A/N: Another part is up! Once again I apologize for the long wait – as I've said before, my writing time has been severely reduced these last few months. I've also been working on other projects – a Diana-Peter-Neal oneshot that you can find on my profile, and my Big Bang story, which should be up sometime towards the end of September.

Since each time at least one or two people ask me whether I've abandoned this fic – I haven't, and I don't plan to. I know that the chapters are far between and I wish I could change that, but right now it's just not possible :( I can promise you that if I ever decided to abandon this story, I'd tell you. In the meantime, feel free to gently nag me to update!

As usual, this chapter has been beta-ed by Mam711, and I've also received a lot of support from NovemberLeaving and from the amazing folks at the #wcwu chat.

Anyway, here's the next part – I hope you'll enjoy it!


INTERLUDE I

I.

June Ellington is a woman of the world. She's played poker with Sy Devore and won a bet against Sinatra. She's walked across the Great Wall of China and drunk tea with the Queen of England. She's slept on the finest sheets and outside under trees; she has stayed in palaces and in weird storage units. She has danced in the greatest dance halls of the world, in small but lovely clubs, in dirty pubs that smelled of smoke, on beach sand under moonlight and in her own living room, and she enjoyed every single one time of those times, because why live without a smile when the world was so beautiful and so full of fun?

She's tried out many professions, some legit, some … less so. She's run street cons and big cons, been a thief, played "Find the Lady" and once … but no, the day's still too young for that story. She fell in love with a con man and raised three children, sometimes alone when Byron and she had been separated. She has loved and been loved, she has laughed and cried, she has broken hearts and has had her own broken, and although she has never stopped living as fully as she could, she has seen more bittersweet endings than "happily ever afters."

Tonight, June thinks, is exactly one of those bittersweet moments.

She's sitting in an armchair in her living room. In her lap lies an opened envelope and three sheets of paper covered in familiar handwriting, the letter that June has been saving the whole day, waiting exactly for this calm moment when she would be able to give it her full attention. However, right now her focus isn't on the letter, but solely on a card that she's holding in her slightly shaking hand.

It's a drawing made in black ink, probably drawn by pen. The card shows June's armchair plus two more, standing by a small table. A lamp is shining in the background, and sitting around the table, June and Samantha are smiling and playing cards, with Sammy kneeling in her armchair so that she can properly see the surface of the table. The last armchair is empty, but there is a third set of cards lying on the table, abandoned, as if the person they belong to has left just for a minute.

She misses him so much.

For a moment, June isn't sure who "he" is – Byron? Neal, or even Mozzie? The drawing doesn't specify – but perhaps it doesn't need to.

The lamp on the card casts shadows and leaves a mix of dark and light. Similarly, everything about the card is a contradiction. There's happiness and grief, companionship and loneliness, despair and hope … so many emotions in such a tiny piece of paper that June wipes away a tear even as she smiles at the same time.

Eventually and with great care, she places the card on the table, already knowing where she will later place it in her bedroom. Then she finally turns her attention to the letter from Neal.

.

June –

You're a lifesaver. Literally. I don't know what I would have been doing this weekend if you hadn't sent me my art supplies. The forecast says it's gonna rain the whole time, not that it matters much. I'd probably have been cooped up inside either way. Either way, I can't thank you enough. Thank you.

Hey, maybe I would have read some books. Maybe I still will. My 'handler' has a rather extensive library. I haven't seen some of those since high school. I spent nearly ten minutes trying to decide which title to pick before I realized I could simply try the other ones later :) No library hours, see, nor waiting lists.

How are you doing? How is everybody? I'm glad to hear that Bugsy's meds worked and that he's all right now. The poor guy must have felt awful if he didn't even want to go outside. Please give him a pat from me.

If Cindy's still having problems with her project, tell her—

.

"Grandma?"

"Samantha darling?" June looks at the child in her nightgown. It was almost a quarter to midnight. "You should be asleep," she gently chides her.

"Can't.…" replies Sammy, although her yawn obviously contradicts her statement. She comes closer and opens her arms, silently asking for a hug.

Dropping the letter and the card on the table, June reaches back to her and pulls her into the armchair, right next to her. Sammy melts into the hug and rests her head on June's shoulder. "What's the problem, sweetie?" asks June.

"I dunno," murmurs Sammy to June's shoulder before she looks up. "Would you tell me a story, Grandma?" she asks with a childish innocence that sounds younger than her twelve years.

It really is too late for a chat with her granddaughter, thinks June as Sammy stares at her with a hopeful look in her huge brown eyes. On the other hand, it's vacation time, neither of them has to get up early tomorrow and Sammy is usually rather well-behaved about her bedtime. Besides, what was the point of being a Grandma if you couldn't even spoil your grandchildren a bit?

"Okay, but just this once."

Sammy squeals in delight. June gives her a warm smile and gently squeezes her shoulder. "Let's get you to bed now, all right?"

"Okay," says Samantha and stands up. Suddenly, she notices the card on the table. "That's pretty.… Who drew it?" She pauses. "Was it Neal? Did he write us a letter?"

"Yes, he did," replies June fondly.

"Neal's nice," says Sammy. "Will you write him back? I want to tell him that we won the soccer match against Derek and his meanies."

"Tell you what. Why don't you write him a note yourself and I'll send it with my letter."

Samantha frowns. "Aww, Grandma…. You write better than me. You should write him."

June hides a smile. She was no stranger to Sammy's distaste for writing letters.

"He promised he would teach me how to play pool the next time I visited you." Sammy's voice suddenly turns unexpectedly serious. "He's not going to do that now, is he?"

June sighs. "No, Samantha. I'm afraid Neal won't be able to do that."

Sammy scowls. "That's not fair. The feds suck."

"Language," corrects her June automatically. "And that's not a nice thing to say."

"Well, it's the truth," says Samantha with a pout. "Neal's great, and my Grandpa loved me too. I hate the feds."

Oh dear.

June sighs. "Why don't we take this to the kitchen? I'll make you a cup of cocoa."

"Okay."

"You should grab a blanket so that your feet don't get cold."

"Yes, Grandma."

June uses the time while they move to the other room to gather her thoughts.

'I hate the feds.'

It's not something that should come out of the mouth of a twelve-year-old girl. It's the same thing she once talked about with her own daughters. Somehow, June had hoped that she would never have to do that again.

God, she is truly getting too old for this.

The problem is that June's own feelings on the matter are layered and complicated.

June – loved Byron. More than that, a part of her loved the cons, the rush, the excitement – the fun. She loved beating the unbeatable challenges, loved dining in fancy hotels and sitting in the best places in the theatre pretending to be royalty. In short, June loved both her husband and the game—and she was determined to play it to win.

The part of her that enjoyed the life—that part viewed law enforcement as her adversary, as part of the challenge. They were on opposite teams and the price of failure was harsh, but as long as they played fair, June could respect that. That part didn't hold a grudge, because after all, the rules of the con were clear, and the risks were too.

But the other part of her, the part that kept worrying whether Byron would come home that night or not … that part wasn't so understanding. Because nothing could change the fact that the feds had robbed her and Byron of seven years of their life together.

Did they even care what exactly that meant? How could they comprehend all the times when she needed Byron and he just wasn't there? What did they know of prison visits, of desperately trying to find some closeness under the impersonal watch of a prison guard; of raising her child alone, of fearing for her loved one and being unable to do a thing? And all that is still barely the tip of the iceberg.

Because of the feds, June's family has suffered, and the knowledge that her husband had truly been guilty of his crimes didn't change that in the slightest; it didn't give them those years back. Nothing could.

It also didn't help that after being marked as a felon, a lot of people began to see you as a second-class citizen. June has seen far too many cases when law enforcement dismissed the concerns of people with checkered pasts, simply because it was easier to say 'once a crook, always a crook' than to work cases that wouldn't win them any points with the public.

And now Neal has been taken from their home, Neal with his laugher and kindness and caring, Neal who has taken her dancing again and who helped June when Sammy was taken off the donor's list. June had always known that Neal's stay at her house was a temporary arrangement. However, she had hoped that he would be going towards something, not leaving because he had no choice.

Then there was the matter of Neal's new handler. June had only seen him once, but that had been enough to reach a simple conclusion – she wasn't impressed. The man—Kramer— seemed too stiff, too self-righteous, too assured of his own view of the world. After reading Neal's email a few days ago, June liked him even less. Did the agent truly believe that by caging Neal he could somehow "reform" him, or was it just something done in simple pettiness? But you didn't backtalk to parole officers or "supervising agents" or whatever they called themselves; you nodded and smiled and nodded some more, before they took away whatever shreds of your life you had left.

Naturally, none of this is the sort of thing that June should be saying to her granddaughter.

Society would want her to talk to Sammy about law and punishment and justice. Thinking of Neal, Byron, Mozzie and her numerous friends, June knows that doing so would make her feel like a liar and hypocrite. Something tells her Samantha wouldn't believe the speech anyway.

She's so glad that Sammy is here this week.

While her daughter's call two days ago asking her whether she would be able to take Samantha for the following week was completely unexpected, it certainly hasn't been unwelcome. In fact, ever since Neal's and Mozzie's departures, the house has felt depressingly empty, so Sammy's visit has come as a true blessing.

"I'm so glad to have you here, Sammy," says June aloud with painful honesty.

"Hmmm."

Picking up the two cups, with cocoa for Sammy and lemon balm tea for herself, June finally turns around – and breaks into a full-blown smile at the sight in front of her.

While June had been busy around the kitchen, her granddaughter had put her feet on the chair at the kitchen table and enveloped herself in her blanket, waiting for the cocoa. But apparently sleepiness has overpowered her, because Sammy's head is now laying on the table, resting on her forearms, her face hidden by the cascade of her curly hair.

The little imp looks up and blinks when June comes closer and places the cup of cocoa on the table.

"Grandma?"

"Bed, now," says June firmly.

"But Grammy—"

"You can drink your cocoa, but then you have to go to bed. I'll tuck you in."

Samantha sighs. "'kay."

June gives her granddaughter a one-armed hug and plants a kiss into her hair. "That's my good girl."

Sammy's small smile is so innocent and sweet that June almost pulls her into another hug. Instead, she fondly watches Samantha finish her drink, and then makes sure that the girl brushes her teeth before going to bed.

Gently stroking her hair, June gives Samantha another kiss and the girl hugs her once more before June pulls Sammy's blanket closer and gives her hand a light squeeze. "Good night, Samantha."

"'Night, Grandma."

June smiles. "Sweet dreams."

Still smiling as she hears the mumbled reply, June carefully closes the door. Releasing a small breath of relief, she returns downstairs to read the rest of Neal's letter.

When she finishes, June feels the familiar wave of love and sadness that comes with missing someone so dear. And looking once more at Neal's card, June finally knows what to say to Samantha.

o – o – o

"It's about the person."

Samantha frowns. "What do you mean?"

They have just finished reading the letter from Neal when June decided to reopen the topic from yesterday. However, she still doesn't know how to find the right words.

Neal, Byron and Mozzie – those were her family. Ford, as dear as he had once been to her, placed the score above the safety of June's house and above their friendship. Adler and Keller were manipulators and killers. All of them cons and thieves.

Peter Burke and his team – they played straight, helped June with the bastards who took Sammy off the donor's list. Then there was Kramer, a man June doesn't trust. And then the likes of Fowler, those were the corrupt ones. The cops.

It's about the person.

But Samantha needs to realize that herself.

And so instead, June tells her granddaughter all about Byron and the cons; how they drank the wine of life with full quaffs even when the wine turned bitter; living with both joy and pain, but always striving for freedom, for beauty, for fun, for the dance under the stars – for the dream.

As Samantha watches her with eyes wide open, June tells her – about falling in love with Byron. About the engagement ring that Byron gave her after a con went south, when they had absolutely nothing. She speaks about winning and losing and the chilling reality of prison. She tells Samantha about the lies – first to the marks, then to their friends and families, finally to each other and to themselves – until it almost broke them. She tells her about dining in fancy hotels, and then of the days when she was counting her pennies and worrying whether she would be able to pay both the heat bill and the water bill, because Byron was in prison, her family had cut her off and the feds were following her around, watching her, waiting for her to slip up and give them a reason to arrest her too, or to add years to her husband's sentence.

Some time later, Samantha snuggles into June's embrace on the couch, and June continues the story, with her and Byron's reunion; the struggle to rediscover each other, for Byron to reconnect with his small family and for her and their daughter to accept him back. She tells her of Byron's love for open spaces, and how he built the house for June where she could live like a queen.

Then the story of how Ford came into their lives. The three of them, she continues to tell Sammy, had run cons for nearly two decades—two decades of happiness and joy. And once again, it was fun, and they flew on the wings of excitement, adventure, wealth and freedom, the fear of getting caught ignored if not forgotten – until the feds crashed their party once more, closed down the casino in the Ellingtons' house and took Byron away from her for two more years.

"After that time, he retired. And he said he never looked back," finishes June at last.

"But he was a good man, right?" asks Samantha thoughtfully.

"Byron had a heart of gold," replies June instead, and that's the goddamn truth, because for all his faults, Byron was the sweetest husband and father she could have ever imagined.

"You loved him very much."

"Yes. Yes, I loved him a lot." Lost in her thoughts for a moment, June eventually continues. "Your grandfather – he was a complicated man. Sometimes, I thought he saw the world in a different way than the rest of us. He was a hopeless romantic, and nothing could take that away. It annoyed me so much sometimes. He ignored reality; he always took too many risks. And he never wanted to hurt anyone." Even though he did.

For a moment, they remain in silence as June gently strokes Sammy's hair.

"He was – it was the thousand little things. Every day, Byron would find a new way to make me smile. Sometimes we went dancing together, or sometimes we just stayed home and played the piano."

"He told the best goodnight stories," murmurs Samantha with a half-smile.

"Yes, Byron was good at those.… He cared for you very much. For all of you."

Glancing at Samantha, June watches as the girl stares into nothingness, probably lost deep in thought.

June realized that she didn't mean to tell her granddaughter quite so much. However, at her twelve years, Samantha is no longer a baby to be coddled, and she is old enough to understand – if not all, then at least most of it. June doesn't want Samantha to follow her footsteps into this life, the double-edged choice that takes away just as much as it gives. And yet, she wants Sammy to go through the world with her eyes open – to see the options, to ask the questions and to never be afraid to follow her dreams.

That is the legacy for the con man's grandchild.

"And Neal, Grandma?" asks Sammy at last.

"I said we would write him, didn't I?" answers June with a smile, deliberately ignoring the complexity and true meaning behind Samantha's question.

"I know he's a good person, like my Grandpa." Sammy hesitates and bites her lip. "How did it happen, Grandma? You told me about the submarine and that Keller guy, but.… Why? Why did they take Neal away?"

June has tries her best to explain, but she knows that Samantha needs to hear it from someone else too. "I'm sorry, Sammy. That's something you need ask Neal himself."

"But—"

"I will help you write it, I promise."

"Okay."

In the end, Samantha's letter ends up being a good two pages long, and June has to promise Samantha that next time, they'll get some of her photos printed and send them to Neal: "Because digital photos don't feel the same."

And once again, it had been Neal who—apart from June—first commented that Samantha had a true talent with the camera.

While she feels a bit guilty for forcing Neal to talk about the past few months (even if only to Samantha), June knows that Neal will explain the con artist's life to the young girl, and he will also tell her about his FBI team here in New York and his friendship with Peter Burke.

There is still one thing that June needs to address, though.

"Byron and I often found ourselves at odds with the law enforcement, but.…"

"Yes?" asks Samantha when June falters.

June hesitates before she speaks again, her tone serious despite a small smile. "There are – many cops and agents who honestly want to help people. They put away killers, mobsters, people who have no conscience and no code of honor."

"But sometimes they're wrong," says Sammy.

Making a small pause, June eventually nods. "Sometimes they're wrong. And sometimes they're right." She continues before Sammy manages to ask her question. "The FBI arrested the people from the charity who blackmailed us and messed with the donors' list. And I'm very grateful for that."

"I guess so," mumbles Sammy. "You still don't like them," she points out a moment later.

"I respect them," replies June.

"Hmm."

"Don't judge people before you get to know them, Samantha," says June gravely. "Not for their profession, their religion, their education or their past. Always try to know them for who they are. Maybe you'll find some wonderful friends."

Eventually, Samantha nods. "Okay."

June feels a wave of pride and relief.

She knows that this is a lesson that Sammy will have to learn by herself, in real life with real people. But her granddaughter has a good heart. June believes that one day, Samantha will be a wonderful young lady who will live her life without prejudice.

Thinking of Neal again, she wonders whether his former team misses him as much as she does. How are those two agents doing – Diana and Jones? And what about Peter?

Silently shaking her head, June takes Sammy's letter and puts it in an envelope. She'll include her own too after she finishes it. Then in the evening when the heat isn't so bad, they'll take it to the post office. But right now it's lunchtime, and later she has promised to watch Samantha's favorite movie with her.

June smiles. This is going to be a wonderful afternoon.

o – o – o

II.

This is going to be a horrible afternoon.

Dressed down to just a tank top and light trousers, Diana takes several deep gulps from her bottle of water. Next to her, Jones wipes away a drop of sweat before he follows her example. The air in the van is hot and heavy, yet when Diana glances at the clock, she discovers that they have been there for barely thirty minutes.

"This must be some sort of cosmic payback."

Jones glances back at her. "Really? Do you think you've upset some pagan gods?"

"Five stakeouts over two weeks, at lunchtime, in this weather." Diana shakes her head. "Either the suspects are freaking conspiring against us, or this is some sort of karmic revenge."

"Or it could be just the fact that it's the beginning of July," replies Jones dryly.

"Right, keep telling yourself that."

For a moment, they watch the street in silence and focus merely on listening to the sound of static coming from the recording device.

Suddenly, Diana has a distinct feeling that something has changed. Then she realizes that apart for the sound from the receiver, the van has become quiet – too quiet. When she figures out what happened, she instantly becomes pissed off.

Reaching forward, she hits the controlling button of the air-conditioning unit. When she doesn't hear the familiar light whooshing sound, she hits it again, and then again several more times. "Damn it!"

"You've got to be kidding me," says Jones in disbelief. "We already had that thing fixed on Monday and last week Thursday before that!"

"I swear, when we're done here, I'm going straight to maintenance and kill Tenney," grits Diana through her teeth.

"Can I hold him down while you punch?"

"Deal."

After making one last attempt to get the air-conditioning unit to work, Jones finally gives up. With a sigh, he and Diana exchange a weary smile.

"Guess it really is karma," says Jones thoughtfully. "What did you do in your past life?"

"Probably stole some kid's lollipop," replies Diana with a straight face.

There is a pause before Jones speaks up again.

"Twenty bucks that –"

"If you try to make a bet that our suspect doesn't show up, I will tell you the plot of episodes one hundred eleven to one hundred fifty-six of 'Fiery Beatrice'."

Jones looks at her as if she has grown another head. "Fiery – what?"

"One of Christie's long-term patients has an obsession. Don't ask."

Suddenly, they hear some noise coming from the receiver. Exchanging one quick glance, both Diana and Jones pick up their headsets. However, it becomes clear pretty soon that it was just a false alarm.

If being in the van was bad before, now it's quickly becoming unbearable. With the temperature spiking even higher, the air is barely breathable.

"Hey, do you mind?" asks Jones a moment later when he unbuttons two of the buttons on his shirt and rolls up his sleeves.

Diana just shakes her head no.

"You know, I bet you Caffrey would have been able to sit here in his suit and still look completely fine," continues Jones.

Diana smirks. "Not taking that bet either."

"Smart girl."

There's a pause.

"Did it ever cross your mind that if Caffrey were still here.…"

"Yeah?" asks Jones when Diana stops mid-sentence.

She shakes her head. "Forget it."

"Are you – "

"There he is," interrupts him Diana when their suspect suddenly shows up on their screen.

Jones breathes out. "Finally!"

Maybe now they'll be able to get some evidence.

o – o – o

After they finish the surveillance and report the broken air-conditioning unit, Jones and Diana return to the office and spend several hours working there before Peter finally decides that it's time to go home. Since Christie is working the night shift, Diana agrees to Jones's offer to go out for a while, and they end up at a bar not far from her place.

Although she has never been there before, Diana has to admit that Jones has chosen well. Despite the late hour, the bar is still far from full. The prices are reasonable, the staff mostly polite and with the music in the background and nobody minding them, they have a certain level of privacy. Tomorrow's Saturday, but they know that they might have a case, so they both end up ordering a beer. As the night progresses and they order a second pint, the conversation turns to the subject that came up earlier when they were in the van, before their suspect interrupted them.

"I still can't believe it's already been two months," says Diana as she takes a sip from her beer.

"How do you think he's doing there?" asks Jones.

Diana smiles. "Ah, you know Neal. He's probably annoying the hell out of DC and the whole ACT. The typical Caffrey act."

"'Classics. Never go out of style'," quotes Jones and Diana laughs aloud. Neither of them really wants to voice the option that Neal's transition to another unit could be less than smooth.

"You know, I never really realized it, but … he made us better as a team," remarks Diana after a while.

"Well, his skills and contacts certainly helped us solve a few cases."

"You know that's not what I meant," retorts Diana sharply.

There's a pause before Jones nods. "Yeah, I know."

The truth is that they've always been a great team, and it wasn't just about their conviction rate either. They fit well together, and the easy camaraderie between them extends far beyond the grounds of the Bureau. However, Neal's presence brought them to a new level of brilliance. Firstly, there was the easy, seemingly natural way Neal and Peter completed each other. Both of them extremely capable on their own, together they became almost unstoppable. But Caffrey connected just as easily with the rest of the team.

It was how Neal knew exactly what and when to say to you, thinks Diana. He knew when you needed someone to listen, when you needed a bit of cheering up, and when to leave you alone. Sometimes, he would smooth things when there were some rough corners. At one time, Diana would have thought it was because Neal was a professional con man. Now, she believes it was just him being a good friend.

It's been four weeks since Peter returned to reclaim his position in the White Collar Unit. Yet Diana could still see the moments when he paused and waited for Neal's input, only to realize that it wasn't coming. These days, their talks about cases have become filled with holes, and when they banter and throw around ideas, Neal's absence sometimes becomes almost painfully obvious as Peter, but also the rest of them, miss their former "partner in crime".

"Caffrey had his faults, but he was one of us," says Jones, mirroring her earlier thoughts. "I haven't heard from him since the farewell party at Peter's house."

"We exchanged a couple emails. He said he was fine."

"Did you tell him about your engagement to Christie?"

Diana shakes her head. "Not yet.… It just … it still feels weird to even think about it. I don't think I can tell it to someone like that."

"So, you gonna call him?" probes Jones curiously.

"Maybe," says Diana and gulps down the rest of her glass. "You?"

"Dunno. Maybe." He grimaces. "I've tried to write to him, but … it just didn't come out right."

"I know what you mean."

There is a moment of silence, interrupted only by the music in the background.

"It's just weird," says Jones suddenly. "I've always thought that Caffrey would either stay here, or that he'd run or end up in back in jail. But not – this."

"I hoped he'd make it," replies Diana honestly. "Because, you know – Peter. And Neal too. I knew that there was a chance … but I hoped that he'd make it. We had a good thing going on."

"We did. Except that goddamn music box. And the treasure."

"Yeah."

Diana watches as Jones finishes his beer as well.

"It's late," she says at last. "We should go."

They pay the bill and leave. Once outside, Jones accompanies Diana until they reach the nearest subway station, where they have to part ways. "Hey, Diana? If you talk to Neal, tell him I said hi."

She smiles. "Yeah, sure."

Spontaneously, they share an awkward hug before they split and Diana continues on her way home.

As she unlocks the door, she wonders how Peter's doing tonight, how Elizabeth is. Two months can be a long time for someone … but it might not be enough to heal the trauma of a kidnapping. It's not enough.

Christie will be home by morning. Diana smiles at the thought of her lover. Maybe there won't be any emergency at the Bureau and they will be able to enjoy the day together.

She climbs into her bed and falls asleep.

o – o – o

III.

"Just five minutes!" calls Peter cheerfully with a forced smile.

"You can't leave now, Peter!" protests Elizabeth's mother with a playful frown. "We have to play another game to even the score."

Still smiling: "It's just a second! I need to check up on my team!" and followed by Alan Mitchell's murmured remark ("He really is a workaholic"), Peter makes his escape and retreats to the privacy of his and El's bedroom. When he closes the door behind him, he releases a deep breath of relief.

He knows he is being selfish. The Mitchells had been through a lot when El had been kidnapped, yet not once over those horrible four days had they blamed him or his job (at least not vocally). It was absolutely human, completely understandable and not at all surprising that they wanted to reconnect with their daughter after that ordeal.

It would have been appreciated if they hadn't felt the need to spend Friday and Saturday night at Peter's house, though.

For a few moments, Peter enjoys the safety of his room. He shudders when he thinks of Alan Mitchell's piercing stare. Once again, just like every other time they get together, Alan makes him feel like he was being dissected and analyzed. It was like he was a particularly interesting sort of insect that might or might not be brined (or put into a straitjacket), depending on the psychiatrist's mood. Inadvertently, Peter wonders how Neal or—good heavens—Mozzie would have fared when interacting with his father-in-law, and then morosely decides that either of them would have probably made Mr. Mitchell happier than anything Peter has ever said or done.

Taking one last moment to wallow in self-pity, Peter finally turns his attention to the reason he escaped the vultures downstairs and hastily opens Elizabeth's birthday present.

And gets an unpleasant surprise.

Instead of the platinum package that he ordered, the parcel reveals a plain DVD. Trying to ignore his unease, Peter casts one quick look at the door before he puts the DVD into his laptop and starts the video.

He didn't remember their wedding day being that warm.… Whose family is that? … Wait, is that…?

Gladdening of the bride?

Oh no. Oh God.

Peter shuts down the laptop with a feeling of doom and despair.

"Honey?" calls Elizabeth from downstairs.

"Just one more sec, hon," Peter calls back automatically while numbly staring at the empty package and turned-off laptop. On a sudden impulse, he springs up from the bed, locks the bedroom door and then return to the middle of the bedroom. He tries to think, tries to come up with a fix for this disaster, but his head is a mess and he's quickly falling into a state of deep panic.

Finally, his Quantico and life training kicks in – when in doubt, call for backup.

Earlier downstairs, he had claimed that he was calling Diana about a case. So maybe now he should do just that.

Pulling out his cellphone, Peter dials Diana's number and waits for her to pick up.

o – o – o

Peter's phone call with Diana turns out to be as interesting as it is completely unhelpful.

Apparently, he has caught Diana in the middle of an afternoon with Christie. When Diana hears of his problem, she insists on putting the phone on speaker and involving her girlfriend in the conversation. However, after a few attempts to give him advice, the conversation becomes rather one-sided – that is, the girls begin to playfully argue about their own wedding plans and forget altogether about Peter's problem with the gift for El.

Christie sighs. "A waffle machine? Seriously, Di–"

"What's wrong with a waffle machine?" replies Diana defensively.

"Nothing, but.… Well, I was thinking of something – less traditional and more romantic."

"Oh, so you want to–"

Peter clears his throat. "Guys. I have a situation here. Could we please focus on my birthday disaster-to-be?"

Mumbling and muffled noises.

"Sorry, boss," says Diana at last. "Listen, why don't you try calling Caffrey? He's the expert on dazzling romance."

"Or you could try jewelry," suggests Christie helpfully. "That never really disappoints."

"Right. Thanks." Inadvertently, Peter's thoughts go to that first week with Neal and him asking for advice for a gift for the wedding anniversary. 'He's never going to let me live that down.' But then, desperation calls for desperate measures.

He thinks he hears Diana and Christie kissing while he hangs up.

o – o – o

The next morning, Peter meets with Jones in the park, under the pretense of walking Satchmo.

He casts a nervous look around. "Sneaking out of my house, doing the whole cloak and dagger game.… I feel like I'm in a spy novel."

"Actually, that sounds more like the sixth grade and sneaking to a forbidden party," replies Jones good-naturedly.

"Whatever. Did you get it?"

"Here it is," says Jones and hands him a small jewelry box.

Although the black velvet looks promising, Peter still hasn't forgotten the disaster of his "platinum album". As he opens the box, his hands almost are shaking with trepidation. He releases a deep breath of relief when he reveals a lovely necklace and a pair of earrings with dark blue stones. Carefully, he hides the box in his jacket pocket, ready to defend it with his own blood if someone tries to take it. "Thanks, Clinton. I really owe you one."

Jones shakes his head. "Hey, I was just the delivery guy. Anyway, can't let my boss's wife have a bad birthday. It's almost part of the job."

With a grateful smile, Peter pats his shoulder. "Whatever you say. Listen, thanks again. I need to get back to my crazies, so.… See you on Monday."

"Sure. Have a nice Sunday, Peter."

Peter smiled. "You know, now I think that maybe I actually will."

o – o – o

When El leaves to take Satch for his evening walk, Peter is left alone with the Mitchells and the mood in the room becomes tense. Finally, Peter collects his courage and approaches the less dangerous target.

"Amanda? Can I talk to you for a moment?"

Elizabeth's mother turns to him. "Yes, Peter?"

Peter takes a deep breath. "I was thinking that, since Elizabeth always plans these events, maybe we could make her a dinner. You know, a bit like a party or something."

Amanda gives him a long look before she suddenly smiles. "That's a great idea. I love it! Allan, will you help us?"

The full power of Allan Mitchell's stare bores into him, until at last he nods. "All right, why not?"

"Good!" exclaims Peter. Maybe this can work out after all.

When Elizabeth returns an hour later, the dinner's ready and Allan and Peter have hung up a "Happy Birthday" sign. After El squeals in delight and hugs both Peter and her parents, Peter finally gets to give her his gift.

"These are beautiful, Peter," says El as she opens the jewelry box. Then she notices the note attached to the top cover. "Hey. What's this?"

"It's a.…" Peter clears his throat. "It's a letter. For you."

The Mitchells stare at them while El gives him a questioning look.

Peter blushes. "I think you should just read it."

With one more glance at him, Elizabeth unfolds the note and begins to read aloud. "'To Elizabeth. El, I tried to begin this letter maybe ten different ways, but none of them seemed to do you justice, so … I love you, hon.'"

Peter feels his ears burning when Elizabeth pauses and stares into his eyes. "Peter.…"

He swallows. "Just read it."

She does, but this time, she does it quietly.

As the silence gets longer and longer, Peter wishes that the ground would swallow him. God, what did he put into that letter?

'You're smart, funny, beautiful and sexy. Each day, I find new things to love about you.… I love coming home to you. When you're gone, a part of me is missing. I love hearing your voice.…

'Do you remember our first holiday, when our car broke down and we were stuck in the woods in the middle of nowhere? You were so amazing, so practical and vibrant and ready to get us going, and you could still throw in a joke and a kiss.… When we finally got to the hotel, we were both dirty and tired, and we weren't up to anything more than just a cuddle, but you still smiled at me... Right then I knew that I'd always be able to count on you.

'It's hard sometimes to say this all aloud.'

There was more along those lines, realizes Peter. He had written the letter yesterday in an almost feverish haze, after he picked the jewelry from the Internet website that Neal had recommended. Belatedly, he realizes that perhaps he should have waited to give El the letter after her parents had left.…

Then El pulls him into a powerful hug, the letter clutched in her fingers.

"Thank you," she says hoarsely, and when they pull apart, Peter thinks he sees a glint of tears in her eyes.

The Mitchells then try to question them about the letter, but Peter and El keep their moment just to themselves.

"Happy birthday, hon."

o – o – o

The Sunday is almost over when El and Peter accompany El's parents to their car and exchange their goodbyes. After the car disappears into distance, the Burkes return to their house. The door barely closes when Elizabeth asks Peter her question.

"All right, spill. How much of it was last-minute?"

"I don't know what you mean," replies Peter innocently.

"Of course you know! My gift."

Ah.

Peter tries to come up with something witty, but in the end just sighs. "I'm sorry, hon. I swear, I had the whole thing planned out, but the company screwed it up and–"

Elizabeth locks his lips in a kiss.

"Thank you," she says when they pull apart.

Peter smiles. "So you like it?"

"Hon, I love it. It was very sweet." Then she smirks. "Besides, both you and Satchmo got huge brownie points for getting rid of that creepy doll for me."

"Yeah, I thought that might cheer you up."

They laugh together, and then they go to the living room where there are still plates on the table and empty coffee cups.

"What a mess," sighs El.

Peter hesitates. "You know, we could just put it in the kitchen sink and I could bring us some wine.…"

"Honey, we said we'd call Neal. You know what'll happen if you bring us wine now."

Peter sighs. "Yeah, you're probably right.…"

"You know I am."

For a moment, they stare at each other. Slowly, the silence becomes filled with anticipation.

Then Elizabeth casts a glance at the clock. Slowly, her smile becomes thoughtful and then almost predatory. "You know, we said we'd call him in the evening."

"Yeah, we did."

"So if we're quick.…"

The implication alone begins to turn Peter on.

"You're thinking dirty thoughts, Mrs. Burke," he murmurs.

"Which you wholeheartedly support."

A pause.

"We've been basically celibate this weekend, haven't we?"

"That's right."

"Okay, I need you. Now."

With a surprised chuckle, Peter stumbles and loses his balance as they end up on the couch. He and El exchange a grin. Then Elizabeth begins to unbutton Peter's shirt.

o – o – o

"I love you."

"Mmmm."

For a moment, they just continue leaning against each other on the couch, with Peter's hand gently stroking El's arm while she has her head on his shoulder. Finally, Elizabeth stirs and then uncurls from Peter's embrace. She reaches down to the mess on the floor and picks up Peter's shirt.

"I'll take a quick shower," she says, putting on the shirt before she disappears upstairs. With a bemused shake of his head, Peter puts on his pants and then follows her upstairs to get a clean shirt.

When they meet in the kitchen fifteen minutes later, Elizabeth is wearing a bathrobe, her hair still slightly wet. Meanwhile, Peter has already turned on the laptop and has Skype ready. When El takes the chair next to him, Peter reaches to press Neal's name – but suddenly his fingers hesitate over the keyboard.

It hurts.

Peter swallows. He's tried to not to think about it, but it finally kicks in that this, plus phone calls and the even-more -impersonal emails are now his only form of contact with Neal. He hates it, but at least he has Elizabeth here – El and his home, his team. Suddenly he wishes he had found the time earlier that week to call Neal – to talk to him, not just ask him for advice about El's gift when he needed help.

"Honey?"

Well, at least he could do that now. Taking a deep breath, Peter's fingers return to the laptop and he clicks 'Call'.

El gently squeezes his hand as they wait for Neal to pick up.


A/N: All feedback is treasured and appreciated.