A/N: Although this story is part of a series, I want it to stand on its own. Therefore the first two chapters, in addition to introducing the case they need to solve, will also recap where Neal stands in the FBI and in his relationship to other characters.
White Collar and its characters are not mine.
Chapter 1: Invitation
New York City, White Collar Division. Monday morning. February 16, 2004.
As the morning briefing wrapped up, Agent Tricia Wiese mentioned it was Peter Burke's two-month anniversary as leader of the White Collar Task Force. Peter reminded them it was also Neal Caffrey's two-month anniversary as a consultant at the FBI. It was a good thing they liked each other, Neal realized, because if things worked out they would be celebrating these milestones together for a long time.
Many things had remained constant over the last two months. The coffee was still horrendous. Agent August Hitchum still hated Neal. Surveillance work was still tedious, and mortgage fraud cases were still the most boring thing ever invented.
But some things had changed for the better. Other than Hitchum, the team members had started to relax around Neal. They felt safe leaving their purses and wallets at their desks when he was around. They were willing to talk about vacation plans around him, without fear that he would burgle their homes as soon as they left town. And now Peter was making another show of trust. He had dismissed everyone from the briefing except for Neal and Jones and said, "Neal, after you traded your confession for immunity, I asked Jones to monitor the email addresses belonging to aliases. Now he's going to turn that task over to you."
Neal responded with an innocent smile he knew would annoy Peter. "You want to pay me to check my personal email?"
Peter didn't roll his eyes, but Neal thought it took some effort. "I want you to let us know if anyone contacts one of your old aliases for illegal or suspicious purposes. This week, Jones will check those accounts with you and walk you through what he's been doing. As of next week, it will be up to you to tell us if you're getting messages we need to know about."
Neal had suspected almost from the beginning that Peter had assigned Jones to monitor him, but this was the first time Peter had admitted it. Even though Neal was certain Jones was checking up on him in other ways, it was satisfying to know that his good behavior recently was being noticed and rewarded. He hoped this would become a trend, because there were other restrictions he wanted to see lifted.
Peter went back to his office, while Jones and Neal remained in the conference room to check the email accounts. Steve Tabernacle typically received porn; Neal had made sure of it as an act of rebellion when he realized the FBI was checking his mail. Gary Rydell received offers from high-end car dealers, insurance companies, and international travel agencies.
"Nick Halden gets the most mail," Jones noted as they logged into that account.
"Five months of working for Vincent Adler under that name is the longest con I ever pulled. I made a lot of connections there before the company folded. Nick was a likable guy." A quick glance showed there were no messages from Kate. There hadn't been for quite a while, but he still had hope.
Jones opened a message from Highbury Professional Connections. "I've heard of these guys. It's the first time I've seen them express an interest in Halden."
"They sent an invitation right after Thanksgiving, but I ignored it," Neal said. "They sounded legit, but if you're interested in them, there must be something nefarious I wasn't aware of."
"Nothing we could prove. Last summer a woman reported her husband was being blackmailed by Highbury. We looked into it, saw that most members pay about 100 bucks per month for membership, but a few pay upwards of 1000."
"That's a big discrepancy. What did Highbury say they offer for the extra money?"
"They wouldn't tell us," Jones said. "Said it was an entirely legal set of enhanced professional services for job seekers and therefore none of our business. And no one paying the higher price would admit to being blackmailed. The fact is, a lot of people find good jobs through Highbury, which means the company isn't entirely a scam. In the end we had no evidence and no case. We had to let it go."
"You weren't happy about it."
"Hell, no. I'd interviewed a dozen different people who had joined Highbury recently. Each one mentioned an initiation event, and none of them could tell me what happened at that event. Sure, some were party guys who probably get wasted every weekend, but others said they rarely drink. What are the odds that all of them blacked out? I gotta think they were drugged."
"And then asked to reveal secrets that might lead to blackmail?" Neal asked.
"That was my theory. They blocked every attempt we made to get an FBI agent inside. I even tried to go undercover as a bartender at their retreat on Long Island, thinking I could catch them slipping something into the drinks. They wouldn't even interview me."
"The FBI is almost as good as I am when it comes to creating false identities. Highbury's background checks must be incredible to have kept you out. That in itself is suspicious." Neal reached for Jones' laptop. "Let's accept their invitation."
Jones slid the laptop out of Neal's reach. "Not so fast. You don't just jump into an undercover operation like that. We have to run this by Peter. If he approves, then we set up a plan, including surveillance. We take our time, do it right."
"You're starting to sound like Peter."
"I hope so. There's a reason he's in charge: he's good at this. And remember, Highbury eluded us last time. I want to catch them, and that isn't going to happen without a solid plan."
Neal suspected there was more to Jones' reluctance. Peter was still extremely cautious about letting Neal go undercover, and it was time to change that. "Ok. Peter's in his office. Let's talk to him about this, and get the ball rolling."
"Uh. You know, I should really go back and review my files on the original case, first."
Neal wasn't surprised that Jones was stalling. Based on prior experience, he thought Jones wanted to wait until Neal was busy with something else, and then would talk to Peter alone. Determined to have more of a say in his assignments, Neal said, "There's plenty of time for that once Peter's onboard. Anyway, it's obvious you remember the important parts. I'll bet you a cup of real, non-Bureau coffee that Peter remembers it, too." And before Jones could respond, Neal opened the connecting door to Peter's office. "Hey, we've got a bet here. Do you remember Highbury Professional Connections?"
Peter looked up. "Yeah, we thought they were blackmailing some of their clients. Why?"
"I'm going undercover to catch them in the act."
Peter's eyes narrowed. "The hell you are."
"After you help us plan it out, of course," Neal added. He took a seat in Peter's office. Jones followed, shrugging an apology to Peter.
"What exactly is going on here?" Peter asked.
Jones explained about the email inviting Nick Halden to join Highbury. "As many times as we were blocked trying to get inside, this is an incredible opportunity. I know this isn't the way you wanted to do it, Peter. But Neal's getting antsy and I'm not the only one on the team wondering why you're reluctant to send him undercover. His skills as a con artist make him perfect for this kind of assignment."
"Thanks, man," Neal said, surprised at the support. Then he turned to Peter. "Tell me what I need to do to make you trust that I can do this. You didn't bring me into the FBI to do desk work for the rest of my life, did you?"
"You're bored already?" Peter countered. "We've sent several complicated and high-profile cases your way, you know. And we've sent you into the field to do research. You aren't exactly chained to the desk."
The door opened behind Neal, but he went ahead and said, "No, I'm not bored. But I don't understand why you aren't using me to my full potential. It's frustrating, always working on the setup and then turning a case over to someone else to finish the job. It's like constantly being limited to foreplay and never –"
"Neal!" Peter interrupted.
"Have I come at a bad time?" asked Hughes drily.
Peter and Neal sat side by side in one of the smaller conference rooms. Hughes had escorted them there and then left them alone, saying he needed to grab a file from his desk.
"I probably shouldn't have said that last bit," Neal admitted.
"Oh, ya think? What got into you, Neal? You don't normally resort to crude analogies."
"I was trying to make the point that I'm an adult who feels like he's being treated like a kid."
"You managed to hit the middle ground. Very adolescent."
Neal sighed. "Sorry. But I don't understand what your plan is for me on the team. I thought I was supposed to be an equal, other than the lack of Quantico training, but it doesn't feel that way."
"You realize the adult thing to do in this scenario is to express your concerns and ask for an explanation? Preferably before you're too frustrated to do so in a professional manner."
"I wanted to, but you've been avoiding me."
"I haven't been…" Peter paused and thought about the last few weeks from Neal's perspective. "Damn it. Corporate America and government bureaucracy are completely alien to you, aren't they? At the start of the fiscal year, managers spend the better part of a month on goals and financial planning. For us, that activity kicks off in mid-January. It's a non-stop round of meetings and spreadsheets."
"A whole month? Why? The role of the FBI and the White Collar Division doesn't change from year to year. And I thought you put together your budget in December."
"We submit our requested budget in December. Then in January we learn what we're actually getting and make adjustments. And the goals part is still in progress. Everyone on the team sets individual goals and gets evaluated against last year's goals. You're exempt from that until you've been here 90 days, and then we'll talk about your goals. So you're right. I haven't had a lot of time for you, and I have put off talking about my vision for your role in the team until you hit that 90-day milestone."
"There's something else you're..." This time Neal shut up when Hughes entered the room.
"Gentlemen," Hughes said as he took the chair opposite them. "I had set aside this time for Agent Burke's annual review. One of the questions I had for him was about how he's using you on his team, Caffrey. Since you were expressing an opinion on that topic already, I decided to bring you in and cover that first. You don't think you're being used to your full potential. How do you think we should be using you?"
"I want to spend more time working in the field, especially doing undercover work. I've shown I'm good at it. It seems like Peter is reluctant to let me do that, and I get it." Neal turned to face Peter. "I do get it, Peter. That trip to the hospital on New Year's Eve isn't something I want to repeat. The paperwork alone taught me I don't want to take that kind of chance lightly. And I thought about what you said after Lucas held me hostage at that dock. I will be more cautious."
Annual reviews were never fun, and this one had excruciating written all over it. Peter considered what he could say in front of Hughes, because he had left a few things out of his report about the incident at the dock. For instance, he hadn't mentioned that he'd overreacted and threatened to fire Neal, because he had started thinking of Neal as a son and couldn't handle seeing someone pointing a gun at his son's head. And maybe Neal had a point about the avoidance. Peter may have used his new managerial responsibilities as an excuse to create distance from the uncomfortable emotions he had experienced in January. "You mentioned earlier that I treat you like a kid. The fact is, several of us think of you as a kid, because you are the youngest member of the team. The next youngest is Jones, and even he's a couple of years older than you are. But that's not the only factor. Throughout my career, I've heard managers say they think of their team as their children. Now that I'm in that position, I feel responsibility for the success and well being of everyone on my team, and you… You're the youngest, and the only member of the team I personally recruited to the FBI. So, yeah, I probably am more protective of you. And the fact is, knowing that you grew up without a dad…" Peter trailed off and gathered his thoughts. "More than anyone else on the team, you need a dad. Maybe more than you want one right now."
"I…" Neal started, and then glanced at Hughes.
Peter crossed his arms and felt a little smug. It was Neal who had started this whole thing back in December, calling Peter "Dad" as a joke. Now it seemed like Neal wanted a dad, as long as that dad could be twisted around his finger. Let's see him explain that to Hughes.
"I've learned a lot working for you, already," Neal finally said. "Let me show you. I want to work the Highbury case, using their invitation to my Nick Halden alias as an opportunity to go undercover as a client. I'm your best shot at finding out what they're doing, and then bringing them down."
"And speaking as your manager, I don't think that's a good idea," Peter replied. But he had to admire Neal's approach. Hughes would be intrigued by the Highbury reference.
"I didn't know you had a new lead on Highbury," Hughes said. "After our experience last time, why would you turn down an opportunity to send a team member inside?"
"The problem with using Neal is that we suspected Highbury of drugging their clients. I've seen Neal drugged on two occasions; both times, he had a flashback to being abused as a child. Because you refuse to seek therapy, Neal, I have to keep you out of any situation I think may cause another flashback. It's too risky to send you into Highbury, because there's a good chance you'll blow your cover."
"Does the invitation from Highbury expire anytime soon?" Hughes asked.
"I don't believe so," Neal said.
"Well, then the obvious compromise is to send you to therapy first, and then send you undercover when the therapist says you're ready. Now get out of here, Caffrey, and let me give Peter his review."
Back at his desk, Neal searched the FBI employees' site for information about performance reviews. He kept reading with increasing dread. Around noon, Jones pulled his attention away from the website. "Skipping lunch, Caffrey?"
Neal gestured toward his computer screen. "You really do all of this stuff?"
Jones looked over his shoulder. "Yeah. Your turn will come soon enough. What's the problem? This is right up your alley. You start the year describing the amazing work you're going to do, and end the year bragging about how you did it all. Sounds like a breeze for a con artist."
"I conned people. I need to interact with them, hear their voices, see their expressions, and adjust. This is… forms and paper. I can't con a piece of paper."
"Never engaged in mail fraud, huh? Well, it's no big deal. Agent Burke likes you. That makes a huge difference."
"Yeah." Neal grabbed his coat and spent most of his lunch break walking and thinking.
The paperwork aspect of the FBI was annoying, but manageable. What really bothered him was Peter.
Two months ago it had seemed like a terrific idea to work for the man who embodied everything he'd wanted in a father figure. Peter was honest, loyal, dependable, and he genuinely wanted to help Neal. As Jones had said, Peter liked Neal. More than liked, honestly. A month ago, when Peter called him Son, it had been one of the most shocking and happy moments of Neal's life.
He hadn't thought about the implications of that moment for his job. If he had thought it through, he'd have guessed that if Peter couldn't be entirely objective about him, that was good. It meant the boss would cut him a little more slack.
Clearly Neal hadn't considered the other side of the equation. Peter the boss was too restrictive, because Peter the father figure worried. To make it worse, now Peter had Hughes' support in making Neal go to therapy. The last thing Neal wanted was to talk to a stranger about the dark areas of his childhood, and to have a summary placed in his FBI file for Peter and any other manager in the Bureau to read. But there was no way around it.
Unless… Neal came to a stop in front of a coffee shop. Finally noticing that he was cold and hungry, he darted inside for cappuccino and a bagel. And he smiled as he waited in line, because he knew how to get around the therapist mandate.
With a little help from Henry, he'd be undercover at Highbury in no time.
At home Monday evening, Peter was aware that he'd spent most of the meal complaining about his day at work, while avoiding his biggest concern. He looked across the table at his wife and finally told her, "Hughes asked if I can be objective when it comes to Neal."
"Good question. Can you?"
"I have to be. It's too soon for any other team in the Bureau to take him on. My team is just barely starting to accept him after a lot of effort on my part. A new team lead would see him as a risk, and ignore his potential. He's brilliant and creative and willing to use his skills in committing crimes to help us solve cases. More than that, he needs this job, El. It will turn his life around. But if I say I can't handle being his boss, then he'll have no other option than to return to a life of crime. One day I'd end up arresting him."
Elizabeth started picking up dishes to carry into the kitchen. "What did you tell Hughes?"
Peter followed her lead, helping to clear the table. "I said I could make it work, but I can tell he has doubts. He told me I can keep Neal on my team, contingent on getting Neal to talk to a therapist in the next four weeks. If I let him avoid that, Hughes will offer him to another team. And if there are no takers, then Neal will be let go."
"I'm sure you can do it, hon. You'll convince Neal that seeing a therapist is the right thing to do."
"I wish I could shake the feeling that he's already working on a way to avoid it."
They finished loading the dishwasher, and settled on the living room sofa. Peter watched a basketball game, and El was reading, but he could tell her mind was elsewhere. At a commercial break she muted the TV and said, "You said you'd learned a lot about Neal in the year he was on the FBI's radar, and you've learned even more since he started working for you. You're worried he's looking for a way to avoid a therapist. Why don't you figure out how he'll do it, and stop him?"
"You mean I should think like an FBI agent, instead of a manager. Ok. We start with his motivation. Neal wants to work on the Highbury case. Hughes made therapy a condition for that. Or specifically, clearance from a therapist. Neal will see that as an obstacle to overcome. Either he has to change Hughes' mind about that condition, or he has to convince us that a therapist has cleared him. He could forge a statement from a therapist, but he has to know we'd follow up. It's more likely he'd look for a licensed, respected therapist he could manipulate somehow…" Peter kissed his wife and then jumped up. "I need to call Henry and talk him out of whatever cockamamie scheme Neal has in mind."
A/N: My descriptions of budgets, goals and annual reviews are based on my experience in massive corporations. I assume a government agency like the FBI has to be at least as bad.
If you want to catch up on the other stories in this AU, they are: Caffrey Conversation (Peter recruits Neal), Choirboy Caffrey (a holiday-themed story, with Neal preparing to work for the FBI), By the Book (Neal's first undercover assignment at the FBI), Caffrey Envoy (a shorter story where Neal meets a former babysitter and is reminded of his childhood exploits)
Many thanks to Silbrith for editing and for her astounding patience as I droned on about what I want to accomplish.
And a moment of silence now in memory of James Rebhorn, the actor who portrayed Reese Hughes to perfection.