Alternate Ending: Immunity

St. Louis. Hotel room. Friday morning. Early December, 2003.

A/N: When I first wrote Caffrey Conversation, I felt compelled to put these wonderful characters back as I had found them. However, there were several requests for more about what might have happened if Neal received immunity in 2003. Before I can write that, I need to provide an alternate ending to this story. What we have here would follow chapter 18, which ended with loopy!Neal and Peter eating dinner and talking about Neal's childhood.

When Neal woke up the next morning, he felt better and worse. Physically he was much improved, breathing better and having more energy. But he had concerns about his mental condition, given his memories of yet again telling Peter about events that occurred in WitSec. He'd even given clues about his most closely guarded childhood secrets. He hadn't told Kate or Mozzie about being abused – most of those memories were so deeply repressed that he couldn't remember the details himself.

On top of all that, he'd agreed to work for the Feds.

That last part at least made sense. Neal liked to show off. Collaborating with the FBI solve cases they couldn't without his help would be a big ego boost. It would mean proving he was more clever than his fellow criminals and the people trying to catch them.

But the rest, potentially placing his mom and Ellen in danger… What had he been thinking?

He hadn't been thinking. That was the problem. How many times had Mozzie accused him of being impetuous? He had a tendency to bypass rational thought when his emotions were involved. But he wondered what had been the emotional trigger this time. Was it just being in St. Louis?

"What are you thinking?" Peter asked.

Neal blinked, looking up from the room service menu to meet Peter's eyes,

"You've been staring at that menu a good 15 minutes," Peter added from the desk where he had been working at his laptop, "but you're obviously a 1000 miles away. Makes me wonder if you're having second thoughts, maybe planning to make a run for it."

Pushing away the menu and blankets, Neal got out of bed and grabbed fresh clothes. "I need a shower," he said, and escaped into the bathroom, away from Peter's prying and too perceptive eyes.

At first Neal let his mind wander and free associate. As he dressed, he pulled his thoughts together, surprised at the conclusion he reached. Introducing Peter as his stepdad had affected him more than he had realized. Peter was now firmly stuck in the place meant for Dad in Neal's brain. It was a place associated with respected authority figures, people you instinctively obey and don't lie to. Even as Neal reminded himself it had started as a joke, augmented by a fever and cold medications, he couldn't dislodge Peter from that part of his mental landscape.

"This is bad," he told himself, before returning to the room. He could only hope Peter didn't figure out the kind of power he held over Neal. Hopefully with time and practice, Neal could build up an immunity.

WCWCWCWCWCWCWC

Peter wasn't surprised that Neal seemed spooked. A career criminal didn't suddenly go straight without a few second thoughts. The trick was to remain calm and patient with him. Peter could do patient. After all, he had a lot of experience out-waiting suspects in the FBI's fake municipal vans. He pretended not to notice the panic in the kid's eyes and said, "You ok to fly this afternoon? We need to get back to New York."

Neal glanced at the origami swan on the bedside table before saying, " Actually, I need to stay in St. Louis a few more days. There's someone I promised to catch up with while I'm here. Sunday night is the earliest she can meet me."

"She?" Peter repeated. "I thought you had a girlfriend back in New York. Kate Moreau."

"This isn't a girlfriend."

"Family?"

"Not exactly."

"Then what, exactly?"

"What difference does it make?" Neal asked.

A redirect. Disappointing, but better than a lie. "You're being cagey. That leads me to believe you have something hide, something I need to know."

Neal ran his hands through his hair. "With our deal, I'm not a case anymore, right? I'm not a puzzle for you to solve."

"Oh, you're definitely a puzzle."

"But I'm a person, first. And some things, things that have absolutely nothing to do with the FBI, are personal. I'm entitled to some privacy."

Peter considered that a moment. Regretfully, because he knew Neal wouldn't like it, he said, "Not entirely."

"Are you serious?"

"Working for the FBI, even as a consultant, entails a lot of scrutiny. You'll have a drug test, a background check, and you'll need to provide 10 years' history of addresses where you resided."

"They're going to look all the way back to when I was 14?"

"Back to birth, actually. You'll need to provide a birth certificate as proof of citizenship. Listen, Neal, I understand you're trying to protect your family from something. I can try to make some accommodations if you help me understand what you're protecting them from."

"It isn't that easy." Neal sat down and pulled on his shoes.

"Going somewhere?"

"There's a coffee shop down in the lobby. Want me to get you anything?"

"There's a coffeemaker here in the room."

"Peter." Neal shook his head. "It's not the same."

Deciding to give Neal more time, Peter allowed the change in topic. "I don't get the whole coffee snob thing. Why pay those prices?"

"You can get a lot of valuable information out of a good barista. Not to mention the cappuccino." Neal walked to the door, opening it to reveal the ubiquitous national newspaper in the hall. He tossed it onto the nearest bed and then left.

Since Neal had already admitted to having a flight instinct, Peter's instinct was to follow him. But that wouldn't help matters. It would make someone in Neal's position feel more threatened, and therefore more likely to flee. Peter brought the newspaper over to the desk and kept his mind occupied by reading. He groaned when he saw the headline Immunity Bait and Switch on page 3. The story claimed the government had recently been making verbal offers of immunity, only to renege on those offers after gaining a confession.

Peter didn't believe the article for a minute, especially as the author was a Dante Haversham. How many Dantes did you encounter in 2 days? This had to be the same conspiracy theorist he had dubbed Dante on Thursday. Now Peter regretted not telling Neal about that conversation. Desperately hoping that Neal wouldn't pick up the paper in the coffee shop, Peter made a call back to New York. He learned that the FBI and federal prosecutors were already aware of the article. Damage control was underway, with a retraction planned for the next issue, and interviews being given in television, radio and online news outlets. The newspaper claimed they had been hacked and that they had no background on the article or Dante.

"It's a friend of Neal's," Peter told Hughes. "I'm sure of it. He's trying to convince Neal not to trust us."

"I'm torn between being impressed that our potential new consultant has access to people with these kinds of resources, and being terrified at what we're getting into if he accepts our deal. Can you keep him under control if he joins us?"

"It isn't going to be easy," Peter admitted, "but it should be worth it."

"It will be on your head," Hughes warned.

WCWCWCWCWCWCWC

Neal returned to the room with 2 cups of coffee. Peter was wrapping up a phone call and stared at Neal as if he expected him to dart back out of the room any second. The agent ignored the cup Neal placed on the desk and said, "There's something I need to tell you."

"That doesn't sound good." Neal leaned against the wall, outwardly relaxed but poised to move if he needed to make a break for it.

"When I got back here from the airport Thursday morning, your phone rang. Or vibrated. You'd taken those prescription cold meds and were out of it. I looked at the number, and saw it was the same person you'd talked to earlier." Peter absently grabbed the coffee and drank. He looked up, startled. "This is good."

"Italian roast. I had a feeling you would like it." Neal smiled as if he didn't have a care in the world. He didn't expect to fool Peter, but he wasn't going to show any trepidation if he could help it.

"Yeah. Anyway, I answered the phone and talked to him. Or debated, I guess. He's a smart guy, in his own odd way. We talked about your future, about what would be best for you."

As much as he wanted to protest or question Peter, Neal simply took a sip of coffee and waited for the agent to continue.

"He didn't give a name, so I called him Dante."

"'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,'" quoted Neal.

"Exactly. I said he was heading into the inferno. He claimed… well, you can imagine what he claimed. And he figured out I wanted to offer you a deal."

Neal managed not to groan, but gritted his teeth. He hated to think what Mozzie had been up to the last 24 hours. "And you didn't tell me?"

"I'm sorry." Peter picked up a section of the newspaper and walked it over to Neal. "Now I have to ask you to trust me when I say that this article isn't true."

Neal set down his coffee and read the article through twice. He had to admit it sounded like Mozzie. Taking the first letter of each paragraph, the message was "Get it in writing," which was definitely something Mozz would say. The most surprising part was that Mozz was advising him on how to approach the deal, rather than advising against taking it. Putting down the paper, Neal grabbed his phone and dialed, aware of Peter's intense scrutiny. "It's me," he said when Mozzie answered.

"You got my message?"

"Yeah."

"Did the suit try to hide it from you?"

"No. Just the opposite."

"A good sign. But don't get complacent and think you can start trusting him. When you're in their lair, take frequent breaks for fresh air. I have a theory they dose government employees with airborne chemicals that reduce independent thought. Get out at the first sign of group-think."

"I'll keep that in mind. You're surprisingly calm about this."

"I re-read The Art of War yesterday. Know your enemy. The opportunity to get inside the FBI, to gather intelligence about them and see what they know about us, well, that's too good to pass up. You can always return to the life once you've learned everything you can from them. But chances are you won't get another offer like this one, not without doing jail time."

"Definitely something to avoid. You're really not worried about this?"

"Of course I'm worried, but I'll be monitoring the situation closely. Honestly, I think they'll mess up and drive you away fairly soon. This Special Agent Burke is the first member of law enforcement who hasn't disillusioned you. It'll happen soon enough. In the meantime, be careful. Remember you can almost never trust people." With that warning, Mozzie hung up and Neal placed his phone down on the dresser.

"I need to stay in St. Louis a few more days," Neal said. "I should be back in New York by Monday afternoon. Will you have the immunity offer in writing by then?"

"We will," Peter said. "And will you have a birth certificate and 10 years' of address history ready to share with us?"

"I'll see what I can do."

"Is your friend going to cause any problems for us?"

Neal shrugged. "Nothing I can't handle."

"Don't lie to me, Neal."

"I'm trying not to. But I can't necessarily tell you everything. Some secrets aren't mine to share. It's a lot to balance, but I'll do the best I can." Neal picked up his coffee. "Some of it I'll try to work out before I return to New York."

"I wish I could stay here while you're working out whatever it is, but I do need to get back to the office."

"You don't trust me, Peter?"

"That's going to be a recurring theme, I'm sure. I've been an agent for years, and in this job you learn not to trust people. Looking for the lie has become my first instinct. You'll encounter wariness from almost everyone at the Bureau at first, until you prove yourself, and it's not going to be easy. It will probably feel like you're having to prove yourself over and over again. The fact that I don't trust your friends and they won't trust me will make it worse, like you're constantly in the middle of a tug-of-war. All I can say is that I believe it will be worth it."

"But you expect me to trust you?"

"Honestly, no I don't expect that at first. But I have faith that eventually you will. In the beginning if you can just act like you trust me, and follow orders, that will get us through."

Neal sat down for a while, drinking his coffee and thinking. He wished things could be easier, but appreciated that Peter didn't try to gloss over the challenges. Finally he asked, "Are you a poker player?"

Peter looked up from his laptop. "Occasionally."

"We should play."

"Now?"

"No. Back in New York, every week or so. Learn each other's tells."

"If we each learn how tell when the other is bluffing, it would be easier to trust each other."

"Something like that. There might be times, working undercover for instance, when I'd need to lie but want you to know I was lying."

"Hmm. Or do you just want to practice lying to me and getting away with it?"

Building up an immunity, Neal thought. "Peter, I lie for a living. I don't need practice. But they say honesty is a more challenging game."

"Comments like that are going to annoy the hell out of the Harvard crew." Peter closed his laptop and stood up. "I have a flight for 2pm. I should pack, check out of here and head to New York. I'll see you there Monday afternoon?"

"Where else am I going to go?"

"I'd feel better about this if you didn't answer my question with a question."

"I have every intention of being at the Federal Building in Manhattan Monday afternoon."

"Meet me on the 21st floor."

Neal pulled Peter's suits out of the closet as the agent packed. After Peter left the room, Neal looked at the business card he had palmed from one of the suit jacket pockets. Simon Preston, U.S. Marshal. Preston had seemed the more sympathetic of the 2 Marshals. Neal smiled. Why risk forging a birth certificate when you can get the government to do it for you?

A/N: I don't know the actual background requirements to work for the FBI in 2003. What Peter listed here is what my local police department requires.

I have multiple follow-up stories in mind. First, Neal's going to crash a Christmas concert to get the pager from Ellen, and the working title for that story is Choirboy Caffrey. I plan to post at least part of that story in time for the holidays.