both men and accompanied them into the large entrance hall. The sight that greeted them was breathtaking. The back of the house was completely glass, so there was nothing to interfere with their view of the beach and it was completely—and expensively—furnished, and obviously recently cleaned.
"Oh, this is beautiful," El murmured, opening the door that led to the equally well furnished patio and pool area so they could step outside. Neal and Peter followed her out and then Neal turned to Peter, barely able to drag his eyes from the view of the water. "We're really staying here all weekend?" he asked again, still unable to believe that he was getting an FBI-sanctioned mini vacation.
Peter nodded. "As long as I have the key back to Hughes by Monday morning, it's all ours. And speaking of keys…" Peter reached into his pocket and extracted the tiny electronic key for Neal's anklet.
"Can't have you getting funny tan lines on your legs, not to mention how badly the sand would chafe, so just while we're here, the anklet comes off." He motioned for Neal to prop his leg on the seat of one of the patio chairs and quickly removed the tracking anklet.
"I'm trusting you, Neal," he said, putting the anklet on the table and laying a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Don't let me down."
Neal's eyes filled with tears and he pressed his lips together and nodded, too over come to speak. Peter and El turned to the ocean, pretending to enjoy the view while giving him a chance to reign in his roiling emotions.
"Not too safe for a safe house," Neal remarked a few moments later, once he was again in control.
"Actually, the view makes it hard to sneak up on and the security in this neighborhood is pretty tight, as you can imagine," Peter replied easily, aware that Neal needed a change of subject.
"Well, the car isn't going to unpack itself," El interjected briskly. "Between what I got from my catering companies and what June had her staff pack, we're going to eat like kings. Let's get unloaded and then we can head to the beach."
Both men followed dutifully and after a quick tour of the rest of the house, they soon had the car unpacked. Neal took the bags upstairs to the bedrooms while El and Peter handled the groceries.
"You weren't kidding when you said you brought a lot of food," Peter teased as he unpacked yet another box of goodies in the huge kitchen. There was enough food to keep them satisfied for a week.
"Blame that on June. She's been worried about Neal, too, and she's determined to fatten him up. She's had her cook baking since we first called her." She reached over and touched her husband's arm. "I think this is just what Neal needed. You're a good man, Peter Burke."
"My mother always taught me to never argue with a lady, so I'll just have to agree with you, Mrs. Burke. Let's go see what Neal's getting up to."
They found Neal in one of the smaller bedrooms with an ocean view, having left the master suite for Peter and Elizabeth. They found him unpacking, shaking his head at the things Mozzie had chosen.
"I'm not quite sure where Mozzie got some of this stuff, 'cause I'm pretty sure it doesn't belong to me," he said with a grin, holding up a rather colorful Hawaiian shirt. As he went to hang it in the spacious closet, Peter and El exchanged a quick smile. It was clear that their plan was already working.
After taking the time to finish unpacking they decided to pack a picnic and head right to the beach, since the weather was as beautiful as promised. Within a few minutes, the picnic basket was loaded and both men were ready.
El came down a few moments later wearing a cover-up over a sleek swimsuit that accented her curvy figure. Neal did his best to hide the admiration in his eyes, but Peter caught him looking and pretended to glare.
"All right, gentlemen, I think we're just about ready. We just need sunscreen first," El announced, producing a large bottle from her flowered beach bag. "I brought plenty. We go through a couple of bottles every vacation, because if we don't, my family ends up referring to Peter as 'Lobster Man' since he burns so terribly if we don't slather him up."
"Thank you very much. That nickname had better never leave this room," Peter said sourly with a pointed look at Neal, who returned his grimace with an innocent smile. The he took the bottle from El, opening it and motioning for Neal to put his hand out so he could fill it. "With your fair skin, you might even put me to shame."
Neal backed away. "None for me, thanks. It's …goopy," he said in disgust, clearly horrified at the idea of applying it to his body. "I'll just stay in the shade."
El got a look on her face that Peter knew well and he smirked, knowing that Neal was about to discover first hand how stubborn his wife could be.
"The sun can get to you even under the umbrella and from what Peter tells me about how much you like to swim; I know you're going to want to get in the water. You need sunscreen," El said firmly.
Neal glanced desperately at Peter, but he just shrugged, knowing without a doubt who was going to win this little skirmish. "But…"
"Sunscreen or you stay in the house," Elizabeth interrupted and Neal sighed in defeat and held his hand out for Peter to fill with the lotion. He applied it gingerly to his face and arms, scowling the whole time. His frown deepened as Peter twirled his finger, indicating that Neal should turn around to get lotion applied to his shoulders.
"Trust me; you wouldn't want a sun burn. It will ruin your whole weekend," Peter said as he tugged Neal's t-shirt up and deftly applied lotion to Neal's shoulders and back in spite of the younger man's squirming.
Discovering beach chairs and an umbrella in the pool house, they made their way down the path, choosing a spot not far from the water's edge but still protected by the dunes.
Once they were set up, Peter and El settled down to read but Neal went straight for the water, dunking himself in the waves and coming up with a flourish. Peter watched his antics for a few moments, realizing how long it had been since he had seen Neal's playful side. With all of Neal's charm and sophistication it was sometimes hard to remember how young he still was in many ways.
They relaxed all afternoon, Neal alternately sunning himself (with liberal re-applications of sunscreen from Elizabeth) and swimming and nibbling from the picnic basket that they had filled with the goodies they'd brought.
By the time the sun had dipped toward the dunes, the basket was well picked through and they were all ready to return to the house to rinse off the sand and salt. Dinner was a casual meal eaten out by the pool and both Peter and El were happy to see Neal eat with real appetite.
After dinner, Peter returned to his book while El and Neal found that Mozzie had packed a Scrabble game and settled down to play. Peter glanced up from time to time, enjoying the quiet camaraderie between the three of them. They all turned in early, exhausted from the travel, sun and water.
After enjoying a late and lavish breakfast Saturday morning, El decided to take the car and go into town to shop—well, window shop mostly, considering the prices in most of the boutiques, while Peter and Neal chose to return to the beach.
Peter settled himself comfortably in a chair under the umbrella, opening his book. Neal sat down on the sand next to him for a while, just staring at the ocean, but he seemed a little restless.
"I'm going for a run," he said finally, standing and brushing the sand off his swimsuit.
Peter felt a moment of panic thinking of 'Neal' and 'run' together, but he managed to hide it well.
"To the rock jetty and back, no further," he said, his face hidden in his book.
Neal sighed in exasperation. "Peter, what do you think I'm going to do, arrange for a boat to come pick me up?"
Peter couldn't hide the frown at that thought, though truthfully the idea had never occurred to him.
"Of course not," he said, looking up. "But the water is rough around there, and I don't want you getting out of sight."
Neal opened his mouth to protest that he was a strong swimmer and unlikely to be pulled into the water, but Peter cut him off.
"No farther than the jetty, or you can just plant yourself under this umbrella and play in the sand. Clear?"
"Fine, Dad," Neal answered with a resigned eye roll.
Peter ignored the theatrics and made a shooing motion, returning to his book as Neal took off down the beach, easily finding his stride in the firm sand near the water's edge.
It was more than an hour later that Peter finally looked up, realizing with an uneasy feeling that Neal had not returned. He stared down the beach, shading his eyes, looking for the younger man. With some relief, he spotted a lone figure sitting on the rocks some distance away. Squinting, Peter could tell it was Neal, his head bowed. Peter watched him for several minutes and then finally rose and made his way down toward him. As he neared the outcropping he realized with some alarm that Neal was crying—in fact, not just crying, but sobbing as though his heart was breaking.
His first instinct was to rush to Neal's side, but then he realized that he had no idea what to say to the younger man. The last thing he wanted to do was make Neal self-conscious about his tears, and it was clear that Neal needed to release the pain he'd been holding inside for weeks.
He slipped back behind a rock a ways back, not wanting to disturb Neal, but unwilling to leave him alone with his grief. Within a few minutes, the younger man seemed to pull himself together, using the hem of his tee shirt to dry his eyes. He turned in Peter's direction.
"You can come out now, Peter. The waterworks are all finished," Neal said ruefully, and Peter stepped out into the open, unsurprised that Neal had known he was there.
"Feeling better?" Peter asked gently. Neal's eyes were still puffy and red, but he seemed calmer and more at peace.
Neal nodded and they started walking slowly back. Peter said nothing, hoping Neal would speak when he was ready.
"Kate and I planned to retire to the beach somewhere, sometime in the future when we were finished running," Neal said after they had walked in silence for a few minutes. "The ocean always reminds me of her. Of the plans we had."
The pain in his voice was so close to the surface that Peter felt compelled to rest his arm lightly along the younger man's shoulder. To his surprise, Neal leaned into the touch and they finished the walk back to the umbrella in companionable silence.
By the time they reached the umbrella, Neal was ready for another dip in the cool water. He swam for a while and then helped gather the things they had brought to the beach.
Saturday night was a repeat of the night before; with more food than they could possible eat and enough wine to make both Neal and El a little tipsy and giggly, a side Peter had never seen in his CI. Neal had been a little subdued through dinner after his emotional afternoon, but he had made an effort to keep up with the conversation, and Peter was glad he felt comfortable enough with them to relax and just be himself for a while.
The gorgeous weather continued into Sunday and it was with a great deal of reluctance that they finally left the beach in the early afternoon to pack up and start the trip back to the city.
As they loaded the car with their luggage and what little remained of the food they'd brought, Neal touched Peter's shoulder.
"Thank you for this, Peter," he said softly. "All of it. Time away from the city, being at the beach—without my anklet. You and El taking such good care of me."
"You've worked hard these last few months, and El and I thought you deserved it—and so did Hughes."
Neal stared out at the water. "Kate would have loved this place," he remarked, but his voice sounded wistful rather that bitter.
Peter squeezed his shoulder. "Live your life for both of you then…within the confines of the law, of course," he teased gently, pleased to see Neal's answering smile.
They finished loading the car and then gathered El and headed back into the city. Even though traffic was awful on the way back home, Peter couldn't help but smile to himself. The view in the rearview mirror showed a dozing, slightly sunburned, but much healthier looking CI.