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Smile Like You Mean It

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The first time Peter Burke gave him the triumphantly gleeful smile and invited him back to his place for dinner after they had solved a case no one else could have, thwarted a high-risk, big pay-off heist, working together like they'd been partners forever, like their combined brains and skill sets could accomplish anything, Neal Caffrey's heart sank.

He knew what that smile meant. He'd seen it before, many times before.

"Come on, I think I have a bottle of wine even you'd deem to drink," Peter said. He put his hand firmly in the curve of Neal's back between his shoulder blades in that way Peter had of gently pushing as if to say I'm in charge, but you lead. And of course Neal lead where Peter wanted to go. Always.

On the car ride out of Manhattan, Peter was on his Bluetooth with Hughes and the other higher-ups discussing the case. Neal had no interest in the paperwork and bureaucracies, so he looked out the window and let his mind wander. Of course, his mind returned to that smile.

The first time Neal had seen it had been on his very first partner in crime--Mozzie. Neal had never worked with anyone before Mozzie, never thought he needed to, wanted to. Who needed a partner to share the profits and the fun? But Mozzie taught him that he also got to share the responsibility and the risk. Mozzie became more than a partner, he was Neal's truest friend and his best mentor. Mozzie taught him so much about life, philosophy and the art of the grift that there was never any qualms in sharing the take and when he gave Neal that smile, Neal found himself risking more and more for that pat on the back than the gems, cash and art they had stolen.

That smile and a few bottles of Pinot Noir was their way of celebrating their shared brilliance.

Then he met Kate.

The first time he'd seen that smile on her, he'd had his heart in his throat as he told her who he really was. He had chosen his words so delicately, was so tuned in to signs of repulsion, of a desire to flee, that he didn't notice the slow progression of the smile until he was finished. Breathing deeply, he stopped looking at her hands, at her body language and looked into her eyes. The smile started there and it was positively devilish.

"Tell me more," she whispered in his ear.

So he did. He told her about heists he'd done and ones he hoped to do; he told her about the danger and risk, the skill and talent and about the magic, the pure adrenaline rush of bending things to your will; of setting a goal, working with confidence and studied assurance towards the prize, knowing with every fiber of you that you would be a success.

He told her all of this, and as he did, she got closer and closer until she was straddling him on the couch. Then the smile was occupied at Neal's lips, his jawline, his neck and his ear as she ground her hips and thighs against him and again begged, "Tell me more."

With hands around her waist, up her back, through her hair and hot breath on her skin, he told her everything, gave her everything.

Later, as they lay in bed too exhausted to move, too euphoric to sleep, holding onto each other, Kate with that same mischievous smile, told Neal about a gallery she had worked in before Adler. She told him about the art, the staff and the security systems.

Neal was in love.

Like with Mozzie, Neal would do anything for that smile, unlike Mozzie where the smile was the reward, with Kate, it was a promise of rewards to come. For her, the payoff that was almost better than the monetary prize was the sex. For Neal, the true payoff was after the sex, the bodies intertwined, her back curved into his chest, his right arm pinned under her shoulder as he held her tight, the fingertips of his left hand tracing abstracts and landscapes along her hip and thighs as he breathed into her neck and she asked the same question every time: what's next?

There were many what's next, until, one day with no warning, there weren't.

Then there was Alex. She had a smile too, lord did she.

Where Kate's smile was mischievous, Alex's was possessive, as if Neal was the one treasure she got to keep, didn't have to fence. There was no talk of love between them; theirs was a barter system relationship. He gave her what she wanted in any position she wanted as much as she wanted, even though she knew before Neal did that it wasn't his favorite part. In exchange Alex gave him the after part, the clinging to each other, the intimacy of caresses and secrets whispered into warmed skin, even though everyone who knew Alex knew that was not her favorite part.

"Neal?" Peter asked for what sounded like it wasn't the first time.

"Yeah?" Neal answered realizing they were outside of Peter's house. "Oh, sorry. Mind wandered."

"Yeah? Where to?"

Neal rubbed at his eyes and went to open the door. "Nowhere. Nothing."

Peter smiled. "Was it a Kate nothing or an Alex nothing?"

Neal rolled his eyes and didn't answer. Peter had just met Alex and was still trying to sort where she belonged in the ballad of Neal and Kate he had hummed in his head all those years. Neal wasn't about to give him anything.

How was Neal going to explain to Peter that it wasn't until Alex came back that he thought about what they'd had and what Kate and he had and how there were parts of that he wanted back desperately and parts he'd never admitted he could happily live without forever.

How could he tell Peter that before Kate he didn't know there was anything wrong with him? Not that he spent that much time thinking he was defective, that was one of the things wrong with him he guessed, how little he thought about sex. He remembered listening to other men talk about their sex lives and the looks of exaltation and euphoria. He wondered why he'd never felt like that and he learned to fake it, reasoning that he'd not found the one. Then he did meet the one. And still, he faked it. He was really good at faking it. He had to be. It would have torn him apart if Kate ever suspected the truth. Kate taught him about intimacy, about give and take and ultimately she taught him that there were a lot of things he would do for someone for those little bits of affection he so cherished.

How in the hell was Neal supposed to tell Peter that there was nothing he wouldn't do for Peter as a reward for that smile, and ask if it was his reward or the promise?

Then they walked in the door and Elizabeth was there with a smile of her own that warmed Neal and also allowed him to relax. How had he forgotten about El? Forgotten that Peter already had someone to give him all he ever needed, both the parts that Neal craved and the parts he endured?

Through dinner, Peter and Neal regaled El with their adventures and their brilliance. She beamed at them equally, clutching Neal's arm when they got to the part where the gun was pointed at him, taking Peter's hand when they got to the "Freeze! F.B.I.!" Peter's favorite part.

Every time she got up from the table she would run her fingers along Neal's arms, his shoulders and down the other, as if it were the most natural of things, but Neal melted into the touch each time anew. When Peter got up to join El in the kitchen, he stopped behind Neal, put both of his large hands firmly on Neal's shoulders and squeezed. Neal almost purred he was so content.

Yes, he thought as they disappeared into the kitchen, this is enough, more than enough.

Well, maybe not more than enough, but certainly more that he'd expected.

Besides, he was still living off the dream of finding Kate, of the Happily Ever After, no matter what Mozzie said about their kind not getting those. Neal was different. Kate and Neal were different.

For months, that dream and those dinners with Peter and El kept him alive, sane and away from the almost daily temptation to run. Then the dream was gone. Kate was gone--for good.

The day comes back to him in flickers and flashes. There was a plane, and there she was. She was waving; he was waving back, his heart pounding painfully in his throat. His dream, right there and it was real and true. She smiled and he saw the answer to the question she had always asked, What's next?


Then Peter was there, and Neal remembered how hard it was to turn away from Peter, how his heart ached as if it really were being ripped in two. One half yearned for the plane, the escape and Kate. It was all he'd been dreaming about. The other half though, wanted desperately to stay and continue to live a future he'd never dreamed about, never even imagined with people that valued and inspired him daily. Yes, there was a thrill of the unknown in both choices, but the invariables with the life that Kate represented were easier to foresee, so he turned, he walked away from Peter.

Then the earth crumbled around him and the world was on fire, except there again was Peter, and Peter was holding him, holding him so tight, not letting him go, and where did he think Neal was going anyway?

There was no more what's next, there was only Peter.

Neal didn't remember anything after that, flashes of a hospital, flashes of interrogations, questions he didn't remember answering, then it was dusk and he was in a car--Peter's car. Then Peter's house. Then a bedroom in Peter's house. Not Peter and El's bedroom, too sterile for that, no personality. Then El was there, lying beside him, holding him so tight and something inside of him just broke. He wrapped himself around her, clinging desperately and just wailed. No words, just keening shrieks. When the cruelty of it finally overwhelmed him, his grasp tightened further and his wailing turned into guttural howls.

More than one life had been lost that day, Neal felt that and it rocked his body in painful, shuddered sobs long after his strained throat gave out. All the while, El held on, stroking his back, his neck, his hair. If Peter was there, Neal didn't see him, didn't feel him. Not until Neal's shrieks turned to silent weeping, then a hitched breath behind Neal told him Peter was there. Neal imagined Peter in the door frame, the hall light throwing him into silhouetted shadows against the darkening of the room around him.

Neal wanted to turn to him, to reach for him, but Neal's body chose that moment to be washed over in exhaustion. So instead, he burrowed further into El's chest and fell asleep.

For three days he stayed in that bed and sometimes it was El lying beside him and sometimes Peter was there instead, sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to Neal, but the hand Peter leaned on was inches from Neal's head, as if Peter wanted to reach out, to comfort Neal, but that there were still lines Peter wouldn't cross, not without explicit permission.

Neal wrapped his hand around Peter's arm and rested his cheek on Peter's forearm, breathing in his scent as he imagined he could feel Peter's pulse point reverberating through him. Peter didn't move, not to acknowledge Neal's need, but also not to recoil. So Neal held on, marveling at how soothed this littlest of gesture from Peter made him.

Right before Neal drifted back to sleep, he heard Peter mumble something that sounded vaguely like, "Sorry."

When Neal woke up, El was where she had been the last few nights, snuggled into his back, arms around him, softly snoring into his shoulder. He was about to slide back to get even closer to her warmth when he noticed an added weight behind him.

He looked behind him over El's shoulder. Peter was spooned against El, his head resting on the top of hers. And though he was now asleep, Neal could imagine Peter laying there watching him sleep. Neal sighed and listened to the dual breathing behind him as he once again drifted off.

The next night he fell asleep to whispered murmurs between Peter and El and it was the first night Neal didn't dream of Kate, of explosions and worlds' ending.

The night after that, he got up to go to the bathroom and when he came back, El and Peter had moved away from each other a bit, just enough for Neal to shimmy himself stealthily between them. They didn't stir and he called that a success. This win inspired him to feather-gently take Peter's hand in a handshake hold while threading the fingers of his other hand through El's and bringing both hands to rest over his heart.

There was a gentle tug from El's hand and he held his breath, waiting for her to withdraw her hand. But instead, she just shifted to her side, kissing him on the cheek and settling against him with her head on his shoulder.

He closed his eyes and allowed himself to be overwhelmed with gratitude and longing. He understood perfectly well the fleeting condition of moments based on pity, guilt and grief. Tomorrow would come soon enough and he would face it when it did, but for this one hour, this one day he was going to take it, revel in it and live every second of it.

Not expecting to fall asleep, Neal woke with a jolt. The low-hanging dawn crept through the window and ran along the shape of Peter, sleeping beside him. He sighed when Peter’s eyelids didn’t as much as flutter. Neal looked around, El was gone, maybe in the bathroom, somewhere else in the house or maybe already left for work, Neal didn’t know.

He knew he should get up, that it might be awkward to have Peter wake up in a room where they were alone in bed together. It felt like there should have been a conversation before. But, looking down at the bare skin of Peter’s back and an impulse that Neal hadn’t entertained in years overcame him.

First he flexed his fingers, blowing on them to take the chill off. After that, he studied his canvas: freckles along the shoulder blade and a mole on the small of Peter’s back were the only markings. He could work with those. Taking a deep breath, he began to work, relieved that with the exception of a stuttered exhale, Peter remained sleeping and unaware.

After a few minutes and no sign of Peter waking, Neal got bold and began adding more pressure to his sweeping subject.


Neal froze and looked from his canvas to where Peter’s head laid in the crook of his elbow, one eye peeked open, watching Neal, whose tongue had been slightly protruding from his lip in concentration.

Neal’s face turned red. “Yeah.”

Peter smiled. “Starry Night?”

Neal barked out a relieved laugh. “Close. Hokusai.”

“The Great Wave? How is that close? It’s not even the same continent.”

“The curve, the swirl. I imagine they would both feel the same.”

Peter contemplated and then shrugged.

“May I continue?” Neal asked, trying to ignore how awkward this should be and how little it was.

“Please do,” Peter answered. “Only. Perhaps broader strokes?”

Neal swallowed, nodded and bent back over Peter’s skin. As per Peter’s request, Neal applied more pressure to his strokes, if it were paint it would be smeared and globbed, but Neal liked the sensation of Peter’s skin and how he could feel its reaction to the pressure of his fingers. He tried to ignore Peter’s watching him; he didn’t want to be self-conscious. Neal had always been used to being watched, looked at, but not while creating. That was the only place where he allowed himself to let go, to be, and not aware of himself. It was when he was the truest him. He knew the irony of that as most of what he created were reproductions and forgeries. Still... it was who he was.

He couldn’t help it though; Peter’s gaze on him was like a spotlight, hot and always searching. For what, Neal didn’t know.

“I like watching you like this,” Peter said in a breathy whisper after a long time.

“Yeah?” And though he fought it, Neal felt his cheeks heat up and he knew he was blushing.

Peter chuckled. “Yeah. I’ve spent the last year watching you do a lot of clever things, but I’ve never seen you like this. It’s nice.”

“What do I look like?” Neal asked, curious now.

“Contemplative, engrossed, content.”

Neal smiled for a moment then his mind flashed to the explosion and his eyes flickered and looked away.

Peter seemed to read Neal’s mind. “It’s okay to have small moments of contentment and still mourn. It’s not a disgrace to her memory.”

“No?” Neal whispered.

Peter turned on his side so he they were facing each other. “You have to live. Sometimes those brief moments are all you’re going to have to cling to. They’re okay, they mean you’re alive.”

Neal nodded slowly, not sure if he believed him, but knowing that right then it didn’t matter, any peace that he had while imaging the blue and white sea-swells were gone. “Would it be alright if I lay back down beside you? Would that be--”

Peter reached for him and pulled him down, wrapped his arms tightly around Neal’s shoulders. Neal tried really hard not to lose it right there in Peter’s arms. He kept it together for approximately six seconds before the prickle behind his eyes erupted into tears, and after that there was no holding back and he sobbed once again.

Peter didn’t say anything, didn’t hold tighter or push Neal away, he just held him, his heartbeat slow and steady, luring Neal into a matching rhythm.

Neal knew he was in trouble, knew that there relationship was already in a place he’d never imagined and there was a good chance that it was headed towards something he wasn’t nowhere near prepared for. Still… he was content. Right now, right here, he was alright.

When he trusted himself to talk again, he said, “You know, I like watching you work too.”

“Yeah?” Peter said, and Neal was shocked to how close they were as Peter’s whispered breath in his ear went straight to his bloodstream.

“What part? The paper work or when I get to order everyone around?”

“Well, I like watching you order people around. I like when you are enjoying yourself and that seems to please you. But no, my favorite time to watch you is when you’re giving a suspect, a witness or an informant the impression that you are an idiot.”

Peter laughed and his chest rumbling against Neal’s ribcage made Neal smile.
“I guess I have the face for it.”

“I love watching that moment when they realize they’ve been played. I like to watch it register in their eyes and then watch the satisfaction on yours.”

“That’s when I enjoy myself the most.”

“I know.”