A/N: This one sprung outta nowhere. I hope you guys like it, for some reason I wasn't as happy with it. I'd love concrit, and to hear what you enjoyed. Thanks! A heads-up: I'm going to camp this week, but next weekend you guys can start looking for the Across the Board sequel.
Neal Caffrey slid his arms back into his suit jacket as he walked down the hall toward the FBI elevator. Glancing around, he wondered at how the different divisions of the FBI could be so similar yet so different at the same time. He reached the elevator just as a load of agents went down. Letting out a slightly tired sigh, he waited. In his peripheral vision he saw cluster of four agents standing in the nearest doorway. He recognized three of them, but not the other.
"Do you see him?" An agent named Rolland said. "That's Neal Caffrey." Neal felt his shoulders stiffen just slightly, controlling any other reactions only through practice.
"We know that," the rookie agent he'd recognized as Ian Jensen said disdainfully. "How could we not, with all the controversial crap he's got circulating through the bureau?" For a moment, Neal entertained the idea that they were unaware that he could hear them, but their tone and volume levels suggested otherwise.
"Pretty disgusting, huh?" Another rookie named Hall commented. "How he just charmed his way out of jail and back here? He should be serving a life sentence for murder."
"Murder?" Rolland repeated. "You mean the girlfriend? But they didn't prove anything, did they?"
"No," Jensen said with a sharper edge to his tone. "But everyone knows he did it, blew her up while he was trying to run." Neal bit down in the inside of his cheek. He forced himself to picture Peter's face in his mind; what the agent would say if Neal took action here. Even then it was hard to remain still.
"It's really no great loss though, is it?" Hall asked. "She was a criminal, just like he is. One more thief out of our hair. The only thing that bothers me is that he got away with it."
"For now," Rolland reminded them. "I heard at least some of the higher-ups feel the same way we do. Hopefully they take action."
"It's a disgrace to the bureau," Jensen said. "Having him here. He's got the whole White Collar Division under his charm."
"Especially his so-called handler," the fourth man finally spoke. "His judgement is compromised."
"It's a joke," Jensen agreed.
Finally, finally, the elevator came. Neal could feel the blatantly hostile glares boring into his back as he waited for the doors to close before turning around. He pressed the ground floor button, leaning his head against the side of the elevator and letting out a breath. He tasted blood and realized he'd been biting his cheek hard.
I hope you're proud of me for that, Peter, Neal thought to himself, knowing it was absurd as Peter hadn't even been there.
It wasn't like that was the first time he'd been insulted while he'd been with the FBI. It wasn't even the first time some of those agents had been the perpetrators. But they'd brought Kate into it this time, and spoken of her with such open disdain... And they really thought he'd killed her. They'd said bad things about Peter, too. He was torn between feeling like a traitor for not standing up against their lies, feeling accomplished for not doing so, and just being plain angry.
Mostly, though, there were just sharp shards of pain stabbing through his chest. His eyes stung faintly, and he closed them. Once he had, he wished to take the action back. The flashback started again, so real he could hear the explosion and feel the heat on his skin and the desperation in his heart all over again. His hands shook as the memory ended, and he shoved them into his pockets to hide it. The metal doors slid open and Neal walked out, smiling and looking for all the world like he hadn't a care. He strode into the dark New York night, alone behind his cheerful facade.
The next morning, Peter Burke arrived at the FBI office to find Neal already there and working. This had become increasingly common lately, and Peter didn't know whether to be relieved or worried.
He settled on both. He was relieved because it meant he knew Neal was relatively safe here, and worried because of the way Neal was obviously trying to avoid confronting his problems.
Not that Peter would've been all to eager to confront them in Neal's place. He probably would've been just the same. Probably worse.
"Morning, Sunshine," Peter said, sitting down behind his desk.
"How'd you get in to my office? I locked it last night."
"Really? It was unlocked when I tried it."
"...right." Peter rolled his eyes with slight amusement, switching on his computer. "I'm sure that's how it happened. The door happened to unlock itself right before you tried opening it." No response. Peter looked up at his consultant and saw the man apparently lost in thought, his expression troubled and holding hints of anger and guilt.
"Neal?" Peter asked. Neal jolted out of his reverie and flashed Peter a grin.
Neal gave him a look of innocence. "Just reading through these cold cases you gave me."
"Sure," Peter said, rolling his eyes slightly. "But seriously, Neal..."
"I'm fine, Peter," the conman insisted. Peter could see a mixture of emotions in his eyes. Peter nodded slowly.
"If you say so."
"I do," Neal said cheerfully, relief clear in his voice. Peter had to resist the urge to reach out and shake Neal by the shoulders. When was the kid going to get it through his head that he didn't have to do everything alone?
"So, what did you think about this one?" Peter asked, pointing to a file.
"Well, aside from the usual boring prose..." Neal started telling Peter what his analysis had yielded.
Peter listened to his partner talk, watching him with concern hidden behind interest. He knew the thing was still bothering him, but her could discern a new layer to this mood. Contemplative and hurt.
He hoped Neal wouldn't do anything stupid.
Neal's mind was working furiously. A small portion of it was on the cold case he was currently summarizing to Peter- very small. Most of it was on the events of the night before and the early morning.
He'd gone home to a quiet house and dissuaded June from inquiring after his day, simply smiling and hugging her and going up to bed.
Not that he slept much. For most of the night he tossed uneasily, torn between feeling guilty for not standing up to the insults against his friends or relieved that he had not done so. If he had done anything, they would've made it out to be a horrible thing, and he and Peter would've both suffered for it.
He tried to resolve not to think about it, but his brain didn't listen. All through the night it went over the problem at hand, even once he finally fell asleep. By the time he'd woken the next morning at a rather ridiculously early hour, it had come up with several different roundabout ways to get back at them.
As he showered and ate a quick breakfast, he attempted to dismiss them, he really did, but the stinging words echoed in his mind and he finally gave in.
So an hour later, still very early, he entered the Organized Crime Division, which was thankfully still empty. Apparently there were no early risers here. Moving quietly, trying to dismiss any feelings of this being the wrong idea, he carried out his plan.
After about six minutes he walked out just as quickly as he'd come, but this time the bag was empty.
He made his way to the White Collar Crime Division and let out a breath of relief. No one he knew well was there yet. Not that he'd expected them to be. He waved to a couple of rookie agents who were drinking coffee and sat down at his desk, sliding the bag into a drawer.
"Good morning, Mr. Caffrey," one of the young agents said, walking over with an enthusiastic grin.
"Morning, Allen. And I told you to call me Neal." Neal gave the young man a friendly grin and looked down at the stack of files Peter had given him the day before. It was oh so fun reading these cold case files. He knew Peter just did it to keep him busy and mentally occupied.
Trying not to feel at all resentful, he opened the first one. The two rookie agents kept chattering loudly, and Neal winced slightly as it echoed around the empty room and he waited until they went to refill their mugs.
He picked up the files and nonchalantly slid up to Peter's office. He picked the lock before trying it and stepped inside, letting out a sigh at the peaceful quiet. Sitting down in his chair rather than Peter's, he kept working until the agent came.
"Morning, Sunshine," the brown-haired FBI agent said as he walked in.
Peter brought up the matter of how Neal'd gotten in, as Neal knew he would, and gave a completely truthful answer: it had been unlocked when he'd tried opening it.
Once they got the customary question-and-deflection routine out of the way, Neal'd started explaining the files to Peter.
Which brought him back to the present. He sat across from the agent, attempting to keep any lingering doubts out of his mind.
He was relieved when Hughes came to them with case and they finally had something to concentrate on that was at least slightly interesting.
"So, what is it this time?" Neal asked. "Art theft? Bank heist?"
"Uh-uh." Peter shook his head. "Mortgage fraud."
Neal gave Peter a crestfallen look. "Really? Again?"
Peter cracked a grin. "Nah, high-profile art forgery."
"Peter!" Neal protested.
"Sorry," Peter said, not looking sorry at all.
"Fine." Neal rolled his eyes slightly, his tone holding slight sarcasm. "All is forgiven."
"Thanks," Peter said drily. "How could I have lived with myself otherwise."
Neal flashed him a smile. "I guess we'll never know."
Feeling a bit better, Neal followed Peter down to the Taurus.
"You want to ride home with me?" Peter inquired, leaning back in his chair.
"When're you leaving?" Neal asked, stifling a yawn.
"Hm... probably half an hour, forty-five minutes." Peter shrugged slightly.
"Thanks, but no thanks," Neal said with a small grin. "I'm gonna go ahead and go now, if that's okay."
"Sure, that's fine," Peter said with a nod. "Go get some rest." Peter's eyes looked slightly sympathetic. Neal generally disliked seeing that look as he was granted a request- it meant pity. This time, though, he just nodded gratefully and smiled slightly; he was extremely tired, and waiting another hour - because he did know Peter, and that was at least how long it would be - in the uncomfortable FBI office didn't sound appealing.
"Okay. Good night, Peter," Neal said cheerfully, thinking of his bed and pajamas.
"Night," Peter replied, turning back to his computer.
"Don't stay too long," Neal reminded him. Peter nodded absently and Neal stifled a grin. Hands in his pockets, Neal took the elevator down to the ground floor and stiffened slightly. He had that vague prickling sensation that he always got when someone was following him. Glancing around surreptitiously, he continued out of the building. With another stifled yawn, he took a few steps and hailed a cab.
"Hey," he protested as someone grabbed his arm. He found himself looking up into two pairs dark, shadowed eyes.
There was no reply as he was whisked into the nearest alley faster than he could blink.
Four dark figures sort of blended into the black walls of the alley that he was currently pressed up against.
"You're sure no one saw him?" A muffled voice demanded. It sounded vaguely familiar.
"I'm sure, Ian," an equally distorted voice said. The first black-clad figure hissed. "Oh, sorry."
"Idiot." One of the others elbowed the offender and Neal suddenly knew exactly who they were. The first man raised one fist and Neal raised one hand as far as he could with the firm hold two of the masked agents were keeping him in.
"Hey, guys," Neal said. "Can't we talk about this?"
"Shut up." The agent pinning his left side to the wall pressed harder against Neal's arm, causing him to wince slightly.
"I'll take that as a no." Neal smiled. "But there's no reason why we shouldn't. We're all rational people."
A fist made contact with his cheekbone. "He said, shut up. If you don't, I'll hit you again."
Neal evaluated his options and settled on keeping his mouth ship being the best option after all, at least for the moment.
"Now, Caffrey, you really need to learn your place here."
"I'm pretty sur-" Neal was cut off by a punch landing in his stomach. The air rushed out of his lungs and he coughed.
"Exactly what I mean. You're a criminal, we're the good guys." Neal resisted the urge to point out that they were the ones pinning him against the wall and threatening him. "And since the pansies up in the White Collar Division don't seem to be doing a very good job teaching you that..." Jensen shrugged.
"We're taking care of it," the black-clad agent he suspected was Hall finished. Neal didn't at all like the sound of that. He waited a moment then moved his arms in a way that allowed him to slip out of the hold of the two men. He got about four running steps away before his arm was grabbed again. Twisting and pushing at just the right angle, he managed to make the man lose his balance and got a few steps farther before two sets of hands took hold of him. All the struggling he could manage wasn't enough to get out this time. He was shoved back against the wall and Jensen stood before him. Neal imagined he could feel the glare even through the mask.
"Lesson number one," Jensen said, voice low. "Don't walk away when you're being spoken to."
"Mm." Neal bit back a noise of pain as he habitually rolled over to reach for his buzzing cell phone. He lifted it off the bedside table, carefully sitting up off his ribs and reading the message.
Meeting for the case at 9. Need a ride?
Neal paused before responding, checking the clock. 7:07. He thought he'd probably finally drifted off some time around four thirty or five. Stifling a yawn, he looked back at the phone. He didn't think riding in a car with Peter would go well this time.
No thanks, I'll get a cab. See you there. He pressed send.
Neal stood slowly and went directly to the bathroom. He turned the shower as hot as he could stand, breathing in the warm steam for a moment and grimacing slightly at his more-than-slightly bruised ribs.
With a soft sigh, he gingerly pulled on a light blue dress shirt, dark blue tie, and black suit pants, looking in the mirror to fix his hair.
Neal mentally cursed. The punch that had clipped him across the cheekbone had left a very prominent bruise. He touched it with one light finger and winced. He'd have to think of an explanation before he saw Peter.
After he'd eaten breakfast and finished getting ready, he decided that getting to the FBI offices before Peter did would definitely be a plus. He would have time to get situated, for one thing, and it would be easier to act at ease that way. Picking up a bottle of aspirin and looking at it contemplatively, he decided that this time it was better to be medicated than in pain. Reluctantly, he swallowed some with a glass of water, glancing at the clock. 8:24. Perfect.
"Bye, June," he called to her. She was sitting in the kitchen and thankfully didn't come to see him off. Somehow, he thought fooling her might be much harder than fooling Peter when it came to this.
"Goodbye, Neal, dear," she replied. "Have a good day."
"Thanks," Neal said, gritting his teeth when he bumped against the banister. "You, too."
With that, he walked out the door with falsified easiness. As he sat down in a cab, he was grateful he'd decided not to drive with Peter. Sitting at an angle so as not to brush his stomach, ribs, or arms was not easily done. The cab driver obviously didn't care, but Peter would've called Neal out in a heartbeat.
"Morning, Jones," he greeted as he walked in, flashing a grin. "How're you?"
"Morning," the agent said with a nod. "Pretty good, you?"
"Doing great," Neal said, returning the nod. He glanced up at Peter's office and thanked the heavens that the agent wasn't there yet. "I'm going to wait for Peter up there."
"Alright," Jones agreed, only half-listening. Neal repeated his actions of before. He eyed his customary chair with uncertainty. The back and the arms would press all the wrong places.
Certainly Peter wouldn't mind if he sat in the other chair until the agent got there. Well, he probably would mind, but not as much as he'd used to. Neal sank into the softer chair cautiously, leaning back and putting his feet up. The fatigue started to sink in. He'd gotten used to more sleep than he'd previously been accustomed to getting, and the lack of it combined with the lingering, sharp pain that he aspirin hadn't quite dulled, making any sort of alertness very unpleasant.
After several failed attempts at staying awake, his eyes drifted closed and his dark fedora slid over them, obscuring his view of the world.
He didn't wake up anywhere near the way he'd imagined. Something swiveled the chair away. Neal's feet fell off the desk, and his side shifted rapidly, hitting the arm of the chair hard. He barely kept the wince of pain from his face as he leaned down to pick up his fedora. It was lying next to two brown shoes.
"Good morning, Neal," Peter said. "What have I told you about breaking into my office?"
"I told you, it was unlocked when I tried it." Neal lifted the hat from the ground and dusted it, eyes still fixed on the blue, FBI-issued carpet.
"And I still don't believe you. What about sitting in my chair?"
"You weren't using it," Neal offered.
"Well, come on. We've got to go to the conference room." Neal nodded, finally looking up, and he saw confusion and concern write themselves on Peter's features.
"What happened, Neal?" The agent asked, his tone the same as his expression.
"I didn't turn the light on when I was walking to my room last night," Neal said, affecting a sheepish manner as he shrugged. "You know that painting, with the frame that sticks out? I ran into it. Knocked it right off the wall, too."
"Oh." Peter nodded slowly, digesting this and looking for discrepancies. Apparently finding none, he gave Neal's face a last careful glance. "Just be careful next time."
"Will do," Neal said, nodding. Just tell him what happened, the voice in his head prompted. But he didn't heed it. Very few people would take the word of one ex-con artist over four respectable agents of the FBI. He thought Peter might be one of the ones who would, but if he wasn't... Neal didn't know if he would be able to handle that degree of mistrust at this point. So he just kept quiet and followed Peter into the conference room. The following meeting was fairly boring and lasted a little over an hour.
A few new leads had been discovered early that morning, and Peter and Neal were dispatched to check them out. Several hours of driving, waiting, and endless stream of conversations that revealed next to nothing later, they were walking down the road from a parking lot to their best lead's house.
"Aren't you hot?" Peter inquired of his partner, having long ago shed his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and loosened his tie. Neal had taken off his jacket, but not made any other move to cool himself. Strange, considering the probably almost ninety degree weather.
"Aren't you hot?" Peter repeated his question.
"Oh. No, I'm good," Neal said too cheerfully. Peter again involuntarily cast a glance at Neal's cheek and shook his head mentally. It didn't really look like the kind of bruise a picture frame would make.
"If you say so," Peter said with a shrug. They entered the building and, informing the receptionist of their identities, boarded the elevator. Peter looked at Neal.
"C'mon, you've got to be at least a little warm, just roll up your sleeves or something," Peter said jokingly, elbowing Neal in the ribs gently. Neal recoiled, grimacing slightly before hiding it. What was that? Peter's other hand froze before he pressed the button to go up.
"Nah, Peter, I'm fine," Neal insisted with a smile. Peter recognized that smile. It was the "just listen to what I'm saying, and pay no attention to what I'm doing" smile. Peter turned slightly, facing Neal.
"Neal," Peter said slowly, "roll up your sleeve, please."
"Peter-" Neal stopped at the look on the agent's face and kept his face blank. Peter watched as Neal unbuttoned the cuff and rolled one sleeve up, looking at a corner of the ceiling.
"What happened to you?" Peter demanded, voice stony as he saw the hand-shaped bruises on Neal's lower arm. Cold fury filled him, as it always did when people hurt those he was responsible for. Especially, though he wouldn't admit it, one Neal Caffrey. And the list of people who'd done that was long.
"Nothing..." Neal trailed off and shrugged, again cowed by Peter's no-nonsense expression. "I may have made a few agents mad."
"Agents did this to you?" Sickness welled up in Peter's stomach. Yes, he knew there were plenty of bureau members like that. But seeing it displayed it front of him... It angered him. Suddenly every suppressed wince, the slower movements, the tired comments, all of it made sense.
"Yes," Neal said reluctantly, looking anywhere but at Peter.
"Who?" Peter demanded.
"I don't kn- four from the Organized Crime Division," Neal said, his voice quiet. "I think... Jensen, Hall, Rolland, and one I didn't know." Peter nodded slowly, nostrils flaring, and Neal shook his head. "But it- it was my fault, Peter, I was stupid and I let them provoke me into retaliating."
"You fought back?" Peter asked, looking concerned. "Neal, I don't know how much I can-"
"No, I didn't," Neal interrupted him. "I got away at one point, but I didn't 'land any blows' or anything like that." Peter could see tiredness in the consultant's eyes as he half-grudgingly explained. "Thursday night, the same four agents were by the elevator I was waiting for, and they were... talking. About- things. They knew I could hear them."
"Oh," Peter said, frowning. "So that's what you retaliated against."
"Yeah." Neal nodded slowly. "Nothing serious, Peter, I swear; I just set up some minor setbacks for them. But somehow they guessed it was me. It had to have been a guess, I didn't leave any evidence. And..." he shrugged slightly.
"You shouldn't have, but what's done is done." Peter paused. "I wish you would have just come to me in the first place after last night, Neal. Not tried to hide it all day." Peter's voice was gently reprimanding. Neal's shoulders stiffened slightly.
"I didn't want you to..." Neal's gaze flicked to Peter's face. And Peter read the truth in his eyes. I didn't want you to not believe me. I wouldn't have been able to handle that, they said.
"I believe you," Peter said. "Especially considering who you mentioned. They're hotheads, Jensen is the biggest hothead of them all."
Neal nodded slowly, relief showing in his face.
Peter smiled gently, pressing the button to finally go up to the second floor.
"We'll get these guys," Peter told Neal. "I got your back." He patted Neal's shoulder blade softly to avoid any damage.
Neal smiled quietly, gratitude joining the relief in his eyes. "Thank you, Peter."