Neal felt confident after his speech with the board. He met up with Peter and they chatted before the agent left to prepare for his own part in the commutation. The con felt nothing but confidence, a relaxed feeling washing over him as he realized no matter what happened, he would be home. This was where he wanted to be and this was where he would stay. He had lost his one and only home once, always searching for a new one but now he had a true place with friends and colleagues, a family he could always come back to. He rounded the corner some time later, maybe thirty minutes had passed as he paused before the building the hearing was in and saw Peter talking to several men but one in particular in the group. It suddenly occurred to him who the men were, especially the one in the suit. It was Kramer with several Marshal's, Neal getting a bad feeling, especially after Peter shook his head at him. Something was up but the agent was sending him away, telling him to go. His confidence in his soon to be or not to be commutation was waning but he took his friend's advice and left. He didn't think about wanting to hear the final judgment.
It was almost 30 minutes later with traffic he made it back to his room at June's. A certain dread washed over him, making him shiver and wonder what it was Peter was trying to warn him about. Just the fact there had been several Marshal's and Kramer was warning enough to stay away. Something stunk but the con would wait and see what it was Peter had warded him off for. He heard a knock on the door and opened it cautiously to find June standing there, a bright smile on her face. He smiled back despite the uncertainty that now crept into his spirit.
"Elizabeth called me. She said we're having a party today after Peter's done with his speech. Apparently Sara will be coming along with Agents Jones and Barrigan. I volunteered the dining room downstairs."
Neal smiled, his memory of the two cakes making his nerves fade away enough to grin.
"Yes. She made me two cakes. Depending on what happens we'll either rot our teeth or rot our guts."
June blinked at first then nodded and smiled.
He nodded back with a grin.
Peter said his piece to the board while making his peace with his conflicted feelings over his friend and partner. He had no intention of allowing Kramer to take Neal to DC without a fight. Diana waited outside the glass room, coming in to say her part as the agent left. He was happy with his words and he had meant every syllable. He had not hesitated one bit where before he may have thought Neal should be on his electronic leash, Kramer had made him realize just how wrong he had been to doubt the young man. It was obvious that Neal had become a different person but until they let him loose, nobody could say which route he would go. He was certain with all of his patience that Neal would choose the right route. The young man had said so himself that he liked where he was and wanted to stay. Compared to the rash young man who had come into his life only 2 years ago, Caffrey... no Neal had grown into a much more responsible man. They had grown close, Kramer was definitely right about that but where his former mentor thought that closeness was a bad thing, Peter found it comforting to know he had helped someone. No, they had helped each other. Neal had taught him just as much and they had shared more of themselves as if they were brothers.
Someone grabbed his arm and spun him around, Peter's thoughts interrupted by the motion as he glanced up to find Phillip Kramer standing before him, the four Marshal's glaring at him. He gazed around and saw no sign of Neal which meant the young man had stayed away. Good. He could deal with this on this own for now.
"I already gave my recommendation, Kramer..."
Peter pulled his arm away but the man held fast, the tenaciousness that he once remembered of the man as a good character trait now grating on his nerves. Kramer didn't let go.
"I'm not finished with you or Caffrey, Peter. Once he walks into this room... I will be taking him to D.C."
He saw the scowl on the D.C. Art Crime's director's face, a determined gaze that he no longer found endearing. The man was relentless and would go to any length to destroy Neal's life because of his own ambitions and faults. Peter couldn't allow that.
"The HELL you will!"
Kramer let go as Peter narrowed his eyes and scowled back, standing tall over the man he once thought the world of. Kramer was no more than a little petty man now, a ghost of that former mentor that Peter had felt so attached and in awe of. This man was not the man who had helped him become the agent he was but something else.
"Do I have to call Reese on this, Petey? I'm sure he would be more than happy to get rid of Caffrey."
Phil was trying every button but Peter knew better. Reese wasn't crazy about the program they started with Neal but with their arrest rate, case closures and effective partnership, Hughes had both praised them for their efforts and looked the other way in many cases on some items. His boss understood despite his own stubbornness that sometimes you bent the rules to get the truth. You didn't throw your men or team to the lions.
"Reese won't fall for your petty grievances or revenge tactics, Phil."
He put as much venom in his voice as he could muster, his former mentor looking at him with a glare that could punch holes in cement. Peter didn't give, standing his ground until they were interrupted by Diana exiting the hearing room. She coughed, glancing between the two men and the Marshals curiously. Peter walked without a word towards her, heading for the door as Kramer turned and called after him.
"I WILL HAVE CAFFREY IN D.C. PETER! YOU HAVE MY WORD!"
Peter ground his teeth together, pausing briefly but Diana's hand on his arm grounded him as their eyes met and they kept on walking. They hadn't gotten far as he stopped and sat on the building's steps, eyes moving to the spot where Neal had stood only an hour earlier. He felt a squeeze on his arm and turned to see Diana still beside him.
"Peter... what's going on?"
Nobody knew what it was Kramer really wanted but himself. Should he involve her or had Neal already done what he expected. He glanced down at his suit jacket and the phone in his right pocket. It hadn't rung which meant...
"He wants Caffrey."
She blinked back at his comment uncertain of his meaning until he finished his thought.
"Kramer wants to take Caffrey to D.C. Permanently."
At first he could tell she didn't really understand the meaning of his words until her mouth gaped, eyes widening at the revelation.
"Boss... He can't do that can he? If they allow Caffrey his commutation or leave him with you..."
Peter held up a hand and interrupted her, nodding his head.
"He's going to try. Dammit!"
He was angry, the rage a fiery ball inside of him threatening to burn him up but for the gentle hold of Diana's hand. She grounded him but El... he had to talk to her but this would hurt his wife as much as it hurt him. Kramer was relentless but Hughes had to know what was going on. He would call his boss and friend, warn him of the coming storm.
"They're coming back boss."
Peter stood up as did Diana, both turning to see the Marshals looking more than official as Kramer gave a broad smile. He seemed to know something but what, Peter had no idea.
"I've introduced some new evidence into the board's hands. They've asked for one more day to look it over and decide on Caffrey's fate. I'll see you both here tomorrow, Petey."
The once endearing, and maybe slightly embarrassing nickname now filled him with anything but love for his former mentor. He felt Diana's grip tighten as she felt him stiffen at the threat. It was her hold keeping him from going forward and strangling Kramer as the men left. She didn't look too happy about the situation either now that she knew what was up.
Neal sat out on the terrace enjoying the breeze, a cool wind playing with his hair as he closed his eyes and leaned back in the chaise and relaxed. Kramer might be causing problems but Peter would fix it. He trusted his friend like he would a father or older brother.
It was amazing how only 2 years had passed and he had grown so close to the man that had caught him twice; The man who had chased him for close to three years, sent him to prison and later helped him by accepting his half-cocked idea to come out and be his consultant. It had started as a scheme, Neal planning all sorts of methods to use Burke... no Peter to his own means. He had planned his escaped from day one but it had backfired. Going to meet Elizabeth had been his first mistake. She had welcomed him with open arms despite finding out who he was and what he had done. El had been nothing but kind to him and accepted him at face value. It had been hard to lie to her once he came to know her and her own fascination about who he was. It was getting to know more about his then "opponent" that had made him realize that Peter wasn't the man he thought. There was more there than the eye showed and apparently, Peter felt the same about him as their partnership grew.
Neal sighed, getting up out of the chair as he heard a knock at the door. It was in iambic pentameter which meant only one person. He smiled as he opened up the door and Mozzie stood there.
He blinked a moment at his friend's expectant look as they closed the door and walked to the kitchenette. Neal grabbed up a bottle of wine from the rack and pulled out two glasses as he shrugged. Mozzie looked at him incredulously.
"It's after 6. You told me they'd tell you at 5 PM what the verdict was."
Neal didn't know what to say. He had at least expected a call from Peter if not the board but nothing. He was worrying about seeing Kramer and the Marshals but wasn't sure what to think at this moment. Had they been there for him or Peter? Was that why the agent hadn't called? Now he felt sick, leaving the two glasses and wine on the counter as he pulled out his cell without another word and started to dial a number. Mozzie watched him in silence for once as Neal waited for his friend to pick up.
Pick up Peter... come on!
"Burke, leave a message."
Neal wasn't sure what to think, his mind coming up with all sorts of wild scenarios as he hung up and regretted not leaving a message. Maybe they were listening, his old paranoia coming back. Maybe...
"Neal? What happened today?"
He turned towards Mozzie as if he had forgotten his friend was there for a moment and realized he had. All he had were wild speculations about what happened as he opened his mouth to speak and found them interrupted by a knock at the door. Mozzie looked at him curiously when he didn't react at first.
"You going to answer that?"
Neal nodded with a feeling of dread as he walked the few feet to the door, every step making him think the Marshals or Kramer could be there coming for him or telling him Peter had been taken. Finally his hand reached for the knob and the knocking came again, a voice following.
Relief like a warm blanket washed all of his doubts away as he quickly opened the door and stared at the figure before him. It was Peter Burke.
Peter drove around for a good 30 minutes after leaving Diana and the commutation hearing. He was still full of rage at Kramer's deceit and doggedness to keep Neal tied up in the system. If anyone deserved a chance at happiness (and he had meant it that night he called his friend) his friend did. Kramer was right that the case files read like a cheap pulp novel but if Peter hadn't experienced those cases first hand, he might think the same thing. It wasn't all omission and redirect, the story of the U-boat, music box and everything else all too real. He had tried to call Hughes but Reese wasn't picking up. He left several messages for his boss to call him hoping maybe something could be done to fix the situation with Kramer.
He sighed, glancing down to see it was nearing 6 PM. The board would have given Neal their decision by now if not for Kramer's meddling. He had no idea what it was the man would have given them but it had to be big if he was smiling like the proverbial cat that ate the canary. Just the thought of his former mentor being so dogged and cold towards another person when he had taught him to be so much less clinical killed him with every fiber of his being. What would he tell Neal? What would he tell Elizabeth? Maybe that third cake wasn't out the question although he'd prefer to hear that his charge had run. It would make things easier on himself but not easier for his friend. Peter leaned back in his seat, eyes shut and just concentrated on the positive. They were having a party tonight but he had to let Neal know what was going on. He owed him that much.
Someone tapped at the window, Peter looking up to see his wife staring at him curiously. He had parked in front of their home then sat there for some time without realizing it as he fought for a solution to their current issue.
Peter nodded back, smiling despite himself as he exited the vehicle and they moved around arms wrapped around the other to their front door. Elizabeth seemed to sense his tension but kept it to herself until they were inside and he kissed her unexpectedly. He held her close a moment, head leaning on her shoulder until she gently pushed him to arms' length and stared at him curiously. Her blue eyes flashed with worry but he shook his head slightly.
"He didn't get it? Neal..."
She looked confused a moment as if she thought they would have been together but Peter moved with her to the kitchen where El poured him a cup of coffee and he finally spoke.
"Kramer. He brought..."
He started to feel the rage he'd been holding back spilling forward, slamming the cup to the kitchen counter and walking away. El followed, her arms wrapping him up when he stopped by the front door to get his jacket and leave again.
"Kramer brought what, Peter?"
She was holding him still, turning him to face her as he felt a wet warmth in his eyes he refused to let go of. Elizabeth frowned, holding him closer in a gentle hug as he trembled slightly with emotion.
"Marshals. He brought the Damn Marshals to arrest him, El!"
They pulled away, his eyes looking into her now angry blue ones, a shocked expression on her face.
"Kramer did that? Why? Neal didn't..."
Peter shook his head despite knowing what happened with the painting and everything else. Neal had technically committed no crime at least now with the papers Sara's boss had signed that had saved the con. He had been righting a wrong and Kramer had nothing on the young man. Nothing but the ride on the tram...
"It's a long story but Kramer is determined to have Neal at any cost. He won't take no for an answer. He just wants to keep him in D.C... forever."
His voice shook, El leading him to the sofa and they sat, talking about what happened but with some things left out. He hated lying but he couldn't get his wife in trouble. Bad enough he knew what happened.
"What do you think Kramer brought before the board, Peter? More importantly, does Neal know? You need to talk to him."
He shook his head and sighed, face in his hands as he tried to ease the growing anger at his former friend. What had happened to change Phillip Kramer so dramatically? This was not the same man he had worked under so many years ago. Would he ever become that way? Even Hughes... Reese had been hardened by his time in the Bureau but he had come to like Caffrey as Peter had. He understood what was at stake despite his past prejudices. Why couldn't Kramer be the same?
"Hun... go to June's. She just called telling me they were getting ready for tonight's party. I'll get another cake ready."
He glanced up at her as she rose, making a motion towards the door. She was smiling, that confident smile he knew meant that everything would be ok. Peter nodded, rising with her as she kissed him gently and pushed him towards the door.
Neal couldn't explain why he was so happy to see his friend. Well he could but it would have made little sense at the moment, his mind frazzled by the scene before with Kramer and the Marshals. He had to know what was going on, giving his best smile he hoped as he opened up the door and waved the agent in. Peter smiled back but there was an obvious tension there that was clear as day. Something was up.
"Hi, Suit. Come to give the news in person?"
Peter's face dropped slightly, Neal's nerves already on edge as he turned and glared at Mozzie who looked a little intimidated suddenly. He made his way towards the door and around both of them as if touching either one would corrupt him.
"I guess you want to talk alone."
The little guy left with wine glass in hand, Peter stepping inside and Neal closing the door as he leaned back against the wooden structure and gazed at the back of his friend's head. The agent didn't move at first, hands on his hips then in his pockets and then finally the man turned and looked at him. The first thing he noticed was the shininess of the agent's eyes. There was a hint of red there which meant only one thing: Peter had been crying or close to it. Peter didn't cry so it had to be something else... He hoped.
"They haven't called."
Neal left it at that, his nerves frayed but he had to say something to ease up the silence between them before it grew into a greater monster. Peter nodded, licking at his lips as he moved over to the kitchenette and glanced around. Much to Neal's surprise the agent poured himself a large glass of wine and downed it like a shot. This didn't make the moment seem any less tense. Peter made a face afterward, lips puckering slightly.
"Maybe I shouldn't have done that."
Peter's face flushed a bit to Neal's amusement but he didn't smile or laugh. There were more important things they had to discuss.
"No... so I guess... I didn't get it?"
Neal hoped they had told him something, why else would the agent be here except to bring him news. Maybe Kramer and the Marshal's were there for another reason that was unrelated. He could only hope.
Peter wiped at his lips after a moment before pointing at the terrace, both men walking out there to look at the view. They stood in silence, leaning on the edge of the ornate stone wall and staring out across the city at the remarkable view. Peter placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. The look from his friend made him think anything but comfort.
"I'm glad you left. Kramer..."
It was obvious as the agent paused that he was anything but happy about the words he had to say. He felt a tension there but not about him.
"Kramer was there for me, wasn't he? Peter..."
The agent held up a hand for him to stop, finding some strength it seemed to finish what he had meant to.
"He wants to take you to D.C. with him no matter what, Neal. I already left a message with Hughes. He hasn't called me back but I'm hoping... I think he'll help."
The agent looked pale, exhausted as he finished saying his piece and moved back to sit in one of the wrought iron chairs on the patio. Peter slumped into the seat and closed his eyes, face looking years older than Neal ever thought it could. He felt a guilt at what had happened wondering if he should just have let himself be arrested. He still had the option of going to prison. If he was in prison and finished his time...
"No... don't even think about that, Neal."
He jumped as the agent's voice broke through his thoughts as if he were psychic. Could he really know what he was thinking? They had started to get to that point in some instances, finishing each others thoughts in cases but this was eerie.
"I don't want to send you back. You... I told them you should be free and I meant it!"
The agent rose, turning on his heel as if he might walk away but then moving back to put his hands on Neal's shoulders in a fatherly manner. Their eyes met and all he could see was honest concern and worry over his future. Peter cared. He knew the man was concerned with him but this was even more than he had ever known from his real family.
Neal watched those brown eyes turn shiny and a single tear fall down his friend's cheek. Peter was crying over him. Over his future. Would his own father have cared so much about him?
"You deserve better, Neal. So much more than you've been given. Geesh... I'm crying for Christ's sake..."
Peter chuckled slightly, Neal realizing that his friend really was agonizing over him and despite his own guilty feelings he could accept it. For once he could appreciate someone worrying over him and take it at face value because he cared just as much for Peter. Something dripped down his cheek and he looked up but the sky was still blue and clear as it had been. He heard Peter laugh.
"Maybe we should go inside before the rain comes down any harder."
It was around 7:30 that they started the party. While everyone else wasn't yet privy about the details of today's hearing and Kramer's wrench in the works, those that did were looking miserable while trying hard to hide it. Finally Neal made Peter help him give everyone the bad news as they knew it. Sara was shocked, offering to call some favors in as did June, Mozzie... Everyone wanted to help Neal get his second chance. Peter held up a hand.
"We still don't know what will happen until the board calls in tomorrow. Tonight, let's celebrate like there's no tomorrow."
He held up his glass of wine, everyone following suit as the agent smiled and put an arm around his wife on one side and Neal on the other.
"Friendship, good food and good company."
Everyone repeated it, smiling despite the dark cloud over the party. Perhaps tomorrow would be a better day than they thought. Peter could only hope as he took a long sip of wine. El hugged him closer, kissing his cheek when she jumped slightly, glancing down.
"You're phone is buzzing, honey."
Peter suddenly felt the phone in his pocket, nodding as he excused himself and went to take the call. It was Hughes.
"Peter... I just got your message. I apologize for not calling sooner but something came up. Johnson called me with the news. I wasn't supposed to say anything but... can you meet me to talk?"
Peter felt a pang of something pull at him. If Hughes was calling him this late it had to be urgent. He nodded distractedly at the phone, looking back at the party and the celebration despite everything that could go wrong. He noticed Neal looking over at him curiously and gave a smile and nod.
"Yes, sir. Can I bring Caffrey with me. He has every right to know what's going on."
He heard silence and then a breath that sounded rather upset more than anything. Hughes wasn't one to sigh but that's what it had been.
"Not tonight, Peter. Just meet me at McGee's."
Peter didn't like his boss' tone but agreed, hanging up the phone and turning back to see everyone smiling and chatting as if it wasn't the end of the world. They really had no idea what was going to happen at this point so maybe he was just feeling more tense than he should. Peter had to look at this from a clinical perspective. To look at it emotionally would just hurt too much if the news ended up being good but the way Reese had talked...
Neal was by his side suddenly, the young man looking a little nervous. Maybe he knew what was going on as he had known what his friend had been thinking before.
"It's about me isn't it. What did they say?"
He was torn, uncertain what Reese might tell him but he shook his head slightly.
"Hughes. He wants to talk. I'm sure it's nothing..."
His voice trailed off without much conviction, Neal's eyes widening with worry but Peter put a hand on his shoulder and smiled.
"Tomorrow. He said that much. If it's possible, I'll call you afterwards. I promise."
Neal nodded at his words, words he hoped he could keep his promise on.
The bar was loud and it smelled of beer and smoke. Peter had only been here once before when someone had celebrated their retirement. It wasn't really his kind of place despite the game being on when he showed up but that's not why he was here. He saw Reese immediately, the older agent nodding his head at him as he wove his way through the crowded bar to the back booth. He slid in and they just stared at the other a moment, the beat of the music making the agent feel a bit sickly beyond his already nervousness about the news his boss had. Reese leaned over the table and he did the same to listen as his friend spoke.
"I figured there was little chance we'd be heard here."
He saw Reese smirk a bit, Peter nodding in agreement as he let his boss continue.
"Kramer stopped by my office today. He told me what he has on Neal. It doesn't look good, Peter. He might have our hands tied on this. I don't think... I don't think I can help."
Peter blinked hoping he heard his boss and friend wrong but the look on Reese's face told him otherwise. He sighed, nodding at his friend and leaning close to speak.
"So what is it Phillip brought to the table? He wouldn't tell me."
He watched as Hughes brought out his phone and handed it over, a still picture on the screen. Reese pushed a button and Peter saw something he hoped he would never see.
On the screen was a surveillance film, tiny but clear enough to see what needed to be seen. Peter watched as it showed Neal and Keller exit from a familiar looking military truck, steal two NYPD jackets and talk to cops standing not too far away. Peter wanted to be sick suddenly, watching the little bit after as it ended. It left out his own part in this act but it incriminated his friend and partner with a known criminal stealing the U-Boat treasure. He handed the cell back and Hughes looked at him curiously.
"Peter... you can see how I can't help him. I'm sorry."
Peter left the bar uncertain what to think and how Kramer had gotten that footage. It was after 10 PM as he pulled into his house and sat on the stoop of his home.
He glanced up to see Neal standing there, the con looking at him curiously as he joined him on the stoop. They were silent, his friend obviously patient as he tried to think how to tell him what had happened. They had been so careful and somehow Kramer had found a way to mess things up. Peter turned when Neal squeezed his shoulder gently with his hand.
"I'm sorry... Neal..."
The con glanced at him a moment in shock then nodded again, hand moving from his shoulder to his own lap.
"It's that bad?"
Neal was pleading for resolution, an answer. Peter nodded.
Peter pulled his phone out without finishing, pushing a button and handing it over to Neal who looked down at the now moving picture on the screen. Reese had given him a copy of the film. He watched Neal gaze at the flickering screen in the yellow glow of the lamp light, blue eyes widening then narrowing a moment before handing the phone back.
He was feeling guilty for not being able to protect his friend when Neal had been willing to give up so much to save his wife. He should be able to do something but Kramer had tied his hands.
"Don't be, Peter. Don't be..."
Author's Note: The beginning that explains why. There's much more to come. I hope you enjoy.