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Five reasons Peter is a better person than Neal

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Neal sometimes thinks about all the ways Peter is a better person than he is.

Not all the reasons Peter thinks he's better. Neal still only supports the side of law and order out of courtesy to his friend.

But the reasons Peter is actually better. Neal counts them off, as he lies in bed, trying to think of Peter in a way that won't end with him humping his hand, feeling pathetic for longing for the man who put him away.

1. Peter cares about people, not things. That's true of Neal too of course - just not as true as it is of Peter. When Peter finds out Keller - a murdering bastard who has personally insulted them - might get killed by his debtors, Peter wants to imprison him but also protect him. Neal doesn't want him dead, but he's not about to risk himself to prevent it. Not if Peter weren't there anyway.

But Peter doesn't see why anyone would kill or be killed for money or things. Sure, he likes a nice view, good coffee, but he wouldn't kill for them. He definitely doesn't see why Neal would risk his own life or freedom for a thing, or even for the thrill of accomplishment at getting that thing. And Peter surrounds himself with people like him - El and Diana and Jones and everyone else - people who might like their career or their occasional luxuries, but would never think that the point of life is excitement and beauty and wonder, and who don't think it's all that important for people who love one another to share something extraordinary; they want to be the best, but they don't need to have the best. And Neal doesn't think that he's wrong for loving art or great clothes or exquisite cuisine. Taste is not a sin. But he knows that most people in the world would choose money or an easy life over their duty to others, if the money were just good enough. Almost anyone would. But Peter wouldn't, ever. And he doesn't even like to be around people who might.

Somehow he made an exception for Neal. Maybe he understands that in Neal's worldview, crime is his belief system, not a violation of it. But Neal doubts it. He thinks that maybe he has - incredibly, if only partially - conned Peter Burke into thinking Neal Caffrey is a good person. No, he wouldn't choose money over Moz or Peter or El, since he knew that a relationship is harder to replace than cash or art or even a good plan, but in his younger days, he didn't only con big corporations, and he didn't only steal from flush art institutions. Peter knew a surprising number of Neal's past efforts, but he didn't know all of them, especially from the early days.

He probably wouldn't like Neal as much if he knew. Neal fantasizes sometimes that Peter finds out and forgives him. He doesn't make excuses (you were so young, things were so hard), since he wouldn't be Peter if he did that. But he forgives him. And then he takes off the anklet and, while he's on his knees, gives Neal a skillful blow.

Neal knows this is not going to happen. Neither part of the fantasy.

2. Neal sometimes fantasizes that Peter leaves Elizabeth for him. El is mad and gets revenge by sleeping with every young rising star chef she meets in Europe as she travels to all the best restaurants in France and Italy and Portugal. She emails pictures of herself with all these talented men and women to all the people Peter works with, just to humiliate him. Neal imagines the various pictures - and they are absurdly hot - but he also imagines the blush on Peter's face as he walks around, trying desperately to pretend like everything is fine, and the shame washes over him like something crass and painful, and Neal loves it despite himself. Peter, however, can barely face the world until Neal's unwavering attention cheers him up.

But then she stops being mad. She likes the new lifestyle so much she stays there and so no one feels guilty. Peter and Neal live together in a historic home on Washington Square, with Satchmo, of course. They marry and honeymoon in Bali, then Capri, then Iceland, then Japan, then finish the honeymoon camping in northern Greece to get a glimpse of the last few wild horses of the region. They come home and are happy. Peter and Neal would become so close, over years and decades, that their bodies would just grow accustomed to each other, would fit together so perfectly it felt like a crime to be apart. And in this fantasy, Peter is a sleep humper, rubbing against Neal's ass in bed unconscious, somehow (improbably, Neal knows) managing to kiss Neal's shoulder while rutting. Neal usually wakes up, but not always - but they have been married so long it barely registers, even as Peter is still embarrassed the morning after. But Neal just lies there, perfectly comfortable, enjoying the stimulation and maybe reaching down to get himself off as well.

One day, Neal decides to adopt, and Peter wants to say no, but just like he was never able to say no to El, he can't say no to Neal now either. They adopt from a young mother via a progressive program where birth parents and adoptive parents stay in contact and birth parents are part of the children's lives, and they help the mother fulfill her dreams go to a famous conservatory to train as an operatic soprano. Peter adores the baby boy and spoils him, and so it falls to Neal to be the disciplinarian. He's not good at it, but the child is so sweet and smart and learns by watching Peter to want to do the right thing all his own, so it's okay. They adopt twin girls later, and on their fifth birthday, each gets a nearly identical puppy, a chocolate lab, except one has a cute teeny white spot on her left paw. Neal convinces Peter to retire from his dangerous job to be a full-time dad, and Neal earns money by breaking into museums and galleries to steal their masterpieces, but only as part of publicity stunts designed to garner public interest in art. He would cleverly devise brilliant heists, with doting godfather-to-this-kids Moz of course, and then unveil them at staged public performances, explaining the genius of his theft to the applause of onlookers and gallery owners both, and then he would explain why the art is worth such devotion and risk; he would teach the world to truly know art, and to truly love art, as only thieves and artists can.

This is what Neal calls his 'stupid fantasy.' It is stupid at every step, and Neal knows it, he knows that it as odds with the way the world works in a fundamental way that even the best con can't overcome. For one thing, if Peter left El, she would be crushed and betrayed, and Neal is a shitty shitty person for romanticizing the destruction of the best marriage he's ever seen. Also, El would never do anything that mean to Peter. There might be payback, but not of the public humiliation sort.

More importantly, El would fight to get Peter back. And she would fight well, Neal bets. She would win.

Of course Peter would never, ever, ever leave El for anybody. Least of all Neal.

And Peter would never become this person, would never just magically likes what Neal likes. And if Neal were a better man, he wouldn't want this from Peter.

But once in a while he wants it.

3. Sometimes Neal imagines that Peter is so frustrated with the FBI that he leaves it. But then he is bored all day and Neal has to preoccupy him.

In this fantasy, El doesn't exist. She does somewhere, of course, but she never met Peter and she never held up that sign about Italian food, and Peter is free in the wind once he leaves his job.

Somehow, through an as-yet-undetermined sequence of events, they end up on the run from local police, or more likely, local thugs, in some place with excellent beaches. They have no choice but to sleep on the beach, sand soft underneath them, radiating the heat stored from the long summer day, and they make love, slow and soft and lingering. Neal savors every kiss and gentle nibble, every caress and every slow inch Peter moves into him. Peter has grown a beard and it is rough against his skin, but he moves over Neal so carefully it doesn't hurt. They are naked in front of the ocean, and it feels like they have been there forever, and they fall asleep entangled, as if they were never two separate people at all.

This image strikes Neal as sweet. But then he realizes that in his nicest fantasy, Peter loses (or never had) everything that makes him Peter. Even those unnamed events have the vague shape of convincing Peter to do something criminal - not bending the rules, more like entering a world of lawless abandon and holding Neal's hand while he does it.

And this says something about him, Neal knows. That all he can fantasize about is taking things from Peter.

4. Once in a while - not too often - Neal imagines that it is another time and place and Peter has Neal locked in a dungeon. But he is a kind and tolerant dungeonkeeper, and he brings Neal delicious food and sweet-smelling perfumes to rub on all the places where the chains rub hard against his wrists and ankles. And when Neal is chained up, Peter always threatens to spank him but instead ends up tickling him, making him giggle as he writhes around, pulling against his restraints, pleading with Peter to please stop. When he finally does, he lays sweet kisses all over Neal's body, and though the pecks are chaste, they reveal hidden depths of talent and guile in Peter's lips and tongue.

Pretty much all Neal's fantasies involve Peter's lips and tongue at some point.

In this fantasy, Neal knows that Peter has a wife and a job and a fulfilling life. But when they are in that dungeon, all those things disappear.

Neal, in real life, knows that this fantasy is profoundly fucked up, no matter how sweet it feels while imagining it. First, he knows enough about both prison and history to realize that he - of all people- shouldn't romanticize a dungeon. Second, he realizes that even in this silly piece of fluff, he is still imagining some world where he can have Peter - and Peter can have him - and neither of them have to think about anything or anyone else. Their pleasure, their enjoyment of each other; in that dungeon, there's nothing else.

But the real Peter doesn't believe in this; he lives his life by the idea that you don't ever get to act like your actions don't have consequences, and you don't ever get to forget your promises and commitments and beliefs.

So yet again, he can't think about Peter without imagining taking something from him. Something at his core.

Neal's starting to consider the possibility that being a natural-born thief might not be the compliment he once thought it was.

5. Neal's best fantasy about Peter is also his worst. He feels sick thinking about it. He feels like every code of honor and friendship and loyalty and gratitude and love he has ever felt, and he feels like he deserves to have Peter leave him in the dust and never look back.

The only problem is, it's the fantasy that makes Neal come harder than anything else he can imagine.

In this fantasy, El leaves Peter. She is sick of him putting the job first. It's not because of Neal, so it's not his fault, though it might be indirectly since Neal makes Peter like his job even more, or maybe Neal forgets to remind Peter not to forget her birthday.

But Peter loses El. And he is lost without her.

He is devastated. He takes it out on the people around him, and soon no one but Neal can stand his temper, so it's just the two of them.

But Peter has no patience for the Bureau's rules any more, and without El, he doesn't care as much anyway. So then he has no wife and soon no job, and no purpose, and he is, and it's the first time in his life, utterly without purpose. Nothing to get up in the morning for, nothing to use his intelligence to solve.

He has nothing.

Except Neal.

And Neal is there for him, and Neal comforts him, and Peter's only happiness is in Neal's body, and he doesn't want to answer his phone or even watch the game since it brings up too many memories, and so the only sounds he can stand to hear involve Neal moaning, begging, or ordering. And he refuses to eat unless it's off of Neal's body, and he refuses to shower unless Neal is there too, pinned against the shower wall, and Peter just can't function at all without his only lifeline; his need for Neal is so deep and so primal (or his depression is so great and so brutal) that sex with Neal is the only thing he can manage to do other than sleep and rage. And slowly, Neal gets him to do other things with him, taking walks or watching a DVD, and then eventually finds jobs for Peter to do, insurance investigations or maybe private security consultants. Gradually,painstakingly, Neal builds Peter back up from the lost ball of nothing that he had become.

Peter is Peter again.

And Peter is grateful to Neal forever.

Neal knows this is wrong. To imagine Peter so lost, so broken.

But deep down, Neal knows that this - this horrible, reprehensible fantasy - is actually the only way he might ever get and keep Peter all to himself.

And as he thinks about all the details of this plan, all the contingencies and possibilities and probabilities, Neal notices that at some point, it has stopped being just a stimulating fantasy. It has started to take on the characteristics of a plan.

A back up plan. A just in case, in-the-event-of plan.

But still.

Neal imagines Peter's life being destroyed. So he can get his shot.

Officially the worst person in the world.

Neal never want Peter to know he is capable of thinking about - much less lusting after - anything like this scenario.

So of course it's this one that Neal confesses, high on some drug that he was never supposed to take, falling into Peter's arms as he all but carried Neal to his bedroom at June's place.

Like there aren't enough reasons in the world for Neal to hate himself already.

--

Peter knows Neal. And, despite the appearance otherwise, he knows himself.

He knows that he would have killed Fowler that day, mostly to protect Diana and Neal, but a little bit for himself. For revenge, or something as bad.

He knows that there's something in him that likes to hold power over other people. Likes pushing the limits of that power.

Maybe it's all the lapsed-religious guilt that makes him feel that this thing -this hard pit of something cruel and dominant - makes him less, makes him wrong somehow. El thinks it's just a preference, one that she shares and doesn't feel the least ashamed of.

But Peter knows it's there, and while El's power is just beautiful and right, Peter knows his own is muddier. It's a stain on him that people like Neal and El don't have.

He gathers more evidence to prove it all the time.

For example: he is never more attracted to Neal when Neal is helpless. Cuffed as Peter bends him over the hood of a car. Sitting on his living room floor, begging Peter to listen to his side of events, awaiting Peter's determination of his punishment or release.

Drugged up, babbling, completely un-Nealed by some chemical. No mask, no con, just Peter prying into, pushing his way, into all the secrets Neal spent his life trying to conceal. Even the secrets Peter had no idea he would find.

It was like that, at Dr. Powell's clinic.

It was like that again, when they went after the brand new synthetic drug that was making its rounds in the finance sector, the one that the dealers would provide to high-stressed Wall Street workers and then use to blackmail them to get inside tips.

When Neal was offered the drug, Peter ordered him in the earbud not to take it. But the (presumed) former con artist was too dedicated to keeping his cover. He swallowed it with the rest of the hotshot young financial wizards, and then Peter decided to raid the office a little early.

Neal was walking on the moon all the way home.

But he fell before Peter left, and starting apologizing, started crying.

And Peter knew that if he were a better person, he would walk away. He wouldn't use an altered state to pressure Neal to confess what it was he felt so guilty about. But of course he did.

Neal told him. "El is so awesome, she's so nice to me, she doesn't deserve this, you don't either, you shouldn't even be with someone like me, Peter," he babbled on and on,until finally Peter figured out what his deep, dark fantasy was.

Peter wasn't impressed.

Of course, Peter already knew what kind of person Neal was. It didn't make sense, but Neal always believed that people loved him because - and only because - Neal could give them the world. In Neal's mind, he could give them everything they wanted and anything they missed, and then after Neal achieved that impossible feat, someone would be able to find happiness with Neal.

Peter didn't get why he thought that way. For a while he blamed Kate, until he realized it was just the way Neal was. And to be honest with himself, Peter had used that desire of Neal's - to please at all costs - when he was first trying to get Neal established as a viable choice of consultant.

But here's the thing about Neal, Peter knew. Even his most selfish, most twisted fantasies, were still, at heart, pretty romantic.

Peter knew Neal's shoe size, his favorite comfort food, and every piece of porn Neal ever watched during the years Peter chased him. He knew what turned Neal on, and he know the kinds of things that made Neal squeamish enough to run the other way.

And he knew that there was something inside him that Neal wouldn't be able to love. Peter knew that there was a part of himself that Neal needed his protection from.

And he wanted to tell Neal that. He wanted to say, Stop worrying about your fantasy because mine is a lot more depraved than yours. Mine involves you calling me Master and falling on your knees every time you see me. Your fantasies are about sweet gentle love, and mine are about fucking your face until you cry and choke and I have to yank you by the hair just to keep you upright. You probably feel guilty about dreaming of a spanking, and I'm dreaming about flogging you bloody until you confess every secret you've ever kept. I dream about fucking you against a wall in Central Park, while I see how many fingers I can add while fucking you, until you're screaming and damaged and begging, and neither of us can tell if you're begging me to stop or begging me for more. I dream of coming on your face, of slapping you right where the semen lands to show you who's boss, of forcing the come-and-lube-covered fingers into mouth as you desperately try to resist. I want to fuck you and use you and own you until you can't think of anything but getting yourself ready for me, and the only reason I haven't tried, the only reason I haven't taken advantage of your moon-eyed crush, is that you deserve much, much better than what I can give you.

But Neal was in his arms, leaning on his chest, whispering his pleas, confessing that he wished he could have Peter all to himself and what a very very bad person that made him.

Peter gritted his teeth. He willed himself to do the right thing, silently told his dick to calm down until it just barely started to listen. And he gently guided Neal to the bed, said, "Don't worry, Neal. I like you just fine the way you are," and went to tell June to keep an eye on her lodger that night. There was no way Peter was going to sit in that apartment with him all night, waiting for some excuse to be worse than Neal deserved. Even Peter wasn't fucked up enough to do that.

Chapter Text

Peter had asked Neal about the story one night, celebrating a victory at work with wine at June's place. A little too much wine.

"We should play that game, Neal," he had said, leaning forward a little, pressing into Neal's space.

"Sure, it'd be great for you, your life is an open book anyway," Neal said, half meaning it, half running through his list of things he would really like to know about Peter.

Peter just grinned. "I think you'd be surprised. If you manage to pick the right question."

Neal looked away for a second. Peter could see he was troubled, yanked on Neal's sleeve gently. "Neal, it'd be like a contest. If you think you're as good at asking questions as you are at avoiding them."

Neal smiled and let out a breath. "Yeah, I'm that competitive that I'm going to agree to it just to prove how smart I am."

Peter smiled back, enough predation in it to send a pleasing chill up the back of Neal's neck. "I think you are."

Neal sighed. I really shouldn't drink so much when I'm with Peter, he thought to himself before giving just the briefest of nods.

Delighted, Peter gave Neal a hearty pat on the thigh, lingering just long enough to float in the space between friendly and forward. But then he stood, ready to leave, go home, kiss the one he loved and sleep in the home he made with her.

Neal closed the door behind him as Peter left. That was stupid, he knew. It was dangerous.

But there was that one part of Neal, that part that refused to accept that category of 'Things Neal Caffrey Cannot Have,' and it took his will from him that night. It made him agree to a horrible, horrible deal.

Because he would know, at last, if Peter wanted him the way Neal did.

Neal sometimes thought he might. Too many fond looks for mere pride or friendship. Too many sparks in their conversations, one man leaping in and out of the others thoughts, pulling forward or pushing back, until their words ran fast and easy like fire on a dry branch.

And of course, Peter might not feel anything for him beyond friendship and respect and care. But Neal caught Peter, sometimes, looking at him like he wanted more. And not just looking at Neal's body, at his mouth, but deep, hard looks into Neal's eyes, searching for something even harder to give than answers.

It's possible this is just a fantasy. Neal has always had the problem of hanging on to fantasy.

But Neal has to know.

Of course if he makes Peter admit something he feels guilty about, that could be a problem. If by some odd chance, some desperate hopeful chance, Peter wants Neal, even close to the way Neal wants Peter, then... well, that could be great. Or it could be wrong, wrong, wrong, with Peter feeling guilty and uncomfortable and sealing Neal off from that closeness they had found with each other, that intimacy that let Neal imagine he shared a life with Peter and not just a cameraderie.

And then there would Peter's question. Which would be good, Neal knew.

He kind of hated all the things that Peter was good at sometimes. Though he knew it was mutual.

And Peter's question would have all sorts of ways to strain their tie, to make it crumble. Neal didn't think Peter would use it against him legally, but there are a lot of other things Peter could take.

Neal realizes suddenly then, that he had never told the end of the story. The part where the two noblemen end up dying, hundreds of miles away, poisoned on the same day by assassins hired by the other man. They kept each other's secrets, all right. But the game of truth and lies - it's not really a game.

Neal wondered how it was possible, all of sudden, that he knew that and Peter didn't.

--

"El, I think I may have done something stupid."

"Sounds plausible."

"El, I'm serious."

She looked at him, hands over his face as he lay there with a morning hangover. He did look like he was being serious, and she wondered briefly if he was about to confess that he slept with Neal. How many stupid things could he have done at June's place while drunk, besides the obvious?

"El, I told Neal I would answer one question, and he would have to answer one of mine."

She smiled. "The Italian Duke and the French count, right?"

He nodded, groaned as he sat up in the bed. "Don't ask which one I am, I have no idea."

Let me count the ways that statement is true, she thought. But she asked, "Sounds like a game that's more to your advantage than Neal's?"

He sighed, and then said, "I'm worried about him. If I press him too hard, he's not going to trust me. He's been a little... emotional lately."

"I told you it was more than a crush."

He smiled at her, his 'you were right' smile. "What do you think I should ask him?"

"You mean you need help choosing from your mental list of twenty thousand questions?"

"Yup," he said.

She laughed. "Ask him what you most want to know. Don't play games, just be up front with what you want from him. Answers, or otherwise."

He frowned, thinking of all the things answers he could take from Neal, could use the game to coerce from him. "I don't think that's a good idea."

She peered into him, wondering about that side of him that Neal brought out. That hint of jealousy, not from Neal wanting her husband but from Neal getting to make Peter think things he was deeply ashamed of. She enjoyed it, a little - seeing Peter's self-loathing as he confessed what his latest dream about Neal was, looking to her for comfort, for a promise that he was more than his fantasies. And there was relief, that Peter didn't want her in that way, that fire of need to turn her into his thing. But still, she wondered about it, and why she wasn't part of that side of Peter. Maybe because he knew her, he knew that she would be there always, he didn't want to rip her apart to get at her hidden life.

But her husband was looking for her advice for his and Neal's game of secrets. And she wasn't ready yet to play her own version of the game. So she said, "Whatever you ask him, be careful what you do with the answer."

He nodded, pleased with her wisdom. She found it adorable, his nervousness about him and Neal, his ready acceptance of her advice.

"Who asked to play this game?" she found herself asking.

"Me."

"Why?"

"I...was drunk. And I just..." He bit his lip uncertainly. She sighed, knowing that he probably had no awareness at all of why he did it. Though she had a feeling that she did.

She smiled and put her hand on his cheek, her signal that he didn't have to explain if he didn't know how. He was relieved, she saw, and she wondered briefly if Peter would ever be able to make that same gesture to Neal.

But he just asked her, "What do you think Neal will ask me?

She thought, then: "He's going to ask if you love him back."

He started, looked concerned for some reason. "You think so, El?"

She nodded. "He wants to know. Bad. Even if he's too scared to ask directly, he'll find a way."

"Huh," he said, and leaned toward her a little. She nestled so he could place his hand on her hip, could flex his fingers on her flesh just a little even as he stared ahead at the ceiling.

"Maybe I should call off the game," he said finally. A question for her.

She thought silently. Longer than Peter was expecting, surely. But she answered, "No, you can't back out. It wasn't just a game. It was an agreement."

--

On the day of questions, they get out of work late, and Peter drives him to June's and heads up with them.

Neal offers wine. Peter declines, thinks they should be sober.

Neal thinks that's the worst idea he's ever heard and he's heard some. But he leaves the wine and sits at the table across from Peter. They place their hands on the table as if they really were aristocrats of old, revealing that they are unarmed.

Of course, Peter, as usual, actually is armed.

"Both questions first, then both answers, is how it goes," Neal says.

Peter nods at him, inviting him to ask first.

Neal smiles, and it's all teeth and smirk and knowing laughing eyes. "What's the dirtiest, darkest, most depraved sexual fantasy you've ever had about me?"

Peter's eyes widen as a series of images flash before him. His lips thin and it is obvious he doesn't like the question.

Neal looks satisfied, Peter notes. Like all he was looking for was confirmation that Peter had at some point in passing found Neal attractive. Like he was going to let Peter pretend it was some innocent desire borne from all their time together, something any two friends might have. Even though Neal likely just wanted some small admission to use as an in, as a joke that he could use to fluster Peter and then turn that embarassment into some other beast, some greater devotion.

Of course the great Neal Caffrey wouldn't ask the question that storms the castle. He would whisper the question that would just get him past the guard at the gate.

Too bad Neal has no idea that it wasn't Cinderella's castle. It was Bluebeard's.

Peter wants to get up, run out the door, go home to El and pretend he never had this idiotic idea to play a game like this, to think that he could get away with making everyone think he was an open book when he actually could barely look at himself in the mirror after jacking off to thoughts of Neal. And this irrational desire to run, to screw the consequences, makes him think that for that moment, he has become just like the man across from him.

But Neal is just grinning, thrilled that Peter looks like he's going to be sick, like he thinks that Peter is just humiliated to be caught with a crush.

"So, not so vanilla, are we?" Neal laughs and then swallows nervously. He wants to ask more, he wants to ask if there's more, but he is waiting for the right time, Peter can tell.

"My question. And you answer mine first," Peter says. No use making Neal scared of him before getting his own answer.

"Shoot," Neal says, cocky exaggerated smile on his face. The kind he gets when he is terrified, Peter knows.

"What's the thing you're most afraid I'll find out about you?" Peter asks.

Neal isn't smiling any more then. He sets his jaw. "That's cheating, Peter."

"It's not."

"It's like asking a genie for a million extra wishes. It doesn't count," Neal says, and there is real anger behind it, despite how petulant he sounds.

"You said that we should each ask the best question we could," Peter reminds him, accusation in his voice, wondering if maybe he can get Neal to call the game off, and then hating himself for his own cowardice.

Neal glares at him, and it's not the first time Peter thinks this was a really dumb idea. He can see the thoughts running through Neal's mind as his eyes dart around, can see the lightning fast possibilities imagined and discarded. He can see Neal looking for an escape.

He speaks when he finds it. He looks Peter in the eye and says, "I'm afraid to tell you that sometimes I fantasize that Elizabeth leaves you and you quit your job and then you have nothing. I wish I could see that happen to you." There's spite in his voice, and Peter isn't used to it, but he sees through it anyway.

"You said 'I'm afraid to tell you.' Not what you're most afraid of. There's a difference," Peter points out calmly. He knows better than to point out that Neal had confessed that to him - and the rather innocuous reasons why he wanted it - the last time he got himself drugged out of his mind by not following protocol while on a case.

Neal folds his arms and stares downward. It isn't like him to show his walls so physically, Peter notes.

"Neal," Peter says softly, and he tries his best to make it sound like a promise.

Neal exhales and puts his hands back on the table. He is clenching his fists still.

Finally he says, more quietly than Neal Caffrey has ever said anything, "Cary Nicholls."

Peter searches his memories for what that could mean until he looks again at Neal, who is sitting upright with perfect posture yet still manages to look like he's curling into a ball.

"Oh," Peter says. Neal's real name.

Neal smiles, more bitterness than Peter liked to see in it. "I just didn't want anyone to find out my background is so boring. No deep dark mysterious trauma to make me who I am. It's quite pedestrian." Peter wonders why he would even bother making an excuse like that, why Neal's armor suddenly seems so ill-made.

But Neal is waiting for Peter's answer. His nostrils are flaring, his eyes regretful and accusatory, like the two of them were in a duel and Neal just now realized that Peter was a good shot.

Peter swallows. He feels like if he reaches across the table to grab Neal's hands, Neal might just run out of his own apartment and not come back.

He says, carefully, "Thanks for telling me, Neal. If you want... if you want, I can... not look into it. At least not right away."

Neal looks confused. Peter tries not to think about how much he likes it when Neal looks confused.

"You wouldn't be able to not look the name up," Neal says tentatively.

"I would hate it," Peter agrees readily, "But if it means that much to you... I'll wait. You tell me how long - less than a lifetime- and I will wait to do anything with that name. Not even a google. Unless the one in a million circumstance comes up where your safety relies on me knowing about your childhood, I do nothing with the name."

Neal stares at him for a second, and Peter thinks that this is what he must have looked like to El when she agreed to marry him. Surprised. Like he never thought he would get something that good. Peter cringes just slightly to think that Neal can be so grateful for so little.

Neal asks, not even bothering to hide his relief, "Is this one of those things where you prove to me that I can trust you?" The question is mocking, or pretends to be.

"This is exactly one of those things," Peter confirms.

Neal looks down for a moment and then meets Peter's gaze. "Four years," he says, and waits to see if Peter's word is as good as he thinks it is.

Peter nods. Appropriate choice. Wise, even, in some ways.

Neal exhales and offers another smile, this one warm. He waits almost a minute before remembering to goad Peter again.

"Your turn."

Peter had almost forgotten. For a moment, he thinks that maybe he should have made Neal angry enough to storm out.

But resentment, just a hint, flashes through Neal's eyes, and Peter understands why. Neal just revealed something that was painful to speak aloud, for whatever reason. And in Neal's mind, Peter was holding off on admitting some banal sexual fantasy. Not very fair reciprocation, to match Neal's courage with such cowardice.

"Come on, Peter, the dirtiest, filthiest thing you've ever thought about me," he says, and he sounds genuinely curious, even as he's taking his tiny revenge for Peter's well-chosen question.

Peter reminds himself to face up to his failings. To accept responsibility for the person he is.

He still turns bright red as he says, "We're having sex."

Neal laughs, "I figured. Tell me more. Maybe it'll help if I phrase the question differently: what's the dirtiest most depraved sexual fantasy about me that you're most afraid to tell me?"

It doesn't help. The answer's the same.

Peter mumbles, "Oral sex."

Neal smiles, a small victory to compensate for his earlier hurt, he thinks. "In your fantasies, am I going down on you Peter?" he encourages.

Peter nods just slightly.

Neal is enjoying Peter's fear now. He thinks Peter is uptight, repressed, ashamed of sex.

He goads, "I bet I just love your cock in this fantasy, right Peter? I want it so bad?"

Peter closes his eyes. "No. You don't want it."

"What?" Neal asks.

Peter looks at Neal then, and Peter wishes he could run out of there, go where Neal wouldn't be able to make him live up to his commitments. He wonders just for a second when he became the Neal of the relationship.

But he screws his courage to the sticking place and says, "In my fantasy. I am... in your mouth. And you don't like it. You..." You are gasping and crying and begging, "You ask me to stop. And I... don't."

Peter stares at the table, and the weight of his shame has slid down on all his features. He waits and waits until Neal eventually just says, quietly, "Oh."

Peter doesn't respond until Neal says, "Why don't you stop?" Neal's tone is flat, and Peter can't discern what that means.

But he answers, "I... like that you don't like it," and Peter pinches the bridge of his nose as if he's stressed but they both know it's an excuse to cover his face.

"Then what?" Neal says, and this time Peter can see through the neutrality to the fear in Neal's tone.

"Then we have sex," Peter says, wishing he could just end this, could find it in himself to just lie to Neal, screw the promise.

"You fuck me?"

"Yes."

A pause. Then, "Do I ask you to stop?"

You scream for me to stop. I've whipped you until you're covered with welts and I fuck your face and then I slam you over a table and you scream the entire time. And you're so tight and you hurt so much but you love it even though you're scared and hurting and confused.

"Yes."

Neal presses, "Then what?"

Peter can't even look at Neal at all now. He says, to the table, "I keep going."

Neal says nothing for a moment. There are too many moments of quiet for Neal, Peter thinks.

Finally he says, "That is not what I expected, Peter. From your question or from your answer."

"Yeah," Peter agrees, grateful that Neal doesn't ask what happens next in Peter's worst fantasy.

"I'm, um... going to take some time to process," Neal says. Peter manages to look at him, sees that this is more than Neal thought that he would have to discover about Peter. He sees that Neal is genuinely worried. Not scared of Peter or that he might actually do that.

But worried.

"Understandable," Peter says. He gets up, goes to make his escape. He thinks just for a second about whether he could convince Hughes to let Neal work mostly with Jones.

Neal grabs his hand on the way out.

"I know you, Peter," Neal says, and Peter knows Neal is trying to make him feel better, but it sounds like a terrible accusation.

He nods and leaves.

He shouldn't have agreed to play this game.

Chapter Text

After two people finally reveal that they want each other, things are supposed to change. Possibly for the worse, but maybe for the better. But they should change.

Instead, Neal walked into work the next day, leaned over to whisper, "Glad we're back to normal, Peter," and proceeded to act like everything was fine.

At first, Peter assumed it was a rejection. A thanks, but no thanks.

But things really were normal. The flirtation didn't let up at all. It was almost time to go home before Peter realized that when Neal said 'normal,' he meant, 'I've decided to continue trying to seduce you, Peter.'

"What's your game?" he finally asked.

Neal smiled the smile of the innocent. "Did I ever tell you how the story ended? The one about the duke and the count?"

"They had each other poisoned and they died the same night," Peter answered.

Neal laughed, and Peter could see the tension in the motions of his neck. "No, that's just the rumor they started to hide the truth. Really, the count asked the duke's wife if he could go out with her husband and she said yes. And they all ran away to seek refuge in the islands."

Peter smiled, even as he tried very hard to keep his face muscles still enough to frown. "Interesting historical interpretation," he said finally as he studied Neal. "You talked to Elizabeth, I take it."

"She says that she's glad I overcame my assumptions and was honest with her."

"Sounds like her."

"She also said I should bite your earlobe when you don't expect it."

Peter sighed. He didn't say aloud that this also definitely sounded like her.

"Neal, you don't have to pretend -"

"Yes, I needed some time to think. No, I don't think having a few fantasies means that you would actually do that. In fact, I'm impressed with your depraved desires, Peter - they're surprisingly avant garde."

Neal smiled and Peter didn't.

"Peter, seriously. Yesterday was everything I wanted. Plus a little extra that I didn't expect. But ovferall I count it as a win for me."

Peter smiled grimly. Neal would swear it was a game until the board fell right on him.

"No, I'm serious," Neal continued, "First, you promise not to use my secret against me until I'm legally not yours. Then you tell me you want me. You want me so bad you betray yourself with your white hot lust for me-"

"Really, Neal? That's how we're going to get past this? With you mocking me?"

"Just the first step, Peter."

Peter raised a brow. "So you're planning a con on me?"

"First time for everything, Agent Burke. Here," Neal said, handing him a collection of scattered papers.

"And this is?"

"My plan. For getting you. I'm giving you the plan up front so you can't complain I was dishonest in the way I went about it."

Peter bit his lip to keep from laughing. He wasn't sure if Neal was being adorable or pathological.

"Read the plan," Neal said, "And tell me what you think." He smiled and tipped his hat as he walked out.

He looked ridiculous.

Peter reminded himself that no matter how Neal looked, there was always more underneath. And there was no way that Neal was as calm as he seemed.

-
Neal, the night before, was not very calm.

Mostly, the night consisted of Mozzie covering his ears and yelling, "Too much information!" and Neal telling him to grow up and think of a solution.

Finally, Moz told him to make a chart of pros and cons of Peter Burke.

"A chart? I thought charts were tools of the man?" Neal griped.

"We're appropriating them. Charts, graphs, possibly the Internet. You'll see."

The lists on their chart ended up being:

Pros:

Sexy.
Trustworthy. Will definitely not abuse his legal authority over me.
Honest. Would not pretend to care about me if he didn't.
Peter definitely has strong feelings for me. And not just as friends.
Loving.
Gentle.
Respectful.
Does not look down on criminals or treat them badly even though he is still uptight about actual crime.
Nice hands.
Nice body.
Nice eyes.
Nice smile.
Other nice physical attributes that have been redacted at the request of Mr. Havisham.
Very intelligent.
Always up for verbal sparring.
Can send tingles up my spine with just a look. Or a word.
Great voice.
Only likes to pick on people who are bigger than him. Except in bed, it seems.
Likes to chase. Which is both a negative and a positive trait.
When all his attention is on you, the power of it makes you feel like you're falling.
Likes animals.
Likes kids. Even though he is terrible with them.
Is a good friend.
Is adorable.
When not adorable, is a knight in shining armor type. But in a good way.
I think I may just go insane if I don't try it.

Cons:
A fed. (At Mr. Havisham's insistence, this was moved to the top of the list.)
Married to a good friend and excellent person. Could hurt their marriage.
Smells bad after basketball.
Likes arresting people a little too much sometimes.
Bad taste in clothes, hats, shoes, beer, television, sports, music. Possibly made up for by good taste in spouses, friends, employees, coffee, and, surprisingly, books and theatre.
Bossy. Control freak. Nosy. No respect for privacy.
Overprotective. Would be even more so if a relationship started.
Might harbor resentment for me, for past deeds or my personality or attitude. Could be why he thinks about punishing me.
Might secretly hate me. Wanting to hate-fuck your friend is NOT the same as falling in love with your friend.
Carries a gun. Though doesn't like to use them, so that's not so bad. But still, he chose a profession where he gets to use force to subdue people. Though usually he's smart enough that he doesn't have to do that. But maybe underneath he's not that different from all those people that made me hate guns in the first place.
Criticizes me.
Doesn't trust me.
Wants stuff that's about a million miles past my kink radius. Will not be able to satisfy him.

 

"It's longer," Neal says when they're done, pointing to the first list, relieved at the result.

"Size doesn't matter, it's how you use the lists," Moz replied. "Go through and cross off everything that doesn't really matter that much. Both lists."

Neal sighs. Several items leave the Con list. The Pro list remains as it is.

"Really? Liking the chase is that important?"

"It's me," Neal explains, and Moz nods knowingly.

"Now, cross off everything on the con list that secretly you find really attractive."

Neal glared at him, and Moz added, "Hey, if you don't want me to know your kinks, don't ask me to watch you when you're babbling under the influence."

Neal grumbled as he crossed off a few more items. A few more when Moz reminded, "Make sure you get all the things that are basically just side effects of being toppy."

"Now what?" Neal said.

Moz said, "Get rid of all the things that you're insecure about but that you know deep down aren't true."

Neal glared again but knocked off a couple more.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but if you can get an okay from Mrs. Suit, it looks Pro is a clear winner," Moz said, "But I'll deny it if anyone ever asks."

The con list was short, now. Hardly anything. But even if El agreed - and she had hinted to Neal for months that she might - there was still the last thing.

"I bring something out in Peter," Neal finally confessed, "And it's something he's ashamed of. Something not very like him... I've never actually slept with someone whom I felt I was... corrupting."

Moz rolled his eyes so hard Neal was surprised he didn't hurt himself.

"I'm serious, Moz."

"Shouldn't you be more scared that he's going to attack you? No one would believe you if that happened, you know!"

"He would never do that."

"You're sure."

"Yes. Sure."

"So are you afraid of him?"

"Of course not."

"What if he says that he refuses to be with you unless you act out this little fantasy?"

"Peter would never -"

"Are you sure?"

"He wouldn't risk our friendship for sex, Moz!"

"So it means more to him than just sex? You could just be projecting."

"I'm not projecting-"

"Why did he even tell you this if he didn't expect you to do it?"

"He promised to answer honestly!"

"He could have lied!"

"Not when he promised that he wouldn't! Peter's not like that!"

"If anyone else said that to you, you would have run. You would be in another country, with or without an anklet."

"If anyone else said that, it would be a threat!"

"So the agent who 'owns' you thinks about holding you down and fucking you and you're not scared."

"Not of him!"

"Then stop whining, talk to Mrs. Suit, and then tell the man who works for the Man that you want to make sweet gentle love with him."

"It's not that simple!"

"Would you want your worst thoughts about people to actually come true?"

"Of course not, that's horrible-"

"And the suit? Is he so different?"

Neal stopped. Finally, he said, "If I'm going to be with someone, I have to be able to give them everything."

Moz put his head down on the table like he was very tired and very bored with Neal. "Would the suit want you to do that?" he groaned.

"No, but-" Neal paused to think of an answer.

He paused some more. Still no reply that Moz wouldn't have an answer for.

Finally: "Moz. Maybe you should start a law practice for real. Or maybe become a therapist."

Mozzie snorted. "Neal, you are my dear, dear friend. But I can barely stand to have a conversation like this with you. With a normal it would be intolerable."

Neal smiled. "Okay. Thanks, Mozzie. Now all I have to do is con Peter into giving this a chance."

The next day, after work, after Neal's announcement, Peter held the paper in his hand nervously for a few minutes before opening its fold to read.

He chuckled despite his annoyance when he saw that the sheet did not have a list of actions that Neal would take but instead bore the title "Peter Burke's To Do List." It read:

1. Thank Elizabeth for being amazing, beautiful, brilliant, and for believing that monogamy is an artificial institution.
2. Admit that I like how Neal looks in his hat.
3. Get over my guilt issues. Like anyone's surprised that Peter Burke has dominant tendencies.
4. Seriously. Get over my guilt.
5. Tell Neal that I want to be with him.
6. When Neal tells me that he trusts me and that he knows I will respect his limits, listen to him closely. Don't try to argue, just nod at how very wise Neal is.
7. Have mindblowing sex with Neal.
8. Realize that I was wrong to doubt myself and hate myself and feel all that unnecessary guilt. Thank Neal for pointing out my many flaws so that I was able to get over myself and have hot mindblowing sex with Neal.
9. Have more mindblowing sex with Neal. Just to be sure.
10. Repeat steps 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9 as needed.

When Peter stopped laughing, he had to take five minutes to catch his breath. when he finally did, he realized it was the first time he had breathed easy since last night.

-

Things were less awkward then. Considerably.

It took several more months for anything to happen, though. Peter had his doubts, and it would take more than a clever note to persuade.

It took cajoling and reassurances and the overcoming of work-related distractions and plenty of discussions from everyone - Neal, Peter, and El - before they decided that Peter would take Neal on a date. It was old-fashioned, but that was all right. It ended with a soft, sweet kiss.

Then a month of Peter avoiding Neal after hours, until Neal called him an idiot and kissed him again, not soft or sweet at all.

Then more discussion and reassurances. More 'dates,' and more nights Peter stayed at Neal's apartment at June's, so they could "get used to each other" as El put it. Neal was rather put out to have a Fed cuddling with him all night but not sleeping with him yet - he didn't get the privacy to bend the law, but he wasn't getting the sexual benefits of Peter's constant eye either.

Though he did get to get dressed in the morning, knowing that Peter was watching him. He got to notice the slow change from Peter being embarassed to be caught ogling to Peter just relaxing and licking his lips and enjoying how much Neal was turned on by being watched.

And one morning, when Neal sleepily rolled over to lean on Peter, and woke up at feeling Peter's hardness, he just gently woke Peter up and looked in his eyes. And when they kissed, they knew that this morning would be the morning they stopped being afraid of each other and themselves.

It was better than a first time should be, by any reasonable account. It was some kind of odd chemistry, some kind of competitive spirit, combined with the urgency of being denied for so long.

It was sweet and it was intense and it was playful and it was careful but it wasn't too much of any of these things.

It was also repeated. And not just that morning.

And they worked out the details and the boundaries and they became something more than friends and lovers to each other.

When Peter found his "To Do" list, months later as he looked through his wallet, he realized that, without intending to, he had completed every single item on it.

For a while, he thought he might never have to think about the night that started this thing between them (the night that almost ended it before it could start). But Neal never forgets anything, and Peter should have known.

Maybe he just wanted to forget. Maybe that's why he is caught helpless and clueless when he walks into Neal's bedroom one day to find Neal holding up a black leather cord, saying, "I had an idea. Of how we can play that game."

Chapter Text

Peter walked into the bedroom to find Neal, wearing nothing but a too loose pair of Peter's old jeans, holding up a black leather strap.

""I had an idea. Of how we can play that game," Neal explained.

There was more, Peter noticed. The room was in disarray, the mattress propped up against the wall, the mirror moved next to the mattress, and the bedspread was on the floor. As was a set of wrist restraints and a bottle of champagne, already opened for some reason.

Peter raised an eyebrow. "This does look... intriguing. But I don't recall asking you to play a game about moving the furniture. Or making the south wall look like a padded room." He didn't look down to see the wide swath of Neal's lower abdomen exposed, just barely ogled at the diagonal lines where his hips met his legs.

Neal smiled. It wasn't the con smile. It wasn't the cocky grin that assured him it was fine. It wasn't the sweet smile, small and rare but genuine. It was the more recent addition to the arsenal of his lips: the smile that said that he was about to get his way with Peter Burke and he wasn't even going to have to con to do it.

"Listen, Peter. I have a fantasy. And I think you should let me tell you what I want, and if it's something you want to try also, then that's what we'll do."

"Okay..." Peter said. He furrowed his brow, wondering why Neal was acting so cagey. It's not as if Peter often refused anything Neal wanted in bed - Neal's tastes were quite easy to handle, in fact.

"So you agree, then? That if we're both turned on by the idea, we try it."

And now it was the innocent smile. As Peter didn't already figure out that Neal was up to something.

"That sounds reasonable," Peter said, "But let's hear it first."

Neal looked annoyed. But he slowly explained what he had in mind until Peter realized what "that game" referred to.

"Neal!"

"Sorry, Peter, I can tell how turned on you are right now. No going back."

"You don't need to do that for me! I would never make you-"

"That's adorable that you think that I'm somehow put upon by all the hot sex that I'm demanding."

"Neal, don't. Don't act like this is what you want."

"Don't act like you have to protect me!"

"Then start protecting yourself!" Peter yelled.

Neal stepped back. That was the wrong thing to say, Peter knew, as Neal's expression changed from a bickering lover to a maligned friend.

"This again? Even in bed, you're going to pull this?" Neal spat.

"Just... don't pretend that-"

"You don't believe me that - "

"I know you, I should never have subjected you to my -"

"Your what, Peter?"

"I shouldn't have told you!"

"Seriously? You like to play A LITTLE rougher than I'm used to, and that makes you big bad Peter, and I can't handle you? Because last I checked I can play you like a violin."

Peter stopped. He knew Neal's game. Provoke. Deny. Argue. He would try to make Peter think that Neal wanted this. He would try to make Peter's fantasies his own, would subject himself to things he didn't want to prove his worth, his brilliance, his irresistibility.

"Neal, no one really wants their cruelest fantasies to come true. Do you?"

Neal looked sick for a moment. "Of course not. Low blow, Peter."

"Well, then?"

"This is not your fantasy. If you would let me finish, this is the perfect blend of both our -"

"No! I'm not-"

"Let me finish, Peter!" Neal yelled. He was mad,truly, and Peter nodded to show that he would listen, but only to wait until his turn to argue back.

"You don't want to just push me around," Neal said.

"That's right, I don't really want to-"

"No. I mean you had your fantasy. But you know that's not me. You know I push back."

Peter stared.

Neal continued, "You say that it's a turn-on to dominate me. What incredibly surprising news that you're toppy."

"Neal-"

"You said you would let me finish. You say that you would be turned on by forcing me to submit. And you say that you know me, and that you know I wouldn't like it because that's just not me."

"It's not."

"But I know you. I know what you respond to. You've responded to it for longer than we've been sleeping together, Peter, for as long as you've known me, maybe even when you were chasing me. You don't want hurt me until I submit. You want me to push you into dominance. You want me to force you into force. Peter, I know you. Your mind and your heart and most definitely your dick. And you want an equal."

Neal had that voice. That was so close to his con voice, the voice that could talk anyone (but Peter) into anything. But it was different than the con voice.

Less cloying.

More... aggressive.

"Is that so?" Peter said, swallowing.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it is. And by the way, the wrist restraints are for you."

Peter looked at him, unsure. Half joking, he said, "Neal, I may get to do that to you, but you don't get to do that to me."

"I do this time," Neal said. "If you want me, you have to do it with no hands. You can tie my wrists with the strap. Like I said, equal."

Peter smiled. Of course Neal would need actual knots tied - a restraint wouldn't hold him. He almost found it charming that Neal wanted to put them on equal bondage footing despite Neal's superior escape artistry.

"Peter," Neal pressed, "All I'm asking is that we try it. And we'll only go through with it if it feels right. My hands will be tied in front, and I'll give my safety gesture if I need to. You have to trust me on this."

Peter wanted to say I'm the one that can't be trusted. Instead, he said, pitifully, "You don't have to do this for me."

"Well, then maybe you should do it for me. Because we agreed that we would only do what works for us both, and it took me a long time to think of a way to do this that I would get off on as much as you would."

"Are you sure?"

Neal held up the leather strap. Peter sighed and knotted it around Neal's wrists, tying them at his front.

Neal was able to pick up the wrist restraints. Peter rolled his eyes, turned around, and muttered, "Don't get used to this feeling," as Neal fastened the restraints so Peter's hands were bound behind his back, Neal's motion only slightly hindered by his own bound hands.

"We're starting slow," Peter reminded him, and Neal nodded, smiling as if already victorious. He picked up the open champagne bottle with his tied hands and managed to pour some onto his own chest, and it fell, wetting his stomach and bubbling and soaking at the top of his jeans.

Peter had to smile at the invite. He leaned down to lick it off Neal's chest, and it was awkward to kneel to get at Neal's stomach, with his balance lessened by the restrained hands behind his back, but soon Peter's tongue was dipping into the low waistband of Neal's (Peter's) jeans. Neal closed his eyes and enjoyed it, the force of it, wondering how even kneeling, Peter seemed to be directing him, controlling him.

"Down," Peter grunted, and Neal fell to his knees too, kissing Peter on the mouth, tasting the champagne. He picked up the bottle again, awkwardly, and managed to pour some into his mouth and Peter's, but Peter gave him a look that told him to forget the bottle, and Neal barely remembered to set it down gently. Peter was still in his suit, but Neal opened his fly and brought out Peter's erect prick, used his hands, still tied, to give a few strokes.

"This would be better if I could use my hands on you," Peter spoke in his ear, "I know how much you like my hands."

That's true. Neal did.

But he stayed on task. He withdrew his hands and said, "You know, Peter, it's obvious that you're just avoiding the next logical step. Why are you so scared of a little fantasy roleplay?"

"Neal, we said we might not do that part," and Peter tried to make the 'might' sound like more than it was.

"But you're so ashamed of it."

"Neal..."

"If it's just a fantasy, there's no reason to be that upset. Obviously, you're worried about exploiting me."

"About hurting you. About you feeling like a relationship means you have to give someone-"

"It's about what you think of me, Peter. You can't think that I might like it. That I'm too pure and sweet. It's adorable the way you treat me as a kid sometimes, but obviously part of you doesn't trust me enough to let me take on something challenging or new."

"Neal. I'm not falling for that."

"Or maybe you just don't trust me when I say that I'm perfectly capable of expressing my needs to you. Maybe you don't trust me when I say that this is real to me. Maybe you think I'm conning you."

"I would never accuse you of that," Peter said, suddenly serious.

But then he frowned, "Stop it, Neal." But Neal's victorious smirk made him smile too, as he realized that Neal - smart as always - was using all his cards to get his way.

"Okay, so it's settled. Stop protecting me from my own dirty desires, stop telling me what to do, and stand up."

Peter raised an eyebrow but he stood, Neal still kneeling in front of him. Neal scooted on his knees closer to the mattress that was leaned against the wall, leaned his head back against it.

"Start nice and slow," Neal said, as if he were sure that Peter would speed up when Neal told him to.

Peter hesitated. But this was not so different than what they had done so many times before. Neal's lips. Neal's eyes, large and blue, lashes thick, looking up at him with eagerness. With smugness, almost, as if tasting Peter was a perfect act of theft.

Peter neared, let Neal take the tip of his cock into his mouth.

Neal made a low humming sound. To reward Peter, possibly.

He began to lick in earnest, and Peter could see Neal's eyes wander to the mirror. Neal loved to watch himself suck dick, and Peter knew that the mirrors were for Neal. The champagne, Peter's tongue on Neal's nipples and stomach - Peter loved it, but that was also for Neal (if it were for Peter, it would have been beer). Peter wondered if these little things really made Neal believe he could enjoy -

"Peter! Are you seriously analyzing me while I am blowing you?"

"While you're taking a break from blowing me apparently."

Neal narrowed his eyes. He leaned his head way back into the mattress.

"Remember what I said, Peter. You have to fuck my face hard enough to push me back into the mattress. You need to step closer."

"I'm not-"

"Step closer, put your dick in my mouth, or have fun trying to get off with your hands behind your back," Neal said, steel in his voice. A chill of something went down Peter's spine, anger and arousal, the thrill of Neal finding his dominant side, but then overwhelmed by the rush, the waves of need to push back, and Peter has never wanted more to be able to grab Neal by the hair.

Which was the point, Peter realized, of the wrist restraints. Neal's mouth and Peter's cock, sparring for dominance. No hands.

Peter stepped forward.

Neal smirked before opening his mouth.

Peter pushed in a little faster than usual and stared at Neal's hands, waiting for the two-fingered vee to indicate that Neal wanted to stop.

It didn't come. Instead, a low moan.

Peter waited for Neal to move. Neal was a virtuoso with his mouth, with his tongue and lips, and Peter waited for it.

All he felt was a hint of smile.

Peter would have to do the moving.

Peter gave him a look, an order, but Neal just looked back in expectation. An unspoken refusal: I won't move until you do.

Peter moved. He moved his hips slowly forward and back, so that his dick went in and out of Neal's mouth, not too fast or deep. Neal responded by putting his lips and tongue back to work, and soon things were moving along, terrifically even.

And then teeth.

Teeth.

Not too bad. Just the lightest of scrapes.

But Neal didn't use teeth without intending to.

Peter pulled out, looked down at the red swollen lips and laughing eyes.

"Don't," Peter seethed.

"Don't what?"

"Neal!"

"I was bored," Neal said. He couldn't help a smile as he saw the anger wash over Peter's face.

Peter calmed himself. He told himself to breathe.

"Don't do it again," Peter warned and moved his hips forward, again awkwardly and without hands, so Neal could wrap his lips around him. For a second, Peter wondered how this happened, wondered when he began yelling orders during sex.

But then the distraction of Neal's perfect mouth.

And then PAIN.

And yelling. And pulling out so fast Peter almost fell backwards.

"Did you just bite me! Actually bite me?"

"Just a little painplay, Peter."

"A little - NEAL!"

"I told you, you need to keep me interested. If I'm bored, who knows what I might do?" Neal smiled up at Peter, but he was out of breath too. He was sweating almost as much as Peter, his front-bound hands were rubbing at his own erection through the jeans. And he was...

Excited. Having the time of his life. Getting off on goading Peter. Nervous and scared and excited.

Neal wanted this, Peter suddenly realized. And right after, he realized that he was an idiot for not believing Neal the first twenty times he said so.

And he also realized that he absolutely did want to fuck Neal into the (mattress-padded) wall.

"We go again, Neal, and I promise. You won't be bored. You'll barely be able to keep up."

Neal smiled. "Don't back out of that promise, Peter, or you may not like the result."

They started again. Peter thrust in and out fast, and when he felt the first hint of Neal moving his lips to expose teeth, he went deep, gagging Neal before pulling out slightly. Then again, Neal hinted at his threat, and Peter shoved in further, faster, more violently, and soon Peter's dick was practically pinning Neal's head to the mattress with each thrust, knocking Neal deep into the cushion with the movement of Peter's body. Choking meant that Peter only let up a little, enough to barely catch his breath until it went as deep, as fast, as hard as before. Neal's eyes watered up, but he didn't stop either, and when Peter tried to pull out to come, Neal clamped down, looked up at Peter with an order to stay inside him, and then Peter thrust a couple of more times, and then sent all his seed down Neal's throat, making him gag and curl up.

For a second, Peter just closed his eyes. Savoring.

But then the guilt. And the worry. And that clear knowledge that he was a sick fucker who had just ruined what he had with Neal.

And then Neal, looking up at him. Not looking hurt or betrayed or wounded or victimized.

Looking... impatient.

"Slap me," Neal ordered.

"My hands are-"

"Not with your hands," Neal said, and Peter wasn't sure why exactly, but he obeyed.

As his dick hit Neal's face, Neal tugged at the bulge beneath his denim and came.

And then Neal smiled up at Peter.

The innocent smile.

He politely asked Peter to turn around and undid the wrist restraints with his teeth. Peter stretched his arms and untied Neal, though he suspected Neal could have untied himself.

"How does it compare?" Neal asked out of breath, standing in front of Peter, both of them mussed and sticky from sweat and champagne and cum. "Reality or fantasy?"

Peter grabbed Neal, yanked him close, rougher than he needed to. He kissed Neal, and then said, "Easy choice. Reality beats fantasy every time."

A big smile. A real one. "Now, see, I've always been a big fan of fantasy, Peter. But I have to admit, you are starting to change my mind."

Chapter Text

It starts with metal.

Cold metal rods, placed horizontally on Neal's back as he lies face down on the bed.

He wonders what Peter is going to do with them. He takes a lit candle, it must have been there all along, and he slowly starts to heat the metal.

No, not heat. Chains. Peter chains the rods to bedposts to bind him in place.

No, too complicated.

Something else. Something with long, cold metal rods coming down softly on Neal's back. Neal isn't sure what made him think of this image, this sensation, but he's lying alone in his room with his eyes closed, and he's thinking of Peter. And for some reason, he wants the weight of cold steel on his skin, for some reason he is fantasizing about Peter placing him there, and he can't stop thinking about the image until it turns itself into a story, a thing that they could do.

Three months after Neal convinces Peter to try something new, all Neal can think about is the next new thing he'll do with Peter.

It's taking up more of his time than it should, both the sex with Peter and the thinking about sex with Peter. It has also taken up a great deal of his energy (and where did a man Peter's age find the energy to be a workaholic who also had an active sex life in two different relationships?). Neal suspects that Peter has taken over that part of him that always needs to do something new and different. Not necessarily more extreme - but always something new.

That part used to be devoted to crime. The part that loved to devise and innovate and find some surprising angle, the side that was always planning something - if not several somethings.

Yet another part of Neal that revolves around Peter.

Neal is losing something, probably, in all of this. He knows this. But he hasn't decided to mind.

He thinks about metal. Cold - it has to be cold.

He imagines he is standing, facing the bed, Peter behind him. Peter is bending him over so his hands and face are resting on the soft bedspread. Peter's hand splays flat on Neal's back, on the lower spine, palm just above his ass.

Peter puts his hand there every time he bends Neal over.

Neal has come to expect that hand. The lightest of pressure, reminding Neal that Peter was there, that Neal was exactly where Peter wanted him to be, that Neal was to stay as still as he could so that Peter could protect him.

Three months after Neal yells and bites and pushes his way into convincing Peter that he's no delicate flower, Neal finds himself craving the softness of Peter's touch. Because in the sweep of new games and punishments and scenes that they have tried, the only constant has been Peter's hand, just a shadow of warmth on his back.

No wonder Neal couldn't figure out what the metal rods were doing there. He forgot the part about Peter's hand.

Neal screws his eyes shut and again imagines Peter bending him over the bed.

Then the hand, keeping him perfectly still.

The the metal. Cold, but not too heavy.

"Stay perfectly still, Neal," Peter says (Neal imagines), "If the rod falls off your back, you'll be punished."

There it is. That's very, very Peter.

Neal imagines his body going still, trying to keep the long pole balanced, wondering what Peter is going to do to make it hard to keep still. Wondering what punishment Peter is planning. He imagines that th tiles are made of metal, or brass, and that the rod will make a terrible noise if dropped. And then everyone will hear it and come in to seee Neal being punished.

Neal imagines Peter's fingers working into him. And he tries so hard to stay perfectly still, to keep it in place, as Peter's fingers push into him, hitting him the way Peter always seems to know how to do. And though Neal wouldn't be able to see Peter's face if this were real, Neal imagines Peter's face. That look in his eyes, like Neal is land he's won. Like he can't wait to work his way through Neal's body, like he's going to take everything there, like he wants Neal to fall to pieces in his hands.

Peter doesn't look at anyone else like that. Not the people hates, and not any of the other people he loves.

That look is all Neal's.

Neal used to fantasize in stories. Long, elaborate stories with lots of sex and then sometimes lots of heartache that only lots of sex can cure. In these stories, Peter never really acted like Peter.

Now that there is considerably more overlap between his fantasy life and his real life, Neal thinks of a feeling, a sensation, first. Then he thinks about Peter's eyes, Peter's thoughts, all the things that would run through Peter's mind as he did something to Neal, all the things that Peter would want to draw out of Neal, the show of pleasure or pain that Neal might reveal - or refuse to reveal. Neal thinks of ways for Peter to turn him inside out, to break him open, he strategizes as much as he fantasizes, and he does it for the other side.

Peter's mind can be a terrifying place. And yet that's where Neal always goes when he wants to get himself off.

But at least Neal recognizes this fantasy-Peter. It's not quite the real thing. But it's close.

In his mind, Neal is lying perfectly still. He is balancing the metal rod on his back, and even though Peter's fingers are pushing, pulsing, into him, again and again, Neal's balance, his dignity, is unaffected.

In actuality, he is facedown on the bed, rutting against his hand, and as he imagines the sound of steel falling onto brass, the terrifying cymbal clash of the rod landing and bouncing and rolling, he comes right after mumbling, in a moment of sheer absurdity, "Sorry, Peter."

The real Peter is with Elizabeth tonight. Neal doesn't mind, actually. He needs the time to decide on a game plan for tomorrow night, when - barring work issues - he gets Peter all night.

Besides, Neal is pretty sure Elizabeth is the main reason Peter isn't unbearable.

For example, Peter has never said that Elizabeth comes first and Neal comes second (or possibly second and third, after the job, depending on how charitable one wanted to be to Peter). Neal knows Peter pretty well, and he knows that Peter wants to tell him that. Not to be cruel - just because Peter wants to establish the lines, make sure everyone's on the same page. Neal can tell Peter wants to tell him this, to apologize for it maybe, but certainly to explain it. But some things you just don't say to someone, and Neal doesn't think it would help anything but Peter's overdeveloped sense of openness to talk about. And Neal is fairly certain that El is the reason why Peter knows this very simple, obvious unspoken rule.

Neal also thinks Elizabeth might be the reason that Peter, now that he's mostly gotten over his laundry list of worries and concerns and more worries, is willing to try almost everything that Neal suggests. Neal's gotten pretty good at figuring out which things Peter knows on his own and which he needs Elizabeth to tell him, and he thinks "Don't make your partner feel bad for asking for something" is on that second list. But Peter is, it turns out, quite open-minded. And now, even when he says no, he doesn't get that worried-concerned look (that look that skirted oh-so-close to judgment). He just says no, and then they talk, and then Peter usually says no again, and that's that.

Neal thinks he's going to tell Peter about the metal rod fantasy. He might ask Peter to try it, might specify that the metal should be iced beforehand. Peter might want to try it.

If so, he'll certainly have additions to make. Peter's forte is thinking of variations on a theme.

-

Peter knows that Neal is always thinking about the next time. He can see that look, that calculation with that barely-hid arousal that Neal sometimes shows, sometimes at inappropriate times. In the office, at times. At lunch. In the park.

Those times when Neal is working through an idea.

Peter loves that look, even if he has to remind himself not to worry too much. To remember that if it's not a good idea, they just won't do it, and Neal will be okay with that as long as there are good reasons.

But Peter isn't like that. He can come with a new idea, but he doesn't like to sit and imagine the details ahead of time.

What he does like to do is go over the details of the last time. Again and again and again.

The last time, he had almost but not quite gotten a second "Please" out of Neal's lips.

Pain and discomfort didn't ever get Neal to say it, though it got a lot of other nice things out of Neal. But it was only when he wanted to cum, when Peter wouldn't let him, when he teased and teased and let Neal get so very close and then ordered him not to; then, Neal would say it.

Once.

Once was asking. Asking needily, desperately, pleadingly. But still asking.

Twice would be begging.

Neal always only said it once. Then, no matter what Peter did, he wouldn't say it again. Incoherent vowel sounds, sure. But not 'please.'

But Peter could always get him to say other things.

Three nights ago, Peter had spent time on almost every part of Neal's body. Foot, calf, knee, thigh, fingers, palm, neck, shoulder, belly button, nose, ears, hair, eyelids, in addition to all his favorites. He did something to every part - sucked, kissed, bit, ice, hot wax - whatever he wanted, and then he said, "This belongs to me, Neal. Tell me this belongs to me."

And Neal would make a face. He wouldn't want to say it. It wasn't that he was humiliated by it - Peter knew the difference in Neal's looks, and this was definitely that Neal just didn't want to say it out loud.

Neal was worried that it might be true. And so he wouldn't want to say it.

But he did. He gritted out, "My hand belongs to you," as Peter sucked his palm, he gasped, "My balls belong to you," as Peter pinched them just a little harder than usual, he mumbled (barely understandably) "My mouth belongs to you," as Peter pressed two fingers and an ice cube into his mouth. Neal didn't like saying it, but he said it anyway, for every part of his body that came into contact with Peter's mouth or hands, and even as Peter could see he hated it, he could also see that Neal was getting harder and harder.

Peter imagined it, that look on Neal's face. Admitting, against his will, that his body belonged to Peter. If it were someone else, someone not Neal, it would have been brainwashing, would have been a psychological trick to make someone believe in an ownership that wasn't real. But Neal could tell a lie a thousand times and never become it, and so Peter knew that Neal's displeasure meant something good, something enticing. Something that he didn't want Peter to know and that Peter was going to make him speak anyway.

Peter wonders, for a moment, if it was like this with Neal's other relationships. If every truth was a battle. Or if that was just for Peter. He wasn't sure which he hoped for.

But he doesn't want to think about that right now. He wants to think about Neal's lips trembling, about pushing at the spot behind Neal's balls, about Neal having to struggle to say what Peter ordered him to say.

He wants to think about the relief on Neal's face as Peter told him he would be rewarded for telling the truth. At Neal's eyes, wide and dark and wild, as Peter sucked his dick, at Neal gently putting his hands on Peter's hair as if he were afraid Peter would tell him not to. At the almost-wince Neal gave when Peter went to the bathroom, as if he were wondering if Peter were leaving. At the easy way Neal opened his mouth when Peter moved his thumb along Neal's face.

And then back to the 'Please.'

And then to all the body parts. Neal talking about every one, saying that they belong to Peter.

Peter likes to revisit those parts of the night. More than once.

The next time he sees Neal, he thinks he'll tell Neal what he fantasized about. He'll go in to detail.

He'll tell Neal that his favorite part - the part his head replays again and again like a film - is when he forces Neal to say what he doesn't want to say.

He can tell Neal this, he knows. It might scare him, a little. Maybe Neal will be angry, a little. But as much as Neal will hate it, he'll like it, too. Peter knows this about him now.

There are some things about himself he probably won't ever tell Neal. But if he had to, he probably could.

And this was well within what Neal could handle.

Maybe he would tell him at work. Whisper it in the elevator if no one rode with them.

Neal would probably get him back by brushing against him every time he walked by for the whole day.

But it would be worth it.

Chapter Text

Peter dreams of Neal's back.

The glide of fingertips across Neal's skin. The top of the back of the neck, where, if Peter makes him sweat, just the most miniscule tips of Neal's hair will curl up, unkempt.

The lowest part, right above the cleft of his ass, where Peter loves to put his hand. Sometimes he just takes a second to look at his own hand, splayed across Neal's skin, at the lush goosebumps that rise just for him.

And Peter especially loves the muscles of Neal's back, tensing up or relaxing depending on what Peter does. There are, perhaps, the most honest part of Neal. Certainly the most unguarded.

Neal, despite how well Peter knows him, can still hide something from Peter once in a while. His face, if Neal is calm enough, can still mislead, refuse to give anything away.

But Neal's back hid nothing. It was subtle, just the minute almost imperceptible motions that Peter might not be able to discern if his hand weren't planted on Neal's body, lightly pressing down to sense the tremors of Neal's visceral reactions - fear or excitement or ease. It was a hand on a spine, and a direct line to Neal's core, at least the core of his emotions at that particular moment, and it was a lot more than Peter got from Neal any other way.

The fact that this view of Neal's back also meant that Neal was about to give his body to Peter was, of course, a bonus.

Elizabeth once told Peter that some day he would have to accept that no amount of sex would break Neal open the way he wanted; nothing they could do in the bedroom would make Neal an open book. Or make Neal any less his own person.

Peter balked at this. He wanted to tell her that that's not at all what his relationship with Neal was about, that what they did in bed had nothing to do with that. That he had long ago accepted that as long as Neal followed the rules, Neal's head was far too complicated and tangled up to puzzle out. That he had no desire at all to domesticate Neal, to make him into some user-friendly version of his former self.

Of course the first thing that he wanted to say to her was, "Wanna bet?"

He ended up just nodding, a silent promise to think about what she said.

His thoughts took some unexpected turns, though, and he doesn't think it would be a good idea to bring it up before El does.

He probably won't bring it up to Neal either. It wouldn't go over.

The result of that conversation with El was one of the more elaborate fantasies about Neal he has had. He's not much into complex scenarios - but he's happy to try them for Neal. Peter likes games, but he usually gets off more on memories than hypotheticals.

But this one. It has legs.

It's the simplest of games, really. Neal will pretend to be one of his aliases. Halden, maybe. Maybe he can get Neal to tell him a new one.

But let's say Nick for now.

Because the key to this fantasy is that Nick is not actually Neal. Nick is a friend of the infamous Neal Caffrey, who is someone else entirely. But Nick is the only person who knows all of Neal's secrets.

Peter, in this game, will be some unknown bad guy who is in love with Neal Caffrey and is viciously threatening Nick Halden for information about his beloved. He wants to know everything, but his lover is so mysterious. So he lays a whip across Nick's thighs, he slides ice cold anal beads into Nick's ass, he puts a cockring or maybe some harsher device and refuses to let Nick cum. He punishes Nick any way he can think to do it, each time only stopping when Nick performs some small betrayal, when he gives up something about Neal Caffrey that the terrible sadist wants to know.

Peter prefers memories to hypotheticals, yes. Usually. But since thinking of it, this has been Peter's fodder for jerking off every time he sleeps alone, and sometimes in the morning too.

He knows it would never work. It's nice to imagine: Neal could talk about himself in the third person, as if he is not revealing anything of himself at all. Maybe that would make it easier. Maybe it would change everything, that simple act of pretending that he's not telling Peter anything about himself.

But Neal wouldn't agree to it. He wouldn't be able to really become someone else, anyway, even if he did. He had an oddly consistent sense of self for a highly adaptable con artist.

And Neal would see right through Peter if Peter ever asked.

The strange thing is, Peter could ask. Probably.

Not definitely. But probably.

A few months ago, even, Peter would have assumed that this would be exactly the kind of thing that would terrify Neal, that would make him retreat to some not-Neal persona that he used in front of other people. But even though Peter knows Neal wouldn't want this, he doesn't think it would crush Neal to learn this about Peter.

Neal probably figured out that Peter wanted this before he did.

So Neal would say no. He might be annoyed or hurt or even pout about how prying was Peter's favorite hobby. But it wouldn't be a breach of trust. That Peter wanted to take Neal's sense of autonomy and literally beat and fuck it out of him.

Neal would say no. But it would be okay.

And yet. If it's not going to happen, there's no reason to bring it up. It can continue to be Peter's own fantasy, a slightly guilty one, yes, but one that makes him cum like Neal's right in front of him, like his spunk is landing across Neal's back instead of in his own hand. Fast and hot and more intense than it has any reason to be.

There's no reason to tell Neal about this fantasy. It's fine just where it is.

 

------------

Sometimes, it's a strawberry. Red and glistening, bursting with juice in Neal's mouth.

An apple is good, too. Almost like a fairy tale - the bite that takes something away.

Neal sometimes imagines that Peter punishes him this way.

Neal does something. Something bad.

Peter responds by telling him that he's going to get an apple. He'll watch as Peter takes out a hypodermic needle and injects something into it, some fictional drug that has no side effects or danger and doesn't give you a headache after.

It makes Neal fall asleep, to drift in and out of a dreamlike consciousness, barely aware of anything.

Neal's punishment is that he doesn't get to know what his punishment is. It happens while Neal is asleep.

Knocked out with a drugged apple or strawberry, really. Maybe a date or an apricot.

Then Neal is drowsy and then he is barely awake long enough to feel Peter's strong arms catching him as he collapses.

And then dark drowsy blurry dreams. With the occasional vague sensation of something, but no way of knowing if it's a dream or real.

And then Peter waking him.

And then Neal has work to do.

Peter tells him that he has to figure out what was done to him while he was asleep. If he can figure out what his punishment was, then he will be forgiven. If he can't, then Peter will punish him again, this time so Neal will remember.

And then the detective work starts. Like a school for investigation that only has one kind of case.

Neal starts by feeling all over his body. It might not be something extreme - it might be just a hint of swollen lip; the "punishment" might have been nothing more than a kiss. It might be that Peter took advantage of the looseness of all his muscles and fucked him while he lay there unconscious (Neal thinks he might actually be able to get Peter to do this if he promises up and down that he really, really wants it). Then there would probably be physical evidence.

Same for spanking or anything done to the nipples. Visible signs, usually, afterward.

But there were so many other things.

Maybe Peter wrote something in some place Neal wouldn't think to look at in the mirror. "Property of PB" written in the arch of his foot or behind his ear, maybe.

Maybe Peter jacked him off and cleaned him up after, so the only clue was this odd satiation.

Maybe Peter cut a lock of hair, taking some part of Neal as punishment, as exertion of ownership.

Maybe it was just pain, a pinch to the balls or a slap on the shoulder, with no proof available to the naked eye. Just the sense of something not quite typical in those areas.
Neal would work through the possibilities, observed and guided by Peter, maybe even misled if Peter were in a mood. He would become hyper-aware of his body, trying to feel the residual effects of being so completely vulnerable to use, to being there strictly for Peter's pleasure. He would have to look and feel and focus on every part of himself, imagining all the things Peter could do, trying to get into Peter's head, to see his own body the way Peter did in order to solve the puzzle.

Neal likes to imagine that he figures it out every time. Though he knows that if they ever really played this game, the odds would likely be a little more even than that.
Of course he wouldn't put it past Peter to intentionally leave clues. Just so, if Peter won, he could claim that the game was perfectly fair and it's not his fault Neal didn't notice such an obvious giveaway.

But Neal doesn't think he's going to tell Peter this one. It's almost certainly on the list of things that Peter will so no to no matter what Neal says.
There are a lot of things on that list.

But if - and it's a big if - Peter somehow did want to try this, then Neal's not so sure it would be such a good idea. He's seen enough of Peter's competitive side - and intentionally brought it out enough - that Neal knows that this is exactly the kind of thing that would hit Peter's buttons. That thing inside that made Peter so nervous about himself, which made Peter say no to a lot of things he might otherwise say yes to. The whole game was Peter being able to do anything he wanted to Neal, and then Neal having to talk about all the thousands of things Peter could do to Neal.

The more Neal thought about it, the more he realized.

Peter would probably win every time.

More importantly, he would find some way to change the game so it wouldn't just be about physical acts. He would find some way to make it about how well Neal reads him and how well he reads Neal.

Of course, Peter would probably just refuse to play.

But if he agreed, he would most certainly play to win.

When Neal thinks about this, he wonders if it's a good idea to tell Peter.

Of course, he could always just explain that the fantasy gets him off like a rocket, but he doesn't want to actually do it.

Peter would understand. Or he would agree, anyway.

But this pretend version, where the strawberry is sweet and shiny and flawless, where Peter guiltlessly fucks a drugged up Neal and Neal has to explore himself with his fingers to figure out if it was more likely Peter's dick or some new toy, where no matter how creative Peter has been Neal always, always wins - this is good.

This works for Neal. Really, really works.

He could tell Peter.

Sometimes, when he's really horny or really sad or really drunk, he thinks he could tell Peter almost anything.
But he doesn't have to. As much as they're both enjoying this new exploration of power in their relationship, Neal gets to have some things just for himself.

Even if they're really, really good things.