Thanks: To forsweatervests, as always, for the fantastic beta that made this fic ONE MILLION times better.
Used for the "restrained" square on my hc_bingo card.
Peter called Neal up to his office and when Neal sat down, asked, “What’s up?” said, “You’re not going to like this.”
Neal quirked a smile and pretended dismay all at once, mostly because he could hear that Peter was serious. Neal was determined to get Peter to smile more. “Not more mortgage fraud, Peter. I will walk Satch every day for a—“
“Neal,” Peter cut him off. “We’re on this one with Violent Crimes.”
Neal did wrinkle his nose, then. “Ruiz?”
“No, Denton, that’s-- That’s not the issue.”
Neal gazed down at the file Peter was holding. He said softly, “Lemme see.”
Peter hesitated for a second, but then handed over the file. Neal opened it, flipped through, scanning the words until he hit the first crime scene photo and nearly lost his lunch. “What-- What is this? Is this real?”
Peter nodded once, sharply, his eyes soft, though, compassionate. Neal tried to swallow. “This is David, Peter. Except—“
Except that the painting had been recreated life size, and with a dead body as the subject. There were no visible marks on the body, although, given the period costume, there were a lot of places covered. But, essentially, it was exactly like looking at the painting, only very much not.
Peter asked, “Think you can help us catch this guy?”
Neal forced himself to look through the rest of the pictures, the perversion of creation that they represented. He said, without any ego, “I know I can.
Diana, as a general rule, hated interdepartmental cases. It wasn’t even necessarily about the agents in the other department. They’d been working a case with VCU for two weeks—not even Ruiz’s team, Denton’s, full of polite, capable agents—and it had been nothing but endless variations of minor turf scuffles and exhaustive paperwork about everything. So when Reese said he was calling in the BAU, Diana had the simultaneous reaction of wanting to punch someone—anyone, really—in the face, thinking about the hassle of adding in another department, and grinning like a fucking loon, because craptastic circumstances or no, the BAU meant Emily.
In the end, she compromised, spending an hour sparring in the boxing ring and coming back into the office as soon as the BAU had arrived. Annoyances and excitements aside, there was a case to solve.
Neal was all for a good case involving art on any given day. But there was a not-so-fine-line between admirable art heists, and psychopaths who recreated classic works of art with their murder scenes. Worse, White Collar wouldn’t have even been called in if Denton hadn’t wanted Neal’s expertise on the paintings, and Peter hadn’t been quietly fidgety about just handing over his CI after the last few times Neal had been out of his direct control. Neal had tried to tell Peter he’d be fine, but it hadn’t been one of his smoother lies and Peter had just ignored him, which told him about how believable it had been. Neal wasn’t sure if he was slipping or if Peter was actively getting better. Perhaps a bit of both.
The killer liked Jacques-Louis David, which was somewhat mind-boggling to Neal, but also sickeningly reassuring, seeing as how he was recreating pictures with dead bodies, and if he’d been a Botticelli man, there’d be a whole lot of dead babies. Dead men and women were more than enough to keep Neal up at night. Moz had recently complained about Neal’s dwindling wine collection, but he’d quieted when Neal fell asleep while Moz was still reading on his couch and woken up whimpering, in a cold sweat. Then Moz had just poured him another glass and brought an extra bottle on his next visit.
The killer was getting bolder. At first he’d stayed with single-person paintings, Portrait of Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy and—predictably--The Death of Marat. But he’d moved on, recently, to Cupid and Psyche and Paris and Helen. Neal really didn’t want to know where he’d go next, was terrified he’d somehow make it to The Coronation of Napoleon.
Neal was endlessly, if quietly, relieved when they called in the BAU. Neal understood people who worshipped art. He didn’t understand people who made human sacrifices to it.
Emily swore the first time they’d met was when she was twelve and Diana was ten and they were both in Prague, but Diana was just as sure that it had been a year later, during the talks in Seoul. It was one of the few points upon which they agreed to disagree. Most things they just plain agreed upon.
Either way, Emily was the only person outside of family whom Diana had known for most of her life. And Emily knew her far better than anyone in her family. It felt strange that this was the first time she was introducing the other woman to her team: her immediate, if adopted, family. Diana knew the feeling was mutual, and that was fair, because Emily had been with her team longer and Diana often got the feeling, when Emily was talking about them, that there was actual symbiosis occurring between its members.
When Diana walked back into the office from the gym, Emily wasn’t there, she’d been assigned to the second crime scene, according to Special Agent Hotchner, to whom Diana introduced herself. He said, “Agent Barrigan. We’ve all heard a lot about you. Circumstances being what they are, we’re still all pleased to be working with your team.”
“We’re not the point team,” she said, “but I agree. I’ve heard a lot about you, too.”
Diana knew he was profiling her, which she also knew she should hate, but long exposure to Emily, and her tendency to profile without even consciously thinking about it, had inured Diana, somewhat, to the feeling of it. Diana didn’t sense any ulterior motives on Hotchner’s part, so she let him keep eye contact as long as he needed it. She kind of wished she’d been here to see him meet Peter and Neal. She kept her snicker at the thought inside.
Emily, Morgan, JJ and Rossi were out at the crime scenes and Garcia wasn’t currently on the screens. Reid, however, was setting up a geographical profile in the bullpen, using a desk that had recently been abandoned by a probationary agent moving upward, and a board he’d commandeered from somewhere. Diana had the suspicion he would have completely ignored her if he hadn’t been so damn curious about his teammate’s friend. He was ignoring pretty much everyone else. When she introduced herself, he blinked at her in a way that made her suspect he was recalling every story Emily had ever shared about her. Aloud, he said, “Agent Berrigan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” she told him with a smile, trying to set him at ease. She knew interactions with people wasn’t his strong suit, knew that he was better at mimicking social niceties after years with the team, but it was still just playing a role for him.
His smile was somehow both wry and uncomfortable as he said, “Funny, most of the team’s friends say that when they meet me.”
Diana conjured up her most sincere smile and said, “All good. Sometimes I get a little jealous. She’s always been something of an older sister to me. I have to remind her I can’t be replaced by a doe-eyed genius.”
His responding smile came after a moment, and it was shy, but genuine and pleased. When he looked back up after ducking his head for a moment, he asked, “Does Prentiss really have four tattoos?”
Diana didn’t even bother to hide her laughter in response.
He followed up with, “And do you really have more?”
The first time Neal had learned anything about Emily Prentiss had been the time Sara and he had come for dinner at Diana and Christie’s. There’d been a picture on one of the walls, one girl in college graduation garb, and Diana standing next to her, maybe nineteen or so, grinning with pride. Neal had asked, “Friend?”
To his surprise, rather than pushing the question off, Diana had flashed a smile and said, “Best friend.”
Christie, acknowledging his look of interest had said, “They’ve known each other practically since they were in the womb.”
Diana’s smile was still there when she argued, “Not quite that long. But long enough.”
Neal had looked at the picture a little while longer, considering the young woman in the photo with Diana. She had dark hair and darker eyes and was leaning into Diana, but not so much it seemed like either girl was holding the other up. No, they were both people who stood on their own feet.
That first, photographic impression was reinforced when Diana introduced him to, “Agent Prentiss, of the BAU.”
The woman was sturdier than the girl in the picture, with more nightmares behind the lines at the corners of her eyes and more muscle mass than her twenty-one year old self, but otherwise she wasn’t much changed. Her smile, even her polite, professional one, still hid the kind of trouble that both Diana and Neal enjoyed. It was one of the few things Neal thought they truly agreed upon.
Agents Morgan and Reid were clearly as interested in Diana as Neal and Jones were in Prentiss. Neal got the feeling, though, that Prentiss shared more with her team than Diana did with them. Prentiss, for her part, was interested in all of them and, dangerously, a profiler. She was good about not being obvious when she did it, but Neal could feel the way she chose stories and questions carefully. He wondered if she even realized she did it all the time, or if it was second nature, the way a con could sometimes become to him.
Then Denton’s junior agent came in and announced that a restaging of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife had been found, and Neal stopped thinking about it quite so much, distracted by the case.
Emily made it back to HQ roughly three hours after the team had landed, and once everyone had been caught up on the details of the crime scene Rossi and she had been visiting, she caught Diana’s eye and the two of them made their way to the break room. Once there, Diana hugged her and said, “Two years is too long.”
Emily squeezed in agreement. “Coffee here any good?”
“Terrible, except when Neal admits defeat and brings his own, which…” Diana checked the small freezer box and grinned. “Victory.”
She threw out the coffee from that morning and began making a fresh pot. “How long before you have a profile?”
“Couple of hours and a few conversations with Denton’s team and your CI. Murders this specific, this ritualized, give us a lot of information, but there are still serious holes in the profile. Victimology based on someone else’s type, the artist, in this instance, is complicated to work through at best. If the killer himself is focusing on a type, that means that the type itself signifies something. If the type is predicated by a third party’s type, then most likely it’s the third part that is the signifier, so that’s where we’re starting: with the artist he chose.”
Diana nodded once. “How, exactly, does that work?”
Emily tilted her head slightly, in a gesture Diana was infinitely familiar with, the one that said there was nothing ‘exact’ about the situation. “Reid’s taking point, since he’s familiar with the artist. With six known victims, and Rossi’s pretty sure this guy did another two in Sarasota about four years back. He was called in to consult on that case, and both murders were posed to create Granet paintings. Granet wasn’t as well known as David, but he was a contemporary of his, so we’re looking at that artist as well. Essentially, we have a lot of information, a lot of ways of looking at this unsub, but they’re all once-removed, which makes things go more slowly, take more time and, quite frankly, more skill.”
Diana closed her eyes for a moment, breathed in the scent of brewing coffee. “Can we catch him before his next one?”
When she opened her eyes, Emily was shrugging. “Maybe. His kills aren’t evenly paced, there’s no obvious timing to them. They’re likely based more on discovery and the need driving the recreation of the paintings than any schedule he’s holding to. A killer like this, it’s hard to predict the next strike, only that it will occur.
“Additionally, we haven’t even begun to figure out what happened to make this guy go on a spree. Even if he is our Sarasota-Granet unbsub, these kinds of killers, they don’t just pause for four years and reappear on a completely different schedule, which means there was some sort of tipping point in each instance that it would help to puzzle out.” Emily sighed. “Honestly, probably not.”
The drip of the coffee slowed to a stop and Diana found clean cups for the both of them. She gave Emily a tight smile in appreciation of her honesty asked, “How’s moving going?”
Emily smiled. “Slowly. JJ’s been kind of shaken up; I haven’t wanted to be indisposed.”
Diana nodded understandingly. She’d spent an hour on the phone with Emily the evening after the bank robbery. Emily, who had just been starting to sound like herself after coming back from the fucking dead, coming back only to be missing parts of herself that Diana had known so intimately, had sounded subdued and uncertain and lost. Diana remembered how she felt when Elizabeth had been taken, she understood all too well the disorientation of that type of family trauma, even if it was essentially extended family.
Diana told her, “I’m glad you stayed. Bought the place. I didn’t want to say one way or the other when you were thinking about it, it was your choice, but-- It’s good, I think, for people like us to learn to settle at some point. We’re not our parents. And--”
Emily tilted her head. “And?”
“At some point, I figure growing up is a little bit about learning not to run.”
Emily sighed. “Nobody has ever accused me of wanting to grow up.”
Diana grinned. “Too true.”
“There has to be a signature,” Neal told Rossi when the agent asked him for his thoughts on the case.
Rossi raised an eyebrow, because, yes, of course they knew that, they were profilers. Peter was damned good at what he did, but Neal had no doubt that if these people had been on his trail, they would have caught the signatures in the bonds without having to be told. Neal quirked a smile. “Sorry.”
“It has to be trying,” Rossi said in that calming way of his, “a non-violent offender being put onto something like this.”
Neal knew when he was being taken apart, so he gave Rossi a look and said, “White Collar crime gets violent more often than one would think.”
“But rarely involves ritual murder mixed in with the psychological debasement of classical art.”
Neal raised his own eyebrow. Two could play at this game, “It would be weird, then, would it not, were I completely unbothered by recent events?”
Rossi laughed then, short, but in a gesture of surrender. He asked, “Can you find the signature?”
Neal took a deep breath. “I have to look closer.”
Rossi was quiet for a long moment, then said, “Have Agent Burke go with you.”
That hit a little too close to the mark. Neal subdued his glare, knowing it would give away too much. Rossi followed up with, “He’ll have a different perspective.”
Neal appreciated the sentiment, whether it be merely reprieve or a tacit acknowledgement that Rossi didn’t care what Peter and Neal did in their off time. Neal said, “I’ll find him.”
Peter was the one to say, “Stop. You’re no good to us half-dead and delirious from sleep deprivation.”
Neal rubbed at his face and looked up, away from the crime scene photographs. “It’s there, is the thing. I can feel it. I just, it’s like looking in the mirror and not knowing the person who’s staring back.”
Peter was silent, waiting. Neal shook his head. “It’s not something I can explain.”
Peter sat on the edge of the desk beside Neal’s and said, “When I was a rookie, there was this older agent I looked up to. Not Kramer, someone on his team. Anyway, three years I work with this guy, and he’s solid, great mind, efficient agent, human in the ways we’re supposed to be.
“Then his wife is killed in a robbery gone wrong. Nothing to do with his job, just wrong place, wrong time, bad, horrible luck. When he came back a few months later, after some personal leave, he wasn’t the same. Too quick to go after leads, too rough in his questioning, lacking the sort of dependability needed. He quit instead of being discharged after he beat a suspect so badly the guy pressed all kinds of charges.” He sounded weary, just a little singed around the edges as he said, “They were dismissed, federal immunity and all, but, well, that wasn’t the point.
“For the longest time, I lived with the fear that the only thing separating me from that was a string of good luck, of not having lost anything I couldn’t replace.” Peter shook his head. “And maybe that is true. But that string is there, and I’m not going around, beating suspects to within an inch of their lives.”
Exhausted, Neal asked, “Is it really that much of a difference in my case, though? We each want the world to see our accomplishments.”
Softly, Peter told him, “There’s a reason I arrested you, Neal. But you can be damn sure there’s a reason I agreed to let you work with me, let you in my house, my life. The line between forgery for monetary gain and multiple murders is still a dark, bold line that's visible for miles.”
Neal nodded, slowly. He said, “I still have to find this signature.”
“Six hours of sleep and you will,” Peter said.
“What if there are more bodies in those six hours?”
“The possibility of further deaths won’t make your mind any more functional than it is right now. Sleep will.”
After a second, Neal began to ask, “Can I—“
When the pause dragged on, Peter said, “Neal?”
“I’d sleep better at your place,” Neal made himself admit, forcing himself to keep eye contact with Peter.
Peter made an unimpressed face. “You should have said something earlier.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want you thinking I only value you for the high quality pillows in your guest bedroom.” Neal gave Peter a smile, accompanied by his best look of self-deprecation.
“Yeah, that would be tragic,”” Peter said dryly, in his I-know-you-better-Caffrey tone, and got up from the desk to pull Neal to his feet, herd him out of the office.
Diana made Emily come home with her. “At least for a few hours of shut-eye. You guys have all but admitted nothing is happening until you find the signature. Even you can’t stay awake twenty-four seven, and Christie will be pissed if she finds out you were in town and I didn’t make you go see her.”
Christie hugged her the second she walked in the door with a, “Thought you were going to slip away to London on us.”
Emily admitted, “Almost did.”
Diana walked past the two of them. Most of the time, with a case this intense, one where she could be called back in at any moment, she wouldn’t have a drink, but the burn of the call informing her Emily was dead was still too sharp, still needed something that would burn deeper and harder so as not to feel it. Morgan had been the one to call her. It was the first time they’d ever spoken. He’d apologized four times before the conversation was up. It had lasted all of two minutes. Diana, for some reason, had been watching the clock.
She poured them each a finger of aguardente, smiling a little at the memory of her fifteenth summer, boys who never had a chance watching her and Emily as they whipped everybody else’s ass at beach volleyball. She handed the tumblers to Christie and Emily, and the three of them toasted silently. Diana took a sip and said, “To catching this psycho.”
Emily took another drink. She said, “I’m pretty sure a few fingers of this stuff lead to my first tattoo.”
Diana laughed. “I’m entirely sure of it.”
Neal had hoped the guest bedroom would be close enough to Peter to keep him feeling safe in his own skin, but at three am, when he went down to get a drink of water, Elizabeth followed him down. He said, “Go back to sleep, El.”
She leaned back against the cabinets and smiled. “I’m pretty sure you don’t get to order me around in my own house, Caffrey.”
He gave her a rueful smile. Hers widened. “You know you never call me El unless you’re practically asleep on your feet?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” he lied.
She called him on it. “Yes you had.”
“Maybe,” Neal said.
She rolled her eyes, then pushed herself from the cabinets to kiss his forehead. “Come to bed, Neal.”
“Stop pretending across the hall is close enough for you, and we’ll stop pretending we don’t sleep easier on the nights when you’re here, when we’ll hear if something is wrong. We can all just stop playing games.” She bit her lip, then, in an unusual show of vulnerability.
“You know me; I like games.”
“Only the ones you’re in control of,” Peter rumbled from the bottom of the stairs.
“He knows you even better,” Elizabeth said sharply, without looking away from Neal.
“Please, don’t,” Neal begged, because he was all about pride to a certain point, but he wasn’t sure how long he could hold out against the two of them, even if he was entirely sure he should.
“Give us one night,” Peter responded, sounding utterly exhausted. “One night, and it’s your choice of whether to come back or not. Your control.”
Neal gave Peter a look. “Peter—“
“You need the sleep,” Peter said firmly.
“Honey,” Elizabeth said, cajoling, kind.
Neal had long been aware this was one game he was going to lose.
Reid had a better handle on the geographic profile by the time Diana and Emily made it in at six o’clock. Diana went straight to the coffee machine and helped out JJ, who was doing her best to find everything. “That one doesn’t sleep much, huh?”
JJ smiled fondly, “Emily, Garcia and I have a whole theory. It involves bionic parts.”
“I’ve heard it,” Diana admitted.
From halfway across the bullpen, Reid stated, “I’ve told you numerous times: alien, not bionic.”
Emily walked by, quickly, managing to pat Reid on the head while still looking professional and ready to handle anything. She said in a tone that indicated she was almost all adrenaline, “Your guy found the signature.”
Diana pressed the on button to the coffee machine and all three of them walked up to the conference room where Neal was standing next to the screen, looking unusually fragile. Diana stole a look at Peter, who was keeping his gaze on Neal. Diana noticed Emily watching both of them as well, the turning wheels obvious to anyone who knew her. Diana would have told her not to go there, but she didn’t really think Emily cared to poke her nose in other people’s affairs so long as nobody ended up kidnapped or dead.
Realizing they were all there, Neal turned on the screen and began showing them the signature, UV-tattooed at the hollow of one of the victim’s necks in each of the killings. Hotchner was saying, “Garcia—“
“Already looking into it, sir,” she responded, and within seconds they had a list of the tattoo shops that provided UV service within the geographical swath Reid had identified.
They were split into canvassing teams, with her and Jones being paired with Emily, since each non-BAU team was supposed to have one BAU agent with them, and there didn’t seem to be any good reason to do things differently. Peter and Neal were given Rossi, Morgan was paired with Denton and Sharpe, and JJ took the other two agents on Denton’s team. Hotchner and Reid were staying at HQ to run point.
Emily, who had always hated driving, unless on the back of a Ducati, cutting through lanes of autobahn traffic, settled herself in the back of their cruiser and sighed. “We forgot the coffee.”
Neal asked Garcia to see if there was any way to cross-reference the signature—two thirds of a triangle completed by a stylized squiggle—to the artists’ tattoo galleries on shop sites for each of the sites they were visiting. She had to create the algorithm, which took a while. He told Peter, “I’m gonna grab lunch. You want something?”
Peter handed him a ten and said, “My usual from Sam’s.”
Sam’s was the deli two blocks from the FBI building, more a fed hangout than an actual restaurant, but it would allow Neal to stretch his legs a little, to think. Even with having slept a bit, the feel of Peter waking him up, rather than his own demons, Neal was still feeling a little nauseated, just a touch off. Art was, had always been, something he treasured, saw as ultimate proof of humanity’s capacity to create. Outside of his concerns for himself, of who he might be if he just made enough wrong decisions, he wasn’t sure how to process this level of perversion regarding something that was as near to holy for him as anything ever had been
Neal took the shortcut, the alley behind the neighboring bank, because it was quieter, and while Neal usually loved the bustle of New York, the practice of measuring marks, intent to actually do anything or no, today he wanted space for himself. He was using the relative peace to consider what to do if the graphics search came up empty when he felt a pinch at the base of his neck and, without being entirely sure what was happening, only that it was not good, had just enough time to think, Peter!
Neal’s anklet was cut fifteen minutes after he walked out of the building. Peter’s eyes went slightly wide and Rossi swore. Emily looked at Rossi and said, knowingly, “We profiled this guy would be following the case.”
There was a second where everyone caught up to her logic, and Diana watched some of the blood drain from Peter’s face.
“We didn’t predict he’d be this bold,” Morgan said, sounding both surprised and pissed. He was on the phone immediately, talking with Garcia, seeing if there was any way to speed up the search. So far as Diana could tell, if there was a way to do things faster, Garcia generally did.
“You guys keep working your end of the case,” Peter said, with an admirable breadth of calm, given that Neal had either inexplicably run or been taken, possibly by a serial murderer. Neither option was good. “Diana and I are going to where his tracker shows him last. See what we can see on the ground.”
Denton nodded. Hotchner said, “Prentiss, go with them. Report anything we need to know.”
Peter knew the way Neal would have walked, the way they usually went together, and they traced the route, but it was clean, no signs of struggle, nothing. Logically, the best place for Neal to have been grabbed in broad daylight, downtown Manhattan, was the alleyway, which had sparse traffic. They canvassed everyone working near the deli anyway, looking for witnesses. Unsurprisingly, there were none. More annoyingly, the kidnapper had known what he was doing, because he had ambushed Neal right in the blind spot between the traffic cameras on the streets and the private security cameras covering parts of the alley.
Emily took out her cell and made a call. Diana stood close enough to hear Reid’s voice on the other side. Emily asked, “Where are we?”
“Garcia got a hit on the signature, an artist who goes by the moniker Le Servante, legal name Jenner Hoff.”
“He calls himself ‘the servant’ in French?” Diana asked.
“It would have meant roughly the same thing as protégé around the time David was painting,” Emily murmured, as though working it through herself. “Have we got anything on Hoff?”
“Garcia’s looking, but so far only an apartment which wouldn’t suit his needs. Denton and Morgan are headed there right now, ETA seventeen minutes.”
“We’re coming back, keep us updated.”
Diana looked over at where Peter was still canvassing, the lines of his body language stiff, quietly terrified. Emily said, “You should see if you can get him to come back. We’ll be more use there than here.”
Diana nodded. “Yeah, give me a few.”
“I’ll be on my way back.”
Diana gave Emily’s bicep a squeeze and went to go attempt to collect her boss.
Neal awoke with each of his wrists cinched to chair arms with plastic ties, tight enough that his hands were beginning to lose feeling. His legs were bound in the same way. He shifted to see if the chair would move, but either it was extremely heavy, or soldered to the floor.
He tried swallowing, only to find there was nothing to swallow, his mouth utterly dry. His head didn’t hurt, exactly, but there was a sharp dizziness inside it that made it hard to think. He forced himself to canvas the place, see what he could make out of where he might be, what might be useful to him in an attempt to escape, or, alternatively, contact someone.
The first step was opening his eyes, which made the dizziness spike, but after a few seconds it receded. He was in a cellar, or something similar. The room allowed almost no natural light, although there was a quite a bit of halogen light coming from lamps and one hanging fixture. Neal couldn’t find the door, so he imagined it was directly behind him.
That suspicion was confirmed when someone came in the door and then crossed to the table some feet away from Neal’s right side. The table had an assortment of instruments Neal really didn’t want used on him. He wasn’t gagged so he tried, “Jacques-Louis David?”
It took two tries to make himself understood, his mouth too dry for the first one to come out as much more than grunts. His captor turned and looked at him. “The great Neal Caffrey and the entirety of the BAU haven’t figured out my name?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "My motives? Anything?”
Neal shrugged, it was easier than talking, and he was going to need to conserve his voice. Also, since when did serial killers know who he was? Art thieves, forgers, sure, that was different, that was imitation and flattery. The thought sent a chill through him. He made himself think of Peter’s words, of the fact that he’d never drugged someone, never tied anyone down, never, never.
“Then I suppose you don’t deserve to know,” the man said. He was a tall, wiry guy, fairly nondescript by nature, except for how he had tattoos in the style of Ingres on each arm, which wasn’t something a person saw every day.
Neal didn’t care, not really, but he did care about keeping this guy away from him, so he said, “That’s fair. Portrait of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, I suppose? I’m too tall for Napoleon.” And Neal didn’t want to give this guy any ideas about a crowd scene. As it is, he didn’t think talking about what painting he was about to be a corpse-model for was the best tactic, but he really was very thirsty and also, the room hadn’t entirely stopped spinning.
“I had had once of his richer works in mind,” Crazy, as Neal decided to name him—simple, but true—said. “But your presence will do as well, I suppose, as a farewell before I move on. So many artists, left to rot on walls of museums hardly ever visited, cities filled to the brim with people who never notice. Time for another city, another artist.”
He didn’t sound like he was gloating or condescending or anything Neal would have expected. He simply sounded sad. Well, sad with a heaping of batshit insane. Neal had already decided asking him to explain was going to get nowhere, the way it had the first time, so he was going to need another tactic. He tried, “One of my favorites has always been Caillebotte. His work is so grounded, so quiet. It’s easy to overlook, but a shame that most do.”
Crazy nodded thoughtfully, and approached with a tattoo gun. Neal made himself breathe. Crazy said, “Sisley’s that way as well. Harder to recreate, though.”
Crazy flipped the electricity on the tattoo gun and Neal said, “You don’t have to, you realize? They’ll know it’s you. You’ve made it clear.”
Crazy frowned. “That would be plagiarism.”
Neal couldn’t even begin to follow that line of thought, and before he could come up with something else to distract Crazy, his chin was being forcefully held back, the tip of the tattoo needle burning its way into his throat. Neal bit his cheek, forced his own useless panic down, reminding himself that there hadn’t been any severe redness at the spot where he’d found the tattoos. Crazy had to be keeping them for at least 24 hours after the process, healing the spot up until the skin appeared correct. Nonetheless, he couldn’t help thinking, No, really, Peter, any time now.
The first sweep of Hoff’s apartment led them to evidence of a recent, particularly bland rejection from his artistic hero—as evidenced by the obsessive compulsive amount of articles and prints of his art around the apartment—dated a week back from the first of the most recent killings. Diana could feel Peter’s frustration at knowing this was happening because some douche’s pride was hurt. Emily’s team was very good at trying their best to use the new information without getting anyone more worked up.
It was nearly evening again, after an interminable day of getting nowhere, when, going through the evidence collected at Hoff’s place for the third time, Morgan found a credit card which led to Garcia figuring out he’d committed identity theft, which in turn led to the discovery of a basement storage unit outside of SoHo. From there, it took about twenty minutes, sirens at full blast, to make it to the unit. Morgan met them there, as well as several NYPD cars, and by the time Peter and Hotchner were going in through the front door, Jones, Diana and Denton all directly behind them, the building was completely surrounded.
Hoff stood behind Neal, a scalpel to his neck. He was rambling about art and process and lost culture and a bunch of shit Peter really didn’t care about. Meanwhile, Neal was bleeding out from a thigh wound just as all the others hand. Thighs were always hidden in David’s paintings.
Morgan was talking him down, and Peter knew he should be listening, but all he could do was keep his eyes on Neal, do his best to silently keep Neal calm. Peter saw the second where Hoff moved, his diatribe rising in pitch. Hotchner took the shot, catching him in the shoulder.
Peter was the first to reach him, Denton and Hotchner securing Hoff, and Diana had radioed for an EMT before she even knew she was talking. She went over and ran a hand through Neal’s hair.
He slurred something, and she knew whatever it was had him really freaked out, but he couldn’t manage to get the words together, making sounds that were mostly harsh T’s and vowels all mashed together.
Diana wanted to look away, wanted to not be seeing Neal, who could always make words work for him, always control a situation, be at the mercy of something so stupid as a cut on his leg. She kept her eyes on him, because what she wanted even less was to look away and have him not be there when she looked back.
“Okay, Neal, just relax, the medics are going to be here any minute,” Peter had that cool, strong calm to him that even Diana could appreciate at times, if it wasn’t exactly her thing. She knew it was Neal’s. Peter kept talking, “I’m here; you’re going to be fine. Everything’s fine.”
She didn’t look down at where Neal’s blood was soaking right through Peter’s fingers, despite his grip on Neal’s thigh. She felt a hand on her shoulder and moved aside easily for the EMT. A second later, she had to pull Peter away, say, “Let them do their jobs, boss.”
She covered his hands in hers for a moment, long enough that they were soaked as well. Once Peter was riding in the ambulance, she found the nearest bathroom and began scrubbing. She wasn’t at all surprised when Emily came in somewhere during her third soaping and waited patiently, turning off the water once the soap had been washed clean.
Emily said, “C’mon. I’ll take you to the hospital.”
“I drove,” Diana told her. Emily just held her hands out for the keys.
The cut didn’t even hurt at first, but Neal felt the warm gush of blood that signaled trouble. Neal had read the coroner’s reports on the others. He knew what was happening. He tried not to struggle, knowing it was of no use, would only speed things up. He mostly tried to clear his mind, to be calm, to think of things that made him happy, because it seemed stupid to do anything else while dying.
He must have missed something, because suddenly there was pressure on the wound and oh, holy shit, that really hurt. Neal mewled, he knew he did, couldn’t stop it, and then Peter was saying, “Hey, hey, breathe.”
Neal opened his eyes—when had they shut?—and sure enough, Peter was there, looking scared out of his mind. Neal wanted to poke him, see if he was real, but he was fairly certain the hands squeezing his leg were entirely corporeal. Someone was brushing a hand through his hair. Was Elizabeth here? No, no, Neal didn’t think-- It was getting hard to think.
There was something he needed to tell Peter, something-- Right. Crazy had marked him, done something only Peter was allowed to do, and only because Neal would allow it. “Tattoo—“ He wanted to explain, but everything was so hard, all the thoughts were so slow in coming. “Tattoo—“
Peter responded and this time Neal couldn’t really figure out what he was saying, but the tone was right, the tone was pure Peter, and things would be okay, Peter always saw to that. Neal listened to the sound, even if he couldn’t pick out meaning.
Diana sat by Peter’s side, Emily going to get them coffee and possibly something with sugar in it, if such a thing could be found. Peter was silent, his breathing even, and Diana would have been tricked if she didn’t know her boss so well. She asked, “Was he still awake in the ambulance?”
Peter nodded. “For a bit. He fights. He’s—“
“Yes,” Diana said, because for all her misgivings about Neal Caffrey, she did utterly believe the man would always circle back to Peter given any hint of a choice. “Have you called Elizabeth?”
“As we were coming in. She’s on her way.”
Emily returned with actual donuts, having run across the street to a Dunkin’ Donuts, and coffee that didn’t put shame to the term. Peter took his gratefully, saying, “I’d rather our first few meetings hadn’t been on these terms.”
Emily touched his shoulder. “We’re not the types to get to pick and choose.”
Elizabeth came through the door and Diana got up, going to her. “Docs said it shouldn’t be too long before we know something; they’re working on the transfusions.”
“How’s he doing?”
Diana heard the shift in pronoun reference. “He’s pretty shaken.”
Elizabeth squeezed her hand. “Thank you for staying with him.”
Diana moved out from between her and her husband and Emily followed her from the waiting room into the hall. Diana asked, “Hotchner hasn’t called you back yet?”
“The paperwork will wait until DC, and it’s not like he’s lacking for agents. With Denton being so easy to work with, I’m not sure I’ll get a call until wheels up.”
Diana leaned against the wall and took a sip of her coffee. “I should send him a thank-you note.”
Emily laughed a bit. “He likes those fruit bouquets.”
Diana assessed the truth of that statement, but had to ask, “Really?”
“Well, Jack does, and whatever Jack likes…”
“Ah.” Diana slipped into silence for a bit, doing her best to regain equilibrium. Caffrey would be fine. “How are you?”
Emily’s expression called her on the evasion. Instead of responding she said, “That’s one impressively soft underbelly Caffrey’s got.”
Diana’s noise of acknowledgement was mostly exasperation. “Makes it hard to stay pissed.”
“He thinks you’ve just gotten used to him.”
Diana asked, “Mm?”
“He thinks you’ve just learned to see past the charm, since that isn’t your thing. Not that he opens himself up to it in moments when he’s not paying enough attention.”
“I suppose that’s good. No telling what he’d do if he figured out that element of manipulation.”
It was Emily’s turn to say, “Mm.”
Diana raised an eyebrow at her. Emily shrugged. “Maybe in the beginning. Maybe not. I think there are certain bargaining chips that even Neal Caffrey isn’t willing to lay on the table.”
“Interesting,” Diana admitted.
“Even if he was originally,” Emily continued, “I don’t think he would be anymore.”
Diana shook her head. “That’s why Neal’s dangerous. It’s so easy to believe—“
“Di,” Emily said, and the sharp fondness of it brought a wash of ease over Diana, even now after all these years of not caring if people shortened her name, so long as they didn’t look down at her. There had been a time when only Emily was allowed that privilege.
“Di,” Emily repeated, “this is what I do. I’d be of no use in the middle of a mortgage fraud case or a heist, unless you wanted a profile, and those profiles are hard, too economically motivated, too generic. But this, this seeing people? This is what I know. Caffrey, Neal, his soft underbelly, it’s not just vulnerability, it’s attachment and fear and all the things you and I know too damn well from a life that never stayed still quite long enough to settle.”
Diana shifted on her feet. “You’re saying we’re like him?”
“I’m saying there-but-for-the-grace-of-G-d. I’m saying that sometimes compassion is not a weakness, even if it does end badly.”
Diana thought about the night Emily called her and said, “Listen, listen and don’t interrupt, all right?”
And Diana had known most of what Emily was telling her was classified, nothing Diana had clearance for, but she’d also known Emily had waited long, maybe too long, to tell her about Doyle and Doyle’s son, and the parts of herself Emily had pushed down, tried to get rid of entirely.
Diana reached out a hand and squeezed Emily’s wrist. “I’m told you’re pretty good at what you do.”
Emily laughed, the sound exhausted and utterly real. “Yeah, I’ve got skills.”
Neal woke up to a much quieter world than he remembered losing consciousness to. Also, a Peter by his bedside. Neal smiled lazily and informed Peter, “I am under the influence,” his vowels stretching somewhat, as relaxed as he felt.
Peter’s smile was small, but brilliant. Neal wanted to eat it. He said so. Peter said, “Not here, babe.”
Neal pouted. “Take me home, then.”
“Soon, Neal. Real soon. They wanna keep you overnight, but then I can take you wherever you want to go.”
“With you,” Neal said, keeping his eyes on Peter so he could see just how in earnest he was about this. “Just with you.”
Peter leaned over and kissed Neal’s forehead, and Neal arched up into his lips. Peter said, “Sleep for a bit. When you wake up, it’ll be time to go.”
The pain brought Neal up from sleep a second time, and he tried to gather his thoughts enough to push the button Peter had shown him. In the minutes it was taking him to coordinate that effort, he heard Elizabeth murmur, “He’s okay, Peter. He’s going to be fine.”
Neal knew better than to still entirely, even woozy and in pain, knew how to go unnoticed. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to eavesdrop as that he had the vague sense that knowing how Peter was handling this all was knowing how to help, and Neal had long since stopped denying that he wanted to help Peter as much as he could.
Peter said, “I know. I do.”
“But you’re going to have a bit of a PTSD episode on us, all the same,” Elizabeth said, and there was rueful, understanding amusement, compassion, in her tone.
“You didn’t see the look on his face. The way he was gushing out blood and he saw me and he-- For a second, he looked relieved, certain.”
“Of course he did.”
Neal was glad to hear that Elizabeth knew how that felt, that he wasn’t the only person in the world who couldn’t help believing that Peter really could fix everything with his own two hands and maybe, maybe his badge at his side. Peter made a sound that wasn’t a laugh, and though Neal’s eyes were closed, he knew Elizabeth was taking Peter’s face in her hands.
“Peter Burke,” she said. “It’s not as if you don’t believe that he’ll never let you down, either.”
Neal’s eyes almost flew open at that, because it made no sense. Of course Peter believed Neal would let him down, that was nearly a central tenant of their relationship. She continued, “It’s not a bad thing, to be his hero.”
“A dangerous one, though,” Peter said softly, and Neal was familiar with that feeling, strangely, that sense that one wrong move would send him—or worse, Peter—over a precipice.
The sound of a kiss—her lips on his forehead, Neal guessed—floated softly through the room. She said, “Most worthwhile things are, dear.”
Emily told Diana, “We’re going to hit a wine bar, decompress. Call Christie and come with.”
Diana looked up from where she was in her paperwork. “You sure about that?”
Emily rolled her eyes. Diana rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, okay.”
She made the call to Christie, who said she’d meet them there in an hour, when she was off-shift. Emily and Diana grabbed a ride with Morgan and Reid. Morgan asked, “How’s your CI doing?”
“They got him stabilized. He has to stay overnight, but he’ll be released in the morning.” Diana had gotten the call less than half an hour before, and reassured Peter that Jones and she could hold down the fort. She suspected Peter would probably work from home the next day. She wasn’t going to say anything if he did. She had the urge to wash her hands again, but pushed it down.
“Glad to hear it,” Morgan said. Emily reached out and squeezed her thigh.
When they arrived, Emily ordered a Viñedo Chadwick, and despite it being about five times more expensive than anything either of them drank over the summer after Emily’s freshman year of college, Diana’s junior year of high school, it called up place and time, all the same. Diana smiled at the memory of the two of them holed up in Emily’s shack of a flat that summer, laughing at their clumsy attempts at the local Spanish dialect and attempting to learn Rapa Nui for the hell of it. Diana’s father had been posted there, so Emily had found a program through her school to build houses for a few months. Her mother had been less-than-pleased, having had plans for Emily to do an internship at the UN.
Diana said, “I’ll have the same,” and Emily grinned. They toasted, Diana murmuring, “To Chile.”
Emily said, “Chile,” and drank. Bringing her glass down, she said, “You should come to DC for a couple of days. See my place. There’s a hole-in-the-wall two blocks over that does fantastic Paneer Momo. You’ll love it.”
“Oh, that’s cheating,” Diana told her.
Emily’s smile was tight. “Di. I-- I almost lost you, lost everything, and even after that, we didn’t find time to see each other. If this case hadn’t come up, who even knows when we would have managed?”
Diana nodded. “I know. Believe me, I-- Peter has more than once mentioned that I should remember the parts of me that aren’t the job. Christie’s yelled about it a few times, although she’s amazingly sanguine, all things considered.”
“It’s not just you. It’s not. But we both need to be better. You’re the only person left who remembers things about me that I don’t remember. Parents don’t count.”
“'Course not,” Diana agreed.
“Come to DC. I’ll take a couple of days. We’ll be lazy and drink wine and pet my cat. It’ll be like the time I helped you move up to Dartmouth, only without the roadtrip and the unpacking and the crappy fast food.”
“So, nothing like that,” Diana laughed.
“And everything,” Emily reiterated softly.
Diana relented. “Maybe.”
Emily’s smile was exactly the same as it had been at eleven years old when she knew she’d won. Diana had never minded.
Neal was a little foggy on the details of how he’d been checked out of the hospital and gotten to Elizabeth and Peter’s bed. The latter would have made him mad if he weren’t so exhausted. It was the now the second time he’d been in their bed, not down the hall, and both times he had been cheated out of the chance to pull them into it, make them laugh, watch them together, be welcomed to join. Instead, he woke from a nightmare of blood and helplessness, panting and sick to his stomach from the aftermath of the painkillers. His thigh ached enough to make him squeeze back tears.
The only thing that saved the whole situation was that Elizabeth was there, sitting in the bed next to him, saying, “Sh, sweetie, sh; you’re safe.”
Peter must have heard her, or maybe he was on his way up, because he was there within seconds, helping Neal sit up, making him take pills. Neal made himself focus on the touch of Peter’s palm to his neck, the quiet murmur of Elizabeth’s voice telling Peter, “He just woke up.”
At some point Elizabeth slipped away, and Neal found his breath catching. Peter said, “She wants to get you something for your stomach. The doctor said the codeine might be a little rough on it.”
“Sorry,” Neal said, because things were fuzzy, tinged with leftover panic from the nightmare, but he was clear on the fact that this falling-apart act was not him at his most attractive.
“That’s my line,” Peter said.
Neal took a breath, then another, as the medicine began to kick in, dull the pain and allow him to actually focus on settling. “What?”
Peter said, “Sorry. That’s what I get to say.”
Neal blinked. “You’re not the one who’s a mess right now.”
“Not at this second, no. But I am the FBI agent who sent his partner out without backup while working on a serial murder case that he had an active part in, and I am the guy who had to have his associate agent hold his hand in the waiting room until his wife could get there while he went to pieces waiting to hear if you were going to survive, so.”
Neal knew the words were meant to make him feel better, but instead they triggered the sense of utter aloneness he’d felt as the tattoo gun had buzzed sharp against his collarbone, as the knife had slid through his veins. His breathing sped up and he found himself admitting, “I didn’t think-- I thought I wouldn’t get to see you. Wouldn’t get to say goodbye.”
Elizabeth came back in at that moment, setting a plate and glass down on the nightstand with an alarming clang, and a hushed, “Sorry, sorry,” as she slid back into place next to him, curling herself against his side, pulling him to the middle of the bed so that Peter could flip around, press into Neal’s other side.
“You found me,” Neal said, repeating the words aloud because they were calming to hear.
“Always will, babe,” Peter rumbled, and Neal could feel he words, like the beat of Peter’s heart, the skip of Elizabeth’s pulse. “Always.”
Elizabeth’s lips skimmed the line of his cheek, and Peter buried his face in Neal’s hair, and in the midst of them, their solid, steady warmth, he began to come back to this place, the room he’d waited so long to be welcomed into, the arms keeping him there.
Elizabeth said, “We’ve got you.”
Peter said, “We’re right here.”
And Neal knew that later he’d gloss over this moment with a smile, and maybe a hat trick or two, he’d make it up to them by way of polish and shine, and they would let him get away with it. But for now, just for now, he said, “Don’t go.”
Elizabeth said, “There’s nowhere else for us to be. Not with you here.”
Peter echoed Elizabeth, “Nowhere.”