They closed the Feretti case on a high note, with all three original paintings and the copies recovered. And Neal hadn't even tried to swipe any of them. And it was Friday, so the four of them ended up sharing a booth at Pantheon to celebrate. Peter stood the first round, and they scarfed down two orders of onion rings in about ninety seconds flat, while Neal did an eerily spot-on impression of the perp's attempted cross-dressing disguise.
"He's a guy playing a guy badly playing a girl," Peter said to Jones. "That's like Shakespeare, or something."
"I played Lysander once, did I ever tell you?" Neal asked, diverted.
"Of course he's acted on the stage," Cruz said, rolling her eyes.
"The world is a stage," Peter said without thinking, and realized only after that Neal had said it at exactly the same time.
"Next round's on me," Neal said, bouncing up. "Someone want to help carry?"
Jones was on the end, so he went. Peter tracked them across the room out of the corner of his eye. Jones was a good guy, but Peter could never bring himself to really trust anyone's eyes on Neal but his.
"Oh my God, are they carding him?" Cruz asked, sniggering.
Peter winced, a little appalled as he tried to remember the last time that'd happened to him. But Neal did have one of those faces that could add or drop a decade with just the right smile – perfected in front of the mirror, of course.
They came back with something in tall fancy glasses that was definitely not beer. Figured. Jones was frowning, but Neal started in on Cruz right away, and had her laughing with him in just a minute. Peter wondered if she knew Neal kept flirting with her because she didn't always like him much, and for him it was like a climber doing the same bit of tricky overhang again and again until he had it right.
Peter cut the night short before nine, because he still had to drive Neal home and Elizabeth had a Friday night off for the first time in a month. Also, he was informed, because he was getting old and boring. Neal was chatty in the car, and cheerful enough that Peter started to wonder just what he and Haversham were planning to do with the rest of the evening.
"Competitive Scrabble. No, seriously," Neal said when he asked. "Want to join us? Well, say hi to Elizabeth for me, then."
And Peter didn't hear a peep from him until he hopped back in the car on Monday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. His tracker maps for the weekend were unimpeachable – he'd stayed in, mostly, aside from one movie on Saturday night and a trip to the grocery store on Sunday.
"Morning!" he said, and handed Peter a travel mug of ridiculous coffee. "Anyone stolen anything good?"
"Not that I've heard," Peter said, pulling out into traffic. "You know something I don't?"
"Nope," Neal said. "Just hoping for something other than paper trails today."
That's what they had, though. Neal lounged in the conference room, files on his knee, and discoursed casually about the role of mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps in the market collapse. Peter sent him out to fetch lunch, because Neal always turned up his nose unless their sandwiches cost as much as a pair of good shoes, and also just because he could.
Jones came in three minutes after Neal left. "Uh, Boss?"
"You remember Friday at the bar?" Jones looked uneasy.
"Oh God," Peter said wearily. "What did he do?"
"Um, he got carded," Jones said. "Only I was standing right behind him and I was looking over his shoulder, and the ID he used didn't say 'Neal Caffrey.'"
"Damn it," Peter said with feeling. "Okay, thanks, I'll deal with it."
"Sure," Jones said, visibly relieved not to be asked to do anything.
Peter thought about it hard until Neal came back with lunch, then stewed the rest of the afternoon. If Neal noticed, he didn't ask.
Peter gathered up his things and his convict promptly at six, which made a nice change. Shame about the reason, though.
Neal looked over as soon as he realized they weren't heading to June's. "You springing for dinner?" he asked.
"No," Peter snapped, then was forced in truthfulness to correct that to, "Elizabeth is cooking."
"You should warn me about these things ahead of time," Neal said, annoyed. "Now I'm showing up without a hostess gift."
"She'll get over it," Peter said, and turned the radio up.
Elizabeth had work spread out over the table when they came in, and the whole house smelled like baking lasagna.
"Hey guys," she said, looking up. "How was your day?"
"So boring," Neal said, hanging up his coat. "That smells delicious."
"Hey." Peter leaned over and kissed her upturned mouth. She kissed him back and snagged one finger through the top button of his shirt. Her eyes flicked from him to Neal and back again.
"Does Sachmo need a walk?" she asked.
"Yeah, it seems like he does," Peter said, and craned his head down to kiss her wrist. "Thank you."
Neal watched her go, eyebrows up, then turned back to Peter. "Okay," he said. "I'm waiting for the punch line."
"Sit down," Peter said.
Neal came over and sat in Elizabeth's seat, his hands open on the table. Peter was still leaning right there, and he just stayed put in Neal's space. "Your wallet," he said, and extended a hand.
Neal looked comically betrayed. "Peter, I'm disappointed in you. This from the man who made me read all that fourth amendment law."
"You clearly didn't get to the part about reduced expectations of privacy for convicted persons in custody," Peter said, annoyed. "That, or you just haven't been paying any attention for the past six months. Come on, let's see it."
Neal stared back at him for a long moment, and Peter actually began to think he would refuse. And to worry about what he'd do then. He could win this battle, he was certain of that, but Neal just didn't turn these things into battles. He lodged his protests for however long it took him to come up with a plan, and then he gave in with grace, every time. The trick was just to keep on top of him after that. So if he actually said no . . . .
Then Neal dropped his eyes and reached into his pocket. Peter accepted the wallet in silence and flicked open the magnetic clasp. Ninety dollars in cash, which appeared to be genuine, at least at a glance. No photos, but there was a neatly folded bundle of receipts. Okay, that was the Chinese they'd had last week, and there were the groceries. But then there was sushi – clearly for two – and three hundred bucks worth of painting supplies, and another five hundred at a French company whose name he memorized. None of those were on the credit card Peter monitored.
There was a whole whack of plastic, actually. Neal's proper ID was on top, with a Visa and Discover behind it. Then an ID for Jared K. Colmes, with Neal half-smiling in the tiny photo. Colmes had a credit card, too, and so did Ian Compton, along with – Jesus – a debit card, all neatly ordered for quick access.
Peter stuck his thumb into the stack, separating out the back three-quarters. He looked up. Neal was looking back, eyes open and calm. "This," Peter said, and snapped the cards against each other. "This could put you back inside for the rest of your life. Is there something you don't get about that?"
Neal shook his head.
Peter breathed out through his nose. "You know, just when I think I've got what makes you tick," he said, pissed off and tired. "I get why you do what you do. You love the art, and you love money, and you love adrenaline, and you really love the part where you make people trust you. But then you do things like this, so fucking stupid . . ." He stopped, but Neal still wasn't saying anything. "No explanations?" Peter asked. "No justifications?"
"No," Neal said. He'd put his hands back on the table and clasped them together; it was the only place where the tension showed.
"Well, that's one good choice you've made," Peter said. He stood up and brought the cards with him into the kitchen. Then he changed his mind and brought them back out to Neal with the scissors in his other hand. "Okay, we're going to try something new from now on," he said. "Here."
Neal took the cards and scissors. "Something new?"
"Yep." Peter leaned against the corner of the table again. Neal looked at him. Peter pointed, and Neal bent his head. The first ID fell in two neat pieces. "I'm going to ask for your wallet," Peter said. "Once in a while. You're not going to know when. Like how I make you show me the tracker." He lifted a hand, though Neal still wasn't looking at him. "And if I think you're just carrying another wallet, I'll frisk you. This stuff's no good to you if you can't carry it, so you're not going to carry it."
Neal kept his head down, eyes hidden. He was cutting up the debit card, meticulously bisecting the magnetic strip up the long axis. "And if I do?"
"You won't," Peter said, because there was just no other option here, and Neal had to see that.
Neal did look up then, hands stilling on the last card. He wasn't giving Peter much, except that he had gone very faintly pink.
"Let's go," Peter said, and Neal cut the last card with a snap.
The kitchen timer went off, and they both jumped. "I got it," Neal said, pushing back from the table. He reached for the scraps of plastic, but Peter intercepted his hands. As if he was that dumb.
Elizabeth came in, windblown and pink-cheeked. Neal hurried to meet her in the kitchen, and when Peter followed, they were leaning over the oven together, consulting on dinner and deciding to give it another five minutes. Elizabeth checked in with him over her shoulder, eyebrows up. Peter shook his head at her and shrugged and made a face, which just about covered it. Elizabeth winced sympathetically and shot an ambiguous look at Neal's politely turned back.
"Wine, Neal?" she asked.
Dinner wasn't awkward, but that was only because Elizabeth and Neal were both really good at managing a conversation. Neal kept pouring the wine. Peter tried to wave him off from a third glass, but Neal said not to worry on his account, he would just take a cab. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea to Peter, so he was comfortably buzzed by the time they were done with dessert.
Five hours later, after Neal had shooed them both off and loaded the dishwasher, then called his cab, and after Elizabeth had heard the whole story and shared a bit in the eternal Neal Caffrey headache, Peter jerked awake in the dark with a vision of that stack of cards behind his eyes. That stack of perfectly organized cards. What the hell? Neal didn't make mistakes. Well. Neal didn't make little mistakes inside his huge, life-destroying mistakes. He certainly didn't pull out the wrong card after just one drink. No, he knew where every card in that stack had been, and he could have shuffled them accurately in the dark.
He'd done it on purpose. Right in front of Jones, because Jones would go to Peter but he wouldn't tell anyone else. And Peter had . . . okay. What had Neal wanted? What was the point?
Peter subsided back into the pillow and stared wakefully into the dark. This one just didn't make sense. Because whatever Neal had been after, it couldn't have been what he'd gotten.
Unless . . . unless it was.
They grabbed him two blocks from home, one guy rushing from the alley as he passed and another coming across the empty street. Neal wouldn't have a chance once they got close, so he dropped his DVD rental bag and took off. He was fast, and he was actually losing them. Probably because they had two more guys waiting around the next corner. Whoops.
They each got an arm, and they swung him face-first into the brickwork, bam, and fuck that hurt. A van came peeling around the corner while he was still blinking the spots from his eyes, and he was in on his back with two of them sitting on him just like that. The other two panted up, and one of them had the duct tape.
They taped his hands behind him, then his mouth closed. He was bleeding from the face plant in the wall, and the blood made pockets of slick heat against the adhesive on his skin.
The car was moving, already picking up speed. "Ankle," someone barked, and Neal lifted his head to watch them cut the tracker. There went that faint hope. These guys knew exactly what they were doing with him. The tracker came off with a snick of shears, and beeped its electronic outrage until someone cracked a window and tossed it. Okay. This is okay. The marshalls are calling Peter, right now his phone is ringing.
One of them patted him down, still silent, and his phone followed the tracker.
Neal breathed through his nose until the black spots at the edge of his vision faded a bit. Then he smiled under the duct tape, just to show himself that he could. He was pretty sure none of them had thought to double back and pick up his DVD bag. Okay. Slow breaths.
He couldn't see his watch, and the panic did weird things to his sense of time. But he was pretty sure they left Manhattan, and he was positive when they finally slowed, turned, and backed into a garage. It was a house, but he only got a quick look at the kitchen before they shoved him down the basement steps and – oh, great – cuffed his taped hands bent up behind him to a steel bar.
He didn't have long to wait before the big cheese came down to see him, complete with heavy flashlight.
"You know who I am?"
Neal nodded. Giacomi. Mob. Running a recently defunct currency counterfeiting operation.
"Good. You got anything to say?"
Neal nodded again, then hissed as Giacomi ripped the tape off his mouth with one yank. "At least count to three next time," he protested, voice cracking.
"You had something to say," Giacomi prompted, unamused.
Neal swallowed, moistening his mouth. "Yeah. I am totally subscribing to Netflix next time."
Giacomi hit him. The hand without the flashlight, at least for now. Neal grunted and curled up, but Giacomi just shouted for one of his guys, who came and pulled Neal's ankles until he was stretched out flat and Giacomi could get at his ribs.
"Okay, okay," Neal said, after a ten-count of that. He was doing his best to sound like a softie, like a guy who really didn't need much to reliably crack. It wasn't that difficult.
"Yeah?" Giacomi asked, foot poised.
"You realize . . ." Neal stopped to pant. Every breath made something scream high up on his right side, and he was maybe thirty seconds from puking all over himself. "You realize counterfeiting, that's Treasury, right? Secret Service, man, it was their case."
"Sure," Giacomi said agreeably. "But one of them goes missing, all hell breaks loose. You go missing, everyone assumes you fucked off to the Caymans. And you were involved." He kicked Neal again, lower down, casually. "I didn't ask for a fucking org chart."
"Yeah," Neal said. Okay. This was the tricky part. "You want your guy back, I get it, but I can't help you. He's in witness protection – his own mother doesn't know where he is."
"I know she doesn't," Giacomi said. Aw, fuck. "But you got all tight with Timmy before he rolled over on us. You seriously telling me you don't know where he is?"
"Seriously," Neal said. It wasn't hard to be sincere, but there was an extra internal density to it when it was actually true. "But I can help you anyway," he said, before Giacomi could decide to disbelieve him and beat him up some more, or to believe him and shoot him in the head.
"Yeah." The goon had let go of his ankles, and Neal painfully inched halfway up into a sit, leveraging the pull on his arms. "Timmy, he was your technical guy, right? Security fibers, seals, printing, that sort of thing?"
"Yeah?" Giacomi said. "Wait, let me guess. You want his job."
"I am so much better than Timmy, I can't even begin to tell you," Neal said fervently.
"Huh." Giacomi rocked back on his heels. "What I hear, that might actually be true."
Neal kept his mouth shut – he knew when not to pile on, thank you very much.
"Huh," Giacomi said again. "We'll see." And he stomped up the stairs, followed by his guys, and left Neal alone in the dark.
Things got a little out of hand after that. Neal found two different positions that let him breathe without feeling like he might pass out, and he inched carefully from one to the other. The pain was pretty awful, and all the adrenaline in the world apparently wouldn't make it quit. Neal had stopped being scared, mostly, back when Giacomi started talking to him, because talking he could handle. He got scared again, alone in the basement, and he chewed his split lip to keep from shouting for help like an idiot. Then he got mad, because he'd been down here for, God, hours? Days? And where the fuck was Peter, watching football? Canvassing the airports like a suspicious jackass?
Then he got scared again, because Giacomi had let him see all their faces. The next time he came down here, he was going to blow Neal's head off. Neal wished very fervently for a little bit that he was back in prison where it was warm, and the only thing he had to worry about was keeping track of who the biggest baddest motherfucker was this month so he could do him enough favors.
And then he just got tired, in this crushing, incredible way that even made him stop hurting a little bit.
He snapped out of it fast, as soon as the noise upstairs got loud enough to actually be real. A lot of feet, stomp stomp stomp, and yelling, and then gunshots in a quick panicked cluster, suddenly cut off.
"Clear!" someone shouted upstairs.
Neal heaved himself by the wrists so he was sitting mostly up. It made everything hurt like he almost couldn't believe, even as it was happening to him, and he let himself shout a bit. Things got suddenly quiet, and then the door banged back and an entire army of SWAT guys came pouring down the stairs. Their flashlights blinded him, and by the time Neal blinked his eyes clear, Peter was there, holstering his gun.
"Hey," Peter said, sliding to a stop on his knees like he was coming into home plate. "Jesus. How bad is it?"
"I'll live," Neal said. "Peter, there were at least five of them—"
"Yeah, got 'em," Peter said, waving this away. "Paramedics'll be here in just a minute. You have any idea who had the handcuff key?"
"Uh." Neal blinked, alarmed to realize that he didn't. The faces were all blurred together. That never happened to him.
"Try this one," Jones said, dropping something into Peter's hand. "Found it on the weapons frisk."
"Okay," Peter said, and crouched up to lean in close. "This is going—" Neal recoiled, hissing at the jag of pain in his ribs. Peter's voice changed, losing the Agent Burke without giving up a scrap of the authority. "Hey, Caffrey. Hey, look at me for a second."
Neal did, exhaling slowly. "Yeah," he said. "It's okay. I'm fine. Go for it."
"This is going to hurt," Peter said, like there'd been no interruption. He did something out of sight, there was a clank, and then Neal's shoulders were screaming as his arms dropped lifelessly to his sides.
"Oh, crap," he said, realizing just what this was going to feel like when the blood flow came back.
"Slow breaths," Peter advised, putting a hand between his shoulder blades.
"Hey," Neal asked. "How long?"
Peter shifted, and for a second the space between them lit up with his cell phone display light. "Eight hours and twenty-eight minutes since I got the call," Peter said. "Your ride's here."
"Ooh," Neal said, thinking longingly of prescription narcotics.
"I'll see you in a little bit," Peter said, tapped his shoulder with a fingertip, and got out of the way.
Neal did his best to check out of the next part, because it wasn't going to be fun. One of the paramedics had a gorgeous abstract tattoo wrapping around his entire forearm; Neal told the guy it was beautiful, then fixed his eyes on it and stared as they got him onto the stretcher and up the stairs.
After that it was just a question of letting himself get washed along by the system. Ambulance ride, lots of questions, then a brief wait in the disorienting ER. He got an IV, first thing, and everything was much better after that.
Elizabeth came in to his little curtained cubicle while a resident was making him do a series of extremely uncomfortable things to prove his hands were still working.
"Hey," she said, coming right over and sliding a hand under his shoulder. "You look like hell."
"Thank you," Neal said. "I'm feeling much better."
Elizabeth laughed. "Your pupils are tiny," she said. "What's the verdict?"
"I'm seven shades of black and blue," Neal reported. "And they want to x-ray my ribs. But otherwise I'm good."
"I want a look inside that shoulder, too," the resident said, wheeling back and snapping his gloves off. "You're going to be getting really friendly with some icepacks for a while."
Elizabeth stole the stool as soon as the resident left, and scooted up close. "Peter asked me to come and hold your hand until he's done at the scene," she said, and suited actions to words.
"He did not," Neal said. He was getting that sense of floating, ethereal perspicacity that meant he was really really high.
She grinned. "Well, technically what he said was, 'Can you go keep an eye on Caffrey so he doesn't get bored and commit insurance fraud for laughs.' But this is what he meant." She squeezed his forearm very carefully. "Can I get you anything?"
"I feel like I should be hungry, but I'm really not," Neal said. He felt like he and his body were floating along, only tenuously connected. "Is there water?"
Elizabeth was really good company. She talked quietly to him when he wanted to be distracted, but seemed to know when to leave him alone. They came to take him to x-ray eventually, which involved a lot of staring at the ceiling while they parked him in the middle of corridors to wait. The resident read the films for him up in radiology, and pronounced three ribs cracked and some shoulder ligaments strained.
When he got back, Peter was there, already in the middle of getting him discharged.
"You need a statement?" Neal asked. He thought seriously about sitting up, then dropped the idea.
"Naw." Peter rested a casual hand on his ankle, right over where the tracker should be. "We've got this one sewed up tight. It can wait until you're not quite so stoned. Come on. I'll get you in the car while El does the pharmacy run."
Neal fell asleep in the back seat, and was only dimly aware of Peter getting him in the house – not June's, huh – and upstairs to the guest bed. The bed was the most comfortable thing in the world.
"Leave it," Neal said, when Peter went to close the blinds. He turned his face into the late morning sun. "It's nice."
"Go to sleep," Peter ordered gruffly.
When Neal woke up, the sunlight was gone and he knew without moving that there was a tracker on his ankle again. Peter had always made someone else do that before, but apparently not this time.
He got out of bed by inches. It looked like early evening. A day ago he'd been cooking dinner for Mozzie and thinking about nice, normal things like faking the U.S. treasury seal.
He just meant to get to the bathroom, but there were voices coming up the stairs. Not fighting, but the intensity of it snagged him, and then Peter said something that sounded like his name. It's not polite to eavesdrop, Neal Anthony. He padded closer to the head of the stairs and leaned against the wall.
". . . talked about this . . ." That was Elizabeth. ". . . question of when."
Peter, then, voice rising and falling as he apparently paced. ". . . can't . . . what we said . . ."
Elizabeth again. ". . . you know he would . . ."
And Peter. "Exactly. . . . I want . . ."
Neal pushed carefully off the wall and gently closed the bathroom door behind him. They were going to be there for a while, and Neal was going to take a nice long shower.
There were clothes waiting on the guest bed when he came out again – a pair of his jeans and a sweater from June's. With, yep, a pair of briefs stuffed in the pocket. The vision of Peter pawing through his underwear was the best thing that'd happened to him since yesterday. Neal made a lightning-quick mental inventory of his apartment, and decided if Peter had taken the opportunity to do a search, he wouldn't have found anything worth worrying about.
Elizabeth was coming up the stairs when Neal made it back out to the hall. She was smiling and serene. "Hey!" she said. "How you feeling?"
Neal suppressed his first two reactions to that, and found a smile. "Okay."
"Uh-huh." Elizabeth gave him a thorough up-and-down. "You hungry? You need to eat with the Vicodin."
He trailed her downstairs, where she fed him stew and crusty French bread and refused to let him have so much as a sip of wine. Peter sat at the table with him, not eating, asking the expected series of questions. Neal was startled to discover just how little he had to tell.
"Don't worry about it," Peter said, jotting rapid notes. "We got them, no problem. The D.A. will charge them with kidnapping, conspiracy, assault and battery, but that's just gravy with everything we got out of the house on the counterfeiting."
"Can I use your phone?" Neal asked abruptly.
Peter slid it across. "I talked to June, who talked to her squeeze Haversham," he said.
"Thanks," Neal said, already dialing. "Hey."
"Oh my God!" Mozzie shouted.
Neal winced. "Still alive, yup," he said.
"Yeah," Mozzie said. "And calling me from an FBI agent's phone. Do you realize you just gave my number to the man?"
"I'm pretty sure the man has your number all on his own," Neal said.
"I'm changing phones," Mozzie said. "As soon as we're done here. I'll get you a new one, too," he added.
"You need money?" Neal asked. "There's a thousand dollars—"
"In the sock drawer, yeah," Mozzie said. "You know, there's a difference between liking the classics and liking the clichés." He paused. "You going to be okay?"
"Peachy keen," Neal said. "I'll see you."
Neal pushed the phone back to Peter, who hadn't even been pretending not to listen. "Go lie on the couch before you fall out of that chair," Peter said, eyes opaque.
The next twenty-four hours were a haze of soreness and narcotics. Neal slept for most of it. Every time he woke up, one or the other of them fed him something and swapped out his ice packs. The Vicodin gave him weird, psychedelic dreams, and Neal started feeling a twitchy jumpiness just under his skin, even while the drugs kept knocking him loopy.
He surfaced from uncomfortable sleep before midnight the second night. He tried lying on his stomach, but it was still no good. So he got up instead and went downstairs to the dark living room. Sachmo padded after, curious and friendly. Neal piled up the couch cushions against his side and turned the TV on mute, just to give his eyes something to track.
Peter appeared five minutes later, feet quiet on the carpet.
"You need anything?" he asked, leaning in the doorway.
"For it to be about three weeks from now," Neal said. "I'm fine." He turned – a complicated process with his ribs – and looked directly at Peter. "Thanks, by the way."
Peter nodded, accepting that. Then he turned away and went down the hall. Neal thought he was going to bed, but there were faint rummaging sounds and then Peter was back and coming to sit beside him.
"Wrists," he said, and produced his handcuffs.
Neal lifted an eyebrow. "Should I have asked before using your aftershave?"
"No, I left it there for you," Peter said, distracted. "Wrists."
Neal offered his hands and Peter cuffed him. The click and ratchets were loud in the quiet.
"Okay," Peter said, sitting back. "Get out of it."
Neal looked down, back up. "Am I supposed to use my teeth?"
Peter huffed annoyance at him. "Just do what you do," he said. "You got out of the bracelets that cop slapped on you in Chicago in 2003."
"I hate to destroy whatever illusions you're nursing," Neal said dryly, "but I had a set of mini picks in my cheek."
"You don't seriously expect me to believe picks are the only way you have of getting out of cuffs," Peter said.
"Well, no," Neal said in all honesty. "A hasp would do the trick. But personally, I've always found it works best to just get the guy who cuffed you to uncuff you again."
Peter shook his head. "Stay there," he said, and went back out.
"Where am I going to go?" Neal asked himself, gently rattling the cuffs.
"Here." Peter dropped a set of picks into his hand. "Let's see it."
"If you insist," Neal said, and flexed his fingers. He hadn't done this in a while, so it took an embarrassing minute-and-a-half. But it came back to him, and he tossed the cuffs at Peter with a grin. "Like riding a bike."
"Again," Peter said, not smiling.
Neal sighed and offered them up for Peter's cuffs. He was faster getting out that time, and he had a little extra concentration available to think about something other than the angle of the picks.
"It wouldn't have mattered, you know," he said, offering the cuffs back again. "They had my hands behind and up. I maybe could have gotten to my back pocket, but not the front and definitely not my mouth."
"I know," Peter said. "Can you pick them when you can't see? Here, turn around."
Neal did. Peter helped re-stack his pillows, then gently drew his arms back behind him. The cuffs were already warm from Neal's body heat.
It was harder to do it behind, not so much because he couldn't see but because it required an entirely different kind of motor control. Peter made him do it three times in succession. Neal could feel his breath on the back of his neck as he leaned close to watch. And every time Peter closed the cuffs on him, Neal's pulse took another jump. He was sweating, just a little.
Peter turned him around again and swapped out the picks for a series of increasingly improbable objects – a penknife, a paperclip. Neal made it work, every time.
"Should you be doing this?" he asked eventually, when they'd been quiet for a while. His voice had gone all low and breathy.
"It's not like I'm teaching you any new tricks," Peter said, eyes on Neal's hands, tracking every tiny movement. "I just need to know you can get out if you need to."
Neal considered that. "Is this like that illegal can of mace Elizabeth has in her purse?"
"How do you know – never mind, don't answer that." Peter swiped a hand across his face. He was smiling. "It's all right when I let you do it," he said.
"Oh," Neal said, and swallowed, dry-mouthed.
Peter cuffed him again, then closed his hands around the bracelets and Neal's wrists. "So," he said, like he was continuing a conversation they'd been having. "Elizabeth thinks I should just dip you and kiss you."
Neal exhaled soundlessly. He kept his face straight, even though there was a part of him leaping up and down and shrieking I knew it! I knew it! You want me so bad! La la la! "Elizabeth is pretty smart," he said.
"I like smart."
"Yeah," Neal said. "Me too. Hey," he added. "Is that what you did with her? Dipped her and kissed her?" He was delighted by this insight into the mating habits of the free range Peter Burke.
"You have cracked ribs," Peter said, not answering. He took his warm hands away and sat back.
"Not really dippable, no," Neal said, shelving the vision. The picks were sitting on Peter's knee; Neal scooped them up with his fingertips and set to work.
"And you're my responsibility," Peter added. He said it like the important word there was responsibility, and not my.
"Mmm," Neal said. He looked down at his hands, which felt a bit like cheating at this point. There was something soothing, almost meditative about picking locks. Poor Peter, so many rules holding him back. The cuffs came off with a quiet click. Neal played with them for a minute, then he put them in Peter's hands. "Okay, I get it," he said. "Only, my ribs hurt like a bitch after all that, so you're going to have to help me out here." He tugged, and Peter scooted closer. The TV light flickered across his face, giving quick flashes of concentration, worry, heat. He still held the cuffs, but he put the other hand up against Neal's sore shoulder as a safeguard. Then Peter waited.
Neal leaned in and kissed him.
Neal went back to June's after three nights, leaving his towels folded in some complicated fancy hotel way, and a spray of tulips for Elizabeth.
"For the hospitality," he said, and did that double cheek kiss thing with her that looked affected on absolutely everyone else in the world but them.
"Mi casa," Elizabeth said, hanging onto his hands. "Are you sure you don't want to stay? I'm feeling a beef bourguignon coming on."
"Thanks, but no thanks," Neal said. He wanted to be alone, Peter judged. Neal was an outwardly social creature occasionally seized by sudden bouts of introversion. Like after he'd been scared half out of his mind, apparently.
Peter drove him home. Neal was already moving a bit better, but his face was still painful to see. He was really lucky to have gotten out with a couple of stitches on the inside of his lip and not, say, a broken nose. Or a bullet to the brainstem. God.
Peter didn't hear anything from him for the next two days, until it was time for his follow-up appointment.
"I think I look like a tough guy," Neal said in the waiting room, leaning far back in his chair to eye himself in the window glass.
Peter snorted. "I think you look like a guy who lost a fight to a tough guy," he said.
"Right," Neal agreed, "but I was in a fight."
"Stick to your strengths," Peter said, flipping a page in a ten month old copy of Time. He slapped a hand down without looking and yanked his wallet out of Neal's fingers. "Not that strength."
He had the weird urge to follow Neal back when his name was called, so he could hear firsthand that the ribs were knitting properly and the soft tissue trauma was healing. He could have, too – it was one of those high-handed things that Neal would have accepted with a lot of sarcasm but no actual complaining. But, well. There were only so many ways Peter had to respect Neal's dignity, what with the watchdog weighing down his ankle and Neal having the impulse control of a ten-year-old. And if there was ever a time when Peter needed to loosen his grip as much as he practically could, it had to be now. Now that they were doing this thing.
This thing which, after Neal came back to work, turned out to be them with benefits. Peter had expected – Peter shouldn't have expected anything, because that was always the first mistake with Neal. But Peter did know him. He'd interviewed Neal's conquests and marks – often the same person. He'd taken Kate's life apart, trying and failing to figure out what made them tick. Hell, he'd electronically surveilled Neal on a solid dozen flirtations and scam dates and actual dates. He knew how Neal was with a partner: extravagantly fun, happy, invested, loyal, an animal in bed. That's what they'd said, even when Peter hadn't asked, and he just knew that Kate would say the same, because Neal was the sort of conman who made it work by making it real.
Except with Peter, he was just . . . the same. When Peter sent him out to grab them deli sandwiches, Neal came back with a ridiculous spread of sushi, but he'd always done things like that. Neal brought him coffee in the morning, and bickered with him over cases, and flirted with everything that caught his eye, right up to and including the Vermeer currently in residence at the Met. The only thing different was that now when Peter brought takeout over at night, they'd talk about the case for maybe ten minutes before crawling all over each other and getting hot and bothered on the couch. It was anomalous Neal Caffrey behavior, and Peter did not like anomalous Neal Caffrey behavior.
"Well, I hate to suggest this," Elizabeth said in bed one night, after listening to Peter's grievances. "But you might have to resort to . . . I don't know . . . talking to him about it."
"It's not that big a problem," Peter said, rolling his eyes.
"Right," Elizabeth said. "Because he's just that pretty."
"Your opinion of the shallowness of my motives is really helpful," Peter said.
Elizabeth lifted her head and smiled at him over her arm. "Oh, Honey. Don't kid yourself. There are oceans shallower than these motives. Turn off the light, will you?"
The thing was, though, that she was right. He and Neal had never talked about what they were doing, not since that surreal night on the couch after all the pieces had rearranged and the attraction had stopped being disastrous and idiotic and started being inevitable.
So Peter ripped a page off the notepad on his desk and wrote, What's in it for you? on it. He folded it into a square and tucked it into the front compartment of his wallet, and put his wallet in his right front pocket.
They spent the first half of that day in the office. Peter was in with Hughes for most of the morning, and when he came back Neal had commandeered his desk and his computer, which Peter was positive he'd left logged out. Peter booted him to the visitor's chair and clicked through the internet history. The Wall Street Journal, Craigslist, Agence France, something called GoFugYourself, the Met's Vermeer page, and a whole slew of blogs in French, the passive aggressive bastard.
"You know, this whole hourly wage slave thing really is as obnoxious as I always thought it would be," Neal said, and wrapped his knuckles on the edge of Peter's desk. "Please tell me we have something to do."
"We have something to do," Peter said agreeably. "Private auction house. They've had some security glitches and we need to verify their procedures before they get a big document shipment from France." Neal drooped a bit, obviously unexcited by the idea of a job without someone smart to be smarter than. "Come on, it'll be great," Peter said. "They've had some camera outages, and this morning there were scuff marks on some containers."
They spent the afternoon at the auction house's offsite storage in Brooklyn, reviewing security and transportation protocols. Neal was bored and unhelpful to start with. He was perfectly happy turning his mind to outwitting another thief or grifter, but the simple task of beefing up someone's security clearly ran against all his instincts. Peter watched him scope the place. Neal lingered just a bit longer over the daily inventory procedures, and Peter knew he'd just figured out how he'd extract what he wanted as reflexively as Peter put milk in his coffee.
Neal perked up a bit when the current private security team dropped in to be resentful at the interlopers.
"Our set-up is uncrackable," Chambers said, rocking forward on his toes aggressively. Peter saw Neal sit up, beginning to smile. Oh God. You just had to say that, didn't you?
"That's what we're here to verify," Peter said. "We appreciate your cooperation. I'm sure you agree your employer has reason to be concerned with the reported camera shorts."
"Ten seconds," Chambers said, shaking his head. "It's weird, I grant you, but not worth wasting your time."
"It's nothing, or it's something," Peter said. "And if it's something, we all really want to know."
The documents arrived that afternoon, including a whole whack of medieval maps that were making the museums crazy, and a letter from Abelard to Heloise that made Neal go all dewey-eyed and soft-spoken.
"You're like a teenager with his first skin mag," Peter said, rolling his eyes.
"Your similes are disgusting, given the context," Neal said, not looking up.
When Peter got home that night, he dropped his keys and opened his wallet. The paper was just where he'd left it, but below his question Neal had written
the cachet of star-crossed romance great sex? blackmail material, obviously. Peter scowled, frustrated by the flippancy. Okay, and the question mark.
"What?" Elizabeth asked, coming up behind him.
"It's not about Vermeer," Peter said slowly.
"Oh-kay . . ." Elizabeth said. "So what is it about?"
Peter shook his head. "I don't know yet," he said. "But not Vermeer. It's . . . it's Neal saying, 'look at my right hand, what's in my right hand,' just so I won't look at his left."
"And what's in his left?" Elizabeth prompted. She rested her small, strong hands on his back.
"Something else," Peter said, thinking it through. "I can't see it quite yet. But he's up to something." He rolled his eyes. "He was born up to something."
Elizabeth was quiet, leaning comfortably into him from behind. "Do you think you're the other distraction?" she asked at last, voice neutral.
Peter barked out an unhappy laugh. "No," he said. "I should. I should think yeah, he crawled into my lap the other night because he has his eye on that Vermeer, and he knows I'm always looking at him, so he needs to change how I'm looking." He put his hands over El's as they slid around his chest. "And maybe it's already worked, because I just don't think so."
"You know him," Elizabeth said, which was one of those obvious things that needed to be repeated periodically anyway. "You get him."
"Yeah." Peter said. "Which is how I know – I know with my gut and, I don't know, my teeth. He's up to something."
"So," El said crisply. "Do what you do. Figure it out."
"Yeah," Peter said, beginning to smile. He leaned over and wrote what are you up to? below Neal's note.
"Um," El said, leaning around his arm to read. "That's very subtle."
"Look at my right hand," Peter said, and turned around to kiss her. "I've got to call Hughes real fast and run something by him, but do you want to order Thai?"
They spent the next day shuttling between the auction house and the offsite storage, babysitting all the toing and froing. There had been no more camera glitches and no inexplicable scuff marks. Neal looked increasingly irritated by the whole thing.
That night, Peter did what he did every night; he pulled up the day's tracker map while Elizabeth was washing her face before bed. All correct and present, except Neal was currently 1.7 miles from June's, in the direction of midtown. Peter pulled up Google Earth and took a look. The GPS was only accurate to fifty or sixty feet, even with the heavy satellite coverage over the city. He couldn't tell if Neal was at the swank Italian restaurant or the hardware store tucked in behind it. He briefly contemplated the very long list of things Neal could be up to in a hardware store, and clicked over to his live credit card statement without a qualm.
Okay, well, there was a pending charge for $110 worth of Italian. Huh. Peter was just about to pull up their menu online to try and figure out if that was one person's worth of swank or two being conservative. But then Elizabeth came out and draped herself over his shoulder, and sometimes there were just better things to do for a little while.
Neal hopped into the car as soon as Peter pulled up the next morning, like he'd been waiting. "Good morning," he said, sipping his coffee. "Did you have a –" he swiveled, stared at Peter, and grinned. "Never mind, you had a really good night."
"How did you – I – that's not--" Peter scowled and choked off that sentence. It clearly wasn't going anywhere. Neal watched him, earnest and attentive. Like Peter didn't have enough to worry about already. "How was your night?" Peter asked.
"Not as good as yours, clearly," Neal said, and turned to look out the window.
It was a good day, on the surface. They had a new case – bond forgery, didn't that just figure – which was good because they were stalled on the auction house. Neal was playful and cheerful. He stole Cruz's stress ball, the one shaped like an actual human heart complete with arteries and valves, and set her a series of three clues to lead to its hiding place. In perfectly rhyming couplets, naturally. Peter pretended to ignore the whole thing, because Neal was more likely to lose interest when he didn't have an audience.
The problem was, Peter didn't believe any of it. Neal's magic was that he could shuffle personas at will and make each look real because each was real, or real enough. And today made the back of Peter's neck itch, because this wasn't real.
He went home before seven, and opened his wallet first thing. The note was gone. Peter searched every crevice, and seriously thought about picking apart the seams just to be sure. Why would he take it and not leave an answer? Unless that was the answer, which in Neal-speak would mean . . . what?
He had dinner with El, then did the dishes for good measure.
"I think I'm going to Neal's," he said, leaning over the back of the couch where she was reading.
She looked up, smiling, then it faded. "Here I went to all the trouble of putting a condom in your wallet," she said. "But you're not going over because he's pretty."
"No," Peter said, then belatedly, "and hey. My wallet is not communal property."
"Sure," El said, and climbed up on her knees to kiss him. "I love you," she said. "Try not to implode, okay?"
"You're just saying that because you haven't gotten laid yet," Peter said.
"Neither have you," she shot back. The playfulness dropped. "And no, that's not the only reason I said it. Good luck."
"Thanks," Peter said on a sigh. It seemed so far away right now, all the things they'd talked about when he'd first taken Neal's crazy prison offer, and then again after Elizabeth had met him, and again and again after that.
He spot-checked the tracker just to be sure Neal was home, then went over without calling. Neal came to the door barefoot, but still in his shirt and slacks. He was the only man Peter had ever met who could spend twelve hours in a dress shirt and not leave a single wrinkle.
"Peter," Neal said warmly. "What a surprise. I have company, but come on in." Peter did. It was Haversham, naturally, just coming down from the roof.
"Oh," Haversham said, pausing and doing a terrible job at surprise. "Hi."
"Please tell me he's better at that," Peter said to Neal, appalled.
"He's great," Neal defended. "He works best under pressure."
"I'm not pressure?" Peter asked.
"Yes," Haversham said instantly.
"Naw," Neal said, leaning against the wall with hands in pockets. "You're a teddy bear. Get you a drink?"
"I don't suppose you have beer," Peter said, without much hope.
"I do," Neal said, all hostly bonhomie.
"Coors?" Peter asked, astonished.
Neal shuddered. "Dogfish Head. Microbrew," he added, off Peter's blank look. "Something that doesn't taste like foamy socks with aluminum."
It was pretty good, actually, Peter admitted privately. Did Neal have to have such finicky, perfect taste in everything?
Well, his taste in friends was . . . interesting. Peter liked Haversham, as much as he could like a guy under these screwy circumstances. But carrying on a conversation with him could be difficult when you couldn't even find a common topic.
"College football?" Peter hazarded, and got two blank faces for his trouble.
"Competitive poker," Neal offered.
"Curling," Haversham said.
"What're you two law-abiding citizens up to tonight?" Peter asked, giving it up as a lost cause.
"Nothing," Haversham said at the same time Neal said, "Scrabble again."
They looked at each other, appalled, like two dance partners who had just stomped on each other's feet. "Nothing?" Neal repeated. "Seriously? Seriously?"
"I'm sorry!" Haversham jabbed a thumb at Peter. "He freaks me out, okay?"
"Right, distracting me with histrionics," Peter said, including them both in his hand gesture. ""Nice, but ineffective."
"It was worth a shot," Neal said, all self-deprecation.
"From the guy who thought the Louvre was worth a shot, that's not saying much. Yeah, I know about that," Peter added, with a fair amount of satisfaction. He doled out these little tidbits of Neal's past carefully for maximum effect. Luckily, he had a pretty damn big stash.
"I didn't take anything," Neal protested. "I just, you know, poked around a bit. Allegedly."
"Uh-huh," Peter said. "And what have you been up to tonight? Allegedly."
"Talking," Neal said. "About something that you don't need to worry about, because everything is perfectly fine and I've got it under control."
Haversham, at whom this clearly had been directed, looked about as convinced as Peter was.
"Sure," Peter said. "By the way, I'm missing something from my wallet. You know anything about that?"
The corner of Neal's mouth tipped up. "Really? You should ask Elizabeth. Seems like she's been in there recently."
Peter swore and slapped his pocket, which was predictably empty. Neal slid the wallet across to him, straight-faced. Peter pocketed it, scowling.
"Dude," Haversham said, impressed. "I didn't even spot that. That was awesome."
Neal preened. "I know."
"I'm getting another beer," Peter said.
When he left an hour later, he had a gentle buzz and his damn wallet. He checked twice. He didn't have answers, a sense of satisfaction, or the note back. Neal had affixed a gold star sticker to the condom packet, though.
Elizabeth was in bed when he got home.
"Okay?" she asked as he crawled in beside her.
"I want to strangle him," Peter said fervently.
"Oh," El said, relieved. "So you two are good, then."
Neal's night apparently hadn't ended with Peter's departure. He was yawning and a little red-eyed the next morning, and just a bit too quiet for Peter's taste. The bond forgery case was in the long, dragging stage where they sat around all day staring at documents, then digital scans of the same documents until their eyeballs fell out. The quiet clearly didn't suit Neal; with no razzle dazzle to hide behind, he was as twitchy as a nervous cat. And he kept getting text messages throughout the morning, one after another that he frowned at and didn't answer.
"Everything all right?" Peter asked over lunch.
"Yes," Neal said. "I've—"
"—got it under control. Yeah, I heard." Peter sighed. "According to you, you had things under control right up to the second I put my cuffs on you and made it count, so you'll forgive me if I don't always trust your judgment."
"You would see it that way," Neal said, smiling like he was in the middle of a photo shoot. "Do you want my chips?"
Peter went home that night to an empty house. El would be in the city until late, babysitting a fancy banquet. Peter boiled himself some pasta, cracked a beer, and channel surfed. He got stuck on competitive poker, which was weirdly mesmerizing.
There was a knock at the door a little before eleven. Peter flipped on the porch light and took a look. His pulse jumped.
"Hi," Neal said when he opened the door. "I'm sorry it's so late."
"El's not here," Peter said. "Come in." He'd finally had to work out a system with the marshalls to let Neal get to him without making their control room board go off at defcon 1, but he missed the heads-up calls telling him exactly when Neal was incoming.
Neal slid by him, shrugging off his jacket and hanging it fussily in the closet. Peter watched his back, smiling. Something sure and self-satisfied was rising in his chest.
"Well," he said, when Neal turned around. "These nighttime visits are always entertaining. Have you figured out who our bond forger is?"
"No," Neal said.
"Had an idea on the auction house?"
"No. Well, yes, actually, it was the head of security, but that's not the point."
"Well yeah," Peter said. "Securing his job, that was obvious."
"Yeah," Neal agreed distractedly. "Look, can we sit down?"
Peter gestured him into the living room. Neal perched on the couch, and Peter sat in the corner next to him. "So?" he prompted when Neal still hesitated. Come on, come on, come on.
"I took the letter," Neal said, looking straight at him. "The Abelard and Heloise. I made a copy. It was pretty good, for the time I had. And I swapped them two nights ago."
"Of course you did," Peter said. He tipped his head back and let out a huge breath. Neal was waiting when he looked down again, straight-backed and quiet. "So," Peter said evenly, "have you unloaded it yet?"
"No," Neal said. "No, I wasn't doing it for—" he shook his head. "Look, that guy just pissed me off, okay? Their security was not unbreakable, no one's security is unbreakable. I just wanted to make a point, you know? I was going to wait a few days then point out my fake to them and show them how I did it."
Show off how he'd done it, he meant. "Which is why you pulled it at night," Peter said. "You could have done it during the day, even though I was watching you, but you wanted it to clearly be an external job." He narrowed his eyes at Neal. "I'd like to point out that your anklet never went anywhere near Brooklyn that night."
"I took it," Neal said immediately. "My idea, my plan, my fake. Can we leave it at that?"
"For now," Peter said. Haversham was a complication for another time. "So," he said. "Are you telling me this just to piss me off?"
"No," Neal said, wincing faintly. "See, um, once I got the letter home and had more than a minute to look at it, well." He produced it, protected in plastic, from his vest. "It's a fake," he said, setting it lightly on the coffee table. "A decent one, but not great. Peter, someone got there first."
"That must have been one hell of a shock," Peter said.
Neal blew out a breath. "It was a little . . . disconcerting," he said. "And I don't have any idea who we're dealing with. It's not Chambers, unless he has a lot of really big secrets."
"And they moved it out of storage this morning ahead of schedule," Peter said, smiling grimly. "And you can't switch it back." He inhaled. "So you came to me."
"Yeah," Neal said, opening his eyes wide. "You keep talking about full disclosure and trust. And I figured, you know, I kind of need backup here if this isn't going to get ugly."
"Oh, nice," Peter said, appreciative of the performance.
Neal looked momentarily offended, then his lips twitched and his eyes crinkled. "It's a habit, okay?" he said.
"You've got a lot of those," Peter said pointedly. Then he stopped, blinking under one of those bolt-from-the-blue realizations that only came on the very hardest cases. "Your wallet," he said.
Neal blinked. "Peter, this is hardly—"
"Right now," Peter said, holding out his hand.
Neal dug it out, lips pressed tight. Peter flipped it open. He didn't bother with the money or the cards, except to verify that everything in the stack was Neal Caffrey's. All he wanted was – yes, he knew it, the familiar folded up note stuck into the coin pocket. He fished it out, feeling pretty damn smug.
"Wait, so," Neal said, touching his wrist. "Let's not get distracted here. Aren't we going to figure out who stole the letter?"
"Before you, you mean?" Peter said. He abandoned the note on the coffee table for the moment and turned to face Neal. Damn, but this was good. "There's no need," he said. "I know exactly where it is."
He got a full three seconds of Neal Caffrey looking like he'd just completely lost the plot, which was the sort of rare art that Peter preferred to collect, thank you. Then Neal's brain fired up again, and he was frowning hard at Peter.
"Where?" he asked.
"Already at the auction house," Peter said. "It's been there for three days."
"And how," Neal asked, "do you know that?"
"Well, it was my idea," Peter said. He could really get used to this. "An extra layer of security never hurts, and the auction house had a passable reproduction in inventory."
"Oh," Neal said. "And also, that way, you could . . . you could set me up."
"Yes," Peter said simply. This was the part with the most uncertainty. Not whether Neal would go for the bait – that had been inevitable the second Chambers had unwittingly dangled it out there. At that point, it was just about damage control. And Peter was almost sure that Neal would be wryly appreciative of the whole thing, and that he'd get it. This was how they'd talked to each other for three years of the chase, after all, in move and counter-move. And he'd learned Neal that way, long before they could ever spend a night bickering over takeout, and even longer before he could kiss Neal good morning over that ridiculous coffee.
So he was almost sure that this was going to be okay. But Neal's face wasn't doing quite what he'd expected it to.
"Peter," Neal said, flushed. "That's – you – that was sneaky."
"Look," Peter said, a bit worried. "I just wanted to be sure you knew that – that I know you, and . . ."
"Sure, whatever," Neal said, waving that away. "But Peter. This whole thing. It was – it was devious." And he slid off the couch in one liquid move. "I have got to suck your dick right now," he said, and went for Peter's buckle.
Peter was already mostly hard, because that was just what happened when he got one over on Neal. "Uh," he blurted, as Neal started unzipping him, then dropped his hands, leaned in, and did it with his teeth.
"Objections?" Neal asked. He pulled Peter's dick out with his warm hands and rested his lips at the crown. And waited.
"No objections," Peter said. He felt like a Vegas slot machine about thirty seconds from the really big jackpot.
Which was when Elizabeth's key rattled in the lock. Neal startled, and his eyes popped wide and questioning.
"Don't move," Peter said, and Neal froze, his mouth still just teasing the tip of Peter's dick. Peter had gotten screamingly hard five seconds before on the anticipation alone; the sudden jolt of nerves just kicked it up to another pitch entirely. This was going to be fine, they'd talked about this. Hell, the way they'd talked about this, it was going to be great. "That's right," Peter said quietly. "You just stay there. Don't say a word." Like he needed Neal throwing any twisty tangents into the mix.
El came into the entryway. He could hear her heels, and the clatter of her keys and the thump of her purse. Then she came around the corner and stopped on her toes and made a tiny little "oh" sound way down in her chest. They looked at each other over Neal's bent head, the bare arch of his neck, and Elizabeth slowly went pink.
"Can I watch?" she asked.
"Yeah," Peter said. He was the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive.
Elizabeth toed carefully out of her shoes, then she padded across and perched on the arm of the couch beside Peter. "Neal?" she asked. "Can I watch?"
Peter lightly tapped the corner of Neal's mouth. "Answer her."
Neal's eyes had been rolling to track El's progress. He breathed out a hot breath that made Peter quiver, and nodded.
El beamed and leaned into Peter, putting her hands on his shoulders.
"Okay," Peter said hoarsely. "You can move now."
Neal made a hungry, growling noise and slid his mouth down Peter's dick. He was wet and sloppy in all the best ways, and he didn't worry about the porn star noises he was making. Peter's hips jerked, and Neal just took it, his eyes wide and dark as he stared up at Peter. It was better than he'd imagined, even, and he'd had a number of extremely improbable thoughts about Neal's mouth.
"Oh God," Peter said, laughing a little crazily.
Neal hummed, and reached up to guide Peter's hand to the back of his head. He eased up, keeping his mouth loose on the crown of Peter's dick and gently tonguing him.
"He wants you to fuck his mouth," El said into Peter's ear. "Isn't that right, Neal?"
Neal blinked assent and sucked two quick, hard pulses. Peter's breath shuddered out, and he slid his hand around to fit it to Neal's face, thumb riding his jaw.
"Tell me if I—" he said jaggedly, and pushed in. He didn't have great leverage, the way he was sitting, which was probably for the best, because Peter didn't know what else could have held him back. He was rougher than he meant to be, anyway, but Neal just took every thrust and asked for more.
"He likes it," El said, her breath rushing against Peter's ear. They were both speaking very quietly. "Peter, you can't see, but he can't stop touching himself."
Peter reached up with his free hand and El grabbed it tight. They clutched each other, and Peter whined harshly between his clamped teeth. He touched Neal's lip with the tip of his thumb, then let it drag a little roughly against the side of his dick as he fucked Neal's mouth. He couldn't really get as deep as he wanted – as deep as Neal wanted him. But he could if he were standing up, if he had Neal on his knees with his head tilted back . . .
He wanted that. And he wanted, with a keen shock, to know what it was like to go down on Neal. He wanted the texture of Neal's skin on his tongue, he wanted to know if Neal smelled so good everywhere.
"Neal, can he come in your mouth?" El asked, and thank God, because Peter was clinging to manners by a taut-stretched thread.
Neal's eyes rolled from El to Peter, and Peter thought, That's right, my wife is completely smoking hot. Then Neal eased back, gently countering the pressure of Peter's hand until he could talk.
"He can come wherever he wants," he said to El. "My mouth, my face, my—"
Peter tugged his hair and Neal laughed and complied, eyes sparkling. He sucked Peter down, and Peter pushed one, two, three and bang, lights out. He thumped his head back into the couch, eyes squeezed tight shut, and let it all go.
Some dizzied time later, El squeezed his hand. "Hey," she said. "You want to see this."
Peter opened his eyes and looked down. Neal was sitting back on his knees, dick in hand, arched back and putting on a pretty show. He tilted his chin down as soon as Peter looked, met his eyes, and came.
He sat there for a minute, panting, then looked up at El. "There," he said, grinning. "You can't tell me even the East German judge was cranky about that one."
"The East German judge hasn't gotten hers yet," El shot back.
Neal's smile didn't change, but something else did. "I think I'll leave that one to you," he said lightly to Peter. He zipped himself up and came to his feet in the same motion.
"Oh," El said, letting her disappointment come through. "Well, if that's what you need to do, of course."
"It is," Neal said, and smiled for them both. He scooped up the fake letter. "I'll just hang on to this. Have a good night, Elizabeth. Peter."
He sailed out, dangling his coat from one finger.
"Damn," Elizabeth said with feeling. "Who'd have thought I could spook Neal Caffrey by offering to sleep with him."
"Yeah," Peter said. "But that wasn't Neal spooked."
"No?" El frowned at him, leaning most of her weight onto his shoulder. "I thought all the jaunty was just what he does."
"It is," Peter said grimly. "But that definitely wasn't spooked. That was smug."
He floundered up and reached for the note, still folded on the coffee table. El leaned in to read over his shoulder. On the bottom of the page, under Peter's last question, Neal had written, figure it out. NC, with the initials exactly like he did them on his forgeries.
"Damn it," Peter said. He'd won that one. Not exactly fair and square, but that had been a sweet, perfect victory. And then Neal had taken it back with his sweet, perfect, dirty mouth.
Okay. New strategy.
El didn't know exactly what Peter was thinking after he read Neal's note. Whatever it was, it made him look a little crazy around the eyes, on top of the orgasm dopiness.
"Okay," he said. "I'm going to need backup."
El raised her hand. "Ooh, pick me."
Peter looked up and smiled. "Who else?" he said, and tugged lightly at a loose strand of her hair. He subsided back onto the couch, and El leaned into his shoulder again, slinging an arm around his neck.
"Okay, do we get to have a briefing?" she asked. "And feel free to time it to the length of your refractory period, by the way."
"Oh?" Peter said. He turned his head and rubbed his cheek against the curve of her breast. "You liked watching that?" He found her nipple and pressed it gently between his lips, breath humid through her blouse.
"About as much as I bet you're going to like watching me with him," El said, spine sliding into a curve.
Peter tipped back, inhaling sharply through his nose. "Okay," he said. "You are not allowed to say things like that to me right now." He slowly popped the first button of her blouse, though.
"Okay, okay," El said. "Come on, briefing."
"Right." Peter cleared his throat. "Subject is a thirty one year old Caucasian male, convicted on one count of fraud and suspected in about two dozen other scams and confidence schemes."
"And he's totally gorgeous," El put in helpfully.
"Yeah," Peter said. "And that."
"And observations suggest he gives head like a demon."
Peter's eyes rolled back a little just at the memory. "Seriously," he said. "My dick is broken."
"Please tell me it's not permanent," El said.
"Don't worry." Peter went back to her buttons. "You'll get yours." He twisted up and brushed his lips over the bare upper curve of her breast.
"Briefing," El reminded him, a little breathless.
"Right, that," Peter said, and proceeded to tell her a convoluted story about Vermeer and a letter in an auction house that had her simultaneously appalled and laughing at the end.
"Aww, that's adorable," she said.
Peter blinked at her. He was toying with the last button, and her blouse was gaping open. "It is?" he asked.
"Oh yeah," El said. "You wanted him to know that you know him, and you're always going to be there to catch him. Honey, you do realize that you just wrote him a love letter?"
Peter's fingers jerked and the last button pinged off the coffee table. "Damn it, sorry," he said, and went crawling after it. It was one of those tiny, transparent ones, so it took him a minute. He still didn't really have his expression under control when he found it and brought it back to her, though.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked abruptly. "We can still stop."
"No we can't," El said. She rubbed her knuckles down his cheek. "And I don't want to. You know I'm half crazy about him, too."
"We are so married," Peter said. "Same taste in cons."
El cracked up. It was true, though. She'd fallen for Neal a little bit because Peter already had, and their marriage worked like gravity that way. And then she'd spent more time with Neal, and somewhere it had stopped being about Peter falling for him and started being about them falling for him.
"Do you think he didn't get it?" she asked. "He took off really fast there."
Peter snorted. "He took off really fast because he knows how much it pisses me off every time he does a runner," he said. He glanced down at the note on the coffee table. "And he's daring me."
"Okay," El said, and rubbed her hands together. "So maybe he got it, maybe he didn't. Either way, we need to get him back here for dinner on Friday."
Peter nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Let me—"
El flung out a hand. "Oh no you don't," she said. "If I leave this up to you, it'll take six months and eight thefts for you to get through a conversation, and by that point someone will probably be in jail. I swear to God."
"It works for us," Peter defended.
"Neal is flexible," El said, and grinned. "He'll adapt to other methods."
"Like what?" Peter asked.
"Oh, I don't know," El said. "I was thinking I'd do something completely crazy like asking him." She shrugged her blouse off her shoulders and dropped it behind the couch. "Bet you fifty bucks and winner's orgasm of choice that we can have him for dessert."
Peter actually looked tempted, even though he'd sworn off betting with her nearly five years ago.
"Come on," El said. "I dare you."
Peter's eyes narrowed. "Get over here," he said. He hooked her around the waist and tossed her out flat on the couch. Their hands met at the zipper of her skirt.
"Oh yeah," El said breathlessly as he yanked her panties down. "He's not getting to you at all."
Peter went for her hard, right away, with his tongue on her clit and two fingers crooking inside her. But she'd been waiting for a long time, so that was perfect. El pushed her head back into the cushions and rocked her hips against his mouth. He had end-of-day stubble, but the rough little prickles were really working for her right now.
"Was he as good as he looked?" she asked.
Peter eased back, but she could still feel the words vibrating against her. "I bet he'll be fantastic at this, too." He pulled his fingers out and slid down to lick her hole over and over. El keened. When they got Neal back here, he wouldn't know all her buttons, how to get her where it counted. But Neal was a quick study, and she was sure Peter would teach him.
Peter pushed three fingers into her all at once and sucked her clit, and she came, one of those long, smooth ones that pulsed and eased and then rolled through again more quietly.
"Okay," El said breathlessly. "Top marks from the East German judge."
"Mmm." Peter kissed her clit again, mouth open, then slid up to rest his head on her stomach. "You're really just going to ask him?" he said after a silence.
"It's weird, I know," El said, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. "Just let me take over for a while, okay?"
"Yeah," Peter said. "That's the point of backup."
El texted Neal the next morning thirty seconds after Peter left to go pick him up. Come for dinner on Friday? Neal answered with a prompt, can I bring anything?
Wine and an open-mind, she suggested. I can do that, he responded. Then, ten minutes after that, his tie matches today. Thank you!
She didn't know how it was between them for the next two days. They were still grinding away at a bond forgery, and to hear Peter tell it, getting nowhere very slowly. It was probably best that they had something to focus on rather than each other, as much as that was possible these days.
They presented themselves on Friday night, only fifteen minutes late. Sachmo got there first, and Neal was leaning over to say hi when El came around the corner.
"Hey," she said, and kissed Peter. Neal straightened as they were separating, and El ducked right under his arm, stepped up close, and kissed him too. Because there were some lines it was easiest just to cross right away. "Hey," she said to him. "Thanks for coming."
"My pleasure," he said, eyes crinkling. El peeped over her shoulder; Peter looked like someone had just bashed him across the back of the head with a plank. "I hope these work with dinner," Neal said, touching her elbow and showing her a Riesling and a Burgundy.
"Perfect," she said. "Though it might be a while. I'm doing ravioli from scratch, and it's one of those things where your plan is suddenly completely insane when you've still got half to go."
"That happens to him all the time," Peter said meanly.
"I can help," Neal offered at once, ignoring him.
He really could. He left his jacket, tie, and vest over the back of a chair, and plunged right in beside her. It was a two-person kitchen, so Peter stayed at the table, watching them and not saying much.
Neal had made ravioli before – "in Florence, seven years ago, I was working temporarily as a chef's assistant. Fantastic job."
"Swiping the expensive china?" Peter asked.
"How insulting," Neal said to El, mouth curling. "Like I'd stoop to something so—"
"Non lucrative?" Peter suggested.
"Inelegant," Neal said primly. He made ravioli fit for a glossy photo in a cookbook, every edge perfectly lined up, plump with filling but never too much. He paused a few minutes in to crack the Riesling and pour them each a glass. El was already buzzed just on the anticipation, and half a glass made her downright giggly.
Neal was bigger-than-life and ridiculously fun. It made her giddy to flirt with him, to brush her fingers against his as they reached for the same spoon, to curve her body into the hand he set at her waist when he stepped around her to bring Peter a new glass of wine. This was the frothy champagne of early infatuation, and that had always gone to her head like nothing else. God knew it had with Peter, when he'd all but stalked her into dating him. What else could explain that?
And it was even better because Peter was here, watching them and smiling quietly to himself. Having him here made this an even crazier rush, but at the same time he was her safety line, and she was his.
Neal probably didn't believe in safety lines.
Neal assembled the salad for her, then made a noncommittal "mmm" sound over the dressings in the refrigerator door. "Do you mind if I poke around and mix something up?" he asked. Three minutes later, he offered her a taste of something light and tangy, with hints of pepper and something citrusy.
"Ooh," El said, licking her lips. Neal beamed and sashayed out to give Peter the same treatment.
Dinner was great. They sank the Riesling quickly, and moved right on to the burgundy. Peter made a face over the label.
"Okay, where'd you get this?" he asked.
"Check my credit card statement and find out," Neal said, and winked right into Peter's glower.
They ended up on the topic of jobs after Neal told a hysterical story about his Florentine chef friend's deep prawn angst. El had done a fair number of things in her life, and enjoyed most of them. Unlike Peter, who had headed off to Quantico eighteen months after his college graduation. But she had nothing on Neal.
"I've been a croupier," he said, shuffling an invisible deck.
"Oh dear God," Peter said involuntarily. "Fox, henhouse."
"And an au pair," Neal sailed on. "Twin two-year-olds. We had a lot of fun. Oh, and I was a barista for a few months. And an archive librarian's assistant. And a stage magician, off and on. And I spent three months in a women's shoe store, once."
"You were a flight attendant that one time," Peter contributed.
Neal beamed at him. "Thank you, I'd forgotten about that. I was a paralegal, too."
"Art restorer," Peter said meaningfully.
"I worked for a vintner."
"You were a doctor," Peter said, counting things on his fingers.
Neal frowned at him, derailed. "No I wasn't."
"New Orleans, 2004," Peter said. "If you tell me that wasn't you, I have some fascinating video footage to share."
"Oh, that," Neal said. "Peter, I wasn't actually a doctor, I just said I was one. There's a huge difference."
"Of course there is," El said, heading off a scuffle. "Ice cream, boys?"
Neal installed himself at the sink while Peter cleared the table and El packed the leftovers away. Peter slid past her with a stack of plates, then came back and touched her shoulder. El twirled on her feet and tucked into the crook of his arm. He flicked his eyes to Neal's back, gripped her shoulder hard, and inhaled.
"Neal," El said. "Honey, leave the dishes." Neal took his hands out of the water and turned to dry them. El couldn't read his expression. Should she not have called him that? Was that for someone else – for Kate – and not for them?
Wow. They really were gone on him, weren't they?
Neal faced them at last, fingertips hooked in his pockets. He cocked his head to the side and smiled amusedly at them.
"Ah, right," he said. "I believe this is the part where Peter makes me leap first so he's sure he's not coercing me." His expression made it clear what he thought the odds were on that one.
"You like jumping off things," Peter said, then in an undertone to El, "Los Angeles, September 2003, right off a third story balcony, did I ever tell you?"
"Once or twice," El said. She looked back at Neal. "Should we count to three?"
Neal laughed, stepped forward, and opened his arms. El threw herself at him. This was no quick hello peck. Neal slanted his mouth over hers, stroked his fingers down her jaw and settled his thumb lightly at the hollow of her throat. El ran her hands down his back, then figured the hell with it and groped his ass the way she'd been wanting to since about ten seconds after they'd met. She could feel his laugh against her lips.
Peter came up behind her, familiar and warm, and wrapped his arms around them both. El heard him make a quiet little sound, surprised and satisfied.
Being squeezed between them was thrilling. Neal lifted his head, and El eased a few inches out of the way. They kissed like they did everything, competitively and intensely and playfully.
"Hey," El said when they broke apart. "We should relocate."
She could manage to walk and get to second base with one other person. Not so much with two, it turned out. Neal broke away laughingly at the bottom of the stairs after they had each tripped at least once. "Don't take too long," he said, and bounded up the steps.
"You better be stripping," El said, taking off after him.
He was, in an uncharacteristic explosion of clothes. El laughed again and scrabbled at the hem of her sweater. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Peter's shirt go flying, and his shoes went thump thump against the closet door.
They all hit the bed like the first one on won a prize. El ended up in the middle, which was prize enough. Neal's hand was on her breast, Peter's was sliding up her thigh, and they kept leaning across her to kiss each other.
"What does she like?" Neal asked, sliding down and rubbing his mouth wetly over her nipple. El grinned at Peter over his head, because she'd totally called this one.
"Like this," Peter said, and El quivered as they each pushed a finger into her.
Neal was, in fact, really goddamn good with his mouth. And he was even better with Peter leaning over his shoulder, gently scratching his nails down El's belly and saying things like, "yeah, a little harder. Now just push the tip of your tongue into her. You hear that? That's what she likes."
Peter scooted up next to her and had both arms around her when she came. He watched, breathing hard and huge eyed, until El dropped back flat to the bed.
"Okay," she said to Neal, who was still working her with little flickering licks, chasing out every last nerve ending. "Give me a minute, and you are so getting yours."
"Leave it to me," Peter said. He kissed her forehead and climbed over her. El rolled on her side to watch, then managed to get it together enough to crawl over and help when Peter had him on his knees and kept fumbling the lube one-handed.
She kissed Neal and got his distracting hands occupied with her, right up until Peter got a second finger into him and he started making eager little noises and pushing back for more.
"Here," El said, going for the condoms. They'd bought a brand new box for this, the first in years, but strangely it seemed to be already open. El pulled one out, blinked, then leaned far over to stare into the box. She nearly fell off the bed when she burst out laughing. There was a shiny gold star sticker on every packet.
"Caffrey!" Peter barked, outraged. Then, to El, "stop being entertained by him, will you?"
"Why?" she asked, rolling back onto the bed. "You never have."
"And you," Peter said to Neal, magnificently ignoring this. "Are you even capable of taking a three minute bathroom break without shenanigans? Here, let me see that."
He reached for the condom, but Neal snapped it out of El's fingers.
"Allow me," he said. He tore open the packet as he twisted around off his knees. Then he winked at El, popped the condom in his mouth, and slid the latex down Peter's dick with an invisible slide of tongue that made Peter dig both hands into his own thighs.
"Ooh, nice," El said admiringly.
"What did I just say?" Peter asked her, exasperated.
"He thinks it was totally awesome," she told Neal.
"I know," Neal said, beaming impartially at them. Then he bowled Peter over backwards with a shoulder to the chest, and straddled him. "Now stop complaining," he told Peter. "You're about to get really, spectacularly laid."
"Do tell," Peter drawled, folding his hands behind his head.
El had seen her share of porn and then some in her life, but watching Neal riding her husband was different. Porn was a shot straight to the shameless, animal libido; watching them together did that, but it also got her deep in the secret places where only Peter had gone before.
Neal didn't bother starting slowly. He just worked himself down on Peter's dick, neck corded, head back. Then he rolled his hips with a dirty twist that made Peter's look of challenge melt right off his face. Neal leaned forward, hands on Peter's chest, and went for it.
Within a minute Peter was right there with him, one hand at Neal's waist and the other bracing his thigh. They watched each other, unspeaking, and figured out how to get what they both wanted. Peter planted his feet and pushed back, hips jerking up into every other downstroke. The breath puffed out of Neal in time, and El could hear a very faint whine on each exhale.
El scooted closer. It wasn't jealousy she was feeling; she didn't want their attention on her, she wanted to be a part of what they were doing. They looked at her together, Peter with need and Neal with one of his more dazzling smiles. Peter reached out an arm and El tucked herself into it, pressed along his side. She could feel Neal's whole body working against her as he fucked himself on Peter's dick. She touched him, because she really hadn't gotten a chance to yet. He curved his back into her nails and slowed obligingly for her to send curious fingers down to touch where Peter stretched him open. She applied her nails there, too, gently, and Neal arched for that, moaning gratifyingly. She kept going and cupped Peter's balls; he jerked hard and Neal said "ah!" in a shocked voice.
"El," Peter said jaggedly.
She dropped back to her elbows and kissed him. She could have felt their rhythm transmitted to her through Peter's body, even if she couldn't hear the slap of their skin.
She reached down at last and lightly circled her fingers around Neal's dick. She didn't do much, just let him push into her hand, and sometimes squeezed him hard enough to make their rhythm bobble. Neal came first, at the crest of increasingly filthy noises. El pushed closer to Peter and they watched, cheek-to-cheek. Neal smiled at them through it, smug as a cat.
But he didn't stop moving. Peter had him by the hips then, and he was fucking up into him hard, off-rhythm, teeth clenched. He came silently, mouth set, the arm against El turned to iron for long seconds.
Peter was sleepy after, but Neal was bright-eyed and awake.
"You going to take off again?" El asked, reaching across Peter to tug gently on the hair at the nape of his neck.
Neal stretched. "I should," he said complacently. "Is he always this nonverbal after sex? Explains how far behind me he was for most of that three years."
Peter's face was half-buried in the pillow; his one visible eye popped open at that and fixed El with a look of alarmed pleading.
"I think you should stay, if you're taking suggestions," El said. Peter's eye closed as it became clear she wasn't going to tell Neal just how much sex they'd been having in those three years. Or how breathlessly grateful she'd been to him, just a name and a smiling photo, for obsessing her husband in a way that only seemed to enrich their marriage, even then.
"I make a mean omelet," Neal said, swiping Peter's pillow and lounging back against it. "And great mimosas."
"I have no doubt," El said.
He kept the implicit promise. He and Peter were in the kitchen when she came down the next morning. They were bickering, predictable as the sunrise, this time over some esoteric point of the art of omelets.
"Morning," El said, and kissed them in turn, starting with Neal, who was closer. Neal dipped her, then popped a slice of mango into her mouth when he let her up. Peter bit her lip gently and groped her bare ass under her robe.
Neal was already dressed, and El repeatedly caught Peter smirking at his wrinkled shirt. When the dishes were done, Neal covered it with his pristine jacket.
"Well," he said, tilting his head to them. "This was lovely."
"Got somewhere to be?" Peter asked, unapologetically demanding.
Neal's smile didn't flicker. "I do, actually. June is hosting a card party tonight, and I agreed to help cook."
"Try not to fleece any senior citizens," Peter said.
"You'll be back?" El asked.
"If you like," Neal said.
"We like," she said firmly. "Tomorrow. I have a ziti recipe I'd love to try out with you, if you're game."
"I'm always game," Neal said, and flipped his hat onto his head. "It's a date." He paused with the door open and glanced back at them over his shoulder. "And now you can talk about me," he said, and sauntered out.
"Yes, let's," El said as soon as the door had closed.
"What else do we do these days?" Peter asked, but it wasn't really a complaint.
"I get what drives you nuts about him," El said.
Peter blinked at her over the rim of his coffee cup. "Just now, you figured that out, did you?"
"Yes," El said, ignoring the sarcasm. "He really is always in control, isn't he?" Then she shook her head, unhappy. "No, that's not what I mean." There wasn't a word she could come up with to explain it. It was the way he'd known where his best angles were at every second, even in the middle of an orgasm. It was the way he'd been uninhibited and wild, but how he was also glossily photogenic, physically and emotionally.
"Yeah," Peter said, apparently not having the word either. "Pretty much always, as far as I can tell. It's not like he's faking anything--"
"No," El agreed swiftly. She sighed, rubbing the edge of the morning paper between her fingers until they were smudged dark. Neal hadn't been faking, not the desire, not the playfulness, not how much he'd enjoyed himself. But she still wondered how his previous lovers had fallen for that routine, how any of them had managed to believe they'd come away with a grain more of him than he'd parceled out. It made El want to crack him open, greedily, to find out just what was inside.
Then again, maybe that was how his previous lovers had felt; maybe that was how he snared them.
"Any regrets?" Peter asked bluntly.
"No," El said again. "You?"
He shook his head, then nodded. "Yes, but only the expected ones," he said ruefully. "You know this is insane, right?"
"Yep." El nudged him under the table with her bare toes. "Best midlife crisis ever."
Peter snorted. "If so, it's also the longest." He sighed and leaned forward on his elbows. "What are we going to do?"
"Discover persistence and invest in a lot of lube," El said immediately. Then she paused. "Actually, you know, that isn't a bad idea."
"What?" Peter asked.
El contemplated the thought from multiple angles. And positions. Mmm. "Oh," she said. Her nipples had gone hard under her robe. "This is going to require some shopping," she said.
Neal texted her the next morning to say he was bringing focaccia fixings. He showed up ten minutes early that evening because, "Peter's diastolic pressure ticks up one point for every minute I'm ever late."
They ensconced themselves in the kitchen. Peter kept them company from the table, fetching and carrying when summoned, but there was a game on and his attention was finite.
"There," El said as soon as he wandered off to the couch. "Now we can talk about him."
"Oh?" Neal asked with interest, elbow-deep in marinara.
"Well, um." El stared deliberately down at her hands as she chopped. "I just wanted to give you a little heads-up about something?" She let her voice trail up at the end, uncertain.
"Elizabeth." Neal scrubbed his hands lightning fast and came across to touch her wrist. "What is it?"
It wasn't hard to blush, not with Neal standing close beside her with his sleeves rolled back to bare his forearms, and smelling ridiculously good. "Peter has a little fantasy," she got out in a rush.
"Oh really now?" Neal rocked back, beginning to smile.
"I'm not going to tell you what it is," she said, flicking a furtive look out the kitchen door. "But, um. He's kind of nervous, you know? So unless you really don't want to, could you just go along?"
Neal looked like she'd just dangled a lost da Vinci in front of his nose and then told him he had to eat his vegetables first. "You really won't tell me?" he asked. He walked his fingers down her spine and fitted his hand to her waist.
"No," El said, leaning into him. "No, I really shouldn't . . ."
"He'd never know," Neal said softly into the skin of her neck. "I have a great surprised face."
She burbled at that, though it quavered as he gently set his teeth to the join of her neck and shoulder. "I bet you do," she said. "But really, I just wanted to make sure you won't – I don't know, laugh at him."
"I would never," Neal said, big-eyed and sincere. "But are you sure--"
They sprang apart as Peter's footsteps sounded right outside the door.
"Just getting another beer, I promise not to get my bad cook cooties on anything," he said. Then he paused, looking suspiciously between them. "Okay, what?"
"Lemon juice in my eye," El said, at the same time that Neal said, "nothing."
"Uh-huh," Peter said, staring at Neal, who was managing to convey the impression of a guy repeatedly slapping his forehead without moving a muscle.
"Take your terrible beer and go away," Neal said, turning his back. "Dinner in forty-five minutes."
The food was great again. Neal's focaccia was incredible, and Peter made a lot of happy noises over the ziti.
El snatched a moment alone with him during cleanup, while Neal was out wiping down the table.
"Well?" Peter asked, turning on the water as she sidled up next to him.
"He ate it up with a spoon," she said, satisfied.
"You're fantastic," Peter said, and leaned over to kiss her.
"Okay, really," Neal said, coming back in with the towel draped over his arm. "Do the two of you have a dishes fetish?"
"C'mere," Peter said. "And shut up," he added, reeling Neal in by the shirt front. Neal came happily, hooking an arm around each of their waists.
"Because soap suds, I can get into that," he said chattily to Peter. "Though not if it ruins my ha—"
Peter kissed him to shut him up. He pushed in close, tilting Neal's head with a thumb on his jaw. El could see the flick of his tongue and the way he nibbled lingeringly on Neal's lip as he withdrew.
"Ooh," El said, because someone should, and it looked like neither of them was willing to until the other did.
"I get that a lot," Neal said, giving her a full dose of eyelashes.
"You," Peter said, snagging him by the scruff of the neck, "upstairs."
"Any chance he'll throw me over his shoulder next?" Neal asked her, not moving.
"About as likely as you ever doing what you're told," Peter snapped.
Neal mugged extravagant disappointment, and El snorted a laugh. Neal grinned at her, taking two quick hops back from Peter.
"You, upstairs," El said to him. He beamed, twirled on one foot, and trotted out. "And you need to stop making it so fun to mess with you," she added to Peter.
She surprised a look of such melting fondness on his face as he looked after Neal that her breath caught. "No," he said quietly. "I really don't."
She nudged him gently with her shoulder. "Hey," she said, grabbing his hand. "He's putting gold stars on the ties he likes by now – come on."
Neal was, in fact, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed when they got upstairs. He would have been downright demure, if he hadn't been naked. That, and he was fondling a long, black dildo, with a few others and a jumble of leather between his knees.
"Really?" he asked, looking up at them.
"Damn it," Peter muttered behind her. He'd worked out this huge elaborate scenario for how he'd blushingly bring out the paraphernalia, and he was clearly annoyed to have it pre-empted.
"I was in that drawer just yesterday," Neal said, grinning widely at them, "and this definitely wasn't there." He rested his chin in his palms.
"We did some shopping," El said, skimming out of her sweater.
"I see that." Neal hooked a finger through a loop of the harness and dangled it speculatively. "So, Peter, you want to watch your wife fuck me, is that right?"
"That's right," Peter said, giving the bravado right back to him. "You got a problem with that?"
Neal rolled his eyes, just barely, and gave El a look like can you believe this guy? "How do you want me?" he asked her.
"Patient," El said, dropping her panties on top of the rest of her clothes. "This may take a few minutes. Peter, can you help me? Which one do you want?" she added to Neal, climbing up onto the bed and gesturing at the dildos.
Neal opened both his palms to her, magnanimous. "Dealer's choice," he said.
El pondered, chewing her lip, then chose one of the smaller ones, with a pronounced, unnatural curve to it.
"Nice," Neal confirmed when she checked in with him. He was lounging back on the pillows, legs spread, watching through half-lidded eyes.
The harness wasn't actually that complicated – it was only four straps – but El realized quickly that if it didn't fit just right, this was going to be more farce than fun.
"I knew we should have done a practice run," she hissed to Peter.
"Um," Peter said, hands faltering as he tightened a buckle.
"Allow me." Neal came down the bed on his knees and gently nudged Peter away. He had Elizabeth set with just a few minutes of meticulous buckling and tugging. It could have been awkward, the way preparations for sex sometimes were, but Neal's breath was warm on the skin of her thighs as he bent close, and all the pragmatic details couldn't distract her from what she was going to do with him.
"There," Neal said, sitting back on his heels. "You'll want a condom over that," he added, jerking a thumb at the dildo. "Save cleaning later."
"We know," Peter said irritably, getting one.
"Oh?" Neal asked, smirking. "Did you read the manual?"
Peter scowled, ears turning faintly red. "Here," he said, tossing the condom at Neal. "Put your mouth to good use."
"Yeah, totally awesome," Neal said to El, and did as he was told. He snuck a finger up to tease lightly at her pussy while he did it, then managed to trip the switch of the tiny vibrator at the base of the dildo.
"Oops," he said, grinning up from between her thighs.
"On your knees, I think," El said, breath already coming faster.
Peter stretched him open for her, though the dildo was small and it didn't take much. The vibrator tickled at her while she watched; it wouldn't be enough pressure until she had something to push against – until she had him to push into. She was antsy, trying not to rock her hips into thin air.
"Okay," Peter said at last, getting out of her way. "All yours."
"Thanks," she said, and kissed him, fast and dirty.
It took her a minute to get her knees in the right place inside Neal's, and to figure out that she was going to have to keep herself up straight at first to get the angle right, rather than leaning over him like she wanted to. And then she didn't push hard enough to start, so Neal had to laughingly tell her to put her back into it, come on, he could take it.
She slid into him at last, and ah, she could just push and push against him, that was perfect. "I need you to talk to me," she said to him, squeezing his hip. "Tell me what feels good."
"That," Neal said immediately, shifting beneath her. "When you push down like – ah, there."
She figured out fast what worked for them, how she could grind into him in a way that made him moan, and just right to press the vibrator into her clit. He liked short, hard strokes, too, the kind that made her hips sting a little as they slapped against his ass. She liked the way he arched his back for her, the way she could knock the breath out of him when she had him just right, how she could go as deep as she could and just grind against him if she wanted to. It was really, really hot in this primitive, tidal way that was all about how he was on his knees, and she was in him, she was fucking him, and he loved it.
"You've done this before?" she asked, slowing down.
"A few times," he said, tossing his hair out of his eyes and clearly amused by her little kitchen performance earlier. Good. Best to get rid of the smug, first of all.
"How many is a few?" she asked.
"Three," he said. "No, wait, Barcelona. Four."
"You like it?" she asked.
He grinned at her over his shoulder. "What do you think?"
She stared back, unimpressed, until his smile widened. "Yeah," he said, voice catching a little. "I like it."
She stopped and eased back, reaching out blindly. Peter was right there on his knees beside her, steadying her with both hands around her waist. "Mind if I cut in?"
He already had a condom on; all he had to do was roll Neal over and push in. Neal gasped at the stretch, but he clamped one leg high up around Peter's waist, pulling him in. Peter took his time, moving in slow, steady thrusts. He propped himself on his elbows so he was right in Neal's face, watching him closely.
"That turn you on?" Neal asked, grin firmly in place. "You like watching that?"
"Quiet," Peter said.
Neal frowned at him, put out, but complied. Peter kept moving, relentless, and Neal flushed under his steady stare. El was supposed to be catching her breath; that was difficult, watching them.
Beads of sweat were forming at Peter's temples, and El knew that look on his face, the way he set his mouth. She touched his bicep, ran her hand down his arm and squeezed his hand.
"Yeah." He pulled out of Neal and manhandled him over onto his knees again.
"Oh," Neal said, eyes flicking from Peter to El. He was so hard, it looked like it hurt.
"A bit slow tonight, isn't he?" Peter asked her. He didn't look in much better state.
Neal's eyes narrowed at him. "You know, you could fuck my mouth," he said. "At the same time. I'd love that."
"I could," Peter agreed equably. "But I'm not going to. El?"
She pushed back in, and her hips hitched hard against him involuntarily. It was different this time. Neal wasn't passively helpful – he wriggled under her, pushed back against her rhythm, moved his hips in ways she couldn't follow without warning.
"Hold still," she said at last, exasperated.
"Make me," he flashed over his shoulder at her, eyes sparkling.
"Yeah?" El said. "Any suggestions?" she asked Peter.
Neal piped in before he could answer. "Pull my hair," he said. "Slap my ass. See what happens."
Peter tangled a hand in his hair and pulled his head back. Neal pushed up on his hands, body curving. "Stop it," Peter said, low and definite, and let him go. Neal dropped back to his elbows, and El could feel the shiver that went right through him.
He slid seamlessly into a showy kind of submissiveness, compliant to her every whim. It was impressive, in a way, to watch him shuffle these reflections back at them, trying to find the right one. It didn't last long, not when she went slower and slower and ignored the sweet way he asked for more.
"Come on," he said at last, exasperated. "Fuck me."
"That's better," she said, and did. And she was not going to stop, because she'd stumbled on the perfect angle, and every slap of their bodies jolted the vibrator hard into her. She dug her hands into his hips, hitched them up and back, then pushed at his thighs until he spread them wider. There it was, and she went for it, giving it to him as hard as she could until she came. She was pretty sure she got his thighs wet, too, it was so good.
"Oh my God," she heard Peter say, voice rough. But she was busy falling flat on her ass, getting the vibrator off before it started to hurt, and then wriggling out of the harness. When she looked up again, Peter had Neal on his back, both legs around Peter's waist this time. He was going slow again, with easy rolls of his hips, though it looked like it might kill him. And Neal looked like he wanted to help.
"What do you want?" Neal burst out, after the second time Peter batted his hands away from his dick.
"I'll know it when I see it," Peter said seriously. Then, "you dared me, Neal."
El crawled up beside them and scooted close next to Neal so she could put her arms around him. He leaned into her, his cheek against her breast. He was sweating, and his breath was unsteady. Peter was pressed in so close, she could get her arms around them both and run her hands up and down Peter's back.
She couldn't see Neal's face, so she watched Peter watch him instead. It was like hearing half of their conversation on the phone. Peter went from intent to exasperated to stern, and back to intent again. She didn't know what Neal was doing, but gradually his body eased, something uncoiled as he really settled against her. And at last, Peter's expression went clear and soft. He rested his forehead on Neal's, and El felt their breathing slide into synchrony.
"That's right," Peter said very quietly, the first words in a long time. "That's what I want. Give it to me."
El brushed her fingers down Neal's cheek. He turned his head, his lips catching briefly on her wedding ring, and kissed her palm. Then he came with a quiet breath and a long shudder that seized him and didn't let go until he was limp and wrung out. Peter's sound of wrenched relief overlapped; he pressed his face into Neal's neck, and Neal jerked and whined when El saw Peter bite down.
They cleaned up without saying much. Neal ended up tucked between them, and he was already drifting off when El crawled under the covers. She looked at Peter over his dark head, and Peter looked back.
"He followed us home," she said, a bit wobbly. "Can we keep him?"
Peter huffed out a laugh, and cupped one hand over Neal's head. "Maybe," he said. "Probably not. But we can try, goddammit."
Neal decided spontaneously a week out from his thirty-fourth birthday that he wanted a party. It was a bit of a scramble, but El pitched in before he even asked, and they both liked the planning parts, anyway.
"You just want lots of presents," Peter said, leaning over the back of the couch.
"You realize every time you annoy him, he adds ten people to the guest list, right?" Elizabeth asked, not looking up.
Neal saw Peter make a terrible face out of the corner of his eye. "Do I have to wear a tie to this thing?"
"Where's that to do list?" Neal asked, scrabbling on the coffee table. "'Get Peter new tie.'"
El leaned over, crossed out 'tie,' and put in 'suit.'
"You're my favorite," Neal told her. "Peter, would you care to offer an opinion on canapés?"
It was a fabulous party. New York came up with a pretty spring evening, just for him, and everyone was magically available, even at notice so short it was downright gauche.
"You do not have this many friends," Peter grumbled to him as they crossed the rooftop.
"For an open bar, you bet I do." Neal blew extravagant kisses at a bevy of pretty young docents. "You look great, by the way," he added, scoping Peter from head to toe.
"You're welcome," Peter muttered, tugging hard at the knot Elizabeth had just fixed in his tie.
"Dance with me," she said, coming up between them and hooking her arm through Neal's.
They simultaneously handed their glasses to Peter, who juggled three with a curse, and swept off onto the floor just as a jazzy swing number started up.
"Don't mind Peter," El said, declining Neal's silent invitation to get acrobatic. "He's anxious lately."
Neal readjusted his grip on her hand and admired the contrast of her diamond earrings against her dark hair. "I make it a habit generally not to mind Peter," he said lightly.
"Mmm," El said. There was a brief silence, then she asked, "is it helping? The party?"
Neal blew out a slow breath. "Maybe," he said. "Sorry. I know I've been . . . difficult."
"Restless," El corrected, squeezing his hand. It was a good word. Here he'd been, hoping they hadn't noticed. "Just so you know," El said, "Peter's freaking out because he's convinced himself this is your swansong party."
"He what?" Neal turned them so he could glare at Peter over her shoulder. "That idiot, why did he—" he looked back down at El, and sucked in his breath. "Why would you . . . ."
"You get the anklet off in four months," she said gently.
"I know that," he said, then pulled himself up hard. "Sorry. But look, you can't seriously think I'm going to disappear the minute they cut it." That stung. They gave him that after he'd been right there with them when El's mom died, and when Peter broke his femur. And after they hadn't breathed a word about wanting to get out of miserable winter New York for vacation last November, and had happily barricaded up in their house with him and pretended it was a Swiss chalet.
"No," El said firmly. "I don't think that, no. But I do think you've been . . . restless."
Neal looked away. He'd never been so familiar with a view as he was with this one; he could draw big swaths of the Manhattan skyline with his eyes shut. Then again, he'd never stayed in one place for so long in his life. Except for prison, and those views weren't nearly so good.
"Look," he said. "It's just I . . ." Had thought it was going to be great, finally getting off the leash. But instead found, the closer it got, the more it looked like he was about to jump off a cliff, and this time there was no net. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he said honestly. "I really don't."
"Okay," El said, and smiled at him like it really might be. "Let us know when you figure it out, all right?"
"I will," he said, and handed her off to Jones with a twirl and a flourish.
He made the rounds for a while, then danced for an hour straight – Cruz, June, Donna Hughes, all three of the probies from violent crime, and a good-naturedly tipsy Jones. He thought briefly about staging another sortie in his three-year campaign to get Peter onto a dance floor with him. One day, victory would be his.
But El brought the cake out before he could get across the roof to where Peter was playing a few hands of casual poker with the theater critic from the Times and the head chef at the Rainbow Room. It looked like he was winning, at least.
El had strictly banned Neal from cake selection duties, so he didn't know what was coming until she trundled out with a giant, gold-tinted cheese cake in the shape of a star.
"Oh, nice," Neal said, sniggering uncontrollably.
Everyone gathered around and honest-to-God sang to him, complete with a discordantly awful stab at harmony. And right then, at least for a little while, the party worked perfectly and he was happy again. Giddily so, like he'd been for most of the past three years. Such good years, bickering with Peter and cooking with El and outwitting bad guys.
Until, over the past few weeks, he'd started waking up in the middle of the night and going to watch TV downstairs for hours, or taking Sachmo for long, pre-dawn runs. He was pretty sure Peter didn't pull his maps as often as he used to these days – he wouldn't have to, since he could lay eyes or hands on Neal most hours of the day. But apparently Peter didn't need the tracker to know.
Neal blew out the candles, which took two breaths and a lot of grief from the peanut gallery. When he straightened up to a hail of applause, he looked right across the roof into the face of a very old friend.
It took twelve adrenalized minutes to accept the first piece of cake, to make a spontaneous but witty speech of thanks to his guests, and to slip away from the ensuing well wishes. Simon had retreated to the far end of the roof, out from under the lanterns, and waited leaning against the rail.
"I apologize for crashing," he said as Neal approached.
"If I'd known you were in town, you'd have been top of the list," Neal said. "How are you?"
"Aging," Simon said, with a flash of teeth in the dark. "And you?"
"The same, actually."
There was a brief silence, and then Simon reached out. Neal pounced, and Simon practically lifted him off his feet, pounding his back.
"You maniac," Simon said affectionately. "The F.B.I., you complete lunatic."
"I know, right?" Neal stepped back, grinning. "Isn't it a trip? I heard you retired."
"I did. Sort of." There was a rustle, and then the flare of his lighter. "To the Mediterranean – did I ever take you to that house? Oh, wait, after Turkey, of course I did." He puffed momentarily, and the wave of smoke was like a direct-access pass to a flood of dormant memories. It was some obscure, aromatic European blend that Neal half-seriously suspected was manufactured only for Simon, because he'd never seen the packs anywhere else. The jacket Neal had been wearing the day he stole his first Renaissance master had smelled of it, and so had the gorgeous first edition Keats Simon had given him for Christmas two years before prison.
"And you're . . . visiting?" Neal asked.
"I came to see you," Simon said. He turned to look out over the city, and Neal went to lean next to him with their backs to the party. "I heard you retired," Simon said quietly into the perpetual New York glow.
"I did. Sort of." Neal's pulse began to pick up. Ten years later, both of them changed, but this was the same exact dance. Simon was looking at him sideways, head tipped forward, probably squinting behind the same pair of silver-framed glasses. It was going to be a travesty when his eyes really started going at last.
Simon inhaled a slow lungful of smoke, then said, like he'd been reading Neal's mind, "How's your da Vinci?"
"Oh." Neal shut his eyes. This was. Oh God. Of all the people in the world, Simon had come to him. "Kind of rusty," he said, "but I can make it perfect, Simon. When?"
"Fast," Simon said. "Two weeks, three would be pushing it. I know," he said, throwing up his free hand. "Ridiculously fast, but this is the chance of a lifetime."
Neal nodded. That was putting it mildly.
"And I don't have the eyes for it anymore," Simon said. "Or the hands." He tapped Neal lightly on the forehead. "But I happen to know this young whippersnapper who does, and who also might enjoy a little recreational urban climbing. When's the last time you did any BASE jumping?"
". . . oh," Neal said, coming back to himself with a thump. "Um. Please tell me this is all happening in Manhattan?"
"San Francisco," Simon said comfortably.
Neal sighed, and dropped his head, suddenly exhausted. "There's no way you don't know I'm grounded here," he said.
Simon snorted. "There's no way you can't get off the leash, if only temporarily," he said.
"Yeah," Neal said. "Well, maybe. Look, um, there are these people—"
"Oh good," Simon said. "I was worried you were going to tell me it was a technology issue, but people you can handle."
"Yeah," Neal said quietly. He was suddenly aware of the party noises again. "People I can handle." He wished very much that he hadn't left his drink back with the cake. "I need a day," he said. "To see if I can get away."
"Of course." Simon leaned in and slid a business card into Neal's inside jacket pocket. "Let me know. And Neal? It's good to see you again."
"Yeah," Neal said. "You, too." When he looked up ten seconds later, Simon was gone.
He plunged right back into the middle of the party, because it would make everyone think he'd always been there. He threw a fantastic party – he and El threw a fantastic party. And also, there were lots of presents.
It took him half an hour to figure out what he was going to do, and it was an enormous relief because he spent the entire time quietly freaking out. A da Vinci was waiting for him out there, waiting for him to paint it and waiting for him to have it. And then there was Simon, who really was one of the best, semi-retired or not. The two of them could hole up in a San Francisco penthouse for a few weeks and plan it all out to the second, and then do it, and it would be . . . it would be glory. The sort of thing you waited all your life for.
The sort of thing you would lie to your lovers for. Not without a qualm, but with lots of them, which just meant it was that much more worth it, right?
They could never know, because what they didn't know couldn't hurt them, in so many senses. But he could do this. He could come up with a plan – three years had purchased a lot of wiggle room – and he could get to San Francisco and he could get the da Vinci and he could come home again. And it would be perfect because this, clearly this was just what he'd been needing lately.
It only got messy when he started in on emergency backup plans. If the heist went wrong. If Simon's intel was bad. If they needed more time. If three years of wiggle room – of slowly accrued trust, damn it – wasn't enough. What would happen if he overdrew that account? What would happen if they found out? Those last two were probably the same thing, weren't they?
Funny thing. Relationships were just double-edged cons – you said trust me over and over again until it happened, but by then you'd convinced yourself, too.
So he came up with another plan altogether. It was such a good one, and such a relief, that he was already tipsy by his second glass of champagne, and he ended up in an undignified, giggly huddle under one of the tables with half the office staff.
Peter found them all there, piled like puppies.
"Oh good God," he said, slapping a hand over his eyes. "Neal, stop – stop canoodling, El wants you."
"Not for canoodling?" Neal asked, but crawled out, blinking in the light.
"I think you're supposed to be the suave host and say goodbye to people," Peter said sourly, dropping the tablecloth after him.
"I can do that," Neal said brightly.
Peter grunted and steered him in the right direction. He propelled Neal the last five feet with a shove. "You have ribbon in your hair, by the way," he stage whispered after him.
Mozzie showed up the instant enough people had left for the whole thing to be downgraded from 'a party' to 'the end of a party.' Typical. He brought Neal a book on coping with your mid-thirties subtitled It's All Downhill from Here because he was a bastard, but stuck around to help clean up because he was also a nice guy like that.
"Your friends are lushes," Peter told Neal on his way down with the fourth or fifth load of glasses.
"I once did $95,000 worth of damage to a hotel suite," Neal said, just to rearrange Peter's scale of being appalled.
"Oh come on," El said. "Couldn't you put in the last bit of effort and make it an even 100K?"
"I'll do better next time," Neal promised solemnly.
"That's more than--what were you doing?" Peter was making the exact same face he did whenever Neal made him pay more than ten bucks for a sandwich.
Neal smiled reminiscently. "Turns out it's hard to get oil-based paint out of silk wall hangings," he said. ". . . or sheets."
Neal convinced the two of them to go home just after one thirty when he caught El yawning over the ravaged cake. He and Mozzie stuck around for another hour of half-hearted cleaning, which mostly meant finishing off the champagne and wandering around the quiet rooftop, not saying much.
"Something up?" Mozz asked him out of the blue while he was filling a trash bag with his back turned.
Neal gently set down his glass. "Yeah," he said. "Do you have an emergency bag packed?"
Mozzie snorted. "I have five for different occasions. Are we talking government raid, zombie apocalypse, or a quick jaunt to Chicago to pick up some assets for you?"
"More like a job," Neal said. "A few weeks. And I'm coming along."
Mozzie turned around for that. He didn't look surprised very often, but hey, there it was. "Neal," he said. "Are you sure you want to do that?"
Neal sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. "No," he said. "But I'm about to go and find out, so stay by the phone, okay?"
There was a light on when the cab dropped him in front of Peter and El's. That wasn't weird – he hadn't said he was coming, but they'd known he would. The weird part was that Peter was waiting up for him, sitting on the couch with the TV on low.
"Hey," Neal said, leaning in the doorway. "Can't sleep?"
"Something like that," Peter said. He switched off the TV and turned to sit sideways on the couch, facing Neal. There was a silence, and Neal breathed in, constructing the story in his head. The trick to making it work was believing it yourself. And it was perfectly plausible, the whole song-and-dance about an old friend in need, about quietly returning stolen property before some heavies really started hurting people. Simon would back him up without any coaching if it came to that, though Neal would really rather not go there.
There was maybe a twenty percent chance that Peter would buy it. And even then, there would be a lot of tricky verification and promises. If he didn't buy it, well, hey, Neal had tried his best. There was no way out except through Peter. So either way, decision made, nice and neat.
"You're about to lie to me," Peter said.
Neal blinked. "I am?"
"Yeah." Peter sounded tired, and in the lamplight Neal could see the lines around his eyes from all the way over here. "And the thing is, I'd really rather you didn't," Peter said. "So can we just skip that part?"
"It was really more of an embroidery," Neal said automatically. A huge swell of relief crashed through him, so strong he had to close his eyes for a second. So that was a no, then. It was a disappointment, a little, because this was da Vinci. But it was also just so good – and secure, that's what it was -- to have an answer.
"What was it going to be?" Peter asked, looking off past Neal's shoulder. "Access to files? A way out of the country for your friend tonight?"
"No," Neal said, letting more of his weight settle against the doorframe. "It was some time away."
"Outside your radius?"
"Yeah. Preferably with no one knowing. You could figure out a way to do that, right?"
Peter's mouth twisted. "What, like you haven't?"
"I'd bash the tracker with a chisel or something," Neal said promptly. "Can't hit it hard enough to break, but I could dent it so you could plausibly tell the Marshalls I needed a new one. Then activate the new one and just hold off putting it on until I'm back. Stick it at June's and tell everyone I have the plague. They'd never know." He hesitated. "That's the way where you have to compromise yourself the least."
Peter nodded. "Okay," he said.
Neal frowned at him. "I'm sorry?"
"Okay," Peter repeated with a touch of impatience. "I'll call the marshalls in the morning."
"Um," Neal said. "Wait . . . what?"
Peter sighed and shrugged and stood up, all in one complicated motion. "Clearly it's important," he said. "So. Okay."
"But," Neal said. "But you can't just – just do that."
Peter's smile was tired but mocking. "I think I just did." He waited, like he actually expected Neal to be able to come up with something to say. Then he turned his back and headed for the stairs. "You coming to bed?"
"Yeah," Neal said. "I just, uh, I'll be up in a bit."
Peter's footsteps went up the stairs, down the hall, into the bedroom where El was waiting. And then there was silence.
Neal's hands were shaking. It dimly sank in that he was really, really angry. The kind of spitting fury that wanted most to throw things and hear them smash.
That utter, utter jackass. This was not how it was supposed to work. Peter set the rules, and Neal obeyed some of them and closely examined the rest for loopholes. Peter was not supposed to just wipe them all off the board in one swoop and leave Neal dangling out here without . . .
How dare he?
He yanked out his phone and texted Mozzie the abort. Then, more slowly, he pulled out Simon's card. There was a phone number and an email. Neal bit his lip and emailed like a coward. I can't. I'm sorry.
He went upstairs, not bothering to be quiet. Peter was wide awake, but El stirred and complained when Neal flipped on the overhead light.
"Neal?" she asked.
"What happens when the tracker comes off?" Neal demanded. It wasn't at all what he'd intended to say, but out it came anyway.
"Ah." Peter pressed his lips together. "Then the tracker comes off," he said.
Neal stomped across the room and loomed over him. "And?"
"And depends on you," Peter said.
"No it doesn't," Neal snapped.
"Yes," Peter contradicted, raising his voice for the first time all night. "Yes, Neal, it really does."
"So, what?" Neal said. "You're going to – you're just going to stop?"
Peter's hands flashed out. He caught Neal hard by the wrists and yanked. Neal sprawled across him, awkward and shocked. "No," Peter said fiercely into his face. He still had Neal's wrists, circling them like cuffs, and he bore down hard for a moment. "I am not going to stop," he said. "I am never—" He snapped his teeth shut and glared. "The rest is up to you."
All of the fight went out of Neal. He dropped his head back and stared at the ceiling. There was a rustle, and El's hands stroked his forehead. "Baby?" she asked.
"Don't call the marshalls," Neal said.
Peter exhaled an enormous breath. "Oh," he said quietly. "Thank God."
Neal sat up enough to see him again. Peter was looking back, and he still had Neal's wrists. His jaw was ticking, but he wasn't pissed off, not really. "Look," Peter said. "I thought I wanted to change you. But it turns out I don't, and what I do want is to make sure you don't spend the rest of your life in a cage, or get fucking arrested in China, or—" his voice roughened "—get shot by some security guard. And I want you to be happy."
Neal swallowed. "That's kind of a lot," he said.
"No kidding." Peter scowled half-heartedly at him.
There was another silence.
"Wow," El said, breaking it. "Peter, honey, I am really impressed. That was almost like communication."
Neal cracked up, and Peter glared for real. "Stop ganging up on me," he said.
"You like it," El and Neal said simultaneously, then grinned at each other and high-fived.
"It's three o'clock in the morning," Peter said. "I don't like anything right now."
"Okay, okay," Neal said, floundering up. "Hang on." He undressed and turned out the light, then padded back to bed. Peter scooted over for him, and rolled to face him when he slid in. Peter wasn't a cuddler, not like Neal was, but he slung a heavy arm around Neal and dragged him in close anyway.
It wasn't that they made him feel so safe, it was that they made him like it.
"Yeah?" Peter asked, sighing.
"What would you have done if I'd gone?"
He'd expected Peter to prevaricate, but apparently he had an answer ready. "I would have transferred out of Financial Crimes," he said.
"Oh," Neal said. So he wouldn't work the case, right. That kind of hurt.
"And then I'd track you down in my spare time," Peter continued. "And I'd go get you, and I'd drag you back here, and I'd leave you for El to deal with."
". . . Oh," Neal said again, in an entirely different tone. "Okay."