A/N: We've loved White Collar from afar for two seasons and will not let this one go by unwritten about. This particular fic fits best in the first season, though. As always, we don't own anything or these would be the plots of the actual show and not just fanfiction.
"Don't you understand?" said Mr. Beaver, "He's gone to the White Witch. He has betrayed us all." C.S. Lewis
Peter Burke was smiling when he stepped off the elevator onto White Collar's floor. The smile was a left over from the vacation and, he was sure, one that would fade with paperwork and frustrating cases and certain pet consultants... but for now he was happy to be back in his element.
It had taken three weeks in the Florida Keys to convince him that he was a strict work-aholic. Being away from the bureau for a week was fine by him – he got to see Elle and catch up on stuff he missed while working most nights, like current events and sex. Lots of sex. But by two weeks in he found himself pining, actually pining, for cases and espionage and hidden meaning. He found life just too boring without thievery.
He smiled when Jones rose from his desk. "How was the Keys?"
"Relaxing," Peter said, striding up to his office, happy to be back in the place where he was in his element. "But I found myself missing the city."
"That's 'cause you work too much, boss." Jones called out just before Peter closed the door.
He allowed himself to grin at the sight of the unsolved cases piled high. No one could live without a little mystery, and Peter had found himself suffocating in the ordinary world people lived in everyday. The first on the pile bore the look of an interdepartmental memo, a brief message that had only one word in the subject line.
Peter's good mood suddenly evaporated and he turned back towards the bull pen. "What has Caffery done now?"
He was studiously ignored, though there was a great deal of shuffling of papers and clearing of throats. Peter sighed and picked up the paper.
He'd left Neal with a handler in the Organized Crime division. Caffery had no ties to the mob or mafia, but he still recognized their MO's faster than those who'd been working that beat for years. They'd been trying to get Neal off him for a month, anyway, saying they were organizing a sting that they could sue his silver tongue on. Peter's vacation had come at an opportune moment: he didn't have to worry about Neal, and the people who were getting him actually wanted to use him.
This memo, however, said that Neal didn't particularly like walking on the seedier side of NYC. He'd attempted to escape, had cut his anklet and then taken off. He'd been caught a half-hour later, but was then considered a liability. Five days after Peter had left, over two weeks ago, Neal had been sent to a Level 1 penitentiary just outside of the city.
Never before had Peter been so…disappointed in another person. And so angry. Why, why, did Caffery choose that time to run? Because Peter wasn't around to catch him? Perhaps Peter didn't entirely trust Neal – and the evidence for that was on his desk – but he did enjoy working with him. To come back to an embarrassment like him running away was like a slap in the face. A "screw you, buddy."
Peter knew that he could fish Caffery out of prison. He was, technically, still his felon, but Peter hadn't felt this angry in quite some time. No way was he going to drive all the way out to the Level 1 in order to pick up a guy who'd run out on him as soon as he turned his back. Not at the beginning of a day that was supposed to be pretty good.
He was moody all day, though he refused to admit that it had anything to do with Neal. He kept snapping, at Jones and Cruz, at Elle, when he stopped home for lunch, even at a witness at their latest high-class crime. He couldn't seem to keep his temper in check, and he considered himself a pretty even-tempered man. Caffery just brought out the worst in him.
He'd meant to head straight home, to hell with Neal and his Benedict Arnold act. He'd go to Hughes tomorrow and concede that the other man had been right, that they didn't need Caffery, really, that the criminal belonged in prison, that they should just wipe their hands of him.
But somehow his car was pointed in the direction of the penitentiary. Something to do with thinking of Neal, of the mugs of coffee and the paper crane, of the mostly unsolicited advice he had on every subject, of Neal's eyes – concerned, stormy, dancing, always that brilliant blue. Something within him drove him inexorably in the direction of the man he'd been starting to think of as his partner.
Maybe there was another side to this story, Peter mused as he got out of the car, putting his collar up against the bitter January cold. Maybe, just maybe, Neal had a reason for running.
As Peter flashed his badge and walked past the guards, he found himself hoping that there was an explanation for all of this.
"I need to see Neal Caffery." Peter said to a woman at the first desk he came to. The woman nodded, typing something, calling someone else, and Peter tapped his fingers against the hard metal impatiently.
The phone buzzing in his pocket was a welcome distraction. "Burke." He said, leaning against the countertop. He listened for a moment, his face becoming colder with each word. And he was going to give Caffery another chance…!
"I got it Jones. Thanks." He hung up just as a guard beckoned to him. Peter hesitated for a moment – he didn't want to see Caffery anymore, not after what he'd just heard. The guy could rot in prison forever for all he cared.
But then, like before, flashes Neal popped unbidden, unwanted…Neal's self-assured half-smile, his charm, the wine he'd bought for Elle, his concern for his missing girlfriend…and Peter strode forward, determined to go see Neal, but, because of the call, now completely unable to pity the man he thought was becoming his friend.
If Peter had looked, he would have seen that Neal was obviously sick – pale, thinner than he ever had been, shaking minutely, uncontrollably – and if Neal had stood up and walked, he would have noticed the limp, an untreated fractured pelvis. If Neal had, for any reason, shucked his shirt and displayed the harsh marks on his pale, taunt skin…showed off the visible ribs…well, perhaps he would have paused before dismissing the con so easily.
"Peter…" Neal said, his smooth voice something he was proud f in light of the fact that his lungs and throat felt like fire. "How was the Keys?"
"Johnny Gavin is dead." Peter said flatly, and he saw in Neal only what he wanted to see. A con caught in a bad position. A man who might have been his friend found out to be a coward, a traitor. "He was an NYPD cop for fifteen years. Great guy. Good father." Peter watched as Neal's expressive eyes widened at this sudden, unexpected bad news.
"What – Peter, what's going - ?"
"He was killed by the man you were supposed to take down!" Peter barked, and Neal flinched badly with sudden anxiety.
"Peter…" Neal said, placing, not bothering to cover up his illness anymore. And now his voice was raspy and low, something Peter didn't notice (or, as Neal thought later back in his cell, he didn't care). "What did they tell you?"
Peter saw red for a moment. One of New York's own was dead, there would be bad blood between NYPD and the Bureau for this, and Neal was trying to pass it off as a miscommunication. "You can't talk your way out of this one." He said, voice deadly low.
All the fight seemed to go out of Neal and he sagged in his chair. When he spoke again, it was soft, plaintive. "Peter, I swear it's not what you think."
"A man is dead, Caffery." Peter said, using the last name, severing all ties with Neal before he could get a word in edgewise. "A good man is dead." He stared at Neal, took in his appearance and for a moment the con thought he might see a flash of sympathy in the agent's eyes. But nothing happened. Peter's expression remained cold, distant, as he stood up and walked out of the room, leaving Neal alone and in prison.
He tossed one last thing over his shoulder. Something that would keep Neal awake thinking about it. "You disappointed me." Peter Burke, FBI agent said right before he walked out of Neal's life.