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[personal profile] pooh_collector
Title: Complications
Author: pooh_collector
Fandom: White Collar
Rating: Explicit, NC-17
Characters: Neal, Peter, El
Pairings: P/E/N
Spoilers: None
Warnings: None
Word Count: ~19,200
Summary: A disaster on a case leads Peter and Neal to a quarantine tent with only one way out. Then of course, miscommunications abound and lives are changed forever. Yeah, this is a sex pollen story, sorta. This one is for[personal profile] kanarek13who inspired it with the original art that became this beautiful cover. Thank you K!




Neal had finally fallen asleep. He had been crying silently until just a few minutes ago, so silently in fact that Peter would never have known except for the small warm drops of salted water that had landed on his chest beneath where Neal’s head was laying.

Peter had wanted nothing more than to reassure him, to promise him that everything would be all right, but he couldn’t make that promise now, not after the events of the last five hours.

The plastic sheeting on their quarantine tent rustled and Peter looked over to see Dr. Okoye standing before the entrance. He waved his thumb up and down a couple of times clearly asking Peter how he and Neal were doing. Not good was the correct answer but the doctor wasn’t really concerned with their emotional states, just the physical. Peter raised his hand trying not to disturb Neal and gave the thumbs up sign.

They had been promised they would only be quarantined for a few hours after, that the organic agent they had been exposed to would die in their bodies as a result of the flood of prolactin, oxytocin and phenylethylamine released into their bloodstreams by the "act of copulation" as Dr. Okoye had so blithely called it.

If only it had been that simple, an emotionless act between two men. In truth, nothing had ever been simple between him and Neal and now well, everything would be even more complicated. He sighed and closed his eyes blinding himself to the white and yellow plastic tenting and the reality that it imposed. Neal was hurting and he was the cause.

Five hours earlier

Neal loved the chase, from uncovering the crime and how it was committed, to confronting the criminal, to the occasional actual chase, when said criminal decided to make a run for it. It was a rush, just like the con. And working this side of the law had the added benefit of keeping him out of prison.

So when Emmett Grey, the suspect in their drug counterfeiting case tore off into the depths of the warehouse he was leasing, Neal didn’t hesitate – he ran after him, with Peter hot on his heels. They wound their way around towers of crates and shelving units stacked high with what would likely prove to be the evidence necessary to convict until they came to a smaller room built into the space. It reminded Neal of Hagan’s office in the warehouse he had been using to counterfeit the Spanish victory bond, but this room was larger and when he ran in after Grey he found it to be filled with counters and shelves of chemistry equipment and supplies.

Grey had run straight to the back of the space where he opened what looked like a refrigerator. Neal couldn’t tell for certain what Grey was doing but he didn’t hesitate, charging down an aisle between some tables after him. Before Neal could reach him, Grey spun and pulled down a set of shelves that stood next to the refrigerator. Neal dodged and evaded the falling metal and its various contents as they bounced and flew around the space but by then Grey had circled back and was heading for the room’s entrance again.

"Peter!" Neal called out, hoping his partner was still close enough to the door to head their suspect off.

"I see him. Grey, stop right there." Peter spun on his heels and removed his weapon from his holster. He had a clear shot but he hesitated, hoping the other man would follow his command.

Grey seemed to waver for just a moment then he pulled the door open and started through.

Peter took the shot.

As the bullet entered his shoulder, Grey stumbled and dropped a vial that he had been carrying unnoticed by Peter. It landed within the confines of the room and shattered just as Grey stumbled out.

Immediately, yellow lights began to spin on the ceiling and the wail of a warning siren began to blare. The door when it closed a moment later audibly locked.

An ochre-colored mist began to rise from where the vial had hit the floor.

"Shit," Peter exclaimed as he began walking backward away from the door.

"What is that?" Neal asked.

"I don’t know, but let’s get as far from it as possible. Maybe we can limit our exposure."

Neal followed Peter’s lead as they both moved to the furthest corner of the room.

When they were as far as they were going to get from the doorway, Peter took out his cell phone and called Diana. "Di, I need you to bring a team down to Grey’s warehouse and you should probably contact the CDC. Neal and I may need their help," he stated as casually as he could manage over the continual blare of the siren.

It took a while for the FBI team and the CDC to arrive, set up a quarantine tent and then transfer Neal and Peter to it. Dr. Okoye and his team managed to obtain a small sample of the substance that had been in the vial and once Neal and Peter had been stripped, showered and transferred to their temporary plastic prison Dr. Okoye joined them dressed in the prototypical clean suit that Peter had only seen before in the movies.

He took blood samples from both of them and asked them to alert the nurse who would be standing by of any symptoms they might experience immediately.

"What kind of symptoms?" Peter asked.

Dr. Okoye’s voice sounded strangely distant from inside the suit’s helmet. "Anything that feels unusual at all. We are still working to determine what we are dealing with. We should know more within an hour or so. In the meantime, try not to worry, the fact that you both appear to be symptom free this long after exposure is a good sign."

Peter nodded and held his tongue. He had no desire to tell the doctor that he didn’t exactly feel normal. His skin had been warm and prickling for the last half hour or so and he felt mildly aroused which under the circumstances was absurd and completely inappropriate.

It wasn’t that he didn’t often feel mildly, or even more, aroused when he was in Neal’s presence, but usually the feeling was associated with Neal in one of his ridiculous suits, the pants of which framed his ass perfectly, or when his partner came up with one his brilliant ideas or when he smiled at Peter, his sky-blue eyes glowing in mirth or happiness or impishness. Now, dressed in a flimsy hospital gown, his skin glowing red from the scrubbing they were forced to do in the shower, his hair still dripping, looking pale and uncertain, this was not the time to be thinking of Neal in a sexual way regardless of the fact that his real feelings for his partner went much deeper than the physical.

Dr. Okoye gave them a final confident nod and a smile and then he exited the quarantine tent.

The space had been outfitted with two gurneys, that seemed to be just slightly wider than the standard hospital version, but no more comfortable. Peter headed over to one and sat, pulling the blanket that had been left on the end over his lap and legs to hide the physical evidence of his arousal.

"Cold?" Neal asked as he mimicked Peter by sitting on the other gurney.

Peter shrugged. "A little, still kinda damp."

Neal nodded, but said nothing else.

"Are you feeling okay?" Peter asked, concerned by Neal’s quiet demeanor.

No, Neal thought to himself, but he simply nodded again anyway. There was no way he going to admit to Peter that he couldn’t look away from his partner’s body while they had been showering and how the only thing that had prevented him from getting an erection was how damn hard he was washing himself with the bristled scrub brush the nurse had given him. This was not the time or the place, and because Peter had El, there never would be a time or a place to tell Peter how he had been attracted to him since their first encounter at the bank and how that attraction had grown into something so much deeper since Peter had gotten him out of prison. He loved El almost as much as he loved Peter and he would never do anything consciously to hurt either of them.

"It’s going to be okay, you know. Whatever this stuff was, these CDC guys will come up with some anti-something and tonight we’ll be sitting on my couch laughing it off over a beer."

Peter’s eyes had the pleading look that they often took on when he was trying to explain to El why he was going to miss dinner again or when he was afraid the conman he was responsible for was planning to go off the reservation again.

Neal wanted so badly to reach out and touch Peter, just a reassuring hand on his arm, but he couldn’t bring himself to cross that line, not when he had been fantasizing about Peter’s hands on him, about Peter’s body covering his, just fifteen minutes ago. Instead he nodded for a third time and folded his hands in his lap. "I know."

Peter had tried to sound light-hearted and reassuring, but it was obvious his attempt had fallen flat, unlike his erection. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up as well and he was feeling more and more antsy. Maybe if he moved over to sit next to Neal on his gurney he would be able to still himself. If he could just be close enough to touch Neal, they would both feel better. It was a calming thought and Peter almost acted on it, but then his body decided that being that close to Neal was a really fine idea and Peter needed to readjust the blanket as surreptitiously as possible.

Though he had just settled himself on the gurney, Neal couldn’t sit still, being close to Peter was too hard and his skin was tingling in a way that made him feel far too anxious to remain sitting. So he hopped down and began pacing the small confines of the tent.

Neal paced and Peter sat, each of them trying to ignore their growing discomfort. Neal couldn’t help looking at Peter whenever his pacing allowed. Peter looked increasingly uncomfortable, his face reddening, his hair sticking to the sweat that was dotting his hairline. Neal was concerned about how unwell Peter looked, he was, but there was something about how his skin was glowing that Neal couldn’t help feeling drawn to. It was sexy as hell. He wanted to touch him, kiss him, feel the heat that was emanating from him. It was beyond wrong for him to be feeling that right now. He moved closer to the edge of their small space, trying to put some more distance between himself and Peter.

Every time Neal turned away from him in his pacing, Peter could see just the edge of Neal’s ass where the hospital gown separated. He couldn’t help waiting in anticipation for that moment and the thrill it brought him. What the hell was wrong with him? They were in trouble. Neal needed him to be strong and present, not fantasizing about rimming him and then fucking his gorgeous ass. He turned his head away from Neal bringing the doorway to their tent into his view.

Someone was there getting ready to enter. "Neal."

Neal turned when Peter beckoned and saw him looking toward the doorway. Dr. Okoye, again dressed in a clean suit was just entering the tent. Neal’s heart sank a little at the sight. They were either still contagious or the CDC still had no idea what they had been exposed to.

As the doctor made his way to where Peter sat, Neal joined them and stood next to the gurney.

Earlier Dr. Okoye had looked cool and confident, even within the confines of the suit, but now he looked oddly uncomfortable.

"Doctor?" Peter began. "What’s going on?"

"We’ve isolated the organic compound that you were exposed to. It’s a form of designer drug. It seems your chemist was trying to create a particular effect that would be desirable in certain markets."

"What certain markets?" Neal asked.

Dr. Okoye cleared his throat. "The compound is a sexual enhancer."

"A what?"

"It is designed to heighten sexual arousal and enjoyment, Agent Burke. But there are a few twists. This particular combination is more like Viagra on steroids. The longer the arousal is ignored or gratification is delayed the more intense the arousal will become. There is no way to wait it out or ignore it. The compound is reproducing in the blood steam, making itself more and more vital. Eventually if it is not flushed from the system through the act of copulation it will make you both very ill."

"So, Neal and I need to spend a few minutes of alone time with our hands and an issue of Hustler and we’ll be fine."

"I wish it were that simple. There is an added component."

"What else?" Peter didn’t think this could get more obnoxious.

"I was being specific when I stated that the act of copulation was required. Exposure creates a particular attraction between those who are exposed together. In order to destroy the compound and flush it from your systems you will need to copulate."

"Excuse me?" Peter retorted.

"Peter, I think Dr. Okoye was pretty clear." Neal could see how uncomfortable the doctor was and there was no need to rehash anything they had been told, despite how insane it seemed.

Dr. Okoye nodded and then reached out and placed something neither Neal or Peter had noticed in his gloved hand on the end of the gurney – a strip of condoms and a small tube of lube.

He was gone a minute later leaving Peter and Neal alone to come to grips with the cure for what ailed them.

"At least he remembered the lube," Neal said dryly.

Peter couldn’t respond. In all the times he had imagined making love to Neal, and making love to Neal and El together, he had never imagined a scenario like this. And, it wasn’t like Neal was gay or bi – how were they going to get through this? Peter had no idea. Having an explanation for the inappropriate feelings he had been experiencing for the last couple of hours was small consolation.

"Neal, I don’t even know where to start."

Neal shrugged. "I don’t really think there’s anything to talk about, Peter. We know what we have to do. It’s not like we have any other option."

Of all the times for Neal to choose to be pragmatic. "It’s not the simple."

"Actually Peter, it is. We need to have sex. We need to do it here and we need to do it now." Neal’s eyes were a gleaming sea blue in the odd light in their tent. "I know this isn’t your thing, so I’ll make it as easy as possible for you." Neal picked up the condoms and held them out to Peter.

Peter looked at Neal’s offering and then back up at his partner’s eyes. "Not my thing?"

Neal’s eyebrows arched. "Gay sex."

Neal was right about one thing, now wasn’t the time for a long discussion about Peter’s sexual history and his belief in the fluidity of attraction. "I may not be as straight as you think," Peter replied hoping to leave it at that, for the moment.

Neal didn’t even blink. "Good, then you’ll know how to prep me."

Neal hated how he sounded, cold and matter-of-fact, but he had no choice. If he let his emotions go, even a little bit, he wouldn’t be able to pull them back. Peter didn’t need to know how much he loved him, how much he yearned for Peter to hold him, to make love to him, to love him back, just a little.

He put the condoms down on the gurney next to Peter’s thigh and then climbed up onto the other gurney. He pulled the blanket up over himself and then pulled off his gown and dumped it on the floor between his gurney and Peter’s. "Whenever you’re ready."

Peter looked down at Neal’s discarded gown. This was so wrong on so many levels. When he and El had talked about inviting Neal to share their lives and their bed, they had agreed that nothing could happen while he was Neal’s handler. The balance of power was far too lopsided in Peter’s favor. It wouldn’t be fair to Neal and it wouldn’t be the right way to start what they hoped would be a for rest of their lives scenario.

How the hell was he going to just fuck Neal now, like it meant nothing? Peter’s impossibly hard cock jumped at the thought. It wasn’t going to be difficult to fuck Neal at all. What would be hard would be walking away, as if it was nothing more than a solution to a medical problem. Neal couldn’t think that Peter would hold this over him.

Peter took a deep breath and resolved to do whatever he could to make sure that whatever happened next, he wouldn’t hurt his partner.

He threw his blanket aside and slid of his gurney. He brought the lube and the condoms with him as he stepped over to Neal and pulled off his own gown tossing it down to where Neal’s lay before he climbed under the blanket next to his partner.

Where their skin touched Peter felt the tingling he had been experiencing ignite to sparks, as if he was being exposed to mild electrical charges. He couldn’t stop the low moan that rose up through his throat from escaping. "Neal…" he began.

"Shut up, Peter." Neal didn’t want explanations, recriminations or exhortations. He just wanted Peter and if this was his one chance, he was going to make the most of it. He reached over and pulled Peter to him bringing their mouths together. Peter’s lips were dry and slightly chapped but they tasted perfect, like the fulfillment of a longing Neal never expected to know.

Neal pushed his tongue into Peter’s mouth, reaching, exploring, seeking. Later he would blame his actions on the compound coursing through his veins, but he knew it was really the desire he had kept locked in his head and his heart that was making him so needy and eager.

He wrapped his arms around his partner and pulled so that Peter was lying partially over him. Peter’s hand errantly brushed against his nipple as he settled and Neal’s arousal surged at the contact. He whimpered into Peter’s mouth as his skin burned and his muscles tensed. Peter must have sensed what he had inadvertently caused because his hand returned to Neal’s nipple and nimble fingers began playing with the nub, pinching and pulling. Neal’s body responded immediately, his skin tightening and growing unbearably hot. He shivered, wanting more, wanting everything.

Neal sucked Peter’s bottom lip into this mouth and pulled Peter even closer with the hands that were still wrapped around Peter’s shoulders. Then he spread his thighs wide letting Peter sink between them deeper against his body; Peter’s weight holding him down, intensifying the desire that was burning through his every nerve.

He could feel Peter’s erection, hot and heavy, pressing against his belly. Neal had to remind himself that it was just the drug; Peter didn’t want this, didn’t want him. It was almost an insurmountable task while Peter’s tongue was in his mouth and Peter’s right hand was tweaking his nipple and his left had found its way around to squeeze one of Neal’s ass cheeks.

Enfolded in Neal’s arms and thighs, this forbidden place, Peter couldn’t imagine anywhere he would rather be. His partner was pliant and perfect and everything that Peter had ever dreamed he would be. He moved his hand from Neal’s nipple, reaching around to grasp his other cheek, Neal’s flawlessly sculpted ass a perfect fit in his hands. Then he pulled his mouth away from Neal’s and bent to suck on the not-forgotten nipple. Neal sighed, his warm breath fluttering Peter’s hair. Peter suckled and licked, teasing Neal for as long as he could take it and then he gave the nub a finally nip before beginning his journey further south.

Peter scooted down as best he could in the confined space on the gurney until he came to Neal’s cock. It was dark purple and straining up tight against Neal’s torso. Peter licked a lascivious stripe from the base to the tip and then wrapped his mouth around the head. Neal cried out when Peter hollowed his cheeks and sucked and when Neal’s hips came up Peter went with his partner’s motion sliding Neal’s cock deeper into his mouth. Neal’s hands found Peter’s head, his fingers tangling into his already sweat-soaked hair. Neal’s passionate response to his efforts somehow managed to enhance Peter’s already overwhelming arousal.

Somehow, he managed to fumble around until he found the lube without breaking his stride in sucking Neal’s cock. His partner was leaking pre-come and Peter could taste the salty bitterness as it filled his mouth. He didn’t want Neal to come without him, so he swirled his tongue one final time around Neal’s cock and slid his mouth slowly away. Neal’s whole body stuttered when the cool air replaced Peter’s warmth.

Peter soothed him by running his hand along Neal’s thigh. Then he popped the lube open and generously coated a finger before finding the rim of Neal’s hole. He circled his finger around, once, twice and dipped in, pressing against Neal’s tightness.

Neal shivered. "Please, Peter."

Peter didn’t know if Neal was granting him permission or begging him to get on with it, but the softly-breathed plea made his cock jump and his finger slid easily past the ring of muscle at Neal’s entrance. Neal’s body seemed to relax then as Peter moved his finger in and out, gently exploring. He added a second finger quickly, scissoring and stretching. As intense as his desire was, as much as he needed to be inside of Neal, he had no intention of breaking the promise he had made just minutes ago. He wouldn’t hurt Neal. He kept at it adding more lube and finally a third finger. Neal had gone silent, his body open and willing until Peter’s searching fingers found Neal’s prostate and his whole body shook as if electrified.

"Now," Neal somehow managed to blurt out as Peter’s clever fingers found his prostate a second time. He could feel Peter hesitate for a moment and then his fingers slid out of Neal’s ass. Neal heard the condom wrapper tearing and the sound of latex stretching and snapping into place. He could feel Peter’s heat as his partner leaned over him and Neal unconsciously pulled his knees up giving Peter better access. He could feel Peter’s cock sitting against his entrance, a knight astride his horse waiting for permission to storm the castle gates. Neal granted it by wrapping his legs around Peter’s lower back bringing their bodies closer and pushing just the tip of Peter’s cock inside of himself. He pulled himself up, forcing Peter further into his hole and brought his lips back to Peter’s. "Do it, fuck me," he whispered against Peter’s mouth before sealing his lips against his partner’s in a nearly brutal kiss.

Peter wrapped his arms around Neal’s back and pushed in, sinking into Neal until he could feel Peter’s balls against the edge of his ass. The feeling of Peter filling him, taking him, was everything Neal wanted it to be, hoped it would be in the dark of night from his lonely bed. Peter stayed there for a long moment before pulling back and pushing in again. The slide of Peter’s cock against his prostate was so perfectly pleasurable, Neal’s toes curled and his back arched, pulling his mouth away from Peter’s.

Peter began pumping into Neal, slowly at first, and Neal rose on the crest of his arousal. He was safe in Peter’s arms, grounded, but still flying, freer than he had ever been before. Eventually, Peter picked up the pace pumping faster and faster and Neal felt himself burst as he reached the edge and flew right past it.

His partner’s hot come splattered across Peter’s belly and he could feel the muscles inside Neal’s ass spasm and tighten against this rock-hard cock. It was hard to believe how perfectly he fit inside of Neal. How fluidly his cock slid in and out of Neal’s body. Like the first time he made love to El, he felt at home, at peace, even while his body, tense and overheated raced for completion, for release. He pumped into Neal again and again until he came so hard that bright white stars danced in his vision.

When he could breathe again, he pulled himself gently out of Neal who was resting limp against him. He pulled the condom off and tossed it on the floor and then carefully rearranged them so that he was lying flat on the gurney with Neal draped against his side.

With his eyes closed, Neal lifted his head and settled it down on Peter’s chest. He wasn’t ready to lose this new connection he felt to Peter just yet. He knew it had to end, that they had to go back to the way things were, partners, cop and con, but while they were still here in this tent in quarantine, he wanted to feel Peter’s warmth for just a little while longer. He wanted to believe for just another moment that there was more to what they had just experienced together than the basest answer to a problem.

The sex had been better than he had ever imagined, but the truth was, it was just fucking, nothing more. The only solution. The only cure. He felt a tear pool in the corner of his eye and fall over the curve of his cheek to land on Peter’s chest. It was soon followed by more. He didn’t try to stop them or brush them away; he couldn’t deny the pain a moment’s pleasure had caused him. He merely hoped that Peter had fallen into a post-orgasm sleep so they would go unnoticed.

***

Peter was still awake when Dr. Okoye returned to take a final blood sample from both of them a couple of hours later. He gently shook Neal and they sat up on opposite sides of the gurney.

“Assuming your blood is clear, we’ll have you out of here within an hour,” the doctor said as he drew the sample from Peter’s arm.

“Are you both feeling alright?” Peter watched Neal nod before he spoke. “Sticky.”

Dr. Okoye arched an eyebrow from within the confines of his clean suit. “We’ll make the shower available to you again, and find you something to wear.”

“Thanks.”

They sat in silence while they waited for the test results, Neal on his side of the gurney, Peter on his. He desperately wanted to know what Neal was thinking, if he really was okay, but he was afraid to ask, afraid to say anything. The sex had been phenomenal. The connection he had felt to Neal had been unlike anything he had ever known, even with El. Of course, some of that could be chalked up to the designer drug, but the rest, that was him and that was Neal. It was hard to believe that Neal didn’t feel the same way about him, didn’t love him, but there it was.

Anything he could say now, would seem self-serving. Hell, it would be self-serving. So he held his tongue and let the admonitions of love that he wanted to utter die in the silence that lay between them.

Their blood work came back negative for any trace of the compound. Dr. Okoye came to tell them sans the suit. He brought with him two pairs of gray sweats bearing the CDC’s logo and two pairs of white socks. “Sorry, I wasn’t able to scare up any shoes.”

Peter shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m sure my team is outside waiting. We won’t have far to go in stocking feet.”

Dr. Okoye nodded and handed Peter a business card. “I’m sorry for all of this. There’s no reason to believe that you’ll suffer any further complications or difficulties, but if anything comes up, anything at all, contact us immediately.”

“Will do,” Peter assured him.

They showered, this time without the need to nearly scrub their skin off, dressed in their CDC gear and then headed out of their quarantine tent as quickly as possible.

Diana and Jones were waiting for them outside. “Boss are you okay? Diana asked immediately upon seeing them.

“Yeah, we’re okay, Di,” Peter replied plastering on what he hoped was reassuring smile.

“What happened? All the CDC guys would tell us was that you and Neal were exposed to a biological agent, some sort of designer drug?”

Peter looked over at Neal. His partner’s expression was neutral, for lack of a better word. What could they say about what happened over the last seven hours. Peter would have to come up with something for his official report. He was going to have to have a conversation with Hughes about finding a way to keep parts of it at least classified. Damn, he could not let this become part of Neal’s permanent record. Tomorrow was going to require a lot tap dancing. Today, deflection would do.

“Yeah, but we’re fine now, completely out of our systems. They just needed to keep us until our blood work was clear.”

Both Diana and Jones looked skeptical, but they didn’t say another word about it, which Peter was thankful for.

“Thanks for staying, making sure we were okay, but it’s getting late. You should both get home. I’ll drive Neal and we’ll regroup on the case in the morning.”

“Are you sure boss?” Jones asked. “I can take Neal.”

Peter started to shake his head, but Neal responded first. “Actually Clinton, that would be great. Peter should get home to El.”

Peter looked at Neal, not sure he heard his partner right. Neal nodded at him minutely; this was what he wanted.

“Okay, I’ll pick you up from June’s in the morning?”

“Sure, thanks.”

Peter watched as Jones and Neal turned toward Jones’ car and climbed in.

“Boss, you sure you’re okay?”

Peter had forgotten that Diana was still there. “Yeah, just a long day.”

“See you in the morning, boss.”

“Night, Diana.”

He watched as Jones and Neal drove off, then got in his car and drove home. He needed to talk to El.

***

As Jones pulled the car back toward the street, Neal watched Peter watch them drive off. He looked disappointed, kind of like he did when Neal pulled some stupid stunt. Neal hadn’t wanted Peter to believe that anything was wrong, but he needed some time to wrap his head around this day, to let the intensity of the love and passion he had felt while wrapped in Peter’s arms fade. He needed perspective; something he wasn’t going to be able to achieve sitting in the passenger seat next to his partner as they drove to June’s. He had barely said a word to Peter, after, and he didn’t think he could get through a 45-minute drive, the two of them alone and unobserved without saying anything, or something he would later regret.

He was running and he knew it, but at the moment it seemed his only recourse. Tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep, he would find a way to put the love, and the lust he felt for Peter back in the dusty box they had lived in until today.

“Hey, you sure you’re okay?” Jones asked somewhere into the trip.

Neal hadn’t been paying any attention to the drive or Jones. He pulled a smile up from somewhere. “I’m fine. Just eager to get home and out of these clothes.” He plucked at the gray sweatshirt.

Jones chuckled. “That is definitely not your usual style.”

“My now disintegrated pocket square was worth more than this whole outfit.”

That made Jones laugh, drawing his attention away from Neal himself. Objective achieved.

Twenty minutes later, Neal was back in his apartment. For the sake of convention he looked in the refrigerator; he hadn’t eaten anything but some fruit and a roll with his coffee that morning but nothing appealed, so instead he poured himself a glass of wine and then took it into the bathroom while he ran hot water to fill the tub.

His ass burned when he settled down against the porcelain. Nothing serious, but it had been a long time since his last male partner. He took a sip of his wine, placed the glass back on top of the side of the tub and slid down, closing his eyes. Unbidden the sense of Peter touching him, holding him, covering him, blew into his brain like a whirling dervish. He shivered as goose pimples emerged on his shoulders and upper chest. He slid deeper into the water and opened his eyes hoping the familiar view of his white-tiled bathroom would bring him back to the present and calm his mind and body.

It was going to be hard to keep the memories at bay. The sex had been so visceral, so intense from the moment Neal pulled Peter to him and kissed him. It had been everything. And now he had to forget it, somehow. They had been forced to cross a line, but Neal needed to step back over it, to protect Peter and El and what they had. He loved them too much to hurt them. His own pain didn’t matter. It would fade, eventually.

When the bathwater cooled, Neal got up, wrapped himself in a towel and headed back out to his bed with his wine glass. He finished the final swallow and climbed under the covers. Another night in his lonely bed, the first of many to come.

***

El was in the living room, curled up on the couch with a book when Peter finally arrived home. As soon as she saw her husband in the foyer she put it down and rose to greet him.

“Hi hon, sorry I didn’t return your calls. I didn’t have access to my phone for a while.” While the CDC guys hadn’t been able to salvage their clothes, they were able to do something to decontaminate their phones and the contents of their wallets.

Her eyes swept over him, taking in his attire. “What happened?”

Instead of responding, Peter sighed and pulled her into a hug.

“Peter?”

“Our drug counterfeiting case went off the rails today.”

“What happened? Are you alright? Is Neal alright?”

“More or less.”

El pulled away so she could appraise him again. “Just what does that mean?”

Peter took her hand and led her back over to the couch. They sat beside each other and then Peter spoke again. “I screwed up and Neal and I got exposed to some sort of designer drug.”

El’s eyes widened.

Peter squeezed her hand. “We’re okay. It’s out of our systems. Clean bill of health. The CDC doesn’t expect us to have any other symptoms or problems.”

“Any other symptoms?”

Damn, he had forgotten how sharp his wife was. “I don’t know how to explain this, I’m sorry. It still seems so surreal.”

“Peter, you’re starting to scare me. Just tell me.”

Peter took a deep breath. He knew his wife wouldn’t be upset that he had slept with Neal. She might be upset that she had missed it. But what had happened today wasn’t what either of them wanted. They wanted Neal to be their partner, their lover, freely and without reservation – not through any sort of coercion. That’s precisely why they were waiting to approach him until after the anklet was off and Neal was free to decide for himself what and who he wanted.

“It was some sort of sexual enhancement drug. It created an artificial arousal and attraction. Kind of like Viagra, but much more intense.”

“What else, Peter?”

“Because Neal and I were exposed together, our desires were focused on each other.”

“There’s nothing artificial about what you feel for Neal,” she countered.

Peter shook his head. “No. But my physical reaction was… for lack of better way of phrasing it, painfully intense. And the only way for us to get the drug out of our systems was though the release of certain chemicals in the body.”

El’s eyes widened. “Peter, are you telling me that you made love to Neal.”

He nodded. “Yeah, we had to, or the drug would have eventually made us sick.”

El looked away from him, out toward the dining room.

“Hon?”

Finally, she looked back at him again. “How was it?”

Peter felt his cheeks begin to redden and now he was the one to look away. “Incredible. Everything I had ever hoped it would be and more. But it wasn’t real, El.”

“You think what Neal was feeling was artificial?”

Peter shrugged. The memory of Neal’s mouth, hot and willing pressed to his own sprang into his head. His body so perfectly responsive to his touch. Peter wanted to believe that was Neal and not just the drug. “I don’t know. It certainly didn’t feel like it was, but that was the point of the drug.”

“What do we do now?” El asked.

“I wish I knew. We crossed a line, El. One we were forced to, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. And it was my fault. I shot the suspect and he dropped a vial with the drug. And he still managed to get away, leaving Neal and I…”

El pulled Peter into her arms. “Oh hon, I’m so sorry.”

He let himself be comforted by her understanding. Sometimes he was certain that he didn’t deserve her.

Eventually, she broke their embrace. “You’re going to have to talk to him.”

“I know. I’m just not sure about what. Whatever happens now has to be his choice. If he just wants to forget it ever happened. I, we, have to be okay with that.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

“He’s still my CI. I still have the power to send him back to prison. If he says he wants more, how can we be sure that he’s not just afraid I’ll send him back if he doesn’t or if he somehow screws up and hurts one of us?

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Talk to Neal. I have faith in you, both of you. You’ll work it out.”

***

When Peter arrived at Riverside Drive the next morning, Neal was waiting by the curb with two travel mugs in his hands.

“Morning, Peter,” he said with a smile as he climbed into the Taurus.

“Morning,” Peter replied as he pulled the car back out into the heavy rush hour traffic.

“Brought you a cup of June’s finest.” Neal said pointing to the travel mug he had placed in Peter’s cup holder so he could fasten his seatbelt.

“Thanks.”

Peter watched out of the corner of his eye as Neal took a sip from his own mug. He had spent the whole trip into Manhattan trying to figure out how to even begin to talk to his partner about what had happened yesterday, without much success. But, he knew it was important to get things out in the open. They had both had a night get their thoughts and emotions in order and the morning drive was the perfect opportunity to clear the air before they had to face any questions from anyone at the office.

“Neal,” he began.

Neal shook his head. “Whatever you were going to say, don’t. It’s not necessary. We did what we had to do. And that’s that. I just hope El’s okay, that she knows that I would never do anything to intentionally hurt her.”

“No Neal, she’s not upset or angry. It was hard to explain, but she understood.”

“Good, that’s good. Then there really is nothing else we need to talk about.”

Peter didn’t hear the certainty in Neal’s tone that his partner seemed to be trying to express. “Are you sure? Because if there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m right here.”

“I appreciate it, Peter, but no, there’s really nothing to say. Let’s just find Grey, put him behind bars where he belongs and move on to our next case, okay?”

“Okay.”

They spent the rest of the drive in silence. Peter wasn’t happy about it. Despite Neal’s words to the contrary, his manner and tone seemed to tell a different tale, and it left Peter certain that there was a lot more they needed to talk about.

***

Neal was relieved to hear that El wasn’t upset with him or more importantly with Peter. The only thing that could have been worse than being forced to share that level of intimacy with Peter without being able to express how much he truly yearned for it, and for Peter and El, would have been if it had had hurt them or their marriage in any way.

It would make things easier going forward. If El and Peter were okay, if they could all put this behind them, maybe he could forget, someday. Forget how it felt to be in Peter’s arms, to be touched, tasted, desired.

Though it was going to be ridiculously difficult if Peter continued to place his hand on his back every time they walked through a doorway, Neal realized when they arrived at the office and Peter guided him through the entrance. The feel of Peter’s hand, even through the layers of clothing he wore, still made his skin tingle, hours after they were supposedly free of the drug.

On the twenty-first floor the manhunt for Grey was already in full swing, thanks to Jones and Diana and he and Peter were caught up in the chase for rest of the day.

Work it seemed, was the best medicine for a wayward heart and libido. They were at the office until almost nine following up on a number of leads, including searching for reports from hospitals far and wide for gunshot victims.

By the time Neal got home, after Peter called a halt for the night, he was too tired to even go for the perfunctory look in the refrigerator. He went straight to the bathroom, took a hot shower and then dropped into bed.

But every time he closed his eyes, his mind took him back to the previous day, to the quarantine tent, to the narrow gurney and everything that happened there. Around one in the morning he gave up trying to sleep completely, got himself a glass of wine, found the book he was reading and curled up on the sofa.

The night still passed slowly, but at least he was able to keep his mind off of Peter until the sun rose and he could move on to a new day.

Day two of searching for Grey, turned to day three and then day four before a sharp-eyed border patrol agent nabbed him trying to drive into Canada.

Peter made the announcement from the balcony with a triumphant smile on his face. There was a bout of clapping and one of the geekier probies yelled out “Huzzah.”

Neal was sitting at his desk and before Peter headed back into his office, he gave his partner the double finger point. Neal rose with a sigh and made his way through the bullpen and up the stairs wondering what was on Peter’s mind. It was Saturday, and after five very long days of chasing Grey, it was no time to be proposing they start on a new case.

He reached the office and leaned against the open doorway. “What’s up, Peter?”

“Hey, El wants you to come over for dinner tonight. Celebrate our victory today.”

He should have known this was coming. The not sleeping was throwing him off his game. The celebratory dinner at the Burkes' had become a thing of late. And he couldn’t say yes. He wasn’t ready to spend an evening with Peter and El in their dining room with good food, good wine and even better conversation. Sharing dinner with them had always been the next best thing to sharing their bed. El would listen to him, really listen to him and smile like his words were important, like he was important. Peter would throw out the occasional indulgent smirk and drive him home at the end of the evening even though it wasn’t at all necessary. It was too intimate, too close to what he longed for. He needed more time before he could be that close to the two of them again without it hurting too damn much.

“I’m sorry, I can’t tonight. I promised Mozzie I would help him with a thing I probably shouldn’t talk about. Next time?”

Peter gave him an appraising look before replying. “Sure.”

“Great.” He started to turn, to make his retreat when Peter called his name.

“Yeah?”

“Are you okay?”

Neal smiled. “I’m fine. See you on Monday.” He spun on his heel and headed back down the stairs giving Peter no opportunity to question him further.

***

Over the three years that Neal had been working with Peter, he had come to learn more than a few of his partner’s tells, despite Neal’s conman’s skills. The times when his smile was a little too wide – not as happy as he was pretending to be; the times when he was trying too hard to look someone in the eye – definitely not telling the whole truth; the times when he would run his hand through his hair – a subtle deflection tactic; the times he would smooth down his tie – a less subtle deflection tactic. The most obvious of them all though were the words I’m fine.

In fact, whenever Neal uttered those two words, he was generally anything but.

There wasn’t much Peter could do about it at the moment, so he cleared off his desk and went home to his lovely wife. They ate the sumptuous dinner she had prepared, but it wasn’t the same without Neal. Victory dinners had become a tradition over the past six months or so, and one of the ways that Peter and El could enjoy some off the clock time with Neal, even if they couldn’t admit to him all of the reasons why they were eager for his company.

“I’m sorry he didn’t come tonight, honey.”

Peter nodded. “Me too. I just wish I really knew why.”

“You don’t think he had plans with Mozzie?”

“Maybe, but there was more to it than that. I don’t want to believe it, but it feels like he’s been avoiding me, pulling away.”

El reached across the table and took his hand. “You think you hurt him and you don’t know how to fix it.”

Peter gave her a wry smile. “He’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to talk about what happened. I don’t know how else to figure out how to fix this.”

“I can think of one way,” El replied.

Peter shook his head. “If he’s already hurting and upset, how much worse do you think he’ll feel if we admit to him we love him and he doesn’t feel the same?”

“I don’t know, Peter. But maybe if he knows that it wasn’t just sex, that you were really making love to him, drug or no drug he might feel better about what happened.”

“Maybe.”

Peter spent the rest of the evening randomly checking the anklet’s app on his phone. His partner was home until almost ten, when he left his apartment and walked three blocks to an upscale bar that Peter knew he frequented. He was there for only about forty-five minutes before he returned to June’s, where he still was when Peter finally closed his eyes for the night around one thirty.

***

Neal went home after work to his empty apartment. He wasn’t expecting Mozzie and had made no plans, nefarious or otherwise to spend the evening with him. It pained him to lie to Peter, but “Sorry, I would rather go home and drown my sorrows in a bottle of red, because I love you too much to be around you and El right now,” was not going to go over well with his partner.

He opened the wine as soon as he walked in the door. To make himself feel less guilty about it he actually cooked some pasta and pulled some red sauce he had made a while back from the freezer and reheated it. He took his plate and his second glass of wine out onto the balcony. The air was cool, but the wine and his dinner warmed him. The sun had set while he was fixing his dinner, but he loved his view after sunset when the lights of the city sparkled like a distant galaxy spread out before him.

He ate most of his food and then picked up his glass. A pang of loneliness made his chest ache. He
suddenly wished that he hadn’t turned Peter down. He could be with them now, sitting next to Peter and across from El, watching as they talked about their days or about how Satchmo needed to go to the vet or how Peter needed to fix the bathroom door, which had begun to squeak. All the mundane things that they took for granted and that Neal savored whenever he had the chance to be with them.

He downed the remainder of his wine, frustrated with himself for longing for something he couldn’t have. Making love to Peter, regardless of how incredible it had been was nothing but a torment to him now. It was time to forget, to move on.

He grabbed his plate and his glass and dumped them in the sink. Then he went to his closet and changed into a fresh white button down, a pair of dark jeans and a navy blue jacket. He brushed his teeth, combed his hair and then left his apartment. He walked the three blocks to a bar he liked. He took a moment before he entered to put on the dazzling Neal Caffrey, the one that had wooed countesses and had stolen diamonds right off the hands of his unsuspecting marks. When he was ready he walked in the door and straight to an empty spot at the bar. He ordered a Kettle One on the rocks and when his drink was in hand he surveyed the room.

The bar was busy. Neal saw several very beautiful women who on any other night he would have been more than happy to flirt with and take back home to his bed. But that wasn’t what he wanted tonight. He needed to try to erase the memories of Peter’s hands on him, of Peter’s taste, of Peter’s cock inside of him, filling him.

Eventually his eyes landed on a man who he had seen around the bar once or twice before. He was younger than Neal, well-built, with dark hair and eyes. Neal smiled at him and then returned to his drink. Moments later the man sidled up next to him.

“Hi.”

“Hi. Can I get you a drink?” Neal asked.

“Sure. Scotch, neat.”

Neal nodded and signaled the bartender. “A Laphroaig, neat, and another Kettle One on the rocks.”

The man smiled and held out his hand. “Eric.”

“Neal,” he replied as he shook Eric’s hand.

Thirty minutes later they were back at Neal’s apartment. The younger man was backed up against the dining table as Neal sucked on his nipple, one hand holding up his black tee shirt the other wrapped around his waist pulling their groins together. Neal could feel when Eric’s cock grew hard. He pulled away then, licked his lips and started toward his bed, stripping off his clothes as he went.

Eric followed, pulling off his own clothing eagerly.

Neal pulled the bedding back, and then grabbed a bottle of lube and a few condoms from his nightstand. Just like he had with Peter a week ago, he offered them to Eric. “Fuck me,” he said with certainty as Eric took the offered items from his hand.

Eric’s eyes widened. “You don’t want to do me?”

“No,” he replied before laying down in the center of the bed.

Eric was skilled and gentle and for that Neal was thankful. But unlike his perspective of his experience with Peter, this truly was nothing more than fucking, sweaty and messy and devoid of emotion.

When it was over, Eric kissed him and Neal tasted a hint of the Scotch he had paid for. It was nothing like kissing Peter, nothing like the feeling of safety and warmth that Neal had savored while he was in his partner’s arms and certainly nothing like the feeling of exquisite joy he had felt when he came with Peter’s cock deep inside him.

After Eric fell asleep, Neal got up, threw on his robe and walked out onto the balcony. Though much later, the city was still vibrant with sounds and lights and the magic that was New York. As he stood at the brick balcony wall the lights began to sparkle and blur and Neal felt tears begin to dampen his cheeks.

He had been foolish to think that the body of some random hookup could possibly erase the impression of Peter or the pure and innocent passion that he had felt when they had sex together.

Neal spent the remainder of the weekend feeling at turns disgusted and guilty, as if he had cheated on Peter and El. Intellectually he knew that wasn’t the case, they didn’t even know he loved them, they never would. But that didn’t stop his heart from hurting. It wasn’t as if he had fallen for someone else, someone who he could have a life with, someone Peter and El would be happy and maybe even proud to see him with. He had simply slept with someone else in a vain attempt to change what he felt for them. To Neal it was a betrayal, even if they would never know it.

On Monday morning, Neal rolled over five minutes before his alarm was set to go off and flipped the switch. He had been awake all night, again. He was exhausted and he didn’t think he had it in him to face Peter, to lie to his partner with every gesture and every word to convince him that he was okay. He would call out sick for one day and use it to get his head and his heart in gear. He was behaving like a lovesick teenager and he needed to get over it.

He picked up his cell and called Peter. One lie now would be better than a full day of them.

“Neal, what’s up?”

“I’m not feeling very well. I think I’m going to stay home today. I’m sorry.”

There was a long pause before Peter replied and Neal was afraid that Peter was going to call him out.

“Don’t apologize. It’s okay. Do you need anything? I could stop by at lunchtime or after work.”

“No, thank you. I’m just going to sleep it off. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Neal spent the rest of day doing what he promised Peter and himself. He drank a cup of chamomile tea and then went back to bed. He slept some, enough that by the mid-afternoon he felt better. So he got up, took a shower and then settled in on his couch with a book.

Around six there was a knock on his door. It wasn’t iambic pentameter so Neal knew it wasn’t Mozzie. He had hoped Peter would give him the day, so much for that. He put his book down and went to answer the door. But it wasn’t Peter who stood in the hallway, it was El.

“El?”

She smiled at him and then breezed past into his apartment. “Peter said you weren’t feeling well, so I thought I would bring you some comfort food.” She took the bag she had brought to the dining table and began unloading it. “Chicken barley soup and homemade chocolate chip cookies, with nuts.”

Neal closed his door and moved to the other side of the table. “Thank you, but you didn’t have to go to any trouble.”

She looked at him soberly for a long moment before replying. “You’re no trouble, sweetie.”

Her simple statement drove yet another pang of guilt through Neal’s chest. He had made so many mistakes and he needed to stop. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” The smile returned to her face as she moved to his kitchenette and found a bowl and a spoon. Returning to the table she poured some of the hot soup from a thermos into the bowl and placed it before the chair Neal was standing behind.

“Sit, eat.”

Neal sat and picked up the spoon. El went and got them both a glass of water and then returned to the table.

Neal took a slurp of the golden broth. “Mmmm. This is delicious.”

“Of course it is. It’s my grandmother’s recipe.”

They sat in silence for a while as Neal ate. It was the first time in more than a week that anything actually tasted good. When he finished he uttered a satisfied sigh as he pushed the bowl away.

“Feeling better?” El asked.

Neal nodded. “Much, thank you.”

It was El’s turn to nod. “Neal, you know that Peter cares about you?”

Neal looked down at the table. “I do. I’m an asset to the team.”

“That’s true, but it’s more than that. You’re his friend, not just his CI.”

“I know.”

“What happened last week, he didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Neal looked back up at El. “He didn’t hurt me, El. Please believe me. And neither of us meant to hurt you either. I would never intentionally hurt you or Peter. I hope you know that?”

El reached across the table and took Neal’s hand in hers. “Oh sweetie, of course I know that. Peter and I, we’re fine. We’re just worried about you.”

Gently Neal extricated his hand from Elizabeth’s. “There’s nothing to worry to about. I’m okay. I admit I needed some time to wrap my head around what happened, but I’m okay, really. I just don’t want this to hurt our friendship.”

El smiled. “It hasn’t and it won’t.”

“Good, that’s good.”

“Why don’t I make us some tea and then we can share these cookies and watch a movie.”

“I would like that.”

The evening with Elizabeth helped. It eased fears Neal didn’t even realize he was still harboring about the ramifications of the sex he and Peter had been forced to have to Peter and El’s relationship and his friendships with the both of them.

He slept much better that night and woke Tuesday morning feeling ready to move forward. He met Peter on the street with two travel mugs of Italian roast and a genuine smile.

***

Peter was happy to see the smile on his partner’s face when he picked him up on Tuesday. He had been worried about Neal from the moment he saw his i.d. come up on his phone early Monday morning. He didn’t want Neal to think he was checking up on him or didn’t believe him, so he knew he couldn’t go and look in on Neal himself. Of course, El had the perfect answer – her grandmother’s soup.

When she returned home around ten, with a report that she and Neal had spent a lovely, relaxed evening together and that he looked tired, but okay, Peter’s concern was eased, but not completely alleviated.

“Feeling better?” He asked after Neal had buckled his seatbelt.

“Much.”

“Good. We’ve got a new case.”

“We do?”

Peter nodded and looked over at Neal to judge his partner’s response to his words. “Someone stole a Magritte from a special exhibition at the Garland in the middle of the day.”

Neal’s eyebrows rose. “Bold.”

“Very. You sure you were home all day yesterday?” Peter asked, making sure to keep his tone light.

“You know I was,” Neal replied dryly.

Peter nodded again. “Indeed, I do. Let’s find out who wasn’t.”

They spent the day running leads, interviewing the Garland’s staff, checking the security tapes, looking for any physical evidence. It was late afternoon by the time they were both back at their desks reviewing separate leads. Peter looked up from his computer with an exasperated sigh. He had spent the last half hour staring at the same information on his screen. This case was going nowhere fast which was frustrating considering the circumstances.

He shifted his focus to the bullpen. Neal was sitting at his desk, his head bent over a file. He was idly tapping a pencil against his bottom lip. A small smile spread across Peter’s face as he imagined a few other uses for those lips.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and refocus his concentration on the work at hand. Someday, he would be able to confess how he felt to his partner. He would just have to satisfy himself with being able to enjoy Neal’s intellect, his wit and the incredible way his ass looked in a pair of suit pants until then.

At six, Peter admitted defeat, closed down his computer and made his way to Neal’s desk. “Time to call it a night. Want a ride home?”

Neal looked up at Peter briefly, before his eyes returned to the file he was reading. “I’m going to finish this up. But, thank you.”

“You sure? I don’t want you to overdo.”

Neal looked at Peter again. “I’m sure. I’m just going to finish this. I’ll be on my way out the door in half an hour, promise. I have an idea I want to finish processing.”

“Something we should look into tonight?”

Neal shook his head. “Probably not.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow.”

Neal nodded and returned his gaze to the file.

With one last glance at his partner as he pulled the office door open, Peter left for the day.

At home, he spent a quiet evening with El, enjoying dinner and then the Yankees winning 4-2 against the Red Sox. El went upstairs to bed in the middle of the eighth inning, but she was waiting up for him when he got to their bedroom. When he climbed into bed beside her she slipped off her nightgown and without preamble slid his sleep pants down.

One of the things that Peter marveled in was how after more than ten years together their lovemaking could still be exciting and fresh. That night, El was decisive and a bit demanding and Peter let her lead them both to the edge and over.

After, El lay against him and Peter let his hand drift over her hip. It was round and soft and familiar and Peter’s mind wandered to the narrower, more angular hip he had so recently felt under his hand.

A pang of longing speared his heart. He had everything he needed right here beside him, but he couldn’t help wanting more.

“You’re thinking about Neal.”

It was a statement, Peter knew, but he nodded anyway. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I know you don’t love me less for loving him. I love him too.”

“I just want to be able to share this, us, with him.”

El slid up against Peter, until her blue eyes were gazing directly down into his. “You have to tell him, Peter.”

Peter looked away from his wife’s gaze. “I can’t, El. Not until he’s free to decide for himself what he wants.”

“What if he already knows?”

Peter let his wife’s question hang in the air, unanswered. The possibility that he was handling this thing with Neal completely wrong was too hard to even contemplate.

***

With some legwork, ingenuity and a bit of luck they managed to catch their art thief, and then an embezzler and after that an insurance scammer. Outwardly, things seemed to be back to normal or at least getting there.

Neal’s smiles seemed to come more readily again. He bantered with the team and appeared more relaxed and open. He didn’t again decline to have celebratory dinners at the Burkes', but he didn’t linger after the meal was over and he only let Peter drive him home once when the weather was particularly wet and windy.

Peter took it all as a win and let himself be lulled by the calm. He convinced himself that he made the right decision not to push Neal to talk and not to tell Neal how he and El felt about him. There would be time for that when the anklet came off. He hoped with all his heart that his patience would be rewarded in the end and Neal would welcome the chance for a relationship with him and El.

Neal was still trying to find a new normal – it was difficult to balance his desire to be with the Burkes, with the point were being with them slipped from happiness to hurt. Dinners were wonderful. Sitting near, but not too close, talking and laughing in the brightly lit dining room. But sticking around after, all snuggled up together on the sofa watching a movie in the darkened living room was too intimate, too much of what he still hoped for every day. Being at work with Peter, solving the puzzles, catching the bad guys was as good as it had ever been, but the casual touches and the way Peter sometimes looked at him, like he was something worthy of love and respect, not so good.

He seemed to be on a tightrope. When his balance was perfect and he kept his mind focused on the day-to-day, on what he could have, he was fine – no danger of falling. But if he let himself remember, even for a moment how wonderful he had felt in Peter’s embrace, his precarious balance would falter and he would begin to fall. He did his best to keep his heart in check and keep his mind on what he could have. Some days were easier than others and as spring turned to summer he gradually found that more days were better than not.

***

The week after the July fourth holiday was sweltering, the air thick with humidity and the temperature dancing with one hundred degrees every day. A perfect time to clear up unfinished paperwork and shuffle though old cold cases tucked inside the air-conditioned, twenty-first floor offices of the division.

On this day Neal had taken up residence in the conference room beside Peter’s office, a stack of cold case files next to his elbow and another one under his nose. His hair was especially wavy from all the moisture in the air and Peter, watching his partner from behind his desk wanted nothing more than to run his fingers through it. It was still a daily struggle, wanting Neal in unexpected ways at unexpected times. It had been nearly three months since the day Grey had dropped that vial but Peter’s sense memories of his time with Neal were still as vivid as they had been just hours after.

With reluctance, he pulled his gaze back to the file he was examining. It was from the Magritte robbery. Their suspect in the case was due to begin trial next week. Peter was doing a final review of the paperwork for the DA’s office. Peter noted that Neal hadn’t been with them when the team went to examine the gallery just after the robbery. That had been the day Neal had called out sick. Peter glanced up at this partner again. The man he loved.

He sighed. Who was he really trying to protect by insisting that he and El wait to tell Neal how they felt about him? If he hadn’t taken the shot and Grey hadn’t dropped the vial who knows where the three of them might be by now.

Instead of opening a doorway to what could have been, what should have been, their perfect moment of intimacy had become an unbreachable wall keeping them separated.

Peter was pulled from his thoughts by the sound of a throat clearing. He looked up to find Neal standing just inside his office. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Peter smiled up at Neal. “No problem.”

“Do you mind if I head home? Even with the AC I feel like I’m melting or maybe it’s actually freezer burn from too many cold cases.”

Peter looked down at his watch. It was only just after three, but it felt like it should be much later. “No, in fact I think I’m going to call it a day too. Grab your stuff. I’ll drive you home.”

Neal nodded and retreated down to the bullpen. Peter shut down his computer and grabbed his briefcase. It was time to pull himself out of his melancholy and go home to his wife and a cold beer.

***

After Peter dropped him off, Neal took a cool shower and took a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio out onto the balcony. It was still stiflingly warm, but the balcony was his favorite place to be when he wanted to relax and take his mind off of whatever happened to be plaguing him at the time.

He settled down onto one of the loungers and sipped at the cool wine as the pace of the city picked up as the work day ended.

He was tired and it would be easy to blame it on the awful heat, but he had a feeling it might be something more. Hopefully, just a summer cold. He resolved to get to bed early and with any luck sleep off whatever it was.

He held himself to two glasses of wine, then went inside and made a light dinner. He took the book he was reading with him and was under the sheets of his bed by seven-thirty. By eight the words were blurring, so with a sigh he closed his book, dropped it on his nightstand and shut his eyes.

Sometime during the night, he woke to find himself clenched tight in a ball, his shivering muscles aching. He was so cold his teeth were actually chattering. He stretched out gingerly and then pulled the light blanket he kept on the end of the bed up over himself.

It took some time, but eventually he warmed up enough that he was able to doze off again only to wake sometime later with sweat beading on his forehead and around his nose, totally overheated. He tossed the blanket away and rolled onto this back, sliding his limbs away from his body to try to help him cool off. His stomach roiled from the change in position and for a long moment Neal thought he was going to have to make a run for the bathroom. Thankfully, it settled again, mostly.

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and looked at his alarm clock. It was just after two. He should get up, take some Advil, before trying to go back to sleep. Even sleep addled and sick Neal knew he had a fever. Really, he should get up, the drugs would help. But he couldn't find the strength. He fell back to sleep again, then work for a third time, shivering once more about forty-five minutes later.

This time he managed to drag himself out of bed and to his kitchen, where he had a small bottle of Advil stashed in the cabinet with his water glasses. He filled a glass with cold water from the sink and took the glass and the bottle back to his bed where he downed three of the pills and drank half the water before tumbling back onto his mattress.

The Advil must have helped, because he slept until six, when his alarm went off without waking again. Unfortunately, the sleep wasn’t enough to keep him from feeling awful.

The idea of calling out sick, reminded him of the last time he had done so and why. He sighed and curled up on his side. He would just rest for a few minutes, then he would get up, take a warm shower to rinse away the funk from the night and then decide what to do.

The next time he woke, it was to the ringing of his phone. It was on the other side of the room, on the kitchen table where he had left it before climbing into bed last night. With effort, Neal uncurled himself and sat up. His head swam and the room spun but he shut his eyes against it, got up and stumbled toward his dining room. His aim was off and his thigh hit the corner of the table. He hissed and his eyes sprang open. He caught a glance of his phone’s screen just before it went dark again as the call went to his voicemail. It read eight-twenty-two. Shit, he thought as he fumbled for it. He thumbed it on and looked at his missed call log. It was Peter, who was probably leaving an angry, “Where are you?” voicemail.

Neal rubbed at his aching thigh as he hit the prompt on his phone to call Peter back. It rang twice and then his partner picked up. “Neal?”

“Yeah, sorry. I overslept.”

“You don’t sound so good.”

Neal took a moment. He should take the opening Peter had just given him, admit that he felt like crap and just go back to bed. “I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep too well. I’m going to take a shower, grab some coffee and I’ll be in before ten.”

“It would be okay if you wanted to take the day.”

“Thanks, but it’s not necessary. See you soon.”

“Okay, see you soon.”

***

“I’m fine.” Neal had used ‘the’ phrase, which meant he wasn’t. Peter shook his head. Well, at least Neal hadn’t taken him up on his offer of a day off. This way he could keep his eye on him until dinnertime at least.

As he had promised, Neal sauntered through the office doors at nine-fifty. He gave Peter a small wave and then headed directly to his desk.

Peter managed to hold off for a whole forty-five minutes before going down to check on him. It took no small amount of restraint and he was proud of himself for managing to wait even that long.

Neal’s head was bent over a cold case file when Peter came up alongside his desk. He looked up when Peter’s shadow crossed the pages. Peter didn’t like what he saw. Neal’s eyes were glassy, with dark blotches spread out below them. And, his skin was pale, except for the bright dots of pink high on his cheekbones. Peter was seriously tempted to reach down and feel Neal’s forehead with the back of his hand.

“Hey Peter.”

“Neal. You sure you shouldn’t have stayed home today?”

Neal blinked up at him. “I’m sure.”

Too stubborn for his own good, as usual. “You’re looking a little pale there, buddy.”

“I didn’t sleep well, but I’m fine.”

There was that phrase again. From way too much experience, Pete knew there was no point in arguing. “Okay. I’ll leave you to it then.”

Neal nodded in reply and then tipped his head back toward the file.

Peter returned to his office, but found himself unable to give the files on his own desk his full attention. His gaze kept wandering out to the bullpen.

At lunchtime, Peter tried to convince Neal to accompany him out for a bite, but Neal refused, insisting that he had missed enough of the day already by coming in late.

Instead of taking the time for a sit-down lunch, Peter stopped at the deli just down the block for a sandwich and found himself ordering two, pastrami on rye and turkey on whole wheat.

When he got back to the office he placed the turkey on the corner of Neal’s desk. “What’s this?” His partner asked.

“Lunch. Working through is fine, but you still need to eat.”

Neal smiled. “Thanks, Peter.”

“You’re welcome.”

Peter retreated back to his office and managed to focus long enough to finish his review of the Magritte case file for the DA’s office. Just as he was closing the folder there was a knock on his door. Peter looked up to find Jones hovering at the entrance to his office. “Jones, what’s up?”

“It might not be any of my business, but I think Neal fell asleep at his desk.”

“Damn. Thanks, Jones. I knew he was sick when he showed up this morning. I should have just sent him home.”

Peter rose and headed out of his office, with Jones on his heels.

In the bullpen, Neal was at his desk, his arms resting on its surface with his head nestled on top of them. On the desk beside him Peter saw the sandwich he had brought Neal, unwrapped but uneaten except for two or three bites.

Peter gently laid his hand on Neal’s bent back. “Neal?”

Neal sighed, but didn’t wake.

Peter shook him gently. “Neal?”

Neal startled and bolted up in his chair. “Sorry, sorry.”

Peter rubbed his hand up and down against Neal’s light gray suit jacket. “It’s okay. I just think maybe it’s time I took you home.”

Neal took a couple of deep breaths. He looked like he was trying to get his bearings. Peter gave him a second before speaking again. “Come on, let’s go.”

“No, I’m okay. I should stay.”

“Neal,” Peter paused until his partner made eye contact. “You were asleep. You’re sick and you need to go home and get some rest. No arguing.”

Finally, Neal nodded and rose from his seat. He wobbled a little and Peter moved his hand from Neal’s back to his elbow to steady him.

“I’m good,” Neal said after a moment.

Peter nodded and backed off. “Got everything?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

***

Peter spent more time watching him than the road on the way to June’s, which was doing nothing to improve his driving. Neal wasn’t a fan of Peter’s skills behind the wheel on the best of days and this was not one of them. “Peter, please don’t kill us.”

Peter shot him a glance and then deliberately slowed the car.

“Thank you.”

When they pulled up in front of the mansion, Neal silently sighed in relief. “Thanks for the ride, Peter,” he said as he undid his seatbelt.

“You’re welcome. Let’s get you settled upstairs,” Peter replied opening his door.

“That’s okay. I’ve got it from here.” He really did not want Peter following him upstairs. The touching in the office had been more than enough intimacy for one day. The thought of Peter fussing over him and making sure he was safely tucked into bed, that was way too close to his fantasies.

But Peter ignored his words, and followed him onto the sidewalk. “Really Peter, I can take it from here.”

“Uh huh,” was all Peter said as he put his hand on the small of his back and began leading them toward June’s front door.

It was an exquisite torture, the feel of Peter’s hand warm and strong supporting him as they made their way inside and up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. Neal wanted him to stop, but even more he wanted Peter to take it further, to pull him in his arms and hold him snuggly against his chest. He wanted to be wrapped in Peter’s solidity, his tender care. Tears began to prickle at the corners of his eyes. He was sick and exhausted and he was letting his emotions get the better of him. Something he had promised himself he would stop doing.

He made it inside his apartment without letting the tears spill and stepped away from Peter and kept going until he was in his bathroom with the door firmly shut behind him.

He took a hot shower, staying under the spray until he felt like he had wrested his emotions away from his longing for Peter and El. Then he climbed out, dried off and pulled on his robe.

Peter was puttering in his kitchen when he returned to the main room of his apartment. “You didn’t eat your lunch, so I’m making you some tea and toast. Why don’t you go climb under the covers and I’ll bring it over.”

Neal thought that was an excellent idea, since he wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to manage standing upright. He shuffled over to his wardrobe, pulled on a pair of boxers, stripped off his robe and then sunk into his bed, pulling the sheet up over his chest.

He was already starting to drift on the edge of sleep when Peter set a tray with the promised toast and tea over his lap.

“Hey, you should eat some of this and then take something for that fever before you fall asleep.”

Grudgingly, Neal opened his eyes and scooted up slightly against his headboard. He knew Peter wouldn’t let him off the hook and the sooner he did as Peter asked, the sooner his partner would be satisfied enough to let him be.

So he ate a slice of the toast, even though his stomach was in no mood and drank half of the tea and then dutifully took the three Advil that Peter handed him before snuggling back down into the bed. “Thanks, Peter,” he mumbled as his eyes shut.

“You’re welcome. I’m going to find your phone and leave it here for you. Get some rest and I’ll call you later to see how you’re doing.”

“Kay.”

Neal could hear Peter softly chuckle, but he was already too far gone to feel annoyed by it.

A cool hand brushed his hair away from his face. The touch was gentle and lingering and Neal wasn’t sure whether he was already dreaming when the hand drifted away and a soft kiss grazed his forehead.

***

Peter knew it was a risk, but he couldn’t help himself. With Neal lying there sick and vulnerable, he had bent down and placed a light kiss against his partner’s overly warm skin. Hopefully, Neal was either already asleep or too out of it to remember it later.

Neal’s cell was on the edge of the bathroom sink and when Peter went to place it on the nightstand, Neal was curled up on his side, the sheet pulled up so that just his dark curls and one bright pink cheek were showing.

Peter let his hand linger on Neal’s shoulder for a moment and then retreated from the apartment. He went back to the office where he failed to concentrate for a couple of hours and then gave up and made his way home.

El had grilled some chicken and made a salad and they ate out on the deck while Satchmo chased fireflies in the darkening yard.

“We can go inside if it’s too hot to eat out here.”

“Hmm?”

El gave him a knowing look. “Do you need to go check on him?”

Peter shook his head. “No, I’m sure he’ll be all right. He wasn’t even coughing or anything. Just a fever. He’ll be fine in a couple of days.”

“Then why aren’t you eating your dinner?”

“I kissed him, on the forehead. I couldn’t help myself. He was probably asleep or at least out of it enough that he won’t remember tomorrow.”

El sat back in her chair and looked out into the yard.

“You still think I should tell him,” Peter said following her gaze.

“You know I do. He deserves to know. And we both deserve to know if there’s a chance he feels the same.”

El turned and looked at him. “There is the chance that your self-sacrifice is hurting Neal as much as it is us. Has that occurred to you?”

“El,” he began, but his protests died before he could form the words to speak them.

“He hasn’t been the same, you know. He never comes over without an explicit invitation. He doesn’t stay after dinner anymore. He’s quieter, more reserved. I feel like we’ve lost something we never really had.”

Finally, Peter found his voice again. “I know.”

That was the end of the conversation, but Peter knew that El was right. The longer they put off talking to Neal, the further away any chance of a relationship with him seemed to drift. As much as he wanted to pretend that making love hadn’t changed the direction of their lives, it had irrevocably. If they wanted Neal, and they did want Neal, Peter had get over his reservations and his concerns of the implications of coercion and just tell him how they felt.

When Neal was feeling better, they would invite him over for dinner and tell him everything.

After they cleaned up from supper, Peter called Neal to see how he was feeling and remind him to take some more Advil.

His partner seemed pretty out of it, but Peter chalked that up to having woken him from a sound sleep. He stayed on the line while Neal took the pills and drank some water and then told Neal that he would drop by to check on him in the morning.

Peter woke early, feeling strangely anxious. He thought about calling Neal but he realized quickly that just hearing his voice wouldn’t be enough to allay his fears, he needed to see his partner to know for certain that he was recovering.

He showered and dressed quickly and kissed El goodbye before heading into Manhattan. The heat was still wreaking havoc on the city and Peter felt it hit him like a solid wet wall as he got out of his car and walked the block from his parking spot to June’s front door.

It was still very early, so he used his key to gain entrance and made his way quietly up to Neal’s apartment. He had left Neal’s door unlocked when he left the previous evening, so he went in without knocking and made his way to Neal’s bed easily thanks to the early morning light pouring through the balcony doors.

Neal looked much like Peter had left him the afternoon before, curled up on his side in the bed with the covers pulled up to his chin. His breathing was loud in the otherwise silent apartment, his hair was rumpled and damp and Neal’s upturned cheek was still bright red.

“Neal,” Peter said gently.

There was no response.

“Neal,” Peter tried a little louder and placed his hand on Neal’s shoulder. Neal snuffled and rolled over, stretching out on his back, but didn’t wake.

“Buddy, can you wake up for me?”

Finally, Neal’s eyes cracked open. “Peter?”

“Yeah, how are you feeling?”

“Mmmm, hot.”

Peter put the back of his hand against Neal’s forehead. Hot was something of an understatement. “Neal, do you have a thermometer somewhere?”

“A what?”

Peter quickly realized that trying to illicit Neal’s full cooperation was going to get him nowhere. “Do you hurt anywhere? Is your stomach upset?”

Neal’s eyes closed again.

“Neal?”

“Um, achy, stomach’s fine.”

“Okay, it’s time to go visit urgent care.” Peter went to Neal’s wardrobe and pulled out a pair of khakis and a tee shirt and then grabbed a pair of loafers from the bottom shelf. He dumped the clothes on the bed and then pulled the covers back.

“Come on, let’s get you up.”

“I just want to sleep,” Neal muttered, rolling back onto his side away from Peter.

“I know, buddy. I’m sorry, but your fever is worse and we need to make sure you don’t need some antibiotics or something.”

Peter slid his arm under Neal’s shoulders and smoothly pulled him up so he was seated on the bed. “Come on, swing your legs over the side so we can get you dressed.”

Neal obeyed with a low grumble. Once he was settled on the edge of the bed Peter handed him the tee shirt and then the slacks. He helped his partner to stand to pull them up around his slim waist and then supported him as he slid his feet into the loafers.

Then Peter grabbed Neal’s wallet and cell phone. “Let’s go.”

Neal was unsteady on the way down to the car, enough so that Peter was supporting most of his partner’s weight and they were both winded and sweating by the time Peter got the car started and the air conditioning cranking.

Before Peter could pull out onto the road, Neal turned to him and asked, “Do we have a case?”

Peter looked over at Neal and quickly reevaluated his plan. Urgent care wasn’t going to cut it. It was time for the big guns, the emergency room. “No buddy, we’re going to get you some help, okay?”

“Oh, okay. What do I need help with?”

Peter took a steadying breath before replying. “The fever that seems to be baking your brains right now.”

“I’m fine.” The reply was automatic, as if Neal’s penchant for deflection had become so ingrained that it was simply instinct at this point.

Peter knew better than to insist the contrary was true. Arguing with Neal at the best of times was thoroughly frustrating and today they seemed to be heading toward the worst of times. Peter shook his head. It was also no time to be channeling Dickens.

Thankfully, the hour was still early and the traffic light, so they made it to the hospital quickly. He managed to find a parking place in the lot not far from the brightly lit emergency room entrance which made getting an acquiescent, but mostly lax Neal into the building a bit easier.

The early hour continued to work in their favor, Neal was triaged and taken back to be examined after less than an hour of waiting. Peter took a moment to call El, to fill her in on what was going on, before following his partner back to the curtained off cubicle where a nurse had gotten him settled on a gurney. Neal’s eyes were closed and his breathing was harsh. “How ya doing, Neal?” Peter asked softly.

“I’m really tired, Peter.”

Peter put his hand on Neal’s arm. His skin was overly warm and dry. “I know, buddy. They’re going to figure out what’s going on and get you feeling better soon.”

Neal nodded and turned his head into the thin pillow beneath him.

Not long after, a tech came in and took blood, then a nurse who took Neal’s vitals again and finally a doctor who listened to Neal’s chest and frowned over the information in Neal’s chart.

“Do you know what’s making him so sick?” Peter asked.

The doctor didn’t take his eyes from Neal’s chart as he replied. “Not yet, we’ll know more once we get his blood work back.”

Neal slept fitfully and Peter waited impatiently for several hours as hospital staff came and went, without any more news on Neal’s condition. At some point, a nurse came in and started an IV and gave Neal ibuprofen. Finally, in the late afternoon the doctor finally returned, his nose still stuck in Neal’s chart.

“Do you know what’s going on with Neal?”

“We’re still running tests.”

“We’ve been here nearly eight hours.”

The doctor closed the chart and met Peter’s eyes. “We’ve been able to rule out a number of things, but we haven’t come up with a definitive diagnosis yet. Some of Mr. Caffrey’s test results are somewhat unusual.”

“What does that mean?” Peter could hear the frustration in his voice, but his growing concern wouldn't allow him to quell it.

“It means we’re doing our best.”

***

Three days later, Neal was still in the hospital, still running a fever. The medical staff came and went running different tests but they had no answers as to what was making him ill.

Peter was a fan of puzzles normally. He did the NY Times crossword puzzle daily, he liked Sudoku too and he was an FBI agent after all. But after three days of fruitless waiting, Peter realized it wasn't the puzzles themselves that he liked, it was being able to solve them. He couldn't solve this, he didn't even have the skillset to try, but he hated feeling impotent and even more he hated to see Neal suffering with no end in sight.

The worst part was the niggle that had started a couple of days ago in the back of his brain. What if the reason the doctors couldn't find the cause of Neal's illness was because they had never seen anything like it before. What if Grey's designer drug hadn't dissipated? What if it had just been lying dormant in Neal's body this whole time, waiting for an opportunity to make him sick?

Peter looked over at Neal lying in the bed. He looked spent and exhausted even though he had done nothing but sleep for days. He couldn’t take much more of this, that much Peter knew for certain.

He pulled out his wallet and fumbled through it until he found the card embossed with the logo of the CDC that Dr. Okoye had given him on that fateful day. He held it tightly as he got up from his seat next to the bed and quietly left the room. He didn't feel comfortable having this conversation out in the open, so he made his way to the stairwell before pulling out his phone.

He dialed the doctor's direct line and held his breath. He assumed he would get an answering machine and was trying to figure out how to explain what was happening in a short message when the call connected and he heard Dr. Okoye's voice.

"Dr. Okoye."

"Doctor, it's Peter Burke. I need your help. Neal needs your help."

Peter explained what was happening with his partner and how the doctors had been unable to find an explanation for Neal's symptoms or a way to effectively alleviate them. "Is this, could this be the compound we were exposed to?"

"No Peter, I can assure you that's not the case. If either of you, were going to become sick from the exposure it would have happened months ago. But let me do this. Give me the name of Neal's primary physician and I'll get in touch with him. Maybe I can be of some assistance."

"Thank you." Peter would gladly take all the help he could get right now.

After ending the call, he stopped at the coffee machine. His hand was trembling as he reached to pull the paper cup from the dispenser. What if he never got the chance to tell Neal how he felt? He would have to live the rest of his life knowing he was a coward, too afraid of the what if's to have seized the opportunity to have a life with Neal and El.

"No," he said aloud to no one. He was not a coward or a quitter and he was not giving up on Neal or on the chance of having a future with him.

He took a deep, steadying swallow of his coffee and then returned to his partner's side.

An hour later, Neal's doctor came in and took up a position at the end of the bed. "I don't know who you know, but I just got off a long call with a medical director from the CDC. He wanted me to send along everything we have on Neal's case."

"I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes, I just want answers." He really didn't feel the need to explain himself, but there was no point in making an enemy of Neal's primary physician either.

The doctor nodded. "I get it. And even though I'm a doctor, believe it or not, I'm not an egomaniac. If the CDC wants to spend their time working on this and they come up with a solution, I have no problem with that.

"Good."

***

Much later that evening, Peter was still sitting at Neal's bedside. El, who had brought dinner for him, had left not long ago, back to Brooklyn to take care of Satchmo. Neal sighed and rolled over so that he was facing Peter. In the half light of the room he looked so beautiful despite the days of illness that Peter couldn't help himself – he reached out and ran the backs of his fingers along Neal's pale and stubbled cheek.

Neal's head turned into the touch and Peter could feel his partner begin to tremble. "Neal, what is it?"

Neal opened his eyes and looked up at Peter where he sat next to the bed, where he had been sitting for days watching over him. Peter's touch was so gentle, so caring and the look on Peter's face, creased with worry and fatigue, made Neal believe for just a moment that Peter's feelings went deeper than friendship.

"Neal, do you need me to get the nurse?"

"No please, I'm all right."

"Why are you shaking?" Peter prodded.

"It's nothing."

"Neal, this isn't the time to hide things from me. We need to find out what's making you so sick."

Peter's hand moved to his forehead, stoking his lank hair away from his overheated skin.

The power Peter's touch had over him, even this simple gesture of concern, was overwhelming. Like it did that day over three months ago when Peter touched him, Neal's body betrayed his heart and his trembling worsened.

"Neal, please."

Neal shut his eyes and turned his head away. The urge to blurt out the words 'I love you', to tell Peter what he had worked so hard to keep buried in his heart, was so strong he nearly couldn't stop himself. So, he lied, blatantly. "I'm fine."

Peter's hand moved away from his head and Neal felt the loss as deeply as the searing heat of the explosion that took Kate from him.

Peter shook his head as those words left Neal's lips. How he hated those words. How he hated hearing them come from this man that he loved so much, who was hurting and who he couldn't find a way to help. Or, maybe he could.

"Neal, look at me." Peter added a please when Neal failed at first to obey.

The please caught Neal off guard and he did as he was asked, turning his head on the pillow again and opening his eyes. Only the light over the bed was on, casting much of the room in shadow, but Neal thought he saw tears glistening in the corners of Peter's eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. How was it that he always managed to hurt those he loved the most?

Peter swiped his hand over the corner of one eye. "No, don't be, please, there's no reason for you to be sorry. But there's something you need to know. I know this is probably not even close to the right time, but you deserve to know. I love you. El and I both love you. We have for a long time.

"I've been an idiot. I thought I was being noble, waiting until you were free from the anklet, free to make your own choices, to tell you how El and I felt. All I was really doing was causing all of us unnecessary pain.

"We understand if you don't feel the same. It's a lot, I know and I'm sorry I'm telling you like this, without El but I needed you know how much you mean to us. You're loved and you need get better so that we can figure this out. Okay?"

Neal blinked and then blinked again. It was the fever, it had to be. There was no way that Peter had really just confessed his love for him. "You love me?"

Peter nodded. "Very much."

The tears that Peter had managed to forestall had somehow found their way to his own eyes, but Neal it seemed had lost all control and he could do nothing as they spilled down over his cheeks.

Peter's hand had found its way back into Neal's hair. "Shhh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"I'm not upset, not at all. I'm just, I have a fever and I'm not sure what's happening right now. You love me, and you already did when we had sex?"

"I do and I did. And, making love to you, it was one of the most exquisite experiences of my life. One that I really hope to repeat, many, many times. But only if it's what you want too, if you feel the same."

Neal hesitated for a long moment. Now that he actually had the chance to tell Peter how he really felt, he found the words hard to form. Finally, he said, "I think I've loved you since the first day we met outside the bank. And, I've loved El since the day she invited me into your home, when we were just starting out, chasing Hagen.

"I didn't want to hurt you or El. And, you are so beautiful together, so perfect. I thought that loving you, both of you, it couldn't be right because you were complete in each other. So, I've kept what I felt for you both locked away. But, it's been so much harder these last three months."

"Oh Neal, I'm so sorry. We never meant to hurt you. But, I guess I made a royal mess of things."

Neal shook his head. "Not your fault."

"It kind of is, but I'll make it right." Peter leaned down and put his lips to Neal's. The kiss was soft and nearly chaste, but it was enough for now.

"Peter…"

"Shhhhhhhh. I know there's a lot we still need to talk about, and we will, the three of us together. But all you need to know right now is that we love you and we'll figure it all out, once you're better. So, hurry up and get better, all right?"

Neal nodded and closed his eyes again. Peter's hand was still in his hair and the feel of his lips still lingered as Neal drifted off into the most restful sleep he'd had in a very long time.

***

Fifty-six hours later, Neal was finally on the road to recovery. Dr. Okoye and the CDC had come through, diagnosing Neal with some bacterial infection that Peter couldn't pronounce. The hospital had started Neal on a cocktail of intravenous antibiotics and he responded quickly, his fever finally going down.

He still looked awful, exhausted and ill, but he pulled a bright smile up from somewhere when the doctor signed his discharge papers.

El insisted on bringing him out Brooklyn where she could keep a proper eye on him until she was certain he was well enough to be on his own. Neal tried to protest, until he lost the struggle to get his tee shirt on, making it clear to everyone, including himself that he was going to need some help for a while.

"I get why you thought you needed to try," Peter said as he gently removed the shirt from Neal's grasp. "But, trust me when I tell you it's always best to let El have her way in these situations."

Neal nodded his acknowledgement as he held his hands out so Peter could slip the shirt onto his arms and over his head.

On the ride to the house, El and Neal sat together in the back seat, his head resting on her shoulder. Peter couldn't help but smile when he spied them through the rearview mirror. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, fair skin, beauty and brains. No way, no how could he possibly deny he had a type.

When they made it to DeKalb, Peter was pleased to find a parking spot just in front of the house. He parked and then quickly made his way around the car to help Neal out and up the stairs to the door.

Satchmo met them there with his usual level of enthusiasm, making his way straight to Neal when they came into the hallway. Neal took a moment to run his hands through the dog's thick fur. "Hey Satch, I've missed you."

"Clearly the feeling is mutual." Peter stated. "I'm just the guy who buys the kibble, Satchmo. Don't mind me."

"Now honey, if you're going to be jealous of the dog's affection for Neal, how are you possibly going to be able to handle mine." El winked at Peter when he looked over at her.

"That's not going to be a problem," he replied dryly. "I've been fantasizing about watching you two together for years."

El threw him a wicked grin and Neal's cheeks actually turned pink. "But that's for another day. Come on buddy, time to get you settled in upstairs."

Peter put his hand on Neal's back and guided him up the steps as El led the way. On the landing, she started toward the master bedroom and Neal stopped short. "I think I would feel better staying in the guest room."

"It's fine Neal, really. We want you to share our bed," Peter replied.

Neal turned to face him. "I want that too, believe me. When we're all ready. When it's right."

Peter started to argue and Neal put his hand on his partner's chest. "Please, I don't want to screw this up." His long list of failed relationships and losses had been running through his mind like a movie perpetually relooping since their mutual confessions. He needed to be better this time.

El came up behind him and wrapped her arm around his narrow waist. "We're in it for the long haul, Neal. We can take it as slow as you want."

He smiled down at her. "Thank you."

In the guest room, Peter helped Neal strip off his clothes and put on the pajama pants El had brought for him before he slid into the bed. It felt so good to be horizontal again that he closed his eyes and sighed in satisfaction when his head met the cool cotton pillowcase.

"I'll let you get some rest," Peter said softly as he headed for the door.

"Peter."

Peter turned back to look at him. "Yeah?"

"Would you mind sitting with me, until I fall asleep?"

"Not at all," Peter replied as he made his way back to the bed. He kicked off his shoes and sat down. Then after a moment's consideration he swung his legs up and lay down beside his partner.

Neal turned onto his side facing Peter and smiled in contentment when Peter rested his hand on Neal's upturned hip. It felt familiar and right to be with Neal like this again.

It was quiet for a while, just the sound of their breathing and the hum of the air conditioner running until Neal spoke. "I don't think I've ever wanted anything this much in my life and I'm scared."

"You don't need to be. We love you. El meant what she said in the hallway, we're in it for the long haul, Neal."

Neal nodded. "I know you play for keeps, both of you. When we made love… I've never experienced anything that extraordinary before. Not even with Kate. I know it was the drug, but it was me too, it was what I want the three of us to have, always." Neal turned his head and looked toward the ceiling. "I don't know if that makes any sense."

Peter put his hand on Neal's warm cheek and gently turned his head back to face him. "It makes total sense. I felt it too. It was perfect. And, to hell with the drug. There's no such thing as a drug that could have made that moment feel the way it did if we didn't love each other. We're going to make this work, Neal. Trust me."

Neal smiled softly, and Peter was glad to see it reach his eyes. "I always have."

Epilogue

It was their third date, the magical third date. That was the date that Peter had first made out with Cindy Danvers in eighth grade. I was the date that got him to home plate with Becca Seaver in senior year. It was the date that Peter knew for sure that El was going to be his wife.

Peter was standing before the mirror in the bedroom fixing his tie and pondering where the magic might lead to tonight, when El walked up behind him.

"What's got you smiling already?" She asked.

"It's our third date."

El moved around him, brushed his hands away and took over straightening his tie. "Technically it's our fourth."

"You can't count the night we went to the French place. We hadn't even finished our appetizers before Jones called and Neal and I had to leave."

El smiled indulgently. "An interrupted date isn't a date?"

"Nope, it's in the official dating guidelines, no main course, no date."

"And what's so special about the third date?"

"I thought you knew," he replied with an impish grin. "Good things always happen on third dates. They're magical."

"Oh? What happened on our third date?"

"You don't remember it?"

"Of course I do. It was the picnic in Central Park. I think you bought out Zabar's that day. The weather report was completely wrong and it was blustery and cold, but I had a wonderful time anyway."

Peter pulled her into his arms, kissed her on the forehead and then nodded. "It was pretty awful actually. I almost lost a couple of fingers to frostbite. But you were an angel and you just went with it, despite how silly it was to be sitting outside in that weather. That was the day I knew you were going to be my wife. It was magic."

"And, you were perfectly gallant, giving me your gloves and offering to take me anywhere else I wanted to go. But, I was already right where I wanted to be. You are absolutely right, Peter Burke. Third dates are magic."

They finished getting ready, fed Satchmo and then went to pick up Neal at June's. Neal had made them a reservation at an intimate café in the west 60's. The maître d' took them to a corner booth in the back. Candles were already lit, a Stellenbosch was breathing on the table and a bouquet of red roses was resting across El's plate.

"Oh Neal, they're lovely," El said as they pressed them up to her nose.

"I'm glad you like them."

The booth was u-shaped and Neal stood by to wave Peter in to sit in the middle, but Peter shook his head. "You should sit in the middle, Neal."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," El replied.

Neal sat between the two people he loved most in the world as they chatted about mundane things. As they ate their wonderful meal and drank their delicious wine, El listened to what he had to say and Peter smirked at him indulgently from time to time. It was everything Neal had ever wanted.

Neal was sipping from his coffee cup during desert, when he noticed Peter and El exchange a glance. A moment later El's hand cupped his groin and squeezed gently. He swallowed hard and quickly and then sputtered, "El?"

"We want you to come home with us tonight," she said. Her hand was still covering his suddenly growing bulge.

He took a moment to take a deep breath and return his coffee cup to the table. He turned to her and asked, "Are you sure this is what you want? This is still really new and I don't want to do anything you're not ready for."

Mercifully, she removed her hand, but only so that she could find his and grip it in her own. "I'm sure."

Neal turned to Peter. "Peter?"

"I've been sure since the day we made love in a quarantine tent. And I trust my wife to know what's right for all of us."

Neal ducked his head. "See that's the part that keeps tripping me up, wife and husband."

"Neal Caffrey, don't tell me you're a traditionalist, or even worse, a prude?" El jested.

Peter reached across the table and took Neal's other hand. "No, he's afraid he's going to screw things up, screw us up. I hate to break it to you Neal, but you don't have that kind of power. And love doesn't break things, it makes them stronger. There is enough room in us for you."

"We love you, Neal," El added.

"I love you too." Neal looked to El and then to Peter. "Both of you."

"Then come home with us," Peter said.

"Yes."

Neal didn't hesitate in the hallway this time. The bed was already turned down and a bunch of electric candles were flickering on the dresser. Peter began muttering something about third dates as El unbuttoned his jacket and slid her hands around his waist. He could feel Peter's warmth behind him as El moved in to kiss him. Her lips were soft, but her mouth was hungry. He had imagined what it would be like to kiss her, more than few times. But the reality was something different and far better, especially with Peter's hands fumbling with his belt and then the fly on his pants.

Eventually he and El broke apart, out of the necessity to breathe more than anything else. She gave him one more quick kiss and then turned away undoing the zipper on her dress.

Peter took her place, his hands wrapped around him adding a satisfying sense of stability as Neal's knees wobbled.

He looked serious, the way he often looked before a lecture or an admission. "Neal…" he began.

"Shut up, Peter." Neal didn’t want any more assurances or promises. He just wanted Peter and El. And, this was his chance to have them, to have everything and he was going to make the most of it. He reached over and pulled Peter to him, bringing their mouths together. Peter’s lips were dry and slightly chapped, but they tasted perfect, like the fulfillment of a longing Neal knew he would never need to feel again.

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