Fandom: White Collar
Word count: 8663
Notes: The thought process went something like this:
Me: What delightful fun this show is!
Brain: INDEED. WE MUST WRITE FIC.
Me: All right, how about we wait until the Merlin heist AU is finished, and then we work out a lovely OT3 fic with a plot and nice prose?
Brain: Or we could drop everything RIGHT NOW and write a fic with AU elements that is mostly comprised of snappy dialogue!
Me: -- or we could --
Brain: THAT'S SETTLED THEN.
And then I spent ages procrastinating on Wikipedia pages about lens optics because -- well, I'm me. Then I did a huge amount of worldbuilding very fast and then forced myself not to talk about most of it, because exposition-dumps are the enemy of us all, and then I had to trickle bits of it back in again so that the story would make decent amounts of sense.
Enjoy! This is technically not Peter/Neal/Elizabeth but it may as well be, because let's face it, they all love each other to pieces.
There is no Actual Plot, but nobody bothered to inform the wordcount of this fact.
The décor is modern and monochrome, the light discoloured by the mingling of interior lamps and the spill of falling dusk through open panels of sliding glass. A bar. The music is almost inaudible; maybe jazz. A brassy tune but no words to go with it.
"What's your drink?"
The woman turns around and sees blue eyes, cool and intimate as the light itself, above a smile. Her eyes dance over his face, then down to his hands -- expensive watch, no rings -- before her own smile appears.
"Dirty? I'm guessing dirty." He waves over the bartender and orders. Her assessing gaze has softened.
"Hmm. If I'm in the mood."
"Lovely night, nice place, beautiful woman -- I know I'm in the mood."
She laughs, not responding, watching the light reflecting off the cocktail shaker. "How did you know I'm alone?" she says finally.
"Lucky guess. Or maybe I could tell, even from across the room, that you're --"
He's interrupted when the bartender slides the martinis across the bar; as she lifts her drink, the hotel's logo is visible against the transparent liquid, white-etched into the glass.
He lifts his own glass in a toast. "Lonely. Waiting. But not for just anyone."
"Well, what do you know." Her smile turns coy, and she raises her free hand to stroke two tanned fingertips down his right temple. "I'd accuse you of cheating, but I don't see a lens."
The man with blue eyes shrugs and leans closer, clinking his glass against hers, skating his own hand down her bare arm.
"Maybe I just have a feel for people."
"I don’t believe you," said Peter. "You're lying."
"Nope," said Neal.
"But you --"
Neal leaned back in his chair, managing to make it look comfortable, even though Peter knew for a fact that these prison chairs were hellishly angular and punishing on parts of the ass that he hadn't previously known existed. Only Neal Caffrey could sit on one and look like he was reclining on a goddamn settee, and only Neal Caffrey could pull off attractive insouciance from within an orange jumpsuit.
"But?" Neal prompted.
Peter could feel a headache threatening to develop in the Caffrey Zone, which was located an inch above his temples, and had been a close acquaintance of throbbing pain during the last seven years. "But you're a shielder," he said, daring Neal to point out that he was stating the obvious. "And a bad one at that."
"Turns out there's some overlap in the Venn diagram after all," said Neal.
A warm homey smell drifted to greet Peter as he shucked his coat and felt his mouth tug into a smile in response to his wife's voice. Elizabeth was singing something sweet and repetitive, without words, and Peter made it halfway across the kitchen floor before she heard him and lifted one hand to wave hello.
"What're you making, El?"
"Mac and cheese. Almost done." The simplicity of the dish meant she'd had to bring some work home with her, so Peter dropped a kiss on her cheek and left her to it.
Peter fetched a bottle of red and poured two glasses, then laid the rest of the table, soothed by the domestic rhythm, gently pleased by his success in coming home at a reasonable hour. He straightened his own fork and sat down just as Elizabeth was serving out steaming portions that dripped with cheese; his stomach and mouth reminded him, with insistent synchrony, that he hadn't managed to eat more than two bites of lunch before being called into a meeting, and his coffee had gone cold in the car while he was in the prison.
"Good day?" Elizabeth asked, once they were eating.
"I went to visit Neal, you knew that, I --" He paused, watching the slow and careful way his wife was lifting forkfuls of pasta into her mouth. "Honey, are you still splitting? At the dinner table?"
"I know, I know." She blinked twice, shifted in her chair, and looked contrite -- or as contrite as Elizabeth's face, which always had a little wickedness around the eyes, ever could. "There. I'm all yours, sweetheart. I'm sorry, things got hectic today, and I promised a client I'd have three sample menus with quotes for a meeting tomorrow morning. Neal? How was he?"
"He's, ha, just wait until you hear this." Peter wiped his mouth, largely so that he could use the pause for effect. "Neal Caffrey is a sensate."
Elizabeth, being faster and much more sensible than him -- God, she was amazing, how the hell had he landed this woman? -- bypassed most of the elaborate disbelief that Peter had worked through, and simply set her fork down next to her plate. "And a shielder?"
"That's -- well." She tilted her head. "That's something. Unregistered, of course."
"No lens," he agreed. "Just enough skill that he can wield it without one, to a very limited extent."
Elizabeth leaned forward, food forgotten for the moment, her chin propped in one hand. "He called you to the prison to tell you this?"
"And to make a proposal." Peter took a deep breath. "El. How would you feel about my taking on a second link?"
"Neal?" A laugh broke out in the creases of her eyes. "He wants the FBI to register him?"
"And he wants to work with me. On the outside."
"Oh." She took a deep sip of wine, her expression distracted, but he didn't think she was splitting. She swirled her glass for a while, then drank again, then looked back at him. "That's interesting. At least you'd always know where he was."
"And vice versa." Peter wasn't happy about that aspect.
"Honey." Elizabeth gave him a pointed look. "You really think Neal couldn't find out where you were anyway, if he wanted to?"
"I know. But it's crazy. This is Neal. He's -- he'll have some other agenda."
"Or maybe he just doesn't want to spend another four years in prison, Peter. And it's not all that crazy. Wasn't he right? About the Canadian money?"
Peter sighed. "Yeah. Yeah, that was a good tip, however the hell he knew." He watched her carefully, the fall of her dark hair against her cheek and the smear of wine that fell just outside the boundary of her lips. "You think this is a good idea."
"I do. He took a huge risk for the woman he loved, and if he can serve his sentence in a more useful way, then you should help him do that." She picked up her fork again. "Besides, Peter, this is a huge gesture. Think about it. He won't get anywhere as a con artist while he's wearing a sensate lens, and he's basically agreeing to place himself in your hands for the duration of the link."
Peter nodded, slowly. "He's certainly done his research. Even handed me some paperwork about amplification and override features."
"Then he's serious about this."
"Yeah, he is." There were a lot of variables here -- Kate, Neal's previous track record, the lack of a precedent at the Bureau and said Bureau's tendency for epic sulking fits when faced with the prospect of innovation -- but Peter was sure about that much. This wasn't one of Neal's desperate off-the-cuff plans, it was a serious and measured proposal. Unfortunately, Peter wasn't sure if that made it a better or worse idea.
"Think it over. We can talk more later, if you want. Now eat your delicious dinner." Elizabeth reached out and put her free hand over his; Peter turned his own over and entangled their fingers, grateful for her existence in the quiet, profound way he'd long since given up trying to find the words to describe.
"Hey, Peter, look at that." Neal leaned closer to the reflective surface of the window, twisting his head one way and his pupils the other to get a better look at the three small stones embedded in his skin. "It matches my eyes."
Peter, who had been trying not to think exactly the same thing, reached out and tugged at his thin white T-shirt to direct him towards a chair. Neal, still enamored of his own reflection, ignored him. "Yes, well, I hope it won't mess up some elaborate accessorising scheme of yours, Neal."
"Are you kidding? I can definitely work with this."
"Ready to try it out?" Despite his reservations -- which still existed, yes, and were numerous -- Peter was excited. He could feel the anticipation creeping into his chest, tugging his mouth up, and he gave way to it entirely when he saw it mirrored on Neal's face.
"When you are, partner."
"Don't call me that."
He concentrated. This was different to the link he had with Elizabeth, which was a passive thing, vox and location only. This was a whole new set of mental controls: he was aware of Neal's lens, currently dark, and he nudged his mind gingerly up against his own ability to adjust its aperture.
"Here goes," he said, and then had just enough time to think, maybe we should have sat down --
-- before the wave hit him, pain and bright light and panic and sickly dark shades of green, orange, dirty blood red, a deluge of heat with teeth to it, gnawing fast and steady through his lungs. His legs gave way before his brain could register a protest, and all of Peter's finely-honed FBI field agent skills were channeled into fumbling around for the wastepaper basket so that he didn't ruin his office carpeting with vomit. He couldn't get a grip on his own lens in the quagmire of sensation that was sloshing through and around in his head, let alone Neal's. He doubted he could state with any certainty that his body was intact and whole; it felt shaken, blurred, cavernous and darkly undefined.
"Fuck fuck feedback fuck," Neal groaned, and within the chaos Peter was searingly, shockingly aware of the other man slumping down onto the floor, narrowly avoiding braining himself on the corner of the desk. "Peter, for Christ's sake --"
"Me?" Peter demanded, but just gathering enough breath to speak triggered another bout of retching. Bad idea. He switched tactics. --Cap your goddamn lens, Caffrey.
--Wow, you sound ten times as pissy like this.
--Okay, hang on.
And just like that, the wave receded, leaving some residual nausea and a powerful headache stranded like jetsam in its wake. This headache refused to confine itself to the Caffrey Zone; it spread tendrils all over Peter's scalp and then burrowed in hard. Peter, with some difficulty, managed to release his death grip on the now-disgusting wastebasket, and pushed it further under the desk so he didn't accidentally tip it over. He took deep breaths. In. Out. In.
"Ohhh," mumbled Neal, sounding almost as dreadful as Peter felt. He was lying flat on the carpet, one hand pressed over his eyes. "Oh man. Okay. Maybe this wasn't my brightest idea ever."
Peter cleared his throat, managed not to gag, and decided to risk speech. "I thought you said you knew how to control it!"
"I guess I...overestimated a bit. Or underestimated. Jesus. Is it always like that? Was that how it was for you and Elizabeth?"
"No. Definitely not."
"Yeah, I imagine that would have put a bit of a damper on the wedding night."
Peter reached out without looking and slapped him on the arm. Neal jerked away with a wounded look.
"Ow! Feeling delicate, over here!"
"You do not get to speculate about my sex life."
Neal lifted the hand from his face and mustered a weak leer. "You can speculate about mine, if you like."
"To answer your question," said Peter, forcing himself to ignore that, "no. That is not how a link is supposed to feel. I think we did things out of order here."
Neal sat halfway up, paused to wince, and then struggled into a sitting position against the wall. "So what do we --" he began, and then the office door banged open and Cruz was standing there with a look of fierce worry on her face.
"Agent Burke! Are you all right?"
"I'm just peachy," said Neal, before Peter could speak, "thanks for the concern."
Cruz ignored him. "Agent Burke?"
"I'll be fine." On autopilot, Peter lifted his hands away and lowered his legs to show her his torso -- no wounds -- no blood -- then let his head fall back against the side of the desk. "But I think we need someone from PC in here. One of their techs. Turns out Neal needs some training wheels before we unleash him on the world."
"On it, boss." Cruz shot an unfriendly look at Neal and left.
"We could try again," said Neal.
Peter tried to convey his deep, deep disapproval of this idea using only the muscles of his face.
"Or we could sit very still for a while," said Neal.
Peter closed his eyes. "See, we understand each other."
"Neal Caffrey, this is Ian Winter."
"From the Bureau's Psy Crime division," said Winter, who had a ponytail and wore an earring stud in the same pale champagne shade as Peter's lens, but had no lens of his own. Peter couldn't recall having worked with him before, but although he no longer felt actively ill his head was still fuzzy, so he tried to look noncommital and friendly in case Neal's disastrous first attempt at wielding his sensate skills had messed with Peter's memory.
Neal wobbled upright and shook his hand. "Agent Winter, good to meet you."
"Nah, I'm not an agent. Just a consultant, like you."
"Consultant. I like it." Neal quirked his mouth in Peter's direction as he sat back down. They'd managed to make it into chairs by this point, as Peter refused to spend more than half an hour gathering carpet dust on the floor of his own office, and the glances sent their way through the glass walls had begun to approach outright suspicion of shenanigans inappropriate for the workplace, or perhaps just insanity.
"If we're being formal, it's Doctor Winter," the man offered. "Got my PhD looking at the properties of the modified zircon that's standard issue in seer lenses nowadays."
"That's the one with the greater psyrefractive index than anything that occurs naturally, isn't it?" Neal leaned over, tipping his chair onto two legs, so that he could stare at Peter's lens up close. The Bureau upgraded the lenses of all its psy officers as a matter of course (while making a huge fuss about the expense) and Peter had been given the latest model eighteen months ago.
"That's right." Winter looked impressed. "You know much about lens sciences?"
Neal righted his chair with a thump. "I might have made friends with some Japanese smugglers a while back. Their black market in lenses is tricky to break into -- government keeps tight hold on the suppliers -- but profitable, if you can manage it. Research didn't suit you, then?"
"Not at all." Winter turned to the desk and opened a thick plastic envelope. "Got out as soon as I'd defended my thesis, and leapt into the arms of the first place to offer me a real job. Which happened to be the Bureau. Here."
Neal took the proffered pamphlet, which had colourful illustrations and large text, and read the title. Then he turned it around so that Peter could see. "My Lens Is Blue?"
Peter smiled. "Look at that, Neal, they found something suitable for your emotional age."
"Ha ha." Neal raised his eyebrows at Winter and brandished the pamphlet. "Seriously?"
Winter shrugged. "Most people are registered before they turn ten, and they learn to control their skill through the lens at the same age. There isn't really any instructional material aimed at adults."
Neal unfolded it and skimmed his eyes down the page, then read aloud with a patently fake chirpiness that itched a laugh into Peter's throat: "The three stones in my lens are for aperture, focus, and zoom. These are tricky words, but important!" He glanced up at Winter. "That's not quite true, is it. That the stones have any one-on-one relationships with the control properties."
"No," Winter admitted. "It's a lot more complicated than that. But it helps kids understand, and it's a good way of thinking about it while you're learning. Now. Tell me what happened when you first opened the link."
"That was Peter."
Peter was not going to be blamed for this. "Yes. I uncapped the lens -- Neal's lens -- and everything went to hell."
"Fully open?" Winter asked, pulling a much thicker booklet out of the envelope and flicking to what was probably the index.
"Yes." Peter frowned. "Was that the problem? El -- my wife -- says she can barely hear me over our link unless her lens is fully open, so I thought, to be safe..."
Winter shrugged. "We'll see. All right -- Caffrey. What did it feel like?"
"Like?" Neal spluttered a laugh. "Like, it didn't feel like anything. Except maybe that time I caught a fever and sweated out half my body weight. I was seeing some weird things that night, believe me."
Winter shook his head. "I meant, did you feel any distinct emotions. Depending on how strong you are, you most likely picked up all of Peter's and maybe some from other people in the vicinity. And from the sound of things, you then shoved them down the link, creating a feedback loop which neither of you have the training to handle."
Neal was wearing an unimpressed expression that Peter recognised: he was about to claim innocence of something. Peter pre-empted. "He's not saying you did it on purpose. I should have realised that you wouldn't have a clue what you were doing."
"Hey! We managed vox," Neal said.
"Badly," Peter amended. "It was like shouting through traffic."
"We're going to take this one step at a time," said Winter firmly. His booklet was open and he smoothed a finger down the middle of it, flattening the spine. "Aperture first. Caffrey, I want you to uncap, but I want you to think about doing it very gradually. Visualise peeling the lid off something, if that helps, or a little hole that slowly expands."
"Small aperture, right," Neal said, leaning forward, his eyes intent.
"Tiny," said Winter, "if you can manage it. As soon as you feel anything, anything at all, I want you to stop and hold it steady."
"This is weird," Neal said, mostly at Peter, and closed his eyes. "Okay. Tiny hole. Got it."
Peter had been linked to his wife for so long that he never thought about it except to speak to her or to find out, in idle moments, where she was; if he touched his mind against it now he could tell that she was stationary, somewhere to the east. He'd almost forgotten how it had felt the moment their newly-linked lenses were opened, but right then, with the same process unfolding itself in his consciousness, he remembered: that sensation like being flicked on the ear, the new level of paper-thin awareness that appeared, and the certainty beyond any doubt that he could reach out exactly a foot to the left and he would find Neal.
Neal, who wasn't saying anything, but whose face was transforming from wary concentration to Christmas morning and an unexpectedly large pile of presents under the tree. The expression made him look about as old as the target audience of My Lens Is Blue.
"I can feel you emoting over there, Peter," he said, his tone full of glee, precariously buried under a pretense at solemnity. "And here I thought the FBI were supposed to train that out of you."
"Just Agent Burke?" pounced Winter.
Neal drew his bottom lip into his mouth, eyes still closed, thoughtful. "And you, and -- someone over there is angry, and someone's -- impatient, I think?" He waved a vague hand in the direction of the rest of the office.
Winter looked down at his booklet, then back at Neal. Peter knew that look. Everyone confronted with the concept of Neal Caffrey acquired it sooner or later. "Are you sure you stopped on the smallest aperture?"
Neal nodded, eyes opening. "Tiny hole. Can I make it bigger now?"
"Slowly," Winter said.
The awareness thickened, solidified, in Peter's mind, and Neal's eyes widened. Christmas morning and Santa had delivered the specs of every vault of every casino in Vegas, and a pony to boot. "Shit," he said, and sucked in a deep breath. "That's -- that's a lot of people. And a lot of feelings."
"Neal." Winter leaned across the table and touched his hand briefly. Neal's gaze flew to him at once. "That's it. We're going to work on zoom, before you get lost in it. Narrow it down -- concentrate on me. Think of it as cleaning noise off the signal you're interested in, if you don't mind mixing your metaphors. Or just think about a camera zoom."
Silence again from Neal. Then he winced. "Whoa, too narrow. Hold on. This is harder."
"You're doing well," Winter said.
"Artist," said Neal dryly. "My visual imagination is pretty good. I'm almost -- there." He looked straight at Winter, no more piercing than usual, but appearing somehow more open, more receptive, like a sheet of pure white paper slid into the tray of a printer. "You're tired, and you're pleased, and very worried about something -- small, just a little thing, but it hurts, like a paper cut -- and --" His posture melted back into the chair, insolent and amused. "Agent Winter. I'm flattered."
"And I'm married," said Winter, looking embarrassed, but for only a brief moment. "And funnily enough, my husband doesn't like it when I pick up criminals at work."
"Consultants," said Peter sternly, and then bit his tongue.
"Your Caffrey's a right piece of work," Winter told him, with something almost like wry sympathy. "But he's strong. Very strong."
"Just what the Bureau needs," said Peter, managing to sound sincere.
Neal glanced up at him. --I'd accuse you of finding this funny if I didn't know better.
The change was enormous; the words were crystal-clear, perhaps even a little too loud, and the voice was absolutely Neal's. Peter smiled.
--I'm a better person than you are, Neal.
Neal blinked and then an answering smile found a corner of his mouth, as though he'd just realised something clever and was pleased with himself.
"Vox is working fine," Peter said.
--This would be amazing during a heist. I know these Austrian twins, both seers, knocked over a couple of banks last year. I bet they're linked.
--You'd better not be getting any ideas.
"So I see," said Winter, glancing between them. "Good. Now, moving on."
It would have been nice to be able to make a statement about it one way or the other -- if he could see Elizabeth better, then all was fair and logical in the world, he loved the woman to distraction, etc. And if he could see Neal better, then he could chalk it up to the obnoxious strength of Neal's sensate skills, or, at a stretch, the man's personality. But no. For years Peter had been able to cast his mind comfortably out and catch a glimpse of his wife, going about her life (and, one memorable and terrifyingly guilt-inducing December morning, buying his Christmas present), and now it took exactly the same amount of ease to discover that Neal was a) nowhere near the ratty hotel in which Peter had dumped him the previous night, and was in fact b) rummaging gleefully through a wardrobe full of suits in a large, expensive-looking room.
Peter allowed himself a long moment of exhausted irony, thinking about all the times he'd struggled and driven himself into two-day headaches trying to catch a glimpse of Neal, or pushed his focus to the limit trying to extract a clue from whatever it was he did manage to see, and then he gathered his indignation and struck hard.
Neal actually leapt about half a foot into the air and dropped the suit jacket, which was gratifying, but then Peter's eyes began to prickle with the effort require to use his seer skills and vox at the same time. He dropped the visuals and kept the link open.
--Peter. Neal sounded reproving, the bastard.
--I'm not going to ask you where you are, because I know where you are, and I'm on my way there as we speak. So how about we jump straight to: WHAT are you doing there?
--I'm choosing clothes, said Neal, sounding reasonable. --Are you watching me dress? Peter, I'm shocked. I may be a felon, but I have rights.
--I'm not -- Neal. Answer the question.
--As per your instructions, I went to the thrift store. Which is where I met June.
--Absolutely charming woman. She had a spare room, and her dead husband's clothes were going to be wasted on the tasteless unwashed --
--Which makes you what, exactly?
--So we arrived at a mutually pleasing arrangement. I'm having the most fantastic sourdough for breakfast, Peter, you'll have to try some.
Peter tried not to grind his teeth, because Elizabeth and his dentist had been running a campaign of terror and bribery in order to train him out of that.
--What con are you running on this poor woman?
--Con? Peter, Peter. She's very understanding. Her husband was a sensate too, you know, and she approached me in the shop to chat about him. Saw my lens.
--That seems unlikely, said Peter, not really meaning it. He of all people knew that Neal Caffrey had a unique brand of luck.
--I wouldn't say so.
--One in a hundred?
--Okay, so you're going by the American lens qualification figures, which, let's face it, are an abitrary cut-off on a complex skill gradient --
--Not entirely arbitrary, Peter argued.
--Depends which articles you read.
--Well, there was obviously a reason that the researchers decided on those skill levels in particular.
--Statistics. One in ten is so conveniently round, don't you think?
--But seven of those ten would be shielders, and that's not the kind of thing you need to qualify officially -- Peter shook his head to clear it, realising how deftly Neal had redirected their conversation. --I'm coming to pick you up. You'd better be dressed and ready to go.
June, true to Neal's word, was a charming woman; and a sharp one too, Peter could see that with no effort at all. Peter quickly ascertained that Neal hadn't told any lies about his situation, and then endured her sly chatter about how her Byron had been a bit of a rogue, too, and how sensates could have a lonely time of it sometimes because not many people liked the idea of a one-way street when it came to emotional transparency, and how Neal was doing her a favour by livening up the house a bit.
"And you must admit," June added, low and amused, as she pointed Peter towards the roof, "he's not the kind of face that it hurts to have adorning the place."
"Well," said Peter, and, "no," and then, "Neal, what the hell are you wearing?"
Neal folded the newspaper, radiating smugness. "Coffee?"
"You look -- ridiculous."
"I look classic." Neal tugged the coffee plunger towards himself. "Seriously, you have to try this coffee, it's amazing."
"You should lose the hat," said Peter, watching the sweet fragrant arc of liquid as gravity chased it into a cup. His mouth was watering, despite his better judgement.
"Oh, you like the hat."
"You can keep saying that --"
--You're forgetting I can feel these things now.
Coffee now poised deliciously underneath his nostrils, Peter mustered his considerable natural scepticism and launched it against that part of him that had long since learnt the folly of making absolute statements about what Neal Caffrey could and couldn't do.
"Not on the object level, you can't. I like this coffee, right now. In fact, I like it a lot." He gestured with the cup. "I also like this view, you disgraceful little fraud."
Neal laughed. "You're right, I can't tell. Nevertheless, the hat stays."
Peter smiled into the cup, so that Neal couldn't see it. Nice to retain some semblance of privacy. "Hurry up and eat. We're leaving in five."
"Is that for me?"
Peter looked down at the glass of wine in his hand, then back at Neal, who was standing with his hands in his pockets and his most charming expression on his face.
"Oh, sure. You show up on my doorstep and I'm going to greet you with a drink?"
"Hey, you knew I was coming," Neal pointed out, gaze drifting over Peter's shoulder. "Nice house. Are you going to invite me in?"
"What are you doing here, Neal?" Peter had asked the same question repeatedly over the past twenty minutes, from the moment the link informed him that Neal was headed for the house, but Neal had ignored the vox. Typically.
"I can't be sociable?"
Neal sighed. "I know who the Dutchman is. Now will you invite me in?"
"Close the door, honey, there's a breeze," sang out Elizabeth. "Hello, Neal."
"Hello," Neal called back, delight rising on his face. "Come on, Peter, do as the lady says."
Peter gave him a hard look, but turned and led the way inside. There was a fair chance Neal was bluffing about the Dutchman, but no chance at all that Elizabeth was going to let Neal waltz off into the night before she'd had a chance to inspect him.
Neal made instant friends with Satchmo, who in Peter's opinion was far too trusting and shamelessly easy for anyone who'd scratch his ears and chin. When he stood up, Neal looked at the three settings on the dinner table and grinned. "Kind of thought you'd lock me out, actually."
"It was my first instinct, believe me."
"I insisted he show some hospitality." Elizabeth emerged from the kitchen and leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. "Well, let's have a look at you, Neal Caffrey."
"Mrs Burke." Neal doffed his hat and bowed, old-fashioned and absurd, and Elizabeth lifted one hand in a way that meant she was hiding a smile. "Good to meet you, after all this time."
"Elizabeth, please." Her second smile was slow and measured, and she let that one show. "Hmm. Peter did say you were dangerous." She tilted her head and the light in the dining room caught and sparkled on the curve of red stones that formed her lens.
"Peter," said Neal, dragging it out. "A splitter. I'm impressed."
"I'm sure you were even more impressed when you found it out the first time," Elizabeth said. "Or are we pretending that you didn't do just as much research on Peter's life as he did on yours?"
"And she's smart, too." Neal ducked a look sidelong, his grin as bright as ever. "Too smart for you, Peter."
"You're one to talk." Peter looked down at his wine, gave it a bit of thought, and then tipped about a third of it into his mouth. It was good, he lamented, taking quick small swallows until his mouth was empty again; too good to be drunk that fast. But he had the feeling he'd need it.
"Now I can ask you about things I couldn't find out on my own," Neal was saying, when Peter resurfaced from the brief acidic buzz. "How many channels can you manage, Elizabeth?"
But Elizabeth didn't seem upset by the rudeness of the question. She held Neal's gaze. "Only three, and I'm better with two. I'm not strong. It was a bit of a shock for my parents when I tested positive, and I only just qualified for the lens."
"Still, I bet it comes in handy for planning events."
"And keeping tabs on my husband. But you'd know all about that, Neal."
The two of them turned in unison and directed similar looks of fond bemusement at Peter, who was beginning to feel cornered.
"El's uncle is head of a research group at MIT," he said, grabbing desperately at the previous conversation thread.
Elizabeth nodded. "Last I heard, he was up to eight channels. Not that he can do much more than recite the alphabet when his brainpower is split into that many pieces, but he spends most of the time working on two." She grinned, coming to slip an arm around Peter's waist. "Publishes papers at the speed of light."
"How does it work?" Neal sounded genuinely curious. "I've been imagining cameras until my head hurts, but doesn't seem like zoom would be a useful concept for a splitter."
"No, the metaphor falls down a bit for us, though because it's so popular it refuses to die. We have our own things to visualise, though. Can I get you a drink?"
She squeezed Peter quickly before letting go, and Peter watched the toss of her hair as she slipped into the kitchen. "Maybe you can ask Winter for a copy of My Lens Is Red," Peter said, hoping for a laugh, but when he looked back at Neal there was a strange expression on the man's face. It disappeared before Peter could identify it. "What?"
"Nothing." Neal smiled, too fast and too neatly. Peter fixed him with a steady look.
Neal's hands crept absently behind him and gripped the edge of the shelf she'd been leaning against. He endured Peter's stare for a while and then gave a sigh. "If I could figure out how to push emotions down the link without giving us both migraines, I'd show you what you and Elizabeth feel like. It's like there's a little light in you that flicks on whenever she's nearby."
Peter didn't know what to say. "Neal…" That smile again, forbidding discussion. Peter took the hint. "What happens when I see you? I'd bet you a lot of money my stress levels double, if I didn't know better than to gamble in your presence."
Neal laughed, warm and more than a little grateful, as Elizabeth walked out with two glasses of wine. If she'd heard their conversation -- and there was no reason why she wouldn't have -- then she gave no sign of it. She handed one glass to Neal and clinked gently.
"And to you." Neal directed a brilliant smile down at her. "And in answer to your question, Peter -- I haven't looked." He took a sip, the mischief around his mouth dissolving in the wine. "But I'll let you know."
--I have a theory.
"Neal, we're in the same car."
--Yeah, but. Neal swallowed his mouthful of bagel. "I was eating."
"You couldn’t have waited? No. Forget it. What's your theory?"
"About how you managed to catch me."
"Oh, this should be good."
"You said it yourself, I'm a bad shielder. You got through sometimes -- you saw glimpses of me."
"Where's this going, Neal?"
--Peter! Eyes on the road!
Peter slammed on the brakes. That cab had not been there two seconds ago. New York was full of irresponsible drivers.
A wide-eyed Neal was clutching at his bagel as though it were the security codes for the Louvre. "Jesus Christ. I'm telling Elizabeth that you should let me drive. She loves us too much to see us perish in a traffic accident."
"She loves me."
"Sure." Neal sounded smug. "Anyway. Think back. Those times you saw me -- was I ever alone?"
Peter thought about it. All those maddeningly brief, sharp snapshots of Neal: shaking hands with a mark, poring over a painting with another expert, flirting with a girl over martinis. Sometimes they'd been useless, and sometimes just enough to let him recover a trail that had gone cold. And once, just once, it had been enough to put him behind bars.
But it was true. He'd never seen Neal alone. Always with someone, shining like a polished metal, spreading his charm and working the unique magic of Neal Caffrey, consummate con and closet sensate.
"That's not a bad theory," Peter said aloud.
"Oh, you see where I'm --"
"You think that the sensing --"
"Exactly!" They exchanged a fast, satisfied glance, and Neal lifted the brim of his hat with one finger in an ironic salute. "I'm not actually a bad shielder. I just can't be a shielder and a sensate at the exact same time. I bet if we weren't linked you'd still be able to see me as often as you wanted, now that I've got a blue lens."
"It's not quite that simple, Neal. But -- I take your point."
"I know. Nothing about this is quite as simple as all the research I did in prison made it sound." Neal put the last scrap of bagel in his mouth and licked cream cheese from his fingers, feline and fastidious, gazing ruefully out the window. "What we just did, for example, talking to Robertson."
"He was lying. You could tell."
"Yeah, I could tell, but it's like you said. It wasn't simple. It's not like there's an emotion for lying. Part of it was nervousness, part of it was being in a hurry and part of it was probably just my own instincts picking up on his body language. I don't know." He reached out with a sticky finger and made a gentle, pointless pattern on the car window. Peter realised after what was a very short but in retrospect maybe unsafe length of time that watching Neal draw on the window could not in any way, either psy or physical, be accomplished at the same time as watching the road, and he slid his gaze back to the traffic feeling foolish and therefore irritable.
"If you think of it that way, we still don't know how many of your so-called instincts were actually your sensate ability leaking out despite the fact that you didn't have a lens," he pointed out.
Neal turned away from the window to look at him. Peter looked attentively at the road. Hands at ten-to-two. Yes.
"What have I done now?" Neal demanded. "We can't both be annoyed. I'm annoyed that my entry into the exciting field of psy consulting has so far involved being violently sick, having my life endangered by your terrible driving, and realising that people are a lot more complicated to deal with when you can sense their emotions, not less."
"Welcome to the world of honest work, Caffrey," Peter drawled, his mood already on the rise again. "Enjoy your stay."
"Jones," Peter said, not bothering to turn around, and he heard the agent's laugh -- no, Peter thought darkly, it was a snigger -- dry up at once.
"Yes. Sir. Sorry."
"I'm glad our efforts to bring this criminal to justice are providing you with adequate entertainment, Agent Jones," Peter continued mercilessly, and now it was Neal's turn to conceal a laugh; Peter could feel it hum and vibrate across their joined hands.
--We could probably have done this from opposite sides of the room, you know, said Neal.
--I know, said Peter, who hadn't. But he was damned if he'd let go now, with Jones embarrassed in the corner. --Might as well remind everyone why we're keeping you around the place.
--And you, I suppose. Neal looked pointedly at Peter's lens. --Behold! Neal Caffrey, living proof of the wondrous seer skills of Agent Peter Burke.
They were being unspeakably rude, using vox in the presence of other people for no reason other than social selfishness, but Peter couldn't bring himself to care. Neal's hands were dry and warm and his face was sparkling with concentration, as though they were undergoing some very serious preparatory meditation instead of chatting on the Bureau's time. Peter felt his mouth twitch. This entire link debacle was becoming, on occasion, something he'd never expected it to be: fun.
--Rumour is, I knew you were a sensate from the beginning, he said. --Lots of people aren't too pleased that you're here, but nobody can deny I've brought in an asset.
--I've heard that rumour, said Neal, so solemnly that Peter narrowed his eyes.
--You started that rumour, didn't you.
--Just boosting your PR, Peter.
--What's in it for you?
"Agent Burke?" Cruz sat down to his left. "Are you ready?"
"Dr Winter," said Peter, and the tech looked up.
"Worst case scenarios."
Winter looked hedgy. Peter wasn't in the mood for that. But before he could say anything, Neal laughed aloud. "You're making him angry. Trust me, we don't want that. Godzilla, Tokyo, you know."
"Neal. Stop helping."
"Very angry, now." Neal winked at Winter. "Better tell the truth."
"There is a small risk to Caffrey if you push it too far," Winter said. "But I seriously doubt that -- Agent Burke, you're a smart man, and Caffrey is practically the Energizer bunny in this context."
Neal smirked. Peter kicked him under the table.
"Injury?" Peter demanded. "Insanity? What?"
"Loss of psy skills. Mental damage. Worst case," Winter said firmly, in response to the murmurs this struck up in the room. "We won't let that happen."
--Exactly. PR, like you said. Peter closed his eyes. "Let's do this."
--You shut up and make like a big, shiny battery.
Peter exhaled and pulled up everything he knew about Virginia Crane, right-hand advisor and logistics manager to their current quarry, whose proper name they were -- to Peter's epic and escalating frustration -- still unable to find out. Crane was smart, and acted as though she were under constant surveillance; but she'd given them a few bits and pieces, and all of their other leads had been run into the ground, and Peter had already exhausted the option of shouting at half of the people subordinate to him in the White Collar division and making sarcastic comments at the other half, so this was going to work.
"Got her," he said, letting Crane's tight blonde ponytail and professional face click into view. "Hotel room. Same one as last time, I think. Dark blue carpets. View of buildings but I don't recognise any of them. She's talking to a man, maybe five-ten, bald, red shirt, black pants." He listened for a while. "His accent might be European, but I can't pick it. Definitely a client. They're working out a problem with the delivery arrangements. Hold on. He's gotten an address out of her."
Peter rattled off the details as they came up in conversation, listening and speaking at the same time, a seer's talent that had taken him a lot of training to perfect. His attention was fixed on the image, which was unusually vivid and stable thanks to the link's amplification, and he knew that someone else would be writing down everything he said. Voices from the FBI office were audible when he allowed them to be, a second layer of sound underneath what he was seeing in the hotel room, like someone rustling popcorn and talking behind you at the cinema.
Dimly he heard Neal say, "I'm going to try something," which was reason to be nervous at the best of times, but Peter wasn't about to drop his concentration for long enough to interfere with Neal's latest stroke of dubious brilliance, and besides, he was starting to feel -- what? A hint of icicles in his stomach. A tension like rope and cramping muscles, a greyish worry.
"Something's wrong," he muttered. "This doesn't feel right."
"Peter," Neal said urgently, "Peter, stay with it, it's not you, it's her."
"Crane...?" The image, and the accompanying sensations, slipped. Peter gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on Neal's hands, which felt very far away, as though his arms were suddenly a mile long, and managed to pull it all back into focus. "Neal. What did you do?"
"Something I read about, once. Amplification links can be used as conduits for skills. Doesn't matter. Yell at me later. What's Crane feeling?"
It was bizarre, and the tension -- which Peter was pretty sure was his own, no matter what Neal said -- made things awkward, but Neal was clearly doing his best battery impression and Peter's mental image of Crane wasn't going anywhere. Peter settled into the emotions, trying to muster some objectivity about them.
"She's scared," he said finally. "She doesn't look it, and everything seems to be going her way, but she's definitely terrified. It's worse when --" He held up a hand, gesturing for silence even though nobody in the office was speaking, wishing for some kind of new vacuum in which to sort out all the input his brain was receiving. If someone lent him some splitting ability as well, he thought ridiculously, this would be a whole lot easier. "Whenever he mentions storage. He's not pressing the point, but she's still on edge about it. And now he's leaving. She's -- probably relieved. I can't tell for sure. I'm letting her go for now."
--I told you it was complicated, said Neal into the sudden absence of image. Peter blinked a few times, bringing the room and Neal's pleased face into focus, feeling his own emotions settle back over him like a well-fitting coat. He released Neal's hands and winced as he exercised his own stiff fingers.
"She doesn't want him going anywhere near those warehouses." Cruz showed them the screen of her laptop, where she'd been plugging the storage address into a map database, and smiled widely. "That's the best lead we've had all week. Great work, boss." Her tone dropped a few semitones of respect. "You too, Caffrey."
"Someone get us some goddamn coffee," Peter said loudly, and lowered his head onto his forearms.
"You know what this means?" Neal said later, when everyone else had found or been given more important things to do, and Peter was lingering over the dregs of his venti latte and planning tomorrow's warehouse raid on a fresh scrap of paper. "The fact that you can borrow sensate power from me for brief periods?"
"No," said Peter, and then caught sight of Neal's face and worked it out. "Wait, yes. By which I mean no. Absolutely not."
"I am not giving --"
"Fine. I am not lending you seer ability, Neal."
"Why not?" Peter could feel his jaw dropping, and held it still through force of will. "You think I don't know that you'll just aim it at Kate the first chance you get, and then go running off?"
"She's a shielder too, I couldn’t look for her directly." Which Peter had known, shit, how had he forgotten? "Besides, unlike me, you've got override. You could cap me if I tried anything you didn't want me to do." Neal's mouth was thin, mobile, somewhere between vulnerable and angry. Peter sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes, not wanting to look at him, not wanting to admit the real problem with this particular hypothetical, which was that he wouldn't have the heart to deny Neal this thread of hope. He had enough trouble denying Neal things like the last donut in the box, or five minutes spent gazing lustfully at the Swatch window display, or an evening spent stretched out on Peter's couch eating Elizabeth's moussaka and telling ridiculous stories about his past life.
The point was that it wasn't his past life.
The point was --
--Let me think about it.
Neal nodded, the line of his mouth softening. He was a good grifter, and -- Peter knew, deep down -- a good person. He knew when to back off.
"If we could argue --"
"Not a chance. Their lawyers stomped on that line of attack, and if we try to rehash it --"
"Fuck," said Neal with feeling, and stretched his legs out. One of his knees cracked quietly. "By the way, was I imagining things, or has your wife actually bought me my own coffee mug? The cards and dice on it were a nice touch."
"Of all the things I could possibly bring home from work, I think she's decided that good-looking young men bearing champagne aren't exactly a hardship."
Neal smiled and picked up a forensic report, squinting at the dreadful cursive scrawl of some crime scene officer or other. Though Neal hadn't said much about it, Peter knew him well enough to realise that the lack of social interaction and intellectual stimulation had been the least tolerable aspect of that close-on-four-years in prison, and Elizabeth had worked out exactly the same thing half an hour after meeting him. Neither of them were going to leave Neal on the doorstep on those evenings when he abandoned his luxurious new home in favour of conversation and, often, making headway on a difficult case.
Peter toed off his shoes and tucked one leg up under him, digging a more comfortable angle out of the couch cushions. Neal was sitting on the floor with his head near Peter's knee and the file open on his lap, flicking through it with the occasional thoughtful frown. And at the dining table Elizabeth was working on all three channels, two windows open on her laptop and a legal pad near her elbow, her hands twitching every so often as she switched from one to another. Satchmo was asleep, sprawled across her feet.
This was a good moment, Peter thought. Everything important in his life was right here where he could keep an eye on it, and he could feel his own contentment like a warm breeze or a plucked string; if he could only find a way to frame moments like these, or bottle them, they would be something to treasure for a long time. This could be the world, within these walls, beneath these soft lights.
Abruptly he realised that Neal was singing, something fast and French with a tune that was just the wrong side of familiarity; the man's mouth was moving so minutely that Peter had almost thought he was hearing it over the link. Peter tried to go back to thinking about warrants and sufficiency of evidence, but his mood had mellowed way past professionalism, and Neal's voice kept intruding on his train of thought. He nudged Neal's shoulder with his knee. "Stop singing."
"I could whistle."
Peter gave up. "If your soul is really that desperate for music, Neal, then fine. Hum."
--I could sing like this?
--No! Peter hit him with a cushion, which Neal caught and wrestled into his lap, where it disrupted a miniature cosmos of paperwork.
--You're basically glowing up there, man, it's very distracting. I'm expressing it for you.
"That's not polite, boys," said Elizabeth, without lifting her gaze from the screen.
Neal narrowed his eyes. --How does she do that? And with only a third of her brain?
"Neal," she sing-songed.
Neal directed his most innocent and appealing look in Peter's direction. Luckily, Peter knew better than most people that Neal's most innocent and appealing look was a piece of complete crap.
"You seriously want me to pick sides? Here? Now?"
Neal looked at Elizabeth. And back up at Peter. "Well, no."
Peter smiled. "That's what I thought."
Neal laughed, tipped his hat forward, and started to hum.
This story now has a sequel!