The longer Peter thinks about it, the more he starts to think that Elizabeth was right. Chasing after Kate isn't doing Neal any good – maybe if he meets a nice, law-abiding, reliable girl, he'll stop giving Peter heart attacks and making the entire New York law enforcement establishment so damn nervous.
The trouble is, Neal spends all his time doing one of two things: working on cases with Peter – not exactly a great way to meet law-abiding women – and obsessing about Kate. If it were up to Neal, he'd just sit moping in his room, staring at that damn wine bottle and listening to depressing music. If Peter wants Neal to get out and meet some nice women, clearly he's going to have to take matters into his own hands. Peter wracks his brain. He met Elizabeth a decade ago – he's not really sure where you go to meet sane, law-abiding, stable, eligible women anymore. As he ponders this, his phone rings.
"Burke," he answers brusquely.
A woman's voice on the other end laughs. "Oh, Petey, still trying to sound like a tough guy. I just wanted to remind you that Alicia's first soccer game is this weekend, and you promised to come."
Peter winces – he loves his niece and he loves his sister, but he does not love driving out to the wasteland of New Jersey to hang out with soccer moms and—
"Soccer moms!" Peter exclaims, and Paula says, "Petey, I worry about you sometimes, I really do."
"Can I bring a friend?" Peter asks quickly, and he can feel Paula raising an eyebrow at him silently.
"Sure, Petey," she says dubiously, "you can bring a friend."
Neal looks pretty dubious, too, when Peter asks if he'd like to come along to his niece's soccer game, but he shrugs and agrees. They spend the drive out to Alicia's school arguing about whether Damien Hirst is a cancerous blight on society or just an irredeemable hack – Peter hasn't had this much fun in Jersey since he showed Alicia all of Paula's high school yearbook pictures behind her back.
Neal is a big hit at the game – Paula, of course, loves him immediately and whisks him away, probably to tell him embarrassing stories about Peter's teenage years while Peter cheers Alicia on to victory. Peter, for his part, trusts that Neal's good looks and charm – and New Jersey's high divorce rate – will conspire to introduce Neal to some nice woman with a minivan, a Golden Retriever, and a police file containing nothing more exciting than a speeding ticket or two.
On the drive back to the city, Peter asks, "So did you meet anybody you, y'know, liked?"
"Oh, yeah," Neal says, sounding enthused. "I met Leah, and Inez, and Gina… oh, and Radhika."
Cheered, Peter says, "That's great! Tell me about, uh, Radhika."
"Radhika is very fierce," Neal says in a confidential tone. "She just got over a bad breakup – the guy dumped her by text message in the middle of Biology class! Can you believe that?"
"Biology class," Peter repeats flatly.
"I know!" Neal says. "She almost cried on her dissected crawfish corpse, but Alicia told her to get even, not mad. Your niece gives good advice," he adds approvingly. "Anyway, I taught her how to pick the lock on his gym locker so she can leave rotting vegetables in there over the weekend."
"Radhika is an eighth grader," Peter says, rubbing his forehead. "Of course she is. And so are Leah and Inez, I bet."
"And Gina," Neal adds helpfully.
"And Gina," Peter repeats, sighing. "Well, I'm glad you made some new friends," he mutters.
"This was fun," Neal agrees. "We should do this again."
Peter ponders. The sports event concept is clearly a winner, and Neal did, in all fairness, meet and befriend some women… just not eligible women.
With that in mind, Peter invites Neal to come cheer for the good guys in the annual FBI/NYPD baseball game – it's a slightly worrying situation because Peter will actually be playing on the team, and therefore won't be able to supervise Neal and steer him toward friendly-looking female members of the New York law enforcement community. Still, Peter acknowledges once again, with Neal's good looks, the women will probably steer themselves to him.
After the game, Peter wanders over to the picnic and makes a beeline for the hot dogs. When he sees Neal talking to a pair of attractive and smiling black women, Peter silently cheers – then he gets a closer look and groans.
Neal catches sight of Peter and waves, walking toward him with the women in tow.
"Look, Peter," Neal says enthusiastically, "I found Diana! And this is her girlfriend, Maya."
"Pleased to meet you," Peter says to Maya, and he is, even though these two have unwittingly trampled all over his plans for today.
"She's an orthodontist," Neal says in a mysterious tone, as if it's a marvel to him that there's anybody in the world who works for a living in some profession unconnected to law enforcement, high finance, or the arts – Peter supposes that when those are the only people you see, day in and day out, it probably is a marvel to imagine somebody putting braces on pimply teenagers every day for the rest of her life.
"So how are things over in counter-terrorism?" Peter asks Diana, genuinely curious. "We've missed you, you know."
"I haven't missed you at all," Diana deadpans, and some part of Peter is warmed, knowing she doesn't mean a word of it.
Afterward, Peter plots. At least this time, the women Neal met were his own age, so Peter's determined to call the baseball game an improvement. He's tempted to walk over to Diana's office and ask her to give him a list of sporting events that lesbians wouldn't be caught dead at, but upon some reflection, Peter realizes that there's no way that that conversation ends well for him, and he resigns himself to tossing out the sports idea altogether.
It was a stupid idea anyway, Peter concludes. Neal is used to meeting highly educated, cultured, sophisticated women – he seemed to really like that art dealer, after all.
Hughes has season tickets to the Met that he likes to loan out when he or his wife are going to be out of town, and Peter happens to know that Hughes is going to some kind of multi-agency law enforcement confab in Philly for a whole week in October. He pores over the schedule. Don Giovanni? Hell, no. Talk about terrible role models. Wozzeck? Peter doubts his ability to sit through that one without bleeding from his ears. Romeo e Juliette? The last thing Neal needs is fuel for his fantasies of doomed romance with Kate.
Fidelio, though, is just what the doctor ordered.
See? Peter thinks, slightly wild-eyed, staring at Neal during the first act and willing Neal to understand. This is what you need! Someone strong, and sensible – someone who'll risk everything to get you out of prison, not someone who'll dump you right before your sentence runs out!
At intermission, Peter immediately excuses himself to the restroom, hoping that Neal will take the hint and go meet some nice women in the lobby. When Peter leaves the bathroom and hears the sound of Neal's rich storytelling voice mixed with feminine laughter, he silently congratulates himself and makes a beeline for the bar, determined not to step on Neal's game.
Once Peter has his drink, he turns to survey the room, sipping from his wine glass – and nearly chokes on a really excellent pinot noir that probably deserved better treatment.
There's Neal, surrounded by women, all right… not one of them a day under sixty-five. One of them is the elderly lady who was sitting to Neal's left in the theater; one of the others, Peter vaguely recalls seeing in June's sitting room a few weeks ago when he came to pick Neal up.
"Peter! Come here!" Neal calls, and Peter dredges up a smile and goes to meet the bingo club.
"This is Phyllis – she's a friend of June's—"
"Of course," Peter mutters, but he bows over her hand gallantly.
Peter has the pleasure of meeting not just Phyllis, but also Rhonda, Lois, Cordelia and Rosemary, all of whom, he is forced to admit, are actually incredibly charming and funny and exactly the kind of women Peter had hoped that Neal would meet here – just a few decades younger.
Peter keeps expecting that one of these women will mention something about introducing Neal to their daughters or granddaughters. His hopes are raised when he notices that they keep giving Neal these approving looks, which seem to include Peter, for some reason – but they never breathe a word about any pretty daughters. Instead, the ladies seem content just to gossip with Neal about June and chat about the production.
In the car on the way back from the show, Neal twists around in the passenger's seat to look at Peter.
"Hughes just happened to have tickets to Fidelio, huh? Not to… Don Giovanni, for example, which I heard was also running this week?" Neal asks, raising an eyebrow. Peter refuses to twitch.
"That's right," he says.
"Uh-huh," Neal says, obviously not believing a word of it. He smiles at Peter, leaning his head back against the headrest, stretching out the long line of his throat. "You're kind of a sweet guy, you know," Neal informs him, and Peter doesn't blush.
"I just try to look out for you," he mutters, looking at the road.
Peter is determined to get Neal to meet some women his own damn age, so when Kreutz in Organized Crime comes around begging for spare agents to staff a stakeout in one of the East Side's hottest dance clubs – according to Cruz, who would know abut that kind of thing about a billion times better than Peter would – Peter signs himself and Neal up for a shift without a second thought.
Of course, when they actually get there, there are second thoughts, third thoughts, and, when the bartender asks if he wants something called a Cocksucking Cowboy, fourth, fifth and sixth thoughts.
"You look like you're about to have a stroke," Neal observes, sounding concerned.
"I'm fine," Peter announces, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
It's a marvel either of them can even hear the other over the deafening, bone-shaking beat of the—okay, having heard Susan Graham sing Leonore at the Met two weeks before, Peter can't bring himself to call this stuff music. The flashing, swirling multi-colored lights make everyone look like aliens, and Peter is sure that what these people are calling "dancing" was called "dry-humping" when he was that age.
But, among the writhing crowd, Peter can see several dozen good-looking women Neal's age, so he clutches his glass of warm Pepsi and smiles determinedly.
"You're really, ah… blending in," Neal says tactfully – Peter resists the urge to hide behind one of the bar stools.
"I know I look like an idiot," he growls. "There's nothing snide you can say about what I'm wearing that I haven't already thought myself."
Peter is wearing a pair of way-too-tight black jeans that Elizabeth had excavated from the back of the closet, where they'd been buried for at least five years. The black t-shirt is another relic of Peter's pre-FBI life; he'd been using it to wrap up his mother's Christmas china since he and Elizabeth moved to the new house.
Peter knows he looks ridiculous – an old guy poser in too-tight clothes. Probably all the people Neal's age think he's either a pervert or having a very sad mid-life crisis.
"You look good, actually," Neal says mildly, and Peter glares.
"Trust me," Neal says – there's something about the way he's looking at Peter, some force behind the words, that makes Peter just look away and mumble, "Sure."
"What are we supposed to be doing here again?"
"We're watching for those two guys I showed you in the photo," Peter explains again patiently. Over Neal's shoulder, he sees a blonde woman dancing and thinks idly, Is a dress that short still a dress, or is it a shirt?
"Uh-huh," Neal says, watching Peter. "And how long have you guys been surveilling this club?"
"You're not actually expecting them to show, are you?" Neal says, grinning. "None of you are."
"They might," Peter says stubbornly.
"Uh-huh," Neal says again, sounding amused. "So why are we really here?"
Peter fumbles for an answer. "When—when we went to the opera, you just ended up talking to… well, to old people all the time, so I thought—something more… I thought someplace like this might—"
"For me," Neal says, watching Peter again, a smile floating around the corners of his mouth. "You came here for me."
Neal turns to the bar and orders a club soda, then sits down on the stool next to Peter's with the air of a man settling in to stay.
Peter looks at him askance. "Aren't you going to go out and… meet? Mingle?"
Neal shrugs. "Nah. I like it better here. Come on, let's play 'Who's going home with whom?' It's my favorite bar game. See that redhead in the gold top? I think she's getting pretty serious about the guy in the leather jacket at the next table over."
Peter glances over at the couple, then shakes his head. "No way. He's too old for her."
"I don't think she'd agree," Neal says, and his smile is strangely soft and affectionate.
"Whatever," Peter says. "What about the brunette dancing at ten o'clock? Does she actually like the spiky-haired guy, or is she just trying to make the tall guy with the nose ring jealous?"
"Oooh, tough call," Neal says appreciatively. "Five bucks and a refill on your Pepsi says she's just making him jealous."
Peter knows he should be prodding Neal to go out and meet people – and he does try, for a while – but it's actually a lot of fun, just sitting and people-watching, every so often pretending to look for the gangsters they're supposedly here to find. Besides, Neal seems to think that Peter will keel over from the trauma of interacting with loud, drunk, scantily-clad twentysomethings if Neal leaves him alone for even one minute.
Nursing a cup of milky coffee the next morning, trying to cling to the shreds of the three scant hours of sleep he'd salvaged from last night's clubbing fiasco, Peter takes stock.
Okay, so clearly the club stakeout idea had backfired: instead of going out and meeting eligible young women, Neal was stuck babysitting Peter, protecting him from the drunken, youthful hordes. What Peter needs to find is an event that will attract some people who aren't either in junior high schools or senior centers, but which is wholesome enough that Neal won't feel like he has to run defense between Peter and the writhing masses.
"I thought we might spend Thanksgiving with my parents this year," Elizabeth says, spooning some scrambled eggs onto her plate.
Peter slowly turns to look at her. "You're a genius," he says fervently, and Elizabeth smiles in that way that means she thinks Peter has probably lost his mind, but also thinks it's cute.
The very next day, Peter asks Neal to go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with him.
It doesn't go quite the way he's expecting.
"Peter, I know you would never do anything to—but I have to ask… is this okay with Elizabeth?"
"Elizabeth loves the parade," Peter replies, puzzled.
Neal does this thing where he gives the impression of rolling his eyes without ever actually breaking eye contact with Peter. "I don't just mean the parade, Peter. I just want to make sure—"
"Elizabeth and I talked about this, yes," Peter says, and Neal takes a step forward into Peter's personal space and quietly asks, "And what is 'this,' Peter?"
"I guess I haven't really been what you'd call subtle," Peter says ruefully – of course Neal's noticed what Peter's been trying to do. Haltingly, he tries to explain. "It's just—you need someone… reliable. Someone who will be there for you, someone who will be… good to you. Good for you. Someone you can depend on. El was the one who pointed it out to me, and she was right – it took me a little while to realize it, but she was right. You deserve to have someone like that, and… well, it would make me happy, too. So. There you have it," Peter finishes awkwardly, having used up his quota of feelings-talking for the day, possibly the week.
"Oh," Neal says quietly, looking faintly surprised and something else that Peter can't read. Then a wide grin blooms on his face, and he says, "I'm thinking a picnic basket."
"We can bring a picnic basket," Peter allows, relieved.
The parade is the usual mix of bland lip-synching pop stars and blatant corporate product placement, but Peter finds himself enjoying it anyway – especially since Neal has struck up a conversation with the very pretty Asian woman sitting next to him. Apparently, her name is Thuy, she's an art appraiser at Sotheby's, and she has an adorable two-year old daughter who likes pulling on Neal's hair. Peter approves heartily – especially of the last part. When he sees Neal laughing so freely, cheeks pink with the snapping cold and eyes bluer than the sky, doing tricks with a penny for the little girl and looking like he doesn't have a care in the world, something in Peter's chest twinges. This is what he wants for Neal, this is how Neal should be all the time.
Peter has a good feeling about Thuy and her daughter, and he's about two seconds away from throwing dignity to the winds and pumping a fist in the air in success—which, of course, is when the little girl shrieks "Daddy!" and holds her arms out to a tall, handsome man walking toward them with a wide smile.
This, Peter learns glumly, is Thuy's husband Joe, who works in the HR department at the Guggenheim. Neal, damn him, doesn't even look disappointed. He genuinely seems thrilled to receive a standing invitation to babysit for Thuy and Joe, and he cheerfully dives into a discussion with the two of them about the recent antiquities blowup at the Louvre, which eventually ends up being so interesting that Peter is drawn out of his sulk to throw in his own two cents.
All in all, the parade ends up like all of Peter's matchmaking attempts so far – entertaining, interesting, and an all-around rousing success… except for the total failure to find Neal a young, legal, single, heterosexual woman with a good heart and a weakness for blue eyes. At this stage, Peter knows what he has to do – it's time to bring in some talent from the bench.
"What kind of events do you have coming up?"
As it turns out, Elizabeth is going to be supervising a Christmas fund-raising gala for the NYCO, and thankfully, she has no objection to supervising Neal while she's at it. The downside is that Peter has to wear a tuxedo, which he hates… but he gets to see Elizabeth in a backless scarlet silk gown, which more than makes up for it. Neal, of course, looks perfectly at home in his penguin suit and knows all the right things to say about Elizabeth's dress and jewelry, and the hors d'oeuvres and decorations she'd planned.
When he finally runs out of extravagant flattery, something careful comes over Neal's face, and he asks Elizabeth, anxiously, "Are you sure this is okay with you? Me being here like this?"
"Of course it is," Elizabeth says firmly. "I'm happy you're here. Go have fun, mingle – actually, would you get me a drink, first?"
"Anything for you," Neal promises. "Gin martini, no olives, right?"
"You've got it," El says.
After Neal leaves for the bar, she turns to Peter and shakes her head.
"That was… a little odd. Did he think I was afraid he'd steal the silver or something?"
"Neal just really wants you to like him," Peter says, and Elizabeth hums, wearing a considering expression.
Neal proves Peter's point by spending every moment of the party – well, every moment he doesn't spend people-watching with Peter – glued to El's side, being charming and helpful and looking at her like he can't believe she's real, which—
Okay. Peter can admit, now that he thinks about it, that Elizabeth is actually just exactly the kind of woman he's been trying to find for Neal – level-headed, sweet, dependable, selfless – but…
I saw her first, Peter thinks in an embarrassingly petulant tone of mental voice. They make a good-looking pair – Peter's always been aware that Elizabeth married down in the looks department when she chose him, but she and Neal are perfectly matched: bright eyes, smooth dark hair that shadows their faces, graceful when they move, eye-catching when they laugh. On the plus side, Neal's attached himself to a pretty, kind, heterosexual woman his own age. On the downside, well… she's Peter's pretty, kind, heterosexual woman.
Peter is still trying to figure out how to phrase that out loud without sounding like a caveman when El glides up to his side, glowing, and tells him, "Neal has been saying the nicest things about you all night."
"Oh," Peter says, the wind taken abruptly out of his sails. "Oh. Is that what you've been talking about?"
"To be honest," Elizabeth says, "I feel a little bit like a customer on a used car lot – I keep having the urge to say, 'I know, darling – that's why I married him.' But I think it's sweet. I'm going to—oh, for crying out loud. Who hired these waiters? Oh, right – that was me. Excuse me, sweetie," she says, brushing a kiss across Peter's lips before striding off to terrify the wait-staff into submission.
Elizabeth is staying late to supervise the clean-up, so Peter takes Neal home alone. As he turns onto the street that will take him to June's front door, he says mildly, "My wife says you were shilling me like a used car all night."
Neal rolls his eyes. "It wasn't like that. I just wanted her to know that I… that I properly appreciate you. That's all."
"You mean she couldn't tell just from how you make fun of what I wear all the time and laugh at me behind my back with my subordinates?" Peter asks dryly.
"Exactly," Neal says, unruffled.
The sidewalks are covered with ice, so Peter parks on the street and walks Neal to the door of the house, to make sure he doesn't slip and fall.
On the porch, just outside the door, Neal turns to Peter and smiles. "I had fun tonight," he says, and Peter, his throat strangely dry, says, "Me, too."
Peter only has time for a vague thought that Neal is leaning awfully far toward him – then suddenly, he's being kissed. Shocked, Peter barely notices the details, his brain still trying to deal with the concept of being kissed by Neal Caffrey. He gets a fleeting impression of the warmth of Neal's hand on his cheek, the spicy scent of Neal's cologne, and the softness of Neal's lips, before Neal is leaning back, giving Peter an uncertain smile.
"What the hell was that?!" Peter asks, staring at Neal, dumbfounded.
Neal rolls his eyes. "We've been dating for months, Peter, I don't think I was too forward."
"We're not dating!" Peter exclaims, and Neal starts to laugh before giving him a closer look – his eyes widen and now he looks just as dumbfounded as Peter.
"You… you really mean that," Neal says, sounding shocked. "But you took me all these places!"
"So you could meet women!"
"And told me I needed someone reliable!"
"A reliable woman!"
"And said it was Elizabeth's idea!"
"It was – to find you a woman!"
Neal absorbs that silently, narrowing his eyes for a long minute. "Huh," he says eventually, then shakes his head. "Wow, misread that."
"How… I mean, uh, what…" Peter stammers incoherently, not even sure himself what he's trying to ask.
Neal's eyes cut down and to the left. He doesn't look at Peter when he says, "I thought—I thought you were right. That I need someone I can rely on, someone I can trust. I thought you meant you," he finishes, more quietly, and Peter blurts without thinking, "Well… I didn't."
"I know that now, thanks," Neal says, narrowing his eyes again.
Peter winces. "We're… are we okay?"
"Of course, Peter," Neal says smoothly before unlocking June's door and closing it behind him.
"We're okay," Peter repeats to himself, and makes a valiant effort at blanking all of tonight's weirdness out of his memory entirely. "We're okay."
But when Peter suggests celebratory drinks after cracking a tough forgery case, Neal says he has somewhere to be, and when Peter asks Neal to brainstorm on their latest case over pasta at Antonacci's, Neal politely demurs. He's just embarrassed, Peter tells himself. God knows I would be, too.
He resolves to give Neal some time, and makes it almost two weeks – until Dana comes over to watch weepy movies with El again – and Peter shows up at Neal's door with alcohol and a hopeful smile, just like last time.
This time, though, Neal doesn't let him in. Leaning against the doorframe, he sighs and just says, "Peter, no."
"No?" Peter repeats, feeling forlorn and bewildered.
"No!" Neal insists, in an exasperated tone. "Peter, you can't tell me you don't want to date me and then just keep trying to date me!"
"This isn't a date!"
Neal raises his eyebrows and looks significantly at Peter, at himself, at the emptiness of Neal's room, and at the bottle of wine in Peter's hands. In retrospect, Peter admits, a six-pack of Sam Adams might have been the better option.
"It's not a date," Peter says more quietly, and Neal smiles and says, "I know it's not. To you. But Peter—it's not fair. We have a professional relationship; let's keep it that way. Okay?"
He's still smiling, but he looks a little tired – worn away at the edges slightly, like the brim of a well-worn hat.
"Okay," Peter says softly. "Sorry."
"It's all right. Just make some other friends," Neal suggests, with a twinkle in his eye that takes the sting out of his words. "I hear Mozzie loves bowling."
"Bowling. Christ," Peter mutters, and retreats with what's left of his dignity while Neal laughs at him.
The thing is, Peter doesn't want to make other friends. He wants to spend time with Neal. He wants Neal to come with him to the opera to charm all the little old ladies. Paula keeps asking him about "that fine-looking man" he brought to the soccer game. When Damien Hirst sells a rubber model of a brontosaurus in a vat of Kool-Aid for 1.3 million dollars, Elizabeth just rolls her eyes and tells him not to get so worked up about it. He sees Neal at work, of course, and that's good, as good as it's always been – but it's not the same.
"You're grumpy," Elizabeth tells him one evening, over scallops in lemon sauce.
"I am not grumpy," Peter huffs, frowning down at his plate and stabbing a scallop savagely with his fork. When he looks up, Elizabeth is raising an amused eyebrow.
"I'm not grumpy!" Peter insists. "I'm just… frustrated."
"Mmhmm." Elizabeth nods, and takes a sip of her wine. "This wouldn't have anything to do with Neal, would it?"
"How did you know?"
"It might have had something to do with the fact that you look shifty and start mumbling every time I mention his name," Elizabeth says gently.
"Oh," Peter says. "Yes."
"Oh, Peter," she sighs, "what did you do?"
He looks across the table at her blankly, feeling betrayed. "What did I do? He kissed me!"
Elizabeth's eyes widen, and she sets her wineglass down on the table very carefully. "I think you'd better tell me this story from the beginning," she says slowly.
So Peter does. He tells her about how he'd taken her advice to heart, and about how he'd tried to find a nice girl for Neal; about the soccer game and the baseball game, the opera and the nightclub, the parade and the party, and the stoop outside of June's house where it had all gone wrong. She listens quietly, nodding every so often, and when Peter winds down his story, she cocks her head to one side and says, "Oh. I can see how he would think that."
Peter blinks. And blinks again.
"Well, you did take him on all those dates – you really led him on," she says, giving Peter a disapproving look – Peter sputters, finally managing a coherent "They weren't dates! And… and… led him on?"
"And actually," Elizabeth continues, tilting her head again with a considering look, "you would be good for him. You're exactly the kind of person he needs."
Peter blinks again, helplessly.
"And you did say you had my permission," she points out.
"But I don't!"
"But you could."
Peter stares. Elizabeth pops a piece of scallop into her mouth and chews unconcernedly.
"Well, you would be good for him," she says. "And I think he's good for you." Another piece of scallop. "So actually, you do have my permission, if you want it."
"But I don't want it!" Peter protests.
Elizabeth shrugs, and says, "Well, if you ever change your mind…"
"I won't," Peter says firmly.
"Whatever you say, Peter." Elizabeth twirls linguine around her fork and gives him a look that means she's humoring him – Peter can't really deal with that, and therefore chooses to ignore it.
"Good scallops," he says.
"Aren't they?" she replies, smiling.
Peter can't stop thinking about it – the whole concept of dating Neal Caffrey, who is a guy, and, more importantly, a criminal. It's totally ludicrous; Peter can't even imagine what that would be like, it's so preposterous, and it's incredibly distracting – he can hardly think about anything else. Fortunately, the winds of white-collar crime turn to blow in his favor: a case pops up that's so time-consuming and difficult that Peter can gratefully push everything else temporarily to the back of his brain.
Peter's not quite sure how the whole case started, but he and Neal are delegated to deal with the main witness, a junior high music teacher named Rita. Her late father had apparently been some sort of master criminal with a double life, and in between protecting Rita from her father's heavily armed former colleagues and hiding her from the mob, he and Neal are assigned to pick her brain for whatever she can remember about her father's old stories that might turn out to be true.
"I miss my kids," Rita says one night, looking at the blank grey walls of another FBI safehouse.
"You have kids?" Neal asks, and she laughs and shakes her head.
"I mean my students. God knows what that substitute is teaching them. And I miss having all that teenage angst to put my own problems in perspective."
"I'm sure they miss you, too," Neal says gently, and Rita replies quietly, "I know. That's worse."
"I'm sorry," Neal murmurs.
"You're a crook, like my dad, aren't you?" she asks, considering.
"Yes," he admits without an ounce of shame.
"When I found that first cache of diamonds," she says pensively, "I thought to myself, 'I didn't know my dad at all.' But it's really just that I didn't know myself. I was a con man's daughter all along – not knowing it didn't change that. And I'm happier now that I know. It explains a lot, let me tell you," she adds dryly, and when Neal grins, she smiles back, and Peter realizes that she likes him, really likes him; that she can see how smart he is, how handsome, how careful with other people, that she likes all of that and doesn't mind that he's a con, because she knows better than most that a con man can still be a good man. Peter realizes, watching Rita watch Neal, that this is what he's been trying to find all along: an attractive, smart, kind, reliable, law-abiding woman who genuinely likes and is attracted to Neal, a woman who would be good for him the way Kate never was.
Peter should be thrilled. This is perfect. This is exactly what he wants.
I am a complete idiot, Peter thinks, wincing as Rita puts her hand on Neal's forearm when she laughs. He sits down hard, and stares blankly at the opposite wall. A complete idiot, he repeats in his head. Peter is not thrilled, and though he may be a complete idiot in a lot of suddenly obvious ways, he's not so dumb that he doesn't know what that means.
Oh my god, I am dating Neal Caffrey. Or I was.
"Are you okay?"
Peter realizes that Neal is crouching on the floor in front of him, his face creased and his voice tight with worry. Peter wants to stroke his thumb over the lines between Neal's eyebrows until it smoothes out again. He realizes, embarrassingly, that he's wanted to do that before, several times.
"I'm fine," he says, mostly on autopilot, adding mentally, Apart from suddenly noticing that I'm gay for a convicted felon.
"Are you sure?" Neal asks, resting a warm hand on Peter's left knee, which is absolutely no help at all in getting Peter's jumbled and overheated thoughts to cool down.
"Oh, I'm just great," Peter mutters, which seems, perversely, to reassure Neal.
"You seemed kind of zoned out," Neal volunteers. "Had a breakthrough in the case?"
Peter snorts. "I wi—" He breaks off. "What was Rita saying about those summer vacations?"
"The cabin at the lake?" Rita asks, walking over to join them. "But you guys searched that already, like three times—"
"But it's too far away to get there from the city in one day without stopping – do you remember, you must have stayed somewhere overnight on the way, a hotel, a friend's house…?" Peter suggests, starting to get excited.
"Yeah, yeah, now that you mention it," Rita says, looking surprised and nodding, "We always stayed at this motel owned by a buddy of my dad's, this little sketchy tourist place, God… what was it called… Oh!" she exclaims, snapping her fingers. "I remember! The Tre—oh, for heaven's sake." She rolls her eyes. "The Treasure Trove Motel. Honestly, do all you con men have such lame senses of humor?"
"Lame?" Neal says, sounding injured. "I think that's hilarious."
"So I guess that answers that," Peter tells Rita, who laughs.
Tying up the loose ends on the case occupies Peter for a few more days, but eventually he has to admit he's just stalling.
"Wish me luck," he says to Elizabeth as he slips on his coat by the front door.
"You won't need it," she replies firmly, but she kisses him on the cheek and whispers "Good luck," anyway.
The drive over to June's house is eternal. Peter tries to rehearse the words in his head but since he has no idea what he's actually going to say, it's pretty useless. An apology might be a good way to start – Peter can't forget the bruised look in Neal's eyes when Peter had pushed him away the night they kissed – but Peter knows he's horrible at apologies, and might just end up making things worse.
When he finally finds himself standing in front of Neal's door, his plan still pretty much consists of "Step 1: say something charming, apologetic and articulate, and be forgiven. Step 2: kiss and/or be kissed by Neal. Step 3: details pending." He makes himself knock anyway.
Neal opens the door, looking unfairly alert for the late hour.
"What is it, Peter? Do we have a new case?"
"No," Peter admits. "This is… this is just me."
Neal sags a little against the doorframe and looks away. "Peter, I've told you—"
"Go on a date with me," Peter blurts out. "Again. For real, this time."
"A date that we both know is a date, where I don't keep trying to introduce you to women," Peter adds.
Neal blinks again. And again.
"You… you mean it," he says guardedly, and Peter nods quickly, then makes himself say it.
"Yes. I do."
"Come in," Neal says, opening the door wider and motioning Peter through. "Can I ask what brought about this change of heart?" he asks, one eyebrow raised.
"Rita is perfect for you," Peter says, with difficulty. "I should… want you to be with her, but… I don't. I'm sorry," he adds, knowing from ten years of marriage that those two words are always the right thing to say.
"Oh," Neal says, eyes wide. Carefully, he says, "She asked me out, you know."
It's Peter's turn to say "Oh." He looks away. "That's… nice, that's good," he says lamely. It's his own damn fault for being so dense for so long, and now Neal's—
"I turned her down," Neal says, and Peter's head snaps up. "I told her it wouldn't be fair, because I was still hung up on someone else." The corner of Neal's mouth quirks, and a smile slowly spreads across his face as Peter draws in a deep, relieved breath.
"So you'll let me take you out," Peter says, hopeful, already making plans, but Neal, still smiling, shakes his head.
"No," he says, "This time, I think it's my turn to take you out."
As Peter absorbs that, Neal's face twitches like he's trying not to laugh, and he says, "Also, I'd like to note that it's damaging my self-esteem a little to know that someone whose observational skills are so evidently feeble was able to catch me in the first place. I mean, you know that everyone you work with already thinks I'm your boyfriend, right?"
Peter thinks back on all of the occasions that he now has to admit were definitely dates, and groans. "So did that couple we met at Thanksgiving! They must have."
"Mmhmm," Neal agrees, clearly enjoying himself. "So, by the way, did all those charming elderly ladies at the opera… and your sister Paula, too, in case you missed that."
"Paula?" Peter gapes, but thinking back on all the calls he's gotten about "that nice young man," he realizes Neal's probably right.
"What about you, then?" Peter prods back defensively. "If it was so obvious, why did you believe me when I said they weren't dates, huh?"
Neal looks away, and starts fiddling with papers on the table without saying anything.
Peter may have had a massive failure to understand himself and his own motives, but he's always been able to read Neal like a book. "Because it's what you were expecting – what you're used to," he says softly, feeling like an even bigger jerk. "Thinking you're wanted and then finding out it's just a scheme. Even if it was a well-meaning one this time."
"Well, that and wanting things I can't have," Neal says, with an easy smile that doesn't fool either of them.
"Not this time," Peter says, quietly but firmly, reaching out a hand to tilt Neal's chin toward Peter and away from the mess on the table. "Not this time," he repeats, meaning every word, as he steps forward into Neal's body and meets Neal's lips, parted in an inhale of surprise.
Peter's a little surprised at his own daring, too, to be honest – but after what happened the first time Neal tried to kiss Peter, Peter can't expect him to make the first move again. It's strange, kissing someone as tall as he is, and strange to tangle his hand in such short hair, but the warmth that floods his body, the pleasurable sudden pounding of his heart – those things are the same. He can feel Neal's arms winding around his neck, and Neal's knee sliding between his own, steering him back against the table. For a minute, it's unsettling and a little scary, being maneuvered by someone as strong as he is, maybe stronger, and he tenses, feeling the edge of the table against the backs of his thighs – but when Neal breaks the kiss to murmur an indistinct "y'all right?" while nuzzling at Peter's ear, reality reasserts itself. Neal might have an extremely creative understanding of conventional morality, but he wouldn't hurt a fly – he has more to fear from Peter than Peter does from him.
As Neal starts tugging Peter's shirt out of his slacks and pushing his coat off of his shoulders, Peter realizes that they're quickly heading from the "kissing" stage of his plan to the "details pending" stage, which is… great, fantastic, Peter thinks, groaning as Neal's hands climb the skin of his back, but also… He can't help flinching when he feels what's definitely not a roll of quarters pressing against his hip, and Neal takes a quick step backward, eyes fixed on Peter's face.
"Something's wrong?" he says, his voice turning up at the end to make it a question.
"Not wrong," Peter says, giving in to the impulse to smooth away the line between Neal's eyes. "Just…" Peter despairs of his vocabulary, which is currently supplying him with words like "strange," or "weird" – not what he means, exactly, and not what he wants Neal to hear from him.
"Oh," Neal says, his eyes widening. "New."
"Yes," Peter says gratefully – that's exactly it.
"Well, that explains some things," Neal says, looking as if he's having a bit of an epiphany of his own.
"Now you know how I felt," Peter mutters, and Neal laughs. Quieting down, he meets Peter's eyes with a look both measuring and heated.
"That night," he murmurs, "at Elizabeth's party… and before that, at the club and even the parade… the way you looked at me, like you were two seconds away from touching me the whole time—and you had no idea, did you?"
Peter shakes his head.
"I don't want to push," Neal says quietly, "so here's what I'm going to do. I'm going over to get ready for bed." He matches his actions to his words, unknotting his tie with quick, sure movements and walking toward the bed.
"You can follow me," Neal continues, his low, promising tone leaving no doubt about what would happen then. "Or, you can tell me you're not that kind of girl, and I will very happily buy you dinner before I see you here again. And I have perfect faith that I will see you here again," he adds.
"You… you will," Peter croaks as Neal deftly unbuttons his crisp white shirt and carelessly drops it on the floor.
"Either way," Neal says, "I'll be looking forward to it."
He's perched on the edge of the bed, watching Peter without a hint of impatience, and Peter tries to tear his eyes away from Neal's skin and actually think.
Peter wants… well, Peter wants. But he also knows that there's a good chance that this is going too fast, that the road from his epiphany to Neal's bed is pretty damn short… that he could wake up tomorrow scared, and say things or do things that would hurt Neal.
Neal's a big boy, and he's probably thought of some of this himself—but Peter hasn't forgotten how this whole thing got started. Peter had wanted for Neal to have someone who would put him first. Someone who would be good to him. That hasn't changed.
"Tomorrow is dinner with some of Elizabeth's friends," Peter says, tucking in his shirt.
"Saturday, then," Neal says, grinning, leaning back on his elbows. "We'll go dancing, after."
"Sounds good to me," Peter replies, shrugging into his jacket.
"I'll be thinking of you, in the meantime," Neal says off-handedly – he's trying to pretend that the fingers he's ever-so-slowly trailing down his stomach are accidental, but the wicked grin he's sporting ruins the illusion.
"Oh, that's just not fair," Peter mumbles, looking at the floor – he can feel a flush spreading across his cheeks.
Neal laughs and says, "Seven. You'll have to pick me up – I don't have a car. And wear a suit and tie, please."
"When do I not?" Peter mutters. "Saturday, seven, suit," he repeats, and Neal nods. Holding Peter's gaze steadily, he says, "It's a date."
Peter thinks about that, tries to imagine what that will be like, then realizes how ridiculous he's being. It's just dating Neal, he thinks. Apparently, I'm pretty good at that.
"It's a date," he agrees.