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pockets full of stones

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“Watch,” Neal calls, arms spread wide in the middle of a circle of policemen, all with their guns drawn and aimed at him.

There is no escape.

“This is a trick!”

Peter is about to bark something about stopping with the grandstanding when, out of nowhere, a flash of light blinds them all.

By the time he can see again, they are all pointing their guns at thin air. Neal is gone.

+

Early on, after six months of hunting him, Peter is convinced that Nick Halden is the real name and all the others fake.

He can’t be entirely sure, but Nick traces back five years. None of his other aliases do.

So he tries it out, the first time he gets close, so close. Neal is standing at the edge of a seventeenth storey roof, arms spread, looking like he’s getting ready to throw himself at the ground and hope he misses.

“Nick!” Peter calls, heart in his throat for reasons he cares not to analyze.

Neal grins, wide and wild, and advises, yelling against the wind, “Dig deeper!”

Then he spins on his heel and flings himself off the edge, whooping with joy.

+

This is a trick, too:

“Card trick,” Neal says, eyes shadowed under the brim of his hat, teeth glinting in sun, shadow and light.

He holds up a fan of cards despite Peter’s eye roll, gestures at them. “Pick one.”

“No way, cowboy. I’ve seen all your tricks.”

Neal’s grin gets wider. Mischievous. “You think so?”

But he doesn’t push it, turns to El instead, who’s reclining in the sun, big sunglasses hiding her eyes, but not her smile. “Pick one?”

She sits up and chooses one out of the face-down fan, looks at it and then holds it up without showing its face. “What do I do with it?”

“You hold on to it tightly. Really tightly.”

She thinks a moment, then shrugs and tucks the card into her cleavage, securing it behind the centerpiece of her bra. Neal laughs and Peter gets a bit hot under the collar but says nothing.

Then Neal shuffles the cards in his hands, all flash and show. Peter watches him like a hawk but sees no tricks. Neal’s sleeves are rolled up to his elbow. With a sudden flick of both wrists, he sends the cards flying up into the air and they rain down all over the three of them.

Blindly, Neal plucks one out of the air, right in front of his face, and spins it between his fingers before presenting it to El. “Your card, Milady,” he intones.

El gasps, grabs the queen of hearts with one hand and fumbles in her cleavage for her own card. It’s gone.

Neal never tells how he did it.

+

“Nicolas,” Peter tries. “Nicolas Anderson.”

He’s got a high school diploma, three semesters of art at a community college, two speeding tickets and a picture in a year book. It should feel real. Should feel like the right one. Peter has gut feelings, and they’re good. This looks real.

But it doesn’t feel real.

Kid just keeps smiling like a saint, not even bothering to burst Peter’s bubble.

+

Sometimes Neal does strange things. Things Peter can’t understand, no matter how much he turns them over and over inside his head.

Like dogs. Neal is physically incapable of walking past a dog leashed in front of a store without stopping and staring, something like pity filling his gaze. At first Peter thinks it's a prison thing. Freedom for all sentient beings, or something.

But then, once, he sighs, nudges Neal with his elbow, says, “It’s just a dog, Caffrey, get a move on.”

And Neal turns his head to look at him and there is something hot and liquid burning in his eyes. Something like rage, burning white hot and cold at the same time. It disappears in an instant, but the afterimage of it is burned in his mind. It’s the first time Peter ever looks at the Neal and thinks dangerous.

+

Peter’s late, he’s late, Neal’s blown, there were shots fired, Neal isn’t armed, Neal is defenseless, Neal is probably dead and Peter’s late and he’s praying, praying, praying as he runs, gun in hand, ready to shoot at anything that moves.

Anything that isn’t Neal.

He kicks down the door, shoves through, firearm first, head second, looks around frantically and –

- freezes.

Neal stands over the prone form of their mark, a gun lost somewhere to the side, far out of reach. The mark stares at Neal, eyes wide, pupils blown with something like fear, something like blind, animal panic.

Peter blinks and for a split second there is an eight foot tall brownish grey troll in the man’s place, flat nose, round ears, fangs of a predator and fists like footballs. Then he blinks again and the illusion fades back into the man they’re after, smallish, round with a face like a pit-bull.

He must not be getting enough sleep if he’s seeing things, he thinks, and almost misses the whispered, “What are you?”

Neal shrugs artfully, easily, and Peter knows there’s a grin to go with it without seeing it. Then Neal takes a step away, turns to Peter, says, “You’re late.”

Peter scowls, puts up his gun and pulls out the cuffs. They have enough on the guy, and even if not, they have his assault of Neal on tape. Sound only, but it’s enough. He bends down, hauls the man to his feet and spins him around none too gently.

He’s got him by the arm, ready to lead him outside, when the man hisses, low and urgent, “Just keep him away from me. Please, keep him away from me.”

Peter… well, Peter hasn’t got the first clue what to make of that.

+

Sometimes Neal’s eyes flash green.

It’s impossible and Peter tells himself it’s a trick of the light.

Just a trick.

+

Contrary to popular opinion, Neal does do original work.

Peter finds out while digging through a cache he knows belongs to Neal but can’t prove. There, between a priceless cubist painting and a few fake Da Vinci, are half a dozen canvasses signed simply N.

They are dark, wild. Some show the ocean, dangerous, raging, as if something’s stirring under the surface, some the sky, endless and rolling with thunder clouds. One shows a shadowy figure in chains, front against a rock wall, face sharp and angular in profile. The one that Peter can’t stop staring at is of a huge, golden chamber. At the very center, a small figure, almost childish, kneels. Covered in red. Blood.

They’re beautiful, these paintings, painted with perfect skill, but they’d never have sold, if Neal had tried to go the honest way, become an artist instead of a forger. They’re too brutal, too disturbing. Peter looks at them and hears the man scream, hears thunder roll. He smells the blood.

The paintings get stolen out of evidence the very night Peter finds them. He never goes looking for them.

+

When their work takes them to the water, Neal always finds a minute to stare out at the sea, gaze unreadable.

Sometimes his mouth moves. Peter’s meager lip-reading skills can’t make sense of what he says, no matter how hard he tries.

He asks once and Neal asks right back, “Do you believe in sea monsters?”

“What?”

“Sea monsters. I mean, more than half the planet is covered in water. Do we really know what’s down there?”

“You freak me out sometimes,” Peter says, for wont of anything better.

+

“Noah Cooper.”

“Deeper,” Neal challenges, amusedly.

It’s long since become a game to them. Peter digs, Neal laughs in his face. There’s always another alias, always another name.

Always another Neal. Always another trick.

Sometimes Peter doubts even Neal remembers what his first name was.

+

“When’s your birthday?” he asks, looking at Neal sideways while keeping half an eye on the rush hour traffic stacked like a wall around them, immovable.

“It’s not going to help you to find my name, Peter,” Neal points out, a bit smug, a bit childish. Everything as usual then.

“El wants to know. You’ve been out for a year now and no birthday. I think she wants to bake you a cake.”

Neal perks up, as he always does when El is mentioned, especially in conjunction with food. “Tomorrow,” he says, too quickly, too smoothly. “It’s tomorrow.”

“Right. When’s it really?”

Neal looks out the window, traces the outline of a woman stalking down the sidewalk with his fingers, negligently. Always the artist. He doesn’t know, Peter thinks and sighs. “Tomorrow it is. Expect to be force-fed until you burst.”

Neal doesn’t look like he minds.

+

“This is a trick,” Neal says, and makes the card disappear, makes the painting disappear, makes himself disappear.

They never reappear until he wants them to and sometimes Peter thinks that if he didn’t want to, Neal could disappear and stay gone forever.

+

El doesn’t often complain about her sister because she loves her, but sometimes she could strangle the woman and she tells Neal so because Peter is never sympathetic enough. Especially not when there’s a game on.

“Be glad you have her,” Neal advises, quietly. “Some people don’t get the chance.”

El shifts on the sofa to look at him better and Peter very carefully keeps his gaze on the TV.

“Do you have any siblings?”

Silence. Then. “My brothers always let me ride on their backs. Fast as the wind. And my sister…my sister taught me about beauty.”

Peter’s glad he’s not the one having this conversation. He’d mess it up in a way El never would. She knows how to have this talk. She knows to ask, “How’d she do that?”

With a look halfway between memory and something far more complicated, Neal says, “She found a dead bird in the woods once. She built it a nest and put it in her closet and we watched as it slowly rotted until it was soil again.”

El’s glass makes a sound like bells as it shatters on the floor and she apologizes profusely for being so clumsy.

+

“Monster,” the suspect spits at Neal, slashing at him as if he thinks he has claws instead of hands. “Your blood, your whole brood, is poison!”

Jones tackles him to the ground, Peter cuffs him and Neal watches with a dispassionate and cold gaze.

Dangerous, Peter thinks again.

The suspect has a heart attack in his cell during the night. Natural causes, the coroner says. It never quite rings true. Peter never gets the chance to ask the man what he knows about Neal’s family, about his brothers who let him ride them and his sister, who watched dead things rot and thought they were beautiful.

+

This is the best of all tricks:

Take a green canvass and paint over it until it’s blue and not even the memory of green remains.

Take a dead boy and paint over him until he’s whole and not even the memory of scars and blood and pain and tears and screams - such screams –remains.

Take a god and make him a man.

+

Naim Walcott.

Niko Eminoglu.

More Nicks. More Noahs. More Neals. A Niall, even. A Noam.

None of them real.

None of them true.

They’re all just tricks.

+

There is man across the street, tall, dark haired, green eyed. He stares at Neal with an unhealthy, hungry look on his face. Neal stares back for a moment, then walks away.

The man doesn’t follow but pops up here and there over the next few months. Cruz mentions him once, says he’s too damn pretty for his own good, just like Neal.

Neal’s expression turns hunted for a second.

One day, the man disappears into the mirror displayed in a shop window. Flash of green, a shadow in the mirror, moving against the stream. Then nothing.

Peter blinks against the spring sun and has no idea what he just saw.

+

Neal is twenty-five passing for twenty or thirty when Peter starts chasing him.

Neal is still twenty-five passing for twenty or thirty when Peter catches him.

Neal is still twenty-five passing for twenty or thirty when Peter gets him out of jail.

Neal is always twenty-five passing for twenty or thirty.

Unless he isn’t.

+

Another one of Neal’s tricks goes like this:

He borrows a coin from someone, folds it into a piece of paper and then unfolds it again and there’s a hundred dollar bill in it. Peter watches him do it a hundred times, but he never figures out the trick.

Sheet of paper. Coin. Bill.

Once, only once, he lets Neal try it on him and tucks the hundred dollars away in his wallet afterwards. When he goes to show it to El that night, there’s only a few grains of silver sand in there.

Damn Neal and his tricks.

+

Peter and Neal are trying to flag down a taxi when the green-eyed man reappears, crossing the street in big strides. His suit is immaculate and pale grey. It looks wrong on him, despite being bespoke and expensive.

“Neal,” he says. “Come.”

Peter tries to protest, opens his mouth, and promptly forgets what he wanted to say. By the time he remembers, Neal and the man are lost in the crowd.

+

What Peter never learns is this:

Neal follows the man into a dark, narrow alley, where the man turns and puts a cold, elegant hand on Neal’s cheek and says, “Nari.”

Neal smiles, eyes flashing green, expression sad. “Father.”

“You are well?”

“I’m alive,” Neal answers. Involuntarily, both their gazes fall onto his middle, where the claws dug in, where Vali –

- there is nothing there, scars hidden, life sealed inside with nothing but magic and a father’s desperate love. None will ever see, ever know, how close one brother came to killing another, how viciously his claws tore at tender skin. Such is the magic of Loki, Father of Lies, Mother of Monsters.

“I have come to warn you, Nari,” Loki murmurs after a moment. “I am hunted now and if any Asgardian finds you…” They think him dead and have for a long time.

“Let me come with you,” Nari pleads. “Let me help you.”

Loki smiles, shakes his head. “Sleipnir and Fenrir are bound, Jormungandr and Hel banished, your twin little more than Odin’s puppet. Only you are free, Nari. Remain that way.”

His eyes squeeze shut at the mention of his brother, his missing limb, and open again fully green instead of blue. The color of poison. The color of Loki.

“Then let me help avenge them.”

The god of tricks snarls and jerks his son closer, hugs him punishingly tight, burying his nose in unruly curls. “Of all my children, you are most like me.”

It sounds like an apology.

“Father,” Nari tries again, voice muffled against the leathers that have long since replaced the Midgardian suit again.

Loki pulls back far enough to press a kiss to his temple, says, “Stay away. Stay safe. If nothing else, live to spite the ones that would see Loki’s brood thrown off the edge of the world.”

Nari opens his mouth to speak, to complain, beg, cajole, agree, but in a whisper of frost and winter winds, Loki is gone. Nari sinks back into Neal’s skin in silence and then leaves the alley as if nothing ever happened.

That night he paints a many-limbed tree in flames, a howling wolf, a dying snake and a weeping woman. He paints, remembering all his sister’s lessons on beauty – raw, dark, twisted and true, unable to lie, unable to change its nature. He paints things as they must be, as all his family has always known they must be. He paints until he aches and then burns all the canvasses before dawn.

In the morning, Neal Caffrey was never gone.

+

At lunch Neal pulls out a deck of cards and asks, “Do you want to see a trick, Peter?”

Peter sighs, rolls his eyes and demands long-sufferingly, “What trick?”

For a split second, just one heartbeat, Neal’s smile is sharp as a razor blade. “Find the missing king,” he says.

It sounds like the punch line to a joke Peter doesn’t know.

+

“Again,” El laughs, reaching for the cards for the third time, “Come on, I know it has to be there!”

Neal shrugs modestly and indulges her. She never finds the missing king.

But that’s alright. Neither does anyone else.

+

This is a trick.

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