Peter would laugh to hear him say it, but Neal Caffrey loves rules. Granted, he partly thinks they’re adorable, but he also genuinely respects the power they hold. Following the rules keeps you safe. Breaking the rules makes you dangerous. That’s the popular opinion, anyway, and in Neal’s alleged profession the popular opinion provides a serious amount of leverage if treated properly.
Finding out what rules people respect the most can tell you a lot about someone, too. When Neal asks Mozzie point-blank what the most important rule is, Mozzie always says “Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!”
It’s flip, it’s funny, it’s endearing. It makes Mozzie look harmless and eccentric, and entirely hides the fact that Mozzie has, in the past, gone up against a Sicilian when death was on the line and lived to tell about it. That’s because when he wants to be, and with the right motivation, Mozzie is a very, very dangerous person.
His second-most important rule, though, would be “Don’t trust The Man,” and that’s because Mozzie is also totally paranoid. Fortunately, Neal likes that.
Neal had held off asking Kate for her most important rule for quite a while. If Neal had ever consulted him on the issue Mozzie, the cynic, would have said it was because Neal hadn’t wanted to be disappointed by the answer. If Neal ever tells Peter - which he won’t - Peter will probably get quiet and sympathetic and call him a romantic with that fond older-brother look on his face, which is much worse than Mozzie’s cynicism.
They’d been mildly drunk when Neal had finally gotten up the nerve to pop the question (not that question, not then, and not ever now), halfway through refilling that old Bordeaux bottle with cheap boxed wine for the third time. Kate had tilted her head to the side, thoughtfully, letting her hair swing down over her shoulder.
“If you have to show what you’re really feeling, at least never show how strongly you’re feeling it,” she’d said.
There’s a reason that Neal will never tell anyone this story.
Peter, of course, has a lot of rules. It’s to be expected. “What happens in the van, stays in the van. I’m the one in charge, thank you very much Neal. Do what I tell you.” Neal has yet to get him to narrow the field down to just one. He suspects it’s because Peter’s biggest rule is to protect, indiscriminately, and a concept that big isn’t something that can be put into words.
When Neal had asked El, she had grinned at him and said, “Most important rule? If you’re late for dinner, Satchmo gets your share.”
There’s a reason that Neal adores Elizabeth, and that’s pretty much it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Neal’s sitting in a little outdoor cafe within his radius, idly diagnosing his fellow diners’ tells, when he gets a text message from Jones.
AT 63RD AND LEX; PETER NOT DOING WELL. NEED ASSISTANCE. -CWJ
Jones has just broken rule number one vis a vis surveillance van protocol. Neal does not panic, because that is rule number one of dealing with unexpected situations. He gets up quickly, pays his bill, and pauses on his way to the van to buy a fruit basket, because having a good cover story is rule number one of forcing your way in somewhere you technically aren’t wanted.
Peter’s dulcet tones greet him when he knocks jauntily on the surveillance van door.
" - hell is he doing here? Let him in."
"What, a man can't randomly visit his colleagues and friends with a fruit basket?" Neal asks, grinning broadly.
Peter groans and covers his face with one hand "Neal..."
All right, maybe the fruit basket hadn’t been the most convincing cover, and maybe Neal had panicked just a tiny bit. Justified: Peter’s face is grayishly pale and glistening with sweat. He looks truly awful. Neal fixes the grin more firmly on his face to cover his apprehension and follows rule number one of unexpected setbacks: seek refuge in audacity. "C'mon, Peter, I made sure they put in some Bartlet pears. El said they were your favorite."
Peter rolls his eyes and starts to stand, probably to forcibly eject Neal from the van. "Oh she did, did she - "
The tiny amount of (bad) color leaves his face and he staggers, clutching his stomach and saying words that, until now, Neal would have thought Peter didn’t actually have in his vocabulary (namely ‘ow’ and ‘fuck’). Neal, Jones, and Diana all rush to steady him and narrowly avoid a badly mistimed comedic collision.
"Abdominal pain?" Neal asks, ducking under Diana’s elbow and kneeling down next to Peter’s chair.
"Yeah,” Peter says grudgingly, hunched over to one side.
"How long?" Neal demands.
"Since last night. After dinner. Thought it was my bad cooking. Agh."
Peter’s cooking really isn’t any good, especially when he isn’t trying to impress El, but this is very clearly not just indigestion. He can’t even sit up straight, for crying out loud. Neal’s surprised Jones didn’t just call an ambulance - except oh, right. Law enforcement surveillance is supposed to be subtle, yet another reason that con-man surveillance is both better and more logical. "Peter, it's probably your appendix."
Peter glares. With the fever-bright eyes and deathly pallor it’s actually a pretty alarming expression. "I don't recall an MD on your list of forged degrees."
Neal brushes this off. It doesn’t take a genius to see that there’s something seriously wrong, and hopefully if Peter weren’t running a stupidly high temperature he would remember that. "I pick up stuff. And even if it's not the appendix, you’re going to the hospital right now. Elizabeth would never forgive me if I let you die while she was out of town.” He half-turns towards Jones and Diana. “You guys can handle things here?"
They nod, clearly worried. Peter scowls.
"Oh, you're giving orders to my team now?"
Right, Peter’s always in charge. Well, Neal reserves the right to step in and depose him when he’s obviously impaired. "Peter Burke, for once in your life, you are going to let somebody else do the bossing around. All right?"
That came out a little more sharply than he’d intended, because Jones’ eyebrows shoot straight up, and maybe he looks a little more obviously upset than he’d strictly like because Peter’s expression softens and he pats Neal awkwardly on the shoulder.
“Oh, fine. Let’s go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Neal flashes Peter’s badge at the hospital and the doctors immediately fall all over themselves to help him, especially when Neal drops some loaded comments about the dangerous assignment he’d been desperately trying to fulfill when he’d collapsed (routine surveillance on a Medicare fraud case - so boring that even Jones had tried to get out of it). Peter glares at him, but the oxygen mask and the agony prevent him from ruining the moment.
After that, it’s just a question of waiting. Neal decides it would be kinder to wait and call El until he has some actual news to relate, so he sits in the waiting room instead and pretends he’s interested in outdated People magazines. It’s better than thinking about all the ways a ruptured appendix can be dangerous, anyway. Seeing Peter keel over like that has rattled Neal more than he’d like to admit. Peter isn’t supposed to be that boneheaded about his own safety - that’s Neal’s gig. Peter is supposed to remember that he has to go home to El and Satchmo. It’s - it’s rules.
Jones and Diana show up after they’re relieved by the next surveillance shift, and the three of them make the kind of slightly forced small talk that even people who know each other well make when they’re worried. Apparently there is an exception to surveillance van rule number one which Neal did not know about; he’s immediately curious, but Jones and Diana look like they’re enjoying having their little secret and Neal strongly suspects that ‘corollary alpha’ basically means ‘this rule not valid in the presence of Neal Caffrey’, which he wholeheartedly approves of. Life, as far as Neal is concerned, is pretty much one big corollary alpha.
Besides, the doctor comes out and tells them that Peter’s going to be fine, and Neal spends several minutes entirely willing to let go of a lot of things he’d normally pursue. Fortunately the feeling stabilises quickly.
Neal knows that immediately post-op Peter’s going to be groggy and weird, so he passes on going in to say hi and goes home instead to call El.
“Hi El,” he says breezily. “Peter just had his appendix out - what’s his favorite dinner?”
“Fortunately for you, Peter already called me from the hospital,” El says dryly. “Are you going to try to smuggle something in to him?”
“That’s against the rules,” Neal says piously.
El snorts. “Well, his most portable favorite’s probably a cheesesteak - I know, don’t ask - but anaesthesia always makes him queasy so you’re probably better off with something simpler.”
Neal contemplates concocting a cheesesteak and shudders. Chicken soup is traditional easy-on-the-stomach fare, and ooh! He can pair it with some nice crostini. Done.
“I’m taking an early flight back,” El continues. “I should get in tomorrow afternoon, so you won’t have to deal with him solo for too long.”
“Don’t worry too much, El,” Neal says seriously. “We’ve got everything under control here - he’s in good hands.”
“Oh, I know,” El says. “But use that formidable imagination of yours for a moment to contemplate the idea of Peter Burke confined to bed and not allowed to do anything for several days.”
“I’ll pick you up from the airport,” Neal says meekly. El laughs.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It’s almost insultingly easy to smuggle the dinner into the hospital. Neal almost turns himself in, just so it’ll be more of a challenge, but reluctantly concedes that this is hardly his most high-level con anyway and it’s just not worth the trouble.
Peter looks up expectantly when Neal enters and immediately focuses on the package in Neal’s hand.
“El told you what I was bringing, didn’t she,” Neal grumbles.
Peter holds up his hands placatingly. “She wanted to make sure I had enough money for bail if you got caught.”
“You two are hilarious,” Neal says sourly, handing over the package anyway.
Peter makes embarrassing-but-flattering noises over the soup and pronounces the crostini to be “weird, but crunchy” (philistine). Neal eyes him from the shockingly uncomfortable guest chair; he’s still pale and can’t really sit up straight, but his eyes have lost that unsettling glitter and his movements are easy and pain-free. He looks... better. Okay. Not like the idiot who nearly passed out cold in the surveillance van.
“Peter, what’s your most important rule?”
Peter stops eating and levels one of those too-sharp looks at Neal over his spoon. Neal hides his wince with the ease of long practice - the question had been too abrupt, too much of a non-sequitur. Neal should have slipped into casual conversation, like he always has before, instead of throwing it out there on its own. Peter knows it’s important now.
Peter lowers his spoon. “You mean in general?” he asks.
“Mm,” Neal says. “Life-lesson kind of rule. Isn’t it your duty as my handler to make sure I understand civilised society?”
Peter snorts, but his expression doesn’t lose any of its intensity. Neal hasn’t fooled him.
“I’d say...” he hesitates for a long moment, watching Neal closely. “Do what you think is right.”
Neal blinks. He’d expected... well, something with a lot more caveats, frankly, and maybe a footnote about not breaking the law. Peter’s rule number one seems dangerously open to interpretation.
“...As long as it’s legal.”
Neal grins - that’s more like it. “Want to know mine?”
Peter gives him a wary look. “Yeah, okay.”
“Always break the rules.”
Peter rolls his eyes. “Don’t you think it’s mean to spring a liar’s paradox on someone who just had an emergency appendectomy?”
Neal laughs, pleased. He loves it when Peter slips and shows that frighteningly intelligent side. “But it’s legal and I thought it was right.”
Peter waves his spoon threateningly. “If this soup wasn’t delicious and I hadn’t already eaten all the toast things I would throw something at you.”
Neal just smiles his most obnoxious con-man smile and uses the side of Peter’s bed as a footrest. Peter gives him that look that’s always made Neal wonder if Peter’s secret calling is actually to be a kindergarten teacher.
“So what’s brought on this sudden interest in rules?”
“Peter, people in my alleged profession always have to know the rules. You can’t shoot at a target you can’t see, you know.”
“A gun metaphor? Honestly?” Peter says, giving up on the last vestiges of soup and putting the container to the side.
Neal shrugs. “All right. Do you know what ‘corollary alpha’ is?”
Peter smiles slightly. “Jones and Diana have never told me.”
Neal smiles back. “So what is it?”
Peter sighs. “It’s basically an acknowledgement that Neal Caffrey comes with his own set of rules, and I know I’m going to regret telling you that.”
Neal stretches, satisfied. “Tell you what - I won’t tell them you told me if you promise me something.”
“Now I know I regret it,” Peter mutters. “What are you asking for?”
Neal discards the flippant attitude and levels a sharp gaze of his own at Peter. “No matter what else happens, Peter Burke goes home to El and Satchmo.”
“Deal?” Neal presses.
“...Deal,” Peter says, his expression oddly sad.
Neal nods, satisfied. Rules have power, especially to those who believe in them, and someone like him asking someone like Peter to follow a rule gives it a particular sort of emphasis. Peter’s never been that reckless, not by Neal’s standards, anyway, but now Neal’s sure he’ll be extra careful.
Following the rules makes you safe, after all, and breaking them makes you dangerous. It’s for the best if Neal’s the dangerous one in this partnership, because Neal will break every rule but one: protect the people you care for.
Well, and ‘never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line’. Seriously - that never goes well.