Neal’s parents were not neurally-fused. Neal was pretty sure they wouldn’t have passed the psych requirements of couples that wanted the fusing, given how often they’d tried to kill each other, but they had never even tried. Secretly—more secret even than the location of his vaults, or the things he thought of to put himself to sleep—he’d always wanted someone who would be willing to fuse with him.
The day he came up with The Plan (more formally known as The Plan to Get Himself The Fuck Out of Prison Before He Went Bugshit Insane—but that was kind of long and unwieldy) he thought to himself, “Careful what you wish for, Caffrey,” and knew he wouldn’t heed the advice any more than he had any other time he’d told it to himself.
Peter laughed when Neal suggested the fuse. It wasn’t Peter’s ironic laugh, or even the one where he thought Neal was being clever. He was laughing at Neal. It shouldn’t have mattered, really. Neal fought not to hunch in on himself.
Peter said, “You’re kidding, right? Did you just need someone to talk to, now that Kate isn’t visiting?”
Neal stiffened and Peter actually looked a little bit apologetic, even if he didn’t say anything. Neal said, “I could help.”
“I’m fused with my wife, Neal. You know that.”
Neal did know that. He remembered the first time he’d found out, the irrational pang of jealousy that he’d put down with two bottles of cheap Cabernet and a long, long session of making Kate scream his name. “This wouldn’t affect that. It wouldn’t affect anything for you. It’s a one-way fuse, unbreakable like the two ways, but less sharp than them. Because I’m fused to you, you can feel basic emotion and locate me. That’s it.”
“You’ve never met a lock you couldn’t pick.”
Neal tried to keep his tone even, but he’d had a rough couple of months. “You flatter yourself. I’m not going to risk brain damage just to get away from you.”
“And when your time is up? I’m just left with you in my head?”
“There are muting procedures.” Neal pushed the information across the table. “In four years, there might be something more.”
“This is crazy,” Peter said, even as he was looking at the documents.
“No. No, I’m not-- Fusing is for people who care about each other, Neal. Not so you can have some get-out-of-jail-free card.” Peter stood and made his way to the door.
Neal closed his eyes and tried to think. He was tired and he hadn’t really felt like eating since returning, and all in all, not at his best. Before he could figure out what to say, how to get Peter to listen—and he had always been so good at that when it was Peter chasing him, Peter the one who wanted something—Peter was gone.
Neal nodded to himself. That made sense.
Neal dreamed in artistic periods. Some people dreamed in color or light or numbers or sounds, he dreamed in Matisses and Goncharovas.
The nights after Peter’s visits were filled with scenes straight out of Rembrandt’s Stoning of Saint Stephen and Velązquez’s Las Lanzas. Not his favorite works from either artist.
He did his best to wear himself out in the yard so that he would sleep without dreams, black and as comforting as bleakness was capable of being. It didn’t work. The yard didn’t go anywhere—he could never run far enough.
Neal probably should have been expecting Peter to change his mind, should have known him well enough to call that twist, but he was a little off his game. The guards took him to the infirmary and the doctor asked, “You know how the fusing procedure works?”
Neal had read about it. He reeled in his need to ask, what? He smiled, because that always gave him some time to figure out what was going on. The doctor did not smile back. Neal had been expecting that, though. “To whom am I being fused?”
The doctor frowned. “Peter Burke. You know you have to consent to a partial-fuse?”
“I consent,” Neal said, before he could think about what he was doing. He had wanted this, he had.
The doctor looked less than convinced, but he slid a file full of papers over to Neal. “The places you need to sign are highlighted.”
Neal scanned the paperwork, used to reading the fine print, but when he got to the parts about brain-damage (and he knew, he’d read the warnings in his research, it was just seeing it on a form somehow, made it different, real) he stopped and just signed his damn name. He couldn’t stay here. That was not a choice.
The procedure took all of fifteen minutes. He wasn’t even put under, just given a local anesthetic before the doctor planted the fusing cord along Neal’s brainstem. Neal laid face down on the table, like he was told, and tried not to listen. If he breathed slowly enough, his inhalations were loud in his head. He thought of things he’d forever wanted to do—walking barefoot in the Hermitage, sitting behind the curtain during a performance at La Scala, owning a house and a dog with Kate.
The doctor said, “You might want to keep lying down for a few minutes, dizziness is a possible side effect of the procedure.”
“When’s Peter coming?” Neal asked. Nobody answered.
Peter and El had decided to fuse two years into their marriage, which was early compared to most. It was the single-most unplanned decision he’d made before Neal came along, and even then, he’d known he wanted to fuse since the day he’d met her, nearly four years earlier. He was going to wait the more normal five to seven years to bring it up to her, but on their second anniversary, she’d presented him with the question in her card. He’d looked up from the card and her smile was nervous, brilliant.
He’d said, “When can we make an appointment?”
It hadn’t been as quick as all that, since El wanted a ceremony. She’d planned it herself—nothing extravagant, just a few friends, some champagne, strawberries in dark Godiva. A friend of El’s from undergrad who’d gone into neurology came over early in the morning, and set up in their bedroom. She
talked them through the process, chatted with them about their concerns and what they were looking for in the experience.
The actual procedure took about twenty minutes. They laid on their bed facing each other, holding each other’s hands. He went first, El second, and when she said, “I love you,” just her lips moving, Peter could feel how much she meant it.
Though he had never said it aloud, it had easily been the best day of his life, far better than the wedding, or even the first time they’d had sex.
For his second fusing, one of the Bureau’s techs came up to his office, explained the partial nature of the fuse, gave him a quick shot of local and essentially injected a neural synthetic that would form into a patch on Peter’s brain. The tech clapped him on the shoulder. “Might wanna take some aspirin before the local wears off.”
“Yeah,” Peter said. “Thanks.”
Peter closed his eyes and let himself feel, still just a little terrified that the new fuse would hurt his one with El, but no, she was there, same as always. She was annoyed at something, still at home, running late. He thought about calling her, but clearly she didn’t need the distraction. He let himself be calmed by her presence a few seconds longer, and then let go. She receded to the back of his mind, where he could feel her but not be distracted by it. (Although, admittedly, that had taken months to settle into.)
It was two hours later, on his way to the prison, that Neal came alive in his mind. Peter wasn’t exactly sure what he had been expecting, but he wasn’t shocked to find that Neal felt more like chaos than anything else, a deadly typhoon swirling at the outer limits of Peter’s mind.
What worried Peter more, honestly, was that when he pulled up to the gates, and signaled for Neal to be let out, no sooner had Neal spotted him waiting than the chaos calmed, just a little, enough, and something else replaced it. Peter did his best not to think about what.
Peter told himself he didn’t care about the cold waves of utter desperation coming off of Neal when he left him at the motel. Neal had had his time in penthouses and suites that Peter would never be able to afford.
Then again, the motel had smelled of spoiled milk and unwashed feet. Even prison, with its constant stench of stewed tomatoes and the faint copper-tone of blood had seemed—at the very least—cleaner. And, ironically, it had had more colors.
Peter squashed his guilt. Neal would be fine. Although Neal’s past was a blank canvas, undiscoverable and uncreatable, Peter did not doubt Neal’d squatted, hidden in and perhaps even rented worse places in his life. Also, unlike prison, there weren’t bars, or other cons.
He walked out and used his years of practice with his and El’s bond to push Neal into the farthest corner of his mind. He’d know if Neal went too far, but whatever else Neal wanted to do, Peter would leave him to it.
Neal went to the thrift store not so much because of Peter’s recommendation—oh, he did need clothes that he could wear without shame into the office, but more than that, he needed to get out of the motel, needed something to settle himself. There were too many memories contained in the peeling paint, the way people actively looked away from each other in the halls.
Neal liked thrift stores for the way they felt—a million different fabrics all on one rack—and the stories they contained, secret, waiting for Neal to make them up. He liked to think he got them right, some of the time. He knew a little something about people and their stories.
He looked over at June because she so clearly had a story, with her neatly done hair and the upper-class lilt to her speech. She was the kind of woman he would follow if he spotted her on the streets as a kid, not to steal from, just to watch, imitate, learn from. He’d done it with men, too, but it was rarer to find a man who could teach quite as much just in the way he walked down the street.
Neal went to find a smile for her, and found, for the first time since Kate had come last, since he’d thought there might be good news, or at least something to laugh at for a bit, that the smile came without any effort.
Despite his general success with people at large, Neal was a little more surprised than he knew he should have been when she smiled back. He fought to hold it together, not become some little boy. He had a feeling he failed, but she took him home anyway.
You lose some, you win some.
Peter woke to Neal’s happiness, bubbling like soda inside him, too near for comfort—definitely too near to El for comfort. He went downstairs for the pleasure of scowling at Neal. El cut him off at the knees, though, with her smile, charmed but not fooled. And it was hard, Peter had to admit, to be bothered by Neal’s sincere enjoyment of El, clean and fun, and nothing like later in the day, when Peter took him to see the Spanish bond.
Then, Neal was just distracting. Peter had never in his life gotten a hard-on standing in the Library of Congress, but the minute Neal laid his eyes on the bond, the whirring of engagement that spurred Neal to, ah, excitement, hit Peter with no less force than an oncoming car. Neal seemed completely unaware of what was happening, and Peter thought that maybe he was. After all, Neal had never been on the receiving end of a fuse, nor was he now. He might not realize the extent to which it affected the fuse-recipient.
Peter was loathe to admit it, but Neal’s enthusiasm for details, the way they actually made him happy, was something Peter could appreciate. He just wished Neal could keep the extent of the feelings to himself.
He took Neal back to the office mostly because the bullpen dampened his spirits somewhat, and Peter needed that, even if Neal really didn’t. Peter pretended that nothing about having that kind of power bothered him.
Peter gave Neal the warrants book, because, honestly who could get himself into trouble while reading a book on warrant law? But Peter felt the moment Neal decided to get creative, even if he couldn’t quite figure out how.
He knew soon after, when Neal started moving, and then he had to make the decision of whether to go after him, stop Neal before he did anything crazy, or to let him go, let Neal lead them exactly where they needed to get to. Peter rolled around in Neal’s determination, his purpose for a moment. Then he smiled to himself, and prepped himself for the—completely legal—warrant he was about to serve.
When Peter managed to wrangle the long-term work release papers out of the Bureau—it had taken more ass-kissing than he would have preferred—he sat in his car, closed his eyes, and tried not to be too relieved. The idea of telling Neal he had to go back, of having to feel Neal’s reaction, well, not that he would admit it aloud, but Peter had considered asking if he could be muted before having to do so.
Instead, he was able to hand the consultant badge and feel the sick wash of relief that nearly carried Neal away. Peter shouldn’t have been impressed by how well Neal played the whole thing, how easy he made it look, as though it only mattered the smallest bit to him. Peter knew Neal Caffrey, knew the way he controlled situations.
Only, evidently Peter didn’t know much of anything, because it was all he could do not to gape at the way Neal’s face didn’t react to a damn thing in his mind. Peter said, “You’ll be here when I get back?” which was inane, sure, but he couldn’t think at that moment.
Peter ignored the distinct flash of emptiness and insecurity that pinged at the base of his skull when Neal smiled easily and said, “Where else am I gonna go?”
The first day of Peter’s trip, Neal woke up to a blinding headache, bad enough that he couldn’t remember where he was, for a moment, nor how he’d gotten there. He made himself breathe through his nose—which hurt—so that he could think. Then he managed the thought, the research didn’t say anything about this.
He held onto the hope that Peter was feeling it too, would come back, for all of fifteen minutes, until his phone rang. Neal whimpered at the noise, but when the number didn’t show, instead just the words “international call” on his cell screen, he picked up. Peter said, “Rise and shine, Jones’ll be there for you in forty-five minutes. And don’t think for a minute I’m too far to feel you going past the imposed radius. I might not be getting much from you, but location is nice and clear.”
The FBI had imposed a two-mile radius to make it easier for Peter to pinpoint him—no matter that Peter could feel him if Neal was on another damn planet. Peter said, “Neal.”
“Forty-five minutes,” Neal said. He wanted clever, but clever wasn’t going to happen, and he knew it. Peter was fine, this was Neal’s issue to deal with. “Have a good trip. Tell Elizabeth I said to enjoy.”
“Be good,” Peter said, and hung up. Neal stumbled into his kitchen, downed four Tylenol, took a blistering shower in the hopes it would help and then waited, like a fucking good boy, for Jones.
By the third evening, Moz came over to find Neal lying on his couch with all the lights off and a heat pack on his face. Moz sat on the floor in front of the couch and said softly, “Want me to get you something? I know people.”
Neal hated, hated the feeling of being on drugs, but he’d nearly cried twice in the office that day, and he’d been unable to sleep since the night before, so he found Moz’s hand with his own and squeezed. Moz squeezed back, and stayed.
By the fifth day, even with Moz’s drugs, which at least took the edge off, Neal was vomiting anything he swallowed down. He stuck with water, and just worked his best to make it through the day. It was Friday, after all.
When he got home that evening, he took as many of Moz’s pills as he could without risking killing himself and crawled into bed, where he struggled to just pass out until Sunday afternoon, when Peter would be back stateside, and hopefully this would come to an end.
He slept fitfully until the worst of the pain eased. At which point his phone rang and Neal did allow himself to cry, just a little. Nobody could see him, after all. He cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and answered, “How was the flight?”
Peter asked, “Are you sick?”
“Just a little tired,” Neal lied. “Gonna catch some sleep.”
Peter was quiet for a moment, and Neal was terrified—and secretly, maybe, just a tiny bit hopeful—that he was about to get called on the lie. Then Peter said, “See you tomorrow.”
Peter looked at Neal the next morning when he got in the car. “You sure you’re not sick?”
Neal knew the smile he flashed Peter did nothing to persuade him otherwise, so he was just thankful when the onslaught of long-legged women distracted Peter by way of annoyance. Also, it was amusing—only Peter.
(Then again, if Kate came back, maybe Neal would feel that way, too. Maybe that was what it felt like, being hopelessly someone else’s. Neal knew it wasn’t the same, knew that what Elizabeth and Peter had was…well, the only time Neal had brought up fusing—casually, easily—Kate had rolled her eyes and asked, “Who’s that crazy?” Elizabeth had evidently signed her name at the dotted line. It was Neal’s business to know what was authentic and what was just a forgery.)
Neal decided on the party mostly to distract himself. He was getting maudlin and not only did he not want Peter knowing, he had a rule against mopeyness. He hadn’t thought about what he was saying, drawing Elizabeth into things, until the idea was out of his mouth and Hughes was approving it. Neal buried his unease and then let go of it entirely, unable to hold onto it as Elizabeth came and made the best of what she had.
She reminded him of himself, if he’d been more honest, more willing to take what life gave to him. It made him wonder if Peter could have wanted him, in another lifetime. He shut that thought down immediately, along with the ache that came with it.
Peter looked at him oddly, but Neal just churned out a casual smile, one that said, “Just a memory,” or something equally vague, and turned his thoughts to making fun of Peter’s watch and helping Elizabeth with inventory.
Peter was getting used to the wild fluctuation of thought, feeling, impulse that was Neal, the way Peter had with El. El was different, more like a light hum that sped up and slowed down depending on the circumstance, but the process of negotiating the foreigness of other people in his brain was pretty much the same, Peter found.
Or maybe it was just the same with Neal and El. He tried not to think about that too much, about what it might mean.
Of course, then Neal had to go and scare the everloving shit out of Peter by nearly getting shot. At least, Peter was pretty sure it was him that was scared. Neal was—Neal’s mind was a mess of panic and breathebreathebreathe but he wasn’t showing anything on the surface and so it was hard to reconcile the two, even if Peter knew which one was real.
He wanted to put his hand to Neal’s shoulder, wanted to say, “Breathe,” aloud, in his most authoritative tone, but that wasn’t fair. He knew Neal had agreed to the fuse because it allowed Peter to find him, not because it allowed Peter to spy on him.
Then again, Peter was only willing to be so noble. When he felt the smug tug of satisfaction beneath the dying panic upon Neal being asked for the Bible, he was more than willing to consider what that emotion meant, where it might lead him to find the item in question.
He felt Neal’s panic resurge, just a bit, when Peter said, “Oh. I know where it is,” and again, Peter wanted to say, “It’s okay, I get it, I get that what’s moral and what’s legal aren’t always the same thing.” Because Peter did, and this was fixable, and whether he was willing to say it or not, Peter wasn’t letting Neal go back to prison for being a good person at heart. Other things—stealing, cheating, skipping out—yeah, Peter would turn the key himself (he would), but not Neal caring about people who needed someone to care about them.
When the Bible issue was straightened out, and Neal was talking about miracles, miracles, Peter might, might have let himself soak in Neal’s all-too-rare unadulterated satisfaction. But he only stayed for a moment, before pulling back, leaving Neal to himself, as much as he could. He pretended like he didn’t feel just a bit more lonely afterward.
El waited until they were two glasses of wine in on a Friday night to ask, “So, you wanna talk about the Neal Issue?”
Peter, even knowing it was useless, played dumb. “Neal Issue?”
“We’re fused, Peter. We have been for eight years.” El was using her Really Unimpressed Voice.
Peter sighed. “So you know what it’s like, being in someone’s head all the time. Shifts perspective.”
El took a slow sip and said, “I see how that could be more dangerous with someone like Neal than someone like me.”
Peter smiled wryly. El continued, “But I know it’s not your perception of morality that’s changing.”
That wiped the smile off Peter’s face. “El—“
El rolled her eyes. “Peter, it’s not just since the fusing. Neal’s, well, he’s owned nearly as much of you as I have since the day you opened the case file.”
“Sure, yes, a little.”
“A lot,” Peter argued.
“Even if it used to be,” El said quietly, “I don’t think it is so much now.”
“You’re my wife,” Peter said. “The love of my life.” He blushed at this last, but it was true and she would be able to feel it.
She met his gaze. “I know. That’s not an issue here.”
El shrugged. “You miss him when he’s not around.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
Peter shut his mouth. Then he said, feeling just the tiniest bit petulant, “So do you, sometimes.”
“Yes,” El admitted with a smile. “I do.”
Peter blinked at that. He knew, he saw daily, the way women fawned over Neal. But El wasn’t like that, he would have known, would have felt. Instead there was a warm type of hum that El experienced when Neal was around, like when she was with her best friends or-- Or Peter. The shock of jealousy Peter experienced was overcome by something else, a wave of—
El straddled him, still in a damn pencil skirt, the piece riding up her thighs, to her waist. She breathed, “Don’t stop thinking about it,” and then kissed him.
Peter couldn’t have if he’d wanted to.
Neal, mostly, felt stupid when Peter put him in the cuffs over the diamond. No matter what way Neal looked at things, there was no good way to excuse the fact that he’d trusted someone who’d put him in prison—twice.
Which was why, when Peter had the nerve to say, “You let me down, Neal,” it was all Neal could do to keep his anger tamped down, not give Peter anything more of Neal than he already had.
It didn’t matter, Neal knew, what he did. Peter would know he was planning something, would know where he was. If Peter wanted to keep him here, he would.
Neal hated that he had to trust Peter to give him time, when Peter clearly didn’t trust him at all, not even not to lie to his face. But Neal had been the one to suggest this arrangement, so he couldn’t exactly blame Peter. It was tempting, though, and Neal had never been all that excellent at avoiding temptation.
Neal sat on Peter’s floor and tried not to think about what it said that he came back to Peter anyway. Moz would be disappointed in him, possibly Kate. (Probably.) He tried to keep his body loose, not to tuck into himself too far while Peter read the papers, thought things over.
Into one of the long silences, when Peter was thinking things over and Neal was trying not to fall asleep, exhausted from days of keeping himself on edge, Neal murmured, “They must have asked you where I was.”
Peter didn’t even look up from the table before saying, “I told them El’s sister was sick.”
Neal blinked at that. “What?”
Peter did look over at him, then, clearly a little amused. “You didn’t find that out, huh?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” For once, Neal really didn’t.
“A quirk with double-fused persons. Sometimes one of the fuses can drown out the other, especially if that fuse is trying to hide itself. I told them I would talk with El, get her to calm down, and we’d have you.”
“Peter,” Neal said, because he wasn’t stupid. He knew the FBI was probably having kittens and dumping them at Peter’s doorstep.
Peter smiled, just a little, and said, “You didn’t let me down.”
Peter felt Neal’s suspicion, but he couldn’t suss out the reason for it. He was going to, that was the plan, just as soon as they had handled the Avery case—because Peter knew how to prioritize: work before pleasure—but Neal hit breaking point before that.
Neal also, to Peter’s surprise, listened to him, when he explained. He didn’t like his own awareness that it surprised him more that Neal would listen than that he would think Peter had taken Kate in the first place. The meeting with her sat like a virus in his stomach, waiting to gestate.
For the first time since Neal had arrived in Peter’s mind, swirling and tumbling his way through, Peter was glad they had that much of a connection when they were caught in the comic vault together, Neal telling him to take the air. He didn’t think he could have done it had he not been able to feel the truth of Neal’s exclamation of trust.
It was hard to concentrate on finding the kill switch when he could feel Neal’s panic at being unable to breath. Then he felt the spike of, “yes, yes!” and turned to get to the switch. Reassured only by the unconscious waves of something that he could still feel, he had never been so damn glad to see Jones in his life.
Laying his hands on Neal’s chest, waiting for him to breathe, was like a revelation, though of what, Peter wasn’t sure. He’d always known Neal attracted him. Peter liked smart. But he hadn’t really thought about it. There’d been El. But evidently, this was what El had been trying to tell him and it had almost nothing to do with attraction.
That, more than anything, was the reason he told Neal about Kate. He wanted so very badly to keep it from him, keep Neal safe, let Neal believe he was loved by the one person Neal loved back. But Neal trusted him to have his back. Peter wasn’t going to fail him.
When the deal became clear—the music box for Kate and freedom—Neal did two things: 1) started being even more careful about his thought patterns than he usually was, and 2) asked Moz to see if there was any way to fix the problem where being a certain distance from Peter equaled the unending migraine of doom.
Moz said, “Yeah, on it,” and didn’t look directly at Neal, which was a sure sign that Moz wasn’t so positive he could actually do what Neal needed. Neal didn’t let himself wonder if he preferred being shackled to being in constant pain. He definitely didn’t think about whether he preferred Peter to Kate.
Neal was one hundred and ten percent positive that Peter knew something was up—of course he did—but Peter hadn’t shown any desire to stop Neal yet. Then again, back when it had been Neal just one step ahead of Peter, Peter had always pulled out in front just when Neal was least expecting it. Neal also didn’t focus on the way that was somehow reassuring.
He focused on getting the music box, on corralling Alex, who didn’t know how to trust anyone—Neal didn’t take it personally. (He wasn’t so different, he knew. He pretended like he didn’t know what he had said in the doctor’s office, high out of his fucking mind, scared in a way he didn’t get when his mind was clear. He pretended like he couldn’t remember the feel of Peter’s hand against his hair. He couldn’t pretend like he didn’t remember Elizabeth’s fingers brushing his forehead, the squeeze of her hand in his, but he could do his best to push it out of his mind. He was a little surprised Peter hadn’t killed him yet, for Improper Thoughts Regarding Elizabeth, but Neal was more than willing to take mercy where he could find it.)
Neal gave up wine, afraid that the slightest bit of relaxation would give him away, and in the end that was possibly his downfall, since after a couple of weeks of Neal refusing Elizabeth’s Pinots and Syrrahs, she took his hand and tugged him away from the dinner table, where he and Peter were still discussing a case.
Peter said, “Hon—“ but she gave him a look that could have frozen vodka and Peter closed his mouth. Neal didn’t fight the tug. He was nowhere near as stalwart as Peter, he knew: it was best to give in while the giving was good.
He tried, he tried so hard to play it cool as she worked her knuckles into the worst of the knots in his shoulders, pinched at all the right spots along his lower back, but he couldn’t hide the way it made him want. There were some things that not even Neal could play off, not when his mind was exposed, too. He was buried so deep in his head that he didn’t even hear Peter come over, say, “Neal,” in an indecipherable tone.
When Peter took over for Elizabeth, his hands—larger and stronger and more gentle than Neal would have imagined—made Neal’s thoughts stutter and then break open. It was less than five seconds before Neal had taken a breath, two and recovered, started to layer his thoughts so that his desire, his loneliness would only be part of the picture, something Peter would have to dig to get at. The damage was already done, though. Neal could feel it in the steady touch of Peter’s hands.
Neal didn’t look at either of them. He didn’t pull away, either.
Peter almost let Neal go. He almost let him have Kate and an island somewhere, or wherever it was world-renowned art thieves went to when they stole away. He thought he would have, if Neal had been certain of the decision, hadn’t had a touch of regret. But the melancholy underneath Neal’s anxiety to get to Kate, get free was something Peter couldn’t ignore.
He didn’t regret it. Maybe he should have, looking at Neal, at the way he physically seemed to split in two, the way Peter knew it was even worse in his mind. He couldn’t, though, not when he knew all Neal needed was a hand held out to him, a reason to stay.
And not when Neal was blown forward, into Peter, his mind filled with chaos and panic and something that wasn’t grief just yet, but would be as soon as it could settle into a form. It was the hardest thing in the world to hold onto him, when Peter could feel how badly Neal needed to go, needed to get to her.
Peter held on anyway. With Neal, it had never been about what was easy.
The prison was just far enough away from Peter’s house, the office, that Neal spent most of the day wanting to pull his own brain out with a spoon. Moz was working on it, but so far, he’d found nothing. Neal kept telling himself he’d been willing to accept the pain to get on the plane, but it wasn’t really helping with his mindset.
On the upside, he could tell when Peter was visiting by the relief from the pain. It meant he had time to put his game face on. He hadn’t needed time so much before, but lately it took a little bit longer, involved some actual effort.
The first week Peter asked, “Are you sick?”
Neal smiled his best smile and said, “Prison food. Takes some adjusting to.”
Neal looked at him, willing him not to say anything, anything at all. Peter sighed. “You should go to the doctor.”
Neal almost laughed at that. Not that the prison doc wasn’t perfectly competent, but he wasn’t a specialized neurosurgeon, and showing weakness before a guy absolutely had to in here was not the greatest plan. Neal asked, “How’s Elizabeth’s business going?”
Peter must have gotten Neal’s need just to hear another human being, because he humored Neal. They’d had him in solitary since he’d come back. They weren’t going to place a CI in gen pop. Well, not unless the CI did something to really piss them off, and Neal was good at keeping people happy with him—people who weren’t Peter, at least.
Neal listened to the familiar cadence of Peter’s voice, letting it soothe him until the guard called time. Then he was escorted back to his cell, where he had all the time in the world to curl up and wait for the pain to return.
Peter came and picked him up when they let him out. He said, “Hey,” and, “You look tired,” and didn’t say anything when Neal fell asleep in the passenger seat.
Neal woke up at Peter’s house, in the guest room, the smell of pot roast and something baking wafting up to him. He took a deep breath, then another, enjoying the feel of it not spiking through his brain like an angry ice pick. He got up and noted that there were towels in the guest bath, so he took advantage, sinking into the tub in water so hot he was pretty sure he was going to have mild burns when he got out. The privacy and the heat of it were too good for him to really care.
He remembered after a second—and that was weird, that he’d been able to forget—that Peter could probably feel his slightly-more-than-normal bliss, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Peter deserved to be made a little crazy. He made Neal crazy all the time by doing shit like wearing shirts and telling white lies.
Neal got out when the water was cooling and put on the pajamas that someone (El) had left for him. They were Peter’s, and huge on him, but perfect, too. He padded down the stairs and in to the kitchen. El and Peter were there, sharing a glass of wine. Peter held up the bottle. “Interested?”
“Please,” Neal said, more than craving the dry roll of grapes and pine and chestnut he could practically smell.
Peter poured him a glass and handed it to him, their fingers brushing. Neal blinked at Peter, but just said, “Thanks.”
El rolled her eyes, maybe at him, maybe at Peter, Neal couldn’t tell. She leaned up and kissed Neal on the lips, chaste, but-- Neal pulled back. She smiled at him. “Welcome home, babe. C’mon, Peter made pot roast.”
Neal stood where he was, not moving until Peter gave him a light push. “She’s not a woman who likes to be kept waiting when she’s hungry.”
Dinner was normal. Well, except for the part where El brushed her bare feet over Neal’s and Neal practically came out of his skin. Peter knew that he shouldn’t be enjoying how unbalanced Neal felt, but it was sort of karmic, given how often Neal made him feel the same way. Then again, Neal didn’t get to know that. Or, well, he probably knew.
Besides, they had every intention of helping him find his balance. There wasn’t any harm in a little teasing. Or at least, that was what Peter told himself until El brought out the strawberries and whipped cream that constituted dessert, and Peter took one, dragging it into the cream and bringing it to his mouth. He looked up at the odd pang in his mind—not his own, he realized a second later, and definitely not El’s—and Neal’s eyes were on his mouth.
Neal’s hands disappeared under the table and his brightest, most quantifiably fake smile came out and he said, apologetically, “You know, I’m still pretty tired. I think I’m just going to go upstairs and sleep some more.”
He stood smoothly, kissed El’s head and said, “Thanks for the hospitality.” He grinned at Peter and said, “Blue ribbon quality pot-roast, my friend.”
Then he moved toward the stairs. Peter considered letting him go, despite El’s rising level of unhappiness. Peter would have let him go if he’d thought, for a minute, that Neal was going because he didn’t want them. Instead, Peter said casually, “Coward.”
Neal stopped. He didn’t stiffen. Instead he turned back, that terrible smile still on his face. “Of the highest order.”
“Stop it,” El said, which made both of them look at her. Her look of disapproval was fierce. “Both of you. Stop pretending.”
“Elizabeth—“ Neal started, but she waved a hand and he shut right up. Peter kind of wished he had that power.
“Why are you here, Neal?” she asked.
Neal looked as if he thought it was a trick question. He definitely was hesitant in his answer, unsure of what would land him in trouble. “Because Peter brought me?”
“Peter told you June kept her place open for you and we all know Moz would have come and gotten you in a hot second. The real answer, please.”
Peter found himself swallowing, as nervous as Neal. Or maybe it was Neal’s nerves interfering with his own. He didn’t think so. He latched onto El, though, her calm strength. She leaned back, not fighting the fuse. She never fought it. As Peter watched, Neal shifted from one foot to the other. It was quick, barely noticeable, but Neal Caffrey did not shift.
Neal splayed his hands, palms open, a clear gesture for mercy. Peter said, “Ask your question.”
Neal looked at him, betrayal flashing in his eyes. Peter knew Neal depended on him to at least act like he couldn’t feel the things Neal felt. Peter just shook his head. “Ask, Neal.”
Neal swallowed visibly. “Why did Peter bring me?”
El sighed. “And here I thought Peter liked smart.”
Neal blinked at that. El looked at Peter and poked a finger into his shoulder. “Now who’s being the coward?”
Neal’s mind was one big, roiling pot of what the hell? so Peter cowboyed up, cleared his throat and said, “I brought you because we want you here. Because you belong here.”
Neal laughed. “I’m pretty sure, by your standards, I belong in prison.”
Peter could use words just fine when he needed to, but he wasn’t really a words guy. He did best with actions. So he pushed himself from the table and was in front of Neal in less than three strides, his hands splayed over Neal’s hips, his lips covering Neal’s.
Neal exploded inside Peter’s head, fear and want and need and uncertainty mixing, but he arched up into the kiss, and Peter wondered if this was what it had felt like when Neal had stolen paintings. Peter pulled back. “Yes?”
El was there, fitting herself into their sides, forming a triangle. Neal was panting, his lips wet and just a little bit puffy.
Neal nodded. “Yes.”
In the part of the mind that wasn’t his own, Peter felt wind on his face, and the sickening stomach plunge of a free fall. He wasn’t sure if there was an awning ready to catch him—Neal. Neal wasn’t sure. Peter and El would make him see.
When they pulled him into the bedroom, Neal said, “You got a new bed.”
El laughed and Neal said, “Not that-- I only ever observed.”
“There wasn’t enough room for a third person,” El said casually, and Peter felt the wind being knocked out of him—out of Neal. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
El said, “Oh.”
They both looked at her. She said, “Feedback loop.”
It took Peter a second longer than Neal to figure out that El could feel Neal through Peter. Neal literally tightened up on the inside. He smiled again, that same smile. Peter wanted to kill someone, maybe himself, for agreeing to this, for putting Neal in this situation, there with them, but so sure he was entirely alone. Peter said, “We’ll fix it, Neal.”
Neal shook his head. “There hasn’t been any research done on how to bifurcate a one-way.”
Peter shrugged. “Then we’ll find someone to do the research.”
“It’s not a good idea, Peter.”
Peter tried to pull back from Neal’s mind as much as he could, to have this conversation on equal footing. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Neal’s fingers were moving at his side. “Do you get headaches when you’re too far away from El?”
“Of course. That’s still one of the kinks, but there are medications and techniques—“ It hit Peter, then. “Neal.”
“I just think you shouldn’t have to—“
“Are you telling me that every time you were outside a forty mile radius of me you had a fuse-break headache?”
“Moz got me some stuff—“
“Not the right stuff.” Peter knew that. The only people who had the expertise to prescribe it were paid too highly to bother selling it on the side. And people who stole it wouldn’t have a clue what it was for. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Neal’s eyes went a little icy. “It was my problem, Peter. I suggested the fuse.”
“The fuse, sure,” El interrupted, her voice trembling just slightly. “Not torture. We were in Belize for a week, Neal. You were in prison for months. Jesus, that kind of thing could have caused brain damage, what were you—“
“Like I said,” Neal made his voice light, but the look in his eyes hadn’t changed. “It was my problem.”
There was a moment of silence and Peter was thinking he was going to have to be the one to speak up, but El sent a thread of reassurance to him. Then she walked up to Neal and took his chin in her hand. “Neal Caffrey. From now on, your problems are our problems. And if I hear, if I so much as feel that you aren’t letting us in, aren’t allowing us to help, I will make those headaches look like a blessing, a field of daisies, heaven. Do you understand?”
Peter felt something he had known many times over his twelve years with El—the certainty that his ass was toast if he didn’t comply. Lightly, he squeezed Neal’s shoulder in manly support. Neal murmured, “Yes, ma’am.”
El looked over her shoulder at Peter, what she wanted clear in her mind. Peter sidled up so that he was pressed against Neal’s back. “Neal?”
“Peter?” His tone was carefully bland.
“Think really hard about what you want.”
Neal took a breath. If he did what Peter asked, Peter and Elizabeth had choices. They could choose to use the knowledge against him or for him, to hold onto it for the future, or do what they would with it in the moment. Neal, on the other hand, would be at their mercy.
He knew Peter could feel his uncertainty, but Peter didn’t rush him, just held him lightly, the beat of Peter’s heart steady against Neal’s back. Neal closed his eyes and took a few minutes to make the decision he had always known he would make. There really was no other decision. If this was as much of a fuse as he ever got, if this was as much of Elizabeth and Peter as he ever got, he would take it.
Neal had never explained this to Moz, but George and Martha’s letters? For Neal, love had always carried the utmost value, and therefore, been the utmost prize to steal.
Neal closed his eyes and said, “It’s so very mundane. I fear I’ll disappoint.”
Peter tightened his hold ever so slightly. Elizabeth tucked herself into Neal’s front and didn’t move when he brought around his arms and held her there. Neal let go of any control he had over his emotions, his thoughts, and let his mind fill with the one thing that mattered. You.