by J. Rosemary Moss
Mozzie groaned from the couch when Neal turned on extra lights to get ready for work--a long mournful groan that made his displeasure clear.
Neal rolled his eyes. "Would you stop? It's not that early."
"I'll kvetch to my heart's content, thank you," Moz said. "Look at you, running your life according to the FBI's clock. It pains me to see you taking so well to the leash."
"Maybe I like being on a leash," Neal said with a teasing, sultry look.
Moz snorted. "That would be one thing if Kate was holding the other end of it. It's something else when it's that FBI agent."
Neal refused to take the bait. It was a gorgeous, crisp morning, there would be Italian roast coffee waiting on the roof and he and Peter--well, they had never gotten along better. Life was good.
"I thought you liked Peter," he said as he laid out his clothes. "You got on great with him when he was plying you with gin."
"I do like the guy," Mozzie insisted. "I just don't like the way he's got you so well trained. You might as well be fetching his slippers." He paused to shake his head. "If Kate could see you now, she wouldn't recognize you."
Neal had been reaching for his shirt, but he stopped at that. He turned and stared at Moz.
"Don't give me that look," Moz said, sitting up with a shrug. "You're not the same guy you used to be--you know that as well as I do."
"I haven't changed, Moz. I'm just not running frauds any more."
Moz raised his eyebrows. "Will you be going back to the life when that anklet is off?"
"You think that should be my career goal?"
Moz shrugged again. "I don't care if it is or it isn't. You want to walk the straight and narrow, fine. I just don't want to see you as Burke's pet convict forever."
Neal looked away. "That's what bastards like Agent Ruiz call me. Peter doesn't. And he doesn't think of me that way."
"I thought he said he owned you."
"He does own me," Neal said without rancor. "For four years--that was our deal. But he doesn't consider me a pet . . . or, if he does, it's not in a bad way."
Neal paused, trying to figure out how to explain it. "He thinks of me as--I don't know. Sometimes he thinks of me as his partner; sometimes he thinks of me as his kid. It's a little of both, I guess."
"And sometimes he thinks of you as his pet."
"Yeah, but not in a bad way," Neal reminded him.
There was a long moment of silence. "Are you into him?" Moz asked.
The question startled Neal. "What?"
Moz shrugged. "At least that would be an excuse."
"No. I mean--we're closer now. But it's not like that."
It couldn't be like that. Just for starters, Peter wasn't like that. Not as far as Neal knew . . . and he knew everything about Peter. He had stalked Peter during their cat and mouse game just as much as Peter had stalked him.
"Besides," Neal continued, "I'm straight."
Mozzie gave him a look.
"That's what I thought," Mozzie said, folding his arms over his chest.
"He's more like my Dad; I swear it. And he's got a wife, Moz. The most wonderful wife you can imagine. And I have Kate to think about."
"Who would hardly know you if she was here now."
Neal stared at him, allowing the words to sink into his brain.
Moz must have seen something in his eyes that made him recant--or pretend to. " Ok. I'm sorry. That was harsh."
Neal stared for another moment and then shook his head. "I'm the same guy, Moz. I just switched teams." He paused long enough to glare at his friend. "And I happen to like my new teammates."
Peter cocked his head at Neal, who was sitting in his customary chair on the other side of Peter's desk, bent over mortgage documentation. He did not look happy. Peter knew the kid found mortgage cases excruciatingly dull, but he suspected there was more to his glum look than that.
"You ok, Neal?" he asked.
The kid glanced up at him and shrugged.
"Want to talk about it?" Peter persisted.
Neal flashed him a half smile. "Not really."
Peter frowned. Neal wasn't entitled to privacy--Peter owned his ass, after all. If the ex-con was sitting there mooning over Kate, contemplating his next move to find her, Peter needed to know. He was not about to let Neal break his custody arrangements for that girl.
Yet something warned Peter not to press Neal right now, so he held his peace.
Jones and Cruz walked in just then, and Neal perked up. Suddenly he was his usual happy-go-lucky and inappropriately flirtatious self. But when the pair left, Neal seemed to deflate. He was back to that glum look.
Peter chewed his lip. In an odd way, he felt complimented. Apparently Neal didn't feel as if he had to put on an act for him.
"Would you like to come over tonight?" Peter asked. "Have dinner with El and me?"
Neal glanced up again. For a moment he seemed to hesitate, but then he smiled--and this time the smile reached his eyes. "Yeah, I would."
Peter nodded, not bothering to hide his relief. It was best to keep an eye on him when he was like this.
Besides, Neal seemed to thrive in Peter and El's company. That was counterintuitive--a trendy chick-magnet like Neal shouldn't be hanging out with an old married couple. Nonetheless, Neal was spending a surprising amount of time at Peter's house, often crashing in the guest room in lieu of taking a cab or public transportation back to the city.
Despite himself, Peter was getting used to having the ex-con around. Like it or not, Neal was family now--and that would make things a lot harder if he was stupid enough to break his custody arrangements. So Peter would just have to prevent him from being that stupid.
Neal bent his head back over the desk as both men went back to work. At least half an hour passed before he spoke up again.
"Moz thinks I'm into you," he said, without bothering to look up from the documents.
Peter blinked, thinking he had misheard Neal--but no, he hadn't. He stared for a second, but decided that it was best not to make a big deal out of Haversham's crazy theories.
"Yeah?" Peter asked at last, keeping his voice purposely disinterested.
"Yeah," Neal confirmed.
"Is Haversham jealous?"
Neal looked up, apparently considering that. "Yeah, I think so."
"Jealous of your supposed interest in me, or jealous that you're no longer his, ah, partner in crime?"
Neal managed another smile. "Perceptive question. I think he has a thing for me--but it's more the latter."
Peter took his time about responding. "I like Haversham," he said at last, "and I think the guy is a real friend to you. He'll get over it, Neal."
The kid just shrugged at that, as if Moz and his crazy theories could go to hell for all he cared, and went back to work.
Peter sighed, hoping that wine, dinner and good company would cheer Neal up tonight. Maybe he should be glad that Neal was subdued--that the mischievous light was out of his eyes. But somehow Peter couldn't help but think Neal would be even more trouble like this.
Neal felt better at Peter's house--and, perversely, that made him feel ten times worse. It was so easy to slip into this picket-fence life. Dining and laughing with Peter and Elizabeth, playfully flirting with Elizabeth under Peter's tolerant gaze, treating their house like a second home, obeying Peter . . .
Well, obeying Peter in everything but the details. Peter needed Neal to out-think FBI rules and regulations; that's what made him so valuable as a pet convict. So sometimes he had to disobey Peter on the small stuff in order to obey him in a larger way. Which made perfect sense to Neal, even if Peter didn't always agree.
But what would Kate think if she could see him now? Moz was right; she wouldn't recognize him. The Neal she knew wouldn't be content here. He'd be looking for an angle--looking for a way to pull a fast one over Peter and the whole damn FBI when the time was right. He'd be plotting a way to escape the leash; not gazing adoringly at the man who was holding it.
No one said anything about Neal going home after the meal was over; Peter and Elizabeth seemed to assume he would crash in the guest room. It made little sense to go back to the city at this point. And usually Neal liked crashing here. But tonight . . . tonight his sense of belonging seemed like more proof of Mozzie's words.
Nonetheless, he took his place on the couch: he was on one side, Elizabeth was on the other, and Peter was between them. And there was Satchmo, of course. The dog was sitting in front of Peter with his head in the agent's lap at the moment.
Neal barely paid attention to whatever they were watching. He needed to turn off his brain so he could stop running Mozzie's words over and over in his mind. So he closed his eyes, leaned back against the couch and forced himself to drift off to sleep. Fortunately the big meal he had just eaten, coupled with the wine, made oblivion come easily enough.
He woke up to a gentle nudge from Peter. "Come on, Neal," the agent said. "Time for bed."
Neal nodded and let Peter help him to his feet. Then Peter put a hand on his back and steered him toward the stairs. That touch--part fatherly, part gentlemanly and chivalrous--settled something in Neal's mind.
Elizabeth was already waiting for them in the upstairs hall. She kissed Neal on the cheek and hugged him as she wished him a good night. He returned the hug with enthusiasm and even rested his chin on her head for a long moment, enjoying the softness of her hair. If Peter minded, he didn't say anything. He just gave Neal a friendly shove toward the guestroom when the hug finally ended.
Neal shut the door behind him and changed into a tee-shirt and pair of pajama bottoms--some of the many clothes he kept on hand here. Come to think of it, a good deal of his wardrobe was in this room. He wondered if it really qualified as a 'guestroom' anymore; he had pretty much taken over.
He went into the guest bathroom--which was likewise full of his stuff--and washed up. Then he walked back into his room, leaving the door ajar for Satchmo, and climbed into bed. He didn't go straight back to sleep, however. He was awake now. Awake and waiting.
Peter had a habit of checking up on him whenever he stayed over. The agent was still quite the stalker; he couldn't resist keeping an eye on Neal. He would stick his head into the room as Neal was sleeping--or when he thought Neal was sleeping--and check that everything was ok, just as Neal imagined a Dad would check up on his kid.
So Neal waited until he heard Peter's tread in the hallway. There was something he needed to clear up with his partner.
To be continued . . .