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Contractual Obligations: A Love Story in Three Traffic Lights

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They're on their way back to headquarters from the interview with Gina Malone, and Peter is still thinking about the little wink and blown-kiss she'd thrown in his direction as she'd shown them the door. He's still pretty sure she's got the information on MacGuinn that they want, and is turning policies, procedures, and possibilities carefully around in his head, inspecting them from every angle.

They're halfway there when Neal says (just as Peter has decided he's going to let it go without comment), "So. That was unexpected."

Peter resists the urge to smirk. "Statistically, not really," he says, offhand.

"Huh?" Neal says, and Peter is pleased to be able to interpret that as a sound of genuine uncertainty. Neal is almost never reduced to inarticulate monosyllables.

"It would have been more useful if she had hit on you, I'll grant you," Peter says, amused. "But statistically, someone, sooner or later, was going to pick me over you."

"That's not what I meant," Neal objects, eyebrows high with indignation.

Peter glances over at Neal in the passenger seat and smirks. Of the two of them, Peter is almost never the one that gets to employ the amused, slightly condescending smirk. He gives himself a tick mark on the scorecard of the ongoing battle to surprise Neal Caffrey. He's willing to bet Neal has his own mental scorecard, but he's not asking.

Peter enjoys this game far more than is probably good for him.

"Wait, you think I'd..." Neal sounds like he's stuck somewhere between offended and amused.

Peter shrugs. He knows Neal would absolutely screw around with Gina Malone for information, if it suited his purpose. Neal will do whatever it takes. It's simultaneously his best trait and his worst flaw.

"I'm flattered," Neal says dryly; he steals Peter's coffee out of the cup holder, takes a sip, puts it back. "It's a shame that's not an option for you."

And Peter hadn't been considering it as an option. Not really, anyway, though it had been one of the things he'd been inspecting in his head from various angles. But it hadn't been serious consideration. The way Neal says it, though, amused and dismissive, is almost insulting. Of course Peter would never do such a thing, Neal's tone implies. Absurd notion. Peter is annoyed at Neal's presumption (though Neal is presumptuous all the time, and Peter knows it, and it rarely bothers him).

"I'd need to talk to Elizabeth," Peter says easily, almost purely to goad Neal into that expression of uncomprehending surprise, eyebrows a little scrunched together with it. Tick mark. Peter doesn't smile, but it's close. Being unpredictable, he rationalizes, is a good thing.

"Oh," Neal says, eyes narrowed. "Oh, you do not."

"Do not what?" Peter asks, throwing a look over at Neal in casual inquiry.

"You and Elizabeth do not have an... that kind of relationship." Neal flicks his fingers dismissively.

Peter thinks it must be nice to be that sure that you're right all the time, but he merely takes a swallow of his coffee without commenting, and lets the matter drop.

Neal doesn't mention it again.

Peter sees him almost ask a bunch of different times. When Gina Malone comes in to give a statement. On the flight to Bolivia (which would have been pure misery, Peter is sure, if Neal hadn't somehow flirted the booking attendant into upgrading them both to First Class) once he's got a couple of glasses of wine in him, and is stealing looks at Peter across the tiny little table between them whenever he thinks Peter isn't paying attention. Then in Bolivia, right after they load MacGuinn into an ambulance under armed escort, both of them still filthy and shaken from being under fire, and Neal doesn't seem to be able to stop touching Peter, just on the arm, nothing big, but all the time, like he's just making sure Peter is still there.

Peter is almost sure Neal will mention it following the after-incident debriefing, on which Hughes spends an inordinate amount of time. Hughes is randomly bitching (completely after the fact, when it can't possibly do anybody any good to bitch about it) about the cost, both in time and money, of obtaining a passport for a convicted felon, and then flying Peter and said felon to Bolivia. Peter now hates Bolivia, which he'd been previously ambivalent about, and spends the whole meeting wanting to say: "You know the email you've gotten three times a week for the past two years, the one that claims you've inherited some money and all you have to do to claim it is send in your personal information and put down a small deposit, you know the one that has scammed thousands of people, if not more, out of a lot of money, you know that one? I JUST ARRESTED THAT GUY!" Peter and Neal spend the whole meeting exchanging looks every few minutes, saying "Can you believe this?" and "I know, seriously?" with their eyebrows.

Peter shows up at Neal's place with beer and the makings for nachos about a week after Bolivia, for no reason other than to give Neal the chance to mention the Gina Malone thing.

Of course, Neal doesn't.

So Peter doesn't exactly stop waiting for it, but he stops looking for moments in which Neal will probably ask.

Peter and Elizabeth have Neal over to dinner four times. The fourth time, Peter decides to barbeque, Neal puts aside his hat in favor of Elizabeth's Don't Make Me Poison Your Food apron, and Elizabeth bogarts the grill and only lets Peter and Neal make the salad. Peter tells Neal this is business as usual, and Neal assures him that he's hurt and insulted on Peter's behalf. Elizabeth makes an inappropriate gesture.

Peter forgets to call home twice when the two of them are working late, and Neal catches it both times. Peter buys Neal a case of Tsing Tsao imported from Hong Kong, and Neal sends Elizabeth a bottle of Eiswein imported from Germany.

Peter and Elizabeth are invited to Neal's for dinner, and Peter discovers that Neal makes the best duck he has ever put in his mouth, and he was already crazy about duck. Neal brings the leftovers for Peter to eat for lunch at work the next day. He also brings two linen napkins and mocks Peter's greasy fingers about every forty-three seconds.

Peter has lunch with Neal every weekday except Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he has lunch with Neal and Elizabeth. One Tuesday Neal forgets his wallet, pisses both of them off thoroughly by refusing to order something and letting them pay, and then proceeds to eat liberally from both of their plates until they forgive him.

Peter gets called in to work at three in the morning because the Organized Crime Division needs his eyes on something. He picks Neal up, notes that Neal looks as slick and put together at three in the morning as he always does, and doesn't realize until Agent Timmins asks, "Did Ruis ask for Caffrey?" that Neal hadn't even been mentioned. Neal arches his eyebrows expressively, and Peter dismisses Timmins' question with a gruff, "He's with me."

Peter goes with Organized Crime when they pull a raid that same day. He and Neal have a heated whisper-fight in the hall after Peter declares that Neal has to go home, and Neal only goes at all because Peter calls Elizabeth and makes her call Neal. Neal's half of the conversation is all disgruntled monosyllables and his eyebrows are furious, but he leaves.

Peter gets home before five that evening, feeling likes he's been at work for roughly twelve years, and Neal and Elizabeth are sitting on the floor in front of the couch drinking wine out of coffee cups. They are both a little bit drunk. "Why coffee cups?" is all he can think to say, and they both grin guiltily at him. Elizabeth claims that Neal claims that it doesn't count out of coffee cups, and Neal clutches at his chest and announces "'My two schoolfellows, whom I will trust as I will adders fanged!!'" with aggrieved dramatics. Neal isn't wearing his jacket, and has his shirtsleeves folded up to the tops of his forearms. Peter grabs a coffee cup and plays catch-up while Elizabeth and Neal talk about Hamlet.

Peter and Neal go talk with a guy about forged insurance checks, and Peter later has a very loud argument with Hughes about the incident report he has to fill out for breaking the guy's wrist. Hughes, who is normally a decent boss, is seriously not happy, and keeps insisting that Peter was out of line, that Neal is a contractor and all contractors know the risks. Peter ends up losing his temper and shouting that 'contractor' is not synonymous with 'expendable,' damnit, and Hughes makes him take the rest of the day off. Neal is waiting in Peter's office with their coats, two fresh cups of coffee, and a Snickers bar. He gives Peter the Snickers silently, his face tipped far enough to the side that Peter can't see the bruising along his eye socket and cheekbone.

Peter spends a day attending briefings and meetings. There is a small but crucial difference between briefings and meetings, which is that briefings include some of Peter's bosses, and meetings include nothing but Peter's bosses. Days that are eaten up by briefings and meetings are days that Peter doesn't get to do any of the interesting work, which makes him cranky.

Contributing to his crankiness is the fact that Neal had only had to attend one briefing. He's only allowed to sit in if the subject matter pertains directly to a case, and Neal gets cranky when Peter goes to briefings and meetings that he doesn't get to go to, and Neal being cranky makes Peter cranky. It's a cranky-vicious circle.

Peter is pretty sure that during the one briefing he had attended, Neal had been playing pong on his Blackberry, purely for the retaliation-factor, because he was nowhere near as entertaining as Neal usually is during briefings. So Neal had spent the day screwing around in Peter's office and annoying Cruz, who is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose her briefings.

Peter is starving, though Neal had brought him lunch post-briefings but pre-meetings, and then an apple and a bottle of sparkling water in the two minute break between meeting three and meeting four. Peter doesn't like sparkling water, but he drinks it anyway. And the apple is perfect.

Peter drives them home, as usual, wondering idly what's for dinner. It's their takeout night, and it's Elizabeth's turn to pick. It's probably Chinese, but it could be Thai. Elizabeth likes both equally. Peter likes Greek. Neal likes Indian, not that that's pertinent. As they pull out of the FBI's multi-story parking facility and Peter eases his way into traffic, Neal tilts his head toward Peter without looking at him, and asks, "Did you actually sleep with Gina Malone for that tip?"

It has been ten weeks since the original conversation.

"Text Elizabeth, will you?" Peter says. "Ask her if we have beer."

Neal shoots a glance at him, but just pulls out his Blackberry and texts.

When Neal finishes typing, Peter says, "Yeah, I slept with Gina Malone." He doesn't tack on 'for that tip' because he understands the fine line between admitting something and admitting everything. Elizabeth can't be compelled to testify against Peter, but Neal will never have that advantage.

Neal looks at him sideways, chin tipping slightly upward in what may or may not be exactly one half of a nod.

They stop at a traffic light. Peter turns and looks at Neal, forcing Neal to turn and look back. Peter arches an eyebrow. Neal frowns at him, his eyebrows scrunching grumpily. "You would never cheat on Elizabeth," he says.

The light turns green, and Peter has to look away, but he doesn't hesitate. "There are exemption situations," he says mildly.

He doesn't elucidate, but that's okay because Neal is already repeating, "Exemption situations?" with baffled disbelief. "Exemptions?"

"Yeah," Peter agrees.

"Like, exemptions on your taxes?"

Peter glances over long enough to be sure that Neal gets a good look at the eyerolling Peter is doing.

Neal huffs out something that's not quite laughter. "What could 'exemption situations' even be?"

Peter shrugs with one shoulder, and steals Neal's coffee out of the cup holder and takes a swallow. Neal intercepts the coffee before Peter can get it all the way back to the cup holder, and tugs the cup away. "You know, it varies," Peter says. "The freebies are things like, to save a life, or if I genuinely think I'm going to die."

Neal regards him seriously from the passenger seat, so Peter adds, "But there are also ones like, if I somehow find myself confronted by Milla Jovovich." Neal chokes a sound of amusement into his coffee cup, and Peter shoots him a grin. "Also, never say never."

"Never say never." Peter glances at him; Neal looks back blandly. Only the arch of his eyebrows indicates that it's a question, not a statement.

"It's an Elizabeth thing," Peter admits. "She says that I have a bad habit of starting out actively antagonistic toward people I later want to take to bed. I met her in college, and we were both in debate. So." He shrugs. "She's not wrong."

Neal's Blackberry whistles like a tea kettle.

"It's Elizabeth," Neal says. "She says to bring home wine."

They drive in silence for a little less than a minute, and then stop at another traffic light. When Peter looks over at Neal, he's already looking back. "Elizabeth asked if you wanted to come home with me, Neal," he says, carefully meeting Neal's eyes.

Neal doesn't blink. "Do I have to decide right now?"

"You don't ever have to decide," Peter tells him.

The light turns green. Peter drives, eyes front and center.

The silence lasts a minute and a half. In four blocks, Peter will have to turn left to head toward Neal's place, or continue on straight to get to someplace where he can double back and head uptown. There's one more traffic light between here and there.

"So." Neal says. "So those are just the exceptions, right? There have to be," he makes an odd gesture, a sweeping, gathering up, and holding motion with his right hand, "rules and clauses and stipulations, I'm guessing. Because I have to tell you, Peter, knowing nothing but the exemptions makes it sound a little bit fucked up."

Peter doesn't smile, but it's close. Neal only curses if he's invested. He's too deliberately charming to use profanity regularly. "Exemptions are for emergencies," Peter tells him. "When there isn't time to talk about it."

"Like Milla Jovovich?" Neal looks all smirk-y in that way he has. Even his eyebrows look smirk-y.

"Yeah, well. The exemptions are illustrative, but you don't get the big picture." Peter tips a look at Neal, and adds, "If you want the big picture, you have to listen to the whole story."

"Is there an index, for easy cross-referencing?" Neal inquires solemnly.

Peter snorts. "There's even a glossary."

Peter stops at the light, even though it's only yellow. The driver behind them lays on the horn. Peter fixes his gaze on the rearview long enough to memorize the make, model, color, and license plate automatically, and catches Neal doing the same. They otherwise ignore the horn.

Neal looks at Peter first, this time. Peter obligingly looks back. "So, you two have this, what? Negotiated? Like a contract?" Neal's eyebrows are slightly arched, gracefully dubious sweeps.

"Marriage is a contract," Peter says, and Neal gives him a you-know-what-I-meant-you-asshole look. "No," Peter argues with Neal's eyebrows, "I mean really. All relationships are basically contractual. The basis for anything not familial (and sometimes even then) is mutual satisfaction of needs. Our current relationship," Peter asserts, gesturing back and forth between them, "is based on the mutual satisfaction of needs. I need to solve cases, you need to not be in jail."

Neal scowls at him. Neal's eyebrows hate Peter. "Except that our 'current relationship' is actually a contract! I had to sign that paperwork, too, you know."

"My relationship with Elizabeth isn't that different," Peter defends staunchly. "All relationships are contracts. You give one another what you can until someone breaks the contract and the relationship is over." Neal's mouth is starting to hate Peter, too, so Peter adds, "You should really let Elizabeth give you the speech; she's better at it. And she's already going to be pissed that I gave away her third bullet point."

Neal laughs out loud, Peter smiles, and the driver behind them lays on the horn again because the light is green.

Peter drives in silence, because he can't ask. His position is too fraught with consequences for both of them. At this point, only Neal can ask, really. Elizabeth has already done all the asking-by-proxy she can get away with.

Neal comes through, though. "What are the first two bullet points?"

Peter isn't surprised, he'd been counting on this, but it still takes him a moment to work up enough spit to answer. "The first one is 'We want you.' The second one is 'You want us.'"

Neal doesn't say anything. Peter puts his hand on the turn signal.

"She's going to be really pissed that you gave up the first two bullet points without a fight," Neal says dryly.

"Maybe," Peter hedges, and glances at Neal. His eyebrows are amused. Peter vindictively flips the turn signal on.

Neal immediately flips it off.

"Peter."

"Yeah?"

"Bring home wine."