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Port in a Storm

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portstorm-kanarek13

Cover by kanarek13

Corinne knew she should quit smoking, but she could still run the FBI obstacle course faster than most of her younger colleagues. And she was down to just two cigarettes a day, one in mid-morning when she needed to get up from her desk, and one in the evening, over a glass of wine back in her condo.

Besides, days like today made her glad she'd taken a break to stretch her legs. It had rained last night, washing the usual summer-in-DC humidity out of the air. The sky was a crisp light blue, and the breeze felt like spring. Corinne stepped out of the FBI building's long-reaching shadow and decided to stroll down the street a bit, maybe even walk to the National Mall and back. She fished in her pocket for a lighter.

"Excuse me, Section Chief Brauer?"

Corinne sighed inwardly; so much for a peaceful smoke and a stroll. She put on a smile for the security guard as she turned around. "Hi, Dave. What's wrong?"

"Ma'am, we've got a bit of a situation. Someone tried to sneak past security. Sorry to bother you, but --"

"It's all right, don't worry." She dropped the cigarette, unsmoked, into the sand bin beside the door and followed him back into the building. "What happened?"

"Carol and Mike have him in custody," Dave said. "He might be mentally disturbed and he's definitely injured, but he's refusing medical treatment. He isn't carrying ID and won't give a name. He keeps insisting he wants to talk to an agent."

Dave took her into an office off the main lobby. As soon as she was inside, Corinne could see why he wasn't sure how to handle things. The prisoner was sitting on the floor in a corner, with his head bowed and his cuffed hands brought up to cover his head with his arms. His shirt looked like it had once been nice, but now it was ragged and filthy, crusted in dirt or dried blood. The other two security guards were hovering nervously nearby, clearly unsure how to proceed.

"No one's laid a hand on him, ma'am," Mike said quickly. "He was like that when he came in. He didn't get violent when we cuffed him, just kept saying that he needed to talk to an agent, but he wasn't making a lot of sense."

"He won't consent to being fingerprinted," Dave said. "We could just do it, especially given that he tried to break into a federal building, but ..."

"... yeah," Corinne agreed. Huddled in the corner, he looked terrified and vulnerable. "I understand. You did the right thing."

She knelt beside the prisoner, who shifted his arms slightly to peer at her from the shadow beneath them. There were cuts and bruises on the backs of his hands and more of them visible on the stripes of pale flesh she could see through the rips in his shirt.

"Hi," she said gently. "I'm Section Chief Corinne Brauer. I'm here to help you."

He lowered his arms a bit more, allowing her to see his face a little better. White male, early thirties. His face, like his arms, was bruised -- recent bruises, she thought, layered on top of fading older ones. His lips were cracked and dry. He wet them with his tongue before speaking in a soft, rasping voice. "Is this the FBI building?"

"It is," Corinne agreed. She kept her voice low and soothing. "My friends here say that you tried to break in."

"I wasn't --" He broke off, coughing, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyes were glassy and not quite focused. "I didn't mean any harm," he said. "I just wanted to see Peter. Peter Burke. He's an agent. Special Agent. Very special agent."

"Okay," Corinne said. "We can get him for you." She turned and looked up at Dave, who was on the phone. He lowered it a minute later.

"HR says there's no Peter Burke assigned to the DC office, ma'am."

"No!" the young man said sharply. The guards reached for their guns. Corinne held up a hand to stop them. She didn't even have hers on her. Now that she was no longer a field agent, she rarely carried it, and she'd only planned to be gone from her office for a few minutes anyway.

"No," he repeated, and dropped his head to rest on top of his knees, as if he'd reached the end of his strength. His hands dropped to the floor, and the cuffs clattered in a heap -- they were, somehow, no longer around his wrists. "I just need Peter. He's here. This is where he works."

"You need medical care," Corinne said. She retrieved the handcuffs carefully, and frowned up at Dave: Do you really have that much trouble putting cuffs on a sick, incoherent prisoner? Dave looked back at her, equally baffled.

"No," the young man said with a trace of belligerence. "I want to talk to Peter. Peter Burke."

"Are you sure he's an agent?"

"Yes. He's my handler."

Okay, now they were getting somewhere. "Were you undercover?"

He started to nod, then started to shake his head, then balked. He was trembling. "Just call Peter. Peter Burke. Please."

"Can you tell me this Peter Burke's number?"

The young man leaned toward her -- she leaned away, but then he held up a cell phone. A familiar-looking cell phone. Her cell phone.

"Did you just pick my pocket?" she demanded incredulously, taking it away.

"I was going to dial for you."

How did he get his hands on it? She hadn't even seen him move! "Look," Corinne said, "I'll let you dial this Peter Burke's number if you let me put the handcuffs back on you, okay?"

A shiver wracked him. "I don't like to be restrained."

"Perhaps not, but you just picked a federal agent's pocket, so I would feel much better if you were restrained."

"If I let you handcuff me, you'll call Peter for me?"

"Yes," she said. "I promise."

Wordlessly, he held out his hands. Corinne started to put the cuffs back on him, and paused. It had been hidden by the cuffs before, but the flesh around his wrists was abraded, clotted with blood and swollen from infection. He'd been restrained before ... brutally.

"Tell you what," she said, tucking the cuffs into her pocket. "You don't have to wear handcuffs if you promise to stay in that corner, right where you are. Okay?"

"Don't pick this. No picking, no slipping," he murmured. "Yes, I'll stay. May I call Peter now?"

And he had her phone again! She resisted the urge to snatch it away, because it hadn't helped the last time. Instead she tried to keep both his hands in sight. "Yes," she said. "Dial Peter's number, and then I'll need to talk to him, okay?"

"Okay," he said, and tapped out a number with his thumb before handing the phone back to her. He was shivering again.

"Get a blanket, would you?" Corinne said over her shoulder to Dave. The phone was ringing; then a man's voice said, "Hello?"

"Peter Burke?" she hazarded. Her prisoner's head came up, his eyes suddenly sharper and more focused.

"This is Peter."

"Peter, this is Section Chief Corinne Brauer from the DC office," she said. "Are you missing an agent?"

"Not an agent," Peter said. There was a pause after it, as if he was holding his breath.

"Well, there's someone here who insists on talking to you," she said. "I'm going to put the phone on speaker and let you talk to him, okay?"

"Yeah, go," Peter said.

Corinne took the phone away from her ear. Her prisoner was already straining toward it, not exactly reaching for it, but still his entire body leaned that way like a plant growing toward the light. "Peter?" he said.

"Neal." The word came out on a rush of audible relief. "Where are you? No, no, stupid question, obviously you're at the DC office. Where were you?"

Neal didn't answer immediately. His whole body sagged, his eyes closed, and Corinne tensed to catch him if he fell; she thought for a moment that he was going to pass out, and indeed, he seemed on the verge of it. Then he opened his eyes again -- he wasn't crying, not quite, but tears glistened in his lashes. "Peter," he said. "You're not in DC. I thought you were in DC. Where are you?"

The briefest of pauses on Peter's end. "I'm in New York. At White Collar. Neal, are you okay?"

"You're supposed to be in DC," Neal said.

Dave dropped a blanket into Corinne's lap. She set the phone on the floor between them and leaned over to drape it over Neal. He hardly seemed to notice her; his whole being was focused on the phone.

"I went ahead and called the EMTs," Dave murmured. Corinne nodded her thanks.

"Neal," Peter said, "it's a long story, and right now, I want to talk to Chief Brauer for a minute. Chief, are you there?"

"You can call me Corinne," she said, "and yes, I am."

"Is he okay?" Peter sounded calm, but it was a slightly brittle kind of calm.

"No," she said, meeting Neal's fever-bright eyes. "He needs medical care, but wouldn't consent to it without talking to you."

"Neal, are you listening?" The veneer of calm was even thinner now, although she caught something in Peter's voice that sounded like a stifled laugh, or maybe stifled panic. Or both. A door slammed in the background.

"Yes," Neal said. "I'm listening." That was an understatement -- he was listening to the phone with his whole body, if such a thing was possible.

"Okay, good. Neal, I'm heading out the door right now, and you are going to tell the nice lady that she needs to call the paramedics for you, okay? And then you are going to stay right where you are until they get there. Got it?"

"Okay," Neal agreed. "No picking, no slipping. Got it."

Peter made a strangled sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

"They're actually on their way," Corinne said. "Peter, what's his full name? Do you know his medical history?"

"He didn't tell you his name? No," Peter corrected himself, "of course he didn't. It's Neal Caffrey. Neal, tell them whatever they need to know to treat you, okay?"

"Okay," Neal said. He leaned against the wall, half-closing his eyes, and pulled the blanket more tightly around his shoulders.

"Oh shit," Peter said. "Sorry! Ma'am, Neal is going to come up as a fugitive. There's an alert out for the Marshals. Neal, did you run?"

"No," Neal said. His eyes were completely shut now. He leaned against the wall as if he planned to fall asleep there. "I didn't, Peter, I promise."

"Knew it," Peter muttered. "Chief, I'm sorry to do this to you, but can you stay with him? He's not a fugitive, he was -- doing some work for us, and we lost him. I need someone to run interference with the Marshals. Can you do that for me?"

"Agent Burke, are you asking me to obstruct the Marshals?" She found herself smiling. "Yes. I can do that."

She could hear the smile in Peter's voice. "I owe you one. Neal?"

"Mmmm," Neal said.

"You're going to cooperate with Chief Brauer and stay with her, okay?" He paused; Neal didn't respond. "Neal?"

"Mmm. Yes."

Corinne picked up the phone again. "Neal, I'm just going to talk to Agent Burke for a minute, okay?" Neal didn't reply; he really did appear to have fallen asleep. She turned off the speaker function and said, "Peter, can you tell me what's going on?"

"I'll fill you in when I get there. Sorry to be vague, it's just -- hard to explain, I suppose. Right now I need to make some other calls. I'm going to have my wife come down to the hospital and keep you and Neal company, okay?"

"Your wife?" she said, surprised. "Is she an agent?"

"What? No, no." Peter sounded distracted. She heard a car door slam. "I'll call you back shortly, all right? I need to handle a few things on my end. If the Marshals give you trouble, feel free to dump it all on me. And, look, thanks a lot. I really mean it. I know this is kind of sudden and strange, and ..."

He hesitated, but didn't hang up, so Corinne waited. She was used to field agents being abrupt and peculiar and unexpectedly emotional. Finally Peter said, "I don't know exactly what happened, but I think I can fill in some of the pieces, and -- thank you for looking after Neal. It would've been really easy for someone to throw him into lockup, or call the Marshals rather than calling me. Thank you."

"You're welcome," she said, and he hung up without saying goodbye. She stared at the phone for a minute, then looked at Neal, leaning against the wall with his bruised face slack in sleep.

His wife?

 

***

 

Neal slept until the paramedics arrived, at which point he woke up fighting. He calmed down immediately, though, when Corinne reminded him that Peter had said he was supposed to cooperate. She was definitely looking forward to meeting this Agent Peter Burke.

As the EMTs were helping him onto a gurney, Neal said, "Wait, here," and he began handing Corinne a sequence of items which she realized were her badge, the handcuffs again, and her lighter, respectively.

"When did you take these?" she demanded.

"I thought they might be useful, just in case," Neal said. "You know, for escaping. But I don't need to escape, so you should have them back."

"Uh, yes," she said, staring after him as he was wheeled away. "I ... suppose I should." She double-checked that everything else was still in her pockets, particularly her wallet.

She followed the ambulance to the hospital in her car, but once they got there, she realized that she had no idea how to handle Neal's current legal status. She decided to trust Burke and continue on the assumption that Neal was an agent doing some kind of deep cover assignment. While she was dealing with the admissions paperwork, leaving most of it blank, her assistant Tan called her. Neal had already been shuffled off to the back.

"I looked up Caffrey," he said. "This is fascinating reading. Endlessly fascinating, really. I'm not sure where to begin."

"Is he an agent?"

"Nooooo," Tan said, drawling it out. "At least not unless it's classified at a higher level than I can access. He's a CI in some kind of work-release deal with the New York office."

"Wait, I've heard about this, I think." It did ring a very faint bell. Some kind of program the New York office had pioneered and some of the other field offices were picking up because of its success. She wasn't sure of the details. She didn't deal with that division. "What did he do?"

She heard papers being shuffled. "Bond forgery, apparently. Strong flight risk. He's escaped multiple times since the New York office instituted the work-release three years ago, most recently about three weeks ago."

Her stomach sank and she thought about Neal Caffrey in the hospital, unsupervised and completely unsecured. Burke, if I get in trouble for this, I am going to bust you down to FBI parking garage attendant.

"Where the story becomes completely fascinating is when you get into the supervisors' notes on Burke -- that's his handler -- and Caffrey," Tan said. He laughed. "Depending on who you believe, they're either a brilliant team with the highest case-closure rate in the Bureau, or a pair of dangerous mavericks who shouldn't be put in charge of the city dog pound. Burke has the oddest mix of commendations and reprimands that I've ever seen. He's either being given glowing reviews or busted down a notch, but hardly a month goes by without one or the other. A year ago, he very nearly got fired and ended up getting busted to the evidence warehouse for a while. A few months later, he's the ASAC. Oh, and did I mention he was in jail for a while? For murder? Cleared of all charges, though." He laughed again. "I need to email you Agent Kramer's notes on him."

"Kramer from Art Crimes?" He was fairly well respected around the Bureau, although she didn't know him personally.

"Yes. It's hilarious, especially when contrasted against the notes that Burke's direct supervisor, ASAC Hughes, left in his file during the same period."

Hughes she definitely knew of. He'd retired a few months back, but he'd been something of a legend for turning down repeated offers of either promotion or retirement.

"At one point Kramer describes Burke as criminally negligent and possibly insane," Tan said. "He goes on to say, I pity the supervisor who has to deal with him. Will probably end up in prison. May take the entire department with him at the rate things are going. Then there's a note filed by Hughes at roughly the same time: Some of the most brilliant outside-the-box thinking I've ever seen. Burke is either going to end up running the Bureau, or his career is going to implode so spectacularly that we'll still be talking about it twenty years later. Oh, and I also found a bit in which Kramer calls Hughes 'blinded by sympathy for Burke to the point of blatant stupidity' and Hughes refers to Kramer as a pompous jackass. Anyway, I'll email you the whole thing."

"I suppose it'll keep me entertained while I wait," Corinne sighed. "Put the rest on my desk, please."

She had to make a few more calls to clear her afternoon schedule. As she contemplated the work that would be stacking up for her tomorrow, she wondered why she was willing to do this for someone who was inarguably a criminal, and his possibly-criminal handler.

But she knew why. It was the frantic, frightened look in Neal's eyes. It was the worry in Burke's voice and the way Neal had relaxed when he heard Burke say his name.

She'd moved up in the Bureau because she liked mentoring more than she liked being a field agent. She enjoyed taking younger agents under her wing and showing them the ropes. And while Neal wasn't an agent, and she wasn't his mentor, she couldn't just walk away and leave him alone, sick and at the mercy of the criminal justice system.

Peter's wife showed up while Corinne was tactfully giving the Marshals the runaround via phone. Elizabeth Burke was a bubbly brunette who greeted Corinne by unselfconsciously hugging her and insisted on being called Elizabeth rather than Mrs. Burke.

"Thank you for being there for Neal," Elizabeth said, and she searched Corinne's face with wide, worried eyes. "How is he?"

"I haven't heard anything yet." She couldn't bring herself to describe Neal's condition, as she'd last seen him, to this woman who obviously cared and worried.

She'd skimmed enough of the file Tan had sent to know that Agent Kramer maintained Neal had insinuated himself into the Burkes' lives and was actively conning them. Corinne had decided to reserve judgment; it would be unwise to jump to conclusions in either direction too soon. However, if Elizabeth was a victim of a con job, she'd certainly fallen hook, line and sinker for it.

They were allowed in to see Neal shortly afterward. He looked a lot better than the last time Corinne had seen him; he was cleaned up now, with bandages around his wrists and peeking from under the collar of his scrub top. His bruises still stood out shockingly against his pale skin. From his loose sprawl, Corinne guessed that the IV in his arm was giving him more than saline solution -- an impression that was confirmed by his wide, slightly loopy grin when he saw Elizabeth. "Hey," he said.

"Hey yourself." Elizabeth put a very careful arm around him. Neal slid sideways and ended up draped on her. "Oh, Neal," she said, pressing her cheek against the top of his head. "We've been so worried."

"'salright," Neal said. "I got away. Peter knows I didn't run, right?"

"Peter knows very well that you didn't run," Elizabeth told him firmly. "He's driving here right now, so you'll see him soon."

Corinne sat on his other side. "Hi, Neal. I'm Section Chief Brauer -- you can call me Corinne. You remember me from earlier?"

Neal nodded. His hand quested out and settled on top of hers. "You didn't put the handcuffs on me."

"You would have taken them off again," she pointed out.

"Neal," Elizabeth said, "give the lady back her watch, please."

Neal grinned and obediently dropped her watch into her palm. He'd been doing a lot more than just holding her hand. "I don't believe you," Corinne muttered, fastening the clasp. "I'm trying to help you."

"I gave back everything I took," Neal pointed out.

"According to your file, you don't always."

That shut him up. Elizabeth looked reproachful, but Corinne was having none of it. "Mr. Caffrey -- Neal -- this is serious. You're a wanted fugitive, you know. I've been stalling the Marshals, but there's a limit to how long I can keep it up. But," she added, holding up a finger to forestall Elizabeth, who'd opened her mouth, "it would help a lot if you tell me more about where you were and why. Is it classified?"

Neal shook his head. "I'll answer your questions," he said.

"Does he need a lawyer?" Elizabeth demanded.

"Only if he's been committing crimes," Corinne said. "Have you been committing crimes?"

"Do crimes under duress count?" Neal wanted to know. Elizabeth looked like she was going to cry.

"No," Corinne said gently. She put her hand over his -- the hand without the watch, just to be on the safe side -- and nodded to Elizabeth. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave for a little while, if you don't mind."

"No," Neal said, burrowing into Elizabeth.

"No," Elizabeth said at the same moment.

"I think this would probably be distressing for her," Corinne told Neal. "She'll be right outside." She glanced up at Elizabeth, trying to telegraph with her eyes that Neal could speak more freely and honestly about his experiences in captivity if the two of them were alone.

"It's okay," Neal said, patting Elizabeth's arm awkwardly. "You'll be outside?"

"I will," Elizabeth said, and giving Corinne a dangerous look, "If you need me, just yell. I will be there immediately. With a lawyer."

She marched out.

"I know you've been through a lot, Neal, and I don't want to make this any harder than it has to be," Corinne said. "Mostly, I need to know if we should arrange for protection for you, and I can also get the paperwork rolling on bringing the people who did this to justice."

"You're a lot like Peter," Neal said. Since Elizabeth had left he'd wilted back onto the pillows, and his head was tipped to the side, watching her intently.

"Am I?"

"Yes," Neal said. "He talks about justice a lot, too." He frowned. "I don't think that's really what I meant to say. Not quite. Things are ... kind of fuzzy. But I get a Peterish sort of feeling from you."

"Is that good?" Corinne asked, smiling in spite of herself.

"Yes," Neal said, and handed her back her watch, which, as usual, she had not noticed him take.

"Will you please stop doing that?"

"I just like to keep the FBI on its toes," Neal said, nestling into the pillows.

 

***

 

From Neal's slightly disjointed account, Corinne gathered that he had been abducted by a ring of art thieves who wanted him as their pet cat burglar. She promised him immunity, which technically she couldn't really do without making some calls, but she needed to get the story out of him and figured she could justify it later. Although he was evasive with details, he gave her enough pertinent information on names, locations and general descriptions that she could get a team mobilized to find these people.

"I tried to escape before," Neal said. "They always caught me."

"Well, they won't catch you this time." She found an unbruised part of his shoulder to pat. "I'll be here, and then Peter will be here. And we should have these guys in custody soon."

"Peter's coming," Neal said, brightening. "From New York. Right." He frowned. "Why is Peter in New York?"

"I don't know," Corinne said. "You can ask his wife."

She left Elizabeth with Neal and went out to the waiting room to coordinate the Bureau response. She also fended off the U.S. Marshals, shamelessly giving them Peter Burke's number. Burke, she figured, would enjoy having someone to yell at.

And he must have broken every speed limit on the normally four-hour drive from New York to DC, considering how fast he got there. Despite never having met him, Corinne recognized him immediately when he strode into the waiting area -- his entire manner and bearing was undeniably FBI, and he motored through the waiting room like a man on a mission, orienting on her. "Chief Brauer?"

"Call me Corinne, like I said." She shook his hand. "I was just getting a response team together. I think we have enough from Caffrey to catch these guys. Do you want to be involved with that?"

"Damn right I do," Peter said grimly. "But --" His expression changed, becoming almost tentative. "Is Caffrey -- awake? I'd like to talk to him."

"He's in the back," Corinne said, and then she almost had to run to catch up with him.

Neal and Elizabeth were playing cards -- or, rather, Elizabeth had laid out a card game in Neal's lap and seemed to be doing most of the moves herself, while Neal was sprawled sleepily on the pillows, sipping on a cup of soup. They both looked up when Corinne and Peter came in. She'd seen Neal smile for Elizabeth, but he positively lit up for Peter.

"Neal," Peter said.

"Peter," Neal said, trying to sit up a little straighter. Elizabeth quietly took the soup cup away before he dropped it.

Peter crossed the space between the door and the bed in a couple of long strides -- then checked himself and gave his wife a slightly absent hug with all his attention still fixed on Neal. He seemed to be cataloguing each and every one of Neal's bruises. "Oh God, Neal. I am so, so sorry. We looked for you -- Mozzie too. We've been searching 24-7."

"I'm pretty good at getting away on my own, you know," Neal said, and there was something heartbreaking about his smile.

Peter made a choking sound and leaned a hip on the edge of the bed. Very hesitantly he reached an arm around Neal's shoulders, groping for an unbruised place to rest his hand. Neal responded by wilting onto him in a boneless puddle. Peter, caught off guard, almost fell off the bed; he obviously hadn't been expecting to take so much weight. Since Neal showed no inclination to be dislodged, Peter sighed and leaned his chin on top of Neal's head.

"We're gonna get these guys," he said.

"I know," Neal said, a little muffled by Peter's shirt. "It's what you do."

Elizabeth met Corinne's eyes and gave her a little smile. Corinne smiled back, and quietly withdrew. She felt as if she were intruding. As she closed the door, she glanced back to see that the Burkes had closed protectively around Neal. Neal was still draped on Peter and, from the look of things, neither of them planned on letting go anytime soon.

She closed the door quietly, giving them privacy.

Anomalous did not even begin to cover Peter Burke's relationship with his CI. No wonder no one could figure out quite how to describe it in his file. They must baffle everyone who met them. Inappropriate? she wondered. Maybe on some level. She could see why Kramer had reacted as he had.

But Corinne had always believed that it was not just intelligence and courage that made a good agent, but also heart. Compassion. Caring. In her nearly three decades with the Bureau, she'd met quite a few empathy-impaired agents, and not nearly enough whose biggest flaw was caring too much.

It was very clear that Peter Burke was about as emotionally compromised by his CI as it was possible to get.

And it was equally clear, to Corinne at least, that neither one of them would change it for the world.

 

***

 

She saw Neal Caffrey once more, a few days later.

The actual investigation was entirely out of her hands -- that was all handled by divisions which were not under her, and though she would have liked to check in, there was more than enough actual work to keep her too busy to take the time. She'd also meant to stop by and see Neal in the hospital again, but when she finally got around to calling over, he'd already been discharged.

She'd had one more conversation with Peter, updating him on the exact details of her initial meeting with Neal as well as what Neal had told her about his captivity. This had been over the phone, but even without being able to see his face, she'd been aware of the silence on the other end of the line growing distinctly chillier as she described Neal's condition when she'd first seen him.

"Oh, and he stole my watch," she said. "Several times. Just so you're aware."

"Did he give it back?"

"Pretty much immediately," she admitted.

Peter had laughed. "That means he likes you."

At which point she decided the two of them probably deserved each other.

But she wasn't expecting Neal to show up in the doorway of her office. He looked so different it took her a moment to recognize him; he was shaved, barbered, and very well put together, wearing a suit that looked expensive. The bruises on his face were still visible, although fading.

"Mind if I come in?"

"Aren't you supposed to be accompanied by an agent at all times?" Corinne asked, but she waved him to a seat. His stiff movements as he sat down belied his apparent good health, but he seemed cheerful regardless.

"I'm with an agent," he said, his eyes sparkling. "I'm in an agent's office right now."

Oh yes, this one was trouble.

"Peter's actually downstairs, taking care of some paperwork," Neal admitted when she glared sternly at him. "I just figured I'd come up while he was busy."

"Does he actually know where you are?"

"Figuring it out will keep him busy," Neal said cheerfully. "He likes a challenge."

She fought off a smile. "Luckily that's your problem, not mine."

Neal raised his eyes to meet her gaze, suddenly serious. "Thank you for helping me. I don't actually remember a whole lot of what happened -- I was pretty out of it. But I know that you didn't have to treat me as kindly as you did. I really appreciate it."

"I don't deserve thanks for being a decent human being," Corinne said, embarrassed.

"It's less common than you might think," Neal said.

This time she made no effort to suppress her smile. "I know Peter's going back to New York soon. Will you be going back with him?"

"Apparently so." He didn't sound unhappy at the prospect.

"There you are," Peter said from the doorway of her office. He looked both exasperated and amused.

"That didn't take long," Neal said.

"I'm a professional," Peter retorted. "I hope he's not bothering you."

"We were having a very nice conversation, actually." She offered a hand, and Neal shook it. "If you two are ever back down in DC, drop by. We'll have lunch."

"Actually, I'm down a lot since my wife works here," Peter said. "We'll have to do that. Neal, give Section Chief Brauer back her watch, now."

Smirking shamelessly, Neal placed it atop a pile of paperwork on her desk.

"Your wife is welcome to join us," Corinne said, retrieving her watch quickly. "I can tell you have your work cut out for you, Peter."

"Don't I know it," Peter said. "C'mon, Neal; if we hit the road now, we can beat rush hour."

"I think I should point out," Neal said as he extricated himself carefully from the chair, "that I have to put up with him too, and he won't even let me pick what to listen to on the radio."

"Because it's my car," Peter said.

"Technically it's the Bureau's car."

"Yes, but I'm driving." Peter raised a hand to Corinne. "Thank you for the lunch offer. I'll definitely give you a call next time I'm down."

"I'll look forward to it," she said.

Neal winked at her before turning away. As soon as he was close enough, Peter planted a hand in the middle of his back, a smooth and apparently unconscious gesture that seemed to combine protectiveness with simply keeping track of him.

The last thing she heard was Neal's: "If I have to listen to ESPN Radio all the way back to New York, I will die." Then the elevator door closed and they were gone.

Corinne reflexively checked to make sure her watch was still there. It was, but recalling Neal's sly wink on his way out the door, she had a feeling that she was going to be making a full inventory of her office contents sometime very soon.

Thank God they were the New York office's problem, she thought.

But she was definitely looking forward to that lunch date.