A/N: White Collar and its characters are the creation of Jeff Eastin. They are not mine and I make no profit from playing with them.

This is my third entry in the Caffrey Conversation AU, which is based on a premise that Peter recruits Neal to work for the FBI as a consultant in 2003. Neal is 24, hasn't been to prison and doesn't have a tracking anklet. Although it's part of a series, this story can stand alone.

While the story does have angst and H/C, the party scenes in the early chapters are frothy, fun and light. I designed those sections to be bubbly and to serve as the champagne for this New Year's story. Cheers!

White Collar Division, New York. December 30, 2003 - Tuesday morning.

Another day, another mortgage fraud case to research. Neal Caffrey had been working at the FBI as a consultant for two weeks now, and was disappointed at how boring it was. Special Agent Peter Burke had warned him he'd be doing research for a while, but he'd never imagined how difficult it would be, stuck at a desk eight hours a day, surrounded by agents who were betting on when he'd mess up or give up. He'd stooped to drinking the Bureau's horrendous coffee. It was only 10:30am, and already he needed the boost of caffeine to keep going.

"Hey, Caffrey," Agent Jones said, grabbing the coffee pot.

Jones was the friendliest of the bunch, maybe because he was closest to Neal's age and had suffered through being the new guy himself not too long ago. But Jones was also having a lot of closed-door meetings with Peter. Neal guessed that Jones was either assigned to befriend him, or to watch him, or both. "How's that burglary case going?" Neal asked, itching to look into something that involved his actual expertise. "You know I could… Who's that?"

An agent Neal didn't recognize was striding across the bullpen. "Burke!" she yelled. "I need your team, pronto!"

"We got trouble," said Jones. "That's Agent Kimberly Rice, from Missing Persons."

"She's the one who beat out Agent Wiese for the lead job?" Wiese was a woman about Peter's age. With auburn hair, green eyes, freckles, and an epic frown, she looked like a Celtic Valkyrie when she got mad.

"You're keeping up with the rumor mill, aren't you? That was about two months before you started. Wiese moved to White Collar rather than work for Rice. Still some bad blood there. I do not want to get in the middle of that."

"But you want to watch."

"Hell, yeah," Jones said, joining the crowd of agents milling in the center of the bullpen.

Peter stepped out of his office to meet Rice at the top of the stairs. "Agent Rice, you could've called first."

"No time. This is urgent." She swept into Hughes' office.

Peter followed and shut the door behind him, with a glance down at the bullpen. He shrugged down at his agents, then took a seat. After what looked like a heated discussion, Hughes stepped out of his office to stand at the glass half wall. Looking down at the agents he said, "In the conference room, all of you. We have a change of plans today."

Once the team had gathered, Hughes said, "Agent Rice is requesting our assistance with a Missing Persons case. The prime suspect in the case works for L&B Industrial Supplies, which as you know we have been investigating. Agent Wiese, I believe you took the lead on that case."

"That's right, sir," Tricia Wiese said. "We were looking into Bennet Sinclair, until he took a leave of absence starting three weeks ago. With him out of the picture, the case went cold."

"He's back in the picture now," Rice said. "Think you can keep up with him this time?"

"Agent Rice," Hughes said, "If you want my team's help, then back off. Wiese, we'll need to pull you in as our expert on Sinclair. I want you and Agent Jones to hand off your current investigation to be part of a cross-departmental team jointly led by Agents Rice and Burke. Now, who can take over the burglary case Wiese and Jones were assigned this morning?"

Neal immediately raised his hand.

"Caffrey, put your hand down," Hughes ordered.

"But –"

"I said, put it down. You're joining the missing persons case, assuming your personnel file is accurate. It says you speak fluent French. Can you convince a native that you're from France?"

Neal couldn't help smiling. "Oui, monsieur." This had to be better than mortgage fraud.

WCWCWCWCWCWCWC

With most of the White Collar division dismissed to continue their case work, Wiese, Jones and Neal waited in the conference room for Rice to return with members of her team. Hughes' assistant was ordering lunch, indicating they should expect to spend several hours together in the briefing and planning for their new case. This would be their last break for some time, meaning…

"I spent most of the holidays watching those two Harry Potter movies with my niece and nephew," Jones said. "They weren't bad, you know, for kids' movies."

Exactly as expected. Next Jones was going to ask how Neal had spent Christmas. The most fun Neal had at work these last few days had been avoiding giving Peter any details about what he'd done over his long weekend in D.C. Now Peter was using a proxy to go fishing for information. Neal smiled innocently. "Tricia, didn't you say your kids were big Harry Potter fans?"

Agent Wiese looked up from her notes about the burglary case she was turning over. "Oh, yes. They can't wait for the third movie to come out this summer. If they liked the movies, Jones, they should really buy the books."

"Isn't that read the books?" Neal asked.

"I'm sorry?" Tricia asked.

"Isn't the saying: if you liked the movie, you should read the book?"

Jones shook his head. "I thought it was: if you liked the movie, you should try the book."

Tricia shrugged. "I've been working a lot of copyright and intellectual property cases lately. I guess it's ingrained in my mind now, that you should buy the book and let the author get the royalties."

"Works for me," Neal said, having achieved his goal of directing the conversation away from Christmas. "Buy the book it is."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Peter, as he stepped into the room. "Your first big case, Caffrey. This one is definitely going to be by the book. Understood?"

"Absolutely. I promise I'll stay focused. No going off on tangents like talking about what I did over Christmas."

"That's not –" Peter started.

"I'm going to get some coffee to make sure I stay focused." Neal zipped out of the conference room.

"- what I meant," Peter finished.

WCWCWCWCWCWCWC

Someday, Peter promised himself, he would learn to read Neal. As things stood now, he couldn't tell if Neal actually had anything to hide about what he'd done in D.C., or if it simply amused him to make Peter worry that he had something to hide.

The kid had been bored. Peter got that. He hoped he hadn't let the kid get so bored that Neal had done something one of them would regret.

Peter had promised to transition Neal into bigger cases and field work around the first of the year. They were right on schedule. But he'd never intended Neal to have such a pivotal role in his first big case. He'd envisioned Neal sitting in the van, providing support and insight for the rest of the team – that would have been a reasonable next step. Not going undercover, especially not undercover alone. Hell, this was a suspected kidnapping. What did Neal even know about kidnappers?

Rice said it didn't matter. She needed someone fluent in French who could pass a message in a New Year's Eve party. Simple. Hughes agreed it was low risk, even for someone as inexperienced as Neal. All Peter could do now was review the plan for any holes, and make sure Neal was prepared.

"Listen up, everyone," Rice said as she and her team arrived in the conference room. Neal slipped in behind them, a cup of coffee in hand. "Time is short. Let's get through this briefing as quickly as we can." She projected three photos on the wall and pointed to the first. "Bennet 'Benny' Sinclair, VP and partner at L&B, suspected of a variety of white collar crimes. The next photo is his oldest daughter, Bethanne Jane, age fifteen. Marie," Rice pointed to the last photo, "Bethanne's stepmother."

"Nice," said Jones under his breath to Peter. "Mr. Sinclair did all right for himself."

"A couple of years ago," Rice continued, "Bethanne started having health problems. Benny and Marie took her to several doctors, but weren't satisfied with the results. Then a month ago, they took her to a clinic that specializes in respiratory ailments. They diagnosed Bethanne with Redding-Kotz syndrome. Currently, the only treatment for Redding-Kotz is a lung transplant. The clinic also told the Sinclairs about a new treatment being developed by LCD Pharmaceuticals here in New York. The treatment isn't ready for human trials yet, but Benny contacted the head researcher, a Dr. Liam Collins."

Rice projected a different photo on the wall. "This is Collins. Benny invited him to the Sinclair home in Connecticut. The doctor was supposed to tell Bethanne about the research he's doing, and give her hope for a cure. The last anyone has seen Dr. Collins is when Benny picked him up at LCD on Friday, the twenty-sixth of this month. Instead of going back to work on Monday, he called in a request for supplies to be shipped to the Sinclair home. Based on what he requested, LCD suspects Dr. Collins is being coerced into beginning treatments on Bethanne."

"Are you sure he's being coerced?" Tricia asked. "Maybe it was Collins' idea."

"Yes, I'm sure. We tried to contact Collins directly yesterday, but there's no answer on his cell phone, and when we call the Sinclair house we're told he can't talk. To get eyes on the situation, we sent the medical supplies with an agent dressed as a delivery man first thing this morning, and our agent insisted that he had to stay until Collins inspected the supplies and signed for them. Collins rejected one box, and when we opened it there was a note from Collins, telling us that Sinclair had threatened Collins' son. His ex-wife has custody, and we've assigned an agent to guard both of them until Collins is released."

"What's Neal's role in this?" Peter asked.

"We have to assume that Sinclair will be suspicious of any visitors or messages we try to send to Collins. But he and his wife are hosting a New Year's Eve party tomorrow night."

"Going to slip someone in with the catering staff?" Jones suggested. "Is Caffrey going to be a French chef?"

"We considered that route, but then we found a better option. Professor Thomas Gardiner is a neighbor of the Sinclairs and he confirmed he's on the guest list. Our best shot at getting someone inside the party is with him."

Peter smiled. "Gardiner. I remember him."

"Who's Gardiner?" Neal asked.

"Former FBI," Peter explained. "He was a legend until an injury forced him to retire. He left the Bureau to teach law at Yale."

"Why do you need to send someone undercover if you have a legend in the party?" Neal asked.

"The injury blinded him," Rice said. "There's no way he could be sure he's alone to deliver a message, and wandering around the house to look for Collins is out. But he and his wife have a tradition of hosting international students attending Yale. The latest one arrived from France this week to live with them for the coming semester. Other than the Gardiners, no one going to the party has met him yet. He was invited to the party, and Caffrey is going in his place. Put on your dancing shoes, Caffrey. You're going to a party."

"You said I need to convince a native that I'm French," Neal said. "Who, specifically?"

"Multiple people," Rice told him. "Marie Sinclair was born and raised in France. Benny always seeks out people who can speak her language. That's why the Gardiners are invited even though you would expect Benny to avoid anyone with ties to the FBI; Mrs. Gardiner is a professor of French Literature at Yale. Several of the guests are from or have lived in France. You'll be expected to speak English most of the time, but you'll also need to converse in French occasionally, and to maintain an accent when speaking English. They're serving dinner at 8:00, with the party lasting past midnight, of course. Can you pass as French for five hours or more?"

Neal nodded. "The trick is to keep thinking in French, even when speaking English. Then I'll default to French or to English with a French accent. I won't slip up. What's the message I'm supposed to deliver?"

"Tell Collins that his family is safe and that we'll be there at 8am the next morning to extract him. We'll be in another delivery truck and will have a warrant to search the house. We want him to find an excuse to be outside, near the front entrance, so we can get him into the truck and away from Sinclair. We're going to abduct him back." Rice looked up as sandwiches were carried in. "Okay, that's lunch. I'm going to check on the status of Collins' son, and then we'll continue with the plans for tomorrow."

Neal reached into the pile of sandwiches. "Who ordered deviled ham?"

"Peter," said Jones and Tricia.

Neal grabbed a ham-and-swiss, and the deviled ham. "Catch!" He tossed Peter's sandwich across the table.

Peter caught the sandwich automatically, but his mind was still stuck on Rice's words. Abduct him. "You know, I need something better than Bureau brew to go with this. I'm going down to the coffee shop across the street. Neal, you're coming with me."

Neal followed with a smile and idle chatter. But as soon as the elevator doors closed, he went quiet and studied Peter. "You've already told me you aren't a coffee snob. What's going on?"

"I know you're desperate for a case that gets you into the field. But I need you to think seriously about passing on this one. I don't think you should work a kidnapping as your first case."

"A forgery or art theft would have been ideal, but this isn't exactly rocket science, Peter. I can handle it."

"Can you?"

"What makes you think I can't?"

"The day Hitchum sprained your wrist, you had a flashback to when you were nine. You mentioned you were abducted. I think this case might hit a little too close to home for you. How are you going to keep up the pretense of being from France if you're flashing back to being an abused child in States?"

Neal rolled his eyes. "I also told you that I go years between flashbacks."

"It was the second one I witnessed in a month."

"C'mon, Peter. That first time I was overdosed on prescription cold meds. That's not gonna happen again. Plus the legendary Thomas Gardiner will have my back. Think of how much I can learn from him. How often will I get a chance to work with a legend?"

Peter closed his eyes as he argued with himself. Part of him said it was simply too risky. The other part said he needed to let Neal have this opportunity. He opened his eyes and saw they were nearly at the ground floor. "You really want this?"

"Of course I do. Peter, why did you hire a known con artist if not to use my skills? Convincing people I'm something I'm not, getting them to believe me and do what I want, that's what you need in this assignment, and that's what I did for a living. I'm good at this. If you won't let me do this, then I have to wonder if you're ever going to let me do anything."

The doors opened and they stepped into the lobby. When they were outside the building Peter said, "It's not your skills I doubt." Seeing the look on Neal's face, he said, "I know I'm not good at explaining this stuff. I don't doubt you, Neal. I worry about you."

"You told me worrying about your team is part of your job."

"Yeah." Peter remembered saying that. It was different with Neal, though. Ever since a feverish Neal had introduced Peter as his stepfather a few weeks ago, Peter felt a higher level of responsibility toward Neal. Being a father figure wasn't easy. "I'll make you a deal. You tell me what you did over Christmas, and I won't stand in the way of your taking this assignment."

A/N: Thanks for giving this story a try! I hope you'll keep reading.

In order to keep track of characters at the party, I chose names from Pride & Prejudice. It's just a device to aid my memory. This story doesn't have a P&P plot, and my characters aren't modern clones of their namesakes. For a list of the P&P-inspired names, see the By the Book: Panic Phrase post on the Penna Nomen & Silbrith Conversation blog on Blogger.

To see the characters and other visuals for the story, check out the Caffrey Conversation or Penna Nomen space on Pinterest. There's a board for By the Book in both locations.

The character Agent Rice comes from the season 1 episode Front Man.