A/N: Story is set in the summer, for reasons that will become obvious. Rated for violence and language, on the safe side. No particular pairing intended.
Peter looked up at the window-plated front of headquarters and gave a lopsided smile, surprised he'd actually missed the place. He'd been on plenty of vacations and special operations before, but the three-week takedown of a violent smuggling and counterfeiting ring had been a grind like nothing else. It had cost hours of stakeouts, interrogating witnesses and running down leads, but as a senior representative of the white collar division, he'd been one of the few agents trusted to be a part of the operation that could be spared for that length of time. He'd taken extra precautions, taking the subway to and from work, staying in motels during the week, and trying to be seen with El in public as little as possible, just in case. He knew it was probably unnecessary, but he never would have been able to focus on the case if he'd been worried about her safety more than he already was. It had been a long time since he'd kissed her like he did the night after they'd finally busted the whole ring. The weekend after hadn't been so bad, either, but now it was time to get back to the daily job he'd known and loved for years.
Contact with El wasn't the only communication to lapse during the intense investigation. He hadn't spoken to Neal since the conman had told him to "break a leg" with a cheeky grin and tipped his hat as Peter drove away, leaving him on June's doorstep, three weeks prior. He wasn't sure what Neal had been up to since he'd been gone, but every time he thought of the younger man over the course of the operation he'd been praying the felon hadn't done something to jeopardize his relationship with the FBI. Peter knew Neal was more than capable of doing some serious damage and then running for it, successfully, and sometimes wondered if it was only respect for Peter's track record that kept him from taking the opportunity to cut the leash and make a break for it. But he knew if Neal had run, even on an operation as important as busting the ring, he would have been called. So Peter was cautiously optimistic that he'd find Neal right back in the office waiting for him.
He found Jones, Lauren and Hughes instead.
"Good to have you back, Peter," Hughes said firmly, shaking his hand. "These two were miserable without you."
"I'm sure that had nothing to do with being under your direct supervision, sir," Peter said, with a lopsided smile. Hughes rolled his eyes while Jones and Lauren gave him looks that said "It had everything to do with that" with the least amount of insubordinance possible.
"Well, you're still stuck with me while Burke plays catchup on the cases he missed," Hughes snorted to them. "Files are on your desk, Peter, come see me when you finish them."
Jones grinned clasped his shoulder briefly. "We missed you, boss."
"Seriously." Lauren hugged him. "It's been forever."
"Missed you too," Peter replied, smiling. "All those senior agents on that op, it was like a pack of angry old dogs sometimes. Nice to be away from that mess of divisions. Hey, speaking of annoying situations, where's Caffrey?"
"He's been working with the organized crime division while you've been gone," Jones explained. "Caffrey didn't run with any crime families, but he sure knows a hell of a lot about them, and most of those guys are involved with some kind of fraud Caffrey's skilled in. He's in the custody of some guy named Grant Robertson – he should be back sometime this afternoon."
"Joy," Lauren said, rolling her eyes, but she was grinning. Then Hughes called from the conference room, and she turned to leave, saying, "We'll talk to you at lunch, okay? Welcome back, boss."
Peter nodded, still smiling at her and Jones as they followed Hughes back towards his office. Then he sighed and turned to the stack of files on his desk. It had to be at least five inches thick. He planned on giving half of them to Neal to peruse as soon as the conman was back in the bullpen. For the next hour he worked steady through an extremely tedious check forgery case and an exciting but short-living art theft. Then the text of the next file caught his eye. It wasn't a casefile – it was an OPR report, citing the reprimand of one consultant, Neal Caffrey, that resulted in the restriction of said consultant's tracking device to a half-mile radius, as opposed to its previous two miles.
"You gotta be kidding me," Peter groaned aloud, and sat down to read the report. When he was done, he was livid. The report stated events in straight, damning facts. One Neal Caffrey, consultant and felon in custody of one FBI Agent Robertson, had been left in the agency car while Robertson obtained some witness statements at an apartment building in the Bronx. While Agent Robertson was in the apartment, Caffrey attempted to hotwire the car. He apparently failed, and tried to flee on foot. Robertson caught him in the parking lot and returned him to the office to face charges of attempting to flee FBI custody.
Somehow, in light of the amount of good work Caffrey had done for the agency, it had been decided that for the moment he would simply be kept on a shorter leash. Peter exhaled slowly. Neal had clearly dodged a bullet on this one – Robertson must have had a soft spot for the felon, just like Peter.
Not soft enough, though, to keep him from giving Neal hell for this, Peter decided. It was one thing to be worried that Neal would finally decide to run for it while Peter was away, but it was another to think he would do something as stupid as try to hotwire a federal car and then run for it, anklet and all. But the report wouldn't lie, Peter knew, so Neal had better have a good explanation for what possessed him pull an idiot move like that. No matter what, he was getting a serious rant the moment he stepped in to the office. Because – though Peter would never admit this to himself – it scared the older agent to think he might lose his friend and all the promise of their budding partnership just because he couldn't stand to wait in the car for a few hours.
It was nearing two o' clock when the elevator dinged and Neal stepped out, following an agent Peter assumed must be from the organized crime division. The agent was a few inches taller than Neal, with a square-cut jaw, neatly parted blond hair, and a direct, gray gaze. He moved with authority, and Neal walked a step behind him, his eyes trained on the agent. Even in their short walk into the office and to Peter's desk, it was clear that the agent had found some way to get Neal to respect him, something Peter was grateful for. He wondered why the agent hadn't to hung Neal out to dry, but decided not to ask. Just because he was itching to tear Neal a new one didn't mean he wanted to get the conman in any more hot water by bringing up his reprimand.
The agent reached Peter's desk and extended a hand.
"Agent Grant Robertson," he said. "Here to turn over custody of Caffrey."
"Peter Burke." Peter's gaze flicked to Neal as he shook the man's hand. He looked as groomed as ever, but he was studying the nearest desk at the moment, ignoring both agents. Peter inwardly rolled his eyes. Clearly, the moment was too humbling for the great Neal Caffrey to observe. He prayed Robertson wasn't about to tell him Neal was headed back to jail. "Well, I hope he wasn't too much of a handful."
"We had some issues to start off with, but we worked them out" Robertson said casually. Peter raised his eyebrows at the man's serious, impassive face, but that seemed to be all.
"Well, hats off to you, Agent Robertson," he replied with inward relief. "Anything else you need me or Caffrey for?"
Robertson pulled a file from his briefcase. "Just sign off on the custody form, and I'll be headed back uptown."
Peter signed it and handed it back to Robertson, who still hadn't smiled. The other agent tucked the file back into his briefcase and left without a word to Neal. As soon as the elevator door closed, Peter raised a suspicious brow to his estranged partner.
Neal turned to him with a broad grin and gripped his shoulder. "Peter. Can't tell you how glad I am to see you."
Peter returned the action but dropped his hand quickly, face stern. "I would have said the same a couple hours ago. Sit."
The smile faded from Neal's face as he slid into Peter's seat. A removed, less angry part of Peter noticed he moved with less grace than usual, hands landing clumsily in his lap. He kept his eyes on Peter's face with a nervous intensity that was foreign to the senior agent. All this was secondary, though, to the fact that Neal was still acting like he didn't know why Peter was giving him this sort of welcome.
"Neal, I trusted you to be mature enough to work professionally with another division while I was gone," he began gravely. Neal lowered his eyes immediately, which disconcerted Peter. He'd been expecting a fight. Still, he continued. "And I come back to find you'd run into trouble for hotwiring a car? You owe me better than that, Neal."
Neal was looking at his hands and didn't say anything.
"I thought, after everything we worked for, you would at least have more self-control."
No answer, though Neal's posture seemed a little stiffer.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" Peter pressed. Neal's lack of response was making him feel foolish – like a parent lecturing a child, rather than a superior grilling his coworker. And he knew Neal was hardly the shy, submissive type, which made his attitude all the more irritating. Was he trying to sulk? What was he, ten? Sharply, Peter snapped, "Neal."
Neal flinched. His shoulders jerked, his eyes went wide and flew up to meet Peter's face, and he nodded rapidly.
"Words would be good," Peter said dryly, not buying the dramatic show of fear.
"I'm sorry," Neal said, voice vaguely hoarse. "It won't happen again."
"Cut the crap, Neal." Peter was losing patience. Neal might be able to give him those pleading baby blues and slip away from his wrath is lesser circumstances, but this was important. "You never do anything without some reason, no matter how ridiculous that reason is. What possessed you to do something so stupid?"
"It was hot," Neal finally said in a low voice. "I couldn't wait any longer. Broke out. That's it."
Peter stared at the conman in disbelief. The younger man's gaze was fixed on a point over his shoulder, his mouth set in a tight line. He had nothing more to say. Somehow, Peter was angrier at the end of this conversation than before. Neal's answer was pathetic, and he knew it. But he was going to stick with it, rather than try to explain himself to the one man he claimed to trust. Peter shook his head in disgust.
"I expected more of you, Neal," he said firmly. "When you're ready to come clean with whatever really happened, let me know. Until then, I want you to go over every single one of those mortgage fraud cases."
Neal moved to the pile Peter indicated, his expression wooden. As he passed the senior agent on his way to a free desk, Peter heard the strangest thing. It was almost so soft he missed it, and spoken like a habitual, unconscious addition, but it was Neal, saying, "Yes, sir."
Peter spent the rest of the afternoon getting very little work done, the conversation with Neal playing over and over again in his head. He wondered how the hell his excitement at a reunion with his favorite felon had turned into this ugly mess. Part of him did feel guilty for not at least welcoming Neal back first, because thanks to his frosty reception, no one else in the office had dared come over to Neal to say hi and tell the conman he'd been missed. But the rest of him was hurt that Neal refused to be straight with him, and was playing some awkward, childish game instead. Come closing time, Peter didn't offer Neal a ride home and Neal didn't ask
Peter found that the lack of Neal's presence spoiled the first journey on his regular route since three weeks prior. The empty seat next to him weighed on his mind, so that by the time he'd pulled up to his home, he couldn't wait to lose himself in Elizabeth's arms. He opened the door and made a beeline for the dining room, only to freeze when he found they had a visitor.
June was seated at the table, a cup of tea and a few of his wife's best cookies laid out in front of her. By the looks of it, she hadn't touched either. Her face was taut with worry, and she stood up the moment she saw him, grasping his hand with her soft, weathered touch.
"Peter," she said, tension evident in her normally cultured tones. "I'm so sorry to interrupt your dinnertime, but I think we need to talk about Neal. It's very important."
"Of course, June," he said seriously. Elizabeth walked out of the kitchen with two more cups of tea, and kissed him on the cheek. He gave her a grateful smile. "Why don't we all sit down?"
June nodded, and they took their seats. Elizabeth took Peter's hand, and they turned to the older woman expectantly.
She sighed. "I don't think that it's really my business to be telling you this. But I knew that Neal wouldn't tell you himself. He didn't even tell me, really – I had to dust off some old favors from… friends to find the whole story."
"Of what?" Peter asked, trying not to sound too impatient. El squeezed his hand.
June raised an eyebrow. "To you, Peter, I think it's the story of why Neal hotwired an FBI car." Peter's jaw tightened in anger. "But to me, it's the story of why he came home one night six hours late, stumbling through the door with a bruise on his cheek and bandages around his wrists."
June fixed her eyes on Peter's. "I know it from Byron's rougher times, Peter – he moved like he'd been beaten. He tried to tell me it was just a violent witness, but I knew better. He was frightened to go back to work the next day, though he would have died before telling me, of course."
Peter was poleaxed. "Someone in the FBI hurt Neal?"
"Someones," she replied with steel in her voice. "Although one man in particular was responsible, I believe. Now, once I'd gotten an official account of the events that day – the same one I imagine you have, Peter, about the attempt to flee? – the first hint something was wrong was simple arithmetic."
"What do you mean?" Peter asked, some of his shock fading into confusion.
"It was a record heat wave that day." June spoke more gently, remembering how painful it was to hear this for herself the first time. "Robertson's log said after he left Neal, he was away from the car for hours. What if he didn't leave a window open?"
It hit Peter like a thunderbolt, and he started to feel sick. "Neal said it was hot…"
"It would get to over a hundred in less than an hour," Elizabeth whispered. Peter looked at her in surprise, and she explained, "My friend never leaves her kids in the car in the summer. She's always quoting that statistic. I always though it was stupid. Who would leave someone like that…" She trailed off, chin trembling.
"Those cars can't be unlocked from the inside, if the perp locks are on – keeps suspects from escaping," Peter said automatically. "He'd have to hotwire the car just to get out."
"I'm afraid it's worse than just the locks," June said quietly. "Robertson is… very good at his job, but that means he doesn't trust criminals, ever. He didn't let Neal keep a cell phone on him, in case he was going to try to set up an ambush. And he didn't allow Neal to ride in the car without handcuffs in case he ever tried to grab the wheel. According to another… friend… he always puts handcuffs on far too tight."
"That's why he had bandages on his wrists?" Elizabeth asked, horrified. "From handcuffs? How?"
"Heat exhaustion makes it rather hard to think clearly, and Neal would have already known his situation was desperate," June explained. Her already usual regal bearing was ramrod-straight. "He didn't have anything with which to pick the cuffs – Robertson was too good at searching him and keeping the car clean, I believe. He had to try to slip them off…. At least, that's the only conclusion I can come to from this."
She pulled from her purse a four by six photograph, marked on the back as belonging to Neal's medical file. It showed two wrists against the white of an exam table, ragged lacerations wrapping around each of them, the right thumb swollen purple and distorted.
"He dislocated it," Peter said hollowly. "He had to break his own thumb. Damnit, Neal…"
Elizabeth gripped his hand reassuringly, but her own eyes were overbright.
June exhaled slowly and finished in a quick, clipped tone, "It seems they took him to a hospital, just to document no permanent damage had been done. That's where they took the photo. He had to stay for an IV of fluids – the hospital refused to release him otherwise – but the moment they could sign him out AMA, they did. Somewhere in all that, our Neal was beaten. He still wouldn't tell me where or how, but I - " June's voice finally trembled, and she had to break off for a moment. She raised a hand to her forehead. "I kept after him until he let me clean him up, just like I used to for Byron. Oh, Peter, his whole front was black and blue, and his shoulders were bruised, like he'd been held while they hit him. The worst part was that he – well, it was like he was ashamed to show me, as though it was something he'd been used to dealing with on his own." June gave a deep, weary sigh. "That's all I came to tell you, Peter."
The clocked ticked away several silent minutes. Peter swallowed hard, replaying once again his greeting to Neal that morning, but this time every word he'd spoken in anger filled him with guilt. Neal had tried to tell him, but he hadn't listened. All he could think to say was, "I'm going to kill Robertson."
A/N: I'm a lazy, lazy person, so I won't judge you if you don't leave your comments/criticisms/favorite color. But I will love you if you do!
I especially enjoy if you manage to catch typos I've missed - it's like someone telling you that you have chocolate on the corner of your mouth. Terribly embarrassing, but you're so glad they told you rather than let you continue to look like a fool. Suggestions on formatting wouldn't hurt either - I'm new to that.
For the record, this was written long before 1 x 13, and I'm a little jealous they got to the "Neal having to work with another agent" plot before I did. But I like the episode so much that I really can't complain. Not that I would really have any grounds to do so to begin with, but you know how it is... off to watch the finale!