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The Best Laid Plans

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When Neal strode into the White Collar office five minutes early, the last thing he expected to see was what appeared to be a jam-packed meeting well underway in the conference room above. Normally, he would have been overcome with the need to stick his nose in the FBI's highly important business. Today, he was relieved. The scratchy throat he'd been nursing had morphed overnight into a noticeably froggy voice, and his entire head felt full of lead. Fading into the background amidst the chaos seemed like a viable strategy for the day.

Throughout his tenure as the FBI's pet criminal, he had come out remarkably unscathed through each cold and flu season, and he never forgot to smugly shake his head as agents throughout the office fell victim one after the other. He'd even made it clear of whatever creeping crud Jones had infected everyone with two months ago in January, and here he was, finally succumbing in the eleventh hour. Neal was pretty damn sure this was karma.

Neal placed his hat on the Socrates bust, took another cursory glance at the conference room, and braced himself for the day.

“Caffrey, you wouldn't have any idea why Boston Art Crimes decided to pay us a visit today, would you?”

Neal looked up to see Diana leaning on his desk, barely concealing a playful smile. She jerked her head up to the conference room, in case he wasn't following.

“Boston Art Crimes?” Neal said. The intrigue perked him up a bit. Diana furrowed her brow when she heard the state of Neal's voice.

“They arrived late last night with no warning - very need to know basis. Figured I'd pick your brain first,” she said, thankfully ignoring his pitiful state.

“Well, Boston's not short on art museums with crappy security,” Neal said. “Or so I've heard.”

Diana hummed thoughtfully.

“Peter in there?” Neal asked. They both glanced up at the glass walls of the conference room wistfully.

“Yep. Guess it's a waiting game now.” She moved as though to leave, and then paused, looking back.

“You sound sick,” she stated, with the same tone she always used to indicate she suspected someone was full of shit.

“Is that a crime now?” Neal shot for a playful smile, but had to clear his throat painfully.

“Just never thought I'd see the day. The infamous Neal Caffrey laid low by the common cold.”

Neal rolled his eyes. This ribbing was justified, and probably as fond as Diana ever sounded.

“Revel in it while you can,” he replied.

“I'll revel from a safe distance.” She called over her shoulder as she made her retreat.

Right. Karma.

 

The director of Boston art crimes, Agent Darren Sandoval, looked exactly how Peter figured he himself might look if he spent the next ten years of his life on a continuous bender. And he had the austere, humorless personality to match. Sandoval's black pinstripe suit was so stiff and starched that it looked like it might walk out of the room its own out of sheer boredom.

Peter found himself drifting, despite the tension in the air. Their Boston visitors seemed to have turned blithering pointlessly into an art form. Finally, Sandoval grabbed the room's attention and got down to business.

“A credible source has come forward claiming that they have one of the pieces stolen in the Gardner heist.”

Every single agent in the room sat up straighter.

“I know this is a huge breakthrough for you guys, but why do you need our help?” Peter winced internally at how blunt the statement came out, but felt justified. This was big, and he was sick of wasting time.

If looks could kill, Peter would have been a pile of ash on the floor courtesy of Agent Sandoval.

After his dramatic pause and withering gaze, Sandoval finally dignified the room with the long awaited conclusion.

“The man who came forward said he would only negotiate if Neal Caffrey would act as an intermediate.”

All of the White Collar agents in the room exchanged simultaneous looks that ranged from amused to high alert levels of suspicion. Sandoval tracked the response with a sweep of his heavily-bagged, deep-set eyes.

“Why Caffrey?” Hughes spoke, voice flat.

“Our best guess is that he's their idea of an ideal neutral intermediate. They don't trust the FBI to make good on the immunity deal, so they want someone with inside information on the underground art world to assist with the deal.”

There was a beat as the entire room absorbed the information.

“Aren't there a few options in the underworld that aren't also notorious art forgers?” Peter broke the silence.

Sandoval withered him with another look.

“These precious artworks have been missing for twenty years without a single trace. Forgive me if I am not prepared to turn up a major break in the case quibbling over the details. From what I've heard, you've got Caffrey on a tight leash here in New York. We're doing our job, my only question is are you going to do yours?”

Peter looked towards Hughes, whose inscrutable expression he chose to interpret as a green light. Hughes nodded, ever so slightly.

“Alright. Let's get Caffrey in here.”



“Caffrey!”

Neal put his pen down from the embezzlement case he was scribbling in the margins of and spun his head stiffly towards the source of his name. Peter was standing at the top of the stairs. He didn't even need to finger point to indicate to Neal that his presence was desired.

So much for laying low. Still, the allure of a high-profile art crime was enough to replenish a modicum of his usual energy.

He stood and made his way up, not forgetting to smirk winningly at Diana on the way. She huffed a bit. When it came to security clearance, Neal was always the lowest on the totem pole in the entire bureau. The secrecy wasn't long for this world, but he was always game to enjoy being let in on the need-to-know anywhere but dead last.

Neal pulled open the door and threw on an open, neutral expression.

“Morning,” he said, sticking out his hand. Genuine courtesy always threw government officials for a loop.

“Agent Sandoval, Boston Art Crimes,” Sandoval returned the handshake grimly.

“And this is Neal Caffrey,” Peter cut in. “Neal, take a seat.”

Neal acquiesced, and didn't miss Peter's most intense “ You better be on your best behavior or I will make your life a living hell ” face.

“We have a request for your services, Mr. Caffrey,” Sandoval started, now wasting no time.

“Oh?” Neal said, hoping his curt response would come off as mild-mannered rather than an excuse to save his voice. He had managed to Peter's notice thus far, but it was going to take careful work.

“We have been contacted with the news that an anonymous source would like to come forward with one of the pieces stolen during the Isabella Gardner heist. If you're familiar with this particular crime,” Sandoval began.

“Which one of the pieces has surfaced? Is it one of the Degas sketches? I always thought the Degas sketches were the safest bet-”

“As you can see, he's already familiar with the case. If you could brief us on how the deal is to go down?” Peter broke in. His look to Neal this time was harder to read, but Neal was guessing it was something along the lines of “ if you keep acting like a kid in a candy shop, you better get used to prison orange again.”

“The source told us a time and a location where they are going to send a third party intermediate to meet with Neal Caffrey. Alone.” Sandoval looked at Neal, assessing. “Tomorrow at one o'clock, the New York Public Library.”

“To answer your earlier question, the piece in question is Rembrandt's masterpiece The Storm on the Sea of Galilee . If you live up to your reputation at all, I'm sure you'll understand the importance of this assignment.”

Neal leaned back in his seat and blew out a breath. Not trusting his voice, he nodded.



An hour later, the meeting was finally adjourned. Each of the agents was tasked with familiarizing themselves with the specs of the case. As Neal stood to leave, Peter waved him over towards his office. Obediently, he followed.

Peter closed the door, and ran a hand down his face. Neal chose to lean against the wall rather than sit. He was still keyed up from the meeting, and wanted to run on that adrenaline as long at it would take him.

“Well, Agent Sandoval is a delight.” Neal supplied.

“I don't like this,” Peter's expression was stormy.

“Peter, this is huge. The location of any one of the Gardner masterpieces is one of the greatest mysteries of the modern era-”

“And one of the biggest black marks on the FBI's record,” Peter gave Neal a sharp look. “I think Boston Art Crimes is willing to go to any length to get this art back. And I think they might get sloppy with the details in the process.”

“That art is priceless, Peter. Look, I have an opportunity handed to me on a silver platter to aid in the recovery of a missing Rembrandt, I don't see what options there are here.”

Peter sighed.

“Are you sure you're up for this? You need to be on your A-game.”

Neal straightened, and crossed his arms.

“What, you don't trust me to pull it off?” he asked.

“You know that's not what I mean.” Neal looked away.

“Trust me, Peter. I'll be fine.” He tried valiantly not to break his gaze as Peter gave him an appraising once over.

“All right then. Because I'm assuming you're more than up to date on the Gardner heist,” Neal shrugged without an ounce of shame, “you're going to finish up working through today's case load and head home early.”

Neal groaned a bit, then had to clear his throat painfully.

“Eye eye, boss,” He said.

Even though he felt bone tired upon dragging himself out of Peter's office, Neal couldn't help but think this is going to be fun .



Peter made it halfway through dinner before the urge to fill Elizabeth in his day became too strong to fight, FBI confidentiality be absolutely damned.

He wanted to give her a detailed play-by-play, like an announcer during a baseball game.

“Hon, Boston Art Crimes paid us a visit today.” He settled for a blanket statement, hoping she would fill in the necessary blanks.

“Boston? Why?” She asked, setting her fork down.

“Can't really discuss it yet, it's pretty damned high-profile,” Peter replied, pointedly. He gave her a long look, and hoped for the best. “It's a case that went cold about twenty years ago.”

Her eyes widened.

“It isn't about the-”

“Let's assume you're right. I already shouldn't have said anything.”

“Wow,” Elizabeth breathed. She looked away, eyes faraway.

“Yeah.” Peter looked down at his plate and realized he'd been sawing at the same piece of steak for the entirety of their conversation. He put his utensils down.

“How is Neal involved?” Elizabeth asked.

“How do you know he's-” His wife cut him off with a knowing look. Peter breathed in through his nose.

“They want him to act as the intermediate,” he said.

Elizabeth tried unsuccessfully to conceal a smile.

“Do they know he's an international art thief?”

“That's exactly what I said!” Peter exclaimed. Then he collected himself and shook his head. “It's like putting a junkie into a crack den. Too much temptation.”

“That's a pretty bleak metaphor, hon,” Elizabeth said. “What makes you think he wouldn't want to do this right?”

“I just have a bad feeling, is all. Not even just that. These agents from Boston don't know him like we do. They see him like a pawn, not as a person. Plenty of other agents have hung him out to dry before.”

“So you're worried about how he's going to do, not what he's going to do?”

Peter looked at her wearily.

“Maybe both.”

“Well, I think Neal's been known to pull off some pretty amazing things. And he's been working really hard to get back into your good graces, for that matter.”

“I know that,” Peter said. It was undeniable the lengths that Neal would go to prove that he could be trusted, even while he never full gave up playing his own game on the side. “I just think he seems tired, and off his game.”

Elizabeth rested her cheek in her hand, and looked at Peter searchingly.

“What are you going to do, then?” Peter thought about it for a short moment.

“My job. Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid.”

“That sounds more like the smart, FBI-agent husband I know,” Elizabeth said, and pecked him on the lips.



Peter came into the office early the next morning. He wanted to be able to keep an eye on Neal, and make sure he seemed normal. Well, as normal as Neal could be.

Neal typically entered the office on the order of five to fifteen minutes late. Peter suspected he thought it was fashionable, or he liked to send the message that he was never in any hurry to get started on FBI dirty work.

Today, Neal sauntered in half an hour early, and made immediate eye contact with Peter from across the bullpen. Their deft non-verbal communication lead him straight to Peter's office, without wasting a moment to put his hat down.

“Morning, Peter,” Neal said, flashing a mega-watt smile. His voice was gravely, but luckily displaying slightly less yesterday's obvious congestion.

“Neal,” Peter replied, curtly but not lacking in warmth.

“Okay, let's hear it then,” Neal said, raising his eyebrows expectantly. He managed to make sinking down bonelessly in the chair in front of Peter come across as confrontational.

“How are you feeling?” Peter decided his best tactic was cutting to the chase.

“Excited,” Neal said, though carefully innocent eyes.

Peter avoided giving him an eye roll, but it was a close thing.

“You're not going off-anklet for this one,” he said. Neal, predictably, gave him a face that wouldn't have been amiss on a toddler who'd just been told it was nap time.

“You don't think that the FBI clearly monitoring my every move might not spook the source?”

“Neal, they asked for you. If they're worth their salt, they'd have done their homework. I think they know that you're on a leash, and that apparently isn't a deal breaker.”

Neal considered this, and leaned back into the chair. Point one, Peter Burke.

“Get prepped. The team is heading to the van in thirty minutes. This is for you.” Peter handed Neal the newest version of the FBI voice recording pen.

Neal tilted his head in exasperation, but otherwise acquiesced. He tucked the pen primly into his shirt pocket, gave Peter a tight smile, and made an exit.

Peter kneaded his forehead in his hand for a moment. He had a pit in his stomach about this case that wouldn't go away. He snuck a look down Neal's desk. Someone had left Neal a steaming cup of tea on his desk.

Peter smiled. He could always count on his team.

 

Neal watched the seconds tick to precisely 1:00 on his watch, and glanced around the ornate lobby of the New York Public Library. He surveyed the room surreptitiously. Sure enough, a figure was heading straight for him. Neal had to work double-time to keep his expression neutral when he recognized who it was.

“Neal Caffrey,” he said, sticking his hand out. “Nice to meet you,” he added pointedly. The anonymous source was a lanky woman with jet black hair hair cropped and styled like a shorter version of Neal's. She was wearing a well-fitting pale blue suit, and thankfully seemed to catch Neal's desire for discretion.

“Aiko Yamada,” she said, smiling widely as she shook his hand with a firm grip. “Walk with me,” she commanded.

Last time Neal had encountered Aiko, she had been working at a prominent art auction in the city. She had certainly been well-liked among the art underworld for her... cavalier attitude towards the origins of art. While she rarely did anything that could be construed as illegal, Aiko had an unapologetic love for beautiful art that was entirely unconcerned with legality. She was careful to work only with the top of any field. Their paths had certainly crossed.

Aiko directed them through the throng of library patrons. Neal had to appreciate her obvious intent to make clear audio a challenge for the FBI.

“My client has wishes to return one of the paintings in his collection over to the Isabella Gardner museum. Obviously, he is not interested in facing prosecution. I understand that you have personal experience working with the FBI in situations such as this?”

Neal thought wistfully of his Raphael, hidden away for a rainy day. Even if he had been naive enough to try for immunity on that one, years with the FBI had stamped out any hope of that one. Even Peter would slap some wrist jewelry on him if he let any detail slip.

“I do.”

“And, in your experience, does the FBI generally make good on their offers of immunity?”

Neal shot Aiko a rueful smile. He could practically hear everyone in the van shouting for him to lie through his teeth.

“No, they do not.” Aiko looked like she was biting back a laugh.

“We'll be in touch,” she said. She extended her hand again, and this time, Neal found a piece of paper palmed into his hand.

“Looking forward to it,” Neal said. He transferred the paper into his pocket, and made his way back to face the onslaught of royally ticked off FBI agents in the van just outside.



When Neal returned to his apartment that night, he took the little slip of paper out like a talisman to ward off the leftover tension from an afternoon of dressings down. The rest of his day had been spent essentially in a war room, justifying his apparent lack of motivation to recover the painting. He had assured the agents that this was part of the process, gaining trust, but if the New York agents seemed skeptical, the Boston agents seemed ready to throw him back into prison.

11 pm, Theodore Roosevelt Park, your usual mode of transport

Neal smiled to himself as he laced up his running shoes, and threw on a windbreaker. Aiko had certainly done her homework. Despite the fact that the last thing Neal wanted to do on this bitter cold March night was go on a run, it would be the perfect cover. He didn't want to think too long about how long Aiko must have been tracking his typical movements, but Peter couldn't exactly accuse him of a clandestine meeting that took place during his nightly run.

The frozen winter air instantly made his throat ache as he took a sharp breath in. He decided to forego his typical steady clip in favor of an achy shuffle.

Sure enough, when Neal turned a corner, Aiko was by the entrance of the park, jogging in place in a bright red puffer jacket and a pair of leggings that brought attention to her well-muscled quads. She smiled enigmatically, and fell into a steady rhythm next to Neal, deftly avoiding a large ice patch.

“Thanks for meeting me again,” she said. “Long time no see.”

“Yeah, long time,” Neal said, trying valiantly to find enough breath to sound casual. “Looks like we both had a career change lately.” Aiko looked at him, then back at the slick pavement in front of her.

“I'd argue mine was more of an upgrade than yours,” she said, glancing down at the spot where the tapered fit of Neal's track pants failed miserably to disguise his tracking anklet. Neal conceded her point by giving it a rueful glance.

“Who are you working for?” Aiko considered her answer. Their rhythmic footfalls filled in the silence.

“Someone with more money than he knows what to do with. He has absolutely no taste to speak of, and that's where I come in. I buy him all the goods that let his house guests know exactly what kind of income he has.”

Neal had to admit, as far as careers go, this one fit Aiko like a glove.

“How long has he been sitting on the Rembrandt?”

“That one actually preceded my time by quite a bit, from what I've heard. But he just got a new girlfriend straight from Boston. I think he's trying to prove something to her by returning it, some kind of grand romantic gesture.”

Neal couldn't help but blow out a laugh, which he regretted instantly. He couldn't quite bite back a cough. Aiko studiously ignored it.

“I'm guessing conjugal visits aren't also part of his great romantic scheme?” Aiko laughed, too.

“My boss has kept out of trouble. I think he wanted to come in as some kind of white knight and return the art publicly, but I figured that it was best to get a second opinion first.”

“You could have consulted a lawyer, or anyone else familiar with the art world. Why me?” Neal asked. Aiko picked up their pace a bit, unconsciously. She was nervous about this part.

“If my boss can't get the reward and recognition for the painting as you have pointed out-”

“The Gardner museum is only offering a monetary reward for all thirteen pieces. And the FBI doesn't do full immunity, no matter what they say,” Neal pointed out. Aiko gave him a sharp look.

“He wants the next best thing,” she said, lightly.

“And what might that be?”

“He doesn't want to part with the painting. Apparently his kids are pretty fond of it, or something. I think it's an ego thing, of course. I told him I could get a replacement from the best, in exchange,” she said.

“I'm flattered,” Neal replied, flatly. “But I'm sure you could find someone who doesn't have the FBI breathing down their neck. I can't exactly take a couple of days off to forge a painting.”

“My boss pays me for the best work. That Monet you sold in '05 showed me that it's you. If it were easy I wouldn't be getting paid the big bucks, Caffrey,” Aiko said. God, Neal was remembering exactly why he had used to love working with her.

“So what's your plan?” Neal asked. If his heart hadn't already been beating double time to keep up the pace, it might have started to race. There was that thrill running down his back.

“Your landlady will have just received a purchase of some new furniture. My guys will have everything set up for you. You can work nights, to avoid suspicion from your FBI friends. I assume that will work for you?”

Neal stopped at a street corner. Aiko almost didn't notice, but she took the pause to stretch out her hamstrings.

“And you trust me with a multi-million dollar piece of art?” Neal crossed his arms.

“Not a chance,” Aiko replied. “That's why I'll be watching. You know, I've always wanted to watch you work,” she said. If anyone else had said it, the statement would have sounded flirtatious. Aiko meant exactly what she said, nothing more, nothing less.

Neal made a show of stretching as well, and tried to consider it rationally. It didn't matter, though. There was only one answer he could give.

“I'll need the proper supplies,” he said, finally.

Aiko produced a slim burner phone from one of her zip pockets.

“Text me exactly what you need, and I'll make sure it arrives.” Neal took it.

“Perfect. And Aiko, I need to know I can trust you to give the real painting to the FBI. I know your boss wants to have his cake and eat it too-”

“I told my boss he could keep the real deal, but, Caffrey, I wasn't lying when I said he has truly awful taste. He, unlike your pals at the FBI, will have no idea which one is which,” she said.

“Sounds like a deal,” Neal said.

“See you in a couple of days. Oh, and Caffrey, what does your landlady like? I'd hate to be a rude houseguest.”

Neal shook his head.

“A good bottle of Roederer never hurt.” He replied.

 

When Neal crept back into his apartment, it was approaching midnight. Despite the energizing anticipation of having his hands on one of the most famous Rembrandt paintings in history, Neal wilted. He was shivering uncontrollably, and his body felt heavy and worn. It took him a moment to catch his breath as he rode out a coughing fit, and another moment to realize Mozzie was sitting on his couch.

“Hey, Moz, he said. His voice was shot. Mozzie turned to face him while simultaneously leaning his body away on instinct. Neal couldn't exactly blame him.

“Care to explain why you went for a casual night jog when you sound like Patient Zero?” Mozzie asked. He didn't look poised to head for the hills just yet, which Neal was thankful for.

“You know if we have any supplies left over from that Rubens gig we pulled?” Neal asked, pulling on a tight smile. He poured himself a glass of the bottle Mozzie was halfway through, and winced as it went down. He had some preparations to make.



By the time Neal had finished explaining Aiko's plan to Mozzie, the last dredges of his adrenaline had vanished and he was seconds away from dragging himself to collapse into bed.

“This plan sounds like it could work, except for one detail,” Mozzie said. He was standing with his arms folded, while Neal had taken his place on the couch. Neal made a valiant attempt to straighten up in order to indicate he was not viable to doze off. Mozzie always could find the holes in Neal's schemes.

“You can barely keep your eyes open now. How do you expect to keep it together for a few sleepless nights and have Peter not suspect that you're up to anything?”

Neal pulled on an approximation of a devilish smirk.

“I'm sick,” he said, meekly for emphasis. He coughed once into his hand for show, then once for real.

“You're never sick,” Mozzie looked frighteningly like a disapproving parent with his eyebrow raised, foot tapping impatiently.

“Nobody's never sick,” Neal protested.

“You clearly haven't looked in the mirror. Even if the Suit does buy your cover, are you even going to be able to hold it together?” Mozzie asked. If Neal hadn't been so bone-tired he might have felt a flicker of irritation at the lack of faith.

“Right- that's where I need your help. You still know that guy who helped us out in Barcelona?”

Mozzie looked even more put upon, if that was possible.

“I can get you some stuff, but it's not going to be a miracle cure. Besides, I thought we were pretending Barcelona never happened.”

“We are,” Neal said, trying to convey he was grateful for Mozzie's help but also very ready to be left alone.

“Fine. Get some sleep,” Mozzie said. He took the rest of the bottle with him, along with a second one for good measure.

“Goodnight, Moz.”

“Night, Neal.”



The feeling in the office was prickly and tense the day after Neal's meeting with Aiko Yamada. They had failed to get facial recognition on Aiko, and her name lead them to no current associates and a squeaky clean record, so the FBI was left with nothing to go on, once again. He'd called his team off of that dead end. The Boston team was thankfully laying low, but Peter couldn't assume they'd stay like that for long.

Peter was trolling through their pile of active cases to find a suitable distraction for his team when Neal ambled in. Peter felt a flash of frustration. Yesterday, Neal had been completely unrepentant and seemingly impervious to the intensity of the scrutiny they were facing. It didn't seem fair the way that harsh reality seemed to roll off of his CI like water off a duck's back.

Peter set down his coffee mug, grabbed the mortgage fraud case that could bore even Jones to tears, and squared up to give Neal a dose of real life.

He dropped the file folder down on Neal's desk without preamble. Neal looked up at him and a pit instantly formed in Peter's stomach. Neal's eyes were heavily shadowed, and he looked washed out.

“Did you sleep at all last night?” Peter asked, hoping he didn't sound too accusatory.

“A certain Rembrandt may or may not be haunting my dreams,” Neal said, voice thin. “Good morning to you, too. By the way.” He looked down at the file like it might bite him.

“What's this?” He asked.

“Our current case,” Peter replied, curtly. “We're not going to sit around twiddling our thumbs while we wait for word from our mystery art donor.”

“He's going to contact us, Peter,” Neal protested, wearily.

“I hope you're right about that,” Peter said. “In the meantime, see what you can make of this.”

Peter thought of about a million other things to say. Telling Neal to take it easy as well as warning him he better not be up to anything came to the forefront of his mind, but in the end he thought better of either tactics.

It didn't stop him from pulling up Neal's tracking data from the past week Yesterday: June's. the office, then back to June's, then what appeared to be his typical long run through the neighborhood. Back to June's.

Peter sighed, deeply, and closed the tab.



True to her word, the next day, three enormous crates arrived at June's doorstep. One contained a tasteful side table, one contained an enormous blank frame and enough art supplies to keep Neal in business for months, and the last one contained a long lost masterpiece in all of its glory.

Aiko and Neal lifted the Rembrandt reverently from the case, and propped it on the easel. Neal stood, entranced, marveling at the piece. Studying it. It had been a while since he'd had his hands on a Rembrandt.

The sound of a cork popping broke his concentration. Aiko had broken into one of the bottles of champagne she'd brought. She poured a glass for herself, then produced a sleek to-go mug for Neal. He took it and gave it a suspicious sniff. It smelled like a strong espresso, from what Neal could tell through his lingering congestion.

“How long do you think it will take?” Aiko was also surveying the painting, clearly aware of how daunting the dimensions were up close.

Neal took a cautious sip from Aiko's mug, and did some mental calculations. The painting was big, five feet tall and only slightly shorter lengthwise. Some fine detail work, but Neal had the advantage of being familiar with his dramatic palette and careful brushwork.

“Couple nights,” he ventured. Aiko's eyebrows shot up towards her hairline.

“That quick?” She gave him a long, searching look that made him feel like he was being examined under a microscope.

“Let's just say I'm used to working with a hard deadline,” Neal said. Aiko held up her hands placatingly.

“I'll believe that's true,” she said. She sat down at his dining room table, and took a prim sip of champagne.

Neal took once last gulp of caffeine, raised his mug in a toast, and got to work.



The next morning, as he walked into the FBI office, Neal was aware that the only thing holding him together was the cocktail of meds that Mozzie had delivered for him. Mozzie had said something about it being the same stuff that jet pilots used to keep awake on long missions. Regardless of what the hell it was, it eased the tension headache he'd been getting used to, and dimmed some of the ache that had settled into his body, eased whatever was settling into his lungs.

He was really not looking forward to Peter's scrutiny, or the prospect of sitting in a series of meetings about a mortgage fraud that made him want to jump out the window. Still, the painting was going to be returned soon, Peter appeased, and no one the wiser.

True to form, Peter seemed to have an instinctual awareness of when Neal entered the room. The second Neal pulled open the heavy glass door, Peter's eyes were bored down on him. Despite the extra care he'd taken to pull himself together (his neatest suit, the blue tie that brought out his eyes, a cold splash of water on his face to force some color back into his cheeks) Neal felt like he might not be passing under the radar. The perfect picture of a simple working man fighting a mild to moderate cold and one mediocre night of sleep.

As soon as Neal sat down, Peter pulled out the dreaded two finger summon. Neal grabbed the mortgage fraud case file, wishing fervently that he'd even taken in a single salient detail about it. Peter could always be distracted by a new lead. And Neal really didn't want to play his only other card.

“Peter, any leads on our case?” Neal prayed that there were.

“Sit down, Neal,” Peter said, voice measured. “And spare me the phony interest in the fraud case.”

“Then is this about the Rembrandt? Because Peter, patience is a virtue-”

“Neal, is there something you aren't telling me about this case?” Neal squared himself up to pay the piper. He looked down, took a loud, deep breath, and went for broke.

“Look, Peter. I know how much this case means to you. I was off my game earlier, and I didn't get our contact to give us anything. It was my fault,” he said. He looked Peter dead in the eye, and then looked away. Admitting shameful wrongdoing to Peter was, for better or worse, one of his well rehearsed facades.

Peter sat, stone-faced and inscrutable, for an agonizing moment. Then he put a palm on his desk like he was bracing himself, and the set of his shoulders relaxed infinitesimally.

“There's a reason these paintings haven't been recovered in decades. It's a fool's errand. I just want the Boston office to back off, and for that to happen you have to play by the bureau rules,” he said.

Neal huffed, and then smiled tightly. “I'm definitely getting that message.” That, for what it was worth, wasn't a lie. His FBI inbox was still full of strongly worded emails from Boston agents, and even one from the Isabella Gardner museum board.

“Do me a favor, Neal, and lay low. Let's close a couple of cases until this blows over.”

“You got it, Peter.”

 

There was pale pink light of dawn the next morning by the time Neal laid the final layer of varnish on his painting. Beneath the thick fog of exhaustion, Neal was glowing. This piece made his Degas forgery look like amateur hour. He'd completed in partially in a well-dosed trance, but it was magnificent. Even Aiko, looking slightly pale and drawn herself, was lost for words. Mozzie had appeared sometime after 5am to heckle him about the crispness of his edges and the brushwork on the background waves, but even his prods had petered out at the end.

Neal cleaned his brushes while Aiko and Mozzie slipped the paintings lovingly into their boxes. As Aiko's hired men hauled them out, Mozzie lurked in the corners and Aiko tapped energetically on her smartphone. Finally, she stuck out her hand to Neal, and smiled genuinely.

“It's been a pleasure watching you work. I'll have the authentic painting delivered to the FBI by early afternoon latest,” she said. Neal wiped the oil off his hands and shook with her.

“Tell your employer I hope it works out with his girlfriend,” Neal said.

“Ha. I think this might buy him some time, at least,” Aiko said. She reached into her purse.

“Before I forget. Suitable compensation for your time. This is the information for a security deposit box at Midtown Mutual,” she said, handing him a folded piece of stationary.

Neal grinned.

“Always a pleasure working with you, Aiko,” he said, and meant it.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Neal sank into a chair at his dining room table, noting how the room was spinning dizzily around him. He had thirty minutes until he was expected at the bureau, and no time at all to gather himself. When his vision finally swam into focus, Mozzie was sitting across the table from him, holding out a glass of water and three pills.

“This outta get you through lunch,” he said. Neal swallowed them with a gulp of water and heaved himself up to go shower.

“You gonna make it?” Mozzie called after him.

“I made it in Barcelona, didn't I?” Neal replied.

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” yelled Mozzie.

It took Neal one long coughing fit, a boiling shower, two cups of coffee and a choked-down piece of dry toast to feel anything like ready for the day.

But it was going to be a good day.

As Peter pulled on his coat at the end of the day, he was still reeling. When the Rembrandt had arrived practically wrapped in a bow at the reception desk of the FBI office, all hell had immediately broken lose. When he'd suggested that Neal authenticate the painting, the Boston office had hemmed and hawed about letting him within ten feet of the piece. Eventually, the White Collar division had convinced them to give Neal a preliminary look, but they'd all but threatened to handcuff him in the process.

After Neal had finally been able to perform his exam, and declared the painting likely authentic, and samples were sent to the lab to confirm, the Boston office had still dragged in a rush order authenticator who simply restated exactly what Neal had said hours before.

At last, with the painting in Boston's custody, and the head curator of the Gardner museum on a red eye to New York, the controversy had given way to a tentative victory lap for the office.

All the while, Neal Caffrey had stayed remarkably pliant and polite. He had managed not to belittle any of the the incompetent Art Crimes agents, but Peter was too smart to figure that it was purely for his benefit.

Nevertheless, he had invited his team over to his house for a celebratory dinner. It had been a long week. Elizabeth had been just as wonderful as ever when he'd told her.

“Hey, hon. We got the painting. The Rembrandt,” Peter said, remembering that he hadn't been able to reveal specifics. He heard Elizabeth's little noise of delight over the phone before she spoke.

“Would it be okay if the team came over tonight to celebrate? I know it's last minute...”

“Only if it's okay if I serve leftovers from the Morelli event. I have no idea why no one ate the crab cakes, they're wonderful.” Elizabeth replied.

“Ugh, great. I'll buy some more beer on my way in,” Peter said.

“And don't forget that Pinot Grigio I like, hon,” she said.

Neal's was sitting at Peter Burke's dining room table between Diana and Jones when he realized he was in trouble. He had just finished choking down a truly excellent but currently nauseating helping of baked sole and his second dose of Mozzie's miracle cure had worn off half an hour ago. At this point, his pounding headache and the gunk that had now settled deeply in his lungs were readily apparent.

The night's conversation had devolved into a spirited mockery of each of the humorless agents that populated Boston art crimes, and luckily that topic had everyone wound up enough that they hardly noticed Neal's rare silence.

“You have to admit, Sandoval's expression was pretty priceless when the authenticator asked him why the hell he had wasted his time,” Diana said, grinning as she reminisced on what had been a wonderful moment.

“If I had a picture of his face just then I would frame it,” Peter said. Jones just shook his head, but he was smiling, too. Elizabeth started to clear the table, so Neal took it as a moment to regroup. He grabbed a couple of plates and followed her into the kitchen.

“You mind if I use your bathroom?” Neal said, motioning towards the upstairs.

“Of course,” Elizabeth said, and flicked the end of a dish towel at Neal as he made a retreat.

Neal dragged his dead legs up the steep stairs of the Burke household. The second he reached the promised land of their bathroom, Neal braced himself against the sink, ran the tap, and coughed deeply for an indeterminable amount of time. After he caught his breath, his chest ached and his hands were shaking. He splashed cold water on his face, then wiped it dry with one of the thick, soft hand towels that Elizabeth kept on the counter. It took him a solid minute braced against the sink to gather himself.

At last, Neal ran his hands through his hair and collected his thoughts. In the absence of whatever Mozzie had been giving him, Neal needed something to get him through the next hour. He turned off the faucet, and opened the Burke's medicine cabinet. Inside were about five bottles of expired ibuprofen, a bottle of muscle relaxants from when Peter had thrown his back on a chase a couple of months back. There were a few other bottles of drugs Neal didn't recognize.

Not to be deterred, Neal tried the cabinet under the sink. Even worse that the medicine cabinet, it mainly contained various ephemera such as used ace bandages and a box of tampons- precisely nothing useful. Frustrated, Neal considered trying his luck with the expired ibuprofen.

Just then, a knock came at the door. Feeling caught more redhanded than the time he'd jumped a palace wall in Copenhagen with Alex, Neal slammed the door to the medicine cabinet and spun around to address the knock.

“Neal?” Elizabeth's voice called.

“One second,” Neal replied, desperately. It came out rough and croaky. He straightened himself briefly and ineffectively, and opened the door.

“Elizabeth,” he said, shooting for casual. Elizabeth took one look at him, and he knew the gig was up.

“Looking for something?” She asked mildly, then indicated at the cabinet door that Neal had sloppily left askew. She leaned against the door jam and looked expectant, but gentle.

Neal kneaded at his temple and didn't need to pretend to be sheepish.

“Sorry. Just ibuprofen. Long day,” he said, the uncharacteristic monosyllables the best he could come up with.

“That's fine. I wouldn't use anything we keep in here, it's all old. I actually keep a new bottle in the kitchen. I can get you a glass of water, too,” Elizabeth said.

“Thank you,” Neal replied, and allowed her to lead him back down the stairs.

“Clinton and Diana just left. We were just going to have some coffee and dip into those cannolis that I brought home.”

Neal couldn't even think of a response at first. The night was adopting a sense of hazy unreality, which he knew dimly was dangerous. He had to keep his wits about him.

“Some coffee would be great, if you don't mind,” he said.

Elizabeth gave him a disapproving look that Neal couldn't interpret.

She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and steered him towards the couch.

“Why don't you wait here and I'll bring you a couple Advil?” Neal didn't have a shred of energy to resist.

“Thanks, Elizabeth.” He said, and sunk into the cushions.

Immediately, he felt his eyes droop closed, and told himself he would just rest them while he waited.



When Elizabeth came into the kitchen, Peter was in the middle of absently washing a bowl while eyeing Neal's entrance into their living room closely. Before Elizabeth could pull out the bottle of Advil, he reached up to the cabinet and pulled it out for her.

“He's been fighting a cold all week,” Peter explained.

“Looks like it won,” Elizabeth stated. “I've never seen Neal laid this low.” She waited for the tap water to get cold and then filled a glass.

“There was something about this case that got to him, El, but I don't know what it was.”

They both watched as Neal battled against falling asleep sitting straight up on their couch.

Peter shook his head.

“I checked his tracking data all this week. Nothing out of the ordinary.” Elizabeth looked equal parts thoughtful and concerned.

“Well, you both work yourselves pretty hard. And I think he's been really trying to prove himself to you lately.”

Peter couldn't deny that was true, even if he couldn't stop considering exactly how Neal might have pulled something.

“Have a cannoli, hon. I'll see what I can do for Neal,” Elizabeth strode into the living room, water and Advil in hand. Neal didn't stir when she stood over him, so she risked placing the back of her hand to his forehead. She was surprised to feel just how much heat Neal was radiating. Too much for someone as healthy as Neal to be fighting just a head cold.

Neal finally roused when she slid her hand down to his shoulder.

“Hey, you with us?” Elizabeth asked. Neal scrubbed his hands over his face and his face flushed even deeper.

“Sorry - I must have been more tired than I thought. I can get out of your hair,” Neal said, but made no immediate move to stand up.

Elizabeth curled her hand gently around his wrist, and placed a couple of pills into his palm.

“Here, take these. Maybe you shouldn't have coffee, but I can make you a cup of tea.” Neal looked like he was gathering the energy to protest, but Elizabeth just handed him the glass of water. He swallowed the pills with a quick gulp, then coughed wetly and deeply.

Elizabeth decided in that moment that Neal wasn't going anywhere that night.

“Hang tight, sweetie.”

In that moment, Peter appeared, coffee cup and half eaten cannoli lessening his threatening vibe only incrementally.

“Neal, I need to talk to you about-”

“Peter, I swear I didn't just rob Elizabeth's jewelry box, I just went to the bathroom-”

“Neal,” Peter warned.

“You can check my pockets-”

“Neal!” Peter set his coffee down on the table. Neal looked at him expectantly, the most alert he'd been all night.

“Did you make a deal to get the painting returned that the FBI doesn't know about?”

Neal made a show of scoffing, and took a gulp of water. Peter narrowed his eyes.

“Peter, I told Aiko that the FBI doesn't make deals,” he said. There was something in how casually Neal referred to Aiko Yamada that certainly didn't alleviate Peter's suspicions.

“You didn't answer my question.”

“The FBI has the painting back. I don't see how this isn't a cut and dry win,” Neal said.

“Art Crimes is going to use all their resources to look into this. They still believe all the paintings could be together-”

“Which they're not-”

“Neal, I can't protect you from them if I don't know the whole story.”

Neal looked down. He cleared his throat thickly. Peter watched him, prepared for a stand-off. Neal scrubbed his chin once, looking defeated.

“I didn't do anything technically illegal.”

“Jesus, Neal, how many times am I going to have to hear that?”

“Aiko met with me again. I couldn't risk the FBI getting involved, she doesn't like to deal if she doesn't have it exactly on her terms.

“So you do know her.”

“Not relevant, but yes.” Neal said, earnestly. Peter shook his head.

“Fine, we can deal with that later. What were her terms?”

“She wanted a reproduction in exchange for the real painting. And she recommended my services,” Neal said. He pulled a cocky smile from deep in his energy reserves.

“Just a reproduction?” Peter asked, dripping with skepticism.

“By definition, yes,” Neal hedged.

“You're not trying to tell me that you just had a perfect replica of the painting conveniently on hand?”

“Peter, despite your best attempts, you don't spend twenty four hours a day with me,” Neal admitted.

Peter felt caught between the urge to throttle Neal and to just hand it to him.

“Are you saying you haven't slept a full night in days?” Elizabeth cut in, echoing his own thoughts.

“That's it,” Peter declared. “Don't think you're out of trouble, Neal. But we're going to deal with this tomorrow. I don't want to be held responsible if you die of exhaustion on my couch.”

Neal just looked blearily grateful. He stood up unsteadily.

“That works for me.” Peter caught Elizabeth's mildly panicked look at the thought of Neal heading out on his own.

“Not so fast,” Peter said quickly. Neal looked like he could barely focus his eyes, much less make it home.

“I want to keep an eye on you. Not sure I can trust your nocturnal habits anymore. Our guest bed is already made up.”

“Right, stay here tonight, Neal,” Elizabeth said. Neal's expression looked like an escape had been high on his to-do list, but it spoke volumes about his exhaustion levels that he simply nodded.

“Get some rest, Neal. That's an order.” Peter said.

The next morning, as Peter and Elizabeth dressed and prepared for the day, there wasn't a peep from the guest bedroom. Thanks to the improved accuracy of the anklet, Peter was well-aware that Neal typically got up at around the same time he and his wife did. The lack of any sign of life indicated that either Neal had snuck out during the night, or that he was fully dead to the world.

Peter wasn't sure which of those options concerned him more.

“You going to go check on our houseguest?” Elizabeth asked while she carefully applied mascara at the vanity.

Peter pulled on his socks, and squared up for the task.

“He'd better be ready to start talking.” Peter said.

“You might want to bring him a couple of these, then,” Elizabeth said, sounding skeptical as she tossed Peter the bottle of Advil.

He caught it swiftly, and ambled towards the guest bedroom.

Peter opened the door gingerly, not wanting to spook Neal, had he stayed. The room was dark, with the blinds drawn. Neal's suit was still laid out on the chair where he had left it last night. Sure enough, there was a Neal-sized lump in the middle of the bed. The only other indication of life was a streak of Neal's uncharacteristically wild hair poking out of the top of the bulky duvet.

“Neal?” Peter called tentatively. No response.

“Neal!” He tried again, abandoning the gentle approach.

Finally, the Neal-shaped ball stirred, and Neal raised his head, blinked owlishly, then immediately descended into a fit of hacking that made Peter wince sympathetically. Finally, Neal caught his breath, and seemed to gather his bearings. He blanched when he saw Peter in the doorway.

“What time is it?” Neal asked, sounding like he'd just gargled rusty nails. Peter hadn't exactly prepared himself to deal with Neal when he looked this much like death warmed over, frankly.

“Almost 8:00.” Neal threw off the blankets, and sat at the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes.

“Give me fifteen and I can be ready,” he mumbled.

Peter set the bottle of Advil on the dresser top.

“I only need one thing from you, right now, Neal.” Neal just looked at him, eyebrows raised. God, it would be so much easier to be stern if Neal looked less like death warmed over.

“I need a lead on the man who your friend works for.”

“She never told me a name, I swear. The deal was total discretion,” He said.

“I know that, but I have a feeling you have some theories.” Neal kneaded at his temples. He studied bedside table beside him, and refused to look at Peter.

“There are only a few people with both the means and the connections that Aiko might be working for. I could give you some names.”

“I'm going to need the short list,” Peter said.

“On one condition,” Neal replied. Peter blew out a breath. He never had much patience before a cup of coffee, but he tried his best to find some.

“Shoot.”

“I get to give Aiko a heads up.” Peter relaxed. The honor code amongst thieves was endlessly perplexing, but it was something he could live with.

“Do whatever you need to do. I'm going to head to the office and get a head start on dealing with this paperwork storm we've got ahead of us.” Neal made to stand up.

“Ah ah ah - you're staying put,” Peter commanded, handing Neal the bottle of Advil.

“How long are you going to keep me in time-out, Peter?” Neal asked, frustrated.

“You're off the hook for the side deal business. For now,” Peter amended. “Honestly, you just look like you'd be better horizontal for the time being,” Peter said. Neal, if anything, looked more alarmed at Peter's show of concern for his physical well-being than he had at the prospect of Peter not trusting him.

With impeccable timing, Elizabeth materialized next to Peter brandishing a cup of coffee in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. She handed the coffee to Peter, and the tea to Neal.

“Thought you could use this, Neal. I could hear you from down the hall, you really sound terrible.”

Neal looked overwhelmed, but accepted the mug with a quiet thank you.

“Text me the names as soon as you can. I'll be back for lunch.” Peter said.

“Will do, Peter,” Neal said, and sipped at his tea.

“Go back to sleep now. That's an order,” Peter said. Neal didn't bother to protest.

Elizabeth followed him on his way out.

“I don't have any meetings this morning, so I was thinking of working from home,” she said. “Then I can make sure Neal stays put,” she said, glancing back at the door to their guest bedroom.

“Oh, have I told you recently that you're the best?” Peter asked.

“You could always stand to say it more,” she said, and pulled him in for a kiss goodbye.

 

Neal felt as though no time had passed between when Peter knocked on his door before work and when he returned. Logically, he knew it must be some time early afternoon given the change in the light, but his hazy brain felt no less weighed down by exhaustion after several more hours of sleep. He had stayed awake long enough to compose a list of names for Peter over, text Aiko a cryptic warning and apology, and finish his cup of tea.

He was pulled out from sleep by the sound of the door opening and closing, and the muffled sound of voices as Elizabeth welcomed her husband back home. Neal suddenly felt the weight of the events of the previous night and morning. He felt like he'd been made during a long con. He was made extra conscious of the fact that he was wearing an oversized pair of Peter's Le Moyne University sweatpants and a sweat-drenched undershirt.

Methodically, Neal forced his shaky legs to support him as he stumbled over to his clothes. Despite the care he'd taken to lay them out, they were slightly wrinkled. Nevertheless, he pulled them on, shedding his soaked shirt and sticking with just yesterday's button down. He pulled his shoes on, and buttoned his jacket. After commandeering some of Peter's deodorant from the bathroom and attempting to tame his near-Mohawk of hair back with a splash of water, he felt as though he might be ready to face his handler.

He plodded down the stairs and saw Peter and Elizabeth sitting at the table quietly working through more of the leftovers from the previous evening. Elizabeth spotted him first. 

“Neal! I was just about to bring you up something to eat. You must be starving,” she said. He wasn’t even remotely hungry, but he tried to look enthusiastic about the prospect of food. 

“That would be wonderful, Elizabeth,” he said. His voice was more of a glorified whisper at this point. Both of the Burkes looked like they were afraid a stiff breeze was going to knock him over. 

“Come join us,” Elizabeth invited, and pulled out the chair next to her. Neal tried to stride over instead of the decrepit shuffle he’d made down the stairs. He sat down, and Elizabeth, in her infinite wisdom, set in front of him a plate of with two thick pieces of toast and scrambled eggs. Neal had been bracing himself against the thought of eating any more of the heavy finger foods. 

“Did you get any leads with the names?” Neal asked. 

“As a matter of fact, we sent out a few teams to check up on the gentlemen you suggested. Nothing conclusive on the Gardner art yet, but Art Crimes is having a field day. Seems like there’s plenty of art recovery from those names alone to keep them in business through the year,” Peter announced. 

Neal smiled broadly. 

“So who are we going after? A couple of those names live right here in Manhattan,” Neal asked, trying very studiously not to choke on the gunk that was still populating his lungs. Peter and Elizabeth just exchanged a significant look. 

“You should tell him,” Elizabeth said. 

“Neal, we’re leaving this in the hands of the Boston office,” Peter said. Neal didn’t even open his mouth to protest before Peter held up a hand to deter him.

“I know what you’re going to say, but there are just some fights that aren’t worth it. And I don’t know what it would take to convince those Boston agents to let you within spitting distance of their kids’ finger paintings, much less any of the pieces they’re recovering.” Neal had to give that point to Peter.  He’d interacted with lifers in prison with a better attitude than those agents. 

“They never would have recovered the Rembrandt without me,” Neal remarked. 

“That’s debatable,” Peter said. Mildly affronted, Neal looked to Elizabeth for support. She flashed him her placating doe eyes. 

“Eat your toast, sweetie,” she said. She pushed his plate closer to him. 

Just then, a knock came at the door. “I’ll get it,” said Peter, looking glad to have an exit from the conversation. Neal tried to glower at his back, but figured it probably didn’t translate in his current state. 

“Suit - I’m looking for Neal. Is he with you?” 

“Mozzie?” Neal called. Mozzie let himself in, leaving Peter standing in the doorway. “You haven’t answered your texts. I was worried those Art Crimes agents had done something horrible.” 

Peter shut the door with a slam. “And I suppose you’ve been in on this the whole time?” 

Neal made a frantic slashing motion against his throat, but it was already too late. 

“In on what, Suit?” Mozzie asked, lamely. 

“I can’t believe you let him pull off a harebrained stunt like that,” Peter said. “What am I saying? I’m not surprised at all.” 

“Is everyone here forgetting that it worked? The painting was recovered? Am I the only one who remembers that detail?” Neal insisted, to which each of the room’s occupants fixed him with a simultaneous heated look. 

“That’s enough out of you,” Peter snapped. He pulled a throw blanket off of the couch and dropped it over Neal’s shoulders. “Not until you can stop shaking like Satchmo during a thunderstorm.” Neal, who hadn’t noticed that he was shivering again, couldn’t help but pull the blanket closer. 

“I think it’s time we got you some antibiotics,” Peter said. Neal stiffened, remembering his brief stint working in the prison infirmary.

“You know, as a ward of the state, pretty sure the Marshalls didn’t throw in a healthcare plan out of the goodness of their hearts. I’ll be fine,” Neal said. Mozzie winced understandingly, but Peter just looked at him like he suspected Neal was a bit damaged in the head. 

“I’m not sending you back to prison for a check-up. I have a GP, I think you can probably pay out of pocket,” Peter said. Neal remembered a certain security box that contained his commission from the job. 

“I should be able to scrounge up the funds,” he said. He must have not disguised his gratified look because Peter threw his head back in exasperation. 

“On second thought, I can spot you. Consider it an early birthday present,” Peter offered. 

“Aw, that’s so sweet. And my birthday isn’t even until November,” Neal grinned. 

“That’s not what your file says.” Peter narrowed his eyes. Mozzie took the moment to stand up with a dramatic flare.

“You shouldn’t pay attention to him - he’s probably delirious,” he declared. 

“I don’t know about that, but I think it’s probably not a bad idea to get you something stronger than Advil,” Elizabeth cut in, holding the backs of her fingers gently on Neal’s forehead. “You’re definitely still running hot.”  Neal fought against a building fight or flight response. Mozzie tilted his head, clearly waiting for Neal to indicate whether he needed an exit strategy. Neal thought about it, then shook his head just enough for Mozzie to get the all clear. Mozzie stood to leave. 

“Well then, Suit, make sure you don’t send him to one of those hack doctors that are being held at gunpoint by big pharma,”  He pulled out a money clip from his back pocket and handed Peter a wad of big bills. A vein instantly started throbbing in Peter’s forehead.  

“Unbelievable.” 

With that, Mozzie left Neal in the Burke’s capable hands. 



Three days later, Peter was sitting at his desk working on a report when Diana knocked on his door. He motioned her in. 

“I did what you asked, Boss. The search of the warehouse that our prime suspect in the Rembrandt case bought is now our business. Had to crack some heads together, but the paperwork is all through,” Diana said. 

“Oh, you’re the best, Diana,” Peter said, and took her file folder. 

“Are you covering for Neal?” She asked, after a beat. Peter sighed. Of course she wasn’t going to let this go. She really was the best. 

“The Boston office is itching to pin something on him. I’m just making sure they don’t get that chance,” Peter explained. 

“Permission to speak freely?” Diana asked. Peter nodded. 

“You’re being awfully easy on him,” she said. Peter steepled his fingers together, and leaned forward. 

“The only way we’re going to get Neal stop pulling his side projects is if he trusts us,” he stated. Diana raised an eyebrow, but didn’t seem to disagree. From behind Diana, Neal appeared in the doorway. Diana turned around to greet him. 

“Welcome back, Caffrey,” she said. Peter didn’t miss the expression of mild shock when she got a good look at how rough Neal looked. Despite being as expertly polished as ever in his slick, wrinkleless suit, Peter suspected that Diana had seen corpses that looked healthier than Neal. 

“Morning, Diana,” he said brightly. His voice wasn’t doing his whole consumptive look any favors. 

“Damn, Caffrey, you win. It’s almost impossible to enjoy your downfall when you look this bad,” Diana said, giving Neal a conspicuous once-over. Neal pulled a smirk. 

“All part of the master plan,” he said, smoothly. Peter couldn’t help but enjoy their exchange a little too much. “What have you got for me, Peter?” He asked. 

“I don’t know. Diana, you got any busy-work you don’t want to do?” Peter asked, feeling positively chipper for the first time in a week. 

“Plenty,” Diana said, wickedly. Neal pouted. 

“Am I still being punished for something?” He asked. 

“Nope, you owe Diana a favor,” Peter said. Neal furrowed his brows in confusion. Even with Neal in his diminished state, it was a joy to watch. 

“What exactly do I owe you for?” He asked. Diana laughed. 

“That’s on a need to know basis Caffrey.” 

Peter watched them go, and smiled.