This story, which takes place early second season, originally appeared in the fanzine The Art Of The Alliance. Edits were by C. Schlein. However, this story has been reworked since then. Any new mistakes are mine alone.
I want to thank everybody who has left favorites or reviews on my previous stories. I also thank those who have inquired if I will write more, most especially Jim Chou. I have been surprised and pleased that there is still so much interest. Hopefully this story will measure up.
The atmosphere was tense in the FBI building, White Collar division, that morning. Neal Caffrey, Agent Diana Barrigan and Agent Clinton Jones watched the upper level balcony office of Reese Hughes intently. Hughes was in there with Bancroft, his boss, and Special Agent Peter Burke, who ran the White Collar team.
"Have you done something lately, Caffrey?" Jones asked, watching the three men. They could see that no one was happy in the boss's office.
"He's Caffrey; he's always doing something," Diana replied tartly.
Neal shook his head. "Hey, you've been with me this entire week. I haven't had a chance to do anything."
Jones smiled. "That's the way we like it."
Neal tried to smile back but was too tense to make it sincere. He hated it when the high authority types stepped into his world. Reflexively, it made him worry. Used to be he would accept it as a new challenge. Mozzie's scornful voice in his head said, 'Goin' soft.'
The meeting broke up. Hughes sat down at his desk while Peter and Bancroft went into Peter's office. Burke picked up his jacket and put it on. Then the two men came down the short flight of stairs to where the group waited.
"Agent Hughes has an announcement to make," Bancroft said abruptly, ignoring the questioning looks from everyone on the lower floor. "He will explain everything."
Neal searched his friend's face as Peter followed Bancroft. Peter looked a bit angry but resigned. "Don't cause any trouble, Neal," he said softly, walking away.
Neal was anything but reassured by that cryptic statement but reluctantly followed the others up the stairs.
Reese Hughes, a man who brooked no nonsense from anyone, sat at his desk with a sour look on his face. "All right, listen up everyone. I'll make a general announcement to the others shortly but this affects you three the most. Agent Ruiz from Organized Crime is going to be tied up for several months testifying at the trial of Junior Gianelli in Miami. The defense team lawyers have delaying tactics down to an art. The Bureau does not want Organized Crime to be without a lead agent for that long, so they are temporarily transferring Agent Burke to head Organized Crime." Hughes sighed when he saw Neal Caffrey's hand shoot up. "Caffrey, put your hand down. It's for ninety days, in answer to your unspoken question. Agent Barrigan, you will take over White Collar division for that time. Agent Jones, I know you are senior and you ran the team well in Agent Burke's absence before, but I want Agent Barrigan to get the experience in handling a team. You will advise her on all matters and you, Agent Barrigan, will seek his counsel."
Both agents nodded; to his credit, Jones did not seem outwardly disappointed.
"We will all be responsible for Caffrey, understood?"
Diana nodded. "Understood, sir."
"Yes, sir," Jones replied.
"Caffrey, I want no foolishness out of you. No slip ups, no going off book, no anything."
Neal sat, shock and dismay on his face. "Yes, sir." He was so stunned he forgot to mask his true emotions, a habit that was second nature to him.
Seeing Neal's expression mirrored by Diana and Jones, Hughes subsided a bit. He knew the higher ups were dumping a lot on these three. "Look, people, I know this is unexpected. And frankly, unwanted. The Bureau has been trying to get Agent Burke to take over Organized Crime for some time now; he's always refused. But this time he cannot say no and we're just going to have to suck it up until he returns. I have faith in our people here and in you, Agent Barrigan. Agent Jones, I know you will do everything in your power to assist Agent Barrigan. We will need your input as well. We will keep up the high recovery rate of this unit and we will do it well. We don't want Agent Burke coming back to chaos in his own team. Now we're going to go out there and tell the rest of the staff and we're going to put a good face on it. Am I clear?"
Amid the yes sirs, Hughes, followed by Diana and Jones, went out to talk to the rest of the team. Neal remained in the background, silent.
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Neal Caffrey lingered on in the office long after everyone else had left for the day. He was rewarded however, when Peter Burke stepped off the elevator.
"Hey!" Neal said, jumping up when the agent stepped through the glass doors.
Peter looked a bit exasperated and amused. "Why, may I ask, are you still here?"
"Just wanted to do my part for the team," Neal said jauntily. "Look," he indicated the case folders on his desk. "All mortgage fraud. And I didn't even complain."
Peter smiled as he kept on walking, going up the steps to his office. Going inside, he picked up some things from his desk and remarked, "Good. I'm happy for Diana; listening to you whine is an irritating experience."
Neal, who had naturally followed the agent in, watched with trepidation as his partner packed up some more papers. "Hey, this is only for ninety days, right?"
Peter suddenly sat down wearily. "Yeah. Ninety days."
Instantly wary, Neal asked, "What's wrong? They can't make you stay more than that, right?"
"Neal, if they force the issue, they can do pretty much whatever they want," Peter admitted. He looked defeated. "God, I hate to tell El about this."
"Look, Hughes said it was only for ninety days," Neal maintained stoutly. "Any more than that isn't fair."
Peter gave him a look that bordered on incredulous. "If Neal Caffrey says it isn't fair, that should hold back the tide," he said archly.
"Well, if it goes more than that, I don't know if Hughes or Diana or Jones could take me for longer," Neal admitted; only halfheartedly kidding when he thought of Diana.
Peter favored him an intense look. "Neal, whatever you do, don't make trouble. Don't push Diana; she's a great agent but she's going to have her hands full. Don't make her life harder."
Neal pouted. "Everybody thinks I'm going to make trouble."
Peter looked a bit aggravated. "Now, why would they think that?"
"No idea." Neal held out his hands to take some of the stuff from Peter. "I'll be counting the days," he said softly.
Giving the young conman a sideways look, Peter replied, "Just don't make hash marks on the wall, okay?"
Neal smiled but it was bittersweet. He had made hash marks on the wall of his jail cell. Surprising how similar this felt. "No, I won't. I really don't like counting days."
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"Now, it's just for ninety days, right?" Elizabeth Burke said, as she settled on the couch next to her husband, who was playing tug of war with their Labrador.
"Everybody keeps asking that," Peter said in mock irritation as he suddenly let go, and Satchmo pranced away in triumph with his rawhide.
"Well, what if Ruiz should finish with the case earlier than ninety days, you can come back to White Collar, right?" El asked, determined not to lose the thread of the conversation.
"Maybe, but I doubt it," Peter admitted. Satch was back and Peter concentrated on the dog.
"But why?" Elizabeth had a sinking feeling about this whole business but wanted to hear the bad news straight out.
Her husband, however, was determined to be evasive. "Too much paperwork," he said, wrestling Satch for the rawhide.
"Are they trying to make you take over Organized Crime permanently?" El asked bluntly.
Peter let Satch win again and this time the dog went to his pillow to chew his treasure. "Maybe. I really don't know. Ruiz has had some trouble with his team and they have a low conviction rate. They might look to shake something up a bit."
Elizabeth flared with anger. "Well, they can look to their own problems! It's ridiculous of them to expect you to do it!"
Peter gave her a small smile. "You're beautiful when you're angry."
"You don't really believe that, otherwise you wouldn't be in terror every time you think I am angry!" El replied pointedly.
"You're right," Peter agreed instantly. He placed his hands on either side of his wife's face. "Look, honey, I know this isn't going to be fun, but let's just get through it, all right? You know I always need you, but I'm really going to need you for this. Please?"
El softened as she looked at her husband. She leaned forward to kiss him. "You know I'll be here for you, no matter what." She frowned. "But I'll be counting the days."
Peter sighed. "That's exactly what Neal said."
"Speaking of," El worried, "what's going to happen to Neal?"
"Hughes and Diana are going to be responsible for him. I just hope he remembers that and doesn't do anything stupid."
El settled against her husband and smiled. "He won't. It's not as much fun as bedeviling you."
"Oh, thanks," Peter said in a weary voice.
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It was hard to remember that Peter Burke was just four floors above them, Neal Caffrey thought with sense of wonderment. It was as though he had been taken from them, never to be seen again. Neal felt the days grow longer and clock watching became his most important duty of the day.
It was not as if they weren't busy. The White Collar division rolled on with Diana doing an excellent job in Peter's stead. But the cases they worked on weren't exciting. Everybody missed Peter; his enthusiasm could make a dull case palatable and not having his energy around made the place seem duller, more sedate. They were efficient but not flamboyant, Neal decided. The swagger was gone. Also, it was so very quiet now.
For himself, he missed Peter dreadfully, although it appalled him to admit it. There wasn't anyone around to instantly pick up on where he was going with a case nor anyone who could think their way around the roadblocks Neal was unable to navigate – at least right away. Diana came the closest, but Neal missed batting around theories with Peter, both of them making those leaps of logic and intuition simultaneously. Although Diana was very intelligent, she tended to think more inside the FBI box than Peter did. If the cases were dull, Neal could always amuse himself with pushing Peter's buttons and then guarding himself against a return attack when Peter had had enough.
Now however, it was just work. He was reminded again why he eschewed labor in the first place.
Neal, having no point of reference in this area, made the mistake of mentioning it to Jones and the agent wasted no time in clearing the air. "This is what police work is, Neal. And we're lucky we're in here, in White Collar crime. Just think of what the Violent Crime people go through.
Neal stared him in the eye. "Or Organized Crime too?"
Jones looked uncomfortable. "Yeah."
After this disquieting conversation, Neal, who had been the model of self-restraint, or so he thought, made his first unauthorized trip upstairs. It had been lunchtime and he figured he would have a better chance of missing Ruiz's pets. Ruiz had made no secret of his animosity for Caffrey during their one case together and Neal had no wish to run into any of the agent's friends.
He was disappointed however, to find the offices empty except for one harried young woman who was busily working at the computer. Her expression when she glanced up and found Neal standing there, was anything but friendly.
"What do you want?" She demanded.
Neal put on his best charming smile. "I'm here to see Agent Burke."
If anything, the woman's defenses went up even more. "Why? What do you want with him?" She pushed her eyeglasses further up her nose and stared coldly.
Neal held up his hands. "Whoa! I'm not the enemy. I work here. I work in White Collar with Agent Burke. I just wanted to drop in on him and see if he would like to do lunch, that's all."
"Oh." The woman blew air from her cheeks and visibly deflated. "Agent Burke warned me you might be around. You must be Neal Caffrey."
"Er, yes." Neal's smile faltered a bit. "What do you mean, he warned you?"
The young woman smiled. "He said you were a good looking charmer."
"Oh." Neal puffed up a little. "Was he right?"
Smiling, the lady offered her hand. "Yes, he was right. I'm Ashley Leewood. I'm a clerk up here."
Neal lingered over the hand, smiling beautifully. "Well, Ashley Leewood, I am pleased to meet you. Maybe you and I should do lunch instead?"
Ashley's smiled faltered. "No, I can't. I've got too much to do."
The young woman seemed to almost quiver in fear. Neal touched her arm. "Look, relax, it's all right. I mean, Peter yells a lot but it's usually like a summer storm, here and gone. He doesn't eat clerks, I assure you."
"Oh, it's not him!" Ashley replied vehemently. "Agent Burke is the best thing that's happened up here in a while."
Understanding dawned in Neal's eyes. "When I came in, you were protecting him, weren't you?"
Ashley looked at the ceiling, then the floor and finally at Neal. "Look, there are a couple of agents up here that aren't very nice. There's a couple more that go along with them, just because it's easier. They don't like Agent Burke and they've already made things difficult for him. I just didn't want another problem thrown his way."
Neal was calm on the outside but turmoil roiled his stomach at her words. "How's Agent Burke doing?"
Ashley smiled once more. "Oh, he's flown right in their faces. He chewed out Agent Barnes the other day, right in front of everybody! It was so wonderful," she added, warmth coloring her cheeks as she tucked her mussed hair behind her ear on one side.
"Agent Barnes is -?"
"Is one of the bad ones," Ashley finished. "But I'm afraid Agent Burke isn't here. He had a meeting to go to-" She suddenly blanched. "You've got to go," she muttered
Neal turned to find the doors opening behind him, and two men in business suits walked in. "Say, aren't you Caffrey?" one asked, with a sneer.
The other man stopped too. He had short graying hair and an off the rack suit with a loud shirt and tie. "Well, well, if it isn't Burke's pet con. Come to check up on your keeper?"
Neal kept smiling, although there was little warmth in it. "I don't believe I know you guys."
"That's right; you don't," the first man, with a snazzy haircut and a tailor made suit, laughed and went into the room. He sat down on top of a desk and made a show of looking at a file folder.
The second man lingered. "I'm Agent Alan Barnes," he said roughly. "Your handler isn't here and I don't see a reason for you to stay."
Neal nodded his head in agreement. "Me either. Conversational skills are very limited up here."
As Neal went out the door, he could hear the first man yelling at Ashley. "Leewood! Where's that research you promised me thirty minutes ago? You spend all your time talking to the pretty boy out there?"
Neal pushed the button on the elevator, keenly aware of Alan Barnes watching his every move. "You might want to try a different tie with that shirt. Those shades of purple and bright red are just nauseous together. Nor are they regulation bureau attire." With a jaunty wave, Neal stepped on the elevator.
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"Are they shipping you back to prison, post haste?" Mozzie asked with calculated indifference, sitting at Neal's table that night.
Neal sighed as he refilled his wine glass. "No, I hate to disappoint your continued expectation of the worst, but for now, I'm working with Diana. I'm staying right where I'm at."
Mozzie studied him over his own wine glass. "A cause for celebration, surely?"
"Well, yes, as far as it goes. But I'm worried about Peter."
Mozzie scoffed. "The Suit is still working in the building with other suits; they're all on the same side. What's the problem?"
Neal explained the bad vibes he'd had while visiting Organized Crime, concluding with, "I'm not sure how trustworthy some of these guys are."
"Well, of course, they're not trustworthy!" Mozzie exploded. "They're servants of the government and pawns of power. They eat their own!"
"Mozzie, do you really believe that?" Neal asked quietly.
"Yes!" Mozzie was adamant. He took a defiant sip of wine, trying to ignore Neal's eyes.
"Well?" He asked uneasily.
Neal stared. "Well what?"
Mozzie returned the look. "Why do you care? About Peter, I mean? He holds the leash; the very symbol of your incarceration? Yet I sense some sort of concern, worry even, about him. With the Suit out of the picture, your escape to freedom just became a lot easier."
It was Neal's turn to look uneasy. Holding his glass aloft, he stared at the vintage wine as if looking for answers. Moz is right. This might be the time. After he located Kate's killer and exacted payment, he was sure he could find other goals in his life. Always had before. Always another pot of gold at the end of another fantasy rainbow.
"I really don't like these long silences," Moz complained. "Should I be looking into ways to 'cut the cord', as they say?"
"No." The word came out almost before Neal realized he had spoken aloud. He attempted to regroup. "Not right now. This is just temporary; I'll wait until Peter is almost done with his assignment. You can start planning however."
"Well, if you escaped now, it wouldn't go against Peter's record," Moz expounded. "If that makes you feel any better."
But it would go against Diana's, Neal thought. It might be a death blow to her career.
Caring about other people made his life so much more difficult. "For now, let's see what we can do about Peter's problems." He equivocated.
Moz looked mutinous. "Mon frère, I think psychologists would be fascinated by you. When he noticed Neal's icy glare, he relented. "All right, all right. I'll make some inquiries. I don't know what we can realistically do about it though."
Neal sighed. "I don't either."
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The weekend came and went without any word from Peter or Elizabeth, much to Neal's dismay. But he couldn't bring himself to crash their weekend, so he waited until Monday morning to try again. He came into work very early and was surprised to see Peter's Taurus already parked in its usual spot. Clutching two cups of espresso, Neal made his way up to the Organized Crime floor.
He literally bumped into Peter when stepping off the elevator. "Peter!" Neal said with delight. His happiness faded a bit when he saw Peter was dressed to leave with his trench coat on. He already looked tired. "You're leaving?"
Peter looked equal parts resigned and annoyed. "Neal, what are you doing here?"
With a bright smile, Neal held up the espresso. "Brought you something."
The agent relented with a small smile. Taking the cup, he said simply, "Thank you."
Behind him, Agent Barnes came up with two other men. "You coming, Agent Burke?" Barnes asked in an insolent voice.
Peter rounded on him. "Yeah, Barnes, I'll be right there, if you can find your way to the car by yourself!"
Barnes held up his hands. "Okay, sorry, chief. Just checkin' the time. It wouldn't do to be late, you know." Barnes strolled off with the other men, hands in his pockets, reeking of attitude.
Peter glared until Barnes and the other men got on the elevator and left.
"Wow," Neal said softly. "I thought we were all FBI here. What happened?"
Anger simmering, Peter took a sip of his espresso. "This unit has problems, Neal. They're not getting their jobs done because of it."
"What kind of problems?" the younger man asked.
Sighing, Peter took another swallow of espresso before answering. God knew Neal wouldn't go away until he knew the story. "Egos, petty feuds, turf battles, you name it. It's like refereeing a little league game with out of control parents," he concluded bitterly.
"Are you all right?" Neal asked with concern, studying his friend.
"I will be," Peter answered with his customary determination. "But Neal, you better not come up here again."
Neal shrugged. "Hey, I know they don't like me. But name calling doesn't bother me."
"It does bother me," Peter admitted. "I don't want you mixing with these guys. To be blunt, you're a distraction I can't afford." He held up the cup. "Thanks for the espresso."
Neal joined him in the elevator but exited on the White Collar floor. He wanted to say something but he could actually feel Peter pulling away from him, physically and mentally. The agent's mind was on whatever was happening with Organized Crime that day and Neal Caffrey had already passed from his thoughts. Neal left the elevator with a small wave that Peter barely acknowledged. The doors closed and Peter went on without him. Sitting at his desk, Neal brooded until Diana and Jones arrived and then it was back to the case folders.