Fandom: White Collar
Rating: PG, allusions to violence. Gen. Set immediately after "Countdown" and spoilers for same.
Prompt(s): chrissilh87 's prompt here. With a little deviation.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Author's note: Title from here.
Summary: "Elizabeth Burke didn't want to see Neal Caffrey."
Elizabeth Burke didn’t want to see Neal Caffrey. Initially, right after they rescued her from Keller, Peter said she wasn’t up for visitors. She spent a day and a half in the hospital. Longer than typical for the broken arm and bruises she’d gotten trying to fight off Keller. It was probably mostly so the FBI could clean up her ransacked home and her husband could install a brand new state of the art alarm system.
At first, when he couldn’t see El at the hospital, Neal worried that Keller had done something worse to her. There were worse things than being violently abducted from your own home, and Keller was capable of all of them. And this, he actually asked Peter about. He could have posed as a hospital employee and asked El’s doctor, or just stolen her chart.
But he didn’t. He wasn’t going to do illegal things, or even remotely questionable things, around El.
“No,” Peter said, when Neal finally managed to ask him if she had any been harmed any worse than he’d been told. “Broken left arm. A little dehydrated.”
Neal didn’t say anything, because “good” wasn’t appropriate and he didn’t want Peter to think about what else could have happened. He just nodded and let the relief swell in his chest.
Peter wasn’t angry at him, anymore. Probably because Neal had been the one to locate El, and figure out what Keller had planned. Peter blamed Mozzie for everything. With Keller and Mozzie gone, Peter’s rage had evaporated. He was so relieved to have El back and so focused on her, he didn’t seem to have much emotion left over for Neal.
Neal didn’t get to see El in the hospital. He brought flowers, which Jones intercepted at door.
“She’s sleeping,” he said. “I’ll make sure she gets these.”
The next day, when Neal came back, El had been released. Her room was empty, except for his bouquet. A note in Jones’ handwriting asked the hospital staff to donate it to another patient.
Peter took some personal time, staying home while she recovered. Neal called a couple of times, hoping Peter would invite him over so he could see that El was okay with his own eyes, and apologize in person. But Peter never asked him to visit. Neal considered just showing up, until he remembered the last unexpected guest at the Burke’s house had been Keller. Also, their home was technically outside of his radius. He’d been basically granted an exception to go there in the past, but now he wasn’t so sure. Diana had none too subtly dropped hints that his tracking data was under much greater scrutiny now. The FBI hoped he’d contact Mozzie. He wouldn’t, though, and Mozzie was certainly through with him.
Eventually, Neal tried El’s cell phone. She didn’t answer. He ended up apologizing to her voicemail, as sincerely as he possibly could. She never called him back. Neal decided that calling multiple times might qualify as harassment, even though he wanted to do it.
Peter returned to work a week and a half later. It was good to have him back. Neal wouldn’t admit it to anyone, and definitely not to Peter, but he was pretty useless around the office without Peter there. He could consult on other agents’ cases but they usually only wanted him to determine if various documents were counterfeit. That was quick work and he wasn’t involved in the investigation or the eventual take-down.
The office was boring and kind of lonely without Peter. None of the agents paid particular attention to him after they realized that the resident con on an ankle monitor actually didn’t work much differently from them, he just wore much nicer suits while doing it. Jones was friendly, but extra busy while Peter was away. Diana continued to get off on intimidating him, either because she thought it was funny or because she did it naturally and couldn’t stop. He suspected the latter.
One thing that mildly surprised him in Peter’s absence: Neal wasn’t tempted. He wasn’t tempted to lift interesting things from the evidence rooms. He wasn’t tempted to intervene in semi-legal ways in any FBI investigations. He wasn’t tempted to access forbidden files in the FBI database. An agent bumped smack into him and Neal didn’t even bother to yoink his badge.
Neal had become boring. Or maybe this was what impulse control was like, a thought that sounded suspiciously like Peter’s opinion. All it had taken to reform Neal where years of incarceration and authority figures yelling had failed was the completely unintentional, uncontrollable harm that come to Elizabeth Burke.
Neal didn’t tell Peter that, either.
Peter’s return didn’t change much. Neal was excited to get back in the field, but he didn’t want to act like Peter’s absence during El’s recovery had been a burden on him.
For his part, Peter didn’t say much about his wife. When Neal asked, he just said, “Well. She’s doing well. Healing quickly. She doesn’t have to wear a cast or a brace thing anymore.”
That started a discussion among the agents about the various bones they’d broken in the line of duty and what casts they’d had to wear. Neal couldn’t participate since he studiously avoided breaking parts of himself, and also he really didn’t like to think about the fact that El had been hurt in the line of duty as Peter’s wife.
Unfortunately, Peter’s first case back was a giant, incredibly convoluted financial fraud case. No field work, just hour after hour of staring at spread sheets and trying to figure out who’d moved money where. It made Neal’s eyes cross and he discovered that at least he still had some criminal inclinations, because he thought of about 20 different misdemeanors that were more interesting that this work.
Work had changed a little bit. Peter didn’t work as much overtime, anymore. Out of Peter’s presence, Jones let it slip that El didn’t like being alone in the house after work very much now. Completely understandable, Neal thought.
One night of the unending spreadsheets, Neal noticed it was already past Peter’s usual departure time. They were getting close to the money’s final movements, though.
“Why don’t you go home for dinner?” Neal suggested. “I can come over and we can finish these off tonight.”
Peter glanced at the clock, did a double-take. “Dammit,” he muttered, standing up. “I didn’t notice.”
“We’re almost done,” Neal said.
“We can finish tomorrow,” Peter said. He shook his head. “I think I might be going blind.”
“I’ve started dreaming about databases,” Neal admitted. “I’m trapped in one and none of the functions work.”
Peter laughed. “I used to dream about fake bonds. That was your fault,” he added. “Good night, Neal.”
Finishing up work at Peter’s house had been a fairly usual thing, before. Neal only realized it had stopped completely when he asked a couple of other times after that and Peter always turned him down.
Neal shouldn’t have been bothered by it. It meant he got to go home, too, after all. He shouldn’t have been bothered by less work. It would have given him more time to do other things, except he really didn’t have other things, anymore. Mozzie was gone, of course. Sara had gone to Europe in pursuit of one of her insured paintings. He couldn’t really help her there, what with his radius. June was also out of town, escaping the winter in some place warm and tropical.
Usually, when Neal got bored, he got criminal. This was a tried and true pattern in his life up to now. But nothing appealed to him.
El went back to work about a month after her ordeal. Neal only knew because Peter’s hours changed again. They became more typical of the workaholic he’d always been. It was back to late nights and weekends, as long as El had an event.
At first, Neal was thrilled. As thrilled as one could be about working overtime and spending Saturdays in the office. Which was very, since otherwise he was pretty much alone and bored in his apartment.
But he’d kind of expected things to go back to normal. Like they were pre-treasure, pre-Keller catastrophe.
And they didn’t.
Peter wasn’t cold to him, exactly. He really wasn’t. Neal didn’t think Peter would hesitate to toss his ass back in prison if he’d truly decided Neal was responsible for El’s kidnapping, or even if he had any hesitations about working with Neal now. But all the same, Peter didn’t pretend like it had never happened.
There was a distance, now. Part of it probably came from Peter’s reduced hours. He wasn’t in the office as much, and since Neal had been banished from the Burke home, that was the only place they saw each other.
Things were just different. Peter didn’t joke with him as much. Hadn’t even threatened to put him back in prison recently, which had always been part of their repartee. Of course, maybe Peter thought that was less funny and more of a distinct possibility, now.
For his part, Neal didn’t know what to do. The joy was gone in teasing Peter, because he didn’t want to remind anyone about what had happened. It wasn’t as fun to do and he really didn’t want to risk crossing any newly formed lines.
So, he behaved himself. He worked really hard on their cases. He tried his best to be a man that made Peter’s life easier, not the guy who had set the ball rolling on really terrible things happening to a woman who hadn’t deserved it all.
But even if Peter didn’t bring it up – and Neal certainly didn’t – they both knew he was one and the same.
“Hey boss,” Diana asked, “What wine do you want me and Christy to bring tonight?”
They were at the conference table, still chasing that damn money across twenty-nine spread sheets and seven banks. Neal personally felt the guy they were after had, at this point, earned it.
“Red,” answered Peter. “No wait, white.” He paused. “Can you just bring beer?”
Diana laughed. “I’ll call El.”
“I’ll bring the beer,” Jones promised.
“Good man,” Peter said.
Neal didn’t look up from the spreadsheet. That stung, more than a little. He’d suspected for a long while now that El didn’t want him around her. She had every right to feel that way. It just stung. Thankfully, discussion of dinner plans dropped in favor of math and the logistics of international bank fraud. And the fact that this made him happy, he realized, was deeply depressing.
The rest of the team packed it in early – at the same time, of course – because they were all going to the same place. Jones and Peter cleaned up their work stations and were talking in the bullpen. Neal stayed focused on his work, until Diana flicked the lights off and on in the conference room.
“Come on, Caffrey,” she said. “Clean up.”
“I’m good,” he said. “Making progress in Colombia. Do you think this guy is working for a cartel?”
“I think I’m hungry and I don’t care.” Diana flicked the lights again.
“I’m not. I’m just gonna stay a little longer.” He looked at her, raised his chin.
“I want to go home,” Diana complained, and played with the light again.
“Then, go! Okay!” Neal snapped, in a tone usually reserved for saying something much ruder and four-lettered.
Diana stared at him, and Neal immediately raised his arms in surrender. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you have to secure the evidence. I’m sorry,” he said again. Neal closed the files and saved the work on the lap top before shutting it down. Diana continued to stare at him, so he apologized again. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “That wasn’t about you.”
“What was it about?” she prompted, raising an eyebrow.
“This guy,” he said, lying. He tapped the file. “He’s pissing me off.”
“Yeah.” He nodded, rose from his seat. “It’s just frustrating.”
He collected the documents and handed her the computer to lock up. She took the evidence from him, still watching him intently. “Caffrey,” she said. “Learn to deal.”
Neal had no idea if she actually believed him or was talking on another level. Because it was hard to focus when he was upset, and wow, he was normally way better at this. “Okay,” he said, as she walked off.
He glanced through the glass where Jones and Peter were standing in their coats. Neal met Peter’s eyes for a second, and Peter gave him a weird wave salute thing. Diana joined the men and the three walked out together.
Neal went home alone. He didn’t have big plans for the night, beyond a book from June’s library and maybe a bottle of wine. Because finding solace in alcohol was a good life choice.
He got an unexpected visitor after dinner. As he lay on the couch with his wine and his book, Alex Hunter waltzed right through the door.
“Hey Neal,” she said. “Your locks leave a lot to be desired.”
Neal sat up. “Did you bust my doors?”June would be pissed.
“Maybe one of them,” Alex admitted. “No welcome back?”
“Welcome back,” he said. “You could have knocked.”
“I did,” she said. “You probably didn’t hear me over the wine.”
Neal scowled at her, but she joined him on the couch. And then she stole his wine.
She drank the rest of it as they talked over the next few hours.
“I heard what happened,” she said. “Mozzie, Keller, Agent Burke…I kind of expected to find you in jail again.”
“Yeah,” Neal said, honestly. “Me, too.”
“I helped,” Neal told her. “They blamed Mozzie.”
“Keller goes after Agent Burke’s wife,” she marveled. “And everything just goes back to normal?” She hovered an index finger over his face and he smacked it lightly away. “I’d like to bottle some of that charm.”
“Not exactly,” Neal said.
“El – Peter’s wife – hates me now,” he admitted. “She blames me, I guess.” Alex tilted her head. “I haven’t seen her since it happened.”
“Is that awkward?” Alex asked. “I thought her husband holds your leash.”
Neal wasn’t drunk enough to let that slide entirely, but he was too busy spilling his guts to really argue. “He does.” He shrugged. “And it is awkward. We used to do stuff. Now we just work. And Peter works a lot less, so he can be home in case another psychopath breaks in.”
“Plenty of psychopaths out there who don’t know Neal Caffrey,” she said. “Not like you sent Keller.”
"Not on purpose," Neal said. "None of it was on purpose."
"Does that matter?"
Neal shrugged. "Not to the woman he kidnapped and beat, no."
Alex winced. "I can see that perspective," she said, after a minute.
"I see it, too," Neal assured her. "I just can't do anything about it. I can't undo it."
“Are you telling me that you’ve lost your little FBI friend?” Alex teased.
Neal paused, objecting to the phrasing but not the sentiment. “The FBI,” he changed the subject. “We’re, I mean, I’m chasing this guy who did about 3 billion in bank fraud. He’s really good. I think some of that money was real and he got it from a Colombian drug cartel.”
“Three billion,” Alex whistled. “Got his number?”
“No,” Neal said. “Also, Colombian drug cartel.”
Alex shrugged. “I know Spanish.”
Neal reached over and tried to take his wine back, but she pulled it out of reach.
“Jealous?” she asked.
“It’s my wine,” he retorted, and made a more valiant effort to get it from her.
“Not the wine,” she said, when he’d successfully retrieved and discovered that between the two of them, the bottle was empty. “Senor 3 billion.”
“Not really,” he said. “I have a life rule against pissing off cartels of any kind.”
“But I bet he’s having so much fun,” Alex said.
Neal shrugged and Alex stared at him. “What the hell did you do with Neal Caffrey?” she asked.
“Neal Caffrey I know doesn’t get drunk and sulk on his couch,” she said. “And he’d appreciate 3 billion. He also wouldn’t be chasing the guy that stole it, unless he thought he could take some.”
“I probably could,” Neal said. “The FBI hasn’t found all the accounts yet. It’s not all real. He’s using the 3 billion fraud to move the real amount, probably. But if he’s using 3 billion, it’s got to be…”
“Many millions.” Neal nodded. “Why don’t you go after him?” Alex asked. “The fun way?”
Neal lifted his pant leg, waved the anklet around. Alex shook her head.
“I could do the travel parts. And I could take 60% percent of the earnings.”
“You’re looking for a job?” Neal asked.
“I’m always looking for a job,” Alex said. She pointed at him, then at herself. “You remember how this works, right?”
Neal shook his head. “Now’s not the time for me to try to pull anything. I could give all 3 billion of it to orphans and I don’t think it’d change anything.”
“Wow,” Alex said. “You know, I’ve never seen you this depressed. Not even in prison.”
“You never visited me in prison,” Neal said.
“I don’t go to prisons,” she replied. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
Neal paused, found that he couldn’t.
“I think you have two choices,” she said.
“You can cut that anklet off, rediscover your soul, and accept that you were never meant to make friends with the FBI.”
“Run.” She nodded. “And my second choice?”
“End your deal and go back to prison. They’re paid to punish people, Neal, they’ll do a much better job of it than you’re doing to yourself.” Neal stared at her, as Alex rose. “I can help with the first one,” she offered. She shrugged, then smirked. “If you want to take the fall on a couple missing things, I can help with the second one, too.”
Neal stayed on his couch, empty wine on the floor, as she found her way out.
For as much as she’d been trying to be bait him, Neal found he couldn’t get Alex’s suggestions out of his head. He didn’t so much like the options as much as appreciate them as solutions.
The office was awkward. Peter had to work with a guy El hated. And since Peter liked to work all the time, that was messing up his life. Neal could see that, even if Peter hadn’t noticed. Neal had done things, however unintentional, which had irreparably damaged their relationship. Anyone other than Peter would have punched Neal in the face and then sent him to prison.
Neal understood why he hadn’t, sort of, in the same way that he understood he’d had no way of knowing what Keller would do.
But it had changed everything. Maybe Peter wouldn’t have called Neal a friend, before, but whatever appreciation they’d had for each other had certainly dwindled. Sometimes, Neal got pissed at Peter for not being madder at him. A good punch to the face at the beginning might have made everyone feel better. Or maybe the stomach. Neal liked his nose the way it was.
Neal wondered: if he ran now, would Peter even come after him? That would get in the way of the new schedule he kept. He’d be away lots, like the first time he’d chased Neal. El wouldn’t like that.
He was not allowed to be angry at El. This, he knew. She had a right be angry at him, and a right to want her husband home more. She wasn’t an FBI agent – hell, she wasn’t even a FBI consultant – and had no reason to be involved with violence and crazy people with guns. Neal had caused that to happen.
Maybe they’d be glad he was gone.
That was probably wishful thinking. Peter would probably view his departure as a betrayal – another one – and come after him with a vengeance. It might actually help their working relationship, since they’d always been friendly when Neal was a fugitive. But, it would technically end the ‘working’ part.
Running seemed hard and exhausting to contemplate. He’d be alone. Alex might be able to help, but Peter would come down on her, too. Having worked so closely with Peter, Neal had greater respect for the man’s abilities than the first time he’d been wanted by the FBI. Jones and Barrigan were on his side, too.
Getting captured again would just be embarrassing.
And then, there was prison.
Neal didn’t like prison. But it also wasn’t the end of the world. He’d be able to manipulate enough privileges and exploit enough relationships to have a decent lifestyle, like before. But then again, even a nice prison was still prison. He would always prefer June’s apartment. Not being in prison would always be better than the alternative.
Out of curiosity more than anything else, Neal reread his contract. At any time, either party could void the arrangement. His time with Peter counted towards time served. That was all. One word to Hughes, and he could go back. Abusing the privileges of release – escaping – would get him essentially a life sentence. He’d never get parole again.
Unfortunately, he was reading his contract while he was supposed to be hunting down Senor 3 billion in yet another spreadsheet.
Diana came into the conference room and caught him.
“Caffrey,” she snapped. “What are you doing?”
Neal switched to the appropriate spreadsheet window. “There’s a lot of money in Bogota,” he muttered.
“Right.” Diana nodded. “We knew that yesterday. Anything else?”
Neal shrugged, didn’t resist when she leaned over him and used the laptop mouse to open the minimized document window back up.
“Thinking of leaving us, Caffrey?” she asked, when she saw which page he’d been on.
“All the time,” he answered. “We’d get a lot more done if we just went to the banks and asked all the damn tellers he’s bribing who we’re looking for.”
He was being unnecessarily hostile, and he knew it. Partially because he was right, but pointing that out would highlight their new conspicuously less fieldwork arrangement and remind everyone of exactly whose fault it was. Partially because he was pissed that Peter had sent Diana to check on him in the conference room while staying in his own office right down the hall. And partially because getting mad at Diana was at least productive, because she’d get mad right back.
“You’d think they’d tell us?” Diana asked, incredulous.
“They’d tell me,” Neal retorted.
Then he dropped a few more choice comments with the words ‘stupid,’ and ‘incompetent,’ aimed clearly at the federal workforce, and shouted right back at Diana when she started yelling.
He still had manipulative skills, because very shortly Peter was in the room, yelling until he defeated them both in volume.
“Diana!” He looked half-furious, half-bewildered. Neal had never caused this kind of scene before, after all. “Caffrey! Shut the hell up!”
Neal closed his lips, tried to look put upon. Couldn’t be too obvious about the fact that he didn’t even cared about the argument beyond deliberately provoking Diana.
“He-” Diana started.
“No,” Peter cut her off with a raised hand. “No.”
Diana quieted, shaking her head and glaring at Neal.
“Everyone shut up,” Peter said, even though it was silent. “Caffrey, go home. “
“What?” Neal said. He gestured at his computer. “But, I-”
“No,” Peter said. “You can’t work without a tantrum? Go home.”
“I can,” Neal said, suddenly feeling very foolish. This hadn’t worked at all.
“No, you can’t.” Peter looked disappointed and annoyed. “Jones,” he called. “Drive Caffrey home. Now, please.”
And then Peter left the room and returned to his office without another word.
“Is that what you wanted?” Diana asked, pointedly.
“Yeah,” Neal muttered. “I guess.” He stood up to grab his coat.
“Something’s wrong with you,” Diana said, as he moved towards the door. The expression on her face said she’d figured out it had nothing to do with her.
“I’m sorry,” Neal managed, as he went to meet Jones and follow him out of the building.
The following day, Neal was back alone in the conference room. Peter had a bunch of meetings at another federal building all day. Jones was with him. Diana had been giving Neal a wide berth, but not without a couple of searing glances that suggested he should probably stop taking anything out on her if he valued his life. Eventually she came and sat at the other end of the table, but only because they had to share documents. They worked in silence. If Neal wanted a folder, he got up and took it from her end of the table. If she wanted one, she tapped the table opposite whichever stack she needed and he slid it down to her. It was quiet and peaceable, but Neal was not particularly proud of what he’d done yesterday. That was becoming a key theme in his life.
Neal looked at the little icon representing his contract on his desktop. He didn’t click to open it, this time.
It’d be very easy to surrender to Hughes at the end of the day. He could by-pass Peter, entirely. It’d be much less humiliating. Hughes might not even ask any questions before calling the Marshals. Neal would be back in prison by the end of the day. His parole, or rather the ridiculous and awful thing it’d become, would be over and everyone could just get back to their lives. He could do it now.
Neal looked down at the spreadsheets. It’d be nice to catch Senor 3 billion before he went. A small parting gift to the FBI. Who knew, maybe he’d have an epiphany after lunch.
Lunchtime came. Neal was just going to order a sandwich for delivery. He could work through the hour, and if he left the building, well, he might not come back. He was feeling both flighty and resigned. A turkey club was the safest bet.
Diana had opened and microwaved Tupperware. The scent of her meal – Kristy’s homemade curry – made Neal’s stomach rumble. He took out his cell phone to call the deli that made routine trips to the federal building, when someone cleared their throat behind him. Diana pointed with her chin over his shoulder, and Neal turned.
Elizabeth Burke stood in the conference room door.
“Hi,” she said.
Neal just stared at her, too shocked to speak.
“Uh – Peter’s not here,” he said, when his brain kicked back on.
“I know,” she said. “Would you come have lunch with me?”
The shock came back. “I-” he stammered. He stood up, found that didn’t help. “I have to stay in my radius.” It was the only thing that occurred to him.
“I’ll call the Marshals,” Diana said, and her cell phone was already out. “You’ll have until one.”
“Thanks,” said El.
“Okay,” said Neal, and he blindly followed El out of the conference room. He glanced backwards at Diana on the phone; she pointedly raised an eyebrow at him, which he didn’t understand at all.
El didn’t talk in the elevator. Neal couldn’t come up with anything, either, idly checking to make sure his jaw wasn’t actively hanging open.
He hadn’t expected to see her. He might have never expected to see her again, ever.
She looked different. Or maybe that was because he hadn’t seen her in so long. Her hair was shorter and curlier.
She looked okay, was his first thought. All the bandages and bruises were gone. But of course they were: it’d been almost 3 months. She looked like it had never happened. El was clean and coiffed, as usual. Her shoulders seemed a little tense, but that was probably about being in the elevator with him.
Neal followed El to a cramped but excellent Chinese place two blocks outside his radius. They walked in silence. Neal decided to let her be the first one to speak. She had a purpose for this visit. If he started talking, he might just apologize for fifteen straight minutes.
El waited until they ordered. Neal stumbled over his choice, unable to focus on the menu. His appetite had also vanished.
“Neal,” she began, after the waiter left them.
“Your hair looks nice,” he interrupted. She blinked at him, thrown off. “I hadn’t seen it.”
She tucked a curl behind her ear. “It’s been like this a while.”
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Neal said, and immediately cursed himself for how resentful that sounded. “Are you okay?”
His plan to let her take the lead was out the window, but he really wanted to know. El seemed a little confused. She nodded. “I’m fine, now.”
“Good,” Neal said, and shut up. But she didn’t start, like his question had made her lose her place. “I called you,” he said. “I don’t know if you got it. I apologized. I never meant for you to get hurt and I would have done anything to prevent it.”
“I got it.”
“Oh.” He didn’t know what else to say. “Well, I meant it.”
“Peter said you helped rescue me. Thanks, belatedly, I guess.”
Neal shook his head. Like there’d been an option.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” El continued.
“I thought you were angry with me,” Neal answered, honestly. “I figured you never wanted to see me again, to tell the truth.”
The corner of El’s mouth curled up. “I was angry, to tell the truth,” she recited his words back. “At first. It was really scary, Neal.”
He just nodded, not sure he wanted to hear about it. Actually, pretty sure he definitely didn’t. “Are you still angry?”
“No,” she said. Warm relief flooded his chest. “If I want to sound like a mom, more disappointed. I wish you hadn’t done any of that.”
Neal couldn’t help but smile a little, even appropriately chastened. “Me too,” he said. “Believe me.”
“I do,” El said.
And just like that, Neal felt a thousand times lighter. Like her forgiveness had just taken away the misery of the last couple months. And it must have shown on his face, because she reached across the table and her put hand on his.
“So,” he asked, after a moment. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh. Right.” El sighed and retracted her hand. “A couple of reasons.” She sounded serious, but nothing she could say could possibly ruin his mood or the gift she’d just given him.
“One,” she began. “Peter is being a giant, smothering jerk at home. Two, Reese called me recently to ask if something was going on at home that could be affecting Peter’s work.” She looked at Neal and continued. “And three, Diana called me yesterday and said you two are acting weird and you’re throwing tantrums when you want Peter’s attention. And that this has been going on for a while.”
“Not tantrums,” Neal said. El raised an eyebrow. “Diana had the tantrum,” he defended himself.
El leaned forward. “What the hell is going on?”
“Um,” Neal stared at her. “You know how your husband and I tend to think along similar lines?”
“Sure.” El shrugged. “You think the illegal way, he usually doesn’t.”
Neal frowned, but moved on. “I’ve been under the impression that you don’t want me around. And I got it from Peter.”
“That might have been true right after,” El said. “I didn’t want anyone around.”
“Also, that you didn’t want to be home alone,” Neal continued. “He’s changed his work schedule so he’s home when you are. And he doesn’t take work home anymore.”
“Yes, he does.” El said. “But-“
“He doesn’t take me,” Neal said.
“Oh.” El looked shocked. “I thought it was a radius thing. That they were being stricter.”
“No,” Neal said.
“So that’s why you stopped coming over.” Neal nodded. “What does that have to do with what’s going on at work? What’s-”
“He thinks you don’t want me around,” Neal repeated. “El, what would you do if there was someone Peter really hated at your work?”
“Tell him it’s none of his business?” El retorted.
“With a pretty valid reason,” Neal tacked on at the end, wincing.
“I would…” she trailed off, speaking slowly. “Probably spend a lot less time with them so Peter wouldn’t have to deal with them at all.”
“Yeah,” Neal said.
El closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them. “He’s ignoring you, you’re acting out – which really pissed off Diana, by the way – and it’s affecting your jobs. And then he comes home and smothers me because he had a terrible day at work and he’s not talking to his friend anymore.”
“Noooo,” Neal said, drawing it out. Not exactly.
“He smothers you because a psychopath kidnapped you,” Neal said. “Can’t really blame him.”
“He got me a stun gun, self-defense lessons, and a therapist,” El said. “I don’t need the smothering.”
“Did he put an anklet on you?”
“Don’t give him any ideas,” El replied. She paused, then laughed. “Neal, I’ve missed you.”
“You have no idea,” Neal said. “I was about to send myself back to prison because you hated me.”
“Really?” El stared at him
“Hmm.” Neal looked sideways. “Please, don’t tell Peter about that.”
“He doesn’t need ideas,” El agreed, but she was smiling like she might cry.
The waiter arrived with their food, set the dishes out.
“So, how are we going to fix you and Peter at work?” Neal opened his mouth, but El went on. “I think you should come over for dinner tonight.”
“Okay,” Neal said.
“Unless you have plans to be in prison, or something?” El asked, and Neal shook his head.
Neal went to the Burke’s for dinner. Like he’d done many times before, at least before that awful day three months ago. He brought a fancy wine for Elizabeth and beer for Peter. He wore a nice suit Peter would think was ridiculous. He had to call the Marshals and they confirmed it with Peter. So, it wasn’t a surprise or anything. But Neal was bizarrely nervous.
But Peter was nervous, too. He hid it by being brusque and curt, and making rude comments about how some of the meetings he’d attended that day had been about having a con artist consultant in his unit.
“I could go to three less monthly meetings if I sent you back to prison,” Peter said. “You know that? Totally worth it.”
And that was the first time in months that Peter had reverted to that threat. It made Neal smile.
“You would miss me,” Neal said, as he took a seat at the table.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Peter retorted.
“Your clearance rate would,” Neal said. He grinned as El brought their plates out.
“So, honey,” she said. “What are you two working on these days?”
“Mind-numbing bank fraud, I told you,” Peter said.
“Mind-numbing,” Neal agreed. “But you got to give the guy credit. If the FBI can’t find him, the cartel probably can’t either.”
“What cartel?” Peter asked. “What are you talking about?”
“The money keeps moving between Colombia and Texas,” Neal said.
“I know,” said Peter. “And Florida and nine other states.”
“Some guy is stealing Colombian drug money,” Neal said. “And he combined it with large-scale bank fraud because he’s either really greedy or he’s hoping to distract everyone.”
Peter’s fork hit his plate. “Were you planning to share this information with the rest of the class, Neal?”
“I did,” he said. “I already did.”
“No,” Peter said, “You definitely didn’t.”
Neal shrugged, unwilling to admit that solving the actual case might have not have been at the forefront of his mind. “Well, I just did.”
“Maybe food stimulates his mind,” El suggested.
“It does,” Neal agreed, taking a bite of spaghetti. “Delicious, El. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “I’m so glad you came to dinner.”
“Me, too,” Neal said.
“Me, too,” Peter repeated, in a considerably less pleased tone. He had to work at it, though. “Any other breakthroughs, Neal?”
“As a matter of fact,” Neal began, and Peter rolled his eyes. “We could solve this case tomorrow if we’d just go to the bank he’s used in New York.”
“Let me talk to the teller, take a look around. Figure out what exactly he’s doing.”
“Because you have a detailed plan for how’d you’d move 3 billion dollars?” Peter asked, frowning.
“I do,” Neal said. “As of recently.”
“You should go,” El said. “Hell, go to the bank in Texas. It’d be a nice vacation.”
“I’m not letting him get that close to the Mexican border,” Peter said, pointing at Neal. “Let’s start in New York, okay?”
“Okay,” Neal agreed, and El smiled.
~Please Feed the Author~