A/N: First White Collar story. Reviews, comments and suggestions are very much appreciated.

The story takes place at the beginning of season 4 after Neal comes back to New York. Vague spoilers for the end of season 3.

Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to USA Network. No copyright infringement is intended.

Inner Baggage

Chapter One

Neal was not going to beg. Begging was not dignified.

He looked with some disgust at the alarming pile of files on the conference room table, and then raised his eyes to look at Peter. He would just ask politely, no begging involved.

"Peter, please, this is.." the glare directed at him was as effective as a Stop Sign. Neal respected stop signs, so he shut up for the required three seconds. As soon as the power of the glare faded a bit, he continued "not reasonable, not even human. I have been locked in cold cases hell for more than a month."

The glare was gone and Peter was now wearing a small and clearly insincere smile. They knew one another so well by now, and Neal braced himself because that particular smile never bodes well for him.

"Well" Peter said sweetly, "you stayed in paradise for more than three months. I think you can take hell for a little while."

Ouch! That was a low blow, and they both knew it. Neal was kind of forced into paradise, if such thing was possible. It wasn't his choice. It wasn't his fault, actually it was sort of his fault, but he didn't like to think about that. On the other hand, while he "basked" in paradise, Peter was having a taste of hell here, so Neal couldn't really blame him for running out of patience and out of sympathy. Nonetheless, he still felt a bit hurt. He raised his hands in the universal sign of surrender, and kept his eyes glued to the file he was studying.

He heard Peter sigh and move restlessly around the conference room. "Neal" Peter's tone was not apologetic per say, but close enough. Neal was not exactly sulking, but close enough. They were certainly on familiar ground.

"I told you that I want you in the field." He pointed to the pile of files, "this is not my idea. I don't call the shots." The "anymore" at the end of this sentence was left unsaid. Peter had paid the price for Neal's unscheduled trip to paradise. Actually, Peter was still somehow paying the price.

Now Neal felt guilty as well as miserable. It's a good thing that Neal doesn't usually wallow in guilt or in misery, except in special circumstances. Unfortunately this was one of those special circumstances. He wasn't prone to self doubt either, except in very special circumstances. This whole debacle was certainly qualifying as such. He was starting to question whether he was worth it, worth the trouble Peter has been facing on and off during the last three years, worth the trouble with Keller, worth the blow to his reputation when Neal cut the anklet and left New York.

All through his life, Neal has made sure that he always had something to offer, tailoring that "something" to suit his friends as well as his victims ..er.. his marks (Mozzie would have a field day if he heard Neal referring to his "marks" as "victims"!) Neal always made sure that he was worth it, whatever that "it" was. But, not this time. Logically, he was not worth that much trouble, and for once, he acknowledged it. He had no idea why he was still here, why he was still part of Peter's personal and professional life. He had no more cards to play and no more moves to make. All his charm and all his talents were not worth the price that Peter, as well as Elizabeth, had paid. He was in their debt, and he had nothing to offer in return. He should be used to that. After all, he has made a career of taking what was not his to take, without feeling any remorse. Not this time. On top of that, he didn't exactly know what to think of his con artist "career", was he an ex con, a semi-reformed con, a confused con? He had doubts that if he did in fact engage in a real con - not the FBI sanctioned ones - that he would hesitate at a crucial point. He still had the skills, still had the "devil may care" attitude, and still had the wild imagination and adaptability. But he was lacking something that he was unable to define. Perhaps he was lacking the ability to do wrong and walk away smiling.

Peter was looking at him strangely, and he realized that his eyes must have reflected some of those thoughts. Now Peter's eyes held a question that Neal was not yet able to answer. He simply nodded, "I know, Peter." He forced a smile, not the con-man smile but the one that is only meant to comfort a friend. "I guess a small stint in hell is good for the soul."

Peter smiled back, and this time it was his genuine half smile. "You're mixing your metaphors, but expecting Neal Caffrey to admit that confession is good for the soul is really not fair." His smile turned a bit evil. "Now be a good boy and dig some more into those files, there is another stack waiting for you."

Neal just thumped his head on the desk!

One month later

Surveillance Van

"No, no, no.. You wanted this-remember? You literally begged me to get out of the office. You said – and I quote..

"No need to quote, Peter. And I did NOT beg. I just asked politely."

"All right, Mr. Manners. Sit. Watch. No complaints and no fidgeting."

Neal sat. He didn't try to glare at Peter because he suspected that Peter found his glare amusing, like a tiny Chihuahua barking furiously at a German Shepherd.

He had been desperate to get out of the office, and jumped at the chance to take a shift in the surveillance van. He had just forgotten how tedious it could be. Working cold cases was for the most part a solitary exercise, and left him enough time to brood. He really needed to overcome the self doubt that had been plaguing him since he came back. He may or may not be ready to leave his conman ways behind, but not his self-confidence, and not his self-esteem, even if they were based on a false or wrong basis. They were all he had. Well, those and his good looks.

He sighed as he turned his attention back to the incessant chatter coming through the headphones. They were pursuing a diamond smuggler, who was also suspected of other shady deals. In Neal's opinion, the guy didn't merit such attention or continuous surveillance. In Peter's opinion, Neal was just bored. Peter was probably right.

An hour went by as they continued to listen to the banal conversations and everyday sounds coming from the suspect's house. Their suspect was either a health food nut, overly fond of using his blender, or was preparing baby food for dozens of babies. The sound of the blender, combined with the heat in the van, was almost enough to lull them into a semi-awake state.

Neal thought that fidgeting was probably better than falling asleep, so he made to stand up, even as Peter, who was subtly trying to shake himself awake, bent over the snack bag, to rummage for something edible.

The sudden, extremely loud screeching noise startled them both. That definitely was not the blender! A disturbing thud made the van shook alarmingly. Unbelievable as it was, something was pushing the van forward until it collided with some unseen object with jarring force.

The impact was strong enough to send Peter tumbling to the floor, while Neal, unable to stop his momentum, went crashing through the equipment and into the metal frame, head first. Before blacking out, he fleetingly thought that Peter was strangely capable of crashing a car even when he was not driving!

TBC