“Dammit!” Peter hung up the phone. He made a face and started speaking in a high, squeaky voice: “Agent Burke, the grand jury has further questions for you. Agent Burke, you need to testify again. Agent Burke, I need you to make the case for me.”
Sitting at their breakfast table, his wife glance over her shoulder at him and knitted her eyebrows.
“That’s the US attorney,” Neal told her, standing by her husband. “He sounds like he’s on helium.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth said, and turned away.
“He needs you?” Neal asked.
“I don’t know who’s dumber,” Peter grouched. “The prosecutor or the grand jurors. Phelps has thousands of dollars of Trobiander artifacts that are not his. A two-year old would indict him.” Neal tried not to look wistful, but Peter saw it. “Stop smiling.”
“I love grand juries,” Neal murmured, mostly to himself. “They’re so forgiving and they can’t do math.”
Peter glared at him.
“Do you have to go in, honey?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah,” Peter said. To Neal, “I don’t know how long this is going to take; we’ll have to cancel the trip to the crime scene.”
Neal shrugged. “I can go by myself.”
“To the vault of a jewelry store?” Peter retorted. “Right. Not a chance.”
Elizabeth giggled and Neal made an offended face.
“You’ll come with me,” Peter said.
“I can just go home,” Neal offered. “Last time I went to the court house with you, they locked me in a holding cell for 3 hours while you testified.”
Elizabeth looked over again. “Why?”
“Instinct,” Peter said.
“Peter,” Neal corrected, reproachfully. “What am I going to do in a court house?”
“The USDA doesn’t like you,” Peter replied, ignoring the hurt look. “With reason.”
Neal wandered over to the table where Elizabeth sat, peered at what she was working on.
“Scrapbooking,” she told him. “For my parents’ 40th anniversary.”
“Want some help?” he asked, flashing her a grin.
“Subtle,” Peter snorted.
“It’s not my usual medium,” Neal said, eagerly. “But I’m a fast learner.” He looked at El hopefully.
“Sure,” Elizabeth said. “You can help me.” Neal smiled enormously while Peter snorted again. “Peter, I’m recruiting him.”
“El-” Peter began.
“If I don’t finish this, I’m going to make you help me,” she interrupted.
The objection died on Peter’s lips while the rest of his face tried not to pout.
“Fine,” he said, pretending he didn’t care. “Neal, stay here, I’m going to the grand jury. I’ll be back soon.”
“Not with that USDA you won’t,” Neal murmured. “He’s an idiot.”
Peter shook his head, already walking towards the door. “I know.”
“Okay,” Elizabeth said, once Peter was gone, “what we’re doing is for my parents’ 40th anniversary. I’m making a scrapbook celebrating their marriage and I’m making it 5 times: one for them, one for each of my brothers and my sister, and one for me and Peter.”
Neal nodded and smiled brightly.
“It’s mostly pictures,” El, continued, “but I have some nice paper and whatnot from the craft store.” She shrugged. “They don’t have to be completely identical, I mean, I have 5 copies of every picture but the pages don’t have to be the same.”
“Okay,” Neal said.
“My parents are getting the nicest one,” she said. “And I’m totally keeping the second best because –”
“-you’re making them,” Neal finished.
“Right.” She smiled. “Which might be the one you make.”
“You flatter me,” Neal said. He reached for the photos sitting in 5 tall, even piles on the table.
El stopped him.
“The first page gets the 8 by 10,” she said, handing him a larger photo. “Taken last Christmas.”
Neal took it from her and glanced at the image. She saw the surprise register on his face, but all he said was, “That’s a really great family photo. Good choice.” He paused and pointed at the two tall, African-American men standing to either side of Elizabeth, behind her elderly parents. “Your brothers must be adopted?”
“Huh?” Elizabeth said, playing dumb. “Not to my knowledge, why would you think that?”
Neal laughed. “Right, stupid question.”
“We’re all adopted,” she said. “It’s just a little more obvious with Anton and Aaron. My sister Eve is part Puerto Rican but you can’t really tell until she gets a tan.”
Neal studied the photo, silent. “I was going to say you look like your mom,” he said, honestly.
“I don’t,” El said, and laughed. “You can’t tell because she’s seventy-five and sitting, but both my parent are six feet tall and Blondes. When they were young, they looked like Vikings.” She smiled. “I was going through the photos of my mom and they made me feel like a troll.”
That made Neal snort in disbelief.
“I’ll show you,” she said, picking up a pile of photos and flipping through it. “Here, see?”
“You do not look like a troll,” Neal said. “But I see what you’re talking about. She’s pretty.”
“That was when Anton came home,” Elizabeth said, “so she’s 30.”
Neal and El worked quietly on the scrapbook for almost half an hour. Unsurprisingly, Neal was doing amazing things with cheap craft store supplies.
“I didn’t think interracial adoptions were legal in the ‘70s,” Neal said, abruptly, as he pasted down the photos from the courtroom when Aaron had been adopted.
“They weren’t illegal,” Elizabeth corrected. “Just controversial and uncommon. My parents worked in the NYC foster system, though, so they knew friendly judges and could do it quietly.”
“Oh.” Neal looked thoughtful. “That’s nice,” he said, distractedly. He sprinkled some multicolored confetti around the photo with the court staff. “Were you in foster care, Elizabeth?”
“Yep,” she said. “But my parents were my first and only foster parents and then they were my legal parents, so I don’t know if that counts.”
“I don’t think it does,” Neal agreed. He seemed unusually serious. Maybe it was the topic, but El was a little unsettled by it.
“My brothers had other foster families,” she continued. “Anton was four and Aaron was six when they came home. My sister was two. I was the first and only baby, and I was the last. They didn’t have any more kids after me. My mom discovered she didn’t actually like the whole baby part.” El meant it as a joke, but Neal didn’t laugh.
“Babies are easier to place,” he said. “Older children not so much. Especially boys.”
Peter was the FBI agent, but Elizabeth wasn’t stupid.
“Were you in the foster care system, Neal?” she asked, trying to keep the question light. The whole subject seemed to make him uncomfortable.
“Yeah.” He smiled at her, but it too large and flashy to be genuine. “Peter didn’t tell you?” He sounded a little defensive.
“No,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Why would he? We don’t talk about his work. It’s boring.”
“My mother was a crackhead,” Neal said, before she asked. “Child protective services took us away after my little sister tested positive for drugs at birth.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth tried not to sound horrified. “That’s awful, Neal. I’m sorry.” She reached across the table and patted him on the arm. He was warm and tense under her touch, but didn’t pull away. She took that as a sign he didn’t hate talking about it. “How old were you?”
“I was five,” he said. “I don’t really remember much, though.”
And that was a lie. Peter didn’t talk about work at home, but when he did, it was usually about Neal and Elizabeth knew his tells as well as her husband did. She wasn’t sure what to say, since it seemed like Neal was closing the subject.
“Do you know anything about your birth parents?” Neal asked, changing the topic for her.
“Most of those records are confidential,” she told him. “Even when my parents were state employees.”
“Right,” Neal said.
“But,” she continued, “then I married an FBI agent.”
Neal stared at her. “Peter?” he said, incredulous. “Really? He broke the rules? Wow.”
“Bent,” Elizabeth corrected. “Just a little. In the course of an old investigation, he subpoenaed certain relevant records.”
“I didn’t know he had it in him.”
“I probably wasn’t supposed to tell anyone,” she said. “Particularly you.”
“My lips are sealed.” Neal was flirting with her again, which was actually a relief. “What did you find out?”
“My birthmother was fourteen when she had me.”
“Whoa.” Neal let out a low whistle. “That’s young.”
“That’s a baby having a baby.”
“Yeah,” Neal agreed.
“After that, I didn’t really have any questions. Or any what-ifs, you know? How can a fourteen year old be a mom? I don’t think she even had a choice after I was born. Her parents probably decided for her to place me.”
“You ever try to find her?” Neal asked. “She’d be what…barely fifty?”
“She would,” El said. “But she died when I was seventeen, before I even started looking. Way before I met Peter.”
“I’m sorry,” Neal offered.
El shrugged. “I have a really great Mom.” She smiled down at the photographs spread on the table.
Neal smiled back, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Did you ever try to find yours?” El asked him.
Immediately, Neal shook his head. “I didn’t really have any interest,” he said, neutrally. “She was pretty messed up.” El nodded. “She was young – not as young as yours, though – she was 18 when I was born. I tried to find my sister, though. She was adopted at birth and all the records were sealed.”
“They didn’t try to keep you together?”
“No.” Neal’s face was perfectly blank but it still struck her as incredibly sad. “Besides, no foster family wants a drug addicted baby and a five-year-old me.”
“You were a handful?” El guessed. She meant it kindly and actually winced when pain sliced across Neal’s face, covered quickly by a fake smirk. “I’m sorry, Neal. That was a mean thing to say.”
“It’s okay.” He smiled broadly and it still looked fake to her. “It’s exactly what you’re thinking.” The fake smile stayed. “I had a number of behavioral challenges.”
“You don’t have to talk about it,” Elizabeth said, gently.
Neal shrugged. “I don’t remember it,” he said again, clearly lying.
Shortly after that, Agent Clinton Jones arrived on her doorstep, sent by Peter to bring Neal home.
“He doesn’t trust me alone here,” Neal cracked, gathering his stuff. “You better check my pockets for the silverware.”
El rolled her eyes. “Thanks for your help, Neal.” She meant it. While their conversation had gotten unexpectedly heavy, he’d still finished half of the scrapbook.
“Anytime,” Neal said.
“I’ll take you up on that,” she called, as he followed Clinton out of the house.
Peter got home late, hungry and extremely pissed off at the USDA, the grand jurors, and possibly the entire American judicial system. El cleaned her scrapbook supplies off the table and heated him up some leftover lasagna while he ranted. He didn’t stop until the fork actually went into his mouth.
“Mmm, hey honey, this is good,” he said, swallowing.
El smiled, waiting to pose her question until the food had helped his mood.
“So,” she said, eventually. “How come you never told me Neal was a fosterchild?”
“Huh?” Peter had his mouth full and had to swallow. “What?”
“We got to talking about my family,” she said. “He saw my brothers. It came out that he was a fosterchild, too.”
“No,” Peter said. “He wasn’t.”
“He said he was.”
Peter put his fork down. “Neal lies like breathing, El.” He frowned. “I don’t know why he’d lie about that, but it was probably to manipulate you into doing something. I knew I shouldn’t have left-”
“He wasn’t lying,” she interrupted. “I can tell. And he got really uncomfortable after he told me, which is when he started lying about not remembering any of his childhood.”
Peter still looked dubious.
“He did the face,” she continued. “Totally blank and then big stupid smiles after each lie.”
“That is the face,” Peter admitted. He looked thoughtful. “My investigation never found any of that, though. I thought his parents died in a car accident when he was 17.” He scowled. “Which means Neal probably committed either more fraud or more identity theft.” El must have looked confused. “Either he faked the Caffreys’ death certificates, or he isn’t Neal Caffrey.”
“I didn’t think about that,” Elizabeth said, since she hadn’t.
Peter took another bite of dinner. “I wonder if I should put a taskforce on that,” he said.
“Is he going to get in trouble?” El asked.
“It’ll probably be too hard to prove,” Peter said. “Statute of limitations and I don’t care all that much.”
“Good,” she said, relieved.
“But it might be nice to know who he actually is,” Peter said. “Neal Caffrey’s just another alias. It might be his first one.” He glanced at her. “He didn’t happen to tell you-”
“Don’t interrogate me,” Elizabeth said, a little sharply, and he raised his hands in surrender, instantly. “He was just opening up to me,” she said, sitting back in the chair. “He seemed really sad, Peter. His mother was a 19-year-old drug addict and the state separated him from his sister when he was 5.”
Peter grimaced. “That what he said?”
“Yeah, that’s all. Then he clammed up, and then Jones took him home.” She frowned, because Peter was writing what she said down on a napkin. “Are you taking notes?”
“For his file,” Peter answered, and El sighed audibly. “What?”
“I didn’t tell you so you put it in his file.”
“Why did you tell me?” Peter looked genuinely confused.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It was sad. He was sad. I’ve never met anyone else with a story like mine.”
“His story is not like yours,” Peter denied. “You aren’t anything like him.”
“We were both taken away from our birthmothers,” she said, “Only I ended up with an amazing family, and he didn’t.”
For the first time, understanding registered on Peter’s face. “Oh,” he said.
“Do you want me to do anything about it?” Peter checked.
“Are you going to investigate it?” El asked, suspicious.
Peter nodded. “He might have a family tree of people I don’t know about willing to hide him.”
“I don’t think he has anyone,” she said. “Are you going to tell him you know?”
“No,” Peter said, quickly. “And give him time to forge more records?”
“His name was Treasure Price,” Peter said, almost a week later. He slapped a thin manila folder down on the kitchen counter. “I see why he changed it to Neal.”
“That was fast,” Elizabeth replied. “I thought you’d have to go through the state archives.”
“Digitized,” Peter said. “I love technology when I don’t have to use it. They found him just like that.” He grinned at her. “Search parameters of his age, race, sex…it was almost too easy.”
“So, does he have a family tree of people willing to hide him?” Elizabeth asked.
“No.” Peter shook his head. “I ran the names, his parents are actually dead. He does have sisters, but I’d know if he’d been in contact with them.” He paused. “Why do you look mad?”
“I’m not mad. Those records are sealed, right?”
“So, Neal’s never seen them.”
“Not unless he stole them.”
Elizabeth put her elbow up on the counter next to the folder. “I bet he’d like to see the records. I know I wanted to see mine.”
“I’ll let him see them,” Peter said. “If he admits they belong to him.”
“All he has to do is not lie.”
“What?” Peter’s cell phone rang. “Hold on.” He answered it, and Elizabeth could hear the alarmed yelling from the other end immediately. “Dammit,” Peter said. “I’ll be right there.” He hung up. “I have to go.”
He kissed her, grabbed the car keys on the way to the door, and left.
El knew she shouldn’t read Neal’s records. Peter probably shouldn’t have read them, either. She wished she hadn’t told him, or at least that he had taken it as some kind of criminal evidence. Even if Peter said her soft spot for Neal was misplaced, there hadn’t been anything illegal about the way he’d looked when talking about his birthmother and sister.
But she thought it was wrong that Neal had likely never seen his own records. Peter had understood when she wanted to see hers, but if she pointed out the same was probably true of Neal, El was certain Peter would disagree.
So, El didn’t tell him.
Instead, she called Neal’s cell phone, uncertainty already tickling in her chest.
“Hey, Neal,” she said, when he answered. “Are you home?”
Neal paused, which meant he probably wasn’t. “Hey, Elizabeth. Yeah, I’m at June’s. What’s up?”
“You left something at my house when you were over last,” she said, quickly, with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Can I bring it over?”
“Yeah,” Neal began. “What’d I-”
“Great,” El interrupted. “I’ll be over in twenty-five.”
That was to give him enough time to get to June’s from wherever he actually was. She grabbed her purse, the manila envelope, and left her house.
“Hey, El.” Neal answered the door looking a little flushed, as if he been running.
El clasped the envelope behind her back. “Can I come in?”
“By all means.” He backed up and let her in, closing the door behind her. “What’d I leave at your house?”
“Nothing,” Elizabeth confessed, immediately. “I lied.”
Neal tilted his head, confused. “That’s new,” he said, sounding a little amused.
El took a deep breath and rushed on. “I told Peter about our conversation about your childhood.”
Instantly, Neal frowned. Just as quickly, his expression morphed into a poker face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, genuinely. “I didn’t know it was a secret.”
Neal nodded a little. “Yeah,” he said. “I hadn’t mentioned that to him. I might have…told him something else.” The blank face stayed, his lips pursed together.
“He looked into it and pulled your foster records,” El continued, removing the folder from behind her back. She held it out to him. “I thought you would want to see it.”
Neal just blinked at her, then a smile flitted across his face. He looked relieved, maybe a little resigned, too. “I’ve seen them, Elizabeth.”
“They were sealed.”
He nodded again, crossed his arms over his chest. “Remember how I’m a thief?” He said it flatly, without any malice.
El stared at him. “Oh,” she said, quietly, after a moment. “I didn’t…”
“No, it’s okay.” He smiled wider, but it was the faker kind. “Thanks, I think.”
“I wanted to see mine,” Elizabeth tried to explain.
“So did I,” Neal answered. “So I did.” He paused, face going back to serious. “Is Peter mad?”
She shook her head quickly. “No! I promise, he was just…” she trailed off. “He doesn’t know I’m here. And he might try to trick you into telling him directly so you can see it.” She waved the folder around.
“You should probably take it home,” he said, sweetly. “And not lie to him about me, because Peter will blame me for it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. Pausing, she apologized again: “I’m sorry, Neal, if I messed something up. I wasn’t thinking about the way you might have wanted it to be handled.”
Neal smiled again, and this time it seemed genuine. “I’m not mad, El. I appreciate what you were trying to do.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go, then.”
“I won’t mention it to Peter if you won’t,” Neal prompted.
El reached backwards for the doorknob, and she only shrugged.
Getting home to an empty house, Elizabeth felt stupid. Stupid and embarrassed. It had never occurred to her that Neal would have already finagled access to his records, or lied about his past to Peter. It was just dumb. She was dumb.
She went to put the folder back on the kitchen counter where Peter had left it. She wasn’t sure if she should tell Peter about this newest conversation. She didn’t want to lie and she didn’t want to admit what she’d done, either.
Maybe they could just drop it, completely.
Frustrated, El tossed the folder at the counter. She heard it hit the granite and slide, and then flutter off the edge and land on the floor.
“Dammit.” She turned on the lights to discover the file had spilled all over the linoleum. It wasn’t stapled and the sheets had come apart.
Picking it up and putting it back in order, El’s eyes landed on the cover page. She froze, and dropped to a seat on the floor.
She was still sitting there when Peter got home, hours later.
“El,” he looked at her in confusion. “What are you still doing up? Don’t you have a wedding tomorrow?” He blinked at her a second longer. “Why are you looking at Caffrey’s file? On the floor?”
She turned the cover around, pointed to the line. “Peter, Neal’s my brother.”
“Penelope Stokes,” she said, after Peter made her get off the floor and sit in a chair. “That’s my birth mother. The file calls her Penny Cash, but it says her legal name is Penelope Stokes.”
“That could be a common name,” Peter suggested. He looked wary.
“No, it’s not.”
“But more than one person could have it,” Peter said.
“Penelope Stokes aka Penny Cash,” El continued. “Fourteen in 1974, when I was born. Eighteen in 1978, when Neal was born.”
“That could be a coincidence.” Peter knitted his hands together. “Honey-”
“Neal’s file says they couldn’t place him with his sister because her parents’ foster license had expired. My mom and dad stopped doing foster care after I was born.”
“The sister is younger, she was born in 1983.”
“Did you read the file?” El demanded, trying not to yell.
“Of course I did.”
“Penny Cash had a baby taken by social services when she was a teenager,” El said. “She was afraid the same thing would happen to her next baby, so she was living on the streets with her son – Neal – started doing crack and only reappeared in the system when she had a third baby in 1983 and went to a hospital to deliver it.” She paused, long enough for Peter to look unconvinced. “Peter, it makes sense.”
“Maybe,” Peter finally allowed. “I’ll look into it, okay?”
“We have to tell Neal.”
“Not until there’s something to tell,” Peter said. “He doesn’t even know I know about this.”
“He does, because I told him I told you about our conversation.”
“Oh.” Irritation and confusion passed over Peter’s face, until El rested her head against his arm and he put it around her.
Peter pulled the criminal record of Penelope Stokes, finding both Penny Cash and Penny Price as known aliases.
She had a lot of drug charges and solicitation, yet somehow she never went to jail. And in between 1974 and 1983, she managed to have three children taken away from her by the state of New York.
The first had been a daughter, Jewel Stokes, the very name printed on Elizabeth Burke’s birth certificate.
And the second, apparently, had been a son named Treasure Price, who would grow up to be Neal Caffrey.
Peter didn’t believe it. He looked for all the possible ways this was a mistake. Stokes should have gone to jail sometime in the late 70’s, when she dropped out of high school and the first police encounters appeared. She should have been incarcerated, not raising the blue-eyed 5-year-old that looked undeniably like Neal Caffrey in file photo.
Penny (Stokes-Cash) Price had bright blue eyes and dark hair. Except for one of her mug shots, where she’d bleached her hair blonde and cut it short.
She looked a little like Elizabeth. They shared a heart-shaped face and the same coloring, but Penny clearly led a very different life. She just looked harder and sharper than El, eyes untrusting and chin set defiantly.
Except in the mug shots where she smiled obnoxiously at the camera. In those, she looked like Neal. Like Neal at his lying, conniving worst. The realization hit Peter: Neal had learned that from his mother. He had her good looks and her calculated smile.
There was only one photo of Treasure Price, taken when he was five after Penny’s last arrest. And he was charming the camera, of course, with frightening intensity for a small child. It was like watching a felon evolve in snapshots.
In 1983, Penny’s third child’s birth marked her last notation in the legal records. She vanished from a round of drug charges, leaving a son named Trey and a newborn daughter, Pearl Price, in state custody.
The biological father or fathers of all her children went unnamed. Peter only noted that El had been given Penny’s maiden name, while Neal and Pearl had gotten one of the aliases.
“You’re right,” Peter said to El, finally, when she got home from her wedding reception.
“He’s my brother,” Elizabeth said, slipping off her heels and dropping exhaustedly onto the couch.
“You have the same mother. There’s no information about a father. I couldn’t find anything.”
El put her hands over her face. “Wow.”
Peter came and set next to her, putting his arm around his wife but unsure of what to say.
“When I was little, I wondered if she’d had other kids,” El said. “But she died when she was 31. I figured she didn’t.”
“Aliases,” Peter reminded her.
“We have to tell Neal.”
Peter sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
“Is this going to change…stuff? With your job?”
“If Hughes finds out, yeah. I won’t be allowed to supervise my brother-in-law.” Peter paused. “Brother-in-law,” he repeated, like the words were strange to say.
“Can we deal with that part later?” El asked.
“Yeah,” Peter agreed. He put both arms around her. “Yeah.”
Peter brought Neal to their house for the conversation, under the pretense of dinner. It seemed more comfortable than going to June’s and dropping the bombshell on empty stomachs.
“I still have your birth records,” Peter said, without preamble, right after dessert.
Neal blinked, then recovered quickly. He glanced at El. “Um, right about those. I know I never mentioned…you know, any of that…” he trailed off, waiting for one of them to jump in.
“You’re not in trouble, Neal,” El jumped in.
“I know that.” He flashed a cocky grin. “I just thought it was private.”
“Why’d you change your name?” Peter asked, and El kicked him hard under the table. “Oww!”
Neal smiled. “Because it sounds like a stripper,” he said. “My mother didn’t have great taste.”
“I think she had a theme,” El said, quietly. “She named your older sister Jewel and your little sister Pearl.”
For a second, Neal laughed dismissively. Then he stopped. “Older sister?” he asked. “I didn’t have one.”
“Yeah, you did.” Peter said. “Born in 1974 and the state took her away. That’s the reason your mother wouldn’t go on welfare or put you in school. She was afraid it would happen again, so she lived on the streets.”
“She lived on the streets because she was a crackhead,” Neal said, a little tightly. “And she was afraid of the government because she did a lot of crack.” He shrugged. “So, she had three kids taken away. Huh.”
“You didn’t know about Jewel,” El prompted.
Neal shook his head, shrugged again. “Thanks for the info,” he said, dismissively. “Maybe someday I’ll need a kidney.” He looked from Peter to El and back again. “What’s going on? Why are you asking about this stuff?”
“We looked into your records,” Peter said. “And found-”
“I’m your sister, Neal,” El interrupted. “We have the same mother.” Neal stared at her, mouth open but no sound coming out. “Penny Stokes, which was her name before Penny Price, had Jewel Stokes in 1974. That’s the name on my birth certificate.”
“Oh,” Neal said, finally. “I didn’t know that.” He looked stunned and, for once, at a loss for words.
El didn’t know what to say, but she knew what to do. “Can I give you a hug?”
Neal nodded, so El got up, walked around to his side of the table, sat down next to him, and opened her arms.
Peter busied himself cleaning up after dinner, giving Neal and El room to talk in the living room.
“I know this is a lot,” El said. “I don’t want to interrogate you.”
“Peter wants to.”
“Well, that’s why Peter is in the kitchen.”
Neal laughed weakly. “Holding a glass against the door.”
“Probably,” El admitted. “Do you want some wine or something?”
Neal reached for his glass, sitting on the coffee table. “Yeah,” he said. “This definitely calls for wine.”
“It does.” El found her own glass and refilled it. “It’s a celebration.”
Neal blinked at her in confusion. “What?”
She clinked her glass against his. “I just found my brother.”
A small, but genuine smile appeared on Neal’s face. “Yeah,” he said, softly.
“Did you ever find Pearl?” Elizabeth asked. “Your little sister. Our little sister.”
Neal’s face sharpened. His eyes shot to the kitchen and then back to El. He took a considering sip of his wine, and then shrugged.
“Oh, what the hell,” he said. “Yeah, Elizabeth, I found her.”
“Wh-” El began, but he interrupted.
“But she’s dead now,” he said, “I’ll start with that.”
El frowned, felt her eyes grow damp with tears.
“Kate wasn’t my girlfriend,” Neal said, speaking so fast the words came out on top of one another. “She was my sister. We did the boyfriend-girlfriend ploy because it worked better. No one likes working with family because blood is always thicker.”
In the kitchen, something banged as Peter dropped a dish after hearing that bombshell. To his credit, though, he stayed in the kitchen and let them have their moment.
Elizabeth dabbed at her eyes with her fingers, wished she had tissues.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish I’d gotten to meet her.”
“Me, too,” Neal said, looking down at his hands so she couldn’t see his eyes. “I really do.”
“Maybe you can tell me about her,” El said. “About her and our mother? I don’t remember her at all.”
“I do,” Neal admitted. “If you want.” He smiled a little, sniffed as he raised his eyes. “You look a lot like her.”
They sat on the couch together and Neal talked, while El held his hand and listened intently. In the kitchen, Peter eavesdropped on his wife and her brother, silently drying dishes with a kitchen rag instead of the dishwasher.
“Peter can come out,” Neal said, eventually.
And he did, bringing a pile of napkins in lieu of tissues and joining them on the couch.
“Thanks,” Neal said, when Peter handed him half the stack while El dabber her eyes with the others.
~Please feed the author~
(lj-post if you prefer)