1. They were riding quietly in the backseat, and Neal Caffrey, captured suspect, hasn't slipped his cuffs off, though Peter knows from all his research that he easily could.

"This is a big deal for you, right?" Neal Caffrey said after a long silence, flashing a grin at Peter. "To meet me?"

Peter stared at him for a second. The kid played it cool no matter what happened, but Peter knew that already.

"To catch you," Peter pointed out, but not with any malice.

Caffrey just kept smiling. "It's going to mean a lot, right? For your career?"

The corners of Peter's lips almost turned up. The kid wanted to be flattered. Even while being arrested, he practically asked for applause.

Peter could afford to be a gracious winner. He nodded, said, "They say I'm a shoo-in to lead New York's White Collar Crimes."

Neal nodded, satisfied that his capture would make an appropriately grand impact.

Another silence, and then Peter said, "You know, you could have done anything." He wanted to bite his tongue, he knew that this was a bad day for Caffrey and his job was to bring the kid in, not to make a bad day worse. But he had to say it.

He didn't do well staying silent about things he didn't understand.

And Neal Caffrey, more than anyone Peter had ever known, could have done anything with his life. He didn't have to end up in the back of this car.

But Neal just smiled, as if he were amused by his last chance (Peter assumed it was the last) to antagonize the Fed Neal had frustrated for so long. He answered, "Of course I know. That's why I chose to do everything."

Peter paused. He was tempted to tell Neal to knock it off. To show remorse and get a lighter deal. But he realized he was about to give Neal Caffrey tips on how to charm someone and he almost laughed.

"What's so funny?" Neal asked, not offended but genuinely curious.

"... I'm just surprised it ends like this. That's all," Peter said.

"Anti-climactic?" Neal asked, this time a little closer to offended.

"Not even a little. I was just thinking that tonight will be the first time in months I've had a sit-down dinner with my wife."

Neal nodded, like he thought that sounded nice. Like they were just pals discussing their evening plans. "You should bring home a nice dessert, Peter," Neal said, and Peter didn't even bristle at the familiarity.

"I was going to pick up a bouquet at the newsstand, " Peter said.

Neal made a face. After years of near misses, taunts, and finally, an arrest, Peter realized this was the first time that Neal had looked at him with utter disdain.

"Not good?" Peter asked.

"Not good," Neal said. "Flower arrangements come from florists, or you can make one yourself. Otherwise, bring a dessert."

"I like apple pie."

"Chocolate mousse is better. Or tiramisu."

"Tiramisu's good. She's making Italian. Hey, why do you just assume I'm not the one doing the cooking?"

"I know all your favorite foods, Agent Burke, and no offense, but you don't strike me as a gourmand."

"That's true. But I'll have you know that on occasion, I make an excellent pot roast."

Neal smiled just a bit. "I stand corrected."

They were silent again.

As they neared the Federal building, Peter looked over to Neal. "Caffrey, I need you to do me a favor."

Neal looked amused. Even Peter realized it was a strange thing to say on a day like that.

"Okay," Neal answered slowly, more a question than a promise.

"You'll be in a maximum security federal facility, designated as high risk for escape. I'm making the arrangements myself, and they'll have to agree to special rules. No cell mates, and extremely limited and supervised contact with the general population. I know you're probably thinking that you need to interact with people, to get privileges or information or maybe even to try and escape. But I'm telling you, it's better for you if you just stick to the rules. Do the time, get out, and don't try to convince the warden that you don't need special watching."

Peter leaned in as he spoke, and he seemed almost like he was pleading despite the tone that was, very clearly, some kind of lecture. But Neal couldn't help be amused by the underlying request.

"Believe me, Peter, I have no desire to be with the general population," he said, and for just a flash, a second, Peter thought he saw a wave of fear crack through.

But then he was all smiles again.

Part of him just wanted to shake Caffrey, to ask him why someone so smart didn't realize that he should have been scared all along, that he should have thought of this day when he was planning his heists and cons.

He just smiled at Caffrey, nodded, mumbled, "Thanks."

Caffrey turned and stared out the window. He seemed to want to see as much as he could, swallow the images of sunlight flickering across green grass and trees.

Peter didn't blame him. The kid knew he wasn't going to have that where he was almost certainly going.

"I can crack a window," Peter said. Not open one all the way, since the last thing he wanted was for Caffrey to bust himself open on asphalt trying to jump out a car window. But he could crack it.

Neal nodded his gratitude and Peter tapped at the separator, instructed his team member to lower the back windows an inch.

Neal closed his eyes for a second as the wind blew through his hair.

His ridiculous hair.

Peter was sure, in that moment, that Neal was pretending to be somewhere else. Pretending that nothing that day had really happened. And he thought, maybe, when Neal was done with his term, he might think about this day, might decide that there were so much better things he could do than lie and cheat and steal. If he could come out of his term with less swooning romanticism but still the same resilient creative Caffrey, he could have a real chance. If he could just start to live in the real world the way everybody else did.

For some reason, Peter desperately wanted to believe this. That catching Neal would be the start to something new. Hard and awful but new. The start of a real life for the kid.

But Neal opened his eyes then and said, "I can tell you're going to miss me, Peter."

He smiled that horrible infectious smile.

Peter smiled back. "We'll see, Neal."

"Hey, you finally called me by my first name," he answered victoriously.

Peter nodded, let it pass. Neal had won every game they had played for the past several years, but today Peter had won, and that was all it took. He could afford to let Neal enjoy his consolation prize.

-

2. Neal was a natural at white collar work, just as Peter expected.

He was also a natural at getting himself into dangerous spaces. Also just as Peter expected, though he tried all he could to prevent it.

Peter was worried that having guns waved at him constantly would take its toll. Neal got drawn on so much more than Peter did, and even though it was Neal's fault, it was still Peter's responsibility.

But Neal seemed to take it just fine. As if con artistry had prepared him well to suffer constant threats to his safety.

This was before Kate, of course.

But for the first several months of his 'consultant' work, Neal seemed to breeze through the danger, never letting it affect him. Peter knew - could tell when others couldn't - that some of this was just veneer.

Neal was really good at veneer.

But some of it was just that Neal thought it was okay. Didn't have a problem with it.

Didn't take time off, didn't get shy about jumping in the fray on the next case, didn't seem to get too upset about it even.

So Peter was surprised that the first time he found Neal badly hiding the fact that his red puffy eyes meant he had been crying, it was while looking into a simple case of phone fraud involving some senior citizens.

They suspected the culprits were using employees of nursing homes to get information, and the team was looking through personnel files in the office of a nursing home in Queens. After Neal had sighed a little too loudly for Peter to stand, he had sent Neal to spend time with one of the victims, maybe use his charm to help her feel a little better.

It turned out she had spent the entire time crying with Neal about how the whole thing made her feel helpless and violated and just made her lose faith in humanity. How after all the things she had lost in her life, she never expected to add her life savings to the list, and now she might get kicked out and she had nowhere to go. And she had always lived life hoping for the best, but this was just the straw that broke that proverbial camel's back, and now she knew that it had all been for nothing, that all her suffering her whole life had been for nothing.

Peter handed him a file to look through and politely looked away as Neal rubbed his eyes. Neal didn't complain about the boredom the rest of that day, and Peter didn't ask him to talk to anyone else.

"I only stole from people who had a lot," Neal said, apropos of nothing, in the middle of their research. Diana had gone for coffee, so it was just them in the room.

"I know who you stole from, Neal," Peter said, gently. It was true. Scamming people so they went into poverty was nowhere to be found on the long, long list of crimes Neal Caffrey had allegedly committed.

"You think it's the same," Neal said, looking at Peter, trying to discern something. Whether Peter really believed that what Neal did was different - a different category of action entirely - than what these scammers were doing to these people.

"I think... it's not the same. But yes, I think they're both crimes."

Neal nodded. His expression didn't give much away.

"So it's not fun seeing this side of a con, is it?" Peter asked.

Silent flipping through files.

"Is it, Neal?" Peter repeated. He kind of hated the way he sounded just then, like a scold or a bully or like some caricature of a prim judgmental person clucking his tongue at the kids today. But something about Neal just made it hard to stop himself when he felt like this. Like he could make Neal into something else if he just applied enough pressure, if he kept up the pursuit until something cracked.

Neal stopped. Peter wondered what Neal was about to say, what was flickering behind the sharp movements of his eyes.

But then Neal looked up from the file full of documents and said, "I know who's selling the information."

-

3. They were chasing a young thief. A kid, only twenty-two, most likely. And while he couldn't forge or grift or lead a team, as a thief he was almost as good as Caffrey had been in his day.

Maybe even better.

The fact had not gone unnoticed by Neal.

Peter had to stop himself from chuckling as he saw the intensity of Neal's work, the fire it had lit as Neal tried to figure out the brilliant art thief's next move. It was a pleasure to see Neal like this, Peter had to admit. He wondered if this is what is was like to live with Neal while he was on the run all those years ago, if his own pursuit had garnered an equal - or greater - resurgence in Neal's competitive streak. He almost wished he could have seen Neal in action then, seen that drive - that flame - keep Neal's body humming and eager, seen his eyes jump with sudden inspiration; neither of them ever mentioned it, but it wasn't until Peter started chasing him that the creativity of Neal's criminal work went from excellent to legendary.

The kid's name was Alec Rennie, and the only times he hadn't successfully completed a heist was when someone walked in on him and he ran away. He never fought, never threatened anyone, just ran away. Fast. And on those few occassions when a guard found him, he surrended without resistance and just picked the locks when the guards turned their backs. The closest law enforcement had come to capturing him, and the only time they had gotten fingerprints, was during a bold (stupidly dangerous) theft in broad daylight at a public and popular museum. On his way out, he had just blended in with the crowd, but then Alec had found a 7-year-old boy crying alone outside the museum he had just hit. The boy had gotten separated from his father when the alarms went off, and so Alec hid his backpack (with the vase inside) under a bush and helped the boy look for his dad. They finally found the father, who started to thank Alec profusely after he scooped up his little son, but then stood there confused as Alec ran the other direction faster than he had ever seen someone run. Security had found the backpack, and Alec wasn't sticking around to wait for the security cameras outside to show who had put it there.

Peter had told the story to his office as part of the briefing about the case. His team sat there, amused and confused in equal parts. Criminals - people who just take whatever they want to take - don't going around risking themselves for strangers.

Of course Neal just shook his head and said, "Showing off what you can do is great, but he should have hit the museum during the first morning lull."

Naturally the team starting calling Alec "Neal junior." They just didn't say it in front of Neal, and the one time they said it in front of Peter, they got a dirty look that made it clear it wasn't to be repeated.

But both Neal and Peter saw it. Neither of them brought it up, however, and Peter just hung back and observed, as Neal threw himself into catching Alec. Maybe to prove that he was better, smarter, than this young upstart. Maybe not.

The night Peter found Alec Rennie, the team had gotten a lead. Alec was on the docks, about to lift a Matisse from a private yacht, and they were searching everywhere until Peter realized that Alec would be smart - and stupid - enough to try to use the customs checkpoint to access the yacht, rather than avoiding it due to its many armed personnel. He let his teams continue their orderly sweep but went himself to check out the checkin area.

When he turned the corner, gun raised just in case, into an empty processing unit, that's when he saw him.

Neal.

Who wasn't supposed to be here. Who was supposed to have stayed in the van.

Like that ever works out.

But Neal didn't look like he was in any danger. His back was turned, but Peter could see Alec's expression as he listened to Neal talk. It looked like Neal was going to convince the kid to just turn himself in. Which would really work out better for everyone - Peter really didn't want to have to throw the kid on the ground. Or worse.

Peter stepped back into the shadow and let Neal do the talking.

But as he listened, he realized that it wasn't what he suspected.

Neal was convincing him to run. He was trying to convince Alec to take a ticket to Europe and retire there.

Peter couldn't believe what he was hearing. He was hurt. He was pissed.

But after thinking about it a minute, he wasn't that surprised.

He was surprised to hear what Neal said to Alec next.

"If anyone knows why you do it, it's me, Alec."

"Hey, the great Neal Caffrey chasing me - it's been an honor," the kid said in his typical smartass manner. "Tell me the truth - I'm, like, the biggest challenge the Feds have had since they chased you. Right? Am I right?"

"I'm familiar with it, okay - the thrill - but I know that you know that there are agents all over the place. And I know that as much fun as this has been, you're not having fun right now. And it's not going to be fun when they take you in, or when they read all the things they're going to punish you for, or when you have to listen to all the people you stole from talk about how much it hurt. And in jail - definitely not a good place for people who don't like violence."

"I can take care of myself!"

"Or, you can promise me you'll stop stealing, and I'll help you figure out how to get out of here without being caught."

"Why would you do that for me?"

"Listen, it's not all it's cracked up to be. It doesn't last. You - you make enemies, you never get to have anything you can really hold on to. You lose people. And there is always someone smarter than you, no matter how good you are. Just quit while you're ahead, Alec. Do something else. Retire now and this will be an adventure you went on. Keep doing it and it'll be all you have."

Alec stood there, trying to decide if he should trust Neal.

"Please, Alec," Neal said, and the desperation in his voice made Peter's stomach curl.

"I'll think about it," Alec said. "Okay?"

"Alec, listen to me-"

"I can't. Neal, I - thanks for trying to - I just can't-" Alec said and then Peter heard his steps move away. The kid was fast, faster than Neal even, and Peter didn't think he could catch the kid without firing a shot. He should have called it in, told his teams the last seen location so they could search accordingly. Instead, he just walked off silently, leaving Neal staring at the empty building.

They didn't find him that night, but later they found footage of Alec getting on a freighter headed for Spain. They boarded the ship with Interpol help in port in Spain, but he had apparently seen them coming and jumped off. Or he had gotten off the ship back in New York and had never left.

Peter told Reece that it would be logical to move on to another case.

A week later, Peter was giving Neal a ride to June's.

When Peter stopped the car, Neal turned to him and said, "I know you know what I did."

Peter nodded. He wasn't going to pretend it was okay. "Yup."

"What's going to happen?" Neal asked. Not bothering to justify his actions for once.

Peter paused. "Why did you do it?"

Neal looked the other direction. Out the window, as if all he wanted to do was be somewhere else.

"Have you done this before?" he asked.

Neal turned back around and looked Peter in the eye and answered, "Never."

"Never again, either," Peter said. He didn't bother to hide that weak tinge of anger in the order.

"I promise," he answered, and Peter knew it wasn't a word Neal used lightly.

"You thought he deserved another chance?" Peter said, gentler this time.

Neal nodded and seemed to study Peter's face. Then recognition. "You heard me. On the docks," Neal said, and there was a nervousness there, a raw tension, and Peter wasn't sure if Neal was worried about Peter being angry or about Peter hearing Neal say something that was supposed to be private, just for thieves.

Peter nodded. He had just cut Neal a break he had no business cutting, one that made Peter feel like he was betraying his job for Neal. He didn't really care if Neal felt his privacy was invaded while he was abetting an escape of someone he was supposed to be helping to catch.

Finally, Neal said, "When I said there was always someone smarter out there, I was talking about me. Not you."

"Of course you were," Peter said sarcastically.

Another pause.

"Do you think he listened to you?" Peter asked him. He hoped, for Alec's sake, that he had. "Maybe hearing it from someone like you made a difference."

Neal paused. "No. It didn't make a difference for me when I was young. I can see it in him, he just... loves it too much."

Peter nodded, processing.

"So, someone tried to talk you out of it when you were that age?" Peter asked.

"Younger," Neal said, then added with a grin, "Didn't take."

Peter didn't smile back. "Another thief?"

Neal shrugged.

"Who?"

Neal avoided. Peter's jaw tightened and he said, "Neal, you made a commitment to help catch Alec and you let him walk. Against all my better instincts, I'm letting it go, but I'm not in the mood for a Neal Caffrey mystery. Who tried to help you, and why didn't it work?"

"I told you, when you love something, you don't walk away," Neal said, looking at him, and even though it sounded like the biggest load of bullshit, Peter knew it was probably the exact thing Neal would have told himself when he was younger.

"Why won't you say who it was?" Peter asked, worried for a minute that it might have been Kate. Not that he thought that was likely, but if he was stepping into that minefield he wanted to know it.

"You can't tell anyone," Neal said.

Peter nodded impatiently.

"No," Neal said, "You can't even tell this person that I told you. You can't laugh about it, bring it up, not ever."

"Fine," Peter said, thinking just for a second it might be Alex.

"It was Moz."

No. Not possible. Peter's face said it all.

"I'm serious, Peter. I was nineteen, and Moz was helping - hypothetically - with a project we had going. And it was really late one night, I was at this place, and he tried to say that I might not like living the life. It was really hard, he said, you had to always be smart, and maybe I took too many risks, maybe I was romanticizing the life. He said... that I could charm my way into riches in a lot of ways, and the legal ones are, despite being 'the oligarchy's master plan,' much safer and easier. He said that when you look and act and charm like I can, then even I became part of the conformist masses, it wouldn't actually be that bad for me."

"And you disagreed?"

"I was nineteen. I thought he was calling me a lightweight. Like he didn't take my skills seriously. It... I was mad at him. I accused him of being threatened by me... I said some really mean things to him. And Mozzie doesn't like being yelled at."

Peter nodded, seeing the guilt on Neal's face. Funny the things that brought it out.

Neal continued, "He was really upset that I yelled. I said I was sorry later. I never yelled at him again, and he never tried to get me to go straight again. After a while, he stopped seeing me as a kid and started to think of me as a thief. Like him."

"I... would not expect Mozzie to admit that a law-abiding life is worth the 'cost.' I'm surprised Moz was able to put your interests above his... opinions."

Neal looked at him, annoyed. "Mozzie's a good person, Peter. And he's very self-aware."

"Yeah, that's the first thing I associate with him."

"Peter-"

"Sorry, sorry. Just - I guess, I'm just glad you're not the same kid you were then."

Neal nodded. He didn't seem like he agreed with the assessment.

"Don't do it again, Neal," Peter said one last time. "We do handcuffs, not speeches and advice."

Neal smiled. "Actually, Peter, you usually do both."

Peter gently flicked the brim of Neal's hat. "Go to bed, Neal. Don't be late for the early morning meeting."

Neal grinned and got out of the car. On his way out he tipped his hat at Peter, just a mild nod of thanks.

(end)

Author's Note: This was published originally in Fall 2010 (i.e., before the character of Scott, and before the flashback of the arrest).