So I have no explanation for what this is, other than I was doing my taxes today and then struck with hours of insomnia. I had no intention of writing a new WC fic, especially while finishing Adrenaline but it just happened. I apologize in advance for typos and unresolved endings...
Peter's suspicion was first raised when Neal seemed quieter than usual when the topic came up.
Usually, the man had plenty to say about any topic, even if it was only to add a quick quip to the discussion, usually in order to garner attention or a laugh. Often he had something more substantial to offer in a comment, but regardless, Caffrey would be part of the conversation.
When he went quiet, it was usually a signal to be on alert. Neal Caffrey was rarely quiet, and when he was, it was frequently correlated with trouble.
"I just need to organize myself and do it earlier this year," Diana was saying. They sat around the conference room table, surrounded by case folders and cardboard cups of stale coffee from an earlier run to the bakery down the street. The conversation had turned from the case itself to a topic more personal and deadline driven.
"I already filed," Jones responded, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest.
Diana rolled her eyes in response. "Overachiever as usual."
"What?" Jones objected in defense of himself. "Like you said, it's just about getting organized. I gave everything to my accountant last week."
"Well, there you go. You're not actually doing it yourself."
"Of course not. Trust me, it's worth the fee," he answered. "A couple hundred bucks is worth the piece of mind…"
"Tell that to El," Peter responded with a chuckle. "She insists we do it ourselves each year. Refuses to pay someone else to do it."
"Man…" Jones shook his head and laughed lightly. "I get the savings, but… I just can't bring myself to do it without an accountant."
"It's not a big deal." Peter shrugged, reminding himself that it was on his list of chores this weekend to actually sit with El and start to compile their records to get ready to file. He mentally made a note to mention it to her later that evening.
It was then he noticed Neal wasn't really engaged in the discussion. Sure it wasn't the most tantalizing topic, but normally the younger man had a comment or two (or countless comments) for any subject matter. This time he wasn't involved in the slightest, seemingly disinterested or distracted.
Peter watched him as the conversation progressed, with Diana and Jones now discussing what they planned to use their tax refunds for. Making any sort of purchase was usually something that garnered Neal's utmost attention. Instead, Neal's posture in his chair was lax, and his head was leaned back, tilted away from the others at the table, focused on the windows, through which a late February snow could be seen, falling flakes looking heavier than they had an hour ago.
"Neal," Peter said.
Neal jerked his head at the sound of his name, turning his attention to silently meet Peter's eyes with a deep blue gaze in return. He looked a little alarmed, as though he'd realized he had zoned out and had potentially missed something. But he said nothing.
"How about you?" Peter asked him directly.
Neal stretched in his chair, and Peter wasn't sure whether it was meant to straighten his slack posture or if it was actually more of a squirm. "What?" Neal asked, clearly not following the question.
Peter resisted commenting on his atypical distracted mood, a contrast to the Neal that was usually leaning forward, elbows on the table, eager to be part of a discussion or to be the center or it, and instead clarified his question. "Did you file your taxes yet?"
Neal stared back at him, pursing his lips. Then he slowly shook his head. "No."
Peter maintained eye contact with the blue orbs, trying to read them. Neal's face was passive, revealing nothing. He was now motionless in his seat. Peter offered, "You need help?"
Neal seemed surprised by the question. A brief flash of emotion was quick and fleeting across his face, and he opened his mouth slightly, as though wanting to answer, before pausing and closing his mouth again in reconsideration. Then, after a brief pause, he simply responded with a small shake of his head and a, "No, that's okay." The whole response, including initial reaction, took seconds.
Peter nodded, accepting the answer. He'd offered. What else could he do? But what else was there in those eyes? "What else are you thinking about?"
Neal turned his head again towards the window. "The snow," he replied.
Peter studied him briefly. The snow was likely not at the forefront of Neal's private thoughts, but he didn't press it. Instead he turned his attention back to the rest of his team and cleared his throat. "Alright, guys. We're White Collar, not the IRS. Let's drop the tax talk and get back to this case."
That was when Neal reengaged, shifting his chair a little closer to the table. He reached over for a particular case file and said, "I have a theory."
Peter frowned slightly. Quiet, almost despondent, one moment and engaged in the next….
"Alright, Caffrey," Jones said casually with a small smirk. "Let's hear it."
Neal flashed a pearly white smile across the table and began to talk. "Well, I was thinking it over…. And I think it's a Rip Deal."
"A Rip Deal?" Diana repeated skeptically.
Neal nodded, looking pleased at the confusion he had received in response to his statement. Neal always got that slightly smug smile when he was able to put himself in a position of intellectual superiority versus his federal agent colleagues.
"You know what that is?" Jones asked Peter, turning his head to view their superior.
Peter nodded slowly. "Yeah," he answered. "I do. And I hadn't thought of it, but it's a possibility." He gave Neal a small, encouraging nod. "Go ahead, Neal. Run with it. Explain what you mean."
At the reassurance, Neal flashed another brief smile, and started to confidently talk. Peter only winced slightly when he began that next phase of the discussion with the opening line, "Okay. Here's what I would've done…"
Later that night, Peter couldn't help but revisit the brief moment with Neal from the office earlier in the day. It replayed in his head, and he found himself unable to focus on the book he was attempting to read, lying in bed beside El, who herself was engulfed in a thick book in silence.
"There was just something about the way he responded…" he said slowly.
El slowly lowered her book to rest it against the comforter pulled up to her chest. She glanced at her husband with a sigh. "Really? This again, Peter?"
"I know," he answered, shaking his head slightly. He closed his own book, resting it beside himself on the nightstand, resolved that he wasn't going to get past that page tonight. "But there was something there…"
"You're making substance of nothing, from what you told me," she answered slowly. "He told you he hadn't done his taxes yet, and you offered to help, and he said no." She gave him an incredulous look. "What else is there?"
"Something…" Peter responded. "He had this look in his eye."
"A look," she repeated.
"And I know that look," Peter told her.
"Of course you do."
Peter frowned, thinking back to the conference room. "That look is bad news."
"Honey, maybe he simply hates tax season like the rest of us," El said impassively. "I mean… It doesn't seem the type of subject he would get very animated about."
"I'll check his tax return history tomorrow," Peter answered conclusively, deciding upon that as a natural, logical next step.
"Honey, what?" El responded in surprise. "Why?"
"Maybe there's something there. I've never checked his taxes before."
"Honey, he's an adult. That's—"
"He's a ward of the state," Peter corrected. "My ward. And anything I want to know is in my purview. He gets no secrets. He knows that."
She raised her eyebrows and sighed. "Okay…. But… Why not just ask him?"
Because that would be too simple, Peter thought to himself briefly. The reality was, if Neal were hiding something, he would likely want to keep it hidden. Asking him might seem simple, but he might also put Neal in a position to lie. And Peter didn't want to be lied to, and didn't want to deal with proving the lie and the aftermath of that. So he'd rather not give Neal that option.
"I'll figure it out tomorrow," he told his wife. "But I know him. If I get a feeling like this, there's usually a reason."
She sighed and picked back up her book. "Hopefully this time will prove you wrong…"
At ten o'clock the next morning, Peter had his answer.
He stared at the report on his computer screen in slight disbelief and then shook his head. He got to his feet and moved around his desk, getting to his doorway and scanning the floor until he came across the desk of his CI. Neal's head was bowed down over some paperwork, a pen in his hand.
"Caffrey!" Peter yelled into the bullpen.
A few others looked up, but most paid no attention. It wasn't a rare occurrence to hear that named yelled out.
Neal on the other hand stared up from his paperwork, locking his eyes on Peter and his location on the higher floor with concern.
Peter didn't need to say anything else. He simply made the eye contact and then made an all-too-familiar gesture. The two-finger point and motion that told Neal to get his ass in his office as soon as possible.
Peter then returned to his desk, sinking back into his chair to wait for his errant CI, (who would certainly one day be the death of him), picking up a pencil to tap it impatiently on his desk. This was not how he'd expected to spend his morning.
Neal was in his office within a minute, a cautious look on his face as he strolled into the doorway, leaning against the frame of the entrance. "Peter," he greeted, tone a little wary, as though he sensed he was in some sort of trouble.
"Shut the door and sit down," Peter told him.
Neal still remained somewhat expressionless, taking seconds as he hesitated slightly to comply with the request before resolutely giving in, finally moving into the room and pulling the door shut behind him. "Before you say anything," he started in a calm tone as he was facing the door, "it's important to note that I actually only had it for five minutes, if that long, and then I gave it back. Completely intact."
Peter stared at the younger man in incredulity. He found himself initially speechless, but then asked, "Neal, what the hell are you talking about?"
Neal turned back around and moved further into the office. He lowered himself slowly into the chair in front of Peter's desk, eyes conveying somewhat of an apologetic look. "I only—"
"I think you want to think twice, Neal," Peter said stiffly, shaking his head. "You're about to confess to me something I didn't even know about."
Neal frowned, folding his hands in his lap and suddenly becoming tightlipped. His chest rose just noticeably with the deep breath he took.
"Though now you have me curious…" Peter continued slowly.
Neal tilted his head slightly, seemingly a little relieved that his original concern wasn't a valid one. At least yet. "I can attest it won't happen again," he said simply, cryptically.
Peter frowned. "Whatever it is, you want to tell me before I find out?"
Neal regarded him for a moment, and then gave a small shake of the head to the negative.
Peter raised his eyebrows and then lowered the pencil in his hand to place it on his desk. "You know it'll be worse for you if I find out myself. Last chance…"
Neal shifted in his seat, but then shook his head again. "No," he decided.
"Suit yourself," Peter responded with a shrug, mentally noting to later check with Diana and Jones if they had any idea what this almost-confession might possibly be related to.
"So if it's not about that," Neal began, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms over his middle. "Then what is it?"
Peter glanced again at his computer screen, at the telling report. He then turned his attention back to Neal, who looked like he was forcing his current suave expression but was anxious to understand why he'd been called into Peter's office.
"Neal…" Peter started slowly, leaning forward slightly to rest his arms on his desk. "I asked you yesterday if you'd filed your taxes yet. Remember?"
Neal pressed his lips together, frowning slightly but nodding.
"What'd you tell me?" Peter asked.
"That I hadn't," Neal responded, a little tentatively.
"Did you leave something out?" Peter persisted, eyeing him with scrutiny.
"No…" Neal answered slowly. He kept his arms folded over himself, as though it was like a shield, and shook his head slowly.
Peter exhaled in exasperation and couldn't help but slap his hand down on his desk, a little harder than he'd intended. "Neal…" he said in frustration, shaking his own head. "Kid, don't lie to me. Please."
Neal watched his handler and continued to maintain a passive expression, though his one leg had started to bounce in a clear tell of his nervousness. "I'm not," he insisted. "You asked me if I filed yet, and I said no. I haven't. What's the big deal? Diana said she didn't either."
Peter gave him an incredulous look. "Neal… There's an important distinction to make here," he started, trying to keep his voice at a calm level but hearing his tone elevate. He didn't know why he suddenly felt so personally impacted by this, but as with most things related to Neal Caffrey, he did. "And that distinction is that you've never filed taxes."
Neal responded back with a furrowed brow. "Peter…" he started.
"Ever!" Peter shouted the word.
Neal looked a little taken aback by the reaction. "Why are you mad?"
"Because you're an adult!" Peter responded back, continuing to shake his head. "As my wife always reminds me, and yet you've never simply filed your taxes! And you lied about it!"
"I didn't lie, Peter," Neal answered back defensively, a small scowl crossing his face. "You asked me if I filed yet this year," he answered. "It's true I haven't, and I said no."
"Is it true you had no intention to?" Peter retorted. At Neal's blank stare back, he continued. "Neal, there's a difference!"
Neal looked unconvinced. "Maybe this year I would've."
"Maybe. Would've," Peter repeated, stressing the words sarcastically. "Neal, don't play word games with me here."
"I'm not," Neal insisted. He unfolded his arms, resting his hands on his slacks and sighing as he gave Peter an earnest look. "You don't know what my hypothetical intentions were."
Peter gave him a look. "Do you hear yourself?"
Neal just gazed back at him with blue eyes and a shrug.
"Why didn't you ever file, Neal?" Peter asked with a sigh. Perhaps there was some sort of reason for it, and maybe it wasn't harebrained.
Neal shrugged yet again, and then slowly said, "Mozzie said that taxes are an unnecessary paper trail."
Harebrained indeed. "An unnecessary paper trail…" Peter echoed, tone skeptical. He could think of a few choice words for Neal's unsavory friend and his poor influence on his behavior next time he saw him.
"I doubt I owe taxes anyway, Peter." Neal paused. "At least on paper."
On paper… Peter hated the progression of this conversation. "What do you mean by 'on paper'?" he asked skeptically, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
"I mean officially," Neal responded, as though it was the most innocuous response in the world.
Peter narrowed his eyes just slightly.
"I get a paycheck," Neal continued, a little defensively, "and it has taxes already taken out. So I've paid my taxes." He shrugged and slouched down in his chair just slightly.
"Neal, you need to file," Peter persisted.
"Why?" Neal answered doubtfully. "And why do you really care?"
Peter viewed him with forced patience. "Because it's my job," he said stiffly, "to make sure you're a law-abiding citizen while you're on my watch. That's why."
"I didn't break any law," Neal objected. He added, "Related to taxes anyway."
"You did," Peter pointed out, shaking his head at the clarifying statement that was added. "Neal, there's even a failure-to-file penalty. Did you know that?"
"That can't be right. I'm sure if someone has a moral or a religious objection to paying taxes, then one of the amendments –"
"Stop." Peter raised a hand, cutting him off. "Just stop. I can ensure you that you don't have a moral or religious objection, Neal." He gave him a look. "And if you think you do, then we're going to have another conversation."
Neal squirmed slightly. He wasn't sure how Peter was able to get that reaction from him with just a look. He tried to straighten his posture in defense and continued to downplay the issue at hand. "I honestly don't think it's a big deal."
"Well, it is," Peter answered stiffly. "And you're going to rectify it. Immediately."
"Peter…" Neal whined just slightly.
"I don't think you're listening. It's a big deal. Do you want to go to jail?"
Neal made a face, but hesitated slightly. He looked a little skeptical but asked, "Can you really go to jail for not filing?"
"Yes," Peter lied. That wasn't quite true, and he felt slightly guilty for the untruth when he stressed honesty as the number one rule between them, but didn't correct himself. He rationalized he could technically jail Neal himself if he chose to over it. They had holding cells. And it was a threat that was usually effective with him
"But they'd have to find out," Neal pointed out.
"Just like I'm going find out about whatever other nonsense you were prematurely apologizing for when you came in here?" Peter retorted.
Neal rolled his eyes but then responded defensively. "You won't find out."
"You seem to be willing to make that bet," Peter answered back, tone a bit cautious. "On the taxes, you do realize the IRS is literally across the street from us. You walk past them when you go to that Starbucks up the block."
Neal frowned at him. "So what, you're going to tell them?" he asked with some underlying sarcasm.
"How old are you, Neal?" Peter asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Why?" Neal narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You know my age."
"Just trying to think about how many years you owe."
"Owe?" Neal echoed. "I thought this was about filing, not owing." He made a face. "Besides, maybe they owe me money. Maybe I deserve a refund."
"You deserve something, that's for sure," Peter muttered.
"Besides, isn't there a statute of limitations?" Neal continued.
Peter sighed. "I think they can assess back three years," he acknowledged. This was predictable. Here came Neal's negotiation skills and intelligence in an attempt to get out of this.
"And are you exempt if you're in prison?" Neal persisted.
Peter eyed him warily. "Not necessarily. Did you earn income while in prison?"
Neal let out a small laugh and flashed a smile. "Officially?"
"Neal…" Peter warned, patience quickly waning. "Take this seriously."
"I am," Neal responded, though he was still smirking.
Peter got up from his chair and walked around his desk, moving to sit against the front of it, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at Neal. He noted with a small sense of triumph as the smirk on the younger man's face dissipated. "Neal…" he began.
"I'm taking it seriously," Neal asserted sincerely. "I am, Peter."
"Tonight," Peter began, "you're going to go home, and you're going to fill out a tax form for this year. Understand me?"
"Can I do it online?"
"I don't care if you do it online or you do it offline," Peter answered stiffly. "You're going to do it, and you're going to show it to me tomorrow."
"Peter…" Neal sighed, looking uncomfortable. "You can't make me do my taxes. Besides, it's not due until—"
"Enough," Peter interrupted, a little impatiently. "I can and will make you. If you don't have it on my desk tomorrow, then clearly this conversation isn't enough and there will have to be other consequences."
Neal simply grunted at this, glowering slightly under Peter's intense stare.
"I'm serious. You got it?" Peter repeated.
"Fine," Neal responded, shifting in his seat and glancing to the side, a little despondently. "Can I go now?"
Peter sighed. "Yes. Fine."
Neal pushed his chair back and stood, giving Peter a frustrated look. "You're an ogre sometimes," he told Peter as he stepped away towards the door. "I just want you to know that."
"An ogre," Peter repeated, raising his eyebrows.
"Yes," Neal answered, reaching for the door handle.
"I can live with that," Peter told him. He watched Neal shake his head as he left his office. "Death and taxes, Neal!" he called after him. "The only two certainties!"
"Whatever," Neal responded back, not turning as he returned down the stairs towards his own desk.
Peter simply sighed.
There were worse names to be called, he supposed.
Twenty-four hours later, Peter was mildly relieved and impressed when Neal came into his office with a confident smile and a handful of papers.
"Did you do it?" Peter asked him with a small smile himself. Had Neal really listened? Was this day actually off to a good start? Since getting to the office that morning, he'd actually been trying to decide on an appropriate punishment in response to Neal not listening. He suddenly felt relieved to not have to reprimand him for once.
"I did," Neal responded back. "It wasn't so bad."
"See?" Peter answered, a feeling of pride setting in. "It's not so bad." He held out his hand. "Let me see."
"Here," Neal answered, handing over the pages. "And I was right, I do deserve a refund." He sat down across from Peter into the same chair as the day before.
Peter felt a little skeptical at his comment and started to scan the forms. He read Neal's full name, Neal George Caffrey, printed neatly in black ink in Neal's handwriting.
He only made it to the section below his address, noting June's townhome address detailed, when he stopped short and looked up.
"Neal…" he said, tone laced with warning. Suddenly his feeling of satisfaction and pride was dissolving unceremoniously.
Peter studied him. Neal's expression was one of complete innocence, blue eyes wide. "Is this a joke?" Peter held up the pages skeptically.
"No," Neal answered. "Why?"
"If it's not, and you're serious, then we have a problem."
"What do you mean?" Neal persisted, still maintaining an air of guiltlessness.
"Neal, when I told you to fill this out last night, I thought it went without saying that you were to fill it out correctly."
"I did," Neal responded. "I even read the instructions." He paused. "Mozzie helped."
"Mozzie…" Peter repeated, pursing his lips slightly as he considered his next words. He worked his jaw. That explained it…
"You're mad," Neal observed.
"I am," Peter acknowledged. He personally felt his patience with Neal, with the man's natural penchant for mischief and backtalk, was usually commendable. He was fairly certain other agents would have snapped long ago if they were Neal's handler. Fortunate for the younger man, Peter had even somehow developed a soft spot for him, which saved him in many circumstances. But this time…
"Why?" Neal asked. "I filled it out, just like you asked."
"Well, to start off, Neal," Peter started, tone stiff, "you don't have any kids." He was starting to feel pretty annoyed that Neal didn't seem to see the issue. He lifted up the papers, jabbing a finger at that section.
"I could," Neal pointed out.
"You don't," Peter answered, a little sharply.
"I know," Neal acknowledged. "But that doesn't just include children. I told you, I read the instructions. Those are some of my other identities. They are my dependents."
Peter simply stared at him. He couldn't initially think of a response as he listened to the way Neal spoke, fluent in bullshit. "Neal…"
"Mozzie said to maximize my deductions," Neal persisted. "I had a question on the dependents though. I can list them as deductions, but I don't have to include their income, right? Only my 'official' income is applicable here?"
"Maximize your –" Peter cut himself off, feeling disbelief as he tried to keep up with Neal's comments. Neal's aliases have supplemental income? Did he want to know? "Neal…" He shook his head. "You can't claim these as dependents. You—"
"Why not?" Neal objected. "They are dependent on me. I fund them. Those are real social security numbers, by the way. So when I read the instructions—"
"No, Neal. Clearly you didn't comprehend the instructions. James Bonds," Peter spoke angrily, clenching the hand that didn't hold the papers into a fist, "is a ridiculous alias, Neal. Not a person you can claim on your taxes."
"Okay, fine," Neal answered with a shrug. He appeared disappointed but unwilling to fight it. "I'll remove him."
"And the others," Peter said rigidly. "None of them are your dependents. That's like me listing Satchmo as a dependent."
"I didn't list him," Neal stated. "Mozzie said only one person can use each dependent's name. I figured you'd already included Satch on yours. Or would."
Neal just stared back at him, unblinking.
Peter was afraid to go through the rest of the return. Did Neal really think this was okay?
He flipped through the pages as Neal watched him, seemingly unscathed by Peter's initial criticism of his forms.
"And this…" Peter started, staring at the boxes filled in on the pages of itemizations. "What's with all these medical deductions?"
"I was very sick last year."
Peter looked up from the pages and back at Neal. Neal still continued to look blameless. Peter stared at him in awe and frustration. "No. You weren't."
Neal sighed. "Peter, Mozzie said to –"
"I don't want to hear it," Peter interjected. "You don't see the irony that you're now garnering tax advice from the same person who originally convinced you not to file your taxes?"
"And these charitable donations?" Peter looked at Neal with incredulity. "Are you serious?"
"I included my aliases' donations too," Neal responded. "Like I said, I fund them, so..."
Peter swallowed back a retort and reminded himself that storming around the desk to physically throttle his CI wouldn't accomplish anything. It certainly wouldn't fix these forms.
"I have supporting documentation for everything in there," Neal added, tone a bit defensive. "So if anything needs backup—"
"Did you forge that backup, Neal?" Peter countered.
"Not me, per se," Neal answered.
"Your aliases count as you, Neal," Peter retorted stiffly. "You can't just deny culpability and blame a fake persona when you do something wrong."
Neal paused. Then he stated, "So this is wrong."
"Yes… So wrong… You know that, Neal," Peter responded, sighing. "Tell me you know that."
"I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one that takes some liberties on their taxes."
"Liberties?" Peter repeated. He shook his head. "Exaggerating donations a little bit? Maybe. But this?" He held up the pages in his hand. "Neal, how did you think I'd react to this?"
"I wasn't sure how closely you'd look at it," Neal admitted, now looking a little uncomfortable.
"Neal, I could barely make it off page one!" Peter exclaimed, still somewhat in disbelief. "It's not just filling it out correctly, Neal… It's filling it out honestly!" He shook his head. "You know what this is?" He held his hands over the pages, gripping them at the top, as he then slowly ripped them in half. "This is fraud."
Neal just watched the action silently.
Peter put the ripped pages down on his desk and regarded Neal with frustration. "This is a big deal, you realize that?"
Neal blinked. Peter's tone was heavy, more-so than angry, and that got to him. He hesitated, trying to decide how to respond. Then he cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I'll redo it."
"Were you serious?" Peter asked him, wishing the whole thing had been a joke.
"I knew it wasn't entirely accurate," Neal acknowledged. "But considering my bracket, and the number of filings each year, I figured the chance of anyone taking the time to audit it was low, and Mozzie said –"
"Just stop. Neal. Do me a favor," Peter said, cutting him off. "If you need advice, come to me, please. Understand?"
Neal shrugged. "Okay."
"I offered to help you," Peter reminded.
"I wasn't sure you meant it."
Peter frowned at that. "Well, I did," he responded. He sighed. "Listen to me, Neal. Yesterday when I told you that you can go to jail for not filing taxes, that wasn't entirely true."
Narrowing eyes, Neal looked annoyed. "But—"
Peter held up his hand to deter the clearly rising objection Neal was about to voice. "But, Neal, tax evasion is another story."
"Evasion?" Neal echoed. He shook his head. "I paid taxes."
"Neal, you did, but evasion is more than that… It includes evading the assessment of a tax. Like filing a fraudulent return. That's five years, Neal."
"Okay…" Neal said slowly. He started to look a bit more reprehensible. "But I didn't file this."
"I know, Neal. But I need to make sure you're hearing me. This is just as serious as your other forgeries. Got it? Ignorance isn't an excuse."
Neal nodded slowly. "Okay. I get it." He paused. "I'm sorry, Peter." He ran a hand through his hair. "Are you mad?"
"I'm actually more disappointed," Peter answered honestly. He had felt a wide array of emotion during the conversation, spanning from disbelief to anger, but it did all come back to disappointment in the end. Neal was smart. And these pages…. This wasn't smart.
"Sorry," Neal repeated. He fidgeted a bit in his seat. He suddenly looked equally let down by the situation.
Peter sighed, studying the younger man for a moment, rubbing his hand over his jaw and then the back of his neck. Exasperation was exhausting. "Listen, Neal… Come over tonight after work. We'll fix it."
"Fix," Neal repeated.
"Yes," Peter affirmed.
Neal looked uncertain. "You don't have to punish me for it," he asserted.
Peter let out a small laugh at the comment. "Unless you consider dinner with me and El followed by me fixing your taxes punishment, I'm not going to," Peter answered, rolling his eyes slightly. "Though you might find your mortgage fraud caseload doubling this week."
"Peter…" Neal objected.
"I don't think you want to push me, Neal." Peter shook his head warningly. "Also I think you forgot something." He nodded towards the papers discarded on his desk.
"What?" Neal asked.
"This is federal and state. There's city tax also."
Neal looked underwhelmed. He sighed.
Peter gave him a sympathetic look. "Buddy, I know you hate paperwork… But—"
"Death and taxes," Neal responded back with a frown. "So you've said."
"Good. You're learning."
Later than night, with a glass of wine in hand, Neal sat side-by-side with Peter on the couch in the Burke's home, watching the man type into the laptop balanced on his knees. They were both dressed casually in jeans, and Neal had noted Peter's evolution into what he called 'home' Peter, which was a less formal and less rigid version of the man he saw at the office. He wasn't sure how much of that was attributed to being home in itself, versus El, who just had a calming influence over everyone.
He was impressed and a little confused by Peter's patience. At the office, he'd been irritated and clearly 'disappointed,' as he put it himself. But not once that night had Peter referenced the fraudulent forms that they had subsequently shredded at the office. Dinner had no discussion at all of taxes – federal, state or otherwise –and Neal had enjoyed the chicken cordon bleu that El had prepared paired with real conversation.
Now, post dinner his taxes were at the forefront of attention, but still without any admonishment. Peter seemed fully focused on actually helping him. Neal didn't have to do much at all, never mind apologize again, beyond bringing over specific documents like his W-2, and simply being present.
Watching Peter transcribe the information methodically into the online form, Neal focused on the screen with an intent frown. It all actually seemed somewhat straightforward.
"It's weird I never did this before, isn't it…?" Neal asked slowly, tone a little tentative and slightly self-deprecating. He didn't want to interrupt Peter but felt remiss not to comment. "Most normal people do this every year." He glanced at the small pile of paper records sitting on the coffee table. "Right, Peter?"
Without looking at him, Peter's right hand strayed from the keyboard and moved to squeeze Neal's knee, a hard squeeze, before then patting his thigh briefly. Then his hand returned to the keyboard and to typing. "You're fine, Neal. The last decade of your life hasn't exactly been typical." His eyes stayed locked to the screen
Neal shrugged, glancing over at Peter briefly. The man was a different version of his typically suit-clad self at home, now in jeans and a sweater. Neal almost felt like he was imposing on a Burke evening. Neal took a sip of his wine, and then glanced up in the direction of the kitchen. "Maybe I should help El clean up."
"She's got it," Peter responded dismissively. "We're almost done with this form, Neal. I promise."
"Okay," Neal agreed, though a little reluctantly. He didn't mean to come across as impatient, but he also wasn't sure why Peter was being so nice. He'd been reluctant to come over. The previous tax return, which in the earlier night under the influence of a bottle of wine and the duress of an overzealous accountant version of Moz, hadn't seemed like a big deal until he handed it to Peter. It was just paperwork. But as Peter reacted to it, Neal then realized he'd messed up. It was no different than handing Peter a forged painting and confessing to it.
And because of that, he'd expected a different environment tonight.
He still wasn't sure if he was still in for an unwelcome surprise. Perhaps Peter wanted to take care of the administrative details first and then would turn on him.
So he remained slightly on edge.
Prior to the deal with the FBI, Neal found himself accountable to himself and no one else. Mozzie rarely presented himself as an authority figure unless he strongly felt something was in Neal's best interest. And so Neal had learned to dismiss relatively instinctual feelings of guilt, to be replaced by a prioritization of self-preservation and opportunism.
With Peter, guilt and second-guessing himself was now a recurring emotion. The previous day's request to simply fill out a tax return form was benign enough. And Neal had, in the literal sense, followed those instructions to the tee. However, the interpretation of the contents of those forms…. He felt a surge of regret just thinking about it.
He didn't realize he'd sighed out loud until Peter paused in typing and turned to look at him.
"You okay?" Peter asked.
"Yeah," Neal answered, now feeling self-conscious.
Peter glanced down at the glass of wine in Neal's hand, now empty. "You want more wine?"
"No." Neal leaned forward and placed the glass on the coffee table.
Peter reached for his own drink, a bottle of beer, taking a quick swig before returning the beer to the table and focusing again on the online form. "Do you want to do direct deposit?"
"Huh?" Neal frowned. "For what?"
Neal's brow furrowed deeper. "I get a refund?"
Peter glanced at him with a chuckle. He elbowed him gently. "Are you surprised? Earlier today you had quite a refund… This is a fraction of that, but… Still… It's yours. I just need to go through it one more time."
There was an allusion to the earlier tax forms. Neal noticeably stiffened.
Peter quickly typed a couple more keys and then paused, leaning forward to place the laptop on the coffee table. He then focused on Neal, shifting his weight to turn towards him.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Nothing." Neal felt confused.
"I'm almost done," Peter told him, as though the timeframe was the concern.
"Why are you even doing it?" Neal blurted out. He caught Peter's reaction of brief surprise, and then added, "I mean, I can do it. I know I did it wrong. And I'm sorry I did that. But I get it now, and I can do it."
"Neal…" Peter started, voice soft. "Your taxes are very straight forward. I don't mind."
"But you don't have to."
"No, I don't," Peter acknowledged.
Neal frowned, glancing at the laptop and then back at Peter. "Mozzie said I shouldn't give the government my account details, and I kind of agree..." He cleared his throat. "For direct deposit," he clarified.
Peter frowned, but nodded and didn't object. "Sure."
"Is that stupid?"
"It's up to you…"
"But I can do it myself," Neal offered again. He frowned at the laptop.
"Neal, it's easy," Peter assured. "You should see our taxes. Joint returns, with stocks, property taxes and mortgage interest…. It gets more complex. Yours is easy."
Neal didn't look convinced.
Peter reached for the laptop again, lifting it back to his lap, and then shot a quick glance to Neal. "I know you want another glass of wine. Go get it. I'm almost done."
Neal was ready to protest but stopped himself. He glanced at his empty glass of wine, and then at the laptop screen, filled with the forms he'd previously used his imagination to populate. It was safer letting Peter handle this. It wasn't wine he wanted. It was a brief escape.
He pushed himself up from the couch without a word, grabbing the empty wine glass and making his way to the kitchen.
He was in time to catch El just closing the door to the dishwasher, turning on the cycle to take care of that day's dishes.
She turned at his entrance. "Oh, hey, Neal."
"Your husband loves paperwork," Neal responded, pausing at the kitchen island and placing his empty glass on the surface.
She smiled, wiping off her hands on a dishtowel as she turned to him. "Sometimes, yes," she agreed. "You know he wanted to be an accountant at one point, earlier in his career?" she added. "So you needing help with your taxes is actually something he's enjoying."
"Enjoying?" Neal echoed. He glanced back towards the other room with a frown. "Really?"
"Really," she affirmed, chuckling. She moved to grab the open bottle of wine from the counter behind her, then taking the steps towards Neal's empty glass. "You want more of this one?"
"Yeah, thanks," he responded. He still frowned towards the other room.
"Peter likes order," she explained as she poured him another glass of wine. "I guess that's why he liked accounting. There are clear rules, instructions, and boxes to fill in…"
Neal nodded, digesting that as he watched the red liquid refill in his glass. "His real job isn't really that black and white."
"That's true," El responded, nodding. "But, Sweetie, that's why it's a challenge. And Peter needed a little more of a challenge than filling out forms, as satisfying as that might be. Surely you can see that. Now that you know him."
Neal slowly considered that and then nodded again. He saw that. "Yeah."
"So your taxes," she continued, raising her eyebrows. She stood beside him. "You really never filed?"
"He told you that?" Neal sighed, taking the glass in his hand and raising it to his lips. He took a small sip as he considered his response. "I mean… It's true. I never did. I just… I never even thought of it."
"Well, like it or not, now you have an accountant," El responded, nodding her head to the other room. "He complains that I'm the one that refuses to pay for a real accountant." She scoffed. "Why would I pay to take that small joy away from him?"
Neal finally smiled a little bit. "Really?" He started to feel a bit of his edge wear off.
"Really," she answered, leaning in to nudge him with her shoulder. "Don't tell him I know."
Neal's smile widened a bit. "I felt bad," he admitted. He didn't even want to mention the details of his other tax return, which he assumed Peter hadn't shared, considering he had driven Neal to his home and they had been together the rest of the evening. Maybe he would tell her that night.
"Bad about what?" she answered skeptically. "Don't." She shook her head. "He loves helping you. And he loves taxes."
"Why?" Neal asked.
"Like I said," she answered with a smirk. "Order. Taxes are the exemplary exercise for order."
Neal nodded, though he wished he'd gotten an answer to the former question rather than the latter. "Thanks, Elizabeth."
"For what?" she responded. She nodded again towards the other room. "Go ahead, Neal. Go to Peter."
He glanced around the kitchen. "Do you need help?"
"No. But thank you. I'll be in there in a minute."
He gave her an appreciative smile and then took his wine, walking back into the other room. Without saying anything, he returned to his place next to Peter on the couch, glancing at the screen.
"You like this," Neal told him.
"Hm?" Peter glanced at him, then back at the screen. "Are these donations real, Neal?"
"They're real," Neal answered, leaning back into the couch a little distractedly.
"They are?" Peter picked up a couple of pages from the pile of paper on the coffee table and scrutinized them. He glanced back at Neal.
"I wouldn't lie to you, Peter," Neal persisted.
Peter frowned at the papers and then looked up at him briefly. "It's a lot of money."
Neal shrugged. "Official money."
Peter studied him for a moment, and then he nodded. "That's good, Neal."
Thanks? Neal thought to himself, though he didn't find the voice to actual say it out loud.
"Okay." Peter pressed a few more keys. "Done. You ready to submit it?"
Neal met Peter's eye contact. He shrugged. "Yeah?"
"Yeah?" Peter echoed. "Nothing else, right? Nothing you want to retract, or add?"
Neal swallowed and gestured at the papers on the table. "Peter, that's all I have. And that's all true."
Peter nodded. "Alright. Good. Then let's submit."
Neal nodded back. "Okay."
Peter clicked a few more buttons. Then he closed the laptop and again leaned forward to place the device on the coffee table. "There," he said, leaning back into the couch after grabbing his beer. "You're done." He looked satisfied.
"Thanks, Peter," Neal answered.
Peter nodded. "Sure."
"I'm sure this isn't how you wanted to spend your evening," Neal responded.
"It's okay, Neal," Peter assured, shaking his head slightly. "I'd rather spend an hour on this than have you submit that atrocity you created with Mozzie."
Neal rolled his eyes, shifting his focus to his glass of wine. He took a small sip of it, not feeling adept to respond.
"Now…" Peter started.
Neal felt his stomach turn slightly. He glanced up at his handler cautiously.
"The Rip Deal," Peter continued. "Tell me what made you think of that."
Neal took in Peter's curious expression and suddenly smiled. He relaxed a bit into the couch, leaning a little towards the other man. "Well, this one has a little to do with Moz as well…" he started slowly.
Peter rolled his eyes just slightly. "That man and I have a lot to talk about." He shook his head and nudged Neal gently. "Continue."
Neal finally felt a bit unwound. He slowly started to talk, for the first time letting his focus shift from the paperwork on the table to just the moment. Despite the subject, he felt Peter wasn't actually judging, and he was able to relax.
A few minutes later, right when Peter was actually chuckling at the animated recount of Neal's own 'Rip Deal' from years ago, Elizabeth joined them, sinking into the couch on Peter's other side with her own glass of wine.
Neal smiled, feeling a sense of peace in the household.
Maybe tax season wasn't so bad.