sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-05-20 11:37 am

Exquisite, Chapter 15

Title: Exquisite
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Brief discussion of suicide -- suicidal ideation, mostly.
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.
BETA CREDIT JESUS: [livejournal.com profile] neifile7, [livejournal.com profile] 51stcenturyfox, [personal profile] girlpearl, [livejournal.com profile] tzikeh

Master Post
Chapter Fourteen

***

They found Mozzie almost before they knew he was lost.

When Neal couldn't reach him by phone, Peter made one call, to Mike Shattuck. Shattuck promised to put out an APB, a search for John Does in the hospitals and in the morgues, and a protective custody order.

"There's a lot of short bald guys in New York," Mike said dubiously.

"Just do what you can," Peter replied.

"Who is this guy, Peter?"

"Friend of Neal Caffrey's," Peter answered. "He's a witness in an ongoing murder investigation."

"Ah, that one you stole off us?" Mike said knowingly. Peter hesitated.

"Stole?" he asked.

"Yeah. The junk shop, one of your guys had it handed off to the FBI. Jones, he's a go-getter. That's the one, right?"

"That's the one," Peter agreed, reaching out to put a hand on Neal's chest as he paced. He shoved him into a chair, not gently. Neal stared up at him.

"Well, friend of Caffrey's, friend of ours. You'll hear as soon as we have anything," Mike said, and hung up. Peter put the phone in his pocket and crossed his arms, staring down at Neal. Diana hovered in the background, obviously uncertain what to do.

"Diana, get ahold of Jones. He grabbed the murder for us. Find out what he knows," Peter said. She gave him a relieved look and stepped out onto the terrace.

"I never -- " Neal began, and Peter held up a hand.

"Where would he go?" he asked. Neal looked down at his hands. "Neal, where would Mozzie go?"

"Probably one of his safe-houses," Neal said. "I don't even know all of them. Maybe Winter, that's nearby. Or Monday, if he knew he wasn't safe. He'd answer the phone for me," he added. "He would, Peter, we..." he made vague circles in the air with his hands. "There must be something we can do."

"Little late for that. You not having shot at Fowler would have helped," Peter replied.

"I'm sorr -- "

"Save it, Neal, I don't want to hear it." Peter rubbed a hand through his hair, frustrated. "I should have known. I shouldn't have trusted you to be anything but what you are. I didn't think you'd break out a gun, Neal, I really didn't."

Neal kept silent, head bowed.

"I wish I knew what you were thinking," Peter said, more quietly. "And don't even bother telling me you weren't. You planned this. You've spent days arranging things to suit you. You knew Fowler would be there, and you knew I'd be there, and you picked up the gun anyway."

"I can't be that hard to figure out," Neal answered, not raising his head. It surprised Peter but, then, he supposed Neal was right. He should have put him in custody as soon as the music box went missing. He was supposed to be there when Neal slipped and fell. That was part of their deal, as far back as the day he'd shot Carruthers and dragged Neal to safety down a fire escape. If this was Neal's failure it was his too, and he was taking it out on someone who only carried half the blame.

His phone beeped. Mike. Peter answered.

"Got your boy," Mike said, sounding wary. "GSW at Lenox Hill Hospital matches the description, down to the clothes."

"Thank you, Mike," Peter said. "Can you get -- "

"Squad car's on its way. Guy's in surgery, I'll have cops on his room as soon as he's out. No word on condition but I'll have EMS meet you there."

"I'll have relief there within the hour. We're on our way," Peter said, and hung up, waving at Diana. She hung up too and came back inside, curious.

"Mozzie's at Lenox Hill," he said. "He's been shot."

Neal looked up, hard-eyed. "ER or morgue?"

"Surgery. Come on," Peter said.

He put the emergency lights on the Taurus and they managed to tear their way up to the hospital in what was probably record time, for Manhattan. His badge got them far enough through the red tape that he, at least, could get a look and confirm it was Mozzie; when he came out, he knew Neal could read it on his face.

"He's still in surgery. They think he's doing well," he said, as Neal came forward.

"What does that mean?" Neal demanded, trying to get a look past Peter down the hallway, before the ER doors closed. "Doing well, he was shot."

"They're doing what they can," Peter insisted. A large, burly-looking nurse approached them. "Calm down before we get thrown out."

"Where was he shot?" Neal asked.

"Sir?" the nurse interrupted, offering Peter a clipboard. "Do you have any information on this patient?"

"Yeah, yeah," Peter muttered, accepting it. "Listen, do we have to do this now?"

"He's allergic," Neal blurted. "Lactose. Penicillin. He's A-positive blood type."

"Neal, calm down," Peter said, trying to push him back towards the chairs. Diana took Neal's shoulder in one hand, but Neal shrugged it off.

"You can't put him in the system," Neal said, his voice low, reaching for the clipboard. "He'll freak out. Look -- "

"Neal," Peter warned.

"Give me some time, I can forge insurance papers for him -- "

"Neal!"

" -- pay for his care, I have access to bank accounts -- "

Peter tossed the clipboard on a chair and fixed his left hand around Neal's throat, thumb pushing his jaw shut. Neal swallowed against his palm. Diana looked shocked, but it barely registered.

"Shut up," Peter hissed, digging out his handcuffs. Neal stared in surprise as he cuffed Neal's wrists in front of him, left hand still holding his throat. "Mozzie's a witness. He's under the aegis of the FBI. He has a protective detail. This isn't about you right now or whether you're scared or angry. This is about Mozzie. You understand me? Because you're about half an inch from going into a cell at Federal Plaza for the foreseeable future."

"Boss," Diana said quietly. Peter released his throat, and Neal, still looking bewildered, sank down into a chair. He picked up the clipboard, awkward with his wrists cuffed together, and took the cheap hospital pen out from the little clip at the top. Peter watched as he wrote a name on the form, and then flipped to the medical history. Diana sat down next to him, staring at Peter. After a few seconds, she took out her keys and took the cuffs off Neal, passing them back to Peter over his head. Peter sighed and walked away to check in with Jones, and then call Elizabeth.

***

Mozzie came out of surgery not long after Neal finished filling out his history, at least what he knew of it. He knew a surprising amount, actually. Peter got them in to see him, and Neal just stood and stared down at Mozzie while a doctor told Peter what they knew, a lot of talk Neal only half-listened to. He heard the doctor ask if Neal was the next-of-kin.

After a while it went quiet. Neal guessed they'd gone. He sat down next to Mozzie's bed and carefully rested his arms on the edge, watching his chest rise and fall, shallow but constant.

Mozzie had been shot, and there was nothing Neal could do, and it was worse than Peter being hurt because you couldn't ever really believe a hundred percent that Peter would die. Neal couldn't, anyway. Mozzie was different. Mozzie was vulnerable in weird places, strong in ways you wouldn't expect but easy to hit if you knew how to aim. Mozzie had been shot and it was Neal's fault.

Neal closed his eyes and tried to breathe.

He was still concentrating on breathing when he heard the door open. Peter, calling him back down to reality.

"There's nothing you can do for him here," Peter said, and at least his voice was gentler than it had been. "But there's something you can do out there."

Neal turned, confused for a minute; Peter just walked away, expecting he would follow. And he did, because he always did. Where else would he go? Peter seemed less furious, at least, as he led Neal out of the hospital and back to his car.

They were halfway to the Federal Building before Peter spoke. Neal started at the sudden noise, hiding it badly.

"I'm sorry," Peter said, glancing at him as they stopped at a red light. "I know you were worried about Mozzie."

"It was probably right," Neal replied, shrugging. "I shouldn't have flipped out."

Peter's thumbs moved on the steering wheel, thoughtful. "No. But. This isn't your fault. I never meant to imply it was. I know that you're -- we're trapped in this. You're caught in it, and if I'm gonna get you out, then I'm in it too. I need your head in the game, Neal, not back in that hospital room. Not blaming yourself for Mozzie being shot."

Neal nodded. "When we were -- once, we were...working," he said, and saw Peter raise an eyebrow. "I took a bad header, and we had a window of time that was closing fast. Mozzie made the choice to leave me behind, come back for me on the way out. He gets it. He knows you have to build walls. He -- I learned from him. I'm in. If you want me."

Peter frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"For all I know, we're going back to Federal Plaza to lock me up," Neal said, hoping his voice was steady.

"I told you. You can help. This...look, I took care of the museum problem. You clearly get the consequences of what happened. We have to get past this, Neal, or things are going to fall apart. So let's just...mark it as done."

"Clean slate?" Neal asked lightly, because if he tried to make it serious he'd just sound desperate.

"Clean slate," Peter said. "Let's get Larssen and figure this out."

"And us?" Neal asked.

"Us involves Elizabeth. That part...we'll talk," Peter said firmly.

It was really the best Neal could hope for.

***

Chasing down Larssen was good. It kept their focus where it should be, on the work.

Peter kept Neal's map up, checking it occasionally, but Neal needed a long leash for this job, and right now Peter was just as glad to have him out of the office. Neal needed some time to work out where he stood, and Peter needed some time to get himself under control. Grabbing Neal like that, in the middle of a public place, in a hospital, in front of Diana -- that wasn't okay. In any sense of the word.

By the time Neal checked in to tell him Mozzie was awake (thank God; Peter liked the guy, but more importantly he was a lifeline to Neal's sanity, badly needed) Diana had burned Larssen's aliases and they had nothing to do but wait. He was looking forward to a glass of wine with Elizabeth, and possibly one night of peace before they had to talk about and with Neal, but he was just getting into the car when his phone rang again. Neal.

"Yeah?" he answered, plugging the phone into the jack in the dashboard.

"Am I on carphone?" Neal asked.

"Neal, what is it?" Peter replied, rubbing his eyes. "It's been a long day."

"It's not over yet," Neal said. "Can you pick me up?"

"Neal -- "

"I just got roughed up by Larssen, Peter," Neal said, and Peter could hear the barest hint of anxiety in his voice. "Please."

"Are you okay?" Peter asked, pulling out of the parking garage with more haste than grace. "Where are you?"

"I'm fine. We need to talk," Neal said.

When he pulled up at the intersection Neal named, Peter found him sitting on the curb, hat hung off one knee, his other hand holding the back of his head. Neal didn't look up when the Taurus pulled up; Peter put on the flashers and then waved his badge at the guy who honked a horn behind him when he got out.

"Neal?" he asked, crouching next to him. Neal looked up and let go of the back of his head; his hand was dotted with blood, but his eyes were clear. "Come on, stand up."

Neal stood under his own power, looking more shaken than injured. Still, Peter opened the trunk and dug out the first-aid kit, passing him a cold pack. Neal snapped the capsule to activate it and pressed it to his head, nodding thanks before climbing into the passenger's seat.

"Larssen hit you?" Peter asked, pulling back out into traffic.

"Just shoved me around. Being fair, I shoved first," Neal said.

"Can't take my eyes off you for a minute," Peter grumbled.

"Obviously," Neal snapped.

"Hey, you don't get to shout at me," Peter retorted.

"Sorry, just -- ignore me," Neal muttered, bending his head a little and staring out the window.

"You want to tell me what happened?" Peter asked, after a minute.

"Not in the car."

Peter could have picked a fight; Neal seemed to have a thing against talking in cars and he was pretty sure he could have started a yelling match between them right there in the Taurus, but frankly he was too damn tired. So he concentrated on driving, and let it go.

***

Neal could tell Elizabeth was surprised to see both of them when they arrived, but she accepted it with her usual calm. Peter walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water; Elizabeth just reached out and patted Neal's hand, quietly.

"He still angry with you about the shooting?" she asked.

"He told you about that, huh?" Neal replied. It still baffled Neal, the idea that you could have someone you just...told everything to, and they still loved you. Obviously it worked, though, at least if you found the right person.

"Yep. He called about Mozzie, too. I'm glad to hear he's awake. I was going to call tomorrow and see if he wanted a care package. Anything he likes in particular?"

"I don't think you can smuggle wine into the Intensive Care ward," Neal said. Elizabeth smiled. "Look, Peter's pissed at me and I'm pretty sure I gave him a lot of good reasons. Are we -- he said we had to talk, and now's not the time, but..."

She smiled, reassuring and warm, and Neal felt some of the fear ebb away. "It's not okay, sweetie, but it will be. Believe it or not, I understand why you did it."

Neal gave her a sharp look.

"Peter has lived with the law for fourteen years. Sometimes it's all he sees," she said quietly. "I have a broader picture than he does. He's going to be difficult about this. I don't have to be."

"He's been getting that water for a long time," Neal said, equally quiet. Elizabeth reached up and rubbed his cheek, affectionate.

"Well, he does know when to give someone five minutes," she said, just as Peter emerged.

"How's your head?" he asked. Neal felt the back of his skull, fingers probing delicately; it was scraped from the brickwork, bruised from where Larssen had slammed him against the wall.

"Think it's okay," he said, letting his hand fall. "Larssen offered me a deal."

"A deal?" Peter asked.

Neal sipped the water slowly as he explained what had happened -- the offer Larssen had made, information in return for help in getting out of New York, the link between Mozzie's near-miss and Kate's death.

"You make that deal, a killer walks free," Peter said, in his best Lecturing The Probies voice. "Neal, you can find your revenge in the justice, it's there -- "

"I know," Neal murmured, and when the impact of the words hit Peter, he was rewarded with a small smile. It bloomed large when Neal added, "This time, we do it your way."

Elizabeth, looking back and forth between them, closed the portfolio she was working on with a decisive snap. "I think I'm going upstairs," she said brightly. Peter glanced at her, questioning.

"Your way," she told him, kissing his cheek, "is very complicated, and I think I'd be a third wheel in this case. Babe," she added, tugging on Neal's shirt so he'd bend enough that she could kiss him, too, "be good. Make it better. Okay?"

"Okay," he said, though he wasn't sure he even could. When she was gone, and they could hear her footsteps on the floor above, Peter studied him for a while.

"I didn't want to do this tonight," he said, walking away from the table, towards the bookshelf. "But I think maybe we have to."

"This?" Neal asked. Peter shot him a sardonic look. "Okay. This."

"There's this one big problem, and we're going to work it out," Peter said, taking something wrapped in cloth out of his jacket. He set it down on the table and pulled the cloth away.

Neal stared down at the gun lying on the cloth like it might bite him. The one he'd fired; the one he'd nearly killed Fowler with. A second later, a cleaning kit landed on the table next to it.

"This is your gun now," Peter said. "Clean it."

"Peter -- "

"No, Neal. You stole it, you fired it, it's yours. You might not have a license or be legally allowed to carry it, but that doesn't matter here. You're going to clean it, and we're going to put it in the safe with Elizabeth's gun, and when hers goes back to the lockup, yours does too."

"No, Peter, you know I don't -- "

"Are you going to fight me on this?" Peter asked carefully.

Neal glanced up at him, then looked back at the gun, all gleaming metal and danger. On the other hand, the look in Peter's eyes was much more dangerous right now.

Neal made a decision. He sat down and pulled the gun over to him, opening the cleaning kit.

***

Peter exhaled, slowly, silently, when he saw Neal pick up the gun. Normally his first instinct on seeing firearms in Neal's capable hands was not relief, but this was at least a step. He had no idea where they were going to go with this, but Neal needed to own his mistake, and he needed to understand pulling a trigger had far-reaching consequences.

He came and sat down across from him as Neal hinged the barrel open and popped the cylinder out sideways. He carefully unloaded it, setting one bullet on the cloth, then two. Peter stared at them; Neal, busy cleaning the barrel, didn't seem to notice as Peter's mind went through the various possibilities this presented.

"Two bullets," Peter said finally, and Neal's hands froze with a cleaning rag halfway down the barrel.

"Yeah," Neal said carefully.

"Two plus one fired," Peter repeated. This was an immediate roadblock, sudden and frightening. "Neal, does that mean what I think it means?"

"I didn't want a full clip," Neal said. "I didn't want to risk hurting anyone else."

"One for a warning shot, one for Fowler..." Peter picked up the second bullet Neal had ejected from the cylinder. "Was this one to make sure you finished the job?"

Neal snorted. "Sure. Why not."

"Neal."

"I didn't know," Neal said, and he looked up at him, blue eyes clear. "If I had to, I wanted to make sure -- " he paused and swallowed. "No, it wasn't for Fowler."

He bent back to the gun, carefully pulling the cloth out of the barrel. Peter thought he must have cleaned the revolver before he fired it; the cloth came out almost spotless.

"You think about suicide a lot?" Peter asked quietly, as Neal picked up a narrow wire brush.

"Jesus Chr -- no, Peter, I don't think about suicide a lot," Neal retorted, setting the gun down, brush still in his other hand. "I don't think about it ever, but clearly I was having some kind of psychotic break so if you could cut me an inch of slack -- "

"You almost shot someone," Peter said. "You would have, if I hadn't been there. Would you have killed yourself?"

Neal shrugged, picking up the gun again, beginning to scrub the cylinder and the extractor rod.

"No, Neal, this is important, you don't get to do your sulky kid act," Peter said. "Would you?"

"I don't know." Neal set the brush aside and picked up another cloth, wiping away minute traces of grit.

Peter rubbed his face with one hand. "I genuinely don't know what to do with you," he said finally. Neal didn't look up. "I'd chain you to a therapist's couch tomorrow if I thought it'd do you a damn bit of good, but it won't, because you're you. Short of limiting your radius to June's house, I can't think of a single way to stop you from doing whatever the hell you want to do. Even then you might cut and run, just to spite me."

"What do you want me to say?" Neal asked, opening the bottle of gun oil. "No. I don't think about killing myself. I don't want to. I just wanted it to be over and I didn't know what I'd be on the other side." He gave Peter a hesitant, sidelong smile. "Turns out I didn't need to worry, so what's the point of worrying now?"

"The point is that it's not over. And I'd rather put you back in prison than risk this again, but you'd just break out..." Peter bowed his head, lacing his fingers across his neck. "I never should have taken you out of prison in the first place."

"Peter -- "

"I never should have gone after you the second time. I should have let someone else chase you," Peter continued. "Then you'd still be out there, probably. Maybe you could have saved Kate. And I wouldn't be sitting here worrying you're going to break our goddamn hearts. Jesus, Neal," he said, leaning back, staring at the ceiling.

Neal was silent; when Peter finally leaned forward again, lowering his head, Neal had the heels of his hands pressed to his eyes, elbows propped on the table. Gun oil glistened on his fingertips.

"I don't know how to fix this," Neal said. "The music box, Kate, Fowler, Diana's ready to kill me, I fucked it up with you, Mozzie got shot, I can't fix it. I don't know how."

Peter tucked his fingers under Neal's palm and pulled one of his hands down. Neal was staring at the table, dry-eyed but obviously panicking. He spread Neal's hand flat, palm up, on the table, and wiped the oil off his fingertips with one of the cleaning cloths.

"Is Mozzie angry with you?" he asked. Neal shook his head. Peter bent one of Neal's fingers forward, curling it into his palm. He curled a second one over. "Diana works for me. You don't work for her. She is not your problem."

"Peter, this is -- "

Peter pinned Neal's hand by the wrist when he tried to move. Neal stilled.

"Fowler is my problem now," Peter continued, curling a third finger over. "We have the formula for the music box, it's back where it belongs."

He curled Neal's little finger, then covered the loose fist with his hand.

"If you're serious about fixing everything else, then it's just -- time and trust," he said. "We fucked this up together, Neal. We'll fix it together. The rest is just guilt. It's useless. Ignore it. The only thing it does is prove you're a decent human being."

"Oh, great, kick me while I'm down," Neal murmured. Peter smiled.

"Sorry, pal, get used to it," he said. "You staying tonight?"

Neal looked up sharply. Peter met his gaze, held it.

"Is it on offer?" Neal asked cautiously.

"If I thought this was an act, it wouldn't be," Peter told him, letting go of his hand. "I know you better than that. What, you thought we'd ditch you after all this?"

"You wouldn't be the first," Neal said.

Peter shook his head. "I don't run."

Neal carefully wiped down the gun, eyes avoiding the two bullets lying on the cloth, and stood up, walking to the lockbox on the bookshelf in the living room. He punched in the code, caught the lid when it opened, and put the gun inside, next to Elizabeth's.

"Come on," Peter said, heading for the stairs. He heard the box click shut and the soft beep as it locked itself, then Neal's footsteps following.

Upstairs, Elizabeth was already in bed; she didn't react when she heard them undressing, but raised her head sleepily when Peter slid in next to her -- curled her body around his, seeking warmth.

"Okay?" she murmured softly.

"Okay," Peter answered, as Neal got into the bed as well -- uncertain, hesitant, resting a hand on Peter's chest lightly. Peter turned his head and tugged on Neal's hair, pulling him closer. Pressed his lips to Neal's forehead and stayed that way, Neal still and quiet under his touch.

"When we were chasing you," Peter began softly, too softly for Elizabeth to hear, "we had a profiler who asked if he could do a workup on you. Just to see. I said okay."

"I read it," Neal answered, surprising him. "When Mozzie requested the files on me. He said he thought I should read it."

"So you know what it said."

Neal nodded. "Sociopathic thug who uses sex to manipulate people. Did you believe it?"

"No."

"I didn't think you would."

"The thing is..." Peter shifted a little, tipping his head slightly to look down at Neal's closed eyes. "I'm not blinded by you, by this. I knew you before this, like I knew not to believe in your profile. I trust my judgment when it comes to you. When something suddenly hits me in the face like this, and I think Jesus, maybe I don't know him at all -- it shakes me up."

"I can try to be truthful, but it's dangerous for all of us," Neal said.

"In the things that matter -- try," Peter told him. "Get some rest."

"M'kay," Neal said, but it was a long time before the tension ebbed out of his body and he slept.

***

Neal knew that Peter wouldn't make a very good con man.

Peter was good at lying, under specific conditions, but you couldn't have conditions as a con man. And, setting aside a certain ironclad morality about the man, Peter didn't have the necessary detachment to steal from someone if he liked the look of them. To earn the maliciousness of Special Agent Peter Burke you had to have done something first. Peter had a thing about the innocent.

On the other hand, Neal often thought Peter would make a brilliant architect of cons. Peter had a twisty brain that couldn't support lying and stealing but could absolutely work out what lie to tell and how to steal. Peter wouldn't be a Neal Caffrey; he'd be a James Moriarty.

When Larssen made his move, allowing himself to be arrested by Peter only to be 'exonerated' when Peter's print was found on his gun, Neal's first thought was that Peter had been out-conned. It was a furious, defensive thought, and the strength of it surprised him. It simmered in the back of his mind throughout the day and into the next, this anger that Peter had to play by the rules but Larssen could cheat all he wanted. A new experience; back in the bad old days, Neal had been happy enough for Peter to follow procedure while he slipped through Peter's fingers each time. And it wasn't that he was on the side of the law, exactly. It was just so damn unfair. Larssen was dangerous.

So once they'd figured out that Larssen was working with Frederick Bilal, a powerful man who could nonetheless be manipulated with more ease than Larssen, the first idea that sprang into Neal's head was a con.

The only shock was that Peter agreed.

"So -- how do we flip Bilal on Larssen?" Peter said, picking up the coffee the barista slid across the counter. He caught Neal's too and handed it to him, sipping his own thoughtfully. "We'd have to incriminate Bilal, give him a reason to spill. You said -- having someone else arrest him," he said. Neal guided him to an outside table, because Peter's brain was mostly taken up with downshifting, and he wasn't paying attention to where he was going. "What's your plan?"

Neal gave him a slightly sheepish look. "I didn't really have one yet."

"I can't just tell Diana to go after him," Peter said, barely paying attention. "She's not my puppet and she has to have reason. And not something obtained illegally," he added, when Neal opened his mouth. "So we need to arrange for Diana...or Jones, he's reliable too, he'd go along -- they have to catch Bilal..." his eyes unfocused. Neal watched, fascinated. "Bilal comes to a place we arrange with whatever he's smuggling..."

"Easiest way to do that is convince him he needs to bring it to Larssen," Neal put in.

"Way ahead of you," Peter said. "Sara's voice analysis software, could that be rigged to reproduce specific personal vocal tones?"

"No, but I bet she has something that could," Neal said.

"Even if she doesn't, she has an audio rig we can use," Peter said. "We spook Bilal into contacting Larssen -- got to make him use a phone we designate -- " He glanced at Neal. "Following?"

Neal nodded. "I'll talk to Sara. You'll still need some FBI tech -- "

"Jones can get that, we need to bring him in on this anyway. Can you think of a way to disable Bilal's cellphone?"

"Without stealing it?" Neal asked.

"Preferably," Peter drawled.

"Mozzie might still have his jammer. Technically it's not illegal, but only because they haven't banned that specific model," Neal admitted.

"Close enough. Once we flip Bilal on Larssen..." Peter gave him a sudden smile. "Then the fun starts."

Neal wasn't surprised Peter already had the framework of a functioning plan in place by the time they split up, Neal to recruit Sara (or at least her equipment) and Peter to talk to Diana and Jones. Perhaps the speed with which he'd adapted was a little scary, but he'd known Peter would be good at this.

Neal liked to play with reality, imagining what-ifs and might-have-beens. He'd had fun pretending Peter was a millionaire accountant; there was something solid at the core of him that made changeability easy, because Peter would be himself no matter what he was. If things had gone differently, if the right criminal mentor had come across Peter Burke, or the situation of his life had changed...well. They had a con to run.

They had a con to run.

Neal grinned for the rest of the day.

***

When Elizabeth broached the topic of Mozzie's care package to Peter, it was mostly just to confirm that she'd heard Mozzie right over the phone.

"He asked for gluten-free brownies," she said carefully, "and bendy straws. That's all."

"Oh, hence the..." Peter gestured to the kitchen, where eight 100-count boxes of bendy straws were sitting on the counter. Then he got a very strange look on his face and said, "Mozzie works with what he has."

"Maybe he's a germophobe," she said. "Scared of the hospital glasses?"

"Could be," Peter agreed. "Or he might be...I don't know, once he asked me for a shoelace and a magnet."

"And?"

"And the end result was ten grand in cash."

So, Elizabeth got out her box of wrapping supplies and a nice basket, put stickers on the brownies that cheerily read "Get Well Soon!" and wrapped the bendy straws in pretty ribbon. After all, there was no reason not to do the thing properly, if you were going to give someone eight hundred bendy straws.

(Neal was no more forthcoming than Peter had been. "He's definitely feeling better," was all he'd say.)

By the time she was ready to take his care package over to the hospital, Peter and Neal had a mission for her: recruit Mozzie into the crew they were forming, and bring him back to the house. Neal assured her that Mozzie, when motivated, would find some way to escape the hospital; the problem was motivation.

"Don't worry about it," she said, patting his cheek and nodding at Peter. "I've been lighting fires under him since our first date."

"I heard that," Peter called.

"Love you sweetie!" she called back, and went off to the hospital, the Mission: Impossible theme playing in her head.

Mozzie really did seem delighted by the bendy straws. Convincing him didn't take much either; Neal might fall for Mozzie's announcement of intent to retire, but she could see Mozzie was already halfway to joining up.

"How do they plan on catching Larssen?" he asked, and Elizabeth swooped in for the kill.

"Oh, they'll figure it out," she said vaguely. "Honey, you need your rest. And hey, you...might actually like retirement," she added, glancing past him at the perfectly-placed elderly man sitting in a corner of the lounge, knitting.

"You know, I've always felt I was meant to leave my mark on the world," Mozzie said, turning back to her. "A lasting legacy, that sort of thing."

"Well, there's Neal," she said, smiling.

"Neal got caught," Mozzie sniffed.

"Yeah, but Peter's pretty smart, you have to get up early in the morning to put one over on him," she said. "He's running the con, you know."

"The Suit?" Mozzie demanded. "No offense, but has he ever run an independent con before?"

She pursed her lips. "Well, no, but they're pretty much like stings, aren't they?"

"And Neal went along with -- of course he went along with it, he's irrational about you," Mozzie said, as if irrational were the worst possible thing one could be. "You know they're heading straight into disaster, right?"

"Nah, they'll be fine. Listen, I should be going -- "

"Wait," Mozzie said, looking determined. "Clearly a guiding hand is needed. Take me to the Suit."

"Mozzie -- "

"No objections! I wish to see his Suitness at my earliest convenience," Mozzie declared. "Which is now."

"I don't think the hospital wants you traveling," Elizabeth said.

Mozzie leaned forward. "Mrs. Suit...I'm bustin' out."

Elizabeth managed, through sheer force of will, not to giggle.

That evening, the house was pleasantly full of people; it might not be the most orthodox dinner party they'd ever hosted, but it kept Peter's spirits up and kept Neal out of unsupervised mischief. She sat at the little breakfast table in the kitchen, working on the seating chart for an upcoming event, and listened to the low murmur of voices in the other room. Peter's voice dominated, along with Neal's, but she could hear Diana ask a question, Mozzie make a cynical remark, Sara and Jones chime in on occasion.

Peter had mentioned to her that Neal had a thing for Sara. What kind of thing, she wasn't certain. In her presence, he seemed to light up, but not necessarily in a way Elizabeth would have wanted for herself. Neal was performing for Sara, though she didn't know if he realized it.

Neal didn't perform for them. On the other hand, they wouldn't have wanted him to.

She heard, eventually, the scrape of chairs, the front door opening, voices saying goodbye. She came to the kitchen door just in time to see Neal and Mozzie disappearing out the back; everyone else was already gone. She leaned in the doorway and watched as Peter returned to the dining room, gathering up the scattered plates and glasses. He looked up, saw her, gave her a warm smile; she held the door back for him while he carried the remains of dinner into the kitchen, dumping them in the sink.

"All set for tomorrow?" she asked.

"Yeah," he answered, sounding a little troubled. "If it all goes off."

"Worried it won't?"

"I don't know," he said. He looked puzzled, perplexed, like he'd run up against something he couldn't take to pieces and figure out. He turned around and leaned against the sink, crossing his arms. "I told Neal, nothing illegal."

"And?"

"And his definition of 'nothing illegal' is a little broad," Peter admitted. "This is fraud, what we're doing. And tampering with a case. Diana's misusing her authority as an FBI agent, acting on illegally-obtained information. If we fail..." He ran a hand over his face. "Enough. We won't."

She wrapped her arms around his waist. He uncrossed his own, holding her shoulders. "I know you won't," she told him.

***

Neal always looked younger, out of his suits. Dressed to the nines he was a little bit like a time traveler, someone who'd just mistakenly stepped out of a movie from the sixties. When he wasn't playing Rat Pack Caffrey -- in a t-shirt or a sweater, khakis, in a towel or in nothing, Neal barely looked his age. Wearing a leather jacket, one of Peter's old shirts, and a pair of jeans, sitting on their sofa, he looked like a grad student, some mid-twenties kid writing his dissertation.

He'd taken to stealing Peter's clothes, never his suits or new things but t-shirts with fraying hems or pajamas Peter had forgotten he even owned. Elizabeth wasn't sure if it was some kind of symbolic gesture, or if Neal just put his hands on whatever was available and didn't care overmuch that everything Peter owned was a size too big for Neal. Peter didn't seem to care (it was folly to think he hadn't noticed) so Elizabeth kept out of it.

Still, she liked to see him out of the flashy suits, and in her husband's clothes. And the look he gave her that day, when she took the phone out of his hands and played wife to the man on the other end of the line, getting him off the phone with a dirty proposition, well. The look didn't hurt either, one part surprise to two parts lust.

Once they were out of the house -- Sara had her mission and Peter and Neal had theirs -- she found herself wandering aimlessly, distracted, trailed around by a very confused-looking Satchmo. The hard part was probably behind them, but these men were dangerous. Normally she tried not to worry, and normally she succeeded...but normally Peter carried a badge, and neither of them were chasing the kind of man who could be hired to kill someone.

She got a text from Neal (Con went off, XOXO) at the same time a picture message came in from Diana. She opened it, perplexed, and then stared in even more perplexity at what looked like Peter on a horse. He looked good, but she couldn't remember where the horse was supposed to come into the con.

When she called, Peter picked up on the second ring; from the sound of it he was in the car.

"Hey, hon," he said. "I was about to call. The sting worked, Larssen's in custody."

"Were you on a horse?" she asked. There was a long silence.

"Did Neal text you?" he asked.

"Diana sent me a photo," she answered. "You look very heroic, but -- a horse?"

"It's a long story."

"I can't wait to hear it," she told him. "Where are you?"

"Headed back to the Bureau. We have to process Larssen. Neal's on his way home, I guess Mozzie had a breakthrough. Hey, you know what Larssen was smuggling?" he asked.

"Peter, I'm not letting the horse go."

He sighed. "I didn't think you would. Nazi dinnerware."

"Excuse me?"

"Larssen. He was smuggling flatware out of the country. Little swastika stamps on the back. I asked Neal to see if he could source it, figure out what the story is there."

"Okay," Elizabeth said. "You've successfully distracted me from the horse, well done."

"I promise, I'll tell you the whole story tonight. Right now I gotta go humiliate Larssen."

"Hmm. Shame him for me," she said.

"With pleasure. Love you."

"Love you too."

Peter disconnected, and Elizabeth sat down on the couch. Satchmo came over and rested his head on her knee, apparently glad she'd finally decided to settle somewhere.

"Your father has the strangest job ever," she told him. Satchmo whined. "Okay. Let's go for a walk."

***

Peter had interrogated Larssen once, already, and that time he'd barely kept a lid on his anger. This man had shot Mozzie, had hurt Neal, had been the shadow pulling Fowler's strings and, by association, Peter and Neal's. And that was before he'd found out Larssen had also framed him for evidence tampering.

Now, though, with perspective -- with the law firmly on his side and Larssen looking at hard time no matter how things turned out -- he felt calmer, infinitely more in control than he had. He sat down across from Larssen and laid it out, quickly, plainly. They'd won, and Larssen knew it.

He was not prepared for the name Vincent Adler to come up. He knew it, of course; he hadn't been assigned the case, and at the time he'd been just as glad to let someone else take it, because Adler was a ghost who'd disappeared completely and Peter didn't like banging his head against a brick wall (at the time he'd been doing enough of that chasing Neal).

Behind him, in the conference room, Jones was processing Larssen for detainment, making calls to the US Attorney's office to strike a protection deal, but Peter didn't bother listening; if this was a bite on Adler he needed to see about having the case moved to his jacket, getting the files out of storage, getting himself up to speed on the research.

"Peter," Hughes called, just as Peter was ducking into his office. He turned, distracted. "Glad I caught you. What's Larssen saying?"

"Gave us a name," Peter replied. "I need to do some research -- "

"Great. But before you dive in..." Hughes offered him a slim folder. "Just got this in from Sacramento. Investigation into the forgery issue we discussed."

Oh, Christ, if they were going to come after Neal right now -- that was the last thing any of them needed.

"Just an update. They're willing to trust your analysis," Hughes said, keeping his voice low. "But there's been chatter about other forgeries showing up. You need to stay on top of this."

"I'm on it," Peter said, accepting the folder. "But right now..." he jerked his head at Larssen, who was being walked out of the conference room.

"Good work on that," Hughes said. Peter suppressed the sardonic look he wanted to give him; Hughes had protected him often enough that he didn't deserve mistrust for doing his job this time around. "How's Caffrey?"

That did stop Peter in his tracks; Hughes treated Neal like an unwanted stepchild -- acknowledged his presence and expertise, but little else. He couldn't remember him ever asking about him, unless it was for a case.

"Come on," Hughes said. "I know whatever happened today wasn't just good luck. Sara Ellis complains about you to Jones? No. So?"

Peter gave him a level look. "He did good work."

"Good. Let's get back on track."

"I agree completely," Peter said. Hughes clapped him on the arm and walked away. Peter retreated to his office and began the process of requesting a turnover of Adler's file. It didn't take much; it was verging on a cold case, by now, and the agent in question was happy to pass it off. Just like that, it was an official investigation -- no more sneaking around the Bureau, no more running prints or photographs on the sly, hoping Hughes wouldn't notice. Permission to chase Adler, as futile as it might be.

He arranged for the files to be sent to his office, checked his watch, and decided that between jumping off a horse and getting into a fistfight with an armed perp, he was probably okay to go home half an hour early. He said goodnight to Diana, asked her to pass along his thanks to Jones, and headed for his car.

Halfway home, he caught sight of a florist's sign out of the corner of his eye -- Get Her A "Green" Gift! -- and stopped so sharply the guy behind him blew his horn. He pulled over, parked, and walked inside.

***

"Honey?" Peter called when he got home, tossing his keys in the bowl by the door.

"Kitchen!" she yelled back. Satchmo burst through the door and scrambled up to him, giving him the nightly inspection. Peter bent to ruffle his ears and then ducked past him into the kitchen. Elizabeth was standing at the sink, scrubbing something; she shrieked when he wrapped his arm around her waist and lifted her up off the floor, but it was a pleased shriek. You could tell these things, after twelve years.

"I've come to sweep you off your feet," he said, bringing the flowers around in front of her with his other arm. He'd bought probably most of the azaleas in the shop; she squirmed out of his grasp, feet touching the floor again, but didn't pull away as she took the flowers from him.

"Just sweeping?" she asked, leaning back into him.

"Well, I suppose I could arrange to make love to you too," he allowed, and she laughed, setting the flowers down on the counter, turning --

And wrinkling her nose.

Less than romantic.

"What did you do?" she asked, patting down his shirt, fingering the smears of dirt leftover from his fight with Larssen.

"Horse," he said, waving a hand. She raised an eyebrow. "Uh. And a brief scuffle."

"A scuffle?" She crossed her arms. "You are not getting out of explaining the horse, mister. Go clean up, while I put the flowers in a vase."

"Yes'm," he said, kissing her quickly. "Then sweeping?"

"Then sweeping," she agreed. She couldn't be too mad; she grabbed his ass as he left the kitchen.

Chapter Sixteen
lastscorpion: (Default)

[personal profile] lastscorpion 2011-05-20 09:09 pm (UTC)(link)
This is so awesome! I really am enjoying reading it.
catcrazy5: (WhiteCollar)

[personal profile] catcrazy5 2011-05-20 09:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah! So happy that you are continuing this story.
micheleeeex: ([wc] burke's crew;;)

[personal profile] micheleeeex 2011-05-20 09:24 pm (UTC)(link)
I loooooooove this :D
princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2011-05-20 10:10 pm (UTC)(link)
i have been pining for this story as if it were the fjords. as usual, YOU DELIVER.

i got tears in my eyes when Peter said, "I don't run."

OH YES BRING IT OMG YES.

And I have no idea how you're going to spin the Sara thing but if anyone can pull it off, it's you.

Thank you for this story. I AM RIVETED.
devohoneybee: (swedish horsie)

[personal profile] devohoneybee 2011-05-20 10:26 pm (UTC)(link)
LOLs at the horse. :)
meret: (Default)

[personal profile] meret 2011-05-21 12:15 am (UTC)(link)
Squee! I'm so glad you posted this! I adore this story, and was afraid you'd changed your mind about continuing it due to the Sara storyline. Wonderful work as usual. :)
mirageofmae: (Default)

[personal profile] mirageofmae 2011-05-21 02:07 am (UTC)(link)
I was so excited to see that you'd posted!! And you didn't disappoint! I can't wait for the rest.
j00j: rainbow over east berlin plattenbau apartments (Default)

[personal profile] j00j 2011-05-21 04:20 am (UTC)(link)
\o/ It is delightful to see more of this.
ext_199561: (Totally Awesome)

[identity profile] euruaina.livejournal.com 2011-05-21 04:55 am (UTC)(link)
Huzzah! This was a lovely read after spending half the day in the car.

So glad we get Exquisite again! I was wondering a bit when you would start posting. :)

[personal profile] beege 2011-05-22 05:27 am (UTC)(link)
It's so good to see more of this.

I notice that some of the stuff we've discussed about Peter's personality in the past - and which you've used in other fics - came up here when Neal was thinking about Peter and cons. I think Neal's way of looking at it sums Peter up pretty well, in some regards - he's a very moral man who hapens to have a brain that's well suited to criminal activity (looked at like that it was pretty much inevitable he'd join law enforcement).

As for Neal and Sara . . . hmmmm. My feeling about Sara is that it's almost possible she could find out about Neal/Peter/Elizabeth and still have things develop between her and Neal. There's a certain flexibility about here that I think might make it possible. In 'Stay Calm and Carry Crowbars' you have peter say that he just likes crime and I think Sara cares more about the chase and the challenge than she does about the law, so . . .

P.S: 'Stay Calm and Carry Crowbars' should have a sequel just so you can write Mozzie's reaction.

[personal profile] beege 2011-05-22 07:35 pm (UTC)(link)
>Oh man, I never even THOUGHT about Mozzie's reaction to the Suit being a Con. OH MAN.

How can you have an idea like that and not consider Mozzie's reaction? How!?
canaan: Neal Caffery - damaged (neal - damaged)

[personal profile] canaan 2011-06-01 03:27 am (UTC)(link)
Love the azaleas. And I'm waiting for Diana to say something about the way that Peter grabbed Neal's throat.
jonaht: (Default)

[personal profile] jonaht 2011-06-01 05:48 pm (UTC)(link)
This is excellent (except for the extra commas issue) and a great way to reveiw the show before it returns. There were a few things I had forgotten - not the horse though.
Now on to the rest of the story.