On Friday morning, Diana Barrigan entered Peter Burke's office in the FBI's New York headquarters, White Collar division with, for her, an unusually tentative step. “Boss, do you have a minute?”
Peter looked up from the screen with relief. Not that he would admit it to Caffrey, but reports weren't his favorite part of the job either. Just necessary. “Sure, Diana, what can I do for you?”
Diana didn't take the chair as he expected. Instead, she leaned in. “Did Caffrey steal something?”
Peter jumped. “What? No, not that I know of—did he?” Peter fumbled for his mouse. “Get his tracking data—”
Diana exhaled and perched on the corner of Peter's desk. “Relax, I haven't heard any chatter.”
“Then why did you ask?” Peter asked, his heart rate returning to normal.
“Because,” said Diana, “the last time you were this tense whenever he's around, there was Nazi treasure involved.”
Peter glanced at the doorway to make sure Caffrey was nowhere in sight. “It's that obvious?”
“To me, yes,” said Diana. “But I trained in profiling at Quantico.”
“Elizabeth noticed too,” Peter admitted.
Diana chuckled. “When it comes to you, Peter, Elizabeth could teach profiling at Quantico.”
“Thank god she's on our side,” Peter replied in a shade-too-hearty tone.
“You don't want to talk about this,” Diana observed.
“I'm being obvious again,” Peter said flatly. It wasn't a no.
“I'm sorry to be nosy,” said Diana, not actually leaving.
It was Peter's turn to chuckle. “You love being nosy.”
Diana shrugged. “OK, then I'm sorry to be nosy to the man whose evaluations determine my merit increase. But it's affecting the team.”
“Neal seems fine,” Peter said bitterly.
“Caffrey always seems fine,” replied Diana. “Especially when he isn't.”
Peter gave in. “All right. But not here.”
“Not a glass-walls-have-ears kind of conversation?” asked Diana, glancing towards the door herself.
Peter nodded. “That, and I'm gonna need a big drink.”
Peter and Diana sat at the bar at an old school New York Irish pub, dark and full of wood paneling, almost deserted in the middle of the afternoon. The bartender was down at the far end of the bar, prepping supplies for the happy hour rush.
Peter took a shot of whiskey, grimaced, and quickly followed it with a swig of beer. “About a week ago, Neal and I were on a stakeout.”
“The Farragut case, I heard,” said Diana “Nice bust, by the way.” A seltzer with lime bubbled away on the counter in front of her, almost untouched.
“Thanks,” said Peter automatically. “Anyway, the muscle made us. But we couldn't move the car or the plan would go south. We needed eight more minutes in that spot.”
“And?” Diana prompted.
Peter stared down into his beer. “Caffrey said there's only two things grown men do in parked cars that aren't suspicious, and drug deals don't take long enough.” Peter took a deep breath. “And then he kissed me.”
“Does Elizabeth know?” Diana demanded.
Peter nodded. “Neal insisted on telling her himself. Right afterwards. And he apologized. You know that extra sincere voice he does.”
“Was she mad?” Diana asked sympathetically.
Peter surprised himself by laughing. “Only that there was no video.”
This time Diana definitely sounded impressed. “Elizabeth is full of surprises.”
“You don't know the half of it,” Peter replied.
“Are you mad?” Diana prodded.
“Not really,” Peter admitted. “I mean, just once it would be nice if he would ask before pulling one of these crazy stunts. But, it's Neal.”
“And it worked,” Diana pointed out.
“It always does,” said Peter. “Do not tell him I said that.”
“I will take it to the grave,” promised Diana. “So if you're not mad, why the boilermakers?”
“The beer takes away the taste of the whiskey,” answered Peter, not a hard liquor fan.
“Peter....” Diana's long-suffering tone said that wasn't what she meant, and he knew it, neither of which he could really dispute.
Peter took a deep breath and the plunge. This was what he'd come for, after all. “Diana, how did you know?”
“Quantico,” Diana repeated patiently.
“No, I mean about...” Peter trailed off, hoping that would be sufficient.
Apparently not. “I'm gonna need a noun,” said Diana.
“That you liked girls,” Peter clarified.
“I had a crush on a cheerleader,” Diana answered, squeezing her lime into her seltzer and finally taking a sip.
Peter smiled reminiscently. “Me too. Good times.”
Diana's tone was dry. “Not really.” Firmly she redirected the conversation away from memory lane. “So what's bothering you isn't Caffrey.... it's you.”
Peter couldn't deny it. “If you say one word to Neal you will spend the rest of your career counting paperclips in the Cave.”
Diana touched the back of his hand. “You got kissed by that Black Widow, right? Was it a totally unpleasant experience?”
“The knife detracted a bit. And feeling guilty about Elle,” Peter replied.
“That's not a yes,” Diana noted.
Peter pointedly did not comment.
Diana continued as if he had. “For a man in Caffrey's line of work, being a good kisser is practically a job requirement. So, you got kissed by an expert who happens to look like that Barthe we recovered least year. You aren't dead, so it wasn't a totally unpleasant experience. You're still in love with Elizabeth, right?”
“More every single day,” Peter's answer was heartfelt.
“Then is this really worth some kind of bisexual midlife crisis?” Diana asked sensibly. Then she had a thought. “Caffrey's not holding it over you, is he?”
“Oddly, no,” Peter admitted. “He hasn't said a word about it. It's just... throwing me off my game. When he talks I catch myself looking at his lips, and then wonder if anyone noticed.”
Diana raised her hand.
“I go to put my hand on his shoulder automatically and then I stop myself,” Peter continued. “Turns out I used to do that a lot.”
“Noticed that too,” Diana confirmed.
Peter continued his list. “...the occasional manly hug when one of us almost dies.”
“It doesn't count as long as there's back pounding,” Diana said with a hint of mockery in her tone.
Peter chose to take her words at face value. “Exactly.” He paused. “He hasn't touched me either. I can't tell what he's thinking. We're finally back on track, I just don't want anything to mess that up.”
“Peter, he never touched you first,” Diana pointed out.
Peter looked up, tensing.
“Relax,” said Diana. “If there's anything Caffrey knows, it's how to manipulate people. If he didn't want you touching him, you wouldn't be.” She hesitated for a long moment, then added “Peter, there's another reason why someone might be super careful not to touch you.”
“If they really want to.”
Peter looked skeptical.
Diana gave a rueful half-smile. “Take it from a girl who had a crush on a cheerleader before it was cool.” She visibly shook it off and reverted to present day professionalism. “Anyway, stop over-thinking it. Throw us into a new case, keep busy, and we'll all be back to normal in a week.”
“I know,” Peter agreed. “But Elizabeth wants to talk about it. I'm running out of reasons to put her off.”
“I thought you said she wasn't mad,” Diana objected.
Peter took another shot from the row in front of him, and shuddered. “She thinks we should do it again.”
“It's a test,” Diana said immediately.
Peter looked gratified. “That's what I said!” Then he deflated a little. “She swears it's not.”
“Which is also a test,” said Diana, out of her long experience dating women.
“Not this time,” Peter demurred. “She swore on... trust me, it's not.”
“So what is she thinking?” Diana asked. “Is this about the video?”
Peter shrugged. “I've been ducking the conversation.”
Diana's voice sharpened with urgency. “Peter, when you duck the conversation, how long does Elizabeth usually wait before she takes matters into her own hands?”
Peter looked at his watch.
“Did Caffrey says what he was doing this afternoon?” Diana followed up.
Peter looked at his phone, then up at Diana. “I gotta get home, now.” He reached for his car keys.
Diana took the keys out of his hands. “I'll drive.”
“Fine, said Peter, considering the boilermakers. “But you are NOT coming in.”
“Not for a million dollars,” Diana agreed.
In Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Elizabeth Burke answered the front door of her townhouse. “Hey Neal, come in. I made muffins.” She gestured to the kitchen island and, in the process, noticed her golden retriever trying to sneak up on the baked goods. “Leave those alone, Satch.”
Neal Caffrey took off his hat and took in the cheerful domestic scene. “Where's Peter? Is everything okay?” It wasn't uncommon for him to visit the Burkes, but while Elizabeth often initiated the invite, Peter generally conveyed it. When Elizabeth invited him here alone, something was usually wrong.
“I want to talk to you before he comes home,” Elizabeth said. Neal felt this didn't exactly answer the question, but nothing appeared to be immediately in crisis, so he amenably followed her over to the kitchen island. Next to the muffins stood a wine bottle and two glasses already set out.
Neal glanced at the label out of habit and then did a double take. “Since when do you drink,” he read slowly, giving the words their full Italian resonance, “Falletto di Bruno Giacosa Asili Riserva?”
“I had Mozzie bring it over,” Elizabeth answered. Neal noticed she didn't say from where, but Neal would have bet his own supply. Fair enough—he owed Elizabeth a lot more than a bottle of wine he would drink half of anyway.
“If this is about last week, I'm sorry,” Neal said, making eye contact with Elizabeth. “If I could have thought of another way to keep Peter safe, I would have. It will never happen again.”
“That's what I want to talk about,” said Elizabeth, leading him into the living room. “Maybe it should. Sit.”
Neal perched on the edge of the sofa, visibly ill at ease.
“How long have you been in love with my husband?” she asked, interrupting herself to add, “Don't choke, I don't want red wine on the couch even if it does cost more than the couch did.”
“I swear to you, I would never do anything to hurt your marriage,” said Neal passionately. “You are the best thing that ever happened to Peter. You keep him grounded and happy and I would never get in the way of that.”
“I know, Neal,” Elizabeth said patiently. “But that's not what I asked.”
“How long have you known?” Neal asked, deflated at his lack of deceptive prowess.
Elizabeth considered the question. “Probably a little longer than you have. When you made him take the oxygen.”
“Yeah, you have me beat,” Neal chuckled ruefully. “Not till I saw him ride a horse.” A reminiscent, proud, fond gleam kindled in Neal's eyes.
“When did he...?” Elizabeth started to ask curiously and then cut herself off. “No, tell me later, when I can see his face.”
“I should go before he gets home,” Neal said.
“Are you going to avoid him now? Except at work?” Elizabeth asked.
“That was the plan,” Neal admitted.
“You usually make better plans that that,” Elizabeth admonished him.
Neal shrugged. “They usually involve lying and running away. I'm a little out of my comfort zone.”
Elizabeth nodded sympathetically. “Hence the wine. The muffins are for me.”
“You came prepared,” Neal said admiringly.
“I'm an event planner,” Elizabeth reminded him. “And the event I am planning tonight is that you and Peter are going to quit driving yourselves and everyone around you crazy.”
Neal sat forward with the urgency of his words. “Peter never needs to know it was more than just a con.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “He's heard you say a hundred times that the best cons are based on the truth.” Abruptly she switched gears. “Neal, there's only been one time in my life when I've ever been jealous of you.”
Neal opened his mouth to apologize again but Elizabeth spoke right over him. “Before we met, when Peter was so obsessed with catching you. I didn't mind when he followed you across Europe. I minded when he was sitting right here. He just disappeared into his head, and left me behind. This last week, he's been doing it again. There's only one way this ends, Neal. He has to catch you.”
“Oh, he's caught me,” Neal said wryly.
“Then he needs to know that,” pressed Elizabeth.
Neal drank his wine without savoring the bouquet, then put his glass down on the coffee table and scrubbed Satchmo around the ears, all so he didn't have to look Elizabeth in the face. “Fine. Then tell him. Or I'll tell him, if you think I haven't suffered enough. But that's where this stops, Elizabeth. Because it would flat out kill Peter to let another man touch you, and he's too decent a man to ever accept a double standard.” A moment later he added in a more hopeful tone, “I don't suppose you like women?”
“No, and stop picturing me and Diana together right now,” Elizabeth responded tartly. “Neal, every Saturday in baseball season Peter sits down on this couch and drinks a beer and watches the Yankees. How many beers and ball games do I have to sit thru for that to be fair?”
Neal Caffrey was far too experienced to mistake that for a question he was supposed to actually answer.
“I go shopping. And he doesn't have to. And everyone wins,” Elizabeth continued. “What makes it fair is that someday, Peter will do something for me because I want it this much. And he'll do it without keeping score. Because that's what marriage means. So sit there and drink your wine and when Peter gets home I will lock the two of you in the basement until you either talk or—don't talk.”
Neal suddenly reached a decision and stood up. “Elizabeth, you're a saint. One of the interesting ones, maybe by Zubaran. You're right, he needs to catch me. Which means I need to run.” He kissed her on the cheek, then detoured to the fridge and quickly extracted a six pack of beer. “Hostages,” he explained briefly. As Peter came in the front door, Neal quietly slipped out the back window.
When Neal got home, Mozzie was already ensconced at Neal's table, drinking Neal's wine and fiddling with some incomprehensible bits of Soviet military salvage.
“Mozzie, we need to hack the anklet,” Neal announced, without bothering to say hello.
Mozzie looked up from his soldering iron. “Hallelujah, you've finally come to your senses. But can't we just cut it?”
“No. To both,” Neal said briefly. “And you'll be happier if you don't know the details.”
“Does this have something to do with why Mrs. Suit called me for emergency sommelier duties?” Mozzie asked.
“Yes,” Neal admitted.
“And why you've spent the last week pretending you're fine and making urbane little jokes until strangling you began to seem like a distinctly appealing option?” Mozzie pressed.
With a shrug, Mozzie turned to what was really important: the job. “We could build a Faraday cage around your ankle. In fact, I just happen to have built one already. Not here, though. I'd have to get it from Thursday.”
“How will that help?” Neal asked. A Faraday cage would block the anklet's signal, but that was as bad as sending the wrong one. “If the anklet doesn't send it's signal, they'll still know something's wrong.”
“We can use an SMS spoofing service to send fake messages that say you're still at home,” Mozzie explained.
“Actually,” said Neal, thinking aloud, “We don't even need the Faraday cage. If we send enough spoofing messages from all over the city at once, they'll never be able to figure out in time which is the real one. Thanks Moz, you're a genius.”
“I know,” said Mozzie, modestly.
“Just one thing,” said Neil. “Can you do it from Sunday? I'm expecting company.”
“You don't want the Feds to know you're at home?” Mozzie clearly felt this was a waste of a good hack that would probably only work once, but Neal did not see fit to fill him in.
Mozzie stood and gathered up his tools. “With you and the suit, it always is. Fine. But if you're kicking me out, I'm taking the burgundy.”
Peter leaned back in the office chair and rubbed his eyes. According to the tracking software, Neal was at June's. And at Peter's house, and in Central Park, taking the 6 train, inside the Whitney, outside a bank, and standing right next to Peter in the office. That last, at least, he was in a position to disprove. Nothing was standing next to him but the single bottle of his own damned beer that Neal had oh-so-kindly left next to the keyboard, nicely chilled.
Peter eliminated June's and his own house as well. Either might be an end game, but not an opening gambit. The Whitney was more likely. At the beginning of a caper, Caffrey usually...
Wait. At the beginning of a caper. That wasn't just any bank one of the digital Caffrey clones was standing in front of, it was the one where he had met “James Bonds” for the very first time—even if he hadn't known it yet—and Neal had given him a lollipop. Peter left the office at a jog, not letting himself think about his conversation with Elizabeth, except in terms of how much of a lead it meant Neal had.
And really, really not letting himself think of what he was going to do to Neal when he caught him.
It wasn't hard to spot the green lollipop. It was right at eye level on the bank's front doors. It would be, however, a serious bitch to remove—at least if he wanted it all in one piece. For reasons best known to himself—and probably Mozzie—Caffrey had removed the wrapper and fused the damned candy directly to the glass using something too strong for Peter to budge without shattering the lollipop, if not the door.
The cleaning staff could presumably dissolve the whole mess in the morning, but Peter was not about to leave it for them, and not just because he was a little shamefacedly sentimental about it. While Caffrey wasn't above setting him a complicated but ultimately pointless puzzle as a red herring, Peter didn't think he would use something that had been a turning point in their relationship to do it. Especially since he was aware that Neal really wanted him to catch up. He just didn't want to make it too easy, because where was the fun in that?
He'd had that feeling before, in Europe, when one of Caffrey's cryptic burner phone calls had come and Peter had kept him on the line, telling himself he was buying time for the trace that he knew would be ultimately pointless. But back then he'd told himself he was imagining things because he knew Caffrey didn't want to go to prison. He was no masochist, and he liked his creature comforts—and his freedom.
There was a scratch on the candy. Peter held up the flashlight app on his phone—yes. There. It was inside the candy. Caffrey had used some kind of a laser to etch something inside. Peter remembered him doing the same thing in a sting, to make a barely detectable mark that the bureau could use to prove the gems were the same ones that had been stolen from a famous socialite's necklace at a charity ball. But Peter was going to have to find a way to get the candy off in one piece so he could angle it to catch the light enough to read it.
45 minutes later, after a quick trip to a gas station and an all-night pharmacy, Peter carefully syringed the starting fluid into the crack where the candy met the glass, his other hand on the white paper stick, and gently wiggled. A few long seconds later, the candy came off in his hand, still in one piece. Score one for old school photography enthusiasts and huffers on the Internet: the diethyl ether had dissolved the superglue and not the sucrose, as advertised. Of course, Peter wouldn't care to lick it.
Peter walked over to the sodium-bright arc lamps of the nearby construction site, building god knows what—another bank, probably. He held the lollipop up, and slowly turned it as if looking for facets—there.
Peter had the first clue. He just didn't have the first clue what it meant.
The rare map room of the New York Public Library is not usually open in the middle of the night, but being an FBI agent has some privileges. These did not, however, extend to bringing in beverages, let alone alcoholic ones, the rather cranky librarian pointed out. Peter opened his mouth to explain that he hadn't been the one to bring the cold beer that sat on the wide oak table, and closed it again. It was his beer, after all.
The librarian scrubbed his hand through his bedhead and knocked his glasses crooked in the process. “Perris & Browne. 1857. It's an early insurance atlas of Manhattan.”
He hefted a bulky volume onto the now-beerless surface and reverently opened it, slowly turning over the leaves. He stopped, abruptly.
“That's strange,” he said, sounding suddenly less sleepy. “There are two Plate 35s. I don't remember a misprint in this edition. Excuse me, I have to check something. You can look all you like, but don't turn the page.”
Peter had no desire to turn the page. Facing one another were two nearly identical diagrams showing “Map bounded by 6th Street, Avenue D, Houston Street, Pitt Street, 2nd Street, Avenue B.” Singularly charmless, for a Neal Caffrey special—little pink and pale orange boxes with matching fronts and lopsided backs. But no doubt, like everything Neal touched, it was expensive.
There was nothing to say which was the forgery and which the original—nothing to Peter's eye, at least. But that was a job for the experts. All Peter needed to see was the discrepancy between the two: on one, the Northwest corner of East Fourth Street and Avenue C was a little pink box like any other. On the other, it was vacant.
“The Secret Garden,” said the plaque on the iron fence. A few yards down, the gate in the big iron archway was padlocked, but the arch still helped Peter get purchase to climb. He dropped down on the other side and—squelch—his left foot sank ankle deep in cold water. He turned his phone's light. He was standing half in a lily pond, filled by a stream pouring out of a kettle for no readily explained reason. Must be Art. Goldfish nibbled at his cuff.
He stepped out of the water, dripping, and swung the light around. Someone was watching him. A nymph. On a plinth. Peter was, just possibly, getting a touch punchy. Someone else—no, that was an angry squirrel, and behind it, an exuberant mural of dancers.
To his left, an unpainted wood gazebo slumped gracefully into the surrounding wood chip mulch. Inside, benches sported peeling green paint and little bronze plaques. In memory of Bimbo Rivas, read one. In memory of Eddie Boros, said another. In memory of Ellen Stewart, said the third. In memory of Danny Brooks, said the fourth. Peter let out a long breath. Neal's old alias in the witness protection program—he'd come to the right place.
Now what? Peter pushed on just about every part of the bench he could think of. Nothing moved. Then he did the same with the gazebo, which creaked ominously. Peter sat down heavily on the bench and put his head in his hands to think—
Click. The noise came from behind him. Automatically, Peter jumped up, drew his gun, and aimed, but there was no one there—not even the squirrel. Gingerly, he sat down again...
Click. There it was again. This time Peter oh-so-slowly turned his head by fractions of an inch... and saw the plaque had slide upward, so that an inch or so now rose above the wooden slat. Triggered by his weight on the seat, he realized. Peter stretched out his right arm and carefully explored the newly exposed metal of the back by touch alone.
A key came off in his hand. Now he just had to find the door. The night air was getting chill, but Peter was too much in the grip of the puzzle to care.
Twenty minutes later, Peter had quartered the garden, and was giving serious consideration to draining the pond. It didn't make sense, though. Neal would hardly want Peter to bring official Bureau resources to bear on this—whatever it was, it had to be solvable with only what Peter knew about Neal.
No. With only what Peter knew about Danny. Which wasn't much, since Neal was remarkably reluctant to discuss his childhood beyond the barest facts, like that he had moved to St. Louis when he was young. The words rang a faint bell in Peter's mind. St Louis... the arch. Peter scrutinized the ironwork, but there was no hidden keyhole. Maybe the answer was what the arch framed, then. Peter carefully aligned his gaze—there. Dead center was a reproduction of an old Romanesque relief of St. Nicholas, looking about as unlike a modern Santa Claus as it was possible to get. St. Nicholas—patron saint of repentant thieves. Peter lifted the heavy sculpture from the wall, and was not surprised to find a keyhole behind it.
The trap door in the center of the gazebo floor swung open silently, as if freshly oiled—probably because it had been. The stairs led down into, not the dank old coal cellar of a long-demolished building that Peter had been expecting, but a surprisingly modern and clean wine cellar, with indirect lights and climate control. It was about two thirds filled with artworks, carefully crated. Peter might have been standing in the storage room of a small regional museum with a good reputation. Except that none of them would have allowed, so near the art, an open beer bottle, or a carefully wrapped sandwich.
Climbing carefully back up the steep, narrow steps until he had reception, Peter hit speed dial. “Jones? Yes, I know what time it is. I'm sorry if you had a date. But acting on information received, I just recovered a major cache of probably stolen artifacts. I have reason to believe the culprit is no longer operating, but we need to get them secured till we can look into repatriation.”
Not subtle, but Clinton got the message, and without Peter's tone of voice and context, there was nothing in the words that would look incriminating on a transcript in court. While Peter waited for Jones to arrive with the van and the paperwork, he finished the most gourmet deviled ham he'd ever imagined, and licked his fingers.
Hours later, Peter stood outside Neal's—June's—house. The sky was paling behind the roof line; it would be dawn soon. He should go home. His mouth tasted of stale bureau coffee, his suit coat was hopelessly rumpled, and now that the adrenaline of the hunt was wearing off, he was so tired he could practically feel the bags deepening under his eyes. He could hardly wake June at this hour.
He stared at the closed door a little longer. Something skimmed past him from the sky to clang, and bounce, at his feet. A bottle cap. He looked up, and a pair of keys on a ring followed.
The stairs creaked, but no June appeared, wearing a satin and marabou dressing gown and carrying a shotgun.
Neal's door wasn't locked. The remains of Peter's six pack sat in a silver bucket on the table in a pool of mostly melted ice. Neal lounged with his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. He was wearing a pair of silk pajama bottoms slung low on his hips, no shirt, and bare feet. Of course. Because Neal Caffrey knew exactly how stunning he was, and he did not believe in fighting fair.
Neal got to his feet and handed Peter a beer. Peter drained a good third of it. He'd earned it. He took off his jacket and slung it into the corner of the couch, and loosened his tie.
“$18 million,” he said, conversationally.
“Give or take,” Neal agreed. “A little less if I sold them all at once. Never a good idea to glut the market.”
For no good reason, Peter was angry. “Was that your retirement plan?”
“One of them.”
“You don't need to buy me, Neal.”
“I'm not trying to,” Neal said simply. “I thought you would like it. And I already did baseball.”
Reluctantly, Peter laughed. “I like it,” he admitted. “I... Neal...” Peter gave up on finding words for what he was feeling. “I like it.”
Peter killed the beer and pitched the empty into the trash with a remnant of the grace of his glory days. He sauntered over to Neal.
Abruptly Peter slammed Neal back against the wall and pinned him there by the shoulders—and the hips. Neal could feel Peter's erection through the off-the-rack suit trousers.
“I. Will. Always. Find you.” Peter growled into Neal's ear.
It was a good thing Peter was practically holding him up at this point; Neal felt a little weak in the knees.
“I know,” Neal managed to say.
To Neal's disappointment Peter stepped back and let him go, then scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Then why the hell are we playing hide and seek? Do you still need me to prove it? After everything?”
Neal shook his head—to say no, and to clear it, all at once. “I saw the way you looked at that kid.”
Peter rolled his eyes in exasperation. “What kid? Mozzie's freaky Swiss Army doll?”
“Robin Hoodie,” Neal said impatiently. The segue made perfect sense to him, after all. “Your eyes lit up like Christmas morning.”
“You're jealous!” Peter announced gleefully, in the tone of one making a delightful, and embarrassing-to-Neal, discovery.
“I am not jealous. Much,” he added belatedly, remembering that he didn't lie to Peter outright. “I could con rings around that kid. I just...” Neal busied himself with draping Peter's discarded suit jacket over a chair back—not that it was worth preserving. “I remember when you looked at me like that.”
“Like a criminal?”
“Like a challenge. Tell the truth, if you never had to hunt me down again, wouldn't you be just a little bit...bored? You said catching me was the best day of your working life.”
“That was then.”
Neal's eyes flashed. “You're joking. I've been replaced? Not the kid, I don't believe it. It can't be Gordon Taylor, he got away.”
Peter smiled crookedly. “Now the best day is when we catch them together.”
Neal looked into Peter's eyes. “Just as well. Because these days you have an unfair advantage.”
“I know how you think?”
“No, that's fair. You know how you found me by staking out the thing I wanted most?”
“...Oh.” Peter's realization was more of an in-drawn breath than a word.
“Of course, I don't promise not to still run away once in a while. Just to keep you on your toes.”
“I should cuff you.” Peter grumbled.
Neal's eyes darkened with desire. “That could be arranged.”
“Really?” Peter was fascinated, the way he always got when Neal dropped some tidbit that added a new dimension to his mental profile. “I figured you for the other side of the handcuffs, when you have a choice.”
Neal grinned a wicked grin. “That could be arranged too.”
“Oh, no, no it could not,” Peter spluttered.”You get your way way too much already.”
“I'm going to get it right now,” Neal said. He cupped Peter's jaw in one hand and brushed his thumb gently over the stubble. “Go to sleep, Agent Peter Burke. I promise I will be here when you wake up.”
Neal turned away to head towards the sofa. A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. “Don't be an idiot, Caffrey,” said Peter.
Neal never had been a hero. He didn't even try to resist any longer. He turned under Peter's hand and then he was devouring the column of Peter's throat with kisses, nibbling along his jaw, undoing Peter's tie with practiced fingers. Peter had his head thrown back. His fingers gripped Neal's upper arms hard enough to bruise—Neal hoped they would, to leave something to prove this was real.
Neal began unbuttoning Peter's shirt and buried his face in Peter's collarbone, breathing in the scent of him. Peter's hands had slid down to Neal's hips. Peter's fingers brushed hesitantly over the erection that was currently, unsubtly tenting the thin silk of Neal's pajama pants. Neal was prepared to bet this was the first time Peter had ever touched a cock except his own, and his confusion and courage and desire were achingly hot. Neal grabbed the loose, dangling ends of Peter's tie and tugged him towards the bedroom.
Despite his exhaustion—and more that a little smug satiation—Peter didn't actually sleep very well in Caffrey's bed. His body was used to Elizabeth. He kept reaching out in his sleep expecting soft curves and finding chiseled planes and angles instead—breathtaking, but more than a little pokey. Peter was pretty sure at least one hipbone bruise was forming already.
The lack of Elle's adorable little whuffling snores woke him up the way it did at home whenever she was away, but when he opened his eyes, disoriented, it was to stare at Neal's unconscious face in the narrow stripe of light breaking in through the gap in the curtains, and wonder what the hell he was doing here, and what they would say to each other in the morning.
When Peter finally woke for real, the sun was streaming in, and he was alone in the bed—probably, to be honest, why he'd finally managed to fall into a deep sleep. He stretched and turned over, enjoying the feel of Caffrey's ridiculous linen sheets.
“Don't do that,” complained Neal. “I'm not done yet.”
Peter opened one eye suspiciously. “Not done with what?”
Neal was standing at an easel near the foot of the bed—and not wearing a damned thing except a streak of paint along one cheekbone—and his tracking anklet, of course.
“You painted me? Like THIS?” It was supposed to come out outraged, but somehow Peter's tone had taken a wrong turn at touched.
He disentangled his legs from the sheets, ignoring Neal's continued protests, and came around the canvas, his brain scrambling to decide whether it most wanted to look at the portrait—or the artist.
It was him. Even with his face half hidden by one up-flung arm, anybody who knew him would recognize him in an instant—and that was a problem he would think about after coffee, Peter promised himself.
There was sex implied in the picture—from how Neal talked about art, Peter had the impression there was usually sex implied in the picture somehow, even if it was a picture of fruit. But it was only implied, by the crumpled linen and the shadowed hollow in the sheets next to him, and a certain long brushstroke that suggested the artist had lingered over the subject's shoulders.
What was impressive was that Neal had somehow managed to cram into this utterly slack and vulnerable pile of limbs and pillows the promise of danger when it—he—woke. If that was really how Neal saw him—well, Neal always had liked a challenge.
And Neal thought he was beautiful. That wasn't completely new news—Peter remembered the night before very clearly, and he had a pretty good idea what most of those words meant, even if they hadn't all been in English. And long before that, Peter had seen a shade of surprised and impressed in Neal's eyes when the circumstances of some sting had shown him the defined muscles that usually lay hidden under Peter's crisp cotton shirt.
But Neal Caffrey the con artist had the knack for making everyone feel beautiful when he looked at them. Somehow finding favor with Neal Caffrey the artist artist—and, Peter admitted to himself, the art thief, the one who only bothered with the best in the world—felt like an entirely different compliment.
He must have been staring at the painting in silence for a long minute or two.
“Don't worry, Peter. I'll get rid of it,” Neal reassured him. “I just wanted you to see it first.”
Peter's voice was husky. “Don't you dare.” He reached up to rub the paint from Neal's cheek. “That's an original Caffrey.”
Peter sat out on the roof deck, sipping that amazing Italian coffee from a ridiculously tiny cup in a borrowed bathrobe that felt like velvet. Peter was sure he looked like a cut rate Hugh Hefner, but he was trying not to think about it.
“I have to go home.”
Neal—sadly, a little more dressed, in an undershirt and loose linen pants—shook his head.
Peter continued quickly before Neal could turn on the persuasion. The truth was, part of him wanted nothing more than to hide out from the world with Neal until Monday. The other part missed his wife fiercely already.
“I have to go home to Elle,” he explained, then added, “Elizabeth will always come first.”
“I know,” Neal said.
“I'm never going to leave her,” Peter blurted out. He and Neal hadn't talked about what this meant, or even what this was. Truth be told they hadn't talked much at all. He knew Elle would say they should have, and she would probably be right, but Peter's talk with Elizabeth had pretty much hit his limit for the week—if not the year. But this much had to be said, now, even if it meant Neal changed his mind.
“I know,” Neal repeated patiently. “You don't have to go home because Elizabeth is coming here. She texted. We're going to have brunch and then you two have a thing? On Staten Island?”
Peter groaned. “Her cousin's wedding. Oh god, my suit!”
Neal chuckled unfeelingly. “Use my iron. I'm making a frittata.”
Peter groaned with even more feeling. “Ironing and fancy food. You and Elle are going to gang up on me now, aren't you.” It wasn't a question.
Neal grinned. “It's not my fault you have a type.”
“I still think it's unnatural,” Mozzie told Elizabeth as they waited for the light to change.
“I never figured you would have an issue with gay people,” Elizabeth teased, knowing full well that's not what he meant.
Mozzie sputtered anyway. “Not gays! Feds! Their kind and ours aren't meant to mix!”
“You sound like the father from Fiddler on the Roof,” said Elizabeth.
Mozzie had subsided into petulance. “If Neal wants a boyfriend I know a perfectly nice forger in Queens. And he makes great Pad Thai.”
“You're a good friend,” Elizabeth told him, answering the tone rather than the words.
“I'm glad someone appreciates me,” Mozzie groused out of habit.
Elizabeth pulled into an empty parking spot down the block from June's house.
“Thanks for the ride, Mrs. S. And the cinnamon rolls.” Mozzie opened the passenger door and prepared to climb out, then looked back. “You sure you don't want me to plant a spy cam? Neal would find it, of course, but I don't think he would mind, if it's for you. He's always been kind of a showoff anyway.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Thanks, Mozzie, but I'll wait.”
“Wait for what?”
Elizabeth cocked her head, considering. “Peter's birthday, I think. Or maybe mine—Peter always freaks out about my present. And Neal always helps.”
“You must have had an interesting life before you married the suit,” Mozzie said, admiringly.
“I did,” Elizabeth confirmed serenely. “Almost as interesting as the one we have together. I have to go, now. They're not as good cold.”
She climbed out, shut the door, and from the back seat, gathered two more Tupperware containers of cinnamon rolls—one for June and one for the three of them—before striding confidently up to the front door.
Tuesday morning, when Neal arrived at the Federal building, Clinton Jones was waiting for him by the front door. “I need to talk to you,” said Jones, handing him a tall, white paper cup.
Well, bribery was always a nice thought. Neal sipped the coffee—not bad—and followed Jones over to perch on the edge of a planter-cum-anti-terrorism-bollard.
“You know I like you, man,” said Jones. That was not a good sign.
“I thought I did,” Neal allowed cautiously.
“I do,” Jones repeated. “So you know it's not personal when I say, if you get Peter fired, I will knock your pretty teeth down your throat.”
“I'm not going to get Peter fired!” protested Neal.
“You might,” said Jones, seriously. He made eye contact with Neal. “There's rules about agents and their C.I.s. You remember what happened to Frankin.”
“Are you going to tell OPR?” Neal demanded.
“No,” Jones said. He hadn't said “of course not,” which told Neal he'd given it some serious thought. “Can't think of a way to have this fall on you and not Peter, or I might. We have those rules for a reason, Caffrey.”
“We have them for two reasons,” Neal corrected. Ordinarily he might have said “you” and not “we”—Neal didn't really consider himself part of the rules-bound side of the Bureau—but right now he needed all the connection to Jones that he could get. “So that agents don't take advantage of the C.I.s in their power. But—“
“Peter would never do that,” Neal and Jones finished simultaneously.
“And so the agent stays objective,” Jones added. “You gonna tell me Peter is objective about you right now? With you staring at him like a steak dinner with all the trimmings?”
“Nobody said I have to be objective,” Neal pointed out. “As long as Peter doesn't look at me like that...” Neal trailed off.
“Peter looks at you like like he's got a concussion,” Jones said flatly. “And both of you took a full lunch hour yesterday, at the same time, instead of a sandwich at your desk, even though you had no visitors, and you didn't invite me and Diana. And you came back looking like the cat that ate the canary. Tell me you didn't do anything stupid in the building.”
“We know where the cameras are,” Neal said, which wasn't quite an answer. “Jones—do you really think Peter was any more objective last week than he is right now?”
“I think Peter hasn't been objective about you since the day he gave you that blinking jewelry around your ankle. He keeps a box of goddamned souvenirs from when he hunted you in his closet." Jones saw Caffrey's eyes go soft and decided not to let him interrupt. He wasn't about to get derailed catering to Caffrey's ego. "But he's the boss and I trust him. And you get the job done.” Jones met Neal's eyes and continued.
“Caffrey, there are three things Peter needs in this life. His wife, this job. And you. As long as he's got those, he's solid. Anything messes with any of 'em, he can't think of anything else till he's got it back. Frankly, I was happier when it was just the first two, but nobody asked me.”
He took a deep swallow of coffee, and continued, “You've done good for this team. You've done good for the Bureau. And for all the times you put his ass on the line, you've done good for Peter. But now you're putting the first two in danger. And I'm telling you, if you think you're enough—you're not.”
“Elizabeth is not an issue,” Neal said flatly. There were people he was prepared to justify himself to—Jones was not one of them.
“All right,” Jones allowed. “But the Bureau is. Seems to me you don't know how close he's come over some of these shenanigans of yours already—or you don't care. But at least they were about getting the job done. This is just about getting your rocks off. Get your ass on Grindr and leave Peter alone before you get him in trouble he can't talk his way out of.”
Neal abandoned the coffee in the flower bed. “I can't.”
“I'm sure Seth from IT would love to show you how.”
Neal gritted his teeth. “When your fiancee left you, how much did it change how you felt about her?”
“None of your fucking business,” Jones said, flicked on the raw.
“Exactly,” Neal said, as if Jones had admitted something, which he basically had.
“Me and Peter—I can't put it back in the bottle. I tried. All I could do is leave, and if I run before my sentence is up—”
“Peter will just come after you,” Jones finished.
Jones gave Neal a long, considering look. “This isn't just friends with benefits, is it?”
Neal shook his head. “Not for me.”
Neal shrugged. “I don't know.”
“You ever thought about asking him?”
“It's been three days!” Neal protested.
“It's been three years,” Jones corrected.
“It's been three years for me,” Neal admitted. “It's been three days for Peter. And he spent half of them doing the Macarena. And I'm pretty sure I'm the first guy he's ever been with. Just—give us a couple weeks. Kick me under the conference table when I'm being too obvious. I'll keep it away from the office, I promise.”
“AND the van,” Jones demanded. “That thing needs disinfecting as it is.”
“And the van,” Neal promised easily—the van was about the least sexy thing he could think of.
Jones sighed. “All right. But if this is all a long con, I will make you pay.”
“If it is,” Neal said, “the only one I'm fooling is myself. Peter's the one person I never can fool. He knows exactly who and what I am—and he trusts me anyway. Peter makes me a better man. He always did, even when he was chasing me. I did my best work knowing he was watching.”
“I know,” Jones acknowledged. “What worries me is, what are you making Peter?”
“Happy,” Neal said simply. “I don't know why either, so stop rolling your eyes. But I know collectors. I know that look when they see something and just have to keep it for themselves. Peter had that look when he took my deal. I have something he wants. I don't know what. Maybe he doesn't either. But as long as he wants it—it's his.”
Jones sighed. “All right. I'm not gonna lie for you. But as long as nobody asks me, I'll keep my mouth shut.”
Neal stood up, reclaimed his lukewarm coffee, and clinked it against Jones' in a toast. “Then let's get to work.”
As they passed through the revolving door and headed for the elevator, Neal caught Jones by the arm. “Oh, and thank you,” he added sincerely. “For looking out for Peter.”
“Least I can do,” Jones muttered gruffly.
There was no one with them in the elevator, which was the kind of thing Neal wished his luck wouldn't waste itself on. Still, might as well not waste the luck. “We have to cool it in the office,” he told Peter, making sure his hat brim would shield his mouth from the security camera in case of possible lip readers. “I promised Jones.”
“Jones knows?!?” Lip readers in adjacent buildings had probably got that one, but fortunately the elevator dinged and they were out in the lobby before the conversation could go any further. Around other flesh and blood agents, Peter was circumspect.
As they emerged from the revolving door, Peter repeated himself—more quietly, but as if he had a headache. “Jones knows?”
“Apparently we're not as subtle as we think.”
Peter nodded, accepting that. “This is what I get for hiring for smart.” He had fallen into step with Neal automatically, but now paused in the lee of a Halal cart. “Where are we going?”
“To the Wall Street Inn.”
“Doesn't that place cost half your monthly rent?”
“Not for us it doesn't.”
“Neal, what did you do?” Peter asked ominously.
“Went on dayuse.com,” Neal said innocently, and then, off Peter's skeptical look. “Seriously. Yes, if it were just for me I'd have sweet-talked a housekeeper or picked a lock. But it's for you.”
“You pick locks for me all the time,” Peter pointed out.
“To catch criminals. I figured you might not feel the same about just letting me suck you off until you can't stand up.”
Peter blushed, which had been Neal's goal all along. And then muttered something that indicated that maybe Neal would have been able to talk him into a scam in such a good cause after all.
“I'm corrupting you,” said Neal smugly.
When they arrived at the front desk, Neal paid in cash—and signed his name as Mr. Clinton Jones.
Neal lay with his head on Peter's chest, listening to Peter's heartbeat slowly calm back to normal. Peter was staring up at the canopy of the four poster bed.
“This isn't what I think of as a by the hour motel,” Peter commented.
“You know how I feel about those places!” Neal protested.
“I do,” Peter allowed. “I know what we pay you, too. This was—” romantic, endearing, adorable, his brain censored, before finally supplying “nice. But we can't do it every day, or you'll be back to stealing just to pay the rent.”
Neal raised an eyebrow. “Every day, huh?”
Peter blushed again, but persisted. “I'm serious!”
Neal sat up. “Seriously, Peter, I'm not assuming you will want to do this every day. Or every week, or ever again. I don't have a long term plan here. I just know that while you do, I will make it work. Somehow. I don't want to jeopardize your position with the Bureau—”
“Or yours,” Peter interpolated.
“Or mine. And I don't want to take anything away from Elizabeth, not your money or your time or your—” Neal flailed mentally for a polite synonym for “sexual stamina” and finally settled on “energy.”
“You let me worry about Elle,” Peter said.
“How can I,” Neal answered simply, “when I know that if this hurts her, it ends?”
It was, Peter admitted to himself, a fair question. And he didn't have a good answer.
It was a long, but surprisingly companionable moment of quiet.
“Elle has book club on Tuesdays,” Peter said, finally.
“I think Mozzie has a safe house down near here somewhere,” Neal replied.
It wasn't much of a plan. More like a plan to make a plan. But Peter felt a little, unacknowledged clench in his chest relax. Whatever the hell this was, they would figure it out together.
“Can we do one more hotel though?” asked Neal. “There's a Jacuzzi.”
Elle was stirring something in a wok. It looked ominously full of vegetables, but it smelled fantastic.
“You could spend a little money,” she said.
Peter uncorked the wine and set it on the table to breathe.
“If I'm going to splurge on romantic gestures, they're going to be for you,” Peter informed her, coming up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. Elizabeth leaned back into him and tilted her chin back for a kiss. It got rather heated, in spite of the awkward position.
“And I appreciate that,” she declared when she could speak again. “I'm just saying, compared to golf or deep sea fishing or poker night, Neal is a pretty cheap hobby. As long as he doesn't keep ripping the buttons off your shirts.”
“He bought me one with cuff links to make up for it,” Peter said, still not quite believing he was having this conversation.
“See?” Elizabeth seemed to think this proved her point. “Neal likes to spoil the people he—dates.”
“He did buy Sara a helicopter,” Peter admitted.
“Exactly!” Elizabeth agreed. “It's hard enough on him that he can't steal things for you, if you keep saying no to him spending his own money because you feel weird about him paying all the time, he's going to burst something.”
“Did he tell you this?” Peter asked suspiciously. He still was not convinced that Neal and Elle did not have a conspiracy going; the two of them agreed altogether too often for it to be a coincidence.
“He hasn't told me anything,” Elizabeth said truthfully. “I think he's afraid if he says the wrong thing I'll take it all back. Mozzie told me.”
Peter groaned. “Oh, god, Mozzie knows too?”
Elizabeth did not dignify that with an answer. She scooped the stir fry over the waiting plates of rice with an expert caterer flick of the wrist and carried them to the table.
“Peter, did you read that book on love languages I gave you?” she demanded.
“....no,” Peter admitted.
“Are you going to?” she pressed.
“No,” he repeated.
Elizabeth laughed. “At least you're honest. The point is, Neal's love language is gifts. That's how he says... how he feels.”
Peter noticed Elle changing her sentences in mid-stream—he was an FBI agent, after all—but decided not asking was the better part of wisdom.
“It just feels like a bribe,” Peter said, realizing the real source of his frustration. “Like Neal thinks he's not enough, and if he doesn't keep giving me shiny things I'll get bored and go away.”
“You mean like Kate, and Alex, and Sara, and his father did?” Elizabeth asked.
“I'm not them!” Peter protested.
“I know, Peter,” said Elizabeth. “Neal knows, too. But can you understand that he doesn't want to give you any less than he gave them, when you're the only one who stuck by him?”
“...Oh.” When she put it like that, he did. “Did I ever tell you how smart you are, Elizabeth Burke?”
“Not this week,” Elle dimpled
“So what is your love language?” Peter asked flirtatiously.
“Read chapter eight,” Elizabeth responded mischievously. “I made notes.”