Disclaimer: I am not the creator(s) of White Collar.
Special Agent Peter Burke returned from vacation eager to get back to work. Elizabeth had insisted on a complete break with their usual lives while they were in Belize, and being out of touch for a week had made him more restless than rested. He descended on the office ten minutes early and felt pleased to find a small stack of case files waiting for him on his desk. He picked up the one on top. Securities fraud, possible forged bonds. Perfect for Caffrey.
"Hey boss," Jones greeted him, hanging his coat up and peeling off his gloves. "How was the Caribbean? Warmer than here, I hope."
"Too warm," Peter said. "Easy life, makes you soft. We're better off here." Jones snorted. Behind him the office filled with agents and staff, their busy noise a familiar hum to Peter's ears. Nice to be back. "So, what are you working on?" Peter asked. "Where's Caffrey?" He glanced around, standing uneasily. He'd left the felon in Jones's supervision. "Where is Caffrey?" he repeated, more urgently.
Jones fished around on his desk, coming up with a folder and a form. "He's at Riker's," he said. "You can pick him up –"
"Riker's! What the hell's he doing in Riker's?"
Jones shrugged apologetically. "The Assistant Director didn't want any of us supervising him."
"Did he do something?" Of course he did. "What'd he do?" Peter snatched the folder from him, expecting to see a violation of probation report, but the folder only held the release form for a Riker's prisoner, already filled out with Caffrey's name.
"Nothing," Jones said, as if he defended himself. His dark skin disguised his blushes, but Peter had learned how to spot them. "Hughes just changed his mind. We couldn't leave him without supervision, and it's not like they kept his old cell free."
"Diana," Peter bellowed, seeing his probie in the outer office, "get in here."
"Welcome back, boss," she said, accustomed to his moods. She was still wearing her coat, hat and gloves.
"He's wearing a tracker," Peter said without preamble. "They didn't have to lock him up."
"Sorry," Diana said, looking genuinely regretful. "But if he just sits around where he lives, he's getting a vacation, and the AD said he didn't deserve that."
Where else am I gonna go?
Peter swore. He'd thought he had this arranged with Assistant Director Hughes. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. It's not like he's drawing a salary. He's just sitting around in jail." He tried to calm down. This wasn't their fault, though Jones still had guilty body language.
"But it's not a vacation," Diana said.
"Not in Riker's it sure as hell isn't," Peter said, voicing the merest hint of his horror at the thought of Neal in what amounted to a State penal colony with the largest population of violent offenders in the country. Neither Jones nor Diana met his gaze.
"My car's out front," Diana said. "Figured you'd want to go get him."
"Damn right, but . . ." Peter looked at the two of them. "It'll take most of the morning." The island wasn't accessible from Manhattan; he'd have to go through Queens and back. Peter grabbed his coat and the folder with the release form. "Just drop me at the park 'n ride and go back to work on whatever you're working on. Jones, call over to Riker's and tell them I'm coming. Get Caffrey started with outprocessing."
In the car, with Diana negotiating mid-morning traffic, Peter asked, "When did he go to Riker's?"
Sunday. Peter had left on Saturday. Neal had had a full week crowded in with sex offenders, gang members and murderers, under heavy security but little supervision. Nothing like the well-ordered white collar prison he'd spent four years and three days in. Peter had a flash of himself on the beach with a Mojito.
"I got home Friday night. You couldn't have called? Left me a message, at least? I could have had him out Saturday morning." Two extra days. Two and a half, even, with traffic this heavy.
Diana gave him a curious look. "I thought you said you didn't want him coddled. You were pretty tee'd off when he found a cushy place to live."
"Have you been to Riker's?" He knew the answer; he knew the entire ten month history of her active time in Law Enforcement.
"Just the administration area, the one time. I know its reputation." She sounded a bit chastened.
Peter nodded. "Diana, we can't let this happen again. Riker's is no place for Neal."
"But," she ventured, "other people are sent there. We do send people to jail on a regular basis."
She was right, of course. They dealt with federal holding institutions, not state ones, but that was splitting hairs.
"Well," he sighed, "for one thing, Caffrey is no good to us if I don't have his trust. If we don't have his trust. Doing this . . . it's like taking a dog home and then tying it out in the cold."
"That's what you're going to claim to the Director, anyway."
"Don't you dare tell Caffrey I said anything of the sort."
"You mean comparing him to a dog?" She tried to sound light, but Peter wasn't in the mood.
"Any of it. It's just . . ." he turned to look straight at her. "We can't let this happen again."
"There are jails and then there are jails." He licked his lips. She was a promising agent and seemed to be a decent human being, but he couldn't be sure he wasn't confiding too much to her. "Just look at him. Pretend you're straight and look at him." Or that he wasn't going to get slapped with a lawsuit. "He's not a scrapper; hell, he even avoids guns." Peter shook his head. "He doesn't belong in Riker's." He pounded Diana's dashboard. "I swear, I'll never take another vacation. Why the hell didn't the AD want Jones to supervise him?"
Diana stayed silent.
"It wasn't a rhetorical question. Something must have happened."
Diana threw him an innocent look, her lips tucked tightly between her teeth.
"So, it wasn't you he punked; it was probably Jones." She pressed her lips together more tightly and raised her eyebrows, eyes on her driving. "And you're sworn to secrecy." He studied her profile. "It wasn't serious, or Jones would be in trouble, but it was enough to make the AD not trust him to keep Caffrey on leash."
Diana smiled at him and blinked. "The Assistant Director said you were to be Caffrey's only supervisor," she said carefully.
"Stupid, Neal, stupid," Peter said under his breath. "I bet you won't do it again, whatever it was." He gazed out the window in silence until they reached his car.
Peter was to meet Caffrey in building C-95, a building with a large lobby and administration area nattily decorated with artwork the prisoners would never see. His first glimpse of the man he was picking up was from two office layers away, through two barriers of bulletproof glass. Neal was led in by a guard on his arm. He was barefoot and dressed in black slacks and a white undershirt. Peter signed paperwork as Neal was handed his belongings. Peter waited at the second door while Neal came through the first one and was searched. Once, he met Neal's wide vivid blue eyes and saw recognition there. Then that startling gaze went hooded when someone made him raise the foot wearing the GPS unit for inspection.
Neal came through the second door, still barefoot, moving slowly and clutching his suit jacket and a duffel bag to him. Peter thought to school his expressions and words, but then thought, school them to what? With any luck, Neal would be his usual jaunty self and they could pretend they'd both been on vacation.
Of course his luck couldn't be that good. Neal gave him a look that was anything but jaunty. Peter had seen it on war veterans, particularly ones recently returned from action. Glazed and shell-shocked. "Hi Peter," he said with a weak smile.
Peter didn't have to answer right away, as someone handed him a final clipboard form to sign. Neal stood by, staring at nothing. When they were finally left alone, Peter got a good look at him. Limp hair, sunken eyes, unshaven and with an ugly bruise on his cheekbone, back near the ear. One of the shadows beneath his eyes was darker than the other. "Hey," Peter gestured at the bruise. "What happened to you?"
Neal looked at him like he hadn't understood the question. Peter grew angry. "Hey there," he called after the staff person who'd handed him the final clipboard, "I want some answers! What happened to my prisoner?"
"Peter, don't!" Neal hissed, finally joining the living. Peter paused, glancing back at him. "Just get me out of here," he said, looking around as if he was afraid of being heard. Peter turned to him and put his hand on Neal's shoulder.
"Neal, if you have any claim to make, we need to make it now." Whomever had done this to him, whomever was responsible, they had a better chance of making a charge stick while there was still evidence.
Neal raised his head and fixed an anxious gaze on him. "Claim? No. No claim. C'mon Peter, can't we just go?" Neal's desperation radiated out from him. Peter couldn't remain unaffected.
"All right. The car's this way." Neal walked painfully. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Neal said and tried to walk faster.
Peter's heart sank. They reached the door at the end of the corridor, and Neal put his hand to the handle. "Wait," said Peter, "put on some shoes. It's forty degrees out there."
Neal looked at him blankly for a moment, then rummaged in the duffel bag. He produced both shoes once belonging to June's late husband, dropped them on the tile floor and slid bare feet into them, leaving the laces untied. For some reason, that unnerved Peter even more.
"And jacket," Peter prompted, so Neal slid into the suit jacket, failing to disguise that the movement pained him. He was still underdressed for the weather, but Peter's car had a heater and Neal was too anxious to leave to complain.
The cold wind seemed to brace Neal up. "Where are we headed?" he asked.
"Well, the office," Peter said, uncertainly.
Neal winced. "Peter, I really, really need to sleep," he said. They reached the car and Neal leaned against it. "Can I nap back here on the way?"
That was the look, Peter realized. Not just shell-shocked, but bone deep tired. "Sure," he managed, unlocking the doors. Neal collapsed into the back seat, though he had to curl up to get his legs in. The tracker snagged on the edge of the seat and he tugged at it, irritably. Once he was in, Peter closed the back door.
In the passenger seat he found a lap blanket of red and blue plaid, and he tossed it back at Neal. Neal mumbled something and pulled the blanket over his shoulders and back, turning his back to Peter.
Peter drove in silence, so Neal could get what sleep was possible. Halfway across the East River he decided to change destinations. He hoped Neal was still welcome at June's.
"Not the office?" Neal asked, raising his head when the engine turned off.
"You're not exactly presentable for a day at work. C'mon."
"Sorry to not live up to the FBI's high standards," Neal grumbled as he righted himself and stepped out of the car. The biting cold made him shiver.
No one answered the door at June's, but Neal produced a key. He eyed Peter when he followed him in. "You planning to tuck me in?" he asked with wariness and a hint of teasing.
"As a matter of fact I am," Peter said, gesturing up the staircase. "I want to get a look at your injuries. "
Neal paused on the staircase, gripping the rail, and shook his head. "Don't, Peter, nothing's wrong. Just let me get some sleep."
"Nice try. Did you know you're getting a black eye? I should have taken you straight to the infirmary, but I was afraid you were going to keel over. Up, up. Up to bed."
Neal put a cautious hand to his nose, a worried look crossing his face. Peter had to stifle a grin at the man's vanity.
Peter had only seen the roof terrace and the loft room that opened onto it, but he found that June had Neal sleeping in a sumptuous master guest room with attached bath. The room held a bed and bedroom furniture, but also many stacked packing boxes. Nothing in the room seemed to belong to Neal; though, Peter reflected, Neal owned nothing, had little money and had barely occupied the room so far. He spotted one open drawing pad with sketches sitting on the floor beside the bed.
Neal stepped out of his shoes and slipped gingerly out of the jacket. He laid it neatly over a chair. Sitting on the bed in only the undershirt, he said, "Make yourself useful and help me get this shirt off."
Peter stepped to the side of the bed. "What's wrong?" heasked. It wasn't clear why Neal couldn't take off an undershirt.
"I can't raise my left arm."
Peter shoved aside a rush of feelings he didn't bother to identify. This was just a puzzle -- how to get him out of a T-shirt without raising his left arm. "Okay, raise your right." Neal complied. Peter inched the right half of the shirt up onto the arm and then pulled the neck over his head. The shirt was now only connected at the left side. Wincing, Neal moved his left arm away from his side, allowing Peter to peel it off. As the fabric came free, purple bruising emerged into view, starting at Neal's shoulder and spreading all down his left side as if he'd been painted. Peter squinted.
Neal looked morose. "I suppose I could have cracked ribs," he said.
"If you did, you couldn't lie down on the back seat like you did. What happened to you?"
"Nuh uh," said Neal. "Sorry."
"Neal, someone did this to you, and our chances of getting any justice out of the situation drop off pretty damn quick. Why are you withholding?"
"I know the rules. Believe me, the last thing I can afford to be is a snitch." Using his right hand, he struggled to get out of his slacks.
"Prison rules? Neal, you're not going back to Riker's. You should never have been sent there in the first place."
"I can't be sure of that, can I? You'd be amazed how far and how fast a reputation goes." He got the slacks free and handed them to Peter. Peter tossed them over the same chair as the jacket. "Hey, fold those, would you? If you get ahold of something good like that, you've got to take care of it."
Peter just looked at him. "Neal," he said, "I won't let that happen again."
Neal sagged, exhaustion damping him down. "Aw, that's sweet, Peter, but I can't take that chance. You're not going to take Elizabeth on vacation again, or have to leave town for a few days? You're never going to get sick?"
"No, we're not . . ." Peter stopped, dismayed. There had to be a better solution than tossing Neal in the slammer for safekeeping. He had to find one and make it stick. He had something good.
Neal gave him a crooked smile, fading swiftly toward the pillows. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Peter. Let it be. I'll be all right. And fold the slacks, will ya?"
Reluctantly, Peter turned to go. "I'll pick you up tomorrow at 7:00, and I'm taking you to a clinic to be checked out."
The only reply from the bed was muffled and half-asleep.
Peter folded the slacks neatly on his way out.