Disclaimer: I do not own White Collar or any or its characters.
This time, Jones drove. Peter was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to concentrate on anything, much less driving. He certainly had plenty to think about—his boss had just blindsided him with accusations that his friend and partner was guilty of thievery, as well as the assorted murders that were tied to these particular thefts. Friend, thief, partner, criminal, friend, thief, partner, criminal… These thoughts dashed through his head in rapid succession, making him confused and slightly sick. He didn't even really want coffee anymore, not until the world stopped pulling the floor from out under him. All he wanted now was some sleep, because where there was sleep, there was a vague hope that he might awaken to find that this had simply been a nightmare.
"…Are you all right?" Lauren's voice broke into his dazed thinking.
He didn't answer, instead covering his face with his hands. As a result, he missed seeing the worried expression that his agent took on when he did so.
Quietly, she asked him, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Peter took his hands off his face and contemplated them for a second. "It's…it's just…" he trailed off.
Lauren waited with a calm patience, although inside she was a whirlwind of emotions. She had never seen her boss at such a loss for words before, had never seen him so vulnerable. No matter what happened, there was always an air of determination about him. Agent Peter Burke was an excellent agent, and, in her opinion, one of the best. It spooked and hurt her to see him so lost. Seeing Jones glance at Peter concernedly confirmed that he felt the same way.
"Let's just find Ne—" he paused, wavering. "Let's just get to the bottom of this," he said firmly, "So that we can move on." His face was schooled back into a determined expression, though he couldn't fool her. She knew that he was still reeling from evidence that Hughes had hit him with.
And the reason for his current state? The reason that he was drawn and worried, and stressed? The same thing—person—that it always was. Neal Caffrey.
Although their relationship had gotten to the point where it could be considered "casual friendliness," she still wasn't sure whether she could trust him completely. But whatever her opinions of him, when they did get to the bottom of it, as Peter had said, Neal had better have a good explanation.
"So!" Masked Man announced, much too loudly for my headache. I opened my eyes a crack and squinted at him. Having gotten my attention, he, of course, had to pause for dramatic effect.
Everything hurt too much to be playing these games, I groaned inside my head. Not pausing to consider the possible ramifications of talking to oneself, I mumbled a disinterested, "What?" as he obviously wanted me to do. Maybe if I responded to him, he'd go away and leave me alone.
Satisfied that I had done what he wanted, he said, "I was just thinking, and I had an idea." I refrained from quipping, 'Bound to happen eventually!'
He glared at me. "Don't you want to know what my idea was?" the slightest hint of a threat in his voice. This man sure had issues. Still, he was the man with the guns and the thugs…
"What was your idea?" I asked dutifully.
"Actually…" he said, "I think I'll tell you later." I heaved an imaginary sigh. My interest was slightly piqued, however, when, after he left I heard him talking about "that museum" and "FBI." Given that he had told me that the statuette I was supposedly going to steal was in a museum in New York right now, I was sure that those words weren't a good combination. What I wasn't sure about was whether he had let me hear to torment me, or if he had accidentally revealed a real to clue to what he was planning.
Presently, I heard footsteps outside the room I was held in. The feeling of disorientation told me I must have dozed off for a little while. It wasn't a surprise, really, given that being held captive was extremely boring.
I didn't bother to straighten up when Masked Man returned, instead staying slumped on the chair I was tied to.
"Well," he began. Then he stopped, as he noticed that I was looking at him. "Well!" he repeated, raising his voice. I flinched despite myself at the shout, my body linking his voice to pain and injury. When I finally raised my head, there was a cruel little smile tugging a corner of his mouth. I shuddered inside at the sight of it.
Satisfied that he now had my undivided attention, he began talking again. "I think I'm gonna let you go…"
Jones and Lauren had kept a careful eye on him the entire time they had been investigating the theft, from . Peter wasn't sure whether to be flattered, amused, or annoyed. Annoyed, he decided. Definitely annoyed, as he had caught Lauren giving him a look, as they listened to the distraught curator explain how a priceless statuette had been stolen last night.
When he finally seemed to draw to a conclusion, or at least draw in a breath, Peter took the opportunity to break into the one-sided conversation. "Why didn't you report it missing when you discovered it to be?"
There was an embarrassed pause before the curator finally admitted that they thought that it had simply been misplaced.
"It's a big museum!" he said defensively, "And we have had many valuable shipments today."
"Did you check the other shipments, make sure nothing was stolen?" Peter asked.
"Of course we did!" he said indignantly, "It's common sense. Having something stolen from us does not mean that we're fools!"
Peter could feel a headache coming along.
I blended in with the people milling about looking at displays as I watched Peter, Lauren, Jones, and a man who was probably the curator disappear up the stairs into an "employees only" hallway—which was flanked by two security guards. After trying, with no success, to find a way to follow them without being seen, I began to wonder whether I should just wait outside for them to leave. But that might take a very long time, and time was something I didn't have the luxury of right now. I decided to watch the hallway for a little while before trying a new tactic.
A few minutes ticked by. I sighed softly. Time for Plan B.
"Excuse me," I said, tapping the shoulder of one of the security guards, "I need to talk to the curator." The pair of guards looked at me, taking in my disheveled appearance (sprinting several blocks down crowded New York sidewalks was no simple feat, especially with injuries), and slightly suspicious-looking clothing (I had to wear a long sleeved jacket, a scarf, and sunglasses to cover up said injuries).
"Sorry, the curator is busy right now," one finally said, "And he only meets people by appointment anyway."
"I'm an expert in a particular statuette of interest," I said smoothly, "And I did have an appointment, but I got caught up in traffic on my way here." They still looked doubtful, so I quickly said, "Why don't we just go ask him? I saw him go right down that hallway with some FBI agents, who I assume is also helping with the case?"
They looked at each other again and seemed to come to a silent decision. "You stay here, Mr.—?"
"Caffrey. Neal Caffrey." I supplied helpfully.
"All right, Mr. Caffrey," the guard said, "I'll go ask him then." And he disappeared down the hallway.
The remaining guard and I looked at each other. After what seemed like an eternity, the guard came out, saying, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Caffrey. Here is the curator and Agent Burke and his team." A shocked looking Peter, a vengeful-looking Lauren and Jones, and a very confused curator followed him
"Well done," Masked Man's voice murmured into my hidden earpiece. I flinched at the sudden and deeply unwelcome voice, "But you know what will happen if you give anything away to your little FBI friend…" I clenched my teeth at his barely veiled threat.
Peter saw how Neal flinched when he walked out of the hallway behind the security guard. He was wearing a ridiculous outfit that made him look almost alien. He was so used to seeing Neal in his trademark suits and that funny hat—what was it called again?—that seeing him in anything else was plain weird.
"Let's go to my office," Mr. Allen, the curator, suggested. "And you can tell me what's going on," he added, once they were out of earshot of the guards, a gesture that Peter appreciated.
During the short walk there was completely unbroken by conversation. Peter found himself staring at Neal, frowning when he noticed that he was favoring his left leg. Looking closer, he saw that his whole body seemed stiff as he walked, with only a shadow of the casual but confident air Neal usually held. He didn't look at Peter once.
"Here we are," Mr. Allen said, holding the heavy door open for them and nodding at their murmured thank yous.
The office he led to them to was wide and spacious, with dark, wooden bookshelves lining the walls, and comfortable looking sofas placed strategically on the carpeting. An oak wood desk sat at the far end of the room, where an open laptop sat on a corner, and writing utensils, folders, and papers lay scattered about on the remaining area in an organized chaos. They took seats on the sofas, where the thick silence from the walk over continued to prevail.
Despite his seeming rather befuddled to Peter at first, the curator's sharp eyes took in the odd state of Neal, the "expert" on the stolen statuette, who was slowly looking around the office and not meeting the eyes of the FBI agents, Peter, who was trying to observe Neal without him noticing, and Lauren and Jones, who were glaring daggers at Neal for ignoring Peter. "Right," he said, "Why don't I get you guys some coffee? We can continue our discussion when you're at ease." He looked at them rather pointedly and the tension that was practically radiating out of them. Jones and Lauren got up and offered to help him, and the three left the room.
When the door closed quietly behind them, neither of them spoke. Neal was uncharacteristically silent, studiously studying the patterns on the sofa he was sitting on, and continued to refuse to look at Peter. He seemed completely exhausted.
The silence in the room thickened until it was almost as if it were another presence.
Finally, Peter gave in, "So where the hell were you?"
I wondered if Peter was angry. When the curator—Mr. Allen?—Jones and Lauren had left, the silence had almost become unbearable. And although I had been in such a panic earlier about finding Peter, now that I was actually able to talk to him, I didn't know what to say. So I stayed quiet and tried to sink into the comfortable sofa I was sitting on.
I tried to figure out what I should say to him to make him understand, without making the listening Masked Man angry. Writing was an option, though I wondered whether Peter would be able to sound convincingly ignorant in the general cover-up conversation once he read what I had to say. Masked Man had said that he used to b a conman, so the question now was whether Peter was a good enough actor to con him.
I was just about to initiate the conversation when Peter spoke, his voice harsh, "So where the hell were you?"
Wincing at his tone, I thought about how unfair it was for him to sound so accusing. "Told you so…" a voice breathed in my ear. I leapt out of my chair in surprise. Masked Man had been arrogant, sneaky, manipulative, but now he was just infuriating. My extreme annoyance faded somewhat, however, when the events of the past day caught up to my body and the world spun around me in a blur. Somehow, I ended up on the floor, panting for breath, with Peter's concerned presence next to me.
Before he could speak, I put a finger to my lips and pointed to my ear, where the tiny earphone was just barely visible, even to people who knew where to look. I thanked his training—the same training that allowed him to catch you and keeps him from trusting you, a treacherous part of me whispered—when he didn't react audibly to what he saw.
Looking around for a sheet of paper and a pen made the world tilt again and I felt suddenly nauseous. Catching on to what I wanted, Peter went over to the curator's desk, and with the briefest of hesitations, picked up a blank sheet of paper and one of the less expensive-looking pens.
Talk, I wrote, when the pen was handed to me and he had helped me sit up on the floor against the sofa I had been sitting on before. Sound accusing, I added, remembering what Masked Man had warned.
He looked surprised at that last statement, but he evidently decided to just go along with it for now. He probably wanted to yell at me anyway.
"What were you thinking?" he snapped, "Cutting your anklet like that and running off?"
He sounded so convincingly disapproving that I had to remind myself again that he was just acting. This was made a lot easier by the worried expression that completely contrasted with his tone. I scribbled on the sheet of paper as I replied, making myself sound desperate, "It wasn't my fault!"
I passed the paper and pen over to Peter, I know you're gonna freak out when you read this, so stay calm and keep with the conversation. He threatened to hurt Elizabeth if I don't do as he says.
He threatened to hurt Elizabeth…
Peter felt a seething anger burn through him as he read the lines, written in Neal's sprawled, perfect handwriting, almost forgetting to reply to the last verbal comment. He tried to pass it off by seeming shocked to silence with indignation and angry exasperation, "…Not your fault!? It's never your fault! You go around doing this, and that, and you never care a whit about the people around you!"
With his head bent down to write his own message, he missed the sudden uncertain look that flitted across Neal's face. It was gone though, by the time he passed his short, one-word response over to him.
When Neal took the pen and began to write, saying, "Why don't you listen to me? You didn't even hear my side of the story before you started accusing me!" Peter thought that the words, although said in a cover-up conversation, rang a little bit too true. Especially given the fact that he was here in this museum now only because Hughes thought that Neal had done it.
As Neal seemed to be composing an essay, he took a moment to sweep his eyes over his friend's collapsed state, frowning when he noticed a dark—bruise?—almost completely covered by the scarf he was wearing. Peter narrowed his eyes, and, struck by a sudden suspicion, eyed the long sleeved jacket he was wearing, and the dark sunglasses. Remembered his uncharacteristic silence. Saw again in his mind, how Neal had flinched at the sight of him.
"I don't want to hear your excuses," he snapped at him, "Now be quiet and let me think." There, that should satisfy whomever was listening in on their conversation. Now he just had to find out the extent of Neal's injuries. He silently berated himself for not noticing it sooner.
Neal started in surprise when Peter snatched the sunglasses off his face. For a moment they froze like that, Neal half lying on the floor looking exhausted, pen still in hand, with his eyes wide open like a deer in headlights, and Peter holding a pair of sunglasses in his hands, glaring at Neal's bloodshot eyes.
Neal exhaled quietly, and looked away, back toward the paper he was writing on, when Peter moved so that he could look at his face better. There was a sharp intake of breath when he saw the thin, barely visible knife marks. He put a hand his shoulder, but quickly withdrew it when Neal winced in pain.
"That's it," he ordered, "You're going to the hospital." Neal obviously had to see a doctor, and Peter had to go make sure Elizabeth was safe. Although he knew that the entire story hadn't been completely written yet, but right now, he didn't care. He would make do with what he had. Besides, Neal could finish the rest of his story while lying in a bed at a hospital.
I didn't want to go to a hospital! I couldn't go to a hospital. "No, Peter you don't understand!" I tried to convince him, but it was as if I were talking to a brick wall. Except that it was, you know, a brick wall with a head and could talk back.
"Maybe not, but what I do understand is that you're injured," Peter practically growled. "And, as such, you are going to the hospital!"
"But…" his angry glare silenced me. I sighed to myself and gave up, hauling myself to my feet with some effort instead of arguing further. I'd just have to find a way to escape the room they put me in; that was all. How hard could it be?
Apparently, it could be very hard. I tried to give the hospital security guard whom Peter had actually ordered to stand watch at the door the death glare that Peter gave me whenever he wanted me to be quiet. As I was bandaged all over and wearing ridiculous hospital clothing, it had no effect whatsoever. After receiving some bland looks from my efforts I gave it up as a lost cause, deciding to think of a way out of this mess instead.
At Peter's insistence, they had given me a room with no windows. Just A single, guarded door and four blank white walls.
For a second, they seemed to close in on me, stifling me, as my mind dragged out memories of another white room. And the knife that came closer and closer…
I forced myself to calm down. Having a panic attack wasn't going to help. A glance at the clock told me that it was 4:37 p.m. Apparently, we had spent roughly half an hour at the museum. Which, I thought, had a very understanding curator, as he hadn't even seemed annoyed when Peter told him that a new team would be assigned to the case. Either that, or he was glad to be rid of us and our angst issues. In any case, Hughes had kept Lauren and Jones on the case for the time being, as it was the only lead we had on Masked Man. Although I had nothing against them personally, I was glad when Peter told me, as the two had been giving me miniature versions of their boss's death glare ever since I had first arrived at the museum and they had seen me. This time though, I was sure I had done nothing wrong; I hadn't even said anything!
Peter, on the other hand, had went to arrange security for Elizabeth and June. Right now, his assignment was, as Hughes had put it, to "keep that Caffrey away from all that crazyness he had been mixed up in." Which, I supposed, was the closest thing he would ever get to admitting that he was worried about me.
My good mood was short-lived, as it immediately evaporated when my eyes fell upon the clock again.
Masked Man had given me three hours. And I was still trapped in the hospital with just two hours left.
"Glad to hear you're all friendly-like with the Feds again," the earpiece snarled. "I hope you haven't forgotten what I said." Peter hated him and the sound of his voice. The one who Neal called "Masked Man." The man who had kidnapped Neal and tortured him. He didn't say anything aloud, as he didn't want to tip him off that the earpiece and its microphone were now with the FBI. He did, however swear at him viciously in his head.
The earpiece was lying on the table in one of the soundproof meeting rooms. Peter watched it for awhile to see if it would make any more comments.
After minutes had ticked by, he thought of Elizabeth instead. She hadn't been happy when he ordered FBI agents be placed around their house, but she had understood. A small smile tugged a corner of his mouth up as he remembered their conversations. He wouldn't let some madman hurt her. Seeing one person he cared about in that state was already horrifying enough.
From what Neal had told him, it seemed like Masked Man had threatened her, and then…just let Neal go? This didn't add up. Was there something Neal had kept to himself? No. He mustn't jump to conclusions. Unfortunately, his FBI-trained mind was geared toward suspicion. Because as much as he wanted to trust him, his training told him that Neal was hiding something.
But why? He was safe now. What would make Neal feel the need to omit something?
The earpiece burst to life again, saying, "Why the silence Neal? I don't remember you being so quiet before." There was a pause, as if the speaker was waiting to see whether there would be a response. Then, "In fact, I seem to remember that your screams were quite loud…"
At that, Peter couldn't contain himself anymore and swore under his breath at the earpiece, his mind playing the words over and over again as if on loop, "…your screams were quite loud…" and forced him to think the thoughts he had been avoiding ever since they had found Neal. He was supposed to keep Neal safe! He was a civilian with no training, and he, Agent Peter Burke, had let his charge, his friend, fall into the hands of this madman. "…your screams…" echoed through his head like an accusation.
A voice broke into his guilt-stricken thoughts.
"Ah…the famous Peter Burke, I presume?" Masked Man asked. "I think that we've got a lot to discuss, don't you?"
A/N: I switched POVs often this chapter. Hopefully it wasn't confusing.
Thank you for your reviews; I enjoyed reading all of them!