Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to White Collar.
A/N: Thanks to Ursula4x. You know why *g*
I am your Instrument
By Mojave Dragonfly
One day, at the end of a workday when Neal's expertise had again steered the FBI's investigation away from the dead end and toward the real culprit, Neal asked, "Peter, I need a favor."
They were seated on either side of Peter's desk, Peter finishing the paperwork, Neal thumbing through a photograph catalogue of missing artwork. "What's that?" Peter replied genially, warm with the glow of success.
"I need an extension on my radius for the weekend."
Peter's head snapped up and his guard snapped in place. "An extension on your radius?"
"Yeah. Not much and just for the weekend."
"Just no? You don't even want to hear why?"
"No. It doesn't matter. I'm already the butt of Agency jokes for giving you two miles. Do you know there was a guy who had to shower with his leg out of the tub?"
"I've heard. So you can't let me go to the Met because you're afraid of what the other agents will say? That's real mature."
"They have paintings at the Met, and I know how you love paintings. Why do you need an extension? It's on the other side of the Park from June's."
"But I can't quite reach it. The center of my radius is still the Empire Motel."
"Oh yeah. Well, forget it. I give you an extension to go to a place full of art, and it's my ass if you try anything."
"Peter, I go to the MOMA and the Guggenheim all the time."
"So be happy with that."
"But I love the Met. It's torture, Peter. I can get right to the edge of the property, but I can't go in. I need--"
"You can stop asking, Neal. Your radius is already overly generous and for me to give you an extension on it so you can go to an art museum? Full of paintings? Career suicide. That's all. End of discussion."
Neal closed his mouth on the protest he was about to make with an expression of shock. Peter was satisfied. Perhaps Neal Caffrey had rarely encountered anyone who cut him off when he was trying to persuade them to do something, though Peter was at least glad that Neal asked him openly for things, instead of using his powers of manipulation to, say, arrange it so a case had to take them to the Met.
Which was an interesting thought …
Over the next couple of weeks Peter was on the lookout for anything unexpectedly taking them to the Met, but nothing happened. Neal asked Peter how Elizabeth's event at the Met had gone, an accusing look in his eyes, and listened intently to Peter's brief and uninformed answer, but he did nothing else. The only other time the Met came up was when Jones mentioned he had family visiting from out of town and they all planned to go there that weekend. Peter saw Neal quickly cover a yearning expression with pleasantries, asking Jones to tell him about a new exhibit there. Neal didn't look at Peter. If Jones gave Neal any report, the conversation was held outside of Peter's hearing.
Peter read up on the Met's new exhibits. It was the kind of additional work he was always doing in order to stay a step ahead of Caffrey. There was no music box mentioned in the entire collection. Peter didn't learn anything, and nothing seemed to happen.
Then Neal's work flagged.
The first slip-up was when he tried to save a sting by improvising a character of a Health Department inspector but failed to keep his tracker covered, blowing his cover. The second time was even more egregious. Without enough probable cause to call in the counterfeiting experts, the team relied on Neal to spot whether the bonds in the briefcase of the departing banker were forgeries in time to prevent him from getting on a plane to Hong Kong. If they were forged, Peter would have found some excuse to delay the man until they could be properly checked. Neal had called them real, and the Citigroup VP escaped the country with the only evidence of his fraud that they had.
Neal had failed to recognize forged bank bonds.
Cruz teased him about it, assuming it was merely a mistake, but Peter knew better. Neal didn't make that kind of mistake.
Peter took him into his office and shut the door.
"All right Neal, what are you doing?"
"What? What do you mean?"
"The last time you dragged your feet on a case you had promised Interpol to let Lao Shen walk. What is it this time? Having a little fellow-feeling for some guy doing bond forgery, are you?"
Neal managed to look insulted. "A bank exec with million dollar bonuses? Why would I care if that guy got away? They looked real to me."
"Sit down," Peter said, and waited until Neal complied. "You haven't been fully on board for at least the last two cases. I've studied you for a long time, and something is going on. Tell me what it is."
"Peter, I'm not dragging my feet."
Peter didn't sit. He wanted to be able to loom. "Then you aren't concentrating. Something else has your attention, and I have to know what it is."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Whatever it is, it will bite me in the ass eventually, so tell me now. What is going on with you?"
"Look, I didn't realize anything was affecting me at work. I'll do better."
"What is it? Is it Kate?"
"No! It's nothing. Nothing that –"
"So there is something."
Any junior agent who'd interrupted them at that point Peter could have told to go away, but it was Hughes at his door reminding him of a department head meeting in his conference room. Just when he was about to close this deal on Neal. Reluctantly, Peter let Neal go. Now the man had warning that Peter was on to him and would have time to tighten up his act and cover his tracks.
That evening over a dinner of salmon and stuffed endive, Peter told Elizabeth his worries.
"I know him, El. I know he's up to something, and it probably has to do with Kate. "
"But Honey, didn't he say it didn't have to do with Kate? You asked him that, right?"
Peter had to think about the conversation for a moment. "Yeah, I asked him that straight out, and he said no. But you're the one who said there's only one reason for Neal to keep something from me, and that's Kate."
"But before, you never said he seemed distracted. I mean, is that one of his what-do-you-call-it, tells? Getting sloppy at what he does?"
"No." It was true. When Neal was hiding something about Kate, he buried it deeply at work and seemed if anything, even more focused. This was different. "I haven't seen this before. I don't know what it means and that's what bothers me."
El served them both more salad, thinking. "You should ask him," she said.
"I did," Peter protested.
"I don't mean like that. Did you ask him as a friend? What if something's wrong?"
"I know something's wrong. That's the problem."
El shook her head, giving him that look that said he was sweet but clueless. "Have some more salmon," she said.
It rained all week. Peter spent a lot of time writing agent performance reports, while Jones and Cruz did routine surveillance on a suspected insider trader. He gave Neal a stack of mortgage fraud cases to inspect at Neal's desk where Peter could keep an eye on him. Neal accepted the assignment with only a reproachful look, but went to work.
Even with his head in performance reports, Peter heard a difference in the office. Maybe it was the rain that droned beyond the glass walls and turned the office into an inverted fishbowl, but work seemed flat and grave. People seemed grouchy and discordant. Hughes hermited, Ruiz growled and the junior agents performed their parts with their heads down. No one smiled or laughed or teased or –
It was Neal, Peter realized with shock. The office's resident criminal fiddled dutifully with files full of financial evidence, but there were no "alleged" heist stories, no impromptu and hastily stifled dances, no helpful reminiscences interrupted by concern about statutes of limitations, no hymns to great artists. No raising his hand or butting in; no glee. He wasn't even flirting with anyone. Peter missed it, and, whether they knew it or not, he thought everyone was missing it.
Peter turned in his final report, heaved a sigh of relief and looked for Neal. He wasn't at his desk. He fished in his memory; Neal hadn't been at his desk for a while. "Where's Caffrey?" he asked Price, the nearest junior agent in the bullpen. The agent glanced around and said, "He said he was taking a break."
Peter checked the break room. Not there. He checked the nearest men's room. Not there. The only remaining break area was the roof where the smokers went, but it was pouring rain. Fighting a growing unease, he returned to his office and brought up the map on Neal's anklet. It showed him in FBI headquarters, not moving. Maybe Neal had gone to the ground floor for a deli sandwich. He changed the view to show altitude.
Neal was on the roof.
Now that was odd. The roof had no shelter. Peter didn't know what the smokers did on rainy days, but he doubted they went to the roof. He headed up there. He found Neal leaning against a wall, looking west, where the sun should have been. He wore a black hat and a trenchcoat, and he was getting drenched.
The rain on the concrete and metal sheeting drummed so loudly that Neal didn't hear him open the roof door. Peter didn't step out. "Neal," he called from the doorway, "What are you doing?"
Neal turned, startled, and the gloom put his face in shadow. He didn't leave his position. "Come out of the rain," Peter called.
Neal came to him, shoulders hunched to protect his neck, though he'd been relaxed enough in the same downpour moments earlier. He joined Peter in the narrow stair corridor, rivulets running off the vintage London Fog coat. He smelled like wet wool.
Neal smiled as he took off the sopping hat. "Please tell me we have a real case," he said.
Still standing almost in the doorway, Peter looked him up and down. "I have a whole desk full of them," he said. "What were you doing?"
Neal made no move to start down the stairs. "Thinking," he said, innocently.
"About mortgage fraud cases?"
His smile grew larger as he turned the hat in his gloved hands, feeling its shape, checking for weakness. "Oddly enough, no," he said.
"C'mon," Peter said, starting downstairs. He led Neal into the elevator and down to the lobby. "Where are we going?" Neal asked.
"Coffee," Peter said, heading for the lobby Starbucks. Neal didn't object, despite his well-known coffee snobbery. There were plenty of other possible destinations nearby, but – rain. Neal shook the water off his coat and hung it carefully on a peg with his wet hat. They bought coffees and squeezed in at one of the shop's tiny tables.
"Find anything in the mortgage cases?" Peter asked.
Neal shook his head. "Nothing new."
"All week?" Peter asked. "Nothing?"
Neal eyed him. "The investigators seemed to have done good jobs."
Peter stifled a sigh. He picked his words carefully, mindful of El's advice. "Neal, is anything wrong?"
Neal gave him a stricken look. "Why?" he asked, the "what-have-I-done-wrong" a discord beneath the word.
Peter stirred his coffee. "Standing alone in the rain, letting your hat get ruined – not your usual style."
"The hat will be fine. That's the kind of thing they used to make hats for, you know."
Peter drank and licked his lips. "Is anything wrong?" he repeated.
"No!" Neal answered, too quickly. He realized it immediately, too, and looked resigned.
"Tell me," Peter said, gently. At least he tried for gentle. He wasn't sure he got it quite right.
Neal looked at him with clear blue eyes for a long moment. He sipped his coffee and looked away. "It's – I – " Neal gave Peter a pleading look. "You have to let me be, Peter. It won't do any good for you to know; it'll just worry you, and I promise, I won't let it be anything," he said.
Peter let that statement sit while he took another drink. "That's not happening," he said.
Neal slumped and sighed. "Has anyone ever called you stubborn?" he asked with a weak smile.
"Yes. So, I deserve what I get. I have to know, Neal. It matters."
Neal stared at the tabletop and shifted uneasily in his chair. He glanced up at Peter and back down, judging.
"I've guessed more than you know," Peter bluffed. "If you try to lie, I'll spot it."
Neal's knowing look said he saw through Peter's bluff, but the slight shrug said he'd let it go. "I'm just bored, Peter. Mortgage fraud? It may be 'white collar,' but it's not my specialty. Can I get more of a challenge, here?"
Peter studied him. Like any good lie, it probably had some truth in it. But boredom didn't make a man stand alone in pouring rain looking for a horizon.
Neal looked wary. "Try what again?"
"I'm not buying it. Bond forgery is exactly your specialty. One of them. You don't screw that up because you're bored with it. Try again."
Neal considered Peter with the same somber look he'd bestowed on almost everyone for weeks, now. "If you have to know," he said, with surprising bitterness in his tone. He fortified himself with a hearty swig of coffee. His gaze wandered out the window to the rain-streaked gray street beyond. "It's been six months," he said, and paused.
Peter said nothing. They both waited while the cappuccino machine roared.
When it quieted, Neal went on with a small smile. "For the first six months of prison, I didn't mind it, you know." Peter's gut tensed. Neal seldom talked about prison. Prison, where Peter put him. "I like to learn new things, meet new people …" His smile turned downright nostalgic.
Peter blinked. He had to be joking. No, this was Neal. He, of all people, could find a way to not mind prison.
Neal must have seen his skeptical expression, but he continued. "I had security systems to learn and violent offenders to placate." He shrugged. "It wasn't where I'd choose to be, but I could live with it because it was interesting. But after six months I hit the wall."
Peter let out the breath he'd been holding. "You hit the wall," he said, keeping his voice level.
Neal fidgeted with his coffee cup. "It wasn't interesting anymore. It was claustrophobic, and I was going a little crazy. It was – it was a–"
"A prison," Peter supplied. He didn't add that prison was supposed to be a place you minded being.
Neal flashed a sheepish grin. "Yeah. A prison I desperately wanted to be done with, and I could – easily –" He gestured toward the outside.
Well, he'd proved that was true. It did put a different spin on the time Neal'd remained in the supermax. Peter wondered where he was going with this. "But you didn't," he said.
Neal spread his arms. "I wanted to serve my time and get a clean slate. That was my plan. But it was four or five of the darkest months of my life. Every single day reminding myself why I wasn't breaking out of there and living my life. If it hadn't been for Kate coming every week, giving me something to look forward to, something to remind me why I was letting myself live in this monotone, soulless –" Neal paused, looking at something not there, searching for the right epithet.
"Prison," Peter said, drily, fearing this was going to be about Kate, after all.
Neal's brief scowl said he didn't find the refrain funny. "Anyway," he said, "I got through it. It's nothing to worry about. I'll pay more attention to the cases. Even mortgage fraud. Really."
"You think what we're doing is boring?"
"No, not boring. I get guns held on me a lot, but otherwise, it's great. Have I said thank you? Thank you, if I forget to say it later."
"Oh, now you're laying it on thick. You're telling me you've got cabin fever when you have all of Midtown."
"Midtown is wonderful. I love June's. I love the Park. But it's hard to forget that I can't so much as visit Battery Park unless it comes up in a case. And Paris is pretty much out of the question."
"Paris? You're honestly complaining because you can't go to Paris?"
"You think I like admitting this to you, of all people? Admitting how-- trapped I feel?"
"Well, you could–"
"Go back to prison; I know. For once, could you not say it? I've heard that before. I should be able to hear it again in another four or five months, but right now, don't say it. Please."
That hadn't been what Peter was about to say, but the vehemence of Neal's plea gave him pause. He could, of course, insist that Neal cowboy up and start performing or their deal would be off, but he knew instinctively that it wouldn't work. He knew it by the slump of Neal's shoulders and his faraway gaze; the tiny tremor of his hand on his coffee cup. As much as Peter sometimes felt like a frustrated father trying to instill discipline, restraint and honest values in a malleable child, he knew Neal was already a complete piece, integral to himself. He probably came into the world as a fully-formed symphony of talent and drive, contradictions and all. This was no con; Peter knew the truth of that with all of his finely-tuned instinct about one Neal Caffrey, forger and thief.
There was no way out of the conversational abyss Neal had hurled them into except to make a joke. Neal could make it, but that would rob the power from his plea, and Peter could see he wasn't about to go first. Peter would have to give him an opening.
"This is about the Met, isn't it," Peter said, draining the last of his mochaccino.
Neal gave him a slow, small smile, appreciation lurking somewhere behind his eyes. "Yes, Peter, this is a long con to get you to let me go to the Met," Neal said. "Did it work?"
"Sometimes I really don't like you very much," Neal said with an odd mix of fondness and disgust.
"Yeah? Tell me to my face that you're not trying to play me."
Neal rubbed the side of his face. "No, you're trying to play me, Peter," he said. "I'm trying to show you how." He looked around for inspiration on how to make his point. "Agent Rice called me a tool in her belt. She didn't know how to use the tool."
"She didn't want to use you," Peter said, anger coloring his words, "she wanted to barter with you." Neal knew Peter was still angry about that, so he might have brought up Rice just for the sympathy. It could be such a struggle trying to stay ahead of a con man.
Neal shrugged. Rice and the occasional disregard agents like her showed for Neal's safety wasn't his point, either. "This is your life we're playing, not mine. There are things about your life that are stifling to mine." He gestured at the coffee shop walls, taking in, Peter assumed, the whole FBI building. "In your world, people take vacations. I know no one would give me that. But I can't--"
"Because prisoners don't get vacations, Neal."
"I know that, Peter. But it doesn't change anything for me. I need new things. I need fresh ideas. I need change. I need art." Because it was Neal, the speech sounded like it belonged on stage, delivered by some tragic character in La Boheme.
But that was Neal. This vague explanation for a vague discord felt honest, to Peter. With Neal he often had only his gut to rely on.
Peter pitched his empty cup. "I tell you what. Find me a break in one of those mortgage fraud cases – just one -- and I'll see what I can do."
A light kindled in Neal's face; hope afraid to dawn. "Really?" he asked.
"Yeah." Peter nodded, smiling as the full beam of Neal's enthusiasm hit him, reminding him of what he'd been missing, warming dark dusty spots in his soul.
Neal stood and sent his own coffee cup sailing into the waste basket. "What are we doing here? We have work to do. Look at you, wasting time. Aren't you paid by us taxpayers?"
Peter got to his feet as Neal snatched up his coat and hat. "You've never paid any taxes," Peter reminded him.
"Nick Halden has. Hard-earned taxes. It's my duty to get you back to work." Neal opened the door into the building's lobby, solicitous.
"Yeah, yeah, don't overplay this," Peter said to Neal's back as the man trotted happily to the elevators. He'd have to call the Marshal's Office right away, he figured. He had no doubt Neal would find him something by the end of the day.