Neal refused to travel with anyone else but Peter when he was finally released from the hospital a week later. He'd spent all week convincing the medical staff that whatever recuperation he still needed to do could be done in New York, and the return of the sweet-talking Caffrey was all Peter needed to convince him into collusion.
"Thanks for understanding," Neal panted during one of his frequent stops while traveling the length of La Guardia. "I knew anyone else would get sick of my vanity and scoop me up in a wheelchair."
These rare kind comments Peter was learning to treasure. The doctors had said that drug withdrawal tended to put people on edge, and that might be what made Neal brusque where he used to be smooth.
"There is no used to be," the FBI man thought to himself angrily while he kept his arm subtly close to Neal in case he needed to lean on it. He'd drafted an interoffice memo to the effect to prepare people for Neal's return tomorrow:
To: All staff
Re: Neal Caffrey's return
Caffrey is scheduled to return on Monday. Please refrain from cakes, cards, balloons, parties, displays of emotion and otherwise drawing attention to the fact that he has been out. Neal looks like he's been through an ordeal because he has, so prepare yourselves accordingly. Your professional demeanor will help him regain the normalcy that medical professionals have stated is an important part of his recovery.
If you have personal concerns about Neal's health, please see me privately.
Agent Peter Burke
That Monday morning Peter picked up Neal from his old place. June had been in touch with him personally throughout, and she was helpful in arranging a room for him on the ground floor so he didn't have to waste energy on stairs.
Peter was quickly learning to separate someone who knew how to deal with adversity gracefully versus people he wanted to punch for how they infantilized Neal.
June was at the head of the graceful pack. "I came across some old jewelry I was hoping you could appraise when you get a chance," she was saying as she was putting some hidden darts in some of Neal's clothes to make them fit better.
"Anything for you, doll," Neal grinned. "Peter, thanks for coming so early to accommodate my sedate pace." He put on the jacket handed to him by June. "How do I look?"
"Like a million dollars," Peter said, moved to see a little more of his old friend coming back. "Shall we?" He held out his arm gallantly.
He and Neal moved slowly into his car and then his old CI took great pains to walk upright from the FBI parking garage to the building.
"Hey Neal, welcome back—"
"Caffrey, where's that 20 bucks you owe me?"
"When you get a chance, can I pick your brain about this case?"
Neal had a joke or a flirtatious remark for almost everyone in their path, but Peter rushed them through the process so that Neal didn't have to lean on him in public. They rounded a corner and he stood against the wall, panting, for a moment, and Peter directed them into a conference room.
"Hey Caffrey, long time no see," Jones said, shaking Neal's hand after he had lowered himself into a chair, trembling.
"How does it feel to be without the anklet, Neal?" Diana asked, shaking his hand next. The FBI had graciously acknowledged the slight change in their relationship by allowing Neal to carry a GPS tracker in his pocket rather than the humiliating anklet.
"At this point I don't think I could walk with the extra weight," he admitted.
"Neal, this is Terence, our profiler." Neal knew all about Mozzie's contact by now.
"Good to meet you, man," Terence said. To Peter's surprise, his therapist was the one who took charge of the meeting. "Now, I know we're anxious to tell you about our ideas, so let's get down to it.
"We decided that there were three things in this case that were interconnected and we needed to figure out how. Scott's mental problems, which he told Neal started with his plastic surgery and breakup." Neal's story had been typed up and distributed to the team over the last month.
"Then there's the drugs, and the only logical person to access South American drugs, the butler, who is from South America.
"We each took an angle, with me focusing on the butler, because he's the big unknown. Perfect employment history. You said yourself, Neal, that he could go into business as an art dealer, most likely."
"Scott said that Tomas was well-off and could retire." Peter had been very pleased when Neal stopped calling the billionaire by his first name.
"Exactly, so why stay around, playing house with the Man in the Iron Mask? Why become his drug dealer?"
"It helped to conceptualize things that way, but we were spinning our wheels for a while," Diana took over. "Until I suggested that we could try something else instead of looking for patterns between the butler and the billionaire, who are holed up in that house and not coming out. Rich people are their own breed. Maybe these two are part of a larger pattern."
Jones had been fidgeting eagerly in his chair. "I won't bore you with the details of how I crunched the numbers," he began, and Neal rolled his eyes at everyone for the impending tech-talk. "But first we got a list of people in Scott's income bracket in the US and some known friends abroad. For each of those people I created a search that would find all the people frequently mentioned in the news with them."
"Not everyone's associates appear in the media. I wouldn't," Neal said darkly.
"No, but this primitive measurement proved useful. Stick with me, Caffrey, you'll see." He called up a set of big dots on a screen, each surrounded by colored dots of varying size. "Each of these is a bigwig, surrounded by their network. Now see what it looks like when we add in the number of disasters each associate suffered that made the papers. Fires, loss of employment, divorce, theft, what have you. Our junior officers almost quit while coding all this."
He pressed a button and made a proud gesture. "The unlucky people range in intensity from a light pink to a red, which means really unlucky." Many of the targets were surrounded by red.
"You'll need to have some kind of control before I could take this to Hughes," Peter began.
"Here's an overlay of part of the New York FBI field office, and this is pretty good data because we know these people. Look, it's no comparison, and we have dangerous jobs." There was far less misfortune on this graph. There was a quiet moment while no one looked at Neal, who seemed to be looking closely at the red dots on this graph.
"By itself, this doesn't tell us anything except not to be friends with a rich person," Terence resumed. "But I was trying real hard to put myself in the butler's head, and I thought of something my grandmother told me."
Jones laughed. "I never would have thought of it, but once Terence came out with it I couldn't see anything else. Every black kid I knew growing up got the occasional 'this is our history' speech, so as to carry on the African American oral tradition. You know, this is where we came from, don't forget it kind of thing."
"I'm sorry you guys, I think I missed something," Neal rubbed his head.
Peter grabbed him a bottle of water from the shelf. "I'm totally lost, too."
"My grandmother was a great storyteller, and she especially wanted me to learn what they don't teach you in the history books, which focus what was done to us," Terence said. "She told me about what our people did to survive and fight back. Underground Railroad stuff, yeah, but she also told me a story about traditional African herbal knowledge being passed down.
"She said that every once in awhile, rightly or wrongly, some of our people would be killed for poisoning their masters. And what some people learned from this was not don't poison them, but make sure you don't kill them. Meaning that if you could slip something in the soup that made them a little calmer, a little easier to deal with, why not?"
Peter looked at Neal blankly.
"Racial politics in Brazil—people do their dissertations on it," Diana interjected. "The butler was basically raised to be a servant in an area where there is still landed gentry, very feudal. And he's obviously of African descent. It's possible that this type of thing lives on within the cultural memory down there."
"You guys, this is very interesting, but I don't see how this helps nail the bastard," Neal objected.
Terence took up the tale. "Something had to happen to turn butler of the year into Scott's drug dealer. I think both of them felt wronged by the world, and they each provided half of some really unhealthy recipe whereby they felt entitled to mess with anyone they wanted. In one of your transcripts you recalled Scott as saying that the butler liked to be invisible." Neal nodded. "Scott became invisible with the surgery, or felt like he did. Whatever, they were creepy-close, you said."
He nodded at Jones, who returned to the computer display. "With the help of your DEA friend, let's add another overlay."
Each of the dots representing a wealthy person retreated to their geographical location on a map, to which was added green areas. "These are places where obscure South American drugs and/or DMT have turned up." There were a number of coincidences.
"That's getting warmer," Peter said, giving Neal an encouraging look. "Probably greater than chance intersections there. But I'll play devil's advocate. Why?"
"We think they fuck with people for sport," Terence said. "There it is, I'm sorry, Neal."
Peter gave Neal a moment and then said, "This is what the team came up with in your absence, but you're really team leader. Does any of this seem right?" He knew it was a hideous question to ask.
"If I may," Diana cut in. "After we came up with this theory, the way Scott explained his withdrawal from the world to Neal didn't gel anymore. But his breakup with Ben-Israel was still ground zero for how all this craziness started. So I went to go visit him."
"And how did that go?" Peter asked, imagining what someone hiding out in Utah would think of a somewhat frightening FBI agent showing up.
She laughed. "I know how to use the soft touch when necessary. When I finally was able to explain that we were looking at Scott for seriously harming someone, he started to open up."
The female agent turned to Neal. "Everything he told you was all backwards. He decided to get the surgery because he was insecure, afraid of losing his younger boyfriend, who really did love him. But when he saw the results of such a severe procedure, he started to imagine that his boyfriend, that everyone, was being so much nicer to him because he looked younger and more handsome.
"Ben-Israel said that Scott got kind of weird, and didn't believe anything he said or did was directed at the man who was the same inside. There was this layer in between, and Prentiss Scott became obsessed with his face as something separate from him, stealing from the other, aging man inside.
"He had to drive Ben-Israel out of his life, because his boyfriend wanted to stay with him if he would get psychological help, or reverse the surgery, whatever it took to feel like himself again."
"Did he use drugs?" Peter asked.
"No, we think that came later. It sounded exactly like what you told us about that monk, though," Jones said. "Just so much bad luck it wears you down until you quit."
Terence had an eye on Neal. "The next step is to try to verify that there are more people out there doing this kind of stuff, bored rich people, sadists. That's what they've got people on right now. But if you want my two cents, Neal, Scott came down on you extra hard because you cared—it's something that doesn't compute for him anymore. And then he liked you too much and wanted to keep you. Neither of which is normal thinking, so you couldn't have seen it coming."
"Guys, this is amazing work, thank you," Peter said. "But it's a lot to digest. Neal and I have another meeting, so please excuse us."
He got them almost to the car before Neal collapsed in his arms. "Their theory sounds absolutely insane to me, by the way," he murmured as Peter settled him in the car seat. "But one thing I do know, is that somehow I spent eight months of my life wanting to spend every minute with the kind of exploitative man I swore off in a truck stop."
"He had to drug you to keep you coming back for more," Peter pointed out.
They drove in silence to June's home, where Peter let Neal digest all the new ideas for the next several days.
On Friday he showed up freshly shaven and in a suit he knew Neal approved of.
"Where are you off to?" Neal asked from an easy chair.
"I'm off on a date."
"Really? With who?" Neal was intrigued.
"Who do you think? Get dressed unless you want help." Peter's devilish grin took his friend by surprise.
"Flirtation. Peter Burke doesn't do that," he said as he went to the closet June had transferred his clothes into. He selected something and went behind a screen. He was getting stronger so the process didn't take that long. In the meantime, Neal was asking, "Do I get to pick where we go?"
"Sure, let's just make a stop first," Peter lied. When he saw Neal emerge from the bathroom, his short hair combed and tie in place, he could scarcely believe that this was happening.
He held out his arm. "I can walk by myself now," Neal said irritably.
"And I don't want to," Peter rejoined, pulling Neal's arm through his.
That shut up the younger man for a good few minutes. "Where are we going?" he asked in several different ways in the car.
"On a date, I told you," Peter said, finding parking near east 55th.
"Astor Court at the St. Regis Hotel. This is nice, Peter. I have to show you the Maxfield Parrish masterpiece, the King Cole mural they have hanging."
As Peter had hoped, the swank surroundings had a magical effect. The old Neal was instantly at the fore, telling him about the art, reminiscing about previous visits to the restaurant, along with some thinly veiled references to criminal acts. In return Peter told him about the office pool going around trying to figure out where he found Terence, and the hilarious observations the blunt groundskeeper had about life within the FBI.
"'Ya'll all walk a certain way. Did you know that?' he said to me. 'It's so much like the way a really paranoid person acts on the psych ward. You walk really straight so that nobody will think you're looking behind you, and then you look in every reflective surface to see what's behind you.' And he did a spot-on imitation of some of the more traditional agents."
Neal was laughing into the wine he was sipping slowly. "I dare you to show me," he said.
"What do I get if I do?" Peter challenged and then retreated from Neal's wide-eyed stare. "I'm going to the restroom. Watch and see."
Peter approximated Terence's imitation of the psych patient-slash-FBI agent all the way to the bathroom and back, not caring that he was drawing attention to himself.
He came back to a Neal who was still laughing. "He seems like a really smart guy, that Terence. The sort that I would pick out of a room as the one person not to try to con. You say you've talked all about me to him?" he transitioned suddenly.
"Yes, Terence talked me down from my bad trip, or I'm confident I would be a basket case today." He took out his card and motioned to the waiter. "Shall we go?"
Neal nodded slowly. "It's probably for the best not to push it. I don't want you to have to carry me out."
As they left, Neal was leaning a little on Peter's arm. Instead of walking out into the street, he steered them to the hotel's interior. "You lived in a hospital for so long, and I know how much that hurt your senses. This is my no-strings-attached gift to you—the opposite of an institution."
Peter led Neal up to the room whose key he'd retrieved while he was supposedly in the bathroom. There were fresh flowers and candles, just as he'd instructed. And wine. Creature comforts such as he hoped would draw out the rest of the Neal Caffrey that had retracted into himself due to illness and misery.
"I have an adjoining room in case you need me, but you can lock it if you prefer," he said quickly as he saw Neal doing the bed math.
"Have a glass of wine first," came the invitation, and Peter exhaled.
He opened the wine and Neal put on the television to an old movie. Casablanca. And they sat next to each other silently, but with their bodies observing each other. "I'm tired," Neal finally said. Peter got up. "Please stay." He sat back down and Neal pulled him down and curled up inside his larger body's curve. Looking straight ahead Neal said, "I have never felt so alone as when I was in the hospital, for all intents and purposes blind, restrained. Sure I was going back to prison. I never give up, Peter, and I wanted to give up."
Though Peter was facing his back, he knew Neal was crying somehow, and then he felt the body in his arms relax into sleep.
For an hour or so Peter reveled in the sheer joy of holding Neal until he finally dropped off to sleep himself. Soon he felt Neal stir. "Sorry, Peter, you can go back to sleep. I got used to cat naps in the hospital."
"Not on your life," Peter replied.
Slowly, slowly, Neal turned himself to face him. He looked at Peter very closely, and the older man finally realized that he was being looked at by Neal's artist's eye.
Neal finished unbuttoning Peter's shirt. He undressed Peter slowly, very slowly, stopping to examine and then moving, positioning.
Peter had never felt himself flow in someone's hands. He thought nothing. Not even to be ashamed at such unusual scrutiny. He let himself be posed when he was naked, secure that Neal would judge him justly.
"I did a pretty good job," Neal finally said. "On your portrait. Only when you see someone naked can you really tell if you got the face right."
"So now that you know what I look like naked, are you going to have to paint me again?"
"Since the first portrait almost cost me my life, maybe not." And then Neal's voice changed. "But I don't know what you look like naked."
"No?" Peter didn't feel like there were any exceptions left.
"No," Neal said in the same voice, and then moved his hands over Peter's naked chest. "There. Everything changes in a person when you touch them." He stroked Peter's skin, relaxing him, exciting him, and then fastening him with his blue eyes, he kissed him.
This was nothing like how any of Peter's fantasies had gone, but it was better. He felt the kiss down to his toes and in the roots of his hair. Then, Neal began talking again with that voice. Suggesting, merely. Gently moving Peter in a certain way, perhaps.
Peter had never been told what to do like this, and there was nothing dominant about it. It was Neal knowing what would feel good, and making up for his lack of strength. He took off his own clothes gradually, not because he was fatigued, but to allow himself to be appreciated.
Though he was still thin, Peter appreciated every inch of him with avid eyes. When Neal was finally nude, the larger man launched himself at him, enveloping him with his frame, kissing deeply, insistently, changing the tenor of their earlier motions into something proud and strong.
"Peter—" Neal began.
"Sorry, I've been waiting a long time for this," Peter fell back, self-conscious.
"I was going to ask if you want any help getting off, because you're about to do so on your own," Neal asked, running his hands on Peter's chest and back.
Peter allowed himself to be guided in motions he had never considered making until a few months ago, but now could scarcely contain himself while performing. Once he had some idea of what he was doing, Neal had Peter reposition them. This kind of sharing, an exact congruence, was mind-blowing, and the fact that it was Neal pushed him sharply ahead of the learning curve.
It was a race that ended in a draw, neither edging ahead even at the last.
"I wish I could draw you right now," Neal whispered after he had spent some minutes whispering how he felt during their encounter and eliciting Peter's specific responses. This new, verbal Neal was a wonderful discovery.
"I'll tell you when you ask me to do something I don't want to do," Peter said, sipping a glass of wine, unclothed and undone by that experience.
"I like Peter Burke, the flirt," his companion replied mischievously. "Now tell me the truth. Did you really rent another room?"
Peter stalked over to the adjoining room in a huff and threw open the door. "What do you take me for?"
"Come back, come back here," Neal said laughing. "I knew you did."
He made Peter feel richly rewarded all the same.
Afterwards, they ordered room service and sat eating omelets because it was closer to breakfast than anything else.
"I think it's safe to ask now, why?" Peter said, looking at his orange juice. "Why be with me when it never occurred to you before? Especially, why now when all this baggage with men has been dredged up for you?"
Neal took his glass out of his hand and forced Peter to look at him. "You and I are not the same, Peter. We both know this. You're a planner. You look before you leap. I go with the flow. For the last time, that doesn't make my life less deeply lived. Things just happen faster for me. This is what's happening now, and while I could have done otherwise, I want to see what happens. You have my curiosity. And that's a lot."
He went back to calmly eating his omelet. "If you don't want those potatoes, I'll take them."
Peter silently tipped his home fries onto Neal's plate, still chewing on that little speech. That's why he jumped when Neal said," And I get a question, if we're being fair."
"I think we've been doing well this evening with tit for tat," Peter mumbled.
Neal grinned and then got serious. "Why me? I'm positive that you were never with a man before," he caught the abashed look, "though I've always said you were a quick learner." He set aside his plate and took Peter's hand and placed it where he wanted it to be. "Where did the idea of being with me, arch-criminal, and a man, ever enter your head?"
Peter placed his lips on Neal's ear. "I went insane with jealously thinking of you being with that—that man. Really, Neal, I went out of my mind thinking that you preferred being with him to me. I know you like nice things, but you're a substance person at heart. And once I met the man," he shuddered. "My instincts had me on the rack all this time. I kept trying to think of ways to kidnap you and give you some perspective, to see that Scott was bad news."
Neal turned his head to say over his shoulder, "And to think it all started with your birthday present. All I wanted was to give you something genuine, no fooling around, something from the real me. Because you, unlike almost everyone, had earned it." He gave a few soft instructions to Peter. "Sad that I'll never finish that painting, because it was coming along."
"It's not my birthday yet," Peter panted, feeling very much like it was his birthday for the next several minutes.
They showered together, another new and engrossing experience, and then got dressed. They talked easily in the car and Peter helped Neal into the house. "Are you going back to Elizabeth now?" he asked, suddenly cautious.
"I sublet a studio short-term," Peter said in a more subdued tone. "I still visit Elizabeth. We have dinner at least once a week and talk every day. But you saw me last night, Neal. There's no way for me to avoid trying this out. We both owe it to ourselves to take it one day at a time."
Neal nodded. These occasional tests from him were nerve-wracking for Peter. "That's good, because you know part of me is on her side with this."
"I know. But I hope to have you over to my bachelor pad sometime soon."
The kiss Neal gave him was very promising.
In their team meeting on Monday morning Jones suddenly exploded, "Will someone please tell me the joke?"
"I'm not laughing," Diana protested.
"This subject here is no laughing matter," Terence agreed.
"I was just telling everyone before you came in that when I passed Hughes this morning he said, 'Looking good, Caffrey,' and I found it very amusing, coming from him." The four of them burst out laughing at Neal's re-enactment of that moment.
Jones piped down.
At break time, Diana grabbed Neal and Terence went after Peter, wanting to get the goods on the very full weekend that was apparently obvious through their poker faces.
"When I asked you months ago, you denied it," Diana was saying.
"I said neither yea nor nay," Neil protested at the coffee maker. "You know I hate people messing around in my personal life."
"You're going to need to put a tack in your shoe or something to wipe that grin off your face while you're at work," Terence said in the restroom after giving Peter a high five.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Peter said, looking in the mirror. "I look the same. I'm not smiling."
"Rein that aura in, or something, goddamn," Terence chuckled. "And it's not just you. Neal looks like he's wearing that suit instead of the suit wearing him for the first time since I met him."
"You think?" Peter was all ears. His telephone rang. An unknown number. He held up his finger and answered it. "This is Agent Peter Burke."
"Hello Mr. Burke." The nausea washed over him. "This is Prentiss Scott. I'd like to invite you to my home."