Here is the penultimate chapter. It's long and pretty emotionally intense. I thought about breaking it up (for length and emotional arc reasons) but decided I didn't want to make you guys wait around any longer. Thanks to quirkapotamus for a quick beta.

And thank you all for still reading! I know it's been a while, but this is almost the end. The last (much shorter, fluffier chapter) will be posted next week. Promise. I love you all.


"And this is my favorite truck," Berto said, handing Eliot a bright red firetruck. "And this is my favorite ball."

Eliot added both to the growing pile of toys on his lap. Berto seemed to be showing him every toy he owned, and they all seemed to be his favorite.

They'd just finished cleaning up after dinner — some delicious, memory-soaked spaghetti. The recipe was Pete's. Eliot had cooked it for the team the first time several years ago, and though they all loved it and begged for it often, he saved it only for special occasions. The painful memories always made him avoid it. But if the defeat of Moreau wasn't a special or appropriate occasion for such a meal, he didn't know what was.

Still, he'd felt a little raw after it was over. Pete had made his spaghetti for the Floreses before, so everyone understood the importance of Eliot cooking it, and though no one had said or even implied anything, he felt stupid, almost embarrassed, for being so sentimental.

Now they were lounging lazily in what must once have been the library of the large house, but which the Floreses used as a general family room. Shelves full of books lined the walls; toys scattered the floor, though they were rapidly being collected in Eliot's lap. Eliot sat in a comfortable arm chair, a place of honor of sorts. Maria and Matty sat together on a couch to his left, Anita and Juan sat on a couch to his right, and a coffee table sat in the middle of the U they formed.

"Eliot," Maria said. "Where on earth did you learn to cook like that?"

He smiled. The best part of the evening had been the looks on everyone's faces when they'd realized he more than knew what he was doing.

"Belgium."

Everyone laughed.

"I'm serious. I traveled around a lot after I left, and I met someone in Belgium who …" He trailed off. "I learned a lot of things, but he taught me how to cook."

He decided not to describe the circumstances under which he'd met Toby, or just how much the art of cooking had helped him to recover from Pete's death and his exile from San Lorenzo. Making Pete's spaghetti for them felt like too much vulnerability as it was.

"Wherever you learned it," Anita said. "Dinner was wonderful. You are officially welcome to cook in my kitchen any time you like."

"And that is high praise, indeed," Juan added.

"This is my favorite bear," Berto said, shoving a tattered, faded teddy bear into Eliot's hands before trying and, after three attempts and two refusals of help, climbing into Eliot's lap. He settled himself between Eliot's side and the arm of the chair, nestling into the crook of Eliot's elbow, and started to play with his toys. Eliot couldn't help a smile.

Berto had been stuck to him like glue since the incident in the kitchen. He didn't mind. In fact, to his surprise, he actually enjoyed it. Something about the boy's innocence made him feel more calm and relaxed than he'd felt in a long time.

"If he starts to bother you, Eliot, you can send him over here." Maria gave her husband a quick glance as she spoke. Matty, whose arm was wrapped around her, didn't meet it; he just stared as his son sat contentedly in Eliot's lap, a hard, impassive mask on his face.

Eliot had an idea what that was about, and he felt a little bad about it, but he didn't want to get into it with Matty right now. "Nah, he's fine. What's your bear's name?" he asked Berto.

"Señor Oso," Berto said, hugging the bear tightly.

Eliot tried not to smirk. "Mr. Bear. How did you come up with that name?"

"I didn't. Abuelo did."

Juan smiled. "How many times do I have to tell you, mijo? Ididn't call it that. Tío Berto, did."

"And when she was passed to me, I called her Señorita Osa," Maria said. "But apparently Papa forgot about that. Or maybe he thinks teddy bears should always be male."

Juan's eyeroll was undercut by the smirk that graced his lips. He stood and walked over to one of the bookshelves that, Eliot realized upon further inspection, had been appropriated as a liquor cabinet. An entire shelf, floor to ceiling, full of scotch. "She'll never let me live that one down. Señor Oso was his original name. If anyone was sexist, it was your brother."

Eliot tensed at the comment, but no one else seemed to think it was odd.

"Oh, I told him so on numerous occasions." Maria lifted her chin and looked down her nose. "Eventually he saw it my way."

The room fell into silence while Juan pondered his enormous scotch collection.

Eliot cleared his throat. "You're very — uh —" He wasn't sure how to say what he meant without offending anyone.

"Open?" Anita offered. "About Berto?"

Eliot dropped his gaze, the evening's earlier discussion of "Uncle Pete" still on his mind. "And other people."

"We think it's important to honor the people we've lost by remembering them," Maria said. "We do the same with Matty's parents." Her pause was just long enough to make it obvious that she was avoiding a certain name. "I want our children to know them. I know Berto would have wanted that."

Matty, Eliot observed, was still silent, still watching his son snuggle with Eliot, jaw tightening with every passing minute.

Juan finally selected a bottle and brought it, along with five glasses, to the coffee table. He poured a finger's worth of an expensive-looking scotch — Eliot couldn't see the label — into each glass and started handing them out.

"Um," Eliot said to Maria. "Should you be …?"

Anita and Maria gave nearly identical scoffs. Like mother, like daughter.

"No uterus, no opinion, Spencer," daughter said with a huff.

"Alcohol in moderation is fine," mother added. "And certainly in celebration of something like this. We've been working toward yesterday for almost twenty years."

Matty and Juan didn't look too happy about the situation, but neither — wisely, Eliot thought — said anything. He followed their lead.

"Frankly, if I thought it would make them come sooner," Maria said, "I'd be doing shots. I want them here already."

She said the last with a tiny pout, like that of a child tired of waiting for Christmas morning to arrive. She took Matty's hand and gave him a tired smile, which he returned, though his heart didn't seem to be in it.

"I'm going to be a big brother!" Berto clapped his hands, bouncing on Eliot's lap. "I'm gonna have a baby brother and a baby sister and I'm gonna help and give them toys and can I have some, Abuelo?"

Without pausing for a segue or even a breath, he held out his cup to Juan, who had just handed Eliot a glass. Damn, his attention span was short.

"Of course you can!" Juan said animatedly.

He opened Berto's cup, sat it on the table, and with a sleight-of-hand even Parker would have found impressive, poured an extra bit of scotch into his own glass which was placed so it looked like he was pouring it into Berto's cup. He replaced the lid and presented it to the toddler with a flourish.

Berto looked skeptical for just long enough to make Eliot think he wouldn't buy it, but he finally took a drink of the juice. "Mmm!" He smacked his lips exaggeratedly.

And Eliot had thought he couldn't possibly get any more adorable.

Juan turned to the room, smiling. "A toast!"

"To San Lorenzo," said Anita.

"And victory at last," added Maria.

"To everyone who made it possible, past and present," said Juan.

"To those who aren't here to see it," Matty said softly.

A small pause.

"And to those who are," Juan finished. "Especially —" He raised his glass to Eliot. "Eliot, who has finally come back to us."

The look of sheer elation on his face made Eliot's throat burn.

Berto bounced up and down, shaking his unspillable — thank God — cup and shouting, "Tío Eliot!"

Everyone else raised their glasses and said, "To Eliot!"

Except for Matty, who barely managed to force his clenched jaw into a weak smile.

Eliot cleared his throat and gave a short, quick nod. "A Dios, y San Lorenzo, y San Lorenzo."

Everyone brought their glasses together with various clinks. Berto insisted on smacking his plastic cup against each person's glass in turn. The last person he reached was Matty, who had already knocked back his first drink and poured himself a second one by the time Berto got to him. His expression was blank as Berto climbed back into Eliot's lap, wrapped pudgy arms around his neck, and snuggled into his side again.

Eliot had been thinking a lot about what Mind Pete had said at the grave. And he understood Matty's jealousy, he really did. Especially tonight. Especially right now.

But that didn't mean he had to like it. It wasn't his fault Berto had latched onto him. Why couldn't Eliot enjoy for just one evening the type of attention Matty would get every day for the rest of forever from three kids?

The remaining adults in the room seemed to have read the awkwardness between the two men because Maria nudged her husband.

"So, General Ramirez." She grinned, stressing the title. "Yesterday you arrested Moreau. Today you arrested Ribera. Who's on the slate for tomorrow?"

Matty rolled his eyes and gave a shy smirk.

Eliot gritted his teeth. Only Matty Ramirez could reject and take a compliment at the same time.

"I've been meaning to ask you," Juan said. "How did your interrogation of Moreau go today?"

Matty leaned back with a sigh. "It didn't. We sat in the room. We stared at each other. I asked some questions. We stared some more. I left after about thirty minutes. He didn't say a single word."

"We expected that," said Maria.

Matty shook his head. "I expected him to be smug about it because he wanted to rattle me. But he was the one who looked rattled before I had even said anything."

Uh-oh. Eliot didn't like where this was going.

"Maybe he was scared of you," suggested Anita.

"No," Matty said. "I know when people are scared of me versus something else. And he was scared of something else." He looked pointedly at Eliot. "Someone else."

Dammit. Matty knew about his conversation with Moreau. "He told you?"

Matty blinked. "I didn't expect you to confess that quickly. Aren't you supposed to be some great thief who's evaded law enforcement for years?"

"Technically," Eliot growled. "I was just asking a question, not confessing —"

"You spoke with Moreau last night?" Juan asked.

Eliot refused to lie to Juan, but he wouldn't give Matty the satisfaction of a confession, either. So he compromised and said nothing.

Juan frowned. "When? And how?"

"During the party," Matty supplied. "He snuck down to the Tombs and told my men he was ordered to speak with Moreau. By me. And you." He nodded to Juan.

So it hadn't been Moreau after all. It had been that whip-smart Commander Alvarez. Damn him.

"And then, when they weren't quite convinced, he used the threat of your wrath," Matty added to his wife, "to keep them from calling me to double-check."

Maria's eyebrows shot up, and she leaned toward Eliot excitedly. "Did that really work?"

"What did you say to Moreau that scared him like that?" Juan asked.

"Forget all that," said Matty. "You conned my men!"

Berto, forehead wrinkled in adorable confusion, asked in a small, sweet voice, "Mama, what does 'con' mean?"

"It's like a trick. Like engañar."

Berto's little eyes widened in horror. "Vosotros engañasteis Papa?" You tricked Papa?

Eliot snorted.

"No," Matty corrected firmly. "Él engañó Papa's men."

"Men you trained," Eliot muttered.

"Is that what this was about? A pissing match?" The anger faded from Matty's face, and he looked … hurt. "It's me, El. If you had just asked, I would have —"

"Did it ever occur to you that I didn't want anyone knowing?"

"Yes, it did." Matty's calm tone contrasted with Eliot's agitated one. "That's why I told Alvarez to let you go."

As gentle as the words were, they hit Eliot with the force of a baseball bat to the solar plexus.

"What — How — Alvarez didn't call you." He was sure of that. It had been the whole point of the con. He even remembered being disappointed in Alvarez for not calling; the man's instincts were right, but his execution had fallen just short.

Matty failed to hide a smug smirk. "He called me when you were in the Tombs."

Eliot's jaw dropped to the floor, and his gaze followed it.

He was such an idiot.

Of course Alvarez had called Matty after he'd gotten in the elevator. That was the smart thing to do. Let the legendary Commander Eliot Spencer, who could take out you and your three comrades without even breaking a sweat, descend into an inescapable prison. Then call your general. If Spencer was telling the truth, no harm no foul. If he was lying — well, he was already trapped and back-up was on the way.

Why hadn't Eliot seen that? It was what he would have done in Alvarez's place.

When he finally opened his mouth to speak, Matty was ready.

"I know you're pissed, but if you had just —"

"You need to promote him," Eliot said. "Now."

Matty froze, mouth agape, before settling back in his seat, clearly pleased and not a little proud. "What do you think I've been doing all day?"

Eliot started to tick things off on his fingers. "Arresting Ribera, interrogating Moreau, setting up a new government …"

"Well, yeah." Matty waved a dismissive hand, like finally achieving his life's goal was no big deal. "But I've also been promoting and demoting people. Ditching the corrupt ones and advancing the good ones."

"So you made him your second-in-command?"

"I already have a second-in-command."

"Demote him. Alvarez —"

"I'm not going to demote her, sexist," Matty said. "She's the best officer I have, and Alvarez is still young and relatively inexperienced. But he's next in line. Lieutenant colonel."

Eliot raised his eyebrows. "Your second-in-command is a woman?"

"Don't act so surprised," Matty said. "Women can be soldiers, too, and damned good ones. And she's the first woman to be promoted to colonel in San Lorenzo history." He nudged Maria with his elbow. "I did that."

"Aw, do you want a cookie?" Maria said in a high babyish voice, sticking out her lower lip. Then she snorted. "It's 2010, Matty. One woman in the upper ranks in the forty-one years of this country's history is hardly anything to brag about. I expect a memo on my desk next week explaining how you plan to recruit more."

Matty laughed.

"I'm serious, Ramirez. As Minister of the Interior —"

"Your job is to deal with domestic issues, like setting up our brand new police force," Matty finished. "The military is my domain."

Maria shrugged. "If you say so."

"We are equal members of the cabinet, Flores." Matty's tone was slightly defensive, but not angry. "I do not answer to you at work."

"Yet," Maria said under her breath.

Matty's eyes widened. "Juan, tell her that I don't answer to her."

"Oh no," Juan chuckled. "I am not getting involved in this." As Matty turned back to Maria, he added quietly, "And I'll be advising Michael to do the same."

"Weren't you paying attention to Michael's presentation this morning?" Matty said. "He had a very clear flow chart that says you answer to the president and I answer to the president, and our boxes were nowhere near each other."

"It didn't seem that clear to me," Maria said. "A bunch of boxes with names of cabinet members jumbled together. I don't see why you can't answer to me …"

Anita leaned over to Eliot and said, quietly enough not to disturb the argument, "I hear you're responsible for this."

He threw his hands up in surrender. "I wasn't the one who brought up —"

"I mean them. Lately their arguments have been far too real. You have no idea how long it's been since they argued like this."

"If you think about it," Matty was saying, his tone playful, "it doesn't make sense for the military to be part of the Interior."

"Why not? It's part of the domestic workings of the country." Maria had a twinkle in her eye. "When was the last time San Lorenzo invaded another nation?"

"That doesn't have anything to do with anything!"

Eliot smiled. He couldn't deny it; they both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. In fact, knowing them, it was probably some weird sort of foreplay.

"I don't know what you said, or how you did it," Anita said. "But you've obviously been matchmaking again."

Eliot's breath caught in his throat. Anita just gave him a kind, understanding smile and placed her hand on top of his.

"Well done," she said, giving his hand a squeeze.

In order to be heard over Matty insisting, "We'll ask Michael about it tomorrow," she raised her voice and said, "Oh dear. It looks like someone is up past his bedtime."

Eliot looked down to see Berto rub his eyes and whimper, "Mama, I'm tired."

His parents rose from the couch not quite simultaneously. Maria grunted a little, hauling herself up. "I know, mijo. Let's get your pajamas on and go upstairs."

Berto clung to Eliot's arm. "Can Uncle Eliot take me to bed?"

Maria froze for just a moment, so quickly that Eliot barely caught it, then said, "Papa can take you to bed tonight, bebé. Remember the other night when you said you missed his bedtime stories?"

"Uncle Eliot, can you tell me a bedtime story?" Berto's face was hopeful and eager as he tugged on Eliot's sleeve, but it was his papa Eliot watched.

Matty's face had fallen, and for a moment Eliot saw an array of emotions: Grief. Jealousy. Insecurity. Betrayal. How one face could show so many types of pain, Eliot didn't know, but he saw all those on Matty's, whose eyes shone more brightly than a second before.

But, ever the brave soldier, Matty summoned his mask, pasted on a toothy grin, cleared his throat and said, "I bet Uncle Eliot tells great bedtime stories." His voice giving out on the last word was the only evidence that anything was wrong.

Eliot hoped that some day Matty's children would understand how good a man their father was.

"Yay, Uncle Eliot bedtime stories!" Berto clapped his hands excitedly.

"No." The harshness of Eliot's tone surprised even himself; the toddler in his lap actually jumped. "I hate bedtime stories."

Berto's gasped the cutest little horrified gasp Eliot had ever seen. "Mama, Uncle Eliot said he hates bedtime stories!"

"He did!" Maria said, just as horrified. "But you know who loves bedtime stories?"

"Papa!" Berto jumped down and ran to Matty. "You tell the best bedtime stories."

An enormous, genuine grin broke out onto Matty's face, and it made him look a decade younger. He crouched down to receive the running toddler into his open arms, holding him close for a few seconds before saying, "Come on, mijo. Say good night, and then you can choose your story while you brush your teeth."

Berto went over and kissed Juan and Anita on the cheeks. When he came to Eliot, he did the same. Eliot felt himself flush, and he actually touched the place Berto had kissed, like a lovestruck teenager.

"Will you take me to the park tomorrow?" the boy asked.

Eliot looked to Maria, a silent question. Was that something Matty usually did?

Maria gave a short nod of approval, and Eliot said, "Sure."

"Yay!" Berto clapped his hands. "Good night, Tío Eliot!" He gave a little wave and walked back to Matty.

Father and son moved to leave, Maria close behind.

"No! Only Papa!" Berto stuck his arm out straight in what was clearly meant to be a stop sign, but his hand and fingers were outstretched like he was about to cast a spell or conjure … whatever toddlers conjured. Ice cream?

Maria held up her hands in surrender. "Yes, sir. But I need a good night kiss before you go."

She sat down on the couch. Berto wrapped his arms around her, kissed her on the lips, and said, "Buenas noches, Mama."

"Buenas noches, mijo."

Berto reached up and slid his tiny hand into Matty's large one. As they walked out the door and into the hallway, he said, "Papa, maybe you should tell Uncle Eliot a story so he'll like them."

Matty burst into laughter, and the pure joy echoed down the hallway and back into the room, infecting Eliot.

"It's not a joke, Papa." Berto was serious. "Don't laugh."

"You're right." Mirth still colored Matty's tone. "Which story do you think I should tell him?"

Their voices faded away, but Eliot's smile remained.

.

.

.

"Thank you," Maria said softly.

Eliot shrugged. "It's true. I hate bedtime stories."

She gave him a flat look, and Eliot knew she didn't buy it. From Anita's cocked eyebrow, it was obvious she didn't either.

They all fell silent as they waited for Juan's reaction, but he didn't have one. His head leaned back against the couch, and his eyes were closed. Eliot hadn't noticed until that moment just how old Juan looked. He was hardly surprised; the man was in his early sixties and had just spent a week in prison. Upon being broken out, he'd stayed up most of the night celebrating, driven several hours round-trip to track down Eliot, and spent the rest of the day setting up a new government for his country. He deserved to sleep for a month, and then retire. Again.

But before Eliot could suggest anything, Anita shook her head as if to say, Let him be for now.

"It was very sweet of you," she said aloud. "The last few weeks have been difficult for Matty, and I know Berto's missed him."

Eliot looked over at the sleeping Juan, the faint outline of a bruise and faded cuts still visible on his face. He started to take inventory of himself, too, but stopped after a few seconds when a wave of exhaustion and too graphic memories threatened to overwhelm him both physically and emotionally.

Yes, the last few weeks had been difficult for Matty.

His thoughts must have come through his expression somehow because Maria frowned and exchanged a look with her mother before speaking.

"Matty blamed himself when Papa was arrested," she said quietly. "We didn't know if he'd been captured or killed, but when we found out he was alive, Matty didn't relax at all. He tried to hide it, but I could tell he was mentally preparing to lose another father to Moreau."

Guilt for his previous unkind thoughts throbbed in Eliot's stomach. Of course that had been hard on Matty. In fact, Maria could have been describing his own feelings about Juan's arrest.

His gaze flicked briefly to Juan, and he was surprised to find that, although the man's eyes were still closed, his brow was furrowed deeply. Apparently he wasn't as asleep as they'd thought.

"And even though, through some miracle" — Maria crossed herself, and Eliot had never seen the action look so grateful — "we won, and no one died and everyone was safe, it was bittersweet. We've lost so many people getting here, and Matty more than anyone. You heard him talking to Parker about being an orphan. He has a family, he has Papa and Mama, but he still considers himself an orphan. He always wanted to be a general, like his father, but his promotion and setting up the new government today just remind him that his father and so many other people aren't around to see it."

The guilt thrummed again, stronger, but it didn't recede this time; it decided to make itself at home in the pit of Eliot's stomach. It was, however, joined by an unfamiliar sense of understanding. He'd thought that beating Moreau would fix everything for the Floreses, but apparently Matty's reaction to it all was just as complex as Eliot's own.

His gaze flicked to Juan, who looked almost anguished now: eyes squeezed tight, mouth in a deep frown, chest rising and falling more quickly than before.

"On top of all that," said Maria, "he's worried about me and the babies, and our marriage, and he hasn't seen Berto for longer than a few minutes at a time in weeks."

She placed a hand on his arm. "I know things haven't been much better for you lately, and it was obvious that Berto — that he helped you somehow, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me." She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "So don't think I don't know the importance of what you just did, for both of you. Thank you."

Dammit. First Mind Pete and now Maria. Why couldn't they just let him resent Matty in peace? It was easier that way.

"Cut it out," he growled. "I said I didn't like bedtime stories. I didn't dive on a grenade for him."

"You know better than anyone that most sacrifices aren't made on a battlefield," Juan said.

Both women turned to him sharply. Maria flushed; Anita merely looked annoyed.

"Faking sleep in order to eavesdrop, hmm?" she asked her husband.

"Not faking," Juan replied without opening his eyes. "Just dozing."

"Then perhaps that's our cue," Anita said. "Bedtime."

Juan blinked his eyes open. "But why? I'm not tired."

Eliot barked out a too-loud laugh, as much at Juan's answer as at the identical stern, disbelieving looks the man received from his wife and daughter.

The General's expression was stern. "You're supposed to be on my side, Commander."

"I am, sir. You need to sleep."

"Et tu?" Juan sighed. "I only have one meeting tomorrow." He sounded disappointed. "Michael pulled me aside and told me to take the next few days to rest. He said it was an order."

"Oh, no," said Anita, gently mocking. "He discovered your secret weakness."

Juan huffed, but it was good-natured.

"Come on." Anita stood, holding out her hands to help Juan up.

As he rose, Juan asked, "Can Uncle Eliot take me to bed?"

They all laughed.

"You're on your own, old man," Eliot said. "I only ever take beautiful women to bed."

"What a coincidence," Juan said, wrapping his arm around Anita. "So do I."

Anita smiled demurely and kissed him on the cheek.

Eliot looked away, feeling like a voyeur. The empty, lonely cavern in his chest gaped wide.

They said good night. Juan hugged Eliot for several long moments and added, "I'm so glad you're back, mijo."

Matty returned just as they were leaving. "Bed already? Wimp," he said with a shake of his head at Juan.

Without warning, Juan embraced him roughly.

Matty chuckled but returned the hug. "I'm going to see you tomor —"

He broke off, his laugh evaporating. Eliot couldn't see Juan's face, but he was clearly speaking into Matty's ear.

Juan was around Eliot's height, and of similar build; Matty was tall and lean, much more like Hardison. But, though he stood about a foot taller, Matty seemed to sink into Juan's arms like a child. He closed his eyes, nodded several times, and finally dropped his chin onto Juan's shoulder, grasping the older man like a lifeline.

Eliot knew how he felt. His talk with Juan that morning at the grave only seemed to have taken place weeks ago.

Juan might have been exhausted, but not where it mattered.

Matty pulled away with a thick, clipped, "Yes, sir."

Juan gave his cheek a gentle pat, as he had with Eliot earlier in the day, said one final, "Good night," and left with Anita.

.

.

.

Matty moved to the couch like a sleepwalker.

Maria waited a few beats before placing a hand on his arm. "You okay?"

That snapped Matty out of his daze. "What did you tell him?" He sounded more resigned than mad.

"I didn't — We thought he was asleep!" Maria protested.

Matty raised an eyebrow. "Really? You fell for the old, 'old guy pretends to be asleep' trick? He's not senile. He probably did it on purpose."

Eliot snorted. "That sounds like him, but not this time. He was falling asleep and just happened to hear something interesting."

"So how was Berto?" Maria asked, not-so-deftly changing the subject. "You were up there for less time than I expected, even as tired he was."

Matty settled back against the couch, submitting without argument to the subject change. Maybe he'd bring it up later when he had more energy — and less Eliot.

"He actually started to fall asleep while brushing his teeth." The tender smile that grew on Matty's face overflowed with fatherly affection. "I carried him to bed. He was out before we hit the hallway."

"It's been a long day," said Maria. "I'm sure you'll get a story in tomorrow."

Her tone was comforting and encouraging, but Matty seemed more than happy just to have held his sleeping son for a few steps down the hallway, put him to bed, and kissed him good night. It had never been about the stories; they were just an excuse.

The silence that fell over them stretched from pleasant to uncomfortable to awkward, and butterflies stirred in Eliot's belly. It was just the three of them now, and he was worried about the potential topics of conversation. They would take more energy than he had at the moment; he was tired, and he didn't trust himself to have a mature discussion right now.

Maria and Matty were exchanging glances, and that could only be bad for him. He debated getting up and going to bed.

No, going to bed would only postpone the inevitable. And it wasn't like he could sleep anyway. So he just sat, stomach fluttering.

It was, of course, Maria who broke the silence. She cleared her throat, but didn't speak for nearly a full minute after.

When she finally did, the words came haltingly. "Papa — Papa said that you … went to the grave today."

Eliot took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Of all the possible discussion topics, this was the one he felt least apprehensive about.

He nodded.

Maria took a deep breath of her own. Was she nervous? "Did you get the closure you needed?"

He thought of his conversation at the grave with Mind Pete — and there was no way in hell he'd be telling them about that, they'd think he was nuts — and how ever since, Mind Pete was no longer intruding on his thoughts, the memories weren't quite so vivid, and it didn't hurt as much to hear Pete's name.

"Yeah," he said. "I think I did."

Maria placed her hand on his. "I'm so glad, Eliot. It must have been difficult to deal with all that alone."

Matty didn't say anything; his mask was back up.

"Can I — ask you something?" Maria's voice shook. "About — about what happened?"

Matty looked at her and sat up a little straighter.

Eliot's heart started to pound; the butterflies in his stomach fluttered with renewed intensity.

He tried to keep his voice steady. "S-sure."

It didn't work.

Maria stared at her hands, blinking rapidly. "Was he in pain?"

The worst of the memories forced themselves to the front of his mind.

Eliot's hands shook hard, making his movements rough — Pete's resultant cry of pain sliced through his heart like a knife.

He lifted Pete's arm on the uninjured side and wrapped it around his shoulder. He reached across Pete's body and started to stand up when Pete yelped loudly in pain. "Don't!" he whimpered, tears in his eyes.

Pete tried to laugh again but erupted into a violent coughing fit instead. He spat blood with each convulsion, and drops trickled down his chin.

Pete tried to chuckle. Instead, the air caught in his throat, and he gasped for breaths that he couldn't catch again, and again, and again.

With an enormous effort, Eliot pushed the painful images away and focused on Maria, who was now speaking at lightning speed.

"I'm asking because when Berto was killed, the doctor said that since he was shot in the head he would have died instantly and probably wouldn't have even known what happened, and that was comforting for me and Mama. But when I talked to the doctor about Pete, he said it would have taken a little while for —" Her voice broke.

"Maria," Matty said softly. He held her hand with one of his; his other arm was wrapped around her. It was clear that he was concerned about her and nothing else. Like Eliot, he had seen far too many men die of wounds caused by armor-piercing rounds; he didn't need to hear the answer to Maria's question.

Maria sucked in a sob. "I was going to ask you about it after the wedding, when everything wasn't so fresh. It probably seems stupid, but he was my friend, and I want to know what his last moments were like."

The wave of guilt hit Eliot so hard he almost gagged. After Pete's death, he'd been so empty and angry in turns that he pushed everyone away, including Matty and Maria. He'd never told anyone exactly what had happened in the warehouse; he'd only given Juan a summary, and then he'd refused to speak of it — or scared everyone into not asking.

He, Matty, and Maria had been Pete's closest friends, and two of them had gone eight years without the closure of knowing his last moments. Sure, Eliot had grieved alone, but at least he'd known what he was grieving. Maria and Matty's intended best man went away one day and came back dead, and their replacement best man shut down and left without so much as a goodbye a week later.

It was a wonder they could stand to be in the same room with him. How could he have been so damned selfish?

"If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay," Maria continued quickly. "I just thought that —"

"Don't." The word came out hard and rough.

Maria started; Matty tensed and tightened his arm around her.

"I mean, it's okay." Eliot said. "It wasn't fair of me to keep that from you."

"He was your best friend," said Maria. "I can't imagine how —"

"That doesn't matter." Eliot bowed his head. "It was selfish. I'll tell you everything you want to know."

"I don't think that's the best idea," Matty said.

"I don't care what you think," Maria snapped. "He was my friend, too!"

Matty jerked away from her.

"Eliot's right. Pete should be buried next to Sarah. I'm going, too."

"Like hell you are. I won't be responsible for bringing your body back, too, for Maria to cry over three days before her wedding."

"Dammit, Eliot! He's my friend too!"

Matty's mouth formed a thin line, and Eliot wondered if they had both recalled the same moment.

Maria noticed. She gave Matty's hand a squeeze, caressing the back of it with her thumb. "I don't need you to protect me, Ramirez. I want to know what happened."

That fire was in her eyes again.

Matty laced his fingers in hers and put his other hand on top of their joined ones. "It's going to hurt, mi amor."

"I know that," Maria said. "But I have to know." She turned back to Eliot. "He was in pain, wasn't he?"

Eliot nodded, throat burning.

Maria's eyes filled with tears. "That's what the doctor said. Could he talk?"

Matty's jaw tightened, and his mouth formed that grim, thin line again. He drew his hand away from Maria's and leaned as far away from her as possible without actually moving. Eliot watched as his eyes grew distant and that brave soldier returned.

Eliot recognized all the signs because he'd done the same for eight years. But Maria, eager to hear the answer to her question, did not.

"Yes," Eliot answered her. "He had a lot to say."

"Did he make jokes?"

Eliot smiled, but it was bittersweet. "Yeah, he did."

And he told them. He started from the moment he and Pete had entered the warehouse and continued through every detail until the arrival of the medics. Maria only interrupted once.

"He didn't say that," she insisted.

"I swear," said Eliot, holding his hands up in surrender. "He said, 'Maybe they'll name a kid after me,' and he said it with a smirk."

Maria caressed her belly, smiling at Matty, who returned it weakly.

"Wait," Eliot said. "Are you going to name a kid after him?"

"Our lips are sealed," Maria said. "No one but us knows what the names will be, not even Mama, though she tries to trick me into telling her every day."

"Plus, they're not exactly decided yet," Matty muttered.

They refused to tell him any more.

They were good listeners. They laughed at Pete's other jokes, though the laughs became fewer and sadder. And when he had to stop several times during the telling, they waited patiently.

There was only one thing he left out: he couldn't bring himself to admit that he and Pete had heard Matty over the radio, or that Pete had begged him not to respond. He didn't even mention that Pete made him promise to get Matty to the wedding. He just made it sound like Pete had said he was sorry he couldn't make it to the wedding, and then the joke about the kids' names. Eliot wasn't sure how Matty would react, and he wanted to keep the focus on Pete, not on his and Matty's issues.

When he finished, they sat in silence for several minutes. Maria cried softly. Matty leaned back against the couch, staring into space.

Eliot was spent, too. His entire body felt like jelly, as though he'd just finished a fight. Or run a marathon. Or climbed Everest.

But the physical and emotional exhaustion, just like whenever he won a hard fight, was accompanied by elation. In this case, though, the feeling wasn't caused by endorphins, but due to a massive emotional release. (He mentally rolled his eyes as he imagined the fun Pete would have had with that double-entendre.) His conversations throughout the day with Mind Pete, Juan, the team, and Nate had all contributed, but this was the icing on the cake.

And all that was left was exhaustion.

He finally convinced his brain that bed would be more comfortable and stood up to leave.

"Why didn't you say goodbye?"

Matty's words stopped Eliot in his tracks, but the man hadn't moved. He just sat, arms folded, glaring at the coffee table like he was debating whether or not to beat it to a pulp.

Eliot lowered himself back into the chair.

No rest for the wicked.

.

.

.

"I said," Matty intoned, enunciating every word as he turned his death glare on Eliot. "Why didn't you say goodbye?"

Eliot had been preparing an actual explanation, including an apology, but Matty's impatient repetition threw it all out the window. "I didn't think you'd care."

Matty turned away so quickly that the words might have been a physical blow. His breaths became faster and more ragged.

"Is that really what you think?" Maria's tone was almost, but not quite, scolding. "Or is that what you've been telling yourself for eight years?"

Eliot remembered what Matty had said to him the day of Pete's funeral. "Fuck you, Spencer." But he hadn't just spoken the words. He'd hurled them, drenched in loathing and anguish, and like so many knives, they'd pierced through Eliot's already tattered heart.

And then there was the morning of the wedding.

"I'm — is there anything I can do?"

"You've done enough."

"You hated me," Eliot said, voice thick with remembered pain. "You blamed me for what happened."

"No, I didn't," said Matty.

"Is that really what you think?" Maria asked him. The question was quieter this time, but no less intense. "Or is that what you've been telling yourself for eight years?"

Matty's eyes flickered to his wife, then back to the spot on the coffee table he seemed to despise.

"I did blame you, at first," he said after a pause. "But we talked the morning of the wedding, and I … I thought we were going to be okay then."

Eliot nearly choked. "We didn't talk the morning of the wedding. Not really." He tried and failed to contain his bitterness.

"You're right. We didn't," said Matty. "We hugged. And you said you were sorry."

Only then did the rest of the memory play out in Eliot's mind.

Matty turned around and, staring at the carpet, made a beeline for the door.

Eliot grabbed his arm. The other man's eyes snapped up, and Eliot saw only pain. Before Matty could do anything else, Eliot embraced him.

Eliot expected Matty to hit him, or shove him, or at the very least pull away, but he did none of those things. Instead, Matty pulled him close and buried his face in Eliot's shoulder.

Every beat of his heart was pure torment, and the nothingness in his chest threatened to overwhelm him. So he gripped Matty tighter and said, "I'm so sorry."

Matty sucked in a breath that was almost a sob. Eliot almost did, too, but he had a job to do.

He cleared his throat. "Maria wants to see that dashing Ramirez smile. You're not going to disappoint her, are you?"

Eliot blinked. He hadn't forgotten about that, but he'd thought it less important. Apparently Matty hadn't.

"That's when I realized," Matty said, "that we both missed Pete and we were both blaming you. And in spite of that, you made it your mission to make sure I smiled for Maria. I figured we'd talk about it after the wedding. If I had realized that was the last chance I was going to get, I would've —"

He kicked the coffee table hard, rattling the empty glasses sitting there. Thankfully, the bottle had been put away before Juan had gone to bed.

Matty wasn't even trying to hide the raw anger and pain anymore. It overflowed onto his face and into his voice. "You didn't say goodbye because you thought I hated you?"

Eliot sat stunned. He and Matty had both experienced the same conversation and taken away opposite messages. Eliot, of course, had focused on the negatives: missing Pete, Matty blaming him, loneliness and nothingness. But Matty had focused on the positives: understanding Eliot's guilt, seeing the opportunity for reconciliation, appreciating the gestures Eliot had made.

Fuck, if that wasn't a prime example of the difference between the two of them, he didn't know what was.

"I didn't say goodbye because I didn't want to ruin your wedding day," Eliot said. "The other crap just supported that decision."

"What gave you the right to make that executive decision?" Matty asked. "I thought things would finally be okay between us, and then we came back from our honeymoon and you were fucking gone! I'd already lost Berto and Pete and then you just up and left without a single fucking word."

"You're full of shit if you think things would ever have been okay between us. They were never okay, and they were never going to be. Pete had to play fucking referee. Did you honestly think with him gone things would have been better?"

Before Matty could respond, Maria gave a huge, exaggerated yawn. "Well, I'm exhausted. Long day setting up a new government and all." She heaved herself to her feet with a groan and moved toward the door. "Looks like you two are off to a great start. I'm off to bed. Try not to wake the house."

They both gaped at her. Eliot had forgotten she was there.

"I can tell things are about to get touchy-feely," she said, unruffled by the men's stares, "and I think we'd all prefer I not be here for that. But by all means, don't stop on my account."

Matty looked almost as dumbfounded and embarrassed as Eliot felt. He was glad Maria was leaving, but wished he'd been a bit more cognizant of her presence before he'd started blurting things out.

Maria paused when she reached the door, hand resting on the knob. She spoke with her back to them.

"This conversation has been a long time coming. Pete loved you both, and he used to tell me how much he wished you'd get along. So make this count. " She turned to face them. "If not for yourselves, at least do it for him?"

Then she swept out, the door clicking closed behind her.

.

.

.

"I hate when she does that," Matty grumbled.

"What, the guilt?" Eliot asked. "Maybe if you weren't so disgustingly Catholic, it wouldn't be so bad."

He was fully aware of the hypocrisy of the statement, considering Maria's guilt worked just as well on his wicked, non-Catholic ass.

Matty attempted a smile. They sat in stunned silence for a few more seconds.

"Fuck, I can't do this sober." Matty stood up suddenly and walked across the room. "You know what Pete would say if he was here right now?"

Eliot shrugged. "Fuck, you guys shouldn't do this sober?"

Matty's laugh had a slight nervous ring to it. "I was going to say, 'Quit moping and start drinking,' but that works, too." He crossed to the liquor cabinet/scotch bookshelf.

"Are you supposed to be mucking around in there?" Eliot asked.

Matty snorted and selected a bottle. "Please. Whenever we have scotch and cigars, he chooses the cigars. I pick the scotch."

"And you said you weren't his son." Eliot tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, and thought he succeeded. He'd been looking forward to scotch and cigars with Juan, but the older man's exhaustion had taken precedence. Maybe they'd get to it tomorrow.

If Matty heard the bitterness, he didn't show it, because he smiled to himself as he poured two generous helpings of scotch and a third, much smaller one.

"You're like him, you know," Eliot said when Matty handed him a glass.

"Who?"

"Juan. The way you talked to Parker at the airport … You have no idea how big of a deal it was for her to open up like that." Eliot frowned into his drink. "I never knew your dad, but I can tell you that right then, you were Juan Flores's son."

Matty reddened, suddenly very interested in his own scotch. "Thanks."

"Who's that for?" Eliot nodded at the third glass on the coffee table.

"Pete," Matty said.

Eliot swallowed painfully and cleared his throat to speak, but no words came, so he raised his glass in silence. Matty did the same.

Eliot took a large swig, but it didn't burn on the way down. The booze was damn smooth.

"Take it easy," Matty said. "This stuff's way too good to toss back like that."

"It's been a rough day. Week. Whatever," Eliot said, taking a second swig. Then, reconsidering, he downed the rest and poured himself another.

Matty by comparison, took an almost dainty sip, then glared at the glass like it was that spot on the coffee table. "Why am I the bad guy for wanting something more than bickering?"

Eliot sighed. Back to it.

"Enough with the martyr bullshit. You always resented me and my relationship with Juan and my friendship with Pete."

Matty's face reddened, though from embarrassment or anger, Eliot couldn't tell. Then Matty stood up and started to pace, and when he spoke, his voice was a few notches louder than normal. That put him firmly in the angry column.

"Can you blame me, when I was always the third wheel, even on missions?" The words burst out of Matty, relishing their freedom after nearly a decade of imprisonment. "And then you decided that wasn't good enough, and you stopped including me altogether!"

"I didn't decide anything." Eliot's calm tone was a stark contrast to Matty's.

"Don't give me that crap —"

"Do you want to know why I benched you?"

"I would love to hear what sorry excuse you've got for me."

"Maria and Pete."

That shut Matty up. He blinked, his mouth working wordlessly for a few moments.

"Bullshit," he whispered.

Eliot gritted his teeth. "A few months before the wedding, Maria came to me and Pete —"

"I know." Matty's tone was derisive, as if Eliot were treating him like an idiot. Then he sighed and sat down, rubbing his face. "I know."

It was Eliot's turn to blink in surprise. "She told you?"

Matty nodded. "It was the second night of our honeymoon. We'd just settled in to sleep when I heard her crying. I thought it was my fault, that maybe I …"

He flushed, and Eliot understood. Matty might have dated a dozen girls in high school to try to get over Maria, and Maria might have had a boyfriend before Matty, but they were both devoutly Catholic, and so had "saved themselves" for marriage. Eliot remembered what it had been like when he and Amy had first … well, awkward and painful and embarrassing didn't even begin to cover it. If Maria had been upset, of course Matty would have blamed himself. Under any other circumstances, he probably would have been right.

Matty cleared his throat. "She broke down sobbing and told me it was her fault Pete had been killed because she'd begged you and him to make me sit out before the wedding. And she told me how she used Sarah to convince Pete to keep me safe."

Eliot clenched his fists. "If you knew, why did you —"

"Because you were the soldier!" Matty smacked the coffee table with his open hand. "But you saw a chance to stick it to me and took it, instead of doing what was right. You could have told her no!"

"Her, yes," Eliot said quietly. "But I could never say no to Pete."

He stared at the glass intended for Pete before raising his gaze to Matty.

"You think I wanted to bench you? We should have had our best men out there, and you were the best San Lorenzo had to offer. You don't bench your star quarterback when he's perfectly healthy. But she didn't come to me. She went to Pete. And I've never been angrier at her than I was that day, the way she manipulated him." Pete's pain burned fresh in his mind. "But it worked. Pete begged me. Said he couldn't let Maria lose you like he lost Sarah. How was I supposed to say no to that?"

His voice gave out at the end.

Matty said nothing. Just sat, elbows on his knees, head in his hands.

"That's why I benched you that day," Eliot said. "And before he died, he made me promise to get you to the wedding, no matter what. That's why I couldn't let you go with me to bury him."

Matty raised his head, frowning.

"Trust me," said Eliot, "it would've been nice to have some company. I dug his grave and buried him myself." He dropped his gaze to his hands. His vision blurred at the memory of the blistering pain that couldn't block out the agony of his broken heart.

"Jesus, El." Eliot couldn't see him, but it sounded like Matty, too, was barely keeping it together.

Heh. Boy-crying.

"Wasn't — wasn't there someone who could do that?" Matty asked.

Eliot shook his head. "I wanted to. It was —" Something in his abdomen spasmed suddenly, and he sucked in a breath, a sobbing gasp. "I owed it to him. He pushed me out of the way. It was the least I could do."

"El." Matty shifted closer to him, into Maria's place on the couch, and his voice was almost a whisper. "It wasn't your fault. He made a choice."

"He shouldn't have had to." Eliot barely recognized his own voice, it was so small and childlike. "I should have known it was a trap. I should have told him and Maria no and brought you anyway."

He wiped his face roughly and met Matty's eyes, which were also filled with tears.

"You think I haven't spent the past eight years imagining what would have happened if you'd been there?" Eliot asked. "You're the tactician. You would have been able to get us out alive."

Matty sighed, and it was one of the heaviest, saddest sighs Eliot had ever heard. "I've imagined it, too. What I would have done. If I could have saved Pete. But I don't know that I could have. The cavalry only came because I was on the radio and not in the warehouse. Without that, I don't know what would have happened."

"I just can't help but think that if all three of us had been there, he might still be alive, and Berto would know his Uncle Pete."

"Or maybe all three of us would be dead now," said Matty. "Berto wouldn't even exist. Neither would the Leverage team. Moreau would still be hurting people, and Maria …" He looked away, but he didn't need to finish for Eliot to understand.

Maria would have ended up losing the love of her life not long before her wedding. Just like Pete.

"What ifs are pointless," Matty said when he'd gathered himself. "They don't help anyone."

He refilled their glasses and handed Eliot's to him. In silent, unintended unison, they raised them in the direction of the third, untouched glass before drinking.

Matty frowned at his scotch as though it tasted wrong. "So Pete made you promise to get me to the wedding. When he was dying." His tone tightened. "You must have forgotten to mention that part earlier."

Eliot's pause was enough of an answer.

"I see." Matty's hand clenched around the glass in his hand. "I thought you were going to be honest about this. What else did you leave out?"

Eliot bristled at the implication that withholding information was equivalent to lying. Of course sanctimonious Matty Ramirez would think that.

"I didn't lie to you."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Matty sneered. "Would you prefer the word 'con'?"

Eliot gritted his teeth. "That's not fair."

"No, what's not fair is that after everything that's happened, you're still keeping things from me," Matty snapped. "Is this how you are with the team? You must live a sad, lonely life. Only ever dealing in half-truths, never really letting anyone in."

Eliot tried to breathe, but it felt like a semi was sitting on his chest. How did Matty always know which knives to twist, and where?

He knocked back the rest of the scotch and slapped the glass down on the table. The alcohol burned his throat, but not enough. He grabbed the bottle and poured himself another generous serving.

Matty seemed to notice; his tone softened. "Please, El. What aren't you telling me?"

"If I told you," Eliot said quietly to his drink, "you'd hate me."

"Try me."

Eliot met Matty's gaze. Everything about him, from his tone to his posture, radiated understanding. He just wanted the truth — and all of it.

So Eliot took a deep breath, gripped his glass with both hands, and said, "We heard you. On the radio."

Matty inhaled sharply. "What?"

Eliot closed his eyes. He couldn't look at Matty while he told him.

"You called over the radio and asked if Pete was okay. I was going to respond, but he stopped me. He said if you knew he was hurt, you'd come to the warehouse, and we'd promised Maria …"

Tears threatened to escape, and he squeezed his eyes tighter.

"He used up the rest of his strength to beg me not to say anything, and he made me promise to get you to the wedding, no matter what. So I did. That's when he said, 'I don't want to go now,' and he —" His voice broke. "He was so scared."

Matty said nothing. He didn't move or make a sound.

After what seemed like ages, Eliot couldn't bear it anymore. "Please say something."

Matty's glass hit the table, though whether he intended to slam it or it slipped through his trembling fingers, Eliot wasn't sure. He flinched at the sound.

"You were right." Matty's words were dark and low. "I do hate you."

He got up and stalked to the door.

Eliot collapsed back against his chair. Why did he get his hopes up for a reconciliation? He always disappointed eventually.

But Matty stopped, hand on the door knob. Then he spun on his heel, crossed the room in two strides, grabbed a lamp from the table beside the sofa, and flung it across the room. It shattered against a bookshelf with a satisfying crash, shards of ceramic flying everywhere.

He punched the couch several times before hunching over the back, gripping it until his knuckles turned white.

Only when he stopped moving did Eliot realize his breaths were coming in ragged gasps.

He was sobbing.

Eliot gaped. Although Matty was usually a stoic, brave soldier, Eliot had seen him show emotion before, but usually in brief flashes of pain, grief, or anger, or else in passionate, often melodramatic, sometimes tearful declarations of love.

But this … Eliot had never seen Matty completely lose control. It was unsettling. Frightening.

It was heartbreaking.

Eliot wracked his brain for any of Sophie's teachings, but nothing came to him.

After an agonizing minute, Matty seemed to regain some control. He took several slow deep breaths.

When he finally spoke, his voice shook, not with the unsteadiness that came from crying, but with a rage that somehow disturbed Eliot more than his previous outburst.

"Sometimes." Matty took another couple of breaths. "Sometimes the anger and hatred are overwhelming." He released the back of the couch and clenched and unclenched his fists. "I can't see straight, feel like I need to throw up. Hit something. Hurt someone."

"Because of me?" Eliot whispered.

"Because of them." Matty's face twisted with distaste, like he'd swallowed an entire lemon. "I hate them. I hate them all for dying and abandoning me, and taking a little piece of me with them each time. I hate them for leaving me here to somehow try to pick up the pieces and go on."

Eliot's mouth fell open.

"I hate my dad for choosing his country over my mother and me and leaving us alone, so I fight longer and harder than he ever did to stay alive, and dozens of bullets and knives and close calls later, I'm too fucking stubborn to die. I hate my mom —"

Matty broke off in a sudden sob, but he continued. "She had a horrible childhood and suffered from depression the rest of her life because of it. My dad grounded her, but when he died, she relapsed. She didn't die the same day he did, but she might as well have. So I push the crap away and refuse to let what I'm feeling dictate anything I do."

He bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "I hate Berto because he was a fucking idiot. Escobar killed himself before we could find out what happened, but I can guess: Berto figured out he was dirty and tried to talk to him." He released the couch and ran his hands through his hair, pulling on it. "He probably just blurted it out, shocked that his fucking godfather would do such a thing, and Escobar got desperate and shot him." His eyes snapped open to glare at Eliot. "My brotherwas killed because he fucked up, and he fucked up because he was naive. So I consider every God-damned possible pessimistic outcome before I do anything.

"And Pete." Matty's lips curled into an almost cruel smile. "He was weak. He broke and couldn't even put himself back together, but he tried to tell me how to live my fucking life. He played at being a soldier and got himself fucking killed. So now I choose my people carefully and train them until they're the best, and I do everything in my power to keep them and their families safe because I refuse to lose people like we lost Pete."

Matty closed his eyes and grabbed the couch again, though he seemed to be leaning on it for support now, rather than attempting to strangle it. His face was screwed into a grotesque expression, a combination of exhaustion and disgust.

"But do you know who I hate most of all?" His voice was barely above a whisper.

"Yourself," Eliot answered. "For hating them."

Matty let out a breath that could have been a sob, and nodded slowly. Though his eyes were still closed, a few tears escaped. "How fucked up is that?"

"It's not," Eliot said. His voice shook. "I hate Pete, too, sometimes. He saved my fucking life, and I hate him for it. For being an idiot and thinking I was deserving when I wasn't. I don't think I'll ever forgive him for that. But I hate myself more," he said quietly. "For not being able to save him."

"For not being good enough," said Matty. "Why weren't we good enough?"

Eliot didn't have an answer. That was his greatest fear. Not being good enough to protect the people he cared about. That's what had made this week, and all his time with the team, so hard. What if he wasn't good enough again?

Matty inhaled thickly through his nose. "But we don't hate them. Not really. My dad died for every one of the twenty-three men in his unit, and they all have families now because of him. My mom taught me the importance of family because she knew what it was like not to have one. Berto loved San Lorenzo more than anyone, even Juan, and he taught me to love it because of its problems and struggles, not in spite of them." He wiped his cheeks roughly. "He would have been — he shouldhave been — the first freely elected president. He would have been great."

Matty frowned deeply, blinking several times in quick succession. "And Pete … he was the exact opposite of weak. Christ, if I'd come home at the age of seventeen and found Juan and Anita tortured and killed, and Maria —"

He broke off suddenly, bringing a hand to his face.

It was a long moment before he looked up, an emptiness in his eyes that Eliot had never seen before.

"I swear to God, El, I would have blown my damned brains out right there."

The desperation in his voice made Eliot's heart throb with every beat.

"But he didn't do that," Matty continued. "He came to us and fought for the suffering people of this country, and he somehow found the strength to crack jokes and be happy and be a friend."

Sort of. Juan's words echoed in Eliot's head.

"He wanted to die, Eliot. He tried to kill himself."

Matty finally walked around to sit down on the couch. "Sometimes it's just easier to hate and blame them or myself than to imagine that God is so cruel. He ripped so many good people from this world, from me, and didn't give me a chance to say goodbye to any of them."

Eliot's stomach sank like a stone.

"I could have said goodbye to him over the radio." Matty spoke the words in dull disbelief, staring at nothing. "I didn't even get to bury him."

"I'm sorry, Matty," Eliot said. "I should have —"

"Don't." Matty sniffed, wiped his nose roughly, and finished off his drink. "It fucking sucks, but I get it. If the roles were reversed, I would have done the same thing. For Pete."

Relief coursed through Eliot, escaping in a surprised, almost ecstatic gasp at the forgiveness he hadn't realized he so desperately needed.

"I'm sorry I didn't say goodbye," he said softly.

Matty, who was in the middle of pouring himself another drink, froze for just a moment. The liquid slopped a bit, but didn't spill. Then he put the bottle down and took a long, slow draught.

"I probably would have done that, too," he murmured. "What's that American saying about glass houses?"

The smirk he gave Eliot was weak but genuine.

Eliot blinked. He couldn't believe it.

Matty shrugged. "If you could do it over —"

"I'd have let you have the night," Eliot said immediately. "But I would have told both of you the next morning before you — I — before we left."

He'd given it a lot of thought since he'd seen how much that one choice had hurt Matty and Maria.

"Good enough for me," said Matty, handing him a fresh drink. He raised it in another silent toast to Pete.

Eliot didn't. Mind Pete had told him to ask.

"After Pete died, Juan said he'd tried to kill himself on the first anniversary."

Matty lowered the glass from his lips without drinking. "He never told you."

Eliot shook his head. "I don't know why."

"He was embarrassed."

"He told you," Eliot said, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.

Matty winced. "I found him."

Eliot's stomach roiled, but he forced himself to ask, "How?"

It was clear the memory pained Matty. He took a swig of scotch before answering. "Bedsheets. Rigged them up to hang from the ceiling. He wasn't breathing, but he had a weak pulse. Doctors said we found him just in time."

"We?"

Matty nodded. "Berto dragged me to see him every day. To let him know he wasn't alone. I wanted to give him space, especially that day, but Berto insisted. He knew something was wrong. I have no idea how. He was just … good with people like that. Like Juan." He took another swig.

Eliot shook his head. "Why wouldn't Pete tell me?"

"He never talked about it. Ever. I think he was ashamed, like it was a moment of weakness he didn't want to think about. And he worshipped you, El."

Eliot bristled at that. "No, he didn't. We were friends. It wasn't hero-worship. We were …"

Weren't they?

"You were more than friends. You were the brother he never had." There was a sourness to Matty's words.

It was then that Eliot realized — no matter how this conversation had gone so or how it was going to end, no matter how much they patched things up, there would always be a layer of resentment and jealousy between him and Matty. It might not be fatal anymore, but almost a decade of latent … everything would never go away completely.

"He worshipped you like a kid worships his big brother," Matty continued, bitterness fading. "He wanted you to respect him. That's why he trained so damned hard. He wanted to impress you. It doesn't mean you weren't friends. He just didn't want to …" He looked at Eliot. "He didn't want to let you down, El."

Pete swallowed. "Only ever wanted you to be proud of me."

"I am proud of you, Pete. I always have been."

Pete smiled, and the heaviness that had settled onto Eliot's chest, making it hard to breathe, lightened slightly.

Of all the things he'd said to Pete that day, Eliot was happiest he'd said that.

Matty put down his glass with a clink, pulled out his wallet, and started clumsily fumbling through it. His frown grew deeper, as if he couldn't find what he was looking for, and he started to empty it onto the coffee table.

He took out several bills and a few coins of San Lorenzan currency, some credit cards, and then started on the photos. As Matty placed each one on the table, Eliot picked it up for a closer look.

The first was a candid shot of Matty, Maria, and Berto. Matty and Maria were sitting next to each other on a bench in front of a tree in what looked like the Floreses' garden. Berto sat in Maria's lap, giggling. Matty and Maria both looked at him with proud and loving smiles. The photo looked about a year old; Berto had been considerably chubbier then.

Eliot placed the picture back on the table and picked up the next one. It was an almost identical shot of Berto sitting in the lap of Matty and a woman Eliot didn't recognize. No — the man was older than Matty, but he had the same dashing smile. He wore a military uniform, and the woman looked like she'd stepped out of the late seventies or early eighties …

The child must have been Matty, sitting in the lap of his parents. Damn. Matty really did look like his father, and Berto looked so much like Matty had at that age it was uncanny.

Matty laid down a third photo, which Eliot picked up. This one showed a man who was definitely Matty, not much younger than when Eliot had first met him, in the green uniform of an enlisted San Lorenzo soldier. He stood, grinning, with his arm around an identically dressed young man whom Eliot immediately recognized as Berto Flores. The picture must have been taken the day they'd enlisted in the army.

Eliot had just opened his mouth to give Matty crap about the pictures when Matty shoved another one into his hand, and Eliot's voice died in his throat.

It was Pete's photo. The one he'd always kept with him, of him and Sarah laughing and happy. It was even more tattered and faded then Eliot remembered, but it was definitely the same picture.

Eliot had to force himself to breathe. "What — how —?"

"Maria."

"No." Eliot shook his head. It wasn't possible. "This was in his jacket." The jacket he'd used in a vain attempt to staunch Pete's wound.

"I know. She talked to the medics afterward, and somehow she convinced them to look for it. She got it cleaned up and gave it to me the morning of the wedding. Said she didn't care if it was bad luck to see me, because it was important." Matty swallowed. "She said, 'This way he can be here with you.'"

Eliot felt like he'd been gut-punched. "You had it? Why didn't you —?" He couldn't even finish the sentence.

Matty bowed his head. "Because I blamed you. I was angry. I thought, it was your fault he couldn't be there, so why should I share it?"

The words twisted into Eliot's heart like a knife.

"It was wrong," Matty said. "And I'm sorry."

The photo shook in Eliot's hand. It was wonderful to see Pete again — really him, not Mind Pete — even if the picture was from before Eliot had known him. Pete would have wanted to be remembered from a time when he was truly happy. Eliot had forgotten how exceptionally contagious Pete's smile was. He caught it, just from the photo.

"Don't." He shrugged, breaking out into a Pete smile. "I probably would have done the same thing."

Matty gave a relieved chuckle before he, too, came down with the highly infectious Pete smile.

Eliot couldn't stop staring at the photo. "You had this on you during the wedding?"

"In my jacket pocket."

Where Pete always kept it. "So he was there. With Sarah."

Matty nodded. Eliot's Pete smile remained, in spite of the tears that blurred the faces in the picture.

"He would have liked that," he said. "So you've been carrying it around for eight years?"

Matty shook his head. "Not long after we got back from the honeymoon, Maria made a few copies of it. I keep one in my wallet. That one usually sits over there." He pointed to an empty photo frame on the mantle. "But I decided to carry it with me yesterday. Not sure why. Luck, maybe."

Eliot laughed.

Matty scowled. "I know, it's stupid. You don't have to be a dick about it."

"No, it's just —"

His laughter grew slightly hysterical. Matty's face reddened, and his jaw clenched.

Eliot pulled himself together enough to say, "I just thought about what Pete would say about you carrying it for luck."

Matty's eyes narrowed. "What?"

Eliot screwed his face into his best impression of a classic Pete look — head tilted to the side, eyebrows raised ever-so-slightly, face deadpan, eyes that said, You're kidding, right? — and said in a flat tone, "Great lucky charm. Did wonders for me."

True to his Pete impression, he couldn't keep up his poker face, and another laugh burst out of him as he finished. This time Matty joined in. The exhaustion and booze finally hit them. Slap-happy and more than a little drunk, they roared with laughter, which ebbed and flowed and ebbed again until their sides ached and they gasped for air like they were drowning.

The joke wasn't that funny, but damn, it felt good to laugh, and it felt right to laugh like that with Matty. That was something they'd never done before, but Pete would have wanted it this way.

When their laughter finally died away, they collapsed against the back of their seats, panting, riding out the aftershock chuckles. After a minute, Matty said, still grinning, "He'd want you to have it."

That knocked the laugh right out of Eliot. He drop the photo onto the table like it had burned him, shaking his head over and over. "No. No, I can't. My life … it's too dangerous. I don't keep things in case I have to blow town."

That was how Sterling had caught Nate in Boston last year.

Matty's smile was gone now, too, and his eyebrows couldn't seem to decide whether to knit together or shoot up and away from each other. "That's …" The frown finally won out, and his brow furrowed deeply. "That's awful. Don't you have photos?"

He had a few, but none were so fragile or important. "It should be here, in a place of honor, where it can be safe."

"He'd have wanted you to have it, El. You were his best friend."

"We were both his best friends," Eliot corrected automatically. It had long ago become a reflex in order to calm Matty's doubts, assuage Pete's guilt, and tamper his own resentment.

Matty shook his head. "No, he was just my friend. He was the closest friend I had after Berto was killed, but he wasn't my best friend, and I wasn't his. Berto was mine. You were his."

Eliot reached over to pick up the photo again, and this time a surge of sadness shot through him. Poor Matty. He'd lost his best friend.

Then again, so had Eliot.

"You do know why you guys have never gotten along, right?" Mind Pete had asked. "Because you're exactly the same."

The same guilt, the same loneliness, the same simultaneous love and hate for the friends they'd lost.

"Nope, none of that," Matty said, pouring them both generous helpings of scotch. He emptied the bottle with a flourish. "Quit moping, keep drinking. I married Maria. She's my best friend now."

"She's a lot like Berto, isn't she?"

"And Hardison's like Pete." Matty handed him the refill. "A lot like Pete. So is Parker, in a way."

"They all are." Eliot shook his head. "And I only just realized it today."

Matty laughed. "You were probably just in denial. How long did it take you to admit that you actually liked Pete and didn't find him annoying?"

"Less time than it did with the team."

"So you're actually getting worse at this?" Matty's eyes twinkled. "Pete would give you so much shit about that. But he would have loved them. They'd probably all join in." He nodded at the photo. "He'd want you to have it. Find a safe place for it because I've kept it long enough."

Eliot's heart ached as he stared at the photo. Then he nodded.

"He died saving us both that day, didn't he?" Matty's voice cracked. "God, he was a good friend."

Eliot grinned, propping the photo up against the third, untouched glass. "Damn right, he was." He raised his drink. "To Pete."

.

.

.

So they drank. And for the first time in their entire acquaintance, they had a real conversation. Not an argument, or a forced interaction laced with awkward pauses; not a terse exchange on the topic of Pete or Maria or Juan filled with undercurrents of resentment; but a real, honest-to-goodness conversation between two people who wanted to be there.

Eliot told Matty how he'd joined up with the team during that first job for Dubenich, explained a few of the jobs they'd done as a team, and talked about each member and their strengths and weaknesses and most lovable parts. Matty told Eliot about all the things he'd missed, and not just the big Moreau-related events like Ribera's election; he talked about the private things, big and small, like finding out Maria was pregnant, Berto's birth, Juan's retirement.

He told Eliot about all the people they had served with — some had retired, like Juan; others had been killed, like Pete; some were still around, fighting the good fight, either on the military side like Matty or the political side like Juan and Maria. And some were new, like Matty's second-in-command, Lia Delgado, whom Eliot had known as Lia Morales, Maria's maid-of-honor who had tried to sleep with him the night of the wedding. He hardly believed the type of trailblazing woman that she'd become, but it suited her.

Eliot insisted that Matty tell him in detail about the times he'd been injured, including the infamous Ribera shooting. That had been the worst, but Matty had, as he'd said, dozens of scars to show for eight years' worth of fighting.

Eliot sighed. "I should have kept better tabs. I wish I'd known."

"I don't," Matty said. "You wouldn't have been able to do anything except lecture me, and I sat through too many of those as it was."

Eliot's heart pounded, but he'd been challenged by both Maria and Mind Pete to have a real talk with Matty. And he could never say no to Pete, not even when Pete was just in his head.

He took a slow, deep breath, but the only way he could make the words come out was to speak them to the floor.

"When I talked with Juan after Pete was killed, he told me that Pete died saving someone he cared about, and that there's no more honorable death than that. But I think Juan's wrong." He could have sworn he actually heard Matty frown. "There is something more honorable, and that's dying, or risking your life, for someone you hate. Especially when it's instinctual. There's no reward for that. It takes a special type of person to have that kind of courage." He looked up to find Matty staring at him, wide-eyed. "I'm not going to lecture you, Matty. I might call you an idiot, but you're the most honorable idiot I've ever known."

Matty sat in stunned silence for several moments. Eliot refilled both their drinks from the recently opened second bottle of scotch, which tasted even better than the first one. Matty reached for his glass a stupor.

Eliot raised his. "To idiots."

Matty met Eliot's gaze. He didn't say anything, but he didn't have to. The succinct nod he gave in response to Eliot's toast, the way his hand shook slightly as he downed the scotch in one go, the roughness with which he wiped his eyes after leaning his head back against the couch for a moment said it all.

But it was the brightness of his genuine, dashing smile a minute later that told Eliot that things might be different now.

"Want to watch while I kick your ass at chess?"

Eliot sighed. And some things would remain exactly the same.

.

.

.

Matty was oddly reticent for a long time after that exchange, even after they broke out the chess board and he'd beaten Eliot's ass a few times. After a particularly brutal victory, Matty stared forlornly into his drink as though it hadbeen he who'd had lost in fewer than ten moves.

"You should talk about it," Matty said finally, without raising his gaze.

"About what?" They were drunk enough by that point — and, more importantly, had already discussed every dreaded potential topic — that Eliot was no longer nervous about anything that might come up. He was resetting the chess board and mentally preparing for another loss.

"About killing Chapman."

The sudden jerk of Eliot's hand upset the board. Chess pieces clattered to the table, but even their muted landings on the carpet were deafening in the silence that followed.

Eliot stared at a black knight that had rolled to a rest against his foot. He didn't trust himself to do anything else.

Matty sat, still and silent.

"Juan told you?" Eliot asked eventually. His voice came out quiet, but surprisingly steady.

Matty clucked disapprovingly and leaned back against his couch. "You should know better than that. Juan would never divulge anything someone told him in confidence."

Eliot's stomach clenched at the rebuke. Of course he knew that, but he couldn't imagine how Matty could know about —

"Give me a little credit," Matty interrupted his thoughts as though he'd spoken them aloud. "Moreau's been abroad for years. Then out of the blue, he's at the top of every country's most wanted list and comes scampering back here, alone. A few days later you call Juan and tell him you're coming back after eight years because your new team is going to take down Moreau. It's not rocket science."

Eliot rolled the black knight back and forth across the carpet with the toe of his shoe.

"My people did some digging," Matty continued, "to try and figure out what happened, because we sure as hell weren't behind it. Apparently there was an explosion at a warehouse in D.C. Fourteen dead. FBI and Interpol listed several of them as known associates of Damien Moreau, including one, known to be Moreau's Head of Security, who went by the alias Chapman. No current suspects. That's where the trail ended." His voice dropped to a murmur. "But I knew better."

Eliot stepped on the black knight, squishing it like a bug.

"Not to mention," Matty said, voice tight but back to a normal volume. "You've been exhibiting some very distinctive symptoms. Trouble falling or staying asleep. Hyper-vigilance. Intrusive recollection, including reliving the traumatic event. Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others."

Matty softened the sharp, sterile definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with the gentle, knowing assurance of a survivor.

"The gunshots triggered it yesterday," Matty pressed on. "That's why your reaction to Sophie's assassination was so …" He trailed off, as though looking for a kind word, but not finding anything more gentle than, "realistic. It's why you couldn't relax at the party." He paused. "Why you wanted to leave the team."

Eliot's vision, focused on his shoe grinding the black knight into the carpet, blurred.

"Do they know?"

"Nate," was all Eliot choked out.

"Which is why things were so weird between you two." Matty seemed to sigh the sentence, putting two-and-two together. "You talked about it before he left?"

Eliot nodded.

"Do I need to give him a call?" Matty's tone could have given penguins frostbite.

Eliot squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, but the edges of his mouth quirked a fraction of a degree in the positive direction. Matty going to bat for him was something new.

"It helps," Matty said. "To talk. I know it's the last thing you want to do right now, but it does."

Eliot heard movement, and opened his eyes to see Matty bending over, picking up the chess pieces that had fallen. Eliot lifted his foot and kicked the black knight away.

Matty set up the board again. The black knight was the last piece he placed. He watched with a frown as Eliot stared at it.

"Do you remember what it feels like?" Eliot asked, unable to look away from that damned black knight.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Matty's face darken. "I wish I could forget."

"Tell me." He could barely hear his own whisper.

Matty inhaled sharply, and the sound physically hurt Eliot. He knew how much it would pain Matty, but he wanted — he needed — to hear it come from that crazy, honorable idiot.

"Please," he begged.

Matty picked up his newly refilled drink and downed its entire contents in several long, deep gulps. He grimaced as the alcohol went down, returning the glass to the table with a heavy clunk. Then he picked up the black knight.

"I always expect it to feel different, but it's the same every time." He rolled the knight between his fingers. "It happens so damned fast, before I even have time to think. Instinct." He snapped the fingers of his other hand. "And for one awful second, it feels … good." He spat the word like he was expelling a poison. "Like a victory. Him or me. And I won." His hand closed into a tight fist around the black piece. "And in the next second, reality sets in and there's this gaping hole in my chest because I just killed a person. And a part of me with them."

He opened his hand let the black knight roll onto the board with a clatter.

Eliot's breaths came a little faster as relief coursed through him. Even Matty felt that little rush afterward. In the back of his mind, he'd worried that maybe Juan had been bending the truth by saying it was the adrenaline, in an effort to get him back on his feet. But if Matty felt it, maybe he wasn't as much of a monster as he thought.

As much.

"It's just you and me, El." Matty was watching him with immense concern, and again Eliot saw just how much he was Juan Flores's son. "I'm not a general right now, or a cop, or anyone who could arrest you. Just a friend. You can talk to me." Then he added, in a rasp that betrayed his emotions, "You can pretend I'm Pete, if that would help."

That was what made it possible for Eliot to speak. He didn't need to pretend Matty was Pete; it was the fact that Matty had offered it, something that was at the same time ridiculous and serious and painful for them both.

And the fact that he, Matty Ramirez, had called himself Eliot's friend, without a trace of sarcasm or irony.

"I killed them," Eliot whispered, glaring at the fallen black knight. Three simple words, and they drew real tears, which rolled down his cheeks and dripped off his chin onto his clasped hands.

"What happened?" asked Matty. No judgment or horror or pity. Just a question.

"It was a fucking trap." Eliot clenched his fists so tightly his fingernails started to dig into his palms. "I tried to get us into the auction as myself escorting a client. Moreau said he'd give me the location of the auction if I killed one of his associates. We faked it, and he gave us the info. But it was a God-damned trap."

"An ambush in the warehouse." This wasn't a question. Matty had been fighting Moreau long enough to know.

Eliot nodded. "Me and Nate and that Italian woman. I had to get Nate out, and the woman said she could take down Moreau with the information she had, so I told them to run and I —" His stomach lurched, but he took a deep breath and spoke as quickly and matter-of-factly as he could. "I broke the neck of one of them, took his gun, and killed them all. Then I blew up the warehouse."

Matty didn't speak for a few moments, then said, "Chapman?"

"I shot him four times in the chest from ten feet away."

Again Matty waited before speaking. "You were ambushed. Sounds like self-defense to me."

"You should know that doesn't change anything," Eliot snapped.

Matty shrugged. "I know why it doesn't for me. Why doesn't it for you?"

"Because … I'm not that man anymore." Those words still sounded wrong, but after his conversation with Juan, he had promised himself to repeat them until they didn't.

"I don't think anyone who knew you back then would say you were," said Matty.

"Moreau did." Eliot winced at the memory.

"You know as well as I do that you've just sold your soul to a different devil."

"Moreau was trying to get inside your head," Matty said firmly. "If he didn't think you were different, he wouldn't have tried to convince you otherwise."

Eliot blinked. He hadn't thought about it that way before, but Matty was right.

"And the mere fact that you're feeling this way, even about killing Chapman, should be proof enough." Matty's jaw clenched, and a loathing burned in his eyes. "You have no idea the types of things that sick fuck did after you left. He was even worse than before. The things we saw …" He looked away. "I won't lose any sleep over him."

"You would if you'd been the one to kill him."

"Yes." Matty nodded slowly. "But El, this is how it's supposed to feel. It's supposed to make you feel like shit and give you horrific nightmares. You're supposed to second-guess yourself and think that there had to be a better way, and you're supposed to hate yourself because for just one second you liked it. If you didn't feel like that … then you'd still be the Rottweiler."

He watched Eliot stare at the fallen black knight.

"That's pretty much what Juan said," Eliot muttered.

"Oh," Matty said softly. "Sorry."

Eliot looked up, frowning. "Why?"

Matty shrugged and looked away. "If you already went through this, seems kind of dickish to make you do it again."

"We talked, but I didn't — Nate told Juan, so I never actually …"

"Said it out loud," Matty finished. "It helps. It stops feeling like a deep dark secret when you talk about it."

Eliot nodded. Matty was right about that. He already felt lighter. He might actually be able to get a few hours of sleep tonight.

"It never gets easier to do," Matty said. "But it does get easier to bear. With time." He picked up the black knight and returned it to its place on the board. "And stop trying to make this thing some sort of symbol of your inner darkness. It's just a painted piece of wood. If you're any game piece, it's probably one of those Rock'em Sock'em Robots."

Eliot laughed. That was something Pete would have said. He poured them both fresh scotch and raised his glass to Matty.

Matty raised his, too, and they both drank.

"Come on." Matty nodded to Eliot's side of the board. "White goes first."

.

.

.

It went on like that — chess and scotch and memories and scotch and laughs and more scotch — for hours. They opened a third bottle. It wasn't until Maria came in that Eliot noticed the light outside the windows.

They'd just poured themselves fresh drinks, toasted Pete, laughed at some hilarious memory, and Matty had just declared check, when the door opened.

"Matty?" Maria was wearing a tired, worried look and a robe that just barely covered her big belly.

"Hey, babe," Matty slurred over his shoulder. "Up in a sec. 'M just about to kick El's ass again."

Maria blinked. "It's six. My alarm just went off. Did you two sleep at all?"

Eliot and Matty looked at each other.

"Oops," Eliot said.

They both burst into laughter, falling back onto their respective couches.

They'd had a lot to drink.

"What in God's name … ?" Maria started. When she walked into the room and took in the full scene of chess board, broken lamp, empty bottles, and boozed-up boys, her jaw dropped. "You stayed up all night and finished three bottles of booze?"

"Two-and-a-half," Matty corrected.

"Hey, that's my line!" said Eliot, and they both collapsed into laughter again.

"Oh my God," Maria said, shaking her head. Her gaze settled on Pete's photo, propped up against the still full third glass. She took in a slow breath. "Is that —?"

"For Pete," Eliot and Matty said at the same time. They both raised their own glasses to Pete, when Maria picked up the third one and prepared to drink it.

"Don't!" Eliot slurred, trying to grab it from her hand. She held it out of reach, and he fell over onto the couch.

"'S not yours." Matty's scolding tone was undercut by his inability to form words correctly. And his giggle at Eliot's pratfall. "'S Pete's."

Maria raised her eyebrows at the two of them. "You two stayed up all night drinking … to Pete?"

Eliot nodded, but stopped when his head started to spin.

Maria looked at the glass she held in her hand, then at Eliot and Matty. Her voice was a little raspy. "I'd like to drink to him, too. I don't think he'd mind sharing, do you?"

Eliot and Matty didn't say anything. Of course Pete wouldn't have minded.

"To Pete," Maria said with a smile, raising her glass. "Who would grin like a fool if he could see you two right now."

"To Pete," Eliot and Matty replied, and they all drank.

"Hey. Maria." Matty face was very serious. "I am inebriated."

Maria covered her mouth with a hand, but a giggle got out anyway. "I can see that. You do know we have a cabinet meeting in two hours, right?"

Matty waved a hand. "I'm fine." He stood — it took him two tries, and which caused Eliot to burst out laughing again — and pulled his wife close. "Two hours is plenty of time for us to go upstairs, get in the shower, and have some long, hot, we-just-saved-the-country sex."

Maria rolled her eyes. "How do you expect to do that when you can't even stand?"

Matty tilted his head and brought his arms up in a shrug. "Skip the shower?"

Eliot laughed. "Great idea, Ramirez. Only been general for two days and you're gonna get yourself court-martialed for showin' up drunk and smellin' like booze, and late because you were too busy bangin' your super pregnant wife." He frowned. "How does that even work, anyway? She's like …" He couldn't find the word he wanted, so he stretched his arms into a large circle that got his point across.

For some reason, Maria's eyes got a little scary.

"He's kinda right," Matty said, and she turned her scary eyes on him. "But it's not that hard, El. You just gotta get creative." He turned Maria around to demonstrate. "You know, come from behind, and —"

"You might be drunk enough for this conversation, Ramirez," Maria said, covering her red face with her hands. "But I am most definitely not." She took a few breaths then said, "Berto wet the bed last night. I already changed him, but I need you to change the sheets and then go take a very cold shower and try to sober up for work while I make him breakfast."

Matty threw his head back like Parker did when she didn't want to do things. "Why do I always have to change the sheets? And anyway, I bet Uncle Eliot makes a mean breakfast. Why don't we just go upstairs and —"

He kissed her neck, which seemed to be some sort of sweet spot, because Maria melted a little.

"Matty," she said weakly. "Berto."

Matty put a finger to her lips, gazing into her eyes for a few seconds. He blinked a few times, and his voice thick. "Te amo, mi amor."

Maria's eyes filled with tears, and she pulled him into a long kiss.

Eliot looked away. Watching them made that emptiness swell in his chest again, and though he knew it was probably because of the alcohol, that didn't make it hurt any less.

"Get a room," he growled.

Maria pulled away, looking a little ashamed, but Matty heaved a very heavy sigh and threw his head back again.

Eliot stood, only a bit wobbly, and made a shooing motion. "Go. You two obviously need to get laid. Sex, shower, sober up. I'll make the kid breakfast."

Matty grinned, gave Eliot a horrible salute, and stumbled to the door, pulling his wife.

"He'll only eat Choco O's," Maria said over her shoulder, "and he hates —"

But Eliot didn't hear what Berto hated because Maria was already halfway down the hallway.

He chuckled and picked up Pete's photo from the coffee table. He'd definitely be making a copy that he could carry with him, and this one would go somewhere he knew it would be safe, like a safety deposit box in a Swiss bank.

What would Pete say if he saw Eliot and Matty now? Would he be happy for them? Proud? Things were going to be better now. Not perfect, because eight years of buried crap would never really go away, but better. At some point, they'd become friends. Pete would have loved that. Eliot's chest swelled, not with that aching emptiness, but with a happiness he hadn't felt in a long time when thinking about Pete.

He shook his head and gingerly placed the photo in his wallet. Pete would probably tell him to cut it out and go make breakfast for his hungry nephew.

He grinned. No nephew of his was going to eat cereal for breakfast. He'd mostly trained Parker to eat real food, and she'd had decades of habits to break. Berto was three. How hard could it be?