AN: In canon, we see these guys go round and round with trust, in ways big and small. Likewise, I've dealt with it to varying degrees in my own fics, so I thought I might tackle it a little more directly, at least once.
Also, just a few words about where this idea came from. I don't really "do" Tumblr, but you know how it is: sometimes you're browsing around and you end up in an internet rabbit hole. That's how it is that I stumbled across an old post from a user named Audrey Impossible that included a prompt list which eventually led to this fic. (The idea was technically that readers were supposed to respond by choosing a number and naming the fandom and/or pairing and then OP was supposed to write the fic, but since the secondary idea was that readers should also reblog and ask the same thing of their own readers, it seemed the list was fair game!) Anyway, there were actually several prompts that intrigued me, so I may have to revisit it at some point, but for now, I immediately fell in love with, "You're a genius with facts, but you're really stupid with people," and I had to do something with it right away. Of course, FFN isn't keen on web addresses, but if you want to check it out, you can find it here (you know the drill, remove the spaces):
audreyimpossible. tumblr post / 155520796204 / fanfic-prompt-list
Taken on Faith
Neal Caffrey rose slowly as the agents filed out of the conference room, ensuring he would be the last one in the room with Peter.
"If you don't need me for anything else, I'm going to head home."
Peter Burke raised an eyebrow and studied his consultant carefully before answering. "I've only got another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up; I can drive you home."
"It's fine; I'll just catch a cab." He moved toward the door.
"Caffrey." Neal stopped in the doorway but didn't entirely turn back. "Do we have a problem?"
"It's been a long day, Peter; I'm ready to get home."
Peter again took his time with a response, delaying long enough that Neal finally twisted his head around to look back at the agent. "Unless you need me for something?" he asked again, a bit of uncertainty edging in over the otherwise flat tone.
"No," Peter finally said, shaking his head. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Neal ducked out of the room and down the steps without another word.
Neal sighed and considered ignoring the tap on his door. But if there was any downside at all to his living arrangements, it was that by the time someone got this far, they already knew he was home. Still, he was pretty sure that right now, the someone in question was Peter Burke, and Neal had no real desire to talk to his handler. He wondered briefly how pissed the agent would be if he really did ignore the door but decided quickly the answer would probably be 'very pissed,' and he'd rather not deal with that this evening. But that didn't mean he had to be entirely at the man's service.
"It's open!" Neal yelled from his seat on the balcony, not trying at all to hide his annoyance.
The apartment was shrouded in shadows when Peter stepped inside, but it only took a couple of seconds for him to determine Neal wasn't inside. He didn't stand on ceremony but grabbed a beer from the fridge before heading out to the terrace. "Neal," he greeted, seating himself onto the chaise next to the other man.
"Peter. Would you like a beer?"
Peter narrowed his eyes at the acerbic attitude. "All right, spill it."
But Neal deliberately wiped his face and his voice of all irritation, took a quick sip of wine, then smiled an obviously false smile. "Spill what?" he asked oh-so-innocently.
"Cut the crap, Caffrey. Something obviously pissed you off during the briefing, so I'm here to find out what it was. You know you're going to tell me about it eventually, and I'd just as soon it be now, over a couple of drinks, instead of watching it fester inside you for weeks until you pull some lamebrained stunt out of spite and cause us all a lot of trouble." He opened the bottle with an easy twist and let the cap clatter to the concrete beside him.
Neal eyed the action disdainfully, but what he said was, "So that's how you see me, Peter? Someone destined to cause you trouble?"
"I didn't mean—"
"I guess that means expecting you to ever trust me would be out of the question," Neal interrupted, unwilling to listen to half-hearted apologies.
Peter rubbed fingertips slowly across his forehead, back and forth, back and forth, trying to ease the headache he could feel coming on. "So, this is about trust?"
"This is about a lack of trust. Wholly unwarranted, I might add."
"Wholly unwarranted?" Peter repeated doubtfully.
Neal conceded slightly. "Mostly unwarranted."
Peter relaxed microscopically and had a grin to match. He never knew if he should be flattered or suspicious that the world-class con artist seemed to prefer to stick with as much honesty as possible with his FBI handler, so it usually just amused him. But the grin evaporated before it had a chance to spread when he saw his partner's features melt into genuine distress.
"But you sure didn't have any reason to accuse me of stealing the Waterhouse."
"You did, Peter. In front of the whole team." The misery in Neal's tone was a perfect match for his expression.
Peter considered the briefing he'd conducted on the painting recently stolen from the Dahesh Museum. It's not that he'd genuinely suspected Neal, not exactly. But the consultant had seemed in a strange mood the past few days—chipper, smug, mischievous, even more than usual. Then in the briefing, Neal seemed to know an awful lot about the painting, not to mention the museum security. Not that Peter should ever be surprised by any of that, of course, but Waterhouse somehow didn't seem like he'd be one of Neal's favorites, and the Dahesh was outside Neal's radius; the man was extraordinarily informed for someone who shouldn't have set foot in the place for almost five years. Add to that the replacement left in place of the original painting, the one the authenticator had raved about for its uncanny accuracy, and, well, Peter had wondered, that's all. "I asked," he finally answered, "I didn't accuse."
Neal rolled his eyes then swung his legs down off the lounger, raising himself to an upright position seated directly across from Peter. His eyes were dark with pained anger. "Yeah, you asked all right." He dropped his tenor into a bitter parody of Peter's. "'Caffrey, you seem to know an awful lot; do we need to move this conversation to the interrogation room?'" Neal could still hear the startled, uncomfortable chuckles of the assembled agents. "And you know what?" he demanded, his voice back to normal, except for the unusual animosity. "By itself, that might not've been so bad. I could almost have understood it. I might've even understood you asking where I'd been for the past three nights. Maybe. But then . . ."
Peter gripped his bottle tighter. He could see now where this was going, knew the mistake that had pushed Neal over the edge. And he was regretting it already as he watched the anger drain from his partner's eyes, leaving only a deep and abiding hurt. But he couldn't force himself to interrupt or even look away. He probably owed it to the guy to at least hear out his grievance.
Neal swallowed the lump in his throat as he raked a hand through his hair. "But to have Jones check my tracking data, Peter, to doubt me so completely, right there in front of everybody. . ." This time when the words trailed off, Neal dropped his eyes, intensely focused on the wine glass in his hand, though he had lost all interest in its contents.
Watching the dejected form across from him, Peter realized he didn't know what to say. The hunched shoulders and bowed head were hard to look at, but at least they mostly blocked the bleak desolation that was painted across the young face. His behavior had been thoughtless; Peter could see that now, even though he had every right to ask his questions.
Worse than thoughtless, though, Peter had been petty. Neal had tried to frame his objections to the unexpected interrogation in his typical lighthearted banter, had tried to allow Peter to backtrack out of the conversation without either one of them losing face, but Peter had seen it as a challenge. And Peter Burke didn't back down from a challenge, certainly not from his CI, so he'd plowed ahead, oblivious to the harm he was doing, or maybe just indifferent to it. The fact that he was sorry now was unlikely to get him very far, especially since he still believed he had a right to ask the damn questions. But he'd come here to find out what had been bothering Neal; now that he had, he supposed he had to cowboy up and deal with it.
"Don't, Peter," Neal interrupted harshly, still staring at the wine, "just don't. We both know you were entitled to do what you did. It's my mistake for forgetting my place."
Peter thought it sounded a lot worse when the kid put it like that, even if it was essentially what he'd just been thinking. But then Neal sucked in a raspy breath and finally raised his tortured eyes back to his handler.
"I just don't know what I have to do for you, Peter. I do my job; I risk my life for you; I helped save your career, saved your life. But you're still always waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for me to screw up. It's . . . tiresome." He bit back the more accurate description, hurtful, maybe even heartbreaking.
"It's not exactly a walk in the park from this side, either," Peter admitted with a sigh, not even trying to disagree with the assessment. "But it's not like you haven't given me cause to worry, Neal. The music box, the Haustenberg, Fowler. No matter how much good you do—and you do a lot—how am I supposed to forget the rest of it?"
Neal grimaced; the truth could hurt. But still. "None of that was like before, Peter; none of it was about . . ." He struggled to find the right words, then huffed out his own sigh. "None of it was just about stealing or conning, not about me trying to make money or have some fun. It was all more important than that, and you know it."
Rather than trying to answer right away, Peter raised the bottle to his lips and took a long, slow pull while studying Neal thoughtfully. He was struck again by the unexpected honesty—not an allegedly or hypothetically to be found, not even much of an excuse. It occurred to him then that these were the moments that were going to get him into trouble someday—more trouble— because these were the moments that made him want to overlook things like the music box or the Haustenberg, or even, heaven help him, things like Fowler.
Peter shook his head slightly, trying to clear his thoughts. He didn't think he could entirely apologize for his earlier actions, but he could at least try to explain. He was never any good at the emotional stuff, anyway, so maybe it was better not to try so much, better to stick to what he was good at and lay out the truth as he saw it.
"It's not that I really suspected you, Neal, not really. But I studied your work a long time, and you have to admit, it fit your MO to a T."
Neal closed his eyes briefly, gathering strength. "You know, Peter, you're a genius with facts, but you're really stupid with people."
Peter wondered fleetingly if Neal was somehow reading his mind. "You won't get much of an argument from me on that." He let his face reveal some of his regret. "But I didn't mean to embarrass you. I didn't think things through."
"It's not about embarrassment, Peter; I have to work with those people," Neal answered softly. "And I've already been back in jail twice since we began our deal. That's not the kind of thing people forget, especially not FBI agents. It feels like one step forward two steps back."
"Everyone understands what happened with the arrests, you know. They know it wasn't your fault."
A shadow of disappointment flashed across Neal's face. "Believe me when I tell you that everyone doesn't understand, though I guess most of them have been coming around. But, Peter, how is anyone supposed to trust having me on the team— trust me not to take off when I'm off anklet, trust me at a crime scene, trust me to have their back in the field—when even you don't think of me as anything more than a criminal?"
"That's not all I think of you," Peter countered.
Neal shook his head. "I think you might be fooling yourself." When Peter didn't offer any further objections, he sighed and pushed himself to his feet. He gulped down the rest of his wine then strode back inside, leaving the agent alone on the balcony.
After a few minutes, Peter followed his consultant back into the apartment and found him standing in the small kitchen, contemplating a bottle of wine. Still no lights had been switched on, and the last of the day's waning sunlight was barely filtering in through the wall of glass from the balcony. The gloomy darkness obscured most of the apartment now, but it couldn't quite hide the hurt disappointment that Neal didn't bother to cover with his usual mask of nonchalance.
"So, we're just done talking about this now?" Peter demanded, moving closer to the sullen figure, stopping just barely out of Neal's personal space.
"There's really nothing else to say. I told you I shouldn't have forgotten my place. But don't worry; I won't get you into trouble with any lamebrained stunts."
"What, Peter?" Neal whirled angrily to fully face the older man. "What? Tell me what to say, what to do, because what I've been doing obviously isn't enough!"
The sudden outrage still didn't cover Neal's hurt, and Peter clamped down on the retort on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he sucked in a long breath, counted to ten, and decided it was time to cowboy up and end this.
"There's nothing you need to do, Neal; this is on me. Look, I can't change the past—your past—which means I can't just ignore things when it seems like you might be up to your old tricks again; I have to ask questions. And because I'm not the only one who needs the answers, I can't always just take your word for it. Trust but verify, remember?"
Neal rolled his eyes, but he didn't interrupt.
"But," Peter went on, "I shouldn't have asked my questions in the briefing. You're right; that put you in a bad spot, and nobody needs that." He drew in another loud breath. "So, you tell me what I need to do. Tell me how to fix this."
Peter watched as surprise played across Neal's face and a flicker of gratitude lighted in his eyes, but to his own surprise, the young man's hurt and anger didn't disappear. "Those are nice words, Peter, but this can't really be fixed. Just like my past, what you did can't be changed, at least not right away, and not by you. The damage has already been done. Two steps back, I told you. It'll take longer now for the team to trust me; I'll have to keep proving myself to them over and over again; nothing else will change anything." He rubbed a hand over his face as he reconsidered. "Though if you really want to help, tell me now if you've got any more questions about the damned Waterhouse."
"I don't," Peter said quietly.
"Then maybe see if you can remember that while we work the case." With those final words, Neal turned back around and finally poured himself another glass of wine. He sipped at it slowly, keeping his back to Peter.
The agent considered arguing about the obvious dismissal—it really wouldn't do to let his consultant forget who was in charge. But he thought maybe his pride had done enough damage for one day. Neal was pretty centrally located in the small kitchen, and Peter didn't want to intrude any further into his space, so he set the bottle and cap onto the dining table. "I'll see you tomorrow, Neal."
"Goodnight, Peter." Neal didn't allow himself to turn around until he'd heard the door close behind Peter's exit.
Peter showed up at Riverside Drive right on schedule the next morning, but he didn't go upstairs for coffee. Neal slid into the passenger seat with a reserved greeting, and the drive to Federal Plaza was silent except for the one sigh that Peter just couldn't fight down.
In the office, their conversations were civil, cordial even, but limited to the business at hand. Neal worked diligently at his desk instead of making the rounds and chatting with everyone. And when Peter summoned him upstairs to brainstorm a couple of ideas on the case, the consultant stood just inside the office, leaning against the wall instead of making himself comfortable in the visitor chair that he'd practically lived in for the better part of a year. And as soon as he provided the specific information the agent asked for, Neal excused himself and returned to his own work area.
When it was time for Neal's typical mid-morning coffee run, he still returned with a cup for his handler as usual, but conveniently passed by Jones, who was already on his way upstairs, and asked the agent to deliver the coffee to his boss. And when Peter came down from his office for lunch, he didn't have to worry about whether he should invite his CI along because Neal was already gone.
At the end of the day, Peter watched the clock closely and made sure he was logged out of his computer and heading downstairs by ten minutes to five; his offer to drive Neal home didn't allow for a refusal. But the trip home was as quiet as the morning commute, and Peter was beginning to believe Neal's silence was far worse than his anger.
By lunchtime on the third day of frosty relations between the senior agent and his consultant, the entire office was on edge. That wasn't particularly surprising; when the boss is unhappy, everyone's unhappy, and it hadn't taken anyone long to realize that, these days, keeping the boss happy largely fell to the resident felon. What was surprising, at least to the resident felon, was that in the current battle of wills, most of the office seemed to be on his side rather than that of the cranky boss.
Usually, when the two quarreled, it didn't take long for someone (or several someones) to pull Neal aside, point out whatever he was doing wrong, and tell him to get his act together and fix things with Peter. None of that had happened this time. The first day and a half or so, the staff had mostly ignored him—one of the other things everyone had figured out was that problems between the two men would usually blow over pretty quickly, even without intervention. But things had started inching back toward normal in the bullpen late yesterday afternoon, and today, the admins were flirting with him again, and agents were talking to him again. A few of the junior agents had even commented on Peter's behavior in the briefing, almost apologizing on their leader's behalf and trying to smooth things over. It was interesting, Neal thought, that other people could recognize Peter had been out of line easier than the man himself could.
But general discontent in the office was contrary to what Neal hoped to accomplish, especially if people were on his side to begin with. After all, sabotaging his standing with the team had been one of his biggest concerns after the briefing, and it seemed maybe he didn't have to worry too much about that. At least, no more than he ever did. And sabotaging Peter's standing with the team had never been part of his agenda.
As for his own standing with Peter . . . well, one day Peter was going to trust him. Genuinely trust him, not just provisionally or situationally, but really, really trust him. Maybe even trust him as much as he trusted Peter. Neal had made that promise to himself months ago. Of course, he wasn't entirely sure when his plan had changed from earning the man's trust as part of a con to actually wanting the trust—wanting to deserve the trust—but one problem at a time.
By the time the two o'clock slump hit, Neal was ready to try and get things back to normal in the office. He made a quick run to a nearby coffee shop—making sure to tell Jones he was going, as this certainly wasn't the time to disappear without warning—and returned with two gallon jugs of freshly brewed coffee and a few dozen cookies, which he placed in the break area. The aroma attracted a gaggle of agents immediately, and there were suddenly a lot more smiles than there'd been the past couple of days. Neal smiled at their thanks, snagged a couple of cookies from the box, then picked up the two cups he'd left sitting on his desk and trotted upstairs.
At the tap on his door, Peter swiveled around from his computer to see Neal standing in the doorway, almost hesitant. He smiled at the younger man, honestly glad to see him. "Sounds like you livened things up down there."
Neal shrugged slightly, then held up a cup. "Peace offering?"
"You don't owe me a peace offering, but I'll never turn down a fresh cup of hot coffee."
"Well . . ." Neal placed a cup and the cookies in front of the agent and dropped into his favorite chair.
The look of anticipation faded from Peter's face as soon as he picked up the cup, and he looked at it quizzically. "Just how long did it take you to get back to the office?"
"It's iced coffee, Peter." Neal managed not to roll his eyes or sound like he was talking to a five-year-old, but only just.
"You know it's February, right?"
Neal sighed. Why was everything always so difficult with this man? "If you don't like it, I'll go pour you a cup of the hot, boring stuff, but you will like it if you'll just try it; trust m—" He broke off with another sigh. "Sorry. This seemed simpler in my mind."
Peter blew out his own sigh as he leaned back in his chair, but he took the coffee with him. "Don't apologize. I appreciate you coming up." He offered a wry smile. "Despite all evidence to the contrary." He took a tentative sip from the cup, then his eyebrows shot up in surprise just before he took a second, longer drink. "This tastes like . . . sunshine in the snow." He took another sip, savoring this time.
Neal settled a little more comfortably into his chair. "That's very poetic, Peter," he smiled. "Vanilla, with just a dash of cinnamon and half a pinch of nutmeg." He drank from his own cup and hummed a bit in appreciation.
Peter shook his head with a grin. "How many baristas did you have to sweet talk to get them to mix up this concoction for you?"
"Just one. I explained that I needed to get back in my boss's good graces and that he's a sucker for good coffee."
"This is good coffee."
"You don't have to sound so surprised. I told you you'd like it."
"Cold coffee just seems kinda unnatural," Peter answered with a slight shrug.
"It's a common misconception. When you're fighting the mid-day crash, hot drinks sit too heavy, make you feel all warm and cozy, exactly what you don't want in your afternoon pick-me-up beverage. A jolt of cold temperature mixed with caffeine and a hint of sugar is the perfect combination."
Peter already felt more alert than he did ten minutes earlier, so he wasn't about to argue the point, though he did wonder fleetingly if there was anything Neal didn't know something about. He also wondered if maybe the coffee wasn't the only reason he was suddenly feeling better, but he wasn't sure he wanted to dwell on that. What he finally said was, "But you brought hot coffee for the others?"
Neal leaned forward and whispered, "Have to make sure we keep our edge on the competition."
"So that's your secret," Peter laughed, but he sobered pretty quickly when he realized there was no real humor in Neal's expression. The silence stretched long enough that it almost began to feel uncomfortable. That so rarely happened between them, and Peter didn't care for it at all—particularly when it seemed clear he was mostly to blame for this latest rift. He tried a slight peace offering of his own.
"You weren't really out of my good graces, you know. For sure, not as much as I've been out of yours." He took another drink. "But here you are with coffee and cookies, and even sharing secrets; does this mean I'm forgiven?"
Neal eyed the agent over the rim of his cup as he sipped slowly, taking his time with an answer. "It means that, thankfully, the team was able to see past your overbearing attitude the other day and hasn't cast me in the role of pariah just yet. And, also, we have work to do, and we work better together than separately—though I will probably never live down that particular fact." He took some of the sting out of the reply with a small grin.
Disappointment flashed briefly in Peter's eyes, but he didn't try to argue. "I can live with that for now."
They retreated into their coffees, back to the silence, but it was slightly more relaxed this time. After a few minutes, Neal said, "I should get back to work; my boss can be a real hard-ass sometimes."
"I've heard that."
Neal felt his lips twitching into an honest smile as he got to his feet. "But sometimes," he said slowly, softly, like this was the real secret, "sometimes he'll surprise you." Then he was gone before Peter could say another word.
Peter finished his coffee with a faint smile that wouldn't fade, Neal returned to his desk with noticeably fewer tension lines across his face, and the rest of the office exchanged discreet, hopeful looks.
When they gathered for the Friday morning briefing, Peter revealed that the lab had completed the analysis on the Waterhouse forgery and had found nothing to help identify the thief. Neal immediately raised a hand and asked if he could examine the painting.
The question visibly brought Peter up short as some sort of typical lightly imperious retort died on his lips. The assembled agents collectively held their breath as Peter held Neal's gaze for many agonizing seconds, the blue eyes frankly hopeful under the weight of the brown pair's long consideration.
"It'll have to stay here in the conference room," Peter finally answered, hating that he was so hesitant to issue a perfectly reasonable restriction but not wanting to face the wrath of the entire office again. Thankfully, Neal took it all in stride.
"Nowhere near any potential buyers," he grinned, "got it."
Everyone in the room laughed in relief.
After Neal's careful examination of the forgery, he had a few ideas about where to search for the possible culprit, so he and Mozzie spent the weekend researching, brainstorming, and pounding the streets (though the last part was mostly left to Moz and his free rein of the city), and by Monday afternoon, Neal had the name of a possible suspect.
"Leroy Drake? Not familiar with him. Are you sure about this?" Peter asked, and Neal tried not to focus too much on the doubt inherent in the question and evident in the tone.
"I'm not sure enough for you to just walk in and execute him or anything, but sure enough for you to dig a little deeper, maybe authorize some surveillance? Yeah, Peter, I'm sure."
Peter rolled his eyes but managed to stifle his sigh. There had been some movement back toward their baseline relationship, but it had been slow. Peter was willing to do his penance, but the kid had been on a hair-trigger for a week now, and it was wearing him down. He wanted to fix it and get back to normal. "Look, Neal, I didn't—"
But Neal held up a hand to stop the apology, explanation, excuse—whatever Peter had been about to say. "Never mind, Peter; it doesn't matter. Let me know if you need anything else."
And once again, Neal disappeared from the office without opportunity for reply. Peter was getting tired of that, too, and this time, he couldn't stop the weary sigh as he turned toward his computer to look up Leroy Drake.
It took less than twelve hours for Peter to become convinced Neal was right about Drake, and then the days were filled with more research, surveillance, planning, and carefully placed strategic information. And through it all, the frost between Peter and Neal continued to thaw.
Then, by Friday, Steve Tabernacle was being sent to meet with Drake to purchase the missing Waterhouse painting.
"You know I'm not usually thrilled with being swept up in your dramatic busts," Neal said as they sat in Peter's office going over the last of the details one more time, "but don't forget to arrest Steve, okay? He's a good man, and I'd hate to have to burn him."
"Just once," Peter grumbled, "I wish you'd be as worried about yourself as you are your damned aliases. Steve Tabernacle isn't real; you know that, right?"
"Not real?" Neal looked aggrieved. "Steve's helped you out more than once, Peter; you've got a vested interest in making sure he stays safe."
"We can argue the metaphysics of your aliases another time, but don't worry; I'll be more than happy to slap the cuffs on you myself. It'll be like old times."
Neal laughed and didn't bother to point out that Peter hadn't actually been in charge of the handcuffs either of the times he'd legitimately arrested his favorite outlaw. He was glad to be joking with his handler again, so why argue the details?
Things were almost back to normal between the two men, even if there hadn't been any sort of real resolution. But Neal had known all along that resolving this most recent argument was always going to come down to him simply finding a way to be okay with the fact that Peter didn't yet trust him fully, no matter how hurtful that might be, so that's what he'd done. And he was relatively sure Peter wouldn't be so quick to make baseless accusations in the future, at least not publicly, so that was something of a win. But most importantly, he still knew he'd win completely someday; Peter would trust him, even if he had to spend his entire four-year sentence making it happen.
"Neal?" The unmistakable concern in Peter's voice snapped Neal out of his musings. "You okay?"
Neal put on his best game face. "Yeah, I'm fine, sorry; just running over everything in my mind one more time."
"All right, here's your watch; let's get your tracker off."
Neal propped his foot up on the desk as he fastened the covert GPS listening device around his wrist, but he kept a surreptitious eye on his handler. Peter never took the anklet off him, never put it back on; he always had another agent take care of it, or even Neal himself. Neal wondered if this time was just happenstance, or if it was supposed to be some sort of symbolic apology or something. But whatever the reason, Peter made quick work of inserting the key and freeing the ankle from its constant shackle; if the man had any hesitation about letting his CI off the leash today, he didn't show it.
Peter slid the tracker into his jacket pocket, then reached underneath his desk and pulled out a metal briefcase, which he held out toward Neal.
"You want to give me that now?" Neal was understandably surprised and hadn't yet reached for the case. The feds generally tried to minimize the amount of time he was in direct contact with cash.
"I'm not your pack mule," Peter told him.
Neal thought it through quickly. Not only would he have the case full of money in his possession for almost half an hour longer than strictly necessary as they drove to the meet, but he'd also have it in his possession as they left the office—no anklet and four hundred thousand dollars in his hands as he made his way through the bullpen in full view of the rest of the agents. So, it was the symbolic apology, after all. "Peter, you don't have to—"
"Any reason I shouldn't?"
Neal shook his head, a small smile lighting his face. That was more of an answer than Peter had really needed, and he waggled the case impatiently toward his consultant.
Reaching for the briefcase, Neal let his eyes lock on Peter's. "I won't let you down," he promised softly.
"I'm not worried." Peter clapped him on the back and nudged him toward the door. "Let's go catch a bad guy."
Neal sat handcuffed in the backseat of Peter's car. He was often bored during the mop-up stage of an operation and thought Peter hung around dealing with details a lot longer than a senior agent should have to do, but today was pushing the boundaries toward ridiculous. But Drake had a stash of paintings hidden throughout his small studio and was apparently willing to give them all up right now in an effort to start building the goodwill he hoped would lead to less time in prison. But until the guy was off the premises, Steve Tabernacle was alive and well, so Neal had no choice but to stay put right where he was, no matter how boring it was. If only Peter had left the watch around his wrist, he could've at least had a little fun pestering the agents with some running commentary from the car. He was really beginning to regret insisting on quite so much authenticity during the arrest.
Finally, almost ninety minutes after Peter had deposited Steve into the locked car (with a definitely satisfied smirk, Neal had noticed), Leroy Drake was escorted out of the building and bundled into one of the waiting black SUVs, Peter was finally striding purposefully back toward his own car, and Neal let his fingers get to work. The agent opened up the back door, ready with the handcuff key, but Neal climbed out, handing over the cuffs with a grin. Peter just shook his head ruefully.
By the time Peter slid in behind the wheel, Neal was already situated in the passenger seat and rubbing his wrists lightly. "The next time I ask you to arrest me," he complained, "remind me of this day."
"Sorry about that," Peter replied as he steered the car back toward Manhattan. "I didn't expect him to be quite so forthcoming."
Peter chuckled. "I dunno, I'd be willing to push for a lot of reduced charges and lenient sentences if more criminals would be so helpful." He glanced over at his passenger. "Just think how much easier my life could've been if you'd just confessed."
"Easier," Neal agreed, "but not nearly as much fun."
"Can't argue with that." Peter twitched a smile at his partner's look of pleased surprise.
"I looked around his studio a little," Neal said after a bit. "He's really pretty good. He probably could've made a decent living with his art."
"He's not as good as you," Peter said matter-of-factly.
"You're biased," Neal accused, choosing to ignore the subtext of Peter's comment.
"I am," Peter agreed easily. "Doesn't mean I'm wrong."
With a slight smile, Neal turned to look out the window. Last week, the guy was accusing him of stealing million-dollar artwork; today, he was handing over a briefcase full of hundreds and hinting at career advice. A person could get whiplash trying to keep up.
"Aren't we going back to the office?" Neal asked when he realized they seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.
"Nah. It's late, and you did a good job today; you deserve to cut out a couple hours early."
Neal wouldn't argue with that, even though he felt like this had been the easiest day he'd had in the past couple of weeks. He knew Peter worried about undercover assignments—worried for him instead of because of him, mostly—but personally, he thought it was the best part of the job. Except maybe getting to work with Peter—that was usually worth even putting up with the whiplash.
"You want to come up for a beer?" Neal asked when they pulled into a spot in front of June's place.
"No, thanks; I'm going to play a little hooky myself and head on home. El's actually home tonight, so I'm thinking pizza and movies on the sofa."
Peter turned toward him. "Good work today, partner; I'll see you Monday."
Neal hesitated. Not going back to the office (or the thought of a night with his wife) must've thrown Peter off his game, as he hadn't put the anklet back on yet. Normally, Neal would jump at the chance to slip right out of the car with a cheerful grin, enjoying just a short stretch of freedom, knowing Peter would realize his mistake as soon as he got home and took off his jacket. Then the agent would probably curse, give his wife an apologetic kiss hello and goodbye, and get right back in his car to return to Riverside Drive, no doubt blaming his CI for the entire fiasco. That's how it would normally go (as if Peter would ever make such a mistake normally), and Neal would laugh at the whole thing, even willingly taking the blame, for just one hour of truly unfettered living. But the past two weeks had been anything but normal, and Neal wasn't sure taking advantage of Peter's uncharacteristic oversight would give him that same sense of lighthearted freedom today.
Then he was hit with a horrible idea: It's a test. His breath caught, and the thought felt like a gut punch—for all of the five seconds it took him to think it, process it, then dismiss it; Peter wouldn't do that. Well, he might, but not today, for all the same reasons Neal wouldn't merely stroll off without the tracker.
It seemed an hour could have passed while Neal contemplated his options, but since Peter hadn't said anything, it had probably only been ten or fifteen seconds. He reached for the door handle with a slight smile, slid out of the car, then turned back around, braced himself with the open door, and stuck his left foot back inside, resting it on the seat. He ducked his head down to glance inside. "I think you forgot something."
"I didn't forget."
The simple words were so unexpected, Neal almost lost his balance, grabbing the roof of the car to make sure he stayed standing. He withdrew his offered foot, breathed in deeply, collapsed back into the passenger seat and slammed the door, then twisted sideways so he could face Peter directly. "What?" Not his most discerning response ever, but the best he could manage at the moment. He stared across the small space, feeling like maybe he'd slipped into some sort of alternate dimension or something.
Peter grinned at his consultant's obvious bafflement. "The great Neal Caffrey, tongue-tied. Sometimes I forget how much fun it is to surprise you."
Neal couldn't even respond to the teasing, focused only on the idea that his FBI handler had intended to let him walk away without his tracker. "Peter, what are you talking about?"
In the face of Neal's complete and ongoing astonishment, Peter's amusement was fading into something less confident but no less sincere. "Look, Neal, like I said before, I can't change your past—our past—and I also can't change who I am or ignore my job, but I never meant to make you believe that I see you as . . . I don't know . . . treacherous, because I absolutely don't. If you want to know the truth, I probably trust you more than I should—as an agent, I mean. You're my CI, and you're on probation; there's a way things should be for that. But you're also my partner, and there's a way things should be for that, too, and I know I messed up that part." He took a deep breath. Neal's expression had slowly moved on from confusion, but the astonishment wasn't letting up. Peter forced himself to say the rest of what he wanted to say.
"I can't change what I did last week, either, but I wanted to make sure you understand how much faith I do have in you—even if I can't give you the unquestioning trust that you'd like. So—I thought you might like a weekend without the tracker."
"Peter." Neal breathed out the word, barely above a whisper. He swallowed hard a couple of times, making sure he could get out more words the next time he tried to speak, though he wasn't entirely sure what to say. He tried, anyway.
"Peter, you can't—I didn't mean—you don't have to—" He swallowed again and tried to gather himself. He fixed his gaze on his partner. "Peter. That is an amazing offer, really, but you don't have to prove anything to me. Besides, I wouldn't want you to get in any kind of trouble. I couldn't . . . well, I just wouldn't want that."
"I'm not going to get into trouble, Neal," Peter told him with a gentle smile.
"What are you going to tell the marshals?"
Peter shrugged. "They've already been notified you were starting an undercover assignment earlier today; they're not worried about you right now."
"I thought you had to give them give them an approximate duration of the operation?" Neal asked suspiciously.
"Yep, I do. I told them we hoped to have it wrapped up by Monday morning."
"You've been planning this all day?"
"No. I executed my plan today," Peter corrected smugly, "I've been planning it since Wednesday."
Neal arched back against the door, putting another couple of inches between them, looking at the other man wonderingly. "Peter Burke, you are full of surprises." But his surprised smile drifted downward pretty quickly as he considered more fully. "What are the rules?" he asked quietly, hesitantly, like he was waiting for the gotcha!
"Don't leave town; have some of that Italian roast ready for me Monday morning."
"What about 'don't break any laws?'" The joke fell a little flat, but Neal thought he could be forgiven if he was still trying to wrap his mind around this whole thing.
"In the first place, I figured that went without saying."
"Is there a second place?"
Peter looked at Neal like he was an idiot. "I didn't think it was going to be an issue."
It was like another gut punch, only the good kind this time—if there was even such a thing as a good gut punch. Neal's thoughts were jumbled; he felt like maybe his brain was going into some kind of shock. He'd spent the past two weeks fixated on the idea that someday, somehow, he was going to make Peter Burke trust him, and now here it was, trust being handed out on a silver platter.
Of course, Neal wasn't stupid, even if his brain was maybe a little shocked right now. He knew this was temporary, not even entirely real. This was the symbolic apology on steroids, Peter deliberately forcing himself to believe in Neal's better angels against all instinct.
And, he was honest enough with himself to admit it was kind of scary. What if his better angels couldn't be trusted to hang around? With a forty-eight-hour head start, Mozzie could make Neal Caffrey a ghost never to be heard from again, and he'd be lying if he said there wasn't an inkling of temptation there. No more anklet, not stuck in the same two miles day after day, no more threat of prison hanging over his head—yeah, there was a lot to like about that idea.
But on the flip side of that dream, no more Peter Burke. Ever. The man would probably be fired for allowing himself to be conned by his CI, but even if he weren't, there'd be no more cat and mouse with his favorite agent. The bureau would send someone different after him this time, someone who wouldn't be taken in by easy smiles and distracting patter. There'd be no one to believe in his better angels.
"Caffrey." The frustrated growl got Neal's attention. "I thought you'd be happy about this."
"I am," Neal assured him quickly, "I am. But, Peter, promise me this won't cause you any trouble."
Peter's face softened; whatever reservations he'd had about this—and there were definitely a few —wilted under his partner's genuine concern. "I promise, as long as you follow the rules, I won't be in any trouble."
Neal's face suddenly shone, the joy unmistakable. His smile spread across his face, perfectly white teeth gleaming, and his crystal blue eyes twinkled. "Then you've got nothing to worry about—well, except that I might be pretty worn down by Monday morning; I'm going to cram as much fun into this weekend as I possibly can. I'm going to hit every borough, there's this great pizzeria in Little Italy I haven't been to in years, maybe the Queens Museum; they've always got some first-rate contemporary stuff on exhibit—" He held up his hands, open, reassuring, "Just to look, I swear!" With a wink and a grin, he continued his list. "I'll watch the sunrise in Battery Park, ride the Staten Island Ferry—"
"I get it, Caffrey," Peter interrupted with a laugh, "you've got a lot of plans."
Neal bobbed his head in agreement. "So many plans. But, don't worry, I'll be ready for work on time and have plenty of Italian roast just waiting for you, you'll see."
Peter's voice had gone serious, catching the young man's attention right away and making him clamp down on anything more he'd been about to say. Instead, Neal just waited for Peter to finish his thought, hoping he hadn't said anything wrong. But the brown eyes that looked back at him were filled only with amused affection.
"I'm not worried." Peter was almost surprised at the truth of his words. "Now get out of my car, so I can get home to my wife."
Neal laughed in relief, in gratitude, in happiness. "Thank you, Peter," he said as he reached for the door, "you have no idea what this means to me."
"You can tell me all about it next week."
Neal scampered out of the car, then ducked his head back in one last time, sincerity glowing in his eyes. "Seriously, Peter, thank you. You won't regret this."
Peter smiled as he watched his friend cross the street with a sprightly step, a grin still plastered across his face, then he pulled away, leaving Neal to his temporary freedom.
Neal was dialing his phone as he climbed the stairs to the house.
"Mozzie, how quickly can you get us a car for the weekend? No, not stolen. Yes, everything's fine—better than fine, everything's great. Just get a car and get here as fast as you can. Oh, and Moz? How do you feel about dinner in Queens?"
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