On the way to St Louis he hired a bodyguard. There were good reasons to do so....there was also a certain prestige to traveling with a hired man.
-- Titanic Thompson, The Man Who Bet On Everything
They met during a bar fight. The one thing they could never agree on, later, was who started it.
Neal claimed that he had the situation under control, that he'd handled angry fences in the past, and that he wasn't a fighter so he couldn't possibly have started it. Peter assured him repeatedly that if he hadn't stepped in, Neal would have ended up on the floor bleeding from every orifice, possibly from some new ones the fence's gun would put there. It was that kind of bar.
Their stories didn't quite sync up until the moment when the fight spread to the rest of the bar and Peter (bleeding from a cut lip) grabbed Neal (already starting on a really impressive black eye) and dragged him out into the chilly New York evening. Neal, who was pissed Peter had stepped in but grateful he'd blocked a couple of punches meant for Neal's softer areas (kidneys, stomach, groin) said he had a place nearby, and the friendship was cemented while they tended their wounds.
"I know you didn't learn to fight like that on the street," Neal said, as he iced his eye.
"FBI academy," Peter replied, rubbing disinfectant into his raw and bleeding knuckles. He bit off a strip of medical tape and wrapped his left hand in it. Neal, tense, thought about all the potential incriminating evidence hidden around his apartment. Peter caught his eye.
"Relax," he said, as he wrapped his other hand. "I'm not a Fed anymore."
"Once a cop, always a cop," Neal told him.
"Not me," Peter answered.
Peter gave him a grin. There was blood on his teeth. "Got tired of the paperwork. Your side has more fun."
Neal felt he owed his slightly-tarnished white knight a meal, and found Peter actually liked cheap Chinese takeout. While they ate he tried his best to weasel Peter's story out of him, and found him impressively circumspect. At the end of the meal and after a couple of glasses of wine, he offered Peter a job.
"Room and board, two hundred bucks a week, and ten percent of the take," he said.
"Negotiable based on participation," Peter replied.
"What do I get for ten percent?"
"Above and beyond bodyguarding? Driving the getaway car and providing an alibi as needed."
"Done deal," Neal told him, and just like that, he had a hired man.
Neal could see why Peter had been a cop. He was dependable, forthright, prompt, honest (at least in the sense that he didn't lie to his friends or colleagues), and he worked hard. He made sure Neal's clothes were clean, that his person was safe, and that his plans went flawlessly. They clicked almost immediately. If Peter chose to stay on the fringes of any given job, well, that just meant Neal didn't have to renegotiate Peter's ten percent cut.
They didn't stay long in New York -- just long enough for their wounds to heal and for the fence Neal had pissed off to make a second try at maiming him. Peter broke the man's arm, then asked if he wanted his other one broken as well, or if they were good. Turned out they were good.
Still, Neal felt he'd overstayed his welcome, so Peter packed them up and Neal scammed a car and they drove to Chicago, where a job was waiting. Neal tried to get Peter's life story out of him, and Neal was very good at making people want to talk, but most of the time Peter just wouldn't answer. Neal had never met anyone who could ignore him so tactfully before.
They spent a few months in Chicago until they had to leave town a little faster than expected due to a fake Magritte and a woman Neal would later refer to as "the ingenue" with what Peter would later refer to as "an unnecessary amount of drama". That was okay, though; they took the train, and Neal found some work in St. Louis, while Peter caught a few Cardinals games and sampled the infamous local beers. When they got tired of St. Louis, Neal took them to Louisiana, and then up through Texas to Colorado.
Neal freelanced, mostly, showing up whenever someone needed a thief or a forger, doing the jobs other people didn't want to do. It wasn't until Peter had been with him for nearly a year that Neal decided to try masterminding his own crimes, and he hit on a plan a few days after they arrived in Salt Lake City.
It...did not go flawlessly.
Utah was the first time Neal was truly grateful to have Peter, as opposed to just satisfied to have someone else to carry the luggage. He staggered into the (very expensive) hotel suite, hoping he wasn't dripping blood on the carpet, and nearly collapsed. Peter, whose services had not been required for this particular job and who had been sleeping on the sofa until Neal came in, eased the architect's case off his back and helped him into the kitchen, ignoring Neal's groan of pain as he lifted him bodily onto the kitchen counter.
"Are my intestines hanging out?" Neal asked, as Peter raised the shredded shirt carefully over his head. He knew the barbed wire had caught him on the shoulder and across the side of his torso, but he wasn't sure if the searing pain meant he'd done serious damage.
"Doesn't look like it," Peter drawled. "Blood's mostly dried. Stay there," he ordered, and went to a nearby cabinet, taking down a bowl and a fifth of price-inflated, in-room-bar vodka. He dumped half the alcohol into the bowl and then handed Neal the bottle. "Try not to go into shock," he said, as Neal took a swig.
"It will be once I start sewing," Peter told him.
The stitch job was a blur to Neal, mostly, but he remembered the pull of thread through his skin and the fierce look of concentration on Peter's face as he worked, along with the burn of the vodka he kept sipping. Peter stitched up his side first, then his back, standing behind him; by the time he was done Neal's head was lolling, resting on Peter's shoulder, nose pressed into Peter's neck.
"You have nice hands," Neal said. He heard Peter laugh. "I'm smashed, huh?"
"Be glad you are. This would have hurt a lot more if you stayed sober," Peter told him. Neal heard the rip-snap of medical tape being unrolled, and then Peter was taping nice, soft bandages over the wounds. Neal sleepily leaned forward when Peter told him to, almost overbalanced, and let Peter ease him off the kitchen counter. Peter was strong; Neal could put his whole weight against him and Peter just laughed and helped him to the bed.
He lay there, eyes barely open, and watched from the comfortable blankets as Peter sat on the edge of the bed, popped the end off the architect's case, and pulled out the three rolled-up canvases within.
"They're beautiful," Peter said.
"I know," Neal yawned. "Peter?"
"Mm?" Peter was still studying the art.
"Will you always look after me?"
He heard Peter laugh again. A warm hand rested on his head.
"You're the only one I trust," Neal added, just in case Peter hadn't yet decided.
"Go to sleep, Neal," Peter said.
In the morning, Neal woke to a blinding hangover, a world of pain whenever he moved, and a pile of pills on the table with a note that read Took care of the art. Scored you some drugs. Take one every four hours until I get back. --PB
"This job is important," Peter said, standing in front of him in the bathroom. "I want you to look the part."
"Are you angling for fifteen percent on it?" Neal replied, annoyed by the way Peter was hovering. If a man couldn't put on a three-piece suit in the privacy of his own hotel bathroom without his bodyguard bothering him, what was left to him?
Peter took the tie away from him. Neal reached for it, and Peter held it back, out of his grasp.
"These are bigwigs," Peter said, as Neal tried to reach around him. He pushed Neal back and Neal rolled his eyes and let his arms fall, presenting his throat. "They'll think you're a small-time grifter if you don't do it right."
"Peter, I am a small-time grifter," Neal pointed out, as Peter began to knot his tie.
"You're not. Why would you think that? You're Neal Caffrey," Peter told him. "Cowboy up, admit your destiny is to be the most wanted art thief in the world, and let me make you look the part."
"You don't," Neal pointed out.
"What, look the part? I'm the muscle," Peter answered, snugging the knot against Neal's throat. "I'm supposed to look scruffy."
"Now who's lying to himself?"
"It's not about what I think I am, it's about what they think I am. Aren't you always saying that?" Peter blocked Neal from leaving the bathroom. "You're not done yet."
"What, are you going to put lipstick on me next?" Neal asked.
"Your hair is a disgrace."
Neal was actually very proud of his hair. "You're an asshole."
"Yes, but I'm your paid asshole and it's my job to make sure you stay alive," Peter said, dipping styling wax out of a tub with one hand and grasping Neal by the hair -- by the hair! -- with the other. "Hold still and I won't be forced to handcuff you."
"Oh, big talk, copper," Neal said, but he stood obediently still while Peter worked the wax into his hair, tugged it this way and that, and finally gave him a nod of approval. He turned Neal towards the mirror, and Neal studied the result. His hair was swept up off his forehead, waving back from his face in a way that made him look...older. Sophisticated. He raised a hand to it, startled.
When Neal had cracked that first bottle of wine, the night of the bar fight, Peter had laughed and said, "How old are you, kid?"
"Old enough," Neal had retorted, stung by the insinuation.
"Old enough to drive, not old enough to buy this," Peter had (rightly) concluded, tapping the wine bottle. "You probably need someone to keep an eye on you."
Now, Peter smiled over his shoulder in the mirror. "See? Adds five years onto you, easy. So, let's go con the mafia."
They'd spent almost four months in California, but after that con Los Angeles got too hot too fast, so they booked it out of town and didn't really stop again until they were back in Chicago. Neal settled in for a long con -- well, not long, not really, but longer than he'd tried before. Peter, who was visibly tired of living out of suitcases, said he was going to clean house a little.
Neal came back to the suite one day to find his belongings strewn around the living room, intermingled with Peter's, making it look like a couple of laundry bags had exploded.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Organizing," Peter said, hands on his hips, surveying the mess. "Everything you own needs washing. Most of my stuff too. It's just here until I can sort out the dry-cleaning from the ordinary laundry."
Neal threw up his hands and retired to the bedroom with pay-per-view and minibar microwave popcorn for the evening. He heard the suite door open and close a couple of times, and then Peter walked in, carrying a room service tray in one hand and his gun case in the other. Neal scooted over, warily, as Peter set the case on the bed and then sat down next to it.
"Whatcha watching?" Peter asked, uncovering the hamburger on the room-service tray and starting to eat.
"Cary Grant," Neal told him, indicating the television. He'd worked his way through a couple of boring new shoot-em-ups before discovering the "classics" channel.
"You have an unhealthy fixation," Peter replied.
"Hey! At least I have some class, Mr. Quarter Pounder."
"This is a sixty dollar hamburger," Peter said, around a mouthful of it. "Truffle oil fries. You can't even get regular fries in this place."
"You have no appreciation for the finer things," Neal said, but he took a french fry when it was offered.
"I like what I like," Peter said stubbornly.
Peter ostentatiously took another bite of his hamburger.
When he was finished eating, he wiped his hands carefully and set the plate and silverware aside, spreading out a cloth on the tray and laying out his guns on it. He had three, though he usually only carried one and then only with Neal's permission. Still, all three needed regular maintenance. The guns made Neal nervous, but watching Peter clean them was oddly cathartic, somehow satisfying. Peter took each one to pieces and reassembled it with a thin sheen of gun oil protecting the metal, and while Neal didn't like guns he did like the way Peter handled them.
Peter caught him watching -- it wasn't like Neal ever bothered being subtle about it, with Peter -- and as he usually did, just gave him a sly smile and kept working.
Neal wondered, for the thousandth time, what Peter really thought of him. They'd been working together for almost two years, and he still didn't know if he was just a paycheck, if Peter thought he was a dumb kid with a knack for confidence games, or if he really honestly liked Neal. Or maybe, he sort of hoped, he filled some void in Peter's life, some emptiness that the FBI hadn't satisfied.
He supposed it didn't matter, but it bothered him not knowing how close he stood to Peter, in Peter's eyes.
"Yes," Peter said. Neal looked up at his face, confused. He was almost positive he hadn't said anything out loud.
"What?" he asked.
"Yes, I will always look after you," Peter said, and slotted a magazine into one of the guns.
Neal felt warmth spreading through him, all the way to his fingertips.
Once the con was done, they were pretty flush; Neal decided it was time to go back to New York, set themselves up, and start getting established.
Peter was starting to get pretty good at fencing what Neal stole, and Neal had a knack for sniffing out jobs; before they'd even left, he had one lined up through an art restorer at the Met, a friend of a friend who had yet another friend (well, "friend") who wanted a couple of gold statues coming into the museum for an exhibit to be quietly diverted to her private collection. It was what Peter would call small time, hardly worth hiring someone like Neal for, but it was a job and could lead to bigger and better things.
The intermediary, the art-restorer, was a woman named Liz who agreed to meet with them in a cozy little upscale bar-and-grill in midtown. Peter went early, scouting to make sure it wasn't a setup. He snagged them a secluded booth in the back, and had a soda for himself and a glass of wine for Neal waiting when Neal showed up. He was wearing sunglasses, and he looked cooler than Peter would ever actually be.
"This should be pretty low-key," Neal said, eyes on the front of the restaurant. "Just a little business negotiation, laying out the ground rules -- "
"I know how it works," Peter reminded him gently. "Just doing my job, Neal."
"I'm only saying, if she reaches into her purse, it's probably for a mint, not a gun," Neal said.
"Duly noted," Peter drawled.
"There she is," Neal added, eyes tracking the woman who'd just walked in. "What a knockout, huh?"
"We're not here to get in her pants, Neal."
"That's good, they'd never fit you," Neal said, nudging him with an elbow.
"Shut up and pretend you're an adult," Peter told him, as the woman approached.
"Mr. Caffrey?" she asked, sliding into the booth.
"Liz, call me Neal," Neal said with a smile. "Thanks for coming. This is Peter, my associate. Don't mind him, he doesn't talk much."
"He better not," Liz said, but she shot Peter a flirtatious smile. Neal glanced to the side and, while he couldn't see Peter's eyes, he saw the tips of his ears turn red. "Is my client paying for two?"
"Peter's on my payroll. Your client will be paying me, and only me," Neal said. "Something to drink? They have a nice house red."
"Water, thanks. Some of us have to go back to work after lunch," she said. Neal signaled the waiter.
Throughout the conversation, Peter kept unusually quiet; ever since Utah, if he were invited to meetings, he'd at least put in a couple of comments, prove he was paying attention, work as Neal's partner during negotiations. Neal could do it on his own, of course, but it put him a little off his game. When he and Liz finally sealed the deal, she offered her hand to Peter, too, and Peter glanced at Neal for what to do. Of course as a bodyguard he did that, sometimes, but it wasn't generally over a handshake. Neal gave him a small nod, and Peter shook Liz's hand.
"Are the two of you in town for long?" Liz asked, now that the negotiating was over.
"Yeah, we're setting up a little place, hoping to make Manhattan our base of operations," Neal said. "If you have any other business you'd like to send my way, once this one's done, I'd be happy to consult."
"I hear a lot," Liz said, smiling. "You prove you're worth the time, I'll let you know. Once I've talked with my client, we should meet again -- I'll have dates and new information to give you. If you're busy, I can deliver them to Peter," she added, glancing at Peter again. Peter kept quiet.
"I'll let you know. If you need to get in touch, you have my number," Neal said. "Back here in a week?"
"Not here again," Liz shook her head. "Somewhere different."
"Donatella's," Peter said, startling them both and possibly himself as well. They looked at him. "Little place about a mile from here. It's discreet. Good pasta. Mob owned, I can guarantee nobody's wearing a wire into Donatella's."
"Week from today, Donatella's for dinner?" Neal asked, and Liz nodded. The smile she gave Peter was now a little more shy than before. Perhaps a little more coy. Neal watched in fascination as his bodyguard, who had followed him into strip-joints for meets and once hired a prostitute to deliver some goods for them without breaking his game face, actually blushed.
"The mighty Peter Burke hath fallen," Neal said, after Liz slid out of the booth and left. He maneuvered around so that he was facing Peter, then waved to the waiter that they were ready to order.
"What?" Peter asked, taking off his sunglasses.
"Man, she got to you," Neal said. "Did you just use my business as an excuse to set up a date with a pretty girl?"
"Donatella's is a good place to go over plans. They mind their own business," Peter told him.
"Yeah, and very romantic." Neal raised his eyebrows. "It's cool. Everything goes smoothly, you can go to the meet without me."
"It's not like that," Peter said.
"It's very like that," Neal replied. "What's with the silent act? I mean, she's definitely good-looking, but you've seen better." Peter didn't meet his eye. Neal ducked his head a little. "Come on, this is me. Talk to me."
Peter shrugged. "She's my type, I guess."
"I didn't know you had a type," Neal said, surprised. "Frankly I was starting to wonder if you had a sex drive."
"Just because I don't flirt with everyone -- " Peter began, defensively, and Neal held up his hands.
"Hey, no, I'm just saying. Flirting's my job, I don't expect you to. It's good, we're going to be in New York for a while, no reason not to start making friends. If it helps, she has my probationary stamp of approval."
"Only probationary?" Peter asked.
"Once I'm positive she's not a cop, we'll make it permanent," Neal said with a smile, and changed the subject as their food arrived.
The second meet, which Neal sent Peter to on his own, went off without a hitch. Peter came back to their apartment smelling like wine and cream sauce, an hour later than he would have been if all he'd done was pick up the info, have dinner, and leave.
"Have fun?" Neal asked, half-asleep on the sofa with a book about medieval architecture on his chest.
"Got the goods," Peter replied, holding up a flash drive. "Museum schematics, shipping manifests, and the delivery schedule. She'll call us if anything changes."
"Time for me to get to work," Neal said, easing himself off the couch. "She tell you anything about them?"
"No, but she seems to assume you're jacking the truck. Which I can't recommend," Peter added, as Neal fired up his laptop.
"You didn't answer my question," Neal said.
"Did you have fun?" Neal repeated. Peter made a dour face. "Oh, Peter."
"Like you said, it's your job to flirt," Peter reminded him. "I'm not cut out for it."
"Dinner ran long," Neal pointed out.
"I listen well," Peter said. Neal was going to try and dig some gory details out of him, always a challenge with Peter, when Peter's phone beeped. Neal watched as he checked his text messages and then blushed. Again.
"You gave her your number," he observed.
"In case she couldn't reach you," Peter answered, tucking the phone away.
"Are you going to answer?" Neal grinned at him. "Let me guess. Peter, had a great time. Lunch tomorrow? Ex-oh-ex-oh, Liz."
"She prefers El when she's not doing business," Peter told him, taking the phone out again. "And she just wants to know if she remembered to put the fake delivery schedule on the flashdrive as well as the real one."
Neal checked the data. "Looks like it." He grabbed the phone out of Peter's hands.
"Boss's prerogative," Neal told him. "If I have to play Cyrano for you, I will."
"Cyrano was in love with Roxane," Peter replied.
"So was Christian. All of their problems could have been solved with a threesome, I always thought, and it's not like the French aren't good at that," Neal said absently. Liz's message was cute -- Did I remember to put the fake on the drive? I was having fun at dinner, I forgot to remind you to check. He texted back while Peter fumed.
It's all there. I'll call you tomorrow about a status update. I had fun too.
"Well, maybe some self-esteem therapy for Cyrano," he added, tossing the phone back to Peter as the message was sending.
Peter studied the phone. "What status update? You never give status updates."
Neal rolled his eyes.
"Call her, tell her everything's in place, ask her to a movie," he said.
"Oh," Peter said.
Neal ended up treating them to the movie, because he had to pull off the theft just after the museum closed, and he needed an 8pm alibi just-in-case. His credit card paying for two tickets to a film all the way across town was a good start. Plus it kept Elizabeth away from the action, too, not that she had to be told. She was a smart woman; she and Peter had been texting all week, and Neal had been reading Peter's text logs whenever he left the room, because Neal had no morals. He kept feeling torn between dismay at Peter's lack of grip and fondness for their adorable, awkward flirting.
After the job that night, Neal stashed the statues and caught up with them just as the movie was letting out, gallantly offering to buy a late dinner while they gave him a rundown of the movie's plot. He watched Peter watch Elizabeth, watched Elizabeth watch them both, and sensed something was slightly askew, but couldn't figure out exactly what.
"I live close by," Elizabeth said, as they were putting on coats and getting ready to leave. "Peter, walk me home?"
Peter glanced at Neal.
"I think I can get back to the apartment on my own," Neal said. "You kids have fun," he added, patting Peter on the shoulder and taking the opportunity to slip a condom into his pocket. "Liz, we'll set up a drop tomorrow."
"Not too early tomorrow," she answered, with an admittedly lovely smile. "Goodnight, Neal."
"Night, Liz. Night, Peter," he added softly in Peter's ear, and got a gentle elbow in the ribs. He had to admit he was a little bit envious; Liz was sweet and beautiful, and -- well, Peter was obviously into her, which shouldn't make him jealous but did, a little. He wanted Peter to have a life, god knew the guy needed one, but usually after a job he and Peter would have a couple of drinks and talk it out. He found, as he caught a cab and went back alone to their apartment, he missed it.
Two grown men sharing an apartment usually had to have pretty solid boundary lines, and they did to an extent -- nothing like assigned shelves in the fridge, but it was understood that the sofa was usually Neal's domain, Peter owned the overstuffed chair, baseball trumped classic films but classic films trumped everything else on the TV, and their bedrooms were their private spaces. Peter rarely went into Neal's bedroom unless Neal was having a really epic fit of forgetting to put out his laundry, and Neal never went into Peter's at all.
He stopped on his way down the hall, though, and just leaned in the doorway to Peter's room, studying it. Peter didn't have a lot of stuff, or at least he had way less than Neal. His gun case on the dresser, a little horse Neal had folded for him out of brightly-patterned origami paper on the windowsill, and a photo of the pair of them (Utah; Neal could tell by the way his eyes looked kind of glassy from the painkillers) hung on the wall were really the only personal touches.
He went to bed, but couldn't sleep; nerves from the heist and the lingering sense of envy kept him up, watching the minutes tick past. Eventually he heard the front door open and then close again, quietly. Just past midnight; probably Peter, but possibly someone else. Neal grabbed an umbrella from his closet, swung his door open silently, and crept down the hall, umbrella upraised.
"It's me," Peter called, and Neal straightened, letting the umbrella fall. Peter, sitting at the dining-room table with a glass of scotch in front of him, eyed the makeshift weapon. "What were you going to do, keep the robber dry until they submitted?"
"How'd you hear me?"
"I didn't. Saw your shadow," Peter said, pointing to the floor.
"You know how some people are belligerent drunks? You're a scarily observant drunk," Neal said, setting the umbrella aside.
"I'm not drunk," Peter answered. He indicated the glass. "First one. Working on it, though, don't worry."
"Something happen with Liz?" Neal asked. "You're back earlier than expected."
"It was fine," Peter said.
"Nothing. We had a good time."
"You're a really bad liar," Neal told him.
"I don't bother putting in much effort when you're being nosy," Peter retorted. Neal held up his hands.
"Okay, not asking."
"Go to bed, we have the drop tomorrow."
"Yeah, we do. Shouldn't you go to bed as well?"
Peter sighed. "This drink, then I'll hit the sack."
"Good." Neal smiled. "And if you do want to talk, you know my door is always open."
He felt easier now that Peter was home -- worried, maybe, about what the hell had happened, but if it affected the drop Peter would have told him. The rest, as Peter had made clear, was none of his business. And anyway Peter was as good as his word, just like always; it wasn't more than ten minutes before he heard Peter's door shut quietly. Neal closed his eyes and drifted off.
They did the drop the following evening, on the loading dock of an antique store near their apartment. It went down sweet: Peter loaded the statues, now removed from their crates and carefully swaddled with furniture blankets, into the van of a private courier. The owner of the antique store took a money order from Liz, handed Neal a suitcase, and went back inside while Neal checked the cash. Neal passed the suitcase to Peter, Peter nodded at the courier, the truck drove off, and Peter hefted the case in his hand.
"I'll take care of this," he said to Neal. He'd avoided Liz's eyes throughout the drop. He didn't wait for a reply before leaving, either.
"And here I thought he was doing so well," Neal said, watching him go.
"I'm not sure whether I should be insulted," Liz said. Neal grinned at her.
"Come on, the guy's head over heels for you. I'm just trying to help him out a little. What happened?"
She sighed and glanced in the other direction, where the courier's van was just turning the corner.
"Can we talk?" she asked. "I mean, is it okay if you're seen with me?"
"I think I can risk it," Neal said. "Let's take a walk."
She took his arm, strolling casually down the loading-dock ramp and out onto the sidewalk at the end of the street. "Peter's confusing me."
"That makes two of us. Probably three," Neal replied. "Last night, he came in late, said everything was fine, got surly when I pushed."
"You and he aren't...you're not friends with benefits or anything, are you?" she asked.
"No," he laughed. "We're friends, sure, but no benefits. Unless you count my spicy tomato soup, which is almost as good as sex."
She smiled. "Okay, that clarifies a few things."
Liz shrugged. "Peter's a sweetheart. He seems like it, anyway. Everything's just out there for anyone to see, you know?"
Neal nodded. "He's...I wouldn't say he's exactly open, but he's not very good at lying. If he doesn't want you to know something, he just keeps quiet."
"We had a really nice time at the movie," she said. "And dinner with both of you was fun. Usually the people I deal with are a lot more uptight. You'll be getting repeat business from me."
"Good to know. We aim to please," Neal said. "Something happened after he walked you home, though, didn't it?"
"A lot of things happened," she said. "I asked him up, we had some coffee, we got...comfortable. How much did he tell you?"
"Nothing. This is all news to me."
"Well, you did say he's discreet," Liz said. "We were having a good time. I thought we were. I thought we were about to have a really good time, but he tensed up on me. I said we could slow down, but he..." she shrugged, and her grip on Neal's arm tightened. "He said maybe we should quit it. I don't get the impression I did anything wrong, but he told me he thought -- he shouldn't use me, which was weird. He left before I could get an explanation out of him."
Neal frowned. "Use you?"
"Is he seeing someone else?"
"Not that I know of. Peter's not really someone who...dates. Ever. You're the first person I've seen him get this way about since I've known him."
Liz nodded. "Then it must be you."
"Me?" Neal asked, startled. "Me what?"
"Well, look at us," she said, and stopped, turning to him, letting his arm go. "It's not exactly hard to see the resemblance."
Neal felt, through a mass of confusion, a very dangerous light at the end of the tunnel.
"I think -- I think he thinks -- he looks at me and sees a version of you he can actually have," she said. "It's not exactly flattering, but..."
"No, I'm sure that's not it," Neal replied, though he wasn't sure at all. "He's my bodyguard, he feels responsible for me maybe, but it doesn't go beyond that."
"Doesn't it? I've seen you two together. Even when I'm there, you're the one he's always...aware of," she said.
"He did say you were his type," Neal murmured to himself.
"Maybe I am. I don't think it's all you, but I think some of it probably is. And points to him for honesty -- at least he actually said something when he figured out there might be a problem," she said. "I like the guy. A lot. I think we click on a level other than I-look-like-you. But you two need to sort yourselves out, because my patience for mixed signals is very low."
"Let me talk to him," Neal said. "This has got to be some kind of mistake. Don't write him off just yet."
"I'm not," she answered, and gave him a smile. "Believe me, after last night, definitely not. When he's worked it all out, tell him to give me a call."
When Neal came in, Peter was in his chair, feet up on the coffee table, drinking a beer. And staring into space, mostly.
"Hey," Neal said, shedding his coat and dropping onto the couch. "You left pretty fast after the drop."
"I wanted to get the cash taken care of. I put it in your Canary Islands account," Peter told him.
"Good thinking," Neal said. "I think I'll splurge, get fitted for a tailored suit. You take your ten percent?"
"Nah, left it there. I'll get it next week."
"Liz and I talked after you left," Neal added.
"Oh?" Peter asked, feigning indifference badly. Neal wondered how he'd ever managed to hook up with such a bad liar.
"Yeah. She told me about last night. Well, I couldn't get it from you, Mr. Secrecy," Neal said, when Peter looked annoyed. "She said she thought we should talk."
"It's over. Nothing to talk about," Peter replied.
"I don't mean talking about you and her," Neal said. Peter frowned. Neal had been thinking about what to say all the way home, and he could con Peter or approach it sideways, but with Peter it was usually best to be blunt. "Are you in love with me?"
"I'm not having this conversation," Peter replied, and put his beer on the table. He stood quickly and walked away, into the hall that led to his room.
"So that's a yes?" Neal called after him. A door slammed. Neal sighed and got up too. He'd been hoping, probably futilely, that he wouldn't have to have at least half of this conversation through a closed door.
"You left your beer," he said, leaning against the wall next to the door. Silence. "Listen, you can't stay in there forever, you're going to need to come out to pee. You could sneak out the window, but that's a four-floor drop and those are my specialty, not yours. Sooner or later we're going to have this conversation, Peter."
"No," Peter said. Neal could tell he was leaning against the other side of the wall.
"Liz thinks you are. In love with me, I mean. I told her I thought you just felt responsible for me. She thinks you went out with her because she looks like me."
"She's nice," Peter said, voice receding a little. "I like her."
"So what's the problem?"
"Peter, this is childish. Open the door."
"It's not locked," Peter said. Neal tested the knob, and the door swung open. Peter was sitting on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, hunched over. Neal sat down next to him, mirroring his posture. Peter looked sidelong at him and snorted.
"That trick doesn't work with me," he said.
"Fine," Neal agreed, and sat up, then flopped back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. "So you like Liz."
"El," Peter corrected. "She likes to be called El. She just used Liz because she didn't know us yet."
"You like El. Why'd you run out on her?"
"Don't think I didn't find that condom, by the way," Peter said. "Nice work, I didn't feel the drop."
"We wouldn't have worked out."
"Why? Because you can't flirt? She didn't seem to mind. Or because you're hung up on -- " Neal saw the tension tighten in Peter's shoulders, " -- okay, fine, we'll keep it theoretical. Hung up on someone else?"
"You're my boss," Peter said, totally ignoring Neal's very wise suggestion about keeping it theoretical. "It's not like you're interested, anyway."
"It's not like you gave me a chance to be," Neal replied. "You didn't exactly give off signals. Which is pretty impressive, for you."
"You think I do your ties because I think you can't?" Peter asked. Neal rubbed his forehead.
"Okay, maybe I'm not that good at reading them. Or, consider the possibility that I thought I might be reading something that wasn't there, because I wanted it to be, so I tried to ignore it."
Peter glanced over his shoulder at him. "Seriously, you're going to feed me that?"
"Like you said, I'm your boss. It's easy to take advantage in that situation. Don't tell me if I had made a pass, you wouldn't have felt just a little coerced." Neal sat up. "You never showed any interest in men. Or women, actually," he added, trying to be fair.
"I'm a professional," Peter said.
"And you're good at your job," Neal sighed. "Peter, I'm trying to make a point to you here. If you're interested, so am I."
"Jesus." Peter put his face in his hands. "It's not even that simple anymore."
"Because of Li -- because of El?" Neal asked. "You're genuinely into her, aren't you?"
"I don't know," Peter murmured. "She's fun, she likes me I guess, she's just...it's easier with her."
"I think you'll find I'm incredibly easy," Neal said. Peter lifted his head long enough to give him a dry look. "Just saying."
He tilted his head, inviting, and Peter -- well, took the bait was such a calculated way to look at it, but sometimes Peter needed a little luring.
Peter was a pretty good kisser. Kind of possessive and dirty, actually, not what Neal expected. He felt Peter's hand on the back of his neck, holding him there, and took it as a sign to let Peter control it. No wonder El was willing to give the guy a second chance, because if he could do that with his tongue while he was kissing --
Peter pulled back a little, breathing hard, forehead pressed against Neal's. Neal kept his eyes closed.
"I feel like an asshole," Peter said.
"Well, you kiss like a pro," Neal replied.
"I wanted you for so long, and I thought I was getting past it, moving on," Peter breathed. "But I haven't. And now I want her too, and she's just -- it's so much less complicated, this is so difficult, but I don't want to put someone in second place to you, and I don't want to leave you -- "
"Shh, it's fine," Neal said, feeling Peter's fingers tighten on his neck. "You don't have to decide right this second. We're partners, we'll figure it out together, okay?"
Peter nodded and leaned back, letting him go. "Sorry."
"For what?" Neal asked. "That was great."
"Messing everything up."
"Nothing's messed up yet." Neal leaned against him, bumping his shoulder. "I gotta ask, though."
Peter looked at him.
"How long? Since Utah, right? You were pretty handsy in Utah."
Peter shook his head. "Before then. And I wasn't handsy -- "
"What, Chicago?" Neal's eyes widened as he figured it out. "Wait, New York? You'd only just met me in New York. We left for Chicago three days later!"
"I'm a first-sight kinda guy," Peter admitted.
"First sight was me getting punched in the face!"
"First sight was you badly in need of someone to care for you," Peter said quietly. "You were this stupid wild good-looking kid with a ton of talent and nobody at your back. You were so desperate for someone to give a damn about you, you offered a total stranger the job of looking after you for two hundred bucks a week. I'd have done it for fifty. Hell, probably for free."
"Peter." Neal stared at him.
"I didn't know at first," Peter said, misinterpreting his look. "I didn't lie to you, I needed a job anyway. But it started then."
Neal could remember the feeling of being on his own, of not really fitting in anywhere. Or, rather, of being just good enough to fit in anywhere, but only if he faked it. He remembered thinking that life must just be lonely when you picked this job, that was how it was, and that there were bound to be things that made up for it. The amount of cynicism he'd had at twenty was staggering. And more than he had now, just a few years on, because it wasn't that lonely. You just had to find the right person.
He leaned into Peter and felt him raise an arm -- hesitant, tentative, like he couldn't really believe this was allowed -- and put it over Neal's shoulders.
"Hey," Neal said.
"Will you always look after me?" he asked.
"Yeah," Peter said, resting his chin on the crown of Neal's head. "You don't think maybe that's part of the problem?"
"I like challenges," Neal said, and felt Peter drop a kiss into his hair. "We'll figure it out, Peter. Promise. And," he added, pulling away gently, "in my temporary role as the sane one, I'm going to declare we should get some rest. Okay?"
Peter's smile was weak but genuine. "Yeah. Okay."
Late that night, Neal's phone buzzed on his nightstand. Text from El.
How'd it go?
He grinned and picked up his phone. You weren't totally wrong, but it's complicated. Ever seen Cyrano de Bergerac?
If that's your way of confessing love to me, you are messed up. Otherwise I can't see how it's relevant.
Oh, he liked this woman. How messed up am I to think you're hot?
Narcissist. (So are you.)
Working on a solution, Peter's hopeless, you're great. Call you tomorrow, he texted, and set the phone aside.
When Neal woke up the next morning, Peter was making breakfast and not making eye contact.
"I think we should forget about last night," he said, as Neal stumbled into the kitchen.
"I'm not awake yet," Neal told him. "Give me coffee, then make stupid declarations."
"It's not a stupid declaration," Peter continued calmly, pouring a mug of coffee and adding a spoonful of sugar to it. Neal sipped and settled in at the table by the window. "Look, we both have a good thing here and I don't want to lose it or mess it up."
"Listen, I know you're anxious about it," Neal said, as Peter flipped two fried eggs out of the pan and onto a plate, adding some toast as it popped out of the toaster. "But I think this could be a good thing. We've been living together for years under what I would call highly stressful circumstances and surviving just fine. Thriving, even. I'm not seeing how adding sex to the equation is a disadvantage."
"Sex is always a disadvantage," Peter said.
"Boy, have you been sleeping with the wrong people."
"It makes you vulnerable," Peter continued. "And if it's no good, it's awkward."
"One, I don't see how either of us could possibly be more exposed where the other is concerned," Neal said, as Peter broke two more eggs into the frying pan. "Two, you're delusional if you think it wouldn't be good."
Peter was silent for a while, standing over the stove, prodding the eggs occasionally. Neal ate his breakfast and kept his peace.
"Maybe I don't want to, and I don't have to defend that decision to you," Peter said finally.
Neal nodded, because arguing with Peter was like shooting a brick wall. It was fun for a while, and then just boring, and it didn't really affect the wall at all.
"That's your right," he said, pushing his plate away. "I need to get dressed, I'm going out on some recon. Take the day off."
"Neal -- " Peter started, turning towards him.
"Seriously, it's okay," Neal said, and gave him a smile. Peter nodded uncertainly.
When Neal came back out, freshly scrubbed and dressed for the day, Peter's plate was in the sink, eggs barely eaten, and Peter was sitting in the living room, cleaning his guns.
"I'll be back for dinner," he said. Peter didn't look up. "I'll bring something. Don't cook, okay?"
"Sure," Peter said. Neal sighed and waved as he left, not that Peter would see it; he called Elizabeth as soon as he got downstairs.
"You remember I said Peter was being difficult?" he asked, when she picked up. "I think we can safely escalate it to impossible."
"Gee, a con man making things complicated? Wouldn't have seen that one coming," she said.
"Peter's not a con man," Neal replied, feeling defensive.
"Lie down with dogs..." she said, and laughed into Neal's outraged silence. "You two are so easy to needle."
"You are a terrible person," he told her.
"I'm certainly not going to earn any girl scout badges," she agreed. "Neal, how do you expect me to help you with this? I'm the reason he's being impossible in the first place."
"I was hoping we could meet. Talk, you know," he said. "Whenever you're free?"
"I keep my own hours," she said. "Where do you want to meet?"
"In about twenty minutes, leave the Met and take a walk through Central Park," he said. "I'll catch up with you."
"Very cloak and dagger. See you then."
Neal hung up and turned to hail a cab.
He'd chosen Central Park because it was public, and there wasn't a huge likelihood that Elizabeth would clock him in public if he offended her. Not that he thought she offended easily, but he didn't know her as well as Peter did. Granted, the reasons she made Peter jumpy were more to do with Peter's neuroses than her own...
"Hey there," he said, catching up to her once they were out of sight of the Met. "Spare some change?"
She startled a little, then laughed. "You were tailing me."
"It's one of my many skills. Thanks for coming out on short notice."
Elizabeth gave an elaborate little shrug. "You're more interesting than my current restoration projects. What's going on with Peter?"
"He's running a little hot and cold. I thought we had a good talk last night, worked some stuff out. This morning he doesn't want to talk about it."
"So it is you, huh?" she asked. Neal nodded. "Validated!"
"Yes, you're very wise and all the clever," Neal said. "But he genuinely likes you, El. More than I think he's willing to show. And you two, you make a good couple."
"What about you two?" she asked, as they dawdled in the shade. "I don't want to be the consolation prize."
"People change," Neal said vaguely. "Feelings change. Stuff."
"Very coherent, Cyrano."
Neal took in a breath. "Well, I have another option."
"Oh?" she asked.
"Kinda. Okay, let me try this," Neal said, and stopped on the path, taking her shoulders and turning her gently so he could kiss her. She made a startled noise, but she didn't pull away.
She really didn't pull away. Neal was the one who finally broke the kiss.
"Sparks?" he asked hoarsely.
"Yeah, um, sparks," she said, looking shocked at herself. She brushed her hair back, nervously. "Okay, this is messed up. I don't want to be the consolation prize but I don't want to grind salt in the wound, either."
"It's not as messed up as you think," he said. "It sounds crude, but there's no other way to put it. What do you think about threesomes?"
She blinked at him. "Well, that's...an unorthodox solution to the problem we're having here."
"You seem like an unorthodox woman. And Peter and I have never been what you'd call conventional," he pointed out.
"You didn't talk to him about this, did you?" she asked. "This isn't what he wanted to not-talk about?"
"No. I thought about it, but I wanted to...check for sparks," he said. El chewed on her lip. "Look, I think we both know that -- "
" -- this is about Peter," she said, before he could.
"Yeah. I like you, and we're -- there's something there for us. But I'm not where he is, not about you. Mostly I want him to be happy, and he's miserable right now."
She nodded. "Are you okay with that? It being about him?"
"It's probably not going to be smooth," he said. "But -- yeah. And if this doesn't end in tears, it could be more for us eventually. Don't you think?"
"It's the ending in tears part I'm a little worried about," she admitted.
"Well, better later than immediately."
She laughed a little. "That kind of thinking is why you have Peter to look after you."
Neal grinned, acknowledging the truth behind the tease. "So there's only one problem left."
"How we pitch this to Peter without terrifying him."
Neal didn't like Elizabeth's plan; it went against his grain. But he had to admit it was ingeniously novel.
Peter was watching a ball game when he came home with dinner, and Neal sat down on the sofa, the end closest to Peter's chair, offering him a carton of pad thai. Peter accepted it, gave him a hesitant smile, and turned back to the game.
"So I get that you don't want to talk about this," Neal said, and Peter tipped his head back, looking at the ceiling. "Promise, let's just get this all out in the open and then we never have to do it again."
Peter groaned, but he sat up and muted the television, turning to Neal with a gesture that he should say his piece.
"If you don't want to get into things with me, then we won't," Neal said. "But what about Elizabeth?"
"What about her?" Peter asked, stabbing a plastic fork into his food.
"Are you going to see her again?"
"I don't know," Peter said. "Maybe," he added, and then corrected himself, "No."
"I don't have to defend that to you, either," Peter said.
"No, I guess not. But if you don't want to talk about you and me, and you don't want to see Elizabeth again, that leaves you nowhere. Your choice, but I don't want that for you," Neal said. Peter was silent. "I thought this was because you're scared of change, but now I'm beginning to wonder if you're scared of sex."
"I'm not scared of sex."
"If you don't like sex -- "
"I like sex just fine. Why is this all about sex?" Peter asked.
"It's not about sex. It's -- about you and me, figuring out where Elizabeth is for us, and finding something," Neal said. "Look, I saw her this morning."
"You said you were doing recon!"
"Well, it kind of was," Neal said, masking a guilty look less well than he would have liked. "She said I should just tell you the truth and not try to spin it."
Peter blinked at him. "That's novel."
"That's what I said! But she might be right. So here's the truth: we both care about you. She and I, we get along okay. I kissed her, you know, there were...sparks," Neal said. Peter glared. "Hey, if you don't want her, you can't stop other guys from trying their luck. But that's not the point, Peter."
"So what is the point?"
"That it wouldn't be easy, but it could be great. You and me, calling her up and asking her out," Neal said. "Think of it as taking on another business associate, just with -- "
"I was thinking more along the lines of flowers and chocolates, but sure, sex works for me." Neal shrugged. "What, you want me to woo you? I can do that."
"Please don't," Peter said, sounding alarmed.
"We could show her a good time. We could have a good time." He held up his phone. "We can call her right now. Or we can move on, never talk about it again, and you can keep being unhappy and alone. Up to you."
Peter looked at the phone for a long time. Neal waggled it slightly, and Peter glanced up at his face.
"She could be good for us," Neal said quietly. "And if things don't work out, it's not the end of the world. We all took care of ourselves before the others came along."
"I'm gonna have to go get in some more bar fights," Peter said, sighing, and took the phone out of Neal's hand. Neal resisted the urge to do a little dance of success. He was good.
"Put it on speakerphone," he said, as Peter dialed. Peter gave him a look, but set the phone down and tapped speaker. Elizabeth's voice rang out in the apartment.
"El, it's Peter," Peter said, and then gave Neal a panicked look.
"Peter, hi," Elizabeth replied. "Good to hear from you."
Peter swallowed. Neal watched in fascination, then recovered and said, "Hey Elizabeth, Neal too here."
"Aw, boys," she said warmly. "How are you?"
"Good, we're good," Neal said, making a get it together gesture at Peter. "We wanted to ask -- "
"You want to get dinner?" Peter blurted. There was a badly-stifled giggle from the phone.
"We talked," Neal sighed.
"I'm glad. Yes, I'd like to have dinner."
Peter looked a little stunned. "Um, okay, good. D - Donatella's, mayb -- "
"Why don't you come to my place?" she suggested. "Tomorrow night?"
"We have the thing," Peter hissed to Neal.
"The thing can wait," Neal hissed back. "Tomorrow night sounds great. We'll bring the wine. What time?"
"Seven. Bring a red."
"No problem," Neal said.
"Oh, and Peter?" Elizabeth asked.
"Uh, yeah?" Peter said.
"Pack the pair of you an overnight bag, would you?" she said, and hung up.
They both stared at the phone for a minute.
"I like a woman who goes after what she wants -- " Neal started, and Peter cut him off with a hurried, "Yeah, so I'm gonna go -- "
" -- and I'll reschedule the thing," Neal agreed.
" -- find that bottle of Syrah -- " Peter muttered.
"Hey," Neal said, as Peter brushed past him distractedly. He caught Peter's arm, pulled him around, and kissed him. Peter jerked forward into the kiss, then pulled back.
"It's gonna be great, okay? It'll be fine," Neal said, and Peter nodded and backed away, heading for the kitchen and the wine rack.
Elizabeth had a tasteful if slightly run-down little apartment, but it had a hell of a view. Neal stood at the big windows and looked out at the lights of New York, the best substitute for stars anyone could ask for, the moon hanging full and low behind the skyline.
"The windows leak, the wiring is old, and the radiators are noisy, but the view is free," Elizabeth said, joining him. "Like it?"
"Love it," Neal answered, sipping his wine. Behind them, in the kitchen, he could hear water running, Peter doing the dishes.
"I tried to stop him," Elizabeth said.
"Let him. Looking after people calms him down," Neal answered with a smile. "You know he used to be an FBI agent?"
"Really? How'd he get from there to here?" Elizabeth asked.
"All he'd ever tell me is that our side has more fun," Neal said with a shrug.
"Well, that's true enough," Elizabeth allowed. "Less paperwork, I bet."
"That's what he said," Neal laughed. Elizabeth leaned up and kissed him; Neal let her, kissing back, but didn't push for more. She leaned back a little and patted his chest, thoughtfully.
"Phew. Sparks," she said, fingers smoothing little wrinkles in his shirt.
"It won't be the same for all of us," Neal reminded her.
"No, I know that," she agreed. "I just...don't want you to think this is just about the sparks. I like you."
"But Peter's something special," Neal translated.
"Yes. And he handles me like I'm something special, and I like that," Elizabeth said. "I like the idea of having you both. You don't seem complete without each other. I just think...if we're honest, this will work. If we lie to each other, we won't last very long."
Neal became aware that the water had stopped running, but he wasn't sure how long it had been. He looked up and saw Peter in the kitchen doorway, eyes dark, watching them. The expression on his face -- desire, doubt, wonder -- made it clear he'd heard enough.
"Been a long time since I've been an honest man," Peter said, ducking his head. "Longer for him," he added, nodding at Neal. Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, but Neal grabbed her around the waist and pulled her against him so the two of them faced Peter. She shrieked a laugh, but didn't move away; her body settled back into his.
"Now, be honest," Neal said, kissing Elizabeth's ear, pulling her hair to one side to kiss her throat. "You really want to stand all the way over there and let us have all the fun?"
Peter seemed to be considering it, at least for a second, but then he came forward quickly, took Elizabeth's face in his hands, and kissed her. She squirmed against Neal, hands going to the collar of Peter's shirt, both of them startled by the aggressiveness of Peter's kiss. Neal bent his head slightly, nuzzling against Peter's temple.
"You're sure?" Peter breathed, when he broke the kiss. Neal saw Elizabeth lick her lips.
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah -- "
Later, Neal tried to remember their first time together. His memory was exceptional for numbers, or for art, but that was how that night seemed to him -- brief frames of art, impressions more than scenes. Peter undressing him, by far not the first time but the first time his hands shook doing it. Elizabeth's dark hair on the pillow, the soft curve of her breasts, and Peter's hand deep tan against her white skin. The brush-bristle texture of Peter's hair, and Elizabeth's fingers tracing the narrow scar on Neal's side where the barbed wire had caught him in Utah. Peter's expression whenever he saw them together. Elizabeth under him and Peter inside him. Hands and mouths.
He remembered, after, telling Elizabeth the story of the scar -- the heist he'd pulled, the barbed wire that sliced him open, staggering back to Peter and Peter getting him drunk and stitching him up.
"He asked if I'd always take care of him," Peter interjected, and Neal felt himself blush.
"That's sweet," Elizabeth said. "And what did you say, Peter?"
"Took him a while, but he said yes," Neal said, before Peter could.
"Well, someone has to," Peter grumbled sleepily.
Totally into me, Neal mouthed to Elizabeth over Peter's shoulder.
I know, she answered gleefully.
"Stop that," Peter murmured. Neal patted his back. "This is so wrong."
"That's why it feels so good," Elizabeth informed him.
"Sleep now," Neal said. "Polyamorous panic in the morning."
"M'kay," Peter agreed, already drifting off. That was what Neal remembered with greatest clarity: lying draped over Peter, Peter sprawled on his stomach with one arm around Elizabeth, and her curled up against his side, talking to Neal over the broad stretch of Peter's back until they both fell asleep.
Peter certainly did have a panic about it all; actually he had several, over the first few weeks, though they were pretty subdued, in that way Peter had. But Peter also loved thoroughly and steadfastly, and made no differential between them in terms of affection. He might be nervous, but he was never unsure.
Neal was a romantic, less prone to love at first sight, more given to courtship. Calmer about the relationship, it still took him longer, but he could feel it creeping up on him from day to day: affection, deep attachment, love. He might have fallen for Elizabeth more slowly than Peter had, but he could see it coming. And the spark never died.
Unfortunately, Neal could also see trouble coming. The Feds were getting wise; Peter knew enough about how the FBI worked to throw them off the trail a couple of times, but that wouldn't last forever. They'd had a good run in New York, and they had traveling cash, but...Elizabeth had a job here. She had friends, a life. Peter and Neal really only had each other, and her.
"New York's getting too hot for us," he said one evening, arm around Elizabeth, hand toying with Peter's hair on her other side. Peter was slouched up against her shoulder, but he craned his neck a little, catching Neal's sober look.
"I've been thinking that too," he said.
"You got any angles?" Neal asked, as Elizabeth leaned into him.
"Just the usual options. Get out or go honest. We have enough stashed we could probably live off savings for a few years. I could go into security, I guess. But you'd get bored," Peter said. "El too."
"Going honest isn't much fun," Elizabeth added. "He's right."
"We can't just go, though," Neal objected. "Elizabeth has a job. Even if you want to leave it," he added to her, "it'd look suspicious. And you like your job, don't you?"
She smiled at him, the one that meant she thought her boys were dumb but pretty. "Did you both just assume I wasn't making any plans?"
Peter straightened a little. "What plans?"
She kissed his cheek. "I've had a standing job offer with the Louvre for years."
"Paris?" Neal asked, excited. He'd done a few jobs in Europe, a long time ago, but he hadn't been back since. And he'd loved Paris.
"I thought we could get a little place somewhere," she said. "You boys could go terrorize the rest of Europe whenever you wanted. I'll handle things in France. I bet we could go years in Paris without anyone getting wise."
"We can run ahead," Neal said, diving headfirst into the plan. Paris. "Peter and I can find an apartment and get set up and start making contacts, then you can quit in a month or two and join us. I'll make us some new passports. Peter, what name do you want? We should stick with P. You want to be -- " he stopped, because Peter's expression was...complicated. "What?"
"I don't speak French," Peter said, his voice a mixture of apologetic and anxious.
"Oh, sweet baby," Elizabeth said, pulling him down by the collar of his shirt and giving him a deep, distracting kiss. "I'll teach you," she said, when she was done.
"I think you just got your first lesson," Neal added, amused. Elizabeth kissed him too. "Ooh, a refresher course!"
"Hush," she said, smacking him on the shoulder. Peter hoisted himself off the couch, smoothing down his shirt. "Where are you going? That was an invitation to make out."
"Packing," Peter said with a smile, and walked over to the closet to rummage through it for their suitcases.
"Oh, let him," Neal whispered to her. "He gets so excited about these things."
"Heard that," Peter called. "We're going to have to travel light, get rid of a bunch of stuff."
"What about that little guy you know?" Elizabeth asked. "What's his name, Maxy?"
"Mozzie," Peter said. "Yeah, he'd take the apartment off our hands, he's been looking for a new safe house. And he'd hold onto the art Neal stashed until it's cool enough to fence. I'll give him a call."
Neal sat back, relaxing, while Peter bustled around making plans and Elizabeth called out instructions occasionally. He leaned his head on hers, watched Peter, and daydreamed of Paris.