This story is for Lisa, who believed in it even after I had twice given up on it. I hope it lives up to your expectations.
I own nothing about White Collar; I'm only borrowing the characters.
Well, he wanted to know what sort of man his father was, didn't he?
Now, he knew. All the self-imposed armor from his teenaged years, pierced with effortless ease by a man who told everybody that he had been the victim of bad luck and bad breaks. Despite being more than old enough to know better, Neal Caffrey had dropped his guard and dared to believe, just a little bit. Then, he had read the papers and his father's furtive arrival had confirmed what he thought had been the worst. But James had dropped off the ultimate tough love edict, on his way out. "In life, somebody has to take the fall. Don't let it be you."
And now the world had gone to literal hell.
Words to live by, Dad.
Feeling the consuming fire of anger and guilt rise like flames in a dry forest, Neal wanted to smash the sculptures, slash the paintings and throw the paints. Anything to destroy that mocking, deceitful image. His father had commented on that particular painting, had oohed and aahed over his talent. He would take a knife to it now; he never wanted to hear those words of praise again.
What a sorry legacy. Not only was James Bennett seemingly unconcerned about his son's regard but it seemed to Neal that James might even be getting a bit of extra satisfaction knowing it was Peter Burke who was wearing the handcuffs and doing the walk of a disgraced lawman being marched off to prison. Neal had put Peter on a pedestal; maybe this was James' way of getting back at him.
Or maybe Neal was giving James too much credit for thinking or even caring what his son thought. Maybe it was immaterial to James who took the blame for his latest shooting; just as long as he got away. The fact that it was Peter really didn't make any difference. It wasn't James; that was all important to his father. Suddenly, Neal felt like it could have been him who had taken the fall and James would have said, 'tough' and moved on.
Neal paced throughout his loft in nervous agitation, swiping an easel out of his way, knocking the half-finished painting to the floor. He left it there, taking no great care if he stepped on it. Despite his words of a couple of weeks ago, Neal really didn't see Peter as a father figure. Not all the time at least. Peter was mentor, partner, soul mate in the never ending adrenalin rush to be the smartest guy in the room. Peter was that irritating voice of his conscience. Sometimes Peter was an irritant, plain and simple; two words that Neal genuinely despised his entire life. But somehow, through all the problems and misunderstandings, they had endured. Neal knew better than anyone what Peter was enduring right now; he had gone through it himself. He remembered well the soul wringing clang of finality of the cell door. Recalled with vivid clarity the loss of freedom like it was the onset of a terminal disease. Most of all though, it was the crushing depression of isolation; cut off from friends, from Kate. It was the onset of hopelessness.
But there was one huge difference. Neal was guilty of the crime he was convicted of and it wasn't nearly as serious as murdering a United States senator. Peter, however, was totally innocent. Neal felt sick when he thought about what his friend, his partner, was going through now.
What must Peter be thinking? Like father, like son?
He wanted Peter Burke here, standing in front of him, so he could grab him by the head and force Peter to look him in the eye and shout, "I didn't do this! It was my lousy, worthless father who ran this time!"
Picturing himself in Peter's place, Neal knew what he would think. Neal and his long lost father had played the long con to perfection. They evened the score and got away cleanly. Mozzie made it out unscathed. Leaving one government suit to take the fall.
Neal suddenly picked up the painting and flung it out through the doors to the terrace, disappointed that he didn't break some glass at least.
Just when he was about to embark on his scorched earth campaign, he noticed June Ellington standing the doorway. "Neal. Whatever has happened? I saw your father leave in a hurry." She paused as she noted the stark desolation in his face. "Tell me," June commanded as she came further into the room.
Neal really didn't want to. It was a sorry tale to tell. But June wasn't leaving and looked determined to get an answer. He was so confused and hurt, he ended up blurting out the entire story. He concluded with, "My father," Neal spat out the word angrily, "walked off after shooting a U.S. Senator and leaving Peter to take the blame … and he doesn't care. Dear old Dad considers himself lucky." Neal was swamped by anguish and regret. He needed to think, but his head was spinning and Peter was counting on him and June was here, waiting and….
June sighed and approached Neal, placing her arm around him and pulling him close. "So, what are we going to do about this?" She asked calmly.
It was like a pail of cold water being flung on his overheated brain. The hysteria damped down; the anger needed to be placed aside. There was no time for drama; he needed to plan.
Suddenly, Neal smiled through the tears he was unaware had tracked down his face. He looked at June, with warmth and gratitude. "Thank you."
June smiled back. "You just needed somebody to focus your thoughts."
Neal made a small sound in his voice. "That is something," his breath caught for a moment, "Peter would do. Make me focus."
June shrugged. "It's something a friend will always do for another friend." Giving his arm a pat, she sat down at the dining room table, drawing him down to the chair next to her. "Have you talked to Elizabeth?"
His new found calm flew out through the terrace doors. "No. I don't know if she knows yet, although I'm sure Diana will call her." In an uncontrolled burst of remorse, he added, "She will hate me, June. She never wanted Peter involved in this business with my father, not since the car accident." Trying unsuccessfully to slow his breathing, he dredged up a bitter smile, "I am probably the last person on earth she wants to see."
June smiled sadly. "Neal, I imagine she is a very scared, desperate and angry woman who feels totally alone right now. She would see anyone at any time if they could help Peter." She shook her head, as if dismissing some memories. "I know how she feels. Ford made a couple of injudicious moves once and Byron was arrested for it. They didn't have enough proof to hold him but I remember vividly that three a.m. call from jail. I would have dealt with the devil himself to get him out. Elizabeth will feel the same." June visibly gathered herself. "So, is there an arrest warrant out for you?"
"I'm not sure; probably. I should stay away," Neal said, thinking furiously. These last hours had all run together now. He leaned closer to June. "The good news is that I have Ellen's evidence box, thanks to Moz, the one everyone is looking for. I've only skimmed a few papers but enough to know that my Dad is a killer." Neal was secretly proud he had regained enough equilibrium to sound objective, even though his heart was still racing. "Maybe there is something in there I can use as leverage to free Peter. I don't know how much Moz knows of what has happened. Maybe I'll join him, study the papers and see what my next move should be. But none of this helps Elizabeth, I'm afraid," he added, almost angrily.
"You leave Elizabeth to me," June declared firmly. "I am in a better position to help her and Peter right now than you are. Do you know if they have a lawyer?"
"I think so," Neal pondered. "But I doubt that he is a criminal attorney."
"Well, I keep an overpaid shyster on retainer. I think I'll just let him earn his pay for a change," June declared.
They were interrupted by June's frightened maid. "Ma'am, there are police cars and black SUVs parking in the street out front! I think they are coming here!"
Neal grabbed the papers, assisted by June. "Go out the bootlegger's door," June ordered calmly.
Neal smiled. "I know it well." He hesitated. "Will you be all right?"
June made shooing motions with her hands. "Of course I will. I've butted heads before with pompous fools!"
"Thanks. Oh, and June? When you see Elizabeth-"
"I'll make sure she understands and I will get word to Peter too, somehow. You can count on it. Now go!"
Neal, clutching the precious evidence box, left in a hurry.
WC WC WC
"How long have you had a drinking problem, Agent Burke?"
"How long have you suspected your wife of being unfaithful to you?"
"Your mortgage is paid up to date. Did you use the money you received from killing Senator Pratt to secure your house? Is there a big lump sum payoff coming?"
"How long you have sympathized with this country's enemies?"
"When did you decide when Senator Pratt had to die?"
"How long have you been in love with your CI?"
Drawn and haggard, Peter Burke stared down the latest questioner, a young, politically ambitious hotshot from OPR named Harvey who delighted in ruining FBI careers. Harvey returned the glare with one of his own; smug and full of righteousness. "Well?" He demanded pompously.
Peter, his voice dry and brittle, said bluntly, "This is possibly the stupidest interrogation I have ever participated in. We sit here wasting time while you throw mud and hope something sticks and the real killer gets further away."
"Ah, yes. As you told Agent Calloway, Caffrey's father no less, a James Bennett, actually killed the senator while you stood around to watch. Were you in on the scheme all along? What did Caffrey and Bennett offer you?"
"Oh, you know, a bunch of money my supposedly unfaithful wife could spend while I am in prison pining away for my CI. Just your average bribe!" Peter snapped.
"Well, if you were us," an older man named Owens said from his position near the wall, "Would you believe a story like yours?"
"Maybe not," Peter admitted. "But I would keep looking for James Bennett and then compare stories later."
"Good of you to share your advice," Harvey sneered. "Anything else you would do differently?"
"I've been arrested, booked and questioned for nearly-" Peter made a show of looking at his wrist where his watch had been taken off, "what, four hours now and I still haven't had my phone call or a lawyer present. If I were running this interrogation, I wouldn't be making these kinds of stupid mistakes!"
He was pleased to see a round of Significant Looks go around the three men and one woman in the room.
A Secret Service agent named Banning who so far had said nothing through the ordeal, gave Harvey a withering look. "He hasn't had a phone call yet? Or a lawyer?"
Harvey flushed angrily. "Let him have his damn phone call!" He blustered angrily. "Then put him back in holding. Maybe some time to think will help him figure out the truth!" Harvey impatiently motioned to be let out of the room, Owens trailing behind. Banning gave Peter an enigmatic look and left also.
Amanda Calloway pushed away from the table in the brightly lit interrogation room. "Peter, you do realize that Caffrey and his father set you up, don't you? They are out, free and clear, while you sit here, career ruined and your life essentially over. If you are lucky, you'll get life in prison." She smiled sadly, and then added in her childlike, southern accented voice, "Peter, I really am sorry. But you lost all perspective with Caffrey. You went so far over the line for him you couldn't even see it any more. Now he and his father have used you and thrown you away." She added with a quaint little smile, "FBI agents don't get to be best friends with crooks, Peter. They will stab you in the back every time."
Peter stared, his normally expressive face inscrutable. "Oh, thanks. If I had only known that earlier."
"I hated to arrest you, you know," Calloway said softly, ignoring his tone.
"I thought you were convinced of my guilt," Peter snapped.
"Oh, come on, Peter! With all of that circumstantial evidence, I had to arrest you!" Calloway snapped back. "You would have done the same in that situation."
"Probably. But I would also be out turning over every rock and dive in this city to find James Bennett."
"We are looking!" Calloway protested.
Peter gave her a stony stare. "I've had enough of the good cop routine, Agent Calloway. I'd like my phone call, now."
Calloway sighed dramatically and gestured to the door. "Go ahead."
WC WC WC
The phone had hardly rung once before the sweetest voice he'd ever heard in his life answered with a wary hello.
"Hi, hon," Peter could hardly choke out the endearment.
"Peter! My God, where are you? I expected your call hours ago! What is happening now?" Elizabeth spoke in a rapid rush.
"You know already?" Peter asked shakily, trying to ignore his stinging eyes and rapidly closing throat.
"Thank God, Diana called me. I'm trying to get hold of Alexander Stephens but so far I haven't gotten a reply. Are they questioning you without a lawyer present?" Elizabeth asked sharply.
El sounded angry, outraged and defiant. By contrast, Peter felt like a balloon with the air being slowly let out, drained and so very tired. "They have been and we can use this, El. Mark down what time I called. My arrest paperwork will show the time I was processed. Unless they get creative with the time," he added wearily.
Elizabeth caught his tone. "Peter, we are going to fight this and we are going to win. I will not live my life without you and I will do whatever it takes to make this right. Do you hear me?"
Peter smiled; God, he loved this woman. "Yes, I do. I love you," he added impulsively.
There was a slight pause and when Elizabeth replied, her voice was choked and strained. "I love you too, Peter Burke. Nothing will ever change that."
A guard appeared and pointed at his watch. Peter thought about protesting but quickly realized that fallen federal agents and accused senatorial assassins didn't have right like common criminals. "Hon, I think I'm going to have to go."
"What about Stephens? El asked quickly. "Can you think of a better lawyer?"
"I'm not sure we can afford him," Peter admitted.
"I will sell everything but Satchmo and live on a park bench if I have to," El replied briskly. "Where are you?"
"Downtown federal detention," Peter replied, thinking hollowly it wasn't that far from his office in physical distance. But in everything else, it was another galaxy away.
The guard stepped closer. A second guard joined him. Both wore looks of 'move now'.
Peter sighed. "El, I do have to go. One last thing; have you heard from Neal?"
Silence answered him for a moment until Elizabeth said simply, "No."
Peter swallowed. "You will, El."
"I hope so. Or I will find him," Elizabeth said darkly.
"Off the phone now, Burke!" the first guard shouted, feeling his authority.
"I love you, El," Peter said quickly. He could only hear 'I love-' in reply when the phone went dead. One of the guards had disconnected the call with an 'I dare you' look on his face.
They pretty much man handled him away and Peter had to work to stop the fervent desire to launch a counterattack. But that was exactly what they wanted so he went along, gritting his teeth.
He endured some more time of 'non questioning' from some of Harvey's lesser lights, nothing he was forced to answer without a lawyer present of course. Peter realized from past experience that everything had hit the fan with Pratt's death and now numerous government agencies were looking to get in on the kill and hopefully, exonerate themselves of any negligence. He was fatigued but he'd also done his share of hard ball interrogations, ironically the last one with one Neal Caffrey. It didn't really matter to him; Peter could dish it out and he could take it. Besides, it occupied his mind from the morass of disaster he was currently mired in.
Later, he stood alone in a cell with a solitary camera watching his every move. Harvey had insisted on a suicide watch for some insane reason. Peter fingered the light blue jumpsuit he now wore; his clothes had been taken from him and all personal effects earlier. He dully realized that Peter Burke, FBI agent was gone; Peter Burke, accused assassin of a U.S. Senator stood in his place. And it easily could be this way for the rest of his life.
He dropped wearily onto the hard bunk. Neal would be disappointed that his clothes weren't orange (yet) and the younger man could get some payback. He worried about Neal; wondered what his father had told him after his arrest. Neal, for all of his vast intelligence and skillful lying, could be duped, especially by a father who had haunted his dreams and thoughts his entire life. Had James told Neal what happened? What did Neal do? Argue with his father? Or be talked into thinking this was his only chance for freedom, running again. Peter knew there was an arrest warrant out for Neal as well as James; assaulting a U.S. senator didn't set well with society. Maybe Neal was lying low, trying to figure out what to do next? Or maybe Neal decided to live the dream of his life and leave with James, his long absent father. He wouldn't forget Peter though; Neal would probably send some little care packages and holiday cards to brighten the days in prison. Sweet.
Peter cut off the thought abruptly; he had a killer headache and was feeling tired and sick. They brought him some food and water (no coffee; probably that bastard Harvey's doing) but his stomach rebelled at the mere sight of it. He was hungry but he couldn't eat. He was exhausted but he knew sleep was out of the question. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he thought again about Neal. Despite his earlier pessissim he knew deep down that Neal would not abandon him. More than likely Neal would drop in from a hot air balloon, fedora on his head and, looking dapper, to break him out of prison. Peter couldn't help it; his snort of disbelief became a small smile at the thought of Mozzie up in the basket, probably wearing his Amelia Earhart outfit. What a duo he and Neal made.
Peter was careful to hide the smile from the camera though as he was sure Harvey would find that to be an admissionable expression of guilt in court. Was there anyone in OPR who wasn't a jackass now days?
He sat alone, with a thousand fruitless thoughts for company and an achingly clear hindsight vision of all the things that had gone wrong.
Phil Kramer's voice rang through his head as if he were present now.
'Are you handling Caffrey or becoming him?'
Phil must be enjoying some sweet revenge now, telling everyone in DC in that homey, worldly wise, gravelly voice about how he had seen this train wreck coming and he had tried to stave off disaster. What a shame about Agent Burke. But he had lost objectivity and had disgraced the Bureau. Now look at him.
Peter laid his aching head in his hands, elbows on his knees. He desperately wanted to rest but his mind chased his thoughts around in circles. Are they looking for Bennett? Where was Neal? How would he ever make this up to Elizabeth? His last sight of his darling wife was a delighted woman ecstatic over a sushi date. The idiots had better not harass her! A prolonged trial with a high priced lawyer would drain their savings. What would happen to Diana and Jones? Would his team get their careers blackballed for working with him? What would his parents think? Worse, El's parents? He shuddered even thinking about Doctor Mitchell.
It went on and on, with no end in sight.