sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-05-24 09:43

Exquisite, Chapter Nineteen

Title: Exquisite
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Scene play gone briefly wrong; panic attacks.
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 Eighteen

***

Neal slept late on Sunday, and woke to find Mozzie and June playing cards under the shade umbrella on the terrace, the remains of breakfast pushed to one side. Fruit on ice, still wonderfully cold; Neal took a couple of apple slices and sat back to watch them play. They both cheated, which made it especially fun. At one point there were six aces.

"You must fix that tell," June told Mozzie, and Neal almost choked on his fruit.

"What tell?" Mozzie squawked.

"Whenever you're about to do something sneaky, you rub your ring," June said, pointing to the ring on Mozzie's index finger. "Just a little flick of the thumb."

"June," Neal groaned. "I've been using that against him for years, you've ruined it."

"Challenge is good for you," June told him. "Builds character."

"I do not," Mozzie insisted.

"Look, the edge is shiny where you rub it," June said. Mozzie tucked his finger against his palm. "I'm only trying to help, dear."

"Heat makes him cranky," Neal said, licking the last of the juice off his fingers and standing up. "I'm retreating to the air conditioning."

"Mischief?" Mozzie asked, brightening.

"Just painting," Neal replied. "Got some reading to do, too. How much do you know about Demuth?"

Mozzie shrugged. "Post-European, walked with a limp, gay, Figure Five In Gold. Why?"

"No reason," Neal answered. "I was thinking of working in his later style. Getting away from the Impressionists."

"I saw your butchered Monet," Mozzie said. "Very subtle."

"Everyone's a critic," Neal sighed.

Inside, his phone was ringing -- Peter's ringtone, and he decided to conspire with Elizabeth to sedate Peter on weekends.

"Miss me?" he asked, picking up.

"Yeah, but my aim is improving," Peter replied. "Am I interrupting anything?"

"Nope," Neal said, wandering back out onto the terrace. "Just enjoying late breakfast. Why?"

"Got a case," Peter said.

"Are you in the office?" Neal asked. Mozzie rolled his eyes; June just smiled gently.

"No," Peter said indignantly.

"I can hear paper rustling."

"I'm...working from home," Peter admitted. "It's a serious case, Neal, we need to get the jump on this on Monday. I'm heading into the office early, I want you to go straight to the site."

"Sure," Neal said. "What site, exactly?"

Peter sighed into the phone. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but Stanzler's our case. I need you to meet me at the Giller."

Neal did a little yes arm-pump. Mozzie gave him a narrow look. "I will be there!"

"Nine on the dot. Elizabeth said our informant is jumpy."

"Nine it is," Neal said. "Promise not to bring my lockpicks."

"How is this my life?" Peter asked. "See you then," he added, and hung up. Neal set the phone on the table and leaned back into the sunlight at the edge of the umbrella's shade, beaming.

"What's got you so excited?" Mozzie asked.

"Nine am meeting in the new Stanzler wing of the Giller tomorrow," Neal said.

"Lovely museum," June murmured.

"Cool!" Mozzie agreed. "You know, they have a new Honus Wagner on display?"

Neal stared at him.

"What?" Mozzie asked. "It's worth -- "

"Two million, .327 lifetime batting average," Neal said. "I know."

"I didn't know you were into baseball cards."

"I'm just a fountain of unexpected knowledge," Neal groaned.

***

Neal never did get to see the Honus Wagner card.

Certainly not the first time he met Brooke, with a wide smile and the easy lie that he was Special Agent Peter Burke, Hi hon, good to see you. There was a small thrill in kissing Elizabeth in public, just like there always was on the rare occasions he got to do it. And Neal would be lying if he said he'd never thought about what it would be like to be Peter.

This wasn't really how he'd envisioned it. And Elizabeth made him tell Peter even though he'd clearly called dibs on her doing it.

"It'll be fine, sweetie," Elizabeth had said, and shoved him out the door of the museum shortly after Neal insisted she be the one to tell him. "I promise Peter won't kill you."

"You're going to feel really guilty when they find my body," Neal called. "If they find my body," he added to himself, in a grumble, as his phone rang.

"Peter," he said, putting every ounce of sincerity into his answer.

"I'm pulling up now," Peter sounded disgruntled already.

"Don't bother finding parking," Neal replied.

"Crap. Did she back out?"

"Ummm. No," Neal said, which was the truth. "Listen, just pull into the turnaround, you can pick me up."

"Why am I already hating the sound of this? What did you do?"

"Nothing! Well. Okay. Something. Tell you in the car," Neal said, and hung up before Peter could interrogate him further. A few seconds later Diana's car rolled up in front of him.

"What's up with the car?" Neal asked, climbing in.

"Got to the office fine, wouldn't start when I left to come here. Got one of the motor pool guys looking at it," Peter said, pulling back out into traffic. "What the hell happened?"

"Maybe we should wait until you're not -- "

"Neal, so help me God," Peter growled, hands flexing on the steering wheel.

"Okay, um. Before we get to that, I ran into Sara on my way to the museum," Neal began.

"She's back from Argentina?"

"Yeah, and she has a file for us." Neal held it up. "She thinks Adler was living on a compound in Argentina. It was burned down, he's probably long gone. She talked to some people who worked for him -- also some llamas, funny story -- "

"The point?" Peter suggested.

"He's looking for a man named Gerhardt Wagner," Neal said. Peter looked at him. "Driving, not staring! Driving!"

Peter turned his eyes back to the road. "The Nazi doctor?"

"You know who he is?"

"I don't know. There was a Gerhard Wagner in charge of the Nazi medical branch, but he died decades ago."

"Probably not him, then," Neal said.

Peter pressed the call button on the steering wheel. "Call Diana."

"Hey, boss," Diana's voice echoed through the car. "What's up?"

"Diana, I want you to look into a German named Gerhardt Wagner," Peter said. "Get me a list of Nazi soldiers by that name. You'll probably hit a file on a doctor, pull that but don't concentrate on it."

"Our Argentina connection?" she asked.

"Could be. Intel's coming from Sara Ellis. Talk to her if you need to. Let me know what you find. We're on our way back now."

"Any luck with the Stanzler thing?"

"I'll let you know," Peter said, casting a glance at Neal, and hung up. "Do we have any luck on the Stanzler thing?"

"Well, the good news is, Brooke's agreed to work with us," Neal said.

"And the bad news?"

"I might have told her I was an FBI agent. Just to keep her calm!" Neal said, when Peter almost lost control of the car. "She was seriously freaking out. I get why, you weren't wrong about Stanzler being a jackass."

"You said you were a federal agent?" Peter demanded.

"Not, not exactly," Neal said. He waited for Peter to stop at a red light before continuing. "I told her I was you."

He expected some kind of explosion; at the very least, some yelling. Peter just inhaled deeply.

"I can't drive and kill you at the same time," he said finally. "So you're going to sit quietly and think about what you've done and when we get to the Federal Building we'll revisit this."

Neal spent about half the time coming up with ways to talk Peter into accepting the situation and the rest of the time running through a mental checklist of Peter's mannerisms so that when he did talk Peter into it, he'd be prepared.

After all, he figured, act like the man you want to be. If Vincent Adler had done nothing else useful for Neal, he'd taught him that.

***

Peter thought that they had survived Brooke's visit to the FBI pretty well. Ideally, he should have introduced himself as a colleague of Agent Burke's. How hard would it have been? "I'm Special Agent Edison. Nice to meet you."

He wondered if his momentary freeze-up was just the stress of the situation, or if he'd wanted to be introduced as Neal Caffrey. He knew better than to want to be Neal, but he couldn't deny he'd wondered what it was like. Wondered what was locked up inside that felonious head of Neal's. If there was some kind of sympathetic magic that could show him Neal's secrets if he walked around as Neal, he had yet to discover it, unfortunately.

What he did discover, buried up to his elbows in classified files with two senior DOJ archivists supervising his search, was Gerhardt Wagner's secret.

The motor pool guys had fixed his car, thankfully, and he called Sara on the way to Neal's.

"Got a present for you," he said, when she picked up.

"Is it pretty?" she asked.

"I think it might be. I found a lead on Gerhardt Wagner. I'm on my way to Neal's place now to go over it. Want me to pick you up?"

"I'll be waiting with bated breath," she replied.

She was, in fact, waiting outside when he pulled up; he popped the passenger door for her and pulled away again, ignoring the enraged honking behind him.

"So, what's the story?" she asked, buckling her seat belt.

"Gerhardt Wagner was a Nazi radio operator," Peter said, pulling through a yellow light. "U-boat headquarters. After the war he tried to emigrate and got put in the detention center on Ellis Island."

"Then we can track him, right? Immigration records? Or did he go to prison?"

"Neither. He escaped and disappeared." Peter glanced over and saw her look of disappointment. "Hey, it's a start. You'd be amazed what people can find in old records."

"Oh?"

"One of my aunts is into genealogy," Peter said. "She used to dig up crazy stuff all the time."

"Got any deep, dark family secrets?"

"My grandfather was a carnie during the Depression," Peter replied, grinning.

"Well, if we can't find anything, we'll give your aunt a call," Sara told him solemnly. She hesitated, then continued. "How's Neal doing with all this?"

"Concerned about his welfare?" Peter replied, amused.

"Just making sure his usual brand of crazy isn't going to endanger the case," she replied.

"He's doing okay. We had a little Come To Jesus about his recent behavior. Robbing your apartment was just one element among many that I decided to put a lid on," he said.

"You keep him on a tight leash," she observed.

"I do what I have to."

"That wasn't an objection. I'm just intrigued. He must be a handful."

"Yeah, he has his moments," Peter admitted.

Neal, to his credit, seemed to accept the further delay in the chase with an even temper.

"It's a lot of research," Peter said, as he put the DVD back in its case. Mozzie was packing up a satchel of some...stuff he clearly didn't want Peter to see; Sara was studying a painting on Neal's easel, head tilted slightly.

"I'm good at research," Neal answered.

"You don't actually like research, though."

"I do like complaining about research," Neal said thoughtfully. "But I don't mind doing the work if it gets us what we want. You should know that. I can be patient, Peter."

"See that you are, then," Peter said, and Neal rolled his eyes and grabbed his gym bag.

It was true, though -- Peter knew Neal could do the work, if sufficiently motivated. So the next day, while Peter plotted and planned and met with Stanzler, pretending to be Neal, he left Neal and Sara to fast-talk their way into the Ellis Island immigration archives.

"How's it going?" Peter asked, when Neal called late that afternoon. "Having fun yet?"

"Yeah, it's just like robbing a bank," Neal said. "Not that I'd know."

"Uh huh."

"Do you have any idea how much paperwork there is in these archives? We're working in the room of 1946. I think I saw my granddad's immigration records."

"Your grandfather came through Ellis Island?"

"Hyperbole, Peter," Neal sighed.

"Getting along with Sara?"

"Yeah, we're keeping each other entertained. How's tutoring?"

"Well, I'm learning," Peter replied. Mozzie yelled Wrap it up! from across the room, and Peter was sure Neal had heard it. "Mozzie wasn't ever a military drill sergeant, was he?"

"My lips are sealed," Neal said. "See you this evening."

"Stay out of trouble," Peter warned him, and hung up.

***

Wednesday, "Neal Caffrey" robbed a house on orders from Andrew Stanzler, and Neal Caffrey spent the entire op with his pulse beating so fast it made him dizzy. He'd seen Peter run much more dangerous ops before, but he knew then that Peter had the training for what he was doing. Mozzie was a good teacher, and so was June, but one night of lock-and-pocket picking could only teach you so much. Neal was a natural and he'd still spent years practicing; Peter didn't even want to be doing what he was doing.

Well, maybe a little. He sounded excited over the wire.

Neal spent the whole day feeling off-kilter, twitchy and out of place. He was perfectly comfortable pretending to be Peter Burke, but he was vastly, deeply uncomfortable with Peter pretending to be him, and the jokes the other agents made about it made his skin crawl. He was glad to dive into the briefing late that afternoon, where everyone was serious and focused on the case.

Even if Diana did snicker knowingly when Peter pointed out that Neal would be accompanying Elizabeth to the event on Saturday, "As my wife's husband." It was reassuring, in fact; if she could find humor in it, she couldn't be a hundred percent disapproving.

As they were filing out of the boardroom, post-briefing, Neal caught Peter by the arm.

"Working late?" he asked in Peter's ear. He saw, in the reflection of the windows, Diana watching them.

"Sure," Peter replied, without looking at him, and kept going. Neal waited until he was gone before turning around.

Below, in the bullpen, agents were gathering information, making calls, filling out paperwork. For a minute Neal allowed himself to imagine how Peter must see it all -- to be in charge of all this, to have that kind of power. It must make him proud. It must be...satisfying. Neal had never worked with more than a handful of partners at one time, and even when he had it had been on equal footing, decisions made by consensus. Mozzie had said once that Neal wasn't a follower, but he wasn't exactly a leader, either. Peter was.

"Hey," Peter said, leaning back in through the conference room door. "You coming or what?"

He kept quiet on the drive to Brooklyn, quiet enough that he caught Peter glancing at him once or twice.

"You okay?" Peter asked finally, as they crossed the bridge.

"Yeah," Neal said. "Yeah, just figuring out a plan of attack for the archives tomorrow. Mozzie's working on a series of shifts to make sure we don't go crazy doing the same thing for eight hours at a time."

"Sara coming?" Peter inquired, his voice carefully bland. Neal rolled his eyes.

"Not until afternoon, she has some deposition to do in the morning." He wondered if there was a tactful way to ask if Peter knew about her family. It had stuck with him, weirdly -- the blithe way she'd told him she was an only child, months ago, and the confession in the archive, just yesterday, that she used to play detective in her missing sister's bedroom. He wanted to ask questions about it, why her sister had run away and how old she'd been, and whether Sara still cherished delusions about ballerinas and cowgirls. Neal had known a lot of throwaways and runaways and street children in his day; he knew the odds. His thief's sense of unrecovered treasure and this weird Peter-inspired urge to solve puzzles warred with his knowledge that it wasn't his business and Sara wouldn't take kindly to him making it his business.

"Neal?" Peter prompted. "You planning on breaking orbit and coming back down anytime soon?"

Neal rubbed his eyes. "Sorry."

"It's fine. What's got you so twisted up?"

"Nothing," Neal said. Peter gave him a look. "Nothing specific," he corrected.

"Feeling a little displaced?" Peter asked.

"Maybe a little," Neal agreed.

"Settle," Peter told him. Neal glanced at him, questioning. "Sit. Breathe. Don't think about it."

He tried -- tried to get lost in the cityscape scrolling past, but he found himself watching landmarks. It'd been a while since he'd tracked the trip to Peter and Elizabeth's house; it was old and familiar now and if he had to he could navigate three different routes back to --

"Neal," Peter said.

"I'm trying," Neal complained.

"Try harder," Peter told him. His voice gentled a little. "For me, okay?"

Neal nodded and looked down at his hands, genuinely trying to get into that place, the clean clear headspace where nothing mattered, but he couldn't. He'd spent all day in Peter's skin and it was hard to let go.

And maybe it wasn't what he needed, anyway.

"Can I ask you for something?" Neal said.

Peter conveyed a wealth of emotion with a single sidelong look -- suspicion of what Neal would want, willingness to help within reason, concern because Neal rarely did ask for anything, not like this. He rarely had to. Peter usually knew what he needed, sometimes better than he did himself. But not this time.

"Wait until we get home?" Peter suggested. "Elizabeth should be there."

"Yeah. Okay," Neal agreed, and felt his shoulders relax a fraction.

"Honey?" Peter called, when they walked into the house. Satchmo scrambled out of the kitchen looking faintly guilty, but there was no answering reply from Elizabeth. "Guess we beat her home. What have you been up to?" he asked Satchmo, crouching to rub his ears. "You want to take him out? I'll put some food on for dinner."

It was so -- domestic, so peaceful, and so very Peter to send him out to clear his head that Neal almost laughed. He didn't know how he'd gotten himself into this situation.

Well, actually, he did, he thought, as Satchmo sniffed the shrubbery and growled at passing cars. A couple of forged bonds and an ill-timed blowjob. Amazing where such simple things could land you.

***

"El texted," Peter called, when he heard Neal and Satchmo come back inside. "She's on her way. She had to stop at the ice sculptor's."

"A party planner's work is never done," Neal called back. Satch bumped through the kitchen door, slurping at his water bowl. Peter emerged to find Neal hanging up Satchmo's leash with exaggerated care.

"You want to wait for her?" Peter asked. Neal turned and tugged him forward gently by his tie, kissing him, one arm around his waist. "Or not," he added, when Neal let him go.

"Man, you really need to be more aware of your surroundings," Neal said with a grin. He held up Peter's cuffs -- picked from the holster in the small of his back, and now Peter knew why he'd been so affectionate a moment before.

"You can't just ask?" Peter sighed. "Of course you can't, where would the 'fun' be in that..."

"You don't think it's fun?" Neal asked, raising an eyebrow. "Not even a little?"

Peter reached for the cuffs, not answering, but Neal pulled them back just slightly. Peter gave him an exasperated look.

"Something to ask you," Neal said, his voice lower now. Peter watched him carefully. Neal let one of the cuffs fall, dangling the other from his thumb.

"Don't you want the full Neal Caffrey experience?" he asked, grinning.

Peter stared at him. "That's what you want?" he asked. He'd been struggling with the shift between being himself and playing at being Neal, but Neal playacted for a living, lied like he breathed. Why would he want to play at being Peter? Unless --

Neal wasn't usually pretending to be someone he knew. Someone he slept with, someone he spent time with. And it made a certain amount of sense, given that Neal seemed to be having some trouble settling down, more than usual.

"Just a suggestion," Neal said lightly, as if it didn't matter, though it was obvious it did. "If you're not into it -- "

"Surprised, that's all," Peter told him. "It's not like you."

"I'm not like me, much, lately," Neal answered, and that was a rare moment of complete honesty, badly wrapped in glib wit.

"I know the feeling," Peter said. "Sure, okay."

"Seriously?"

Peter shrugged. "I don't especially get off on it, but if you want to play that way, I don't mind. This time," he added, putting a firm limit on how often they were going to do this. Because the games weren't the point of the sex -- they were just a part of it, something Neal used to calm himself down, to even himself out.

Neal beamed at him, pleased, and before Peter could react he'd touched the cuff to his left wrist.

Peter startled. It felt like --

"Peter?"

-- in a hood, hard to breathe. Movement -- track the route, figure out where you are, you're going to have to get out of this one yourself. The Bureau doesn't negotiate with hostage takers. Elizabeth, I'm sorry. Breathe, just breathe. Don't let them see you sweat. The hard slam of a chair and the snick of handcuffs --

"Stop, Neal, stop -- red," Peter managed, coming back into his own body with a shock and a gasp. Neal froze for a second, the metal still pressed into Peter's wrist, and then a look of horror came over his face.

"Oh my God," he said, pulling the handcuffs back, tossing them away. "Peter, I'm sorry, I didn't think -- "

"It's okay, it's fine," Peter said, but he was breathing hard, his body remembering the hood it had been so difficult to get air through. Worry and fear, a thousand thoughts at once. Elizabeth, the life insurance policy in their safe -- his pension, she'd get his pension too. God, what would happen to Neal? Jones and Diana weren't ready to take over the task force yet. Hughes would give it to some asshole from outside the department. Satchmo was going to miss their morning runs...

"Breathe," Neal said, his voice distant through the second wave of panic that made Peter's ears buzz, his vision go grey around the edges. He stumbled -- possibly Neal was pulling him -- towards the sofa, and all but fell onto it. Neal grasped his neck to force his head between his knees, but that set off another breathless moment and Peter batted it away, harder than he intended. He did lean forward, though, hands clasped behind his head, trying to get just one clean breath into his lungs.

"I'm sorry," Neal kept repeating, while Peter struggled for air. "Peter, I'm sorry -- "

There was a slam of a door, somewhere off to his left, and then Elizabeth's voice, cheerful in the foyer. "Honey? Neal? I -- "

She broke off and Peter could feel her kneeling next to him, could smell her perfume.

"Sweetie, look at me," Elizabeth was saying, from about a million miles away. He turned blindly, felt her hands on his face, cool and real. It helped; his breathing eased. He could see a little more clearly now, could see Elizabeth's worried face, and he tried hard to pull it together for her sake. When she saw his eyes focus on hers, she smiled, but it was a worried smile. He saw her glance briefly over his head at Neal. Peter straightened, slowly, rubbing his face.

"What happened?" Elizabeth asked, softly.

"I'm sorry, I didn't think -- " Neal started again, but Peter silenced him with a lifted hand. He turned and saw Neal, ghost-white, real terror in his wide blue eyes.

"Neal, can you get a glass of water?" Elizabeth asked. Peter felt more than saw Neal stand up and hurry to the kitchen. He leaned his face into Elizabeth's hair.

"Are you okay, sweetie?" she asked. "Say something, okay?"

"I'm all right," Peter mumbled, though he clearly wasn't.

"Was it..." Her hand pressed against his tie, his shirt -- over his heart. His father had died of a heart attack.

"No, no," he managed. "It's -- stupid -- "

Elizabeth leaned back then, giving him a truly, heartily scornful look. He managed a slightly guilty smile.

Neal came back from the kitchen, a glass of water in one hand, and pressed it into Peter's. The cold water was like a shock; he gulped, then slowed when Elizabeth put her hand on the glass and lowered it slightly. Satchmo, whining in fear and confusion, flopped on Peter's feet and began licking his shoe.

"It's my fault," Neal said, seating himself on the coffee table, putting distance between himself and them. Peter saw Elizabeth look at him, a question on her face. "I was just playing around, I put his handcuffs on his wrist..."

Elizabeth frowned in confusion. Neal bowed his head guiltily.

"The kidnapping," Neal said.

Elizabeth turned and pressed a kiss to Peter's temple, stroking his hair back. "You're okay now, though. You're safe."

"I know!" Peter said, more sharply than he meant to. He took another gulp of water. "Sorry. I know." He glanced up at Neal, who still looked like he was in fear for his life. "Maybe no handcuffs, then."

Neal nodded. "No handcuffs," he said, very seriously. There were a few seconds of silence, and then he added, "You really don't get off on submitting, huh?"

Peter laughed, which surprised them as well as himself. He set the glass down on the floor (Satchmo poked a nose into it curiously) and reached out, grasping Neal's wrist, pulling him forward until he sat next to him again. "Come here."

Neal went warily, until Peter grabbed him by the back of his collar and pulled him in hard, holding Neal's face against his shoulder. The mingled smell of Elizabeth's perfume and Neal's aftershave were anchoring, grounding.

"It's fine," he said, as Elizabeth curled up closer to him. "You didn't know. I didn't know."

"Sorry I killed the moment," Neal said. Peter kissed his hair, smiling into it.

"I'm all right," he said, ducking his head to meet Neal's eyes. "See? I'm okay."

"Even when I try to stop screwing up, I screw up," Neal murmured, and Peter felt Elizabeth laugh, shakily.

"I think a little wine," she said, kissing him and standing up. "And some food."

"There are sandwiches!" Peter called after her.

"I got it!" she yelled back.

"Wine and sandwiches," Neal said, as Peter released him. He stood up and offered Peter a hand, hesitantly. "I have to say I think even Mozzie would have trouble pairing with deviled ham."

"I made you egg salad," Peter grumbled.

"What is with you and mayonnaise-based foods?" Neal asked, and Peter slumped into his seat at the table, a little relieved. Neal still looked anxious, but he was covering well, and Peter would really prefer to ignore what had just happened. Elizabeth emerged from the kitchen with a platter of sandwiches in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other; Neal took the wine and set about opening it while Elizabeth went back into the kitchen for plates and glasses. Peter watched her carefully, but she seemed at least less panicked than Neal -- and while he could read Neal like an open book, most of the time, he could read his wife even better. If she were afraid, he'd know, of that he was sure. Not least because, unlike Neal, she'd tell him.

"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked, as she handed him a glass of the wine Neal was pouring.

"I really, really don't," Peter answered. Elizabeth smiled and sat down.

"In that case, Neal, have you ever done ice sculpture?" she asked. Neal gave her a confused look. "My ice sculptor says he can't do more than a six foot ice bear, and the Evil Genius employing me wants eight feet."

"Yeah, that's not compensating for anything," Peter answered.

"Never done ice sculpture," Neal said thoughtfully. "I've seen it done. It involves a lot more chainsaw than I'm comfortable with."

They settled into conversation, light and even, almost awkwardly so, but Peter was grateful. At the very least, it felt close to normal, and he thought he could probably use some normal just then.

They were going to have to fix it, though, and tonight -- Neal was still on edge, and this hadn't helped matters. Turning that problem over in his head gave him something to focus on, at least. By the time they were done eating, Neal was on his third glass of wine -- not enough to impair him, but enough that perhaps he'd relax a little, if he were given permission.

"Put a movie on or something," Peter said in an undertone to Elizabeth, as he followed her into the kitchen, carrying the plates. "I'll be back down in a couple of minutes."

"Are you worried about him?" she asked.

"Little bit."

"He's worried about you," El said.

"Yeah, that's what I'm worried about."

She glanced over her shoulder, grinning. "I never thought I'd win sanest-person-in-the-relationship by default."

"I never even thought I was in the running," he told her, and kissed her cheek. In the dining room, Neal was gathering up the wineglasses. He tipped one at Peter questioningly. Peter shook his head, then took the glasses out of Neal's hands and set them on the table.

"Come on," he said, and didn't look back to see if Neal was following as he climbed the stairs. For one thing, he could hear Neal's footsteps; and anyway, they needed to get things clear between them. Hard edges and straight lines. Definition was important, especially now.

He turned when he reached the bedroom door, walking backwards into it, Neal following with a curious, anxious look on his face. Peter stopped him with a hand on his chest in the middle of the floor.

"Knees," he said. Neal blinked at him. "Go on."

Neal looked like he might be about to object, but instead he just toed off his shoes and dropped to his knees, head bowed. Without, apparently, thinking about it, he put his hands behind his back.

Peter left his clothes on him, but he slid Neal's tie out of the collar -- a more complicated process than it should be, Neal and his ridiculous tie clips and collar bars -- and knotted it quickly around his head.

Neal inhaled sharply when the tie went over his eyes, but he didn't speak. Peter crouched.

"Stay here," he said. "We'll be up later."

Neal nodded, mouth pressed into a tight, thin line. He was bowed so far forward that his arms looked twisted, wrists locked behind him; Peter took his elbows gently and pulled them around, spreading Neal's fingers against his thighs. He didn't unbend, the line of his spine tight and tense.

Realization dawned.

"Neal, this isn't a punishment," Peter said quietly. Neal didn't move. "You didn't do anything wrong. Neither of us knew. I'm not angry with you. I'm trying to help."

Neal said something so quietly he couldn't make it out.

"What?"

Silence.

"Neal, answer me," he ordered. Neal's body jerked like he'd been struck.

"I wish it were," he said. It sounded like it cost him a lot to say it. "That would make this easier, that would -- "

Peter put a hand over his mouth, quieting him. He settled onto his knees, facing the other man.

"You've been fighting all day," he said. Neal nodded, just slightly. "And then you tried to get out of it and what happened?"

He took his hand away from Neal's mouth slowly.

"You got hurt," Neal whispered.

"Is there an object lesson in this?" Peter asked drily.

"Trust you."

"Trust me to?"

Neal's eyebrows, above the thin blindfold, drew together. He didn't seem to understand.

"Trust me to show you what to do," Peter said. "Believe me, listen to me."

Another slight nod.

"I'm not into hurting people," Peter continued. "I never have been, you know that. But that's what you're angling for, isn't it? Some kind of physical catharsis?"

Neal's lips twitched.

"What, a little too psychological for you?"

"No, Sir," Neal replied.

Peter rested his hand on Neal's bowed head, thinking.

"Okay, you need to get that I'm not mad at you. You get that, right?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Fine. You still need -- "

"Yes," Neal said, before Peter even finished the question. And then, as an afterthought -- with, at least, a slight smile -- "Sir."

Peter touched Neal's wrists, to show him where his hands were, and then took out Neal's cuff links. He placed one carefully on the back of Neal's right hand, the other on his left. Neal frowned, confused.

"I want those on your hands when I come back," Peter said. "You let them fall, you won't come for a week. We understand each other?"

Neal nodded, carefully.

Peter kissed his forehead. "I'll come back," he said. "Trust me."

***

"Where's Neal?" Elizabeth asked, when Peter came down the stairs alone. She was sitting on the couch, the last of the wine in her glass and a classic film on the television. Peter settled in next to her, loose-limbed, the tension from dinner dissipated.

"On his knees, upstairs," he answered, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "He wanted me to punish him."

"And are you?"

"He didn't do anything wrong. The symbolism's enough," Peter answered. "I'm not leaving him alone up there too long. How long's the movie?"

"I don't know, another forty minutes maybe," she said. "What are you doing?"

Peter shrugged. "I put his cufflinks on his hands, told him not to drop them."

"Look at you all imaginative," she said, kissing his cheek.

"He requires a lot of imagination," Peter said. "Not that you don't," he added, when she elbowed him gently.

"Are you really okay?" she asked.

"I'm not nuts about the unexpected," Peter admitted.

"Yeah, I noticed."

"I'll be fine. We'll work it out."

"Okay," she said, and turned her attention back to the movie. After a few minutes, she glanced back at him again. "Is this weird?"

"Little bit," he said. "You know, when I told you I was getting Neal out of prison, this wasn't where I anticipated our lives going."

"I'd be worried if it had been."

"Do you mind it?" he asked, concerned. She stared at him.

"No, of course not. He needs us, and -- well, it's not like I don't get anything out of it," she said. "Besides, you bring me flowers more often now."

"I -- !" Peter looked at her, offended. She giggled. "Why am I being punished? I didn't want to be punished!"

"Sweetie." She kissed him, then settled back down against his chest. "I'm glad you're okay. Mostly."

He tightened his arm a little.

"If I weren't, I'd say so," he assured her. "Promise."

***

Neal was good at judging time without a clock, but the shock of blindness and of Peter's willingness to go there, to punish him when he asked for it, put him off his game for a while. He settled down and started counting his heartbeats, but he had no idea how long that took. The urge to fidget was strong, at first. After a while, the cramping and pins-and-needles tingling in his legs made it nearly impossible to sit still.

He'd survived worse, though, working on heists, hiding out, running. He could do this. That was the point, after all, to feel pain and make it through. On the other side, he wouldn't have to feel guilty for hurting Peter anymore, however inadvertent. On the other side, he could be sure that Peter wouldn't be angry with him, because he'd done his penance. Peter and Elizabeth would come and get him, they always did, they never forgot him. Neal mattered to them. They wouldn't forget.

His knees ached, and the stretched muscles of his calves. His feet were cramped, the balls of his feet throbbing. His arms, too, with the tension of not-moving to protect the precious cufflinks sitting on the backs of his hands. The pain would creep up into his hips next, the muscles there straining to hold him in balance. He tried to be in the moment, like Mozzie was always telling him, manage the pain by accepting it, but Mozzie had a lot more practice with all that philosophical stuff than Neal did, and accepting the pain didn't do anything except make him more aware of it.

The cuff links had been cold when Peter put them on his hands but they were warm now, and sweat was trickling down Neal's neck. It had to have been at least twenty minutes.

Peter and Elizabeth wouldn't forget. Peter wouldn't make Neal do more than he could endure. He knew Neal better than anyone.

Neal's left arm twitched, the bicep spasming. The cuff link tilted, rocked back and forth, but didn't fall. Neal hissed through his teeth, flexing the muscle as best he could. He was sure there were monks or priests or something who did this for hours on end.

Maybe it had been hours. Elizabeth had said something about a movie, hadn't she? If Peter had fallen asleep --

No. Peter wouldn't risk that.

His legs were numb, now, which was something of a relief. A flood of endorphins, like a runner's high, made him waver briefly and almost topple onto his side, but he shook his head and kept upright. The cuff links were hot against his skin.

Peter must have made noise on the stairs, but if he had, Neal hadn't heard it over his own breathing. It wasn't until Peter's voice said, "Neal?" that Neal realised he was in the room. No -- the doorway. He didn't dare raise his head; the room was spinning even behind the blindfold.

"I didn't drop them," Neal managed.

"I'm going to pick them up," Peter said, and then there was heat against his hands, Peter's body heat, Peter's fingers against his skin as he collected the cuff links. Neal didn't move. Peter's hands came back to his skin, picking up his right wrist, moving his hand aside; he did the same with his left, then touched Neal's chin to tip his head up. Neal gave a startled cry and almost fell over, but Peter's arm caught him.

"Easy, okay," Peter murmured in his ear, as Neal's numb fingers scrambled for purchase in his shirt. His feet prickled and stung as Peter lifted him, arm around his chest, until Neal was standing unsteadily. The makeshift blindfold was lifted off his eyes (that tie would need ironing, a small part of his mind supplied) and Neal blinked in the dim light of the bedroom. Elizabeth was sitting on the edge of the bed, smiling at him.

"I didn't drop them," Neal repeated.

"I know," Peter said softly, studying his face, tipping his head this way and that. "You did great, Neal. You feel okay?"

"My legs are killing me," Neal moaned, leaning further into Peter's shoulder.

"That's what you wanted, isn't it?" Peter asked, helping him to the bed. Neal collapsed sideways, and Elizabeth let out a surprised laugh as his head landed in her lap.

"Clean slate now," Neal mumbled into her thigh. Her fingers stroked his hair. It felt like the best thing ever, better than stealing, better than orgasm.

"That's right," Peter said. "Clean slate. And I think," he said slowly, "we stick with what we know works, huh? You feel better now?"

Neal nodded. The tingling in his legs and the cramps through his arms were fading, and he drew his legs up, which Peter took as an invitation to sit down.

"Sometimes you need to know where we stand, you and me," Peter said slowly, ruminatively. "But this, here, isn't about that. You get that, right? I'm just trying to help you."

"I know," Neal mumbled. "Don't stop," he added to Elizabeth, who laughed and petted his head.

"Babe, we're just getting started," she said.

***

Peter awoke before dawn; the clock on Elizabeth's nightstand read 3:48, which was a stupid time to be awake. At first he thought Neal might have had another nightmare, but he didn't get them so often now as he used to, and when Peter turned his head Neal was snoring softly into the pillow, naked, the blankets kicked back over Elizabeth. She was fine too, curled up on her side, face peaceful. He couldn't hear any noises that might have woken him.

He slid off the bed cautiously, managing not to wake them as he pulled some pants on and went downstairs to get a drink. At the bottom of the stairs he caught a gleam of metal in the light from the street through the windows: his cuffs, lying on the floor where Neal had thrown them. He bent and picked them up -- no twinge of memory, no panic. They were just his cuffs, good heavy FBI-issue steel. He looked down at them lying on his palm.

After a minute, he went to his jacket, hanging by the door, and dug out the cuff key. He poured himself a glass of water in the kitchen, sat down at the dining room table, and put the key down next to the glass, within easy reach of his right hand. He picked up the cuffs, snapping one of them open, and carefully brought the top of it down across his left wrist.

Cold pressure; a moment of intense discomfort, like remembering he had some unpleasant chore to perform, but no panic. He brought the other half of the ring around and held it just shy of the latching mechanism. Still nothing. With a deep breath, he shot the latch home, tightening the metal around his wrist, and immediately picked up the key.

And yeah, he did remember then, remembered the fear and panic and the need to stay calm. Remembered how hard it was to breathe and how the little basement room had smelled like mold and cheap fabric. But it wasn't immediate, it didn't drop in front of his eyes like it had earlier.

He kept the cuff around his wrist for a count of twenty. By the time he reached fifteen, the fear had faded. At twenty, he unlocked the cuff and swapped hands -- put the key within reach of his left hand, pressed the metal ring to his right wrist. He repeated the process, working through the discomfort. It didn't feel as bad this time, or maybe he was just prepared for it. When he made it to twenty without panic, he reached out for the glass of water, cuff still around his wrist, picked it up and took a sip. The clank of the metal on the glass didn't bother him, or the soft creak of the chain between the rings.

"Okay," he said softly, unlocking it. The click of the latch releasing the cuffs seemed unusually loud, but that was all. "Okay. Got you," he added triumphantly, to the handcuffs, and folded them together. He gathered up the key, tucked cuffs and key into his coat pocket, and put the water glass in the sink before heading back upstairs.

"Hon?" Elizabeth asked sleepily, as he crawled back into bed. "Whr'd you go?"

"Glass of water," he whispered.

"Neal?"

"Out cold. I just got thirsty," Peter promised, pulling her body up against his, enjoying the weight of her in his arms. "Sleep, everything's fine."

She made a soft noise of satisfaction and relaxed against his body, breathing evening out. Peter closed his eyes.

***

The rest of the week was...better, even if they were taken up with plans for the event on Saturday night. Peter spent the time shoring up his security measures as much as he could, and clearing away some old paperwork in the meantime; Neal spent his days in the immigration archives with Mozzie and sometimes Sara, when she could get away, looking for the elusive traces Gerhardt Wagner must have left.

Saturday afternoon, while they were doing final prep for the event, Neal slouched into Peter's office, casting a sly grin at Peter's outfit. "Nice. Very me."

"Yeah, I thought so," Peter answered, grinning back. "You ready to pretend to be Special Agent Burke again?"

"Almost," Neal said. "Little more important to be 'husband' tonight though, I think."

"I think you'll manage," Peter drawled. Neal was playing-at-him: his body movements and expressions and even the tone of his voice, somehow, was more Peter than Neal. It should have been creepier, probably, but it looked so natural. That was one of Neal's talents, making the strange seem normal.

"I want something from you," Neal said. Peter cocked his head. "I don't wear a wedding ring."

Peter stared at him. "You want my ring?"

"Just for the night," Neal said calmly. Okay, now it was a little creepy.

"Are you insane?" Peter asked.

"I need a ring. You can't have one," Neal said, holding out his hand.

Peter met his eyes, but Neal wasn't joking; his stare was even. Though there was, he thought, a hint of entreaty in it. Peter scowled down at his left hand, sliding the ring off his finger. He put it in Neal's hand, but didn't let go of it.

"If you damage, lose, or make off with my wedding ring -- "

"Relax," Neal said, voice low. "I get it. Not mine."

Peter released it and Neal slid it onto his finger, frowning at the slightly loose fit. Peter rubbed the soft, pale skin where the ring normally sat, uncomfortable without it. He caught Neal watching him, and was surprised by the quickly-hidden bitterness in his face.

"Neal -- "

"Ah!" Neal held up a hand. "Agent Burke, to you."

Fine. Neal wanted to play it that way, they could deal with this later. "Oh, excuse me, Special Agent Burke," he replied.

"Much better," Neal said, a smile flitting across his lips. "So, you want to go catch some bad guys?"

***

Neal found himself slightly at loose ends, once Peter took Stanzler down. The op, of course, had been exciting, an adrenaline rush; playing Elizabeth's husband, being permitted to touch affectionately in public, had been an added twist of pleasure, and watching Peter wrestle Stanzler to the ground effortlessly had certainly been invigorating.

But he'd given Peter's ring to Elizabeth to give back to him and now here he was, Neal Caffrey again. The party was over, and it was time to stop playing pretend -- pretend that he was married, pretend that he had Peter's life. Mozzie was often baffled by Neal's envy of the white picket fence, but Neal saw no point in pretending he didn't want it. He liked the look of the plain gold band on his finger, even if it wasn't his and wouldn't ever be, not from Peter or Elizabeth.

He was too keyed up to go home, and anyway Mozzie and Sara would still be at the archives until they closed at ten -- plenty of time to drop in and do a little work. It'd distract him -- from giving up the ring, from the way Peter looked at Elizabeth when she gave it back, from the slight weight of Peter's hand as he'd picked his wallet back out of Neal's pocket (and Jesus Christ, wasn't that a turn-on, even if it hadn't been a perfect snatch). Besides, the charm offensive he was waging on Sara would benefit from his showing up to help out. Better still, he could bring her some snacks from the party. Mozzie would roll his eyes, but Mozzie wasn't the one being run to ground over the stupid Raphael.

Sara was pretty and smart and stimulating. It wasn't like it was a chore, charming her. In her own way she was as difficult to woo as Kate, and Neal did love a challenge.

"How was your night?" she asked, as she opened the package of nibbles Neal had carefully sculpted to look like a mediocre rendition of a swan.

"Oh...the usual," he said, because there wasn't really anything else to say about it.

"Yeah? What'd you get me? Oh -- " she beamed at him and brushed hair out of her eyes and Neal thought maybe, finally, he'd unlocked her flirty side, " -- I love gourmet finger food."

Neal couldn't have planned the lights going out at a better moment than that; couldn't have choreographed her reaching across his thighs for a lantern, or the way she leaned into him as he straightened. He couldn't have planned it, but he didn't have to. There it was: that gorgeous, amazing moment when everything came together.

Neal hovered, patient and only a little uncertain, until Sara leaned in -- leaned up -- and Neal cupped her face in his hands and kissed her.

After a few breathless seconds he pressed in, pushing his advantage for as long as this would last, turning, cradling her head, propping her up on the narrow archive ledge behind them. He felt her fingers at his throat, working his tie loose; he took the hint and tugged at her shirt, a little careless, trying to get it down around her shoulders.

Neal hitched his hips against her, shameless, pressing her against the wall. She laughed and kept kissing him. This was so much simpler than anything he'd had in so long, and even when the lights came up again he didn't want to stop, wouldn't accept her apology. (What did she have to be sorry for, anyway?)

He was beginning to think they might really end up having sex, right here in the immigration archives. Which would be great, that would be perfect, with her thighs around his hips and the warm air eddying around --

"Sara? I got some -- "

Neal looked up and saw Mozzie staring at them. He stared back stupidly, not even thinking about gathering his wits.

"Uh. Hi, Neal," Mozzie said. Sara gave him the gentlest of shoves and Neal backed away, pulling his shirt up over his shoulders again. Mozzie did a sort of stiff quarter-turn that Neal recognized from the last time Mozzie had walked in on him with Kate, years before. It had only happened the once; Mozzie learned to knock very quickly.

"What've you got?" Sara asked, trying to put her clothes back in some state of order. Neal resisted the urge to help her, because that couldn't go anywhere good.

"The um...urgency transcends the awkwardness," Mozzie said, coming forward. Neal fought down a laugh and tried to make sure the table was between them. The last thing he wanted to inflict on Mozzie at the moment was an erection.

It didn't last long, anyway, once Mozzie passed over the file on Gerhardt Wagner, and then the laptop with his obituary. The obituary with the name Alexandra Hunter in it.

***

References:
Demuth's Figure Five In Gold. Neal's Chrysler Building painting reminded me of it.
"My grandfather was a carnie during the Depression" is an inside reference to Clayton Jones, Tim DeKay's character on Carnivale.

Chapter Twenty

(Anonymous) 2011-05-24 16:00 (UTC)(link)
I totally got the Carnivale reference xD

Great chapter!!
micheleeeex: (Default)

[personal profile] micheleeeex 2011-05-24 19:38 (UTC)(link)
I forgot to sign in, this is my comment! lol