Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to White Collar. This is a transformative work written for fun, not profit. Thank you China Shop and Canon Is Relative for beta help.
Notes: Follows after the season two finale.
For two days Peter was unable to escape how terrible he felt. Not at home, with Elizabeth, when he had time to brood, and certainly not at work, with non-stop recriminations from the Bureau brass and from the press. People notice exploding warehouses. The FBI couldn't hide much of the truth, what with a twisted, mutilated U-Boat in evidence, not to mention the corpse of the widely hated Adler, so reporters swarmed. White Collar hadn't had such bad press since the Gardner heist. The public ate the story up with ketchup and mustard, and Peter was the villain of the tale for losing the art.
Peter spent the day after he'd shot Adler with his superiors in offices that didn't have glass walls and dealing with TV reporters, but most of all, he spent it avoiding Neal. Finally Neal used Jones to reach him. "Caffrey says he knows where the art is, Peter," Jones murmured in his ear in a room full of press.
Peter reached the top of June's staircase, much more weary than usual. The fallout from the Adler case wasn't even the worst of it. He'd weathered professional setbacks before, though this one was disturbingly public, but, for possibly the first time in his life, he was learning how truly tyrannical his own conscience could be. He couldn't sleep, he was so upset. He had no appetite. Thank God for Elizabeth still believing in him; he could hardly believe in himself. He had to do something to fix this.
He knocked. "It's open," Neal called. His voice sounded strange.
Peter pushed open the door but didn't spot Neal at first. "Peter," Neal said from his bed, apprehension mixed with surprise. He swung his legs out of bed and slipped a robe on over his pajamas. "I'll be right with you." He sounded stuffed up. Peter waited while Neal blew his nose thoroughly into three tissues. Beside his bed, a small waste basket overflowed with used tissues. Neal slid his feet into slippers, the tracker peeking out from under one pants leg, and approached Peter, unsmiling.
Neal had had some crazy story about a key and a note in his apartment –how much of an idiot did he think Peter was? So he'd changed his mind about his scheme, but rather than come clean he'd concocted a story with himself as the innocent patsy. At least it meant they could get the art back. Peter was distracted and defensive and dealing with the pain of betrayal and disappointment. Neal had let him down, in a huge way. Peter sent Jones to check out the storage unit.
"You look awful," Peter said. Red colored Neal's eyes and nose, and two days' worth of beard shadowed his jaw.
"Thank you." Neal never took comments about his looks lightly. He might never take anything Peter said to him lightly, again. "I caught a cold." Neal scooped up the day's Times from its place on a chair and dropped it on the table, open to the latest update on the news story. "You've had a bad couple of days. You want a beer?"
"No thanks," said Peter, trying to remember if he'd ever heard of Neal Caffrey getting sick. He set his briefcase down beside a table leg. Time to tell him. Tell him.
Neal shuffled past, took a copper teakettle from the stove and began to fill it at the tap. "Tea? I'm having some," he asked, then coughed abruptly into the elbow of his robe. A deep, wet cough.
"No. Neal …"
Neal inclined his head in acknowledgement but kept his gaze on the kettle.
Peter had expected hurt and anger, not this sick, listless Neal. Now he didn't know how to begin, so he played the investigator. "Those paintings you did. Where are they?"
Neal set the kettle on the stove and turned the burner on. He faced Peter. "Do I need to have my attorney present?"
There it was. Good. Peter was much more comfortable with things in the open. "No," he said, "just tell me the truth."
He saw Neal absorb that. Neal might have spent the last two days waiting to be arrested. This was the earliest Peter had been able to get free. If Peter told him he didn't need an attorney —well, it would come down to whether Neal still trusted him.
"Peter, I'm trying to tell you. All this —" Neal gestured at the hive of activity outside the glass walls of the conference room. "It's not necessary. You can blow all their minds. Just take a camera crew to that storage unit."
"You're done playing me, Neal." Frustration made him lash out. This was why he tried to stay away from Neal all day and why he hadn't answered his calls last night. He didn't want to hear Neal lie to him and he didn't trust himself to react well. But if Neal had something—truth or a lie —to confess, Peter would have to listen.
Neal gave a small shrug and sat at the table, folding his hands in front of him. Beside the accusatory Times, the table held a box of tissues, a used tea cup, a small pile of tea bags, and honey. "They're gone." Neal opened an Earl Grey tea bag and watched Peter warily. "I found them missing the same night I got the note and the key."
Peter's heart sank. If Neal still had his own paintings, it would do a lot to clear him of any involvement with the case, but claiming they'd been stolen didn't help. It sounded like a weak cover up. "Did you report it?"
"You're the FBI. I'm telling you now."
Dammit, Neal had to know how incriminating that sounded. He acted like he didn't care. "What about June? Was anything else taken?"
"You could ask her."
Peter's temper flared but he tamped it down. "You didn't tell her someone broke into her house?"
"It was pretty clearly aimed at me, Peter. She's quite capable of calling the police herself if anything else is missing."
"Where did you keep your paintings?"
"In a storage room down the hall."
"I want to see it."
Neal nodded at the door beside his kitchenette. "Through there, first door on the right." He suffered a sudden coughing fit and reached for the tissues.
Peter checked out the bare room, partly out of investigative habit and partly to get some distance from this guarded version of Neal. Neal's reticence wasn't making his conscience feel any better.
Peter was still glowering down at an overly earnest Neal when he got the call from Jones. "I'm at the storage company, at the unit Neal gave us," Jones said. "The key worked, but Peter, there's nothing here. The place is completely empty."
Neal had acted stunned. "Empty?" he echoed.
He heard the kettle whistle and returned to find Neal pouring himself a cup.
"Was the room locked?" he asked.
"Nope." Neal sat back at the table without looking at Peter. "Didn't have any reason. They weren't worth anything."
"So it has to have been someone who knows you and your habits. Mozzie? The note sounds like him."
Neal rubbed his eyes. "It wasn't Moz. I asked him. He said he didn't do it, and that's good enough for me."
Ouch. "Where is he?"
"He's left town," said Neal. Peter cocked a skeptical eyebrow, remembering Neal's blind loyalty to Kate. "I told him to go," Neal said with a glare. "We knew when my tracking data didn't show anything suspicious, he'd be your first suspect."
Empty. Neal had wanted to send them to an empty storage unit.
"Peter, all the art was there last night. You've got to believe me. The crates, the jewels, everything. The Ark of the Covenant could have been in there. I don't know why it's gone, but someone—"
"That's enough." Peter cut him off and summoned Jones back to the office.
Neal looked devastated. "Peter, I brought this to you. That's got to count for something."
"You've been playing us all, Neal. I'm finally wise to you, and I don't want to hear any more."
"Why would I do that? The work I do for you – it's all I have. Why? What makes you think I'd throw that away?"
"Dumb luck," Peter told him with venom. "A scrap of burning canvas floated out of that warehouse. It was your painting of the Chrysler Building. You've been painting reproductions at your place. You set this whole thing up. Even Adler realized it."
"My painting?" Neal still played innocent. He even managed to turn pale. Peter had to admit, Neal's was one of the best performances he'd ever seen. Peter felt physically sick.
Now, two days later, Peter only felt angry with himself. He lifted his case to the table and opened it. "Would you recognize your work from just a burned scrap?"
Neal looked curious, the first glimmer of interest Peter had seen from him, but he held back. "Maybe." He choked on a cough he tried to stifle. He drank some tea. When he could speak again, he continued, "Were there others at the scene?"
Peter nodded, and began laying out canvas scraps in plastic evidence bags. Neal leaned forward to see. He lifted one with salmon and forest green visible beneath the smoke smear, studied it, then turned it over to look at the back. "That's my copy of Matisse's Goldfish."
"What about this one?" Peter pointed. Neal identified each scrap as his work. Peter pushed a final bag toward him. Neal lifted it, frowned, and turned it over. He studied the painted side again, shaking his head. "I don't know about this one," he said. "It was at the warehouse, too?"
Peter began putting the scraps away. "No, I put that one in there to test if you could really identify your own paintings."
Neal's jaw dropped, and Peter only belatedly realized his mistake. "What is this?" Neal demanded, half-coughing it out. "You said I didn't need an attorney. You're testing my story? I'm still your prime suspect, aren't I? "
"No. Neal –"
Neal stumbled to his feet, getting tangled in the legs of his chair. "It's not enough that you got my girlfriend killed and ran off my best friend. Now you want to put more years on my term?"
"Go home," Peter ordered. "Get out of here. You have one hour. After that, you're on house arrest at June's until I call you."
"Peter, you can't –"
"I can do anything I want with you. It's over."
"That's not what I meant," Peter shouted over him. "It's standard practice, Neal. I swear to you, I'm not trying to collect dirt on you. You've seen me do this before. We put a ringer into the evidence. It makes your testimony stronger if we have to take it to a grand jury."
Neal's eyes were red and watery. "I've never seen you do that."
"Maybe not, but that's all it is. Listen –" He took a deep breath. Tell him. "I don't think you were running a long con on Adler. I don't think you're conning me or the FBI. I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. I would take it back if I could. I don't think you did this."
Neal stilled. "You don't?"
"I don't," Peter said.
"I thought you were here to arrest me."
That's what you thought and you still offered me a beer. "No, I'm here to—"Peter gestured at his briefcase, then realized that wasn't the truth. "I'm here to tell you I'm sorry. And to get out of the office for a while."
Neal turned away from Peter and found another box of tissues on an end table. He took his time thoroughly blowing his nose and discarding the tissues. He looked back at Peter but didn't approach the table. "Something turned up that cleared me?"
"No," Peter said.
"If anything, this-" Peter gestured at the table and his briefcase, "incriminates you further, particularly since your paintings are missing." He continued quickly, cutting off Neal's protest. "It doesn't matter. I don't think you would do this. I don't think you would do this to me." That was the heart of it. To me. Somewhere in the chaos of the last two days, it had dawned on Peter that, in his heart of hearts, he didn't believe Neal would bring this much grief on him deliberately. It was a bone-deep certainty Peter couldn't ignore.
Neal moved back to the table and came to stand opposite Peter, one hand on the back of his chair. "I wouldn't," he said in a hoarse voice.
"I believe you," Peter said, holding Neal's gaze.
Neal lowered his head as he sank into his chair, clearing his throat. When he looked back at Peter, color had returned to his face as if those three words had healing powers.
Peter relaxed for the first time in days. "How did I get Kate killed?"
Neal gave an apologetic half-shrug. "Adler told me he blew up her plane because you were there and he was afraid you'd ruin everything." He put a bit more emphasis on the last two words than Peter liked, but then he added, "It's not your fault, I know. Remember in the car when he said it was my fault she died? For changing her. I keep wondering what he meant by that."
So Neal had had a longer talk with Adler than Peter knew, and Peter hadn't even properly interviewed the guy about it, yet. He'd add that to his to-do list, once the reporters let up. "Sounds like he was busy blaming anyone but himself."
Neal nodded and coughed.
"I have to get back," Peter said with genuine reluctance.
"I can clean up and come in," Neal offered. Peter sensed Neal testing him. Wondering if he was still welcome on the team. Peter needed to be very clear about his reasons when he denied him.
"No. I've put you on sick leave, and I see it's the truth, anyway. Stay home and get over that cold. The office is crawling with press and brass and I'd just as soon they didn't get your scent." Peter looked around. "You need anything? Your nose looks sore. Don't you have any of those tissues with lotion in them?"
"They make tissues with lotion in them?" Neal's surprise seemed genuine. Geez, he never was sick, was he?
"I'll get you some."
"Am I still on house arrest?"
Peter shook his head. "Just take it easy and get better." He paused. "Are we okay?"
Neal hesitated, but not for too long. "Probably," he said twisting his mouth.
That would have to do. Peter returned to the fray at the office feeling ten times lighter. Now, he could face anything.