sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2010-11-21 09:48 am

Exquisite, Chapter 14

Title: Exquisite
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: None.
Summary: Neal is finding a place for himself, both at the Bureau and in Peter and Elizabeth's life. Unraveling the mystery of the music box might ruin everything -- but that's a risk he has to take.

Chapter Thirteen

***

Neal was almost dressed the next morning, just fitting his cufflinks in, when Mozzie called.

"Haversham," Neal said, answering the phone.

"Lady Suit just arrived," Mozzie replied.

"Are you staking out June's?" Neal inquired, keeping his voice even.

"I'm staking out the feds," Mozzie said. "Did you know Kevin Mitnick wiretapped the FBI? Think we could figure out how he did it?"

"Kev and I had drinks once," Neal said. "He's a telecom mastermind, that's way out of our league. Nice guy though. You're tailing Diana? She's not stupid."

"Neither am I. Relax, it's under control. This is just to say she's downstairs, and if you're right that your Suit's been meeting with her, he has to know about the box."

"All roads lead to Burke," Neal murmured.

"What're you going to do?"

Neal tipped his head back, thinking. "Diana's not going to make a move without Peter."

"Suit's in the hospital."

"You keeping an eye on him?"

"I got two guys on the door and a staff nurse on the payroll making sure he doesn't get accidentally overmedicated," Mozzie said. His voice softened a little; he might hate the Man but he had a weak spot for Peter. "We'll keep him safe, Neal."

"Paying out of the Ohio account?" Neal asked. It was one of his personal accounts; Mozzie shouldn't be paying for Peter's safety out of pocket.

"No, the Galveston one," Mozzie replied. Galveston had been a trust -- it was what Kate had lived on while he was locked up. But Kate was dead, and Peter was alive. "Do you think he's really in any danger?"

"Nah," Neal answered, propping the phone with his shoulder so that he could do up his other cufflink. He thought about Shattuck passing the hat, about Mozzie putting guards on the hospital. "I appreciate the precaution, though. Thank you."

"Eh, I had nothing else to do," Mozzie replied. "Neal, do you have a plan?"

"This is going to take some armwrestling," Neal said. "If I try it now, he'll just freak out by the time he can do anything about it. We wait until he's out of the hospital, I'll talk to him then. Two days, max."

"Unless he catches MRSA," Mozzie said.

"He's not going to catch MRSA," Neal answered. "He'll be fine. I gotta go or Diana's going to come looking. You can drop the tail on her."

"Whatever you say," Mozzie said dubiously. "Listen, I have a job out of town the next few days. But when you get it -- "

"You'll be the first to know," Neal promised. He hung up and checked the mirror; time to put on the game face, the one that said he didn't know Diana had the music box, he wasn't planning on confronting Peter about it, and he had absolutely no plan to steal it and bolt if Peter lied to him again.

Downstairs, Diana and June were having coffee. Neal put his hat on, smiled wide at both of them, and played good boy for his substitute owner. As far as he could tell, Diana bought it.

By the time they'd checked in at the Bureau and Diana had put Neal's tracker back on and taken care of some things that had to be handled in Peter's absence -- Neal really did admire her near-flawless forgery of his signature -- it was mid-morning, well into visiting hours at the hospital. Diana gave Neal a box of paperwork and files to carry, and left him at the hospital lobby.

"You're not coming in?" he asked, leaning back into the car, file box under his arm.

"Peter's out, someone has to make sure nobody blows the place up," she replied, grinning.

"You want me back at the Bureau today?"

Diana shook her head. "I want you here. And you can tell the guys your little friend posted in the hospital lobby that you've got things covered."

Neal gave her a slightly guilty grimace. "He gets paranoid."

"I noticed," she said. "Tell Peter we're thinking of him."

"Will do," he replied, and shut the door, heading into the hospital.

He asked at the desk where he could find Peter Burke, and when he put his head in the doorway to Peter's room he found Peter alone, asleep in a hospital bed behind a privacy curtain. There was a huge bouquet of flowers on a nearby table, and a fruit basket within reach of the bed. Neal crept in quietly, put the box down next to the bed, and settled into a nearby chair. Peter looked better; his skin was still paler than Neal would have liked, but there was more color in his cheeks and he was breathing easily. No more heart monitor, just an IV drip in one arm.

His own fascination with Peter, his attraction to him, often baffled Neal. He tried not to think too much about it, because introspection rarely led anywhere good in his line of work. Obviously some of it was that Peter had caught him, and was thus deserving of respect; even before that, Peter had been a good playmate (up until the end, a little voice reminded him, when Neal and Kate and Mozzie had been taut and scared all the time, because the FBI had guns). And if Neal had known what Peter could do, if he had known the hidden places in his own head Peter could crack into --

But he hadn't. So Peter had simply been the guy who caught him, and then the guy who owned him. And that was enough, it seemed, to build something deeper in Neal, a desire that he had never expected would come to anything.

"You gonna sit there all day?" Peter asked, and Neal almost jumped out of his own skin. Peter opened one eye.

"Jesus, Peter," Neal said, adrenaline pumping through his system. "I thought you were asleep."

"Nothing else to do around here," Peter replied, opening the other eye and sitting up a little more in the bed. "I take it I have you to thank for the get-well gifts?" he added, holding up a card. GET WELL SOON. NYPD FDNY NY-EMT & ASSOC. Below, Call if you need anything. M.

"I just told Shattuck," Neal said. "He took over from there."

"You went to Enright's?"

Neal nodded.

"How'd that go?" Peter asked, and Neal could hear in his voice that he was acting a lot healthier than he felt.

"Shattuck passed the hat, bought me a beer. Calhoun put me in a cab," Neal said. He was right: Peter got it. Why he'd gone, what had happened, why he'd needed to be with people if he couldn't stay with Peter.

Peter laid down the card and reached out, palm cool on Neal's cheek. Neal turned into it, closing his eyes.

"Thank you," Peter said. "I'm -- "

"Just -- don't," Neal interrupted, because he didn't want to think about the possibility that Peter could have died.

"Okay." Peter's thumb drifted down over the corner of his mouth, and then he let him go. Neal looked up at him.

"I brought you some files from Diana," he said, and the eagerness in Peter's eyes was ridiculous.

***

They let Peter out of the hospital late that night, long after Neal had gone to take the files back to the office and, he promised, not get into any mischief.

There was something odd about Neal -- something subdued, or perhaps withdrawn, but Peter decided not to worry about it. For all he knew, it was a hangover from the bar. Which was a funny thing, that Neal had known instinctively to go to Enright's, even if he hadn't known what he'd encounter there. It was good. Neal liked people, was good with people, but sometimes lived too much in his own head.

The next morning Peter was back at the hospital for a checkup, and then in to the FBI as early as he could get. He had inprocessing, paperwork, and --

"Burke!" Hughes barked, as Peter was passing his office.

A meeting with Hughes, apparently.

"Sir?" he asked, leaning in the doorway. Hughes gestured him in and Peter sat, frowning.

"Feeling better?" Hughes asked.

"Yeah. Clean bill of health this morning, I was just going to go file my medical forms," Peter said, pointing in the direction of his office.

"Glad to hear it. Sure you don't want another few days?"

Peter shook his head. "The Novice case has a lot of accounting to go through. I'll be behind a desk for a few days, take it easy for now."

"Good. Let me know if you need some time."

"Thank you sir, I will," Peter said, and was starting to rise when Hughes held up a hand. Peter sat back in the chair again.

"We need to talk about Caffrey," he said. Peter tensed. "How close an eye are you keeping on him?"

"As close as I think he needs, at any given time. Why?" Peter asked. "Has he been accused of something?"

Hughes tilted his head slightly. "Most people would ask if he'd done something."

"Has he?"

"I don't know." Hughes rubbed a hand over his face. "You see him outside of work?"

"Sure, he comes over once in a while for dinner. Keeps him out of trouble," Peter replied warily.

"Are you ever at his place?"

"Sometimes, if I need a file he has or if we need to talk." Peter didn't like the drift of this conversation. "Positive reinforcement works well with him. I don't toss his place, if that's what you're asking."

"Not exactly." Hughes passed over a folder and Peter opened it, looking down at the full-page image printout inside -- text, and a block print image of a woman in a period dress. "That's a copy of a document recovered in California about a week ago. It's purportedly a page from a rare 17th-century manuscript. It's a fake."

"It's good work," Peter replied, lifting it up to study it. "Could be his from the bad old days. Any reason to think it is?"

"There was microprinting," Hughes said. Peter looked up at him.

"Microprinting on a 17th-century manuscript page?" he asked incredulously. "That's pretty cocky, even for Neal."

"Have a look," Hughes said. Peter set the manuscript page aside and looked at the one underneath. There was an enlargement of the illustration -- the woman's hair. Set into that was a second enlargement that very clearly showed the letters N.C.

"It's not his usual typeface," he said, perplexed.

"Forensics thinks this is recent. Not more than a month old," Hughes said.

"Neal wouldn't have had the resources to make this, not in his home," Peter replied. "It's possible he has a workshop, but I don't think he'd have the time, and he doesn't spend enough time anywhere to make it plausible. I mean, it's not like he's got a micron engraver sitting on his desk," he said, tipping his head at the bullpen.

"You think this isn't his?" Hughes asked.

"I might not be the best person to ask," Peter admitted. "I hope it isn't his. It seems unlikely. But unless someone wanted to frame him -- no," he said suddenly, turning back to the original image. "You said California?"

"The Sacramento branch office is handling the investigation officially," Hughes said. "Why?"

"Neal doesn't do much of this kind of work," Peter said, "but his little protégé did. That kid from the Barlowe case, Clive. Clive looked up to Neal. Could be him trying to get Neal's attention. On an outside bet, could be him trying to get Neal in trouble. Neal didn't exactly make life easy for the kid. You want me to have Diana look into it?"

"Sacramento hasn't let it go yet. Sit on this for now," Hughes said. "Keep an eye on Caffrey. See if you can find any way to prove he did or did not do this. Don't talk to him about it. I don't want him doing anything stupid to get a message back, if it's Clive. He does enough stupid crap already."

"He should know about this," Peter pointed out. "Especially if the Sacramento office might come after him for it. I don't like investigating him without his knowledge, not when he's working as my asset."

"That's an order, Peter," Hughes said. "It's not your case."

"If Sacramento gives it up, I want it," Peter answered. "I want warning if they're coming after Neal for it."

"Done. In the meantime I'll suggest they look into Clive Banks." Hughes looked up at Peter. "This kid, is he some kind of proto-Caffrey?"

Peter shook his head. "Neal doesn't think he'll get very far."

"Okay. I'll keep you in the loop. Go on," Hughes said, and Peter walked slowly back to his office.

Neal showed up that morning late enough to be fashionable, early enough not to get yelled at. Though he probably would have had a pass; Peter was on his feet but still tired from the process of having a needle stabbed into his heart, and didn't have the energy to harangue anyone today, least of all Neal.

Which was why he didn't fight when Neal sat down in his office and said, with remarkable calm, "You lied to me about the music box. I know you still have it." Peter just asked how he'd found out, and let Neal do most of the talking from there.

Diana thought that showing Neal the box was a terrible idea, when Peter asked her to bring it to him that afternoon. Peter pretty much agreed with her, but at this point he had no choice, and he could acknowledge Neal's right to know. Besides, Neal was conducting himself with an unusual amount of decorum: he was intense, but then he always was, when it came to Kate. At least he was being patient, being quiet. That should, in itself, have been a warning.

Peter didn't want to have the box in his house, not with Elizabeth there; he knew she knew something about it, but the less she saw, the safer she was, and for once she'd agreed with him about that. She was wary about this in the way she normally wasn't, about his work. He could hear in her voice that she still remembered when Fowler had harassed her at work, when he'd almost ruined her business completely. When he called her, she just said, "Stay safe, sweetie."

"Promise," he answered.

"Love you."

"Love you too," he said, and rested a hand on the bag sitting between him and Neal in the car. Neal was watching him carefully as he hung up.

"Ready to do this?" Peter asked. Neal nodded.

June's house was dark when they arrived, and Neal didn't turn on many lights in the loft; no Mozzie either, maybe a lucky happenstance or maybe a contrivance on Neal's part. Neal just walked to his worktable and sat down, hands rubbing on his thighs as the only sign of his nervousness. Peter set the bag on the table and unzipped it, lifting the box out carefully. It always felt heavier than it should. Neal probably would have called it the weight of history.

Neal went still and his eyes glittered, sweeping over the box. Peter thought it was a relatively ugly thing, covered in mismatched amber like a crazy-quilt and adorned with unattractive little rococo cherubs. Then again, he wouldn't have paid much for most of the art they encountered in their work. Didn't mean he didn't understand the value of it.

He set the bag aside and sat down, facing Neal across the box.

"I didn't tell you everything," he admitted. Neal was still staring at the box. "For your own protection. I don't know what you're gonna do, and neither do you."

"I know my options," Neal said, looking up at him, and Peter wasn't sure what he meant -- so he defined it, because whatever Neal thought his options were, they were basically two things.

"Revenge or justice, right?" he said. Neal looked back at the box. "Neal. As long as I'm involved, it's gonna be the latter."

"What if justice isn't good enough?" Neal asked.

And that was Neal's world, wasn't it? There was no certainty in his life, not when it came to this. Why would there be? But Peter had twelve years of hard lessons, and he knew -- if you crossed that line as a lawman, you ended up like Deckard. If you lost your moral center, the power you had made you a monster.

"It has to be," Peter said, hoping Neal would believe him, would trust him this far. "It will be."

Neal didn't reply, at least not to that. "What'd you find?"

Peter exhaled and leaned forward, explaining the missing piece of the box, the keyhole. "The missing piece is a key," he finished, and was going to promise Neal they'd find it, or find a way to pick the lock --

But Neal was leaning back, reaching inside his jacket, and when his hand emerged he was holding a small gold figurine.

"...which you have," Peter said, annoyance warring with triumph. Neal looked almost smug.

"No more secrets, Peter," he said, pushing the key into the keyhole. It made a soft click.

"No more secrets," Peter agreed, and Neal turned the key. Inside the box, gears audibly turned, and on top of the lid the other cherubs rotated too. Peter rested his hands on the near corners of the box, and Neal mirrored his movements on the other side; together they lifted the lid.

For a second, nothing happened; Peter shot a glance at Neal, who seemed to be holding his breath. Then, with another soft click, the interior lid fell open. Dull metal gleamed at them from the inside.

Neal looked to Peter, who nodded; carefully, deftly, he lifted the metal strip out of its little tray, holding it up to the light.

"Second comb," Neal breathed, studying it. "God, the..." Peter watched him as he bent over to study the mechanism in the base of the box. "This is...look, there's the brackets for it," he said, pointing to one of the screws that held the original comb in place. They had little elongated wings, nothing more than irregularities unless you knew what they were for. "They had to have been designed together, or the cylinder wouldn't play correctly for the base comb...."

He seemed more caught up in the construction of it, the mechanics, than the fact that they'd finally found the box's secret, or at least taken the first step. He was already taking the machine apart in his head, studying how it must have been designed.

"You want to see what it plays?" Peter asked. Neal took the hint and carefully fitted the comb onto the brackets. He glanced at Peter.

"You do the honors," he said quietly.

Peter reached over and pushed the little switch inside the mechanism. Someone must have cared for the box over the years, he knew; kept it oiled, kept it wound. Maybe replaced the springs when they grew brittle.

The song it played was discordant, almost chaotic, difficult to separate out the initial music from the new comb. He'd half been dreading that it would simply play a new song, which would mean -- it would mean that the comb meant nothing. This noise, though, meant something. It had to.

"It must be some kind of message," Neal said, as if he were agreeing with Peter's thoughts. "This was built into the box when it was constructed. There has to be a reason."

"I can't take it to our code guys," Peter answered. "The Bureau still thinks the box is in evidence in DC."

Neal glanced up at him, grinning, and flicked the switch to turn it off. "Fortunately I know a guy."

Peter grinned back. "Want to call him?"

"He's out of town until tomorrow," Neal shook his head. "Even if I called him now, he couldn't be here for hours, and I don't want to tell him over the phone."

"This is remarkably anticlimactic," Peter sighed, sitting back.

"What'd you think would be in there?" Neal asked. Peter shrugged.

"I've been wondering. It's too small to hold much of value, except maybe some jewelery. State secrets would have gone long stale by now. Treasure map?"

"Could still be that," Neal said, studying the box again. "Have to be a pretty big treasure, to go through all this for it. And it can't be the location of the rest of the Amber Room, or it wouldn't have been built into the box."

"What did you think?" Peter asked.

"I didn't care," Neal said. "Didn't matter. Getting Kate back, that's what mattered. Then...finding out who did this. I'm not sure we're any closer." He looked up at Peter. "Are we?"

Peter chewed on his lip. "We will be," he said quietly. "We'll figure it out. Knowing what someone wants is sometimes halfway to knowing who they are."

Neal nodded. Peter cleared his throat.

"Where'd you get the key?" he asked, and held up a hand when Neal gave him a rebellious look. "I'm not asking as the FBI. I'm just curious."

"Alex," Neal said. He began disassembling the mechanism -- sliding the comb out of its brackets, placing it carefully back in the hidden compartment. Peter watched as he studied the construction of it, the little hinges that pushed the compartment's base out, the way the wood was joined so as to be invisible unless you looked for the seam. Neal liked to know the way things worked. He talked as he fiddled with it. "We used to chase the box, just because. It was a score. Almost got it in Amsterdam. Allegedly," he added. "She got the key from a fence she knew, it's what put us on to the box in the first place. She carried it for years, like a lucky charm. Gave it to me before she left for Italy."

He closed the lid of the box and carefully turned the key to lock it. He removed it and held it out to Peter, cupped in his palm. Peter stared at it for a second, startled by the gesture, then closed Neal's fingers around it.

"Keep it. Better if they stay apart," he said. Neal nodded and tucked it back in his pocket. He looked like he was trying to decide something.

"The box needs to go back to Diana?" he asked.

"It should. She can keep it safe, and nobody suspects her," Peter said.

"You gonna tell her what we found?"

"Yeah. She's a part of this. She deserves to know."

Neal nodded. Peter bent down to gather up the bag for the music box, but Neal put a hand on it, fingers draped gently across the crown on top.

"Can you stay tonight?" he asked, voice low. "I have a safe, it'll be secure here. Just tonight. It's not about the box," he added, and Peter saw the half-wild look in his eyes. What they'd found wasn't what he'd been expecting, couldn't help them get any closer to Fowler, couldn't be unraveled until Mozzie got a look at it in the morning. Maybe not even then. Neal was calm and quiet and inside he was probably falling apart.

"Show me," Peter said. Neal got up and walked to his dresser next to the bed. He turned the handle once, in one direction, and then in the other. When he opened the door, the back of the dresser opened too. He pushed his shirts aside and gestured at a steel panel with a digital combination lock.

"Byron kept a safe up here," he said, punching in a code. Peter joined him as he swung the door open. "I upgraded it."

"Should I see whatever's inside?" Peter asked. Neal pulled the panel open; inside it was mostly empty, except for a small metal container and --

"You keep a sketchbook in a safe?" Peter said, glancing at him.

"It's a private book," Neal replied. "Secure enough for you?"

"Yeah." Peter sighed. He took his gun out of its holster and set it in the safe. "I need to call El. Stash the music box. Carefully."

Neal gave him a dry look, but he picked up the box, packing it away in its bag. Peter watched him store it even as he was heading for the big French doors, stepping outside with phone in hand. Elizabeth answered on the third ring.

"So?" she asked. "Good news?"

"I think so," Peter said. "Hard to know yet."

"Well, don't tell me the details. You coming home?"

He sighed. "Neal's having a crazy moment."

"You need to stay?"

"I think I should. You can come over, I don't think he'd mind -- "

"I'm exhausted," she said. "I think I'll pass. Is Neal going to be okay?"

"He's just off-balance. This whole thing..."

"I know, hon," she answered. "It's fine. I'm letting Satch sleep on your side of the bed, though."

"You're amazing," he told her.

"I know that too," she answered, real amusement in her voice. "You owe me a pot roast."

"Any night of the week," he said. "I love you."

"You too. Kiss Neal for me."

"Yeah, I will," he promised, and hung up.

It was cold, out on the terrace, and the wind swept across it occasionally, carrying up noise and smells from the street below: cars and exhaust, steam from the manhole covers, a wild green smell from the trees that grew around June's house. A far removal from the place the box had been built, probably in some quiet workshop in St. Petersburg. There was no craftman's stamp on it -- understandable if it had been not merely art but artifice, something meant to hide secrets.

He'd seen photographs of the reconstructed replica of the Amber Room at Tsarskoye Selo, and he knew more about the original than he really cared to. German soldiers had taken only thirty-six hours to dismantle it entirely, and portions of it had gone on display in Königsberg Castle -- the box included. From there, perhaps the rest had been destroyed in the bombing of the castle, or the burning of it in the sixties by the Red Army; above a certain temperature, amber would soften and burn. Or it had been removed from the castle, put on a ship that the Russians later sank or a train going somewhere unknown. It could be stashed in a mine or a cavern, in Deutschneudorf or Weimar. A single panel of Italian mosaic work and the music box were the only known surviving relics.

When he came back inside, Neal was hanging his tie in the wardrobe, as placid as if an international treasure wasn't hidden behind it. Peter leaned against the wall and watched him.

"How valuable do you suppose it is?" he asked. Neal looked up at him, unbuttoning his shirt.

"Depends on how you look at it," he answered. "There's blue amber in the inset, and the accents are gold; dismantle it and you have maybe a hundred grand in rare materials. As an antique, without the history, it's good craftsmanship, especially the hidden compartment. Probably two, three hundred thousand if you're selling it legitimately. As a relic of the Amber Room, it's -- " his eyes clouded over a little. "Priceless. I'd insure it for millions. At auction, depending on who was bidding, you might even get that much. It has a story, like the Heart of Earth diamond. People have -- people have died for it. Killed for it."

"Back when you and Alex were chasing it, what would you have done with it?"

Neal looked away. "We were stupid. I don't think either of us thought that far ahead. If she did, she only thought about fencing it, probably. Me, I just liked the challenge. Not that half a mil wouldn't have been nice, but..." he pulled his undershirt off over his head, smoothing down his hair. "The money wasn't the point."

"It became the point," Peter said. "Eventually. Didn't it?"

Neal looked at him carefully. "Yeah. Not for the music box, but...yeah. I wanted money, I wanted to retire. Buy a house somewhere, get married. I thought Kate did too. I don't know."

He came forward, standing in front of Peter, bare muscle and uncertainty.

"This isn't the life I expected for myself," he said. "There were a lot of things I thought might happen. This isn't one of them."

"Would you have been happy with that one?" Peter asked. "The one you wanted?"

"Guess we'll never know," Neal answered, and reached up to unknot Peter's tie. Peter let him, let him pull it out and toss it over the back of a chair and work on the buttons of his shirt. "I like this one. There are things I'd change...the tracker, other things, but..."

He raised a hand suddenly, sharply, pressing his fingers over the bullet-wound scar on his shoulder.

"I want to catch him," he said. "Fowler. If I can't have revenge I want justice. I want it to be over, so I can have this life and not hate myself for it, so I can sleep at night -- "

"Hey, easy," Peter said, pulling his hand away, and Neal stepped in and bent his head, resting his face against Peter's neck. "Easy, shh," he repeated, while Neal held onto him and breathed like he'd just run a race. "We'll get him. We'll figure it out."

"We have to," Neal said. "We have to."

"We will." Peter reached up and gently, very gently, disengaged Neal from his shoulder, held him by the throat and tipped his head up. The tension slowly eased out of Neal's shoulders, and his eyes cleared. Peter smiled. "What do you want?"

"Whatever you want," Neal said. The muscles of his throat and jaw shifted against Peter's hand. "I just need -- "

"Yeah, I know," Peter answered, because he did. Neal needed something to quiet him down, put him in a place he didn't have to think for a while. He could imagine everything in Neal's head: the mechanics of the music box, the twisting paths that it might put them on, to Fowler or to whatever enigmatic secrets it stored, the impatience to find out what those were, the frantic need to lay Kate fully to rest, the moral confusion over his instinct for revenge versus his knowledge that Peter would insist on justice. So much going on behind those eyes. "There's nothing more we can do tonight, right?"

Neal nodded.

"The music box is locked up. Mozzie won't be home until tomorrow."

"Yeah." Neal's eyes were almost glassy now, slowly losing focus.

"And we can't figure this out on our own, and we can't do anything more until Mozzie is here to help."

"Right."

"And I'm here, so even if you wanted to do anything, you couldn't."

"I asked for you to stay," Neal pointed out.

"That wasn't what I said," Peter replied. Neal fell silent, and Peter let go of his throat. "Go get undressed."

He was pleased when Neal didn't ask him what he was doing, where he was going, because Neal sometimes fought this even when he wanted it, and that made it harder on both of them. He just went to the bed and finished undressing, while Peter walked to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. He sipped it, and by the time he'd turned around Neal was sitting on the bed, naked. Barely half-hard.

Peter carried the water back to the bed and set it on the side table. "Lie down."

Neal pulled his legs up, stretching out, but he was still tense, expectant, and he stayed propped on an elbow. "You want me to -- "

"I'll let you know," Peter told him. "Lie down."

Neal lay back slowly, eyes still watching him, trying to figure out what he wanted. Peter dipped his thumb into the glass of water and rubbed it across Neal's lips; Neal sucked it into his mouth, a little greedy, and a jolt went through Peter like he'd been shocked. Maybe he needed this too. When you had Neal Caffrey at your disposal, nervous and hungry and tense, you couldn't focus on much else.

He pulled away, Neal following for a second before lying back again, and Peter twisted and bent, kissing his stomach briefly before mouthing over his cock, which apparently caught Neal by surprise. He jerked sharply, sucked in a breath, pushed himself up again; Peter was reaching up to push him down when Neal said, "You don't have to."

Peter fixed him with an even look. "You belong to me," he said. "I'll do what I want to you."

And there it was, that moment when Neal's whole body went lax and he stopped thinking. He leaned back again, eyes sliding shut, and just waited. Peter bent again and sucked carefully, just the head of his cock, until Neal began to whine and twitch. Then he stopped and stood up, pulling his shirt and holster off together, unbuckling his belt. Neal waited so patiently for him.

He came back once he'd undressed and propped himself over Neal's body, Neal's thighs automatically coming up to cradle his hips. He kissed Neal's shoulder, over the scar.

"Maybe we'll get you a collar," he said, and Neal bucked up against him. "Just for when I can't be here. You can keep it in your safe, with that sketchbook."

Neal moaned something that might have been an affirmative. Peter smiled and bit his skin, gently.

"You feel hard," Neal managed, opening his eyes and giving him a dirty grin.

"You do that to me," Peter agreed. "Good?"

"Yeah, good," Neal breathed, arching up against him again. "You want to -- "

"Neal, I will tell you what I want," Peter scolded, stilling his hips. Neal whined again. "Elizabeth loves it when you do that. I think," he added, starting to move, "next time you come over, you should fuck me."

Neal groaned.

"I think she'd like to see that," Peter breathed. Actually he thought Elizabeth would love to see that, but he didn't want Neal too worked up too quickly. This wasn't about that, not really; it was about showing Neal he had a future -- a future he could destroy if he made the wrong choice. "You think?"

"Whatever you want," Neal said.

"Good answer," Peter replied, moving a little faster. Neal was shifting restlessly underneath him, but the tense anxiety of earlier was gone; this was just sex, it was all sex, and that was good. Calming, for both of them.

He kept it slow, making sure Neal couldn't move too much, making sure Neal was focused on him and not on the thousand other things he could be thinking of. Neal was strong, and he pushed for more with his body if not with words, but Peter had the advantage of leverage and weight. And anyway Neal only ever pushed here, in bed, to confirm what he already knew: that Peter would stop him, that Peter could be trusted to control this.

"Please," Neal started, and Peter grinned against his mouth. "Please, Peter, please..."

"Please what?" he asked, settling back a little.

"I want -- I need to -- " Neal tipped his head back and let out a struggling breath.

Oh. He was asking to come. He was waiting, struggling for control, and Peter said, "No. Wait."

Neal groaned, frustrated, and the sheer power of it tipped something over in Peter, that Neal would actually use every last ounce of his self-control just on Peter's word. He leaned to one side slightly, wrapped a hand around Neal's cock -- Neal jerked and struggled and Peter just kept moving, rubbing off against his thigh, holding on as Neal fought for it. He could feel himself tense, feel orgasm building quickly, and let go at the same time he said, "Now, okay, it's okay -- "

Neal's fingernails dug into his shoulders and they came together, messy, slick with sweat, Neal arching off the bed and Peter struggling for balance. When Neal finally dropped down Peter went with him, collapsing over his body, forehead pressed against his jaw.

They were silent for a long moment, Peter catching his breath, Neal's fingers sliding over his shoulders, up his spine, gently exploring the ridge of his throat. Peter let him, too worn out for the moment to move.

"Thank you," Neal said finally.

"I'm sorry," Peter replied. He felt Neal's fingers stop their idle movement.

"For?" Neal asked, carefully.

"I should have told you sooner. But it's...dangerous, you're dangerous," Peter said, sliding down into the bed, turning his head to see Neal's reaction to this. "Do you understand?"

"No," Neal said, honesty but no particular bitterness in his tone. "I don't. Then again...we're different people. I don't think I have to understand. And..." he shook his head against the pillow, then pushed himself up and off the bed. "...you told me the truth, when I asked."

He walked away and Peter let him go; he came back soon enough, climbed onto the bed and offered Peter a towel to clean up with.

"What would you have done if I'd lied?" Peter asked.

"Found out where you kept it, stolen it, and run," Neal said. He sat crosslegged, facing Peter on the bed, and shrugged at Peter's look. "I might be domesticated but I'm not tame, Peter."

"You would have run, because of one lie?" Peter asked.

"Because of that lie," Neal replied. Peter turned to stare at the ceiling. "Listen, I know what you think, that I make stupid decisions based on impulse, that I don't have any control when it comes to some things. But you don't get what you want unless you take a risk for it. The bigger the want, the bigger the risk."

"What is it you want?"

Neal ducked his head. "No secrets. I want revenge. I'll settle for justice, because you don't lie to me -- so you really think it'll be enough, so...that's a risk too. Risking that you'll be right. Betting my sanity on it. I'm tired, Peter, I want this to be over. But it can't be until someone suffers for this, either way. I know you don't think the dreams will stop when it's done but they have to, they will, I can do that. I just need to know it's over."

Peter sighed. "You are eighteen flavors of crazy, Neal."

"Maybe. But I know my way around them, at least. And a couple of those are your fault," he added, grinning. He touched Peter's shoulder. "Can you stay, or do you need to...?" he tilted his head at the door.

"I can stay," Peter said, and Neal tugged at the blankets, pulling them out from under him, sliding under and arranging them until Peter found himself with an eighteen-flavors-of-crazy con man up against his shoulder, arm draped across his chest, Neal's favourite way to sleep.

"I owe El flowers," Neal remarked.

"I'm on it, I promised her pot roast," Peter replied. "If Mozzie walks in on us in the morning..."

"It'll be way more traumatic for him than for you, trust me," Neal said, voice muffled slightly in the pillow.

***

Neal woke once in the night, rising up out of some dream -- not one of the bad ones, just something unsettling and vague -- to the sound of Peter's voice, low and even. He wasn't even sure he was really awake, at first.

Peter was talking about something, and he didn't catch every word but he mostly got them assembled in his head: it was about grief, and about Elizabeth, how he didn't know if he'd be any better than Neal if Elizabeth had died in front of him, how the idea of losing her the way Neal had lost Kate sometimes frightened him. Something about the difficulty of watching Neal struggling every inch to get somewhere good, and how easy it seemed for Neal to throw it away. How it would be to lose him to that.

Neal snorted, perplexed and embarrassed by the idea, raising a hand to scratch his nose. He opened his eyes and asked sleepily if Peter had said something.

"No," Peter answered. "It's late, go back to sleep."

Neal agreed with a grunt. It took him a while to fall asleep again, but Peter didn't speak anymore. Which was just as well. The weight of knowing just how deep it would cut Peter and Elizabeth if he did throw it away, that wasn't something he needed. Because he might have to, in order to end this. And he would, if he had to.

The next time he woke, it was to his phone ringing and Peter groaning something about too much daylight. Neal rolled over and fumbled for the phone, blinking at the caller ID, and then answered it.

"Moz," he said, and then cleared his throat and tried again. "Hey, Moz."

"I'm about half an hour out of Manhattan," Mozzie said. "You texted?"

"Yeah, I need you to get here, I got something to show you," Neal said, rolling out of the bed and walking to the kitchen. "Can you bring your recording rig?"

"Digital or reel-to-reel?"

"Better make it reel-to-reel."

"Is the Suit there? I thought I heard the sound of oppressive snoring."

Neal sighed. "No, you didn't, but yes, he is."

"Well, get him out."

"He's gotta be here too, Moz," Neal said carefully. Mozzie was quiet for a little while.

"Is this about antiquities?" Moz asked carefully.

"Yeah. Yeah, it is," Neal said.

"I still don't want him there while I'm setting up."

"Why?"

"Neal, did you seriously just ask me that?" Mozzie said. Neal rubbed his forehead.

"Yeah, sorry. Okay. We'll get breakfast, meet you here in an hour and a half?"

"I'll be there," Mozzie said, and hung up. If Neal hadn't been listening with half an ear to the sound of Peter dressing, for Peter's footsteps, he would have started when Peter slid an arm around his waist from behind.

"Nice long breakfast, hour and a half," Peter said. "Let me guess, he wants me out of here while he sets up?"

"Mozzie can get...quirky," Neal said.

"I'm aware," Peter said, and released him. "Listen, I need to go home and get changed. Get the safe open, I'm taking the music box and my gun."

"The box is fine -- "

"The box doesn't leave my own personal twenty-foot radius until it goes back to Diana," Peter said.

"It's in a secure safe," Neal protested.

"Does Mozzie have the combination?" Peter asked, and Neal sighed. "That's what I thought. Come on, open it up."

Neal walked to the safe and entered the code, deliberately not glancing over his shoulder to see if Peter was watching. He reached in, lifted the bag with the box in it out carefully, and handed it to Peter. He stepped aside and let Peter take the gun himself, fitting it easily and absentmindedly into his holster.

"I'll go home, kiss my wife, be back in time to get breakfast," Peter said, walking to the door. "I can meet you at that café down the block, the one with the -- "

" -- bacon breakfast tacos, which will give you a heart attack eventually," Neal replied.

"I'm touched you care," Peter told him gravely.

"If you die before my four years are up, I have to train a whole new handler," Neal called after him, as Peter left. He heard Peter's laughter, cut off by the door closing, and then only silence in the room.

***

Mozzie, as Neal knew he would be, was neurotically ecstatic about the box, about the secret compartment in the box, about the code in the secret compartment in the box...

Neither of them were simple thinkers, and truthfully neither was Peter, but Peter was a lot more direct, more systematic. Peter's idea of investigation, now that Mozzie was on the track, was to wait for Mozzie to turn something up, the way he'd wait for Jones or Diana to finish their portion of an investigation. In the meantime, naturally, Peter and Neal would look after some new case, multitasking what Peter undoubtedly thought of as his secondary team.

Neal, on the other hand, felt perfectly comfortable pulling eight or nine strings at once, working Peter, the system, his contacts, and Mozzie all at the same time. It wasn't taking advantage; it was just manipulating things to advantage. Namely, Neal's advantage. He didn't feel especially guilty about it. He was acting without malice, and giving Peter an interesting case to chew on in the meantime.

Besides, it kept him busy. There were fences to talk to, files to forge, thefts to commit. You couldn't pull a heist unless you knew what you wanted, and cons weren't usually fishing expeditions. What he wanted was Fowler; fine. The music box wasn't giving up its secrets? No problem. There were easier ways of doing things. Alex, unlike Peter, was desperate enough to go along with his plan to use the box to lure Fowler out. In the meantime, let Mozzie keep struggling with the code, let Peter keep chasing the Silver Burglar. It was tidy, and Neal loved a tidy game.

He'd been out of the game too long to remember that tidy usually meant he was overlooking something. Tidy was, in fact, sloppy; it depended too much on the predictability of the human race. Because when he got back to the van after telling Alex how to steal the box, Diana was on her way home. Diana was barely a handful of steps behind Alex, and Peter had a line on Fowler.

All Neal could do was play out the bluff, try to keep calm when fury was rising in front of his eyes now that he knew beyond doubt Fowler had killed Kate, try to convince Peter he had nothing to do with the theft of the box.

Peter wasn't buying it. Neal didn't know why he'd entertained the vaguest hope he would. Instead, Peter benched him from staking out the music box, and that infuriated him more than anything. They had all this ammunition against Fowler now and there was nothing he could do with any of it -- couldn't solve the code of the music box, couldn't be there when Fowler took the bait. And it was the powerlessness more than anything that made him look at the gun in Akhiro's shop.

***

Interlude I: Truth

This is the addict.

Neal knows what can be done with a gun and what the consequences will be. The ratio of gratification to destruction. He looks at it longingly and knows how good it will feel to have it in his hand. Normally he doesn't like to handle guns, because they are beautiful and perfect machines but they serve no purpose for him, and they endanger him.

With a purpose, suddenly the gun becomes everything he wants. There's no going back if he takes it, though; the gun only leads one direction and while the path may branch, further down, it's not terribly likely. So he turns away, because Neal likes his options.

But then he turns back, because he's not strong enough to trust justice. Neal loves Kate, still loves her even if she's dead, even if maybe he never really knew her. He wants the nightmares to stop. And guns are clean and cut right to the truth of matters.

He likes to see a gun in Peter's hands when he's cleaning it or loading it; two machines designed for different purposes but part of a whole. He likes to see a gun in his own hands if it can be put to use without firing, like it was when he was playacting the role of a hired killer. Neal never misses a chance to make an impression. And he likes the weight of the antique tucked up against the small of his back, promising truth from Fowler's mouth. If Neal were a sadist, if he thought he were capable, he'd just use it to get Fowler alone, and then he'd show him what Kate felt. He'd burn Fowler alive.

He's not capable of that, but he's capable of getting the truth from him and once he has the truth he's capable of shooting him. He's sure he is. He must be. Peter has taken away his chance at justice, but the gun is his chance at revenge.

And nothing will stop him.

***

Peter stopped him.

Neal would believe Peter has some kind of supernatural power if he didn't know better. Catching him, well, that was hard work and effort; holding him was half Peter's skill and half Neal's willingness. But this, when Neal had every advantage, a locked room and Fowler at gunpoint and the time to find out the truth before he executed him, Peter shouldn't have been able to stop him. The fact that he had, more than anything, was what made Neal hand over the gun.

Peter had said to him that he was the only person who should put cuffs on Neal. Making Diana do it was salt in the wound. Neal submitted, because he knew how to do that; God knew, three years in prison taught you how to take whatever you were given with a bowed head. He walked out ahead of her, her hand never leaving the chain between the cuffs, and ignored the whispers of the people they passed. Diana ducked his head for him as he was put into the passenger's seat -- not the back seat, that was something at least -- and slammed the door after him.

Being cuffed behind the back was uncomfortable, and after a while could get painful. Neal didn't really think much about it; he just slipped the cuffs off his left wrist, brought his arms around, and re-cuffed himself. He realized his mistake as Diana was opening the door, but at least he'd put the cuffs back on. He might as well brave it out. He gave her a little wave as she climbed in.

Normally, a trick like that -- just to prove, hey, I could run, but I won't -- would have netted him an eyeroll at the most. This time Diana reached across him, undid the cuffs, popped the glovebox, and took out a pair of secure zipties, the kind Peter had cuffed him with when he'd first captured him.

"Seriously?" Neal asked, as she wrapped one around his wrist and pulled it tight. She slipped the other one around his other wrist, through the loop of the first, and tightened it. Neal flinched as the plastic cut into his skin.

"You think this is a game?" Diana asked, shoving the cuffs in the glovebox and slamming it closed. She started the car.

"No," Neal said quietly. "It was never a game."

"You're damned right," Diana replied. Neal wished for Peter -- even Peter, furious, was better than Diana, because Diana couldn't be predicted the way Peter could. Peter wouldn't fall for his tricks but wasn't immune to his charm the way Diana was.

"So, what's the official Bureau response?" Neal asked, as they slid out into traffic.

"Where's the key?" Diana replied.

"June's place," Neal answered. Stony silence from Diana. "I'm going back to prison for this, huh."

"Don't talk to me," Diana said. Neal looked down at his hands, flexed his fingers. Given enough time or a sharp object he could get out of the zipties, but he couldn't slip them; that was why Peter had used them. He wondered if Diana kept them in the car because she was betting on the day he'd fuck up this badly. He wondered if Peter had given them to her.

Diana opened her mouth, closed it, drew another breath. Neal kept his head bowed.

"You're pissed at me," he tried, pushing his luck. "I get that -- "

"I'm not pissed at you," Diana cut him off. The car slowed; red light. Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel when he glanced sideways. "Okay. Yeah. I'm pissed at you. But that's not why."

"Do I get to know why?" Neal asked. He couldn't think about going back to prison. It was bad enough, on its own, but losing Peter and Elizabeth -- he'd gone back once but then there'd been an end in sight and people waiting for him on the outside. If Peter was angry enough to send him back, then there was no way Peter or Elizabeth would ever...

Not thinking about it. He watched Diana instead, waited for her to respond.

"You scare the hell out of me," Diana said. She didn't look frightened. Her face was calm. "You come off as this...nice, charming, ultimately pretty harmless guy. Harmless in any way the Bureau needs to worry about," she added. "You put on the act that you're someone we could take down, even if we'd never have to. But I saw your face when you went out on that balcony. So," she said, exhaling slowly, "I used to think you just didn't have a moral compass. Now I wonder if you have any conscience at all. It's not that you're capable of anything. It's that if there's something you want, something you want to do -- murder, I don't know, would you have tortured him? -- you'll do it. You know how to do it. And you don't care who you drag down with you."

"That's not true," he said.

"You've already done it twice," she snapped, and Neal wanted to object, but she was right. He'd nearly destroyed Peter and Elizabeth for Kate; today's actions might yet destroy Peter.

"Fowler killed Kate," was his only defense.

"You thought Fowler killed Kate," Diana replied.

"With that kind of evidence, any judge -- "

"You aren't a judge, Neal, Jesus, how many times does Peter have to beat this into you?" she asked, and if he couldn't see the anger on her face he could hear it in her voice. "How many times does he have to put his ass on the line for you before you get it? This isn't how we work. And that's the official Bureau response, you two-bit little fuck-up thief."

That shouldn't have hurt as much as it did.

Diana exhaled slowly. "Sorry. I just don't know how to make you get it."

"I'm a world-class fuck-up thief," Neal said reproachfully.

"You're world-class at something," Diana agreed. Neal kept quiet. "The things you can do, Neal -- if you don't care, if you have no empathy, then nobody's safe from you. Maybe you cared about Kate, or maybe you're just pissed someone took your toys away. I can't tell anymore. So yeah, no more pretending I think you'll be good, no more looking the other way and trusting you won't run when you slip your cuffs. Not with me. And if Peter didn't have a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to you, he'd agree with me."

She took her phone out of her pocket and handed it to him. "Here's what's going to happen. You're going to call Jones and tell him where to find the key. Then I'm going to call the Marshals and tell them the key's jamming, and they'll courier us a new one. Your tracker goes back on your ankle. This never happened."

Neal looked up sharply.

"Peter's taking care of the museum. He'll tell them something. Nobody saw you fire the gun but Fowler, and when Peter's done with Fowler he won't talk. This is what's known as a cover-up," Diana continued.

"Why would you do that?" Neal asked.

"Peter told me to," she said simply. "So now I'm in this and Jones is in it. Peter's in it. Three peoples' careers. Think about that. And don't think anything I do for you today has to do with you."

"Peter," Neal said. Diana nodded. "You'd do that for him."

"I am doing that for him." She looked at him for the first time since she'd put him in the car. "Wouldn't you?"

***

Interlude II: Consequences

Peter is not a dangerous driver, whatever Neal says. He's a very good defensive driver, however, and he's spent years driving in New York. The Taurus has the little E emblem on the license plate that lets him break laws, getting from Akhiro's place to Neal's, but no amount of power can get him around New York traffic.

He can't think about Neal being shot. However furious he is with him and however ready he was to shoot him when he had the gun on Fowler, he doesn't want Neal dead. He doesn't want to see Neal lying on a hospital bed, doesn't want Neal to have another scar. There have been enough of those.

Instead he thinks about the crimes Neal has committed to bring them here. The music box: conspiracy to commit felony theft, accessory to felony theft, obstruction of justice. The gun: misdemeanor theft, unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. Today, chasing Fowler: work-release boundary violation (theft of federal property, to get the key), trespass, vandalism, unlawful use of a firearm by a felon, attempted battery, resisting arrest. The terms scroll through his head effortlessly.

Neal could go back to prison for the rest of his life, and Peter has no idea what to do about their personal situation even if he's confident there will be no investigation. Neal almost shot a man today and by habit Peter does not allow that kind of man in his home, does not choose to consort with murderers. For all the power he has over Neal, this new side of him is terrifying. However desperate Neal was back when Peter was chasing him, he never resorted to this, which is something, but the fact that he can changes everything.

Diana has covered their bases, and he owes her big time for this. The only witness to any of the real, hardcore crimes outside of him and Diana and Fowler (who won't talk) is the guard, the rent-a-cop who trailed him when he was chasing Fowler into the second floor of the museum. He'd told him to let the FBI handle it and the guy was obviously scared out of his mind; Peter doesn't think he'll talk.

But if there were an investigation, then there would be other charges. Charges against Peter. The music box: conspiracy to commit theft of evidence in a federal investigation, obstruction of a federal investigation, misuse of FBI resources. The cover-up: obstruction of a federal investigation, abetting a felon, failure to report a crime in progress, accessory after the fact to attempted battery. Neal himself: fraternization, prisoner abuse, sexual assault. No matter how willing Neal was, consent can't legally be granted by a felon in custody. Elizabeth could be charged as well, and he won't allow that. Peter might go to prison, but he will make damn sure his wife doesn't. He'd rather perjure himself and tell them she knew nothing about it.

None of this will happen, but it could. And still it would be preferable to running up the stairs in June's house, the maid looking after them in shock at the drawn guns, and bursting into Neal's apartment to find Neal in a pool of blood on the floor.

The relief that floods through him when he sees Neal alive and whole tells him two things:

Neal will get away with this because Peter can't help it, can't end this now. He might be angry but when this mess is over, the first time Neal begs him, Peter will say yes.

And there are worse crimes Peter would commit than he already has, for Neal.

Both frightening, but not nearly so frightening as the look on Neal's face when he tells them he wasn't alone in Akhiro's shop.

Chapter Fifteen

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