A/N: New policy – no more posting things until I've finished them entirely. Life is too hectic and likely to leave wonderful readers hanging. I do apologize, and hope you'll enjoy this last chapter.
The door snicked softly shut. Neal wondered how the brilliant lies and smooth conversation that came to him instantly in the face of guns and violence had abandoned him so easily in this safe, silent room. The answer, of course, was that Peter was not some nameless mark but a friend… or something like that. Neal really had no idea where he stood with Peter at the moment. He had the sense to sit down so the other man wouldn't see his legs shaking
Peter, for his part, leaned awkwardly against an armchair. He'd spent the ride over to June's trying to diffuse his anger at Robertson, but seeing Neal stripped of his natural ease with other people made him furious all over again. It was hard knowing he'd added to the problem, just by assuming he knew what had happened, assuming that Neal was to blame. It was harder not knowing how to make it better without making it worse. Peter wished he had brought Elizabeth with him, but both she and June had insisted they needed time together, alone. He imagined her knowing eyes and resigned smile. Honey, just tell him how you feel.
"Neal, I'm so sorry," Peter said evenly. Neal's face opened up in true shock – an expression Peter couldn't recall seeing on him before. Of all the openings Neal was waiting for, an apology came out of left field. He hastily tried to get himself together.
"What for?" the conman asked, his voice only a little hoarse.
"June told me you came home a mess the day you hotwired the car," Peter said, resting his hands on one of the chairs, meeting Neal's wary gaze. "She was worried about you. She looked in your file. She told me everything. I know you were just trying to save yourself, and I shouldn't have jumped on you like that."
Neal's heart leapt at hearing his partner's concern, but it was hard to get the image of Peter's angry face out of his head. He hated to admit that Robertson had been able to taint him like this, but for the first time, he'd felt scared of Peter. He couldn't forget the way the agent's harsh words had made him feel like he was less than a person all over again.
Peter was getting nervous. Neal was just as unresponsive as when he'd been reprimanded that morning. Elizabeth popped into his head again. Don't give up, honey. Tell him everything.
"You need to know, I wasn't angry because I cared about Robertson or any of his crap. I…" He ran a hand through his hair, his jaw tight. Finally he admitted, "It scared me, when I read what you did, the first time. Hotwiring a car - I didn't want to think you could do something so stupid and get sent back when I wasn't even there to stop it. I don't think I could forgive myself if that happened. I don't even know if I can forgive myself for this."
Neal was still quiet, trying to process everything. He wanted so badly for everything to go back to normal.
Carefully, Peter reached out a hand and laid it on Neal's shoulder. Neal started slightly, but Peter didn't take it off. Neal looked up at the agent's worried brown eyes. It finally struck the conman that he didn't belong to Robertson anymore. And for the first time in four weeks, he just said what he felt, too.
"I really missed you, Peter."
Peter's stomach clenched. He tightened his grip on Neal's shoulder. "I should have been there for you, Neal. I won't let this happen again."
Neal gave a tired smile, suddenly feeling bone-deep exhausted - like something was unwinding in him he'd forgotten was even tight. "I know you won't."
They were quiet for a moment, enjoying the return of their friendship, until Peter realized that healing their rift was just the beginning. He looked at Neal and said seriously, "Neal, I want to go after the people who beat you. Was that Robertson, too?"
Neal was taken by surprise at first, before he remembered that night. "How did you – oh, June." He sighed. "Yeah, it was them, Peter, but there's no evidence to prove it. They didn't even record my injuries from it at the hospital."
"He beat you regularly and left no trace behind?"
"Regularly?" For once, it was Neal's turn to be confused. "Peter, it was only that once. A couple of his buddies decided to teach me a lesson that night, in the parking lot, I guess since they knew I'd be going to a hospital anyway. They might be assholes, but they were doing it to protect their leader." Neal swallowed, remembering.
Another fist landed in Neal's gut, and he fought for air through the arm clamped over his mouth. He wanted to struggle harder, but each tug on the cuffs was another stab of pain.
"Grant Robertson's the best agent this division has. Scum like you has no right to get in between him and our boss. I don't care what kind of deal you cut. You don't deserve to get off this easy while he gets torn a new one."
Neal never got a chance to explain. They hit him again, and again…
Neal forced himself back to the present, and tried to remind himself of the point he was making. "They were hotheaded and stupid, but they didn't just beat me up for the hell of it. And since I… behaved… from then on, it didn't happen again." He shrugged.
"June said you acted like it had happened before," Peter said grimly, refusing to drop the subject.
Neal gave a half-frown and shifted his weight slightly, not looking at Peter. It took him a moment to realize Neal Caffrey felt… awkward. Another emotion he never thought he'd witness in Neal.
"That was the only time Robertson and his pals beat me," Neal stated firmly. "And there is honestly no way to prove it. It's not worth the trouble."
Peter realized what Neal said was probably true. Then he caught the careful wording of his first statement. Trying not to sound too forceful, Peter asked casually, "So when else were you beaten, then?"
Neal sighed and almost rolled his eyes. So much for trying to save Peter's feelings. "Peter, you didn't put me in time out for four years. I went to prison, which, as you know, is full of criminals, and they like pecking orders. Everyone's on the bottom at some point, including me. When else do you think I was beaten?"
Peter put his head in his hands and groaned. "I'm not doing so hot today, am I? That's two times now I've left you to get your ass kicked. Only difference was the jumpsuits." Peter lifted his head up a gave Neal a crooked smile. "And I bet Robertson was a way bigger asshole than any con."
Neal laughed for the first time in a month. It was strange, but bringing up his time in prison made him feel better – making him recall a time when Peter was the bad guy, not his friend. It reminded him how glad he was that that wasn't the case any more. And it made Neal realize that if he could laugh about those brutal times now, he'd be laughing about Robertson in a couple years, too. He couldn't erase those past three weeks overnight, but in time, it would be okay.
Peter's face grew more serious again, and he met Neal's eyes. "I missed you too, partner." He stood to leave, then turned back with a grin. "First thing tomorrow, let's see about getting those two miles back, huh? Don't want to have to drive you everywhere."
Neal grinned back, the sparkle back in his eyes at Peter's use of that word. Partner. "I'd like that."
Peter got to the office early the next morning, to see Hughes before Neal got there. The superior looked up in surprise when Peter knocked on his door – he was usually the one dropping in on Peter, not the reverse. From the dark set of Peter's face he suspected it had to do with Caffrey – no one else had the ability to get under the agent's skin like Caffrey could. Hughes was right, but not in the way he anticipated.
"Robertson abused Neal," Peter growled the moment the office door was closed. "He failed at everything a handler is supposed to do. Robertson hurt Neal, and his subordinates hurt him, and not a damn person in that whole office did anything!" Peter took a breath, and said more evenly, "I want that man to crash and burn. Sir." Another breath, and finally, through a tight smile: "Just thought I'd give you some warning."
Hughes' only initial response was to raise his eyebrows. "Good morning to you too, Peter." He took a sip of coffee, then slowly rubbed his chin with one hand. "I trust you, Peter. But those are some major accusations there. Just yesterday you were worried Caffrey had been a problem while you were gone."
"There is physical evidence," Peter snapped. "Pictures, and if that's not enough, I'm positive he's got scars."
Hughes frowned and put down his cup. He'd assumed Peter meant Caffrey's ego had taken a beating, not his body. "You meant literally? Caffrey got injured and they covered it up?"
"Caffrey didn't get injured," Peter corrected his superior. "He was forced to break his own thumb, and then beaten by agents of the organized crime division, while cuffed and already injured." Hughes stood up, and Peter raised a hand in a placating gesture. "I know it sounds insane, but - "
"Insane to happen to a member of the FBI," Hughes broke in, then sighed. "But for a convict…" He shook his head and admitted, "I believe you, Peter. It's bad, but I can't pretend not to have bent the rules for a criminal in custody once or twice myself." He gave Peter a look that was the closest to pity he'd ever seen on Hughes' face. "And I did it because I knew my agency would have my back if someone ever came after me for it, just like organized crime will have theirs when you do."
Peter went silent, realizing Hughes was right. He'd forgotten, to some extent, that Neal was still a felon. Neal had been right before – the only evidence was Neal's word, and June's witnessing his injuries. It would never be enough to convict Robertson, especially when the whole division was implicated. Then Peter remembered the fear on Neal's face the morning before, and his fists clenched.
"He can't just get away with that," Peter ground out in frustration. "We owe Neal better."
For a long moment there was silence. Suddenly, Hughes crossed his arms and nodded firmly. "Then we'll need to get some of our own evidence."
Now Peter raised his eyebrows. "Sir?"
Hughes just smiled. "I think you and Caffrey ought to come to a scene with me later today. Trust me, it'll be worth the trip."
Neal leaned back in the front seat for a moment, closing his eyes and savoring the feeling of being trusted enough just to ride like an adult. He hadn't even bothered to ask Peter where they were going, and he chose to see that as a result of his excitement instead of his instinct to obey commands without question.
"Neal, I'm not sure if you're going to be ready for this," Peter said to him suddenly as the car slowed, nearing the scene.
Neal chuckled. "Peter, I think I'm alright to look at crime scenes again. I've kind of been itching to get out of the office."
"This isn't just a scene, Neal," Peter admitted quietly. Neal turned to face him. "Robertson and organized crime are going to be here."
Neal stiffened and lost his smile, pulse rising. "Peter, I never want to see them again."
"I know," Peter said quickly. "But Neal, the longer we wait, the harder it will be to get them for what they did to you."
Neal gave him a bewildered stare. "Why do we have to get them? Why can't we just leave it alone?"
Peter wanted to shake Neal. Of course we have to get them! What part of partner don't you get? How could I ever let this go? But he reminded himself Neal was still on edge, and instead gripped Neal's shoulder. Neal looked at him warily.
"Because you're a good person and you deserve justice, Neal. Just like the people we help every day."
Neal exhaled slowly, his eyes darting back and forth between Peter's gaze and the dashboard. Finally, he swallowed hard, straightened up, and nodded. "What do I have to do?"
Jacob's Jewelry was a flourishing enterprise in uptown Manhattan, successful mostly because it was funded by the Mob, which was no secret to the FBI. What was new, however, were the accusations of forged jewelry and counterfeit gems by some of the store's top clients, who were almost all themselves wrapped up in some sort of illegal activity. The break in the night before was a tangled mess of jurisdiction and famous names in the underground world – the perfect battlefield for the various divisions of the FBI.
Organized crime had gotten to the scene early, and Grant Robertson was delegating various witness statements to his crew when white collar showed up. Robertson allowed himself a hint of satisfaction when he saw Caffrey trailing behind the other agents, clearly still in the role of convict rather than consultant. Hughes, Burke and Jones were making a beeline for the vault, leaving Lauren lingering in the doorway with Caffrey, looking disgusted. It was clear she'd been left to watch the convict, and wasn't pleased about it. A junior organized crime agent – Fuller, one of Robertson's boys – brushed by her and she grabbed his arm.
"Look, could you do me a favor?" she muttered.
Fuller gave her an easy grin. "What can I do for you, sweetheart?"
"Keep an eye on Caffrey for a few minutes? I'm sick of getting left to babysit this guy every time while Jones gets to go in with the senior agents. I'm just going to check it out," she said. She winked at Fuller. "Help a girl out?"
Fuller was still nodding while she slipped out of the main room. When she was gone, he turned to Neal, his cocky grin still in place.
"You didn't tell them, huh?" he asked casually. Neal kept his gaze on the jewelry cases.
"Tell them about what?" he replied dully. "There's nothing to tell. Who's going to believe me?"
Fuller snorted. "You've got those white collar guys eating out of your hand, last I checked. Why wouldn't they listen to you?"
Neal suddenly gave him a piercing glare. "Because who the hell would believe bonafied agents of the FBI would be stupid enough to beat up a wounded man in their custody for no good reason?"
Fuller's face darkened in anger. He glanced furtively around to ensure no other agents were nearby, and Neal remembered Fuller was the one who had balled up Neal's tie and forced it into the convict's mouth when he got tired of Neal trying to bite his arm hard enough for the agent to let him go. Resourceful, Neal had thought dryly as he'd struggled not to choke.
Now Fuller leaned in, confident no one around could overhear him. "We had a damn good reason, Caffrey. You screwed over our boss, making a break for it like you did." Fuller grabbed Neal's upper arm, and Neal tensed. "I might get it, if you were in a desperate situation. But you've got a sweet deal you don't even deserve, and you couldn't just keep yourself in line. I think a hell of a lot of agents might be stupid enough to beat you up like we did."
Neal smiled humorlessly. "In a parking lot, while I was cuffed, and already going to the hospital? Really?"
Fuller smirked right back. "Absolutely. Especially if you're injured from your own stupid attempt to escape."
Neal wrenched his arm out of Fuller's grip. "I never attempted to escape."
"Fuller, go get Cruz back here to watch her own damn convict. I'll stay with him." Robertson had come over without either Neal or Fuller noticing, clearly sensing the volatile situation. Fuller stepped back smartly and nodded to Robertson, then headed to the vault with everyone else.
Neal was alone with Robertson in the front of the store, and all he wanted was to look at the floor and wait for the chance to go home. Instead, he decided on the same course as before – simply telling the truth.
"I still have scars," Neal said to the floor, but loud enough for Robertson to catch it. "On my wrists, because of you. Doctor said they'll fade some, but they're permanent." Neal shifted his sleeve just enough so that Robertson could see one of the purplish stripes. "White collar thinks I got them because I'm an idiot. I'm the only one who will ever know the real reason they're there."
Robertson didn't react visibly. His face remained the same, so no one else in the store would notice anything unusual about the situation. But the agent talked, and that's all Neal was after.
"Well, I'll know. If I'd never been saddled with you, I never would have had to lie to my boss like that. Just forgetting, once, about you in the car? That could have cost me my career. A whole damn cover up just because you couldn't take some heat. Hell, Caffrey, you took the beating better than the damn car. Your pansy ass nearly destroyed everything. You think I'll forget that?"
Neal shook his head, feeling lightheaded with relief. "No, you definitely will not." He looked up and met Robertson's suspicious grey with his own piercing blue, truly smiling. "Sir."
Robertson suddenly realized Fuller was taking way, way too long to get back from the vault. He turned to the back of the jewelry store, only to find Hughes, Peter, and Jones walking out with triumphant looks on their faces.
Neal lifted a silver pen out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Jones, who grinned, clasped him on the shoulder, and went to the car with it. Peter squeezed Neal's other shoulder in silent support while Hughes turned to face a furious Robertson.
"Agent Grant Robertson, you are suspended from duty, effective immediately. Any changes to this are pending further investigation into your abuse of a convict in your custody. Right now, you're going back to the office, with us." Hughes got closer to Robertson, whose face was already ashen, and said more softly, "No one messes with my people."
The glittering towers of Manhattan were rosy in the sunset, and Neal felt the glow reflected in his heart. He'd stepped out for some air while Peter, Elizabeth, Jones, Cruz, Hughes and June sipped coffee around his table and let the gourmet meal he'd prepared them settle in their stomachs. Neal had invited Mozzie, but his longtime friend was still chary of being in the same room as so many agents for a whole dinner. He'd promised Neal celebratory bagels the next morning.
Neal turned his back on the view to gaze inwards at his friends. He was amused to see Hughes and June deep in discussion at one end of the table – perhaps rehashing cases where they'd once been on opposite sides, back in Byron's glory days. Lauren and Elizabeth were teasing Jones about something, judging by his indignant expression and their frequent laughter. Peter was trying to stifle his own chuckles, clearly finding it too funny to save his junior agent just yet.
Even with the warmth of his friends filling his new home, Neal felt an ache in his chest. Kate was still out there, somewhere – maybe even in one of the buildings stretched out behind him. He couldn't forget that. Neal started to turn back to the view when Peter caught his eye and motioned to him to come inside. Neal hesitated a moment, then let his worry go for the moment. His friends – and a beautifully crafted chocolate mousse – were waiting for him.
A/N: Thanks so much for sticking with me thus far, and a million extra thanks for your brilliant, patient advice. Like I said above, I'll post again once I've completed my next story – which right now looks like it might be a oneshot involving June and Hughes, as I'm very fond of those two. Let me know if you have any suggestions for future stories!
For those of you who reviewed: You are amazing and I truly appreciate the time you take out of your day to give me feedback. Those little alerts are what remind me to keep at it. I am hugging you all in my head and sending you happy thoughts.
'Till next time. 3