sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-05-21 10:44 am

Exquisite, Chapter Sixteen

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.

Master Post
Chapter Fifteen

***

Neal didn't spend quite as pleasant an evening as Peter. Once he saw the fractal, he knew; when he said the name, Mozzie knew too.

"This is bad," Neal said, pacing, hands on his head, trying to think.

"That's the understatement of the year," Mozzie replied. "Stop it, you're making me twitchy."

"That's making me twitchy!" Neal pointed to the fractal, but he did slump down into a chair.

"On the bright side, what's he going to do, shoot us?" Mozzie asked.

"Not funny, Moz."

"Hey, I'm the one who got shot, I get to make that joke," Mozzie pointed out. "Adler's kept you alive this long. He's probably not even interested in killing us now."

"Doesn't matter," Neal sighed. "He knows me, Moz. He's smart, he sees right through cons. He knows my moves."

"He knows your moves from eight years ago," Mozzie said. "You've learned a few tricks since then."

"Not enough," Neal shook his head. "He had to know I'm the guy everyone said had the music box. He'd have done his homework, you know how he was. He's probably seen the FBI file on me. No -- if he had Fowler in his pocket, he's definitely seen the file on me."

"Complete with the Suit's history of you." Mozzie nodded.

"What does this fractal do?" Neal asked, waving a hand at the tray on which Mozzie had constructed the pure, mathematical shape the formula had produced.

"You don't know?"

"No. I saw them in his office, but I never knew what they were for. He treated them like art. I thought they were some weird hobby."

"And you didn't find out?" Mozzie sighed. "Neal -- "

"Know your enemy, I know, gimme a break, okay? It was eight years ago." He rubbed his face with his hands. "You have any clue? At all?"

"There are a lot of possibilities," Mozzie said, studying the design. "Medical classification, timekeeping -- music can create a fractal, as we have proof, but fractals can create music, too. Economic analysis, communications, image compression...I can look into it, but it's going to take time we don't have."

He paused, and Neal caught the hesitation. He looked up and saw Mozzie making his constipated this is going to cause me grief face.

"What?"

"You don't know what Adler used the fractals for," Mozzie said slowly. "But you weren't the only con artist circling him."

"Alex."

"If we had a dossier on Adler, she definitely did. She was hacking his accounts, researching his acquisitions. She was working the South American angle, she might know," Mozzie ventured. "You sure you want to get her mixed up in this again?"

"Can't hurt to ask," Neal said, taking out his phone. "She did give me her number."

"Tread carefully," Mozzie warned him.

"Don't need to be told twice," Neal murmured.

"And let me know what you find out."

"You're not staying?"

"There's a safe-house with a reclining chair calling my name," Mozzie told him. "Don't worry, it's wheelchair-accessible."

"You think of everything, huh?"

"Something like that."

"Hey, Moz," Neal said, as Mozzie rolled the wheelchair towards the back hallway, where an ancient service elevator waited to take him creakily downstairs. "Thank you."

"Gratitude is the memory of the heart," Mozzie called.

"Massieu," Neal murmured, when he was gone.

Panic over Adler was warring with the adrenaline rush his body had been putting off since they finished the con; between running a con with Peter (and Sara and Jones and Diana and Mozzie and Elizabeth's surprisingly dirty phone voice) and seeing Peter take off on that horse --

He felt oddly numb, like there was a layer of something over his skin, blocking out sensation, and at the same time manic. Any other time he might have called Peter and begged to come over, but he was on uncertain footing there right now and he wanted Peter to make the first move again, to be sure it was still okay. He picked up the tray with the fractal on it, set it down again, moved it, hid it, got out his paints, put them away and got them out again, found a canvas and set it up; he hadn't intended to paint anything specific, but he let his hands do the work instead of his brain. He kept walking away from it to have a glass of wine or drum his fingers on the table or text Mozzie to make sure he got to his safehouse, but eventually something began to take shape.

By the time he'd worn himself out, he had half of a decent Monet. He collapsed in bed still smelling of turpentine and was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

***

Peter woke, the morning after getting his badge back, to a note on the pillow: The Finnegan dinner in Bridgeport tonight. Staying over, I'll be back tomorrow morning. Keep out of trouble, love you. El.

He groaned, wishing she'd woken him up to say goodbye, but a part of him was glad -- not that she was gone, but that he wouldn't be abandoning her for the day to go in to the office. Saturday it might be, but the FBI didn't work to a five-day week, and he had to get a handle on the Adler case as fast as possible.

Diana, he knew, preferred to work from home, or out in the field. Jones didn't like the van, but he liked it better than desk-jockeying at the office. Peter remembered being that way, when he was a junior agent, and maybe part of it was that he had an office while they just had desks -- but he liked his office. It kept him focused when he needed to do this kind of work, kept him confined in one place while he digested information and whittled it down to what was important.

The file on Adler was thick, but most of it was a snipe hunt. Endless accounts of leads tracked down to nothing, rumors that weren't true, claims that couldn't stick. It was like trying to collate and organize Elvis sightings. A small time crook trying to play off a big name for a deal said Adler was in Japan. A sex worker swept up in a vice raid said he'd paid her three grand for a night in a New York penthouse that he lived in like a bunker and never left. A former employee of the company said he'd heard Adler talking about buying property in South Africa.

Dead end. Dead end. Dead end. Finally he gave up on trying to cross-reference everything and just paged through, looking for something that would stand out --

And found it, paperclipped to the back of a folder, under a cold case declaration from Interpol.

He stared down at the photograph, disbelieving. Adler in the foreground, pointing at the camera and smirking; three men in the background. Two in gray suits, the uniform of Adler's personal bodyguards, and one man in a dark suit, hair swept over his forehead, casting a wary look at Adler: Neal Caffrey.

"Neal," he murmured, shaking his head. He took the photograph out of the file and set it on his desk, digging through the file box. There had been a company roster of Adler's firm in there somewhere, but he'd tossed it aside as irrelevant reference material. When he found it, he scanned the names, looking for Neal's aliases, but he only got four names down before he found something that stopped him in his tracks.

Executive Assistant to Vincent Adler: Katherine Moreau.

Jesus Christ, Kate had been Adler's personal go-to girl. It didn't take him long to find the other name he was looking for, either.

Acquisitions Associate: Nicholas Halden.

Neal and Kate had worked for Adler. And, six years later, Adler had started pulling Kate's strings, pulling Neal's strings through her. Or, no -- he'd used Larssen to manipulate Fowler to go after Kate, to get to Neal. Unless Kate had found Adler, somehow, improbably, and struck a deal for Neal's freedom.

He ran his hands through his hair, trying to think. There was no way to know until he knew what Neal and Kate had been doing, stalking this man who'd ripped off hundreds of people and disappeared without a trace. Until he knew precisely how they were connected, he couldn't know how to build an investigation.

His cell rang, Elizabeth showing up on the caller ID; he answered it, trying to move away from the case for her sake.

"Hey, hon," he said, covering up the photograph with the company roster. "How's Connecticut?"

"Stressful," she replied. "It's raining. Do you know how hard it is to have an indoor clambake?"

"I'm not sure I want to find out," he said.

"Well, it's not easy. How are you? Relaxing at home?"

"Mm, no, I'm at the office."

"Yeah, you had that thinking about a case tone when you answered," she teased. "How's it going?"

"Slowly. I need to talk to Neal, something's come up in the research."

"Calling him in?" she asked. There was an odd note in her voice.

"Nope, think I'm going to surprise him. Probably be at his place tonight, if you need to get in touch."

She was silent.

"Hon?"

"Sweetie, you and Neal -- you're okay, right?" she asked.

"We're getting there."

"It's just...he seems a little scared of you."

"Yeah, well, I might have been a hardass at him. It'll be fine," he said.

"Okay. Trust you, love you. Tell Neal I love him too."

"I will. Love you."

He hung up and set the phone on the desk, thinking. She was right -- she usually was -- and he couldn't just barge in and interrogate Neal. Not right now. On the other hand, his usual let's forget we've both been idiots move with Elizabeth, which consisted of being aggressively charming and buying her flowers, probably wasn't going to work on Neal. And would be weird, anyway.

A middle ground, then. Soft approach. And bribery that was obviously bribery, because Neal would see through it anyway (not like El didn't, but she appreciated the effort).

***

Claude Monet had a water garden at his house in Giverny, and he'd loved it like it was his child. In 1910, when the Seine overflowed and the flood waters rose, Monet grieved all winter, because he believed his garden was destroyed completely. It hadn't been, though many of the plants had rotted. Restoration took time.

Neal had gone to Monet's garden when he was in France, after the failed job with the music box. He was in the area, casing a private estate, and he couldn't have passed so close and not seen it for himself. He'd bought his ticket like a fresh-faced college kid on summer vacation, wandered around, tried to pull up images from his mental catalogue of the paintings and match them to the images in front of him.

He found he hated Monet's garden.

The paintings were just so much better. There were some emotions that couldn't be conveyed in the sharp lines of reality. Paintings were interesting. Plants were boring.

He was bent close to his Monet, not a forgery but...an emulation, perhaps, when the knock came at the door. He'd been wondering, honestly, how long it would take Peter to put it together. The answer was apparently about twelve hours.

Peter had a paper bag and a distracted air about him. Neal watched him walk over to the painting, evaluate it, and then ask if it was a Monet. Well, he supposed that meant he was doing a good job imitating the style.

He also had a photo of Neal and Vincent together. Neal was torn between a twinge of painful nostalgia and just a plain twinge at his hair. Not the most flattering photograph.

Peter's plan was beer, cheap wine, and talking about Vincent. Neal wanted to talk about Vincent Adler about as much as he wanted a hole in the head, especially since it meant talking about Kate, but he could concede that Peter had the right to know. When Peter laid down his badge, Neal felt like they'd -- opened something, unlocked something. Like lifting the lid on the music box.

So he took out the fractal, and he sat down with the terrible wine, and he started talking. He told a good story, after all, and Peter had strong motivation to listen. He laughed at Mozzie's goatee, grinning when Neal told him how they'd set out to target Vincent -- Adler. He kept almost saying Vincent and then managing to catch himself at the last minute. If Vincent had killed Kate, then Neal needed even the small distance a last name could provide.

Besides, then Peter offered up a story of his own, and Neal felt like they'd slipped back into some kind of groove, like a gear falling into place.

"What was my nickname?" he asked, and Peter gave him a ridiculously fake blank look.

"What?"

"Come on. Hagen was the Dutchman before you ID'ed him, what was my nickname?"

"Don't recall," Peter bluffed.

"Too bad." Neal shook his head. "Sooner you remember, sooner we can move on."

"James Bonds," Peter said with a sigh.

Neal almost laughed out loud. "Bonds. James Bonds."

"Yes." Peter looked like he knew how much shit he'd just gotten into.

"You like another beer?" Neal asked. "Shaken, not stirred?"

"See, I knew it was a mistake telling you," Peter called, as Neal fetched the bottle from the fridge. "Believe me, yours was just one file in a giant stack of cases."

"Yeah," Neal said, offering him the beer. "But it was on top."

Peter raised an eyebrow at him. Neal, daring, leaned over and kissed him. Peter caught him by the back of the neck, held him there, and almost overbalanced in the chair when Neal pressed in close. Neal hauled them both back, thumping the legs of the chair down, pulling away regretfully.

"You weren't that good," Peter said, and Neal laughed.

"I'm always that good," he murmured.

"Stalling," Peter repeated. Neal raised his hands in defeat and sat down again. Then he paused.

"We had to bankroll my attendance at a charity dinner, to get Adler's attention," he said. "The idea was that I'd go to work for him, gain his trust, get his bank account password, and then Mozzie would rig a siphon. Not just intercepting a major wire transfer Adler was going to do -- if he timed it right he could have drained the account completely. We're talking billions here, Peter."

"Yeah, I've read the report on what Adler stole," Peter said quietly. Neal glanced at him, wondering if it was weird for him to hear Neal speak so openly about past crimes. Nobody else Neal had talked to about taking a rich guy for a billion dollars had ever been so very unimpressed.

"So, we cashed some bonds," Neal said. Peter cocked his head.

"Big mistake," he replied.

***

Peter was tired, and a little frustrated, and he'd talked to what felt like every bank manager in Manhattan, trying to get the word out about James Bonds. There had to be a more efficient way to do this, but the case was new to him and sometimes it paid to talk around, check on sources of information, see what the banks knew. Atlantic bonds had previously been thought unforgeable; Peter had an interview with Stewart Gless the following morning, which he was also not anticipating with delight, because Gless was reportedly furious about the forgeries and the NYPD's failure to do anything about them.

So when a young man caught up to him on the street and asked curiously about forgery, Peter bit down on his immediate surge of impatience. Talking to the public was a Good Thing. Maybe this guy knew something.

Good-looking guy, too; young, disorderly dark hair, wide blue eyes, preppy-yuppie clothes.

"Are you with the FBI?" the guy asked, looking at him with a hint of awe.

"Special Agent Peter Burke," Peter said, intrigued now.

"Wow," the man said. "I -- I just took some money out of the bank and I heard you talking about counterfeiting..."

"Your money's safe," Peter answered, sizing him up. This guy didn't know anything, but he looked fascinated, which was at least a little flattering. "I'm looking after counterfeit bonds."

"I have some bonds at home," the man continued, stepping forward again. "How would I know if they're not real?"

Peter gave him a second look-over. Maybe he was just impressed to be talking to an FBI agent -- happened sometimes, got old fast -- but he had the distinct impression this guy wanted something from him. Hard to know what. Felt like he wanted his phone number.

"I'm sure they're fine," he said firmly.

"Well, thanks again for all the hard work you're doing, Agent Burke," the man said, and pressed a sucker into his hand. "That's for you. Have a good day!"

Peter stood there, slightly confused by the encounter, studying the sucker warily. Odd gift to give a stranger on the street.

He'd been there for about thirty seconds, and was considering getting something to eat before he talked to the rest of the seemingly infinite number of banks in midtown, when the manager of the bank came running out.

"Agent Burke, thank god you're still here," she said. "Someone just cashed a series of Atlantic bonds."

Peter shoved the sucker in his pocket and didn't even remember it until later, when the teller who sat with the sketch artist produced a portrait of a handsome young man with disorderly dark hair and wide eyes.

Then he laughed.

"Oh, this kid is fearless," he said, and went to add the sketch to the James Bonds file.

***

"Smooth move," Kate had said to Neal, at the end of the charity dinner. "Displacing Adler's date like that."

"Got me my five minutes," Neal answered with a grin. "Thanks for warning me about his girlfriend, by the way."

"Eh, I thought I'd see how you did," she shot back, with a grin just as wide as his. "So?"

"I guess if he hires me, you'll be the first to know," Neal told her. She considered him for a while. "What?"

"Two pieces of advice for you," she said, holding up two fingers. "One, that's not his girlfriend. She's just the next in a long line of women who aren't good enough to be his wife."

Neal raised an eyebrow.

"He's on the hunt for one -- a perfect, pretty, socially connected woman to give him an heir to the Adler fortune," Kate continued.

"How parochial."

"You'd think, wouldn't you. Two," she said, and tipped his chin up with her fingers, "he also likes pretty young men. Pretty, smart, obedient young men."

"Three out of four ain't bad," he answered. Her fingers were warm and smooth. She nodded.

"See you around, Nick," she told him, and walked away. Neal waited until she was out of sight before he leaned against a wall and let out a long, slow breath. Then he hurried out to the valet service, where Mozzie was already waiting for him behind the wheel of a 'borrowed' luxury sedan.

"Home, Jeeves," he said, climbing into the back.

"How'd it go, Wooster?" Mozzie answered. Neal wasn't sure himself, but he thought he'd done okay.

"Things are looking up," he said. Mozzie chuckled and pulled out into traffic.

***

"Adler had a thing for you, huh?" Peter asked, sipping his beer, standing out on the terrace and staring at the cars passing below.

"Jealous?" Neal asked. Peter gave him a sardonic look. "Honestly? I don't know. He played it pretty close to the vest. Obviously. He liked my company. Gave me bonuses bigger than I deserved, bought me clothes. After a few months, I went everywhere with him."

"The wife-hunt?"

Neal shrugged. "He asked my opinion sometimes."

"And you said?"

"Good rule of a con -- never disagree with your mark," Neal told him. "I always found something about them that wasn't perfect, he said he thought so too, moved on to the next one." He watched Peter, whose mouth was moving, little twitches. "Just ask," he said.

"You sleep with him?"

Neal shook his head. "Couple of times I thought I might have to. Wouldn't have been a hardship. In case you haven't noticed, I have a thing for the powerful."

"Might have occurred to me," Peter agreed. "What about Kate?"

"Boyfriend," Neal reminded him. "Kate was -- you could tell she wanted something more than what she had. She wanted something new. Guess she thought Chicago would be it, but I'm cooler than Chicago."

Peter grunted, but he sounded amused.

"She was an artist. She wanted to be outside painting landscapes, sculpting in a studio, going to gallery openings," Neal said. "She didn't want to live her whole life under fluorescent lights. She wanted adventure. And a bankroll to support it."

"And you gave it to her."

Neal shrugged. "So did Fowler. Adventure got her killed. I get the moral, Peter."

"I wonder if you do," Peter replied.

***

There was one night, Neal wasn't sure if it even -- he didn't know if it counted, or whatever.

It had been his gig from the start. Mozzie got wind of a very exclusive, very hush-hush private auction in the Hamptons, twelve beautiful Renaissance paintings being sold by a celebrity with a gambling problem. On his request, Mozzie had talked to a guy who'd talked to a woman whose boyfriend was the auctioneer, and arranged for an invite for Adler. Neal gave it to him for his birthday.

"I want you to come with me," Adler said, surprising him. "You know a little about art. Besides, you need to learn these things."

The auction was being held at a luxury resort, with a viewing of the paintings and a dinner beforehand, heavy on the alcohol -- always drove prices up. Neal inspected the paintings, lingering over a fake Titian, studying the brushwork. Ten of the twelve paintings were fakes, probably reproductions that had been commissioned to hang on the wall in place of the real paintings, stashed in a vault somewhere. It wasn't an uncommon practice, but the nerve of someone to salt the collection with two real ones and then sell ten fakes was almost...admirable.

"This one?" Adler asked in his ear, resting a hand on his shoulder as he eyed the detail work. Neal thought he could probably name the forger who'd done it.

"No," Neal said softly.

"No?"

"It's a fake," Neal told him. "I think most of them are. But look who's looking at it now," he added, straightening. "Over my shoulder. The man in the green tie. He's too cheap to be here to buy."

"He's like you," Adler said. "No offense."

"Exactly like me," Neal agreed pleasantly. "He's a consultant. And he's watching us. Smile big."

Adler gave him a giant, bright grin, and for good measure tipped his head at the painting.

"Which ones are real?" he asked.

"The small Botticelli panel next to me, and the Uccello on the end," Neal said. "Ignore the Botticelli. It's not his best work. If you're going to bid, bid on the Uccello."

Adler nodded. "Maybe you don't need to learn as much as I thought."

"I used to work as an auction page in high school," Neal said, which was almost true -- he'd done a stint as a page when he should have been in high school. They'd thought he was a twenty-one-year-old art student. Until he walked off with a small Rodin bronze and two medieval icon panels, anyway.

"The Raphael's not real, then?" Adler asked, looking unhappy.

"Sorry, boss, I can't guarantee it," Neal said.

"I almost want to bid on it anyway, it's gorgeous."

"Bid away. Just don't win," Neal advised. Adler nodded. "Have you looked at the Uccello yet?"

"No, why?"

Neal grinned. "It's Saint George slaying the dragon."

He watched Adler bid that night with a mixture of admiration and pride; pride that this was his boss, acting on his word, and admiration for the way he did it. The Uccello went for eight hundred thousand, not that much, but then that was part of Adler's strategy. And there hadn't been much interest, anyway. The painting wasn't pretty -- it wasn't easy -- and it wasn't especially famous.

There was a reception afterward, where the buyers could admire their new work and where a toast was raised to every artist. To Titian. To Botticelli. To Lippi. To Raphael. To Bosch. And, finally:

"To Uccello," Adler said. He was flush with his success, with having put one over on the others, and with a couple of glasses of champagne. When they lifted their glasses, he added, "And to you, Nick."

Neal saw a few raised eyebrows, but he ignored them, ducking his head and smiling, genuinely pleased and not a little worried. As people began to drift back towards the bar, he gently steered Adler out of the reception and into the quiet, lushly decorated hallway.

"Did I embarrass you?" Adler asked, as they walked to the elevator. "People should know about your good work, Nick, even if they don't know just how good it was tonight."

"I think we should both get some rest," Neal told him, pushing the button for their floor. "Early start tomorrow."

"Of course. Home, with our prize. I think I'll hang it opposite the Raphael; two warring saints, locked in combat," Adler said. The door dinged; they walked down the hall, toward the enormous suite Adler -- or rather, Kate, on his orders -- had booked for the night. Inside, Adler went to the bar and poured two scotches.

"To keep you from blushing like a virgin again," he said, offering one to Nick, "a private toast. To you, my finder of saints and dragons."

"Thank you," Neal said, without the false modesty of earlier, and sipped the scotch. Adler finished his and wandered towards the windows, then into the bedroom with the glass wall looking out on the ocean. Neal was about to go into his own smaller, view-less room, when he heard Adler call his name.

"Boss?" he asked, ducking through the doorway. Adler had his jacket and tie off, and he was fumbling with his buttons.

"I think you were right about all the champagne," he said, looking rueful. "Would you mind helping me?"

"Of course," Neal answered, coming forward to undo the buttons one by one. He bent his head slightly -- he'd had some champagne himself, though not nearly as much as anyone else -- and worked them open. When Adler didn't move, he unbuckled his belt as well, sliding his pants over his hips before pushing the shirt off his shoulders.

"Thank you, Nick," Adler said in his ear, the innuendo unmistakable. He could see Adler wasn't even hard, but when he looked up he could also see the speculative, acquisitive desire in Adler's face.

He could have gone on his knees, shown this powerful, wealthy, demanding man just how good Nick Halden's mouth was, and for a second he considered it. He wanted it, wanted to know what Adler would do. But it wouldn't get him closer to his goal -- in fact, if things were awkward in the morning, it might make it harder. So he stepped back slowly, turning the sheets down on Adler's bed.

"Come," he said, pulling Adler along by his shoulders, walking backwards. He helped him into the bed and pulled the covers up; Adler drifted a hand along his jaw, and when Neal didn't move, pressed a thumb between his lips. Neal nipped it, lightly, then leaned back and let it slide out of his mouth.

Back in his own room, he leaned against the wall and unbuckled his belt, slid his pants down his hips, ran a palm over his cock, hard and halfway there already. He came quick, silent, regretful, and staggered to the bed.

Later, much later, when he stole the Raphael, he found the Uccello in the same storage rack. He considered it -- they did make a nice matched pair, in contrast as much as in theme -- but he remembered Adler's soft dick and hard eyes and the way he'd said Neal's name, even if it wasn't really Neal's name, and what had happened after. He ran a finger across a corner of the painting, just to be able to say he'd touched it, and then left it behind. He didn't want that reminder.

***

Neal didn't tell Peter that story; it wasn't relevant, and not his finest moment either. It might have made Peter jealous, but given that he didn't seem to care that Neal had sex with his wife on a reasonably regular basis, probably not. Instead he followed Peter to the sofa, took a seat across from him, and told the end of the story. His fall. Conned by Adler, and then losing Kate, and then his arrest -- not that Peter didn't know that part.

"How was the sucker?" he asked Peter, who grinned.

"Green apple," he said. "It was disgusting. Best sucker I ever had."

Neal laughed a little. "Glad I could oblige."

The sun was already rising through the big french doors; Sunday in New York. Neal felt tired, and a little drunk, and mostly kind of sad. Reliving what seemed to him like a series of failures -- fun failures, but still, failures -- wasn't easy. Especially when Peter called him on withholding information. Peter knew Alex had been there, even after a night awake and a six-pack of beer.

"It's a fractal antenna," he admitted. "They're in everything now, there's one in your cellphone. This shape corresponds to a specific frequency -- for an emergency beacon," he said, though Alex had said that was just a guess.

"Emergency beacon?" Peter asked. "You're telling me that if we build a real one of these and we hook that up to a radio..."

"It's gonna lead us to a boat or a plane, or something that disappeared in the 1940s," he said. He didn't add what else Alex had told him: Whatever it is, it probably belonged to the Nazis. You sure you want to go the Indiana Jones route, Neal? Because they got up to some freaky stuff. For all we know this leads to some secret bunker Hitler had and you're going to find a bunch of inbred feral dachshunds and a whole lot of bullshit otherwise.

"Something worth killing two people?" Peter asked. "Something worth all this?"

"It's worth it to Adler," Neal said, because what else could he say? He didn't know what Adler might want. He'd liked art, and pretty young men, and anagrams, and fractals.

"Then I guess we have to find it first," Peter said. Neal nodded. "You already have Mozzie working on this, huh?"

"I might have asked him to start looking into old designs," Neal said slowly. "I was gonna tell you. I was. I was just..." he spread his hands. "Look, I spent five months with Adler. He taught me how to wear a suit, he taught me about gourmet food, he paid me enough that I could eat it -- I learned how to be who I am from him. Including some of the con. You don't spend half a year becoming someone else's vision without learning things they didn't mean to teach you."

Peter sat back, a smile twitching around his lips. "You've been working with me for two years, and you still don't like beer."

"Or baseball. But I'm not trying to con you. I was trying to con him. You want to be conned, say the word, I will buy you Yankees tickets and pretend I enjoy your homicidal driving. But you don't want that," Neal added.

"No, I don't." Peter looked down at the fractal. "Wouldn't mind you doing what I tell you a little more often."

"I do what you tell me all the time," Neal said quietly, leaning close. "Tell me right now if you want."

Peter's eyes raised, catching his. "You're waiting for me, huh?"

Neal nodded.

"Why?"

"I don't know what's okay between us."

"So why not ask?"

Neal gave him a dry look. "Would you?"

"Point." Peter sighed and stood up, offering Neal a hand; when he tugged, Neal stood and let himself be pulled close. Peter rested his palm against his throat, loose, looser than he ever had, and swept across his jaw with his thumb. He kissed him, the sunlight warm on them through the glass.

"I am sorry," Peter said, holding their foreheads together, "that you lost her. I'm sorry that your role model had to be Vincent Adler. And I know you deserved four years, more than four, but I'm sorry I put you there. If I had to do it over again I would. But I would be sorry."

"I'm here now," Neal said. "I'm not sorry for what I did. I'd do it over again too."

Peter laughed a little. "No, you wouldn't be sorry," he said, and kissed him again. Neal fitted his fingers into Peter's open collar, popped the button there, kissed his way down Peter's jaw and nuzzled into his throat. Peter had a hand curled in Neal's shirt, and he tugged it up and off, taking the undershirt with it. Neal pushed him towards the bed.

"I'm a little..." Peter broke off as Neal stripped his shirt down his shoulders. "I'm not quite..."

Neal cupped him through his pants, felt Peter buck into it, only half-hard. Exhaustion, alcohol, maybe even the odd grief Neal could feel, pressing against his own ribcage. This time, though, Peter wasn't Adler and Neal wasn't there to win anything; he pushed Peter down onto the edge of the bed and knelt between his legs, easing his pants down, pressing his face to Peter's stomach. Hands curled in his hair, affectionate, and when he looked up there was not a single ounce of avarice in Peter's face. Peter might want to own him more than Adler ever did, but Peter wanted to own Neal Caffrey, not a trinket or a piece of eye candy who happened to also have a brain. Him.

He sucked Peter's cock into his mouth, heard him moan, felt him get harder. When Peter's hips started to hitch, his fingers tightening in Neal's hair, he leaned back and pushed Peter all the way onto the bed, straddling him and then rolling so that he had Peter's weight on his chest, his legs around Peter's hips.

"You don't know," Peter said into his shoulder, rubbing easily against him, slow and languid. "You don't know what it does to me, to us, having you -- always coming so close to losing you. I couldn't back away now if I wanted to, if I tried to."

"You won't have to," Neal promised, hoping he wasn't lying. "You -- there, oh," he broke off, as Peter slid a hand between them, gripping them both in one broad palm. "Peter -- "

"Gotcha, I gotcha," Peter answered, his other hand cupping Neal's face. "It's okay, come on."

Neal moaned and thrust up into his hand, against his body, closing his eyes against the contradiction -- weight and lightness, pleasure and sadness and release. It was complicated, frightening, and even after Peter came it took a while for Neal to catch his breath.

"Thank you," he said, as Peter rolled away into the blankets, turning to stare up at the ceiling.

"You really want to thank me, find me a tissue," Peter said. Neal laughed and reached down the side of the bed, carelessly using his shirt to clean them up, tossing it away when he was done. He turned on his side and watched Peter, watched complex emotions play across his face, even with his eyes closed. He was perhaps the only person Neal had slept with -- certainly the first in a long time -- who showed his feelings so openly. The sad thing was Peter wasn't even that unguarded. He was just...honest. And Neal hadn't fallen for an honest man in -- ever. Even Adler hadn't been.

"Full immunity," Peter said after a while. Neal thought he'd fallen asleep.

"Hm?" Neal asked.

"I need immunity for something," Peter told him.

"Sun's already up," Neal pointed out.

"Haven't got my badge on."

Neal laughed. "You haven't got anything on," he said, butting his head against Peter's bare shoulder. Peter caught him, held him by his hair -- not painfully, just firmly.

"I need to tell you something," he said. "And I need you not to hold it against me, or use it, or act on it."

"What?" Neal broke free of his grip, pulling away slowly, and pushed himself up onto an elbow.

"Our office in Sacramento picked up a couple of forgeries," Peter said, opening his eyes. "Sheets from an old book. Historic papers. Sound familiar?"

"Clive," Neal said. "Our baby forger."

"I think so."

"Sacramento's handling it?" Neal asked, and Peter nodded. "So?" he spread his hands. "It's not like I can hop a jet out to California and go looking for the kid."

"They have your initials on them," Peter told him. Neal froze. "Hughes brought it to me. I told him it wasn't your signature and it wasn't your style, and I'd have known if you were doing forgery work here. He's backing you, and so am I."

"You think I did it?" Neal asked carefully.

"No. I think Clive wants your attention," Peter said. "But Sacramento won't give me the case, and Hughes ordered me not to tell you. This is why I need to know you won't act on this. You aren't supposed to know. I get it," he said, sitting up, resting his arms on his knees and looking down at Neal over his shoulder. "I do. It's a pride thing. And if I were you I'd be pissed too."

"Yeah, I am," Neal said. "I tried to help him, now he tries to screw me? For what, so I'll notice him?"

"Working theory," Peter said. "Neal, you have to let me handle this one. You have to."

Neal considered it -- the news, the implications, the tone of Peter's voice. He eased himself back down against the pillows, lifting a hand to run it over Peter's spine, thumb slipping between the bumps it made in his skin.

"This is a test," he said softly. "Because of -- the thing with Fowler."

"Yeah. I guess."

"You want me to let you handle this, to prove you will. So that I'll trust you," Neal continued. "I trust you, Peter."

"With your life, maybe," Peter said. "When it comes to letting other people help you, when it comes to believing that I'm working for you, not against you -- not so much."

"Can I ask..." Neal swallowed and then pushed on. "Last time we were here -- you said, about -- a collar. You said."

"I remember."

"If I back off of this, if I let you take care of Clive -- "

"I'm not going to bribe you for good behavior," Peter retorted. "That's not how this works."

"But if I proved I trusted you. You've let me earn things in the past," Neal pointed out. "The Caillebotte exhibit. That first vellum Clive did."

"That was for a case."

"But you brought it to me," Neal argued. He spread his hand out, flattening it against Peter's back, seeing how far his fingers spread. "Do you even understand what I'm asking?"

"Maybe I don't," Peter said. "Explain it to me."

Neal sat up, leaning against him, head pressed into the crook between neck and shoulder, even though it was awkward. "I won't fight you about Clive. You deal with it. When Hughes says you can bring me in, fine, bring me in. Until then it's yours. But." He nosed against Peter's pulse, closing his eyes. "I want to know that what I do has consequences for you. That I matter."

"Of course you matter. To both of us."

"Easy to say, but I live among liars," Neal pointed out. "I want proof. This is the way I am, Peter, this is my life. Prove it matters to you, that I matter to you."

"Make you a deal," Peter said, after a pause. "Trust me with Clive. That means no asking around, no loopholes, no side cons on this. You don't act on anything you know until I tell you. In a couple of months, we'll talk."

"Deal," Neal said promptly, and felt a little like he was signing something away, but it hardly mattered. "And you should go home and sleep in your own bed, because I am planning to sleep all over this one," he added, sprawling back, shoving Peter over with his legs.

"Oh you are, are you?" Peter asked, unmoving, but he smiled.

"My bed, my rules."

"It's not even your bed."

"You think June would rent it out to you? 'By the way, I'm fucking Neal, I think I should timeshare -- ' " Neal broke off when Peter turned and wrestled him flat, pinning him.

"Okay," Peter said, and kissed him on the forehead before rolling off, casting around for his clothes. "Home I go."

"Peter," Neal said, rolling over to watch him dress. Peter looked up from buckling his belt. "Thank you. For the immunity."

"Easiest way to talk," Peter said.

"Talking isn't ever easy. I appreciate the help."

Peter gave him a nod, clearly uncertain how to respond, and turned away to pull on his shirt. Neal felt his eyes closing of their own accord; he tried to stay awake until Peter left, so he could say goodbye, but the last thing he remembered was the arch of Peter's spine, the bend of his body as he shrugged into his jacket.

***

References:
Monet's Garden at Giverny.
Paolo Uccello, Saint George Slaying the Dragon. Or, if you prefer, here's another one he did. But in my head, Adler bought the first version. It's uglier, I kind of like it.

Chapter Seventeen.

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