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[personal profile] doctor_fangeek
Title: A Puzzlement (or, Four Conversations about Neal Caffrey)
Rating: PG
Characters/Pairing: Peter & ensemble (Peter/Neal friendship, with sides of Peter & El and Peter & Mozzie, plus an appearance by Reese Hughes)
Length: 3382
Spoilers: Follows the events at the end of Season 1.
Warnings: None
Summary: Neal doesn't jump at the chance to get his old deal back after Kate's death. Peter doesn't understand. Conversations ensue. Takes place between the end of Season 1 and Neal fake robbing the bank in the first episode of Season 2.

AN: This is my entry for Round 4 of the great [livejournal.com profile] wcpairings exchange, modded by the lovely [livejournal.com profile] elrhiarhodan and [livejournal.com profile] theatregirl7299. Not beta'd, as I was still finishing up today, but many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] miri_thompson and [livejournal.com profile] theatregirl7299 for helpful brainstorming while I was working on it. Title from the song of the same name from The King and I (which I happen to have seen about a week ago at Lincoln Center). Written for [livejournal.com profile] aragarna, whose likes include Peter & Neal friendship, Peter & Mozzie friendship, Peter/El, and episode tags, especially for early seasons. I hope you like it!


Dammit, Reese!” Peter said, turning his back on his boss and running one hand through his hair in frustration. The two of them were standing just outside Hughes’ office. Peter glanced back down to the bullpen, but Neal gave no sign that he’d heard Peter’s outburst.

“This isn’t right,” Peter continued, quieter now, even though he highly doubted that Neal was aware enough of his surroundings to hear him.

“Peter,” Reese said, his voice level.

“He just saw the love of his life die, right in front of him,” Peter added, rolling right over his boss’ attempt to placate him. “And we’re going to toss him in a cell?”

“Peter,” Reese said again. Peter turned back to face his boss, and realized that the other man didn’t look any happier than Peter felt.

“You know how this works. We have to play by the rules. You’re facing a suspension and a hearing as it is.”

“So I’m just supposed to throw Neal to the wolves?” Peter took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down. “He wasn’t trying to escape.”

“That’s not up to us to decide.”

“So who gets to decide? He had a deal with OPR. And if it wasn’t for Fowler, Neal would have already finished his original sentence. He’d be a free man.”

“Look, Peter. You know I was skeptical of this whole work release idea. And I’ll probably always keep worrying about Caffrey going off the reservation and leaving you holding the bag.”

Apparently Reese could sense Peter gearing up to argue – he held up a hand and said, “Let me finish.”  Peter held his tongue. For now.

“It’s part of my job, Peter. And you can’t tell me you don’t worry about him either.”

Peter could only shrug and nod at that.

“But Caffrey’s done good work here. And he doesn’t deserve this. I’m on your side here, Peter. But unfortunately, it’s out of our hands. You need to back off right now, let things run their course.”

“Reese,” Peter said, his voice pleading, even as he realized that his boss was right.

“I can’t stop them from taking him, Peter. But I’m not entirely without influence, either. And I assure you, my official position, when I need to have one, will be that there is still a place for Caffrey here in White Collar.”

“Thank you, Reese,” Peter said, knowing that, angry as it made him, this was the best he could hope for. And Reese Hughes was about as well-respected an ASAC as there was in the FBI. His support would mean a lot.

Activity in the bullpen drew both men’s attention, and they looked down just in time to see a couple of stone-faced Marshals marching up to Neal. Diana was standing nearby, looking ready to jump in if they did anything questionable, but Neal, who’d been unnervingly quiet and docile since Peter had managed to stop him from running headlong into the burning wreckage of the plane, just stood up and turned around to let them put the cuffs on. He didn’t even look back as they took him by the arms and shepherded him out of the White Collar office.


“Dammit, El!” Peter said, throwing his coat over a chair. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Hello to you too, Hon,” she said, giving him a look.

Peter sighed heavily. “Sorry, Hon,” he replied, stepping up to her and leaning for a kiss.

She smiled at him. “Okay, now tell me what’s wrong with Neal.”

“That’s the thing, El. I just don’t get what’s going through his head. I’ve been working since I got my badge back to try to get his deal reinstated. Reese is going to bat for him. And what does he say?”

“I don’t know,” El said. “What did he say?”

“Can I get back to you?” Peter said with a frown. “He wants to know if he can get back to me. Does he want to stay in prison for the next three years?”

“Maybe he thinks he does,” Elizabeth suggested.

Peter hadn’t seen that coming.

“You’re telling me that you think Neal wants to be in prison? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Did you ask him why he wasn’t sure about going back to the FBI?”

“I didn’t really have a chance. His ‘lawyer’ showed up,” Peter replied, the air quotes clear in his tone.

“Mozzie?”

“Mozzie.”

“And when he asked if he could get back to you? What did you say?”

Peter took a moment to think about it, then sighed again. “I told him his only choices were to serve out his sentence with me, or to rot in there.”

It was Elizabeth’s turn to frown, but the teapot started whistling before she could comment. Peter was happy for the reprieve, however brief, and he got up to get the sugar and honey while El poured the water.

“So you were saying that Neal might want to be in prison?” Peter said when they were settled at the table with their drinks.

“I said that he might think he wants to be,” El replied, looking thoughtful. “Or maybe he thinks he should be,” she added. She took a moment to stir a dollop of honey into her tea, then gave Peter a raised eyebrow. “Oh, and don’t think you’re distracting me from you telling Neal his choices were you or rotting in prison.”

“It’s the truth,” Peter defended. El just gave him a look.

Peter sighed. “He took me by surprise,” he said. “I was expecting him to want his old deal. I’m sorry if I didn’t process him turning me down as well as I might have.”

“Oh, Hon. I understand. But there must be a reason why he’s hesitating. And I don’t think it’s because he likes prison, do you?”

“Neal may be full of surprises, but I’m pretty sure enjoying prison isn’t one of them.”

“So…why would he choose to stay there?”

“That’s the point, El. I have no idea.” During their days of cat and mouse, Peter had prided himself on being an expert on Neal Caffrey. Since he’d taken Neal up on his crazy work release idea, Peter sometimes thought he was only scratching the surface. And right at this moment, he had to admit that he was coming up completely empty. But El had made the suggestion…

“Why do you think he might choose prison, El?” Peter ventured.

“Remember what I asked you when you were trying to figure out what Neal’s angle was after you caught him and he suggested the whole work release thing?”

Peter thought back to their conversation.

“If I were Neal…”

“You wouldn’t have run for me?”

Elizabeth took a sip of her tea. “I don’t know what’s going through Neal’s head either. But I do know that he would have done anything for Kate. He tried to do everything he could to save her, and she ended up dead.”

“There’s nothing he could have done, El, other than get himself blown up with her.”

“Put yourself in his place, Hon.”

Peter sighed for what felt like the hundredth time in the conversation.

“Neal’s blaming himself for Kate,” he said.

“I think it’s worth considering,” El replied.


“Dammit, Mozzie! I thought you said you were going to talk some sense into him!” Peter said, moments after Moz had sat down on the next bench and blurted something about a blue jay and a mailbox.

Mozzie repeated himself.

“I did the newspaper thing. I’m not doing the ridiculous code words thing,” Peter groused. “So how about we talk about Neal? And I repeat, I thought you were going to talk some sense into him.”

“I told you I’d take it under advisement.”

“Don’t play games with me, Moz. Do you want him to spend the next three-plus years in prison?”

“Of course not, Suit.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that it doesn’t matter what I want.”

Peter shook his head. He wasn’t buying it. Mozzie wouldn’t just do nothing if he genuinely thought Neal was making a bad decision. Especially if that bad decision involved an orange jumpsuit. He might eventually yield to Neal’s wishes, but simply go along with Neal choosing prison over even the restricted freedom of “being on the Suit’s leash”? That didn’t sound right.

Peter turned around to look at Mozzie.

“Seriously, Suit!” Moz squawked. “There are rules!”

“Can it, Moz.” Peter snapped.

Mozzie must have sensed something in Peter’s tone, because he shook his head in disgust but didn’t object any further.

“Now talk to me,” Peter continued. “You know something. Maybe you’re not so sure Neal should take the deal? All he’ll tell me is that he needs more time to consider it. I worked my butt off to get him his deal back. It’s not going to be there forever.” Moz didn’t respond, though he was at least starting to look a little uncertain.

“I can’t help him if he won’t talk to me, Mozzie.”

“A lot of good you’ve done with that so far!” Moz shot back, sounding genuinely angry now.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Peter retorted irritably. He’d put himself on the line for Neal over and over.

“Maybe he’s better off just finishing out his sentence. Since he started working for you, he’s been shot at, tazed, and almost blown up. And give me a good reason why he should trust the FBI. He was going to serve out his time until Fowler went after Kate. And then the Pant Suit decides to use him as bait? But hey, he’s just a CI, no problem.”

Peter squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temples with one hand. It wasn’t as if he could deny any of what Mozzie was saying.

“So you think Neal is better off in prison than working with me? Neal thinks that?”

Peter looked at Mozzie, really looked, and was surprised to find that he appeared to be just as unhappy as Peter.

“I think it’s crossed his mind,” was all he said.


“Dammit, Neal!”

Peter stood up from where he’d been sitting across from Neal and stalked away. He didn’t actually go so far as to count to ten, but he did take a couple of deep breaths before he turned back. Neal, in his garish orange jumpsuit, appeared to be intently studying the table in front of him.

“Talk to him, Peter,” Elizabeth had said. “And I don’t mean just remind him that he’ll be rotting in prison if he doesn’t come back to work with you.” Peter gathered himself, took one more deep breath, and walked back over to take his seat opposite Neal again.

“I can’t help you Neal, if you won’t let me.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say, Peter,” Neal replied, eyes still on the table.

“I want you to give me some idea what’s going on in that head of yours,” Peter said, trying his best to sound encouraging.

Neal looked up at that, finally meeting Peter’s eyes, and Peter could see his uncertainty.

“Elizabeth thinks you’re punishing yourself for what happened to Kate,” Peter offered. There was a flash of pain in Neal’s eyes and then he looked away for a moment, collecting himself.

“Mozzie thinks you’re done with the FBI, that you’ve decided we’re more trouble than whatever you get out of the deal.”

Maybe neither El nor Moz was quite as sure of either of those things as Peter was making them sound, but the point was the same in any case.

“’They,’ Peter, not ‘we.’ You’re not the FBI,” Neal corrected.

“They, we, whatever,” Peter replied. “He thinks you think you’re better off just serving out the rest of your sentence.”

“What do you think, Peter?”

“I think I want you to tell me.”

Neal squeezed his eyes shut, clearly uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going. He just sat there, not saying anything, for what seemed like a very long time but was probably a couple of minutes. Peter waited. Finally, as he was about to give up on the conversation – maybe he should let Neal work through what Peter had told him and come back later – Neal spoke.

“They’re not wrong,” he said. “Moz wanted to break me out of jail, you know?” Neal continued.

“What?” Peter asked, feeling like he’d missed a couple pages of whatever story Neal was telling.

“After my trial. You came to see me the day before I was being transferred, told me to keep my head down and behave myself?”

“I remember.”

“Moz came later that day. He had a plan to somehow delay the transfer so he could get me out of there. I told him no.”

Peter just gave Neal a quizzical look.

“Is that really a surprise, Peter? I stayed in prison for almost four years.”

“Fair point.”

“I told him no because Kate was going to wait for me. I decided to do the time. And it didn’t matter in the end. I couldn’t protect her.” The pain in Neal’s voice was hard to hear, and Peter knew there wasn’t anything he could say to take it away.

“And you know what? It wasn’t Keller, or someone like him, that was pulling both our strings. It was Fowler, Peter. An FBI agent.”

“A rogue FBI agent,” Peter tried to counter.

“Fair point,” Neal replied, echoing Peter’s earlier words. “But what about Kimberly Rice? I’m just a tool in the FBI’s belt, Peter.”

“You know I don’t think that, Neal.”

Neal sighed. He ran a hand through his hair. Closed his eyes and opened them again.

“I know. Peter. And I appreciate that. But I just don’t know if it’s enough,” he said, sounding tired, and dropped his gaze back to the table in front of him.

“Look, Neal,” Peter replied. “I know I can’t make you feel any less guilty about what happened to Kate. You know what Elizabeth said?”

Neal looked up.

“She asked how I would feel in your place, if I wouldn’t feel even a little bit guilty.”

“Your wife is a smart woman, Peter.”

“She is. And she was right. And I can’t fix that. Any more than I can take back what Agent Rice did to you, or Fowler. But I can vet any other agents who want your help on a case. You’re not a library book that anyone with a badge can just check out.”

That got at least a brief smile out of Neal, but then it was gone and he was fixing Peter with a serious look.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Peter.”

“I won’t promise it will never happen, that you’ll never have to work with anyone else. But I can promise you that White Collar isn’t going to be in the business of loaning you out to anyone who asks.”

Neal didn’t look completely convinced.

“Hughes is on board with this, Neal,” Peter added. “And he has more than a little pull.”

There was a flash of surprise on Neal’s face. Peter knew that Neal wasn’t entirely sure where he stood with the head of New York’s White Collar division. That was probably a good thing, for the most part, but at the moment he had the feeling that Neal needed to know there were people in his corner.

“He may have been more than a little skeptical of this whole felon on work release thing, but he’s fair, and he knows you’ve been doing good work with us.”

“He told you that?” Neal said with a hint of the old Caffrey grin.

“Don’t push it,” Peter replied with a smile of his own.

“So,” he continued after a moment’s pause, “what do you think?”

Peter thought he’d been making some progress, and Neal at least looked like he was considering what Peter had said, but in the end, “I just don’t know, Peter,” was all Neal said in reply.

“Do you really think that staying in here will help?” Peter asked. “Is punishing yourself working?”

Neal hesitated, apparently thinking about his answer. “Maybe?” he finally replied, uncharacteristically uncertain. “Not really,” he added after a bit more thought, sounding frustrated, before settling on, “I don’t know.”

“So maybe it’s time to try something else?” Peter suggested, trying hard to keep his tone as neutral as possible, like he was just throwing out a suggestion. Pushing Neal at this point seemed more likely to lead to him digging in his heels than anything else.

Again, Neal looked like he was genuinely thinking about what Peter was saying. And again, he hesitated. Peter noticed that Neal’s hands were shaking, just before Neal slid them under the table and into his lap. He was looking increasingly distressed now, and Peter started wondering if there was maybe some angle he was missing, something none of them had thought of. He decided to just take the plunge and ask.

“Is there something else that’s got you worried, Neal? What am I missing?”

The strained look he got in return told Peter he was on the right track. And whatever it was, Neal was reluctant to share it, even with Peter.

Peter waited.

“I get so angry,” Neal blurted suddenly.

For the second time that afternoon, Peter felt like he was missing pages of the story, but he didn’t say anything, doing his best to give Neal the space he needed. He knew how hard it was for Neal, how reluctant he was to share too much, to let people in.

“Sometimes when I think about Kate, it’s like watching a movie,” he eventually said. “I see her in the window. I see the plane explode. And then I feel this rage. And I want him dead. Whoever did this. Whoever killed her.”

“Oh, Neal,” was all Peter said. Neal was in pain, terrible, overwhelming pain, and he wasn’t sure there was anything he could do to help.

“I’m afraid, Peter.”

It must have Neal seriously spooked, Peter thought, for him to admit to something like that. Neal Caffrey was unflappable. Neal Caffrey had an answer to everything. And if Neal Caffrey was in pain, he kept it to himself.

“What are you afraid of, Neal?” Peter asked gently.

“I’m afraid of what I might do, Peter,” Neal replied, his eyes once again glued to the table between them. “Someone killed Kate, and when I think about that moment, all I can think about is hurting them. I may not trust the FBI, but I could probably live with that, get over it. But I don’t trust myself.”

There was a desperate note in Neal’s voice with that final admission, and Peter was at a loss. He could encourage Neal to stop punishing himself, especially if it didn’t seem to be working. He could assure him that he and Hughes would do everything they could to prevent a repeat of the Kimberly Rice fiasco. But this?

Then again, maybe he could help….

“You’re not a killer Neal,” Peter said, his tone firm. “And you don’t hurt people.”

“There’s always a first time,” Neal replied, still sounding miserable.

“You once told me I was the only person in your life you really trusted,” Peter offered.

Neal looked at him, confusion clear on his face.

“Do you trust me, Neal?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I’m your handler, Neal. More importantly, I’m also your friend. And I promise you, I will be there for you. You’re not that person, Neal. You’re not a killer. And okay, maybe you’ll need someone to remind you, of that.”

Taking a chance, Peter pulled out the fresh copy of Neal’s work release contract that he’d been bringing with him every time he came to see his former partner. He laid it, along with a pen, on the table between the two of them.

“You may not trust the FBI – and believe it or not I understand that, I really do. You may not trust yourself at the moment. But do you trust me?” Peter asked.

Neal locked eyes with Peter for a long moment. And then, finally, a small, tentative smile appeared on his face and he pulled the papers toward himself and picked up the pen.

Date: 2016-06-05 10:15 pm (UTC)
sherylyn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sherylyn
I love this!! They do so well with each other when they actually communicate. And this is just so very *them*, every single one of them. Really, beautifully done!! :)

Date: 2016-06-05 11:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] aragarna.livejournal.com
Awww boys. *hugs them*
What a lovely tag to the S2 premiere, and love the way it also wraps up to what is coming next.
Love that each conversation starts with a "damn it". Very Peter... ;)

Thank you so much for writing this for me. ♥♥

Date: 2016-06-06 03:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pooh-collector.livejournal.com
Wonderful! I love the fact that Peter's confused about Neal's motivation and that it take El, Moz and Neal himself to set him straight.

I love the conversations and poor Neal's struggle.

This is a great transition story between the eps.

Date: 2016-06-06 08:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pipilj.livejournal.com
Aww lovely episode tag. Loved the interaction between Mozzie and Peter. Glad El and Mozzie helped Peter to get through to Neal .

Date: 2016-06-08 07:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sheenianni.livejournal.com
Absolutely believable and it fits that time gap very well.
Great story.

Date: 2016-06-09 09:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hurinhouse.livejournal.com
Excellent insight. I love reading missing moments like this and this one hit all the right buttons. What a great piece of foreshadowing this would have been in canon. Well done.
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