1. Travel Light.
"I need you to trust me," Neal said, two years into his work-release. Like it was as easy as that.
Peter sat back in the chair at Neal's table and studied him. "To a point, I do."
"Trust me not to run," Neal explained. "I know, I know the tracker, but that's not what I mean. This is bigger."
"How so?" Peter asked. He'd expected some kind of con, when Neal asked if they could talk after work, but this...wasn't what he'd imagined. He wasn't sure what he'd imagined.
"If I'm staying here, if I'm working, if I'm going to do my time, I need you to trust that I won't run. If I screw up I'll pay the consequences," Neal said. "Which makes it a lot less likely I'll screw up, if I know I can't just go."
"Neal, are you turning over a new leaf?" Peter asked with a grin. Neal didn't smile back.
"This is hard enough, okay?" he said quietly. "Please don't taunt me."
Peter nodded. "Okay."
"Are you going to take this seriously?"
"If you are? Yes," Peter said. Neal did smile then.
"So I made a list," he said, fingering a sheet of thick sketch paper, folding and refolding one corner. Anxious. Maybe Neal really was serious. "It's the rules."
"The rules?" Peter asked.
"Six rules of the con," Neal explained. "We're going to break them."
He slid the paper across to Peter, watching him warily. Peter looked down at them.
"Rule one: Travel light," he read aloud.
"When you're working a con you have to be able to run, anytime, without packing," Neal said. "You don't keep anything you wouldn't leave behind. If something means something to you, you put it in a cache somewhere you can get at it later."
Peter's eyebrows shot up. "You're giving me your cache?"
"One of them, but not yet. This first," Neal said, nodding his head at the fridge.
"The fridge," Peter repeated. Neal's fridge was almost always close to empty -- "Oh."
"Yeah. No investments. No supplies." Neal's fingers twitched. Peter thought of his and Elizabeth's kitchen fridge at home, and the freezer in the basement. He had buddies who went hunting every year and were happy to share the wealth; the freezer was packed with venison and fish and spare meat Elizabeth bought whenever there was a good sale. The fridge had vegetables, eggs, milk, bottles of sauce, beer, cheese, leftovers...
"I don't really know how to buy food," Neal admitted, and Peter cracked up laughing. "Peter, come on."
"No, this is -- no, that's not -- " Peter fumbled for how to explain. "You want me to take you grocery shopping?"
"Or -- I thought Elizabeth," Neal said. "If you asked her."
"I have a better idea," Peter said. "I'll explain later. You want to tell me about your cache?"
Neal swallowed. "Look, there's no way to trace the New York one back to me. If I give you an anonymous tip, promise you'll let me help clear it out. I need to -- "
"Handle everything, so there's a reason for your prints to be on it," Peter finished.
"Yeah. And there's something there I need to get. It's mine," he added, seeing Peter's face. "Nothing stolen. Some stuff that belongs to me."
Peter nodded. "That tip?"
Neal shoved a smaller, torn piece of paper at him -- an address and a storage unit, and the words "Missing Raphael."
Peter's jaw dropped.
"The Raphael?" he asked. Neal looked away, pointedly. "Okay then. Tomorrow morning, we'll take the tip."
"What about the food?" Neal asked.
"I'll take care of it," Peter assured him. He looked at the list. "This is going to be...a process, isn't it?"
Neal was still looking away. He nodded.
"Neal, are you embarrassed?" Peter asked curiously. Neal glanced at him briefly. "This is a good thing. Just calm down, okay? We'll work through it. I'll help you."
"Thanks," Neal muttered.
"I'm going home. Tomorrow, nine sharp," Peter told him, and folded up the list and the tip together, tucking them into his pocket.
The next morning, Neal woke at six to someone knocking on his door.
He rolled out of bed and smoothed his hair down, calling "Keep your pants on!" as he pulled a shirt over his head. When he opened the door, Elizabeth was standing there.
"Hi," he said, surprised.
"Hi," she answered, giving him the biggest, widest grin he'd ever seen as she brushed past. "In here, guys!"
Neal watched as two more people entered, one carrying an enormous box and the other a ton of grocery bags.
"Everything on the table," she said, gently moving his sketchpads and brush pots aside. "Thanks," she added, tipping them and shooing them out.
Neal stared at all the food covering his table. "What...?"
"This is your standing two week grocery order," she told him, patting his cheek. "All the information's on the invoice, you can call them and tell them what you need. Or I think there's a website."
Neal peered into the box. "Are we having a meat party?" he asked. She laughed.
"Ground beef, steak, chicken, pork loin, chops, and some lamb as a treat," she said, unpacking it and opening his freezer. She wrinkled her nose. "Neal, you can't keep lettuce in the freezer."
"As I found out," he said, hurriedly pulling the damp mess out and tossing it in the trash can. Elizabeth began loading meat into the empty freezer. "Two bottles of milk?" he added, holding up two gallon-sized jugs.
"Milk is good for you. You can freeze one," she said, taking it out of his hands and adding it to the freezer.
"You can freeze milk?" he asked, mystified.
"Yep. Pass me the cheese."
He watched, a little awestruck, as she packed everything neatly away -- lettuce and tomatoes and onions in the crisper, condiments in the door, eggs, cream cheese, butter, bottles of juice, bags of noodles and boxes of crackers and cans of soup and a jar of peanut butter in the cupboards, a loaf of bread in the freezer and one on the counter. She held up a jar of pickles.
"You like pickles?" she asked. He shook his head. "Okay, I'll take those home with me. Oh, spices," she added, unpacking yet another bag. "You know how to cook, right?"
"Yeah. I usually just buy what I need for dinner on my way home," he told her. "Or I raid June's kitchen."
"Well, those days are over. Some things it's good to get fresh, but you should have food on hand."
"You bought all this?" he blurted.
"No, you did. Peter gave me your bank account number. One of them, anyway," she said, sounding amused. "It's all charged to you. If you're not here, they can't deliver it, so you need to make sure you or Mozzie are here every other Tuesday night," she warned. He got the feeling dire things would happen if he missed a delivery.
"Thank you," he said. Elizabeth smiled.
"Peter says you have a big day today. I'm going home, but we're coming over this evening for dinner. Cook us something nice with all this food," she told him.
Something warm and sharp flooded his chest.
"Beef or chicken?" he asked. Elizabeth laughed and kissed his cheek.
Clearing out the cache was almost physically painful. He'd forgotten some of the stuff he'd left there, and giving it up was a wrench. Watching them wrap up the Raphael for shipment to Sara was humiliating, even if Peter was the only one who knew that this cache was Neal's.
He found the small black suitcase in the back, while the other agents were busy carrying printing equipment out to the evidence van. He quietly walked it past the evidence check to put it in the back of Peter's car. Peter noticed, of course he did, but he didn't say anything. He just sent Neal over to the assessment guys to confirm that the Vinland Map was the real thing.
"You okay?" Peter asked, when the last of the cache had been loaded and the evidence teams were pulling away.
"I'm gonna miss the Raphael," Neal admitted.
"When was the last time you looked at it?"
"Okay, okay. Six years ago. I get it," Neal sighed. He ran a hand through his hair and it came away dusty. "I should clean up. Elizabeth tell you she invited herself and you over for dinner?"
"I'm going to be very interested to inspect your fridge," Peter said gravely.
"She bought me beer. I think it's so you have something to drink when you come over to yell at me for doing something stupid."
"That was nice of her," Peter said. "Seven okay?"
"Sure," Neal replied, as the car pulled away from his empty former cache. "Seven."
When he got home, he felt a little better; he showered, washing the dust away, and then set the suitcase he'd appropriated on the table, opening it. Inside were a handful of books, signed copies that he couldn't replace easily, a few action figures he'd treasured as a child, and a stuffed rabbit coming apart at the seams.
He cleared Byron's books off one of the shelves and put his own books on it, propping them against the rabbit. He paused, grinning, and rubbed the rabbit's nose for luck, dry plastic cracking here and there. He hadn't seen it in nearly eight years.
The action figures he left out on the table, because he was willing to bet Peter would be unable to resist picking them up, and then cleared the rest of it off, laying it out with plates from the cupboard.
The steaks were marinating and he was just finishing the salad when Peter and Elizabeth showed up -- Peter still in his suit from work, Elizabeth in a gorgeous blue dress. She held out a bottle of wine, beaming.
"What's on for dinner?" Peter asked, inspecting the fridge under the guise of getting a beer. Elizabeth smacked him on the shoulder.
"Steak," Neal told him, reaching around to take the bag of steaks off the top shelf. "Out of my fridge, Burke."
"Your fridge," Peter teased, but there was something else behind it.
"Mine," Neal said, hip-checking him out of the way. Peter backed off and drifted over to the table as Neal heated a pan on the stove. True to form, Peter picked up one of the toys. "That's a first-issue MASK Matt Tracker," Neal added. "Break it and I break your fingers."
"Big talk." Peter was popping the little mask on and off the toy's head, curious.
"He had a Camaro that turned into a jet," Neal said. Peter gave him a bewildered look. "What, I can't like action figures?"
"How much is it worth?" Peter asked, grinning at him.
"I don't know. When I bought it with my legitmately earned allowance, at the age of six, it cost about five bucks," Neal retorted.
Peter set the action figure down carefully. "A Camaro, huh?"
"It was pretty cool," Neal said. "I don't know where the car went."
"Boys and their toys," Elizabeth sighed, but she hugged Neal from behind as he put the steaks into the hot pan, and Neal smiled over the food.