Chapter 1: Travel Light
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.
Chapter 2: Don't Shit Where You Eat
In which Peter does DIY and Neal gets a Camaro.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
2. Don't Shit Where You Eat
"You're gonna have to explain item two," Peter told him, a couple of weeks later when the fuss over restoring all the recovered art and jewelery from the cache to its rightful owners had died down.
"I thought it was pretty obvious," Neal replied.
"In a relevant sense," Peter said. "How does this work for you?"
"You never live where you're doing the work," Neal told him. "That way you always have somewhere to run if someone busts you."
"If you tell me you have a safe house -- "
"No!" Neal held up his hands. "This one should be easy. I just need your help getting the drafting table up the stairs."
"Drafting table," Peter repeated.
"Look, you can set up and take down an easel in about five minutes. Art supplies aren't hard to source. I'm installing a permanent studio at June's place, and it takes two people to move some of the stuff."
"Why not ask the little guy?" Peter asked.
"Well, first, he'd whine and moan the whole time. I mean he'd do it, but he's a complainer," Neal said. "Second, it's not for him. Or for me, really. It's proof to you."
Peter nodded. "Saturday work for you?"
"Saturday works great," Neal said, smile wide.
Peter showed up on Saturday in a t-shirt and jeans, with a tool bag in one hand and a small box in the other. Neal eyed them both carefully, but he let Peter inside and led him to the far end of the room, past the big glass doors, to an alcove that used to hold a bunch of boxes June had stored there. He'd shifted them over to the door; they could move them down to the storage room in the basement later.
"You're putting up shelves?" Peter asked, indicating the marks Neal had been making on the wall when he came in.
"Yup. Supply shelves, the drafting table's going over there, and I'm installing a frame with curtains to block it off from the rest of the room."
"June okay with that?"
"I promised her a sculpture," Neal said with a grin. Peter grinned back. "You got a power drill in that bag?"
Putting up the shelves didn't take too long, and the frame Neal was installing was free-standing, though Peter insisted on bolting it to the wall and bracing it properly.
"It's good work, though," he said, wiping sweat off his forehead as he studied the fully-installed frame. "You build it?"
"I've been known to do some woodworking," Neal said smoothly. Peter shot him a look. "You probably don't want to know."
Neal swept up and started laying out his art supplies on the shelves while Peter hung the curtains on the frame (some old ones of June's, still smelling like mothballs) and kick-tested the frame for stability. By the time they were done dragging the boxes downstairs and the drafting table back up, it was past lunchtime. Peter settled in at the table, stretching out, and opened the beer Neal passed him.
"It looks nice," he said, as Neal piled leftovers from last night's Chinese delivery onto two plates. "Sort of bohemian."
"The light's really good," Neal agreed.
"And I have your word you're not going to be painting forgeries or printing false bonds back there, huh?" Peter asked.
"You can search it whenever you like. You saw the cache, all my printing stuff's in the hands of the FBI now."
"That reminds me," Peter said, pulling the box he'd brought in earlier towards him. "This is from Elizabeth for you."
Neal took it, curious, and popped the lid off. His eyes widened.
"It's the Camaro," he said, lifting the little toy car out of the box. "The MASK Camaro. Where'd she find it? These aren't easy to get anymore."
"Box in the basement," Peter said, sipping his beer. Neal blinked.
"Was this yours?" he asked.
"Nope. It was hers. What, you think you're the only kid who played with action figures?" he asked, grinning.
"Elizabeth had a MASK Camaro in a box in your basement," Neal repeated.
"Yeah, her parents sent her a bunch of stuff from when she was a kid. She had a ton of GI Joe, too. Which explains a lot about her, now that I think about it," Peter mused.
Neal grinned as he flipped the car doors upwards to make wings, then raised the spoiler and the rear bumper to reveal jet-engine exhaust pipes. Peter seemed amused. Neal offered it to him and he took it, poking a finger into the cab to toy with the steering wheel.
"She thinks it's, you know, one of those...things you wouldn't leave behind if you had to run," Peter said. "I think because it's from her?"
Neal took the Camaro back, lowering the door-wings again. "Yeah. She's right."
"So," Peter said, picking at his Chinese. "Rule One and Rule Two taken care of."
The M.A.S.K. Camaro was the coolest toy of my (and Neal's -- and Elizabeth's) childhood.
Chapter 3: Don't Stand Out
In which Peter is the mathiest and also kind of possessive.
3. Don't Stand Out.
"I think this crosses a weird agent-CI line," Peter said a week later, sitting at his own dining room table and absently scratching Satchmo's head with one hand. "Look, we have mug shots of you, if you run it's not going to be hard to plaster your face everywhere."
"Honey, I think it's the spirit of the thing," Elizabeth said gently. Neal was rolling up his sleeves, studying his forearms critically.
"I just don't think you need to permanently mark yourself up so that if we have to put out a report on you, we can include a tattoo," Peter insisted.
"I dunno, I kind of always wanted one," Neal said, rubbing the inside of his right arm. "Maybe not here though. What's a classy place to get a tattoo?"
"Not on your ass," Elizabeth suggested.
"Look, if you have to go undercover a tattoo could screw things up," Peter said.
"It's not like I'm getting Property of the FBI inked on my forehead," Neal replied. Elizabeth stifled a giggle. "I'll get one of those random swirl designs or something."
Peter rubbed his forehead with one hand. "Neal, I really don't think I can go with you to a tattoo parlor. Seriously. That's a weird area for us to be in."
"Sweetie," Elizabeth said, "you don't think you're being just a little hypocritical here?"
"No, I'm -- " Peter broke off, turning red. Neal stared at him, fascinated.
"You have a tattoo, don't you?" he asked, pointing at him. "Oh man, can I see it? Wait, is it on your ass? Is that what you meant about not getting a tattoo on your ass?" he asked Elizabeth. She patted Peter's arm gently.
"No, it's not on his ass," she said. "Honey, take off your shirt."
"I'm not stripping down for my CI," Peter insisted.
"It's really pretty," Elizabeth stage-whispered to Neal.
"You know I'll just bother you relentlessly about it until you show it to me," Neal pointed out. "Oh my god, does Diana know? I'm totally telling her."
"You -- " Peter pressed his lips together, frustrated. "Okay. I am going to show you this, and you are not going to talk about this to anyone. And if you do you will suffer."
He pushed his chair back and stood up, undoing his tie and unbuttoning his dress shirt. He hung both on the back of the chair and then turned around, pulling his undershirt up over his head.
Neal whistled low.
"Yeah, laugh it up," Peter growled.
"No, I like it," Neal said, leaning forward to study the stark lines and curves spreading over Peter's right shoulderblade. "What the hell is it?"
He glanced at Elizabeth. She was biting her lip.
"It's an algebraic reformulation of the Hodge conjecture," Peter said, sounding very self-conscious.
"You're the biggest math dork I know," Neal told him. "You're mathier than Mozzie."
"Hey, remember when we had that conversation about not taunting people?" Peter asked, pulling his shirt back on and sitting down again. "I got it when I graduated Quantico. It's an unsolved conjecture."
"So?" Neal asked, perplexed.
"I like solving things," Peter said.
Neal leaned back, grinning. "How's that going for you?"
"Aside from you and the Hodge conjecture? I'm making it work," Peter told him. "Anyway, I'm not taking you to get a tattoo."
"That's okay, sweetie," Elizabeth answered, patting Neal on the shoulder. "I'll take you."
What ended up happening, however, was that Peter insisted on approving the tattoo, because Neal did have to go undercover not just as a thief or a forger but often as a professional, and he needed to look the part. No visible ink was an FBI dress code rule, and Peter forbade both arms and legs, and then said no to Neal getting his consultant ID number on a dog tag on his collarbone, and then said no to lockpicks on his chest, and by the time Neal had sketches prepared to show to him Peter was pretty much going to say no to anything.
"Why are you fighting this?" Neal demanded, tossing the pile of sketches on his table. Peter, pacing around the other side of it, rubbed the back of his head. "It's supposed to help."
"You have to be careful," Peter snapped. "These are people with guns. If you go undercover and something on your body gives you away -- "
"I know they have guns. I have been working here for the past two years, remember?" Neal said, sarcasm getting the better of him.
"Then you should know the risks!"
"Says the guy with an unsolvable math proof on his back!"
"Yeah, and that was a stupid probie move that you don't have to make. Learn from my mistakes."
"Thanks, dad," Neal said, and Peter gave him a sharp, furious look. Neal settled down at the table. "I don't take my shirt off on cons," he said. "I don't see why I can't get one on my chest."
"It's too visible," Peter answered.
"It's my chest!"
"And not that one," Peter pointed to a sketch of the stylized, spread-winged eagle that sat atop the FBI official badge.
"You can't stop me just by saying no over and over," Neal said.
"It's like talking to a teenager," Peter said, rubbing his face.
"This is supposed to help me move forward. Help you trust me. That's the point."
"Maybe this isn't something I need to see to trust you."
"That's a lie," Neal said.
"Oh, so I'm a liar now?"
"I want this. How often do I get what I want?" Neal asked.
"More than is good for you, probably," Peter retorted.
"This is my body -- "
"No," Peter said, low and dangerous, grabbing Neal's arm as he went to walk away. "You are mine. I own you." His eyes swept Neal's body. "All of you."
Neal looked at him, shocked.
"Oh, is that how this is?" he asked, leaning forward. "You own everything? Or do you just want to?"
Peter let go of his arm like he'd been burned.
"That was out of line," he said, turning away. "I'm sorry, Neal. That was inappropriate."
"You're damn right it was inappropriate," Neal said. He sat down at the table, shifting restlessly through the drawings he'd done. "I'm not your property. Or aren't the tracking anklet and the sword over my head and the eight hours a day I give you enough for you?"
"I'm trying to keep you safe."
"I kept myself safe just fine," Neal muttered. "I kept myself safe from you for three years."
Peter turned back then, giving him a startled look, and then he bowed his head and laughed.
"Okay, yeah, I get it, you're a grownup. Big bad Neal Caffrey," he said, throwing himself into the chair across from Neal's. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
Neal twitched the papers into a pile. "Do you really think that? That I belong to you?"
Peter sighed. "No. I do think I'm responsible for you. At the end of the day, no matter what stupid shit you pulled or how bad the bad guy is, if you end up in the hospital, it's my fault. Sometimes that's a lot to carry. So I think, well, that's the price I have to pay to have you in the office every day, being smart and charming and working cases." He shook his head. "Fuck it, Neal, do whatever you want."
Neal looked away from Peter, who seemed completely miserable and more than a little embarrassed.
"What about between my shoulderblades?" he asked. "Nobody's going to see it there."
"Sure," Peter said, not looking at him. Instead he was sifting through the pile of drawings Neal had done, apparently just for something to do with his hands. Neal crumpled the eagle and tossed it in the trash can for a three-pointer.
"Maybe we should just move on to Rule Four," Neal said. "There's no rush on this. It's not like we had to go in order or anything."
Peter held up a piece of paper. "Definitely not this one," he said, and Neal looked at it closely and laughed, only a little brittle.
"That's one of the Sargents, I don't know how it got in there," he murmured, taking the sketch of a nude young man and setting it aside.
"Here. This one," Peter said, and held out another Sargent, a series of hand studies. Neal could tell he was joking, but he sucked in a breath sharply. Part of the study was a pair of hands, crossed at the wrist and bound with thin rope. Tied down. Tied here. By choice, now at least, and the hands were...calm. Reposed.
"Yes, this one," he agreed, tapping the bound hands. Peter opened his mouth, probably to argue that he was joking, and then caught the expression on Neal's face.
"Okay," he said quietly. "If that's what you want."
"It is," Neal said. "This is what I want."
The FBI was a very physical job, even in White Collar, and Neal preferred not to be rolling around on the ground fighting a suspect or running after people, or frankly wearing too much clothing, with a fresh tattoo on his back. He put in for Friday off and a weekend off-call, and met Elizabeth for dinner on Thursday before they strolled down to the very clean, very health-conscious tattoo studio on the corner.
Elizabeth was just supposed to be there to make sure nothing went wrong and to drive him home afterward. Neal knew enough to be aware that he'd probably be a little out of it once they were done, but apparently he'd been more looped than he thought. When he finally came down from the post-pain euphoria he found himself sitting at the Burke dining room table, hands clenched around a mug of something hot, staring at Peter in total bewilderment. Peter was staring back at him with much the same expression. He must have just come in from work; he tossed his keys on the table and did an about face into the kitchen.
"El?" Neal heard him calling. "Elizabeth?"
"Up here!" Elizabeth's voice drifted down the stairs. Peter came back out, gave Neal another inscrutable look, and leaned on the rail.
"Neal's here!" he yelled.
"I know, sweetie!"
"He hasn't got a shirt on!"
"Oh, for god's -- " Elizabeth came down the stairs, stopping near the bottom to kiss Peter hello. "It was rubbing on the bandage. Neal, honey, are you feeling better?"
"I don't have a shirt on," Neal heard himself say.
"You two seem pretty fixated on that," she said. "Drink your tea."
Neal lifted the mug to his lips and drank, automatically. Peter leaned on the table, staring at him. Neal stared back.
"Your pupils are huge," he said.
"Yeah, it hurt a lot," Neal replied. "Then it didn't."
Peter grinned. "I remember that part. How high are you flying?"
"M'okay," Neal mumbled.
"Well," Elizabeth said, as Peter and Neal kept staring at each other. "Thank goodness Rule Three's over."
"Yeah, there's...Rule Four," Neal said vaguely. "I dunno about that one."
Peter ruffled his hair affectionately, leaning back. "How about tonight we worry about the aftermath of Rule Three. Think you can get upstairs?"
"Uh?" Neal glanced at the stairs. "Why?"
"Guest room. You should probably lie down for a while," Peter told him.
"Oh. Yeah. I can do that," Neal said, and felt Peter's guiding hand on his shoulder all the way up the stairs.
Chapter 4: Don't Share Information
In which Neal speculates about gay bars and breaks a duck, and Peter is feeling less than parental.
4. Don't share information.
"Okay, are you ready?" Neal said, and then shrugged his shoulders, dress shirt falling down his arms. "Tadaa!"
"Awesome," Jones told him approvingly. Neal grinned over his shoulder at the assembled crowd of FBI agents, who were all looking interestedly at his fully-healed tattoo.
"I didn't know you were into bondage," Diana remarked.
"What? No! It's symbolic," Neal said.
"Bad-ass," one of the other agents commented.
"Neal, what the hell are you doing?" Peter asked.
Neal pulled his shirt up over his shoulders quickly and the other agents scattered, streaming around Peter as he stood in the conference room doorway. Diana, secure in her position, just leaned on the table and grinned.
"I told Jones about the tattoo, some other people overheard. They asked for a showing," Neal said, buttoning his shirt hurriedly.
"In the middle of my conference room, in the middle of the day?" Peter demanded.
"What? It was a quick flash," Neal said. "Unless shoulders have been declared indecent, it's no big deal."
"No stripping down in the office!" Peter insisted.
"See? You are into bondage," Diana said, laughing.
"I'm not into bondage! Peter, tell her," Neal said. Diana raised an eyebrow at Peter.
"I don't know what you get up to in the bedroom," Peter said, tapping a folder against his palm.
"Not much," Neal muttered, and immediately realized his mistake.
"Aw, are you lonely?" Diana asked, giving him a fake pout.
"Yeah, let's mock the ex-convict's six year dry spell," Neal said, annoyed.
"Holy shit, Caffrey, you know there are bars on every corner in New York," Diana said.
"Girls tend not to dig the tracking anklet. Since when are you so fascinated by my sex life?" Neal asked.
"Since I found out you haven't gotten laid in six years. That's a tragedy," Diana told him.
"Diana," Peter said.
"Out," Peter jerked his head at the door.
"Yes boss," she sighed, disappearing through the conference room door. Peter looked at Neal with a speculative expression on his face.
"I don't need dating tips," Neal said.
"I really, really don't have any to give," Peter replied.
"Please don't set me up with any of Elizabeth's friends."
"I'm sure you could find your own dates if you wanted," Peter answered.
"And I'm not into bondage. Much."
"Neal, I really don't need to -- "
"Or anything very kinky," Neal continued.
"Please stop telling me about your sex life," Peter said. "Imaginary or otherwise."
"I wonder if I'd have better luck in gay bars," Neal said thoughtfully.
"Come on, Peter, it's the twenty-first century," Neal told him, grinning and dropping into a chair next to him. "I'm into romance, but gender is an optional check box. Seriously, you never experimented in college?"
"I actually went to college."
"So I experimented when I should have been in college," Neal replied. "Probably cheaper that way. You're evading."
"Because unlike you, I'm not compelled to overshare about my youthful sexual adventures. Maybe if you were getting laid regularly, you wouldn't be either," Peter said.
Neal fell silent for a minute. "I was joking about the gay bars."
"Neal -- "
"Well, only because I'm not into one-night stands and I've conned way too many people in bars to trust anyone I meet there. Hey, do you have to disclose any ex-felonies on dating websites?"
"Neal, if you don't stop talking about your sex life, I swear to god, I will put you back in prison and make it a non-issue," Peter growled. Then he paused and looked up from the case file. "Is this Rule Four? Because mandatory oversharing is going to get us into even more fights than the tattoo did."
"I'm kinda unsure about Rule Four," Neal said, leaning back in his chair. "I mean, it's about not telling your partners where you stashed your share, or how far along you are on the work, or how you're doing some of the stuff you're doing. Basically it's about paranoia. Mozzie really loves Rule Four. It might be his Rule One."
"You going somewhere with this?" Peter asked.
"You've got me on constant GPS location," Neal said. "You have access to my bank accounts, you sign my timecard, you're my medical next of kin, and you know where I live. You know everything that according to Rule Four you shouldn't know. Everything important."
Peter was frowning at him.
"What?" Neal asked.
"That's what you think is important?" Peter asked, his voice low and even.
"On a con, it is," Neal said, confused. "Why, what are you thinking of?"
Peter seemed thoughtful.
"I think maybe some things are so deep you don't even think about them," he said. "I have some ideas."
At the end of the week, with a solid wrap on a case, Peter took Neal home with him, promising dinner. Neal suspected a con, but it was that or cooking for himself, and he was still getting the hang of defrosting stuff from the freezer. Elizabeth met them with a kiss and a hug for Peter and a kiss on the cheek for Neal, then shoved Peter towards the TV (there was a ball game on) and kidnapped Neal into walking Satchmo with her.
It was crisp out, autumn setting in early, and Neal enjoyed even the little tiny transgression of walking around outside his radius, pausing every once in a while for Satchmo to inspect a particularly interesting tree. Elizabeth seemed content to hold Neal's elbow with one hand and Satchmo's leash with the other, letting the dog pick the route they took through the suburban blocks.
"Peter talked to me about Rule Four," she said finally, when they'd been walking for about ten minutes. Neal turned to her, inquisitive. "He said you thought he already knew all the stuff you'd normally keep secret."
"It feels like cheating to skip it," Neal said.
"Normally you like cheating," she pointed out.
"Maybe not anymore," Neal replied, and her fingers tightened a little on his arm. "Why, you have an idea?"
"I do," she replied, as Satchmo led them along. "What Peter thinks -- what I think, too -- is that those aren't the things that are really important, things that matter in this life. That rule is so deep that you don't even think about the things you don't tell. That's what you build friendships on. Who your parents were, where you grew up, stories about stupid things you did. What kind of food you like, how you got to be where you are."
"But none of that's important to a con," he said. "When you're running a con you get to pick who you are. Your past could be anyth -- "
He broke off, because she was watching him as they walked, waiting for him to figure it out.
"Aha," he said. "That's the point, right?"
"Peter always said you were smart," she grinned at him. "Peter knows a lot of those things already, too, but he only knows them from his file on you. I don't know them at all. Do you like Indian food? Are you happy with your tattoo? Ever been to Disneyland? I don't know any of that stuff."
"You want me to tell you boring factoids?" he asked.
"They're not boring to me." She smiled and leaned on his arm a little. "Where'd you grow up?"
They'd been walking and talking for almost an hour before Neal realized how long they'd been gone. Usually he was better at timing himself. But Elizabeth just kept asking questions, and he found himself telling her a story about his first time eating escargots in Paris, or trying to explain why Louis Valtat's landscapes creeped him out, or talking about how as a kid he liked birdwatching. He wasn't even sure where they were until they turned a corner and were back in front of Peter and Elizabeth's house.
"Am I gonna have to tell Peter all this stuff?" he asked, as Satchmo stopped for one last sniff.
"You and Peter will have different things to talk about," she said, letting go of his arm.
Peter's approach was less direct, and also a little scary. Neal knew he was an FBI agent and trained in interrogation techniques; he'd been interrogated by Peter before, and watched him interrogate others. He was still halfway through dinner and knee-deep in a debate about the relative merits of baseball (lots of fun statistics, aesthetically pleasing field) versus football (faster action, much more cathartic) before he understood that Peter was soft-pedaling: using every gentle, coaxing trick in the book to eke information out of him. You had to admire it, on some level, even if Neal felt a little annoyed that he hadn't caught on sooner.
It just kept happening, though, over the next few weeks and then months -- sometimes only for a few minutes a day, sometimes for an hour or two on a stakeout or over drinks or dinner, both with Peter and with Elizabeth. It was by far the longest resolution to a rule so far, and really in some ways it was just what Peter had called mandatory oversharing, but it never felt like that. Sometimes it wasn't even about the past, just about what Neal thought of something or how he felt about a case. He started thinking maybe Rule Four was more about him than it was about making Peter trust him.
Three months into Rule Four he was somewhat terrified to find that he was sitting at the table across from Elizabeth, carefully restoring a decorative terracotta duck that Satchmo had accidentally smashed, and telling her about the yawning, hollow loneliness he sometimes felt on the nights he went home alone to a darkened loft. His hand slipped and the piece of terracotta he'd been holding broke in half, smearing glue on the table.
"Shit, sorry -- " he said, rubbing the glue away with his thumb, rolling it between thumb and fingers until it was just little tacky threads. He gathered up the pieces to try and glue them back together but his hands were shaking, suddenly, and then Elizabeth was around the table, arms around his shoulders, pulling him up and away from his chair.
"It's okay, it's just a duck," she said, and Neal laughed edgily and pressed his face against her hair. It wasn't even loneliness, really, it was this -- starvation for touch, for closeness, a hunger unsatisfied by his sketchpads or books. When he was here they were always touching him, Peter's hand on his elbow to get his attention or a kiss on the cheek from Elizabeth or Satchmo crawling up onto his lap like a sixty pound dog could really find enough lap to curl up in. It was stupid to want more, but when he was alone he did want, he never seemed to stop wanting.
"Honey, I found the -- " Peter's voice, from the kitchen and then through the kitchen door, stopping when he saw them. Neal broke away quickly, plastering a grin on his face. " -- sandpaper."
There was a long pause while Peter's eyes flicked over them, and then he smiled. "You wanted fine grit, right?" he asked, holding up a wad of half-used sandpaper. And it was okay, this was okay, it was permitted. Neal sat down, picking up the carefully-reassembled body of the clay duck. Peter came around the table and sat next to him, offering it up, picking up a few fragments and starting to fit them together. He was sitting close, touching Neal shoulder-to-elbow, reassuringly warm.
"Pass the glue," he said, as Neal took the sandpaper and began smoothing down the cracks where the glue had seeped out. They worked quietly for a few minutes, until Elizabeth got up to check on dinner, and Peter drew in a breath.
"You know you're welcome here," he said, which wasn't what Neal had been expecting at all. "You know that, right? If you need to...be here, I don't know why, but if you do, you just have to call me. I'll clear it with the Marshals. You don't need an excuse or an invitation."
Neal ran a thumb over one smooth crack in the terracotta, arm shifting against Peter's. "So this is what Rule Four is like."
"It's more than breaking your rules," Peter said. "You're building a life, Neal. Have built a life. It's not just about breaking down who you were. You still have to be someone after the demolition's done."
"Like who?" Neal asked. "Like you?"
Peter smiled over the fragments. "You could do worse, but you don't have to be like anyone. You're just Neal. You have a home. You have touchstones, things you couldn't leave behind. You have a fridge full of food. A good job, a job you're good at. You have friends you can talk to when you need help. We're part of your life, Neal."
Peter turned and draped an arm across his shoulders, pressing his forehead to Neal's temple. Neal went still, startled by the gesture.
"This is the point," Peter said, voice subdued. "You can ask when you need something, but sometimes you get it without asking. As long as you're okay with that."
"What if I'm not?" Neal asked, before he could even think about what he was saying. Peter tensed.
"Which part aren't you okay with?" he asked, moving to release him, and Neal turned his head before he could withdraw and kissed him. Peter took the kiss with more grace than he'd expected, the few times he'd thought about what would happen if he tried it.
Peter's mouth slid open, tongue tracing along Neal's lower lip. Not just accepting the kiss, returning it --
Neal jerked away, graceless for once, and his elbow hit the terracotta. It slid to the floor, smashing into a hundred more pieces. He shot out of his chair, turning to survey the damage in dismay.
"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, trying to move but not sure how to get around the mess without backing into Peter. "I think I broke it for good."
"Neal, breathe," Peter said, behind him, and then Peter was taking his arm and turning him, resting a hand against his face. "Look at me. Calm down. Neal, it's just a thing, it's not important. Look at me, that's it," he said, smiling when Neal met his eyes. "You're not going to freak out on me, are you?"
Neal shook his head and Peter -- Peter rubbed his thumb along Neal's cheekbone, still smiling.
"Okay," he said, in his best appeasing-the-crazy-hostage-taker voice. "Sit down."
Neal sat, leaning over the table, staring down at the remaining fragments of the duck. He felt Peter's hand in his hair, ruffling it gently.
"I've known for a while," Peter said quietly. "We both have, Elizabeth and me. It's not something we'd normally ever consider, but then you're the exception to every rule, Neal. You're much further inside our lives than anyone else."
"Known what?" Neal asked, tense, still not looking up. Peter didn't stop the soft rub of his hand, soothing, cautious.
"That you were going to be something different. That we care about you in ways that aren't nearly as parental as I wish they were. That you want more from us than Friday night dinner and help putting up shelves," Peter added, his voice growing deeper. "I'm pretty sure I'm not wrong that you want us both, don't you?"
Neal nodded wretchedly.
"That's better than the alternative. We're a package deal," Peter said.
"I'm not good at not stealing what I want," Neal mumbled.
"I don't know. You held out for what, a year and a half?" Peter asked, amused now. His hand, still on Neal's head, slid around and pulled him closer, Peter's lips grazing his cheek. "You have to be the one to ask for this," he said, breath puffing warm on Neal's skin. "I can't. I have too much power. You have to ask for this so that everyone's clear you want it. But I swear to you, Neal, I promise the answer's yes."
He kissed the corner of Neal's mouth and then pulled back.
"Are you going to ask?" he said softly.
"No," Neal shook his head.
Neal ran his hands through his hair. "Because it's not done yet. Things aren't...done yet. I need -- I have to go," he said, pulling his hat off the back of the chair and edging through the mess. "Tell Elizabeth I'm sorry, I'll make it up to her -- "
"Neal," Peter said, and Neal stilled with one hand on the doorknob, looking back. It was the first time he'd looked at Peter since kissing him. His eyes were dark, lips damp, body a long relaxed line in the chair.
"Yeah?" Neal asked, clenching his hat tightly.
"There's no time limit on yes," Peter said. "It's a standing answer."
"Start thinking about Rule Five," Peter added.
"I will. Thanks. I -- " Neal gestured to the door, and left before he lost the few shreds of self-discipline he'd managed to find for himself.
On Monday, Peter picked him up from June's as if nothing had changed. They worked cases, they got leads, they did their thing. On Tuesday it was the same. On Wednesday, Peter asked him if he wanted to come back for dinner, and Neal nervously declined. On Thursday, after picking him up, Peter pulled the car over when they were almost to the office.
"I don't think you get what I meant when I said you had to ask," he said, and Neal glanced at him quickly before looking away. "Nothing changes. This all stays exactly the way it is until you ask. I'm a patient man, and Elizabeth has put up with me for ten years, so she has experience with men being slow to catch on. Nothing is going to change."
"Okay," Neal said.
"Now, are you coming to dinner with us tonight or do I have to put Elizabeth on your case?" Peter asked.
Neal looked at him again. His face was open, earnest -- Peter wasn't a very good liar when it came to his friends -- and there was absolutely no guile there. He meant what he said. Nothing had to change.
"Yeah," Neal said, relief flooding him. "Dinner tonight, okay."
"Okay," Peter agreed, and pulled back out into traffic.
Chapter 5: Don't Invest
In which Elizabeth is just slightly impatient, and June witnesses domestication firsthand.
5. Don't Invest.
Neal did Rule Five alone, mostly.
"I'm not sure I understand," June said, sipping her coffee. "You want to buy the loft?"
"Part ownership in the house," Neal said. "I'd own the rooms. I'll buy the furniture too," he added. "Give you a good price for it all."
"Can I ask why?" June raised her eyebrows.
"I'm putting down roots," Neal told her. "I'm going clean, I need to prove it."
"And buying part of my home will help you do that?" she asked.
"I -- look, my credit is spotless," Neal said. "Except for the prison thing," he added. "But I'm pretty sure I can convince the bank to give me a mortgage."
June looked at him and then laughed. "A mortgage?"
"Monthly payments. Interest. Financing. The whole thing," Neal said. "I don't have enough liquid right now to just buy it outright, and that's kind of not the point."
"Honey, this house is worth several million dollars. Buying a floor in it, legitimately, is not going to be cheap."
"It doesn't have to be," Neal said, looking down at his coffee cup.
"Ah, I see. Responsibility. As long as you're paying -- "
"I can't run. I wouldn't cheat you, June, I swear I wouldn't," Neal said. "I wouldn't run out on the payments."
"I know you wouldn't," she told him. "Besides, if you did, a whole host of Byron's good friends would make sure you were found very quickly."
Neal shot her a grin. June touched his wrist, gently.
"Be sure about this," she said. "Be very sure, Neal."
"I am," he said. "I have to be."
"Well, I'll talk to my lawyers," she said. "I'll give you an asking price by the end of the week."
"Oh! Hey! Wait," Neal said, passing her an envelope. "Letters of recommendation."
She opened it and peered inside, and then started to laugh again. "You got Peter to write you a character reference?"
"And Hughes," Neal said. "I mean, they're the FBI. They wouldn't vouch for me if I wasn't a model citizen, right?"
June gave him a smile. "My husband said something very similar when we bought this home. He called himself a model taxpaying citizen. He stood by his word, too."
"I plan to stand by mine," Neal said, grinning at her.
A month later, with the paperwork bumps smoothed by June's lawyers and a mortgage that had taken more charm than it had financial records to achieve, Neal threw a housewarming party.
It was a decidedly weird mix of people who showed up; a handful of federal agents, a couple of cops Neal had befriended on various jobs, some of June's society friends, and a lot of people that Jones speculated to Neal the feds in the crowd probably shouldn't know too much about, in case they had to open an investigation.
"This is satisfying," Peter said, stretching out in his chair on the terrace. Neal glanced over at him. "Celebrating being tied down by a mortgage. Neal Caffrey -- "
" -- model citizen," Neal said with a grin, settling back. People were dancing nearby, others standing at the edge of the terrace to take in the view of Manhattan as they chatted, but Neal had installed Peter and Elizabeth subtly in pride of place at his table, and kept returning to them whenever he had a break from circulating. He held out a hand to Elizabeth. "Can I tempt you into a dance?"
She shot Peter a sly grin and took Neal's hand, letting him swing her around into the dancers and take the lead. She was good -- a little out of practice, but Neal didn't think she got the chance to dance very often.
"Peter takes personal credit for this, you know," she said, as they danced.
"Probably not undeserved," Neal answered. "He's blown a lot of time on me."
"I don't think he counts it as blown," she said. "The FBI paid him for most of it."
"And we got you out of the rest," she added, quieter. "Looked at that way, it was cheap at the price."
"Yeah?" Neal said. "You think I'm worth all those missed dinners and -- " he stopped when she put a finger on his lips.
"Honey, if he didn't miss them for you he'd have missed them for someone else, and probably someone not nearly as interesting," she said. Neal glowed under her praise. She moved a little closer as the music stopped, eyes big and serious in her face.
"You know Peter would trust you without all this," she said, waving one hand at the party and the loft he now paid a mortgage on and Peter, too. "It would have taken work, but you don't have to go this far to prove anything to him. Or to me."
"I had things to prove to myself," he replied, wishing he could be quieter, wishing they were doing this without being surrounded by people. "He shouldn't trust me for less. I wouldn't trust myself for less. I have to make sure I can be the guy he thinks I am. I have to make sure I can be good for you."
"You already are," she said, rubbing his arm.
"One more rule," he told her.
She smiled. "Make it fast, model citizen. Don't keep us waiting."
Chapter 6: Always Have A Backup Plan
In which Neal has a zombie contingency in place, but is a little vague on other details.
6. Always Have A Backup Plan.
"This is actually sound life advice," Peter pointed out. "I have a savings account. I know five different ways to get home when the traffic is bad. We make backup plans all the time at the FBI. That's why reinforcements are called 'backup'."
"It's not quite like that," Neal said.
"So what is it like?" Peter asked, stretching his legs out under the table on his back patio, relaxing into the chair, eyes closed. There was a time he would have been watching Neal's face every minute, waiting for the con; now Neal could probably con him easily, with his guard down, but that was the point: his guard was down, because he trusted Neal.
Peter bumped his shoe against Neal's ankle. "Explain yourself, crook."
Neal smiled. "Okay, so the plan is the plan. It's what you put in motion to get what you want. There's a goal and a risk involved."
"Mmhm," Peter said, not opening his eyes.
"The backup plan is an exit strategy. It assumes the goal is a lost cause. It's not about alternate ways of getting what you want. It's about getting you and your partners safely out when things go bad."
"Okay," Peter said, folding his hands over his stomach. "So in this situation, how do you define 'things go bad'?"
"You really want the list?" Neal asked. "It's kind of grim."
Peter opened his eyes. "You have a list of the ways your life could go badly?"
"Always have a backup plan," Neal reminded him. Peter sighed.
"Better tell me," he said. Neal sat forward.
"One of my old jobs comes back to haunt me, or I'm framed, and I'm arrested and put back in prison. Or you get fired from your job -- "
"Why would I get fired?"
"Does it matter? This is my cynical dreamscape, not yours."
Peter waved a hand.
"You get fired from your job and I'm put back in prison to serve out the rest of my term. Or I'm assigned to a handler I can't work with, someone dangerous. Like Ruiz. Or you get killed and the same happens plus you're dead."
"I find out someone from my past has it in for me and is coming after me," Neal continued. "I lose my touch and I'm not useful to the Bureau anymore. Zombies invade Manhattan."
"Why would you be afraid you're going to -- wait, zombies?" Peter asked, sitting up. "You have a backup plan in place for a zombie apocalypse?"
"Raid the FBI armory, steal a street-food truck, hijack a ferry, and ride down the coast to Florida," Neal said quickly.
"Why Florida?" Peter asked, looking like he didn't want to follow this but couldn't help himself.
"I figure it's the last place the zombies will hit," Neal answered with a shrug. Peter rubbed his face and laughed.
"Okay. Zombies aside, what are your backup plans?"
"Run," Neal said.
"For which one?"
"Pretty much all of them."
Peter sighed. "Neal..."
"I know, okay? That's why I'm here," Neal said. "By all means, let's brainstorm, let's come up with some new backup plans."
Peter studied his hands, tapping out little rhythms on the table.
"Some of them are a non-issue," he said. "There are provisions for what happens if I'm incapacitated and can't be your handler. Diana and Hughes are designated in your file as secondary supervisory agents, so one of them would be the first choice to take you. If you did get reassigned to someone, somehow, where you were being put in danger, you have legal recourse to request a transfer. If that happens, go to Diana, make her help you."
Neal was staring at him. Peter smiled. "What, you think I'd leave you to twist? I've told you. You're my responsibility. If you're framed, well, we'll solve the case. We've done it before. If some dumb stunt you pulled as a kid bites you on the ass..." he sighed. "Unless it was something really extreme, you could probably cut a deal to confess and get an extended sentence. I'm pretty sure I can talk fast enough to keep you out of prison. If I can't..." Peter spread his hands. "You did all right in prison. If you went back, there would be ways to make it easier. You have allies now."
"It's still prison," Neal said.
"Neal, you act like you think you don't deserve to serve time for committing crimes. This is how the law works. It's one of those things-go-bad moments where you made things go bad. Cowboy up."
"That's your idea of a backup plan. Cowboy up."
"If you go back to prison? Yeah," Peter said. "It beats running, and it gives me time to figure out how to spring you."
"You'd do that for me?"
"Right, right," Neal said, but he gave Peter a smug look as he said it.
"So," Peter said, ticking them off on his fingers. "Prison is taken care of. My...let's call it retirement, is taken care of. What's the next one, revenge?"
"Someone I screwed over gets ideas about screwing me back, or someone I helped put in prison gets out and wants to come after me," Neal said.
"You don't think the FBI can protect you?" Peter asked.
"I've seen the FBI's success rate," Neal said. "Fifty-fifty odds don't do it for me."
"On the other hand, if you run, this theoretical revenge-seeker will only be one of the people after you," Peter said. "Because I'll be the other. Sooner or later, Neal, I will find you, and when that happens I can't protect you from prison, and prison can't protect you from reprisals. So I'm going to go ahead and say that running in this case is the dumbest backup plan to date."
Neal was staring at him, mouth slightly open.
"Yeah, you didn't really think that one through, did you?" Peter asked, grinning. Neal smiled and shook his head. "If someone comes after you, Neal, tell me. The FBI's average might not be great, but I bet I can raise it a few points. We'll work it out, together, and figure out a way to keep you safe. Now," he added, "what was the last one?"
"Oh, before the zombie apocalypse?" Neal asked. "Losing my touch."
"You seriously think that's going to happen?"
Neal shrugged. "Sometimes you hit a bad run."
"What, you're going to forget how to pick pockets?"
"No," Neal sounded frustrated. "If I stop being able to clear cases, if I can't do the undercover thing as well as I used to -- look, I know the Bureau keeps me around because I'm useful. How long before I stop being useful and they toss me back?"
"Well, you've made it two years so far," Peter said. Neal sighed.
"I know. It's a stupid one. I know it's not logical. Sometimes fear is irrational."
"Look, the Bureau's not going to put you back without my say-so, not for just failing to close cases," Peter said. "You know what our percentages are like compared to the rest of the regional office? We could stop solving ten percent of the cases we close, right now, and we'd still have the best clearance rate in New York. I don't know if you get how obscenely good we are at what we do."
"But what if it happens?" Neal asked. Peter tilted his head and smiled.
"Neal, I'll tell you what. I'm giving you a pass. If the Bureau tries to put you in jail for failing to keep your closure rate up, you go right on ahead and run. Stop by my place first, I'll give you a couple hundred to get you started. I won't chase you, and if I find you I won't report you."
"Seriously?" Neal asked.
"Seriously. Because that's a stupid thing that's never going to happen."
"Okay," Neal said. "Okay. Backup plans in place."
"And if you think of new and unlikely things that might go wrong, try not to default to running," Peter said. "Talk to me. We'll make a plan."
"Even stupid things?"
"Did I laugh at your zombie apocalypse scenario?"
Neal shook his head.
"Okay then. That's good work we just did," Peter said. Neal's eyes flicked up to his and then down again. "You all right?"
"That's the last rule," Neal said. "Are we done with it? Because that went fast and felt too easy."
"I think it's going to take you a long time not to instinctively want to run when things go bad," Peter said. "But otherwise, yeah. We're done."
They sat in silence for a moment, until Peter cleared his throat.
"I feel like we should throw you a party or something," he said.
"The result of the work is its reward," Neal said, standing up to go inside. Peter laughed.
"Where'd you pick that up?" he asked.
"From you," Neal threw over his shoulder, casually, as if it hardly mattered. Peter heard the door click shut, saw through the window as Neal bent to pet Satchmo in the living room.
Chapter 7: And This Is Important...
In which Neal gets a new radius, Peter's not in a condition to cope, and Elizabeth says yes.
7. And this is important....
Two days after they closed down Rule Six and officially finished breaking the rules of the con, Hughes called Peter into his office and shut the door.
"I need to talk to you about Caffrey," he said, and Peter stifled the urge to ask what Neal had done now, because Neal was trying so hard not to be that guy. He settled in the chair across from Hughes.
"Is he in trouble?" he asked.
"No. Not exactly," Hughes said, fixing him with a steady look. "Listen, I know you've been working hard and putting in extra time trying to keep this kid on the path. And at least he's not getting arrested or shot at every other week anymore. He's popular in the Bureau, and he does good work. How much do you trust him?"
Peter frowned at the hard question on the tail end of a series of compliments. "Situationally."
"Explain that to me."
"At work? With my life. He's not here to screw around."
"He tries hard. We're working on it," Peter said. Hughes lifted an eyebrow. "Can I ask why you want to know?"
Hughes passed a file folder across the desk. Peter opened it and studied the paperwork inside.
"Neal put in a request to have his house-arrest status reevaluated," Hughes said. "He's asking for a five mile radius."
Peter's first thought, his very first and shamefully cynical thought, was that the months of work that Neal had put into breaking the rules of the con were all leading up to this, that they were a scam to get himself a larger radius that included a couple of airports and more than a couple of shipping docks. He fought the urge to turn and find Neal through the glass wall of Hughes' office. He folded his hands and rested his elbows on the desk, thinking.
"Two miles is a short leash for a guy like Neal," he said. "Half of Manhattan's better than none of Manhattan, but he's done good work and he wants a reward. Prisoners are allowed to earn privileges. Maybe Neal should be too. He's done two years' worth of good work."
"Prisoners don't usually get half of Manhattan to start with," Hughes pointed out, his voice dry.
"I know, I know," Peter said, leaning back. "I don't think he's going to run. We've talked about him running. I don't think he was lying to me when he said he wouldn't."
"But it's Neal," Hughes said.
"But it's Neal," Peter agreed. "Still..."
He did get up then, and walked to the glass wall, looking out on the office. Neal was sitting at his desk, talking with a probie from the Counterintelligence taskforce.
"Look, if you want my recommendation, I say yes, give him the five mile radius," Peter said, turning back. "I don't think he's going to run. I think he just wants a little more room to breathe."
Hughes nodded. "I'll take that under consideration in making my decision."
Three days later, Neal strutted into Peter's office with a huge, smug grin on his face.
"I got a five-mile radius," he said. Peter looked up from the file he was working on and smiled.
"Yeah, yeah, don't get cocky," he said.
"Come on, Peter, let me buy you lunch. I know a great Italian place four miles away -- "
"Okay, I get it -- "
" -- 'cause I'm on a five mile radius."
"I'm never going to hear the end of this," Peter said, gathering up his coat. "Bring the files, I think we're getting close to catching Lukowski."
"Do you think he's less than five miles away from here?" Neal asked.
"Neal -- "
"If so, allow me to be of service! Hey Jones!" Neal called, as they walked out of the office. "I got my new radius!"
"Go get 'em, Caffrey," Jones called back without looking up.
"You want me to pick you up anything? Anything within five miles?" Neal asked, and Peter grabbed him by the arm and hauled him into the elevator.
Peter gave him the afternoon off, much to Neal's glee, and that night he opened his laptop after dinner to check Neal's map. He didn't check as often as he used to, these days, but with the larger radius he felt it would probably be a good idea to keep an eye out, and it was interesting to see where Neal went on his first day with the longer rope.
Neal had made a beeline for the Guggenheim, always tantalizingly just out of reach on his old radius. From there it looked like he'd skirted the north end of Central Park, rambled around the upper west side, and taken what looked like a subway route to the southern tip of Manhattan. Peter watched, amused, as Neal's little tracking symbol left the mainland from the ferry terminal and landed a few minutes later on Governors Island. The island was the southernmost point of his new radius, and it looked like Neal spent a long time on the south edge of it, looking out over the upper bay. Maybe looking at Liberty Island, which was (ironically, perhaps) still just barely on the far side of the border for Neal.
But he didn't run.
Neal had been on his new radius for all of nineteen hours when Peter got shot.
Peter didn't remember the shooting -- didn't ever remember it, even later when he tried. He remembered going into the office, catching a lead, grabbing Neal to go check it out, and then nothing between when they got into the elevator and when he woke up in the hospital.
The first time he woke, Elizabeth was there, and the world was a little bit hazy. Mostly he just lay there under a cloud of drugs and listened to Elizabeth tell him he was going to be fine, just fine baby. He squeezed her hand, or tried to, and nodded along with whatever she said. She kept repeating that Neal was okay too, which made him suspect Neal wasn't okay, but Peter was at least wise enough to know when he wasn't going to be any help to anyone.
And Neal must really have been okay (nobody told him until later that all the way to the hospital he'd demanded to know if his partner was hurt) because the next time he woke up he could hear Neal's voice, quiet and a little distant.
"...taking over for Elizabeth," Neal was saying. Peter lay still, wondering if Neal had been talking to him.
"She getting some rest?" that was Hughes. So probably Peter wasn't necessary for this conversation, and he could go on lying very still and quiet in peace.
"As much as anyone's going to get," Neal said. There was a slurp -- god, hospital coffee was the worst.
"Good of you to help her out," Hughes replied.
"It's mostly selfish," Neal said, and Peter could tell he was lying. "I wanted my share of the bedside drama. Brooding partner stands vigil," he said.
"I'm sure Peter will appreciate it."
Damn right he does.
"He's been good to me. I owe him," Neal said.
"Peter's been training probies for nine years," Hughes said, and Peter wondered if it had really been that long. "He's good. We send him the smart ones for a reason. None of them have given him half the trouble you have."
Neal laughed a little. "Well, why not keep life interesting?"
"Hm," Hughes sounded disapproving. "I wish we could bottle what he has. You're becoming a credit to the department."
"My street cred will suffer," Neal said, and then more seriously, "I'm trying, sir."
"So Peter tells me. You had a list of rules, he said."
"Yeah. The rules of the con. I broke them so I couldn't go back to that."
"What are the rules?"
"You want to know now?"
"We've got time to kill, Caffrey. Unless you'd rather sit and stare quietly."
There was a pause, and the sound of a cup being set down.
"Travel light," he said. "Don't...work where you sleep," which was a very polite version of what Neal had written on the list. "Don't stand out. Don't share information. Don't invest. Always have a backup plan."
"Is that all?"
"It was," Neal said, sounding sad. "I thought of another one today."
"Don't get attached," Neal told him, and Peter felt something brush his hand. Neal's fingers, settling around his.
When he was well enough to leave, Neal drove them home, Elizabeth curled up with Peter on the back seat. They were almost there before Peter realized he hadn't called the Marshals to tell them Neal was leaving his radius.
"You don't have to," Neal said, when he saw Peter fumbling for his phone. "New radius, remember?"
Peter leaned his head against the back of the seat as Neal parked the car. "I forgot. We're in your radius now?"
"You are four point nine one miles from the center," Neal said, climbing out of the car and helping Peter to his feet. "It's why I requested five miles. Audacious, asking for more than double, but I hear my boss put in a good word for me."
"He's a good guy," Peter agreed, as Neal hovered around him and Elizabeth unlocked the front door. Inside, she kissed Peter's cheek and patted Neal's arm.
"I'm going to make some soup," she said. "Get him upstairs?"
"I wasn't shot in the foot," Peter told her.
"Yes, dear," she answered absently. When Peter glanced at Neal, he was grinning, but he tucked the smile away into a sober, mock-respectful expression when he saw Peter's glare.
It was true that the climb left him winded, the wound in his chest burning and achey with every breath. Neal, halfway up, wrapped his arm around Peter's waist and helped him to the top, guiding him into the bedroom. Peter sat on the bed and groaned at the prospect of bending over to take off his shoes, but Neal was already there, crouching and pulling them off.
"Hey," Peter said eventually, because Neal seemed to be taking a really long time, staring at the shoe in one hand, his other hand wrapped around Peter's calf. "Hey, c'mere."
Neal straightened, dropping the shoe, and Peter leaned against his chest, exhausted. Neal laughed, but he cupped his hand around the back of Peter's head.
"Sleep or food?" he asked. Peter tried to decide. "O-kay, sleep it is," Neal said, and eased him back onto the bed. He sat down on the edge, watchful; Peter tried to relax, hissing a little when a jab of pain made it past the drugs as he settled in.
"You mind if I stay?" Neal asked.
"No," Peter said, managing a smile. "Something on your mind?"
Neal looked down. "When we were sitting there, waiting for the ambulance, I kept thinking -- "
"Backup plan?" Peter asked, eyes sliding shut. Blissful darkness. "How to get on Diana's good side?"
"Not exactly." Neal's voice seemed far away, too far, and Peter fought to get his eyes open again. "I was thinking, I never asked. I should have asked."
Peter swallowed. "Neal, I'm not really in a position at the moment -- "
"No, I know," Neal glanced at him, grinning. "I'm not asking now. When you're better, though. I plan to. Is the answer still going to be yes?"
"Yes," Peter heard, and didn't think he'd said it, and then past Neal he saw Elizabeth in the doorway. Neal turned his head. "It's still yes," Elizabeth repeated, setting a cup of soup on the bedside table and standing next to Neal, one arm around his shoulders. They both looked down at him, two sets of blue eyes, and Peter groped for Neal's hand, pulling it across to rest it on his chest.
"I broke all the rules for you," Neal said, you encompassing them both. Elizabeth sat next to him and took his other hand.
"We know," she said.
"You did good," Peter added. "Can I sleep now?"
Neal nodded and turned away to speak softly to Elizabeth, but he kept his hand on Peter's chest, and Peter's eyes closed on Elizabeth's hand in Neal's. He fell asleep to the sound of them talking together, making quiet plans, plans for the future that they had helped Neal tear everything down in order to build.