Thanks: To gnomi, bientot, cedara and mergatrude for first reading, to everyone at ficfinishing for encouragement and virtual cookies, and to bethbethbeth and mergatrude for beta, thank you so much!
Notes: This is for zebra363, with gratitude for her donation to NZ earthquake relief. <3 <3 <3
Peter invited everyone he could get his hands on to the presentation, including cleaning staff, security guards and the kids from the mailroom, and by three o'clock, the conference room was packed. At five past, when there was no way they could cram another person in and the room was louder than Yankee Stadium during game seven of the World Series, Hughes gave him the nod.
Peter stood and held up his hands. "Okay, everyone, settle down. Phones on silent, please. This is important. You've probably heard rumors about the new guy starting next week, Neal Caffrey. Neal is a convicted con artist who'll be on a provisional parole arrangement under my supervision. At this stage, we don't know how long that's going to last, and obviously there are risks involved in giving a white collar criminal access to our offices, but we think it will be worth it for the insight he can give us to our suspects. And forewarned is forearmed, which is why I've invited Jude Rutledge and Agent Lauren Cruz here to give you all some idea of what we can expect and how to guard against being taken advantage of. Jude is a psychological profiler from DC, specializing in criminal behavior. Lauren is with the Bureau; she wrote her thesis on Caffrey when she was at Quantico."
Jude stood up and thanked him. She was brisk and efficient, if a little quietly spoken. "There's been a lot of research into con artists and other high-functioning sociopaths, but I'm going to keep things simple today and focus on just three rules you need to know," she said. "One, con artists dress for success; two, they use people; and three, they lie for a living. Now, I'm going to unpack each of these rules in turn, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask, okay? Great. So, first off, dressing for success. When we say con artists dress for success, we're not just talking about clothes. Image is all-important, and that includes knowing the right people..."
Peter perched on the windowsill and looked around the room at the faces of people he knew and trusted: attentive, distracted, nodding along. What would it be like to have Neal here—sitting next to Diana and Jones, maybe—with that quick understanding and that butter-wouldn't-melt expression. Peter's pulse picked up in anticipation. One thing was for sure, it wouldn't be boring.
Jude wrapped up about half an hour later and handed over to Lauren, who promptly put a mugshot of Neal on the display monitor, his eyes blue and candid, with a caption by Groucho Marx: "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
The room was stuffy and overcrowded, but that sent a ripple of laughter through the assembled audience.
Lauren gave them a wry grin. "Yeah, but it's not really a joke. Everything Jude just told you about how con artists work? That applies to Neal Caffrey. Just because you're within Bureau walls and he's here on official business, doesn't mean you can let down your guard. From our research, interviews with victims, police reports and so on, we know this: Caffrey's an opportunist, and he's very good at it. He will try to charm you, and he'll probably succeed. He'll make you feel special, the exception, the one person he's honest with. He might even say it: 'Sure, I'm a liar, but I'd never lie to you.' But that's all part of the con."
"So how is he going to be any use to us, if we can't believe a word he says?" asked Jones.
"It's in his best interests to help us," Peter told him. "Don't worry—we've got incentives in place."
"Sounds like we're training a puppy," said Diana, grinning.
Lauren nodded. "That's actually a pretty good analogy—no boundaries, no interest in cleaning up his own messes. In fact, that's another thing to keep in mind: a con artist's MO usually involves travelling around a lot, partly for safety and partly because they're easily bored. Caffrey's movements will be restricted to a two-mile radius, and that means he'll get restless and probably get up to some mischief, at best."
"And at worst?" asked Diana, directing the question to Peter.
Peter put his hands on his hips. "At worst, he'll be back inside before you can say 'parole violation.'"
Hughes moved to the front of the room from his position in the doorway. "Thank you, Jude and Lauren. The rest of you, remember: protect your information, especially access codes, security swipe cards and personal finance information such as bank account and credit card numbers. And don't hesitate to report any concerns to Agent Burke or myself. That's all."
Jude and Lauren packed up their things as the team dispersed, chattering among themselves about Caffrey and other miscellanea. Soon it was just Peter, Diana and Jones.
"Any second thoughts, boss?" asked Diana, teasing him.
"Every second thought is a second thought," said Peter, dryly. "But if Caffrey can help us catch the Dutchman, it'll be worth it."
"You watch our back, we'll watch yours," said Jones. "Between us, we can keep all of our feet on the ground."
Peter nodded, hiding his misgivings. He already liked Neal more than was safe or wise; he wouldn't have even considered the deal if he didn't. And having his feet on the ground wasn't going to do him any good at all if the ground he was on was actually quicksand.
"How was Belize?" asked Neal, as Peter turned right into West 57th Street.
Peter slowed the car, looking for a parking spot. "Fine," he said, absently. "It was good. Did you manage to stay out of trouble?"
"How much trouble could I get into in a week? I stayed inside my radius." Neal waved cheerily at a parking attendant, and Peter abandoned his plan to take advantage of a spot on the loading zone and kept driving.
Then Neal's words registered. Or rather, what he hadn't said. Peter shot him a pointed look, aware that the guy was dressed to the nines again, complete with hat and dove gray tailored vest, and not a hair out of place. Plus he looked relaxed, as if he'd been the one on vacation in the Caribbean, not Peter. He looked—attractive. Peter shelved that thought firmly. Attractive probably meant Neal was running a con.
Neal held up his hands, wide-eyed. "I stayed out of trouble."
"Good." The lights turned red and Peter came to a stop behind a white utility van—not the Bureau's surveillance vehicle.
"What happens now?" asked Neal. "Do we have a new case?"
"We're interviewing a witness at the office at nine-thirty," said Peter, moving forward with the other traffic. "But first we're making a stop at a motel."
Neal took an audible breath. "You know, I don't know if that's—"
"What?" Peter swerved left to avoid a bicycle courier, then a cab changed lanes in front of him without warning and he had to slam on the brakes. "Dammit, watch where you're going!" All the hard-won calm of his week's vacation fell away. He cast a sharp, questioning glance at Neal, who'd fallen silent. "What?"
Neal shook his head. "You're the boss."
"Yeah, I am." Peter pulled into a parking space outside a Holiday Inn and killed the engine. They had a few minutes, and he wanted to get something straight. "Speaking of which, we need to talk about your stunt at the Dutchman's warehouse," he said. "I didn't wade through three months of paperwork to get you out of prison just so you could get yourself killed by some lowlife."
"So why did you?" asked Neal. He glanced at the Holiday Inn sign, then raised his eyebrows at Peter suggestively. His lips were almost pouting, but his gaze was watchful, tinged with contempt.
Peter frowned in bewilderment, then backed up and viewed the scene through Neal's cynical eyes. The pieces made an ugly picture. "Not that either. Jesus, Neal, this isn't Sin City! We're meeting Jones here to set up a surveillance operation on Nico Barelli." He sighed hard and tried not to take offense. They didn't know each other that well yet. But Jesus, even if Neal had somehow picked up on Peter's awareness of him, he should still know better than to think Peter would take advantage! "Listen," Peter said stiffly, "you and I have a deal. It's all above board, and if you have any concerns or complaints, you can bring them to me or Hughes, or have your lawyer contact the DoJ directly without fear of repercussions. You got that?"
"Okay." Neal's eyebrows descended to their proper place, but Peter stared at him until he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I got it," said Neal, glancing away. "Thanks."
Peter rolled his eyes. "All part of the service. I'm after your mind, not your body." He let that hang in the air for a moment, then decided to drop it, for now at least. "Anyway, my point is even if I was willing to risk your neck every time we're short on grounds for a search warrant, I can't. As it is, it's going to take some fancy footwork to convince a judge that our evidence against Hagen is admissible."
Neal's gaze swung back. "What about exigent circumstances?"
"Yeah, I know," said Peter, "but look at it from Hagen's lawyer's point of view: we entered the premises in pursuit of a felon who was coincidentally also working the case with the FBI, and who didn't subsequently suffer any consequences of violating the terms of his parole when he ran. It looks like a set-up. The public prosecutor isn't exactly sending us champagne and roses."
"But—" Neal's lips pressed together for a few seconds, then he nodded. "Point taken."
"No more loopholes or workarounds, okay?" said Peter. "You're here to share your knowledge and insights into the criminal mind, not to step in front of loaded guns."
"And not—" Neal darted a sly glance at the Holiday Inn sign again.
Peter felt his face get hot, to his chagrin. "Don't flatter yourself!"
Neal grinned then, a wide genuine grin with mischief lurking in its depths, and Peter's breath caught.
To cover, he released his seatbelt and got out of the car, keeping his breathing even and reminding himself that they'd never have caught the Dutchman without Neal. The parole arrangement was going to be worth it, however much Neal tried his patience. And any inconvenient responses Peter might be experiencing would fade with familiarity. Neal was easy on the eye, but he was also a guy and a convicted criminal: hardly Peter's type, on either count. And this wasn't Sin City.
In 2002, one week before her thirtieth birthday, El cornered Peter in the bathroom while he was shaving. "Okay, what's going on?"
"What do you mean?" asked Peter, avoiding her gaze.
She folded her arms and looked like she was trying very hard not to frown. "Listen, honey, I know you're a good man, and I trust you, but I also know you're keeping secrets, and I don't like it. Don't protect me. If you're in trouble, I want to know, and whatever it is, we'll figure it out together."
Peter turned off his shaver and pulled her into his arms, breathing in her spicy perfume. Her silky pale blue blouse was soft against his bare chest. "I love you."
"And you're right that I have a secret, but it's nothing bad or wrong." He kissed her on her beautiful, stubborn mouth. "Scout's honor."
She scowled up at him. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"Nope." El's sister Annie would kill him if he let anything slip about the surprise party. Probably El would figure it out from what he had said and his evasiveness, but at least this way Peter could honestly plead innocence.
She sighed and leaned against him. "It's a good thing I believe in you," she said, poking him in the chest, "or you'd be sleeping on the couch tonight."
The party was a hit, and seven years later, El still stuck her head in the bathroom door some mornings and asked with a grin, "Got any secrets I should know about?" She did it when Neal had been on probation only a couple of weeks, and Peter felt a pang of guilt. He did have a secret.
Would she still think he was a good man if she knew how he was starting to feel about the felon he was supervising? Either way, Peter was going to have to confess sometime, and with El, sooner was always better than later. He opened his mouth to tell her, but before he could broach the subject, she tossed him the phone handset. "Your new boyfriend wants to talk to you."
"What?" Peter looked down at the phone in confusion, then brought it to his ear. "What?"
"Peter," said Neal on the other end of the line. "Meet me outside the Whitney Museum."
El winked at Peter and went downstairs, leaving him flummoxed. "Whitney what? Why?"
"I know why Simonson left the Weber behind."
Throughout the brief phone call, a part of Peter's attention was focused on the fact that El wouldn't tease him about Neal like that if she thought there was the slightest chance Peter might actually have those kinds of feelings for him. Neal wasn't on the cards, would never be on the cards, even in four years' time when Peter wasn't legally responsible for him anymore. El might like Neal, might even be willing to accept him into their small circle of friends, but she would never share her husband. Why should she?
Besides, from those El was closest to, she demanded honesty, responsibility, integrity—and Neal was pretty much the antithesis of all of those things. That was just the way it was.
"Here's the merchandise." Peter kept his face impassive and handed the fat yellow envelope to Dell McEirney, money launderer and all around bad guy. "You make the wire transfer to the routing number in the contacts list, then call Quigley from this phone, and he'll send the goods."
Peter and the rest of the team had scripted this out, based on what they'd gleaned from Quigley's courier when they picked him up that morning. Now Peter and Neal had taken the courier's place. If they could pull this off, they'd have solid evidence against McEirney, as well as finding out what sensitive information Quigley was dealing. Peter stood still, hands at his sides, aware of the absence of his shoulder holster and of Neal's casual stance beside him.
McEirney straightened his lurid purple tie, tore open the package and pulled out the phone. The FBI tech guys had been over it and declared it a standard store-bought burner, and not even a particularly fancy one at that. McEirney seemed to reach the same conclusion. His eyes were sharp and slightly squinty, but he didn't seem suspicious. "Delivery method?"
"As agreed," said Neal before Peter could formulate a safe response.
McEirney nodded. "Good. Wait here."
He told his henchman to stand guard and went to sit behind the gleaming mahogany desk at the far end of the over-decorated room, where he typed something into his computer.
"Hey, babe," came a voice from the doorway, and Peter turned on his heel to see a beautiful woman in tight jeans and a low-cut gold-colored blouse, her short red hair gleaming under the chandelier. "Helen wants a ride to the airport, so I need the keys to the Porsche. Have you—Wait, is that Nick? Nick Halden?"
Peter groaned inwardly and cast Neal an exasperated look, though he knew it wasn't fair. In the van, the team would be gearing up now, waiting for the activation phrase. He opened his mouth to give it, but before he could—
"Stacey!" said Neal, as if he were schmoozing at a cocktail party. "Wow, you're looking great. Love the hair. How've you been?"
"I'm good." She swung her hips as she came over. "How about you? God, it's been years. Was it that Christmas party at—?"
"Wait a minute, you're not working for Quigley," interrupted McEirney. He pulled a gun from his desk drawer and flicked off the safety. "Who are you?"
"FBI," said Peter, who knew when to cut his losses. He'd surrendered his firearm to the henchman when they'd first come in, so he put his hands up now but kept his voice firm. "The building's surrounded, there's no way out and SWAT's on its way."
McEirney swore and advanced on them, furious. "The FBI? You're goddamn kidding me!" His ruddy face darkened to clash with his tie.
"Lower your weapon and give yourself up," said Peter, more to warn the team what they'd be bursting into than out of any hope McEirney would comply. SWAT was still three to five minutes away. Peter had to stall. He opened his mouth to spout the standard LEO phrases, but before he could, Neal took the floor.
"He's a Fed. I'm not." Neal's hands were in the air too, but his tone was lazy and persuasive. "Cut me in and I can get you out of this mess. I know what they've already got on you." He flicked Peter a glance that could have meant 'follow my lead' or could have been 'sorry, buddy, it's every man for himself.' Either way, Peter glared back. Neal stepped closer to McEirney and dropped his voice. "I've seen their surveillance set-up too. I know their blind spots. I can help you."
Peter edged in the other direction, so at least McEirney couldn't cover both of them with his pistol at once. "Neal, don't do this!"
Stacey frowned. "Who's Neal?"
"It's an alias," Neal told her. "One of many."
McEirney was sweating. He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "You're working with them. With the Feds."
"Under duress," said Neal, pulling up his pants leg to reveal the tracker. They'd left it on; this was supposed to be a simple in-and-out operation, twenty minutes tops. Neal lowered his other arm slowly. "The thing is, I'm not a big fan of murder and if I remember right—" He grimaced sympathetically at McEirney. "—Stacey's kind of squeamish too, so here are your options: you can kill Agent Burke and me, and try to make your escape, but you'll have killed a federal agent, you'll be flying blind, and I'm pretty sure it'll be the end of your marriage. Or you can leave Burke tied up in a closet, and I'll help you and Stacey disappear. I'll cut my tracker and disappear myself. And I'll owe you one." He smiled, amping up the charm even further. "Not many people can say that." Neal shot Peter another warning look, and turned back to McEirney. He slid his hands into his pockets, and rocked back on his heels. "In seven and a half minutes, a SWAT team will break down that door. Choose now."
"I don't even know who you are," snapped McEirney. "Why should I trust you?"
"You shouldn't," said Peter. "You should listen to me. Surrender your weapon and give us Quigley, and I'll make you a deal."
Neal spoke right over him. "You don't have a lot of choice. And I'm sure Stacey will give me a glowing character reference."
McEirney's eye bulged, and he raised his gun again. "Leave her out of it, you goddamn liar, and lay off the fucking ultimatums. I've got two hostages and—"
"Oh, believe me, you do not want to get into hostage negotiations with the Feds," said Neal, shaking his head. "It gives them too much time to figure out how to take you down."
"Nnnrgh!" McEirney swung his arm to the left and shot out the window to Peter's right. The crash made Stacey shriek, and Peter would have dived for cover if the henchman wasn't right behind him, blocking his path.
Neal put his hands back up. "Okay, okay. You're doing fine. Gesture of good faith?" He went over to the desk where Quigley's phone was lying, slipped off the back and took out the battery. "Look at the battery under a UV light. That's the goods. That's the code Quigley was going to sell you." He held it out to McEirney, along with a small flashlight from his pocket. "There, I just saved you five hundred thousand dollars."
"You knew that was there and you didn't tell me?" said Peter, outraged. Had Neal been planning this all along? He'd lied to McEirney about SWAT's response time, but that could just be insurance. "Neal?"
McEirney told his henchman to cover Peter and took the phone, peering at it suspiciously. "It looks like the code."
"It is. So what'll it be?" asked Neal.
McEirney eyed him. "So long as you keep your hands off Stacey, maybe we can—"
The door crashed open and Jones yelled, "FBI! Drop your weapons!"
Peter dove in and disarmed McEirney before he could react, and then it was all over bar the shouting.
McEirney and his henchman were carted off in cuffs, and Diana took Stacey back to the Bureau for questioning. Peter cornered Neal in McEirney's downstairs foyer. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Neal rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck, and then visibly pulled himself together. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Peter put his hands on his hips to conceal their shaking: being held at gunpoint was never fun, and there'd been a couple of moments he'd been certain McEirney was going to take Neal out. "That wasn't protocol."
"It got us out alive." Neal actually sounded smug about it.
"Because you got lucky." Peter sighed and dragged his hand down his face. There was no way to tell if Neal's offer to McEirney had been genuine, and Neal would certainly deny it if Peter asked. He took a different tack. "You could have sold me out in there." He could have had Peter killed.
"I could have." Neal looked serious. "I'd never sell you out to someone like McEirney."
"To someone like McEirney," repeated Peter, flatly.
Neal shrugged, eyes wide. Then he grinned and clapped Peter on the shoulder. "I'm kidding, Peter! Anyway, as you're so fond of telling me, there's no point running. You'd only catch me again."
"Uh-huh," said Peter. He took a step forward, and jabbed the air with his finger, almost poking Neal in the chest. "You should have told me about the code."
"I didn't know for sure," said Neal.
Peter didn't believe him for a second. "You knew." It came out more harshly than he intended. The idea that Neal was lying to him, even now, was infuriating. Playing his own game, maybe conning all of them. It hurt.
Neal's smile faded. He glanced down at Peter's finger, then back to his face. "I like to have a back-up plan."
That, at least, rang true. Neal was used to looking out for number one. Having an exit strategy must be second nature, crucial for survival. Peter's anger softened, despite himself. "The FBI is your back-up plan now. You have to trust us. We're in this together."
Neal hesitated. He slid his hands into his pockets and pressed his lips together, somewhere between mutinous and sad.
"I know." He met Peter's gaze, and this time there was no mistaking his sincerity. It caught at Peter's heart, sent the world spinning off in the wrong direction. Made him suddenly conscious of how close they were standing, that it would be nothing at all to pull Neal into his arms, to take his mouth. Peter swallowed and fought desire—desire and something deeper. That wasn't an option.
"I should have told you," said Neal quietly.
"You should have." Peter couldn't tell if Neal felt the same, or if he was even aware of the emotions twisting in Peter's chest, roughening his voice. Peter cleared his throat and tried to recapture the thread of conversation. "Remember that next time."
Neal nodded, and Peter stepped away.
Neal was in prison. Neal was back behind bars, and it was his own damned fault. After visiting, Peter went to the office, but he couldn't settle. Hughes told him Neal had requested all FBI records pertaining to his case. Jones said he'd bought a bakery. None of it made any sense, and all Peter could think was that Neal had gambled his freedom, his chance to find Kate and his working partnership with Peter—all for the thrill of stealing a diamond necklace. Gambled and lost.
For once in his life, Neal had lost.
Peter went home early and paced the house until El sent him to get Satchmo's leash from the hook by the back door and told him they were all going for a walk. They bundled into coats and headed across the street and down the block toward the park. The air was cool with a promise of rain, but Peter hardly noticed.
After a block and a half, El put her hand on his sleeve. "Did you get mad at him?"
"He deserved it," said Peter, trying to keep his frustration in check. "He said he was set up, but—" He shook his head. "You know what else he said? 'I didn't let you down.'"
"Maybe he didn't." El waited till they'd crossed the road, skirting the parked cars. "I mean, honey, stealing the necklace wouldn't help him find Kate. Do you really think he'd risk going back to jail just for an exotic pink diamond?"
"I think he's genetically incapable of passing up an opportunity to take what doesn't belong to him, or to flaunt his criminal genius." They walked through the park gate, and El bent to let Satchmo off the leash while Peter looked around. The trees were starting to lose their leaves; squirrels bounded from one branch to another; a couple of teenagers were tossing a frisbee and another family were walking a poodle. And Neal was in prison. "Or to piss me off."
"You know that's not true," said El, straightening up and looking at him.
"What about the Haustenberg? He took that." Peter dug his hands into his coat pockets and started walking up the slope after Satchmo, along their usual route. "And maybe Kate likes diamonds. This heist all adds up. His tracking data was tampered with, he—"
"If he'd done it, don't you think he'd have been smarter about it?" interrupted El. "Wouldn't he have at least arranged an alibi?"
That brought Peter up short. She was right: Neal would have had a plan, or if he hadn't, the little guy would have made one for him. Peter's stomach untwisted a fraction. "Maybe."
Maybe Peter's whole relationship with Neal hadn't been a lie. He wanted to believe that.
When they reached the top of the ridge, El turned to him. "What's this really about?"
Peter looked away. Satchmo was sniffing around a trash can a little further along the path. "Seeing Neal back in an orange jumpsuit—"
El drew him over to a park bench and they sat down. "Tell me," she said.
Peter stared at the path in front of him. "It's too—it's all gotten too personal. It's about letting me down, it's about feelings when it should be about not breaking the law. It's—" He took El's hand and held it tightly. "I care more than I should."
"I know, honey," said El, her voice soft with sympathy.
Peter made himself look at her, forced the words off his tongue, past his lips to be captured by the whorl of her ear. No going back. "I'm half in love with him, El."
El's eyes widened and her hand twitched in Peter's, as if she was starting to pull away. All traces of understanding drained from her face, leaving her pale. "With Neal?"
"I'm sorry," said Peter. "I'm so sorry."
El squeezed his hand and met his gaze bravely. Her next words were unsteady. "What about us?"
"It doesn't change anything about us, not for me." Peter wanted desperately to put his arms around her, but he wasn't sure if she'd welcome the gesture, and he needed to get this right. "You're my wife," he said instead. "I love you more than anything."
El bit her lips together.
"I'll make it up to you." And then he couldn't hold back anymore. He pulled her into an awkward sideways hug, right there on the park bench.
She clung to him. It was growing dark, the air was bitter, and she shivered in his arms. "You—you don't have to." She pressed her face to his chest where the coat parted to reveal his sweater. "It's okay. It'll be okay."
"It will." Peter held onto her, relieved his secret was finally out, and at the same time, hating himself for hurting her. If only he had better control of his heart, this would never have happened.
For the rest of the evening, they talked about anything but Peter's revelation: chores, Satchmo, plans to paint the kitchen, whether to take wine or dessert to a dinner party at Cathy and Tim Robinsons' that Saturday and who else would be there. But when Peter came into the bedroom after locking up and setting the dishwasher going, he found El sitting up in bed reading. She slid a bookmark between the pages and put her novel aside. "Can we talk about Neal?"
Peter kicked off his shoes and sat on the edge of the bed next to her. "What do you want to know?"
El gave him a small lopsided smile. "How long?"
"I don't know." Peter scratched his jaw, and then caught her expression—doubtful, suspicious. He was going to have to tell her everything. "It crept up on me. A month or two, maybe. I kept thinking it would pass. Hoping it would."
"Is it—" She waved her hand abortively, dropped it back in her lap. "I mean, do you want him? Sexually?"
"Yeah," said Peter, ignoring his own embarrassment.
She clasped her hands together, fingers twisting. "Have you ever been with a man? Before we—"
"I thought about it a few times, when I was a teenager," said Peter. He'd never told anyone that. "But I never—" She was listening, trying so hard to understand. He put his hand on her arm. "It's not like I've been keeping a part of me secret all these years, hon. It's just—these feelings for Neal, they happened. I don't know what to—I can't do anything about them, so I just—" He shrugged. "I do the best I can."
El nodded slowly. "Do you think he knows?"
"No," said Peter quickly. He let out a long slow breath and made himself consider the matter properly. "I think he thinks he can play me just like he plays everyone else. I don't think he knows it's more than that."
"Okay," said El, as if that were the end of it.
Peter shook his head, hating the idea of being so vulnerable. "He'd use it against me."
"I don't think so, but—" The words trailed off. Her smile was tinged with sadness, but the hurt from earlier seemed to have eased. She caught him by the shirtsleeve and pulled him close. "Come here." Still mostly dressed, Peter lay down beside her and held her close. "I love you, Peter Burke," she murmured. "Don't ever forget that."
The next evening, despite everything, she smuggled a fugitive Neal past FBI surveillance and into their house.
Not long after the case with Fowler and the corrupt federal judge, Peter stepped out onto June's patio one fine morning to find it deserted. He was a little early, but that usually meant he'd catch Neal or June, or both of them, indulging in fancy coffee and expensive pastries over the morning paper, which also usually meant Peter could pilfer a little coffee for himself. He'd been anticipating that on the drive over this morning, but no such luck.
He went back inside, along the corridor to Neal's room, where he knocked.
There was a low murmur of voices, and then Neal answered the door, opening it only a crack and shielding the room from view with his body. Barefoot, but in shirtsleeves and suit pants. Meeting Peter's gaze and holding it, probably as a distraction technique. "Peter," he said loudly. "You're early."
"Are you going to let me in?" Peter was a little flustered from the eye contact, but not enough to prevent the kneejerk suspicion that arose whenever Neal tried to hide something.
Neal hesitated, his chin tilting in response, then swung the door wide and waved Peter inside, where Mozzie had apparently just hidden something on an easel and June was seated at the table, hands folded demurely. The customary French press and other coffee accoutrements were laid out before her.
"Having a breakfast party?" Peter asked Neal, who shrugged.
June smiled up at them with a regal air. "Coffee, Peter?"
"I should go," said Mozzie, collecting his bag from the floor beside the couch. He seemed, if possible, even more squirrelly than usual.
"Wait," said Neal following him to the couch. "Look, we'll figure this out. Just give me a few—" He stopped abruptly and turned to face Peter, clearly struck by some new and undoubtedly felonious idea. "I need a favor."
"No," said Peter, still off-balance from the locked gazes. He accepted a cup from June and sipped from coffee that was always and infuriatingly perfect.
Neal frowned. "You could at least hear me out."
"Is it legal?" asked Peter, and then made the mistake of locking gazes with him again. Neal's eyes darkened, intent and hopeful, and Peter's gut clenched in response. No, he told himself firmly, but his resistance wavered.
Neal's next words almost didn't register. "I want you to arrest Mozzie."
"What?" Peter glanced past Neal to the little guy and back again. "Why?"
"What?!" echoed Mozzie. He grabbed Neal's arm and dragged him around. "Are you out of your mind? Have you been drinking government-issue coffee again? I told you they lace that stuff with mind-altering compounds, but you—"
"It's the only way," Neal told him. He looked to Peter again. "Someone's mad at him because they think he appropriated certain merchandise before they had a chance to steal it for themselves."
Peter raised his eyebrows at Mozzie. "Did you?"
"No," said Mozzie, glaring. "And if I had, I wouldn't tell a Fed."
"Moz, you're not helping," said Neal. He took a step toward Peter. "He didn't do it."
Peter took a deep breath, filled with reluctance. It undermined his position, to take part in one of their circus sideshows, but he couldn't resist Neal in this mood—bursting with a bright idea and relatively altruistic—and he didn't particularly want to hang the little guy out to dry, especially after he'd scanned Peter's home for bugs and befriended El. Still, there was always another way. "You couldn't just inform on these guys?"
"We don't have anything solid," said Neal. "They're slick and they're dangerous. And for some reason, they've got their knives out for Mozzie. If you were to publicly—" He glanced back. "—temporarily arrest him for something else that happened the same day, he'd be off the hook."
"I'd be on a different hook," said Mozzie, his voice pitched high enough that it would have sent Satchmo into a frenzy. "This is insane. I won't do it."
Peter fought back a smile and said in his best FBI voice, "I'd need to know his real name."
Mozzie slung his messenger bag over his shoulder and headed for the door. Neal reached past him and shut it before he could escape. "Peter, please."
Peter sighed and surrendered his dignity. "What do you want me to arrest him for?"
"It doesn't matter." Neal shrugged. "B and E?"
"To the Pentagon!" Mozzie's eyes widened behind his glasses, and he held up a finger. "And stealing classified documents that will blow the Area 51 conspiracy wide open. Oh, no, wait! Cutting power to a secret government cloning facility!"
"Moz," said Neal. "I'm trying to help you here!"
"Fine," said Mozzie, pouting. "How about a brilliant MoMA heist? I purloined a Kandinsky."
"Did you?" asked Peter.
Mozzie's pout disappeared. "Always wanted to," he said airily. "Never found the time."
Neal grimaced an apology at Peter. "Will you do it?"
"Residential burglary, gold jewelry," said Peter. The less outlandish this was, the better he'd sell it.
"Done," said Mozzie.
"On the eighteenth," said June, helpfully.
Mozzie inched closer to Peter and peered myopically up at him. "And you have to let me go immediately. No mugshot, no fingerprints."
"He'll let you go," Neal told him. "Would you relax?"
"Easy for you to say. You're already compromised to the full extent of the law. And you're not allergic to handcuffs like I am."
"I could use zip-ties," said Peter, half genuine offer, and despite himself, half veiled threat.
Mozzie glowered. "'We are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspected.'"
"Henry David Thoreau," said Peter.
"Glad to see you understand each other," said Neal. He turned to Mozzie and gripped his shoulder. "It'll be okay. Trust me."
Something passed between the two of them that made Peter avert his gaze, and then look back helplessly. Neal was earnest, as if his mask had dropped. His concern for Mozzie was palpable, and for once, Peter was seeing Neal open—no lies, calculation or sleight of hand. Just Neal, and damn, it was a compelling sight, even more so for its rarity. Peter's heartbeat thudded, steady and loud in the silence and the sour taste of envy dried his mouth: he wanted that connection.
"You I trust," Mozzie was saying to Neal. "It's Eliot Ness here I'm not so sure about."
Peter heard a discreet cough; June was watching him with a kind but curious eye. He blinked and forced his own mask back into place. "Let's get this over with," he said to Neal and Mozzie. "I've got real work to do. Where do you want to stage this Oscar-winning performance?"
"Union Square," they answered in unison, turning to him with matching expressions of pure innocence.
Peter covered his eyes for a moment. "I won't ask. Let's go."
The Upper East Side street was quiet, lights on in the windows of the apartment block Peter and Neal were staking out. All over the city, teams were trying to run Sly Weatherstern to ground, but Peter had a hunch he'd come here, to his ex-wife's apartment. If the law was closing in, saying goodbye to your kid might well be your top priority before you tried to skip town.
Peter took out the pastrami on rye he'd brought in deference to Neal's delicate sensibilities and bit into it with relish. He'd given in to Neal's objections vis-à-vis the radio too, and smooth smoky jazz music was drifting through the car.
As if to reward these gestures of good faith, Neal was in top form, explaining some of the finer points of faking authentication documents. "Hypothetically, the best thing to do is to get a letter of confirmation from somewhere, say the British Museum, and use that as a template. It's actually not that hard."
"Hypothetically," said Peter drily, through a bite of sandwich.
Neal grinned. "Or so I've been told."
Peter rolled his eyes and changed the subject. "How's Mozzie? Is he out of the woods or are those guys still after him?"
"What? Oh, no, he's good. The fake arrest did the trick, just like I—" Neal broke off mid-sentence.
Peter swallowed his mouthful and looked across the car, where the passenger door was swinging wide. Neal had vanished. "What the—?"
Peter scanned the street, in front and behind, and caught sight of him sprinting across the road towards the corner half a block back from where they were parked. Disappearing around that same corner was a slim female figure, long dark hair, leather jacket.
Looked like Kate.
Appetite lost, Peter wrapped up the rest of his sandwich and put it away. He couldn't leave his post. If they lost Weatherstern because of Neal's tomfoolery, Hughes would justifiably tear Peter a new one. He'd wait ten minutes, and if Neal didn't come back, Peter would call Diana and get her to check the anklet's location.
In the meantime, the dull smell of hot asphalt drifted into the car, and the music twiddled and screeched, mocking him. He slapped the radio off with more force than was strictly necessary and hunched low in his seat, eyes front but flicking to the rear view mirror every few seconds. Dammit.
Six minutes and forty-three seconds later, Neal opened the door and dropped back into the passenger seat, breathing hard.
Peter waited in vain for an explanation or an apology. "Well?"
"I thought I saw an old friend. It wasn't her." Neal's good humor had evaporated too. He dropped his hat in his lap, then picked it up again and studied its brim, frowning.
Peter thought about venting his worries of the last few minutes, but Neal's misery was too obvious to ignore. He didn't know what Peter knew—that Kate had cooperated with the Bureau five years ago, and she could well be working with them of her own volition now. Reluctantly, but nonetheless.
Peter couldn't say that to Neal—Neal would blame him, maybe blame the FBI as a whole for turning her against him. But perhaps he could get Neal to admit the photograph with the hand was flimsy evidence at best. "Neal, what really makes you think Kate's in trouble? Think. The hand in that photo could be anyone. Maybe she's got a new boyfriend."
"No," said Neal, shaking his head vehemently. "She told me she's in danger. If she was free to come home, I know she would. She'd come back to me."
Peter put his hands on the steering wheel to keep from reaching for him. It wasn't Peter's place, and anyway, Neal didn't need comfort; he needed hard truths. "She's hidden from you before.
That didn't have quite the desired effect. Neal blinked and raised his head slowly, hope dawning. "You helped me find her before."
"Oh, no," said Peter. He swept the street outside the apartment for Weatherstern and looked back at Neal. "No. I'm not using government resources to help you stalk your ex-girlfriend."
Neal's face went blank, shutting Peter out. "I'm not stalking her."
"If she wanted to see you, I'm sure she'd find a way," said Peter. He blew out a breath and put himself in Neal's shoes. "Listen, I know it's got to be tough. You thought you had a future with this girl, and she had different plans." He paused to see if Neal was receptive, but it was impossible to tell. "That's hard, okay? I get that. But I want you to give this life a chance, not just as a way to find Kate. For its own sake."
Neal licked his lips and looked out the passenger window. A couple of cars passed, music thumping from the stereo of one.
Peter rubbed his thumb against the steering wheel. "Don't be like Weatherstern or any of these guys, throwing away your best years over some scam that blows up in your face. Try this life, see if it fits. You're good at this stuff."
"Okay," said Neal.
Peter couldn't tell if he was lying just to shut him up, but any time Neal talked about giving up Kate, the chances were good he was at least embellishing a little. That was just a fact of life.
Neal turned on the radio and jazz started playing again, indistinguishable from the piece that had been driving Peter nuts ten minutes ago. It all sounded the same. Maybe that's how Peter's pep talk sounded: blah blah behave yourself blah blah.
He was suddenly exhausted. He rubbed his eyes, turned off the music and said into the silence, "You know what? You owe me."
"I owe you," repeated Neal, slowly. Skeptically.
"Yeah, you do. I've put my badge on the line for you more than once. You owe me, and here's what I want: don't screw up." Peter kept his eyes on the street. Sooner or later Weatherstern would show, and they'd have him. He remembered long stakeouts just like this, lying in wait for Neal. "I've arrested you twice. Don't make me do it a third time."
He glanced sideways to find Neal watching him, misery and skepticism gone or hidden. Now there was warmth on Neal's face. Real affection, maybe.
"Okay," he said again, and this time—this time, Peter thought there was a better than even chance that he meant it. Then he sat up straight, alert and tensed for action. "Peter, that's Weatherstern. Over there. We've got him."
Peter looked up from checking his email on his laptop when El came in. She was wearing a navy business suit and plain shoes. "The trial starts at nine, so we need to leave in fifteen minutes in case there's traffic," she said.
"Okay, hon." Peter, in casual shirt and slacks, beckoned her over and kissed her, and she leaned against him for a moment, her body thrumming with tension, before calling Satchmo into the kitchen to feed him.
Peter watched her go. It was strange, them both being in limbo: Peter was on suspension for hitting Fowler, and El was on bail, charged with assault. Both of them had been sleeping badly, and El was still fuming about Fowler's tactics, and dreading the trial.
Even stranger—and harder to accept, because it might be permanent—was the fact that Neal was back in prison. At least Peter, being suspended, hadn't been the one to arrest him this time; Jones had done the honors.
Peter had visited once, the day after Neal went in. He took Diana, largely for her badge, and they checked up on Neal's conditions, made sure he had a cell to himself. Neal was pale and monosyllabic, still in shock, none of his usual patter or charm, and the air in the interview room tasted faintly of burning jet fuel, oily and sickening. Peter couldn't tell if it was memory or real, but when he got home, he showered twice, scrubbing the taint from his skin.
Two weeks later, Peter still had to consciously remind himself not to check Neal's tracking data in the morning—Neal wasn't wearing the anklet, and even if he had been, Peter's access was revoked. And it was finally time for El's hearing. Peter hoped the trial would be a formality, but there was always the possibility that Fowler had some further trouble up his sleeve.
But on the drive into the city, El got a phone call from her lawyer. "Really? No, we're on our way now. Okay. Okay, thanks." She hung up. "Honey, the FBI have dropped the charges. Apparently Fowler's been AWOL for the last week, and he's still missing. Without him, there's no case."
Peter almost sagged with relief. "That's great, hon. Do you want me to turn around? Or we could have lunch at that little Greek place."
"Actually, would you mind dropping me off at the Channing?" said El, already back in work mode. "I need to talk with the events manager there."
"The Channing Museum?" Peter glanced at her in confusion. "Why the Channing?"
El's smile said he ought to know the answer, but she explained anyway. "Burke Premiere Events is coordinating their Masters' Retrospective this year. I told you. Neal pulled some strings, before—"
Before the explosion. Everything was timed to that now, before or after. "I know about the Retrospective," said Peter. "Ten cases of champagne, less than two months to bring it together, and some trouble with the flatware and the sound system." Or was it the air conditioning? He'd been more or less listening when El had talked about it, but apparently he hadn't given her his full attention. "Did you say it was at the Channing? How exactly did Neal arrange this?"
"I think he said a friend owed him a favor," said El. "Why?"
Peter shook his head. He didn't want to upset El's work plans, especially after the last couple of weeks, but he also didn't believe in coincidence.
By that afternoon, after a stilted, elliptical conversation with the Channing's curator and a brief visit to Julianna Laszlo, supposedly the former owner of Young Girl With Locket, Peter had a pretty clear idea of which strings Neal had pulled, if not how. "He forged the portrait, gave the original back to Julianna, and somehow blackmailed the curator into authenticating the forgery," he told El the minute she arrived home. "And he almost certainly blackmailed the curator again to get you the Masters' Retrospective. Can you believe it?" Peter threw up his hands. "He thinks he's Robin Hood."
"Isn't that a good thing?" El seemed more amused than shocked. "I think it's sweet." She slipped off her sensible shoes and hung her suit jacket on the back of a chair.
Peter stopped pacing and eyed her reproachfully. "Unlike twelfth century England, we have a justice system to protect the people. Robin Hood was an outlaw then, but these days he'd be a financial vigilante. A criminal."
"I was a criminal until this morning," said El. She came over to him and looped her arms around his neck. "Are you mad because Neal did it, or because he didn't tell you he did it?"
"Both," said Peter, refusing to relinquish his moral outrage. "Loveable rogues are fine in the movies, but in real life people get hurt."
El tilted her head thoughtfully. "Who does a forged painting hurt?"
"The Channing collection's worth over a million dollars less than it should be. Plus he's ripping off every person who goes there expecting to see the original Haustenberg," said Peter, knowing it sounded weak. It didn't matter: it was true.
But El just gave him a patient look.
"He blackmailed the curator!" said Peter.
"Well, the curator can't have been squeaky clean, or there'd be nothing to blackmail him with," said El reasonably. Satchmo trundled into the room, and she bent to pet him, then headed to the kitchen and started making coffee. "You know, if you spent less time keeping abreast of the latest developments in Penthouse and more time reading Cosmopolitan magazine, you'd know you can't change a man just by loving him." She winked, taking the sting out of her criticism. "I'm just saying."
Peter felt his face get hot. They hadn't talked about his feelings for Neal in months. To have El drop it casually into conversation—at the same time as mentioning porn magazines, no less—was unnerving. He took a couple of mugs from the kitchen cabinet and passed them to her, trying to suppress his embarrassment. "I really thought we were getting somewhere."
"Look at it this way: Neal didn't steal the painting for the money or to show off."
"He could have told me," said Peter. It came out sulkier than he meant it to, and made El grin.
After a moment, her smile softened into sympathy. "He's Neal. He's always going to be Neal. You can't change that, and if you can't accept it, he's going to hurt you over and over." She came and pressed her hand to his cheek. "I hate seeing you get hurt."
He looked down at her, his wise, beautiful wife, who always found a way to forgive him. Whose bedrock of integrity allowed her to recognize and navigate life's gray areas, while his job—and his natural inclinations—often made him cast the world in black and white. "I know. I'm sorry."
She stood on tiptoe and kissed him, and he wrapped his arms around her, grateful to the core that she loved him back. "I got lucky with you, didn't I? The thing about Neal—" He hesitated, making sure she was okay to keep talking about the man who, in some lights, could be seen as her rival. She nodded encouragingly. "—what does it say about me, if I—care for someone whose idea of a good time is forging an old master, or breaking into a museum? Shouldn't it be someone you're proud of? Someone you respect?"
El raised her eyebrows. "You don't respect Neal?"
The kettle whistled and Peter let her go, leaned back against the counter and folded his arms. He'd spent the better part of the afternoon considering this, analyzing his responses to Neal, teasing out the frustration from the impatience and the affection. "I admire him," he said. "His intellect, his skills, his wit. And I enjoy his company, but no, I can't respect him. He's the king of the loophole. His whole MO is shortcuts, manipulation and deceit. How can I respect that?"
El poured the coffee and added milk and sugar to Peter's, how he liked it. Its rich warm aroma filled the air. "There are very few angels in the world," she said. "And yeah, I know, Neal's fallen further than most, but nobody's perfect."
"I'm not talking about perfect," said Peter. "I'm talking about responsible. I'm talking about good."
She gave him a small wistful smile. "Well, we don't have a choice about who we love, but we can choose what we do about it. What's best for all of us? What's best for Neal?"
"I need to keep some distance, some detachment," said Peter, automatically. There had never been any alternative, really—even if Neal hadn't only had eyes for Kate. "I need to be his friend. And I need to get him out of that damned prison."
"Okay," said El, wrapping her hands around her coffee mug. "Let's go with that."
"Delia Winters," said Peter, passing copies of the latest case file around the conference table. "Suspected of running forgery rings in California, Colorado, New Mexico and now New York. She specializes in bonds, checks and other financial instruments, and last week we got lucky with some bank security footage—"
He looked around the room. Diana was nodding attentively, Jones was flicking through the file, drinking his coffee and no doubt listening with half an ear, and Neal—something was up with Neal. It was four months since the explosion, nearly two since Neal had been released from prison, and everything was back to normal, more or less. Neal joked less and held himself aloof from the team sometimes, but he'd settled back into the daily routine of investigations, surveillance and busts. The ego boost from his write-up in Professor Oswald's criminology syllabus had definitely helped. But today—
Neal opened the file slowly and barely glanced at the contents, but he wasn't really listening to Peter either. Peter continued the briefing, keeping a discreet eye on him while he spelled out their strategy to track Winters down. When the team disbanded, he didn't have to ask Neal to stay behind.
Neal twirled his copy of the case file between his fingers while the last of the junior agents left the room. "About Delia," he said.
Peter narrowed his eyes. "You know her. Is she a relative?"
Neal shook his head.
Peter kept his expression blank. "An old girlfriend?" The security footage had showed a short-haired blonde woman, fairly thickset. Not Neal's usual type, as far as Peter knew, but that didn't mean it hadn't happened.
"Peter—" Neal's gaze slid to the case file. Avoiding Peter's eye.
"If you've slept with her, I can take you off the case," said Peter, "but being friends with Neal Caffrey doesn't automatically entitle someone to immunity from the law."
The case file stopped spinning. Peter could almost see Neal's instinct to conceal his past warring with his compulsion to appear all-knowing. The latter won. Neal licked his lip and said in a low voice, "Delia taught me a few things about printing. And I dated her brother for about a year before I first moved to New York."
Peter stared at him dumbly while the implications registered: Neal was attracted to men, it wasn't just Peter's imagination or wishful thinking. Neal was experienced. Neal had just come out to him. Was there subtext that Peter should pick up on? They were standing close enough that he could hear the steady tide of Neal's breathing. Awareness tingled down Peter's spine.
He swallowed and made himself focus on the case: Neal had a personal history with the suspect, but it wasn't close enough to justify taking him off the investigation, not when his knowledge could make their work significantly easier. "Delia Winters has forged at least a dozen different types of bearer bond, millions of dollars worth. And we don't run a popularity contest: it's not for us to say who does and doesn't have to pay for their crimes."
"You gave Alex a plane ticket," said Neal.
Peter held up his hand to stop that train of thought. "We weren't after Alex. And besides, she helped us out. When we find Delia, maybe we can make a deal, but you know I can't promise anything."
Neal ducked his head to the side, half assent, half protest, but all he said was, "Okay."
"Okay," said Peter, injecting warmth into his voice. Neal had just come out to him; he needed to know that was okay. "Good. Get back to work."
Half an hour later, Peter came out of his office looking for Diana. She was at Jones's desk, pointing at something on his screen, but there was no sign of Neal anywhere. Peter's mental alarm went off, but he ignored it. Maybe Neal was just in the men's room. Peter beckoned to Diana and gave her the information the New Mexico office had sent through. When they finished, Neal still wasn't back.
"Where's Neal?" Peter asked Diana. She shrugged, so Peter went out to the balcony and called down to Jones. "Where's Caffrey?"
"He went out," said Jones. "Said you asked him to follow up a lead."
Peter pressed his lips together and tried to keep a lid on his temper. "If he's gone to warn Winters we're onto her—" he muttered to Diana, but there was no end to that sentence. He'd run out of credible threats against Neal months ago.
"You want me to pull up his tracking data?" asked Diana.
"If he's not back in half an hour," said Peter. Maybe he was over-reacting. Maybe Neal had gone out for coffee, to regroup after his revelation. Maybe he was meeting Mozzie for some other not strictly work-related reason. "For now, see what you can do with the intel from New Mexico."
Twenty minutes later, he called Neal, but it went straight to voicemail. "I want you back in the office in ten minutes, or you call me and tell me why. Don't make me come looking for you, Neal."
Five minutes after that, Neal knocked on Peter's office door. "Heard you were looking for me."
"Do I want to know where you've been?" Peter glanced up, then did a double take. Neal had a red mark on his jaw that looked like it was going to develop into one hell of a bruise. "What happened to you?"
"It's nothing." Neal shrugged it off and ushered someone ahead of him into Peter's office. A woman, tall and sturdy with short dyed-blonde hair and half a dozen earrings. "Delia, this is Peter Burke."
"Peter," said Delia, reaching out to shaking his hand. Her grip was firm, her smile wide and engaging, and her eyes sharp. Peter liked her on sight, despite her occupation. She put her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. "Neal tells me we might be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement."
"Oh, he did," said Peter, raising a stern eyebrow in Neal's direction.
Neal waved Delia into a visitor's chair and pulled up one of his own. He leaned forward, hands on his knees. "She can give us the Highway Man."
"What?" Peter sat up straight. The Highway Man was a hold-up artist specializing in armored car hijackings. He'd killed twice, and the Bureau didn't have a name or even a print on the guy, or any of the muscle he worked with. "Okay," said Peter. "If this pans out, if you give us the Highway Man, then we can do a deal."
"Will she walk?" asked Neal.
Peter considered; Neal was forcing his hand, which was a problem, and on top of that, Peter wasn't a hundred percent sure he was basing his decision on FBI protocol rather than keeping Neal happy, but the Highway Man would be a big win. It sounded okay. "This time," said Peter. He steepled his fingers and studied Delia. "If you keep doing what you do, we will catch you and you will do time."
Delia exchanged glances with Neal, and then shrugged one shoulder. "I was about ready to retire anyway. I'm thinking of buying an alpaca farm."
"So long as that's not a euphemism for illegal activity, you have the Bureau's blessing," Peter told her.
Delia grinned and winked at Neal. "I see what you mean, Caff. He's okay for a Fed."
Peter shook his head in mock despair, but he couldn't help the warm glow in his gut, however faint the praise Neal had damned him with. "Get Jones to put something on that bruise," he told Neal gruffly. "Or at least show you where we keep the first aid kit."
Later that evening, when Delia had given her statement and Jones had escorted her to a safe house, and nearly everyone else had gone home, Peter packed up too, briefcase in one hand, coat folded over the other, and was about to leave when he found Neal in the conference room, leaning over the table in the half dark, poring over the files they'd pulled on the Highway Man.
"It's late," said Peter. "Go home and get some rest, Caff."
Neal straightened and looked outside, as if he were surprised the sky was dark, the buildings lit up like Christmas. The bruise on his jaw was almost lost among the other shadows. "You too."
For a moment neither of them moved, then Peter decided they might as well have the talk now. He put his briefcase on a chair. "About Delia," he said. "You need to warn me before you pull a stunt like that. You can't go around promising people deals." He watched Neal's reactions carefully. "If she didn't have anything to bargain with, were you going to let her go?"
"No, I—" Neal took a deep breath and looked away. "I don't know. Maybe. I know things are black and white for you: catch the bad guy, lock 'em up. For me it's not so easy. It must be nice to always be sure what's the right thing to do."
"Neal." Peter wanted to say yes, yes it was easy. That if Neal could just get his moral compass to point north, it would be easy for him too. But standing there, looking at Neal and awash with exasperated affection and desire, the sermon wouldn't come. The truth slipped out instead. "It's not always easy for me. Sometimes it's damned near impossible."
Neal gave a small nod, then lifted his gaze, serious and trusting. He took a half-step forward, and even in this dim light Peter could count his eyelashes, could see the faint stubble on his jaw, the dark stain of his bruise, the way his pupils were dilating. His lips parted, and Peter stopped breathing altogether. Neither of them moved.
"Um," said Neal softly, and Peter's sense of propriety kicked in with a jolt.
He stepped back and picked up his briefcase. "Go on. Get out of here before we have to start charging you rent."
He turned abruptly and went home to El, wondering the whole way if he'd imagined the flash of disappointment in Neal's eye at his retreat. Wondering how in hell he was going to keep working with Neal if their attraction really was mutual. And at the same time, despite himself, secretly and dangerously elated at the idea it might be.
Peter came into the bedroom and shut the door. He was almost tempted to barricade it, but El would tease him for overreacting. She was changing into her pajamas, her warm, creamy curves disappearing into thin white cotton, and when her head emerged from the spaghetti-strap top, her smile was rueful.
"What's going on in there?" Peter stage-whispered, of the raised voices emanating from their guest room. Not that whispering was necessary. Will and Sunita were obviously caught up in their own drama.
Will was an old college buddy, and he and his wife Sunita had asked to stay a couple of days, while Sunita was in New York on business. It had seemed no big deal at the time—one of the costs of living in the city was that out-of-state friends and family, balking at New York hotel tariffs, often availed themselves of one's guest room—but dinner had been rife with mysterious undercurrents, and now apparently hell had broken loose. It was discomfiting hearing so much anger in their home, especially when he and El prided themselves on their peaceable relationship.
El pulled her hair free of her top and tied it back into a ponytail. "From what I can gather, Will has a gambling problem," said El, keeping her voice low. "I guess they're working through it."
"No, we had an agreement and you broke it," came Sunita's voice, carrying through the wall. "No more credit cards—you promised! How am I supposed to trust you now?"
"How many times do I have to say I'm sorry?" replied Will, several decibels quieter but still clearly audible. "I'm not a kid, okay? I have a life, I have demands on my time, and I can't function like this. We said three months, and it's been nearly two. Jesus, would you at least admit I'm trying, or is even that too much to ask?"
El pulled a face and climbed into bed. "I guess that explains why Sunita has the checkbook and all the credit cards."
Peter slid under the covers and spooned up behind her. "Promise me we'll never fight like that."
"I promise not to acquire a taste for poker," said El, twisting around to kiss him. "And I think I can trust you not to gamble us into thousands of dollars of debt. Now, if it was Neal we were talking about—"
Peter nearly sprang to Neal's defense, but it was true. Neal's impulse control was patchy, at best. And it wasn't like Will was an idiot. Smart people were just as susceptible to their demons as everyone else.
In the next room, the fight continued. It was pitched lower now, as if they'd remembered where they were, and the words were muffled, but the bitterness and frustration came through loud and clear.
That's what it would be like, to cast in his lot with Neal: recriminations on one side and an endless supply of excuses on the other. Even if El would sanction an intimate relationship—a sanction that was far too much to ask—it would be a disaster.
Peter hugged El tight. "I love you," he told her.
"I know," she said, holding his arm to her waist. "I love you too."
Peter looked from Neal to Mozzie, both smiling, with their hands dug deep in their pockets, both a little too impressed with June's friend's counterfeiting scheme. "Since we can't find Ford, let's figure out what else he needs to make these bills."
Neal considered. "Well, I'll need to borrow some reading materials."
"Fine," said Peter. "From where?"
"The US Treasury." Neal and Mozzie exchanged smug smiles.
Peter sighed, shelved his misgivings, and said, "I'll set it up in the morning."
"Can I see them too?" asked Mozzie. "For that, I'd even be willing to brave your Den of Pigs again."
"It's the FBI, not Disneyland for criminals," said Peter. "No."
Mozzie huffed. "You need to loosen up, Agent Buzzkill."
"Moz," said Neal, before Peter could form a retort. "June and Elizabeth are downstairs."
"Are there hors d'oeuvres?" asked Mozzie.
"'Fraid not." Neal shepherded Mozzie toward the door. "There's pie."
Mozzie looked momentarily discontented. "That may suffice." His expression cleared, and he held up one finger. "Friendship is the breathing rose, with sweets in every fold." He went downstairs, leaving Peter alone with Neal.
Peter glanced down at the book of currencies which Neal just happened to have in his possession and did his best to ignore the bed on the other side of the room. The glow of good food and wine, and the vicarious embarrassment of June and Neal's singing were combining to muzzy his thoughts.
"El's looking at June's old photos," he said, for something to say.
"Her, Byron and Ford," said Neal. He came to face Peter. "June said the three of them used to be inseparable."
Peter nodded. She'd said the same to him and El, but he hadn't given it much thought. Now it took on greater significance. He took a step toward the door. "I should go."
"Peter, wait." Neal blocked his path, standing only a foot or two away, and when he spoke, his words came out in a rush. "I don't want to end up like Ford, out there alone, betraying the people who care about me."
"So don't," said Peter, moved. Maybe some good would come of Ford's appearance after all. "It's not too late, Neal. You have a choice."
"I know." Neal's hands hung at his sides. "But there's something you need to know."
Peter waited, eyebrows raised. Was Neal going to confess to another crime? Or perhaps it was something to do with Adler and the music box.
Neal sought Peter's gaze and held it. "I think Ford ended up on the outside because he wanted something he could never have."
"Are we talking about Ford or are we talking about you?" asked Peter before he could think better of it.
Neal licked his lips, and Peter could almost see him making the decision to bet everything on a roll of the dice. "I'm talking about you, me and Elizabeth."
"Neal, stop." Peter couldn't listen to this, not now. He couldn't trust himself to say no, even with Elizabeth right downstairs.
But Neal kept going. "I'm in love with you," he said. "And I'm falling in love with Elizabeth too." He reached out and touched Peter's arm. "Tell me I have a chance."
Peter's throat ached. For once, he was convinced Neal was speaking from the heart, and that only made it harder. He stepped back, out of reach. "You know I can't."
Hope flickered, but that wasn't enough to extinguish it. "Is it because of the Bureau, because you're legally responsible for me? Because I don't care. We can find a way around that."
"No," said Peter. "That's only one reason." He didn't know what to do with his hands—wanted desperately to reach for Neal, but he couldn't. "You're a criminal. I'm a federal agent."
Neal's eyes darkened with hurt. "I'm working with you now. I'll do whatever it takes."
"It's not what you do, it's who you are," said Peter. "You're unpredictable, and that's dangerous."
"So I'll take a pledge of allegiance," said Neal, quickly. "Or a Hippocratic oath. I keep my word, Peter."
"Neal—" Peter held up his hands, trying to stop the promises, to hold temptation at bay.
"Asimov's laws of robotics," said Neal, half joking. He raised his chin and the humor faded, replaced with intensity and desire. "I know you want me. I know you care."
There was no point denying it; Peter didn't try. "And Elizabeth? I'm not willing to risk my marriage over something that could blow up in all of our faces."
Neal faltered. "She doesn't—?"
"Not like that," said Peter, as gently as he could. "We both care about you, Neal. We want the best for you, but that best isn't with us, not the way you're thinking. It's not an illicit roll in the ethically compromised hay."
Neal shook his head, plainly unwilling to accept that. "I'm talking about more than sex."
"Would you feel the same if I wasn't responsible for you?" asked Peter, voicing a suspicion he hadn't previously put into words, even to himself. "Or is this just another heist? Love isn't stealing a Raphael or saving someone's life, and it's not using blackmail to give someone an opportunity. Yeah, I know about the Haustenberg and the Channing."
Neal flinched, and Peter looked away, gathering his composure. Music drifted up the stairs, and Peter wished with every fiber of his being that there was a different way to end this conversation, one where he and El took Neal home with them and they all lived happily ever after like a fairytale. But real life wasn't so simple, and he had to make sure Neal accepted that too. "Listen, I'm flattered, and I can't say I haven't thought about it, but I'm married. It's not an option."
Neal was pale now. "Never?"
"Find someone else," said Peter. "Be happy. Let me be your friend."
Neal's mask came up, neutral and impenetrable. "Sure," he said. "Friends." He manufactured a faint smile; it didn't reach his eyes, but Peter appreciated the effort.
"El will be waiting. I should go," he said, and this time, Neal didn't try to stop him.
Peter saw Neal and Sara off in separate cabs and came inside to throw away the remains of the Cornish hens and stack the dishwasher, but he was waylaid by the sight of El, sitting on the couch, staring into the middle distance and turning a used wineglass in her hands.
Peter sat down next to her. "El? Is everything okay?"
She blinked a few times and angled toward him, her eyes wide. "I think I just did something really stupid."
Peter glanced around the room for evidence of a mishap. Satchmo was asleep in the corner, and nothing was broken or out of place. "What?"
"I talked Sara into giving Neal another chance," said El, slowly.
"Oh." Peter had been pitching the same deal to Neal all evening, trying to convince him to settle down with Sara and stop being such a temptation. Since the evening of June's dinner party, Neal hadn't mentioned or even hinted at his feelings, but Peter had been sure of Neal's love—took it for granted, like gravity or oxygen—and he knew that tonight, talking about Sara, and Peter's life with El, they'd both been remembering what Peter had said: Find someone else. Be happy. Let me be your friend. It went against the grain, setting out to pair Neal off with someone else, but he'd thought it was the right thing to do. "Isn't that good?"
"That isn't the stupid part." El looked down at the wineglass as if she'd only just realized she was holding it. She put it on the coffee table and took Peter's hand. "Honey, when I saw the two of you sitting at the table, talking, it was so—" She ducked her head for a moment, then looked up, troubled. "I'm in love with you. With both of you. I don't want him to be with anyone else."
"Hon." Peter pulled her into his arms, stunned, already aching on her behalf. It was bad enough to love Neal himself, under these impossible circumstances; for El to suffer too was unbearable. "I don't like it either, but we talked about this. Neal isn't—"
"He's not a bad person," said El fiercely, pulling back to look at him.
"He's not good, either," said Peter, trying to make a joke of it, but he knew what she meant. Familiar as Peter was with Neal's weaknesses and fallibility, when he thought of Neal, the deep, true core of him was built from loyalty, intelligence and courage. He might not know right from wrong in a legal sense, he might not always play fair, but he cared deeply for those he loved and he took his responsibilities seriously. That made up for a lot.
"He's good enough for Sara," El pointed out. "Either that or we're terrible people to have pushed them together." She shook her head sharply. "So—is there something about us that makes us a special case, or have we just forfeited the moral high ground? Because if he still cares about us, I'd rather be in a moral ditch."
"You don't mean that," said Peter, taken aback.
"I'm not saying I think it's okay to go out and commit murder, or that I want to rob a bank. Just—" El bit her lip and finished in a thin voice, "—some things are more important than the law."
"If we did anything, I could lose my job," said Peter, grasping for all the logical reasons he'd bludgeoned himself with for weeks and months. Many of them had been about El, but there was no shortage of others.
"Sara works for an insurance company. You don't think they'd hate the idea of her dating an art thief? I have wealthy clients who give me free access to their homes—some of them would be horrified. I could lose my business." Her jaw clenched, but she wasn't shying away from the risk. "Neal is never going to be convenient. But I think it would be worth it."
"He's unreliable." Peter's reasons were sounding more and more like excuses, and he couldn't feel what was right anymore—only what he wanted. What El wanted. "We can't trust him."
"When it counts, I trust him," said El. "Him and Mozzie. Neal helped rescue you when Keller had you kidnapped. Last year I asked him to break into a judge's chamber and he did it. For me and for you. And when you were poisoned, he got to you in time. If it weren't for Neal, you'd be dead or disgraced."
"But I'm not, and that's not a basis for a relationship. He's still Neal, he's still a felon. I'm still his supervisor. If it went wrong, he'd end up back in prison, one way or another." Peter closed his eyes against the possibility. "I can't arrest him again, El. Especially not if it's because of us."
"Then don't." El's eyes were huge and dark, her cheeks flushed, as if her love were a fever.
"I've already let so many thing slide—" So many slips and misdemeanors forgiven and covered up that Peter was almost as compromised as Neal was. He wanted to let this slide too. To give in to El's persuasion and take what Neal had offered. He shouldn't. "Where did this come from, El? Why now?"
"The scales have fallen from my eyes." She slumped back on the couch and her mouth twisted. "During the thing with Stanzler, with Neal pretending to be you, and you pretending to be Neal, and all of it so much fun. I could feel how much he cares about me. And then to see you together tonight—"
She was right. It had been fun, once Peter had found his bearings—reckless, outrageous fun. Ignoring convention, embracing his id. Being introduced to Neal at the party, and both of them complimenting El, making her glow with pleasure. In the intensity of his and El's love-making that night, it had almost felt like Neal was in the room with them. Peter's resistance began to give way. He started to shake.
"What is it?" asked El, watching him closely.
"I'm scared," said Peter. "Terrified. Of losing you. Of screwing up everything. And what if he's moved on? What if he'd be happier with Sara?"
El leaned into him and cupped his cheek. "We could ask." Her thumb stroked across his temple. "I'm scared too, but—honey, sometimes you have to leap. We'll always regret it if we don't try."
"I'd hate to see you get hurt," said Peter. But hope, long dormant and forgotten, was starting to flare, and the thought of giving Neal a different answer—finally being able to let down his guard and hold Neal close, breath in his scent, kiss him and more, seeing El with him, being together—all of it was clouding Peter's judgment. He searched for good sense; all he found were the old questions. "What would be best for Neal? What's best for all of us?"
El's smile was wistful. "You know my answer. You tell me—what's best for Neal?"
"I—" He took a deep breath. This used to be simple; Neal had been his protégé, his CI. But now they were partners, working side by side, and with El's desire added to Peter's own, it was anything but easy to know the right thing to do. "If he has a shot at happiness with Sara, I don't think we have any right to mess with that," Peter said slowly. "But I do need to tell him he's good enough." He'd been too harsh that evening at June's. It's not what you do, it's who you are, he'd said, and Neal should know he wasn't just a criminal to them anymore. "He deserves to know that much."
"Okay," said El, plainly disappointed but willing to follow his lead in this. "Do what's right and let the pieces fall where they may. Let's go with that." She leaned against his chest. "Are you going to do it now? We could call him."
"Tomorrow," said Peter. "After we've caught Adler."
The next night, Peter arrived home late and exhausted. El was reading on the couch, Satchmo at her feet, both of them cocooned in the light from the lamp, and the sight of them waiting for him, steadfast and loving, almost broke Peter.
It had been a really tough day.
"Hey, hon," said El, looking up from her book. Whatever she saw on his face made her voice soften. "Dinner's in the fridge. You want me to heat it up for you?"
"I'll do it," said Peter, but he didn't move. He'd spent the afternoon and half the evening answering the investigation team's questions and filling out forms, and he still didn't know which way the Shooting Incident Review Group would decide. He ran his fingers through his hair and tried to banish his worries, at least for the evening, but half the time, when he closed his eyes, he saw Adler crumpling to the ground, and tasted bile. The other half he saw that fragment of Neal's painting, falling, burning, demanding answers.
He swallowed and sat in the armchair facing El. "I shot Vincent Adler."
El nodded, no shock or judgment. "You want to talk about it?"
"No." Peter couldn't. "Not yet. Anyway, so—I'm off-duty until they complete their investigation. If they find I operated within the scope of the FBI's deadly force policy, that'll be the end of it, but until then, no badge. And there's a good chance that Neal's presence will complicate the investigation."
"He was there," said El, reading between the lines.
"Yeah, Adler was going to—" Peter hunched forward, gripping his hands together. "It should never have happened. He's not trained for this. I should have kept an eye on him; I should have known where he was."
"Where Neal was." El came to kneel at Peter's feet and put her hand over his. "Honey, yesterday Adler kidnapped you, drugged you twice and tried to have you killed. Today—Let's just say you've been through a lot."
"That's no excuse," said Peter. He'd been the agent in charge today. He'd been responsible. "If I wasn't fit for duty, I should have handed the operation over."
"Okay, we'll figure this out," she said, "and it will be okay, I promise. But right now, you need to eat, sleep and get your head together."
"I need to talk to Neal," said Peter, aware he was explaining the events in bits and pieces, probably incomprehensible. "I lashed out, and— El, his paintings were at the scene. He must have—" He stopped and took a shuddering breath. "I don't know what to think."
She rested her head against his knee. "Have you called him?"
"He's not answering his phone," said Peter. He'd tried, once his fury had subsided and the worst of the shock had passed—just to make sure Neal wasn't doing anything stupid. Just to hear his voice, and reassure himself that Neal was still the Neal he knew, the man he'd grown to love. He'd called again, later, when the investigation team asked where he was, but still Neal wouldn't pick up. From his tracking data, it looked like he was walking all the way home from the dock. Still angry, no doubt.
Right on cue, Peter's cellphone rang. "This is Burke."
It was the Marshals, informing him that Neal was outside his radius. "Okay," said Peter. "I'll deal with it."
Fifteen seconds later, while he was still working out what to do, another call came through. This time it was Neal. "Peter, I'm outside my radius."
"I know," said Peter. He closed his eyes and saw nothing but darkness. "What are you doing in the Meatpacking District?"
"Meet me at 77850 Gansevoort Street," said Neal.
There was enough urgency in his tone that Peter didn't argue outright, but he had to question. "I just got home, and it's been a hell of a day. What's this about?"
"I have to show you something." Neal disconnected.
Peter stared at his phone for a moment, then looked up to see El's raised eyebrows. "He wants me to meet him."
She nodded. "I'll drive you." The jut of her chin said there was no point arguing.
"I love you," said Peter. "I'll call the Marshals."
Neal was sitting on a wooden crate by the side door of the building in Gansevoort St, waiting for him. There was some light from the street, but there were a lot of shadows too, and Peter kept a sharp eye out for unwelcome surprises. He'd asked El to wait in the car as backup, in case Neal was under duress or something unexpected was going down, and after some negotiation, she'd agreed.
Neal stood up as Peter approached. "You came."
He pulled something from his pocket, and for a horrible, gut-wrenching moment, Peter thought it was a gun. That he'd served his purpose and Neal had summoned him here to tidy up loose ends. A flash of panic, and then reality re-asserted itself, and Peter took the scrap of canvas from Neal's outstretched hand. It was charred around the edges, and it looked like a Monet.
"Peter—" Neal's face was shadowed by the brim of his hat, his voice strained. "I went back to the warehouse—the security cordon there is less than secure, by the way—and I get it now, why you blamed me. But I didn't lie to you, Peter. Someone cleared out my storage room, all my paintings—I don't know who or how they knew about them. They must have planted them at the warehouse."
Peter believed him. He sat on the crate and crumbled the flaking edges of the canvas. "Someone who knew about the U-boat. Mozzie?"
Neal perched next to him, only an inch or two between them. His presence was a comfort, a reminder of why Peter had had to fire that morning. Neal's life had been in imminent danger, and Peter had saved him—not for love, but because the rules of engagement were clear about protecting those who were unarmed. He'd do it again in a heartbeat.
"Mozzie wouldn't use explosives," Neal was saying. "Too messy."
"Alex?" said Peter.
"Maybe." Neal seemed reluctant to pursue the subject, which probably meant he thought she'd done it. He took off his hat and leaned in so their shoulders brushed, and Peter wasn't sure if it was misdirection or something else, but it worked. He couldn't ignore the raw questions Neal was asking. "Peter, I need to know—what about us? Are we still friends?"
The light slanting from the street made flat planes of his face, and Peter looked at the canvas in his hands, past conversations echoing in his head: Lauren's briefing, years ago, when she'd said, He'll make you feel special, the exception, the one person he's honest with; El, only the night before, When it counts, I trust him; Neal himself, I didn't let you down. It had always been personal between them. A wiser man would keep his distance, but Peter was so damned tired of being wise. "We're friends."
Neal let out a breath, and his shoulders sagged slightly. "I'm not like Adler," he said, "and I don't want to end up like Ford."
"You're not either of them." Peter didn't know anyone who deserved comparison with Neal.
Neal nudged Peter to standing. "Hold that thought."
He unlocked the building and led Peter inside, into Aladdin's cave. It felt like a lifetime since yesterday, when they'd broken into the submarine. And now, here were the same crates, stamped with Nazi insignia that still made Peter's skin crawl. They were half-unpacked, riches and paintings in artful mounds, glimmering and mesmerizing beyond compare.
Peter scrubbed his hands over his face, but the bounty didn't vanish. Neal was watching his reaction, and Peter sent him a silent question.
"I don't know," said Neal, hands out, palms up. "Someone left a key and the address on my dining table at June's."
Peter shook his head, trying to clear his thinking. "You're sure it wasn't Mozzie?"
"I'd know." Neal sounded sure.
Peter was inclined to believe him. This wasn't Mozzie's style. "I need to call this in."
They went outside, and Peter found he was breathing easier—finally sure Neal hadn't engineered Adler's murder, and profoundly relieved Neal was able and willing to return billions of dollars worth of treasure of his own volition.
Peter gave Jones the address and hung up.
"Will I be a suspect?" asked Neal.
Peter shook his head. "There's something I have to tell you." He stood facing Neal, trying to read his expression in the half-light. "I'm proud of you."
Neal's mouth curved. "I know."
That surprised an answering grin out of Peter.
"Honestly," said Neal. "I just never thought you'd admit it to yourself, let alone to me."
"I'm already regretting it," said Peter wryly.
Neal laughed, ducking his head for a moment. Then he looked up, his smile fading, his eyes dark and unfathomable. "Peter—on the deck of the U-boat, you said, 'Me too.' If I asked you again—Is it different now?"
Peter's pulse skipped. He should have guessed Neal would make the leap. "That's not why I told you."
"Okay, but—" Neal finished the question with an interrogative shrug.
Peter glanced away, scratching his jaw. It was the wrong time to have this conversation, the wrong circumstances, but as El had said, Neal was never going to be convenient. Peter cleared his throat. "What's happening with you and Sara?"
Neal rocked back on his heels, turning away slightly. "Do you want me to say that we're going to settle down and have dozens of fat happy babies?"
"I want you to tell me the truth," said Peter. His heart was thudding in his chest now; in the quiet, it was a miracle Neal couldn't hear it too.
Neal tilted his head, letting the night conceal his expression. "It's not going anywhere. She figured out pretty quickly I'm a bad bet. I tried but—" He shook his head. "I used to be better at lying."
"Neal—" Peter wasn't sure what to say, how much to venture, but Neal was a step ahead, just like always, apparently reading consent into Peter's lack of protest.
"You have really crappy timing, you know that?" he said. "What about Elizabeth?"
"Ask her yourself," said El, stepping out of the shadows.
"Oh." Neal looked startled. "Hi."
"Peter's wearing a bug." El pulled the earpiece out of her ear. She'd claimed Mozzie had given it and the bug to her a few weeks ago. Peter had been in too much of a hurry to ask many questions.
Neal's surprise turned into confusion. "I thought you didn't feel that way."
"I do now," El said. She walked right up to him, put her hands on his face and kissed him tenderly, her mouth moving on his. Neal groaned and caught her close, apparently unable to stop himself. It was a sight rarer and more wonderful than a dozen U-boats full of riches, and Peter couldn't look away.
After a long while, Neal caught El's hands and looked up. "Peter?" he said, his voice thick with desire and doubt.
Peter moved in and turned Neal to face him. "Yes."
"Thank God," said Neal fervently, and Peter closed his eyes and slowly—keeping an arm across El's shoulder, because he needed her to be part of this—he leaned in to kiss Neal's mouth. Neal surged forward, hot and seeking. He clasped Peter's neck possessively, and Peter shuddered and surrendered to him and to the irresistible delirium that was the three of them together. El snuggled in at Peter's side, murmuring inarticulate encouragement until they heard cars pull up at the front of the building.
"That'll be Jones," said Peter. "We should—" But he was reluctant to let Neal go, even now. It felt fragile, as if a single wrong move could shatter their new intimacy. He pressed his face to Neal's hair instead, and said, "I'm sorry. For everything."
For harsh words and rejection, for doubting him, that it had taken them so many long days and nights to get here.
Neal kissed his cheek, his mouth, then stepped back, bright-eyed and wonderfully disheveled. "Make it up to me," he said.
El reached out and brushed Neal's hair from his face, and from the direction of the street, footsteps rang out—Jones and two other agents. Jones called out, and Peter raised a hand in welcome, but his smile and his words were for Neal alone. "I will."
Peter woke to distant voices. El was warm, heavy and naked in his arms, and when he kissed her shoulder, she groaned and burrowed her face into the pillow, resisting the day. Beyond her, lay Neal, dozing, his face a picture of carefree contentment. Without disturbing El, Peter stroked his thumb across Neal's side, just below his armpit.
Neal's eyes blinked open, taking a moment to focus. When they did, his mouth widened into a smile. "Hey there."
If Peter could have reached to kiss him good morning, he would have, but he didn't want to wake El, so he winked at Neal. "Hey."
A wrinkle appeared between Neal's eyebrows, and he got up on one elbow to glance toward the French doors, where the voice was coming from. "June's out there," he murmured. "She's probably talking to Bugsy, but it might be Cindy or Moz. You want me to distract them so you guys can sneak out of here?"
"No." Peter climbed over El, sacrificing her peaceful slumber to his need to kiss Neal. "I don't want to sneak anywhere." He ran his hands down Neal's back, and caught his mouth, discovering the joys of stubble burn for the first time and not caring at all. "Hi."
"Mmmm, you taste horrible," said Neal, but he slung his arm around Peter's waist and kissed him again with enthusiasm that belied the complaint. "Okay, no sneaking. June can keep a secret. Or we could stay here all day. I can think of worse things. Many worse things."
He rubbed up against Peter, and the tracker bumped Peter's ankle.
"Uh-huh," said Peter, swallowing a groan. "I mean no sneaking, period. If we try to keep this a secret, we're opening ourselves up to blackmail and all kinds of trouble. My house has already been bugged once, remember."
Neal stiffened and pulled back to look him in the eye. "You want to come out? Already?" He sounded incredulous. "What about the FBI?"
"You can report directly to Hughes. I doubt he'll be thrilled, but it's the right thing to do," said Peter. It wasn't solely his decision, he knew that, but he had to make the case for it. "I'm not ashamed of loving you."
Neal flushed and pulled him close, his hands roaming luxuriously over Peter's body, his kiss heated and dark.
"Shout it from the highest hill," murmured El from behind Peter. Her voice was ripe with satisfaction, and Peter got up on his elbows, so he could see both of them.
"Wait," said Neal, "does that mean I have to tell Moz?" He sounded comically dismayed, and El laughed at him.
"Can I be there? I want to see his face." She craned forward to kiss him good morning.
Peter watched them, his wife and his partner, smart, beautiful and sexy, in love with each other, in love with him. There was no sense of fragility now; just a deep conviction. They'd make it, they'd be okay. When Neal and El broke the kiss, Peter finished his thought aloud, "I mean, sure, my life would be easier if you hadn't spent the last decade flouting every law you could get your hands on, but we also might never have met."
"The road not taken," said Neal, with perfect understanding.
"It's a lonely road." Peter glanced at El, then back to Neal. "Listen, I know this isn't always going to be easy."
Neal rested his hand on Peter's arm. "I guarantee it'll be worth it."
"We don't need a guarantee," said El.
"Yeah," said Peter. "You don't have to prove anything."
El leaned in and murmured confidentially, "Though it will make things easier if you don't, you know, go around committing crimes. I think Peter would appreciate that."
A grin lit Neal's face, but he kept his voice low and serious to match hers. "I'll do my best," he told her.
"I know you will," said Peter, loving them both with all his heart. "And Neal? That's enough. That's all I need."