The first time Agent Clinton Jones stood up for Neal Caffrey was before he even knew what the conman looked like. The first time, they were still calling him James Bonds and travelling the globe one step behind him. Agent Burke was really less than pleased that he was in Podunk Nowhere chasing James Bonds through Nevada on the evening of his third wedding anniversary. Elizabeth had called and Agent Burke had disappeared from the surveillance van for about an hour of what Jones was almost sure was a lengthy chewing out followed by some quick phone sex. The cool thing about Agent Burke and Mrs. Burke was that they never stayed mad for long and they never hung up the phone angry.
Jones was a little jealous of what they had.
When Agent Burke came back and slammed the door to the van with a little more force than necessary, Jones did his best to pretend nothing was wrong like the good little probie he was. He offered Agent Burke a slice of pizza, which his supervisor took with a grunted thank you.
"I swear, if we ever catch this bastard, I'm sending him away for life," Agent Burke spat, stabbing at some keys on the microphone base to adjust the sound quality coming from the local mansion they had tracked a stolen Matisse to. They were waiting for this Bonds guy to show up, even if they could just see his face. "He is total scum; I think he's the worst criminal I've ever come across."
Jones laughed without thinking. Agent Burke glared at him witheringly.
"Sorry, sir, it's just that I think this guy's the best criminal I've ever heard of," he admitted. Burke stared him down angrily. "He's gotten away with how much that we know about? Imagine everything we don't know. This guy's good."
Jones waited for Agent Burke to snap at him and put him on twenty-year-old cold cases for the next two years, but his supervisor just sighed.
"You're right. He's certainly giving us a run for our money," Agent Burke grumbled. "I suppose when we catch him, he's going down in the history books at Quantico, isn't he?"
"All due respect, sir, but I think he'll get in them even if we don't," Jones grinned. Burke let a small smile slip through. Jones reached behind the pizza box and freed a hand-drawn card that had come taped to the top. He handed it to Burke, who opened it and let out a roar of frustration, to which Jones, Peterson, and Hughes laughed hysterically.
"He sent me an anniversary card!"
"Still hate him, sir?"
The second time Jones took Neal Caffrey's side was the day they caught him the first time. The poor guy was pale and scrawny – so unlike the Neal Caffrey Jones knew from the security tapes and television footage – from being on the run for so long and he was staring into the eyes of a girl he'd searched for longer than he'd done any piece of art or history. Jones felt a little bad that they'd set him up by using his girl. It was a low blow, but he could see Caffrey was glad they'd done it. He was looking at Kate Moreau like she hung the moon.
Then Peter Burke followed Jones into the room, guns out and practically shouting for joy. Caffrey took a step back from Kate and looked at Agent Burke, who walked up and looked at him like 'I win'. Caffrey stuck his hand out to Agent Burke.
"Thank you. I never would have found her without you," he said softly, sadly, in a way that sort of broke Jones' heart. Peter Burke shook hands with Neal Caffrey and that was that.
"Jones, cuff him," Burke ordered. But Jones hesitated, because he saw the way Caffrey was looking at Kate Moreau like he'd never see her again.
"Peter," Jones pled, using his supervisor's first name for the first time. He felt the situation called for it. Peter looked at him with authority and Jones almost cracked. "Just…let the poor guy kiss his girl goodbye."
Agent Burke stared Caffrey down for a long moment. This was the second time Jones stuck up for Neal Caffrey and it was also the first time he saw him cry. Poor guy. He wasn't sobbing and he wasn't even sniffling. He was just looking at Kate with slow tears rolling down his cheek.
"Go on, Caffrey. I've waited four years, I can wait another thirty seconds," Peter waved his hand at Caffrey and Kate. Caffrey grabbed her head in his hands, threaded his fingers through her hair, and kissed her in a way that made Jones feel bad about intruding on. Peter looked away. Jones stared and tried not to consider letting Caffrey get away.
When Caffrey let go of his girl with a heartbroken 'I'll miss you', Jones slapped the cuffs on the man who'd occupied his entire four year stint with the White Collar New York Division.
"Come on Caffrey, let's go," he said gently, guiding the poor guy toward the door, into the car, and toward prison.
The third time Jones stuck up for Neal Caffrey, he'd stopped calling him Caffrey and started calling him Neal. It was after Kate had died in the plane explosion and a few weeks after Peter had sprung him from jail a second time to work at White Collar. He was all smiles, flirting comments, and continued his Peter Worship from where he left off.
They were working on a case involving a jewel forgery and Caffrey had been off-anklet for twelve hours the week before. So when they got the case and Peter stared pointedly at Neal with his arms crossed and Neal said nothing and ducked his head, Peter threw up his hands in frustration.
"Damn it, Neal, how many times do I have to throw you in prison before you realize you can't get away with this crap?" Peter exclaimed. Jones and Diana both shifted uncomfortably in their seats around the conference room table. Neal looked at Diana pleadingly and shook his head once, so slightly that Jones almost missed it.
Except Jones knew exactly what he was signaling to Diana anyways, so it hardly mattered at all.
"Neal, what was that?" Peter asked sharply. Jones should have guessed. Peter knew Neal better than anyone. Nothing he did slipped past Peter. Neal crossed his arms and steadfastly refused to look Peter in the eyes. "Diana – explain."
"Caffrey was with me, sir," she said vaguely. "He's got an alibi for the time he was off-anklet."
"Doing what, Diana?"
"He came over for dinner," she said evasively. Peter raised his eyebrows.
"For the whole night?"
"Yep," Diana said with a tight-lipped smile. Neal was still staring a hole through the floor and avoiding Peter's gaze. "The whole night."
Peter opened his mouth to further interrogate Neal, but Jones cut him off.
"Peter, he was at Diana's. She's vouching for him. Cut him some slack."
Peter stared opened-mouthed at Jones, like he'd never thought he'd see the day where Jones flat out interrupted his superior and put him in his place all because of Neal Caffrey.
What Peter didn't know is that Jones knew why Neal was at Diana's last week. He'd gone there fairly consistently since he got out of prison this time. Diana had confided in Jones after the first time because she wasn't sure how to handle a broken Neal Caffrey. She was good at taking him down a notch, not boosting him up one.
Neal went there because he thought she was the only one who could understand what it felt like to have no one care about you at all. He thought, because she was gay, she might now what it was like to be an outcast.
She might know what it felt like to have the person you love feel nothing in return. Because, for all that Neal loved Kate, he was starting to realize that she couldn't possibly have loved him back. No one does all that to someone they love.
So Jones told Diana that all Neal needed right now was someone to tell him that he'd be okay one day.
"All right," Peter agreed. "Neal, if Diana says you didn't do it, we'll move on."
Neal looked at Jones with wide, grateful eyes and Jones winked at him like 'I've got your back, man'.
The fourth time Jones stuck up for Neal was the day after Neal had spent eight hours of a Tuesday night in his living room, sobbing and talking and sobbing some more. They went into the office together and Peter was waiting for Neal at Neal's desk, arms folded and a firm expression on his face.
"Neal," Peter started. Neal attempted his charming, winning smile, but shrunk back behind Jones when he realized he couldn't pull it off convincingly – not today. Jones didn't think Neal deserved to be bullied by someone he loved today.
"Peter, he was at my place. I know it's outside his radius, but he was with a federal agent. He didn't do anything wrong. I even called the marshals when he showed up. He doesn't need the third degree today."
Peter looked at him with thin lips and furrowed eyebrows.
"Why was he at your place?"
Jones looked at Neal, who was still looking very small and vulnerable indeed. He gripped the ex-con's shoulder and squeezed.
"You want to get a coffee, Neal?" he asked gently, but he was really asking if Neal wanted him to tell Peter. Neal nodded his head and made a beeline for the break room. Jones turned to Peter. "Neal had a rough go of prison this time around."
"How so?" Peter asked in his suddenly caring voice. Jones knew that Peter – and maybe Elizabeth, too – felt something stronger for Neal than what a 'coworkers' label could encompass. Maybe something more than a 'friends' label could, too. That wasn't any of Jones' business, but Jones thought Neal landed under 'friend' in his book, so he told Peter.
"Inmates don't take nicely to snitches," he told Peter, quoting what Neal had sobbed into his hands on Jones' couch last night. Peter's Quantico pen clattered onto Neal's desk and he stared at Jones in horror.
"They – they didn't –?" Peter couldn't get the words out, so Jones supplied them for him with a bitter taste in his mouth.
"They raped him," Jones said with disgust. He thought anyone who could bring harm to someone as nonviolent and downright sweet as Neal Caffrey was a monster. "And it wasn't once."
Peter dug his palms into his eye sockets, clearly trying to erase the images that brought to mind. He sighed in a way that made Jones think he was holding back tears. Jones gripped his supervisor's shoulder for comfort, like he'd done to Neal last night only to have Neal grab onto him and sob.
"Why did he go to you? Why wouldn't he come to me? To El?"
"Come on, Peter," Jones reasoned carefully. "There are two reasons. They seem pretty obvious to me."
"First of all, that boy loves you, man," he told Peter. Peter's hands dropped from his eyes and they were red with unshed tears. "He totally idolizes you and if you think he could come to you thinking he was dirty and weak, you're not the Peter Burke I know."
"God, Neal," Peter whispered, rubbing at his eyes. He paced for a few seconds, regaining control of his emotions. "I have to go talk to him."
Peter took off toward the break room and before Neal could even open his mouth to speak, Peter engulfed him in a hug so strong the poor guy probably couldn't breathe. For a few moments, Neal stood stalk still, braced against being touched, but then he grabbed onto Peter and clung for dear life. He looked over Peter's shoulder and Jones and his big, blue eyes twinkled a thank you louder than any words he could have used.
Jones smiled back at him.
The fifth time Jones defended Neal to Peter was a year after the post-prison breakdown on his couch. They were working a mortgage fraud case that had them all nodding off and Peter sent Neal for coffee to get him out of the room. Neal had not been particularly helpful with his whining on this case.
"Neal – get out of here. Go for a walk, get coffee, do whatever you want – but for god's sake, if you whine about mortgage fraud one more time, I am throwing your ass back in prison," Peter exploded after Neal said something along the lines of 'I'd rather stick forks in my eyes' when someone suggested they look over the files again for any discrepancies.
Peter didn't see the look on Neal's face, but Jones did, and it filled him with rage. Neal looked stricken and he scurried out of the room to the break room so fast, his tail might have been on fire.
"Thank God!" Peter exulted as his consultant fled the conference room. Five minutes later, Neal returned with eight mugs of coffee carefully balanced on break room plates, looking paler than Jones had seem him in a long time.
"Brought coffee," he said nervously, passing them around to the other agents at the table. Peter looked surprised, but Neal sat down and shut up and continued to look terrified. And sad.
When the meeting was done and no one had found anything, Neal still hadn't spoken a word – not to complain or contribute. He stayed in his chair when everyone filtered out of the conference room. Jones followed Peter and cornered him in his office.
"You've got to stop saying that to Neal," he ordered his boss. Peter raised his eyebrows at him and Jones was sure – almost sure, anyways – that he was walking out of here with Peter's respect or an application for unemployment. He was here to give Peter a piece of his mind, so it was probably the unemployment thing. "Stop threatening him with jail time. You know what happened last time. He doesn't need to hear it every damn day. Especially not from you."
"He knows I'm not serious. And I don't do it often."
"Every time he sasses you, or steals your wallet for fun, or makes a joke you don't like, you threaten him with 'I will send you back to prison'," Jones said, smacking his hand down on Peter's desk. "It's not fair and it kills him a little bit every time you do it."
"How did you come to be the Neal Caffrey expert in this room?" Peter asked with a clearly unhappy expression. Peter Burke didn't do well with insubordination.
"Since he became too afraid of you to take his problems to you!"
"Neal's not afraid of me."
"He damn well is, Peter! And with good reason!"
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
"I mean that Neal is terrified you'll haul him back to prison if he shows weakness or can't stand up to expectations here," Jones yelled. He lowered his voice. "Don't you realize that all his jokes and mini-cons are supposed to impress you? How can you not notice what he feels?"
"What do you mean?"
"He loves you, Peter. Not like a friend. He loves you."
Peter scrutinized Jones for a moment, sizing up if this was supposed to be a trap or the truth. He sighed and rubbed his face.
"I – oh, God – he thinks I'd do it, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, man," Jones admitted. "Honestly, he knows what'll happen if he goes back. He's known right from the start. It'll be four years of what he went through for six weeks."
"You really think he loves me? He's in love with me?"
"Yeah," Jones sighed. Neal had spent a lot of time on his couch watching football on TV and talking about nothing but Peter and Elizabeth Burke on commercial breaks. "It's pretty obvious."
"I…have I screwed this up too far?"
"I don't think you could ever push Neal Caffrey away," Jones admitted. "He loves hard and forever."
"Yes, he does," Peter whispered. He looked through the glass wall at Neal still staring at the floor. Neal was practically sick with a love he thought would never be reciprocated. Except he never counted on Clinton Jones being a really excellent friend. Peter stood up and almost sprinted to the conference room.
Jones watched as Peter's lips formed Neal's name. Then he watched as Neal looked up, nervous. He watched when Peter hauled him to his feet and touched his cheek. He smiled when Peter grabbed Neal's head and kissed him like Neal had kissed Kate Moreau all those years ago. It was beautiful kiss, but maybe Jones only thought that because he'd helped make it possible.
Jones walked into the bullpen and shouted at everyone to stop staring and get back to work.
Jones prided himself on being a good friend to Neal Caffrey and sticking up for his friend whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was fairly sure that the only reason he did this was because Neal didn't feel like he was worth standing up for, but that was just one man's opinion.
So when the day came for Jones to stand up for Neal Caffrey a sixth time, he was prepared to do it without a second thought.
It was the day Neal's anklet came off and there was a cake and champagne (out of paper cups, Neal groused) and hugs all around. It was also the day Neal Caffrey apparently decided to tell the world that he loved Peter Burke and he loved Elizabeth Burke and that the world could go fuck themselves for all he cared.
So Neal stood precariously on a spinning desk chair and raised his paper cup of champagne into the air.
"It's been a great run, White Collar," he grinned. "I'd like to thank all of you for allowing me to avoid mortgage fraud cases as much as possible and I'd like to thank Peter and Elizabeth for believing in me and loving me like I love them. You probably don't know much about me from before I popped up on the FBI's radar, but I didn't have a fantastic life. I spent twenty five years loving with everything I had and being royally fucked over in return. Peter and Elizabeth have shown me that isn't how it always has to be."
Peter and Elizabeth were staring at Neal with tears in their eyes. Neal wiped one from his own cheek and continued to speak.
"Maybe we're not a conventional family, but it works for us," he said shakily. He took a sip of his champagne. "And I want to tell Diana and Clinton that friends like you are far and few between. Thank you for everything."
He stumbled down off of his spinning chair and set down his champagne cup. He strode over to Peter and planted a kiss on his lips. The entire room went silent – it was no secret to most people that Peter and Neal were having a covert affair of the non-government kind, but no one knew that Elizabeth knew. No one knew that she was a part of it. When Neal pulled back from Peter and turned to capture Elizabeth in her very own Neal Caffrey kiss, the room drew a collective gasp.
Jones prepared himself to tell everyone that Neal Caffrey was a good man and that he had not corrupted the Burke's or coerced them in any way, but Neal did something unexpected.
Neal turned around when he was done and raised his paper cup again.
"To anyone who doesn't like it," he grinned. "Kiss my ass."