Chapter 1: Cruise / Control
A missing scene set during 1x04. "It's not about the stuff, it's about doing what we want to do."
"Long as I don't have to live under anyone else's time or dime I'm a free man."
He's heard Mozzie give this speech before. Sometimes when he pontificates Neal will egg him on, grin and nod and try to get him to keep talking. Tonight, though, he just lets the words wash over him, soaking in without his participation.
Mozzie isn't perturbed when Neal points out he lives in a storage unit. Though really, Neal wasn't expecting him to be. In some ways Mozz has even less shame than he does-- and he's right about one thing, he doesn't ask for much. Contentment for him isn't measured by square feet or stamps in his passport, but by waking up every day knowing that whatever he does with his day, he's the only one who'll be making the decision-- even if the most exciting choice to cross his path is whether he wants his reuben on pumpernickel or rye.
Neal wants more out of life. He wants his cake and the scoop of ice cream on top; he wants his freedom and the means to enjoy every ounce of it. Mozzie's right, it's not living if you're penned in.
His sidelong relationship with freedom has only served to remind him how confined he still is, bounded on all sides by more things than he can count, and sometimes it feels like the circle's tightening. Two mile radius, he thinks bitterly, and Burke acts like it's a gift he gets that much.
The bitch of it is, even if he weren't wearing an FBI choke-chain around his leg, there would still be Kate. That's a puzzle he's going to get to the bottom of, no matter how long it takes. It's what he wants; she means everything to him. But Neal can't shake the feeling that he's forgotten that easy spontaneity he had when the world was his oyster. He can't remember what it's like just to be driven by his own impulses.
After the genius plan for tomorrow gets thrown down, Neal's ready to kick them both out and spend the rest of the night pickling himself in the rest of that bottle of gin. Mozzie knows that look of Neal's and totters obligingly off downstairs; Neal closes the door behind him and turns to find Peter's not at the table anymore. A frown creasing his forehead, he glances around (bookshelf, bathroom, bedroom, he wouldn't put it past Burke to do a little snooping) til a flicker of movement on the balcony resolves into Peter's silhouette.
Neal picks up his drink from the table and drains it. He's on edge without knowing why, buzzed and annoyed that his nerves won't let him enjoy the feeling. Inexplicably, he wants Peter gone.
He puts the glass in the sink and goes out, leans on the railing, sharing the view. "It is something," he agrees. He was too weirded out by having Mozzie and Burke in the same room to say so earlier.
"You really think like he does?" Peter asks after a minute, not looking at him but out at the city. "That rules fence you in, take all the fun out of life?"
He could play obtuse and ask why Peter's asking, but he doesn't want to do the verbal sparring thing right now. The wit's drained out of him anyway, a combination of nerves and booze and one long day after another. He thinks about Kate, then wishes he hadn't.
"Sometimes." It's the only answer he has time to give, and it's not a good one. There's so much he could say-- about the shit he's done and why he did it-- but Peter's not really ready to listen.
Neal just hopes someday he will be. He'd hate to think they spent all this time together and he let Peter walk away thinking-- what, that Neal's a bad guy?
He doesn't know why he cares-- personally, at least, why it matters to him that Peter trusts him. Not Peter-the-FBI-agent trusting his pet convict not to bite his hand and slip his leash every chance he gets; that Peter-who-might-almost-be-his-friend-except-for-the-ankle-bracelet-thing trusts him, Neal Caffrey, not to dick him over.
He hates that he's made that distinction. He wants to take it back. He misses the days of cops and robbers, when it was instinct to run the other way whenever he saw Burke coming. Now things are different, and he doesn't think he likes it.
"Better get some sleep," Peter says after he's downed the rest of his drink. "Big day tomorrow, Mr. Reporter."
Neal grins. "I could do this with my eyes shut and one hand tied behind my back." At least bragging about how cool he is doesn't seem like it's gonna get old anytime soon.
"Either way," Peter grumbles, and goes back inside.
"Tell Elizabeth I said hi," Neal calls, and lets Peter let himself out.
Chapter 2: Speed / Limit
An outtake from 1x05, not so much a deleted scene as a missing inner monologue.
for the record i hate these chapter titles, but it seems i'm stuck with them. :3
It was a neat card trick.
It would just figure, really, that since Peter's such crap with kids Neal would have to be great with them. Peter's not really that surprised-- most days he's not convinced Neal's much older than eight, himself.
He won't admit he feels a little less stupid for worrying about Neal when he thinks of him as an overgrown third-grader.
He told El she was overselling their bond, and he believes it at least three-quarters of the time. He knows Caffrey better than probably anyone in the office, Cruz included, and it's pretty pathetic to admit that all his experience only amounts to a decent record of prediction. He can tell you in a given situation how Caffrey's going to react, but not why, and lately even that's gotten harder for him to understand.
Peter was perfectly happy with Neal Caffrey as a criminal. He knew that guy, knew exactly what to expect and how to handle him. He never wanted to know Neal Caffrey as a guy who puts too much sugar in his coffee, has a friend who lives in a storage unit and is good with children, for God's sake.
He never wanted to give Neal the chance to let him down. He sure as hell never wanted to end up in a place of admitting he'd care if Caffrey died, on his watch or not.
But shit happens that makes it hard to ignore that nothing's as black and white as it used to be. Times like that night in Neal's apartment, when Mozzie had said "Too bad she can't report it," and Peter had looked across the table and known without a shadow of a doubt that Neal was thinking the same thing he was. It's not the first time that's happened. Then later on the balcony, an easy silence between them-- he never would've expected Neal to be comfortable with quiet, with not running his mouth, but it had been easy-- so easy Peter had almost forgotten the ankle bracelet, the badge in his pocket, and everything else that defined why Neal was even a part of his life right now.
Maybe El's right-- wouldn't be the first time that had happened either-- and they do have some kind of understanding thing going on. It doesn't change the fact that Peter has no idea how it happened, or what he's supposed to do with it-- with a con man thief who's half a good friend, and half a total mystery.
He knows he does a fantastic job hiding the stab of relief (ohthankgod) that pierces his stomach when Neal makes some snarky comment behind him, and he's pretty proud of that.
He doesn't need Caffrey's ego any bigger than it already is, after all. And there's enough other stuff to worry about-- the transmitter in the watch, who this Mei Lin girl is, et cetera, ad nauseam-- that Peter doesn't let himself be glad about it. Plenty of time to be relieved later, he tells himself.
By the time later comes, and he's confronting Neal about Mei Lin and Interpol, he's realized he should've seen it coming. Unpredictable as Neal is, there's one thing about him Peter can always count on-- just as soon as he thinks he's made up his mind about Neal, he'll do something to make him change his opinion all over again.
Chapter 3: Stop and Go
Set during & after the end of 1x07, Neal finds out what Peter's been up to. **SPOILERS** for 1x07!
this 'verse continues to be for laulan, who also beta'd this chapter. <3
In the end it was a simple enough answer. It just took Neal a while to get there.
To be fair, it hardly took him any time at all to arrive at the first part of the equation; Fowler was investigating Peter, not him, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together to make four. Peter was hiding something, and hiding it well-- from everyone, including Neal.
That realization stung, and he had to work to keep Fowler from seeing the reaction cross his face. His brain was working a mile a minute, following threads of thought and trying to find the one that connected everything, ideas flashing through his head faster than light. Elle-- he thought of how she'd been acting lately, no sign of worry, which made him almost sure she didn't know whatever it was either. For Peter not to tell him something was one thing-- he didn't have the right, yet, to expect Peter's trust, much less his confidence. But to think he might not have told Elle-- that was actually frightening in a way Neal wasn't entirely prepared to deal with.
He was sunk so deep in thought he was barely paying attention to anything-- his mind racing, wondering what Peter could be doing, what could possibly be so bad he had to keep it from everyone? Even his quick thinking couldn't supply him with an answer, and he discovered he'd let Fowler hustle him out of the hotel room and into the elevator before his brain woke up to his surroundings. He punched the button for the top floor of the hotel, then hit the button for the lobby, giving him some time to think while he rode.
Mozzie had been sure Kate was in the hotel, and at least when it came to conspiracies, Mozzie wasn't usually wrong. The elevator stopped on the ground floor and Neal smacked the button for the top again, fishing his cell phone out of his pocket as an idea occurred to him, a way to find out what he needed to know. He 411ed the hotel and told the operator to connect him.
His luck was in-- it was a woman who answered. When he spoke, he started pacing the elevator, his voice high with unfeigned panic. "Hi, I know you guys don't usually do this sort of thing," he blurted out with barely any space between the words; an accurate reflection of the urgency he was feeling, at least, even if the premise was a lie. "But my wife moved out last week, I know she's in your hotel but she wouldn't tell me the room number and it's Ben, it's our son, he's allergic and I don't know where she keeps it, the insulin, he's choking, can you please just put me through--"
"Calm down sir," she said, and he did a silent fistpump when he heard the alarm in her voice. "What is your wife's name?"
"Kate, it's Kate, Purdue but she might be using her maiden, it's Dumas." After the author of The Count of Monte Cristo; Neal remembered finding her a copy printed around the turn of the century once. The elevator paused at the top floor and began its journey back down, while Neal breathed and tried to stop his heart from beating so fast it burst.
There was silence on the other end of the phone, and then the woman said, "Alright sir, I have a Kate Dumas here, I'm going to put you through." She paused, and added, "I don't need to add that should you call back, you won't be put through a second time." Covering her bases in case he was some sort of abusive jerk; Neal understood, and didn't have to fake the relief in his voice as he assured her he was grateful.
Another silence as she transferred his call. The phone rang once, then twice, and Neal had to hold himself back from punching the wall of the elevator. "Come on, Kate," he muttered over the third ring.
She picked up on the fourth. "Hello?"
He had just sucked in a great lungful of air, and made himself let it out slowly before he answered. "Don't say anything," he said first. "It's me. Quick as you can, is he there-- is he in the room with you." As if in slow-motion, he heard her draw a quick breath to answer, but before she could, the question was answered for him. A voice spoke in the room somewhere behind Kate.
"Put that down, would you," said Peter, dimmed but unmistakeable. "We're not finished with our discussion."
Neal dropped the phone as if it burned him.
He didn't move from where he stood pressed against the wall of the elevator until it stopped at the first floor and dinged as it slid open. A few people started to shuffle in; barely even seeing them, Neal snapped into action. He scooped up the phone from the floor and left the elevator practically jogging for the front desk, where he pulled out his FBI Consultant badge and flashed it for the concierge.
"I need whatever room Kate Dumas is in," he said, his voice rasping his throat like broken glass.
Less than thirty seconds later he was walking back to the elevator, flashing his badge everywhere to get people the fuck out of his way. It felt good, sort of, to be able to go where he wanted for once, to know there was nothing between him and what he was after. He wasn't thinking. Wasn't feeling or processing, either; on some level he was aware that the part of him that wanted to be shouting and cursing like a madman had simply shut down, to be accessed and possibly given free reign later.
The chime of the elevator was really starting to grate on his nerves. Room 448, the man had said; Neal jogged toward it, feeling absurdly vulnerable, buzzing with adrenaline and fear. The keycard the concierge had given him was getting warm in his palm, and he dropped it into the slot, barely waiting for it to beep before yanking it back out and shoving his shoulder against the door.
A flat hollow feeling-- not surprise, but something else-- socked him in the chest. The room was empty.
He was inside in a second, the door banging shut behind him. He briefly entertained the idea of leaving, going down the stairwell and looking for Peter's car in the lot, but instinctively he knew there was no reason to; Peter would've known it was him on the phone, and gotten out of there while Neal was still downstairs waving his badge around.
He went through the room picking up everything that had been left. It wasn't much, by most standards, but for Kate it was a lot. Some things hidden, some just forgotten-- a tiny external hard drive tucked behind the VCR; stubs from three plane tickets and a few crumpled receipts from gas stations in Philadelphia and New Jersey; a red sneaker under the bed; a register book from a Swedish bank shoved under the mattress.
He took the bank book and the hard drive and scooped the plane ticket stubs out of the drawer. At the last second he grabbed the sneaker too, and carried it under his arm as he ran downstairs, to the parking lot and his waiting car. After the second time his eyes were drawn to the shoe where it sat on the passenger seat, he made a frustrated sound and threw it in the back seat.
The heat had barely even kicked in when Neal whipped into a parking spot outside the Burkes' house and yanked up the complaining e-brake. No longer caring if Peter was home or if he was trespassing on Elle's hospitality, he took the front steps two at a time and tried the knob. It didn't turn, so he rang the bell. Twice, for good measure.
Footsteps on the stairs brought Elle to the door, looking wide awake despite the pajamas and bathrobe. "Neal," she said, and he was too keyed up to process the lack of curiosity in her tone.
He brushed right past her into the foyer, and then into the living room. "Where is he?" he demanded, whirling to face her. She opened her mouth and he cut her off quickly. "I'm sorry to barge in on-- you know what actually, I'm not sorry this time. This time I deserve some goddamn answers, Elle, and I'm not leaving here until your husband shows up to give them to me."
She closed her mouth and pointed to the kitchen table. Only one of the lamps over it was lit, but the dim glow was enough for Neal to make out the file sitting askew on one of the placemats.
"What's that?" he asked, monotone.
"Peter called about twenty minutes ago. He said you'd come-- said I should give you that when you did." Her voice was much less tender than the hand she laid on his arm. From in the kitchen, the kettle started whistling, and she squeezed his elbow, urging him to sit. "Just honey in your tea, right?"
Neal didn't want a cup of goddamn tea. He could recognize this plain as day-- this was good cop bad cop, this was both sides against the middle, and he didn't want to be anywhere near it. He wanted to take the file and go-- back to June's, where he could read it while he packed and figured out where he could run to that he'd never see Peter or Elizabeth or Kate ever again.
Instead he found himself sitting at the table without having made a conscious decision to do so. He laid a hand on top of the file, but didn't move until a hot mug appeared next to his elbow; Elle vanished, he heard her footsteps on the stairs, and he slid the file toward him.
A picture of Kate was stapled to the inside of the front cover, on top of a picture of her and Neal from before he went to prison.
The top page of the file's contents was a transcript of a phone conversation. Dated November 9th, 2008. A certified FBI wire tap had been placed on Peter's cell phone-- but this time, Neal was willing to bet Peter had been the one who put it there. It would've been worth it, Neal realized, having the FBI hear a few of his mundane conversations with Elle about what to bring home for dinner, if the upside was that something like this would end up in an evidence report.
"You've been on the FBI's list for six months," Peter had told Kate barely a year ago. "But you've been on mine for a lot longer. You've been putting your fingers where they shouldn't go, Kate. Didn't think you wanted to end up in prison like Neal." As Neal read, the panic threatened to come roaring up again, but he beat it grimly back, sucking in a tight breath through his teeth and forcing himself to let it out slow.
"Don't talk to me about Neal," she'd replied. Protective or dismissive? Hard to say. He flipped up the page, flattening his free hand against the table to keep it still. Behind the first page were more calls, more reports of stakeouts, more photos.
The story pieced itself together slowly, and mostly without Neal's participation. It was all he could do to sit still and keep breathing. Kate had spent one day a week visiting Neal the entire time he was inside-- the other six days, it seemed, she'd been busy. Trips overseas, trips to California, credit cards showing up in Cairo and Moscow; and more dubious stories, reports of stolen objects in Japan and Turkey, some of her known aliases turning up in Rio and Paris.
Whatever she was doing, she'd been doing a lot of it, and she hadn't so much as hinted to Neal that anything was going on. He finished the last page and turned them all back over to the beginning, no longer able to keep his fingers from trembling. He squeezed his eyes shut and ground the heels of his hands against his eyelids, trying to think of a way that this could make sense and not be as devastating as it seemed, to convince himself that she'd been in trouble, in danger, for longer than she'd let on.
But Peter hadn't been lying; he'd been keeping tabs on Kate for a long time. Neal suspected this file wasn't even all of it. "How long?" he murmured to himself.
"Long enough." Neal was on his feet in a split second, turned to see a silhouette that could only be Peter standing in the shadows of the kitchen doorway.
"Why?" he gritted out, harsh and demanding, stumbling backward to put the table between him and Peter.
"Why'd I start watching her or why'd I hide it from you?" Peter's voice was measured, almost careful. Trying to soothe him so he didn't spook, Neal thought, and almost laughed.
"Take your pick, Peter," he said. The words were sharp, nothing like their usual banter, but Neal could hardly register the change. Thoughts kept running through his head, panicked and fleeting, the need for answers warring with his body's adrenaline-fueled desire to run. He'd never been alone in a room with Peter and felt trapped before, and it was making him sick. There was too much to process-- too many questions, a simple answer hovering just out of reach-- Peter was here, which meant he wasn't the one with something to hide, not anymore. But Neal's mind rebelled-- if Kate had been hiding all of this from him-- he didn't want to think it, but it wouldn't leave his mind until he'd given it air to breathe-- how was he supposed to believe anything she'd told him about why she'd left?
He looked at Peter as he came further into the room, glad the table was between them, still choking on the urge to flee. Another step, and Peter's face passed out of shadow and into the dim gold light. Neal could see the tension, could read as easily as he always had, that Peter was just as strung tight with nerves as he was. He really was afraid Neal was going to spook; it was written all over him, and Neal didn't know what to think of Peter having his game face on, the face that said Run and I'll catch you. He didn't want that to calm him, to make him feel better-- but the next breath he took was steadier, and he already knew he had pulled back from the edge where he might've broken and run.
Peter ran a hand through his hair and then shoved both hands in his pockets. "You mean you haven't figured it out yourself?" He seemed curious and a little surprised, and Neal rolled his eyes, making an awkward little sound that was not a laugh, but something somewhat close to one.
"Yeah... I guess there's a reason you're the detective and I'm the consultant," he said. He didn't move-- except, finally, to reach out one hand and swiveled the folder around so it was facing Peter's side of the table. "Wanna clue me in?" he asked, and when he pulled his hand back he put it in his pocket, shrugging his shoulders to ease some of the tension out of them.
The relief that crossed Peter's face was lightning-quick, and so keen Neal almost felt guilty for noticing. Peter closed the final step to the table and slid into a chair, pulling the file toward him without taking his eyes off Neal. "Wanna sit down so I don't put a crick in my neck?" he countered, sounding almost as sure of himself as usual.
Neal took a breath, and then another. He sat back down and reached for the mug of tea, wrapping both hands around it to still their shaking.
"Tell me," he said, and Peter did.
Chapter 4: Maintenance
After Neal finds out about Kate, things start to go downhill. Lucky for him there's someone willing to step in and help him out.
written for the prompt "neal/peter, i think i'm going crazy" at smallfandomfest on LJ. i sat down to write and elle popped up and said "girl, i got this," so i let her have it. (i firmly maintain it is possible for this to be a shippy story without one half of the ship ever appearing in the fic.)
--also, for those dying to know what neal and peter talked about at the end of the last chapter, you can assume it was similar to the talk they had in canon, and more details will be revealed in future chapters. XD
In the week following his late night at the Burkes' house, Neal hadn't done much besides work. Actually, scratch that, he hadn't done anything besides work. He'd worked on two cases, actually solved a third, and caught the department up on six months' worth of backlogged paperwork in his spare time. It was nearly enough to keep him occupied; but unfortunately for Neal, he'd long ago trained his brain to work steadily and swiftly under the surface of whatever else he was doing with his time. There was almost nothing that could keep him from thinking about Kate.
He knew it wasn't a secret from anyone. In a team as close-knit as this one, he never expected it to be. It didn't make the sidelong sympathetic glances he got from Cruz and Jones any easier to deal with; it didn't make him hate any less the way Peter was treating him like he was about to snap at any second.
The only person who still treated him normally was Elle. She called him once or twice, even met him for lunch at that deli he likes so much, and never once did she avoid the subject, or bring it up unnecessarily.
He wanted to ask if she'd known. At first he was afraid of the answer; halfway through their turkey clubs he realized he didn't need to be, because the answer was clear. He didn't know what he'd done to win the friendship and respect of Peter's wife, but somehow he felt certain that if Elle had known what was going on with Kate, he'd have found out a lot sooner than he had.
"I think I'm going crazy," he announced the following Thursday as Elle slid into the booth across from him. It was a bistro this time, her choice; and if he'd made sure to leave the office while Peter was occupied with Hughes, well, he didn't think he could be blamed for a little misdirection.
"How so?" she asked, unwrapping her scarf and shaking back her hair.
"I'm having that paranoid I-live-in-a-fishbowl feeling," said Neal with a shrug. "I might be imagining it, but if one more person in that office gives me a sidelong pitying look I think I might actually start throwing things." He tried on a smile, knowing it fell flat, while his hand strayed to fiddle with the salad fork.
Elle's mouth twisted, soft and wry, and with no hesitation she reached for his hand on the table and squeezed. "They're cops, Neal. Sometimes they forget how to act like normal people. My husband included," she added, her mouth doing something more like a smirk.
The joke was at Peter's expense, but Neal didn't laugh. Instead he looked up as the waiter arrived, and ordered a beer for each of them. Elle's smile as the waiter left was bemused. "And you know what kind of beer I like-- how, exactly?"
He shrugged, flirting with a little smile of his own. "I just know things, Elle."
"Right," she said. "I think you're forgetting the whole 'Peter stalked me before he asked me out' thing, Neal-- I know when I've been researched."
"It wasn't research," he protested, laughing, "it was observation."
"You expect me to believe that?" Her mouth still quirked, but her eyes were piercing; she already knew the answer.
Neal took a sip of his water. He knew there was more to her question than idle banter; he knew he had to answer with less dissembling than usual. "I expect you to believe I've managed to do my homework without poking my nose too far into your privacy."
She waved her hand dismissively, perusing her menu. When the waiter returned she ordered-- steak strip salad for her, salmon and wild rice for Neal-- and Neal found himself laughing in spite of himself. "I'm not the only one who did my homework, huh," he said appreciatively.
"Nah," Elle replied with a smug little smile. "I was late for class, so I cheated off the boy next to me."
"Did you get a good grade?" he parried back, grinning.
She shrugged, nearly nonchalant, but her eyes were clear and didn't leave much room for pretending they were kidding around. "If you're going to copy, you might as well do it from the guy with all the right answers."
Something lodged in his throat then, hot and too big to swallow, and he took a breath, rolling his shoulders back to loosen them. "It's going to get better, right?" he asked quietly. He hated that he couldn't look at her, that he couldn't look at anything besides his plate if he wanted not to fall apart.
Elizabeth's hand moved into his field of vision, like she'd thought about taking his hand again and stopped herself. "Look at me," she said, soft and gentle, and he dragged his eyes up to hers; she was making a point, and it wasn't lost on him that she wanted his attention when she said slowly, "It's going to get a lot better. I promise."
The breath Neal drew was shaky, and he found to his surprise he wanted to be totally honest with her. That was unusual and unnerving enough, but he forced himself to do it because he also knew it was important. "I feel like I'm losing not just Kate, but it's like-- everything I worked for-- not that I don't still have something to work toward-- but it's all different now, and I just--" with a rueful shake of his head he gave up, not even sure how to phrase what he meant, worried if he tried he'd end up floundering more than he was already.
"You've got Peter," she said, and now she did put her warm hand on his wrist. "That's not nothing. I know you haven't always trusted him, but he's got your back, Neal. He wants to see you through this-- he does," she insisted as he flashed her a skeptical look. "He wouldn't have bothered explaining himself that night if he didn't."
"You sure about that?" he asked, feeling dwarfed by the sudden realization of how much the answer to that question meant to him.
"Without a doubt," she said, and he didn't hear any uncertainty in her voice. "I'm always sure of Peter-- and you should be too."
"I just don't understand why he's doing this," he muttered. It wasn't entirely true, but it was what he was telling himself; and anyway, deflecting the conversation gave him time to get over the ultimatum she'd just delivered with a skillful backhand stroke.
"He cares about you," said Elle with a strange, soft finality in her voice. "You should know that by now."
"I don't get why he's doing that either," Neal admitted, and there was no question of how true that was. He knew Elle was right, of course. He just didn't think he'd worked hard enough to deserve it yet, and couldn't understand how he could have won Peter's respect and affection without it being very clear that he'd earned it.
"You'll figure it out," was her only response, and Neal knew her well enough to know when she knew things she wasn't saying, and when she was completely confident that what she was saying would end up being true.
"I don't deserve you either, Elle," Neal said honestly, finally reaching for his beer.
"It's okay. You'll make it up to me somehow, I'm sure," she said with a wink, squeezing the orange slice into her hefewiezsen and taking a sip.
"Like paying for lunch?" he teased.
Elle's smile flashed again. "That'd be an excellent start."
Chapter 5: Passing Inspection
The theft of a painting provides Neal with the chance to fulfill an old promise; Peter worries what will happen if he takes it.
for the prompt "peter/neal, i can handle temptation" for smallfandomfest on LJ, though i didn't get it done in time to post this round of the fest. the westing gallery is not real, and loosely based on my memory of the isabella stewart gardiner museum in boston.
many thanks to everyone who's given encouragement on the series so far, i've really loved and appreciated every single comment. and extra love to laulan for the usual stellar
accomplicebeta job. ♥
"I just don't get what the big deal is," Peter said finally, looking down at the painting laid flat on the desk. It was small, not even two feet across, and without the frame it seemed dwarfed by the size of the oak and mahogany surface on which it sat.
"You're kidding, right?" Neal stood next to him, almost shoulder to shoulder, touching one corner of the painting with a white-gloved hand and giving Peter a look of incredulous disdain. "I mean, you're just messing with me, and it's not very funny to joke about--"
Peter leveled his best unimpressed eyebrow Neal's way, shutting him up. "Why would I joke about this?"
Neal shrugged, simultaneously rolling his eyes and not taking them off the painting. "I just didn't think even you could be so blase about standing in the presence of a masterpiece like this."
"I thought we'd already established I have no appreciation for art," Peter pointed out. It wasn't his thing; it was Elle's, and it was Neal's, and Peter was happy to leave them to it.
Neal waved his hand in Peter's face. "A blind person could appreciate how cool this is, Peter. Don't be deliberately obtuse."
Peter shrugged, unconcerned. "Well someone's got to act rational about this," he said. "It may be a masterpiece but it's still evidence, potentially dangerous evidence at that." They'd found their stolen painting, but the thief himself was nowhere to be seen, and it was a long four hours back to the Manhattan field office with two million dollars of art in the backseat. Anything could happen. Peter was just praying it wouldn't.
Neal rolled his eyes again. "Well I'm sorry I'm not afraid for my life," he said, the words dripping with 'you're overreacting' vibes. "I'm actually touching a Philippe Toulour, I'm pretty sure if Marcus's goons came through that door guns blazing I'd still die happy."
Peter didn't enjoy the way his insides clenched at the thought of that actually happening (though on the other hand, it wouldn't be the first time Neal had almost given him an ulcer with his recklessness), and if his voice was harsher than necessary, he didn't really care. "You should be glad I'm concerned. We could both end up in trouble otherwise-- would you stop it?" he interrupted himself, turning to face Neal with a stern expression. "You're practically bouncing."
Neal stepped back a bit, but left his hand on the corner of the painting, like he couldn't bring himself to pull it away. He ran a hand through his hair and shrugged, unapologetic. "I can't help it, Peter. This is a really big deal to me."
Peter knew it was a big deal. He wished he didn't know that Neal had once spent a month in Montreal trying to steal this painting. He also wished he didn't know that during Neal's second year in prison, Kate Moreau had spent nine weeks flying to and from the south of Greece, presumably for the same reason.
The list of things Peter wished he didn't know about Neal was growing, and it was getting pretty annoying trying to be friends with someone who was really two people-- Neal the con man, about whom Peter knew almost everything, and Neal the regular person, about whom Peter knew almost nothing. At least, that was how it felt most days, and that annoyed him too.
Thinking about it wasn't going to improve his mood, though, so he reined himself in. Now was definitely not the time for brooding, especially not when he had to spend extra time coercing Neal into acting like a grownup for the next few hours. Resisting the urge to grab Neal by the chin, he angled himself into Neal's line of vision until he had his attention. "Try not to act like it's Christmas come early, okay?" he said, letting some of his tension seep into his voice and hanging onto eye contact for all he was worth. "You keep obsessing like this, I'll have to start being suspicious."
Neal didn't step back like Peter expected, but he drew up to his full height, eyebrows as high as they could go. "Of what?" he demanded. "Of me? Peter, you can't think--"
"I think of everything," Peter interrupted, "that's how I caught you twice, remember?" Cheap shot, maybe, but it hadn't stopped making him smile yet.
"Come on, give me a little credit here," Neal protested, spreading his hands wide.
Peter shook his head. "Nope."
He thought about stepping back; this was starting to look like a real confrontation, and he didn't want it to become one. But then Neal smirked at him, smug and bemused, and Peter could've sworn Neal leaned in towards him as he challenged, "What do you even think I'd do?"
After a pause, Peter admitted, "I don't know-- and I don't want either of us to find out."
That was the end of it, as Cruz and a couple of junior agents came in with the transport crates. There were four, three of them decoys in case the house was still being watched. There was no time for the local FBI archivist to drive down and handle the painting, so Neal had to do the honors himself. Peter stood to the side, watching as Neal took the roll of glassine paper from Cruz without so much as a smile. Now he was working; Peter could see it in the furrow between his eyebrows, the focus in his eyes.
Neal moved to stand in front of the painting, and his face changed. The look of reverence as he folded the thick waxy paper over the face of the painting was pure and intimate, and it twisted hotly through Peter's stomach. He knew he should look away, but couldn't make his eyes move; everything seemed to slow down and freeze that image in his mind, of Neal's blue eyes wide and awestruck, his face a little flushed, lower lip caught between his teeth as he lifted the painting and slipped spacers onto the corners.
Then Neal turned toward him and the moment was over, his face shuttered again, adoration replaced with the easy confidence Peter was so familiar with. Neal slid the painting into one of the crates and watched Cruz seal it up again. "Put that one in our car," he told her, and when she looked to Peter for confirmation he nodded right away.
They were almost halfway home before Neal gave up on small talk and went back to the conversation Peter had known wasn't even close to over. "What bugs you more," he asked, half turning in his seat to take in both Peter and the painting on the back seat with one glance, "that I might try to steal it or that I might get away with it right under your nose?"
Peter snorted. "You wouldn't get away with it."
"But if I did," he insisted. "Would it bother you more that I'd stolen something or that I'd done it with you right here?"
Flustered by the question and annoyed with himself for letting Neal get under his skin, he snapped his eyes back to the road and said quickly, "Either. Both. I don't know, Neal, why does it matter? Are you going to steal it?"
Turning away to face forward again, Neal laid his head back against the headrest and shut his eyes, the corner of his mouth turned up. "I guess you'll have to wait and see."
Two days later it was Saturday, and in the middle of the basketball game Peter's cell went off. It was Jones. "He's outside his radius, but he's been in the same place for two hours. You want me to...?"
"No, I'm on it. What's the address?" Jones recited it and Peter had to smother a laugh. When he pulled up outside the Westing gallery half an hour later he sat in his car for a minute before he got out, thinking.
He took a map from the docent and made his way to the third floor. The second room on the left was unoccupied except for Neal, sitting on a bench across from Summer on the River by Philippe Toulour, restored to its rightful place that morning. He sat leaning back on his hands, and didn't twitch when Peter entered.
It was a beautiful painting, he had to admit. He could understand loving it, wanting to look at it every day. Like most things Neal loved-- like most things Neal stole-- it was one of a kind.
"Kate first showed it to me when we lived in Rouen for a summer," Neal said softly, not turning around. "It was one of her favorites. I used to tell her I'd steal it for her someday."
"But-- you didn't," Peter said, feeling clumsy. He hated talking about Kate, hated thinking about her, hated how badly he wanted her to go away and how angry she made him for not doing it. Mostly he hated admitting he'd gotten so protective of Neal that anyone who threatened him made Peter see red.
"No." Neal got slowly to his feet and came around the bench to stand in front of Peter, between him and the painting. His hands were in his pockets and his shoulders were straight, and he met Peter's gaze and held it for a moment that dragged on into a minute that dragged on into two, until Peter's palms itched and a trickle of adrenaline threaded its way through him. Staring contest, he thought, Don't blink or look away. He didn't know if that was an accurate assessment of the challenge he saw in Neal's eyes, but it was the first and easiest thing he could think of.
"I can resist temptation, Peter," Neal said finally, quiet and thick with feeling.
He brushed past Peter and headed for the door. As he passed out into the open center of the house and started down the stairs, Peter could hear him start to whistle.
After a minute or so had gone by, Peter sat down on the bench in front of the Toulour, staring at it in unsettled contemplation. He felt more than ever like he'd never learn to read Neal the person as well as he read Neal the con-man. The line between the two was definitely starting to blur, and the resulting gray area was going to be hard as hell to navigate without drowning.
Chapter 6: Intersection
A confession, sort of.
This was supposed to be for the most recent round of small fandom fest for the prompt "Neal/Peter, stakeout", but my adherence to deadlines has been kinda shot lately. Better late than never!
New York at night is almost as bright as it is during the day, and twice as colorful. Even from eight storeys up, Neal can see the spots of red and teal and purple, yellow cabs and silver handbags, washed with the neon ozone glow of the city. He presses his forehead to the glass and lets the colors wash over him until he's almost dizzy with it, until--
"Would you get away from the window?" Peter says from behind him, unpacking equipment onto the desk. Video camera, tripod, laptop, two pairs of headphones; it's going to be a long night, unless their mark happens to glance across the street and catch sight of Neal in the window. So he backs off, takes a seat, elbows on the arm rests, fingers steepled together, and watches Peter move around the room.
After he's done unpacking everything, Peter leans back against the desk, hands in his pockets, eyes on something over Neal's head, and mutters, "I can't believe we're doing this."
"What," Neal says, half laughing at him, "holing up in a hotel room for a night on the Bureau's dime?"
"Working a case you came up with," Peter retorts, his sidelong glance making Neal's grin sharpen.
"You saying it's not worth our time?" he challenges, not because he has any doubt in the matter, but because he likes making Peter admit it.
"No," Peter says, unconcerned. "I'm saying it's a shock that you know someone besides June who'd come to the law for something other than a plea bargain." And it shouldn't make Neal's stomach dip the way it does, Peter taunting him, but Neal's never been good at fending off his own impulses; he can't help what he likes.
He covers for it pretty well, though. "This is serious, Peter." Saying it abruptly reminds him how true it is; Dom's a good guy, one of the few people Neal met in prison who didn't really deserve the sentence he'd gotten, and there's very little Neal wouldn't do to help him. The fact that he's got the law on his side now is just an added bonus.
"I know," Peter replies, gesturing, his expression almost affronted. "Do you think I'd be here if I didn't know that?"
"Here on the case, or here in the room?" Neal asks after a pause, making it doubtful, like he's really considering the question.
"Here on the case, though it does beg the question why I'm spending a perfectly good Friday night in here with you instead of home with my wife," Peter snorts with a roll of his eyes. After a second, like it's just occurred to him right then, he adds, "or better yet, here with my wife. You know the last time we were in a hotel together?"
Neal knows. "Belize?" He makes it a question, because he is absolutely not thinking about it, about Peter and El alone in a villa, a week's worth of sun-drenched days, warm nights spent tangled up in each other in a bedroom that smells of honeysuckle.
...Nope, definitely not thinking about it.
"Yeah," says Peter, and it takes Neal a second to remember what Peter's even responding to. "Belize."
"Well, we catch this guy, you'll earn another week off," he says, knowing he sounds subdued, hoping Peter will just chalk it up to his concern about the case. In reality Neal has every confidence the case is going to end well. Peter's like a bloodhound; set him on the scent of injustice and given enough time and resources he'll find his mark every time. Neal still isn't sure when exactly that became reassuring rather than worrying, but he knows it was long before the phrase "closed case percentage" entered his vocabulary.
"Yeah, so long as we don't get anyone arrested or investigated this time around," Peter says, long-suffering, while Neal's busy trying (and failing) not to picture him as McGruff the Crime Dog.
"That hasn't happened for at least two months," he points out, his face maybe not as straight as it could be.
Peter gets that pinched look like he's trying to decide whether to laugh or facepalm, and sounds like he's in pain when he says, "Let's go for never again, okay?" He turns and shrugs out of his jacket, a careless motion, the shift of his shoulders and the way the leather of his holster cuts a dark stripe across his back, and when he goes to drop it over the chair his profile catches the glow from the window.
"Sounds good to me," Neal says, tipping his head back and forcing his eyes up to the ceiling.
By this point Neal is intimately familiar with how exhausting the boredom of a stakeout can be, the time stretching out to where a minute can feel like an hour or more. Even still, it takes him a while to realize Peter's talking less than usual. He looks over to see Peter wearing a look of intense concentration; the one he uses to glare case files into submission, but this time he's staring off into space.
The more he notices it, the more the silence feels as stiff as Neal's shoulders, so he gets up and stretches, saying idly, "I can smell the smoke, Peter, what's got you so preoccupied?"
Peter shakes himself, looks up at Neal like he'd completely forgotten he was there. He looks away quickly; they both do. "Just-- thinking about stuff, collecting stuff, why people do it." He gestures vaguely at the computer screen, indicating the object of their current scrutiny, but Neal knows it's not Lacroix whose brain Peter's trying to figure out.
He flops back into his chair, sprawling purposefully loose-limbed, unassuming as he shrugs. "Creature comforts, tangible triggers of memory, status symbols-- there are as many reasons as there are people." Also, they've had this conversation before. Neal thinks abruptly of the night in his apartment, Mozzie and gin and It's about doing what we want to do. Neal isn't sure where along the line that changed for him-- that what he wanted to do stopped being to settle down with Kate for a life of domestic bliss and became-- shockingly-- this.
The fact that Neal would rather be here right now than nearly anywhere else on Earth is unsettling, not least because he didn't even know it was true until now, and he jerks back to reality in time to hear Peter say, "This guy has more than enough for all of those." There's only a slight pause as Peter's glance flicks to him and back again, before he says, unconvincingly casual, "So how about you?"
"What do you mean?" Neal asks, one part guarded, one part curious. It's not like Peter to directly refer to Neal's past except to tweak his nose about the fact that he's not living it up in stolen high style anymore. He's never so much as come out and said he's still trying to understand what makes the gears in Neal's brain go around.
"I've heard Havisham's speech about stuff--" so Peter remembers that night too; that probably shouldn't be gratifying-- "so what is it for you? What makes you-- made you-- steal?"
Neal feels panic, then awkwardness, like Peter's just asked a question neither of them realized was terrifyingly personal until it was asked. For Neal not to answer would be awkward; for Peter to retract it entirely would be worse. So he fumbles out, "Well, I mean, you know, some of it's just appreciation--"
"Like Washington's letters," Peter murmurs, and Neal has to interrupt himself; he can feel he's flushing.
"You know about those?"
Peter doesn't miss a beat, one eyebrow quirked. "Yeah. I do." I know everything, the eyebrow says. Neal tries not to shiver.
"Okay. Well, uh. Some of it's having the shiniest toys. Some of it's history. Being able to reach out and lay hands on a real piece of it..."
He pauses, and Peter fills in, "Like the music box," when what he really means is Go on, tell me more.
"Yeah," he admits. He really does wish he'd stolen it. "I guess I just like unique things."
"That's one way of putting it," Peter snorts, rolling his eyes, familiar and safe again.
"You have a better one?" Neal whips back, sharp with relief at feeling the ground steady beneath his feet.
Peter's grin is smug. "I think it's more like you need to prove you're the best-- you have the best taste, the most skills--"
"Did you just praise my taste?" Neal teases. "That's funny coming from a guy who wouldn't know bespoke if it bit him on the--"
"My point is," Peter says repressively, "you like to have the best everything, and you like showing it off to people when you do have it."
It's true, of course, and Neal doesn't want to go through the whole I work for what I get thing again, so he says belligerently, "What's that say about me hanging around with you so much then?"
Peter's eyes narrow before he turns back to the computer. "Don't tell me it doesn't kill you that I bring down your average," he says, too casual to be genuine.
"Don't underestimate yourself," Neal mutters, almost too low for Peter to hear. He can see Peter does hear, though, by the way he looks at Neal a little too long before turning back to the screen, and dammit, he doesn't usually have this much trouble steering through the minefields of their conversation, but tonight he feels like he's driving blind.
They sit in silence for almost fifteen more minutes before Peter breaks it. "It's not like I really know how to do this, Neal."
He looks almost surprised to find he's said it aloud, but his voice is no different than it is when they're talking about the Mets, or Jones and Lauren's not-so-secret romance; it takes Neal a second to realize he's not talking about the case. He's not talking about the case. Is he talking about-- His eyes dart to Peter again, lightning-quick, and then back to his hands. His skin feels prickly with sudden tension and he's cold with the realization that his verbosity is useless; there actually is a wrong thing to say, here, and for once in his life he's too afraid of not knowing what it is to gamble on it.
Peter lightly drums the fingers of one hand on the table, his gaze speculative as he turns it on Neal. "I don't think you do either, is the thing. You put up a good front, but you're not fooling me. Neither of us knows what this is anymore."
Neal knows he's blushing now, he can feel the burn in his face and at the back of his neck, the honesty in Peter's face and voice bringing his defenses down with a crash. "I know," he says. It's the only thing he can say. He's vulnerable and he wants to say more, to obfuscate with his usual torrent of words, but when his eyes drag up to Peter's he finds his mouth is dry and when he searches for something to say, his brain just makes a soft fizzing sound.
"Well as long as we're on the same page," Peter says dryly, and the sideways smirk he gives Neal is like striking a match inside him; the flare, and then the catch, and God, he feels drugged with how long it's taking him to process that Peter's actually saying what Neal thinks he is.
He knows how I-- he *knows* and he's not-- and it's not just me-- He breathes, finally. "So-- so what, that's it, it's just-- that's it?" He hates how plaintive he sounds, but really, he's spent months being careful, pasting on this mask of simple friendship and telling himself every day why it was important to keep it there, and with two curt sentences Peter just reaches in and rips it away.
He'd been convinced it would take forever to get here, to the meeting place of what he wants and what Peter's capable of giving, and Peter just takes it in stride-- giving Neal exactly as much as he can handle, but on Peter's terms, which seem to be created to catch him off guard. Peter just looks at him, bemused by his panic, mouth crooking when Neal flaps his hands expressively. "You just, we're on the same page and that's it?" Neal says, still not making any sense, still unable to find better words for what he means.
Peter shrugs, lips still curling at the corner, eyes drifting back to the monitor. "I just got you to use a sentence with less than three words in it," he says. "That's enough of a miracle to tide me over for a while."
And maybe Neal shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but taking the outs that other people hand him is something else he's never been good at. Also-- this is important. More important than the surge of terrified joy boiling in his stomach right now, because he is not, not going to fuck this up by letting himself get surprised into forgetting to think. He takes a slow, silent breath, and asks, "And Elizabeth... she's on the same page too?"
The look Peter levels at the ceiling is unreadable in profile, but his tone is full of warmth. "I'm pretty sure she's read the whole book a few times by now, Neal. My chapters and yours."
Neal opens his mouth, but he doesn't even know what to say to that, so he just hangs there gaping for a second before closing his teeth with a snap.
The silence stretches while Neal's brain works furiously. The thing is, though, with Peter, there's the kind of silence like earlier, where he's waiting for Neal to say something, and then there's this; this is space, though Peter hasn't moved a muscle since the last time he turned his head, the message is clear. Do what you have to do. I'm not going anywhere. And Neal is so past the point of trying to deny that he likes it, that Peter knowing he needs it is part of what started Neal on the road to falling in love with him; so he lets himself breathe, tips his head back and makes his hands go still on his thighs, forcing himself to relax.
He hits a point pretty soon after that where his mind just won't go any further. He knows this isn't the moment where he gets up, crosses the room and puts his hand on Peter's shoulder, but the steps between more talking and that, whatever else is going to happen when they finally get there (and that alone is staggering enough; that there's a countdown clock, now) are a mystery to him.
He finds himself saying, half ragged, half bemused, "You know, I thought stake-outs couldn't get more boring than sitting in your car, but somehow it's worse with a bed right here." Not least because his imagination tends to run away with him, and he hopes Peter gets what he's not saying: that he needs a little more time, a little more space, that he's so unused to being offered what he wants that having it stare him in the face actually scares the shit out of him.
Peter smirks. "You wanna take a nap, princess, go right ahead. But don't get mad when you miss all the good stuff." He points to the computer, to be clear which good stuff he's talking about.
Neal's flooded with relief, which lets him smirk back, slow and full of promise, to be clear which good stuff he's talking about. "I'm pretty sure that isn't the good stuff, Peter."
Incredibly, Peter does a double take, swallowing visibly. "Fine," he says, waving a hand, dragging his head back around to face the computer, and Neal thinks smugly, Point to me. "If the alternative is putting up with your complaining, go nap. I'll wake you up in an hour or two."
"You're a gentleman, Peter," Neal says, grinning. He gets up and makes a slow production of shrugging out of his jacket, hanging it neatly over the back of a chair, and lying down on the bed, ankles crossed, hands folded behind his head. He can feel Peter's attention on him the entire time, though the few glances he sneaks show Peter hasn't moved.
And he would've thought he couldn't fall asleep with Peter right there, one eye on the computer and one eye on him; but he's dozing before he knows it, and deep asleep not long after. And when he wakes up as the window is just starting to grey towards dawn, Peter's still in the chair with his eyes on the screen. He turns as Neal stirs, just enough for Neal to see his smile, small and indulgent; just enough to see Neal smile back.