This is a work of fanfiction, for entertainment purposes only. The characters and concepts of White Collar do not belong to me, but to their creator.
Peter: But if you try to steal the music box, I will catch you.
Neal: Is that a threat?
Peter: Just the way it is. You know, you can either go back to wearing an orange jumpsuit and pining for the girl who got away, or you can stay here and do something good with your life. Your choice.
Neal stood in the upstairs office, watching Peter make his way out of the bullpen. There was no doubt the man knew how to deliver a lecture, he thought as the agent disappeared into the elevator. And a threat. He tried not to dwell on the fact that it was hardly an empty threat; there was no denying that Peter Burke knew how to catch Neal Caffrey.
Snatching up the tracking anklet that had been left sitting on the desk, Caffrey plopped down into Burke's chair and examined the device that controlled his life. Most times, if he were asked, Neal would say he hated the tracker. It restricted him, kept him from the freedom he craved, and always served to remind him that he was really still a prisoner even without bars. And, of course, it chafed his leg.
But sometimes, just every once in a while, instead of making him feel trapped, the anklet made him feel safe. It grounded him, gave him a place where he belonged, and always served to remind him of people who cared about him. It reminded him that Peter cared. That's why the man lectured . . . and threatened. In some part of his soul, Neal knew that, even if he instinctively bristled each time it happened. Even if it made him want to one-up the agent every time. Every time.
But, tonight, after the threat, after the lecture, there had been no need for one-upmanship, no chance to prove anything. Peter had spelled out the options—rebel and risk returning to prison, or accept his circumstances and continue to do some good. And then the man had walked away, leaving the choice with Neal. The tracker had remained on the desk instead of being clasped around the ex-con's ankle, and Neal knew he had to decide: was it a prison or a safe harbor? Staring at the device now, he was surprised to find the choice harder than he would have imagined.
Unable—or unwilling—to completely sort it out, Neal slipped the tracker into his pocket and headed for home.
Caffrey slammed the door behind him and made a beeline for the wine cabinet.
"You look stressed, mon frère."
The voice from the darkness caused him to flinch as he reached for the nearest bottle. "It was a long day," he answered tiredly, pouring himself a generous serving. He gulped down half the liquid, then refilled the glass.
"No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority."
"I'm not oppressed, Moz," Neal sighed, turning toward the faceless sound, "I'm just tired. No offense to whoever it is you're quoting tonight. And why are you always sitting in the dark?" He flipped on a small lamp as he reached the living area then sank into a chair, not really looking at his friend. The loosened, sloppy tie and untucked shirt under his jacket gave credence to his weariness.
"Joseph Addison. And you're awfully testy for a guy who managed to walk away unscathed from both Ryan Wilkes and Edward Riley today." But then the round, bespectacled face was filled with a sudden concern. "You are unscathed?"
Neal's lips twitched slightly upward as he savored a long drink. "I'm fine, Moz," he finally said, letting his smile spread, "and sorry. And if I didn't say it already, thanks for your help with Riley. And for getting word to Peter."
Mozzie settled himself more comfortably on the sofa. "You're welcome. I hope this means you're done with the pantsuit now."
"I don't think I'll have to worry about her anymore," Neal assured him, not bothering to remind him again that Agent Rice actually had a name. "We wrapped up with a win, even if it got off to a rocky start. And, the other good news of the day—while I was off the anklet, I got to talk to Alex."
Caffrey leaned forward, his blue eyes glowing. "The box is here in the city, Moz."
"Here? You're kidding."
"Alex wouldn't give me the details yet, but, yeah, somewhere in Manhattan."
"Fortune's wheel is ever turning." Mozzie smiled as he lifted a glass to his lips.
"It is." Neal drained his own glass then leaned his head back against the chair, eyes closed.
"You still seem stressed; what's going on?"
"Like I said, just tired. It really was a long day." He stretched his legs out to prop on the coffee table, still not opening his eyes. But he held his empty glass in the air. "I need a refill. Would you mind?"
Mozzie sighed slightly. "I'm not sure that's the best approach. The Brunello isn't exactly made for guzzling." But he took the glass for a refill.
"Actually," Caffrey called, "why don't you bring the bottle. Or two."
Rolling his eyes, Moz moderately filled the glass but settled for grabbing only the open bottle. "Why don't you just tell me—" he broke off as he made it back to the living area. "Neal?"
Mozzie was transfixed, staring at the crossed ankles propped up on the table. "Where's your anklet? I thought your operation was finished."
The young man sat up quickly, nervously readjusting his pant leg. "Oh." He took his glass from Mozzie, ignoring the question. "Thanks." He raised the glass in a mock toast, then took a long swallow.
But Mozzie would not be deterred. He seated himself back on the sofa, but his gaze never left his friend. "Neal. What's going on?"
"Peter knows we're going after the music box."
The announcement brought a brief moment of alarm. "Proof?"
Neal glared slightly, then rolled his eyes.
"Okay," Moz conceded, "of course there's no proof. Then what's the problem?"
Heaving out a breath, Neal pulled the tracker from his pocket and tossed it onto the coffee table. "I think he's testing me."
"Ahhh. So, you're having an existential crisis."
"I wouldn't exactly—"
"Then what?" Mozzie interrupted.
Neal wondered briefly how to explain that his desire to be free was almost matched by his desire to be bound, but ultimately settled for a less than helpful, "I don't know." Then he briefly relayed his recent conversation with Peter.
"The suit has always known how to play you."
There was a long silence while Neal tried to be offended, but—as usual—Mozzie wasn't really wrong. Still, knowing how to do something wasn't the same as actually doing it. If anyone knew that, it was Neal Caffrey. Besides, he was sure—pretty sure—that he knew how to read Peter Burke. The agent's hope that his CI would make the right choice had seemed even more genuine than the underlying threat.
Apparently tired of waiting for a response, Mozzie continued his side of the conversation. "You know, you already had me set up an exit strategy; I could put it in motion in a couple hours, and you could be on the other side of the world long before they'd miss you at the office tomorrow morning. Just give me the word."
"That's tempting, Moz, but what about the music box? What about Kate?"
"Alex and I can get the box, use it to buy Kate's freedom. We can join you after."
Neal appreciated his friend's willingness, especially since he knew the older man didn't particularly trust Kate, but there were obvious problems. "If I disappear, Peter and the feds would be all over you, probably Alex, too. Hard to get the box like that."
"Is that really what you're worried about?"
"It's a legitimate concern."
"Of course it is. But that's not what I asked." Moz leaned forward, locking his eyes on the younger pair in front of him.
For his part, Caffrey leaned back in his own chair, trying to put some distance between them, and returned his attention to the glass of wine in his hand. He didn't know how to explain something he didn't understand himself—certainly not this, and not to Mozzie. With his glass empty again, he reached for the bottle and was disappointed to find it contained barely a few mouthfuls. "I guess you got a pretty big head start before I got here," he accused, setting the empty aside, then tossing back his glass and emptying it in one swig.
Moz shrugged without apology. "You were late. Besides, I pour consistently; you've been a little. . . liberal this evening." But he wasn't going to be distracted. "But I asked what you're worried about, and I don't think it's the wine."
And finally, an answer came, barely above a whisper but filled with undisguised pain. "What about Peter?"
His old friend did lean back then, his expression shifting to one of understanding, and his voice surprisingly gentle. "Neal . . . you had to have known this could never last, not really. Sure, for a suit, Peter's a pretty good guy, but he's still a suit. He's interested in what you can do for the FBI, and he would probably honestly prefer you not be in prison, but he's not really concerned about you. He will never understand why you need the life, and he's never going to look the other way."
Mozzie paused briefly for a breath, but he was far from finished, and his tone grew more stringent. "Even if you decide to stay and serve out your sentence, how do you see this ending? Seems to me there are really only a few options: you go back to running cons and end up in prison again, you go back to running cons and have to constantly lie to Peter to stay out of prison, or you go straight and live in misery for the rest of your life."
"You forgot I go straight and live happily ever after," Neal muttered.
"I didn't forget," Moz assured him, which earned him a sudden glare as Neal rose to his feet and huffed back to the wine cabinet. "Look, if you're gonna keep sucking it down like that, you might as well just grab the pinot. No sense wasting the good stuff."
"It's my good stuff," Caffrey reminded him, "I can suck it down if I want." But he snatched the pinot from the rack and carried it back to the living area. He filled his glass—once again liberally—then gestured the bottle toward Mozzie, who waved it away. Neal raised his eyebrows and managed a slight grin. "Maybe I am having an existential crisis if I'm drinking more than you."
Rather than reclaim his chair, he chose a spot on the sofa next to Mozzie. It was more comfortable, and if he really was having a crisis, it might be easier to get through if he didn't have to look his mentor directly in the face. "So, you don't think I can go straight?" He sipped from his glass while he waited for the answer.
"I didn't say that," Mozzie corrected with a shake of his head. "I think you can do anything you put your mind to, but that doesn't mean I think you'll be happy about it. People are born to certain things, Neal, and you, my friend, were born to be one of the great con artists of our time. You can fight against it all you want, but, ultimately, that way lies madness."
"But . . . Peter trusts me." Then almost as quickly as the softly spoken words were out of his mouth, Neal was backpedaling. "Well, no, he doesn't really trust me. But he trusts me not to take off on him, at least tonight." He jabbed a finger in the direction of the abandoned anklet. "That's why he didn't slap that thing back on me himself when I went back for it, or even send the marshals after me before I did."
Mozzie's eyes widened in surprise. "Went back for it? You mean you were already safely off the leash, and you walked back into the lion's den?"
"You're mixing your metaphors, Moz."
"I think I need more wine after all," Mozzie said, reaching for the bottle. After pouring his glass, he shifted on the sofa, twisting himself to look directly at his young friend, and fixed a long steely gaze on the profile of the man studiously staring straight ahead. "It seems the crisis comes not from having to make the choice, but rather not being sure of the choice you've already made."
Caffrey sighed, took another long swig of the pinot, and only then shifted himself into the mirror of Mozzie's position. He should've known his friend wouldn't let him get away with too much avoidance; that wasn't really the way the little guy worked. He wasn't sure he'd had enough wine yet to say what he was thinking, but he figured Mozzie deserved at least an attempt.
"I can't run, Moz, not now. Hell, maybe not ever, I don't know, but surely not tonight. I could say it's because of Kate and the music box, but that wouldn't be entirely true. So, yeah, I guess you're right. I've made my choice, but I don't know what it says about me; I don't know what it means. I'm not even sure it's the right choice, I just know it's the one I'm stuck with. I can't let him down, not like this."
Mozzie no longer looked surprised, just resigned. "You're letting yourself be conned, Neal. Conned into believing the suit's lies about friendship, about doing something good with your life."
"But it's not a lie!" Neal objected strongly. And he very carefully did not address the friendship side of the equation. "We saved a girl's life today, Mozzie. And not just Peter and the feds, but me, and you. We did that. That's something good, right?" He was almost pleading for understanding.
"Of course it's good. But there's going to come a time when doing good isn't enough for you, and if you can't see that, then you're doing worse than believing the suit's lies—you're lying to yourself. You can't start falling for the false front you show the feds or pretty soon Neal Caffrey is going to be as much an alias as Nick Halden. You have to stay true to yourself."
When Neal didn't answer, Mozzie made one last pitch. "You're off the anklet now and not on an active case; the timing is perfect. That's not likely to be true when you realize this isn't where you belong. You could be giving up your only chance at freedom for the suit; is it worth that? Is he worth that?"
Neal slowly sucked in a deep breath, thinking of the earlier lecture, the earlier threat. And he had to take the threat seriously, he knew that. He couldn't begin to guess what would be involved in finally getting his hands on the music box, but he certainly knew Peter was more than capable of figuring it out. And, Mozzie could be right about all of it. Neal craved the life he'd had before, that was undeniable. Days or weeks or months from now, he might regret not taking the chance that was being presented tonight. It was a huge risk. But . . .
The one thing Neal was sure Moz had wrong was Peter. He wasn't a good guy for a suit, he was just a good guy. And while making sure the bureau got what it needed from his CI might be Peter's primary concern, the man also had a genuine concern for that CI; Neal knew he couldn't be wrong about that. As crazy as it was, Peter was a friend, and friends didn't betray friends, at least not without a damn good reason. And tonight, there was no reason at all.
He wasn't looking at Moz anymore, but staring into his glass, watching the pale red liquid swirl slightly, as if his answer could be found there. But finally, he breathed out the only answer possible. "He's worth it."
And then he did look back at the other man, wanting him to see that he had considered it all, wanting him to know that he understood. "Maybe at some point he won't be; maybe sometime I'll have to run, and maybe it'll be harder when that time comes, but tonight, right now, this is where I need to be."
They sat in silence for a few moments, sipping their wine, and Neal figured Mozzie was lost in as many thoughts as he was himself. Then the young man finally spoke again. "I'm sorry; I know that's not the choice you'd prefer."
"No judgment, mon frère," and Moz's kind smile offered additional reassurance. "You know that I, of all people, can understand the allure of belonging. It's more intoxicating than the wine." He paused before adding, "But I'll still be ready when you change your mind."
Neal smiled his thanks in return and raised his glass. "To belonging. However long it lasts."
He took his time with the last of his wine, savoring it this time, but he finally set the empty glass aside and then leaned forward to reach for the tracker. "I guess it's time," he said wistfully. "I'm not sure how long Peter will let this little test go before someone's at my door."
"Hold on a minute," Mozzie cried, jumping to his feet, "I don't need to see this. At least wait until I'm gone."
Neal looked up at him sharply. "What happened to no judgment?"
But Moz was already moving for the door. "Doesn't mean I want to watch as you willingly shackle yourself back to the man." Then he stopped and turned back, reaching over Neal to the coffee table. "And I'm taking the rest of the pinot; you've had enough."
Caffrey shook his head with a rueful laugh. "Goodnight, Moz."
Once the door had closed again, Neal immediately propped his left foot up on the table, trying not to second guess. Right or wrong, he'd made his choice. He pulled the band quickly around his ankle and snapped the lock into place, hoping he wasn't trading his freedom for some elusive sense of security that could never be real. Then he reached out and switched off the lamp, letting the darkness surround him.
And, miles away, in a dimly lit home in Brooklyn, a small dot on the computer screen blinked from red to green, and Peter Burke smiled.