sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-05-23 11:05 am

Exquisite, Chapter 18

Title: Exquisite
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Brief graphic violence.
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 Seventeen

***

Peter woke the next morning from crazy dreams -- El had insisted what they needed was Stupid Movie Night, and produced Tiles Of Fire IV: Big City Player for their dubious viewing pleasure. It had filled his dreams with people whose mouths didn't sync to their words. His shoulders ached, the pain settling deep where the day before it had been nothing more than a mild cramp.

Elizabeth was curled up around his right side, pinning his arm; Neal, on his left, was in his favorite sleeping position, face smashed into the pillow -- how did he breathe? -- and one arm flung over Peter's stomach. When he shifted, trying to gently dislodge them so he could get up, Neal moved too, and a muffled grumble emerged from his pillow.

"Go back to sleep, it's early," Peter said, sliding out from under El, who rolled a little but didn't wake.

"No, I'm up now," Neal answered, turning his head. "Shoulders?"

Peter nodded, trying and failing to push himself up.

"Want some aspirin?"

"Please," Peter said, gratefully. Neal slid out of the bed, hitching his -- well, Peter's, stolen -- pyjamas a little higher on his hips. He returned quickly with a glass of water and two pills in his palm; Peter took them, sipped the water, and eased back down into the blankets. Neal sat on the bed, facing him, legs crossed, anklet tucked up under one knee.

"You look like you have something on your mind," Peter observed.

Neal half-smiled. "Keller."

"Ah. Thinking of ways to chase him down?"

"He called me a lawman."

"Terrible epithet," Peter said gravely. Neal shrugged.

"Sure you want to talk about him right now? Here?" he asked.

"If you do," Peter answered. Neal rubbed his neck, bowing his head.

"Say I had a friend," he said. "A friend who'd seen Keller kill someone. Point blank gunshot to the head, no provocation, no warning."

Peter went to push himself up on one elbow, grunted, and decided to stay where he was. "When did your friend see this happen?"

"Eleven years ago."

He studied Neal carefully. "You were eighteen."

"That's true, but not the point. This friend of mine, he might have been involved in a diamond theft in Spain, intending to travel to France to sell the jewels. He and Keller had a third man for the job, who thought he might have dropped his passport at the scene. When Keller found out, he shot him. Turns out the passport was in his back pocket."

Oh, Neal. "And what did this friend do?"

"Well, allegedly, he was scared shitless because he'd never seen anyone get shot before and didn't want to get shot himself," Neal said. His face was impassive, for the most part. "So he went back to France with Keller, and the minute Keller left him alone he bolted."

"You never mentioned this the last time we went after him," Peter said.

"I didn't remember," Neal's fingers flexed against each other. "Which is another problem but also not relevant right now. If my friend wanted to come forward with this information, would he be charged as an accessory?"

"I'm guessing he's a felon in custody."

"Yeah, but he's not looking for a reduced sentence. He just doesn't want to be charged."

"And this happened in Spain?"

"Barcelona."

"Makes it complicated," Peter said. Of course it was. Nothing involving Neal was ever simple. "I'd need to talk to Interpol and my counterparts over in Europe. They'd decide whether or not to charge you...r friend. I think something could be worked out. Bigger problem: this friend has it in for Keller?"

"In so many ways."

"And there's no way to link Keller to the murder?"

"Not after all this time," Neal admitted.

"So it'd be one felon's word against another, and your friend has a pretty good motive to lie. I don't think he is," Peter said, raising a hand when Neal opened his mouth. "But coming forward now, especially if he claims he forgot it for a decade, that's not the best witness testimony in the world."

"But if we tip off Interpol, at least they'd be looking a little harder for him, if he's left New York," Neal said. "So -- an anonymous tip? Maybe? Even if it goes nowhere."

"Sounds like you have two long-distance calls to make today," Peter said. Neal nodded. "What was his name?"

"The man Keller murdered?" Neal shook his head. "They just called him Ben."

"And you only just remembered all this?"

"I -- " Neal looked troubled for a moment, but he dropped the pretense now that Peter had. "Yeah. Which is weird, right? Something like that, you'd think it'd stay with you. I think I didn't want to remember. I got the hell out so fast...all I could think about was getting away."

"I can imagine." Peter said.

"I don't like guns," Neal said. "That's why."

Eighteen years old, on the run in a foreign city, seeing someone shot in the head by your lover -- yeah, that'd be something Peter would want to forget, too.

When he was eighteen he was starting college. The worst thing he'd had to worry about was his batting average.

"I'm hungry," Neal added, randomly. "You want breakfast?"

"Yeah," Peter agreed, because what else was he going to say? He rolled over and nudged Elizabeth. "Hon. Breakfast."

"Mmhm," she answered, elbowing him back.

"You getting up?"

"Yeah," she groaned, sliding out of bed. Peter slid the other way and politely ignored Neal's hand under his arm, helping him up. Neal ignored it too, for which he was grateful.

***

The Bureau, unsurprisingly, took a dim view of people assaulting its agents, and had a generous leave allowance in place for kidnapping victims. Peter seemed relatively untroubled by it all, and thought the mandatory leave was ridiculous; still, Neal could tell that Elizabeth was happy to have him home for a few days.

Neal left them at the house that day, avoiding Elizabeth's curious looks and well aware that as soon as he was gone Peter would be explaining things to her. That was what they did. It felt...oddly good that someone else knew, and he had no objections to Elizabeth being that someone. Besides, he had calls to make, and he'd need a Bureau land line to make them.

It was nine in the morning -- two in the afternoon, in Britain -- when he called the information line for the National Museum of Scotland. He managed to charm his way past the infodesk, into the phone line of an administrative assistant in Outreach, from there to the executive assistant to the curator, and there he hit a wall.

"I'm sorry, sir, I can't put you through to Ms. Barkley until I know why you're calling," the man said.

"Tell her it's regarding the Queen's Ornament," Neal tried.

"Sir, you may not be aware, but we do have a tipline for information regarding missing artefacts," the man replied. "I can put you through to our archaeology contacts at the University of Edinburgh -- "

"Okay, look, give a guy a hand here," Neal said. "Just put me on hold and find her and tell her Neal Caffrey is calling regarding the Queen's Ornament. She'll want to speak with me. And if she doesn't, you're out thirty seconds of time. Please."

He could almost hear the eyeroll he was getting. "Hold just a moment," the man said, and a recorded message came on the line, detailing the hours the museum was open and its current exhibits. Neal listened with half an ear (the thief's half; they had a display of ancient silver coming soon) while he watched the White Collar taskforce's agents milling, talking, all of them carefully avoiding looking at Peter's empty office.

The recording cut out, and there was a ringtone.

"This is Lisa Barkley," said a pleasant female voice with a light, soft accent. "If this is a prank call, it had better at least be entertaining."

"Ms. Barkley," Neal said. "My name is Neal Caffrey -- "

"So I'm informed," she interrupted. "Mr. Caffrey, I'm more than aware of your reputation and if you're calling to play games with my museum, rest assured, you have made an extremely unwise decision."

Neal preened a little. Always nice to know his work was appreciated. "No ma'am," he said. "If you check your caller ID, you'll see I'm calling from the FBI's New York branch office. If you'd like to confirm, you can call the public number on the website, they'll put you through to an Agent Diana Barrigan who can verify my identity."

"First I'd like to know what you know about the Queen's Ornament," she said.

Neal sat back, holding the ring up to the light, tipping it around his index finger. "Well, I'm sitting here looking at it."

The was a soft intake of breath. "Prove it."

"Got an email address? I can send pictures. Or send someone from the British consulate to the FBI, they can collect it. It's the real thing," he added.

"Where did you find it?"

"Well, I won't admit to looting, but I have it on good authority it was pulled out of a wall on The Bass," Neal replied.

"The Queen's Ornament has been missing since Charles the First's death."

"Yeah, I know," Neal sighed. "I'm trying to do the right thing here and get the ring back where it belongs. Tell me what you want me to do with it and I'll do it. No games, no con."

There was a long silence on the other end of the line.

"Ma'am?" Neal ventured.

"I have a friend who works for the Museum of Natural History," she said. "He's a historical gem specialist. I think he can confirm the authenticity of the gem and set up a safe transport. I'll arrange for him to meet you at the museum. He'll call you with the details."

"My day is open," Neal replied.

"Good. I expect we'll be speaking soon, one way or another," she said. "Goodbye."

Well. No words minced there. Then again, he imagined she probably still thought he was trying to run a con. And, admittedly, the always-working portion of his brain was already trying to come up with a solid con that opened with the return of a priceless antique ring.

That afternoon he found himself strolling through the frankly creepy Hall Of Human Origins on his way to meet some guy named Albert in the permanent gem exhibit. He'd never bothered much with the Museum of Natural History; the only things they had worth stealing were gems, and he could get those anywhere if he wanted them. Even the Star of India sapphire didn't appeal; it wasn't like Neal was going to steal and cut the most beautiful sapphire on the planet, and certainly not from a museum. He might be a thief but he had standards.

Albert, Barkley's friend, turned out to be a short, slim man who looked more like a college student than a gem expert.

"Mr. Caffrey?" he asked, when Neal walked into the exhibit hall.

"My reputation precedes me," Neal said, offering his hand.

"We don't get many people in three-piece suits in the museum in the middle of a weekday," Albert told him. "Come with me, please."

He led Neal past the gems -- past the Star of India, and Neal did linger for a second to gawk. It was gorgeous; milky-blue, polished to a high, flawless shine, the six-pointed star gleaming white in the center of it.

"Our prize," Albert said, a faint smile on his face. "Lisa thinks you're probably here to steal it."

"I wouldn't," Neal murmured.

"Good. We're somewhat fond of it and it's already been stolen once; they found it in a bus locker in Miami, of all places. Sapphires are reputed to be healing gems -- warn their wearer of danger by changing color, cure scorpion bites when placed in water. But I expect you knew that," Albert continued, leading Neal through a door in the back of the exhibit and down a narrow hallway. "Emeralds, so they say, increase eloquence, restore eyesight, and prevent epilepsy."

"I think that was a hint," Neal said, as Albert opened the door into a small office, piled with paper but mostly filled with a long table covered in gems. Neal took the ring out of his pocket and passed it over.

"Now, I don't often get to handle sixteenth-century pieces, but I can give a preliminary evaluation of the setting and the gem, and it is a unique gem," Albert said, seating himself and holding a jeweler's glass up to his eye. He switched on a light nearby and studied the emerald in the ring. "Hm. Well, you definitely have a real emerald solitaire here, and it looks like the stone reputed to have been in the Queen's Ornament," he added, looking up at Neal. "Lisa says you found it in a wall on the Bass Rock?"

"Someone did," Neal corrected smoothly. Albert gave him a sardonic look.

"Mr. Caffrey, believe it or not, I've dealt with much shadier characters than you," he said. "Let's be frank, shall we?"

Neal cocked his head. "Nothing official?"

"Off the record. You took this from the castle on The Bass?"

Neal nodded.

"Can I ask why? A man of your skills seems to be in a position to make a much bigger score than this. You haven't removed the diamonds or cut up the emerald for sale, so the academic in me is curious."

"It was an engagement gift," Neal said.

"Ah. She say no?" Albert asked.

"No. She died."

Albert's face softened. "My condolences on your loss," he replied. He looked like he meant it, too, and Neal glanced away. After a second, Albert spoke again. "Well, I'll run some tests on it here, and send it on with my report. They'll probably have some period experts across the pond have a look, but if it all pans out, we should know in two or three weeks. I'll make sure they send you a letter of thanks, and the finder's fee, of course."

"The what?" Neal asked.

"The finder's fee. I think it's obnoxious; it encourages treasure hunters, which are the bane of our existence. They do more harm than good, most of the time. But this," Albert held up the ring, "if it is the real thing, is one of the national historic treasures of Great Britain. The Crown will be suitably thankful for its return. Ten percent, probably."

"That's two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."

"A small price to pay, for the Queen's Ornament. On display it'll generate millions in ticket sales, especially with a good story attached to it," Albert replied. "Not the way you would have wanted things to end, maybe, but we are grateful, Mr. Caffrey. Even me. The opportunity to examine a gem like this doesn't come along every day."

"You'll make sure it's safe?" Neal asked.

Albert paused, leaning back in his chair. He looked like he understood. Neal wasn't sure he knew himself why he'd asked.

"Yes. It'll be well-protected in transit, secured at the National Museum of Scotland when it arrives." He set the ring on his desk, fingers resting on it. "If I can make a suggestion...whatever the finder's fee is, it will be a significant amount. You can choose to donate the fee to the National Museum of Scotland, or to the Museum of Natural History, for that matter. You could fund security for the ring, endow a position, support a gallery. Something to consider."

"When you send it to Barkley, tell her I don't want my name involved in the publicity," Neal said.

"That's modest of you."

"Honestly? I don't need the heat."

Albert smiled. "I can understand that. If you have no other questions, let me show you out."

He left Neal at the front of the museum with a handshake and his thanks; Neal stood in the sunlight and watched cars go past, street vendors selling food and trinkets to tourists.

Two hundred and fifty grand would solve a lot of his looming cash flow problems. On the other hand, he could give it to the Museum of Natural History, or even the Whitney -- they were about to do a new building anyway. The Kate Moreau New Artist's Gallery had a nice sound.

***

The week dragged on, without Peter at the office. Diana seemed to have warmed to him a little -- Neal guessed getting chewed out by Hughes created some kind of bond between them -- but both she and Neal were on cold cases while Jones ran Peter's active ones in his absence.

They couldn't even officially chase down Keller. As an escaped felon, the Marshals wanted him, but Hughes had consulted with whoever called those shots for the Bureau and had Keller classified as a domestic terrorist. He was officially being chased by the Marshals, the FBI's terrorism unit, and three frighteningly efficient Homeland Security attachés who spent two hours interrogating Neal about the kidnapping.

Mozzie, of course, was also on the case, but he hadn't heard a whisper of Keller since he disappeared. His personal theory was that Keller had booked it out of New York to a pre-arranged safehouse, which was what Neal or Mozzie would have done in his place.

"Cockroaches have to come out of the walls sometime," Mozzie said, after the third unsuccessful day, picking at the remains of a sandwich, sitting in the cool, air-conditioned comfort of a local café. New York was in the grip of a heat wave that was only going to get worse before it got better, and the humidity was making Mozzie cranky. "Look, Neal, let's put some standing precautions in place and then ditch this chase, it's going nowhere. We have bigger fish to fry."

"I know," Neal sighed.

"He took Peter," Mozzie translated.

"Yeah, but it's more than that." Neal ran a hand through his hair. "I told Keller I'd catch him."

"Far be it from me to hold the Suit up as an example, but it took him three years to catch you," Mozzie said. "You play by Suit rules, you gotta measure by Suit timelines."

"Keller's still overdue. And you're still right," Neal admitted. "We have bigger problems. How's the antenna coming?"

"Got most of the parts. I think I can start building soon. Should be done by next week if I can get the casings and the die-cut finished this weekend."

Neal nodded. "Okay. Forget Keller. Let's focus on that. You need anything from me?"

"Do you have an RF amplifier from 1943 with the original intact dials?"

"Um...no," Neal said.

"Then you have nothing I need," Mozzie told him, and left Neal to pay the check.

Neal's phone rang on the way back to the office, and Elizabeth's number came up; he answered cheerfully, glad to hear from her. He'd been shooting annoyed, bored emails at Peter all week, and their mutual complaining at each other ("Cold cases are boring." "I'd kill for a cold case, I'm on my ass watching hockey reruns.") had reached a fever pitch.

"Hey, sweetie," Elizabeth said, when he answered. "It's Friday night. Dinner, our place? Peter's making me crazy."

"Familiarity, contempt..."

"Something like that," she laughed. "I think they made him stay home so I'd remember how much I like it when he's working and happy." There was a muffled "I heard that!" in the background. "Come, eat, distract him."

"Love to. What should I bring?"

"Yourself, some wine. And Peter wants something from his desk." There was a clatter, and then Peter's voice.

"Tell Jones I want the statement in my top drawer," Peter said. "He has the key."

"Very cloak-and-dagger," Neal replied.

"I don't suppose it's any use telling you not to read it on the way over," Peter sighed.

Neal paused, long enough that Peter said, "Neal?"

"Will you explain it when I get there?" Neal asked.

"Yeah. I'll need your help going over it."

"Then I won't read it," Neal said, feeling unusually virtuous. At least, it was either that or indigestion.

"That's...good," Peter said cautiously. "See you around six?"

"Wouldn't miss it. Kiss Elizabeth for me."

"Good as done," Peter told him, and hung up.

Neal looked down at his phone, as if it was going to explain the insanity of his life, then pocketed it and took himself off to buy some wine for dinner.

***

When Neal let himself into the house that evening, he got a blast of mercifully cold air conditioning. The cab over had been tepid at best, and the driver had insisted on keeping the windows down. Neal felt...rumpled.

"Neal?" Elizabeth called from the dining room.

"Nope. Neal melted," Neal answered, as she came into the foyer to kiss him hello. "I'm a puddle."

"I know, it's awful, isn't it?" she asked. "Did you hear they're going to rolling blackouts to conserve energy?"

"Makes me fantasize about the Alps," Neal said. "News said someone died today."

"I know, it's tragic." Elizabeth took him by the hand, leading him through the house. "And it's way too hot to cook. Peter's got the grill going."

"Manly, and carcinogenic," Neal remarked, peering through the back window. Peter was doing something complicated with tongs. "Don't make me help him. Please."

"Relax, Peter doesn't let anyone else touch the grill," Elizabeth said. "You could go keep him company, though."

Neal glanced down at her. "Subtle hint?"

"My advice, take off a few of those layers first," she suggested, fingering the lapel of his jacket.

"Fashion is sometimes uncomfortable," he told her, but he shed his coat while she undid his tie bar, then worked on his cufflinks as she unbuttoned his shirt. "Hey," he added, and kissed her again. "I miss you. Seems like it's been forever."

"Miss you too," she answered, kissing him back. "And you're still not getting out of going out there."

"Ploy too obvious?" he asked, groaning.

"Air conditioning makes for desperate measures, I know. It's okay, I still think you're cute," she said, and helped him shrug out of his shirt. It did feel better in just his undershirt. "Go give him that mysterious report he made you fetch."

Peter looked up when Neal slipped outside. He wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt and smiled. "Hey."

"Hey," Neal said, leaning against the wall. Satchmo, wilting in the heat but unwilling to give up his watch on the grill, whined and panted in Neal's direction. "What's on?"

"Steaks. Couple of hot dogs. Tofu kebabs," Peter added, and Neal made a face. "They're not bad if you dunk 'em in steak sauce."

"I'll take your word for it," Neal answered. "Stir-crazy yet?"

"Little bit," Peter admitted. "You got something for me?"

Neal held up the report, sealed in an envelope. Peter gave him a pleased look.

"So what is this? New case?" Neal asked.

"Kind of. When Lang gave his statement, I had him list off all the FBI agents who'd gotten on his case," Peter said. "They might have legitimately harassed him. Depends on what I find out going over the list."

Neal raised an eyebrow. "You sure you want to put that many Bureau noses out of joint? Lang's not an innocent lamb."

Peter shrugged. "We stand for something. We abuse that -- well, you know how it ends up. Like Deckard. I don't like sharing my clubhouse with bullies, whether or not Lang's been making mischief. I just want to see who's doing what, maybe pass a quiet word along to a few people in the right places."

Neal pushed away from the wall and came forward, slowly; in the glaring orange light of the evening they were too visible for him to do much, but he hooked his fingers around Peter's wrist briefly, bumped his knuckles against Peter's.

"I don't understand you," he said quietly. "How you are the way you are."

"What are you talking about?" Peter asked, amused.

"Nothing," Neal said, because of course Peter wasn't even aware of it -- the casual, vital morality of him. "It's a good idea, I'll help."

"You just want to incriminate a few FBI agents."

"Well, can't hurt," Neal agreed, and backed away as Peter opened the grill again. Heat rolled out into the already baking air.

***

Peter hadn't ever really paid that much attention to bodies.

Well, obviously he noticed good-looking people. It was just that the particular shape of the body never really registered. He liked brains, and he would cop to a certain preference for dark hair, but beyond that his desires weren't generally dictated by physical attributes, especially when it came to gender. And neither were his actions, which was actually more problematic.

He just didn't see why he shouldn't be allowed to put an arm around someone he loved, especially in the privacy of his own home. It had been, amusingly in retrospect, a major source of relationship angst when he was dating Mike: apparently cops didn't let their boyfriends hug them from behind and kiss the back of their neck for no reason, and Feds shouldn't do that kind of thing even in private.

Peter liked to touch the people he loved. Elizabeth always went easily, relaxing immediately into his arms. For a long time it had visibly confused Neal, that Peter treated him with the same intimacy as he did Elizabeth; he would tense, but only for a second before he gave in. After a while, even the sudden startle had stopped -- Neal liked being touched, he just didn't expect it. The tension was back now, fallout from his attack on Fowler, a consequence Peter hadn't liked or intended, but he was confident that would pass. Never more so than at the moment, because Neal had just...

Neal wasn't really helping with the review of Lang's statement, at least not directly, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Peter, full from dinner and pleased to be back in the air conditioning, had his legs propped up on the coffee table, laptop balanced on one thigh; Neal was sprawled over the rest of the sofa on his back, head on Peter's other leg, reviewing the names and dates from the statement, absorbing the information. He hadn't even complained about the ball game on in the background. He'd just gone from sitting to leaning to sprawling, until Peter had looked down and said, "Hello," and Neal had grinned up at him innocently, thumping his head gently against Peter's thigh. Touching, without being asked, without Peter touching first.

"Next name?" Peter prompted.

"Why wait till now to do all this?" Neal asked, instead of answering. "Lang gave this statement days ago."

"Friday night," Peter said. "Nobody's at the Bureau. Nobody's around to catch me digging in their files."

"Sneaky. I like it," Neal said.

"Name, Neal."

"Just says Think his name was Powell," Neal answered, ruffling the pages. "Maybe Named Powell came after him in early '05 and confiscated his camera equipment for two weeks."

"Powell..." Peter shuffled through the FBI personnel database. "There's like nine Powells in the New York branch."

"He says Powell called him a pornographer," Neal continued.

"Ah." Peter clicked a name. "That'd be Cybercrime. Obscenity investigation. Young guy, looks like."

"They're all young, have you noticed that? Is that what FBI guys do, make their chops busting easy targets?" Neal asked.

"Some of us," Peter said, and rested a hand on Neal's head -- not petting like Elizabeth liked to do, just holding him there. Like he used to hold Satchmo in place when he was a puppy and learning to stay. "Some of us like a challenge."

Neal hummed contentedly, turning his face into Peter's palm a little.

This is mine, Peter thought, and a mixture of fear and pleasure raced through him. He hadn't ever been into kinky stuff; he'd never thought to hold someone else's safety in his hands, not like this. But it felt right, for good reasons and for ones he suspected weren't the most proper. True, he'd put his own safety in Neal's hands when he needed to escape Lang's cell, but that had been expedient: Neal was the escape artist, after all. In all other things, Neal seemed...well, sometimes Peter caught an expression on Neal's face that said he didn't like being owned, being imprisoned -- he didn't like the anklet -- and wouldn't have tolerated it for anyone else.

But he did for Peter.

Neal was a wild mess of genius and impulse and potentially the lowest self-esteem of anyone Peter had ever met. He understood his skills to their most precise measure and had no illusions about them, but he didn't find much worth in himself as a person, merely as someone who procured: art, an entertainment for an evening, sex, money.

Peter wanted Neal's brilliance like a treasure, wanted to own Neal's wildness and teach him to put it to use. He wanted Neal to satisfy his urges with good work -- babbling high off a case at two in the morning or bent over a forged document for three days straight to find the flaw or covered in graphite in a lover's bed as he sketched. Neal could be something brilliant and good in this world, if he could learn how. He wanted Neal to understand that.

This was a good start, Neal lying with his head on Peter's thigh. Comfortable. Protected.

"Okay, so then in May of '05 -- Aaron Clark, isn't he one of ours?" Neal asked, looking up at Peter upside-down. "White Collar, I mean?"

"Yeah. Should have full access to the file," Peter said, scrolling through the database. It looked like Clark had gone after Lang for potential money laundering, but hadn't found anything more improper than unpaid taxes on cash transactions. He was so engrossed in the report he didn't notice Elizabeth had joined them until he felt Neal squirm against his leg and heard Elizabeth laugh. When he looked up, Neal was on his side, Elizabeth snug in the curve of his body, Neal's hand on her thigh. His other hand was toying with the collar of her shirt, wrist resting across the back of her neck. Peter watched indulgently as Neal pulled her hair around over her shoulder and cupped her cheek. Elizabeth looked over at him, eyes dancing.

Neal wriggled his whole body, a move that if Peter tried it would probably sprain something, and his shoulders pressed up against Peter's leg, head now snug against his stomach. Elizabeth leaned over him and nuzzled Peter's neck.

"Is this a hint?" Peter asked, turning to kiss her.

"Finish in the morning," she replied.

"Five minutes," he said, turning back to the report. Elizabeth made a resigned noise. "What? Go, fool around, I'll be up soon. Promise."

"Come on," Neal said, rolling off the couch and pulling her upright with both arms, staggering a little as they got to their feet. Peter heard them going up the stairs, heard a laugh and voices through the ceiling, but only as background noise. In his head, he was already writing timelines, incorporating information -- one for the Bureau's activities surrounding Lang, another for Lang's activities themselves.

***

"So," Neal said, sitting on the edge of the bed and pulling Elizabeth into the gap between his legs, one hand brushing her hair back from her face. "You think twenty minutes? Forty?"

She laughed and kissed him. "I never place bets, with Peter. It's okay."

"If I had you -- "

"You do have me, sweetheart," she said, while Neal's fingers tugged on the fly of her shorts.

"You know what I mean," Neal replied, not looking at her. She tipped his chin up, but his eyes darted away. "If I had you, I wouldn't be downstairs chasing ghosts."

"Listen to me." She cupped his cheeks. "Peter might miss dinners or forget the dry-cleaning or spend a Friday night working on cases. But I know that when he's here..." she gestured between them, "when he's with me, he's completely with me. When I get him I get all of him."

"You're happy with that?"

"Of course. Aren't you?" she asked, unbuckling his belt. Neal sucked in a sharp breath that had nothing to do with her hands. "What?"

"Didn't think of it like that," he said, and pulled her close, kissing her. She laughed again and pushed on his chest, sliding her hands down to his hips to help him off with his clothes. She tugged his pants down his thighs, following them down over his legs, easing the cuff around his anklet.

Neal, she knew, liked this anklet better than the last -- he probably thought it was more stylish, or maybe it was just that it was lighter. But she missed the other one. This one was black and sleek and looked less like something someone threw together than it did something designed, deliberately created. And it looked like it was attached at the skin, an implant Neal would never be rid of. Alien.

Neal's hand was in her hair again, fingertips brushing along her scalp, and he obviously wasn't worried about it, so why should she be? She leaned forward and kissed the inside of his thigh. He looked down at her, so...openly pleased, like she was the best thing he'd ever seen.

He moaned, though, when she took him in her mouth, eyes closing, mouth dropping open -- moaned and drew in huge breaths, his hand tightening a little in her hair. He didn't let her stay there for long, not as long as she would have liked. Instead he tugged until she pulled away, then drew her forward onto the bed, hips hitching against hers, little thrusts that seemed almost involuntary. Neal didn't lose control often, even in bed, but it was exciting and a little nerve-wracking when he did.

"Hush, shh. Slow," she said, pushing him onto his back, kissing him while his hands strayed over her body. He settled a little, seemingly happy with just this.

"I wasn't lying," he said, around a kiss. "I did miss you."

"It's been a long few weeks," she answered.

"Mm, don't wanna think about it," he replied, hands going to her hips. She smiled and slid forward just a little, lifted up and sank down on his cock. He arched, eyes closing again.

She kept it slow, the way she wanted it, and it only took Neal a minute or two to get with the game. When he stopped fighting it and relaxed another fraction, she rocked forward and rested her head against his chest, letting him wrap his arms around her. He was quiet, for Neal, but he held her tightly. When he came, it was with a jerky, drawn-out exhale.

And a murmured apology.

"Don't be sorry," she said quietly, kissing his forehead.

"I wanted you to -- "

"It's okay. I just wanted to be with you for a while," she answered. He smiled again, that same brilliant, pleased, honest smile.

"Has it been more than half an hour yet?" he asked, and she laughed. "Want me to go rustle up Peter?"

"No need," Peter's voice, from the landing; he appeared in the doorway, a shadow in the darkness, a second later. "Told you I wouldn't be long."

"Long enough," Neal answered, turning to watch as Peter undressed. His voice was low, easy -- bathed in afterglow. Elizabeth scooted away, off and back, so that Peter could climb over Neal into the middle of the bed.

"You should see to Elizabeth," Neal said, curling himself around Peter's shoulder so that they both faced her, Peter's hand warm on her hip.

"Mm?" Peter raised his eyebrows at her. She let him draw her closer, felt his hand trace down over her thigh even as Neal's reached around Peter to cup her breast.

"Oh, that's," she gasped, leaning into Peter's touch. Kissing was a little awkward, but she didn't want Neal to stop touching her either. She twisted, hooking a leg around Peter's thigh. Neal was whispering something in Peter's ear, too soft for her to hear, probably something dirty --

Peter curled his fingers just right, and Neal bit down on Peter's shoulder, and she closed her eyes and came, a long slow roll of pleasure, collapsing against Peter when she was done. She cuddled up against him, reaching down over his stomach, but he wasn't even hard. She raised an eyebrow.

Peter grinned and bent his head; Neal was sliding away, already curling up to sleep.

"I watched you," Peter said softly, and Elizabeth almost came again.

"Why didn't you come in?" she asked, after she'd swallowed and regained a little equilibrium. Peter gave a half shrug.

"You looked like you were having fun."

He was smiling in the darkness, more smug than he had any right to be. After a few seconds, she put together why he might be so self-satisfied, and she punched him lightly on the arm.

"You planned this," she said, and his smile widened.

"Little bit," he replied. "I thought you and Neal might like some time."

She rubbed at the corner of his mouth, affectionately. "Honey, you know you never have to step back for Neal."

"No, it's not about that," he said. "I know. I just thought you might like it, both of you. I'm not afraid we're losing...you know, us. Are you?"

"No," she admitted. "And it was nice to have him all to myself for a little while."

***

Neal woke early on Saturday morning, unbearably warm, sweaty and damp, Peter's skin slick under his when he rolled away. God, it had to be a million degrees in the bedroom. And the clock on Elizabeth's side of the bed was blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.

"Peter," he shook Peter, bending over the bed. "Wake up. Power outage."

"Nnnh," Peter moaned, rolling away.

"Peter, Elizabeth," Neal persisted, shaking them both. Elizabeth sat up, brushing sweat-soaked hair out of her face. "Power went out."

"It's like an oven in here," Elizabeth said, sliding away from Peter and stopping only long enough to pull a half-buttoned shirt over herself before lifting the blinds and opening a window. It didn't help much; the breeze that stirred the curtains was hot. Neal stuck to the shadowed half of the bedroom, more aware than either of them that anyone could be looking in.

"Too many blankets," Peter muttered. "Arrest 'em."

"Sweetie, wake up," Elizabeth said, ruffling his hair. Peter started awake, pushing himself up on an elbow. "Power went out, A/C's not working."

"I'll check the breaker," Peter answered, rolling out of bed and incidentally showing his ass to the world through the open bedroom window. Neal tossed him a pair of pajama pants. Peter pulled them on, yawning, and staggered down the stairs while Elizabeth checked the news on her phone. Neal rubbed at his tracker with his other foot, trying to ease the heat of it around his ankle.

"Rolling blackouts," Elizabeth said. "Looks like it hit early this morning."

"Damn!" Peter's voice echoed up the stairway.

"Honey?" Elizabeth called, worried.

"There must have been a surge on the grid," Peter said, standing halfway up the stairs. "Central air's shorted out. No A/C."

"Are you kidding me?" Elizabeth asked. Peter shook his head. "Honey, we have no fans, either."

"Yeah, I know." Peter ran a hand through his damp hair. "I'll call the repair company."

"On a weekend? Good luck," Elizabeth said. There was a plaintive whine from downstairs. "Oh, Satchmo baby! I'll get him a bowl of icewater," she added brushing past Peter down the stairs. Neal wandered out to the landing, wondering whether he could sneak into the shower before either of them caught on.

"Nice hair, Einstein," Peter commented. Neal brushed it back.

"The museum has internet, and air conditioning," Elizabeth called from the kitchen. "I have a meeting at ten anyway, I might as well head there."

"I'm jumping ship, this place is an oven," Neal announced.

"I could go to the Bureau," Peter said thoughtfully.

"Gee, working on a Saturday? That's not like you," Neal told him.

"Just until the stores open, I'll get us an air conditioner," Peter grumbled.

"Honey, we can't leave Satch here, he'll bake," Elizabeth put in, appearing at the bottom of the stairs. They could hear Satchmo noisily slurping water from below.

"Well, I can't take him with me, I'd have to leave him in the car. He'll bake worse there."

"Okay!" Neal said, because none of this was getting him into a cold shower any faster. "Take Satchmo and me to June's, drop Elizabeth off at the museum, get in a few hours at the Bureau and then pick Satchmo up on your way home with your A/C."

Both of them looked up at him, their faces unreadable.

"What?" he asked.

"That was adorably domestic," Elizabeth said.

"I'm taking a shower," Neal replied, retreating to the bathroom.

***

The cold shower helped, somewhat, but by the time Peter and Elizabeth had washed and dressed, packed up what they needed and gathered up Satchmo, Neal felt wilted by the heat again. The air conditioning in the Taurus was a welcome relief, and even Satch seemed to perk up, nosing slyly into the front seat to sniff at the cold air blowing out of the vents. Neal hauled him back by his collar and Satchmo gave him the most reproachful look he'd ever seen on a dog.

"So what museum are you working for?" Neal asked, as Peter navigated them through Manhattan.

"The Museum of Evil," Peter muttered.

"Wow, we really do have everything in New York."

"Shh," Elizabeth said, giving Peter a stern look. "It's not a museum of evil. It's just the new gallery was donated by an evil man. And he's not evil, really. Just...demanding."

"He's a jerk," Peter said.

"Honey, I work with a lot of jerks, he's one among many," Elizabeth said calmly. "Andrew's a very rich man with a lot of toys and he's decided to put them all in a museum. The party's for the opening of the Stanzler gallery at the Giller."

"You're working for Andrew Stanzler?" Neal asked, eyes widening.

"If you rob the Giller I will strangle you," Peter said without missing a beat.

"The new gallery's all the arts rags have been talking about for weeks!" Neal said. "The opening's next Saturday, it's going to be a huge event. Um. No pressure, Elizabeth," he added.

"Believe me, you couldn't possibly put more pressure on me than Andrew does," Elizabeth assured him.

"Have you seen the collection?" Neal asked. "The private collection, I mean. Rumor has it Stanzler has a Lippi but I'm pretty sure it's a fake."

"And how do you know that?" Peter asked.

"I may have been in the vicinity when he bought it at auction," Neal hedged. It had been one of the fake paintings sold the night Adler bought his Uccello.

"Is it your fake?"

"No, I don't like Lippi," Neal said sullenly.

"I could probably get you an invitation to the opening," Elizabeth offered.

"Yes!" Neal answered, at the same time Peter said, "No!"

"Oh come on, Peter, I'm not going to rob a museum in front of Elizabeth," Neal said, a little indignant. "Give me some credit here."

"I give you just enough credit to want you nowhere near a private art collection in a brand new gallery wing that hasn't had its security tested yet," Peter replied. "More importantly, if someone else decided to hit the museum that night, you'd be on the hook for it."

"Oh," Neal said thoughtfully. "I take your point."

"Yeah. Look, just give it a few weeks. Next month, I'll take you there myself," Peter said.

"Peter!" Neal gave him a pleased look, leaning around the seat. Satchmo growled, annoyed.

"What? He has a Honus Wagner, I want to see it," Peter said.

Neal sat back, baffled. "Did you just name an artist I've never heard of?" he asked.

"It's a baseball card," Peter said. "I'm surprised you don't know it. It's worth about two mil, mint condition."

"I never really got into sports memorabilia," Neal said.

"Wagner was one of the best pro players ever. There are only fifty-seven Wagner cards in the world."

"There are fewer than thirty paintings by Hieronymus Bosch in the world," Neal pointed out.

"Hieronymus Bosch didn't have a .327 lifetime batting average," Peter replied.

"And we're here!" Elizabeth interrupted, just as Neal was about to launch into a heated defense of fine art versus baseball cards. "Satchmo, be good for Neal," she told the dog, leaning back to kiss Satch on the muzzle. Neal gathered up Satchmo's leash and climbed out of the car.

"Be back in a few hours," Peter told him. "Try not to wreak havoc."

"I make no promises," Neal said, and hurried up to June's house, Satchmo bounding along beside him. He found June on the terrace, under the shade of an enormous umbrella, drinking iced coffee.

"Hello, Neal!" she called, as he let himself out through the french doors. "My goodness, it's hot out."

"You're telling me," Neal said, unclipping Satchmo's leash.

"Oh, and who is this lovely boy?" she asked. Satchmo beelined for her and sat down excitedly, fidgeting, panting.

"June, this is Satchmo, Satchmo, June," Neal said, pulling out a chair and pouring a glass of icewater from a sweating pitcher on the table. "Peter and Elizabeth's air conditioning died. I'm looking after him for a few hours until Peter picks up a new one, didn't think you'd mind."

"Not at all. I'm sure Bugsy will find him fascinating," June said. There was a soft growl from behind one of the (slightly wilting) potted plants nearby.

"I'm...just gonna put him inside," Neal said, whistling at Satchmo. "Come on, buddy, you can find all the dropped popcorn from the last time we had movie night."

When Peter rolled up in the Taurus, that afternoon, the entire backseat was taken up by a giant cardboard box.

"Gee, you think you got one big enough?" Neal asked, opening the door and hustling Satchmo into the front seat.

"Repair company says they're booked solid," Peter replied. "They can't get anyone out until next week, and the heat wave isn't supposed to break for another ten days."

"Well, that ought to keep you subzero," Neal said. "See you Monday?"

"Bright and early. Thanks for looking after Satch."

Neal smiled and rubbed Satchmo's ears. "Drive safe."

***

References:
The Star Of India Sapphire resides at the Museum of Natural History and does have a fascinating story attached to it.
Honus Wagner! Expensive card, pretty good baseball player.

Chapter Nineteen

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