Who didn't love Peter and Neal's heart-to-heart in "Diminishing Returns"? And all their scenes together so far this season, really. This is another one I wanted to see, though.
No claim to these wonderful characters; just playing with them for a while. Possible spoilers for anything up through 4x03. Some mild profanity.
Apologies in advance if the subject matter of this fic is well-trodden ground at this point.
"Maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves."
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
SUMMARY: Peter and Neal hadn't seen each other for six weeks. Surely they had some catching up to do. And a few things to learn along the way . . . .
Chapter One – Camouflage
Camouflage is a game we all like to play, but our secrets are as surely revealed by what we want to seem to be, as by what we want to conceal.
- Russell Lynes (1910-1991)
Outside the windows that overlooked June's terrace, night was beginning to fall over New York.
Neal had always loved this part of the day. During his former life, of course, nighttime was often when he went to work. Shadow served his purposes much better than light; darkness was the ideal secret-keeper. And so dusk had frequently been a time of pleasurable tension, of anticipation of what was to come.
But even beyond the practical aspects, Neal was an admirer of beauty, and there were few sights as magnificent as the glint of the setting sun off the buildings, subtly changing their color. He had always been captivated by how the lights in the windows seemed to brighten and the buildings to glow as the background sky purpled slowly into darkness.
On the island, too, sunset and the immediate aftermath had been, for Neal, the most spectacular moments of the day. On Cape Verde, though, there had been stars afterward. More stars than Neal had ever seen in his life—he hadn't spent much time in places where the nighttime sky was dark enough to spot them.
Of course, in New York, there were no stars. But the city held other charms.
At Peter's knock, Neal let him in, glancing inside the brown paper bag he carried. He let out a low whistle. "Two six-packs? Am I going to be driving you home?"
"Yeah, right," Peter said wryly. "Do you even have a valid driver's license?"
Actually, Neal had several (although how you defined 'valid' could be an issue . . .). Not wanting things to get off on the wrong foot, however, he took the path of least resistance. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
"No," Peter said, taking out a beer and placing the rest in the refrigerator. "Rhetorical question—forget I even asked. As for the beer, you leave me no choice, since I have to bring my own. Haven't been here in . . . it's going on seven weeks. Gotta restock the supply." He turned around to look at Neal. "I assume I'll be invited back at some point to drink the rest of it?"
Neal smiled. "I hope that's another rhetorical question."
Peter's lips quirked in response as he walked back to the table and reached into the bag. "For you. Welcome home gift."
Neal accepted the bottle of wine Peter handed him. "Aw, thanks, Peter." He held it up, scrutinized the label. "Um, that's . . . that's really—"
". . . probably not your usual," Peter finished.
"No . . . not quite, but it's very . . . thoughtful of you."
"Well, they say it's the thought that counts."
"In this case, definitely," Neal muttered under his breath, taking a wine glass from the cupboard. In a louder voice, he said, "I've already got a bottle open, though. Think I'll save this one for later."
"Probably not a bad idea to let it age a bit," Peter allowed. "Since it is a rather . . . recent vintage."
Neal chuckled and a few seconds later, Peter joined in.
By unspoken agreement, Peter and Neal had waited to discuss in any detail what the last six weeks had brought. It was as if both of them had needed time to decompress, to digest everything that had occurred before they could talk about it. And of course, this conversation had to take place in private—just the two of them. Tonight was the first chance they'd had.
As they sat there at Neal's table, drinking and talking, the barriers came down on both sides.
Peter was always curious, about everything; a prerequisite for an FBI agent, probably. Neal thought it was a wonder the man had managed to keep it together this long without having a stroke or something—just from the sheer need to know. While he'd never come out and say it, Peter Burke nonetheless had to be dying to find out everything Neal and Mozzie had been up to.
Or at least, everything that wouldn't create more thorny ethical dilemmas for him. There was that important caveat.
Since the last thing Neal wanted was for Peter to have a stroke (they'd been through enough already), he did his level best to fill in the blanks, telling Peter about life on Cape Verde. He found himself embroidering on reality just a tad, because it really didn't sound like much, he had to admit—now that he was looking back on it.
He talked about his daily routine and extolled the relaxed pace of life, the beauty of the scenery, the warmth of the ocean, the near-perfect weather. The friendliness of the people (up until the moment he'd had a half-million dollar bounty placed on his head, anyway). How he'd befriended Hector—and wooed Maya. He omitted any discussion of Dobbs. It still galled Neal that he'd stupidly trusted the man; he should have known better that. He did tell Peter how he'd busied himself with painting some truly lovely reproductions (not forgeries, of course, definitely reproductions).
"Losing those paintings was probably my biggest regret," Neal mused, wistfully picturing them in his mind's eye. "I had done some pretty good work. It's amazing how productive you can be when you don't have to slave away every day from nine to five," he added with a sly, sidelong glance at Peter.
Peter just rolled his eyes. "Most people's biggest regret would be getting shot," he pointed out, ever pragmatic.
"Oh, that's right up there," Neal assured him. "Hurt like hell." His expression turned pensive. "But losing the art hurt, too. When we realized Collins was on our tail, I had to burn everything."
"History repeating itself," Peter said dryly.
"You know, I hadn't thought of it that way—but you're right," Neal admitted, laughing in spite of himself. "It seems my work is just not destined for posterity."
Neal was careful not to talk about how their lavish lifestyle had been financed, and he noticed that Peter was equally careful not to ask. Which was a relief to Neal, even if it meant that Peter was quietly crossing a line again. Perhaps that was just an inevitability now—something they'd both have to get used to.
Privately, Neal had been less than pleased to learn that Mozzie had squirreled away half the treasure. In Neal's mind, by that point, the cache was a headache he didn't need. Yet Mozzie's action was unsurprising and, in its own way, quite generous. Since Neal had benefited from it, it would be awfully hypocritical to complain about it—or to say anything to Peter.
So Neal was mum on the matter of their financial resources, and Peter knew enough not to ask.
Peter had plenty of other things to say, though.
"It all sounds pretty idyllic," Peter commented when Neal had finished his paean to the joys of life on Cape Verde. Peter said the words lightly, but there was something about the set lines of his face that belied his tone.
"You think?" Neal's deflection was automatic, and so was his smile. Peter, of course, would know it wasn't one of his real ones.
"Actually, no," Peter said bluntly—no deflection from him, Neal noted, and it made him feel an incongruous little rush of happiness, because this, this, was Peter.
This was the kind of thing Neal had missed, without even realizing that he'd been missing it.
"I mean, for a vacation, sure, it sounds great," Peter continued. "But for the rest of your life? No. For the rest of your life, it sounds pretty boring."
Their eyes met, and Neal, for once, didn't know what to say. Or he knew, in his heart, what he thought, but something in him didn't want to say it out loud, to admit so quickly that Peter was right. Neal found he had to look away.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. When Peter resumed, his voice was casual once again.
"So . . . you were enjoying quite the island life for six weeks. Do you miss it?"
The very same words Mozzie had used, when asking him about New York.
"Island life had its charms," Neal allowed, which certainly was true—if not quite an answer.
"When we talked on the phone, you said you were happy there," Peter observed.
"Mmm. I did say that."
Peter tilted his head and gave him that old, familiar cut the crap, Caffrey look—one Neal had pictured in his mind more than once over the last six weeks. Once he'd even tried, furtively, to sketch it. But he'd had to do a quick concealment/disposal when he realized that if Mozzie ever saw it, he'd think Neal had lost his mind. Fleeing felons living under the radar on non-extradition island hideaways didn't draw pictures of the FBI agent who'd chased them for years. It was strictly prohibited in the fugitive bylaws.
Or, it would have been if the very notion wasn't bat-shit insane.
Just as well I threw it away, anyway, Neal thought. Now, as he scrutinized Peter and catalogued his features, set in that look, Neal could see that the tilt of the mouth in the sketch had been all wrong, anyway, and even the eyes hadn't been a good likeness, they'd been too—
"Have to hand it to you, Neal," Peter said, jarring him from his reverie. "I think you've just set a record for the most non-answers in a single conversation."
"Didn't realize you were keeping track."
Peter shook his head. "And there's another one."
"Hard habit to break," Neal admitted.
"You said you were happy there," Peter persisted. "I remember that quite distinctly, but—"
"Wait. Hold on a minute," Neal interrupted, deciding it was time to reassert some control over this impromptu interrogation Peter was conducting. Two could play that game; why should Peter get to have all the fun? "You remember," he echoed, putting a very definitive emphasis on the verb. "Why do I have the feeling that you didn't have to rely solely on memory for the details of that conversation?"
Peter cleared his throat and glanced away. His tells could be embarrassingly blatant. There were times when Neal thought Peter would make one hell of a con man. Then there were other times—like now—when Neal wondered how he ever could have thought that Peter could con anyone.
Or maybe it's just that Peter can't con you, a voice in his mind said.
Neal decided he liked that theory much better.
"Uh, yeah. Well, we'll get to that," Peter said, uncharacteristically hesitant. "You first, though. You haven't answered my question yet."
Neal sighed. Peter wasn't going to stop until he had an answer. Really, why had Neal ever imagined it would be otherwise?
There were only two problems with that. First, Neal wasn't quite sure what the answer was. He had an idea, but that led directly to the second problem: he wasn't quite sure whether Peter was truly ready to hear it.