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Fox Among Hounds

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“Do you think that it would kill you guys to keep a deck of cards in h-”

“Neal,” Peter interrupted in a resigned tone, “we’ve already established that you hate the van.  Try to keep your boredom contained.”

“Why is it that you and Diana get to go into this party, and I get stuck in the van?” Neal wanted to know, tipping his head back a little challengingly. As a rule, Caffrey liked to keep Peter on his toes, although these little irreverent moments only generally lasted until the FBI agent glared at him. 

In this case, Neal’s demand only warranted a jaded look. Peter turned back to the computers – hooked up to the hotel’s security cameras – and talked into the receiving microphone instead of answering, “Diana, how are things going?”

Dressed in smart white like the rest of the party’s waitresses, the woman in question was visible moving across one of the screens.  Her voice as it came through her own hidden headset was quiet so no one else would hear, “So far so good.  I’m in, and will start looking for the necklace.”

“Good, I’ll be in soon, too.  I want to get as much as I can on Talbot so that we can connect him to this theft,” Peter said back, nodding even though Diana couldn’t see him, of course. Behind him, Neal was making a face. Peter looked back and just grinned shamelessly, enjoying the perturbed look.  He put the headphones down and replaced it with a tiny earbud that hid easily in his ear – one of the FBI’s new toys.  “I’ve got a party to go to,” Peter said in a triumphant, smug voice, which Jones and the other agent returned – Neal, for his part, pasted on a thin little smile and generally failed at hiding how irked he was. This was one of those rare occasions where Neal’s skills had won the team information, but it had been Peter who had won a personal invitation (albeit through the use of an alias that Neal had been pivotal in creating).  “Jones, keep an eye on Neal,” was the last thing Peter said sternly before leaving, placing a hand on the ex-con’s shoulder, pressing down. 

“Come on, Peter, can’t I-?”

“No.” Peter straightened out his suit, which looked indistinguishable from Peter’s usual suit but was apparently far classier. The dark-blue silk tie he was wearing was actually one specifically provided by Neal, and Peter was almost afraid to touch it at risk of ruining it.  “Sit. Stay.”

“Oh, real nice, Peter,” Neal called out sarcastically to the agent’s retreating back, but then the doors of the van were closing between them again.

~^~

“I’m in,” Peter murmured when he was in an no one was paying much attention to him.  Right now, Peter was playing Michael Whittacker, a businessman who specialized in shipping and regularly attended expensive parties like this.  In reality, Peter hoped that he could keep finding simple finger-foods that didn’t take much background knowledge to understand and eat, and no one who wanted to talk about expensive designer suits.  This really was Neal’s kind of party, but Neal had been busy hunting down information on how the necklace had been stolen while Peter had been doing legwork as Michael Whittacker – and it seemed that Talbot had liked Whittacker’s style and possible business.  Peter would be perfectly happy if Neal and Talbot never met.

“Lot’s of snazzy people and snazzy food?” Jones’s voice asked in his ear, sounding both amused and a bit jealous. 

Peter looked around.  The Goldside Hotel was new, and Mr. Talbot had apparently rented out a whole three floors for his party – Peter’s invite only covered this first floor, and from what he’d gathered, security got tighter the higher up one went. Still, even with his first-floor pass, this was pretty ritzy…  “I’m looking at a tray of something that might actually have gold dust on it, and some of the women here are dressed nicely enough that I can just about see how expensive they are,” Peter replied discreetly but sincerely, grabbing a glass of something pale and alcoholic to blend in.  “Diana, where are you at?”

“I’ve actually been sent up to the second floor.  Working the food service has its perks,” she replied after a pause that meant she was waiting for an opportunity to talk without being noticed, “There’s a lot of art on display up here.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and the necklace will be shown.”

“Talbot does strike me as the idiotically showy type.”

Although Neal wasn’t supposed to be using the communications equipment (merely relaying anything he had to say through Jones, who knew Caffrey well enough to filter him a bit when necessary), his voice came through the comm-line clearly and eagerly, “Even if he’s not stupid enough to hang stolen property on his wall, we might want to show it off in other ways.  Check the necklines of the girls at the party.”

Although it was his first instinct to roll his eyes and berate Neal for using equipment (he could actually hear Jones telling Caffrey to sit down again and stop pushing buttons), the information was good, and Peter ended up saying praisingly instead, “Good thinking, Neal.”

Diana replied, too, “Understood.  I’ll keep my eyes open.”

After that, there was silence, except Jones giving occasional updates that required no confirmation.  They’d had the cooperation of the hotel in tapping into the video feeds from the cameras, but there were still some rooms that they couldn’t see into. Peter’s efforts to actually see and talk to Talbot were stymied by the fact that the suspected criminal was lingering on the third floor, where Jones had the least camera coverage. It was looking increasingly likely that the necklace wasn’t anywhere on the first floor, and Diana didn’t see anything overt on the second floor before she was ordered back to the first. Peter was getting the hang of small-talk with this crowd (despite popular opinion, he was actually pretty good at going undercover and blending in), and was trying to get an egotistically challenged young man talking about Talbot when he heard a frustrated noise in his ear that was definitely Jones.  “Problem, Peter.”

Before Peter could even start removing himself from his present conversation, Diana answered for him, “What is it?”

“Neal…”

Thankfully, Peter’s companion chose then to be distracted by a beautiful girl who came up at his arm, because the agent could no more have stopped his resigned sigh than he could have stopped his own heart.  ‘Neal.  Of course the problem has to do with Neal.’

Jones finished with apology and frustration both clear in his tone, “He slipped out of the van, and by the time we noticed, he was already at the hotel.”

“Did he get in?” Peter extracted himself from company enough to ask, hiding the slight movement of his lips by facing and seeming to look deeply at a painting on the wall. 

“He must have used the Caffrey charm,” Jones sighed, “and it worked pretty well.  He’s already on the third floor.”

Making a beeline for the bathrooms where he’d hopefully get some privacy to quietly fume about this and get everything back under control, Peter growled under his breath, “Dammit, Neal.”  Fortunately, the bathroom he found was indeed empty, and sported a lock which he instantly threw closed.  “Diana, any chance you can get close to him and make sure he’s not going to get himself into more trouble than he already is?”

“I can make it back to the second floor, but I’ll have to see about the third.  I also still have some of those bugs you’ve had me planting,” she answered.

“Good. Get him one of those. I won’t be able to yell at him, but at least we’ll being able to hear if he’s in trouble,” Peter answered quickly. “Jones, what have you got?”

“Well, there are a lot fewer cameras on the third floor – possibly because of what kind of party is going on, if you know what I mean.”

Peter paused in pacing back and forth in front of the wall-length mirror, eyebrow quirking.  “Prostitutes?”

“Probably high-end escorts, but you get the gist of it,” Jones replied frankly. Peter took that philosophically - Talbot had money, and he liked to use it.  It wasn't shocking that he was using it on people as well as decor.  

“Wow, Caffrey works quick,” Jones whistled next.  “He’s been dodging attention on the third floor, but now he’s sitting down with a guy.”

“Anyone we know?” Peter asked as he tried to tamp down on his panic for Neal. Just last night, he and Elizabeth had been talking about the impulsive, suave ex-con, and he could still remember some of her words in his head, increasing his desire to keep Neal safe.

“We’re looking.  So far, most everyone we’ve run from the third floor is personally connected to Talbot, so Neal might be talking to someone pretty important,” Jones opined, and for a long moment there was silence.  Peter could distantly hear Diana taking compliments and giving out drinks, moving about and chatting within the limitations of her cover.  It sounded like she was trying to maneuver her way up to the second floor again. Suddenly, Jones was chuckling, “Wow, I think that that fellow Neal was chatting up was hitting on him. Caffrey’s making a break for it, and it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

As much as Peter wanted to laugh, too (he couldn’t hold back a little snort), he made himself ask, “Is he all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I think he’s fine,” Jones was quick to answer, still amused, “That pretty face of his is finally getting him some attention he wasn’t bargaining for.  Wait a sec…”

Peter’s whole body tensed, and he moved to the door, ready to race out and make his way up to the third floor of the party, no matter the security in his way. He wasn’t armed, and calling in back-up would be difficult to impossible considering how packed this place was, and how high up Neal was.  The first floor would have been doable, but sometimes three floors was a long ways away from help on the ground floor.  “Jones, what’s going on?” Peter demanded in a stern voice just sharpening to a razor’s edge.

“I think Caffrey’s found something.  He’s in one of the suites – a locked one, but we all know how he is with locks. I don’t have surveillance in some of the rooms.”

“I’m on the second floor,” Diana interrupted quietly, as calm as ever. Peter breathed out a little sigh of relief, because at least one thing was looking up. 

“I bet Neal found a lead,” Peter thought out loud, “Is there any chance that Talbot would be proud enough to keep his prize close, but smart enough to keep it hidden away?  Possibly in a room nearby?”

Jones was quick to reply, voice heavily laced with surprise, “No 'possibly' about it.  Caffrey just turned up on a camera – grinning like a fool and holding up fifty-thousand dollars' worth of garnets. He also just mouthed something that probably translates to ‘I win’.”

Sighing with relief and grinning behind his hand, Peter once again recalibrated his thoughts of Neal Caffrey, and just what was and was not impossible for him to pull off with aplomb.  He was continually impressed by the bright-eyed art thief, although just as often he was horrified by the fixes he waltzed right into.  Neal was the mixture of genius and brazen stupidity that made Peter’s life continually interesting now, and he knew for a fact that Elizabeth liked the stories he brought home about his adventures with Neal.

“Guys, we’ve got a problem,” came Jones’s voice, and suddenly the joviality was wiped clean as if washed away with ice-water, “I’ve got Talbot approaching the room.  Damn, I don’t have eyes on Neal right now-”

Tension was ratcheted up by swift notches, catching on Peter’s spine with cadaverous fingers, and he clenched his fist hard on the door handle. “Is he out of the room?” Peter demanded with a helpless, sick feeling wicking up his throat. 

“I don’t know.”

“I’m getting to the second floor,” Peter stated in a tone that only fools ever argued with.  He left his temporary harbor and returned to the party, and (unsurprisingly) something about his expression dissuaded people from talking to him or getting in his way.

~^~

As it turned out, Neal was out of the room – barely. That was one of the closer calls he’d had in awhile, and that included when he’d had a gun drawn on him last week. This run-in hadn’t included a projectile weapon, but from what he and Peter and learned about Talbot, the guy didn’t mind getting his hands dirty and really didn’t like people breaking his rules.  By Neal being up here without an invitation, he was breaking quite a lot of rules and would make Talbot nervous, especially since Neal had caught him with stolen property. 

Of course, before almost literally slipping out under the nose of Talbot, Neal had replaced the necklace with a fake.  Hopefully that meant no one would come gunning for him in the next five minutes, at least so long as no one realized he was up here without permission.  He already had a few reasonable lies resting like rolling mercury on the tip of his tongue, but no matter how silver his tongue was, people were going to get suspicious if they had long enough to think about it – after all, just about everyone up here were friends, creating the kind of party that frowned upon unfamiliar faces. The only fellow he’d stopped long enough to talk to… 

Neal slipped closer to the stairs (the elevator was pretty heavily policed), keeping his pace confident and his face turned to the wall decorations when he could.  He swallowed a bit and concentrated on calming down as he thought about the young, blond-haired man who had been more than happy to chat with him, but who had also clearly had notions and misconceptions about where his hands were allowed to go and just what kind of company Neal would be.  He’d slipped away with an excuse about getting a drink, but even on his own face, Neal’s smile had felt like bad frosting, showing too many teeth and too much wariness. 

Getting down a floor was, of course, easier than getting up, and Neal flashed a brilliant grin at the black-and-white suited guards standing like elegant, broad-shouldered statues at the top of the stairs. The Goldside hotel was built tastefully, so even the stairs had class, curving grandly between floors with enough room to mollify even the most claustrophobic denizen, and in just a few more steps, Neal would actually be able to see the second floor opening up before him. By now, if Peter hadn’t stormed the whole building after him, there would be some backup waiting to berate him on the second floor – if not that, then definitely the first. With safety only a score of stair-steps away, Neal almost didn’t hear the steps catching up behind him. “Hello!” said a cheery, slightly accented voice that Neal unfortunately remembered, as a hand curled around his elbow and drew him up short.  The blond from the third floor stood grinning at him.  “I was wondering where you’d gotten to!”

Realizing that he was already elbow-deep in a very awkward situation, Neal somehow pasted on a smile, making eye contact and pulling off all the tricks he had to act sincere and not like he was where he had no business being. “Just had to stretch my legs. The party up there was getting pretty dull.”

“Well, I was there.”  Now the other man was pouting – quite an effective bit of flirtation, considering the blond-haired man was rather handsome – and his hand still hadn’t left Neal’s arm. It was almost unbearable to be so close to the second floor that he could see it, and yet be stuck because of a pretty face.

His pretty face.

“Well, maybe I was just hoping that you’d follow me down to where there was more of a party,” he tried to dally back, sliding down another step. Since the blon still didn’t let go, Neal had no choice but to stop or admit to his mounting nerves. Right now, his heart was thudding behind his ribs and he was sure that he was actually sweating – something that hadn’t even happened when he’d been stealing Talbot’s jewels and hiding behind the door as he came into the room. “How about this?” he scrambled for an out with increasing desperation, turning his body away to indicate subliminally his interesting moving further down the stairs, “The bartender on the second floor was making some truly marvelous drinks, so maybe you and I can have one and you can tell me what they’re called-”

Neal’s halfhearted flirting was actually going rather well (or at least his unwanted suitor was grinning back playfully), and he thought that he’d just seen Diana pass by at the bottom of the stairs in her waitress uniform. Hopefully she’d seen him, and would do…something.  Neal trusted Diana to tell Peter, and Peter always did something when Neal was in a fix, and he couldn’t conceive of this being any different.  Peter was on the first floor, though, and suddenly Neal’s wide blue eyes jerked past the blonde young man and saw someone else decidedly worse striding down from the third floor.

Swallowing convulsively and for a moment forgetting to keep the blinding smile on his face, Neal recognized Mr. Talbot. 

“Gregory, who is this?” Talbot asked of Neal’s blond-haired suitor, shrewd eyes flicking and seeing someone poised between the third and second floor with a face he didn’t recognize.  Calm, suspicious green eyes took Neal in from his shoes to his dark suit (the one that Peter had once called his ‘cat suit’ even though it was clearly more classy than that, with the button-down shirt being dark navy, not black) to his perfectly coifed hair.  Neal froze as he realized that now would be a perfect time to at least flash an invite, but he hadn’t had time or opportunity to forge Peter's. Instantly, Neal’s brain started going a million miles a minute, trying to think of something to say but finding himself horribly distracted by the hand still wrapped like a cuff around his elbow. 

The blond-haired man – Gregory – looked between Talbot and Neal, brows furrowing for a second as if he wasn’t following.  However, he said without much caution, “Well, I assumed one of Miss Lorelei’s associates.”

Neal locked onto the name, scrambling to find where he’d heard it before – he remembered just as Mr. Talbot’s narrowed eyes turned to him for confirmation.  Reflexively wanting to get out of trouble, he kicked the lie out of his mouth with a renewed smile, “Sorry we haven’t been introduced, Mr. Talbot.  Yes, guilty as charged-”  He stuck his hand out for it to be shaken, instincts from years of conning governing his actions.  With the realization that this was insanity, and insanity was his only option to keep from getting caught, Neal shook Mr. Talbot’s hand and finished, “-I’m one of the escorts booked for this evening.”

~^~

Diana was laughing.  Helpless giggles were actually coming through the comm-system, and this from a woman who could keep a straight face in nearly all situations imaginable. “Oh, I can’t wait to tease Neal about this one.”

“What is it?” Peter demanded, worried about the impulsive thief. Fortunately, Peter had just bluffed his way up to the second floor.  Well, part bluff, part threat, but nothing that drew too much attention. Let it never be said that Peter Burke couldn’t pull a ‘Neal Caffrey’ when he was motivated. Peter said what he felt he was constantly saying now that Neal was around, “What did he do?”

“He just admitted to being a male escort,” Diana conquered her laughter to explain, and Peter hoped that she’d holed up somewhere so no one would notice the waitress going into hysterics. “I’m still where I can see him, and I think he’s trying to explain it away, but I’ve never seen Neal look this awkward.”

Now Jones and the other man watching the van were laughing, too, smothering it poorly and not bothering to turn off the mics.  Jones said something about Caffrey’s ‘pretty face’ finally being adequately appreciated.  As much as Peter was honestly tempted to laugh his head off, too (he was definitely going to make fun of Neal for this particular cover-story), he still wanted to see Neal out of here safely, and the worry from earlier hadn’t exactly worn off. “Where is he, Diana? I want to see this for myself.”

“He’s on the stairs.  You might want to get here quickly, actually, because he got caught on his way down from the third floor – by Talbot,” Diana replied with less mirth than before, “They’re not threatening to drag him away yet, but this isn’t exactly Neal’s best cover.”

“He needs to sell it, doesn’t he?” Peter sighed, making his way through the crowd on the second floor.  Here, he could actually see quite a few people who were obviously escorts – and quite a few of them were openly ‘selling it’ in all senses of the word. He blinked and took a deep breath as he saw one couple nearly unclothed in a little window alcove. Clearly, the second floor lounge was far more relaxed than the mingling atmosphere of the first floor. 

Diana made a little sympathetic noise.  “He’s actually really awful at this.  I’m watching right now, Peter, and Caffrey’s going to fail this lie detector test.”

“Wow,” said Jones, “Never thought Caffrey would meet a con he couldn’t pull.”

“How often have you impersonated a prostitute, Jones?” Diana asked in a deceptively neutral voice.

Peter half heard Jones’s belated, very careful, “…Never?”

“I’m going to pull Caffrey’s ass out of the fire,” Peter talked over everyone, then sighed, “As usual.  Diana, you’re in charge.  I’m putting my earpiece in my pocket for a bit.”  Ostensibly, his comrades would assume he was doing so to avoid the off-chance of someone noticing the device…but in actuality, it was because he could foresee this situation getting very awkward very fast, and he didn’t want anyone to taunt him about it later. 

“What about Talbot and the necklace?”

“I’m going to assume that Caffrey has it somewhere safe, or at least somewhere that he can find it later,” Peter reasoned, hiding his words behind the glass of wine he’d just snagged.  The drinks here were definitely nicer, he noticed with raised eyebrows. “As for Talbot, we’ll have to get him another day.  Right now, I just want everyone to leave his party in one piece.  I’ll have my earbud on me if I need it.”  And with that, he pretended to scratch his head, and in moving his hand to the back of his neck and back down, he removed the earpiece and slipped it into his pants’ pocket. 

Taking a deep breath and consciously putting on an amicable face that said he deserved to be here, Peter strolled quickly towards the stairs, just catching sight of Diana, who nodded discreetly before going about her own business again. Peter had considered putting her up to this task, of saving Neal from his own game of lying, but since she was dressed as a waitress instead of a partygoer, it wouldn’t be right for her to step in. No, this time, Peter had to think up a plan and a story that would explain why in the world Neal Caffrey was sneaking around near the third floor. 

The situation was just as described: Neal and a few others on the stairs, one of which was William Talbot, looking not quite convinced. And no wonder – Peter took one look at Neal and deduced that the young art forger was about two minutes away from a very real fit of panic, and his smile had the brittle-glass look that everyone at the Bureau had come to associate with a freaked-out Caffrey. Peter had seen Neal in sexual situations… more often than he wanted to contemplate.  Neal made eyes at just about everyone woman he came across, with the careful exception of Elizabeth, but actually, he seemed to hook up with and sleep with very few of them since Kate.  Now, as Neal found himself in the position of being a willing body for hire, he looked about as spooked as if he were in a hostage situation.

Abruptly, seeing that too-bright edge on Neal’s smile and the way his eyes flashed like a fox escaping hounds, Peter found nothing funny about this situation.

“…I don’t remember you coming in with the other young ladies and men, but I imagine that if you’re as good as you appear to be…” Talbot was saying slowly.

“Oh, I’m good.”  Despite his smooth voice, Neal looked like he wanted very much to bolt.  Fortunately, ninety-percent of these signs of fear would be visible only to people who knew him, like Peter.  Therefore, Peter also noticed the almost imperceptible flinch that ran down Neal’s spine when the young man at his side stepped in closer. Peter bristled as he noticed the other man’s hand wrapped around Neal’s arm, which was held stiff and crooked at his side like something painfully broken. His long-fingered hands were shaking.

Before Neal broke cover entirely or his fight-or-flight instincts kicked in (instincts that were very useful to Neal but annoying to Peter, because they could make Caffrey very hard to find), Peter gathered up all of his courage and nerve… and took the last few steps to the bottom of the stairs.  The guards immediately bristled and stepped towards him – as expected – but Peter called out in a bright and relaxed voice, “Nick!”

Immediately Neal’s head jerked his way, so fast and hard that Peter winced internally out of sympathy for the other man’s neck.  Peter was using the Nick Halden alias, but he had a feeling that Neal simply recognized his voice. 

Peter flashed his own wide smile, easing his posture so that even the guards hesitated at his benign appearance, looking between him and the men on the stairs. Forcing himself to hold his ground and stay relaxed, Peter continued, “I’ve been looking all over for you! I thought we were just starting to have some fun downstairs.”

As he’d hoped, Talbot took the bait and also recognized him with a little blink, “Mr. Whittacker.  I hadn’t realized that you were on the second floor.”

No, you hadn’t realized I was allowed, you bastard,’ Peter growled in his head while he watched Neal swallow convulsively and shuffle his feet.  He looked like a frozen rabbit, and Peter had the burning urge to run out of here with him, and tuck him back into the van with a blanket or something.  Out loud, he answered far more cordially, pretending that he hadn’t noticed the security meant to keep the polite guests on the ground level, “Oh, I wasn’t, but I had to find Nick here.  I saw him come this way.”

Looking now between Peter and the blond-haired young man by Neal, Talbot frowned and commented sardonically, “There’s a lot of that going around, it seems. Mr…Nick, you’re a popular young man.”

“Yes, he is,” Peter answered for him, to save Neal from any more bad acting. Under prime conditions and even sub-prime conditions, Neal was a master at lies, but when he got scared… Neal Caffrey was a white-collar criminal for a reason, and that reason was because dangerous situations made him react like any normal human being, which was to panic.  That was where Peter was more than happy to step in, and he now stepped lively past the uncertain guards to approach Talbot, Neal, and the others. He hesitated just a moment as he went to touch Caffrey, then steeled his nerves and wrapped a familiar arm around the other man's back. 

Lithe muscle under a nice suit tensed against Peter’s arm, and for a moment he prayed silently that Neal wouldn’t just freak out right there, right now. Neal was a skittish, unpredictable personality, and while some part of Peter (and, apparently, his wife, after this morning’s talk) found that appealing, it could also cause a monumental amount of trouble in a short amount of time.  Neal was a ton of genius wrapped up in an impulsive package, and he spooked easily.

Right now, though, he chose to trust Peter.  The FBI agent breathed a subtle sigh of relief. ‘That’s one hurdle crossed.’  “If I’d known you threw such wonderful parties, Mr. Talbot,” he said effusively as he subtly got Neal’s other suitor to back off via body-language, “I’d have made your acquaintance some time ago!”  Right now, he had he inexplicable urge to break this Gregory fellow's nose, an unexpectedly violent impulse that surprised him even as he kept it contained behind a smile.

Clearly, Talbot was no fool, and he was still eyeing Neal with obvious distrust. His eyes kept scanning over him as if trying to rip away secrets, and Peter worried for a moment that some sign of Neal’s theft would still be evident.  “I’m glad that you’re enjoying yourself, Mr. Whittacker.  I’m also glad that we could provide you with some adequate company.”

“Well, he’s certainly a pretty face, isn’t he?” Peter replied with a bit more of a glint infused into his eyes, josting Neal just a bit – mostly to make sure he was still alive.  Neal shot him a look. Peter was also using the opportunity to get a good look at him in return, and nearly winced at how transparent Neal's mask was growing.

Fortunately, Caffrey recovered just a tiny bit now that Peter was working alongside him, and he fleshed out a half-decent smile.  He even managed to retort with a smooth tone of mocking offense, “Hey, there’s more to me that’s good than that!”

“Oh really?”  Talbot’s eyes had narrowed again, and his tone was all challenge.  Peter tried to rein in his own anxiety, as he realized that this wouldn’t be an easy fix to get Neal out of.  Neal never got into easy fixes.  “You know, I’m not sure I agree with that. You see, I have quite a good memory for faces, and I don’t recall you coming in with the other escorts I hired.”

Neal must have realized what was at stake, too, because while he was staring at Talbot with fear, it was the kind of expression that looked like a normal smile to anyone who didn’t know him.  To Peter, it looked like a small animal baring its teeth to predators in the hope of warning them away.  Neal was tense at Peter’s side, but somehow made himself say bravely, “I’m pretty sure that I’m paid for through the night.  Did I do something wrong?”

Good move, Neal,’ Peter congratulated in his head, because Talbot truly didn’t seem to have anything specific he wanted to peg him with.  Apparently he hadn’t noticed the missing garnets yet…  Since Talbot still looked as though he had incriminations hidden behind his teeth, Peter re-entered the conversation himself, knowing that the time for half-measures was already by the wayside.  “I’ll be pretty offended myself if he’s not,” Peter said, consciously dropping his voice a few octaves.  Usually he couldn't flirt his way out of a paper sack, but for once, it came easily. Neal had a habit of not doing as told, but for all that, he responded to cues pretty well – in this case, a little warning double-tap of Burke’s index finger on the small of his back as Peter turned to him.  Neal’s eyes were huge and filled with an ocean of questions that Peter couldn’t answer right now, blue and bright and sapphire pale.  He seemed clearly startled and suspicious at the tone and cadence that Peter had pulled off, but he was about to get a helluva lot more surprised.

Knowing that Talbot and the others were watching and questioning Neil’s story – and probably Peter’s before long, if he didn’t act in all the right ways – Peter reached over with his free hand.  Neal (predictably) balked, but Peter tightened his other hand at Neal’s back and held him fast.  Giving Neal a look (one that was decidedly un-sexy but probably more useful in this tense situation), Peter hooked his outstretched right hand behind Neal’s neck and exerted the force necessary to pull that dark-haired head forward.

Just this morning, the Burkes had sat down for breakfast. Usually, the breakfast rule was no talking about Neal Caffrey, but this time, Elizabeth had brought him up and said they were going to talk about Neal Caffrey.  While Peter had quietly died of mortification on the inside, she’d outlined how he was always talking about Neal, worried about him obsessively, and knew just as much about his habits as he knew about his wife’s.  Quite blatantly, she’d informed him that he was obsessed, but in a good way, because both Peter and Neal seemed to benefit: Neal was kept out of trouble and Peter was kept forever entertained and engaged. Just as Peter was stuttering over reasons why this was totally not true, Elizabeth calmly said that she understood, pointing out that Neal was incredibly handsome and seemed to fit rather well into Peter’s natural protective instincts, and his love of being a little dominant and a lot nurturing.  For his part, Peter had just frowned and blinked, having never thought of himself as dominant in the slightest – perhaps that was just with Elizabeth, however. It was very likely that she was the one who ‘wore the pants’ in their relationship, or at least she told him which pants to wear and what matching shirt went with them. 

The oddest part of the conversation had come just as Peter was trying to find a way to both understand what Elizabeth was saying and how to apologize for it – because she was right, now that it was all laid out right in front of his eyes.  He was attracted to Neal. It was an interest that had come upon him so deftly and naturally that he couldn’t have even said when. Maybe it had started when he’d first cut his teeth against the genius of Neal Caffrey, art thief at large – maybe it had come later, when he’d caught him just out of jail with an empty wine bottle from Kate in his hands and haggard loss in his cat-bright blue eyes.

But instead of being angry or upset by her husband’s wandering affections… Elizabeth that merely smiled and laughed a little, and then put her hand over his and said she understood.  “He’s good for you,” she’d said ambiguously, but with no hidden jealousy or anger in her eyes that he could see.  And then she’d added with all the clarity of a Cheshire cat, “I think it would be wise for you to pursue that.”

Peter had been expecting to puzzle and ponder over her words for weeks – maybe months – but instead he pulled Neal’s face in close and pressed down over his mouth.  He tasted like wine and the kind of crystal sweetness that Peter imagined good vintage lies must taste like, and it was a shock that went right through Peter's system.  Not unsurprisingly, Caffrey panicked a bit, but Peter was determined to get them both out of this mess. If it all made Neal uncomfortable, it was his own fault for getting into this mess and being mistaken for an available escort.  Pushing down his own surging adrenalin and fizzling nerves, Peter moved his mouth, having no idea what he was doing because this didn’t feel the slightest bit like Elizabeth, and outside of her… well, he had no practice. 

Fortunately, something seemed to kick-start in Neal’s brain, and he responded, a little bit. It actually made Peter gasp a bit if only in surprise, to find Neal putting to use some amount of his more physical expertise.  Between the two of them, a tentative and awkward kiss became somehow passably real, and when Peter pulled back and forced himself to turn and look at Talbot and the others (he wasn’t sure if he could look at Neal just yet without turning bright red), Neal’s previous blond suitor was looking away with clearly jealous eyes. Peter found himself smiling smugly.

Talbot, unfortunately, was a tougher customer.  “Mr. Whittacker, if you’re really looking for a party with your new… friend…”  He cut green eyes Neal’s way, and Peter flicked his own eyes over briefly, checking the ex-thief’s expression: he was breathing a bit fast with a muscle twitching in his jaw, but it could have been worse.  At least Caffrey was still holding onto the vestiges of a close-lipped smile, even if he looked a whole lot like he was neck-deep in an emotional crisis now.

Hang on, Neal, I’ll get you out of this,’ Peter silently promised, then noticed with surprise that Neal's pupils were also expanded like black pools amidst the blue.

Talbot continued, a thin and barely sincere smile stretching across his baby-smooth face, “Please accept my invitation up to the third floor. I insist.”

The way that the last two words were said made Peter’s eyes harden even if he held his companionable smile.  They weren’t going to get a choice in this.  Peter’s free hand was by his side again (the other wasn’t leaving Neal’s back until he was sure Caffrey wouldn’t bolt), and he checked to be sure the earpiece was still in his pocket in case this got chancy.  Diana was still nearby, and was no doubt watching, so Peter shifted his hand subtly against Neal’s spine.  The ex-con shifted, feeling the motion, but Peter managed to briefly signal any of his people watching: he and Neal were okay, but to stay alert.

Putting on a smile that even felt slimy to him, Peter acquiesced seemingly without hesitation, “That sounds like more than I had hoped for.  Come on, Nick.” He flashed his smile at Neal (who, in turning to Peter and away from the others, was able to hide a totally terrified look), squeezing his arm around him, and forced his smile to stay in place while they followed Mr. Talbot up the stairs and into the most dangerous party yet.

~^~

They were amongst Talbot’s closest friends moments later, and Peter tried to see how many faces he recognized – contacts, coworkers, friends, all connected to Talbot.  Peter wanted to ask Neal where the necklace was, and how long they had before Mr. Talbot noticed it missing, but right now their identities were under scrutiny. There was more acting yet to do.

“Do you think there’s-?”  Peter tried to ask for a private room, knowing that this floor had some, and that would save him and Neal a lot of embarrassment in the near future.

Talbot perhaps had thought of the same, and took one glance around the room – where a few other indiscreet couples were… coupling (mostly clothed) – and then interrupted Peter silkily, “Take a seat, Mr. Whittacker. Cozy up to your partner for a minute, and let me fetch you a drink.”  Pointedly, Talbot turned away then, but this guards stayed, two of them discreetly flanking the long, arcing couch that had emptied out just for them.

Peter glued his smile in place and pretended not to notice that he was being maneuvered into this, but rather that it was something he’d been dying to do for hours now.  “Thank you, I think I will.  Hey, Nick.” He turned to Neal, keeping his smile friendly – a face he actually wore occasionally in real life, although usually he used it when he was smug and had managed to keep something a secret from Neal until the pivotal moment. 

Eyes still sharp with cageyness, Neal reluctantly met his eyes. “Hey, Mr. Whittacker.”

“Michael will do fine,” the agent replied, then moved to sit, keeping hold of Neal’s wrist as he did. 

At the last minute, as Neal was folding up a leg to sit elegantly next to Peter and probably act friendly, Peter tugged.  He already knew that he was stronger than Neal, although Caffrey was as fit as his lithe frame allowed, and therefore he knew about how much strength he needed to overbalance Neal to the right, landing the dark-haired man gracelessly on his lap instead of on the couch.  Despite himself, Peter felt an impulse of pleasure roll through his nerves as he felt Neal’s lean legs flex uneasily on either side of his thighs.

Neal looked like he wanted to die – preferably swiftly. It was interesting to learn that Neal wasn’t quite as relaxed about sex as Peter thought, and he also counted as a tentative win that Neal would hopefully remember this lesson about going in without back-up.  “Settle down, Neal,” Peter murmured quietly, judging how far his voice would carry, and knowing that the conspicuous guards were beyond that.  Said guards were shamelessly watching, but from this angle, with Neal knelt up on his lap, they could only see Peter’s face.  Since they didn’t look smart enough to lip-read, Peter took a risk and tried to gain control of the situation a bit more, “We’re going to get out of this.”

Neal’s hands were on his shoulder, probably to balance or ground himself, because they were clutching spasmodically; Peter’s hands had settled instinctively on either side of the other man’s ribs, with some of that protectiveness that Elizabeth had spoken of.  “And ‘getting out of this’ includes seducing the FBI agent who caught me twice?” Neal retorted breathlessly, just as quiet and more hysteric than funny.  He sounded frantic, and tried to sit back with his eyes darting instinctively for an exit, but Peter halted him with a firmer grip.  Blue eyes whipped back to him, looking more panicked than Peter had seen them yet.

“Shhh, shh, Neal – it’s all right, and no one is seducing anyone.” Maybe that was a lie; Peter realized uncomfortably that he was still thinking about the necessary kiss, and Elizabeth’s talk this morning about how he should ‘pursue that’. Neal felt good and looked good kneeling on Peter's lap, and he was starting to worry about how quickly that idea was sinking in.  Still, Peter’s plan first and foremost was to make sure that Neal was okay.  He could sort out his own confusing emotional reactions later.  “But we’ve got to sell this, or Talbot is going to walk right back here, and his goons are going to start asking us – mostly you – some very uncomfortable and possibly painful questions,” he informed Neal bluntly, watching as Neal made a face and wet his lips. 

“I know, I know, but…  Peter! I can’t do this!”

“What?” Peter put on a crooked smile, pretending that this was just the two of them back at the Bureau, and Neal was renegading on a plan because it embarrassed him or upset his picky tastes.  “You, not able to fake flirting?  Come on, Neal, if I can do it, you can.  You’ve seen me fail at flirting.”

“Sure I have, but you’re doing weirdly well today,” Neal grumbled, eyes narrowing, still stubbornly keeping his hands only on Peter’s shoulders and his weight up off the agent’s legs.  This would start to look odd to outside watchers before long.  “Peter, I flirt with girls.”

“So pretend I’m a girl,” Peter whispered with a slight shrug, not seeing the problem.

Neal actually laughed, a startled bark of breath.  “Very funny, Peter.”  He chanced a glance to either side, and saw just what they were into: two brutes watching them while Talbot purposefully cleared the area, and other people kissing passionately or casting ‘bedroom eyes’ at each other in the area. Neal’s eyes got a little huge, and Peter could feel his frame tensing as he choked out sincerely under his breath and started quivering almost imperceptibly, “Peter, I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Okay, Neal, stay with me – just do what I say, all right?” Peter tried to salvage the situation, truly believing what Neal was saying. He’d seen Neal freaked out on multiple occasions, and it was never pleasant.  Usually, though, he seemed able to keep his head on enough to listen to Peter's voice and follow instructions, so maybe that would work now.  Lowering and slowing his voice so that it was perfectly calm and a well of surety, Peter began to order, “Keep is simple.”  He tipped his chin almost imperceptibly.  “Start undoing the buttons to my jacket, slowly.  That should look about right.”  Neal’s eyes were fixed on his face again, with a look that grabbed Peter’s heartstrings and tugged – it was the look that said Neal trusted him to fix things, to make it all better.  It made the agent even more determined to live up to the trust in those eyes. “I’m just going to move my hands a little, all right?  No surprises, Neal, I promise.”

Neal dragged in a shaky breath, letting it out past pursed lips. He didn’t nod – that would give the game away – but he began to play along.  He was following simple instructions, and that was easy. Deft hands left Peter’s shoulders with a light shush against the material, and Peter had to admit that it was a nice touch as Neal’s fingertips dragged down his lapels to the buttons Peter had secured over his middle. Either because Neal’s hands were shaky and he didn’t want to admit it, or because he knew that it would look more seductive, the ex-con began to work slowly on the buttons.

“Good, Neal, good.”

Neal smiled a weak smile, and shifted his weight.  “Piece of cake, right?”  Now it looked less like he didn’t want to touch Peter, and more like he was adjusting his posture, sitting up slightly.  Peter firmed his grip alongside Neal’s ribs and eased him back down, feeling as Neal quivered but then gave in.  Peter did as he’d promised, letting his hands wander slowly and almost tentatively, and Caffrey let out a little breath as if it surprised him.  This was all so much uncharted water, and Peter found that it was quite a rush, caressing his palms across a body that he'd only ever touched casually or protectively before.  With his fingertips tracing the graceful paths of ribs beneath cloth and muscle, Peter found himself holding breath a little and watching Caffrey intently.  As Peter drew each hand up either side of Neal’s spine all the way up to his shoulder-blades, though, Neal arched slightly and something in his expression eased.  Peter found his smile growing more genuine.

“I think I’m getting the hang of this a bit,” Neal breathed as he finished with the jacket-buttons, and brushed the edges back enough to have access to Peter’s white button-down.  With hands that were surprisingly tentative for a man who used sexuality so easily most of the time, Neal slid his hands up Peter’s chest, fingering the silken tie.  Bright blue eyes flicked to Peter’s, full of question. “You call the shots,” the dark-haired con said, lips barely moving.  Peter didn’t nod, but he took in the message. 

“Just keep trusting me, all right?” was all he said back, even as he spotted something beyond Neal’s shoulder: Talbot, coming back.  Peter felt his very soul harden, protectiveness rising like a tide, and Neal – who never missed a beat when it came to reading facial expressions – tensed up again like a piano wire. Before Caffrey could return to his previous height of panic, Peter slid a hand behind the other man’s head again and drew him in close.  Nervous and spooked now, Caffrey braced his hands against the couch on either side of Burke’s ribs to hold back, but again Peter was strong enough that it didn’t matter.  He pulled Neal in until the ex-forger’s head was tucked against the side of his neck; this close, he could feel his fast breath and his heart beating rabbit-fast even as Neal shifted, wanting out.  Peter couldn’t let him.  In this posture, it looked like Neal was lavishing attention on his neck, and kept up their cover.  

“Mr. Talbot,” Peter said in as light a voice as he could manage with a panicking Neal Caffrey on his hands.  “Do you think there might be an available room around here?  Private would be nice, if you know what I mean.” He pushed his smile into more of a leer, and brought his left arm (his right one still cupping Neal’s nape, fingers ruffling dark hair and hopefully not bearing down hard enough to hurt) up to stroke Neal’s back casually. He was surprised when, in response, Neal removed one hand from the back of the couch and pressed it to his side almost desperately, seeking out comfort in Peter’s solidity.

“What’s the rush?” Talbot replied flippantly, taking up a seat nearby. Not good.  He had brought back drinks, however, so he was at least keeping up the façade, still, of friendliness.  “Sit a while, have another drink.  The rooms will still be waiting – I’ll even give you the key to the best!”

Neal was still as tense as a violin string, but he at least wasn’t shaking, so Peter took a risk and pushed him back.  Being tucked against Peter’s neck had rumpled his hair adorably, and he looked like an owl being pulled backward out of its nest, blinking rapidly. Peter hoped he was still trusting him. “I suppose it could be worth the wait,” he put some effort into responding to Talbot, while putting the rest of his concentration on Neal.  ‘Okay, time for a show,’ he hoped his eyes coveyed, as he placed a hand on either of Neal’s thighs.  “What do you do for a living, Mr. Talbot?  I mean, I make a good living, and I don’t think I could cater a party half this good!” Peter praised, eyes never leaving his companion. Neal’s eyes had sharpened fractionally – the conversation was starting to drag his attention away from the uncomfortable role he was playing.  Up until now, Neal had seen himself as being physically threatened, but now he was part of a game, and no one played a game better than Neal Caffrey.  Peter’s hands drifted up (still maintaining his promise of ‘no surprises’ by keeping each movement slow and deliberate), sliding up under Neal’s tailored jacket until he could feel the edges of Neal’s hipbones above his belt. The silk shirt underneath felt thin – almost not there, body-warm.  Peter’s attention peaked as he realized that Neal had just shivered, the movement transmitted from hot skin to Peter's strong hands.

“Oh, I deal with a variety of things,” Talbot danced around the question, but seemed intrigued.  His eyes were also looking less suspicious and more interested as he eyed the interaction going on between his two companions. 

A voyeur, Peter realized with a flash of anger, his own gaze going up to Caffrey, whose eyes were half-lidded now but still bright and uneasy as he fixedly watched Peter.  Still, Talbot’s attentiveness was a valid distraction from any slips he and/or Neal might make, so Peter repeated Neal’s move and switched to undoing jacket buttons. “I suppose that I could be rich as hell and still not put together a party like this.  I don’t have your same taste in art – I just ship things,” Peter tried on a more self-effacing tone, getting Neal’s jacket undone and holding his breath as he reached up to Neal’s shoulders to slide the article of clothing right off.  Neal let him. In fact, he even managed to play it up a bit, arching his frame and sleekly letting his arms slide out, and Peter was a bit overwhelmed for a second, just staring.  Neal finally cracked a real smile, and Peter could have sworn he almost winked, pleased as punch with himself.   

Talbot certainly seemed to be getting increasingly impressed. As he reached forward to touch, however, Peter knew he had to act, because whatever semblance of calm Caffrey had regained would fly the coop if he felt threatened again.  Besides that, Peter had decided that Elizabeth was totally correct about her husband being possessive, and the last person he wanted touching Neal was Talbot.  So, a bit quickly and not at all as gracefully as Neal had just dropped his jacket, Peter reached up and caught Neal’s tie to drag him in for a second kiss – which also coincidentally put him out of Talbot’s idle reach.  Neal was as startled as before, but this time reacted by scrambling for the edges of Peter’s collar and jacket, and his mouth opened in a surprised gasp.

Maybe it was poor form, but Peter responded to the little reaction by licking once into Caffrey’s mouth without even thinking of it.  It was a totally reflexive reaction, and he immediately felt shocked and horrified with himself, but then Neal moaned and responded, sitting a little closer.

Neal was built like just about anyone’s dream: he was trim but also muscled, comfortable in his body and flexible.  Peter, though, had always been amused by the way emotions flashed across his partner’s expressive face.  Even when Neal was pulling off his best lie with his smoothest smile, Peter saw flickers of all sorts of things, like looking at the center of a thunder cloud and watching the lightning skitter everywhere.  Now Peter felt a bit as if some of those sparks were being tossed about under his own skin as Neal shifted his weight and returned the kiss.

“I’d say you have exquisite taste,” Talbot commented, which made Peter want to growl at him, because Neal flinched as reality came back. They were both in a dangerous situation – most dangerous of all for Neal.  To hide Caffrey’s returning tension, Peter kept his grip on Neal's tie to subtly keep him close when he broke the kiss, feeling the little puff of Neal’s breath against his ear as if he'd startled him.  “Nick, did you say his name was?" Talbot continued just a bit too warmly, "If I’d noticed what a pretty face I’d hired, I don’t know if I’d be sharing him with you.”

Neal started shaking.  He hid it well, this time – admirably so, Peter thought, as he felt Neal’s hands rove under his jacket to hide how he was leaning close.  By now, Peter was holding Neal's tie right by the knot, and he could almost feel the nervous swallow.  It looked like Neal was ignoring Talbot as much as Talbot was ignoring him, and the position also kept Neal’s face turned away. Peter thought that Neal was just hiding his face until he could get his smile sewn back together, but it turned out that Neal was just waiting for a rise in the ambient noise to whisper urgently right into the FBI agent’s ear, “Peter – Peter, you can’t let him be alone with me! You can’t.”  Then Neal paused, took a breath, and added with an effort to stay calm, "And you can't pull on my collar any more than that."  

The panic in Neal’s voice made Peter’s hackles raise like they hadn’t since Fowler had tried to arrest Elizabeth.  It took more effort than he expected not to glare over Neal’s hunched shoulders at Talbot, so he said, “I’m sorry to take him from you – but I’m definitely not the sharing type.”  Only then did he pause and think about Neal's last sentence, which made absolutely no sense to him, but he couldn't very well voice his confusion to the ex-con himself. 

“Peter, I want to get out of here,” Neal murmured with heart-breaking sincerity, while also unwinding Peter's fingers from his tie as inconspicuously as possible.

“Could we get a private room?” Peter immediately asked Talbot idly with a fabricated leer.  Peter still had one hand wrapped around Caffrey’s upper back, but as Neal tried to unwind his other hand, Peter reacted as he usually did when Caffrey was acting suspicious: he tried to get to the root of whatever trick Neal was pulling.  He twisted his hand loose of Neal's grip, and that was when he pressed up against the neck of Neal's shirt.  It took all of Peter’s training not to jump at what he felt beneath the dark material.  Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to grab Neal’s shoulders and push him back to glaring distance so he could demand what the hell Caffrey was thinking.

Because he was sure that he’d just felt the outline of the stolen necklace under Neal’s shirt.  That definitely explained why Neal was frantic not to be undressed by strangers, even if he were more relaxed about the sexual aspect of it. 

Fortunately, Talbot had finally been convinced of Neal’s assumed role and Peter’s harmlessness, because he chuckled and waved a hand at his guards, who dispersed. “Of course, sorry for keeping you. Maybe we can do business in the future.”

That was promising.  As Peter stood up and Neal slid off him, Caffrey was back to his usual, brilliant self, sporting an absolutely impish grin as he picked up his jacket but didn’t put it back on. Peter kept Neal close against his side and the ex-con didn’t argue.  Talbot led them through the party and to the separate rooms, chatting idly, continuing hints of interest both in Peter’s business and Neal’s… supposed business. The former was welcomed while the latter was rebuffed as gently as possible, until finally, Neal and Peter were behind closed doors.  Neal immediately turned and walked away, burying his fingers in his hair and exhaling in a shuddering, explosive sigh.  “Neal, talk to me. You all right?” Peter demanded as he locked the door.  He glanced around the room for cameras, but he was pretty sure this was one of the more private rooms. He slipped his earpiece out of his pocket to put it on again.  “Jones, Diana, we’re all right.  Neal’s with me.”

“Where are you?” Diana asked immediately.

“Still third floor, but I think that we can hide out in a private, locked room until the party ends, and then leave with you,” Peter glanced at Neal, who was still pacing and having a quiet breakdown.  “No one has caught onto anything yet, and Neal has the necklace.”

“That’s good, but what if Talbot notices it's missing?” Jones asked, then added with more of a chuckle in his voice, “Good job saving Caffrey, by the way.”

“No comment,” Peter retorted, with another worried look at the room’s other occupant. “I don’t know yet exactly how Neal got the necklace, but maybe no one will notice it’s gone.”

“I replaced it with a fake,” Neal called from where he’d flopped down on the bed.  “No one is going to notice unless they’ve got an expert in here.”  He sounded exhausted and so done for today. 

Peter sighed and couldn’t help the relieved and impressed smile from spreading across his face, even as he returned to his conversation, “Okay, we’re safe. Somehow Neal got hold of a fake.”

“Not ‘got hold of’,” Neal corrected fussily, lifting his head enough to cast an offended frown, “I made one.  You don’t think it took me days just to investigate the necklace, did you?”

One of these days, Peter was going to stop underestimating Neal’s less reputable skills.  “Okay, you guys, do what you have to do on your end, but I think that we’re safe in the lions den here for tonight.  I’ll put in my earpiece again if I need you.”

“Wait – what are you going to do now?” Jones asked, perplexed, “Just play charades with Caffrey until morning?”

Diana giggled, and Peter sighed into the earpiece before removing it, “Good night, Jones.  I’m turning on my phone, too, and it should be safe for you to just call if an emergency comes up.” The earpiece went back into Peter’s pocket, and he pulled out his phone to turn it on. He hoped no one called.  He also hoped that he could convince Diana to destroy any of the security footage of him with a lap-full of Caffrey.  “This is one of the oddest missions I can honestly say I’ve ever been on,” he murmured to Neal as he checked the door locks again, then moved to place his phone on the room’s vanity table. 

Neal had an arm flopped over his eyes, and the chuckle he gave vent to was cracked around the edges.  He didn’t say anything, and Peter stopped where Neal’s knees hung over the edge of the bed, giving him a sympathetic look as he tapped the side of the dark-haired man's knee.  “You all right, Neal?”

“You already asked me that.”

“And unless I’ve got a bad memory, you didn’t answer,” Peter pointed out. Neal’s arm lifted enough for one sapphire eye to fix on Peter. 

“I just about ended up being bed-partners with a jewel-thief,” Neal finally blurted out, scowling, “and while that isn’t exactly a first, this was the first one that I didn’t come on to first.  Hey – no laughing!  I’m pretty sure that Jones has us both on camera.”  Neal groaned and let his arm fall back over his eyes, lamenting, “Now and forevermore, or until death by embarrassment happens.”

Peter was indeed chucking, both from relief and because it was so normal to hear Neal complain like this.  He was a bit melodramatic by nature, and it was always amusing – at least once Peter knew that everyone on his team was safe, which he was pretty sure of right now. He sat down on the bed next to Neal, and when two blue eyes now found him suspiciously, Peter raised his hands in the universal harmless gesture.  Then, because he saw something else glinting like a fragile, tentative light in Neal’s expression, Peter kept one hand in his lap while reaching for Neal’s collar with the other – where he’d felt the necklace earlier.  “May I?”

Neal shuffled around, but didn’t get up.  He looked strained and exhausted, and fixed nervous eyes on the ceiling as he lowered his hands to clasp them over his trim stomach.  He replied with a modicum of moodiness, “We’ve already kissed twice, so I’m hardly going to complain.”  His eyes gave him away again: the way they flashed to Peter's face, desperate to find something in the agent's expression, a look he usually wore when he'd done something bad and was waiting to find out how angry Peter was with him.  

“Stop whining, Neal.”

That did the trick: Neal relaxed.  His eyes went from painfully attentive to simply calm and bright, rolling excessively.  “Fine.”

Smiling at Caffrey's moods, Peter carefully reached the rest of the way and undid the first three buttons on Neal’s shirt, revealing lightly tanned skin and arcing collarbones beneath an elegant throat. In contrast to all of that were the teardrops, lines, and angles of gold and garnet, the necklace so much more breathtaking up close like this instead of in pictures.  Peter just sat a moment, pulling his lower lip in and chewing on it as he stared and accepted that they’d done it, at least in part – they hadn’t arrested the thief, but they’d regained the goods.  In fact, the goods were sitting like a small fortune right around Neal's neck.  “I don’t know how you did it, Neal, but well done.”

Neal brightened a bit.  It turned out that he’d been watching Peter again alertly, and now his blue eyes looked smug and proud of themselves.  That million-dollar smile came out, rivaling the expensiveness of the jewels.  “This is why you hire me – to get the goods.”

“Yeah, I just wish you didn’t get into so my trouble trying to do it,” Peter berated gently but firmly, looking into those eager-to-please blue eyes that were so young-looking for such an accomplished con-artist. Maybe that was why he'd agreed to work with Neal so easily, while other criminals turned his stomach – Neal was a troublemaker to the bone, but it always looked as though it never touched his soul. He was a thief, but he wasn't a criminal - a fox who raided the henhouse but never thought to kill any of its denizens.  “Next time, you call for back-up,” Peter informed him sternly, but softened the sharp order by patting Neal’s chest comfortingly.  He was worried how the touch would be received, and watched with his breath held a bit.

“Next time I call for back-up,” Neal repeated back without hesitation, finally seeming to be relaxing under Peter’s touch, still supine on the bed with his legs dangling off and his hands folded almost politely on his middle. He didn't look nervous at all, in fact.  “Hey, Peter?”

Sitting forward with his hands on his knees now, just thinking about what they’d accomplished and what he'd learned about himself and Neal, Peter looked back at him, “Yeah?”

Surprisingly sincere blue eyes met his, the color especially stunning against the garnets glinting like impish eyes at Neal's throat.  A long-fingered hand lifted with surprising tentativeness - soft paws over egg-shells.  The backs of his fingertips just touched Peter's sleeve.  

“Thanks."