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Silver Spoon

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1.

 

One incident from Peter's pursuit of Neal Caffrey never made it into the official report. It happened while Elizabeth was out of town. She'd gone to Europe for a week with her sister and cousin.

"Stop it with the hangdog look," Elizabeth said, folding underwear into her suitcase. "I know you wish you could come, but this is something Mom and Aunt Becky have wanted to do for us ever since my cousin Eileen was in college."

"It's not that I want to gate-crash your girls' week out," Peter said. "I just wish I could do more of this sort of thing for you. Instead you get to spend evenings and weekends by yourself while I chase the bad guys."

El sighed, closed the suitcase and came and sat in his lap. "I knew what I was getting into when I married you. Besides, we go places. Remember the Rusty Egret last year?"

"I do like the Rusty Egret," Peter admitted.

"And you took me to Greece."

"That was our honeymoon. Everybody goes somewhere on their honeymoon."

"One of these years we'll get farther from town than Vermont." El kissed his nose and got up to resume packing. "You wouldn't have any fun anyway. It's just going to be three women drinking tiny cups of coffee in a French café while we talk about our husbands."

"Well, if you happen to see Neal Caffrey while you're hanging out in your café, call me."

El laughed. "Aha, your desire to visit Europe suddenly makes more sense."

"It's not that," Peter protested, and then admitted, "Okay, it's not entirely that."

"If he's in France, maybe you can talk the Bureau into sending you there."

Peter was, for the briefest of moments, tempted to ask -- but he knew they wouldn't, of course. "We don't even know if he's in France. We flushed him out of Italy a few weeks ago" -- he was still rather proud of having managed that with no resources and only the vaguest idea that Caffrey was even in Italy -- "and he hasn't surfaced yet. France is a reasonable assumption, though, since he's been there before so we know he has contacts and speaks the language --"

"Peter."

Peter laughed sheepishly. "I know. I'm doing it again, aren't I?"

El left her packing to sit on his knee again. "What is it about Neal that's different from the other criminals you've chased?"

"Caffrey is -- I don't know, El. I do like the smart ones."

"Oh yes, I know you do." She tapped his forehead with her fingertip. "If you insist, I'll be your undercover operative in France, Agent Burke. If I happen to see any infamous international art thieves, should I call you, or attempt to apprehend them myself?"

"I knew I could count on you."

 

***

 

As strange and empty as the house felt without Elizabeth, Peter had been, in a guilty kind of way, looking forward to it. Elizabeth being gone meant that he could work late without feeling like he was inconveniencing her.

Except he'd forgotten that, with Elizabeth out of town, he was the sole caretaker for a year-old retriever. Between trying to give Satchmo enough exercise that the adolescent dog didn't start destroying furniture, and trying not to leave him alone in the house so long he'd break his housetraining, it seemed to Peter that he was having to run home from the office more, not less. He found himself ducking out in the afternoon to take Satchmo for a jog, then coming back to the office to work until nine or ten.

There was also an issue that he'd almost forgotten about since he'd been living with El so long. Peter had always had trouble taking the time to stop and eat. The only time in his life this hadn't been an issue was when he was aiming for a career as a professional athlete and had made it a point to eat regularly and as healthily as he could make himself. As a normal rule, though, he'd get involved in what he was doing and simply forget. He was already in the car before he remembered he hadn't grabbed anything for breakfast, and he tended to get sunk into a case and work through lunch. By dinnertime on the first day after El left, he was ravenous, shaky and weak -- and, pondering the details of the case on the drive home, had completely forgotten to pick up anything for dinner. The first night there were leftovers from last night's dinner with El. By the second day it was a choice between microwave burritos or ordering out. This was New York, after all, where you could get just about any kind of cuisine under the sun at almost any hour of the day or night. But he was too exhausted, hungry and brain-fried to do anything more than order a pizza from the place down the street.

He'd been able to get away with it when he was twenty-five, but it turned out that his body didn't cope so well at age forty. Four days after El left, he came down with a cold, which made things even worse -- now he not only kept forgetting to eat, but he felt too lousy to bother.

And, at this worst of all possible times, Neal Caffrey was back in town. "He hasn't stolen anything, but we had a sighting," Simmons told Peter when she put the security-camera photo on his desk. "Just browsing in a jewelry store on Fifth. We wouldn't have known except one of the probies down in Missing Persons was shopping for an engagement ring and happened to recognize him from his wanted photo."

"He keeps coming back to New York," Peter mused, studying the photo. It was hard to tell on the poor-quality image, but Neal looked tanned; had he been hiding out somewhere sunny? "There must be something here that keeps pulling him back." He coughed into his fist.

"You should take some echinacea," Simmons said. "Used to give it to my kids, first sign of trouble. Knocks the germs right out."

"I'm fine," Peter said, and then undermined his own argument with a coughing fit, which cranked up his headache.

"You look pale," Simmons said.

"I'm fine." He rose from his desk, swayed a bit, and grabbed his jacket. "Looks like we've got the Harper case about wrapped up, so I'm going to to run up to that jewelry store and see if they remember anything about him."

The clerk remembered Neal, but only vaguely. "Oh yes, that nice young man looking for a ring for his girlfriend. He said that he'd once worked as a jeweler himself, and he did seem to know quite a bit."

"I'm sure he did," Peter said. He smothered a cough and tried to look alert and interested. In reality, he was lightheaded and his throat felt like it was full of knives. He was also painfully thirsty. He'd been drinking coffee at work, which he knew was a bad idea, but at least it kept him awake. Now he wished he'd thought to grab a bottle of water from the drink machine in the hallway before leaving the office.

"He asked us a number of questions and even asked if he could see our back room." She shrugged. "I'm afraid my boss said no."

Peter would have commented, except he'd looked past her into the reflection of the jewelry case behind her, where there was a distorted reflection of the show window -- and, beyond it, a figure in a hat who was indisputably Neal Caffrey. Looking through the window. At Peter.

For an instant their eyes met in the reflection, and Peter knew in that moment that Caffrey knew he'd been made. There was a flash of wry amusement on his face, and Peter couldn't help feeling that Neal had done this on purpose: let himself be seen, showed himself to the hounds to make sure that the chase stayed interesting.

Peter saw Neal dodge quickly sideways, and spun on his heel -- but the world kept spinning, and his anticipated next step turned into a desperate grab for something to keep him from falling. He narrowly avoided smashing into a case full of expensive jewelry and instead went down to his knees.

"Agent Burke?" the clerk said, alarmed.

Peter held up a hand to try to indicate that he was basically all right. He couldn't say anything because he was coughing hard now, a painful cough ripping its way up from his chest. The room was still spinning, and he braced his hand on the floor to keep from tipping over.

When he looked up, the clerk and two of her co-workers were all crouching in front of him, looking panicked. All three had their phones out. "Sir?" one of them asked. "Do you need an ambulance?"

"I need," Peter managed when he could say it without coughing, "someone to call the FBI. No, I'll do it. I just saw a wanted fugitive outside your window --" and then he was off on another coughing fit.

By the time the FBI showed up, the jewelry clerks had plied Peter with bottles of water and Gatorade, and he'd drunk one of each and taken the aspirin they offered him, and felt much better. Caffrey, of course, was long gone. Jones and Simmons arrived together, and both of them took long looks at him and, independently, told him to go home and go to bed.

"I'm not that bad off," Peter croaked. "Tomorrow's Saturday. I'll sleep in."

"If you can manage to avoid fainting until quitting time," Simmons muttered. She was a senior agent who'd met Peter during his probie days, coming up on her retirement now. She had no compunctions about telling him when she thought he was being an idiot.

Still, he managed to hang on through the afternoon, finally knocking off on the dot of five. As he drove home in the rush-hour traffic, it was all he could do to keep himself vertical and alert without rear-ending anyone. He was most of the way home before he remembered he'd forgotten to pick up anything for dinner again. Well, he could order out -- something more nutritious than pizza this time. A carton of soup from El's favorite Chinese place sounded good.

It was hard not to wish El was here. When he got home the house would be dark and empty, and he'd have to let Satchmo out and walk him. As awful as he felt tonight, all he wanted was to have Elizabeth greet him at the door with a smile and a hot cup of lemon tea and a pot of soup simmering on the stove.

When he turned onto his street, he saw that the lights in his house were on.

I didn't leave them on this morning, did I? It was hard to remember. He didn't think he would have, though; it wasn't the kind of thing he'd normally forget. He parked a little way up the street and examined the house carefully until a coughing fit left him breathless and shaky. He needed to deal with whatever was going on at the house before he fell over.

A little voice in the back of his head said Caffrey. He'd been chasing Caffrey too long not to have a sixth sense for these things, and right now his Caffrey bells were ringing. This had something to do with Neal; he'd bet on it. The only question was how much trouble it was going to cause for him.

He got out of the car, noticing how badly his hand was shaking when he drew his gun. That wasn't good. Had he eaten anything at all today? Good thing El's back on Monday, Burke, because you're plainly incapable of taking care of yourself.

Gun at the ready, he climbed the stairs to the front door -- maybe leaning his hip on the railing a little for support -- and found the door was locked. Good sign. Maybe he had left the lights on.

But that possibility evaporated when he opened the door. His nose was stuffed up, but not too much to tell that the house smelled pretty good. Like spices and ... fresh-baked bread?

"Elizabeth?" he called. Maybe she'd come home early.

Satchmo came trotting into the living room from the kitchen. He greeted Peter, but without the frantic energy of a Lab who'd been trapped in the house all day. Someone had walked him, which meant either Elizabeth was here, or she'd detected through some kind of Elizabethan sixth sense that he wasn't feeling well and called one of the neighbors. The Wongs next door had a key, because they'd come over to water the plants the last time Peter and El went up to the Rusty Egret. He put his gun away. "Hon?" he said, and went into the kitchen, Satchmo trotting behind him.

Satchmo's food and water bowls were filled, and sitting on the countertop was a tidy little meal, neatly arranged: a bowl of soup with an ornate garnish of parsley, a small loaf of bread with a little dish of butter, a bowl of neatly quartered oranges, and a napkin folded into triangles.

And there was a note:

Got to keep your strength up! -XOXO

Peter stared at it. He knew that handwriting. He'd looked at it too many times in a certain casefile not to recognize it.

Neal Caffrey had been in his house.

Neal Caffrey had walked his dog.

"... What," Peter said. He looked at the soup, then at Satchmo -- who wagged his tail -- then back at the soup. It still didn't make sense. However, his FBI instincts managed to clamber over the top of his confusion and weariness. He drew his gun again and cleared the house from top to bottom, then examined the backyard. There was no sign of Caffrey, not even a footprint, although he hadn't really expected it. He probably ought to dust for prints, but what was the point? He knew who had done it, even if he wasn't entirely sure why.

The soup bowl was still warm to the touch. Caffrey had been there recently. He might have only left moments before Peter drove up.

"I think this might be the most ridiculous thing that's happened in my entire career," Peter told the dog. He dragged a chair to the counter. For the briefest of moments he wondered if he ought to get the food lab-tested -- but that was ridiculous; Caffrey was completely nonviolent, and poisoning FBI agents was not even remotely his style. Peter dug in.

The soup was excellent, though he'd expected nothing less -- chicken noodle, just spicy enough to cut through his clogged sinuses. He'd eaten about half of it and was starting to feel a little less dead on his feet when he noticed something about the spoon.

It wasn't his and El's normal, everyday flatware.

On their second anniversary, he'd saved up and bought a really nice silver table service. He knew that El liked nice things, and he wanted her to have them, even though they didn't have all that much money with El trying to start up her business and Peter putting money aside for a down payment on a house. He even got her mother to help him choose it, because no matter how much research he did beforehand, he was worried he'd get something horribly inappropriate.

They'd used it for a little while before they both realized that it was too nice for everyday use. After that, it was put away in a kitchen cabinet to be brought out on special occasions.

With a terrible sinking feeling, Peter opened the cabinet. It was as empty as he'd known it would be. In place of the silver service in its wooden box, there was a single, foil-wrapped chocolate heart.

"I'm going to kill him," Peter informed the dog. "Or maybe I'll thank him and then kill him. If El doesn't kill me first."

He discovered when he went to pour himself a glass of juice that there was an entire large Tupperware container of soup in the fridge, enough to last all weekend. Well, at least he hadn't lost his anniversary silverware for nothing.

Once El came home, it took him three days to finally get around to telling her -- a world record in the "keeping things from Elizabeth" department. El not only wasn't angry, but she was amused and fascinated. "It's very sweet of him, don't you think?"

"He's taunting me," Peter said. "He wants me to know he can get into my house anytime."

"He made you soup."

"I know," Peter said. "That's definitely one for the record books."

He put the spoon in the Caffrey box and tried not to think too much about it. There was a part of him that knew he should have filed a report on it, but it was simply too embarrassing to admit that Caffrey had made that much of a fool out of him.

And, truth be told, it felt private, somehow. Like telling the FBI would be breaking a confidence that had been placed in him.


 

2.

 

A few days after Neal's successful swan dive out of the judge's chambers onto the Greatest Cake bakery awning, an awful thought occurred to him. In the middle of a chess game, he said suddenly to Mozzie, "Did you sell the silver?"

"What silver?"

Neal hadn't thought about that silver table service in years. Did he even still have it? He must -- he wouldn't have gotten rid of it, would he? "When you were liquidating assets to buy the bakery, there would have been a silver table service -- kind of cheap, in a wooden box. I think it was in my storage unit --"

"Oh," Mozzie said. "That. I couldn't get much for it. Did you know one of the spoons is missing? The best I could do was sell it to be melted for scrap."

Neal was half out of his chair before Mozzie had finished. "Who did you sell it to?"

"Warriner," Mozzie said, with a slightly evasive look.

"Warriner? He's a weasel, and he never gives a good price. Come on, Moz."

"I was in a hurry!" Mozzie protested. "How many fences are willing to take a large batch of assorted rare items with no lead time? I wasn't in a position to be choosy. Why does this matter now, all of a sudden?"

"We have to get it back," Neal said. "It hasn't been long, and Warriner never moves fast." He'd already started for the door before he remembered the critical problem. "And he's out of my radius. Moz. If he's still got it, you have to buy that silverware set back."

"It's missing a spoon," Mozzie said.

"I know."

"And he's going to make me pay twice what he gave me for it. We're losing money on this deal."

"I know," Neal said. "You can sell something else if you need to."

"I don't suppose an explanation is forthcoming?"

"I stole it from Peter," Neal said.

Mozzie almost choked on his wine. "Recently?"

"No, a long time ago. I need to get it back, Moz."

"You know what? I should have known the Suit was involved. I'm going to pretend I never asked and you never told me."

 

***

 

The box was sitting on Peter's doorstep when he came home from a late day at the office. Neal had left a couple hours earlier; he'd said he had something to do and asked if he could take off around five. Peter strongly suspected that Neal's "something" was either illegal or related to Kate -- or both -- but he was still battling a certain amount of guilt over locking Neal up for something he hadn't done, so if Neal wanted a Thursday night to himself, Peter figured he could give it to him.

Which of course hadn't stopped him from checking Neal's tracking data, which informed him that Neal had gone to the house in Brooklyn, stayed only for a moment, and then left. El was going to be home late; she was out at an event. Peter wondered if Neal had wanted to talk to her, maybe thank her for helping him. Then he'd left when she hadn't been around. It was as good an explanation as any. Still, this meant Peter was braced for some kind of Caffrey weirdness, so the presence of a plain wooden box on his doorstep didn't surprise him.

There was something familiar about the box, but he couldn't quite place it. A note was sitting on top, weighted with a rock. Peter picked it up.

In a very familiar handwriting, the note read, Do you still have the spoon?

Peter laughed, half in disbelief. He lifted the lid of the box carefully. As far as he could tell, the set was completely intact except for one slot in its red velvet setting where the missing spoon should be.

He was still crouched there, looking at it, when headlights raked over him and then El's heels quickly tapped up the steps behind him. "Hon? What are you doing?"

"Someone left us a present," Peter said. He picked up the box and showed it to her. El's face went through a complicated mix of confusion, surprise and delight.

"Neal?"

"Of course, Neal. Who else?"

Since Peter's hands were full, El let them in. Peter put the box on the table and then, while she dealt with Satchmo, he hurried upstairs. He hadn't been into the Caffrey box in years -- there was no reason to do anything with it once Neal was in prison, and he probably should have just thrown the whole lot out. But he still knew exactly where it was, and the spoon was still there, under a travel agency brochure and a tourist map of Vienna. He trotted back downstairs and placed the spoon in its slot.

El came up while he was staring at it and slipped her arm around his waist. Peter absently kissed the top of her head. "I can't believe he kept it all these years," he said, speaking to himself as much as to her.

"It seems very him, somehow." El looked up at him. "You're thinking. What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking," Peter said slowly, "that I'm going to need your help."

 

***

 

The next day at work, Peter said nothing about the box of silverware. This had the delightful bonus of very clearly driving Neal to the brink of pure frustration. Peter caught Neal shooting increasingly desperate looks at him when he thought Peter wasn't watching. In the afternoon Neal reached the point of dropping veiled hints into conversation. He made an offhand comment about the price of silver in a meeting, and then delicately steered the discussion around to tableware for a while.

Peter managed, with a great effort, to keep a straight face throughout the whole thing. It wasn't often that he managed to thoroughly frustrate Neal.

At the end of the workday, he offered Neal a ride home. "Sure," Neal said, looking at him with a wary expression that clearly stated, I do not trust you at all right now.

Peter drove him uptown, chatting about little details of the cases they were working on and carefully trying to elicit information about Neal's weekend plans, which Neal just as carefully deflected. By the time they reached June's, Neal was almost vibrating in place.

"See you Monday," Peter said.

"Yeah. Monday." Neal gave him a very long look, and seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but then he got out, put on his hat, gave Peter one more baffled look, and sauntered up the walk.

As soon as June's front door had closed behind him, El popped up behind an ornamental bush, dashed to Peter's car, and ducked into the backseat.

"I feel like your wheelman," Peter said. "How did it go? You left the note, right?"

El's hand appeared in the rear-view mirror and gave him a thumbs-up.

 

***

 

Peter, Neal thought as he climbed the stairs to his apartment, was evil. Pure evil. And definitely up to something. He hadn't thought Peter was holding a grudge about the silver service, but now he was not so sure. At least he had the entire weekend to figure out what to do about it; maybe he could get Elizabeth to do some recon for him ...

He started to open the door to his apartment, then froze at a suspiciously fragrant smell coming from inside, and very carefully opened it all the way.

His table had been laid out for a nice little dinner for one: ratatouille Niçoise on a bed of pasta, a small side salad, a chocolate mousse with a sprig of mint, and a glass of a light wine. There was even a candle flickering in a tasteful votive holder.

The spoon, knife and fork were laid out so that it was impossible not to notice the way they caught the candlelight, as only well-polished silver could do.

Which meant he'd have to return them, one way or another. Peter was a very sneaky bastard.

And there was a note, folded. Neal picked it up and unfolded it with the care and delicacy of a man disarming a bomb. It was written in Peter's bold handwriting and simply read,

I owed you one. -P