Chasing Clouds

"Have you ever hoped for something? And held out for it against all the odds? Until everything you did was ridiculous?"

- Ali Shaw, The Girl With Glass Feet


SUMMARY: Peter knew Diana probably thought he was in shock. And maybe he was. But not for the reasons she thought. The immediate aftermath of "Judgment Day."

There were standard protocols to be followed when pursuing a fleeing felon, and Peter Burke, veteran FBI agent, knew them well—thanks to notorious former (no, make that current, he thought grimly) fugitive extraordinaire Neal Caffrey. So he set the process in motion, as he must, doing what any agent seeking to capture a wanted fugitive was expected to do.

Given the circumstances, he doubted that he'd be in charge of this search for long, but until he was removed from it, he had a job to do. It was bad enough that he'd signaled Neal to go. It would make it worse if Peter dragged his feet now.

He was going to receive enough scrutiny as it was.

So Peter followed procedure, but mechanically, without conscious thought. He'd sent Diana back to the office so that she and Jones could oversee that part of the manhunt, organizing the division of tasks among the White Collar agents. They would examine any trail Neal might have left, looking for clues as to where he might have gone.

Earlier today, Neal had been one of the team, someone they'd joked with, drunk coffee with, solved cases with. Now he was no longer colleague, but prey. They would hunt him, in collaboration with the marshals' service, as they would any escaped criminal. They'd start by scouring his desk, computer, credit cards, bank accounts, and phone records—all the traces of his life, now abandoned.

Not that Peter expected them to find anything. Ironically, this escape had been instigated not by Neal, but by Peter himself. There would be no Google searches on Neal's desktop or laptop for countries that lacked extradition treaties with the US, no evidence of forged passports, no travel plans to discover. Neal was too smart for that, in any event.

No, the groundwork for this escape would have been done much earlier, probably by Mozzie, and it wouldn't be traceable. Peter found that oddly comforting, even as he knew that, as an FBI agent, he shouldn't.

Then again, as an FBI agent, he shouldn't have signaled Neal to run, either.

It was a bizarre new reality—Neal was on the run and Peter was okay with it. Adjusting to that was going to take some time. Truth to tell, maybe no amount of time would suffice. Somewhere along the way, he'd crossed a line, but like the frog slowly boiling in the pot, he wasn't sure exactly when it had happened.

That was Neal for you.

Peter didn't think he'd changed in any fundamental way. He preferred to think it was just a matter of his belief, of his faith in Neal, coloring his perspective.

Of course someone else—Kramer—would tell him that was utter BS.

Are you handling him? Or becoming him?

Peter didn't want to believe that was true. And yet he'd extended Neal's radius on the basis of nothing more than an urgent phone call from the man, so that he could access stolen property. He'd told Neal to run. Were those things that FBI agents did?

No. No, they weren't.

So, okay, he had changed. But, Peter argued with himself, wasn't the compromise worth it? To save Neal, who had shown himself worthy of the risk. Was that the price that had to be paid so that Neal could change—that Peter had to change, too? Was it too high a price to pay?

Peter didn't think so. He'd already answered that question—in large ways and small—many times since he'd taken charge of Neal. Today wasn't a dramatic shift; it was more of . . . an exclamation point—on a story that Peter been writing for a long time.

And it was a story whose plot made sense to Peter, and one he wasn't ashamed to have co-authored—along with Neal, of course.

He thought back to those first moments after Diana had burst into the hearing room. When the committee members were out of earshot, she had exploded with fury. Her anger was raw, visceral, and a little frightening, though hardly unexpected; he knew it was as much on his own behalf as anything. Peter had let it wash over him and around him, without commiseration or comment at first. He felt as if he were watching from afar, not personally affected. Peter knew Diana probably thought he was in shock. And maybe he was.

But not for the reasons she thought.

Diana had filled him in briefly. The tracking data showed that Neal had gone to June's, cut his anklet, and left almost immediately, with no apparent hesitation and no detours. A quick check of his cell phone records showed no unusual calls or texts in the past few hours. Makes sense, he thought. Neal had likely been using a burner phone that day—handy for situations like this—so that his communications couldn't be traced. No doubt he had several burner phones, and he would . . . .

"Why the hell would he do this now?" she'd burst out.

Peter could have said, I guess he thought the board was going to rule against him.

Or, Maybe he was conning us the whole time.

But those would be lies and something in him rebelled against telling them. Diana deserved—well, not the truth, he couldn't put her in that position—but something better than blatant lies.

He hesitated, looked away. "You know Neal. I'm sure he had his reasons." A carefully crafted answer, worthy of Neal himself.

And likely a giant red flag to someone as sharp as Diana, he realized belatedly. He could feel her gaze on him and forced himself to meet her eyes, schooling his expression but realizing as he did so that he had no idea what his face must look like.

You should be angrier, he thought. Like Diana is. Go back in time. Channel the fury you felt when Elizabeth was taken, when you slammed Neal against the wall and wished you could do something much, much worse. Remember the betrayal you felt when Neal cut his anklet on that very first case, when you thought he'd just been using you.

But all of those things felt like a lifetime ago, like they'd happened to a different person. And, God, maybe they had.

The only emotion he could muster up right now was anger at Kramer—and at himself. He was struggling for something to say when she cut in.

"Reasons," Diana spat. "Yeah, like Kramer, for one."

He looked at her, then, and she sighed. "Look, we caught Caffrey before, boss. We—we'll do it again."

Did she really think that Peter wanted to catch him? He couldn't tell.

"Your confidence is reassuring," Peter said, finding his voice at last. "But it just might be me calling you 'boss' before it's all over."

Her look was almost venomous. "That's not funny."

He let out a bitter laugh. "Wasn't meant to be."

Diana shook her head in disgust, and Peter felt a flash of pride. Because her loyalty was boundless, she didn't want to accept the reality of how damaging this whole fiasco would be to Peter. He'd just spent the last two years cultivating Neal as a CI, and the last few minutes advocating fervently for the man's trustworthiness—and then Neal had cut and run.

It was hardly a recipe for career advancement at the FBI—not that Peter was concerned about that. He was more worried about Diana at the moment. It was suddenly very important that no one else suffer any more consequences of this disaster. He'd do whatever he had to do to make sure Diana was protected. Step one of that process was distancing.

"Are you—do you need anything?" she'd asked him. He eyed her warily. Her regard of him had become unreadable, her initial anger gone. He couldn't help wondering again how much she knew—or suspected—about what had happened.

Diana had been the only one (other than Sara) to guess correctly that Neal was sitting on the treasure—and more importantly, that Peter knew it. She was the one who'd first realized what Kramer was up to; Peter still felt embarrassed at how blindsided he'd been by that. And it was her stunt driving that had enabled Neal to get to Sterling Bosch in time for Peter and Sara's last-minute plan to work.

So, yes, Diana knew enough—and was plenty smart enough—to put the rest of the pieces together. Compounding that was the fact that she'd risked her career, too.

She was still watching him. The whole conversation was awkward; the thought of Diana's being dragged down with him took it from awkward to unbearable.

"No, I'm fine," he said, striving to sound like he always did—and probably not convincing either of them. "I just need you to run things back at the office."

He'd sent her away then, probably more abruptly than he should have, given that he knew she was worried about him. But Peter didn't want her anywhere near him right now. He feared she was too close to guessing what, for her own protection, she could never know.

While she led the team to oversee the laborious process of combing through every aspect of Neal's life, Peter's job as the agent in charge was to go to his fugitive's last known location.

To June's.

"One day, I learned that a single look can change everything. . . . It baffles me that a simple alignment of eyes can cause so much devastation."

-Ali Shaw, The Girl With Glass Feet

Peter didn't even really remember driving there, didn't register the turns he took or the lights he stopped at. He just went on auto-pilot and eventually there he was, in front of June's house. The house Neal had sweet-talked himself into not 24 hours out of prison, like something out of a goddamned fairy tale. The house that had become a home to Neal.

Peter wondered how many real, honest-to-goodness homes Neal had ever had in his life. What a bitter irony that he'd been forced to give it up—just after realizing it was the one thing he'd really wanted.

This house was also the place where, thanks to Neal's inspiration and June's generosity, Peter had celebrated his tenth anniversary with Elizabeth. Where Peter had first met Mozzie, and had a beer with him. Mozzie who, he had no doubt, was with Neal right now—wherever that was. He hoped Mozzie was with Neal, anyway. His heart twisted a little at the idea of his partner being alone. Neal, who finally and amazingly, had wanted only to stay.

Part of him still couldn't believe he'd told Neal to go. And that Neal had done it. That was, perhaps, even more shocking. Neal liked to go off-script. When you told Neal what to do, he was as likely to do the opposite, just because he could. Because he thought he was smarter than you—and most of the time, he was.

But this time, Neal hadn't been contrary—or bent on showing his brilliance. He'd trusted that Peter knew more than he did. He'd done what he was told, without hesitation. He'd trusted Peter.

Like you trusted Kramer, Peter thought to himself, swallowing hard against the bile in his throat.

Yeah, that had worked out well.

He lifted his hand to ring the bell, but June's housekeeper was there to let him in before he'd moved. He suddenly realized he had no idea how long he'd been standing there, thinking. Remembering.

Jesus, Peter, get yourself together.

June was in the living room. When their eyes met, her expression was guarded, but then changed to something approaching pity. Peter had always thought of himself as reasonably inscrutable. But he had the distinct, unsettling feeling right now that his face was an open book and June was speed-reading every word. That she knew everything. Well, almost everything.

He'd thought Diana was the only one who could possibly know what had happened—what he'd done. Until he saw June.

He looked at her, feeling swallowed up by the hollowness inside, the uncertainty that was so antithetical to who Peter Burke normally was. But who was he now, anyway? Peter Burke didn't aid and abet the escape of convicted felons. Yet he had done just that, so who was he now, really?

"Are you all right?" June's words brought him out of his reverie.

He shook his head and managed a small, harsh laugh. "I've been better," he said, surprised at how rough his own voice sounded. He had to ask. "Do you - can you tell me anything?"

She shook her head. "He left without a word to anyone. Of course, he wouldn't . . . ." her voice trailed off, sounding sad.

Peter nodded wordlessly. She was right; Neal would never involve June in something like this. He cared about her too much.

"I'd offer you a Scotch—you look like you could use it—but your colleagues are upstairs," June said quietly.

Of course. The marshals were up there already, probably tearing the place apart, looking for clues as to where Neal had gone.

And he had to join them. He had to be Special Agent Peter Burke, not Neal Caffrey's partner, not Neal Caffrey's friend.

He had to be that guy again.

The only one who ever caught him.

Part Two (conclusion) to follow . . . .