Title: Burned
Author: Amory Puck (pucktheplayer)
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Angst, Non-Con, Hurt/Comfort, prostitution, mentions of underage prostitution, fire play. Peter/Neal (with Elizabethan consent!

Author's Notes: Last chapter guys! Finally, tis here! YAY! (BTW, the reference to Titus Andronicus actually does link to an earlier part of the story, but since it's probably been a long time since y'all have read the rest of the story, I thought I'd just point out that it's not me going TOTALLY insane. After all, I'm already totally insane and it's hard to go insaner... ;P) Hope you enjoyed the fic! Leave me a review and let me know! Kisskiss!

o o o

Chapter 10: Knight in Blazing Armor

o o o

"What are you doing? My friends who flies away so fast! My friend, a word: where is the Suit, your fair knight, to protect you?!"

Neal blinked tiredly, his head feeling like it was full of wool. The words seem to ricochet around his mind, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. He thought he recognized the voice, but he wasn't sure. The world around him was gray, a forest of asphalt sliding in and out of focus as he craned his neck looking for the source of the voice.

His eyes finally found a figure, though it was fuzzy and out of focus. He squinted a little, and relief rose up within. It was just Mozzie, though, strangely enough instead of his usual trousers and cardigan combo he was wearing a toga, like he'd just stepped out of a bad frat movie, or maybe ancient Rome. Neal tried to cry out, but liquid filled his throat and he gagged.

Mozzie sprang forward, dropping to his knees on the ground next to Neal, a horrified look on his face.

"If this is a dream, wake me up! Tell me, beloved friend, what harsh angry fans have lopped and hewed and left you here without your two branches? Oh, those beautiful ornaments!"

Without these two branches? What the hell was he talking about, branches and ornaments? Was Neal a Christmas tree now? This made no sense. Neal looked down, then tried to let out a scream, but he could only gurgle.

Oh, his hands, his beautiful hands! All that was left were bloody stumps. He wonderful, talented hands. Gone.

"How could they have done this to someone as gorgeous as you? Every man in town wanted to lay in your bed? Why won't you speak to me?"

Neal stared up at Mozzie with wide eyes a sense of panic coming over him.

Beep beep.

Tears began to flow down Mozzie's face. "Oh God, the crimson river of blood like a bubbling fountain pouring out of your mouth!"

The crimson river of—no. No, no, no, no, no. NO!

What was left of Neal's tongue flapped as he tried once again to let out a scream.

Beep beep beepbeep.

"And now you turn your face away from me in shame. Someone has fucked you, and cut out your tongue so you can't tell me who!"

Snot and tears poured down Neal's face. No… This couldn't be happening… No. NO!

Neal sat up with a shout, heart pounding so fast he could hear it. Actually, he *could* hear it, beeping along with the flashes on a screen beside his bed.


"Neal, you're awake!"

Neal let out a cry, looking around blindly and flinging his hands up to protect himself, cold sweat dripping down his spine. "Don't touch me!"

Peter took a stumbling step back, holding up his hands in the international sign of surrender. "Sorry! Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you…" He smiled, but Neal couldn't miss the hurt in his eyes. Dammit. Five minutes awake and he'd already hurt Peter's feelings. Wasn't he just a doll lately?

Neal took a deep breath, collapsing back on the bed. "No… It's okay… I"m sorry… I was dreaming…"

"Oh," Peter said, relaxing a little. "What about?" He paused, then added quickly, "I mean, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

"Ever seen Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus'?"Neal questioned, taking a deep breath to try and steady his still pounding heart before twenty doctors descended on him and he got hauled off to the cardiac ward.

Peter frowned, a little wrinkle appearing between his eyebrows as he contemplated the question. "No, I don't think so…"

"Don't," Neal said shortly. "Trust me. Just… don't." He reached up and ran a hand through his hair. It felt sticky. "How long have I been out?"

"About twenty-four hours," Peter said softly, settling down in a chair by Neal's bed. "I've been here with you the whole time. They said you needed your rest, time to repair after all the shock, and that I should go home and sleep to, but I didn't want to leave you. Not all alone."

The words 'not again' hung unspoken in the air.

"What happened to Melbane?" Neal asked, inspecting the IV in his arm. A pain button. Nice. Neal punched it and clear fluid began to flood the little tube. Might as well use it while he had it. He knew from experience that all those burns we're going to take a good long time to heal.

"We took him down," Peter replied, voice cold. "Let him burn."

Neal winced at the wording. "Let's steer away from the fire metaphors for a few days, what do you say?"

Peter gave a soft laugh, nodding his head. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

Neal sighed, his mouth turning up a little at the edge as a nice, euphoric feeling sort of rushed over him. He should really hit that pain button more often. "I guess I better stay out of trouble, because if I end up in the same prison as Melbane, everybody will think I'm his bitch. You know, with his name burned on my ass and all," Neal joked feebly, clenching the cheek in question, then wincing at the sensation.

Peter's face went pale and he ran a hand nervously across his head, eyes flitting around the room like he was looking for any excuse not to meet Neal's eyes.

"What's wrong? What aren't you telling me?" Neal demanded, suddenly feeling sick. Was Melbane *not* going to prison? Was that psycho really going to be out there on the streets, waiting for the chance to jump him in the dark?

"Neal… about that… Melbane didn't brand you with his name." Peter shifted in his chair, looking like this was the last place in the world he wanted to be. He blurred out for a moment before coming back into view and Neal frowned. That was rather rude, going all blurry when Neal was trying to talk to him. He'd have to talk to Elizabeth about that. Rude Agent Burke.

"Well, I know he burned something down there. I can feel it." He let out a little giggle. "Was it 'slut'? It was slut, wasn't it? Oh, Melbane, you're such a joker. But hey, at least it's true! He could have put 'mail man,' and then where would I be? Everybody would think I'm postal!" Neal giggled again. "Get it? Postal?"

"You're not a slut," Peter said sharply, ignoring Neal's super funny joke entirely. Rude, *rude* Agent Burke. "Don't say that."

"I think we're past that now, Peter," Neal said tiredly, waving a hand around in the air, just because it seemed like a good idea. "I know what you heard. The secret's out. I am a slut. I'm a fucking whore. Have been my whole life. Just can't seem to escape it. Kneels for it Neal, baby…" He gave the man a bright smile. "Deep down, you sensed it too. You knew I was the right man for this part from the beginning. Didn't even have to think about it. Didn't even have to ask me."

Peter squeezed his eyes shut, a pained look coming over his face, making Neal wonder if maybe the stick up his butt had given him a splinter or something. "Neal," he said softly, "I swear to God that is not why I asked you to do this op." He reached out, laying his hand gently on Neal's arm.

Neal reached out with his other hand, tracing along that hairy wrist. He was going to miss this, the casual intimacy. He really, really was. However the dice fell, he was gonna lose that. He'd told Peter, to his face that he wanted to be fucked by him. In the end, either Peter would take him up on the offer and those touches would never be casual again, or Peter would make it a point to keep his distance, and those touches wouldn't come at all. A lose-lose situation.

Stupid lose-lose situations. It was even a stupid word. 'Lose-lose.' Talk about fucking redundant.

It would be nice to pretend that there could be some kind of middle, that those touches might actually start to mean something, something other than sex. That those touches might mean that he cared. Neal was no fool, though. Peter had everything he needed in El.

Maybe Neal would get lucky and Peter would choose to make use of what he had. It would be better than some stupid ruse where they tried to go back to what they had been before. Neal disgusted himself, so God knew what Peter thought of him. A man like that couldn't work on equal terms with a man like Neal, not now that he knew the truth.

"It's okay," Neal said waving the whole silliness away as Peter took a moment to go blurry again. Ms. Manners needed to have a little chat with him! "I know how it is, Peter. I'm really sorry 'bout the things I said, you know, about you being like my dad or my sugar dad or my mean boss or whatever. I didn't mean them, I swear. You're a good man. You've always been good to me."

"But I haven't, have I?" Peter said, his voice cracking a little. "Always on you about your past, lording it over you, no matter what you did, like you weren't good enough. I… I hurt you. You said yourself you were afraid of me."

Neal giggled again. "Not your fault, Peter. You want to know the truth about big, brave Neal Caffrey? I'm afraid of everybody! So yeah, I was kind of afraid of you at first, because I didn't really know you. You probably don't know this, 'cause big, strong men like you usually don't, but there are a lot of guys out there who would have abused that power. I got a whole matchbook collection to prove it. Remember when motels gave out matchboxes? Ah, the olden days. But you never did. Mess with me, I mean, not collect matchboxes. Maybe you did collect matchboxes. You never messed with me, though, because you didn't know what I am."

"Dammit, Neal, will you stop putting yourself down!"

Neal blinked. He hadn't actually meant to say that last part out loud. Huh. That was weird.

"Tell me," Peter said suddenly, face growing serious. "Tell me, Neal. Tell me about your life. I want to know."

Neal's brow crinkled up. "What…? I… What do you want to know?"

"Start with your childhood. How did you get the burn marks on your skin?"

"Uh, *Melbane* gave me the burn marks, Peter," Neal said, rolling his eyes dramatically. "Remember?"

Peter scowled, shaking his head. "Fine, avoid the subject. I can't make you talk about it, though I think it might help if you would. How about this… How did you know that cop out on the street?"

Cop… Cop… What cop? Neal's brow furrowed as his suddenly sluggish mind worked to process the idea. Cop… Oh, yeah, Officer Daniels!

"Oh, that was Officer Daniels. He worked on the street where when I was fourteen guys would tell me they'd give me money if I sucked their dicks."

"Did you even know what that meant?" Peter questioned, looking disturbed.

Neal shook his head, feeling a little sorry for Peter. He sure was dumb. Poor guy. "Yes, Peter, I knew what that meant. I'd been doing it for years. My step-dad taught me! George. No… I'm Georgge. Steve. No, I'm Steve, too. Nick? No… Vincent? No, he's the one who liked it when I hid under his desk. Mike! That was it. Mike! Step-dad Mike. And Officer Daniels. He was a nice guy. Real nice guy."

"A real nice guy would have gotten you off the streets," Peter said roughly.

"Street kids aren't charity cases, Peter," Neal said. "I didn't want no help." He tried to cross his arms over his chest, failing when the IV tube tangled with his gown.

"Why wouldn't you want help?"

"Uh, maybe, because the so-called 'help' was usually just a one way ticket to giving it up for free." Duh, much? "Better to be on the streets and get paid than in a group home and have it taken from you." Neal popped his neck then hit the button on his little clicker again, smiling as another wash of happy flowed through him. "Can we stop talking about this? I really don't care if I have slut burned on my ass. I already have it carved there, anyway. Double the fun now!"

"Actually, Neal," Peter said softly, "Slut isn't what he branded on you." He reached out and touched Neal's arm again, stroking it gently.

"Well, then what did he put?" Neal asked, feeling a little lost.

Peter's face turned a rather unflattering shade of red. He looked like a tomato. Tomato Peter. Good thing El liked Italian.

"My name."

Neal blinked, lost. "You forgot your name?"

Peter let out a little laugh. "No, Neal. That's what he put on you. My name. Agent Peter Burke." He dropped his eyes, looking sad. Sad Peter. "I'm so sorry, Neal."

Neal shrugged. "Oh well. You already spend 24/7 breathing down my neck. I'm used to seeing you practically up my ass. Besides," he said generously, "now you can admire it while you fuck me."

"What?" Peter said, mouth dropping open. "What the hell are you talking about, Neal?"

Hm… these painkillers were reeeeally nice.

"Do you really expect me to believe that you're going to let this opportunity pass you by? I saw how you looked at me in that bar, Peter! I know how you feel about me now." Neal smiled brightly, though he had a strange feeling that if he didn't have a metaphorical umbilical cord running from him to a sack of morphine, this whole conversation would be a lot less happy. Maybe even teary. But who needed tears when you could have big smiles? "I knoooow, Peter," Neal crooned teasingly. "Don't gotta pretend know more. I know what you know I know I am. I saw you see it in that bar."

"So I think you're beautiful!" Peter snapped, face even redder than it had been before. Tomato head! "Guess what, wise guy? You *are* beautiful! You're fucking gorgeous! But that wasn't some new revelation I had last night in a bar. I've always thought you're beautiful!"

Beautiful? Had Neal missed a few lines of this conversation? Maybe he should stop hitting his pain button. Nah, what was the fun in that?"

"And, okay, maybe I can't help myself sometimes and I just *have* to touch you, but it would never go any farther than that! I know you're not interested in men, Neal, and now I definitely know why! Hell, if I'd been abused the way you were, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near a man, much less in bed with him." Peter made a frustrated sound. "But how you think I could *ever* use my power to force you to be with me… You know me better than that! I love you, and I don't hurt people I love!"

Neal stared at him for a moment, brow furrowing a little as he tried to process all that with his sluggish brain. "So… in that bar… You were thinkin' I was pretty?"

"What else would I be thinking about you?" Peter questioned, looking a little lost. Good. Now Neal wasn't the only one.

"That I'm a whore, obviously." Something clicked in his mind. "Wait, hold on, did you say that you *love* me? How… how can you love me?" Suddenly he didn't feel so high. In fact, from the tear running down his cheek, Neal had a feeling he was about to slide to the other end of the spectrum. Good bye happy drunk, hello melancholy. "But… I don't…"

"Neal, if you don't know I love you, then why did you say I'd be seeing my name?"

Neal sniffed, rubbing at his face with the palm of his hand as he tried to process that very complicated question. "What?"

"My name, on you. If you didn't know I love you, then why did you think I'd be seeing that mark? To see the mark, we'd have to be doing… that, and if it wasn't for love, why would we be, well, *doing that*?" Peter's voice was serious, and Neal had a feeling there was an importance to the question that he wasn't quite getting.

Neal lifted his head, tears brimming in his eyes. "Either way you're gonna hate me, but if we… do that… maybe you keep me around? If it's hate me and do me or hate me and get rid of me, I want the first one." He sniffled again, well aware that he sounded like a toddler, but too damn high to care. Fucking morphine.

"Hate you?" Peter sounded shocked, though Neal wasn't sure why. Of course he would hate him. Everybody hated people like him. Even he hated people like him. "Neal, I could never hate you. Why would I hate you?"

"I hate me." The words came out as a whisper, barely audible, but they were true. So, so, so true. "And it makes sense that way, you know it does."

Peter made a frustrated sound. "Neal, nothing you're saying makes any sense."

Neither did the way Peter was going back and forth between crispy and blurry, but Neal didn't get onto him for that! God, you always had to *spell things out* for Peter.

"You've always wanted me for the things I can do, but those are the same things you hate about me," Neal said, rubbing at his eyes again. "We're only friend 'cause I steal stuff, but stealing stuff is what you locked me up for. This is no different. Before you knew I was a crook, but you didn't know I was a whore. Now you know I'm a crook and a whore." He made a sound halfway between a sob and a laugh. "Congratulations, Mr. Peter Burke. You officially know all of Neal Caffrey's dirty secrets. Time to collect your prize."

o o o

""Congratulations, Mr. Peter Burke. You officially know all of Neal Caffrey's dirty secrets. Time to collect your prize."" Neal's voice cracked at the end and another tear trickled down his face, which he quickly wiped away with his shoulder.

Peter say back in his seat, staring in astonishment at the pale man laying in the bed before him. It was obvious that Neal was a little high, but the things he was saying, the twisted logic he was using… Under duress with a psychopath holding a rocket launcher to your head was one thing, but this little confessional… Was this really what suave, brassy Neal Caffrey thought about himself?

How could someone even bear to live if they believed the things he was spewing? Peter only wanted him around because he used to be a criminal, therefore Peter would fuck him for having been a whore? And, either way, Peter would hate him?

"And before you say it, I know, I know," Neal said, in a voice like he was talking to a three year old, "you would never force me to do anything. You don't have to force me, Peter. I'll do whatever you want."

Peter took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves as he figured out what he should say. A small part of him was furious that Neal would think, even for a second, that Peter was the sort of man who would abuse someone like this, but he knew it wasn't Neal's fault. Apparently, in Neal's experience, this was how the world worked.

The first record they had of James Bonds was at, what, eighteen years of age? Nineteen? Seven years later, Peter had finally arrested at twenty-six. Which meant he'd had seven years, out of thirty, to play the upscale, classy conman. That twenty-three years as either that boy on a street corner or that man in a prison. After that had come three years spent with Peter, Neal doing his best to hide his troubled past as the FBI used him for his conman skills, honestly believing that, if it came up, Peter would use him for not so widely touted abilities, too.

A few days ago, Peter had been shocked that Neal would think for an instant that he would be pimped out for some case. Now he was beginning to see how, to Neal, it was the obvious conclusion.

"I want you to listen to me, Neal," Peter said, holding out his hand. Neal studied it for a moment then slowly took it, a slightly distrustful look on his face.

"I'm listenin'," Neal said, slurring the last word a little. If Peter wanted to get this out, he'd better do it fast, because he had a feeling that his partner was going to be out in a few minutes. Peter squeezed the other man's hand comfortingly.

"I am going to tell you the honest truth now, because you were right—I *have* been holding some things back. But not the things you think."

Neal's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, big blue eyes focused on Peter.

"Awhile back, I realized that I loved you. Actually, El realized it and pointed it out to me. But I knew you weren't interested. Why would you be, ladies' man?" Peter flashed a grin and Neal gave a feeble smile. "When this case came around, I never for an instant considered that there was any relation to your past. If I had, I never would have asked you to do it. But the thing is, it doesn't matter now, because I don't care what you did, Neal, and I definitely don't hate you. I *love* you."

Neal made a small sound and Peter squeezed his hand again.

"Yes, I want to be with you. But you don't need to be afraid. It's not going to happen, because *you* don't want to be with *me.* The Bureau does need you for your know how, but that's not the reason that we're friends. If you could never work another case, you would still be my best friend, and I would still love you."

A tear fell down Neal's cheek and he reached up, dabbing at his eyes.

"So please, please, Neal, stop trying to work what we have out in your head, because you're turning it into something its not. Something that doesn't even make sense. Something built out of years of horrible things happening to you. Not everything in the world is horrible, and not everyone has an agenda. I *swear* to you, Neal, that I will never, ever make you do anything you don't want to do. I am not your master, whatever twisted psychological bullshit Melbane was spewing. I am your partner. *Partner,* Neal. That means we're equals. It means we can always go to each other for help, but we don't control each other's lives."

"But you do," Neal said, tightening his grip on Peter's hand. "I belong to you. And I don't blame you for that, because it's my own fault. I got myself here. But why pretend pretty things that aren't true? There's no point in deluding ourselves. We both know that you can have anything you want from me."

"But don't you see, buddy?" Peter said urgently. "You're the one who's deluded! I can't have anything I want from you, Neal! There are very strict rules about relationships between Feds and CIs, rules about what I can and cannot do. If I hurt you, Neal, you can report me, and I'll lose my badge."

Neal let out a huff of laughter, a bitter look in his eyes. "Please. Nobody would believe me."

"You think?" Peter questioned. "Because I'm pretty sure they would. Tell me, Neal, who told you they wouldn't believe you?"

"Trust me, Peter, they never believe the whore," Neal said flatly, shaking his head. "I *know.* Why do you think I had to leave home? Even my mom didn't believe me. I told her he made me, but she didn't believe it. I told her." The last words came out more as a whine.

Peter took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. No wonder Neal thought nobody cared. What kind of mother didn't protect her own son?

"Hell, maybe I did come on to him," Neal muttered, rubbing tiredly at his face. "Honestly, I don't even remember any more. It was too long ago. Maybe she was right not to believe me. Maybe… Maybe I lied. Everything he said came true, after all. I ended up a whore. Said I'd be one, now I am… Musta been me. Prolly was me…" His words were starting to slur together.

Peter made an idle note to find a certain bitch in Albuquerque and give her a piece of his mind. Or, better yet, a warrant for her arrest. Was their a statute of limitations on aiding child molestation?

"I don't think so, Neal," Peter said giving Neal's hand a squeeze as his eyelashes fluttered. "Stay with me, buddy. Look, I know you're tired, and I know you're in pain, but I just want you to realize… I'm not going to hurt you, Neal."

"It's not true, you know."

Peter let out a sigh. "Neal, I swear it is. I'm not going to—"

"No, I mean what you said about me not wanting you." Neal shook his head as if to clear it, blinking rapidly. "Sorry, I'm feeling a little… funny. What I meant is that I do want you. I've wanted you for a long time. I've never wanted a man before, but I want you. I imagine it sometimes. I don't usually imagine stuff like that. I… I love you, too. I dunno why you love me, but I love you…"

Peter swallowed hard, tears welling up in his eyes. "Oh, there are so many reasons to love you, buddy."

"Maybe… maybe when I get out of the hospital we could… I don't know… Talk about it some more?"

Peter smiled at the hopeful lilt to the words. "Yeah," he said softly, "we'll talk about it some more. Why don't you get some rest now? You look pretty tired."

"Yeah, I am…" Neal said, lashes fluttering. "Thank you. You know, for saving me."

"You don't have to thank me for that, buddy. It was my pleasure." Peter bent forward slowly, smiling down at the man before gently touching their lips together. Neal gave a happy sigh as he slipped away into unconsciousness.

o o o

"Hey, everybody! The man of the hour is officially back!" Neal flashed a grin at the small crowd of agents, then spun around in his chair, tossing his hat into the air then catching it again and flipping it on his head. Applause filled the room, along with a few overly dramatic groans from Jones. Neal laughed. "You know you missed me, Clinton!" He flashed the man a grin. "You know you did."

"Yeah, yeah, you're right. It was a little *too* peaceful around here without you," Jones admitted, tossing him a grin in return. If there was one good thing about being surrounded by overly masculinized frat boys, it was their willingness to pretend as if awkward and embarrassing moments where you learned way more than you ever wanted to know about the other person had never happened at all. Considering the sort of troglodytes the FBI hired, he was free and clear!

"Hey Neal, can I talk to you?" a feminine voice said, and Neal let out a sigh. Apparently the frat boy did not apply to the women.

"Sorry, Diana, got a new case to look over, no time for a heart to heart," Neal said, avoiding her eyes as he picked up a random file off his desk and waved it around as evidence.

"That's your time sheet folder," she said dryly, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring down at him. Neal sighed again.

"Fine, fine, okay. What do you want to talk about?" Neal had a feeling he already knew, but he'd been working really hard to camouflage the elephant in the room, and he wasn't about to be the one to bring it up.

"You think we could step outside?"

Oh yeah. Definitely a conversation about Mr. Elephant's big fat ass.

"I dunno, Diana—"

"Come on," she said brusquely, reaching down and yanking him up by his tie. "There's a new cafe around the corner that I want to try."

o o o

"Hey, honey. Whatcha looking for?"

Peter started at the voice, automatically trying to rise and managing to slam his head against his desk as he did so. "Dammit," he muttered, grimacing as he rubbed at the back of his head.

"Oh, ouch, that looked like it hurt… Sorry, sweetie," El said in a sympathetic voice.

"Not your fault," Peter said as he crawled out from under his desk, smiling up at his wife. "Just trying to to fix one of the legs. It's wobbly."

"Oh, so you weren't hiding from Neal's welcome back party, then?" she asked innocently, giving him a knowing look.

Peter sighed and stood up, wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers. "Okay, okay, you got me. Is it over?"

"Yup. Champagne was popped, Neal tap danced on a table, Clinton wore a sparkly purple tank-top as a hat, and Hughes presented Neal with a certificate of appreciation. It was all very nice. Too bad you were too busy to come, but we all know that wobbly desks come first."

"Oh, shut up," Peter mumbled, face turning red. "You know why I didn't go, El."

"I know, hon," she said, reaching out to pull him in for a hug. "But you can't hide from him forever."

"I know, " Peter groaned, rubbing at his eyes. "But it's just so *weird.* It's as if nothing happened at all. A week in the hospital, a week of leave, then BOOM, old Caffrey is back as if the past few weeks were just a dream. After all we went through, after all the things that were said and done… I expected things to be different, but they're not." He sighed. "I know I should be pleased. It's selfish of me *not* to be—why shouldn't I want Neal back to his old self? I can't help it, though. In fact, it's driving me crazy, but I don't know what to do."

"So hiding under your desk during his welcome back party was the best thing you could come up with?" El asked, smirking a little.

"Pretty much," Peter said with a sigh. "God, El, it's like he has amnesia! We had one heart to heart in the hospital then, suddenly, he doesn't want to talk about it and if I even try to bring it up he changes the subject. Hell, maybe he *does* have amnesia. He was pretty high when we talked at the hospital. Either way, I guess I should just go with it. After all, who am I to dredge up old memories? The problem is, I don't want to 'just go with it.'"

"Then you shouldn't," El said simply, perching herself on the edge of his desk. "Talk to him. Have a little one on one time. You haven't really had a chance to do that since that first night, Mozzie sleeping at the hospital and all, and then June taking up residence at his bedside once he got home. Talk to him, tell him how you feel about him."

"And have him think I'm trying to pressure him into doing something he doesn't want to?" Peter shook his head. "No way. Better to let a sleeping dog lie."

El reached out, playing idly with the paperweight on his desk. "Peter… Have you ever thought that maybe he's avoiding the subject because he's afraid? Neal said himself that he loved you, and that he wanted to do something about it. Maybe he's afraid that if he talks to you about it, he'll find out you didn't mean what you said. After all, it's got to be pretty hard for a man who flat out admits he doesn't love himself to believe that someone else loves him."

" I don't know, El," Peter said with a sigh. "I really don't think it's my place to bring it up. If Neal wants to be anything other than friends, he can come to me."

El hopped down off the desk, shaking her head. "Men. You are so stubborn. But fine, whatever you think it best." She paused. "Hey, the welcome back cake was nice, but I could use some lunch. How about we hit that new cafe around the corner, Mr. Burke?"

"That sounds fantastic, Mrs. Burke," Peter said as he linked his arm with hers, glad that little conversation was over and done with. It was so nice to be married to someone who understood.

o o o

"Nice place," Neal said as he glanced around the little cafe. "Think the food's any good?"

"Don't worry," Diana said dryly. "Their salad isn't from a bag. I called ahead and checked."

Neal put a hand over his heart, feigning relief. "Oh, thank God."

Diane chuckled, pointing to a table in the corner. "Come on, let's sit over here."

"Very private," Neal said, raising an eyebrow. "Agent Barrigan, are you planning to propose to me?"

Her loud snort was answer enough. "Come on, sit your fancy ass down. I want to talk to you."

Neal rolled his eyes as he settled into one of the seats. "Yeah, I got that notion when you were dragging me through the Federal building by my tie."

"Ties make good handles," Diana said with a shrug, unfolding her napkin. "If you don't like it, don't wear them."

"So," Neal said as he settled his own napkin in his lap. "Might I ask what this little adventure pertains to? Not that I don't adore the chance to spend some one on one time with you, though I wonder if Christy may get jealous…" He wagged his eyebrows comically.

"Oh, I'm pretty sure she knows she has nothing to worry about," Diana said with a chuckle. "But," she added, voice turning serious, "I think we should get down to business."

"Business it is," Neal said, picking up the menu.

"You're messed up, Caffrey, and you need to deal with it."

Neal's eyebrows shot up, mouth dropping open a little. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, please, don't sit there acting like you don't know what I'm talking about. I was there that night, I saw what went down, and I understood it a lot better than those men. In fact, I have intimate knowledge."

Neal's brow furrowed in confusion. "I'm sorry, I don't follow."

"When I was fifteen, one of my family's bodyguards raped me. Been dealing with it ever since. It was especially fun when I came out as a lesbian and my mom insisted that my sexuality was just a byproduct of what happened to me. A real riot being told your entire lifestyle came from one man's misplaced dick."

Neal cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. This was not a conversation he had very often… "Wow. I'm so sorry, Diana. That's wrong. I mean, both things are wrong, what the bodyguard did and your mom about you being gay. Did they arrest him?"

"Yeah they did," Diana said, taking a sip of her water. "But that didn't stop him from showing up in my nightmares. Look, I don't know what it's like to be so poor that selling your body is what you have to do to survive, but I do know what it's like to be forced into having sex with someone. I know the guilt that comes with it, and the blame, and the shame, and the confusion. I know what it's like to hear person after person tell you it's not your fault, and to not believe a single one of them. To constantly be telling myself, I should have locked my door. I shouldn't have flirted with him in the hall the day before. I shouldn't have been wearing that nightie. I should have yelled for help." She shook her head. "I didn't even yell, can you believe that? I just laid there and cried. Did you yell, Neal?"

Neal cleared his throat, more than a little uncomfortable with this topic. "I didn't have any reason to yell, Diana. I told them they could do it."

"Doesn't matter," she said with a shrug, as if that was the final word. "You were a kid. It was wrong. They were bad men, all of them, and it wasn't your fault. Not a single time was it your fault. But I know you don't believe that."

"Because it's not true," Neal said coldly, annoyance flaring up. Who did this woman think she was, telling him about his own past?

"Yes it is, and you need to learn to believe that. Oh, there will always be slivers of doubt. Hell, every now and then I even find myself wondering 'was I really born this way, or was it that night'? Which is insane, because I've always been a lesbian, and I know that. But mostly I know: I did nothing wrong. It was all on him."

"I *have* been raped, Diana," Neal said cooly, "though I hold some of the blame since I put myself in bad situations and that is the only reason it happened. But selling my ass to strangers is not rape."

"It is when you have no other choice. Prostitution is illegal for a reason, Caffrey, and it's not for the john's protection. Prostitution is illegal because it is an abuse of power, just like rape. When you're having sex with someone because you have no other viable choice, that's rape, Neal. And it's not your fault."

"I don't believe that," Neal said shortly, surprised at his sudden rush of anger toward Diana. She was only trying to help him, but dammit… It *had* been his fault. He put himself out on the street. Nobody did it for him. How was that possibly not his fault? And yeah, okay, he'd been a little kid. And yeah, okay, the guys who'd picked him up had been sick perverts old enough to be his dad. That did not clear him of all charges. He'd taken their money. "I'm sorry, Diana, but I don't believe that."

"I know," she said in a calm voice, giving him a tight smile. "And that's why you need to get help. Because until you do, you're going to continue to live life in fear. You're going to continue to question everyone and everything that comes along, and you're never going to be able to trust anyone, and you're going to be miserable for the rest of your life."

Neal stared at her for a long moment then dropped his head with a sigh, the anger going out of him in a whoosh. "I know," he said, sounding defeated. "I so know, Diana. *Logically,* I know. If I put anybody else in the position I was in, then I'd agree with you one hundred percent. Logically, I do know. Which is why I'd rather not talk about it. Because emotions aren't logical and if I start thinking about it, any of it, and logic goes out the window." He looked up, locking eyes with her. "So please, please, can you let it go? For me? So that I can at least pretend that I'm not a wreck? Please?"

Diana nodded slowly, not looking particularly happy, but not seeming upset, either. "Okay, Neal. If that's what you want, then that's what I'll do. We'll never talk about it again. But I think there is someone you *do* need to talk to."

Neal seriously doubted it, but as a man who liked his balls attached to his body, he decided to play along. "Yeah?" he said tiredly, "and who is that?"

"The man who just walked in the door."

o o o

"Wow, this place is pretty fancy," Peter said, raising an eyebrow at the rather elaborately decorated room.

"Just because their salad doesn't come in a bag doesn't make it fancy, hon," El said with a little laugh, and Peter shot her a dirty look.

"You think they have deviled ham?"

"I think my nose can't stand you finding out," El replied, then suddenly pointed off across the room. "Hey, look over there!" She said, smiling widely. "It's Neal and Diana! What a coincidence!"

Peter followed her gaze to the corner of the room where, indeed, Neal and Diana were seated together at a table. Coincidence? This was so not a coincidence. Women. Can't live with 'em, can't get dry cleaning back without 'em.

As if on cue, Neal turned his head, his surprise obvious as he latched gaze with Peter. Behind him, Diana leaned back in her chair, smirking triumphantly.

They had totally been played.

Peter's eyes narrowed as he glared down at his wife. "You set me up!" he accused, sticking a finger in her face. "I cannot believe you set me up. I trusted you, and you set me up."

Sorry, sweetie," El said with a sly smile, "but it's for your own good." She grabbed him by the arm, practically dragging him in the direction of Neal's table.

"Uh-uh, no way," Peter said, digging in his heels. "I told you, I don't want to be the one to stir things up."

El let out an irritated sigh. "Don't you get it, Peter? Ignoring what happened is not helping Neal. It's ripping him apart! Everyone can see it." She paused, the conceded, "Okay, not everyone, but Diana and I can see it, even if all you manly men can't! Comes with being female, I guess. The magical ability to sense when someone's miserable inside."

"El," he said in a low voice, drawing her in closer, "I really don't want to do this."

"Honestly, I don't care what you want," his wife retorted, making his eyebrows shoot up in surprise. Not the usual answer from his sweet honey. "I care that every time I see Neal, he flashes me a big smile, but when I look into his eyes, I can see that he's crying inside. He needs your help, hon." She reached out, cupping his face in her hands. "Please, honey," she whispered, staring deep into his eyes. "Please, just talk to him. For me?"

Peter swallowed hard, glancing nervously back at the table. Neal was staring at his plate like it held the answers to the universe, shoulders stiff and back hunched, like he thought he was about to be jumped from behind, face pale as ghost. Definitely not the happy go lucky guy he'd been half an hour ago when he and Jones had been belting out a poor rendition of 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' In fact, he looked pretty damn miserable, just like his wife had said.

Peter let out a sigh. "Okay, okay, I'll go talk to him. I can't avoid him forever anyway. But I'm not going to bring up things I know he's not comfortable discussing."

"Fine," El said, giving him a soft smile. "But don't avoid talking about things just because they make *you* uncomfortable, either, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," Peter muttered as he pulled away from her, heading over to the little table. Diana stood, holding out her napkin.

"Here you go, Boss. I'm headed back to the office. Got to take another look at the Yemin case."

"Don't think I'll forget that you helped set me up," Peter said sourly as he took the napkin and sat down in the chair she'd just vacated. "You will *so* be making up for this in paperwork."

"Oh, I'm terrified," Diana replied, smirking. She reached out and gave Neal's shoulder a friendly pat. "You boys have a nice chat."

She walked off and an awkward silence fell over the table as Peter fiddled with his napkin and Neal inspected his silverware. Napkin arranged, Peter moved on to his own silverware, since Neal seemed to find it so fascination. A nice fork, well cast, with good, sturdy prongs—oh, this was ridiculous. Peter took a deep breath.

"Neal, we need to talk about—"

"Peter, I wanted to say—"

They both stopped, looking at each other in embarrassment.

"You go first," Neal said after a moment.

"No, no, you go ahead," Peter replied quickly.

Neal breathed in deeply then let it out with a whoosh. Apparently Peter wasn't the only nervous one here.

"Okay," he said slowly, sort of playing with the word. "First off, I want to say that I'm sorry for what happened that night… and for the things I said at the hospital, too."

Peter raised an eyebrow. So he *did* remember their little drug-induced chat in the ER. Good to know.

"I you must have been pissed off, me talking like I thought you'd sneak into my room at night like the oogey boogey man or something." Neal let out an embarrassed little laugh, shaking his head. "Melbane really got into my head. He was Freud on fire, I guess you could say."

"You weren't the only one," Peter said quietly. "Man, am I glad that psycho's off the street."

Neal gave him a tight smile. "Yeah, me too. Thing is, you're a good man, and I know you'd never hurt me. This probably seems weird to you, 'cause everybody likes you and you have so many friends…"

As if people didn't like Neal Caffrey? The man collected friends like dryers collected lint.

"…But you're honestly the only person I trust. I didn't even trust Kate like I trust you. I didn't mean the things I said that night, and I know you didn't, either. Or I hope you didn't, because you're definitely not a rapist, Peter. More like a knight in blazing armor."

Peter chuckled. "I don't know about that. Besides, I thought we were about the fire references for awhile."

Neal gave a small smile then said, "You are though. It's what you do. You save people." He paused, dropping his eyes to the table. "I am glad Diana and El arranged this, though, because there is something I should say, so that it's out there."

Peter swallowed hard, butterflies dancing in his chest. "Oh?"

Neal looked up, latching into him with those intense blue eyes. "Your secret's safe with me, Peter. I'll never use it against you, hell, I'll never even bring it up. It's my fault, anyway. Say what you like, there must be something about me that draws them in. This isn't the first time I've been that guy who ruins lives by being the one in the middle. Call it seduction, call personality, hell, call it being a whore, but you got caught in it and I'm sorry. We can deal with it however you want. Pretend it never happened. Remember it when you want to, pretend it never happened the rest of the time. It's up to you. But whatever we work out, I promise, I won't let it hurt you. And if, somehow, someone does find out, I swear I'll take all the blame."

Peter stared at him for a long moment, not sure how to respond. Finally he said, "Neal, please tell me you're not talking about what I think you're talking about."

"I'm not talking about anything," Neal said. "Because nothing happened. I keep my promises, Peter."

Peter swallowed hard, the lump in his throat making it hard to breathe as the image of a drugged up Neal, tears running down his face, wondering aloud if he'd seduced his bastard of a step-father after all, flashed through his head. Oh, hell no.

"Neal," Peter said sharply, reaching out and grabbing his wrist. Neal flinched a little at the touch, and Peter forced himself to relax. "You need to listen to me, okay, buddy? All that stuff you just said? You need to wipe it away, okay? You didn't do anything to make me want you, okay? I wanted you a long time before this whole mess. And I don't want to pretend it never happened. I'm going to tell you something right now, something I mean with all my heart, and you can sing it to the mountains if you like, because I'm not ashamed of it and it's not some dirty secret. Are you listening to me?"

Neal licked his lips, looking nervous. "Yeah, I'm listening…"

"Good," Peter said. "Then hear this. I love you, Neal. I love you."

o o o

"Are you listening to me?" the intense look on Peter's face soft of made Neal want to melt into the ground. The man was obviously furious about something, Neal had obviously done something very, very wrong, but he didn't know what.

He thought he'd covered all the bases, making it clear that he took full responsibility for the insanity he'd lured Peter into that night at the hospital as well as flat out stating that they could pretend it away forever or, if preferred, they could pretend it away in the daytime and Peter could have his pleasure at night. Metaphorically, anyway. It wasn't like it had to be at nighttime or anything. In fact, with their schedules, daytime rendezvous would probably be easier.

Neal must have missed something, though, because it was obvious that Peter was not pleased.

"Yeah, I'm listening…" Neal said when it became obvious that Peter was waiting for some kind of response.

"Good," The man said, staring at Neal with hard eyes. Neal's stomach turned a little at the sight. "Then know this."

Neal licked his lips, trying to look calm. Whatever Peter had to say, it couldn't be that bad…

"I love you, Neal. I love you."

Neal blinked. "What?"

"I love you," Peter said urgently, leaning forward and reaching out to take Neal's hand in his, squeezing it like he had that night in the hospital. "I love you, Neal, and I don't care if the whole world knows it, because it's nothing to be ashamed of."

Okay… this was not was he had expected… Neal shook his head, feeling like he'd just been dropped in another world. "What are you talking about, Peter?" he asked in disbelief. "You're married! To a really awesome woman, no less. And you're telling me you love me and you don't care who knows? You've lost your mind."

"Did you not notice who brought me here, Neal?" Peter questioned. "El has been on my butt for the past two weeks, wanting me to come talk to you. I didn't want to, because I didn't want to bring up things that might make you feel like I was pressuring you to be in a relationship with me. Because if you don't want this to go anywhere, it won't, I promise you that. And *I* keep my promises, too. So know this, Neal: What happens from here is up to you. We can go back to being friends, something I am perfectly happy with, or we can see what else we can make this friendship into. Either way, it's your choice, and I will honor your decision one hundred percent."

"So…" Neal said slowly, pieces starting to click into place. "That's why you've been avoiding me? Because you were afraid I'd feel like you were pressuring me to have sex with you?"

Peter cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. "I like to think of it more along the lines of dating, but, yeah, pretty much."

Neal shook his head, letting out a little laugh. "I thought you were avoiding me because you were embarrassed about me coming on to you in the hospital and were afraid I'd tell someone and you'd get blamed for it."

"Coming on to me in the hospital?" Peter said, brow wrinkling up. "You didn't come on to me in the hospital, Neal. If anything, I came on to you. But mostly we just talked."

"I remember kissing you," Neal said quietly. "And I remember thinking about how I always end up seducing the people around me and then somebody gets hurt." A stab of pain cut through him.

"Oh, Neal," Peter said softly, using his thumb to stroke the back of Neal's hand. "That… That wasn't about us. And it's not right, either. People make their own choices. You're not some kind of incubus, drawing people in. You just happen to be an attractive, nice guy that plenty of people like. But even if you *had* 'come on to me,' as you put it, that doesn't make you responsible for *my* choices. You're not to blame for what other people do, Neal, as much as you may not believe that." He chuckled. "And just so you know… I was the one who kissed you."

Neal let out a huff of laughter, eyebrow shooting up. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," Peter said, giving him a lopsided grin. "And if you want, we could try it again…"

Neal stared at the other man. Peter was so handsome, those roguish looks perfect for a knight, but, more importantly, Neal couldn't imagine anyone else's arms feeling safer than Peter's. "You know what?" he said coyly, giving Peter a sly smile. "I think I'd like that. I think I'd like that very much."

Neal leaned forward and Peter met him in the middle, lips touching gently together. The fear was there, like it always was, but there was something new, too, something warm and safe and exciting, and Neal had a feeling that, eventually, it would conquer all. It would take some work but maybe, just maybe, he and his knight in blazing armor could live happily ever after…


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