"Are you sure about this?" Peter asked.
"No, I want to run in the opposite direction," Neal muttered as they walked up to Peter's old house for his birthday cocktail party with Elizabeth.
"No, I mean the wine. Red seems so—passionate, and maybe it's insensitive, considering."
"Sorry, Peter, I can pick a wine to go with anything from paté to paella, but the one thing I never learned the etiquette for was what to bring to my boyfriend's wife on the occasion of his birthday."
Peter's mouth dropped open at Neal's first attempt to describe their relationship, and then the door opened.
"Hello, very special birthday boy and his equally special guest," Elizabeth said. "I made margaritas!"
"You hate theme parties," Peter objected as they entered.
"Exactly," she said. "Have a canapé."
"But you hate people who call them canapés," Peter was saying in between gulps, but Neal was surveying the table with a wide smile.
"I love fifties snacks. Everything is processed!" Neal caught Peter's look of surprise and took the opportunity to nearly empty his glass. "I can't like kitsch? You know who does a great kitsch party is Moz," he continued, turning to Elizabeth.
"That actually surprises me. He entertains?" She passed a tray of mini pigs in a blanket to Peter, who was relieved to have a snack that he could pronounce for a change.
"Of course, thieves have networking events," Neal said, pouring himself and Peter another full glass of the very tasty but bracing mixture. "What with all of his manual skills, Mozzie can make anything out of aspic. He had this one meet-and-greet once where everybody's jello mold was part of a blueprint for this job we were going to do—" Neal looked at Peter and giggled. "I wish I could take you to something like that. You'd get a kick out of how normal yet completely not normal they are."
"And this is exactly why I asked you here tonight, and put on the apron my mother made me for Christmas last year," Elizabeth said, getting up to curtsy with her apron pulled out as if she were Shirley Temple "You two can't socialize very much"
"Elizabeth, it's really okay," Neal said at the same time Peter said, "Really, hon—"
The glare from those blue eyes paralyzed the FBI agent who had just uttered the term of endearment for his wife, and Elizabeth got up and went to the cupboard.
"Just because you two don't have any close living relatives doesn't mean you should be spared what every couple has to go through—"
"Oh no, Elizabeth, I beg you—" Peter said, reaching to intercept the photo album.
Neal politely set both of their drinks on the coffee table and then threw himself bodily at Peter, wrestling in earnest until he finally caught the bigger man in a ticklish spot and grabbed the album away.
"Whew!" he said, panting, with eyes shining, "This is going to be good."
Peter sat there drinking steadily while his wife and his boyfriend guffawed at bad haircuts, bad prom photos, earnest-looking pictures of his academy days and the famed moustache.
After a while they had sobered up quite a bit, and Elizabeth served more substantial sandwiches with coffee. "Did you forget? We still need to reveal the painting," she said from where they sat, very close together, on the couch.
"I've been staring at the sheet all night and forgot that that's what we were here for," Peter admitted, setting down his plate. "Shall I?"
He removed the covering and stood back to see himself with Neal. "Do we really look that good together?" he asked of the two on the couch.
"I like to think so," Neal replied.
"Yes," Elizabeth said. "Though the clothes are a distraction."
"Did you put Spanish fly in the pigs in a blanket?" Neal asked with an undercurrent of worry.
"No, Neal. You could have fled after an hour of excruciatingly awkward conversation, and I would have done due diligence." She paused. "But you both are welcome to sleep here tonight in the guest room."
"No, thank you, though," Peter spoke quickly, leaving his examination of the portrait to kiss his wife's hair. "This has been amazing, Elizabeth. I feel a sense of peace as we leave. Are you okay, Neal?" Peter dedicated his most passionate kiss of the evening to his lover.
"I think so. Yes. You do like the portrait?"
"I love it."
Rather than risk driving home, they called a cab and piled in the backseat. "Happy birthday," Elizabeth called, waving from the door.
"That's one I don't think I'll ever forget," Peter whispered into Neal's hair.
"Let's have another one for just the two of us," Neal said, letting Peter fall asleep on his shoulder until they got back to his apartment. He hauled the bigger man up the stairs as best he could and put him to bed, looking at the other canvas peeking out behind his art supplies.
Neal pulled out the portrait and examined it. It was so raw, almost feverish, that he didn't immediately recognize the style as his. It was Peter's face, but the face that came out while they were making love. More crafty and more pure than his everyday face, this Peter held his lips out, brimming with yet another kiss he was planting on the side of the man's face that was obscured by the man in the foreground.
It was a face he never expected to be in his life, but Neal had spent ages of careful work on making the features look accidental, erupting out of the background and taking hold of the canvas, anchoring it with a dynamism that was meant to look as though it were moving.
Neal was worried that tonight was not merely a lark, but the sign that he would have to go halves, and thieves always have creative mathematics when it comes to dividing the spoils.
He went to sleep and woke up to the smell of eggs. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" Neal asked, feeling a bit nauseous.
"I know so," Peter said. "Have yours with a lot of toast and you'll feel better."
They sat, eating their breakfast in silence. "What is it?" Neal asked a bit testily. "I'm sure I look a fright. You took a shower already."
"You look perfect," Peter said. "Come here." He dragged Neal, plate in hand, to the corner with his art supplies.
"Oh, I forgot to put it away last night!" Neal moaned. "There was supposed to be this whole unveiling ceremony."
"I think I can only take one unveiling ceremony for a while," Peter said with emphasis. "Don't worry. I'm not moving back in with Elizabeth. You're in the driver's seat. And this—' he indicated the picture.
"Don't you dare use a car metaphor for our relationship."
"This is yours," Peter completed, taking the plate from Neal, setting it on a chair, and walking him to the shower, where he let his lover take a thorough inventory of his goods.
"You said 'boyfriend,'" he reminded Neal.
"Did I? I suppose I did." They lay around and shared birthday stories and ordered pizza to go with the chocolate soufflé they had been meant to have last night.
Peter spent the rest of the day at Neal's and decided to leave very early the next morning to change his clothes. He was getting ready to leave at 5:30 am when he heard Neal's phone ring.
Peter was waving goodbye when Neal's hand stopped him.
Neal never said 'sir.'
"I'll be sure not to tell anyone, sir."
He hung up. "Hughes said—"
"Don't tell me!" Peter exclaimed, his hands over his ears. "This is a test, I know it. He's going to look at my face to see whether I'm sleeping here and you told me while we did un-FBI-like things under the sheets!"
Peter ran down the stairs and out into the street, so terrified of being caught at having a relationship with his CI that he forgot to be concerned about the content of the call.
Neal received the expected call from one of his lawyers at 8:00, after he'd spent the last two and a half hours adjusting to the idea that he was soon to be a billionaire. For real.
A billionaire who was still an indentured servant to the FBI, and must buy his freedom, not with money, but with one last undercover op.
"I have to get some fancy apartment right away?" Neal had asked Hughes while his mind came up with various unpleasant scenarios for how the FBI knew before he did that the legal obstacles were beginning to fall away between him and the dirty money.
"Yes, obviously we can't tell you exactly what to do in that regard, but it does need to look like you're turning over a new leaf in every area of your life, or these people won't believe it," the FBI supervisor said. "You must have your eye on all kinds of fancy places in New York Caffrey. Probably cased quite a few."
Neal felt filthy talking about thievery with Hughes. "I suppose. But as an artist, I like the view here—you know, light is a funny thing—"
"I know it's a lot to take in, Caffrey, but you are mine until this operation is over, and I hope we're getting off to a good start."
"Yes, sir." Neal's mind was spinning crazily. Did he mean-?
"That's good. You report to Legal at nine this morning and to me henceforward. Until the day when you're a free billionaire and can pay a skywriter to spell exactly where the FBI can go across the Manhattan skyline, every day for perpetuity. Don't be late."
Neal seriously thought of running during those two and a half hours. Peter never made him feel like Hughes just did after a ten-minute phone conversation. It was lucky that Peter wasn't there, or maybe he would have run. His relationship made him impulsive, emotional, and the Caffrey with the nerves of steel, safecracker Caffrey, heist-planner Caffrey, was what was needed now.
Now and for the next foreseeable months.
Neal thanked the lawyer, who had gotten ten times more unctuous overnight now that he was getting a fee, while he was walking out the door.
When he got into the office a little early, he made a show of getting something from his desk so he could scan Peter's face with the office glass between them. Peter hadn't guessed what chain of events was unfolding. He could tell from the posture.
Neal didn't seriously believe the FBI was trying to catch Peter in bed with him—after all, couldn't Neal have called Peter at home to tell him the news? He probably would have, even if they weren't together, Neal thought on the way to Legal.
When he emerged two hours later and headed to Hughes' office, and then re-emerged for the team meeting, Neal had to endure the old man patting him on the shoulder in front of their unit. "Caffrey here is going undercover. Those of you who worked the Scott case know why this is important, and your expertise will be crucial."
Only someone who knew Peter well would be able to see the utter panic that was visible only in his eyes and only for a second.
Neal could tell that the old man was satisfied with something, but he couldn't tell whether it was something that helped or hurt him and Peter.