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The Greatest Cake

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A cup of coffee appears at Peter’s elbow and he says, “Thanks,” absently, staring at the door of the house across the street. He picks up the coffee cup and takes a sip, enjoying the smooth, dark taste – a hundred times better than the swill at the office – before pausing and blinking.

“I, uh… I didn’t offer this coffee,” Peter realizes out loud.

“You didn’t order the first two cups either, but you definitely seemed to enjoy them,” says a voice from over his right shoulder.

Peter checks and—yes, there are two empty coffee cups on the far side of the table.

“In fact,” the voice continues – Peter looks up to see a young, smiling man in a collared shirt, tie, and apron – “you’ve been sitting in my shop for four hours without ordering anything.”

“O-oh,” Peter stammers, realizing that that’s not exactly winning behavior in a café customer.

“I hate to break it to you,” the man continues, eyes crinkling with some private amusement, “but whoever you’re waiting for... I think they stood you up.”

“I—um…” His eyes are really blue, Peter thinks, then kicks himself. Get it together, rookie!

“It’s not a date,” Peter blurts out, then winces, because why else would he be sitting here for hours on end staring out the window?

“I see,” the man says, raising a dubious eyebrow. “You’re waiting for… a business meeting?”

“Yes?” Peter tries – the first arched eyebrow is joined by its counterpart, and Peter folds like a lousy hand. “I’m on a stakeout,” he mumbles, defeated – the man’s eyes widen like a kid with a Christmas present.

“That sounds exciting!” he declares, depositing himself in the chair next to Peter, smiling widely.

Peter tries to give that action the serious and disapproving look that it deserves – the guy gives him a look right back.

“It’s my chair. In my shop,” he points out. “Where – I would like to point out – you still haven’t bought anything.”

“I don’t really like cupcakes,” Peter confesses, and almost bursts out laughing at the slack-jawed, flabbergasted look he gets in response. In a flash, the guy composes himself, and tells Peter firmly, “Everyone likes cupcakes. You just haven’t met the right one yet.”

Peter blinks.

“I didn’t think you were actually on a date,” the man continues, in a confiding tone, leaning in toward Peter. “For one thing, most people don’t wear their shoulder holsters on a date.”

Alarmed, Peter looks down, checking—but yeah, his jacket is on, like he thought it was, so—

“How did you know that?”

The man smiles a little wider and offers his plastic-gloved hand to shake.

“I’m Neal,” he says, which doesn’t really answer the question, Peter thinks.

(Looking back, Peter will realize that that was actually the best possible answer to his question, but then, looking back, Peter will realize a lot of things that had gone right past him the first time around.)

“Peter,” he replies automatically, shaking Neal’s hand – the blue glove is a little powdery, and when Peter pulls away, there’s a little white dust on his palm.

“Don’t worry, Officer,” Neal says, when he catches Peter looking at the powder. He winks. “Just flour, I promise.”

Peter tries to settle his gaze back on Linkman’s stash house across the street, but it’s been a long and boring four hours, and he doesn’t try very hard.

“You’re the owner?” Peter guesses, and Neal nods.

“Founder, owner, manager, and pastry chef extraordinaire,” he announces proudly.

Suddenly, Peter’s brain rewinds about 20 seconds. “You called me ‘Officer,’” he says.

Neal’s brows pull together. “Stakeout,” he says, “so I thought—was I wrong?”

“It’s Agent, actually,” Peter corrects – he can’t help adding “FBI.” He is, technically, sort of, undercover, but he’s pretty sure the cupcake shop guy isn’t in league with the Russian gunrunners across the street – or, if he is, Peter will be very disappointed.

When Peter tells people he’s in the FBI, they usually look impressed – Neal’s eyes do widen for just a second, but then he just looks amused again.

“You don’t say. Can I see your badge, Agent?”

Peter whips it out embarrassingly quickly, flushing when Neal chuckles. When Neal examines it and comments wryly, “It’s so new and shiny,” Peter flushes again, and stuffs it back in his jacket, fumbling.

“Four months,” Peter admits, spreading his hands. “This is my first really big case.”

“Your parents must be very proud,” Neal says, gently teasing – Peter swallows, but says evenly, “I’m sure they are.” Because he is.

Neal pauses, and gives Peter a closer look.

“My dad died last year,” Peter confesses. “And my mother, she, uh… she has Alzheimer’s. She thinks—she thinks I’m still in high school.”

“I’m sorry,” Neal says, voice low enough that it barely carries. “I’m sure you’re right – they are very proud of you.” His eyes hold Peter’s gaze, and Peter can see that he means it – he has to swallow around the lump in his throat.

“Thanks,” Peter mutters into his coffee. He’s never told anybody that before. Paula knows, of course, but she was right there for all of it, which isn’t the same as scraping up the words to tell somebody new.

“You’re very easy to talk to,” Peter says, narrowing his eyes.

Neal smiles. “It’s a talent,” he says.

Peter wants to say something about how he’s supposed to be paying attention to the house across the street, but he’s bored – no reading the paper or doing crosswords on a stakeout – and Neal’s sitting in such a way that Peter can see the house’s front door right over Neal’s shoulder. And he has just been sitting in the guy’s shop without buying anything.

And, frankly, Peter can admit to himself – he’s lonely.

“So, uh… cupcakes.” Peter says, manfully ignoring Neal’s barely-hidden smile. “How does a guy get into the cupcake business?”

“Well, I used to be an internationally-renowned art thief,” Neal tells him, perfectly straight-faced. “But it turns out that’s not a very good way to meet nice people.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “Fine, don’t tell me, then.”

“What, you don’t believe me?” Neal asks, eyes crinkling up at the corners, mouth quirking to one side. He spreads his hands, taking in the little shop, its pristine white-tiled floors, its gleaming glass cases full of neatly ordered trays of God-knows-what, the sign on the wall that proclaims, in graceful swooping letters, “The Greatest Cake!”

“Come on, Peter,” he appeals, leaning forward, “doesn’t this place just scream ‘Former International Man of Mystery?””

“Oh yeah,” Peter says, amused. “Especially the ‘We Cater Children’s Parties!’ sign. Very Ocean’s Eleven.”

They grin at each other across the table, and Peter feels some kind of pull, the kind he hasn’t felt since coming to New York City – the feeling that he could talk to this guy for a good long while and neither one of them would think it was wasted time.

“Let me bring you a cupcake,” Neal says, and when Peter tries to demur, Neal firmly declares, “On the house.”

“You already brought me all this coffee,” Peter protests, which reminds him, “I haven’t paid you for the coffee!”

“Also on the house,” Neal insists. “Come on, you’re not exactly standing in the way of paying customers here.”

Which is true – only two of the other ten tables are occupied, and the place has been equally sparse for almost the whole four hours that Peter’s been sitting here, although it was doing a pretty brisk business for the first half-hour or so. Before he can ask, Neal explains, “You’ve caught me between the lunch crowd and the afterschool rush. It won’t last.” He glances up at the clock, and Peter follows his gaze – 3:58 pm.

“I give it another five minutes,” he tells Peter, “which reminds me, I need to switch out the goods, so really, you’d be doing me a favor.”

“By doing what?” Peter asks, having lost the thread of the conversation.

“By having a cupcake,” Neal calls over his shoulder, heading for the counter. He exchanges a few words with the young woman reading a magazine behind the cash register, and she nods and starts pulling trays out from inside the display case. Neal peers closely at the contents of the trays for a second before smiling broadly and plucking a cupcake from the center of a tray like a jeweler selecting a diamond ring for inspection. He sets the cupcake carefully on a small glass plate and snags a new coffee cup as well, then walks back to Peter’s table, where he deposits the cup and the plate in front of Peter proudly.

“I really don’t like cupcakes all that much,” Peter repeats, weakly – he stares at the towering spiral of chocolate frosting that looms over the cupcake in front of him and tries not to feel intimidated by an eight-ounce bakery item.

“You just haven’t met the right one yet,” Neal says again, with a stubborn set to his jaw, and, “You’ll like this one.”

“What… is it?” Peter asks, squinting at the cake, which is a sort of inoffensive medium brown color, topped with a sweep of chocolate about twice its size. Peter feels that something that top-heavy is probably structurally unsound, and watches it warily.

“It’s a Brownie 57 Magnum,” Neal says, with obvious relish.

Peter looks down at the cupcake, then back up at Neal.

“Brownie 57 Magnum,” Peter repeats.

“It’s a pun,” Neal says, with pride.

“You don’t say,” says Peter, deadpan, and when Neal pouts, Peter sighs, reaches down and picks up the cupcake. Eyeing it, he tries to figure out how to bite into it without poking himself in the eye with the frosting spike.

He eventually gives up on dignity and just sort of attacks the cupcake face-first.

When he pulls back, chewing dubiously, grudgingly thinking to himself that it’s pretty good, he sees that Neal is biting his lip hard, like he’s trying not to smile.

“What?” Peter asks, as soon as he can be sure he won’t be spraying cupcake crumbs all over the table when he does.

“You have. Um.” Neal can barely get it out – he’s still biting his lip, but it’s not doing a very good job preventing a smile from breaking across his face.

Peter demands, “What?” just as the door opens and three kids spill inside the shop, dragging backpacks behind them.

They come running up to Neal, and the lead kid, who’s a little taller than the others, pulls up short when he sees what Neal is looking at.

“Mister,” he informs Peter, with solemn eyes, “You’ve got frosting on your nose.”

Neal can’t contain his laughter anymore – he cracks up, shoulders shaking, one hand coming up to cover his mouth. There’s nothing mean in his laugh, just pure, open enjoyment that flows through the whole line of his body.   Watching him, Peter feels a weird little catch in his throat.

“Oh, that’s great,” Peter grumbles, although he sort of guessed that might be it; he crosses his eyes in an attempt to see what’s on his nose. “Just great. This is why nothing good comes of eating cupcakes!”

Neal stops laughing long enough to hand Peter a napkin – Peter makes a haphazard swipe at his nose, but from the looks on the faces of Neal and the kids, he succeeds only in smearing the frosting over even more of his face. He makes a couple more attempts at wiping off the frosting, but judging from the laughs he gets after each one, he’s just making it worse every time.

Neal’s eyes are watering, he’s laughing so hard – “Here, let me,” he gasps, taking the napkin out of Peter’s hand. “Kids, go up to the counter and Luz will get your treats.”

Peter glares at Neal, but he obediently closes his eyes and feels Neal gently sweep the napkin down the bridge of his nose, then scrub it carefully across his left cheek.

“There,” he murmurs, as Peter opens his eyes – Neal’s hand hangs in the air between them, and Peter reaches up slowly to take the napkin from Neal’s gloved fingertips.

“Thanks,” Peter mumbles.

“It’s the least I could do,” Neal says, winking, “since it was my cupcake that dented your dignity in the first place.”

“My dignity is just fine, no thanks to you,” Peter declares, throwing a quick look over Neal’s shoulder at the house across the street – but no, still no movement.

Neal’s smile is rueful when he says, “I suppose this didn’t really change your mind about cupcakes.”

“No,” Peter says dryly. He catches a glimpse of a white van pulling up next to the light post just down the street, and tells Neal, “My relief is here.”

“And I should really go rescue Luz,” Neal replies in turn, nodding his head at the growing crowd of small children mobbing the counter. “But it’s been very good talking to you, Agent Burke. Maybe we’ll see each other around.”

“Maybe we will,” Peter agrees – Neal stands by the table, watching Peter as if he’s waiting for something, but after a few silent seconds, he just gives Peter a small, transparent smile and says quietly, “Okay.”

He turns to walk away, and Peter thinks about going back to work, where he’s the new guy that everybody leaves behind in the office when they go to lunch; about going back to his empty apartment, where he’s living really, truly alone for the first time in his life; about sitting on the subway with a different collection of total strangers every morning and night.

“I’d like that,” Peter blurts out. “If we did. Run into each other again.”

Neal turns back to face him, and his smile says more clearly than words that Peter got it right in the end.

“Me too,” Neal says simply, and Peter can’t help smiling back.

That night, in his weekly call to his sister, he tells her – hesitant, knowing what a stupid, first-grade thing it is to say, “I think I, uh… I made a friend, Paula.”

“A girlfriend?” Paula teases, and over Peter’s garbled denials, she says gently, “That’s good, Petey. That’s really good.”

“Don’t call me Petey,” Peter mumbles, and Paula laughs her big hearty laugh and says, “After 28 years, you think you’re gonna win that battle now?”

And since Peter has already learned today that his dignity is overrated anyway, he takes it with good grace.

*

The next day, Peter is on stakeout duty again. He knows it’s a shit job that they’re giving him because he’s the new guy, but even knowing that, he’s actually looking forward to it.

He walks in the door of The Greatest Cake at about 1:00 and right away, notices that there’s a bigger crowd inside than there was yesterday. Suddenly a little anxious, Peter looks for his table, and sure enough, there’s already a cup of coffee and a newspaper sitting on the table, the coffee steaming gently.

“Peter!” a voice calls, and Peter turns back toward the counter to see Neal walking toward him, smiling. “Welcome back!”

“Oh, uh, thanks,” Peter says, flushing a little – he feels a little pathetic for realizing it, but it’s been six months since another human being actually looked happy to see him. Paula’s always glad to get his calls, and Mom is glad when he visits, but… it’s not the same over the phone, and Mom—well, it’s also not the same when the person doesn’t really know it’s you anymore.

“Whose coffee is that?” Peter asks, gesturing at the table by the window.

Neal’s eyes crinkle with amusement. “It’s yours.”

“Oh.” Peter takes a relieved breath, then pauses, cocking his head at the soft wisp of steam rising from the coffee cup. “Wait – how did you know when I’d be back?”

“I have my ways,” Neal says, mysteriously.

Peter gives him a raised eyebrow, and Neal folds, sighing and giving Peter a look that says clearly that Peter is no fun.

“I live in the apartment upstairs,” Neal explains as he leads Peter over to the table that Peter realizes he’s already started thinking of as “his table,” to his private embarrassment. “If anyone had been arrested across the street, or if the FBI had broken down the door, I’d have noticed. Since nothing happened, odds were good that surveillance was still in place, and that you’d probably be coming in around the same time you came in yesterday.”

“You live upstairs?” Peter asks, sitting down and pausing to take a sip of coffee – just the right temperature. “Does the landlord give you a deal on rent or something?”

Neal shakes his head, thinning his lips. “No, not at all. That guy’s a real hardass.”

Peter has just enough time to wince sympathetically before Neal laughs and waves him off.

“I am the landlord,” he explains. “I own the building.”

Now that makes Peter blink. “You own New York real estate?”

“I wasn’t always a baker, you know,” Neal says teasingly, laying his blue-gloved hands flat on the table.

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot—” Peter rolls his eyes. “Your glamorous life of high-stakes art theft.”

“Exactly,” Neal says, without missing a beat.

“Uh-huh.” Peter sips his coffee again, closing his eyes to savor it. “This coffee is amazing, if I haven’t said that before.”

“You haven’t,” Neal replies, sounding pleased. “Thank you. I… suppose I should let you get on with your riveting surveillance work—”

“Yeah,” Peter admits, matching the reluctance he hears in Neal’s voice. “I’m done at four. I could… stick around after that. I mean, I know you get busy then, so it’s fine if—” he adds quickly, feeling weirdly nervous without knowing why.

“No, I’d like that,” Neal says, just as quickly, tacking on a rueful smile as he amends, “As long as you don’t mind me dashing around at the whims of first-graders and their mothers, that is.”

“Sounds great,” Peter says, and means it.

The door of the stash house across the street doesn’t get any more interesting, so Peter keeps himself entertained by keeping an eye on the other customers coming in and out of the shop. There are the ones who march straight up to the counter and know exactly what they want – about half of those greet Neal like he’s their long-lost brother, and update him on how their kid/idiot brother/dreamy co-worker/patent litigation/screenplay is doing, joking back and forth as Neal packages up the cupcakes, or puts them on a plate. Then there are the ones who hang back about three feet from the counter, looking indecisive – mostly guys, Peter is amused to note. He watches Neal make eye contact, smile, and offer them a free sample – so far, no one’s walked away without buying at least one of the things they’ve tried.

Then, there are a few who don’t come up to the counter at all. Intrigued, Peter watches them sit down at tables and pull out a laptop, or a book, or a crossword puzzle without ordering a thing – and watches as, a few minutes later, Neal quietly and unobtrusively slides a plate or a cup or both onto the table in front of them. A few of what Peter figures must be the “regulars” have a quick chat with Neal when he brings their coffee or cupcake or both.

There’s movement across the street – it’s just a lady pushing a stroller down the sidewalk, but Peter scolds himself for getting distracted. He focuses harder on the stash house door, glaring at it like he can summon Linkman or his goons up from within, by force of will alone. As the minutes tick by, Peter tries desperately to convince himself that it’s a really interesting door. He memorizes the pattern of bricks on the building’s façade, tries to decide how old the cast-iron railing on the front stoop must be, plans five different strategies for taking the door in a raid – when Peter realizes he’s started trying to decipher the pattern of dings and scrapes in the door’s white paint in case it’s a coded message, he realizes he’s in trouble.

“You’re starting to look a little…” Peter looks up to see Neal standing by the table, waving a hand at Peter’s eyes. “…glazed,” Neal finishes, peering at him.

“It’s a very interesting door,” Peter tells him defensively.

Neal turns his head to look across the street at the door, then back at Peter.

“I’ve seen that door many times, Peter,” Neal declares, “and it’s really not.”

“It—“ Peter starts to protest, but… “No, it’s not,” he admits. He stares down into his empty coffee cup and concludes, “I really need some coffee.”

Neal brightens and claps his hands together. “I’ll get you some.”

“No, no, you don’t have to—”

“It’s the least I can do for a hard-working defender of our peace and liberty,” Neal teases, collecting Peter’s saucer and empty cup.

“I can get my own coffee,” Peter insists.

“Since we keep the coffee behind the counter,” Neal points out, raising his left eyebrow, “I actually don’t think you can. Unless you have a warrant.”

“Or in hot pursuit,” Peter says automatically – Neal bites his lip. In a scandalized voice, he whispers, “Peter! There are children here!”

“I didn’t—that’s not—you know what I—” Peter blushes brightly enough to be seen from space, and Neal laughs.

“Tell you what,” he says, “I’ll make you a deal. You bring your coffee cup up to the counter and I’ll fill it.”

“That makes no sense,” Peter grumbles as he follows Neal toward the counter, “Now we both have to get up and walk over here, it’s twice the work!”

“Cup, Peter,” Neal prompts. Peter sighs and holds out his coffee cup, Neal reaches over the counter and—

Peter blinks.

“There’s a cupcake in my cup,” he says.

“Hence the name ‘cupcake,’” Neal replies, crossing his arms on the counter and leaning over them toward Peter, looking not even a little apologetic. “So called because they fit in a cup.”

“So called because they are not the coffee I asked for,” Peter says, feeling little bubbles of desperation for some kind of sanity and logic bubbling up in his soul.

Neal props his chin on his hands, serene, and watches Peter with something that looks oddly like fondness.

Peter stares down at the cupcake. The frosting is very orange.

“What fresh hell is this?” he mutters, and Neal laughs.

“It’s a coffee cupcake. Specifically, orange mocha frappuchino.”

Peter gives him a blank look.

“You need to get out more,” Neal tells him. Peter chooses to engage with the cupcake rather than with that statement. He sticks his thumb and forefinger along the inner edges of the coffee cup and pries the cupcake out, giving it a dubious look before taking an even more dubious bite.

“Well?” Neal’s chin is back on his hands, and he’s watching Peter intently.

“Eh,” Peter says.

Neal makes a face. “Just ‘eh’?”

“I don’t think coffee and citrus are meant to go together,” Peter says, shrugging, and Neal opens his mouth like he’s going to argue, then deflates.

“I don’t think so either,” he confesses. “I made them as a joke for one of the cashiers, Aminata, who’s kind of obsessed with Owen Wilson, but I guess they’re not ready for a wider audience.”

“Can I please have my coffee now?” Peter asks plaintively.

“I suppose,” Neal sighs, reaching behind the counter for a pitcher of coffee, which he deftly pours into Peter’s outstretched cup without spilling a drop. “I should have you try all my new cakes,” Neal remarks as Peter takes a grateful sip of coffee. “You’ve clearly got a discerning palate.”

“I don’t like cupcakes,” Peter reminds him, but Neal waves a hand, brushing off Peter’s objection like a piece of lint.

“You will.” Neal leads Peter back to the table, looking perfectly serene in his conviction that Peter is going to change the preference of a lifetime just because Neal has decided it’s so – Peter rolls his eyes and sits down again, flicking a glance to the door across the street, just as boring as it was before.

“So how'd you get stuck with such an exciting assignment?” Neal asks, obligingly positioning himself so that Peter can see the stash house door over his shoulder.

Peter grimaces, and explains, “I'm the new guy, so you know how it is – I get all the jobs nobody else wants to do. I get it, it’s not personal.”

“Just very, very boring.” Neal’s mouth twitches, and Peter sighs, nodding. He sips his coffee and enjoys the warmth of it washing down the back of his throat. The pace of life inside the shop is slower than it is out on the street – Neal is lounging back in his chair with empty hands while pedestrians outside dash past the window, clutching purses and iPhones and file folders.

“Well,” Neal says, after a thoughtful minute, “that won't last forever.  Sooner or later, they'll have somebody even newer than you, and then they'll get all the crap assignments.”

Peter huffs out a laugh through his nose, and slurps some more coffee. “That's very comforting, Neal, thank you."

"I try."

Probably, Peter thinks, Neal’s right, but sometimes Peter feels like…"I don't know," he admits, not meeting Neal’s eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't—everyone's so polite to me." The minute the words leave Peter’s lips, he feels stupid, but he can’t think of any other way to say it—

"Ouch," Neal says, but not in a sarcastic way - he says it like he knows exactly what Peter means.

"They ask me about cases,” Peter starts, worrying at the edge of his coffee cup with one thumb, “and say 'Good morning,' and 'Have a good evening,' but they don't—like Judy, who works next to me, by the window.  I know all this stuff about her kids and her mortgage and her RICO cases, but not because she tells me.  I just hear her talking to the other guys.  When they're on their way out to lunch."

"Leaving you behind.” Neal’s gaze is light with sympathy on Peter’s face.

"They don't—they don't mean it like that," Peter says, defensively.  "They're nice and everything.  They're just—busy.  And they all know each other already." Peter takes a breath in and checks the door, then looks back at Neal. "I mean, it'll happen," Peter tells Neal, and pretends he’s not saying it as much to himself as the other man.  "I know that.  This is how it was at the beginning of all the other jobs I've had, and it'll end.  It's just—not—not great while it's going on."

"You're right," Neal says slowly, with a decisive nod.  "It'll happen." The smile that spreads across his face is a little mysterious, and Peter narrows his eyes, suddenly suspicious.

“Why am I telling you all this?” he asks.

“Because of my natural charm and excellent listening skills,” Neal answers without missing a beat.

“I don’t know anything about you,” Peter prods, and Neal smiles. “Of course you do.”

“You like cupcakes,” Peter says, leaving the big deal unspoken.

“Come on, Agent Burke,” Neal teases. “You’re supposed to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tell me you can do better than that.”

Peter takes a minute to think about that. He turns his attention away from the door across the street, and casts his eyes over Neal, over the shop, over the other customers, over the pristine floors and the neat rows of treats behind the glass counter. He remembers Neal’s interactions with the customers, both today and last time – thinks over the snatches of conversation he’d overheard, the easy rapport between Neal and his employees.

“You’re a perfectionist,” Peter says, slowly. “You like kids but you don’t have any yourself. You’re a romantic, but you’re single. You’re a good boss, and your employees like you, and so do the customers – they tell you everything about themselves but you don’t tell them anything about you… not anything real. You’re surrounded by people,” Peter finishes, voice low, “but—you’re lonely.”

“Touché.”

“Like me.”

*

“And now Burke’s going to update us on the Linkman case,” Hughes says, and Peter clears his throat and stands up, trying not to look around nervously or fidget.

“Right,” says Peter, passing the glamour shots of the weapons crates around the table, “As you know, we took the stash house two nights ago, and since then it’s basically been a lot of sifting through the evidence, trying to figure out what’s important, what’s headed for trial, what might tie in to other cases. Right now the most promising catch is a crate of tricked-out military-issue sniper rifles, traceable to—”

The door to the conference room swings open, and Peter blinks once, then twice.

“Neal?”

Yes, Peter decides, that’s definitely Neal. But why?

Neal is dressed even more snazzily than usual, in a three-piece suit, white gloves, and a trilby set at a devil-may-care angle. There’s a large white cardboard box in his hands, and he’s smiling broadly at Peter.

“What are you doing here?” Peter asks, bewildered – Neal opens the box to reveal rows and rows of chocolate brown, glistening frosted cupcakes, and says brightly, “Delivering the cupcakes you ordered for your staff meeting… remember, Agent Burke?”

Peter remembers no such thing, but he recognizes the look that Neal’s giving him from his childhood, when Paula would say to their parents, “I didn’t have any boys over while you were gone, right, Peter?” So he says, “Oh, right… the cupcakes. For the meeting.” Which maybe isn’t as convincing as it could be, but that’s all right because no one is paying attention to him anyway.

“Oh my God, is this peanut butter?” Judy asks, eyeing the cupcakes from the head of the swarm of agents that’s gathering hungrily around Neal’s box.

“I call them ‘Reeses Judicata,’” Neal says proudly, and winks at Peter. “And the ones on the left with the toffee sprinkles are ‘J. Edgar Heathbar.’ Custom flavors – only the best for Agent Burke’s friends.”

That turns people’s attention back to Peter, and Peter stammers a surprised “You’re welcome,” through the flood of thanks and thumbs-up. Neal, of course, knows very well that it would be a hell of a stretch to call Peter’s co-workers his friends, but Peter’s having trouble putting together an objection when Reeves from Tactical is clapping him on the shoulder and saying, “Good thinking, Burke. Nothing like sugar to keep people awake at meetings, huh?”

“Burke, these are amazing,” Laurie raves – her first cupcake is gone already, and she’s reaching out to grab a second one, almost dragging her blazer sleeve in frosting. “Seriously, amazing.”

“The Greatest Cake,” Neal announces, passing around a small stack of printed napkins with the store’s website, phone number, and address on them. “We cater parties! And feed hungry federal agents at staff meetings.”

Then he turns to Peter and grins. “Thanks for the order, Agent Burke – and like we discussed earlier, it’s on the house.”

“We discussed no such—”

“Have a good meeting!” Neal says brightly, and is out the door before Peter can even put his thoughts in a semblance of order.

“On the house?” Judy asks, giving her half-eaten cupcake a look bordering on awe. “You can get food this good for free? Burke, what did you do?”

“Yeah, Peter, where did these come from?”

“Well,” Peter starts, perfectly truthfully, “I was staking out Linkman’s stash house last week – I mean, you know that, but – and this place, The Greatest Cake, was across the street with a clear line of sight. So I sat down at this table by the window, and…”

By the time Peter’s finished the story and been made to promise that he’ll get Neal to bring cupcakes every week, and been interrogated about whether the bakery serves lunch (it does), and, embarrassingly, whether Neal is single (he’s never actually said), Peter realizes that finally, finally, everyone’s talking to him like he’s a human being – like he’s part of the team.

*

The next day, he stops by the shop; he walks through the glass door and looks all around, seeing plenty of spotless white tiles, hipsters hunched over laptops, and row upon row of multi-colored cupcakes… but no Neal.

Peter walks up to the cash register, sizing up the guy standing patiently behind it – he’s tall and heavily muscled, with a shaved head and a waterfall of interlocking tattoos covering the deep brown skin of his arms. His nametag reads “Surge,” and when Peter reads that, he can’t help laughing.

“Something funny?” the guy says, but he looks amused, not mad, so Peter raises an eyebrow, nods at the nametag, and asks, “That what your mother named you?”

“Nope.” Surge responds, lifting his own eyebrow back at Peter. “My birth certificate says ‘Surgeon Jamal Roads.’”

“Your mother named you ‘Surgeon?’”

Surge stares Peter down, long enough for Peter to start worrying that he’s offended a guy who looks like he could pick up ten of Peter with one hand—but Surge suddenly breaks into a grin and spreads his hands, telling Peter, “What can I say? She had high hopes for me, man.”

Peter laughs, and Surge joins him. “I get that a lot,” he explains, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his aprons. “I love the looks on people’s faces. Hey, man, you looking for a cupcake?”

“No, thanks,” Peter replies, apologetically. “I’m actually looking for Neal, is he around?”

“He’s in back, up to his eyeballs in this kindergarten birthday order,” Surge tells Peter. “Do you want to just go back?” He jerks his head toward a silver door behind the counter with the word “KITCHEN” outlined on it in simple black lettering.

“Is that… is that okay?” Peter asks, hesitant, but when Surge nods and motions for Peter to come around the counter, Peter follows him through the door and into the kitchen.

*

At 2:00 sharp, a tall young woman with long black hair walks into The Greatest Cake and makes straight for the table in the corner, where she slings what looks like a backpack full of bricks onto the floor and starts pulling out a mountain of books.

“Diana!” Neal calls, and he steps out smoothly from behind the counter, grabbing a plate and a mug on his way. “You are going to love this one.” He flourishes an impressive-looking slab of something dense and brown and sets it on the table in front of the woman – Diana, Peter supposes – saying, “There’s more walnuts in this brownie than brownie.”

“Neal,” Diana says, giving him a flat look. “What am I going to say?”

Neal looks crushed for a second, then rallies. “You think you want a Hockey Puck. You always think you want a Hockey Puck, but today, Diana, today you want—”

Diana interrupts, “Please do not tell me what you’ve named this thing—”

“Today you want a Saturday Nut Fever!” Neal proclaims, pulling a fork out of his apron pocket and offering it to Diana with a triumphant expression.

Diana just stares at Neal for a long, long minute.

“It’s a Tuesday, Neal,” she says, finally.

Neal opens his mouth like he wants to argue, but when she narrows her eyes, he shuts it again.

There’s another long moment of silence, broken only when Diana sighs and grabs the fork out of Neal’s hand.

“I will try it,” she tells him, grudgingly, “if—if. You bring me my Hockey Puck to go, and you promise me that you will change this thing’s name. Promise me, Neal.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Counselor,” Neal says, which makes Diana give him a look that probably isn’t meant to be as fond as it is.

*

“Actually,” Neal says, eyes twinkling, “since you’re offering…”

Which is how Peter ends up chaperoning a second-grade field trip to an apple orchard, along with Neal, a couple of the other bakers, and some parents. On the bus ride to the orchard, Neal had explained that the kids would pick their own apples, take them back to The Greatest Cake, peel them – handing them over to adults for the “chopping with sharp knives” part – and bake their own apple cinnamon muffins. When Peter had asked how, exactly, this was educational, he’d gotten treated to a whole lecture on eating locally, teaching kids where their food comes from, and fresh air being good for kids.

Right now, the kids are all sitting on apple crates in the orchard’s office, listening to Neal talk about all the different kinds of apples and give a shorter but just as impassioned version of the speech he’d given Peter on the bus. Peter walks around the apple crates, keeping an eye on the kids. One little girl seems to be scribbling notes passionately – Peter leans over to see what she’s writing, and nearly chokes when he sees:

Mrs. Amy Caffrey

Mrs. Amy Chou-Caffrey

Mrs. Amy Caffrey-Chou

Dr. Amy Chou-Caffrey, DMA

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Peter mutters. The tiny girl hears him and her head whips around to glare at him with a fury way out of proportion to her size.

“Oh, what,” growls Peter, refusing to be cowed by a kid who barely comes up to his waist.

“Peter?”

Peter looks up to see Neal watching him, looking very amused. “Is there something you’d like to share with the class, Peter?”

“No,” Peter mumbles, abashed – the tiny girl gives him a triumphant sneer and goes back to drawing hearts around Neal’s name in her notebook.

“This is Peter Burke,” Neal says, waving a hand at Peter; when he says, in a dramatic tone of voice, “He’s an FBI agent,” all the kids look gratifyingly impressed… except for Tiny Girl, who narrows her eyes at him suspiciously. He narrows his eyes right back and pretends that she looks the slightest bit intimidated.

Five minutes later, Neal hands every kid a basket, and they walk out into the orchard. The rows of trees, loaded with heavy red and gold apples, roll away from them down a steep hill – a few of the kids immediately give their buckets to an adult and then throw themselves down the hill with abandon, tumbling their way to the bottom with gleeful shrieks.

“Looks fun,” Neal comments. “Want to give it a try?” His eyes are full of mischief, and Peter can’t deny he’s tempted.

“I think we’re supposed to be setting a good example,” Peter has to point out, and Neal pouts, but walks with relative dignity down to join the kids at the bottom of the hill.

It’s a beautiful day, but chilly – all the kids are zipped up snugly in their jackets, and all the adults are wearing gloves and scarves with their coats. The sky is that piercing blue that only comes when the air is snapping with cold, and the grass crunches slightly under their feet. It all reminds Peter powerfully of home, of the farm – for a moment, he misses it so much he can hardly breathe. They had to sell the farm last year, when he and Paula put Mom in the home, and it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

“Are you all right?” Neal asks, resting a gloved hand on Peter’s arm, his voice gentle.

“Fine,” Peter says shortly, and Neal doesn’t push.

They stroll through the rows of trees, dodging kids and baskets. Neal doesn’t pick any fruit himself – “The owners are old friends, they’ll put my usual weekly order on the bus before we leave” – but he seems to be having a good time, chasing down stray second-graders and gravely answering questions about the apples.

As they migrate toward a quiet stream that cuts across the path, a voice calls, “Neal! You made it!”

Peter turns to see a freckled woman leading a beautiful saddled chestnut mare toward them, waving energetically. While Neal and the woman chat, Peter picks an apple from a nearby tree and offers it to the mare, who snuffles it over for a minute before eating it delicately out of his hand.

“I guess, living in an orchard, you can afford to be choosy about your treats, huh?” Peter murmurs under his breath, stroking her neck and admiring the gloss of her coat.

“September likes you,” the woman says, and Peter turns to see that she and Neal are both watching him with interest.

“Well, she’s a beauty,” Peter says sincerely.

The woman smiles. “Thanks. You want to give her some exercise?”

Peter surprises himself with the sharp tug of yearning behind his breastbone that surges up in response to her words. “I’d love to, if you…”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t mean it,” she says firmly. “You need a hand up?”

Peter shakes his head and anchors his foot in the left stirrup. It’s been a while since he and Paula sold the horses – two years before the farm, after Mom broke her hip – but his body still knows what to do, and he swings up into the saddle in one smooth movement. The horse – September – takes it pretty well, although she does crane her head around to give him a dubious once-over.

“What kind of condition is she in?” Peter asks, and the woman laughs, throwing back her head. “You want to gallop her,” she guesses, and Peter nods, a little shamefaced to be so transparent. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Just keep her away from the pumpkin patch, all right?”

Peter stammers out a thank-you – at the last minute, he remembers he’s kind of supposed to be doing something else right now—

Neal reads Peter’s face in a second and waves him off, saying “Go, go!”

“Well,” Peter says to the mare, checking his seat and picking up the reins. “You heard the man. Let’s go!”

September is clearly well-trained – it barely takes a tap for Peter to get her walking, and as soon as he’s safely out of range of the little tykes, she picks up speed, and doesn’t balk when Peter asks for more. The wind is sharp across Peter’s cheeks as he gallops past the neat rows of trees, some loaded down, some bare; his face will probably be chapped as hell tomorrow morning, but he doesn’t care. He’s keeping one eye on September, on her gait, on her breathing, and on the path ahead; but most of him is fourteen again, racing Jenny Lufti across the farm on his pretty bay Marguerite – the loser had to give the winner a kiss.

Peter had lost a lot.

The thud of September’s hooves and the bunching of her long muscles clears Peter’s mind of everything else, and he just gives himself up to the speed and the power and the nostalgia until the mare slows her gait and carries him back to where they started. Peter leans over and whispers grateful nonsense in her ear as she walks back up to Neal and starts whuffling at his pockets, nosing around for a treat.

Neal’s eyes are the size of saucers, and he’s looking at Peter up in that saddle like he’s never wanted anything so much. As Peter watches, Neal swallows, blinks, and says, “Wow. So… horseback. Who knew?”

“Oh, you want a ride?” Peter asks, getting ready to dismount—Neal’s jaw literally drops open, and Peter can see him visibly collect himself and take a deep breath.

“On the horse,” Neal says, without inflection.

Peter’s brows draw together, confused. “Of course on the horse. What else?”

“What else indeed?” Neal says with kind of an odd smile, which Peter doesn’t quite understand, but the one thing he’s pretty sure he’s getting out of this conversation is that Neal would like a chance in the saddle, so he says, “Here, let me dismount, and you can—”

“No, no,” Neal interrupts – he points at himself and says, “City boy, through and through,” with a rueful smile. “I don’t know how to—”

“Oh,” Peter says, slowly – okay, this conversation is making more sense to him, now. “Well, that’s not a big deal – here, come on up behind me,” he offers, patting the saddle pad behind him.

Neal starts to demur, waving his hands, but September’s owner cuts him off with an evil grin.

“Come on, Neal, I thought you wanted a ride,” she prods, and Neal gives her an oddly betrayed look, muttering, “Cindy, you are not helping.”

“Oh, I think I’m being very helpful,” Cindy contradicts, still grinning. “Come on, I’ll give you a hand up. This is what you wanted, wasn’t it? With all that staring, and drooling—

“You are a terrible friend,” Neal informs Cindy as she makes a cup with her hands.

“I can’t wait to tell Mozzie about this,” she giggles – Peter offers his arm for Neal to use as leverage, and between them, they maneuver Neal up onto September’s back.

“Now put your arms around his waist,” Cindy instructs, eyes dancing.

“You are fired,” Neal tells her bitterly, wrapping his arms around Peter.

“Hey, hey,” Peter says gently, half-turning in the saddle so Neal can hear him. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’ve been in the city for six months and I still get lost on the subway sometimes. There’s no reason for a city boy to know how to ride. I’m not going to go running and jumping her all over the place – we’ll just have a nice, easy ride. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

Just a little kick gets September walking, and Peter eases her up in to a nice, relaxed trot. The rhythm is different with the weight of two riders, but the mare adjusts to it pretty smoothly, and Peter takes the chance to enjoy some of the scenery that just blurred past him on his first ride. He takes Neal past the pumpkin patch that Cindy had warned him about, and then down along the creek, apologizing when the splashes soak their feet and ankles.

“This is nice,” Neal says, his breath warm on Peter’s ear, and Peter smiles – teasing, he says, “You don’t have to sound so surprised, you know.”

“Where did you learn to ride?”

“I grew up up-state,” Peter explains, turning his head as much as he can while still keeping an eye on where he’s going. “Me and my mom and my sister Paula each had our own horse.”

“Had?” Neal prompts, quietly.

“We, uh—we had to sell them, after Paula and I went away to school, and Mom broke her hip. My cousin Julie has my mare Marguerite now,” Peter tells Neal, “So I know she’s in good hands. But I miss her,” he admits, and he doesn’t feel stupid for saying it at all, because even though Neal is a city boy, Peter can’t escape the feeling that somehow, Neal understands.

“I’m sorry,” Neal says, and he rests his head on Peter’s shoulder in silence until September brings them back to the group.

“Come back anytime to take her out, if you’d like,” Cindy offers as they’re leaving. “Any friend of Neal’s is a friend of ours. Especially if you can drag City Boy along with you,” she adds, giving Neal a mischievous look – he glares back and hisses something that Peter can’t hear and probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

On the bus trip back, Peter hears the two kids in the seat in front of him giggling at something – when he peeks over the back of the seat, he sees Tiny Girl hunched over a notebook with an equally miniature boy. When he squints to see what the little boy is writing, he reads:

Mr. Jake Saltzman-Burke

Mr. Jake Burke-Saltzman

AGENT Jake Saltzman Burke THE THIRD

“Oh for f—goodness’ sake,” Peter groans, flushing like his face might burst into flames. Neal raises an eyebrow at him, peeks over the seat back himself, then laughs so hard he pulls a muscle in his neck, the little shit.

*

“Are they numbered editions?”

Peter tries to remember. “I… not numbered, no, they don’t have numbers. They have these letters on them instead—”

“‘HC’ and ‘EA’?” Neal asks.

“Yeah – how’d you know?”

“That’s fairly common amateur stuff for small-time art forgers. Most fine art prints or lithographs are printed in limited batches, supposedly so the artist can approve them all personally, but mostly to maintain scarcity value, so they can garner a high price. The artist signs them individually, and each print in the run gets a number – 2 out of 100, 3 out of 100, 56 out of 100, which is written or printed on the piece somewhere.”

“So what’s an HC?”

“HC means ‘not for sale,’ and EA is ‘artist’s edition’ – they’re not printed as part of the numbered set, because they’re meant for the artist’s family and friends, or for the publisher, or otherwise not meant for the market. As friends and relatives pass away or fall on hard times, those un-numbered prints find their way into the hands of galleries or dealers now and then.”

“So nobody knows for sure how many of them there are—” Peter says, starting to get it.

Neal smiles. “—and because they’re unnumbered, you don’t have that awkward moment where you’re at an auction house or a gallery, and somebody suddenly notices there are two #22s floating around.”

“That’s pretty smart.”

Neal rolls his eyes. “The first guy who thought of it—or gal—was pretty smart. But now it’s so overused that if you try to sell an HC or an EA to a reputable dealer, you might as well wear a nametag saying, ‘Hello, I’m a second-rate art forger.’”

*

“Mr. Neal,” the little girl says solemnly.

“Hi, Zahra.”

“Mr. Neal. You wear the rubber gloves. Are you a doctor?”

Peter expects him to say no, but instead Neal smiles and asks, “What kind of doctor do you need?”

“Horsie doctor.”

“Ohhh. Well, I don’t know much about horses, but Peter here is a horse expert, so I bet between the two of us we can probably fix up your horse good as new, okay?”

“’Kay.”

“What happened to your horse?”

Zahra pulls a My Little Pony out of her backpack and gingerly places it in Peter’s hands. “Daddy stepped on Charmsparkle by accident. But he’s very, very sorry, so I am not mad at him.”

“Well, that’s good. I’m sure your daddy didn’t mean to hurt her.”

“Charmsparkle is a boy.”

Peter looks at the little pink toy horse, with its long, flowing, purple-and-tinsel mane and tail, and stylized purple sparkles on its haunches, and he thinks, God bless New York City.

“Of course he is! I’m sorry, Zahra, I must have misspoken.”

"It’s okay.”

“Well, Doctor Burke, what is your expert opinion?”

“I recommend an immediate treatment course of kissing it better.”

“An excellent recommendation, Doctor Burke. I concur. I will leave you here to administer the treatment while I gather up some additional supplies and medication.”

*

“What are you going to do with that thing?” Peter asks, looking askance at the syringe-shaped contraption.

Looking extremely entertained, Neal replies in turn, “I have to know – what do you think I’m going to do with it?”

“Artificially inseminate a heifer, by the look of it.”

Neal laughs and laughs and laughs.

“Oh, I needed that. Thank you, Peter. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at my cake-decorating pen the same way again.”

*

Neal comes back from the little kitchenette holding a chipped coffee mug, and Peter knows he’s been caught staring.

“It’s a beautiful painting,” Peter says.

“Thank you.”

“Who’s the artist?”

“A friend of mine – Nick Halden.”

“From your glamorous international art theft past, no doubt,” Peter says, rolling his eyes.

“That’s right.” Neal just smiles – he’s gazing into the painting, and the expression on his face is something Peter can’t name, but he can see the power of it, the depth of its feeling.

“Was it—he painted it for you? Like—a commission,” Peter guesses.

“In a way. No money changed hands, but—yes. The painting was made for me.”

“Who’s the girl?”

The curve of Neal’s lips is too quiet and resigned to be a smile.

“The wind through the trees,” he says, and as cryptic as the words are, somehow Peter knows exactly what he means.

“You were in love with her,” Peter says, and looking back at the painting, at the powerful joy and care that radiates from every careful brush stroke, he realizes out loud, “And he was, too – the artist. Nick Halden.”

Neal doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t deny it. Without looking away from the painting, he says, “You’re wondering whether she left me for him,” even though Peter wasn’t, even though Peter can’t imagine somebody leaving Neal for anybody else. “And I guess, in a way, she did. But she left both of us, in the end.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We just wanted different things,” Neal says, his voice so free of any anger or blame that Peter’s heart aches for him, and suddenly, without knowing why, watching Neal gaze into the girl’s painted eyes with so much regret and forgiveness—Peter feels very small.

(Later, when Peter knows himself and his own emotions a little better, he’ll understand that feeling, too – the feeling that, even with five years’ head start on Neal, Peter couldn’t say he’d ever felt that way—ever loved someone that deeply, in that way, in a way that left him humbled in the presence of that kind of fairytale-but-realer lost love.)

*

“Really?” Neal frowns. “On the wall?”

“No, Neal, in a box, with a fox,” Peter says, rolling his eyes.

Neal rolls his eyes right back. “What I mean is, doesn’t your authenticator want to look at the back?”

“The back?” Peter asks, puzzled. “Why would he want to look at the back?”

Neal sits back in his chair and fixes Peter with a speculative look. “Do you know what the Mona Lisa looks like? Can you picture it clearly, in your head?”

“Of course,” Peter answers – now that Neal’s put it in his head, of course, he can’t think of anything else.

“Really clearly?” Neal presses. “The curve of her chin, the color of her hair…”

“Yes, yes,” Peter says impatiently, “I can picture it.”

A smile blooms across Neal’s face, and he spreads his hands. “So can a forger.”

“But—oh,” Peter says. “Oh.”

Neal’s eyes light up, and his voice is intent and lively as he explains, “The front of a painting – which is to say, the painting itself – is frequently common knowledge. 90% of the time, it’s on the Internet somewhere, and that’s if it’s not in a museum where you can walk right up to it and study it. Worst case scenario, even if it’s in a private collection, you can usually at least find a likeness in a library book somewhere.”

“But the back—” Peter says, getting it, matching Neal’s smile as it becomes clearer.

“Right – not so common knowledge. Probably millions of people all over the world could do what you just did, and picture the Mona Lisa, very accurately – but probably not more than a couple dozen, if that, could tell you even the most basic thing about the back of the painting or the back of the frame.”

“Probably just museum staff, and a handful of experts,” Peter guesses, and Neal nods.

“The backs of paintings can have all kinds of stuff on them – museum inventory stickers, scrapes and gouges, paint splatters and stains, old abandoned sketches – that most forgers wouldn’t have access to, and so wouldn’t be able to replicate. A lot of forgers, frankly, wouldn’t even think of trying. With a painting this small, I’m very surprised to hear that your authenticator doesn’t want to see it off the wall.”

“Why does the size of the painting matter?”

Neal shrugs. “The smaller a painting, the easier it is to forge. Less paint to age, fewer details to screw up, you get the idea. Every brush stroke is an opportunity for a stupid mistake – the less actual forging you have to do, the better.”

“So since the painting is small, the authenticator should give it an even more thorough check than usual – including the back.”

“Exactly.”

*

“Let’s see what we have here,” Peter hears from over his shoulder, and when he turns around, he sees Neal rifling through his wallet without an ounce of shame, peering at Peter’s credit cards and snooping through the photos.

“Hey!”

“What have we here?” Neal says with interest, squinting at one of the photos, then the next few. “A veritable gallery of very attractive women – Peter, you don’t seem like the type to keep a—”

“Those are my ex-girlfriends,” Peter tries to explain, and that pulls up Neal in his tracks; he gives Peter a measuring look and says, “You really don’t seem like the type of guy who’d keep a trophy gallery of his exes to brag on—”

Appalled, Peter squawks, “They’re not—trophies, Neal, what are you even—they’re my friends, we’re friends!”

“You’re friends with all of your ex-girlfriends.” Neal raises a skeptical eyebrow, and Peter’s mouth drags down at the corner, guiltily, as he admits, “Well, not all – I lost touch with Nina a few years back, I haven’t really heard from her in a while, but her picture’s not in there anyway—”

“And when did you date… Nina…?”

“Oh, junior year.”

“Of college?”

“Of high school.”

There’s a moment’s silence, and a kind of funny look passes over Neal’s face, like he’s taken a bite of something with way too much ginger. “You’re friends with all of your ex-girlfriends,” he repeats, half to himself. “Of course you are.”

“Not Nina,” Peter points out, shifting his feet uncomfortably. “I still feel bad about that, I should look her up—”

“Peter, I think you can be forgiven for losing touch with a girl you haven’t dated since you were seventeen,” Neal tells him, amused.

“I should look her up,” Peter insists, mumbling.

“I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear from you,” Neal concedes, eyes twinkling. “So you somehow managed to stay friends with all these women even after you dumped them or they dumped you—”

“There was no dumping,” Peter protests.

“You’re not going to tell me all these break-ups were mutual. I mean—I’d believe it, actually,” Neal mutters, “but—”

“I did not ever get dumped,” Peter says with great dignity. “Things just didn’t work out. For different reasons.”

“And how about this one? She looks like a fun person – she’s got a great smile.”

“That’s Lindsay,” Peter says fondly. “She’s a lesbian now. Well, I mean, she was always a lesbian, obviously, but—that’s why it didn’t work out, is what I’m saying.”

“She left you for another woman.”

“What? No, not—not a specific other woman, she wasn’t seeing anybody else – just sort of left me for women in general, I guess. I came home with her to tell her family – she was really worried, but they were great about it.”

“You were your own girlfriend’s coming-out buddy. Of course you were.”

Peter feels like Neal is judging him. “What, I was just supposed to—stop caring about her, once she realized she didn’t want to sleep with me? Lindsay was great, I loved her – I wasn’t going to just abandon her, she was my friend—”

“No, of course not,” Neal corrects swiftly, “that’s not what I meant. I just – I admire you. I don’t know that a lot of guys would have done that. Some guys would have… taken it personally.”

Baffled, Peter says, “Personally? She likes girls, that’s the least personal reason for a break-up I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t that she didn’t like me. She just didn’t like guys. How could I take that personally?”

“How, indeed?” Neal’s eyes are warm on Peter’s face, like candlelight.

“She was—she was pretty broken up about it, too,” Peter says. “Not about being a lesbian – once she got on board with that, that was pretty much full speed ahead – but she felt bad about—about me, you know. I guess you’re right, I guess some guys wouldn’t take it well, because when she told me, she felt bad about it, apologized—I told her, ‘What are you apologizing for? Better to know now than after we’d gotten married or something – Jesus, then I really would feel bad—”

“You were thinking about marrying her?”

Peter shrugs. “Not—not seriously, we’d only been dating for a couple months. But she’s the kind of girl I would have married. She was a great girl—she is a great girl. We’re friends, like I said. That next picture—” Peter leans over to flip the plastic sleeve. “—that’s her partner, Brooke. I flew out to Chicago for the wedding – I was Lindsay’s best man,” he says proudly.

“Of course you were,” Neal murmurs.

“What is all this ‘of course’ about?” Peter asks, throwing his hands up in the air.

“I’ve never met anyone like you before,” Neal says. “And that was a compliment, in case you were wondering.”

“I’m not that special,” Peter mutters, feeling his cheeks heat.

*

“Give me a second,” Neal says suddenly, interrupting Peter. There’s a young woman in jeans and a brightly-printed halter top walking toward the door, with a black canvas handbag slung over one shoulder, and Neal steps in front of her, neatly cutting off her exit.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he says, with an ingratiating smile. “I couldn’t help noticing what a nice purse you have there.”

The woman gives Neal a nonplussed look. “Thank you,” she says brusquely, then tries to step around him. He matches her step as smoothly as if it was a dance, and gives her the same smile.

“The funny thing is,” he explains, tone as even and friendly as ever, “it looks just exactly like the purse that Mrs. Nguyen, over there—“ He nods his head at a petite woman sitting at a table, laughing with two little pigtailed girls. “—carries into this shop almost every day. Isn’t that strange?”“What a funny coincidence,” the woman says flatly, narrowing her eyes at Neal – Peter can see her hand flex around the strap of the handbag, hitching it higher on her shoulder. “But I’m sure there must be lots of these bags in New York City.”

Neal’s face has lost the friendly smile. “Maybe,” he says, voice just barely loud enough for Peter to hear, “but I’ll bet this is the only one in New York City with Mrs. Nguyen’s drivers’ license in it.”

“That would be strange,” the woman agrees, a slight sneer creeping into her eyes. “I guess it’s too bad you’ll never know.”

Peter figures this would be a good time for him to jump in. He steps toward Neal and the woman in the halter top, and flashes his badge as discreetly as he can.

“FBI, ma’am,” he says, not bothering to try to look like he isn’t enjoying himself. “I’m afraid I need to see the contents of that purse.”

Her eyes flash, and she clutches the purse strap even tighter, but Peter can see she’s cornered and she knows it. “The FBI is going after purse-snatchers now?” she hisses – Peter affects a look of surprise. “Is that what you are?

*

[At this point in our narrative, in the process of investigating a crime in which Kate is the prime suspect, Peter recognizes her as the girl in the painting on Neal’s apartment wall, finds out who Neal is, assumes Neal’s been using him, feels betrayed, storms over to The Greatest Cake, and walks into the kitchen to confront Neal.]

Cracking open the doorway to the kitchen, Peter hears music – someone singing, a man – and is distracted for a moment, curious. As silently as he can, Peter pushes the door open the rest of the way, hearing what sounds like Puccini from inside. He shuts the door behind him quietly, and turns around to survey the room, hidden in the shadows of the doorway alcove.

For a moment, the kitchen looks like it’s empty, and Peter hears a disembodied voice singing, “la gente sosta e mira…” and shivers a little at the way the twin “s” of sosta slide over his skin like raw silk. Peter knows those words, and the aria they’re from, by heart. Then Neal – of course it’s Neal, Peter thinks, slightly desperately – steps into Peter’s line of sight, stirring a bowl held in the crook of his elbow, looking down into it distractedly as he sings. His face is open, unguarded in a way Peter has never seen before. He moves around the kitchen slowly, stepping in time to the valse lento, waltzing with no one, lingering over the exquisitely Italianate double consonants in “bellezza” and “tutta,” with an indulgent smile.

The people stop and watch me, Peter translates mentally, not unaware of the irony, and they study my beauty from head to toe.

Peter came here with a purpose, he knows that—but he can’t look away from this, from Neal, so perfectly unselfconscious; from the rich, smooth roll of his voice, weaving in and out of his lower register as he begins the B section. Neal rummages in a cupboard as the long, velvety string of eighth notes builds momentum, then releases the tension at the pinnacle of the rising scale, then builds it again, silky and insistent.   Neal is singing the aria just the way Peter likes best – freely, bending the meter gracefully to take deep, luxurious breaths between phrases; shaping the line to the natural flow of the words rather than adhering strictly to the printed notes. He paints the text in a way that leaves no doubt that he understands every word – connecting the last two notes of “desìo” with an appoggiatura like a languid caress, singing “felice” with an incandescent smile—

Peter is pinned in place so surely that when Neal sings the line “E tu che sai,” Peter’s heart skips a beat, inexplicably convinced that Neal will turn to look straight at him – but Neal just raps his knuckles against the flour sifter three times and sets it aside, beating the batter in the bowl in sixteenth-note rhythm. Peter loves the playful, flirtatious grace notes and the unabashed, self-indulgent rising lines of the first two-thirds of the piece, but this is Peter’s favorite part of the aria, and he silently recites the English as Neal sings, “E tu che sai, che memori e ti struggi,” – “And you who know, and remember, and pine” – closing his eyes at the way Neal leans into the sharp, insistent tug of the uneven rhythm on “struggi,” which leaps and falls like a bird beating its wings against a cage. Neal quickly and smoothly pours the contents of the bowl into a waiting pan, then pushes it aside and closes his eyes, a smile hovering on his lips as he sings the final lines – the most beautiful, Peter has always thought, that Puccini ever wrote. Every note should be grand and elegant and impossible to ignore, as the notes blossom in speed and complexity.

*

Neal smiles when Peter steps out into the light. “Peter, hey!”

“I think I know who was behind the Raphael.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Peter says grimly. “Kate Moreau.”

“Who?”

“Don’t lie to me! Not again—

“Peter, what’s going on—”

“Your girlfriend, Neal,” Peter spits. “Or should I say, Nick—Nick Halden, or Jack Tabernacle, or—or James Bonds, God, you must have gotten a laugh out of that—”

“Peter, I don’t—”

“I looked you up in the Bureau’s database.”

Neal nods. “Well, yeah, I assumed s—wait. Just now?”

“You were using me. You pretended to be my friend and like a fool I believed you, I let you waltz into the FBI offices whenever you wanted, I told you details of our investigations—”

“I helped you, Peter—Peter, I am your friend, I always have been.”

“I told you things about me – about my family, about my mom, about—you and Kate must have had a good laugh over that, over this stupid Fed who thought—”

“Peter, no—”

“I should arrest you right now,” Peter says, defiant, even though he knows he has no charges to hold Neal on, even though all of Neal’s cases are cold – he knows he’s being stupid, but no stupider than he has been through this whole ugly mess already.

Quietly, Neal says, “I can’t stop you.” He strips off the blue latex gloves and plunges his hands into the suds and water filling the sink, feeling around for something. His back is partly turned to Peter, his left shoulder curved inward, self-protective. “I never lied to you, Peter,” he says, eyes fixed on the dishes in the sink. “I only wanted to help, and to be your friend.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“I don’t expect anything from you, Peter. But I guess I thought you would give me a chance.”

“To what? Explain?”

“I’m out of the game, Peter. Way out. I have been for years.”

“Once a thief, always a thief,” Peter whispers.

Neal’s eyes close for a second, and he swallows. “If you believe that,” he says softly, pulling his hands out of the water and drying them with a towel hanging out of his apron pocket. “Then I guess—”

“Neal,” Peter whispers, staring, staring with a numb shock unlike anything he’s felt, even today with its painful surprises—“Neal—your hands…”

Neal looks down at his hands, then back up at Peter, confusion drifting over his face without erasing the sadness. “What?” he asks Peter, shaking his head.

“Your hands, Neal,” Peter insists, still staring, unable to tear his eyes away, “What—?”

“You’ve seen my hands before, Peter,” says Neal, voice weary.

“I haven’t,” Peter tells him, struck with sudden realization. “I haven’t, you’re always wearing… gloves…”

“Oh. Well, there they are,” Neal says curtly, holding them up between himself and Peter, flipping them back and forth perfunctorily to show both sides before shoving them back in his pockets. Up close, they look even worse. The only word that Peter’s reeling mind can come up with is ruined – Neal’s scarred, mangled hands remind Peter of the ruins of an old church that he and Paula used to play in on the outskirts of his hometown – still recognizable as what it once was, intact enough to show the beauty that must once have been there, but so thoroughly ravaged and broken that as Peter grew older, he didn’t like playing there anymore – it was too sad.

Red, raised scars twine around Neal’s fingers like the roots of dead trees, bleeding into rivulets of white, tight-looking skin that drip down across Neal’s palms and down toward his wrists. Half of his knuckles are big and gnarled like an old man’s, and some of the fingers are bent oddly, just off-kilter enough to make Peter shiver at the feeling of wrong.

“Now you’ve seen them,” Neal tells him, and turns to walk over to the apron rack, hiding his face from Peter.

“Neal—Neal.” Peter follows him, feeling sick to his stomach. “What happened?”

“Like I told you the day we met,” Neal says, with a smile so small it’s barely bitter, “a jet-setting life of high-stakes crime may be glamorous, but the people… well. They’re not—not always very nice.”

Peter absorbs that silently, watching as Neal unties his apron and hangs it up on the rack – he tries not to stare at Neal’s hands.

“I never lied to you, Peter,” Neal tells him, quiet but serious, meeting Peter’s eyes. “I assumed you looked me up in the Bureau’s computers the very next day, saw that I hadn’t been active for years and…” He shrugs. “I guess I thought you—didn’t mind. That you believed me when I said I was retired.”

“I thought you were joking,” Peter admits – all the anger has drained out of him. “And you didn’t exactly discourage me from thinking that,” he points out. “But it’s not your fault that I didn’t… take that with a grain of salt. Or a grain of healthy suspicion.”

“You’re a trusting soul,” Neal says, fondly. “And I would never—Peter, you have to believe me, I would never take advantage of that. Of you.”

“Promise me.”

“You’d believe me?”

“Yes, I—I trust your word is good. I do. So—promise me that what I see is what I get with you, Neal, promise me you don’t have an ulterior motive.”

Carefully, Neal says, with great precision, “I promise that I do not now and never have had any thoughts of using or abusing your position in the Bureau for my personal gain. I like you, Peter. I always have. You’re—you’re the best friend I have. Probably… the best friend I’ve ever had.”

“Okay,” says Peter, taking a deep breath. “Okay.”

After a pause, “You, uh, too,” Peter adds, awkwardly.

*

“Well, first he smashed my hands with a baseball bat – then he dumped alcohol on them and set them on fire.” At the look on Peter’s face, Neal smiles wryly. “I know, they look bad – but when you think of what he did to me, you realize what an amazing recovery I made. The doctors did a good job… an exceptional job. And the physical therapists,” he adds.

“Physical therapy – that must have been excruciating.”

“It wasn’t so bad.”

Peter finds that hard to believe, and his face must show it, because Neal huffs out a breath and says, “Really. It wasn’t. What was bad was… when it was over. When they’d told me I was as good as I was ever going to get, and I still couldn’t—”

Neal breaks off, and gives Peter a smile tinged with irony. “You don’t want to hear this part.”

But Peter’s not stupid, and he knows how men like Neal – men like Neal before, he reminds himself – make their living. “You couldn’t… pick pockets,” Peter guesses. “Couldn’t lift security passes or IDs. Couldn’t palm cards or jewelry, couldn’t—couldn’t blend in with a crowd, not with scars like that. Couldn’t do detail work, so… couldn’t forge bonds or fake IDs, couldn’t pick locks, couldn’t—”

“—paint,” Neal says, in a voice pulled as tight and heavy as canvas, and Peter’s eyes go to the picture of Kate up on the wall as he remembers how he’d known right away, the first time he saw it, how much the man who painted it must have loved her – remembers how even his own amateur self could read the love in every brushstroke.

“I’m sorry,” Peter says, and it’s so, so not nearly enough.

Neal raises an eyebrow. “That I had to abandon my life of—alleged—crime?”

*

“So this painting is yours,” Peter says, nodding at the painting of Kate on the wall. “Did you ever paint anything else of your own? Or was it all forgeries?”

“No, I—I used to paint quite a few original pieces. Well...” Neal amends, “Original might not be the right word.”

“Neal...”

“As a dry run before an—alleged—forgery, I liked to do an original piece in that painter’s style.” Neal’s hands are shoved deep in his pockets, and Peter thinks, with a sharp pang, that if he held Neal’s hands in his own right now, they’d be shaking.

“I’m surprised you don’t have them out,” Peter remarks. “I’d like to see them.”

Neal smiles – not much, just a little shadow of a smile. “Thank you. But I—I don’t have them anymore.”

“They’re in storage?”

“I burned them,” Neal says, and Peter takes a stumbling step backward, as shocked as if Neal had struck him.

“Neal...” he starts, helplessly, but thinking back over what he knows about Neal Caffrey and all his aliases, Peter stops. “I don’t believe that. You signed your own forgeries—

“And what does that tell you?”

“That you’re... that you’re proud of your work, that you love it—”

“That I’m vain, you mean.”

“That’s not what I said—”

“Well, I am,” Neal says, in a tone of blithe unconcern. “Very vain. As vices go, I think it’s mostly harmless. But I’m more than the sum of my vices, Peter. And I didn’t—“ Neal swallows, looks away. “I didn’t want the reminder.”

*

“Neal isn’t here,” Aminata says, “but he said to tell you to go right up.”

Peter frowns. “He said he’d meet me at 7:30, and it’s 7:30.”

Aminata shrugs. “Well, he’s not here – I don’t know where he went. Maybe he’ll be back soon?”

“Maybe,” Peter agrees. He heads up the stairs, and when he opens the door to Neal’s apartment, he stops, struck.

Every flat surface in the apartment is covered with paintings – some are on the floor, leaning against a wall; there are a couple on the kitchen counters; even one on the stove. On the floorboards just in front of Peter’s feet, there’s an unsigned note that says simply, I realized that that was the first time I’d lied to you, and I know I promised not to do that. Please put them in the crawlspace behind the kitchenette when you’re done. I’ll have them sent back to storage after you leave.

*

Peter steps into the shop and Surge, behind the counter, gives him a friendly wave. “Hey, Peter – boss’s done for the day, he’s upstairs. Want me to let you through?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Peter replies. “Was it a good day?” he asks, as Surge beckons him around the counter and then leads him back into the kitchen.

Surge grins, and points to a handmade sign on one of the ovens that reads, “DO NOT USE – POSSESSED BY DEMONS.”

“I honestly don’t know if that’s a yes or a no,” Peter mutters, and Surge laughs.

“We had a quiche explode at lunch.”

“Is that… normal?”

“Nope,” Surge says cheerfully, snagging the keys from a rack on the wall and stopping in front of the door to the stairwell. “Aminata and I laughed our asses off, but the boss took it kind of personally. He thinks it’s the oven.”

“And what do you think?” Peter asks, hand on the doorknob.

“I think shit happens, man,” Surge declares, rolling his eyes. “And also, I think that was my favorite oven. So, you know, if you can get him to cool down, I’d appreciate it. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Peter promises, throwing one last amused look back at the “possessed” oven.

As soon as the stairwell door closes, shutting out the hum of the kitchen equipment, Peter’s ears catch a hint of music drifting down the stairs – he takes a few steps upward, and the sound gets stronger. It’s something classical, slow, and in three; not Quando men vo again, but more dancelike.

Peter follows the music up the stairs and finds the door of Neal’s apartment ajar. He gently pushes it open, and steps through as silently as he can – he’s sort of hoping to catch Neal singing again.

Well, he catches Neal, all right – but not singing. The table has been pushed up to the wall to clear some space on the floor, and in the place where the table used to be, Neal is waltzing with a short, dark-haired woman. His hands are sure but careful, one on her waist, one clasped in her own hand—

She’s touching his bare hand, Peter thinks, and the thought is so breathtakingly intimate that, for a moment, he feels like he’s walked in on the two of them making love.

Then Neal deftly turns to the music, and Peter can see the woman’s face – it’s the woman in the painting, thinks Peter. It’s strange, because Peter knows Kate Moreau’s name, knows her rap sheet, her aliases… but she doesn’t look like the tense, hard woman in the security camera footage and blurry photographs. This woman, the woman leaning into Neal’s touch with a smile like a candle flame, soft and bright – this is the woman in Neal’s painting.

Peter stands, frozen, not sure what to do, and the song ends.

Kate and Neal stop dancing, but don’t step away from each other. Instead, they both close their eyes and stand, leaning on each other, hands still clasped. Neal is short, but Kate’s shorter – when Neal kisses her forehead like a benediction, he doesn’t have to look up at all.

“I miss you,” Kate says, opening her eyes and running a wistful finger down Neal’s jaw.

“Same here,” Neal replies. He’s speaking so quietly that Peter can barely hear him.

Kate shakes her head and tries to grin – it falters a little, flickers. “It’s your fault, you know,” she tells Neal. “You taught me about this life. You taught me to love it. And I do, Neal – I love it.”

Neal looks down and to the side, like a normal person would look if they were telling a lie. With Neal, Peter’s learned it almost always means he’s telling the truth. “More than me.” His voice is still very soft.

Kate bites her lip, and waits until he meets her eyes to say, “Yes. More than you. And I’m sorry that that hurts you, but is it wrong?” She cups a hand around Neal’s cheek. “I can’t live for somebody else, Neal. And I know you’re about to say that you can, but that’s not true.” She waves a hand that encompasses the apartment, the shop downstairs, the whole city of New York. “If you really lived for me, you’d have given this up and found a way to stay in the game somehow, like I wanted you to. But you didn’t—” Neal starts to interrupt, but Kate puts her finger up to his lips and says urgently, “You didn’t, and Neal, I’m glad, all right? I’m glad. Because this is you. Cupcakes and kindergarteners and—and it’s not me. I have to live for myself, Neal. So I’ve moved on. And you should, too.”

Neal stands still for a long moment – he’s not looking at Kate, though. Peter can see his eyes are on the portrait.

Kate steps away, just a few inches, and says in a voice that’s trying to be kind, “Don’t you think it’s time to take that down, Neal?”

Neal’s head whips back to look at Kate, and his eyes are wide with shock and hurt—but something that he sees in Kate’s face, the real Kate’s face, makes the hurt drain from his face, leaving behind the ghost of a smile.

“Maybe,” he admits, and even Peter can see that that one word lifts an invisible weight off of his shoulders. “What would I do with it?” He gestures helplessly at the painting with his right arm.

An impish light comes into Kate’s eyes, and her lips curl up at the corners as she suggests, “Give it to me.”

Neal raises an eyebrow. “Really? You want it?”

“It’s a very flattering portrait,” she points out, with a magnetically charming grin – Peter wonders whether she was the one who learned it from Neal, or the other way around.

“The artist loved you a lot,” Neal says, still a little sadly, but without the corrosive wash of regret that Peter remembers from their conversations about the painting before.

“Yes,” Kate agrees, soft and serious again. “And I loved him, too.”

Kate’s eyes lock with Neal’s, and something passes between them in that quiet, charged space – something Peter knows better than to try and decipher.

Neal taps Kate on the tip of her nose, breaking the moment, and concedes, “All right. It’s yours. Where are you headed next? I can send it to you th—”

Kate backs away, holding up her hands. “I don’t think I should say.”

“Why not?” Neal asks, brows drawing down, concerned. “Kate, you know you can trust me—”

“You? Always,” Kate assures him, like it’s a granted fact. “Green-eyed jealousy in the corner over there, though… not so much,” she concludes, and Peter starts when she suddenly turns her bright blue eyes on him.

Neal’s eyes follow Kate’s, and he startles when he sees Peter there. “Peter,” he starts, nervously, and Peter knows he’s thinking of their conversation from earlier, the promise he’d given Peter, and how bad this looks.

Peter ignores Neal’s pleading look and faces Kate instead. “I think I could give you… a 24-hour head start,” he allows – Kate’s eyes light up with amusement, and she flutters her eyelashes as she asks, “You’d do that? For me, Agent Burke?”

“Well,” Peter says. He’s not entirely sure he knows his own motivations but he’ll be damned if he’ll admit that to her, so instead he tells Kate, “It’s the least I can do for a friend of a friend.”

Kate’s eyebrows shoot up, and she blinks for a long moment. “A… friend,” she says slowly. “Of a…” Kate waits for an even more significant pause, her pink lips parted. “…friend.”.

“Yeah,” Peter says, confused – Kate turns her whole body to give Neal a look that Peter can’t interpret.

“Well,” she says after a moment, “at least I know I’m not leaving you here to be bored.”

“No,” Neal admits, with a rueful look that seems, for some reason, to be aimed at Peter. “Never bored.”

“Send it to me in Paris,” Kate tells Neal, with a grin and a nod at the painting. “You know the address. I’ll pick it up when I’m there next.” Then she turns and winks at Peter. “Very nice to meet you, Agent Burke. Somehow I get the feeling we’ll be seeing each other again.”

“Oh, we will,” Peter promises.

“Not for a while, though,” Kate informs him, then dashes over to the window over the street, pulls it open, blows a kiss to Neal, and jumps out.

Peter rushes over to the open window—This is the second story! he thinks, alarmed—but instead of the carnage he was half-expecting, Peter sees Kate land neatly on the cupcake shop’s awning, slide down to the sidewalk, and jog away without a scratch.

“I—did you know you could do that?” Peter asks, half-impressed, half-annoyed – Neal’s lips twitch suspiciously.

“No idea,” he says, not doing a very good job at all of looking innocent. “Wow. Imagine that. What a weird yet convenient architectural arrangement!”

Peter presses his lips together and glares at Neal for a long minute until it suddenly strikes him, and he groans.

“The Greatest Cake,” Peter moans to himself.

“The Greatest Cake,” Neal agrees, nodding, not even having the decency to look ashamed of himself.

“I need a beer,” Peter mutters, and makes a beeline for the refrigerator. Once he has his beer in hand and has taken the first cold, crisp mouthful, he looks up to see Neal standing in front of the portrait on the wall, studying it carefully. Peter walks over to join him.

“Are you really going to take it down?”

Neal nods, slowly, never taking his eyes off of the painting, and says, “Yeah. Yes, I am. It’s time.”

“Why now?” Peter asks, studying Neal’s face for clues, and he blushes, caught, when Neal suddenly turns to look back at him, studying Peter’s face in return. Whatever he sees

“Because you’re here.”

“What?”

“You can help me take it down and package it up for shipping.”

“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”

*

“Peter, what’s wrong?”

“My—my mom,” Peter says, looking down at the band of his watch, which is fraying a little. “Today wasn’t… a good day.”

Neal pulls out a chair and sits down, watching Peter but staying silent for a moment. “You always go to visit her on Saturday?” he asks, and Peter nods.

“I think… I think she might be getting worse,” Peter confesses, so quietly that he almost doesn’t expect Neal to hear him. “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. She always has bad days and good days. But this one seemed really bad.”

“I’m so sorry,” Neal murmurs, and his fingers clench, like there’s something he wants to do with his hands, but can’t.

Peter rubs a hand up and down his face, wishing he felt tired or angry or sad or anything but this scared little empty space inside his chest. Quietly, he asks, “Have you ever… lost something, and—and known you’ve lost it, known it’s gone, in your head, but somewhere else, some part of you still believed that it might… get better? And you keep hoping, so every time something happens and the bubble pops and you find out you were wrong, it’s really gone, then it’s like the first time – worse, maybe, because—”

Peter stops, and takes a deep breath, then another, trying to get himself under control. He’s afraid if he looks up at Neal, it’ll all go to pieces, but then Neal whispers, “Yes,” and Peter’s eyes flicker up – Neal’s looking out the window at the people passing by on the street, and at first Peter can’t figure out what he’s talking about. Then he notices that the table is empty, Neal’s hands hidden somewhere below, and Peter realizes what he said, and feels like the stupidest jerk in the world.

“Neal…” Peter’s voice cracks, and he tries again. “Neal, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”

Neal turns back to face him, and turns on his trademark smile. If Peter didn’t know him so well, he’d almost believe it was real.

“You know what this calls for?”

“Let me guess,” Peter snorts. “Cupcakes.”

*

“It’s, uh, a camera,” Peter tells Neal, and then blushes because, obviously. “Uh, it’s called a Rebel. I thought you might like that. It’s got a digital… reflex… lens—okay, look, I don’t know anything about cameras, but the guys down in evidence tech said this was the nicest one you could get for less than a grand.”

“Not much less—Peter, these are really expensive!” Neal protests, holding the camera out at arm’s length. “I can’t accept this, it’s too much.”

“When you let me see the paintings… they were really good. Beautiful. You’ve got an amazing eye for color, and composition, and I thought—you don’t have to lose those things just because you can’t paint anymore. You can still be an artist. You can still make beautiful pictures.”

Peter can’t read the way that Neal is looking at him, sharp and intense, and the bottom drops out of his stomach – I really screwed the pooch on this one, he thinks, frantically, Geez, Burke, how insensitive can you be – reminding him that he’ll never paint again, giving him this piece of junk like that’s the same, it’s not the same, it’s not at all the same—

“I know it’s not the same,” Peter stammers, reaching for the camera. “God, Neal, I’m sorry – I’ll take it back, I’ll get you something better, this was stupid—”

But Neal pulls the camera back toward himself as Peter reaches for it, and he shakes his head, saying, “No, Peter, it’s—“ Neal stops, takes a shaky breath, and smiles. “It’s perfect, Peter. Thank you.”

“You don’t have to say that—”

“Peter.” Neal gives him a disappointed look – his hands are still carefully cradling the camera. “I don’t lie to you, Peter. I thought you knew that by now.”

Peter looks down, pleased and shame-faced at once, and mumbles, “Well. I’m glad.”

He takes another long sip from his champagne glass, and when he looks up and sees the expression of wily mischief darting in Neal’s eyes, he groans.

“Oh, what now?”

“I can’t wait to try out my new camera,” Neal starts, wearing a completely unconvincing expression of dewy-eyed innocence. “But who could I possibly take a picture of?”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. There’s a mirror right over there,” Peter says, pointing with his whole arm, frantically. “You can do a self-portrait – you can do twenty self-portraits, you’ll be a modern Rembrandt, okay—”

“I don’t think so,” Neal replies, grinning. “Self-portraits were never my style.”

“You signed your own forgeries—

“Alleged! And anyway, that’s different.”

Peter raises an eyebrow.

“Come on, Peter,” Neal cajoles, holding up the camera, “smile for me. Please?”

“No way.”

“Please?”

“No.”

Please?

“Neal…” says Peter, which, as they both know, is as good as a “yes.”

*

 

“Do you have a New Year’s resolution?” Peter asks.

“To stop—”

“What?” Neal doesn’t say anything – Peter can see a muscle in his jaw clench and unclench. “To stop what, Neal?”

“Nothing,” Neal tries.

Neal.” Neal grimaces but still doesn’t say anything. “Neal,” Peter says quietly. “We’re friends. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

Neal turns to look Peter in the eye, and as he does, Peter can see the tense lines of his shoulders wash away – there’s something rueful and forgiving in the way he’s looking at Peter, something Peter doesn’t understand, but is grateful for anyway.

“I was going to say, ‘to stop wasting time on—on things that are never going to happen.’ But it’s not a waste. It’s good. Just because something isn’t what you want it to be, that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. This is a good thing… really good. Just the way it is.”

“I… don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peter admits, and Neal laughs.

“I know,” he says, fondly. “That’s kind of the point.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Just a little.”

“Well, I may not know what you’re talking about, but I don’t think you should just—give up on this thing you want, whatever it is. On it being… what you want it to be, I guess, instead of just what it is, even if that’s good. Okay, none of that even made sense when it was you saying it, and I don’t even know what is going on, but—“

“But?” Neal prompts.

“But—I can’t imagine, uh—” Peter’s suddenly tongue-tied, unequal to the way Neal’s watching him, like Peter’s stumbling around actually means something to him, like he thinks Peter might actually have some kind of answer when he doesn’t even know what the question was in the first place. Peter collects as much of his sense as he can, and tells Neal the truth. “I can’t imagine you ever having to give up on something that you want somebody to give you. Because I—I can’t imagine anybody saying no to you, when it’s something you really want. You can just do that… thing you do with the smile and the cupcakes and the—” Peter waves his hands indistinctly, “being a good person and good-looking and smart, and I think—well, somebody would have to be crazy to—to hurt you like that.”

Neal hooks his elbow over the top of the couch and stares at Peter like he’s trying to figure out how the wheels in Peter’s machinery spin, and Peter’s about to mumble something about having had too much champagne when Neal grins like quicksilver, and repeats, “Good-looking?”

“Oh, shut up,” Peter mumbles, “you know you are.”

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not so hopeless after all.”

Peter nods stoutly. “That’s the spirit.”

“The New Year’s spirit?”

“The Neal Caffrey spirit.”

“I like the sound of that,” Neal says, smiling.

“I thought you would.”

“…is that how you really think it’ll work? I just keep being charming and eventually I’ll get what I want?”

“Seems to have worked out for you so far.”

“Huh.”

*

"If I were a good man," Neal explains, kneeling on the floor to untie Peter's shoes and slip them off, "I'd be sleeping on the couch over there."

Neal pulls down the covers and the bed and gently prods Peter's torso down and his legs up onto the bed until he's lying flat on the bed, blinking up at Neal.

"And if I were a bad man..." Neal's voice is low and dark, and he's somehow gotten very close to Peter without Peter noticing, and his breath is warm and close on Peter's lips, and Peter can't look away, wanting something but not knowing what, his head spinning and Neal's hand coming to rest just an inch away from Peter's jaw—

“Well."  Neal's voice is brisk.  He straightens up, and pokes Peter in the ribs until Peter scoots over, whining.  Gracefully, he slips into the bed and pulls the covers up over both of them.

“If you were a bad man what?" Peter asks, curious.

Neal says very sensibly, "If I were a bad man, then we wouldn't be friends.”

While Peter nods, impressed at the profundity of that statement, Neal slides closer to Peter, and rests his head on Peter's shoulder.  His hair tickles Peter's chin.  Something about this seems unusual to Peter, so he frowns, and asks, "What are you doing?"

"Staying warm," Neal replies, and Peter immediately recognizes the truth in that - after all, Peter's own left side is much, much warmer where the long line of Neal's body is touching him.

Peter says, "Okay," and turns his body a little bit toward Neal's, to soak up more heat.

Some time passes – it's dark, and Peter's watch is trapped somewhere between his thigh and Neal's, and Peter is starting to feel like maybe Neal's right about the champagne thing.  Not that Peter is drunk – he's just slightly fuzzy.  About time.  And other things.  Maybe.

"Hey, Neal?"
"What?" Neal mumbles into Peter's sternum.
"I think you're a good man."

"Mozzie would probably say I'm chaotic good," Neal says, which, like a lot of things Neal has said tonight, does not make a lot of sense to Peter.  He frowns, and picks up a hand to poke Neal in the shoulder.

"Ow!  Peter, I'm trying to sleep!"

"I think you're good good," Peter objects, and he can feel Neal's laughter vibrating through his own ribs.

"We'll see what you think tomorrow morning.  But I appreciate the vote of confidence. Can I please sleep now, Peter?”

Peter supposes that's okay, and says so.

*

When Neal sees the crime scene photos, he freezes, so openly and blatantly that Peter doesn’t even have to be paying attention to see it.

“What is it?” Peter asks, frowning – Neal looks up at him and quickly pastes on a false blank face.

“I think you should let this one go, Peter.”

Peter stares – now it’s his turn to be shocked. “Let this one go? Neal, this kid was beaten to within an inch of his life, and his mother is still in the ICU! And that’s before we get to the actual, you know, felony theft of a six million dollar necklace!”

Neal won’t meet his eyes – he stands up and grabs a paper towel, starting to scrub the already-pristine countertop. “I just think… the trail’s too cold,” he tries, and it doesn’t even sound like he’s convincing himself. “The physical evidence just isn’t there, and the mom probably won’t remember anything—”

“Yeah, because she was beaten to a pulp!” Peter walks over to Neal and stands in his space until Neal looks up and meets his eyes, looking frustrated.

“Peter—”

“What’s going on here, Neal?” Peter asks, voice low, holding Neal’s gaze.

Peter can tell from the way Neal breathes in, quick and shallow, that he’s about to tell the truth.

“I don’t want you anywhere around this guy,” Neal says quietly, crumpling up the paper towel in his hands into an ever-smaller ball. “I don’t want you attracting his attention. Peter, this guy is dangerous,” he continues, voice rising.

Peter gives him a disbelieving look and raises his own voice. “Neal, I am a federal agent—”

“I know you can take care of yourself, but this guy is different, okay, he’s ruthless—”

“—I know what I’m doing, Neal, I’m not some kind of—”

“He’s a killer!” Neal bursts out, half-shouting, something like desperation in his eyes. “He’s a killer, Peter. And he likes to play with his food before he eats it,” he adds bitterly, walking away toward the window. When Peter follows, he tries to track the line of Neal’s sight, figure out what he’s looking at – but Neal’s eyes are fixed in the middle distance. Whatever he’s looking at, Peter figures, it’s not anything in the here and now.

Carefully, slowly as he’d approach a skittish horse, Peter rests a hand on Neal’s shoulder. When Neal doesn’t shrug it off, Peter takes a slow breath and says, “It’s him, isn’t it – the guy who broke your hands.”

“Yes,” Neal whispers, still far-off and lost. “Can’t you see, now? Why I don’t want you to…”

“Who should it be instead?” Peter asks, as gently as he can. “You want Hughes to put Judy on the case? Judy with her three kids? Or maybe you want this guy taking on Narayanan, who’s a hell of an agent, but can’t shoot worth a damn?”

“What if I said I didn’t care?” Neal’s voice is as smooth and unforgiving as a mirror, and his face is empty. “What if I said all I cared about was that it wasn’t you, that you would be safe?”

“Then I’d know you were a liar,” Peter says, without a second of doubt, wearing his faith plain on his face.

Neal watches him, and something scraped raw but resigned passes through his eyes, leaving behind the ghost of a smile. “Well. You already knew that,” Neal says, almost lightly, and Peter knows he’s won.

“I guess I did,” Peter teases back, and the smile spreads from Neal’s eyes to the corners of his mouth, for just a second. Then Neal is suddenly in motion, whirling around the apartment, picking up papers and objects and piling them up in stacks on the kitchen table – a small mountain of ballpoint pens in one corner, what looks like a collection of jewel provenance papers balanced on the far edge, a book on art history shoved between a Ziploc bag full of passports and a rolled-up newspaper.

“Neal?” Peter asks patiently. “What are you doing?”

“If you’re going to take on Keller, you’re not going in unarmed,” Neal tells him, pulling out a chair and gesturing for Peter to sit down. “Keller is a chess player – he’s always 10 or 12 moves ahead, but sometimes all it takes to catch even the best chess player is knowing all the moves he’s made before.”

*

On the other side of the file cabinets, Peter hears Lena say, “Oh, are you ever barking up the wrong tree there, sister.”

“What? Why? He has a girlfriend?” It’s a voice he’s heard around the office, but he doesn’t know who she is.

“Boyfriend.”

Peter is confused. Who has a boyfriend? Peter doesn’t know of any gay men on their floor, but he’s not the most perceptive about this stuff, he’ll admit.

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

“Way out of his league, too.”

“Yeah, don’t get any ideas there – his boyfriend is prettier than you and me combined, and he can cook.”

“He comes by the office to bring Burke cupcakes. It’s obscene. If he were a woman, it would make me sad for feminism. Since he’s a man, I… I actually don’t really know what to think.”

“Mmm… I know what I think.”

“Yeah?”

“I think Burke must be amazing in the sack, that’s what I think—”

“You’re bad!”

“His boyfriend is hot, okay, and rich, too, from his clothes. Burke’s not bad to look at either, but this guy is…”

There’s ten seconds of silence while Peter’s brain fills up with all the gestures Lena might be making.

“—so I’m just saying, for him to stick around, Burke has got to be—”

Peter can’t take it anymore. He slams file cabinet loudly and waits for the voices on the other side to scatter, then leans back against the wall like his legs just won’t hold him up anymore.

*

Hughes’s mouth is set in a tight line as he slides something across his desk in Peter’s direction. They’re photos – black and white, slightly fuzzy – and every single one is of Peter and Neal. Peter and Neal sitting across from each other at The Greatest Cake. Peter and Neal at the opera. Peter and Neal sitting in the park, eating lunch. And on every single one, there’s a big black circle drawn around Neal’s face, and the scrawled words “James Bonds.”

“You want to explain this?”

“That’s Neal Caffrey.”

“I know that’s Neal Caffrey. What I don’t know is why he’s been in and out of our office and apparently in regular contact with you if you knew.”

“He’s a friend, sir—”

“He’s a felon—”

“Alleged—”

“Oh, cut the crap, Burke. If you had any idea how bad this looks—”

“He’s retired – he’s been retired for years, out of the game. He’s been helping me, sir! The pump-and-dump scheme, the Michaletz forgeries, the tapestry smugglers—”

“Then why isn’t he a registered CI, Burke? If he’s such a goddamn model citizen, why hasn’t he come into the light of day, signed the papers, shown his damn face under his real name, instead of skulking in and out of the office, suborning one of my agents—”

And Peter is dumbstruck, because it never even occurred to him to try to make Neal a CI, to expose Neal to the danger of arrest, and men like Keller, and crimes from a life he’s left behind—

But he can’t say any of that to Hughes – “he’s my friend” is not a defense against blowing apart Bureau policy, keeping secrets like this, and Peter actually does know exactly how bad it looks. Peter is staring dumbly at Hughes like a landed fish gasping for air—and it comes to him, the way the obvious answer sometimes does, in a soft snap like a jigsaw puzzle piece fitting perfectly into place.

“Because I’m sleeping with him, sir,” Peter says, calmly. For a minute, he’s stunningly grateful to those women behind the filing cabinets, because on his own, he’d never have thought of this. “Seeing him, I mean. Romantically.”

“You’re… seeing him.”

“Yes, sir. And Bureau regulations state that a romantic relationship between a CI and an agent invalidates the CI relationship – since the romantic relationship came first, it would have been inappropriate—”

“And what if I said you had to choose?”

“What? Sir, I don’t—”

“I don’t believe for a minute that you’re keeping Caffrey out of our hands because you just have such a hard-on for procedure – even if I didn’t know by now that you’re not that kind of man, the fact that you started sleeping with the guy in the first place would blow that one right out of the water. You wanted to protect Caffrey, probably from prosecution – you put your feelings for him above your duty to the Bureau. And if you’ll do it once, you’ll do it over and over again. So you’ve got to choose, right now, Burke – which is it going to be?”

Peter is paralyzed – every breath hurts, because this is his dream, and he finally feels like he belongs here, more than he’s ever belonged anywhere in his life. He fought so hard for that badge, and the thought of giving it up, setting it down on Hughes’ desk and leaving for a life of empty paper-pushing all to help rich men get richer instead of helping people and saving lives—but even though he didn’t know it until this minute, Neal, Neal, Neal who heals toy horses and sings La Boheme over brownie batter and tries to pretend he doesn’t care if people see his gnarled hands—

Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door, and Peter turns just in time to see Neal himself poke his head into Hughes’ office, wearing a proud grin. “I think you’ll really like these, Agent Hughes,” he says, producing a cupcake tray from behind his back with a flourish. “My own invention, of course – I call them ‘Mints Rea.’”

Hughes raises an eyebrow as Peter watches the two of them, helpless to say a word.

Guilty mind,” Hughes translates, keeping his eyes trained on Neal closely. “An essential element of most of the crimes we prosecute – you’re not guilty unless you act in bad faith, or with bad intentions.” A thoughtful, considering look settles around Hughes’ eyes, and he says to Neal, “Sure. I’ll try one.”

Neal beams and walks up to the desk, depositing a cupcake in Hughes’ outstretched hand. It has, Peter notices desperately, a mint leaf on it, cut in half and trimmed at the edges. It’s vaguely the shape of a brain. Peter can’t fool himself that that’s accidental.

Hughes takes a slow bite, and chews deliberately.

“It’s very good,” he allows, still ignoring Peter. “Most of the things you bring are. You make them yourself?” Hughes’ eyes narrow as he asks the question, but Neal seems oblivious to the tension in the room.

“Always,” he says with visible pride.

“You run your own business, and you do your own baking,” Hughes says, tilting his head. “Sounds like you must be a busy guy. Not a lot of time for other… pursuits.”

Neal’s brows twitch together, and now he looks a little confused. “You mean, like… hobbies?”

“I mean, like second jobs,” Hughes clarifies, and Peter starts to think he might know what Hughes is driving at.

“No,” Neal assures Hughes, with a puzzled tone. “I’m a full time baker and small business owner, and that’s more than enough work for anybody, believe me.”

“Well,” Hughes says, suddenly brisk and dismissive, “we do appreciate your talents. You should feel free to keep bringing the Bureau treats… and whatever other… tidbits might come along,” Hughes finishes significantly, staring heavily at Peter.

Neal’s eyes shoot up toward his hairline, and he gives Peter a look like has your boss been replaced by an alien? But he just says, graciously, “It’s always my pleasure. Your team does important work, and I’m happy to help any way I can.”

“Apparently,” says Hughes, impassive.

Neal smiles uncertainly at Hughes and then at Peter, and says, “Okay.” As he passes Peter on his way out the door, he mouths, “That was strange.”

Peter nods, jerkily, desperately trying to figure out what just happened.

As soon as the door closes behind Neal, Hughes sighs, and leans back in his chair. “If I get one hint that Caffrey is back up to his old tricks, or is anything other than exactly what he seems: a reformed con, upstanding small business owner, and, God help me, FBI agent’s boyfriend, I’ll have him up on charges—and you turned in to OPR—so fast your head will spin.”

“Y-yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Peter stammers, pulling his hands together behind his back and trying to wrap his head around what he’s just heard.

Hughes rolls his eyes and raises a hand to rub at his temples like Peter’s given him a headache. “I have to admit, there’s a tiny part of me that’s relieved to find out that you’re a stupid, fallible human being like the rest of us. We’ve all done idiotic things for love, Burke. Just try to keep the stupidity limited to this one thing, and I’ll make my peace with it.”

For love, Peter thinks, feeling very stupid indeed. “Yes, sir.”

Peter walks around in a numb haze of combined relief and dread for the rest of the day – he gets nothing done on any of his cases and spends the whole afternoon almost running into doorframes. As soon as the clock on his computer screen says 5:00, he stumbles out of the office and onto the subway. When he opens the door of The Greatest Cake, Aminata takes one look at him and says, “Upstairs.” By the look on her face, Peter looks about as sandblasted as he feels.

*

Up in his apartment, Neal is sitting at the table, poring over what look like invoices. When he sees Peter come in, he looks up with a smile and stands to meet Peter at the door. Peter doesn’t even think twice, doesn’t even pause – he reaches out and wraps his arms around Neal, pulling Neal close and holding him as tightly as he can manage, taking deep breaths and trying not to notice how his own knees are shaking.

“Peter? Peter, is everything all right?”

And what Peter wants to say is “I’m in love with you,” but what comes out instead is “I told my boss I’m sleeping with you.”

He’s so buzzed with the adrenaline rush/crash cycle today that he barely feels in control of his own mouth.

“What—Why did you do that? Why would you do that?”

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Peter babbles.

“You don’t have to be sorry, Peter, I just want to—”

“It’s because the women at work said I must be really good in bed,” Peter says helplessly, willing Neal to understand – clearly, it doesn’t work, because Neal is giving him a careful, worried look and saying, “Are you… feeling alright, Peter? Because you’re not making any sense—”

Peter takes a deep breath, and tries to start at the beginning. “My parting gift, from Keller. It was pictures – photos. Photos of you and me. He sent them to Hughes, with your face circled and ‘James Bonds’ written on them.”

Neal’s face goes white again. “Shit.”

Peter explains the conversation he had with Hughes – he’s still so shell-shocked that he recites the whole thing nearly word-for-word. When he gets to the end, he looks at the floor and says, “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have told him that we were—I mean, it’s not true. So.” I wanted it to be true, Peter thinks, but doesn’t have the courage to say.

Neal is silent for a long minute. Then, his voice breaking, he says, “You protected me. You—you chose me, over your job, or you were going to. You told your boss that we were in love – your boss, who knew I was a felon, who knew I was a con job... Peter.” He repeats Peter’s name, insistent, until Peter looks up and meets his eyes. “Peter...” Neal sounds honestly bewildered. “Why would you do that?”

“I wanted it to be true,” Peter says, out loud this time, and, daring to hope, he adds quietly, “You have my picture up on the wall.” He’s just noticed – in the empty space on the wall where Kate’s portrait used to hang, Neal has put one of his photographs of Peter, and he doesn’t know what it means, but he thinks it must mean something.

“I’ve had your picture up on the wall for a long time, Peter,” Neal says gently, and when Peter starts to protest that he’s never seen it there before, Neal holds up a hand and presses it softly to Peter’s mouth, hushing him. “Literally, I may just have put it up yesterday. But in the larger sense—in the larger sense, Peter, your picture was up on that wall even before Kate’s came down.”

“Which is all a very roundabout way of saying – I want it to be true, too,” Neal confesses, with a self-deprecating dip of his chin. “I’ve wanted it to be true for… a long time.”

“We could… we could make it true,” Peter whispers – Neal’s eyes widen in surprise, and Peter blushes and apologizes hurriedly. “Sorry, sorry—I know that’s… too forward, moving too fast, I shouldn’t have—”

“Considering we’ve been dating for almost six months, I think the only way this could be too fast is if you were saving yourself for marriage,” Neal says dryly.

Peter rewinds what Neal just said, and frowns. “We haven’t been dating for six months. We haven’t been dating at all, I only just realized today that I—”

Neal blinks. “Peter, I dumped a gallon of freezing cold water all over a perfectly good eighteen-hundred dollar sofa, ruining it forever, so that we could cuddle. That was a very nice sofa, Peter. I liked that sofa.”

“I’m sorry,” Peter says on autopilot. “It was a nice sofa.” Then, “Wait, what?”

Neal takes a deep breath. “Peter,” he says. “There are some facts you should probably know.”

“Like?”

“The shop was never open late on a probationary basis.”

“Oh.”

“That was an excuse so that you would come over at night.”

“Oh.”

“Also, I know how to make a pot roast. I learned when I was a kid.”

“Oh.”

“That was an excuse to go over to your apartment.”

“I’m sort of starting to get that.”

Neal’s eyebrows float upward. “You can understand,” he says, “how I might not entirely believe that. Based on past evidence.”

Peter flushes, and he can feel Neal’s laughter warm against his cheek.

“Boy,” Neal says, smirking a little, “it’s a good thing I really was out of the game when we met, because if I’d been in, you would never have caught me.”

“I would so,” Peter replies, stubbornly.

“Oh yeah?” Neal’s eyes spark with challenge, and in less than a second, Peter’s got him up against the wall, one hand around each wrist, Neal’s breath catching in his throat loud enough for Peter to hear.

“Oh, yeah,” Peter growls, keeping Neal pinned as he leans in for a hungry kiss. He’s not prepared for the way Neal melts in his grasp, his body going loose and pliant, a moan escaping into their joined mouths – it makes something in Peter’s gut heat like glowing coals.

“Okay,” Neal concedes, a little out of breath. “Maybe. If I let you.”

Peter huffs out a laugh at Neal’s stubbornness. “And would you? Let me?”

Neal cocks his head for a minute then grins. “Nah,” he says, breaking Peter’s hold on his wrists with a smooth twist. “You wouldn’t respect me if I were easy.” He darts away toward the bed, pausing to pose with his hands in his pockets, his head at an insolent angle.

*

“And what is this about your co-workers talking about your…” Neal pauses, clearly searching for a delicate phrase. “Your, ah, bedroom skills? Did I hear that right?”

“The women at work think I must be really good in bed,” Peter blurts out. “Because they don’t know why you’d stick around, otherwise.”

“Then they’re stupid.”

Peter tries to decide whether or not to be offended by that statement, and feels himself flushing.

“Not that I think they’re wrong,” Neal says quickly, “I’m sure they’re right. I’m sure you’re fantastic in bed,” and anyone else would sound awkward or insincere, but Neal’s voice is direct and his smile is genuine, and Peter, dazed, mumbles, “Wow, really?”

“I’ve given the matter some thought,” Neal replies, with a dry amusement that Peter would probably be more confused by if he weren’t so busy being knocked on his ass and stammering again, “Wow, really?”

*

“You—you want it faster?”

“No – no, this—ah—this is… perfect, oh, Peter, your hands—”

Peter can’t help it – the noises coming out of Neal’s parted lips are too good, too wrecked and desperate. He covers Neal’s mouth with his own, licking the moans out, feeling Neal shudder under him.

“If you knew,” Neal says, and the words just keep spilling out of him, helplessly, “If you knew, God, Peter – how many times I lay in this bed, and touched myself, and imagined it was you—”

“Fuck, Neal—

“I liked to—right after you would leave – Christ, Peter, the minute you shut the door behind you, sometimes – when I still had your voice in my ears, and your smell—”

 Peter can imagine it, can imagine Neal slumped on the floor, his back against the door, his legs splayed, his head thrown back just like this, gasping.

“You’re killing me, Neal,” he groans.

“After New Year’s, for weeks,” Neal continues, still devouring Peter’s face with his eyes, still pouring out the words like he can’t stop himself, like Peter’s hand is pulling them out of him. “For weeks I would lie here, right here, jacking myself off, slow and sweet, and when I’d get close to coming I’d turn over, face down – it still smelled like you, and I could imagine—oh, Peter, just—just like that – imagine this, the two of us, your hands on me, so good—”

*

“Are you actually turning down a blowjob?” Neal asks, incredulity written all over his face – Peter blushes, and scrambles to explain.

“No, no, I just—I like to hear you, I like—and you wouldn’t be able to talk with, uh—”

“With your cock in my mouth?”

Peter’s eyes roll back in his head and he bucks up against Neal’s thigh, swearing. “My point exactly,” he parries as soon as he recovers. “I mean, you just say these things, and hearing you is—I just, I want to be able to hear you, is that so weird?”

“Tell you what, Peter,” Neal murmurs in his ear. “What if I promise to moan extra loud, just for you? Hmm?”

“I, uh—I would—uh, yes. That would. Be good. I would, uh, like that. A lot.”

*

“You thought I was going to freak out! You thought I was going to have some kind of gay freak-out!” Peter accuses, and Neal looks away but doesn’t deny it.

“Peter, I have customers,” he tries – Peter flicks his eyes over to Aminata, who grins and says, “No, no, boss, I got this – you just keep doing your thing.”

Neal gives her a betrayed look.

“Neal, you know me. It may take me a while to get something – okay, a long while – but once I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

Neal still looks adrift, so Peter throws up his hands, announces, “I’m in love with you, you idiot!” and kisses him, one hand in Neal’s hair, one tangled in his tie.

Peter can hear the catcalls all around him, but he fights the impulse to break the kiss, fights the embarrassment, because this is important, it’s the most important thing—that Neal understand this. Peter doesn’t pull away until he feels Neal begin to smile into the kiss, and even then he doesn’t let go of Neal’s tie.

“And that includes every part of you,” Peter continues, bulldozing through his embarrassment and his surprise at his own daring, “even the parts of you that—I can’t mention in front of your customers under the age of 18, okay?”

Peter hears a small voice from behind him ask, “What is he talking about, Daddy?” and winces, but he doesn’t lose steam.

*

Peter opens the door quietly – if Neal has any sense at all, he’s in bed by now instead of waiting up for Peter—

Oh, Peter thinks at the sight that greets him, giving a little huff of laughter. A little of both, I guess.

Neal is propped up against the headboard, asleep – he’s still in the suit, just like Peter asked, and his laptop is humming away on his lap. His legs are stretched out on top of the blankets, and his shoes are tucked neatly under the corner of the bed. His head is leaning on the top of the headboard in a pose that’s got to be murder for his neck, and one hand is still flat on the laptop’s keyboard, like he was in the middle of answering emails or reading the news when he finally couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore.

As silently as he can, Peter walks over to the bed and picks up Neal’s laptop, setting it on floor a safe distance away. He tried not to jostle Neal too much when he moved it, but when he straightens back up, Neal is blinking at him drowsily, his face young and unguarded.

“I tried to stay up,” he mumbles at Peter. “I kept the suit on for you.”

Peter chuckles, and reaches down to start unbuttoning Neal’s vest. “I know you did. And I appreciate it.”

Neal’s head flops forward so he can look at Peter’s hands working at the buttons. “I thought you wanted a striptease kind of thing,” he remarks, brows furrowed in confusion – Peter has to look away, because a grown man shouldn’t be capable of looking that adorable.

“Another time,” he promises. “Tonight, let’s just get you out of these clothes and into bed.”

“Mmmm, I like the sound of that,” Neal purrs, and slings an arm around Peter’s neck to pull him down for a surprisingly heated kiss. He slides his hands under Peter’s jacket and pushes it off of Peter’s shoulders – Peter, in turn, gets to work on Neal’s shirt buttons, trying to undo them by feel as Neal keeps kissing him, insistent and slick.

Something is itching at the back of Peter’s mind – has been for a little while – and the oddly un-sleepy kiss makes it click—Peter breaks away and narrows his eyes at Neal.

“The screensaver was still going on the laptop. You weren’t asleep at all, you little—you heard me coming and you faked it!”

“I thought you’d like it.”

“I like you, however and whoever you are,” Peter says slowly. “The real you. Got it?”

“Admit it, though… you thought I was adorable.”

“Neal, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but I always think you’re adorable.”

For some reason, that makes Neal slow down, and raise a hand carefully to Peter’s cheek, looking pensive.

“It’s easy for you. To say things like that,” Neal says, but Peter can tell it’s more a question than a statement. He shrugs.

“I love you,” says Peter, simply. “Once you can say that—the rest of it is…” He trails off and shrugs again.

“A piece of cake?” Neal suggests, with a mischievous twinkle – Peter groans and buries his face in the side of Neal’s neck.

*

Peter presses his hand flat over Neal’s stomach, enjoying the way the muscles jump under his touch, then slides it slowly, slowly down over Neal’s fly, palming the solid line of Neal’s erection through his pants roughly. Neal moans and thrusts up into his hand, and Peter smiles against Neal’s throat, pinning Neal’s thigh down with his knee and rubbing the heel of his hand down over and over again, feeling the vibration of Neal’s low moans against his lips.

Neal slides his fingers over Peter’s hand and tugs it away, giving Peter a reproachful look. “You promised,” he says, fingers making short work of his own fly, tugging his pants and briefs down his long legs and throwing them over the side of the bed.

“Promised…?” Peter tries to think as Neal helps him out of his shirt and starts on his pants, but Jesus, that’s a lot of skin, Peter thinks, and it’s hard to think about anything else.

Neal says, “That you would fuck me – next time. This time.”

“Yeah.” Peter gulps, turned-on and nervous at once. “Yes. I want to.”

“Good,” Neal says, his mouth curved in a pleased smile.

Peter confesses, “I don’t know, uh – you’ll have to tell me what to do.”

Neal’s grin is wicked when he says, “You know I like it the other way around.”

“Oh, Neal.” Peter blushes. “Uh, do we need…?”

“In the drawer there.” Neal nods to the bedside table.

Peter reaches over and rummages in the drawer, dumping a few condom packets and a bottle of lube. He’s embarrassed to notice that his hands are shaking like crazy.

When he turns around, Neal is stretched out on the bed, one arm over his head, his left leg pulled up until his thigh is pretty much flush against his chest. As far as Peter’s concerned, that’s completely unfair, and he says so, making Neal laugh.

“Like—like this?” Peter asks, flipping the cap on the bottle of lube.

“Mhmm.”

“What do I do?”

“With your fingers first. One at a time.”

Peter pours a little puddle of lube in his hand and slicks up one finger. He reaches down and finds Neal’s entrance.

“Oh,” Peter says, ambushed by the wave of tenderness that breaks over him at the feel of the vulnerable furl of skin under his finger. Urgently, Peter says, “You can’t—you can’t let me hurt you. I wouldn’t—I would never forgive myself. I just want to—I have to—be good to you. Promise me you won’t let me hurt you,” he demands.

Neal meets Peter’s gaze with his own, clear blue and somehow solemn. “I promise.”

Peter presses in, just the tip of his finger, and gasps.

“You’re so tight,” he whispers.

“It’s been a long time for me,” Neal says quietly – Peter has to bite back his instinctive, possessive Good. He doesn’t like the thought of Neal with any other man, but he doesn’t like the thought of Neal lonely, either.

“I’ll take good care of you,” he promises.

“You can go deeper,” Neal says, so Peter does.

This had all happened so fast – if he’d had time, if he’d been able to prepare, research, he would have tried it on himself, blushing and determined. And then maybe he wouldn’t be so shocked at the amazing heat inside of Neal’s body, the silky smoothness – for some reason, Peter had imagined a rougher texture, but Neal’s body caresses Peter’s finger as he strokes in and out.

Peter looks up from staring fixedly, nervously at his own forearm, and the sight that greets him takes his breath away – Neal’s body dancing in a slow writhe, a silent groan parting his mouth like a flower, his eyes shut tight with pleasure. His fingertips press against the headboard until they’re white, and his arms, stretched over his head, make his body seem to go on forever.

“Unbelievable,” Peter says, his throat desert dry. “Unbelievable.”

Neal opens his eyes and looks down at Peter with wry fondness.

“Like what you see?” he teases, curling his body up until his mouth meets Peter’s for a sweet, close-mouthed kiss.

“You know you’re…” Peter trails off, nervous he’s not paying enough attention to preparing Neal, trying to focus just on that and not on the way Neal’s spine undulates like the surface of the sea in time with Peter’s finger.

“I’m what?” Neal prods, still with a teasing grin.

“Gorgeous,” Peter replies, half-shrugging, not embarrassed to say it – it’s just the truth, but Neal looks pleased, and murmurs “Not so bad—mmh—yourself.”

Now Peter’s embarrassed, and he mutters “Whatever,” bending down to lay a string of kisses on each of Neal’s lower ribs.

Neal seems to be opening for Peter’s finger more easily now, so Peter asks hesitantly, “Now two?”

“Yeah.” Neal gropes through the sheets with one hand, searching for—

“No, no, I have it,” Peter says, fumbling off the cap and pouring more lube over his fingers – he really doesn’t know what he’s doing, but the one thing he’s pretty sure of is that there’s no such thing as too much.

Neal pulls in a long, ragged breath as Peter carefully presses two fingers inside, and Peter runs his other hand up and down Neal’s rib cage, checking for bad tension, pain-tension… but all he feels is the same hum of arousal that’s vibrating through his bones, too.

“Is that—?” he asks, trying to push his fingers apart and back and forth, with as much care as he can.

“Yeah, that’s good, that’s good,” Neal tells him, catching his mouth for another one of those kisses that feel like falling into velvet. “Now, crook your fingers up a little, just at the—God!” Neal’s eyes fly open, and his body jerks like it’s been hit with an electric shock – Peter freezes, then immediately pulls out his fingers, cursing himself and babbling, “Are you okay, are you—did I—“

“Peter,” Neal asks, with what sounds like a lot of patience for a guy with all his clothes off, “Can I ask why you stopped?”

Peter can’t figure out what to do with his slicked-up hand – he tries to ignore it and explains, “I thought I’d hurt you, you shouted and you looked like—like—”

“Like I was about to come?” Neal prompts, and Peter suddenly feels stupid.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, putting his fingers back at Neal’s hole, tracing anxious little circles around it. “I just want to make sure—to be careful—”

Neal reaches up to stroke the hair back from Peter’s face, and asks quietly, “If I asked you to stop doing something, or to slow down, would you?”

“Of course!” Peter’s appalled at just the suggestion that he wouldn’t – that he would just—

“Okay, then,” Neal says, meeting Peter’s gaze with fondness and heat. “So trust me that I’ll tell you if something is wrong, all right? I’m a big boy, I can look out for myself.”

“I like looking out for you,” Peter mumbles into the hair at Neal’s temple, too embarrassed to watch Neal’s reaction.

“I know.” Neal kisses him again, slow and just nasty enough to yank hard on something deep in Peter’s belly. “You’re sweet. And now you’re going to fuck me. You promised.”

Peter agrees, “I did,” and slides his two fingers back inside Neal’s body, to the sound of Neal’s low, approving moan. Warily, he tries stroking over the spot Neal had directed him to, and he’s rewarded by more moaning – Neal drags Peter’s head down for a long kiss, biting his bottom lip hard enough to make Peter gasp.

“Yeah,” Neal says, indistinctly, his eyes heavy-lidded. “Yeah, yeah—Peter, here…” He presses one of the condom packets into Peter’s palm, but Peter shakes his head and says, “Three, Neal.”

Peter,” Neal grits out, giving Peter a look that’s half-betrayed, half-turned on.

Peter replies stubbornly, “I’m going to do this right,” and kisses the little mewl of frustration out of Neal’s mouth. The heat surrounding his three fingers is incredible, and it hits him over the head again how amazing this is, how terrifying and humbling it is to know that Neal is allowing Peter literally inside of him. Peter pulls back, untangling from the arm that Neal has thrown around his neck, and slides down the bed to just look. There they are, his own normal, ordinary fingers, being swallowed up by Neal’s body, opening around him, pink and stretched. This had always blown him away when he was with girls, too – the trust, the vulnerability being offered up to him; the incredible responsibility of being given that trust.

“You’re so beautiful,” Peter tells Neal, whose eyes are fixed on his face, watching Peter watch him. Peter turns his head and kisses the soft inside of Neal’s knee, the surprisingly tender hollow under his kneecap.

Peter,” Neal says, low and intense, and the desperation in his voice pulls Peter up to kiss the skin at the corners of his eyes and gasp, “Yes, yeah, now, hang on—”

Neal’s fingers are shaking a little, but he rips the condom package open more efficiently than Peter figures he could at this stage, and reaches down to roll the condom down Peter’s cock. Peter shuts his eyes tightly at Neal’s touch, and pulls out his fingers, wiping them on the sheets.

“Promise me you’ll tell me if—” he starts – Neal’s eyes narrow and he hooks a leg around Peter’s waist, swearing, “Peter, if you tell me one more time that I am—”

“I can’t help it,” Peter mutters, “I’m sorry, I know, I know…” He reaches down to line himself up and presses in.

“Oh God, Peter, Peter,” Neal breathes, his whole body arching under Peter’s, his face alive with intense emotion – Peter tries to hold it together without looking away; he doesn’t want to miss a second of this, of Neal’s breathy moans, of the look on his face, but the smooth slide into tight heat is going to make him embarrass himself if he doesn’t pull it together.

“Can you—“ Neal asks, voice wrecked, chest heaving up and down, “Can you give me a minute…”

“Yeah, yes, of course,” Peter says, grateful – as Neal’s breathing gradually steadies, Peter runs his right hand across Neal’s shoulder, down the pale line of his arm, and around his elbow, stopping to circle Neal’s slim, scarred wrist with his fingers.

“Yours?” Neal asks, and Peter turns his head to hold Neal’s gaze as he wraps his hand more solidly around Neal’s wrist. “Mine,” Peter promises, dropping one last mostly-chaste kiss on Neal’s lips before Neal moans, “Yes. Now, come on, I want—”

Peter starts to move – slowly at first, still careful, then picking up speed as Neal’s breathy gasps begin to lose coherence, dissolving into a string of “yes,” “more,” and “Peter.” Peter’s not doing any better – he can barely think, but he tries to keep some shreds of awareness together, separate from the animal drumbeat pounding in his ears, making him hungry for more and more of Neal’s body. Peter tries to get one hand on Neal’s cock, but he loses his balance and starts to topple over onto Neal.

“Sorry,” Peter gasps, grabbing for one of Neal’s hands, pulling it down between them, “I can’t, can you—”

“Mmm, yeah,” Neal murmurs – Peter can feel the back of Neal’s knuckles rubbing against his stomach like a tease, can almost taste the red color of Neal’s bitten, swollen, wet lips. They’re kissing like they’ve forgotten how to do anything else, Neal digging his fingers into Peter’s back, Peter’s breathing ragged and hot. There’s sweat collecting in the hollow of Neal’s collarbone and dripping down Peter’s spine, and eventually Peter loses the focus even for kissing – he buries his teeth in Neal’s neck, knowing he’s leaving a mark and too fiercely glad to care, and somehow that’s what pushes Neal over the edge.

Peter missed seeing this, last time – the way Neal’s face looks when he comes, the way his eyes flutter shut but his mouth drops open, impossible not to kiss. Unlike last night, this time Neal comes almost silently, just one gasp in and one long, shuddering breath out, and that’s enough to send Peter over the edge, too. He’s careful not to just collapse on Neal, but he can’t get too far away, either – Neal’s skin is magnetic, impossible not to touch. After a minute of mutual panting, Peter tosses the condom in the trash while Neal pulls the sheets and blanket up over the two of them.

When Peter collapses back onto the pillows, Neal settles in close, his head on Peter’s shoulder. After a moment, Neal chuckles a little, and says, “Of all the cupcake joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine.”

Peter knows he’s probably supposed to banter a little bit with Neal, but all he can truthfully say is, “I’m glad I did.”

“Yeah,” Neal says, dropping a kiss on Peter’s shoulder, “so am I.”