"You," Peter Burke said, unfolding the napkin and spreading it on his lap, "are kind of a punk, aren't you, Tabernacle?"
Fourteen weeks. Fourteen weeks Neal had been Steve Tabernacle, an unassuming investigation manager with Baysworth Insurance. Fourteen weeks he'd been slowly collecting data from Baysworth claims, learning how they worked, learning who their clients were and what their clients owned and insured. Learning what security protocols Baysworth liked to ask their clients to implement. It was a goldmine and he couldn't believe he'd never thought of this before, but playing meek was tough.
And now it looked like it was going south. Fast.
"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Burke," he said, flashing his smallest, shyest grin. When Burke had asked him to dinner he thought either he was about to be promoted, or Burke was making a pass at him. Neither appealed; working with Burke even in the background was a hell of a thrill, and Neal wouldn't deny he was a good-looking guy, but the last thing Neal Caffrey needed was the attention of one of the top forensic accountants in the country.
"I think you know exactly what I mean," Burke replied. He was grinning -- smug bastard -- and Neal began calculating exit strategies. "For one thing, your name isn't Steve Tabernacle. See, I had a buddy of mine in law enforcement run your prints the last time you passed me a file -- "
Neal groaned. "That's why we switched to plastic file folders."
"Plus I like how shiny they are," Burke told him, amused. "I know your real name, Neal Caffrey. You've got what the cops call a jacket."
There was the off chance this was a fishing expedition -- Neal knew he had no outstanding warrants, and how much could Burke possibly know about what he was doing? At least half of it was only going on inside Neal's head. He kept quiet. Burke took a sip of wine.
"So," Burke said. "I want to know what you stole."
"Nothing," Neal told him. It was the truth. Sort of.
"Try again," Burke insisted, and the smile was gone now. But it was still fishing.
"I haven't stolen anything valuable from Baysworth," Neal tried.
Burke sighed. "I gave you the chance to tell the truth."
He reached into his pocket, producing a silver minidisc. He tossed it on the table between them.
"Surveillance footage," he said. "Four weeks ago I had cameras installed in the copy room. Oh, and the copier? Keeps records of everything in the scanner heads. It's an old security flaw, but very few people know about it and it's very, very useful to me."
Neal stared at the disc.
"You've been copying a lot of files, Neal Caffrey," and why did Burke have to keep using his full name? "Client files. Harmless stuff, unless the guy copying them is taking them home with him in a harness under those nice-looking suits every day. Unless the guy copying them is linked to burglary and forgery."
"They never proved any of that," Neal said.
"They didn't have to. You might be innocent until proven guilty, but you're a pretty shady innocent," Burke told him. He looked up as a waiter approached, carrying a basket of bread.
"Kobe steak," he said, and the man nodded. "Rare. My friend here will have the salmon. Trust me, it's great," he added to Neal.
Neal cocked his head into the silence following the waiter's smooth departure. Burke was watching him. He reached for the disc and picked it up, turning it over in his hands, rolling it across his knuckles.
"That's not the only copy," Burke told him. Neal set it down next to his plate.
"If all this were true, I'd be in cuffs right now," Neal answered. Burke -- well, there was no other way to put it, Burke rewarded him with a smile.
"Now comes the honesty. Good," he said, and sipped his wine again. "Can I call you Neal?"
"Can I stop you?" Neal asked.
"Not really. So, you've been stealing client files. Learning how we work, is that it? How our clients work? Quiet Steve, who brings his lunch to work every day and keeps his files immaculate and then slips brilliant little epiphanies into other peoples' cases."
Shit. He shouldn't have done that. It was just that some of his co-workers were so fucking blind, and Neal had seen that one of their big clients had an embezzler, and he couldn't resist an anonymous tipoff.
Not so anonymous. He'd drawn attention.
"Yeah. Davis should have seen that. After all, you did," Burke agreed. "The thing is, Neal, all of what I've said is true. If I handed that disc to the police, or even to our CEO, you'd be under arrest pretty fast."
"So why haven't you?" Neal asked. Burke rested his elbows on the table, fingers twining, gazing at Neal over the tops of his hands.
"How much training do you have? Professional training," he said. Neal frowned. "You have a degree in accounting?"
"No," Neal admitted.
"You go to college?"
"You take algebra in high school?" Burke asked, and the amused warmth was back in his tone. "Or is high school another establishment you opted out of?"
"Come on, man, either turn me in or stop fucking me around," Neal said.
"Touched a nerve, huh?" Burke didn't move. "My boss wants me to give Steve Tabernacle a promotion. You don't even have a high school diploma and he wants me to take you under my wing. He thinks you could be the next Peter Burke."
"I feel special," Neal drawled.
"You should. I spent six years learning how to do what I do and I am damn good at it. I worked hard to get where I am. I pull down seven figures yearly. Eight if I get an especially good recovery bonus. I got a penthouse in Manhattan and a weekend place out in the Hamptons. This meal is gonna cost more than that suit you're wearing." Burke leaned back, still grinning like an asshole. "Neal, you need to take a compliment. That's why I haven't turned you in yet."
Neal watched him, still vaguely confused.
"You're a bright guy," Burke said. "Figure it out. Take your time, I'm not planning on leaving until I've had a nice meal."
It was hard to think with Burke watching him, hard to think with the disc mocking him. Hard to think knowing that if he went down, Kate and Mozzie might too. How much did Burke know?
Burke knew he was self-taught, and Burke knew that he'd drawn attention. Burke had been told to promote him, knowing that he wasn't a pro at this.
"There's something you want from me," he surmised. "Professionally."
"Well, as nice as your ass looks when you're doing the filing, yeah, I'm more interested in your brain," Burke said, then continued before Neal could figure out how to react. "You're smart. I like smart. I want to cut a deal with you, Neal."
Neal grinned. This, he could work with.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked.
"I have to be in Chicago tomorrow," Burke said. "We think one of our clients is committing fraud. There's an investigator already on the ground there, but they want me to follow the money. I want you to come with me. Come hunting," he added.
"Neal," Burke sighed, sounding disappointed. "Let me make this clear to you. After our nice dinner, maybe some coffee, I'm going to go to the car that's waiting for me outside. It's going to take me to an airplane that's going to fly me to Chicago. Now you can either come with me, and we can work this case, or we can shake hands and I'll get into the car alone. If that happens, you should probably start running," he added, with a smile that was much more feral than before. "Because that disc is going to the police, and it's pretty damning. When they catch you, you'll go away. Probably not for long, but long enough, I think, to wish you'd taken the better deal."
"You're pretty sure they'll catch me," Neal said.
"Yeah. I am."
Neal considered this. "What happens when the job is over?"
Burke tilted his head. "When the job is over, you bring me those files you stole, I give you every copy of the disc, and we both walk away. In theory."
Neal raised an eyebrow. "In practice?"
"You won't walk away," Burke said.
"Yeah. In practice, you'll come back to Baysworth, and I'll get you a job with our Recovery department, and you will be one of our best and brightest. I've been watching you, Neal. You like the chase, and I don't think you care which side of it you're on."
Neal picked up the disc and flicked it through the air. Burke caught it easily.
"I'll need to pack a bag," he said.
"No you won't," Burke replied with a grin. "You know why people go to Chicago?"
"Masochism?" Neal asked.
"The shopping," Burke said. "And I have a company expense account that, funnily enough, nobody but me ever has to look at. So. Coming?"
Neal sat back and nodded. "Yeah. Why the hell not. It beats arrest warrants."
Burke was about to reply when the food arrived, and instead he picked up a fork.
"I do like a nice rare steak," he murmured, and Neal watched pink juice ooze out onto the plate.
The airplane wasn't just an airplane. It was a company jet, small but elegant, with Burke and Neal as the only two occupants. Burke watched him investigate it, fingers drifting over the leather seats and the little bar at the back and the stereo system.
"Honest work can be rewarding if you do it right," Burke said, as Neal settled into one of the seats. He passed him a cellphone. "This is yours now. Call the short guy you keep meeting for dinner and tell him where you're going."
"You're all heart," Neal said. "Heart, and enormous carbon footprint."
"If you care about the trees so much, don't make so many photocopies next time," Burke told him.
They touched down in Chicago close to midnight. Mozzie had been horrified to find out what had happened, and Kate had been furious, but both of them eventually agreed that a couple of days under the thumb of a slightly devious accountant was probably better than the rest of his life on the run.
"Come back to me soon, baby," Kate had told him.
"I promise," Neal said, aware that Burke was listening to his every word.
"I love you."
"Yeah, me too," he'd muttered, hating the way he sounded but unwilling to tell her he loved her in front of Burke.
Now it was morning, and he should have woken up in the slightly dingy apartment Steve Tabernacle rented, with Kate next to him and a full day's con ahead. Instead he was waking up in a hotel suite in Chicago to the sound of metal clattering.
"You're in my room," he said, sitting up to find Peter Burke uncovering plates on a room-service cart.
"I thought fruit salad would be more pleasant than a wake-up call," Burke told him. "Up and at 'em, Neal. We have about eight tons of financial reports to review, three banks to talk to, a meeting with the investigator, and a power lunch with the manager of the Chicago branch office. Plus we have to get you some suits. The concierge sent something up for today," he added, jerking his head at a garment bag hanging on a hook near the door. He flung an orange at Neal, carelessly, but Neal caught it on reflex and stared down at it.
"Well? Eat," Burke said, carrying a plate with fruit salad and pancakes on it to a little table near a floor-to-ceiling window. "Eat, shower, shave, dress. Be brilliant."
"Are you always this perky in the mornings?" Neal asked, sliding to the edge of the bed and peeling the orange slowly.
"Been up since five," Burke said around a mouthful of food. "Had enough time for two espressos."
"There's something wrong with you."
"Hey, I'm not the one complaining while under threat of imprisonment." Burke cast an amused glance his way. "It's called a work ethic."
Neal defiantly bit into a wedge of orange so that he didn't have to give Burke the satisfaction of a reply.
At ten o'clock that morning, after meeting a million people and reading a lot of really boring bank reports, Burke gave him a credit card and told him to go dress himself. Neal asked what exactly he thought would stop him from running. Burke patted his breast pocket and grinned.
The thing was, Peter Burke really was brilliant, worth the money he was paid, and he managed to make the whole thing feel -- interesting. Exciting. He made you believe that you were chasing ghosts through the numbers, like they were just the setting for the hunt. Burke put challenges in Neal's way, and Neal started to feel a little like he was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome because it was nice, really nice, whenever he figured something out and Burke gave him an approving look.
Still, he never forgot he was, essentially, a prisoner. Something Burke owned, even temporarily -- Burke fed him, had bought the clothes on his back, and thought nothing of invading his suite in the mornings. When Burke did his power lunches and bigwig meetings, Neal kept quiet; at the end of each day Burke went back to his own suite and did god-knew-what, or told the driver to take Neal back to the hotel and disappeared into downtown Chicago on mysterious errands of his own. Neal would call Kate or Mozzie, but it wasn't like he had much to report and they were in a holding pattern until he got free. The calls got shorter. The evenings got a lot longer. They worked on Saturday.
"So, Saturday night," Neal said, as Burke began closing up their temporary office for the night. "Big city. Plans?"
"Going to a Cubs game," Burke said. "Friendly Confines, hot dogs, beer, the whole nine. You?"
Neal turned his hat around in his hands. He'd picked it up on the shopping trip, and Burke said it made him look like a cartoon, but it was good camouflage and a better prop. "Hotel, I guess."
Burke was silent for a moment, and then he laughed. "Oh, I get it. You think you're on house arrest. Nah, screw it, Caffrey. If you were going to run you'd have run when I gave you the credit card. Go have some fun. Don't stay out too late."
"Work tomorrow?" Neal asked.
"Fraud waits for no man."
"Well, I wouldn't want to delay your triumph," Neal drawled. Burke paused and looked at him -- one of the sharp, steady looks he usually reserved for his work.
"You can come to the game if you want," he said finally, sounding almost hesitant.
"Nah. I'm not really a baseball guy," Neal answered.
"You sure? You'll miss out."
"Skybox? Comfy seats, catered food?" Neal asked, grinning.
"I like the bleachers," Burke said, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"How blue collar of you," Neal replied.
"Hey, you can take the boy out of the working class..." Burke shrugged.
"Nice to see the great Peter Burke still has some salt of the earth about him," Neal said, slapping him on the shoulder.
And deftly lifting the hotel keycard from his back pocket.
Burke's suite was nicer than his -- bigger, with a better view. Neal spared a couple of moments to enjoy it before he got to work.
His closet was full of tailored suits; expensive shirts, expensive if ugly neckties. The dresser had a couple of folded t-shirts in it and some more casual pants. There was a handful of stuff on the desk in the sitting room: cufflinks, spare change, neatly piled receipts, a few brochures for local tourist attractions. Burke had two laptops, a professional one he left in his office and a personal one sitting out on the bed. Password-protected, so Neal left it for later if he had time. Digital camera, a couple of photos of Chicago on it. No personal photos, and no hard copy ones in his laptop bag either. Phone charger plugged into the outlet by the nightstand.
Burke's suitcase proved more interesting. Aside from a couple of work files, nothing Neal hadn't seen already, it contained a small stack of books: a pocket guide to the Art Institute Museum, a police thriller, a nonfiction book entitled Detecting Forgery, a Lonely Planet guide to Chicago, and a copy of Girl With A Pearl Earring. That last one didn't strike Neal as Burke's sort of reading.
The Lonely Planet guide had two pages dogeared -- the listing for the blues clubs in the area, and the section on Boys Town. Interesting.
Neal pondered how audacious he could be, for a while, and then took Girl With A Pearl Earring with him and settled on the bed to try and crack the laptop. He didn't know Burke well enough to guess his password, and Burke was twisty enough to have a logger track that kind of thing, but sometimes a restart and the right key at the right moment --
Or the damn thing could bluescreen. Neal stared at it in dismay and then turned it off again.
He sat and stared at the view for a little while longer, then decided to give up. Nothing here he could leverage against Peter Burke; nothing here that told him much about Burke at all, really. He liked art; he liked blues, and maybe he liked boys, or maybe he just liked the shopping. Lonely Planet said there was good food in Boys Town, too.
Neal gathered up the book -- he deserved something, at least, for his pains -- and dropped the keycard next to Burke's cufflinks before he left. He ended up back in his own suite, but at least now he had a book to read. From the bed he could turn and look out on a pretty good (not as good as Burke's) view of the city, which wasn't New York but was soothingly full of skyscrapers and streetlights and cars going past.
He must have fallen asleep reading, because when he woke up it was to the feeling of paper brushing over his chest -- the book being lifted off him. He opened his eyes and there was Burke's face, Burke's own eyes black in the dim light of the room.
"Burke?" he asked, glancing at the window -- nope, still not Sunday morning. "What the hell...?"
"Lost my keycard," Burke said, walking away to the desk at the foot of the bed, dropping into the chair there. Neal saw a half-empty glass on the desk, a bottle of scotch next to it. Burke set the book down and leaned back, hands folded over his stomach, staring through the window. "Well. I thought I did. I figured I'd crash on the sofa. And now I find you here, with my book." Burke glanced at him briefly. Neal sat up, a ready excuse on his lips, but Burke held up a hand. "I don't want to hear it, Caffrey, unless you stole my laptop too."
"No," Neal said truthfully.
"How'd the game go?"
"Cubs lost," Burke said. "Good times, though."
"You can get another keycard from the desk," Neal pointed out. "I left yours in your room."
"Yeah. Didn't think of that. Had a couple of beers." Burke shrugged.
"And now scotch," Neal observed, trying to sound neutral.
"So I get up at six instead of five tomorrow," Burke replied, still staring out the window. "Tell you what, you can get up at eight instead of seven."
"Well, it is Sunday," Neal said. Burke sipped the scotch. Neal realized he looked -- lonely. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
Burke slid his eyes to the side. "What?"
"We've been here for a week, almost. Don't you miss New York?"
"Yeah. I can't wait to get the fuck out of here," Neal said frankly. "And that's not completely to do with being your pet accountant."
Burke chuckled. "Sure it's not."
"So? You ever get homesick?"
Burke turned back to the window. "New York's just a place. Everywhere's just a place."
"Got a girlfriend to miss you?" Neal asked, and then ventured, "Boyfriend?"
"Guy like you probably has people falling all over themselves," Neal pointed out.
"Never met the right one," Burke muttered. "What the hell is this, truth or dare?"
"I always like to know how the other half lives," Neal said. "You know. Hardworking people working hard," he added, flexing one arm in a Rosie the Riveter pose. Burke burst out laughing.
"Spare me the sarcasm, Neal," he said.
"Hey, at least I enjoy what I steal," Neal replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're sitting in my suite at -- " a check of the clock, " -- half past midnight, drinking scotch, looking like you'd sell your soul for someone to talk to."
Burke gave him a sardonic look and set the drink down. "I'm not a poor little rich boy. I like my life." He picked up the phone and hit the call button for the desk. "This is Peter Burke. I seem to have lost my keycard. Can you run another one up? Sure, I'll meet you there."
"Yeah, you sound like you love your life," Neal drawled.
"I don't need your pity, Caffrey," Burke said calmly, and Neal watched him leave.
"I gotta get him a puppy or something," he muttered to himself, and rolled over to go back to sleep.
The next morning Burke was all business, like the night before had never happened. He did go easy, though; Neal wasn't sure if it was just because even Super Burke needed time off sometimes, or if he had a hangover, but the work was slower and they knocked off around two.
Maybe they should have worked harder. Days passed -- more days, and more, until it was stretching into three weeks. Neal was starting to dread his nightly calls with Kate, because they kept fighting about when he was going to come home and what the hell with this Burke guy already and would it really be so bad if he ran? How long could forensic accounting take?
"It's gonna take the time it takes," Neal told her, fighting the urge to shout. He never shouted at Kate. "I'm working my ass off here, okay? It's not like I'm going to be gone forever. Sooner or later either we'll get it or we'll wrap up and come back. Yeah, I think it is that simp -- Kate?"
She'd hung up on him. Neal tossed the phone on the bed and rubbed his face. God, he never thought he'd be tired of a swank hotel room, but he really, really was.
Punching the wall, in retrospect, was stupid. The hotel was bigger than he was and meaner and, of course, it won. Neal grunted and shook his hand.
"Caffrey?" someone called through the door, and there was a knock. "You okay in there?"
"Fine," Neal called, flexing his hand as he walked across the room to open the door.
"I was passing, I heard something," Burke said.
"I had a fight with a wall."
Burke raised an eyebrow. "What did the wall do to you?"
"It was sassing me," Neal told him, and then frowned. "Did you get in a fight with a sprinkler?"
Burke grinned. He was wearing a t-shirt, which was damp and sticking to his shoulders, and a pair of equally damp track pants; his hair was plastered to his head, sticking up in little tufts here and there.
"Gym," he said, wiping his forehead on his sleeve.
"Was there some kind of survival competition?" Neal asked.
"Gets the blood flowing," Burke said.
"For all that important running and jumping you do," Neal replied, following him out as Burke took off down the hall to his own room.
"Yeah, well, that's kind of the point, huh?" Burke said, keycarding into his suite. "If you're following me around, order us some dinner."
"The point of what?" Neal asked, as Burke walked into the bathroom.
"The point of the gym," Burke called through the open doorway. Neal heard fabric hitting the tile. "Desk jockey. I sit, all day long. Don't you get restless? Or was that why you picked a fight with the architecture?"
"I don't normally work this way," Neal said, thumbing through the room-service menu. He had it memorized by now, but it was something to do with his hands.
"And you won't," Burke replied, leaning through the door, shirtless and grinning. "When we go back to New York and you take the job in Recovery, you'll get as much action as you can handle."
"You're still so sure of that," Neal murmured.
"It's my gut," Burke told him, leaning back into the bathroom. "It's never wrong."
Neal heard water running. He picked up the phone, but instead of calling the kitchen, he called the concierge.
Half an hour later Burke walked out of the shower in a cloud of steam, a towel wrapped around his waist, and Neal tried hard to ignore it as he signed for the food at the door. The delivery guy gave him a look that clearly said he thought Neal was a lucky bastard, and walked away grinning at the size of his tip.
"Jesus, put some clothes on," Neal said, carrying the food to the table. Burke stared at it like he'd never seen a pizza box before. "What?"
Burke shook his head. "Sorry. Hungry. Man that smells good," he added, taking it out of Neal's hands. Neal barely rescued the oil-stained paper bag sitting on top of it before Burke settled himself in at the dining table with the box open in front of him.
"I thought you liked Kobe steak," Neal said, grinning. Burke looked up at him with a glare that said if his mouth wasn't full of pizza he'd be saying something incredibly witty and sardonic. "Seriously, put some clothes on."
"What, are you offended?" Burke asked, swallowing. "My room, my rules, I want dinner more than I want underwear. Is that garlic bread?"
"No undies, no garlic bread," Neal said, putting it out of reach.
"You do realize I can still send you to prison," Burke threatened.
"Going to jail over a side dish would be embarrassing," Neal said thoughtfully.
"And again, your roots are showing," Neal told him, but he passed him the garlic bread anyway.
"At heart I'm a simple man," Burke replied.
"I'm pretty sure at heart you're incredibly complicated," Neal said, without thinking. Burke peered at him over his food, then shrugged and kept eating. Neal fumbled to recover. "So, it's Friday."
"Mmhm," Burke grunted. "You going out?"
"I thought you might want to. Sugar Blue's playing at the Kingston Mines."
Burke raised his eyebrows. "You know who Sugar Blue is?"
"You don't strike me as a blues guy. Well," Burke grinned, "Folsom Prison Blues, maybe."
"Low," Neal told him. "That's low."
"I call 'em like I see 'em."
"So? Are you in?"
"Sure," Burke said.
"You know you have to wear pants when you go out in public," Neal pointed out.
Burke just grinned and kept eating.
It was half past midnight, again, but this time there was no comforting hotel suite glass between them and the elements.
"That was great," Burke said, standing under the streetlamp and talking possibly louder than he really needed to. "God, that was just -- great."
"It was a lot of harmonica," Neal allowed.
"Come on, don't tell me you didn't enjoy that," Burke said, drawing in a huge lungful of very wet air. "I feel good. You feel good?"
"You feel drunk. I feel wet," Neal told him, huddling deeper in his coat against the rain.
"HEY TAXI," Burke called, but the cab rolling down the street pulled past them, stuffed with late-night bar hoppers. "I could call the car service."
"Taxi's faster. Hopefully," Neal added, putting out a hand for another one. This one pulled halfway down the street and picked up two young women. "Oh what the hell."
Burke laughed. "Give it up, let the crowd thin a little. Come on, this way," he said, pulling Neal into the minimal shelter of the bar's wall. "Hey, this was your idea, remember?" he said, crowding close to let a group of people past. "Or were you pitying the old man again?"
"You pegged me. I care so much about the mental health of a rich stranger who has me in his power that I don't even mind getting rained on," Neal drawled. Burke just patted his cheek, Godfather-style, and leaned against the wall with one shoulder.
"You make pretending not to care a specialty?" Burke asked.
"It's not pretending," Neal replied.
"If you weren't pretending, you wouldn't be working so hard on this case."
"I'm trying to get home."
"Bullshit. I told you. You love the chase," Burke said, leaning in close. "You're a bright kid, Caffrey. Come hunt for our side. We give health benefits."
Neal laughed. "Dental?"
"Oh yeah. 401K, stock options, company car, the works."
"Are you seducing me, Burke?" Neal asked. Burke gave him a considering look. Neal turned his head and almost bumped noses with him.
"No," Burke said in a low voice. "If I were seducing you, that would go more like this."
He swayed forward and kissed Neal, one of his hands curling in Neal's coat, holding him there, the other cupping his face. Neal heard someone nearby wolf-whistle.
"Burke," he managed, though he didn't manage to pull away. He couldn't seem to get his body to try to pull away.
"I think you can call me Peter," Burke said, kissing him again. Apparently Peter Burke did like boys.
"Peter, I -- " Neal tried, but Burke -- Peter -- stuck his tongue in his mouth and did something that made Neal lean a little harder on the wall.
"Mm?" Peter asked.
"Peter, I have -- " I have a girlfriend, he started to say. Peter's hand tightened in his coat and so did something weird and primal in his chest.
"You have?" Peter asked, biting on the edge of his jaw.
"I -- fuck it," Neal decided, and pulled away, grabbing Peter by the collar of his coat and dragging him along. "TAXI!"
They stumbled into Neal's suite without any kind of grace, Neal trying to pull Peter forward and shove his coat off at the same time. Peter was all hands, like Neal was some complicated puzzle he had to get the feel of before he solved it. Neal managed to get out of his shoes and socks before Peter pinned him to the bed, rain-damp hair slicked back from his face, laughing into his chest.
"Hey," he said, as Neal tried to get his belt undone. "Hey, I think you should know, this wasn't part of the plan."
"The plan?" Neal asked breathlessly, resisting the urge to pick Peter's pocket as he got his pants off.
"Yeah, the whole thing, with you and...the stuff," Peter mumbled, running a cold hand up Neal's ribcage, under his shirt. "I mean. I'm just saying, you don't have to fuck me to stay out of jail."
"There are so many better reasons to fuck you," Neal agreed, and Peter laughed.
"Good, we're on the same page," he said. "I wouldn't want to put you under duress."
Neal bucked up against him. "Duress could be fun."
"Yeah?" Peter asked, sliding up his body a little to look down at him.
"Well, sometimes it is," Neal said.
"You kinky freak," Peter grinned and pushed his shirt further up, tugging it clumsily over his head. "I think you like being ordered around."
"Some other time," Neal said, tugging on Peter's shirt. "Shirt off, shirt off -- "
"Hey! Prada!" Peter said, sitting up to unbutton it properly.
"Ooh, when I'm a good dog for your company do I get Prada too?" Neal asked, laughing.
"You learn," Peter said, shrugging the shirt off, "when you're the best at what you do -- " he bent and sucked along Neal's collarbone. Neal groaned. " -- sooner or later," a kiss along his sternum, "you get whatever you want."
"You always get what you want?" Neal asked, as Peter pulled his pants down, letting them slip to the floor. Peter nuzzled his cock through his briefs.
"Yeah," Peter breathed, and Neal arched hard enough to hurt. "I do."
"What about me?" Neal gasped, as Peter's hands pinned his hips down. "I get what I want?"
Peter tugged at his underwear, still holding Neal down with one hand.
"Are you the best at what you do?" he asked.
"Pretty damn close," Neal groaned.
"Really? Because correct me if I'm wrong," Peter said, and licked him, licked the head of his cock roughly, "but I caught you."
"Oh Jesus," Neal managed, as Peter sucked his cock into his mouth. "Peter, please -- "
Peter pulled back. Neal pushed himself up on his elbows, staring. Peter licked his lips.
"What I really want," Peter said, moving up his body, hands pulling Neal's thighs around his hips, "is to fuck you. But I also don't want to leave you alone for even the time it would take to call the concierge and have them bring me some lube."
"You've done that?" Neal asked, eyes wide.
"You think this is the first time I've had sex in a five-star hotel suite?" Peter asked. He glanced around the room. "Well. Four-star."
"I'm not sure if I should be flatter -- " Neal broke off when Peter bit gently on his throat. "If I should...I..."
Peter hummed against his skin, hips thrusting slowly, finding a rhythm, a sweet spot where their cocks rubbed together.
"The chase is good," Peter said in his ear. Neal tipped his head back, eyes falling shut. "The win is better."
"Which is this?" Neal asked, perilously close to the edge and praying Peter wouldn't bite him again because that would be it, game over --
"The best," Peter said, breath warm against his temple. "Both."
He bit down on Neal's earlobe and Neal groaned and came, fingers clutching Peter's shoulders hard enough to leave bruises. Peter laughed -- oh, that smug fuck laughed -- and kissed Neal and came all over him, still laughing. He eased his head down against Neal's neck, just above his shoulder, and Neal felt him inhale and exhale a few times.
"Heavy," Neal remarked, when he felt he could talk again.
"Get used to it," Peter told him, but he rolled away and off the bed, fumbling for something to clean them up with.
"That's my t-shirt," Neal said, not bothering to put too much protest in it.
"Bought on the company card. Technically it's my t-shirt," Peter told him.
"Good, you can wash it."
"Well, that's the benefit of being the poor little rich boy," Peter replied, tugging the sheets out from under Neal and shoving him over as if he were just one more pillow on the bed, then climbing in after him. "Laundry service."
Most mornings, when Neal awoke, it was to either the courtesy wake-up call from the front desk or the sound of Peter invading his suite with breakfast. Instead, that morning, Neal woke up to Peter's voice, quiet, across the room from the bed.
"No, no, it's not Malfi," Peter was saying. Neal cracked open one eye. The other man was pacing the floor, phone to his ear, in one of the endless series of fluffy white robes the maids kept leaving in the bathroom. "Yeah, look, I know, but it's a frame-up job. It's Lewes."
Neal pushed himself up, blinking.
Of course, it was Lewes. If Lewes was the one defrauding the insurance company, not his partner, everything made sense. Four new avenues of investigation opened up to them and all the math fitted together.
Peter pointed at him and then turned his hand over, curling his fingers, an arrogant come-here gesture. Neal slid out of bed.
"Lewes," Peter mouthed, then returned his attention to the phone, but he wrapped one arm around Neal's waist, pinning him in place. "Yeah. No, I said I wouldn't be in today, I don't want to spook him if he's watching us. Okay, have someone run the files over. I can get the rest on the laptop. Sure. Sure." He hung up the phone.
"Lewes," Neal said. "It's Lewes."
"Yeah, that's what I said," Peter told him, tapping his bare chest with the phone.
"How'd you figure it out?"
"Mind-blowing sex gets the brain working," Peter said. Neal stared at him. "That was a joke."
"Hey, any time you need an epiphany," Neal offered.
"Love to, but right now we have work to do," Peter said, releasing him. "They're couriering over all the records we need, but I gotta get on the phone and see who I can convince to send me his bank records. Our investigator's talking to the police."
"I know this sounds like a broken record, but you should probably put on some pants," Neal told him.
"You first," Peter replied, drifting towards the shower. "Hey, is last night going to be awkward?"
Neal dug in his dresser for clean clothes. "Why, is it supposed to be?"
"You tell me," Peter said, lingering in the doorway.
"How badly is awkward going to interfere with doing it again?"
Peter smiled. "You're still kind of a punk, you know that?"
"I'm a very persuadable punk," Neal offered.
"Fine. No awkwardness. I can do that," Peter announced, and closed the bathroom door.
They spent most of the day in Peter's suite -- "Why?" "It has a better view." -- going over files, re-sorting them and assembling the case against Lewes. It was exciting, watching all the pieces fall into place, like finally pulling together all the plans before a big con. Peter was relentless, serious and determined, making sure everything was in the right place and the pattern was visible even to a casual observer. He spent a lot of time on the phone to their recovery investigator, keeping her up to date and making sure they were both on the same page. Neal had to admit that Recovery sounded like it was more his speed, with less paperwork and a whole lot more conning involved. If he didn't already have a career as a brilliant criminal, he might have considered it.
He shook the thought out of his head as Peter hung up and sat down next to him, fingers drifting across the file they'd begun to assemble, flicking over tabs and the corners of pages. There was a certain air of ownership about the gesture, as if there was nothing Peter Burke couldn't be master of, nobody he couldn't nail to a wall if he had the right angle. Neal caught himself staring at Peter's hand, and looked away just as there was a knock at the door.
"Room service!" a voice called.
"Yeah, come in," Peter yelled back absently. A young man wheeled a cart into the living room, covered plates and a bottle of wine on the top, a peculiar package wrapped in white paper underneath.
"Your jidori chicken, sir, and Mr. Caffrey's lamb remoulade," he said. "And the concierge has sent up the other items you requested."
"Great, thanks," Peter said, tipping him and carrying the plates to the table. Neal moved some papers to make room.
"Gonna be tough to go back to food carts and cheap Chinese after this," he said, taking the cover off his plate.
"Well, you know where I stand on that," Peter told him, setting the wine out. "You work for Baysworth -- you work with me -- it's Ethiopian Sidamo and jidori chicken all the way. Well, cheap Chinese if you want it. Sometimes I do."
"With you?" Neal asked. "Work with you."
"Sure. Why not? I consult with the Recovery guys all the time. Think about that," Peter said, grinning at him as he took a bite of chicken. "Burke and Caffrey. We could make a great team."
"Hm," Neal said, noncommittal. "Chasing down art thieves and insurance defrauders."
Peter cocked his head. "I know you've committed art theft. Ever committed insurance fraud?"
"Would I tell you if I had?"
"No," Neal admitted. "Not within the meaning of the word. Bond forgery, allegedly, but insurance, it's not my gig. Anyone with a plan and enough information can commit fraud. Forgery..." he grinned. "You have to be an artist."
"And you're an artist?"
"I am," Neal said, proudly.
"And a pickpocket, a corporate spy, a thief, a forger, a finance man, a confidence man..." Peter said.
"A renaissance man," Neal finished for him. "Like Leonardo da Vinci."
"You ever forge him?" Peter asked, refilling his wine glass. It was very good wine.
"No." Neal shook his head. "He's my inspiration."
"Respect among thieves?"
"You copy the Master. You don't steal from him."
Peter gave him a long, intense look, but then he went back to eating, and turned the conversation to the work they'd done that day. Neal followed along, eyes still curiously flicking occasionally to the package wrapped in white paper, sitting on the room service cart.
When they were finished, Peter poured out the last of the wine into their glasses and stood up, walking over to the wall of glass that looked out on downtown Chicago. Neal sat back and watched him, enjoying the line of his tailored shirt against his back and the way bare feet looked under dress trousers. Peter sipped his wine, studying the skyline.
"The package is for you," Peter said finally.
"What package?" Neal asked, grinning. Peter glanced at him.
"Don't think I didn't see you looking at it," he replied, a small smile on his lips. "Go on."
Neal collected the package from the cart and came back to the table, opening it. Inside was a plain brown cardboard carton. He lifted the lid, curious, and laughed when he saw the box of condoms and the small bottle of lube on top.
"You really asked the concierge to bring you this," he said, sitting back. Peter turned back to the window, still smiling.
"Believe me, compared to some of the things people ask concierges for, that was nothing. Nothing in there was especially hard to find," Peter said, and Neal curiously lifted the bottle and box out and set them on the table. Underneath was a layer of tissue paper, and when Neal opened it he caught his breath.
He lifted out a pair of fabric loops, attached to each other with an adjustable strap. Below them was a larger loop, made out of the same soft black fabric, with a ring on the front. Next to those, the leather cock ring at the bottom seemed almost lewd.
"And you call me the kinky freak," he said, admiringly.
"How serious were you about...duress?" Peter asked. Neal slipped the loops over his wrists. The joining strap could be tightened to simulate handcuffs, or lengthened -- or, aha, hooked into the ring on what was clearly a collar. Wearing them, if he tried to move his arms away from his throat he'd choke. He could slip any of it easily enough but that wasn't, after all, the point. Tied up like that he'd have to let Peter do whatever he wanted. He'd have to trust Peter not to abuse his position -- he'd get to show Peter he already did.
Neal left the bindings in the box and joined Peter at the window, leaning against the glass, the drop below them dizzying.
"How serious do you want me to be?" he asked. Peter looked at him.
"It's just a game," he said quietly. "If you're not interested -- "
"The safeword is fraud," Neal told him. Peter blinked at him, then set his wineglass down and laughed.
Sunday morning Neal woke up to find Peter still sleeping, face relaxed, body loose and one arm wrapped around Neal, holding him against his side. Neal wasn't sure what to make of Peter Burke anymore; the night before, he'd tied his wrists to his throat and made him swear -- he'd made him beg, and Neal didn't usually enjoy begging anyone for anything, ever. Then again, Peter was the first person who'd ever caught him at a con and made a punishment stick. Peter was...unique.
He watched him for a while, counting breaths, not really wanting to face certain truths. On the other hand, when you absolutely had to tell the truth, it was usually better to do it fast, get it over with, try and make it one sharp sting instead of a slow burn.
"You know the woman I talk to," he said, after a while, and Peter opened his eyes.
"The woman you've been fighting with," he said. "Kate."
"Yeah. You know she's my girlfriend, right?" Neal asked.
"I was trying not to think about it," Peter said. He raised a hand to his face and rubbed it, brushing his hair back.
"I love her a lot," Neal told him, not sure why he was even saying this. "I love my life, too. The life we have."
Peter was quiet for a while, staring at the ceiling.
"The thing about always getting what you want," he said, slowly, "is that sometimes you have to be careful about what you want."
"Is that what this was?" Neal asked, surprised at the tinge of bitterness in his tone. "Conquest?"
Peter shook his head, still not looking at him. "Sometimes you have to be careful about what you want," he repeated, "and sometimes -- very rarely -- you have to tell yourself you don't want something you do."
"I'm not coming back to Baysworth," Neal said.
"Yeah, you are. You just don't know it yet," Peter assured him. He turned and finally looked at Neal, face serious but not angry, not sad. "Here's how it's going to work. Today we're going to stitch up the case. Tomorrow morning, they'll arrest Lewes. We'll be on a plane back to New York by noon. Call the short guy, tell him to get the files ready. He can hand them off at the airport, I'll give you the discs."
"And we walk away?" Neal asked.
"Isn't that what you want?"
"It's not what you want."
"I'm pretty good at telling myself what I want," Peter said. He drew in a breath. "Here's what I want you to think about, Neal."
Neal waited expectantly.
"You love Kate, fine. Does she love you?"
"Of course," Neal said automatically.
"If I had you," Peter said, resting a hand on Neal's chest, "I wouldn't leave you with someone else for three weeks. A week, sure. Two, maybe. But after that I'd be on an airplane out. I wouldn't sit in New York and complain that you didn't care while you were working your ass off under threat of blackmail."
"You've known me for three weeks," Neal pointed out.
"I watched you before that. I saw all your little slips, all the times you let Neal Caffrey show through Steve Tabernacle. I knew you could do this work. And I knew that you'd let me do this," he added, running a finger along a low red mark on Neal's throat where the ring on the restraints had bruised him.
"You don't know Kate," Neal tried.
"No, that's true. Maybe my standards are different, maybe they're dysfunctional, maybe I wish I had a life where everyone I met wasn't either afraid of me or trying to lie to me all the time." Peter rolled onto his back again. "Sometimes I wonder if I hadn't bought into the Fortune 500 crap years ago I'd have met someone, someone worth giving up this life for. Somewhere out there Peter Burke met someone and only dreams of this kind of life. Good coffee, Kobe steaks, silk sheets, a corner office. So, when I find someone and I think, yeah, I'd give this up for them..." he shrugged.
"Kate loves me," Neal insisted.
"Good. If you love someone, it's best if they love you back," Peter said, and then he smiled and kissed him, rolling across him to get out of bed. "And now, breakfast, and taking down the bad guy."
Mozzie sounded incensed.
"Let me get this straight," he said over the phone, while Neal waited patiently for him to process. "You are seriously going to turn over fourteen weeks' worth of work to this...this Suit? I thought you were going to con him out of that deal!"
"Sometimes the heist goes south, Moz," Neal said patiently. "You know that."
"Do you know what's in these files?"
"Yeah, I do! I copied them. It doesn't matter. I just want this to be over. Bring the files to the airport, we're turning them in. He's going to give me the discs and I get my life back."
"Okay, okay," Mozzie said, sounding equally contrite and annoyed. "You're sure you're coming back tomorrow, this isn't some kind of sting?"
"Yeah, I'm sure," Neal replied. "Look, Peter's word is good. He's not going to screw me."
"Peter now, huh?" Mozzie asked.
"I've been living in the guy's pocket for weeks, Moz."
"Fine, whatever. I'm wearing a disguise."
"Okay! Just bring the files." Neal sighed, running a hand through his hair. "How's Kate?"
"Pissed at you. She'll get over it."
"Bring flowers," Moz told him, and hung up.
Neal did bring flowers, though he wasn't sure if they really counted since he'd had the concierge buy them and picked them up right before they left for New York. Peter looked amused. Still, it was the thought that counted.
He had new luggage, going back -- a garment bag for the suits and a nice carry-on. He also had a hell of a lot to think about. The carry-on banged against his hip as he ran across the tarmac to where Mozzie and Kate were waiting inside an empty hangar. Kate might be pissed, but she threw herself into his arms -- warm and real, all his, his Kate. She liked the flowers.
"You must be the Suit," Mozzie said, as Peter came up behind Neal. Mozzie had a half-full file box in his hands. "I can't believe I'm doing this," he added, holding the box out.
"It's a small price to pay for freedom," Peter said. He gave Neal a bland smile and accepted the box, balancing it on one arm. He dug a silver disc out of his pocket and offered it to Neal.
"And the other copies?" Neal asked.
"No other copies," Peter told him.
"You dirty liar," Neal said.
"Takes one to know one," Peter replied. His smile never faltered for a second. "I'll take care of Steve Tabernacle with the company. Be seein' you, Neal."
"Thank you for this," Neal said, holding up the silver disc in one hand, offering his other hand to shake. "I gotta go."
Peter shook his hand, and stayed in the hangar as Neal wrapped an arm around Kate and walked away, Mozzie trailing behind.
Two weeks later, Neal slipped through the kitchen of the restaurant in Peter's condo building, bribed the service-elevator operator to take him up to the top floor, picked the stairwell lock, climbed the stairs to the penthouse, picked the second lock, stepped out into a long, dingy hallway, and opened the first door he came to.
It let out into a kitchen, cherrywood cabinetry and black granite, messier than Neal would have expected. Across the prep bar he could see the living room, filled with elegant and slightly uncomfortable-looking furniture. Off the living room was a bedroom, also empty, and a hallway down to what looked like an observation room, with floor-to-ceiling windows. He crept down the hall and nudged the door open further.
The room was shaped like a half-circle, one curving wall entirely made of glass, giving a staggering view of New York. Neal drank it in for a few minutes before he noticed what was different here: the furniture wasn't cheap but it looked a lot more comfortable, and lying on a battered couch in front of a coffee table covered with paperwork was Peter Burke. He was sleeping, wearing a ratty t-shirt and a pair of threadbare jeans, a stereo system somewhere in the wall playing a baseball game on the radio.
Neal studied the papers on the table and then shuffled them aside carefully, preserving the piles. He sat down, watched Peter sleep for a minute, and then touched his temple, drawing a hand down from hairline to cheek. Peter shifted, muttering nonsense.
"Peter," Neal said quietly.
Peter's eyes opened, a quick click between waking and sleeping -- Peter didn't do anything inefficiently -- and then he turned his head. A smile slid across his face.
"Neal," he said, sitting up. He ran a hand through his hair, put an elbow on his thigh, and rested his chin in his hand. "How's life?"
"Oh, you know," Neal said, going for lighthearted and missing it by about a mile. "Keeping busy."
"Uh huh. I saw someone stole a Renoir from the Met."
"Innocent," Neal said, holding up his hands. Peter gave him a skeptical look, but didn't push it. He hadn't stolen the Renoir, though he had painted the fake they replaced it with.
"So, what can I do for you today?" Peter asked, still watching Neal with keen eyes.
"I told Kate about us," Neal said.
"Yeah? How'd that go?"
"She threw me out," Neal admitted.
Peter's steady gaze was starting to be unnerving.
"I don't take in strays, Caffrey," he said. Neal frowned. "Don't come here because your girlfriend threw you out. Be here because you want to be here, nowhere else."
Neal looked down at his hands. "She threw me out a week ago."
"Where've you been since?" Peter asked.
"Moz -- the short guy -- he's got a place. He's pissed at me too, but we go back."
"So," Peter said, into the silence. "You've been crashing at someone's place, stealing a painting, what, maybe doing a little conning on the side?"
Neal shook his head, still looking down. "No. I...did some work, I'm not gonna lie, but it wasn't the same. It didn't feel the same. I turned down some jobs. I walked around a lot. I thought about what you said."
"And?" Peter prompted.
"I...I like the chase. You're not wrong. But I don't want to run anymore, I'm tired of what I did. It stopped feeling like freedom."
"Why?" Peter asked gently. This was a test, Neal knew; the biggest test, perhaps. The answer wasn't about the penthouse or the hotel suites or the tailored suits. It wasn't even about Peter and the anticipatory tension whenever he thought about him. It wasn't about going honest.
"Because it was just escape," Neal said. It was as true as he knew how to be.
Peter reached out and tipped his chin up with one hand.
"Hey," he said, while Neal's stomach rolled and worlds closed down around him, worlds where he was Neal Caffrey, Master Thief and Neal Caffrey, Legendary Forger, and --
"Hey," Peter said again. "You conning me?"
Neal shook his head. "I'm leaving a whole life behind, Peter. That's a lot to give up for a con."
"Okay. I believe you," Peter said. To Neal's surprise, he leaned forward and kissed him, still gentle, like Neal might bolt.
"So, about that job with Baysworth..." Neal said, when the kiss was done. Peter laughed against his skin.
"Told you you'd come back," he said.
"Excuse me," Neal said, stepping into the room and turning his charm up, just because he could. "I think I'm a little lost."
The display room inside the storefront was long and narrow, but he couldn't fault the interior: shelves of china along one side, chairs and easels along the other, clean hardwood floors. It looked like a place where people did work, and Neal preferred workplaces to showrooms. There was also a very beautiful woman shelving swatch books near the back, and she gave him a bright, friendly smile when she saw him.
"I'm looking for Walker Premiere Events," he said, holding up a slightly tattered business card. He'd acquired it from a gallery owner in midtown, who swore they were the best event planners in the business.
"You're standing in it," she said, holding out her hand. He shook it.
"Sorry, the sign outside said McMichaels," he tipped his head at the door.
"We've had a change of name. Same management, though," she said cheerfully.
"Variety is the spice of life," Neal observed. He did not miss the flicker of -- annoyance, possibly sadness, in her eyes. Nice blue eyes; Neal was a sucker for blue eyes and dark hair, which Peter said was just a symptom of self-absorption. Neal had never pointed out, because it would have been kind of cruel, that he'd ended up with someone who looked nothing like his type. Brains were more important than looks, anyway.
"I'm glad to hear it," Neal said, tucking the business card in his pocket. "The Warner Gallery swears by you, I thought you might have closed down."
"Oh, you must be a friend of Bonnie's," she replied. "I'm Elizabeth McMichaels."
"Neal Caffrey," Neal said, biting down on the urge to give a fake name. It had been his first instinct his entire adult life, and a year of living honest hadn't had much impact yet. "Nice to meet you, Elizabeth."
"What can I do for you today, Mr. Caffrey?" she asked, guiding him to a comfortable chair at a little desk covered in viewbooks.
"Neal, please. I need to throw a housewarming party," he said. "I don't really do the whole snacks-and-punch thing."
"New place?" she asked, and he saw her take a professional measure of him -- expensive suit, tailored shirt -- as well as a more personal measure of his face and the shape of his body under the suit. "Wait, let me guess -- stock trader, work party?"
"Insurance specialist," he said. "Good guess, though. Gotta impress the boss."
"Are you thinking small and intimate, or...?"
Neal shook his head. "We're moving into...kind of a big place. If it were up to my boyfriend we'd probably just do a barbecue, but I want something a little classier."
He didn't miss the very slight moue of disappointment on her face.
"I know. 'All the good ones are gay', right?" he asked, laughing. She smiled at him.
"I was going to say 'All the pretty ones are taken'," she confided.
"Well, that depends on your definition of taken," he said, and saw her blush a little. "Pretty's more accurate anyway, though, you're right."
She glanced over his shoulder. "I think Mr. Pretty And Taken might be looking for you," she said. Neal turned around and saw Peter standing outside, looking slightly baffled, holding a phone to his ear. Neal's phone rang.
"I'll be right back," he said, and went to the door, leaning out into the street.
"For the smartest guy in the room you're a little slow sometimes," he said, and Peter turned abruptly, hanging up his phone.
"Why am I here?" Peter asked.
"Because I like to torment you," Neal told him. "Come inside. Ah!" he said, turning and almost running into Elizabeth, who was peering around his shoulder. "You're like a cat. Peter, this is Elizabeth McMichaels, she's going to throw our party so that you don't have an aneurysm. Elizabeth, Peter Burke."
"Hi," Elizabeth said, offering her hand. Peter extended his hand, looked down, transferred the phone to his other hand, and shook.
"Sorry, Neal said Walker, it says McMichaels," he gestured at the company logo stenciled on the window.
"We changed names," Elizabeth said. Peter's eyes narrowed just a fraction.
"Divorce?" he asked. Neal resisted the urge to slap him in the back of the head.
"Interesting that you go there rather than marriage," Elizabeth said, completely composed. "Some things aren't meant to be. Come in, sit down. Neal was just telling me you're moving."
"The penthouse got old," Neal said, following her back to the desk. He shot Peter a play it cool look, and Peter mouthed what? at him. "We got this house on Riverside Drive, the Schinasi place..."
"The Schinasi Mansion?" Elizabeth asked, looking up as she seated herself.
"You know it?"
"It's beautiful," she said. "It's a great venue, too."
"It's big," Peter put in. Neal glanced at him, trying to figure out if Peter was in a really bad mood or possibly had been switched with a pod person. Instead he saw an oddly...earnest look on Peter's face as he watched Elizabeth arrange her viewbooks.
"We like space," Neal said. "I'm converting the fourth-floor loft into a studio. The light's great up there."
"You're an artist, too?" she asked.
"Yeah, I dabble," Neal said. Peter was still watching Elizabeth, not even remotely attempting to rise to the bait.
"Well, let's see what we can do to make your housewarming a real event," she said, which should have sounded like a line, but didn't.
Peter spent most of the discussion silent, eyes flicking from Neal to Elizabeth, probably listening but possibly not very closely. Neal tried to hide his amusement, but after a while it was just too funny.
"So I hear there's a new Italian place nearby," he said, as the conversation wound down and Elizabeth began writing up a preliminary estimate. "You been yet?"
"Really? No, I -- " she laughed and brushed her hair back from her face and Neal saw a muscle jump in Peter's jaw. "Too busy working, I guess."
"Peter, we should try it out," Neal said. Peter glanced at him. "Italian. New. Food? Dinner?"
"Yeah," Peter said vaguely.
"You should come," Neal said, turning back to Elizabeth, because obviously he was going to be doing the heavy lifting here. "I want to ask you about the imported patés."
"Oh -- I can't," she said, real regret in her face. "I have a client meeting at five."
"Some other time, maybe. We'll see you on Saturday to show you the space, though, right?" Neal asked.
"I'll be there," she said with a smile. "Neal, Peter, very nice to meet you both. I can't wait to see your home."
Outside, Neal made it half a block before he burst out laughing. Peter turned to him, startled.
"What?" Peter asked.
"You!" Neal gasped, leaning against a wall, holding his stomach. "I have never seen you be that incompetent."
"I wasn't incompetent! I don't care about mauve versus pink!" Peter said.
"You don't care about anything when there's a woman that gorgeous trying to sell you on it," Neal crowed. "You're smitten."
"You are!" Neal said. "Elizabeth McMichaels flips her hair at you and you go monosyllabic."
"Neal, that's not true," Peter said, guilt and worry on his face.
"It's okay," Neal told him. "She's amazing. If I were an accountant and not a con man I'd probably have a catatonic fit too."
"She was fine," Peter said, scowling. "You're not a con man."
"Not anymore. But Peter, she's perfect," Neal told him, more serious now. "She's smart, she's gorgeous, she's funny. She thinks you're hot and I'm pretty. She's single. She wanted to go to Italian with us, Peter."
"I have you," Peter said, dropping the pretense of protest. "I don't need anyone else."
"You caught me," Neal corrected. "I couldn't get away from you now if I tried."
"So? She's just nice, that's all."
Neal leaned close, adjusting the lapels of Peter's coat.
"When she comes to see the house on Saturday," he said, "your mission is to ask her out to dinner with us."
"What are you suggesting?" Peter asked.
"That all those years of having nobody is about to pay with back-interest," Neal said. "You have me, okay, fine. Let's find out if we can have her."
"Kinky freak," Peter told him affectionately.
"I just want -- " Neal shrugged. "I want you to get what you want. Even when you say you don't want it."
Peter cast a sidelong look at him as they walked. "You think she'd be into that?"
"I think she's into you. Which is something I am into, so that's something in common right there."
"You just met her and now you're suggesting we seduce her."
"Took you three weeks to get me into bed."
"Getting you into bed wasn't actually the goal," Peter said drily.
"Whatever. You think she goes by Liz?" Neal asked, shoving his hands in his pockets.
Peter shook his head. "She looked more like an El, to me." He hesitated. "Ask her out, huh?"
"Ask her out, Peter."
"Where? You already asked her to Italian."
Neal sighed. "And she couldn't go, and she wants to go. Trust me, Peter, ask her out for some damn Italian."
"Is she going to get what's going on?"
"Oh, yeah," Neal said. "She'll get it. Besides, what are you worried about?" he asked with a sudden grin. Peter smiled back, hesitant. "You always get what you want."