The office was pulsing with activity that Wednesday morning when Neal arrived. When he first walked in, he stepped just past the doors to pause for a moment, observing the commotion ahead of him with slight hesitation before fully crossing the threshold into the room. A handful of agents, half he didn't recognize, were busy exchanging papers and talking rapidly as they moved around the office, as though on a critical assignment.
Frowning barely discernibly, more from curiosity than concern, he then moved towards his desk to watch from the sidelines, sitting on the edge of the furniture and, for the countless time since his first day at work here, appreciating the perspective his spot in the office gave him.
He glanced up at Peter's office. The man didn't appear to be there.
Pensive, he removed his fedora from his head and held it by the brim between his fingertips. He flipped it up and caught it lazily, repeating the motion after a long pause.
He wasn't completely sure what the buzz was about. He and Peter had just wrapped up a case the day before, a fairly straight forward one at that, with more paperwork than action, and he felt a little slighted by the thought that there was a more interesting, urgent case that he might not be privy too. Peter had not mentioned anything. Nor had the office the previous day seemed so energized.
To feel energized would be welcome. Given the cases he'd been involved in recently…. Neal needed something more interesting. In addition to the last case, the handful before that had also been somewhat… boring. Neal tried not to complain or act out, and didn't think he had, but realized he probably hadn't been fully successful, as he had also found himself on the receiving end of a sermon from Peter more than once that month on the validity of all cases, exciting or not, and how action and adrenaline weren't the guiding principles of the FBI objectives. On one such lecture, Peter had even offered, somewhat sinisterly Neal might add, to loan him out to the violent crimes unit if he really needed a 'rush,' to which Neal shook his head and committed himself to behaving quietly. Violent crimes were not his forte, and grotesque images made him more queasy than motivated.
Glancing up at his handler's office for a fourth time since arriving that morning, he let out a barely audible sigh at the fact it continued to be empty. Where the hell was Peter? He flipped the hat in his hands again.
It was a few minutes later, at almost nine, when he spotted Diana walking towards him. He smiled at her, sincere and with teeth, a gesture that wasn't returned.
"Caffrey," she spoke dryly as she reached him. Her arms moved to cross over her chest. She already appeared unimpressed. Neal wondered if it was his suit, and looked down at himself skeptically. It was one of Byron's favorites and fit perfectly.
It couldn't be the suit, he decided. It was her, not him. "Where's Peter?" he asked.
She raised her eyebrows. "Good morning to you too."
Without blinking, he flipped the hat in his hands once again, catching it flawlessly. "Seems to be a good morning for some of the office. What's all the commotion this morning?"
"Cyber crimes division is all I know." She shrugged. "They're close to something. Not my case."
"You're not curious?" He authentically frowned then. How could she not be curious? He glanced again the activity in the office. Something was going on. Something was getting a lot of attention. "Why not?"
"Maybe if I didn't have enough of my own work to do I'd be more curious," she answered. "Besides, Peter told me I'd be brought in later today. Until then, I've got enough to do… Speaking of which…" She gave him the once over. "You busy enough? You seem a bit too curious in cases that have nothing to do with you."
He raised his eyebrows. "How do you know they have nothing to do with me?"
"Because I can tell you're dying to know what's going on." She smirked. "Peter's in the conference room with Hughes, by the way." She paused. "Before you ask me again where he is."
He said nothing for a moment, face stoic. He could be patient if Peter was with Hughes. That was a meeting he didn't want to interrupt or be present for if possible. He then cleared his throat. "You want coffee?"
"Huh?" She frowned. She had briefly turned away from him and now turned back, raising her eyebrows.
"Coffee," he repeated slowly. "Dates back to the tenth century. It's a brewed drink prepared from roasted coffee beans."
She rolled her eyes. "Thanks for the history lesson, genius. No, I'm good." She gestured towards the small pantry of the office. "And there's a full pot of perfectly good free coffee right there if you're so inclined."
"Was thinking to go down the street." He shrugged. "Not feeling the generic swill this morning."
"Generic swill," she echoed skeptically. "I'll be sure to tell Peter that. He was the one to put on the last pot."
A second pot before nine. Neal tried to be nonchalant. "What time did he get here?"
Diana put a hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me? Do I look like his personal assistant?"
He chuckled good-naturedly, though a little apprehensively, and she rolled her eyes yet again at him before walking away. Neal turned his gaze once more towards the conference room on the second floor. What the hell was going on? And when had it started?
He flipped the hat once again in his hands. At that moment, the meeting in the conference room seemed to break. The door opened and people started to walk out. Peter was included, walking out in step with Hughes, where they stopped for a moment outside the doors to chat. Neal tried to watch their expressions and to see if he could read their lips, but they had both shifted so they weren't directly facing the floor. The discussion was brief, and after a moment, Hughes walked away towards his office.
Peter turned then and his eyes scanned the floor, stopping when he met Neal's gaze. While Neal pushed himself up from the desk to stand, he caught the distinctive headshake of Peter. It was a "no" of some kind, which didn't sit well with Neal. He didn't like the word 'no.' It was one of his least favorite words. On the same list were prison, jail, confinement, consequences, and radius. Despite this, he respected the request for that moment and remained in his place.
Another agent then seemed to catch Peter's attention and his back was once again turned away from the rest of the floor.
What was the 'no' for? Neal wondered. Don't come up there? Maybe he didn't want to. His eyes caught movement of Hughes outside the conference room. He definitely didn't want to.
The plan to go get real coffee formalized itself in his head. If he wasn't going to be included here and they wanted him to stay on the sidelines, then the least they could allow him was to be caffeinated.
Fifteen minutes later, he was back at his desk with a macchiato and much appreciation for the coffee place down the street. He had barely stepped inside the building, sat down in his chair, and taken a first sip of the liquid when Peter showed up at his desk.
"Where have you been?" came the admonishing tone.
Neal allowed himself to swallow and savor his coffee drink as he turned his eyes upward to the irritated man in front of him. He knew (or was pretty sure) it wasn't real irritation, not at him anyway. Nonetheless, he avoided Peter's eyes and instead studied Peter's tie. It looked new. Maybe Elizabeth's influence. "What do you mean?" he asked. "I've been here. And is that a new tie?"
"Here?" Peter echoed. His hands went to his hips as his chin jutted out in the direction of the coffee cup. "You sure, Neal? You weren't here ten minutes ago and that has five blocks away written all over it."
"Well, I was here until I very briefly stepped out for coffee, and now I'm here again." Neal frowned. He put the coffee cup down on his desk. Getting better coffee than what the office had to offer was not illegal. He had reminded Peter of this multiple times. "This is good coffee. You know if you venture just down the block—"
"No venturing. We're going undercover. Now. You ready?"
"Undercover?" Neal smiled. Finally some action. Undercover was good. He liked undercover. Maybe he would finally get something interesting to do before he had to create his own interesting. "Yes. What do I need to do?"
Peter's hands remained on his hips. "You need to sit in the van, watch, and listen. Quietly. I'll fill you in on the ride over."
Neal felt his stomach turn. His smile faded. He couldn't even bother to try to remain emotionless then.
"Neal, don't start. Don't give me that look," Peter told him with a sigh.
Neal couldn't help the look. Well, he easily could but didn't want to. This was not the undercover he enjoyed. The undercover he enjoyed involved assuming a character, getting his anklet taken off, and turning himself over to that persona. It involved adrenaline and thinking creatively. It made his heart beat faster and made him feel alive. And it didn't involve the van. The van shouldn't even be called undercover, not in a million years, and not just in his humble opinion.
He only hoped Elizabeth hadn't made sandwiches.
The van didn't offer excitement, not even versus the past month of administrative and paper-heavy cases. And while it felt good to close cases, he was starting to feel a bit of a void from an adrenaline perspective.
He had even been tempted to create a case of his own to give the team a real chase. He'd gotten excited about it at one point, planning it out, but he also was pretty sure that it wouldn't go over well when solved. Even if he framed it as a scavenger hunt type of ploy. He'd mentioned it to Mozzie as a sounding board, who had listened attentively with mild amusement at the plan but then reminded him that 'wasting federal resources and time' would likely result in undesired consequence. Neal hated hearing his least favorite words from Mozzie.
"But, Peter…" he started. He hated that his voice sounded whiney, but he also wasn't going to pretend he liked the idea. "Why the van?"
"No." There was the headshake again. "Enough, Neal. You're going to like the case once I explain it to you." Peter glanced behind him at the rest of the office. "Listen. I need your thoughts on this one. But Cyber Crimes isn't too keen on…. On, you know."
"Me?" Neal guessed. He picked up his coffee and then leaned back in his chair. He was in no hurry to take a ride to sit in a van somewhere.
"No, nothing to do with you specifically," Peter said, a little too quickly.
Of course Peter would try not to make it personal. "Of ex-felons," Neal supplied. He took another sip of coffee. Man, it was good. Peter had no idea what he was missing out on while insisting on drinking office sludge.
"No, not that either," Peter answered, though his tone faltered slightly. His hands dropped from his hips to his side. "We need to go. You ready? Or you want to go to the bathroom first?"
Neal curled his fingers around his coffee cup, rolling his eyes slightly at Peter's question. Why did he always treat him like a child? Need he remind him that he had been one of his most elusive fugitives, outsmarting the FBI at every move, constantly keeping them on their toes? He didn't need to be reminded of bathroom breaks.
"It's going to be all day in the van," Peter explained, noticing the eye roll and providing the same back. "Don't complain later or try to use that as an excuse."
Neal sighed. Needing a bathroom was one of the many excuses that would get him out of the van. He'd perfected getting out of the van with creative yet believable cover stories. Elaborative excuses worked well. But complaining and driving Peter crazy was also a valid option.