“Hey honey!” El greeted Peter in her usual chirpy tone.
“Hey,” Peter murmured tiredly.
El looked up from her laptop screen and took in the sight of her husband. He looked extremely guilty and sorrowful. She got up and helped Peter to slip out of his coat. Hugging him she felt the tension in his body and wondered what had happened. Tentatively she asked: “what's up?”
Peter sighed and pulled Elizabeth closer to him. He rubbed his nose into her hair and inhaled her scent deeply. They stayed in this embrace for a minute, then Peter murmured: “I need to apologize to Neal.”
Startled Elizabeth said: “you do? For what? Usually it's the other way around.”
She loosened their embrace and cupped Peter's face in her hands. Several small kisses and encouraging words from her later, Peter finally gazed at her. Hesitantly he admitted: “I might have done something really stupid, something that was humiliating for Neal.”
Elizabeth frowned, then asked with obvious concern in her voice: “you might have or you did?”
“Peter, tell me. You've got guilt written all over your face. What did you do?”
Peter sighed again and closed his eyes briefly. He pulled his face out of El's gentle grasp and started pacing in the living room. “Neal … Neal didn't listen. This is of course nothing new but damn, El, he didn't stay put as I had told him and suddenly he was held over the edge of a five-storied house and --”
“What?” El paled visibly. “Is Neal hurt?”
“No, well not much at least. We got him back on the roof and we even rescued the whole operation but damn, I was god damn furious with him. Do you know what he said when he was back standing on the roof on wobbly legs? He said: 'Wow, that put a few things in a totally new perspective',” Peter growled.
“But I don't understand, honey. You said Neal is alright but I still don't understand why you need to apologize to him,” El asked, puzzlement clearly visible on her face.
“I … kind of lost it after his statement. I read him the riot act and when he just shrugged my lecture off I slapped him hard. Twice,” Peter said.
El took in a deep breath before she asked: “you slapped him in the face, right?”
Peter shook his head, then slumped down on the sofa. He put his face in his hands, radiating misery in waves. El went over and sat down next to him. Sympathetically she massaged Peter's tense shoulders. To be absolutely certain she whispered: “you slapped his butt?”
“Yeah, I did. Really hard and there were quite some people standing around.”
“How did he react?”
“He stormed off without a word. Diana followed him and brought him back to June. He didn't want to talk to me and he also doesn't answer my calls and … damn, El, I screwed up royally,” Peter sighed.
“I can only agree to this statement,” El said.
“How am I going to make this right, El? It's one thing to spank him once in a while but--”
“Once in a while? You mean, the one time I found you two a few weeks ago wasn't the first time?”
Peter inspected the floor closely, then answered: “no, it wasn't. But usually I just smacked him a few times and I never before put him over my lap or … or forced him to, um, lower his pants.”
El gaped at Peter for quite some time, slowly processing everything he had said. “I have to say that I'm surprised. With both of you. I never thought that Neal would let you spank him, especially not in such a humiliating manner.”
Peter cringed visibly and mumbled: “I might have forced him into that.”
“You might? And how did you do that?”
“I told him that he wouldn't be welcome in our house anymore if he refused to get over my lap,” Peter confessed.
“Oh Peter! How could you?” El sighed. “Neal loves you, can't you see that? He's even willing to get his butt tanned.”
“He just doesn't want to go back to prison!”
“And you don't want to send him back. That still doesn't give you the right to threaten him with taking away his family.”
“Family? We're not --”
“Peter Burke! That's enough of this nonsense! Of course we are his family, the one he never had. He tests you, all the time. He wants you to show him how much you care. Causing trouble is probably the only way he knows how to get you to do so,” El explained.
Peter shook his head. “That's … that doesn't make sense to me.”
El shrugged. “It didn't make sense to me at first either. Mozzie explained it to me. He believes that Neal chose you as his surrogate father.”
“You spoke with Mozzie about it?”
“Of course. He's the one who knows Neal the best next to you. Oh, and I think I know something that might help you to get through to Neal.” El smiled at him winningly.
Peter relaxed and said: “I knew you'd help me out.”
A few hours later Peter stood in front of Neal's door, awkwardly cradling a wrapped box under his left arm. El had dragged him into town and picked a compensation gift. They had eaten an early dinner and then she had ushered him over to June. The older woman had been delighted to see Peter and hugged him tightly. “It's good to see you, Peter. I'm a bit worried about Neal. He slammed the door shut when he came home and he's been pacing in his rooms ever since.”
“Um, yeah. I'll see what I can do about the pacing,” Peter had replied.
Now he still stood in front of Neal's door. Eventually he took in a deep breath and knocked. He heard Neal approaching on sock-clad feet, then he was suddenly face to face with him. Only Peter's quick reaction prevented Neal from slamming the door right into Peter's face. “Neal, come on, let us talk about it.”
“Talk about it? Now you want to talk about it?” Neal hissed.
“No, I actually wanted to talk about it right after it happened but you didn't listen.”
Neal pressed his lips together in a thin line, showing how much trouble he had to keep his composure. “Good night, Peter.”
Neal pushed against the door but Peter fought against it from the other side. “Neal, god damn it! I'm here to apologize!”
Neal let go of the door abruptly and Peter stumbled into the room. While he regained his balance he grumbled to himself, then decided to sit down on the small sofa. Neal closed the door and followed him. Calmly Neal suggested, “Go ahead with your apology, I'm all ears.”
Peter sighed heavily and clutched the gift box more tightly. “I'm sorry that I slapped you in public.”
“Wow, Peter, I'm impressed!” Neal flashed him a bright smile.
A sudden thought crossed Peter's mind and he gazed at Neal thoughtfully. Neal's posture never changed and the smile stayed firmly in place. Suddenly Peter burst out: “you aren't really upset that I slapped you! You just wanted to let me stew and come over here, tail tucked behind my legs, and apologize to you!”
At last Neal began to squirm a little bit. “I wouldn't say that I wasn't upset because I was. That was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life.”
Contritely Peter repeated: “I'm sorry, Neal, really. There's no excuse for what I did other than that I was very upset about you almost getting yourself killed.”
“Ah, yes, there was that.” Neal averted his eyes and fidgeted with a loose thread of one of the sofa cushions.
Peter frowned and studied Neal intensely. Eventually he shook his head in exasperation. “You knew that you were in deep shit for that stunt you pulled and that's why you tried to play the guilt card for all it's worth. I can't believe that you had me fretting about what I did because you wanted to save your butt.”
Neal looked at Peter and smiled sheepishly. “What can I say? I like my butt unharmed and I'm not keen on repeating that last session. So, what's in that box? Did you want to make amends?”
“I should take this back home with me,” Peter said. “But then again I would have to tell Elizabeth that you played me. I'm not sure if she'd be more pissed off at me for falling for it or at you for playing me.”
Neal swallowed audibly while his eyes darted around the room aimlessly for a few seconds. “I'd hate it if Elizabeth would be pissed off at either one of us.”
Peter smiled knowingly: “Same here.”
Neal watched Peter expectantly, then held out his hands for the gift box. “May I?”
“It was Elizabeth's idea.”
Neal raised an eyebrow and said: “I figured that much. Why are you sweating? You look very uncomfortable.”
“That's because I am uncomfortable. El assured me that you'd like it because you told her once that you'd never had one as a kid but I'm not sure if this is an appropriate gift for a grown man.”
Neal's eyes sparkled with curiosity and hastily he opened the box. Peter sat very stiff while a flush spread out on his face. Neal held the gift in both hands and stared at it. An awestruck expression settled on his face when he tenderly stroked the soft fur of the big brown teddy bear. He turned to Peter with a genuine smile on his face. Peter was stunned to see Neal's eyes brimming with tears when he heard a softly whispered: “thank you.”
He was even more stunned when Neal put the gift box on the floor, then hesitantly scooted closer to him. Peter was completely bewildered when Neal curled up next to him with the teddy bear pressed against his chest. Hesitantly Peter looped an arm around Neal's shoulder while he draped a woolen blanket over the both of them. A content sigh was his reward when he hugged Neal closer. While Neal slowly fell asleep Peter thought that life with Neal was definitely never going to be boring.