Author's Note: This story takes place during the episode of White Collar called, 'All In'. This is a continuation of my first White Collar story titled, 'It's A Start'. Written December 2009
"You're gonna let Lao walk," Meilin said.
Neal smiled at the audacity of the woman in front of him. He'd just found out she was undercover for Interpol on the same case he was working with Peter. He wasn't sure why she thought he would help her, but she was going to be disappointed. He said, "Yeah. I don't know if you heard, but the bureau and I are kinda pals… lately. I can't flip on them."
With a smile she said, "You could botch the deal."
The smile stayed on his face, but he still shook his head no. She said, "Besides, you help me, and I'll make sure you get the one thing you want most."
"What, a new watch?" he asked, looking over at the one she'd just broken, so the FBI couldn't hear their conversation.
"Kate," she answered.
His smile vanished, and he felt his heart beating faster. He didn't know how she knew about Kate, but she certainly had his attention now. "What do you know about Kate?"
"I know where she is."
That wasn't enough to make him help her. "So do I. I want he man who's got her."
"I can help you with that," she assured him.
He believed her.
# # #
Neal had a confident smile on his face when he walked into Mr. Twan's apartment. After he'd agreed to help Meilin, he'd had a good six hours to think about that decision before leaving the room. He'd used his time wisely, by talking himself into believing that he was actually doing the right thing.
Neal could hear Peter's voice, as he shut the apartment door behind him. "He's unreliable. He never listens to you."
Knowing Peter had to be talking about him, Neal walked further into the room, until he could see the back of Peter's head. Peter was talking to Mr. Twan's young daughter, Bi. Instead of alerting the man to his presence, Neal leaned against the wall, and listened to what was being said.
"And he always gets himself into trouble," after a pause, Peter was quick to add, "I mean, it's not like I'm worried about him. I just feel responsible."
Neal could tell by the tone of voice, that Peter really was worried about him, and the confidence he'd felt started to waver. Peter kept talking, "If anything happens to him, I'll have a lot of paperwork to fill out. Paperwork's a hassle. Neal's a hassle. …But then again, that was a neat card trick, right?"
With a smile, Neal said, "Nice to know I'm appreciated."
Trying not to show his surprise, Peter said, "I knew you were there."
"You also know she speaks perfect English."
Peter turned to look at Bi with surprise, and a little irritation at having made a fool of himself.
Bi giggled and said, "You're weird," before running off.
Peter called after here, "I want my sock back!"
Looking down at Peter's feet, Neal noticed he only had one sock, and wondered how that had happened. Peter turned to him and said, "You're a bad influence."
Soon they were talking about the case, and Neal laid out the information exactly the way Meilin had told him to. The day deteriorated from that point on.
# # #
"We let them walk right out the door!" Peter said in frustration.
"Would you rather be dead?" Neal asked, trying to point out that they hadn't had many other options, other then hiding from the four thugs, who'd just carted away Costa's body.
"This isn't a game Neal," Peter said with a glare. "I think it's time you and I had a little heart to heart."
"About what?" Neal asked, not sure where this was coming from.
"Your friend at Interpol."
Like a deer caught in the headlights, Neal's eyes opened wide, and he couldn't look away from Peter. Thoughts rushed through his head. How does he know? Who told him? How long has he know? He looks really angry.
Peter could tell from Neal's expression, that he had been keeping this from him. His lips drew into a thin line of irritation.
That made Neal blink. He stuck his hands in his pockets, swallowed once, and looked away. No, no, no. I'm not going to think about what happened last time Peter was angry. This is totally different. I didn't do anything wrong here. Sure I hid something from him, but I did it for a good reason.
Peter turned and started walking towards the exit. Neal was frozen in place for a few seconds, but once Peter was a few feet away, he rushed to catch up. Neal said, "Listen…"
Peter held up his hand to cut him off. Neal wasn't sure if he just wanted to wait until they got out of the warehouse, or if he was too angry to talk. They made it out of the warehouse without running into any of Lao Shen's men. Once they were in Peter's car, Neal opened his mouth again, "Peter, I…"
Holding his hand up again, Peter cut him off, without making eye contact, or saying anything. Peter grabbed his cell phone, and dialed the office. After getting his boss on the other end, Peter said, "Costa is dead, we found him in a freezer. …No, we don't need backup, we lost him."
There was a pause, and Neal winced in sympathy when he heard the faint sounds of Peter's boss yelling at him over the phone. Peter took it without flinching, and simply continued once the yelling was done. "Caffrey and I are in Chinatown, at Red Lantern Exports following a lead on Meilin. It's one of the buildings Costa had a warrant on. While we were investigating the warehouse, four of Lao's men showed up to move the body. My cell phone signal didn't work in the warehouse, and there were too many of them to fight, so we hid until they left."
Neal could hear more yelling. In between the yells, Peter answered with, "No, Sir. Yes, Sir, I will. You'll have the report on your desk tonight."
The last thing Peter said before hanging up was, "I'm taking him to my house for a short debriefing before we come back to the office. My house is on the way, and I believe he'll be more forthcoming there. …Yes, Sir. Thank you."
Peter snapped his phone shut, and pulled out into traffic. "You keep quiet. I'm not in the mood to listen to any of your excuses right now."
Neal closed his eyes for a second, and prayed that Elizabeth would be home when they got there.
# # #
Neal couldn't keep the grin off his face, when he saw Elizabeth's car in the driveway. Peter saw the smile and shook his head. "She's not gonna save you."
Neal's smile faltered, but didn't go away entirely. Both men got out of the car and walked to the house. Peter called out, "Elizabeth?"
Coming out the kitchen with a smile on her face, Elizabeth said, "You're home…" her smile disappeared when she saw her husband's expression. "…early." After taking note of Neal standing behind Peter with his hands in his pockets, and his head slightly down, Elizabeth sighed and said, "What happened?"
Peter turned to his partner, pointed to the couch, and said, "You. Sit."
Everyone watched, as Peter's dog, Satchmo, trotted over to the couch, and sat down in front of it. Rolling his eyes, Neal followed the dog, and sat down. Satchmo put his head in Neal's lap, and Neal scratched him behind the ears, happy to know that at least one member of the family wasn't angry with him.
Peter motioned for Elizabeth to follow him into the kitchen. Once they were alone, Peter said in a hushed tone, "He's been lying to me all day. He knew Meilin was Interpol, just like I thought. But instead of telling me about it, he hid it from me. And he spent the morning trying to convince all of us not to investigate her."
"Was I right? Did she have something on Kate?"
"I don't know yet. I've been too worked up to let him talk."
Elizabeth pulled her husband into a hug, hoping to calm him down. After a few seconds she said, "If I were missing, you'd do everything you could do to find me."
Peter squeezed her a little harder, not wanting to think about her missing. "The thing that really burns me, is that he's choosing to trust her over me."
He let her go, and looked into her face. "We found Costa. He's dead. Lao's men came and took him away before we could get any backup."
"I'm so sorry, Honey."
"I know it's not Neal's fault that Costa's dead, but a part of me can't help thinking that maybe if he'd been up front with me in the first place, we might have been there in time to get the body out before Lao's men came. It would have given Costa's family some closure."
She rubbed her hand on his arm and asked, "What are you going to do?"
Running a hand through his hair in frustration, Peter said, "I don't know. I guess it will depend on what he has to say for himself."
"Should I take Satchmo for a walk? Give you two some privacy?" she asked.
Peter nodded, and they walked out of the kitchen together. Elizabeth gave Neal a look of sympathy, turned to the dog, and said, "Satchmo, let's go for a walk."
Feeling his stomach churn at those words, Neal urgently motioned for her to come over and talk to him first. Unable to resist the puppy dog look he was giving her, she went and sat on the couch next to him, while Peter paced around the living room.
Whispering, Neal asked, "How bad is it?"
"Peter hates being lied to." She whispered back.
"I never lied to Peter."
Elizabeth countered with; "You did leave a few things out."
"You don't understand," he pleaded, "I need to find Kate. She's in danger."
Both of them glanced at Peter, who was glaring at Neal. Turning to look at the younger man, Elizabeth said, "Look, my husband really wants to trust you. But you keep giving him reasons not to." Then, with regret in her eyes, she said, "You're on your own on this one."
She stood and walked away, to the sounds of Neal's desperate whispers, "Please, please no. Stay. Don't go!"
She didn't stop, and a few seconds later, she was walking out the door with the dog on a leash.
Once Elizabeth was gone. Neal turned and saw that Peter was still glaring at him with that same expression of distrust, and disappointment.
Neal hated that the older man wouldn't talk to him, or let him explain. After a few seconds, he couldn't take it and said, "So what now?"
Peter felt he was finally calm enough to talk. "Now I wouldn't take you off this case if I could."
Neal stammered, "No, I… I wasn't talking about the case." He wanted to know where he stood with Peter. Was he going back to prison? Was he going to get assigned to another agent?
"What did Interpol promise you? Did Meilin promise you Kate?"
"Look, what was I supposed to do?" he asked, hoping Peter would understand, "She said she could find her."
"In exchange for what?"
"They want Lao to walk."
Sounding almost patronizing, Peter asked, "Do you know why?"
"They're after his boss." Neal hoped that this would be considered a good enough excuse. He was being helpful to another agency, and taking down a bigger fish in the crime business would be good for everyone.
"Lao doesn't have a boss." Peter shook his head and let out a frustrated huff of air. "You know what this is really about?"
Neal's stomach sank. He had no idea what it was about, and doubted he wanted to find out. Peter said, "It's about jurisdiction. If they arrest him on Asian soil, they get additional funding from China's government."
"Additional funding?" Neal asked. It was about money?
"Yeah. Half a million dollars. That's the price of a dead FBI agent." Peter handed him the file to prove that what he was saying was true.
Neal felt somewhat ill, and wished he could redo the past twenty-four hours.
"You really think you can believe everything she tells you?" Peter asked.
Neal had no answer to that. He had trusted her. He'd been blinded by his need to find Kate, and he'd almost blown things with Peter because of it.
"We either take down Lao now, or our partnership comes to an end," Peter said, not making the threat lightly. He wanted to help Neal. He could see potential there. He didn't want Neal to go back to prison, but if Neal was going to lie to him, he couldn't continue working with him.
"We're partners?" Neal asked, looking up at Peter. He'd heard Peter say that before, but he'd found the words hard to believe at the time, since he'd been over the man's knee.
"You tell me." Peter wanted an honest answer. He'd put his trust in Neal more then once over the past twenty-four hours, and now it was Neal's turn.
Nodding, he admitted that he felt the same way, "Yeah. We're partners."
"Partners don't lie to each other, Neal."
"I didn't lie to you."
Peter couldn't believe the kid had just said that, especially after getting caught red handed at withholding information. Neal could tell from his partner's expression, that he had said the wrong thing. Peter stalked towards him, and Neal held his hands up defensively, "I didn't lie!" Peter was looming over him now. Neal looked up and stammered, "I… I just didn't tell you everything."
Peter shook his head and said, "It's the same difference."
Even though Neal could tell Peter was beyond angry, he couldn't let that go. There was a clear distinction between the two in his mind. Shaking his head Neal said, "Not really."
"That's it." Peter reached down, grabbed Neal's upper arm, and pulled him up. Neal stood when Peter pulled his arm, and gulped once as Peter started to pull him towards the dining room table.
"W… What's it?" he asked.
"That's the last straw." Keeping one hand on Neal's arm, Peter pulled a chair out from the table, and turned it around.
Neal shook his head and pleaded, "Not this again!"
Peter sat down, and pulled the younger man down over his lap. He was a little surprised that Neal didn't try to fight him, now that he knew what he was in for. But instead of putting up a struggle, Neal said, "But I didn't steal anything!"
That made Peter pause. He already had Neal's legs pinned between his, and his arm was raised to deliver the first swat. Instead of swatting, he let his arm down, and rested his hand on Neal's lower back.
"This isn't about stealing. It's about lying."
Neal turned his head to look back over his shoulder and said, "But that's not fair! You know I lie. I lie all the time. It's part of what I do. Part of who I am. And I didn't lie, I kept things from you!"
Taking a few seconds to mull that over, Peter finally nodded and said, "Okay, you're right."
Peter looked at him and said, "This isn't just about lying. It's not just about the distinction between lying and holding back the whole truth. It's not just about the fact that you manipulated everyone all afternoon. And it's not even about trust by itself. It's about you and me being partners."
"So… can I get up?"
"No." Peter gave him a solid swat, and Neal let out a surprised, "Ow!"
"For our partnership to be effective, it needs three things. Mutual respect, honesty, and a certain level of trust." Peter gave him a swat after telling him what each one was.
Peter started to lecture, punctuating the important points with swats. "You knew Agent Costa was missing. That in itself should have been enough for you to be completely forthcoming with me about everything. I showed you a lot of trust and respect during this case, and you showed me none."
The swats were painful, but the words were even more so. Neal tried to stifle the sounds of distress that were coming out of his mouth, so he could hear what Peter was saying.
"I didn't give you an ultimatum. I didn't tell you that you had to go in undercover or go back to prison. I had enough respect for you that I asked you if you would do it. I trusted you enough to let them take the ankle monitor off you and replace it with a watch that you could remove by yourself at any time. I even trusted you enough to let you go by yourself with Meilin instead of blowing your cover right there in the street."
With each sentence and swat, Neal felt worse about what he'd done. He hated the feeling of guilt that was rolling around in his stomach, and called out, "I'm sorry!"
Peter stopped lecturing long enough to give him twenty swats in a row. With the swats coming faster, they seemed more intense, and Neal couldn't keep still or quiet. His legs seemed to be moving of their own accord, and so did his mouth, "Ow, ow, ow! Peter! I said… Ah! …I was sorry! Ow!"
He stopped spanking, and said, "What are you sorry for?"
After taking a couple of deep breaths, to try and get a handle on the pain, Neal said, "Um… I'm sorry for not telling you about Meilin?"
Shaking his head, Peter said, "This isn't a guessing game. Are you really sorry for that, or are you just trying to come up with what I want to hear?"
"Both?" Neal felt another solid swat after that answer, and said, "Ah! I mean it! Really! I am sorry I didn't trust you enough to tell you about Meilin. But I also think that's what you want to hear. Can't it be both?"
"I guess it can be both," Peter conceded. "Are you sorry for anything else?"
Neal squirmed uncomfortably, both from the position he was still in, and from having to think back on what he'd done wrong. Neither of which, were things he was accustomed to. "Um… Well… I'm sorry you're mad."
With a sigh of frustration, Peter released his hold on Neal, and helped him to stand up. One he was standing, Neal took a deep breath of relief that it was over. Peter stood up too, and pointed to the chair he'd just vacated. "Sit."
Neal's hands immediately covered his butt, and he gave Peter a wide-eyed look while shaking his head slowly.
Pointing a finger in Neal's face, Peter said, "This isn't over, we're just taking a time out. Now sit down."
With a definite pout on his face, Neal rubbed his rear a couple of times, and then gingerly sat down in the chair.
Peter leaned down, so they were face to face, and said, "You're a smart guy Neal. I want you to take five minutes and really think it through. You've got a good heart, and I'm sure if you think back over the day, you'll find that there are more important things to be sorry for, then me being mad."
After looking at his watch, Peter walked over to the couch and sat down. The men were facing each other across the two rooms. Peter kept his eye on Neal, while the younger man scowled at his own shoes, and fidgeted in the chair.
Neal's emotions were all over the place. He wished that he just didn't care what Peter thought of him, but he did. He couldn't stop the rush of pleasure when Peter had said he was smart and had a good heart. He also couldn't stop the rush of shame when he finally realized why Peter was so mad. He expects better of me… I shouldn't be sorry that he's mad, I should be sorry that I let him down. Sorry that I let myself down.
Peter noticed when the fidgeting stopped, and knew the kid had figured it out. He checked his watch. Three more minutes to go. During those three minutes, Neal slouched in his chair, bit at his fingernail, and darted guilty eyes towards his partner once in a while.
When the allotted time was up, Peter went back to stand in front of Neal. Straightening up, Neal forced himself to make eye contact. Peter crossed his arms and said, "Anything you want to tell me?"
Clearing his throat first, Neal said, "I'm sorry I let myself get conned by Meilin. I'm sorry that I didn't tell you the whole truth. I'm sorry that I tried to mislead everyone today. And mostly I'm sorry that I let you down. I sullied your trust and our partnership when I kept the truth from you."
Pleased with the honest response, Peter relaxed his arms, and said, "Okay, stand up."
Thinking that his butt was safer in the chair, Neal said, "Um… That's okay. I'm good here."
Peter reached down, and pulled Neal up by the arm. Neal swallowed once, and gave the older man a wide-eyed look of worry mixed with repentance. Peter put both his hands on Neal's shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, "I believe you, and I even forgive you this time, but it better not happen again. We are partners, which means we have a certain responsibility to do right by each other. You got it?"
"Yes, I do, and it won't happen again."
Peter patted his shoulder once and smiled with approval, before letting his hands drop. He looked towards the door and said, "Okay, once Elizabeth gets home, we'll head back to the office. Then after I finish my report, we'll talk about the meeting with Lao tomorrow, and when we're done I'll take you home."
Neal couldn't help but be surprised. He'd been sure he was in for more punishment. Peter had said they were just taking a time out, and that it wasn't over. And the last time they'd been in this situation, Peter had said that the next time would be the full-blown version. But this had seemed about the same to him. Not that he wanted anymore punishment. He'd learned the lesson Peter was trying to teach him, and really if it was up to him he'd rather skip any and all punishments. But it was confusing.
Peter saw the look and said, "You okay?"
"What? Oh, yeah sure, I'm fine."
Studying the young man, Peter said, "You don't look fine. You look confused."
With his eyebrows drawn together, Neal leaned in towards Peter and brought his voice down to a whisper. "It's just that you said… I mean, the last time this happened you said…" Unable to say it, and wishing he hadn't opened his mouth, Neal shook his head and said, "Never mind."
Confused, Peter muttered, "Last time this happened?" Then he remembered what he'd said, and understood. "Oh, right." He put a hand on Neal's shoulder again, and said, "I don't think I made myself clear. If you do something wrong once, you get the trial run, which is geared towards teaching you what you did wrong. You do the same thing wrong twice, and you get the full-blown version, which is straight punishment. I know how different it is for you to be working for law enforcement instead of against it, so I'm giving you some slack. Make sense?"
Neal felt better, and gave Peter a small smile. "Yeah… Thanks."
Both men heard a tentative knock on the door. Neal quickly put the chair back under the table, and straightened his shirt and tie. Peter smirked, and called out, "Come on in, it's all clear."
Elizabeth opened the door and peeked her head through first to see what was going on. Once she saw the two men standing in the dining room, she came in and shut the door behind her. After taking the leash off the dog, she said, "Did you guys work things out?"
"We did," Peter said. "I've got to go back to the office and file a report. I'll probably be home late."
"Okay," she said with an understanding smile. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and said, "I'll see you when you get home."
Turning to the younger man, Elizabeth took one of his hands in both of hers and squeezed it gently. She asked, "Are you okay?"
Neal blushed, knowing that she had a pretty good idea of exactly how they'd just worked things out. Looking away he muttered, "I'm okay."
She couldn't help herself, and pulled him into a quick hug. After letting go, she said, "Don't let him stay too late, okay?"
"Okay," he said with a smile.
Neal turned and saw Peter waiting for him by the door. "Ready to go?" Peter asked.
Neal nodded, and followed him out to the car, ready to try working with his partner, instead of against him.