Summary: One way Neal Caffrey left, and five ways he came back. (Plus one he probably didn't.)

Pairing: Neal/Peter/Elizabeth

Rating: PG-15

Warnings: bad puns

Author's Notes: Apparently, I can't stick to five ways. Oops. Written back when I'd only seen season one.

Disclaimer: White Collar and all its recognizable characters belong to much, much richer people than me. I'm just playing.


I'll Tell You When the Statute of Limitations is Up

0. Leaving

Peter wasn't surprised that Neal disappeared once his sentence was up. A lot of people were. Caffrey would never be anything remotely resembling a proper FBI agent, but he was good, and he was patient, and he'd lasted longer than most of the active agents at the office. Hence, a lot of active agents were startled to discover their pet 'consultant' had vanished.

But Peter had known. When he saw the guest of honour slipping out behind their Congratulations Neal banner, the party still in full swing, he'd silently saluted the door with his beer. He'd been pretty sure he wasn't going to hear from his partner for a long, long time. And he was (mostly) okay with that.

It hurt, of course. Partly because they made a phenomenal team; he'd never worked with anyone who made the job feel like the best kind of game. More because Neal was his friend, and Neal had needed him as a friend, and over almost a decade on each other's radars they'd bonded in ways neither of them often acknowledged. Because he'd finally found someone as brilliant as El and three times as quixotic. Even as he'd loyally thrown himself into Caffrey's quest to discover the truth behind Kate, he'd cracked open his heart and his home for the thief, who'd curled up inside. Neal had treated Peter and Elizabeth like shining, perfect things. For a while, he'd been like a kid at the beach, easing open a clam shell and seeing it's beauty for the first time. Like he could fall in love with them and have them love him back as easily as he picked locks.

So it hurt, the prospect of being able to come downstairs and eat a civilized breakfast with his wife, no chance of unexpected visitors. El knew him too well to try to hide her own hurt, and he hurt for her, too. She'd tried to tell him that Neal would stick around, and he'd tried to tell her otherwise, and god he hated being proven right. Toyed with hating Neal, for pulling this disappearing act. But he'd always known Neal would fly as soon as he was free, and Peter wound up aching a bit on Neal's behalf, too. For the thief-turned-fed-turned-ghost he'd always known wouldn't feel able to stay.

He figured four years together had earned him all that hurting, fair and square. And he'd stuck it out, because he couldn't keep Neal prisoner in their arrangement forever. It had been an arrangement with a built-in expiration date all along, and he'd never let himself completely forget that. Never.

So it he had to be (mostly) okay with it.

1. Coming Back to the Scene of the Crime

What he'd never told El was that he hadn't been sure Neal would be back. Not until he was stading in the street beneath a rich man's living room window, surveying the damaged safe that had been thrown through the glass.

"I can see covering your tracks, but seriously, isn't this overkill? Cutting the door to pieces and throwing the safe through the window, after you already opened it? Someone has anger issues," a familiar voice said from just behind the yellow tape. He turned, speechless for long enough for Caffrey to grin and saunter onto his crime scene, yanking him into a bear hug.

"Jesus, Caffrey, where've you been?" he managed. He hoped none of his people had noticed that their fingers tangled for a few seconds as they rearranged limbs.

"Here, there - I'll tell you in a few years. How've you been, Peter?"

"Good."

"I heard you took down Smithly; that was neat."

"Thanks. And see,we can solve cases without you."

"Uh-huh. You missed me."

"Like a bad itch," he assured his thief with a smile, and Caffrey laughed. "But since you're here, want to take a look at this one with me?"

"It would be my pleasure."

And just like that, they were partners again, even before the paperwork had been filed.

2. Coming Back Across the Way

What he'd never told El was that he hadn't been sure Neal would be back. Not until the day Peter wandered over to the window and saw two delivery trucks facing off across the street.

"Honey? Do we know anything about new neighbours?" he called, still doing up his tie. El wandered over from the kitchen, peeping out curiously as she said,

"I didn't even think anyone was selling. Isn't that Mr. Searn's house?"

The back of Peter's neck prickled.

"It used to be," Neal said pleasantly, and both Burkes spun in place. "But he was thinking of moving to Florida full time, so I made him an excellent offer."

Caffrey looked... Good. Not too different; the suit wasn't quite as expensive as the ones June had liked him in, but it was still cut close to his body, casually open at the neck and practically oozing taste. And he still seemed on the verge of laughing, which was a look Peter knew all too well on him. There was a new bandaid on one hand, but that could be anything, and his posture was relaxed and comfortable.

Peter managed to force out his name, but he had no idea how it sounded. Angry? Shocked? Longing? He'd have asked Elizabeth, but he wasn't sure he could, not after neither of them had seen Neal in so long. And Neal's grin was turning even smugger than before, so he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"Did you miss me?"

"Of course we missed you," Elizabeth exclaimed, "you disappeared for eight months! You could've been dead, for all we knew!"

Apparently, darting across the room to hug their wayward thief was exactly the right thing to do, because Neal caught her up in the tightest squeeze her could. Peter followed slowly, still reeling. Neal was back. Neal had bought a house. Neal was hugging his wife.

"Mozz would've told you guys if anything happened to me," came the protest, but it was muffled. Hell, Neal wasn't just hugging his wife, Neal was embracing her. And nuzzling.

"That's presuming he knew himself," Peter pointed out. Fortunately, his vocal chords cooperated. Caffrey shrugged, which wasn't the most reassuring thing he could've done, but at least they were looking at each other, now.

"I'm pretty sure word would've gotten around."

"So." He wasn't sure where he was going with that. "You're buying a house." Oh, that was where. "Across the street from us."

"Bought. It would drive me crazy if we were living together, and it'd drive you crazy to have me in town but out of your sight. Seriously," he turned his face back to El's, who was still hanging on, the traitor, "how can you live with him? His taste in TV alone is atrocious."

"He's got his good points," she said fondly. "And I love him."

"Yeah."

Oh. Neal was looking up at him, arms lax enough Peter could've walked right up and demanded a place in them without doubting his reception.

"You'd be welcome to stay here while they're moving stuff in," he offered instead, even if he wasn't sure why. "You'd survive a few days of my taste."

"Peter, I'm not sure how I survived the last time we tried living together. But I wouldn't say no to a cup of coffee now and again."

He grinned.

"Or my cereal. Of my dinner. Or..."

"I'll walk Satchmo," Neal offered quickly.

"You'll do more than that, you-"

Two quick strides, and he had one hand on Neal Caffrey's shoulder, the other on Elizabeth's waist. He didn't have to finish his sentence, not even silently; Neal was doing that just fine, and it was written across his face.

"I will. I promise. I-"

"Shut up," he grumbled. If he got obedience on that one, he figured it was because everyone was too busy tugging each other closer to speak.

3. Coming Back Broken

What he never told El was that he hadn't been sure Neal would be back. They'd made a lot of friends over the years together; they'd made a lot of enemies, too. Peter was pretty sure the worst of them were in prison. Hopefully, the rest would figure Neal was too much trouble to go after even now. He'd taught the former felon a trick or two that might help along the way, too, and he could only hope the combination would be enough.

Hope, and wonder. His gut said Caffrey left intending to pick up where his former career had been interupted, but whether he'd stick to that... Caffrey'd changed. He'd gotten to like being on the side of the angels. And he'd always loved New York. The nasty, twisty feeling in the pit of Burke's stomach said that Neal was gone for good, but he had a lot of reasons to expect his friend back, too.

Not the least of which was that he was pretty good at catching Neal Caffrey.

He'd never expected dread and hope to resolve so completely as this, though. Sitting in a dim, sterile room, a little too chilly for comfort because the vent blew cold air no matter what they'd have preferred - he hadn't expected this. Staring at neatly trimmed fingernails, at hands that didn't twitch, at a face that was still curious and thoughtful, but totally lacking in the spark of recognition they'd always had for one another...

This had never been in his plans.

"Neal Caffrey," the man repeated. "Neal. N. Caffrey. Neal C. Neal Caffrey."

Peter nodded.

"Huh. Well, I guess I'll have to take your word for it. Do I have a middle name? Maybe a middle name would sound more familiar."

"Sorry," he replied, feeling the knot in his gut sink another inch, "you never gave us one. You're sure you don't remember?"

The man who had been Neal Caffrey shrugged.

"Not a thing. So, tell me again - how do we know each other?"

You were a crook. I was the FBI agent who caught you. We were partners for four goddamned years, and then you disappeared so completely I might never have seen you again if this hospital in Bumfuck, Michigan hadn't decided to run their amnesiac John Doe's prints.

"We were friends," he said instead, because the truth would be too much.

4. Coming Back Criminal

What he never told El was that he hadn't been sure Neal would be back. So it was with a certain sense of relief that Burke hammered on the thief's hotel door.

"Peter! I'm delighted to see you. Really," Caffrey enthused, despite his best glare.

"Save it, Caffrey. I hear you're back in the business of stealing - from a high-security vault in the penthouse of an FBI owned apartment building."

Infuriatingly, the younger man shrugged.

"What can I say; some things are just irresistable."

"That was a rhetorical observation, not a confession!" Mozzie yelled from on the bed. It seemed he'd interrupted Casablanca. "Also, Neal, shut up."

"He doesn't have to confess," Peter said grimly. "He waved to the security cameras."

"A stunt double! It's a conspiracy!"

"And he sang while he worked, and left fingerprints all over everything."

Mozz groaned and flopped down melodramatically.

"I give up!"

"Sounds like an open and shut case," Neal commented beatifically, ignoring his friend. He did not look like a man about to go to prison. He looked, Peter realized with rapidly growing horror, like a con had just gone spectacularly and unexpectedly right. "By the way, what did I take?"

"A bunch of photos."

Mozzie rolled himself off the bed in his display of disgust, but neither of them were paying attention.

"Christ, Neal, why?"

Caffrey smiled.

"Well, the latest tracker didn't chafe too badly, and you're a hard man to quit. D'you think I'll be able to keep staying at June's? She really is starting to need a spare pair of hands about the place."

"You - you idiot! You stole the photographs so you could go back on parole? I'd have kept you on as a consultant, tracker or no tracker, damnit! Why didn't you just come to me?"

"You might've, but your bosses aren't quite so trusting." He shrugged. "So I spend a few nights in jail; it'll make where I spend the next nights all the sweeter."

Peter tried to glare, but he had a feeling he was failing. Neal's grin widened, and he felt clever fingers slipping around his wrist. His thief leaned in close and whispered flirtatiously in his ear, "come on Peter. I know you've been dying to use those cuffs on me again."

5. Coming Back Quickly

What he never told El was that he hadn't been sure Neal would be back. Waking up the next morning to a terrific hangover and the loving attentions of a worked-up Satchmo, he quickly realized that was a good thing.

"Peter, I need to tell you something: I'm leaving. But I'll be back. Probably in about twenty minutes; does that sound right?"

"Maybe fifteen, if the bakery's not too busy. Oh, and can you pick up some milk, too?" Elizabeth added cheerfully.

Not confiding his worries to anyone, at all, ever, would've been even better; Neal would pay for this.

"Absolutely. Want me to take Satchmo?"

"Please," he groaned. From the other side of the pillow he heard Neal laugh. Then two of the bed's four occupants slipped out, and he braced himself for what he knew was coming next.

"You know, Peter, when you were agonizing over how Neal was going to leave and there was nothing you could do to stop him? I thought you were keeping quiet because you meant for more than six hours," his beloved wife pointed out gleefully.

"Yes, honey."

"Six hours that he mostly spent waiting for us to come home, I might add."

"You're really enjoying telling me you told me so, aren't you?"

"Yep. You noticed the part where the time he didn't spend waiting, he spent setting up a lovely and romantic night for us?"

He had. He and Elizabeth had come home late because he'd been reluctant to leave, part of him hoping Neal would be back for at least the finale of his farewell party. He'd been a little drunk, and a lot depressed, and then they'd stepped into a bedroom lit by three dozen candles. Neal had remade the bed with something that felt like cream made into cloth, scattered it with rose petals, and set a punch bowl of gleaming strawberries on the nightstand. The only sign that he'd expected them hours before had been the partially melted ice in the bottom of the champagne bucket and the fact that he'd skipped explanations. Instead, Peter had found himself yanked into a possessive kiss before he had time to relax, and Neal's lips had been soft and strong and desperate.

It was the kind of memory that banished hangovers.

"Did we finish the strawberries?"

"Neal and I did, while we were waiting for you to wake up," his wife admitted. "But he'll probably bring back turnovers."

"Breakfast of champions," he muttered, and comtemplated revenge, a dish best served flaky.

6. Coming Back Dead

What he never told El was that he hadn't been sure Neal would be back. Not until there was a knock on the kitchen door in the middle of the night, and a grinning man leaning on the frame.

He had a lot of things to say to Caffrey. He started with, "Jesus Christ, Neal, d'you even know what time it is?"

"Aw, you missed me!"

"Of course I did. What are you doing here? At, I will add, two-forty-three a.m."

"Waiting for you to invite me in," the younger man declared innocently. Peter stepped out of the doorway and gestured expansively at his kitchen, consciously not thinkng about whether he'd put away the dishes. Neal mugged a pout and plastered it over his face. "What, no please?"

"Please. Come on in, Neal. Make yourself at home. Waltz back into our lives the same way you waltzed out of them."

"Thanks. I brought coffee."

Peter stared as his old partner produced a bag labelled in some form of egyptian, offered it with a smile, then set it down with a shrug.

"Too early for coffee?"

"That, and I don't want the smell to wake El," he admitted. Caffrey nodded.

"Sorry about the hour. I've been on a nocturnal schedule for... weeks; I kind of lost track of time. Really, I didn't mean to wake you up."

"It's fine," he muttered. God, it was like letting Satchmo out of his crate after a long drive - gratitude and affection staring out of of too-big eyes. Though with Satchmo there was more drool. "Alright, sit down. Tell me about it."

He saw Neal start to lean in, oozing earnestness, and held up a finger. The former conman rolled his eyes but dropped the act, looking a little embarrassed to have tried it in the first place.

"Before I start, let me just say: I don't know if you're going to want me around after I tell you this, so I want you to listen to me on one big thing first." He paused long enough for Peter to start glaring. "I love you. And El. I have for... well, let's just say it goes back. I knew I couldn't say anything while I was officially your responsibility, but I was in love with you then, and if I hadn't had promises from before you caught me that I needed to keep, I never would've left without telling you."

He was aware he was gaping. Neal's nerves showed more with every passing second, but all he could do was sit there, watching delicate muscles clench, skin tighten, shutters going up around two of the most expressive eyes he'd ever seen.

"Peter, you could say something here."

God, even Caffrey's voice sounded tight, and the man had gone up against the best in far worse situations.

"Would you like an itemized list? Because I could start with we're married," he ignored the flinch, "and move right through to you thought this was a secret? and what took you so goddamn long, you idiot?"

Perfect - he'd shocked Neal. He took advantage of it to haul the other man into a full-body hug, accepting absolutely no resistance as he wrapped them as tightly together as he could manage. Not that there was any resistance; wherever Caffrey'd gone, he'd put on a little extra muscle, and when he responded it was with a desperation that could've surprised them both. Not wanting to think out the whys and wherefores of that, Peter tilted their heads together.

Mouths a hairsbreadth apart, neither of them hesitated. The kiss was heat and passion, years worth of longing cresting over them in a wave. Neal's hands were in his hair. He could feel tendons stretching against his fingers. They spent far, far too long like that, with the rest of the world unimportant, before the need to breathe more than wisps of air forced them apart.

"Oh thank God," Neal whispered, and he chuckled.

"Idiot. You think I spent four years with you and didn't learn to love you, too?"

"I didn't want to assume." Blue eyes went unusually - honestly - vulnerable. "Not with something this important."

"Idiot," Peter said again, fondly. A little awkward, he led the way to the couch, putting them face-to-face. He hadn't meant for them to touch, but their knees did. "Okay. So, what was supposed to follow that?"

Neal made a nonverbal suggestion. Peter blushed.

"Not until El's up, she'll want to know you're back."

"Spoilsport."

"Neal..."

"Alright, alright! It's... Well, maybe it's better to just show you; it's the kind of thing that blows perspective out of the water. Here, take my wrist, try to find my pulse."

"Your pulse? Is this some kind of new trick?"

Burke frowned. True, first aid wasn't his favourite part of the job, but he practiced it, so he shouldn't have had trouble finding the pulse of a healthy, adult man. Neither the second finger position, nor the third, yielded results, and he was about to demand answers when Neal laid his spare hand over his.

"You're not going to find it." Well, that made no sense whatsoever. "I'm dead, Peter."

"No, you're not. I know what corpses look like; you're not a corpse."

"Yeah, not so much. But I have no pulse, I can hold my breath indefinitely, and if you put me in an MRI, I have no neural activity."

"That's impossible."

Neal shrugged.

"More things in heaven and earth. Including, it seems, vampires."

"Vampires. As in, bloodsucking, no crosses or sunlight, Count Dracula, vampires?"

"Essentially, yes."

That left a lot unaccounted for.

"Essentially yes?"

"Turns out the crosses repelling vampires thing is a total myth, and I'm working on the sun thing." He paused, blue eyes flicking to Peter's throat and back almost too quickly to be observed. Peter had the feeling that if he'd wanted to, Neal could have made that actually too quickly to be observed. "I do drink blood, though."

He swallowed.

"Great. I'll know who to look for if the Red Cross is robbed."

"Oh, I prefer my blood fresh," Neal purred. "After all, stale food... That's never been my style."

He leaned in, smile growing ever sharper. Peter's breath quickened again, inhumanly strong hands reaching up to cup his shoulders, gradually drawing his dressing gown away from his neck. They could've kissed, slow and deliberately obscene, eyes half closed with desire. Lips brushed, but it was a tease; Neal bent to Peter's throat and licked it, and the older man found himself pressing closer.

"Am I going to like this?" he asked, aiming for suspicious and coming out dizzy.

"Trust me," Neal murmured. "You're going to love it."