rillalicious: (Peter and Neal)
[personal profile] rillalicious
So, apparently the thing with me and White Collar fic is that I can't do it in under 9k. I wrote for the [ profile] wcpairings exchange, and was lucky to get an absolutely brilliant prompt from [ profile] daria234. This was so much fun to write, and [ profile] norgbelulah and [ profile] ellensmithee were lovely enough to hold my hand while I wibbled over it and beta read and then hold my hand some more. So, anyway, this was posted at the exchange comm last month, and the reveals are up now, so I can post here! Yay!

Title: Playing to the Firmament
Pairing: Peter/Neal, (Peter/Elizabeth open marriage)
Rating: Hard R
Word Count: ~11,600
Summary: Neal Caffrey, a radical journalist formerly imprisoned on domestic terrorism charges, has been released into agent Peter Burke's custody. Neal's first assignment is to help Peter bring down a domestic terrorist ring operating out of upstate New York.
A/N: Clearly, this is AU fic. I hope you guys find it as much fun to read as I found it to write! Special thanks again to both my betas!

Peter looked up at Hughes, for maybe the third time in the last hour. He had studied his cup of coffee until white coils of steam stopped rising from the surface and the smooth ceramic mug had gone cold against the palm of his hand, stared at the thick file on the table in front of him, examined his pen with critical intensity. They had danced around the edge of the issue for the entirety of the meeting, but it was time.

"You know what this means," said Peter. "If we let him back out on the streets."

"That he'll be back in business? It's your job to make sure that doesn't happen."

Peter shook his head, a rueful smile curling his lips. "The media loves to hate this guy. He's got a list of enemies with a file of its own. This isn't going to be a regular CI situation."

"Are you telling me you're not up for it?"

"I didn't say that," Peter said, quickly.

It wasn't often he could say that pride had been his undoing, but in this case, he knew that some day he would look back and think exactly that.

Hughes watched him for a moment, an eagle watching the rabbit from above, then gave him a faint, tight smile.

"Good. I've already made arrangements with someone from the DOJ to talk to you about the terms of his release." At Peter's frown, Hughes shrugged. "Like you said, it's going to be a media circus. No one can know we had any part in this."

Peter nodded and flipped open Neal Caffrey's file once more. It looked like Satchmo would be getting Peter's dinner again tonight.


The first time Peter caught him, Neal had just stepped off a plane from Milan. The tip had come from an old girlfriend, after Peter convinced her that Neal's safety was paramount to political convictions. It had been hard work. At one point, when she seemed particularly unwilling to assist, Peter found himself wanting to ask if there had ever been a time that she cared about Neal at all. In the end, Kate knew that Neal's enemies were going to catch up with him sooner or later, and while she didn't doubt that Neal could take care of himself, she also knew that Peter was the lesser of two evils. And then there was Peter's ace in the hole.

He could assure her safety. The radical circles in which Neal Caffrey and Kate Moreau were popular were not exactly safe places, though they all purported a guise of non-violence on the outside. But Peter knew better. So did Kate. She knew what giving Neal up could mean for her own life. Peter, however, knew that Neal was in love with her, and as long as Peter swore that her cooperation would remain confidential, he knew that Neal would never let her name slip. This went beyond journalistic integrity, and Kate knew it too.

The airport had been crowded that day, Neal inconspicuous in a standard business suit and a slate grey ivy cap. It was very unlike him, the look he'd worn to sneak back into the country. Very unlike him except for the hat. It was the hat that caught Peter's attention and, while not Neal's usual fedora, the blue eyes peering out from beneath it were unmistakable.

"Domestic terrorism?" Neal said as Peter clipped the cuffs behind his back. Peter won't ever forget it, because he had the gall to sound amused. "That's how your people are finally going to silence me?"

"You broke into government buildings, Caffrey, disabled security systems, took documents--"

"Hey, I never took anything."

"That were promptly returned to the same office by certified mail two days later," Peter said, raising his voice to speak over Neal's protests. That had been the moment Peter realized who they were dealing with, when the documents came back. It would have been easy enough for Neal to photograph them then and there and leave everything intact. He was making a statement.

As Peter approached the prison, he thought to himself, Neal's never going to stop making a statement. And the whole world felt chilly and ominous.


"So the official story is good behavior?" said Neal, looking sideways at Peter as they walked toward the gates, toward his freedom. Restrained freedom, Neal reminded himself. He wondered if the anklet would always feel this heavy with each step.

"Do you have a problem with that?" said Peter.

"No," Neal said. "Not a problem. It's just..."


"It's not very interesting."

"You don't get to put your own spin on your prison release, Neal," said Peter.

"I know, I know. I'm just saying, it lacks intrigue."

"You're working undercover for the FBI now. You're keeping a low profile in public view. Intrigue is the last thing we want."

"Yeah," Neal said, but his mind was already wandering.

"Neal." Peter grabbed him by the arm and stopped him, and Neal's instinct was to pull away, childlike, and defy him. But he didn't. "I need you to show me that you understand this. Intrigue could get you killed."

"Yeah, Peter." Neal's focus returned reluctantly to the present. "I know."


"You dressed up for the occasion," Peter said, walking into what appeared to be a warehouse from the outside.

Inside, it looked like a well-decorated penthouse with a faintly Moroccan air. Peter imagined that the furniture alone had cost the better part of what he made in a year. He wasn't even going to speculate on where Neal had acquired the tapestries that hung on the walls. He had the awful feel that when this was all over, he'd end up putting this guy back in prison, and some little piece of him didn't want to see that happen.

Neal had been the challenge of his career, still was, and Peter was determined to make good on it.

"Welcome to April," said Neal, holding his arms out, showing off his impressive digs, or perhaps his equally impressive wardrobe. So much for the voice of the down-trodden working man. Neal was nothing but style.

Peter tried not to look awed, but he was, just a little bit. It had only been four days since Neal's release.

"You named your safe house?" Peter said.

"A friend of mine did. This is his place."

"He named it after a woman?"

"Named it after a month."

"Interesting. But it's June."

"June's is my place. I'm not taking you there."

"Neal, you know I can track your anklet anywhere you go."

"I know. But you can't be seen visiting me at home, right?"

Peter grimaced. "Unfortunately. Right. As long as you stay in your radius, we'll be fine." Neal already knew the FBI had an eye on his place; it didn't hurt to let him indulge in the fa├žade of privacy if that was what he really wanted. Peter raised the file he held to eye level, then slapped it down on the round table in front of them. "Our first case."

"Excellent," said Neal, and his smile was spectacular.

Peter glanced down at the table, afraid that if he looked too long, he might forget about the case. Charisma had taken Neal far in this business. Charisma and something else, something that left a warm hum inside Peter's chest. He pushed the file over to Neal.

The gist of it was that a radical group on a college campus upstate was planning to plant explosives at a political fundraiser later in the month. The tip had come in anonymously and so far the FBI had no luck planting an inside man. They did manage to discover, however, that the ring leader had been a fan of Neal Caffrey, even after Neal had gone to prison. Peter had a gut feeling that if they could come up with a plausible reason for Neal to approach the group, without giving away their suspicions, he'd be their ticket inside.

Neal leaned back in his chair, shaking his head as he finished surveying the file. "Jesus. When I was in college, we got stoned and listened to the Beatles and talked about saving the world through peaceful resistance. And vandalism."

"Give me a break, Neal. You're not nearly that old."

"All right, so it was Hootie and the Blowfish. Same concept applies." Neal's brow creased. "What?"



"Well, it just changes my impression of you. That you listened to Hootie and the Blowfish."

"Everyone was listening to Hootie and the Blowfish then. It's not like it was a choice."

"Uh huh. Can we get to work now?"

Neal grinned again, and leaned sideways in his chair, reaching for a bottle of wine. Peter watched the graceful line of Neal's body as he stretched. He swallowed, his throat suddenly so dry he wasn't sure he'd be able to speak. Neal couldn't pour the wine fast enough.


They were sitting in August, Neal stretched out on a Minimalist concrete bench. Mozzie refused to return to April after Peter had been there, though he gave Neal permission to continue using it as a meeting place for the time being. Neal had managed to get in touch with the head of the Anti-Imperialist Establishment that afternoon. "What's wrong with kids and the way they name their protest groups today?" Mozzie had said. "The Weather Underground, now that was a name people remembered." Neal had to agree.

The leader of the AIE, a young man who referred to himself as Moses Royle, though Neal had no doubt neither of those were part of his actual name, had shown enthusiasm at the suggestion that they meet in person, and Neal had arranged a drive upstate later in the week. Peter would escort him, undercover. Neal had reservations about that. When Peter was after him, Neal had always known when he was being tailed. Royle was no Neal Caffrey, but they'd have to be careful.

"The Suit's got you flustered," Mozzie said, shaking his head. "I don't like it. Not at all."

"I've got him under control."

"No, Neal. You don't. I've seen the way you watch him."

"You've been following me. Should I be flattered or worried?"

"You can take that as a measure of my concern. Love is the state in which man sees things; most widely different from what they are."

"Nietzsche," said Neal, amused. "Are you suggesting I'm in love with Peter, Moz?"

"Maybe not. But you are infatuated."

"That's ridiculous."

"He was on your heels for four years, Neal. He knows you better than anyone else in the world, present company excluded."

"Of course."

"You find that intriguing."

Neal snorted.

"What?" said Mozzie.

"That word. Peter told me to stay away from intrigue. It was going to get me killed."

"Wow. The Suit and I agree on something."

"Peter's not going to get me killed, Moz. We're working toward the same end. And I'm getting a hell of a story here."

"Too bad you can't publish it."

"Neal Caffrey can't publish it. Nick Halden can."

Mozzie gave him a shrewd look, as if he were able to measure sincerity by the shape of Neal's eyes alone. Neal didn't doubt that he had that ability. "There's the old Neal," Mozzie said.

"Told you." Neal raised his wine glass in Mozzie's direction. "I haven't changed a bit."


"You've spent a lot of time packing." Elizabeth stretched out on the bed, crossing her legs at the ankles and watching Peter.

Peter rolled his eyes. "Neal was very specific about what he wants me to wear. As if I've never done this before."

"Technically you never have," she said, one hand dropping lazily off the bed to scratch Satchmo behind the ears. "Not with Neal."

"No," said Peter, sucking in a breath as he zipped the suitcase. "Not with Neal."

She had a way of pausing just long enough to let Peter know she was on to him, and she was doing it now.

"You're infatuated," she said finally.

"El! That's ridiculous."

"Oh, come on, Peter. You've been infatuated with Neal for years. I'm your wife, I notice these things."

Peter nearly stuffed his head into the suitcase as he continued packing.

"There's nothing wrong with it," she continued. "What's the point of an open marriage if you can't acknowledge these things."

"Open marriage in theory," Peter said, sounding a good deal more curmudgeon than he liked.

Elizabeth sighed. "It's only theory because you've never put it into practice."

"Neither have you," he said.

"I'm waiting for you to go first. I think it'll be easier that way. For you."

"El," he said, looking up finally and closing the suitcase. He sat down on the bed and reached for her hand. "We've been over this. It's a joint decision."

"Oh, hon. I know you so well. You really like Neal, and if you're going to keep on liking Neal and not doing anything about it, it's going to drive you crazy if I start seeing someone first."

"I can't believe we're having this conversation. This just can't be a real world conversation. You know he's my CI, right? Even if I wanted to do this, and I'm not saying I do, but even if I wanted to, I couldn't."

Elizabeth kissed his knuckles. "All right. Just know that when you're ready, I'm okay with this."

"Jesus, El," he grumbled.

She laughed and patted his hand, then got to her feet. "By the way," she said, taking Satchmo's leash from the dresser, "you forgot your razors."

She grinned over her shoulder as Satchmo trotted out of the room after her. Peter swore he remembered packing them, but he unzipped the front pouch anyway, cursing under his breath even as he smiled, when he found them missing.


After a couple of hours, the landscape of upstate New York began to roll gently, and the further they drove from the highway, the more the road took to gentle dips and curves. They passed through long stretches of farmland, timber framed barns in various states of decay sliding by outside Neal's window. The radio had started to go spotty half an hour ago, and Neal had finally given up on finding a station when Peter batted at his hand and swung wide on a curve, the tires sliding for a moment on loose roadside gravel.

"Both hands on the wheel, Captain America," said Neal, promptly giving up on any hope for decent musical accompaniment.

"Reach for the dial again and you can make the rest of the trip in cuffs, Neal."

"I thought this was going to be fun," said Neal.

"Fun? Neal, you get what's going on here, right? You're infiltrating a domestic terrorist group. This isn't a frat party you're going to."

"Peter, I've never been to a frat party in my life." Neal snorted thoughtfully. "Sorority parties, yes--"

"I don't need to hear this."

"Lighten up, Peter, we're not even there yet. And I don't meet with Royle until tomorrow anyway."

"Good, because we have a lot of ground to cover between now and then."

Neal rolled his eyes. He stretched out his legs, his right ankle feeling unusually light without the anklet.

"So this is freedom," he said, twisting his back from one side to the other.

"This is life on the right side of the law," said Peter.

"Not much of an endorsement."

"What? Not enough living dangerously for you? Just wait till we get there."

"You say that like I've never conducted an interview before, Peter."

"This is more than an interview, Neal. These are people who will kill you if they find out you're working with the FBI."

"No offense, Peter, but a whole lot of the people I know will try to kill me if they find out I'm working with the FBI. I'll just add them to the list of people who wanted me dead before I went to prison." Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Peter smiling. "What?"

"You enjoy this, don't you? The thrill of it all."

"There's a certain adrenaline rush, I'll give you that. Where are we stopping for lunch?"

"The hotel. We'll be there in forty-five minutes."

"Hey, look. There's a diner coming up. We should stop there."

Peter squinted into the distance. "You mean that place that looks like it's been closed since the sixties?"

"Uh, yeah. That one."

"We're eating at the hotel, Neal."

"Has anyone ever told you that you can suck all the fun right out of a room?"

Peter's gaze slid over to him. "No."

"Oh. Well, you can."

"Good to know. Maybe it's a skill I'll be able to use in my quest for justice someday."

"Until then you can hone it on making me miserable."

"Making you respectable. And yes, that's the general idea."

Neal opened his bottled water, relaxing into the comfortable security of their exchange.

"I'm going to teach you to enjoy a good adventure yet, Agent Burke." He reached for the radio dial; they seemed to be coming up on civilization once again.

Peter slid one hand behind him for a moment, and with a metallic clink, produced his handcuffs. Neal sighed and slumped back into his seat.


Peter pressed his lips together, but there was a smile in his eyes, and Neal couldn't help feeling a little proud of himself for putting it there.


The hotel room was small, and Peter found the proximity to Neal unnerving. Neal, who was calm and relaxed and apparently unencumbered by the anxiety that swelled in Peter's chest every time he thought about his CI walking into the AIE's lair.

He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. He was being ridiculous. These guys weren't villains out of a James Bond film. They were the same kind of radical activists Peter had been taking down for years.

"Ice machine's not working," said Neal as he walked back into the room with an empty bucket. He'd been thoroughly unimpressed with their accommodations. "You would think the FBI could spring for a place a little more... urbane."

"Now, see, that's something I never got about you, Neal."

"What's that?"

"You put on this face of a populist journalist, but you can't seem to get enough of the good life. All those articles about the plight of the working man--"

"And woman."

"And woman." Peter rolled his eyes. "Yet I've seen the hotels you've stayed at, the suits you've worn, the wine you've drunk. You're an elitist at heart."

"I can give a voice to the people and still like nice things," said Neal.

"Liking and indulging are two different things."

"Now you're starting to sound like a socialist, Peter. Careful, or the FBI might start a file on you."

"Very funny. I just want to know your deal. Do you believe any of that stuff you write about?"

Neal's expression was solemn, the mischievous gleam that usually lit his eyes going dark for a moment. "Every word of it, Peter. Just because people are willing to share good things with me doesn't mean my stories aren't genuine."

"Willing to share nice things with you," Peter repeated. "So you're a conman to boot."

"I've done what I had to in order to get by. Sometimes I end up a little better off than just 'getting by'." Just as quickly as it had gone, the spark in Neal's eyes was back. "And sometimes I end up in places like this."

Peter snorted. "The official story is that you're staying with acquaintances in the country. We couldn't get a hotel room in town, too obvious. This is the best we could find out here."

Neal sighed and put the ice bucket away.

Peter started laying clothes out on the bed. It took a few seconds before he realized that Neal was standing over him, just watching.


"That's what you're wearing?"

"What's wrong with this? I even followed your instructions."

"No, you didn't. I realize you don't have to follow the dernier cri to blend on a college campus, Peter, but I thought you didn't want to stand out."

"Follow the what?" said Peter. "Nevermind. I don't want to know. What's wrong with this outfit?"

"For starters, it looks like something you got on loan from my grandfather."

"You have a grandfather?" said Peter.

"Of course I have a grandfather. I didn't hatch from an egg."

"Well, I was pretty sure of that much. But we never managed to turn up much information on your family."

"We're estranged. Long story."

"I'm sure it is," said Peter.

"You can't wear this. Here." Neal turned around and dragged his suitcase up onto the bed, opening it up and rifling through until he found something he was looking for.

"Thanks." Peter tossed it onto the bed, not sure what Neal thought the difference was between it and the shirt Peter had brought.

"No, I mean right now. Put it on."

"Oh." He picked the shirt up again, and almost took a step toward the bathroom before realizing that was ridiculous. He was going to change his shirt behind closed doors? As if Neal had never seen a man in his undershirt before. He loosened his tie and pulled it off over his head, then started unbuttoning his shirt.

Once he'd set his jacket and shirt aside, he picked up the t-shirt from Neal and glanced up. Neal was staring at him, a faint coloring to his cheeks that Peter hadn't noticed before.

"You feeling all right?" he asked, as he pulled the shirt over his head.

Neal nodded and moistened his lips. Peter pointedly ignored the gesture. Neal had a point; a nicer hotel would have provided a larger room and more personal space. Right now distance seemed like a very good idea. Peter was glad he didn't have to change his pants too, since there would be no way to hide the interest his body was taking in the way Neal was looking at him when he was just standing there in his boxers.

Sometimes he hated it when El was right.

"Okay," Neal said, regaining his usual mask of casual coolness. "Now this shirt." And he handed Peter a button down made of some light, cottony material. "Leave it open."

Peter slipped it on. Then Neal handed him a hat. Peter turned to look in the mirror above the dresser.

"I look like I'm trying to be twenty years younger than I am."

"Wait," said Neal, "one more thing." And then he was reaching around Peter from behind and slipping a pair of glasses over his face.

Peter swallowed hard, resisting the urge to close his eyes and just inhale Neal for the moment.

"There you go." Neal's reflection smiled over his shoulder. "From g-man to hipster in less than five minutes."

"If my wife ever saw this, I'd never hear the end of it."

Neal's smile turned devilish. "I'll make sure I take pictures."


The college was on a small, private campus, dotted with old brick buildings and winding paved paths shaded by the arching branches of flowering trees. It hardly looked like the kind of place that would harbor deadly terrorist activity, but Royle had agreed to meet Neal there, inside the campus center, at lunch time. Peter was waiting on a bench outside the library, with a clear view of the building, his attention ostensibly buried in his laptop.

When Neal was finished, he casually strolled over to stand beside the bench, lighting a cigarette and looking off into the distance. Peter looked good the way Neal had dressed him, not like himself (which was better, because it was Peter), but good.

"The frappuccino is a nice touch," he murmured, taking a slow drag on the cigarette. "Makes you look like just enough of a tool that no one's going to approach you for small talk."

"Yeah. That's just what I was going for. Are we in?"

"Did you doubt me for a second?"

"Is that a trick question?"

Neal snorted. "I'll meet you back at the car." He crushed his cigarette out on the top of the receptacle, then flicked it into the sand inside.

"See you in five," said Peter, without looking up.

Neal walked away, glancing back at the campus center once, relieved that Royle hadn't sent any apparent surveillance after him. He'd had a feeling that the group's leader was enough of a fan of Neal Caffrey's work, and enough of a narcissist, that he wouldn't think twice about Neal's motives for wanting this story, but he also knew that Royle was unpredictable, and planning something dangerous, and he couldn't stand the idea of the AIE getting a beat on Peter.

He slipped into the car beside Peter, who had already shed the hat and glasses, and Peter started the engine.

"They agreed to let me do a series on them," Neal said, once they had driven off the small campus.

"Series?" said Peter. "Neal, that's not what we talked about."

"You told me to wing it if I needed to, and I needed to. These guys have to believe what I'm selling them, Peter."

"You'd better be selling them what the FBI wants them to buy, then. So what happens next?"

"I'm meeting them tomorrow at a cafe in Old Town. We're going to discuss their mission statement and upcoming plans. I think we both already know what that means."

"The bombing," said Peter. "This cafe, is it Royle's base of operations?"

"As far as I can tell, no," said Neal. "He doesn't trust me that much just yet."

"But you think he will soon?"

"I'll put it this way. The man is not immune to my charms."

Peter's brow creased and his fingers tightened on the steering wheel; he didn't respond.

"Are you all right?" asked Neal.

"Fine," Peter said, but his tone was clipped. "We should stop for dinner."

"Yeah," said Neal. "That's a good idea. Are you sure you're all right?"

"Huh? Yeah. Just thinking about the case." Peter rubbed his chin with one hand and his anxiety began to fade. "How long do you think it's going to take before they start giving up details we can use?"

Neal shrugged. "A week? Maybe two?" He could get the FBI's information sooner, but he wasn't going to walk away from this deal until he got his story, too. This could be monumental. His stomach twisted a little bit at the thought of not being entirely honest with Peter here, but he wrote it off as hunger. It really was getting close to dinner time.

Peter nodded. "Find out as soon as you can. According to the anonymous tip, we may not have much longer than that."

"I'm on it," Neal said as they pulled into the unpaved lot of a roadside diner. He reached over the back of the seat and retrieved the hat Peter had discarded. "Put this back on."

Peter gave him a long look, but complied, placing the hat on his head carefully.

"When we get back to the hotel, I'm teaching you to do that with panache," said Neal.

"I can't wait to see that," said Peter. "But first, we eat. I'm about ready to give my right arm for a decent deviled ham sandwich."

Neal closed his car door and grinned. "And after you've mastered the hat trick, we work on your sense of taste. Literally."


Part Two


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