A/N: Special thanks to Ali, Mary & Michael for beta help. Thank you to my wonderful friends and readers who spur me on to write White Collar fanfic! My gratitude goes out to Jeff Eastin & WC staff writers who continue to provide us a quality show and the beloved characters we regard as family.
Elizabeth was in the kitchen when she heard three loud knocks on the Burkes' front door. Satchmo, tail wagging, raced ahead to welcome the visitor.
"I'll answer that, Hon," she called out to her husband seated on the living room couch. Peter was busy riffling through office paperwork, strewn carelessly on the coffee table.
"I can't find the documents Neal dropped off yesterday," said Peter, his voice edged with exasperation. "It doesn't help that my hands are still pretty damn useless! Why do I even bother to go see that doctor? All he does is repeat his mantra … give it─"
He was quickly interrupted by El. "Time, Agent Burke. Yes, I know Peter; let me get the door."
Elizabeth opened the door to greet Special Agent Berrigan. Diana was standing there, portfolio stuffed with government case files, balanced awkwardly in her arms.
"Come in, Diana. My goodness! Did you empty out Peter's file cabinet?"
Diana laughed as she greeted Elizabeth and smiled down at the Burkes' dog.
"I wanted to make sure we didn't miss anything on David Lowden," she replied, walking toward the living room. "Hi Boss. I collected all the data you requested and then some." There was a slight hesitation before she added, "How're you feeling?"
"Fine!" he answered stiffly.
Diana and El traded glances.
"Careful," said Elizabeth. "Peter's upset he's still on medical leave."
Peter grimaced as he rose from the couch. "I'm upset the doctor didn't okay my return to limited duty status. I have to wait until at least Tuesday; it's ridiculous. I can as easily work at my office desk as I can here at home. I'd be there right now except Hughes refused my request."
Sitting back down, he gestured to the couch. "Please put that right here." Turning to face her, his voice softened as he bit back his irritation. "I'm sorry … have a seat, Diana. And thanks for dropping off all this paperwork."
Diana heard the sincerity in his voice; she knew he was struggling with being sidelined. Burke didn't suffer absence from duty gracefully. The younger agent knew how anxious he was to return to the unit and prepare prosecution against the Lowden brothers.
Ordered home to recuperate from his kidnapping, her boss had been staying in the loop, on the phone constantly with his staff, overseeing the operation. Peter had spent the last two days researching Stanley Lowden's Astoria warehouse assets, attempting to tie in specific merchandise as items originally purchased by his brother, David.
Within minutes of Diana's arrival, Peter's cell rang. Fumbling with pulling the device out of his pocket, growling with frustration, he looked at the faceplate and excused himself for a moment to take the call. As he left the room, Diana quickly turned to Elizabeth.
"Can you tell me about Peter's condition? What'd the doctor say? Hughes hasn't shared much with the office staff."
"You're worried about Peter."
"Yes," Diana admitted, her brow furrowed with concern. "We really thought he'd be back to work by now. Is there anything you can tell us that we should know?"
Elizabeth nodded. Choosing her words carefully, she lowered her voice and related a few facts her husband would be loath to share.
"The neurologist said Peter suffered radial nerve damage from the handcuffs; the pressure against the bone and lack of circulation starved the nerves of oxygen. If only the insulation around the nerves are damaged, his symptoms can clear up in a few weeks. If the nerve itself is bruised … well, it will die off and have to re-grow before he'll have normal sensation back." She paused. "That could take months."
"It could have been so much worse," rationalized El. "Peter knows that. If other major nerves had been damaged, it might have been permanently disabling. He would have lost control of the muscles in his hands." She smiled softly. "I'm so relieved he's safe. I just want to keep him here by my side. I know it's selfish─"
"No, it's not," Diana interrupted. "I understand how it was for you. It's hard to admit but we were all fearing the worst."
"Peter told me Stanley Lowden was apprehended yesterday. He's pretty anxious to question that man about his brother's complicity."
"Well … armed with some of the information Peter's been providing us, Hughes sent a team over to the prison to re-interrogate David. We're waiting for word─"
"Just heard from Jones," said Peter as he hurried back to the room. "We got them … we got them both! Davey Lowden copped a deal. And he didn't feel the need to protect his older brother Stanley, not when he was facing an additional prison sentence that could have earned him one of the longest in white collar crime."
His excited smile gave Elizabeth's heart a leap. She hadn't seen Peter look so animated in days.
"What tipped the scale?" asked Diana.
"Combination of things," grinned Peter, his exuberance increasing. "Seems identity theft and bribery charges were significantly threat-worthy once David was confronted with an additional charge of kidnapping and attempted murder of a federal officer. One of his inside accomplices … of which there were many, broke first. When we implicated Davey, several of the co-conspirators started singing."
Elizabeth walked over to her husband, placing her hand on Peter's elbow as if to personally shield him from harm, a reminder to herself he was physically safe at home. They smiled at each other as she gently squeezed his arm. He responded by reaching out to his wife's head, using numb fingers to gently smooth back a stray lock of her hair.
"Get this," Peter continued. "A few weeks ago, when we got wind of what David might be up to, prison officials transferred him to a special lock-down area to keep him away from the phones. One of his accomplices told us Lowden paid a $15,000 bribe to use a correctional officer's cell phone!" Peter shook his head in amazement. "Seems he's so brazen and addicted to telemarketing fraud and ready cash, he couldn't stop, even knowing we were hot on his trail."
"How big is the conspiracy ring?"asked El.
"About seven to eight and still counting," answered a grim-faced Diana. "I'll head back to the office and see where we stand on filing charges." She headed to the door and paused. "Is the Labor Day cookout still on for the weekend?"
"You bet. Although this year … I guess I'll take some help working the grill. Neal told me Mozzie volunteered; I appreciate the offer but there's no way, I'm letting him near any flames," Peter chuckled. "Tell Jones he's my man."
"Okay Boss."Diana turned briefly with a smile, giving a quick wave. "Bye, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth moved closer, embracing Peter in a hug.
"Congratulations, honey. I know how much you wanted to crack this case."
As she thought of his injuries, she stroked his hands. "Everything will work out," she added.
Peter understood. Kissing the top of her head, he kept his voice low. "I'm okay, El. Really. Forgive me for being such a bear lately. Whether I'm back on full active duty within weeks … or even months … I'm a very lucky man."
"Yes, Peter Burke. You are!"
"Okay Neal. Let's set up the next DVD."
Neal felt a chill run through his body.
Mozzie was seated on Neal's couch, glass goblet in hand, sneakered feet propped on the coffee table. Luxuriating in the comfort of his friend's apartment, he was enjoying Neal's undivided attention. Both men sat facing the television, surrounded by several bottles of wine and mounds of comfort food generously supplied by June.
Hiding his apprehension, Neal stood up, slowly moving to the television set, resigned to inserting yet another Tiles of Fire sequel into the Sony player.
"Don't you want to take a break, Moz? We're already seen four movies. Let's stretch our legs," suggested his weary and desperate friend. "We could even get back to our game of chess."
"Not yet," replied Mozzie. "I want to see the Tiles of Fire V: Vengeance Unleashed. Then we can discuss which sequel is the best and which one failed to live up to its visionary promise."
I don't think I can take much more, thought Neal as he faked a smile and appeared casual about what he had just been told.
"Well … want me to run out for some more wine, while you watch the next one?" Maybe I could hide out at the Burkes' house?
"Nope." Mozzie smacked his lips. "What other goodies should I try next?"
Neal didn't reply. In his mind, he evaluated his predicament.
The old guilt game! My preoccupation with BQRA allowed me to become inattentive and easily distracted; I should have known the location of that warehouse. But really … I think I've paid my dues. Even June stopped watching these dreadful B-movies two hours ago … I'm starting to think Peter had an easier time, cuffed in the warehouse.
"Hey Neal. I really appreciate you offering to spend the afternoon with me. How come the suits in Queens are letting you have time off? They didn't even put up a fuss about the Burkes' barbeque."
"They're thrilled we've gotten a break in the Costa case; the office is close to wrapping it up. I only have a few more days with them." He watched with amusement as his friend arranged more of June's appetizers on a plate. "And … Agent Bronson's feeling bad about Peter's situation. He told me to check in with the Manhattan office this weekend."
A brownie stopped an inch away from Mozzie's mouth. "Hey! I've decided what to bring for the Labor Day party." He smiled a wicked grin.
"I had been contemplating Flambé ice cream but I changed my mind. How about Crème Brulee — a retro dessert everyone secretly loves!"
"Whoa Moz! Peter hasn't recovered from his ordeal yet. Last year he had to heft that heavy fire extinguisher to put out your cherries jubilee," said Neal wryly. "I don't think it's such a good idea to stress him out."
"Oh ye of little faith. I'm doing this for him; it'll ensure the party's success. Elizabeth will appreciate the winning recipe and Peter will love the taste. I can fire up a blowtorch to burn the layer of sugar as well as the next guy. All you need to do is take simple precautions. Later we can use the blowtorch to toast marshmallows."
Neal grinned widely. "No way am I going to miss Peter's annual Labor Day Cookout."