sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-05-22 11:48 am

Exquisite, Chapter Seventeen

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.
BETA CREDIT JESUS: [livejournal.com profile] neifile7, [livejournal.com profile] 51stcenturyfox, [personal profile] girlpearl, [livejournal.com profile] tzikeh

Master Post
Chapter Sixteen

***

Neal Caffrey
American, 1980 -
The Forged Frame
Oil, 2011
Gift of the Artist

The floral themes of Caffrey's Carnation Girl are seen in full force with The Forged Frame, designed to emulate Monet's use of color and depth of feeling more directly. The vivid blues and greens create an almost three-dimensional contrast, the river seeming to carry the bright, gently-rendered water plants towards the viewer. Less an exercise in nostalgia and more a pure artistic conceit, this work displays Caffrey's skill at imitation and hints at his ability to appropriate and adapt, a hallmark of later efforts. Caffrey's attitude towards his early work and the cultural position in which he found himself are clear in the "defaced" nature of the painting: the artist reflects the view society holds of him, which obscures the painting and casts it back on his audience.

Many of Caffrey's early sketches have been preserved, but paintings from the same era as The Forged Frame are rare, most having been destroyed in a fire. Some fragments of these were incorporated into a later collage work, Phoinikoi.

***

Peter didn't see Neal's false Monet again until after the Burmese ruby job, until after Neal's startling revelation that his father had been a cop. A crooked cop, too; a lot of things began to make more sense, like Neal's sullen intractability during the boiler room job, when he had thought Peter was the one who had Kate. Especially calling out Peter's alias in front of a dozen armed men. Peter thought about it a lot, that afternoon. You want to be a dirty cop? Why don't I out you in front of all these boys with guns. Oh look, I have one too.

Jesus, what a mess. And Peter wanted to get back to the office and jump into the law enforcement database, wanted to search for Officer Caffrey, wherever he'd been, but he knew better. Neal didn't want to talk about it, and Peter knew if he found records on his father, if he found an arrest file or a death certificate or a newspaper article, he wouldn't be able to stop himself from asking Neal about them. It was just the way he was, and their balance was fragile enough.

He knew he'd made the right choice the next time he was at Neal's apartment, just to pick him up in the morning. Neal was dressed and ready, but he was working on the he-said-it-wasn't-a-Monet.

"What are you doing?" Peter asked, brow furrowed. Neal swept glue onto the painting with a wide brush and pasted a piece of paper on top, carefully pressing the edges of the paper down.

"Working," Neal answered without looking up. The strip of paper read WANTED: FORGERY. NEAL CAFFREY.

"Where the hell did you get your wanted posters?" Peter asked, distracted.

"My file," Neal replied. "Mozzie photocopied everything before we sent it back. You had a whole folder of my wanted posters, it's kind of sweet. Like a demented scrapbook."

"And now you're..." Peter prompted.

"It's art, don't question," Neal replied. He added another strip of paper: FRAUD AND GRAND THEFT. NEAL CAFFREY.

"Neal, you're destroying it," Peter said.

"No, I'm completing it," Neal corrected, stepping back, dropping the brush into a tray and wiping his hands with a damp rag. Most of the detail, the prettiest part of the painting, had been covered with wanted headlines. No description, no sketches or mug shots, just the huge-font warnings. FRAUD. FORGERY. GRAND THEFT. ART THEFT. FORGERY. FORGERY.

"Are you...is that...signing it, somehow?" Peter ventured, confused and a little worried.

"It's a statement," Neal said, sounding satisfied.

"Oh," Peter said. He didn't pretend to understand modern art, and didn't care to, but right now he'd give a lot for a curator of Neal Caffrey's brain. Neal looked up at him, sighed, and rubbed his eyes.

"It's about law and art," he said. "Look what I made, it's beautiful. But it's not legal. And even if it were, I'm not legal. This is what people see," he said, pointing at one of the FRAUD headlines. "It's not subtle, but it works," he added. "We ready to go?"

They had a lot of paperwork from the Burma case to wrap up -- reports to Amnesty International, carefully edited by Hughes himself, and Peter had to itemize the parts for the synthetic ruby machine, among other things -- but at least it was quiet work, calming after the international roller-coaster ride they'd had to deal with. There was a letter of thanks from the State Department too, which Peter copied and placed in Neal's parole file. Not their proudest moment, harassing the Burmese ambassador while Mozzie's smoke-bomb fermented, but the parole board wouldn't know that.

It was just pushing noon, and he was about to call Elizabeth to see if she was up for lunch, when he saw Diana cross the bullpen and stop at Neal's desk. They exchanged a few words, Neal looking slightly perplexed, and then Neal picked up his hat and followed her out to the elevators. He gave Peter a brief salute with the hat when he saw him watching, but that was all.

Neal and Diana had made some kind of peace with each other, before the whole thing with Fowler and the gun went down, but since then she'd been chilly towards him, professional and nothing more. Even before that, they'd never been the kind of people who ate lunch together. Peter tilted his head, wondering what was going on, but then put it out of his mind and picked up the phone to call El.

***

"If this is going to be another lecture, believe me, the spanking from last time still smarts," Neal said, as he and Diana settled into a table at a little outdoor cafe a few blocks from the Federal Building. She gave him a look, one that even he had trouble interpreting, and asked for water when the waiter stopped at their table. "Okay, now I'm worried," he added.

"I needed to talk to you away from the office," she said, ignoring the menu in front of her. Neal waited patiently. "About Peter."

"Is something wrong?" Neal asked.

"That's what I need to know. From the outside, it looks like he's losing control over you," she said. "Looks like he's choosing you over the Bureau. But it's not that simple, is it?"

"Is it ever?" Neal didn't like where this was going.

"Used to be. Something changed. I'm capable of doing the math, Neal," Diana said. Neal went wary and alert, and probably didn't hide it as well as he should have. "I know about you and him."

"What exactly do you think you know?" Neal asked.

"I know you're sleeping with him," she said bluntly.

"And how do you -- "

"Come on. I'm not blind," she replied. Neal blinked. "Here's a little story: a few months after we caught you, I came out to him. Not like it was a big secret, but I wanted to bring my girlfriend to an office party, wanted to know if it was okay. He said he got it, because he'd been there, and he'd have my back." She shrugged. "I know he's bi. I know he's put himself on the line for you. I've seen the way he handles you. Wasn't hard to figure out."

Neal ducked his head. "The hospital, huh?"

"I have never seen him put a choke like that on anyone," she replied. "Never seen you respond that way, either. But I suspected before then."

"When?"

"When we took Deckard down. You freaked out. He put his hands on you. Then he went after Deckard for selling out Clive." She leaned back. "It was going on by then."

Neal nodded.

"Since when?"

"Since before you came back," Neal said. "When it started, anyway."

"That long?"

"Yeah. But that's not really what you want to ask me, is it?"

"No." She bit her lip. "I need to know if he's coercing you."

"Coercing me?" Neal asked, honestly surprised. "You know Peter. He seem like that kind of guy to you?"

"No. But nobody does, until they do," she replied. "He put a choke on you."

"That's..." Neal closed his eyes briefly. "Not what it looked like. You think Peter's violent with me?"

"I don't know. That's why I'm talking to you, not to him. If he is, you have legal recourse. You wouldn't go back to prison. If he's threatened you, or abused you, I can help."

Neal felt oddly touched. Diana was still pissed at him, still didn't trust him, but she'd make sure he was safe before anything else.

"He's not coercing me," he said, as their drinks arrived. Diana ordered, brisk and efficient; Neal followed, picking the first thing on the menu that sounded edible. As soon as the waiter was gone, he leaned forward. "He wouldn't hurt me. If anything -- he said he couldn't give me what I wanted. He said I couldn't give free consent in custody."

"And now he's doing it anyway."

Neal grinned. "I pushed. I'm hard to resist."

"And the choke?"

"It's -- shorthand. Something we do." Neal looked down. "It helps. Helps me. I know how it looks, but it's not abuse, I swear."

Diana frowned, seeming to consider it, but eventually she nodded. "In that case, here's what else I need to know: does Elizabeth know?"

"She's involved in it," Neal said reluctantly.

Diana raised an eyebrow. "Oh, it's like that?"

"Look, you could get Peter in a lot of trouble," Neal lowered his voice. "He doesn't deserve that. They don't. You want me to walk away, I will, but he's not the one who should get hurt here."

"Are you conning them?" Diana asked. Neal considered being offended, but it was a fair question.

"It's not a con," he said. "I swear, Diana, it's not a con. I care about them. I need them," he added, with honesty born of desperation.

She swept his face, looking for deceit. It was one of the sharpest looks he'd ever had from anyone, Peter included, and he felt suddenly transparent.

"And you'd walk away from that, for him?" she asked.

"Is that what you want?" Neal replied.

"I'm not his mother. Or yours. Peter wants to run that risk, it's up to him," she said. "I won't cover for either of you, but I won't go to Hughes."

"Thank you," he said.

"You try to con me, though, I'll break your arms," she added. "You hurt either of them, prison will look like a vacation villa. We understand each other?"

Neal nodded. "You planning to talk to him about it?"

"That's gonna be an awkward conversation," she sighed. He smiled a little.

"Life's more complicated than the law," he said. "People are messy."

"You're telling me," she answered, leaning back as their food arrived. "I've got a girlfriend who hates New York, a felon for a colleague, and Jones keeps coming to me for advice on women."

"He's coming to you?" Neal asked, mocking hurt. "But I'm right here!"

"I have a better track record," she replied.

"Ouch," he said. "Deserved, maybe." He paused. "Are we good?"

"No. But we're getting there," she added.

"Because I could -- "

"Eat your lunch, Caffrey."

"Yes'm."


***

Neal decided, discretion being the better part of avoiding a mess, not to go back to the office for Diana's talk with Peter. Instead he called Moz, who agreed to meet him on the steps of Grant's Tomb (never let it be said Mozzie lacked drama) to talk about the antenna. Mozzie was, well, Mozzie, but Neal knew he was working hard, even if he didn't want to call it work. By the time they were done going over the schematics, he had a text from Peter: Thanks for defending me to Diana.

He texted back hastily. Things ok?

Strange, but yes. Taking the day?

Status report from Moz. See you tomorrow, he answered, and tucked the phone in his pocket, heading for home and hopefully some time to clear his head.

No such luck.

By unspoken agreement, Neal and Mozzie had declared June their protectorate; she offered them shelter and comfort, and the least they could do in return was make sure she was vigilantly guarded against the unscrupulous. He suspected she thought this was more adorable than it was necessary, given her past and her ability to smell a crook a mile off, but it was the thought that counted. So when Neal found a strange man in June's house, his hackles went up and stayed up even after Ford had been introduced. It wasn't just self-preservation -- it might have been, once -- but a genuine instinct to scare off anyone trying to hurt June. And he did, after all, have the FBI at his disposal now.

Oh, but it was a brilliant con, the job Ford ran on him, and Peter, and the FBI, and Ganz. By the end of it, Neal couldn't help but admire Ford's technique, even as he watched Ford walk away with a gun in one hand and a suitcase full of worthless paper in the other. The coin had been a masterstroke, and Ford had clearly had his number, manipulating him into finding the plate, jumping into the counterfeiting scheme, dragging the FBI in.

He felt pretty proud of himself, really. He hadn't just run a con back on Ford, a spur-of-the-moment swap; he'd stopped and given him a choice. If Ford had done the smart thing and stayed, Neal would have been able to wrangle him a deal, he was sure of it. If Ford left, he wouldn't know how screwed he was until he was too far away to use that shiny little gun. Peter's ethos must be rubbing off on him a little.

"There's one thing Byron figured out that Ford never did," Peter said, sitting in the Lenox Lounge, while evidence techs started packing up the counterfeiting equipment. "There's no such thing as a final score. Only the next one."

Neal wanted to shut him up, to tell him to spare the details, but he didn't. Maybe he needed to hear it. It was always a temptation: the con, the big score, the last brilliant theft. Even working for the FBI, it was more fun when there was a little crime involved, and Neal knew that was probably pretty messed up. On the other hand, well-adjusted sanity seemed boring.

"Unless you figure that out, you're gonna lose in the end," Peter finished. Neal sat quietly, turning the words over in his head. "Ready?"

"Yeah," Neal agreed, and followed him out, leaving Ford's hat behind. Outside the sun was still bright, almost painful, like coming out of a movie theater. He shaded his eyes as they walked to the car.

"Coming home?" Peter asked, as he started the car.

"I think I need to look in on June," Neal said. "That okay?"

Peter nodded. "Not a bad idea. You think she'll be upset?"

"I think June's a survivor," Neal answered. "She's been through harder. I think he really does regret using her."

"Didn't stop him, though," Peter answered, pulling into traffic.

"Yeah." Neal studied the buildings passing by, the streets, the turns. He inhaled. "That memory trick."

He heard Peter chuckle, low. "Burke the Jerk?"

"That wasn't yours. I was just messing with you for that crack you made about not growing up."

"Well, thanks for the honesty, I guess," Peter said. "So? What was it?"

"You never had one," Neal admitted. Peter shot him a glance. "You were my first Fed. You were barely a step behind me -- then, anyway," he added, and Peter grumbled something under his breath. "You didn't need one. I wasn't going to forget you."

"I'm touched," Peter said sarcastically.

"Kate called you the Pet," Neal added. Peter narrowed his eyes. "Always following us around, you know. Peter, Pet..."

"I take from your tone," Peter said, "that it wasn't an affectionate nickname."

"Coulda been worse," Neal answered. "There was this cop in Vienna, Alex called him the Little Dick."

Peter's lips curved upwards just a little. "First-hand knowledge?"

"I never asked. Seems like a long time ago, now," Neal said thoughtfully. "I feel old."

"You're twenty-nine," Peter answered.

"Almost thirty!"

"Oh, well, that changes everything."

Neal leaned back a little, staring out the window, absently tracking their route. "I don't want to be sixty years old and have nothing. I don't want to show up in someone's life one day and screw them because the con's more important. But there's nothing else like it."

"We've been down this road, Neal."

"I know," Neal said. "More than once."

"And?"

"And I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yes you are," Peter agreed, pulling to a stop in front of June's. A cab honked behind them, and Peter flipped his hand at the driver as he turned in his seat. "You don't have to be like Ford."

"Guess we'll find out," Neal said. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Bright and early," Peter answered.

Neal heard the car pull away as he climbed the steps to June's. Music drifted out from the sitting room; June was a solitary silhouette at the piano.

He didn't need to tell her what happened. She was smart; she'd figured it out, from what she knew of Ford, and from what Mozzie had undoubtedly told her. So he just let her talk. And he offered her a dance.

"You have us," he said softly, as they danced. "Me and Mozzie, Peter, Elizabeth."

She laughed a little, into his shoulder. "It's never been about who I had or didn't have. I have my children, my grandchildren. I have friends. It's only...some days I just miss him so much, anything seems like a good idea if it brings him back for a little while."

"I'm sorry."

"I know you are," she said. "Byron would have loved you," she added, as the music ended and she stepped back. June was, if nothing else, strong to her core in a way Neal envied; her eyes were dry, face composed, and there was a hint of a smile on her lips. "Thank you, Neal."

"Anytime," he answered, giving a little half-bow. June laughed. "June -- he hurt you. If you want me and Mozzie to -- "

"No, dear. No," she said firmly. "Let him go. He has enough troubles without setting the two of you on him."

Neal nodded. "You just say the word."

"Sweet boy." She patted his cheek. "Mozzie's upstairs. I think you'd better go reassure him before he has some kind of fit."

"On my way." Neal grinned, kissed her hand, and ran up the stairs to meet Mozzie.

***

And then Matthew Keller walked back into their lives.

Peter, at least, had forewarning from Hughes. He watched Neal carefully as Hughes took them through Keller's opening move: information in exchange for protection. Neal was the consummate con man, not a hint of alarm or turmoil in his face. Just the allowable indignation of a man who knows someone's trying to pull a fast one. In fact, Neal reacted like nothing so much as a cop. Even when it became clear they were going to have to talk to Keller, and maybe even offer a deal, Neal kept his poker face. Considering the last time Keller had messed with them it had ended with Neal getting drunk, alone in his loft, Peter wasn't going to stop watching just because this time Neal kept his temper.

"Are you okay with this?" Peter asked in the car, on the way to the prison. Neal glanced at him.

"Are you?" he asked, which wasn't an answer.

"Neal."

"There are so many reasons, Peter, that I am not okay with this," Neal said. "Our past relationship is like, number eleven or fifteen. One, I am really uncomfortable walking into a prison, any prison. Two, this is exactly what Keller wants. Three, are they going to try and cavity-search me again? Four, you haven't stopped wanting to punch Keller in the face. Five, I definitely want to punch Keller in the face and I'm not as good at it as you are. Six -- "

"I get it. And what do you mean, am I?" Peter said, because something had just clicked over in his brain. "Why wouldn't I be okay with it? I'm not the guy who slept with him and then got him arrested for murder."

"Okay, those two things were ten years apart," Neal said. "And I don't know if you've put these facts together, Columbo, but you're about to interview your boyfriend's ex-boyfriend."

Peter felt he did a very good job not slamming on the brakes.

"Yeah," Neal said. "That was reason number eight."

"Fuck," Peter said feelingly. "You had to bring that up?"

"Better now than in the middle of the interview," Neal pointed out. "Just go in and do your supercop thing. Keller doesn't even know you know about us. Look at it that way. We have one up on him."

"I do love having one up on the bad guy," Peter admitted.

"Yeah, I noticed," Neal told him.

Keller had it nice at Hawthorne; his cell looked like the photos of Capone's cell Peter had seen in books. Comfortable chair, fancy lamp, cigars, scotch -- and a chess board, laid out for a game. He could see, now -- now that he knew Neal and Keller's history in full -- what Neal had been attracted to. Keller was an alpha dog, a smug son of a bitch constantly working to show his dominance. He was trying to make a deal with the FBI and he still treated Peter like an appendage of Neal, a necessary evil; Neal was the one he told about the passport forger, Lang, and Neal was the one he talked to when he said he wanted a deal.

Peter wasn't interested in a pissing match with a murderer, and certainly had nothing to prove to Matthew Keller, but he could see Keller was trying for it. And perhaps on Neal it was working.

It admittedly had Peter off his game. And if he hadn't been off his game he would have remembered to pick up the dry-cleaning that night, or at least he wouldn't have been totally insane the next morning when it hit him that he hadn't. Even as the words were coming out of his mouth he could tell he was picking a fight with Elizabeth for no good reason. Maybe because he had to fight with someone if he couldn't punch Keller's teeth down his throat, and who better than the woman he loved?

Anyone better. He knew it, and he still couldn't just say he was sorry and admit he was being an asshole.

He genuinely did want to be better for her than he had been lately. Between Neal's crazies, their workload at the Bureau, and their sidelong pursuit of Adler, he'd been distracted and absent and he worried he was hurting her. Neglecting her. Somehow, all that worry just turned into anger.

"So the two of you are fighting," Neal said, when Peter explained it to him. "As much as you can call it a fight, anyway."

"Did you not hear the part where I deliberately didn't call her hon?" Peter asked.

"Yes, yes, I heard that part," Neal said, only a little sarcastically.

"Oh, what, are we really going to get into who's had the worst fight?" Peter demanded. Neal held up his hands innocently.

"You're not fighting with me," he said.

"Jesus, I am! What the hell is wrong with me?" Peter asked, as they stopped in front of Lang's studio.

"You're sleeping with another man and dry-cleaning is what you fight about? This is no big deal, it'll blow over," Neal said.

"Well, we're both..." Peter gestured. He saw Neal quickly suppress a grin. "And I never forget to pick you up."

"Thank you for conflating me with your dry-cleaning."

"Neal!"

"Look, call her, leave her a voicemail, say hon before you hang up," Neal said. "I miss anything?"

It was a good idea, and also a stupidly obvious one, which just proved his point that this whole Keller thing was seriously making him into some kind of head case.

"No," Peter admitted. "I'll call her as soon as we're done here."

Famous last words.

***

When Jason Lang took Peter, Neal made three decisions in quick succession. One, he wasn't going to tell the FBI until he'd talked to Keller, because he'd only get one shot at talking to Keller and that would disappear once the Bureau got ahold of this. Two, he was going to kill Keller with his bare hands. Three, he was going to save Peter and lock him up somewhere safe and never let him out.

Admittedly, only the first decision was in any way realistic. But the second and third decisions kept him moving, kept him from being paralyzed by the fact that someone had Peter, someone with a gun, someone who could hurt him.

Slamming Keller into a wall felt really good, too, but that couldn't last. Outside, in the exercise yard, Neal got a grip on his rage and listened quietly while Keller talked.

"I don't have two and a half million dollars," Neal told him, which was true. He'd liquidated pretty much everything he could, and he was looking down the barrel of poverty himself.

"Neal, how long have we known each other?" Keller asked, which was dirty pool.

"Everything is gone, Keller," Neal insisted. "I've had to use my resources since my current activities are a little limited."

"That's true, you do have expensive tastes," Keller agreed, sweeping him from head to toe with what amounted to an unsettling leer. "But I recall a night in Scotland when you acquired something worth that amount."

"Six years ago," Neal pointed out, but that was...clarification. Because there had been a couple of nights in Scotland, back when he was seventeen and Matty Keller was twenty-two and godlike in Neal's eyes. They'd gone after some paintings, nothing big. And the next time he'd been in Scotland was just before he found Kate again. He'd been after the ring.

"I'm fairly certain you held on to it," Keller drawled.

"I didn't," Neal said. "Didn't have any use for it."

Because Kate was dead. And Keller was a killer. Not Matty, who'd taught him how to cheat at backgammon and palm playing cards. Just Keller. Murderer.

"Well, I do. So find it," Keller said. "You've got three hours until my transfer."

"We don't have to do this," Neal said. "Come on, Matty."

Keller stiffened at the name.

"Let Peter go, we can make this go away. You're not implicated. Call Lang and have him drop Peter off somewhere, nobody has to get hurt."

"Is that a threat?" Keller asked.

"Matty," Neal said, low and desperate. "Please."

Keller stepped forward, still with a swagger in his posture, with his head bent in that way that always made Neal feel smaller than him, even though he wasn't.

"You ever miss me?" Keller asked.

"What?"

"You miss me? You think about us?" Keller repeated. "We had some good times."

Neal lowered his own head, looked at Keller through his eyelashes -- well, it was worth a shot. "Sometimes."

"You remember how good we were together?" Keller asked.

"I remember we never needed to kill anyone to get a job done," Neal replied.

"No. No we didn't." Keller rested a hand on his shoulder. Neal fought down rising revulsion. "Not until Spain. And then you fucking ran."

"I was eighteen, Matty. I screwed up. Don't kill an innocent man because of something I did eleven years ago," Neal said.

"This isn't about us," Keller said, stepping back. "That's just a bonus. You got three hours."

And he walked away.

"You're gonna lose, Keller," Neal called after him, unable to just leave it at that. "Again."

"Pis aller," Keller answered. "My move of last resort, Neal."

***

They showed up in the middle of the day, the men in the suits with the sober expressions.

Yvonne escorted them into her little office at the back of the Burke Premiere Events storefront. Elizabeth occasionally had nightmares that started like this: two men in suits, men she recognized vaguely from visits to Peter's office, their faces grave, the words buzzing strangely in her head when they spoke.

Agent Burke's been kidnapped. Ma'am, we need you to come with us.

Later, when she looked back on it, she didn't remember whole swathes of time, just little moments. Didn't remember numbly gathering up her purse (left her cellphone on her desk, left her house keys in her coat, left her coat behind, sitting on a chair) or the ride to the FBI, or the well-meant reassurances she was sure the agents must have given her.

She remembered Neal, standing out sharp-edged against the blur of faces and walls and desks, the first familiar thing she'd seen since the men had come to her office.

"What is going on?" she asked, as Neal guided her into Peter's office.

"Keller," he said. "He took Peter."

"Wait -- that Keller?" she demanded.

"Yeah." Neal was on the other side of the room already -- people seemed to move without moving, she had to calm down. But it was like Neal was hiding. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth -- "

"What does he want?"

Neal looked away. "He has debts. He wants to be paid."

Her heart dropped further. "The FBI doesn't negotiate."

Neal looked at her, agonized. "I know."

She was about to ask how much, because they weren't rich but they had some savings, a retirement fund, she could call her sister and borrow money if she had to, but Reese came in before she could get the words out. Like Neal he was something familiar, but it was all platitudes, more of the same bland reassurances that meant nothing.

"What are you doing?" she asked, when Neal made it clear the FBI was doing all it could, and all of it was pointless. Neal was still hiding behind Peter's desk, arms crossed, body tense and taut.

"They want me to go home," he said, an edge to his voice. "Sit tight."

It was what they would make her do, she knew that. A part of her thought it was hysterically funny, that Neal was being treated just like she would be, like the useless wife who couldn't help.

"But is that what you're going to do?" she asked carefully.

And it felt like months of patience, months of cautiously luring Neal out from behind his facade, over a year of gently, deftly helping Peter work Neal through all of it -- that all paid off when Neal looked at her and asked, quietly, "What do you want me to do?"

"Whatever it takes to bring him home," she said, just as quietly.

Neal nodded and reached out, pulled her forward enough to wrap her in a hug. Nothing extraordinary, nothing unusual in the fact that he'd offer her comfort.

"Go home with the Feds and stay safe," he said in her ear. "I'll get him back. Mozzie and I are working on it."

She nodded against his shoulder. "Can I help?"

"As long as I know I don't have to worry about you, we can keep our eyes on the goal," he said. "Let me do this, I'm good at it."

"Okay." She stepped back, ignoring the urge to hide in Neal's warmth and not let him go anywhere. "I trust you."

"Good." He looked up over her shoulder. "Your babysitters are coming. I am sorry for the afternoon you're about to have."

There were more agents, maybe even the same ones as before, she wasn't sure, and they took her back to Burke Premiere Events to get her coat and then home and they set up some kind of...some kind of field office in her dining room, and nothing was really very clear again until Mozzie showed up.

***

It didn't come back all at once, the memory of the last time he and Keller had worked together. He remembered pieces of it, here and there, like trying to recall the lyrics of a song when you know the tune. Neal was eighteen and cocky as all hell and he ran with Matty Keller, who gave the impression he could do anything and frequently managed to prove it. They'd been working together for a little over a year, sleeping together for a little under, and Matty came up with this three-man job that required them to take the train into Spain from France, pull the heist, and then high-tail it out before it was discovered.

It was amazing, memory. He'd forgotten whether he'd even been the one to leave. Then, when he remembered that part, he still didn't remember why. Not until Keller had mentioned Spain.

They were going to steal some gems from a jeweler in Barcelona, he and Matty and this English guy they'd picked up named Ben. Then they would take the late train into France and head back to Marseilles, to the suite Neal had scammed for them, and while Ben was fencing the gems he and Matty would stay in the hotel suite and Matty would praise him, like he always did after a job, tell him what a smart little asshole he was while they fucked.

Matty was carrying a gun, but Neal wasn't afraid of guns back then; liked them, even. He respected them, knew the dangers, but he was young and he'd never seen anyone get shot and anyway Matty was carrying, not him.

Except they were standing in an alley outside the train station when Ben said Fuck, my passport and Matty said What? and two minutes later Ben was dead, and Matty was hustling Neal wide-eyed and terrified onto the train.

"Keep cool," Matty told him. "Just keep cool."

"He had his passport," Neal said. "You didn't even -- "

"Shut the fuck up," Matty told him, ripping Ben's passport to pieces in front of him. "I'm gonna take care of this, I'll take care of us. Okay? Stay here, I gotta flush this."

He hadn't known what else to do. So he'd gone with Matty back to Marseilles, and Matty had said he'd fence the gems himself, and while he was out of the room Neal had thrown what belongings he could find into a satchel and he'd run. He had plenty of connections in France; he made his way quietly to Paris and then to the coast, caught a cruise ship to the Keys, and somehow wrote the whole thing out of his memory.

He hadn't forgotten the gun, though. Never went near them again if he could help it, wouldn't work with anyone who carried.

God, how could he have forgotten Ben? Ben used to call Keller "Charismatty", and he hated European beer, and the first time Matty put his arm around Neal's shoulders in public it was in front of Ben, who didn't even seem like he cared.

And if Keller killed Peter -- it didn't bear thinking about. Giving up Kate's ring, the ring he'd found for her because he'd sworn he'd make her a queen and this was the closest thing...that was nothing next to that threat. Mozzie had more qualms about it than Neal did.

He was going to get Peter out of this, and when he did he was going to make Keller pay for Peter and for the frightened look in Elizabeth's eyes and for Ben, too. He'd make sure of it.

***

It wasn't the first time Peter had been in fear for his life. When he was thirteen he'd taken his first really bad fall from a horse and in the few seconds he was airborne he thought for sure he was going to die when he hit the ground. He didn't die; didn't even break anything, barely had the wind knocked out of him, but he remembered the fear and knew it again when he was older. He'd been on the business end of guns and knives and god knew what else, as a junior agent. He'd been shot at and poisoned and thirty feet from an exploding airplane.

Lang was a fool, easily manipulated, and like so many petty crooks he treated a gun like a status symbol, waving it around and not bothering to handle it correctly. Peter wasn't afraid of Jason Lang.

At least, he kept telling himself that. It was mostly true.

He was pretty sure Neal had received his message and could decode it, though he also knew it meant Neal had paid his ransom, and Hughes was probably going to have Neal's ass for that. Still, if it kept Keller from getting loose, that was something. And, by the time Lang returned with the ring (a ring? Seriously?) Peter was almost out of the cuffs. It didn't take much to taunt and manipulate Lang into reaching into the cell --

Granted, he should have grabbed and secured Lang's gun when he pulled him headfirst into the bars. Still, for an impromptu jailbreak he thought it was pretty good.

Very little had ever sounded as good as the ringtone on the other end of the line when Peter dialed Jones's desk at the FBI.

Neal was with them when the cavalry arrived. Peter, triumphant, found himself looking past Jones eagerly, to where Diana and Neal were just coming into the little room. Neal, without hesitation, grabbed Peter and pulled him into a hug -- not the usual submission, nothing even overtly affectionate, just an embrace of greeting. Either he was a better liar than even Peter expected, or he was just sharing in a triumph. Whichever way it was, it felt good, and Peter had to stifle the urge to hold on. He saw Diana watching them, but when she spoke there wasn't a hint of censure in her voice. Just business, which was a relief.

"You need to get Neal's report, when you can," she said to him in a low voice, as they climbed the stairs towards sunlight and real freedom. Peter felt the weight of the ring in his pocket.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Guess you're right to trust him, that's all," she said quietly, and left him to go make sure Lang was secured and read his rights.

Then Elizabeth was there, and for at least a few minutes she became Peter's whole world. She'd beaten the ambulance, which he'd ask about later, but right now all he wanted was to make sure she was real and he himself was still alive.

Eventually, though, an EMT tugged on his arm gently, and he held onto Elizabeth with his other hand while they led him to an ambulance.

"They didn't hurt me," he said, knowing they were going to check him over anyway. "No drugs, no injuries."

"Glad to hear it," one of the EMTs said, fitting a blood pressure cuff around his arm. "Means our job'll be quick."

"Honey, just let them do it," Elizabeth said, still holding his hand. He could see Neal in the distance, on his phone -- probably calling Mozzie. Neal hung up and came over to see them, but Hughes stepped in first and Neal stopped about ten feet away, wary.

"Elizabeth, I need to talk to Peter alone for a second," he said gently.

"Reese -- "

"It's okay," Peter said, squeezing her hand. "Won't take long. Go find out what Neal's doing. Try and keep him from picking any cop pockets."

She gave him a weak smile, but she let go of his hand and walked over to Neal.

"Can you give a statement?" Hughes asked.

"Sure. Can I give it somewhere that's not the back of an ambulance?" Peter said.

"We'll take you back to the Bureau. We need to get a statement from Caffrey, too. Try to get you through the paperwork as fast as possible."

"I'm okay," Peter said. "I can do a statement. Lang's in holding?"

"Yep. Between the fraud, kidnapping, extortion -- "

"Attempted murder," Peter said. Hughes raised his eyebrows. "Pointed a gun at me."

"We should be able to lock him up until he needs a walker to leave his cell in the mornings," Hughes said. Peter frowned. "What?"

"Can I talk to him?"

"Right now?"

"At the Bureau. I need to talk to him."

"Peter..." Hughes sighed. "You can't take this case."

"Yeah, I know," Peter said. "I just need to make sure he understands where we stand, him and me. You can put anyone in the room you like as a witness. I won't get violent."

"We can do that," Hughes nodded. "Who do you want on the case?"

Peter looked around, thinking. "Can you have Jones take his statement? Then we'll kick it over to Violent Crimes."

"You sure about that?"

"Like you said. I can't take the case. Jones is familiar with it, and Diana's got a full jacket right now."

"Plus she's not anyone's favorite at the moment," Hughes added. Peter gave him a questioning look. "I told her to take Caffrey home, not help him negotiate with kidnappers."

"Saved my life, sir," Peter reminded him.

"Which is the only reason I'm not going to give her an insubordination hearing," Hughes replied. "We done here?" he asked the EMTs, who nodded. "Good. Come on, let's get back to the Bureau, we'll get you processed and home in time for dinner."

***

The other agents left Peter alone in his office to write his statement; he could see Neal at his desk, writing his own. The case had to be clean, down to the last letter, so Hughes made Elizabeth wait outside until he was done. He sketched out the bare bones of the experience -- almost more of an outline than an account -- filled in a few details, signed and dated it in front of Hughes, and stopped briefly to kiss his wife on his way to scare the shit out of Lang.

"I got one thing to take care of," he said, including Neal in the pleading look he gave Elizabeth. "Ten minutes. Then we can go home."

"What do they want from you now?" Elizabeth asked, looking angry.

"Nothing, it's just a loose end I need to tie up. Promise, I'll be right back," he said, as Jones approached. "Promise," he repeated, following Jones down the stairs. They rode the elevator in silence, while Jones shuffled Lang's intake papers and made a few signatures here and there. When they reached Holding and Interrogation, Jones let him lead the way down the hall.

"I need to have a word with Lang, and after I do, he's going to give you two statements," Peter said as they walked. "Take the first statement and deliver it to Violent Crimes. Make sure Ruiz doesn't get it. I can't have someone with his record on something this delicate."

"I don't know if I have that kind of pull with those guys," Jones replied.

"Maybe not, but I do. Show it to the Special Agent in Charge over there, Epton. Make sure she sees it was a Fed who was kidnapped. She owes me one from the Fiametta case. Ask her politely not to give it to Ruiz."

Jones nodded. "And the second statement?"

Peter stopped and stepped to the side, up against the wall. Jones joined him, head bowed forward.

"Fold it up and put it in your pocket," Peter said softly. "Take the first statement to Violent Crimes. Once you're done there, take the second one up to my office." He pressed a key into Jones's hand. "Lock it in the top drawer. Understand?"

"Am I committing a crime here?" Jones asked. Peter shook his head. "Okay. Got it."

"Good man. Come on."

Peter stopped at the vending machines in the lobby and ran a dollar bill into the payment slot; he pushed the button for a soda and dropped it into his pocket when it emerged. Jones watched, looking perplexed.

"Burke and Jones to see Lang," Peter said to the attendant as they passed. She nodded and unlocked the door. Peter entered first.

Lang was cuffed to a chair, head tipped back, eyes closed. When the door opened he started, but he didn't change position.

"Hiya, Lang," Peter said, settling in the chair across from him. Jones came to stand behind him. "Feeling safe? On top of the world?"

Lang's head tipped down, eyes opening.

"Gloating, that's nice, cinematic," he murmured.

"Not really."

"I want a deal."

"I seem to recall something you said earlier..." Peter tapped his fingers on the table, drawing the silence out. "What was it -- right. No more deals."

Lang was silent.

"Fortunately, I'm not the one handling your case," Peter said. "Jones here is. For now. So here's what you're going to do if you ever, ever want to see daylight again after the attempted murder of a federal agent."

"I didn't, come on -- "

"I'm talking," Peter said. Lang closed his mouth. "You're going to write a confession. Everything Keller asked or told you to do. Everything you did. Every time you talked. Every sly look, every implication, you're going to put it all down on paper," he said, setting a pen between them on the table. Jones took a pad out of his pocket and put it down next to the pen. "Then," Peter continued, leaning back, "You're going to make a list of every FBI agent who harassed you, when it happened and what they did, what they said. If they searched your home, your office, your person. I want names."

Lang studied him. "Why?"

"Because I told you to," Peter growled. Lang actually jerked backwards. "Do we have an understanding?"

Lang nodded, eyes wide.

"Good." Peter pushed his chair back and stood, taking the soda can out of his pocket. "You'll be here a while. You should stay hydrated," he added, and left. He put his head into the observation room only long enough to make sure Lang was writing, Jones looming over him, and then walked out to the elevators.

Neal and Elizabeth were waiting for him in his office. Elizabeth hugged him again, and didn't seem to want to let go.

"Let's go home," he said, gently untangling himself. "Neal, you want a ride?"

"Got one waiting," Neal said. "Mozzie's downstairs with your car."

Mozzie was flagrantly parked in a no-parking zone, leaning on the car. When he saw them, he gave them a solemn nod and held up the keys. "Door to door service," he said.

"Do you even have a license?" Peter asked, as Mozzie held the back door for Elizabeth.

"Mainly for heavy trucking," Mozzie answered. "I think I can handle a sedan."

Neal was already climbing into the passenger's seat, so Peter joined Elizabeth in the back. She belted herself in with the middle belt and curled up against him, and he was glad enough of the contact.

Mozzie turned out to be a pretty safe driver, if a vocal one, shouting abuse at everyone around him and at the voice in the GPS when it told him he was going the wrong way ("IT'S A SHORTCUT!"). He bypassed June's without asking and took all three of them back to Brooklyn, tossing Neal the keys and disappearing down the street, off on whatever mysterious errands Mozzie ran when he wasn't doing Neal enormous favors.

"You okay?" Neal asked Peter, as Elizabeth unlocked the front door.

"I will be," Peter answered.

"You need anything?"

"Matthew Keller's head on a platter," Peter replied. "I'll settle for a beer and a hot meal right now."

"He'll have set up resources ahead of time. Fake ID with a new alias, a stash of money. I think he's getting out of New York," Neal said, following them in. "I got Mozzie putting some guys on it, but Keller's slippery."

"Tell me about it," Peter said, crouching to greet Satchmo. "Hey, buddy," he mumbled, and kissed Satchmo's head, inhaling -- warm fur, grass from outside, the smell of their home. He straightened and pulled Elizabeth into his arms again. Neal, hovering in the background, watched warily; Peter gestured with one hand for Neal to come forward, and Elizabeth let go of him so Neal could step in, resting his face in the hollow of Peter's throat.

"Food," Peter said, after a while. "Then nervous breakdowns."

Neal laughed a little and stepped back. Elizabeth put an arm around Neal's waist, startling him.

"I'll heat something up," she said, but she didn't move until Peter moved to follow her into the kitchen.

He sat at the little kitchen table while Elizabeth took food out of the fridge, a leftover casserole from the night before. Neal uncapped a couple of beers while she put it in the oven to heat, then took a head of lettuce out of her hands and gently pushed her towards the table.

"Neal, you've done enough today -- " she protested, but Neal just kept gently maneuvering her until she sat down.

"Let me do this," he said, taking out a cutting board. She looked up at him, heartbreakingly grateful, and nodded.

While Neal worked, Peter reached into his pocket and took out the ring they'd recovered from Lang, setting it on the table with a click.

"What is that?" Elizabeth asked.

"My ransom," Peter replied, and Neal looked up sharply.

"Shouldn't that be in evidence?" he asked.

"I seem to recall someone telling me it should be in the Scotland Royal Museum," Peter replied. He rested a finger on the ring. "Tell me this story."

Neal bent back to his work. "It belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. It was commissioned by her. It's a flawless emerald, ten karats, circled with diamonds. When Elizabeth took the throne, she took the ring. You can see it in portraits -- it's in one of Mary's, a couple of Elizabeth's. It's not an official symbol of sovereignty, but it was meant to represent the power of the Queen, specifically, whether she ruled or not."

"This is the Queen's Ornament?" Peter asked.

"Points for your knowledge of history," Neal said, still not looking up. "After Elizabeth died and James succeeded her, it was presented to Anne of Denmark, his wife, and then to Henrietta Maria of France, the wife of Charles the First. It went missing," he continued, chopping tomatoes deftly, "during the civil war. Some said Cromwell destroyed it. Others said it was secured in the house of a noble of Scotland before the end of the war. Lot of treasure hunters have gone looking for it."

"Where do you come in?" Peter asked. Neal gave him a quick smile.

"About three hundred and fifty years later," he said. "When I found out about it and did a little research."

"How'd you find it?" Elizabeth asked.

"Smarter and sneakier than those who went before, I guess," Neal shrugged. "I dug it out of a castle wall on an island in the Firth of Forth." He paused, laying the knife down. "It was for Kate."

Peter tilted his head slightly. Neal held onto the counter with both hands.

"I told her I'd make her a queen," he said.

"Neal," Elizabeth said softly.

"It doesn't matter," Neal shook his head and returned to the knife, carefully matchsticking a carrot. "She's dead, we're not. So. Send it to the museum, they'll authenticate it, put it on display. Maybe even present it to Her Majesty. That'd be good," he added, sounding amused. "Something I stole on the finger of the Queen of England."

"You can contact them tomorrow," Peter said.

"No need," Neal replied. "You can do it."

"That wasn't up for debate."

Neal paused. "Why? It doesn't matter who sends it back."

"Well, for a start," Peter said, leaning back in the chair, "you might have stolen it, but obviously if you took it out of a wall -- "

" -- nobody knew it was there." Neal nodded.

"And we've talked about you taking responsibility for your actions," Peter finished. "The bad and the good. Turning this over is something you can be proud of."

Neal tossed the carrots into the salad bowl. "You were kidnapped, held at gunpoint, and broke a jail cell today. How do you have the energy to give me a lecture?"

"Ate a good breakfast," Peter replied. Elizabeth giggled.

"Okay, enough," she said, picking up the ring and putting it in her pocket, standing to go to Neal and give him a hug from behind. "Take that out to the table, I'll get the casserole. Come on, sweetie," she called to Peter, who rose and followed them out.

***

References:
Al Capone's Prison Cell at Eastern State Penn (which, if you ever are in Philly and get a chance to visit, is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon)
The Queen's Ornament is made up, sadly -- but it's a pretty neat story, eh?

Chapter Eighteen

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