Terence's earnest face looked up from the group and broke into a golden grin. "Hey ya'll, let's quit early—my mental health is always better when I can go outside appreciate some nature."
Peter entered the pleasant lodge room with unfinished beams and big picture windows as the last group participants filed out. "It's good to see you Terence," he said, slapping his friend on the back. "Why did you stop? I think I could use some of what you were talking about. Cognitive shaping. Positive self-talk."
"Here man, sit down. You're a sight for sore eyes, Peter. You're like a whiff of the city, and I mean that in a good way."
The two men studied each other. "How do I measure up?" Terence asked.
"You look healthier than I've ever seen you—a month in the Jersey woods is like magic." Peter shook his head at the difference between the still-shaky man who he'd seen transferred from the hospital to the outdoorsy treatment program where he would be a half-resident, half-trial counselor. "And the director has been raving to me about your work."
"And you—look like you might could use your own month in the wilderness," Terence said candidly. "If you came all the way up here for a therapy session, things must not be good."
Peter sidestepped that observation. "I actually came to see if you'd want to come back with me, but you seem so settled—"
"Really? I can pack up in less than 20," Terence jumped up and Peter followed him to his bunk.
"Wait, don't you want to know the details?"
The counselor was throwing clothes into his duffle bag. "I've about had it with being around a bunch of mental patients. That sounds terrible, but what I mean is," he sorted through some magazines, throwing some in the trash. "I've heard all these stories before. Anyone I've treated earlier has been through Mozzie, and these are criminals and weirdos whose lives I haven't lived. People that are full of fight, even if they don't know who they should be fighting."
Peter put all of the medicine bottles in a paper bag he found lying around. "From what I know of your life, Terence, it's not for the faint of heart."
The other man stopped his process of scooping up loose change. "I guess I never put it together like this until I came to this place, but I don't think that all mental patients are the same—it's that life tends to treat us the same. Whatever you've got, I'll take the chance."
Peter used his badge and his power of attorney to help speed up Terence's exit from the treatment program that didn't want to see their peer counselor go. Half an hour later they were getting into Peter's car with an extra set of prescription slips just in case.
"You've got me interested, Peter, what's happening with the case?"
The FBI agent pulled a sheaf of papers out of the glove box. "You have to sign these before we can talk."
His therapist spent a few minutes looking through the legalese. "Damn, are they afraid I'm going to off myself, and that's why I have to sign so much more than last time?"
"No," Peter said with his eyes on the road. "It's because the network has started focusing on me, and there's a chance they could set their sights on you, too. Think before you sign."
"Give me the damn pen." Terence signed all of the dotted lines in a hurry. "Talk."
On the way back to the city, Peter got his friend caught up on everything up to his bout of mono and his best guess that Violet infected him on purpose.
"And you've talked to this chick?"
"She immediately left for some high-profile modeling job in Europe. Can't get a hold of her."
"Uh huh, very convenient. She and Neal met how?"
"He says some woman from his art studio introduced them at a party, but this art student says Violet was the one that asked to be introduced."
"Somebody wanted Violet to cross paths with Neal, and probably you, but we don't know who," Terence observed. "At least Jones witnessed the kiss."
Peter groaned. "You'd think it would clear up any suspicion, but it's worked in the opposite way. If both Neal and I got mono, people would be scratching their heads wondering why we were both targeted. I could have shrugged it off as a coincidence. But Jones saw somebody intentionally draw a line," he traced a line with one hand in the air, "between me and my former CI. And the conversations at work have been ten times more pointed than they would have been, I think."
"Anything else?" Terence inquired thoughtfully.
"Funny you should ask." Peter took a sip from his water bottle. "The day I came back from being out sick, I find an affidavit on my desk—someone I arrested a year and a half ago is alleging I used excessive force.'"
"What did you arrest him for?"
"There were three agents watching me cuff this guy as I arrested him for embezzling money from his employer. I didn't so much as bang his head on the roof of the car when I put him inside."
"The excessive force allegation, though it will certainly be proved untrue, triggered an automatic psych eval because I had a strike against me with the Scott case."'
"Which could get you a big scarlet C for crazy that you don't need." Terence chuckled suddenly. "I wanted to get out of the chalet so bad I didn't think to ask-why is the FBI wanting me back so bad if they know I'm an unqualified nut?"
"Let me tell you the other thing, first," Peter interrupted. "I've been pulled over five times because my license tag and car are listed as stolen, and then they run my badge number and it says inactive. But then they search another way and I'm Peter Burke, FBI agent, and it's all fine. And my bank account keeps transferring money to Elizabeth's business account and back, for no reason."
"Not to be insensitive, but that's some pretty impressive hacking, if that's how they're doing it."
Peter nodded tiredly.
"How's Neal?" Terence asked softly.
"That's a very good question. The mono hit him pretty hard since his system had been weakened so recently. Right when I was getting back on my feet, Mozzie told me they hospitalized Neal for observation. I did the logical thing." He smiled. "Had Mozzie make me a fake ID and I went to the hospital."
Terence sat up straight. "You went against FBI orders?"
"No, Edgar Trimble did, if you look on the patient registry, but I decided that I may be a lot of things." He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "A terrible husband. The weakest link at the bureau. But I'm not going to sit around with Neal in the hospital. Not that he was alone!" He laughed. "I had to fight to get Mozzie and Neal's assistant Gaspar out of the room, and you'll see him, Gaspar is enormous."
"Is Neal going to be okay?"
"They discharged him after two days, and he's taking it easy. Sworn off the starlets for now." Peter couldn't suppress a smile. "But the bureau is mainly working with Gaspar anyway, trying to bring down this American financier he's dealt with in the past. This fellow wasn't half as gifted in business as someone like Gaspar, but he runs in the highest circles. They suspect him of laundering money for a cartel. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I try to be very cordial with Neal's assistant now that I see his networking skills."
Peter realized that he was taking pleasure in the sort of mind games that were ruining his own life. "So far, they've found baggage handlers willing to put things into the man's luggage every time he travels, which is more evocative than making sure it gets lost. The guy keeps having to fight these phantom charges for calls to Colombia on his phone bill, though he keeps his personal phone completely clean. Oh, and Gaspar has managed to move money from his aboveboard account to a hidden account and vice-versa. Or at least make it seem like that's what happened. "
"Has anything else bad happened to you? How long ago was Neal discharged?" his passenger asked.
"A little over week ago. And no, but it's just a matter of time." The FBI agent switched gears. "But in answer to your earlier question, Hughes is dying to have you back. We've had three profilers and none lasted more than two days. It's—unusual—for Hughes to take much of a liking to anyone, but he must have his reasons."
Terence nodded. "You don't have to beat around the bush, I've known enough alcoholics in my day." He laughed at the other man's surprise. "There's something about the way they drink their coffee. If it's real caffeine, they cradle it like the last drug they're allowed to have, and if it's decaf, then it's this golden memory of the last drug. Go to an A/A meeting, you'll see what I mean." His face turned serious. "But I won't go back to 9-5."
"He doesn't care. You meet agents in the park like you did me; it's all on your terms. Hughes said they have enough book-smart people and need some common sense."
"That's another thing about alcoholics—they are really into suffering as a learning tool. I could do without it, myself, but if it means I get to do interesting work, I'm up for it."
They rode a little ways in silence. "Where exactly do you have me lined up to live?" Terence asked cautiously.
"You have the trust fund from Neal. That's a given. But I hesitate to let you rent an apartment with no support. I'd feel better if you had a roommate at first."
Terence groaned. "You can't just shove me in with some random crazy dude. I had one roommate with OCD—"
"Wait a minute. I think a little company can be healthy." Peter paused. "I'm not sure I should be alone right now myself."
"You want me to move in with you?" Terence finally grasped his meaning. "I thought you were still with Elizabeth."
"No," Peter said firmly. "I've been at June's for the time being. It took me far too long to see it's a hideous thing to be hiding from professional repercussions from being with Neal by staying with Elizabeth. There's room for two in that apartment while we both figure out next steps."
"Anything changed for you since you moved out?" Terence asked after they discussed a few practical matters like his follow-up care and access to the trust fund.
"I changed my mailing address, including the FBI listing, so a few people have expressed surprise that 'the perfect couple' would be separating. But no. It's only been a week, and so far no more problems. I figure they're waiting to see how badly I screw up the psych eval."
"Interesting." Terence laughed. "You know, talking about a mysterious 'they' coming after you is not a good thing to do during the examination. But you do realize the pressure you're experiencing is all about resolving the contradictions you already know you have." He ticked off on his fingers. "Do you let your emotions color your professional judgment? What is the nature of your relationship with Neal? Are you an imposter of an FBI agent? What do you owe Elizabeth?"
Peter started in his seat. "I didn't look at it like that."
"I bet it would stop if you quit," Terence said gently.
"Hughes owns me at this point, Terence. My pension, my reputation, all subject to the spin he puts on me. And he told me I can't leave. Not while this group is focusing on me. That's another thing. There's surveillance all over the apartment, on my phone."
"You're the bait."
"Basically. I'd rather they come after me than Neal."
"I have an idea about that," Terence said. "If your 'they' think your life has unresolved contradictions, find a way to reduce a few."
Neal's portfolio started weighing on him after half a block, so he decided to cab it to his art studio rather than take the subway. It was his first time going out for any art-related reason since he got sick, and not only his strength but his interest in life were still sapped by the mono.
Nevertheless, Gaspar had insisted that he go to the drawing group at the collective where he had privileges to drop in any time he liked. "You need to get out, mon ami, spend some time con la bella, something beautiful in life." His old friend had gotten a crafty look on his face. "Bien sûr, you could have the same experience while spending another night in. I, myself, have modeled before. You don't believe me?"
Neal had hastily wiped away the expression of horror from his face. To him, Gaspar and his beautiful suits were all of a piece.
He was a little early, and entertained himself by working on a sketch that he especially liked of a woman with strong curves from his last session. Neal heard this week's attendees begin to file in, and he answered a few friendly inquiries about his long absence after becoming a regular.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw this week's model come in, wearing the customary white robe. Stripping off in front of the class was considered too titillating.
He broke his charcoal in half.
Robe or no, Neal found the model very titillating. As if he did it every day, Peter shed the robe and followed the instructor's directions as she posed him on a dais in the middle of the circle of easels.
The several raised eyebrows from those with the frontal view made him really smile for the first time since he got sick. Neal had a profile and felt very lucky to be seeing Peter at all, not to mention so close and complete. Usually he had some kind of vision in mind, and he was always neat, but on this night, Neal felt the very act of drawing to be linking him to the much-missed flesh in front of him. He used both hands, and his fingers were soon tipped with black.
He was so focused on bringing the man he loved to the canvas in front of him that Neal was startled when the teacher clapped her hands and the model was told to give a half-turn so everyone could have a chance at practicing on his entire anatomy.
For a moment, Peter's eyes lingered on his, and Neal admired his self-control, because if he were told to disrobe at the moment he would not make for a sight for polite company. Peter's eyes burned into his for a moment while he was being arranged by the instructor, and then his face became utterly at peace once more. Calm, in only his skin.
The combination of sharing the sight of his lover with strangers, and having Peter behave as a stranger around him, was unbearably erotic and Neal let it flow into his work without shame.
The his-but-not-his situation that had caused Neal so much pain since he had decided to let Peter into his life—it rushed through his hands. For this moment only, the brief inches separating them were a princely ambivalence.
The teacher clapped her hands again, and as was the custom at the end of class, the students circulated around, looking at each other's work.
Neal registered the slightest brush of Peter's eyes on him like a shot.
"That is extraordinary work, Neal. Your best so far. You finally stopped thinking!" the teacher was saying to him.
He turned to face her, hoping he wasn't too flushed. "You know, Marguerite, that is one of the best compliments I've gotten in awhile."
"Would you allow me to hang it?" She gestured to the row of exemplary sketches culled from the students' work.
He tried not to smile too wide. "This one's a keeper, and I don't want to share. Thank you, though."
Peter had wrapped himself in the robe once more and was pretending to look at the drawings of his body, waiting for a chance to tell him "Meet me in the changing room when you're packed up."
Neal had to force himself to take care with the sketch, and when it was stowed away and he'd hurriedly wiped off his hands using the box of sanitary wipes on a table, he pushed open the door to the changing room, the flimsy lock giving way under his touch.
Peter was in the robe, counting the assortment of bills that were his payment out of the per-class fees some students paid. "Not a bad way to earn money," he smirked.
Neal launched himself at his lover. "I've wanted to do this since the second I saw you," he said, kissing all over Peter's face. "How did you manage to stay so composed?"
Peter held Neal loosely in his arms. "It's an old FBI trick," he said sheepishly. "Benadryl. It's a way to keep from being distracted if you're undercover with someone—distracting."
"But you, I can tell, have not had any Benadryl this evening," Peter whispered, divesting Neal of the pertinent coverings on his way down to the floor.
"We have twenty, twenty-five minutes until the next model will get here," Neal gasped. And then he gave his body over to the wordless colloquy with Peter.
"Run away with me," he breathed, his hands in the other man's hair. And then he thought no more for several perfect seconds.
Peter caught his weight and folded Neal into one of the chairs. "I feel like I've graduated from intermediate to advanced."
"What?" his lover asked vaguely while turning Peter's face this way and that.
"It was good enough to make you ask me to run away with you. That's a first."
"I missed you so much, Peter, that just being near you makes me want to lose control." Neal registered the frown his words caused. "But yes, that was something else. I'll get you a diploma, if you want to mark the occasion." His face turned serious. "But I wasn't joking."
The words came out in a rush. "With all this money, I can finally get what used to take busting my ass—freedom. All we have to do is go someplace with no extradition, and then grow old enough together that people stop looking for us." He stopped. "You're not arguing back. Wait, Peter, you're not arguing back."
The FBI agent sat there, naked in a small public room, and it didn't feel that unfamiliar. His sense of control, of normalcy, had been shed bit by bit, until the point where he stood without pretense before life. "It's a possibility, but I'd have to be convinced that you would run no risk of having your sentence activated."
To cover his surprise, Neal said, "This is a milestone for me, too. You've never told me any of your 'FBI secrets' before."
"I'm sure I have." Neal shook his head. "Consider this a new era for us. Everything we both know, all of our resources from this point forward goes to finding a more livable scenario for us both."
Naked as he was, he extended his hand, and Neal shook it solemnly.
"In that case, Peter, we have to continue being discreet. As soon as it becomes generally known at the FBI that I'm in love, they'll watch every move I make." The other man stared at him blankly. "They'll assume I'm going to run."
"Why?" Peter was studying Neal's aspect. His hair was longer, his clothes spattered with paint. He looked—homey—compared to the pinstripe suits he usually wore.
"Wouldn't you? 'Neal Caffrey in love has a strong statistical correlation with irrational behavior.'" He slung his arm around Peter. "Love affects me that way. It's like the mistral, the wind that blows in France and makes everyone a little crazy. How I'd love to experience that wind with you in France."
Peter's lip curled. "I think I've been experiencing it for some time. When I'm with you it's bracing, exciting, and when I'm alone—it seems to mix everything up like a tornado. Why shouldn't I let it pick me up, too, and set me down somewhere else?"
"You really don't think you have much to lose?" Neal took his hand. "Nothing else has happened to you since I saw you in the hospital two weeks ago?"
"The psych eval is tomorrow. And in preparation for that, files are being moved around the office, always just out of my sight. Terence moved in, did you get that from my picture message?"
"Yes I—" Neal threw the bathrobe over Peter. "Sorry, we'll get out of your way," he said with his best smile to the young woman frozen in the doorway. Peter scrambled into his clothes and they walked out of the room with a casual gait.
"You'll hear from me," Neal said as they parted ways.
He liked the double sketch of two angles of Peter so well that he decided to split it in two and get them framed as a diptych. Only someone who was looking for it would see that the broad, primitive strokes made up Peter Burke, Neal told himself. He went to a framer he knew specialized in odd sizes, and dropped off the two side views of Peter as well as another sketch. Hanging the two pictures in his bedroom would make him feel less lonely, and he could hide them if by some odd chance the FBI had to come in.
The staff psychologist looked up when Peter arrived for his appointment.
"Hello, it's good to finally meet you. I'm Dr. Ingram," the pale woman with pale blond hair said, shaking his hand.
"'Finally' makes it sound like you've been watching me for some time," he joked, and then the incisive look he received made him remember one of Terence's rules for dealing with shrinks: you never joke with anyone with the word 'psych' in their title.
The lack of a lie detector was encouraging: he could tell this woman anything and it was her word against his, he cheered himself.
The first few minutes were taken up with easy questions—job stress, job satisfaction. Sleep. Diet. His questioner seemed interested, almost nice.
"You're having trouble with your marriage, I hear," she said suddenly. "An emotional situation like that—is it impacting on your work performance?"
"Uh, well," he assembled his thoughts quickly, "I've always been kind of a workaholic. That's put a strain on my marriage over the years, but not vice versa."
"You tend to get most of your satisfaction on the job, then, rather than at home."
The double entendre had to be intentional. "You solve a case, you have a sense of accomplishment. Life doesn't tie up so easily."
Dr. Ingram flipped through the file in front of her. "From what I see here, you have a reputation for preferring a challenge to what's easy. Several cases others were stuck on, you closed."
Peter wouldn't be made to say it.
"Though you did have the advantage of a very talented CI with whom you had a very good relationship," she finally spelled out.
"I respect Neal. Respect tends to boost cooperation, and thus productivity. You'll find that in the FBI personnel book; I didn't come up with it on my own," Peter said mildly.
"And since Caffrey left, how's your satisfaction level?"
With all his might he was picturing his therapist in one of the other chairs to help him remain impassive before the doctor's baiting.
"The Scott case took its toll on me. That's what this is really about, isn't it? I've never used excessive force on a suspect."
"I'm not saying you did," the doctor said in a tone that implied he was being paranoid. "You are right. This is a long-overdue check-in to see whether you're having any residual effects from the two involuntary drug exposures. Nightmares? Flashbacks? Sensory alterations?"
The doctor pulled out a sheet and asked him more questions along those lines about specific symptoms related to drugs or trauma.
With Terence's help, Peter answered with a few mild affirmatives to make it look like he wasn't in denial, but was actually handling it well himself.
"How does it feel, these incidents you've had?" she looked down at a paper, "repeatedly being stopped by the police, money disappearing and reappearing without warning in your bank account. Other inconveniences… Do you worry that what happened to your CI will happen to you? You've already been deliberately exposed to an illness, like he was, so you say."
"So I say?" he repeated before he remembered another rule from Terence: don't let them see they've pissed you off.
"Oh pardon, I see that another agent saw you kissing the woman in question."
Peter felt his hostile look being drunk in greedily by the psychologist, or maybe he was just paranoid.
"What did you think I was referring to?" she asked innocently.
"I thought you were prying into my marital problems, and trying to trace them to that kiss," he parried. "I also respect my wife, and would prefer not to talk about our intimate issues with the FBI's partisan representative."
Ingram looked over her glasses. "If I am on a side, it's yours, Agent Burke. A favorable account of this conversation can resolve many things for you." She sighed. "All of you agents are still living in the Dark Ages. I see the way every one of you skirts this wing like it's infected with the plague." She looked down at her notes once more. "I see that Hughes' new favorite profiler is an acquaintance of yours, and he has psychiatric issues. You're more educated than most, Agent Burke. Why treat me like the enemy?"
Peter chuckled. "You hear stories, is all, of people getting a black mark on their record and it preventing promotions, or making them ride a desk."
Ingram smiled. "Answer one more question, for your own sake, and we'll be done with it."
"Why were you so concerned about the possibility that Neal Caffrey might be gay?'
Peter stepped on the tack in his shoe with such force he was sure it went all the way in his foot.
"You did some extended database searches months ago, and even incited two agents to work overtime with you, and one of them said that you were concerned, among other things, that Caffrey might be in a homosexual relationship with Prentiss Scott. Isn't that so?"
"I was concerned that Neal was involved in any fashion with a man my instincts told me was a sociopath. I believe the evidence bears my instincts out on that." Peter smiled pleasantly. "And I believe I have a right to know why someone is pulling my computer activity from months ago and making the wrong inferences from it."
Dr. Ingram looked confused. "I thought you knew. The complaint against you is being lodged by a Mr.—Aberdeen. Who is openly gay. I'm merely trying to anticipate some sort of bias angle to the excessive force charge."
"Thank you," Peter said as politely as he could.
"And then there's Scott himself. You thought there was something amiss with him long before there was any evidence for it. Are you sure it wasn't because you were immediately prejudiced against him because of his sexual orientation as well?"
Peter laughed. "I'm quite sure."
"What's so funny?" she asked about the smile he was trying to wipe form his face.
"I was best man for Diana at her wedding. She's already asked me to be a godparent if she and Suzette start a family. I was way ahead of the curve, Doctor, when it came to accepting LGBT people at the bureau."
"You were, I see that, you certainly were, Agent." She leaned forward. "How much do you allow your instincts to govern your behavior at work?"
"We've all got our quirks, doctor. Hughes gets a tingling in his nose when we're on the right track."
"Of course. I simply want to know, what would you do if, say, your instincts told you to do something that was expressly against regulations. Would you follow your instincts?"
Mentally, Peter was already clearing his afternoon so he could spend it at the doctor's getting the tack pried out of his foot.
"Obviously, I must have something else going on in my head. If I were just a mass of instincts with no—what do you call it—superego telling me not to do things, I wouldn't be able to drive in New York City traffic."
She laughed "I don't dispute that a little repression is necessary to drive here. So it sounds like you have your instincts governed very well."
"I think so, yes."
"You do admit the instinct is there, then." His heart sank. "To do something against regulations. But you govern it."
"Have it your way," he said, throwing up his hands. "We both know you're going to write some distortion of me in that report, Doctor. But I think all my years of service will help counteract your assertion that my homophobia is barely in check."
The psychologist put down her pen. "And I think we both know that that's not what's at stake."
Peter was not about to let his most intimate and beautiful secret go through this woman's psychobabble-wringer. He bit the inside of his mouth.
"Did you kiss that woman in a public gathering as a way of throwing off suspicion that you had contracted mononucleosis from Neal Caffrey?"
"No I did not," he said firmly.
"You believe you are objective enough to stay on the team handling his undercover operation?"
"Yes, I do."
The psychologist changed tone. "You understand that your sexual orientation is not under fire, here, Agent Burke? This is about fitness for duty. Judgment, Ethics, That sort of thing. The FBI embraces diversity."
"What a relief," Peter replied. "I feel thoroughly embraced."
"I think I have all I need for my report." Dr. Ingram said brightly. "Don't worry about your case review on my account. You don't sound likely to use excessive force on this man."
"If they're hounding you like that, that means they don't have proof," Terence told him later. "Keep on doing what you're doing until you can figure out how to stop."
And that's what Peter did. They had quite a few names Neal had helped them figure out from his coded gaming network exchanges. And their team was overloaded now, trying to catch one of those eccentric rich people in a prosecutable offense. Or at least figure out why they spent their free time figuring out how to subtly undermine people's sense of security.
A week later, Neal went to pick up his pictures from the framer. "But there's only one! I dropped off three." He withdrew the receipt from his wallet. "See?"
"Let me check in the back."
Neal spent over a half an hour arguing with the store clerk and then the store manager. They even called the man who took his order at home. He did remember three pictures, but somehow two had been misplaced.
"How much were they worth; maybe we can work something out?" the manager asked nervously, no doubt seeing Neal's emotion.
"I can't put a number on it," he said quietly.
He left with a framed picture of an anonymous female model under his arm, and stopped to catch his breath when he was outside. This was Neal's first mishap for over a month, since the mono infection.
He didn't want to feel like he was being watched again.
And he didn't want to think what was going to happen to those sketches.
Peter was nearly knocked over on his way out of the FBI that evening.
"Por dios, watch where you're going," the large man snapped at Peter.
Engaged in a vivid daydream of running off to Argentina with Neal, Peter didn't recognize Gaspar and mumbled something before going on his way.
A block down the street he had the sudden panic that his wallet had been stolen, but when he turned out his pockets, he found a note.
"Please pardon the rude encounter. I am Gaspar Edgecombe, and our mutual friend sends his regrets. Some rather valuable artwork has been stolen—you saw the likenesses yourself recently, and would no doubt find them very—recognizable-should you see them again. Which could very well happen when you least expect it.
"I said I wanted our coming out to be spectacular," was the pictorial message waiting for Peter that night.