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A Handful of Lightning

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After two years of hunting Neal Caffrey, Peter and his team finally cornered him in an old warehouse, after using his girlfriend to track him down. Peter was a little surprised -- gratified, though -- that Caffrey didn't try to run. He'd gotten out of more tight places ... there had been a few times Peter had no idea how he'd done it, but this time, this time they had the tricky bastard. He wasn't going anywhere.

Moreau stepped back; they had nothing on her, and she knew it. She just watched without expression as the team ringed Caffrey with a circle of muzzles all pointed at him. Still, Caffrey's gratitude -- genuine or not -- came as a surprise.

"Thank you. I never would have found her without you."

Peter hesitated, then took the proffered hand and shook it, as Jones moved in with the handcuffs. No reason not to be gracious. They'd won, after all.

And that was the last thing Peter remembered. The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the floor of the warehouse with a blinding headache and a heavily armed team of FBI agents groaning and stirring around him.

Moreau and Caffrey were gone.

"What did he do?" Peter demanded, staggering to his feet. A ripping pain behind his eyes told him that this had not been a good move. "What happened? Did he gas us?" He staggered, nauseated and dizzy. Looking around, he saw nothing but blank and slightly sick faces staring back at him.

They'd had Caffrey right there, and he still got away, and Peter had no idea how he'd done it. The lab found no traces of drugs, explosives, sonic weapons or anything else in the warehouse.

The following day, a man and a woman in expensive sunglasses with Homeland Security badges showed up in Peter Burke's office, made him sign so many nondisclosure agreements that his hand was sore, took him into Bancroft's office, and told him a story.

 

***

 

"He's some kind of secret government experiment?"

Peter looked back and forth between the two agents and his boss's boss. This had to be some kind of elaborate joke, though he couldn't imagine Bancroft being involved in something like that.

"Not a government experiment," the Man In Black (who had introduced himself as Agent Rogers) said stiffly. "A privately contracted lab, receiving government funding along with, apparently, a critical lack of oversight."

"I didn't see anything on the news," Peter said carefully, "about a superpowered mutant escaping from a lab."

"Mutants, plural," said the Woman In Black, a.k.a. Agent Stark, although Peter was quite sure these were not their real names. He darted a sidelong look at her. She had her Professional Agent Face on -- Peter recognized it; he had one of his own -- but he caught a glimpse of the teeniest tug of a smile at the corner of her mouth. He decided he could work with her. Then the words caught up ...

"Wait, there's more than one Caffrey?" Horrifying thought ...

"There were six of them, three boys and three girls," Bancroft said, examining the file open in front of him -- a file Peter had not been invited to look at. "Two are known, or at least suspected, to be dead. The other three besides Caffrey are still at large, whereabouts unknown."

As much as Peter hated to give credence to this impossible flight of fancy, it would explain so much about Caffrey's background: the mysterious gaps and inconsistencies, the complete lack of any information on his childhood whatsoever ...

"Is Kate Moreau one of them?" She, on the other hand, had a background that appeared to be perfectly normal and convincing.

"No, she's not," Agent Rogers said. "She's a normal human woman, possibly under his control." Stark's face, already inscrutable, grew slightly more so.

"He can control people?"

Rogers looked at Bancroft, and nodded, so Bancroft handed Peter the file, stuffed with papers. On top, there was a photograph clipped to it of Neal looking about fourteen, a thin-faced boy, skinny and pale and big-eyed. And underneath, Peter quickly found himself lost in a sea of technobabble. It was like some horrendous hybrid of the undergrad science classes he'd taken twenty-five years ago crossed with the psychevals that his team had to take on a yearly basis. He looked up to find Bancroft and both agents watching him intently.

"Could I get the major bullet points? Maybe a short rundown of what his, er, abilities are ..." Peter flipped a page as he spoke and was stopped dead by an 8x10 glossy photograph that looked like part of a Halloween costume or an f/x shot from a sci-fi movie. The person in the photograph -- it had to be Neal, from the floppy dark hair -- was leaning forward, lifting his hair out of the way to reveal an elaborate matrix of silvery ... transistors? Wires? Whatever it was, there was quite a bit of it, lacing the back of his scalp and neck like an odd tattoo. Normally it would be hidden by his hair.

"What you're looking at," Rogers said, leaning over to peer at the photograph in Peter's hands, "is a device that works along similar principles to the ones you may have seen in the news, allowing amputees or paralyzed persons to control external devices."

"I've seen that, yes," Peter said, and then, helplessly, "But ... that's just technology. Medicine. Mind control is ..."

"Science fiction? So were cell phones and space shuttles, once upon a time," Stark said.

Peter touched the image, tracing the silver lines that vanished under Caffrey's hairline. "Is this thing ... surgically implanted?"

Now both of the agents seemed to be waiting for the other one to speak first, and Bancroft spoke for them, his voice harsh. "Yes. Part of the theory, as it's been explained to me, is that this technology required a human brain still in its critical learning period. The initial stages of the device were implanted when these children were -- how old?" he asked, looking across the desk at Rogers and Stark, who at least had the decency to look guilty. "Eight months old, I believe?"

"They what," Peter said. He tried to collect his thoughts. Tried to think about this analytically, though it was getting harder. "The parents consented to that?"

"These children were conceived in vitro from anonymous sperm and egg donors," Stark said. "We've tried to contact next-of-kin, but we ran into a wall. There simply aren't any records to work from."

She fell silent and Rogers stepped in. "The children were raised in a lab. In their teens, they escaped, which was around the time that the situation came to our attention."

Peter boggled at them all in horror. "This is not legal." It was so much more than that, but he didn't have words for it.

"Why do you think it's classified at the highest level?" Rogers said. "Why do you think we had you sign all those forms? This isn't the public image that the taxpayers want to see."

"I certainly should hope not," Peter said, very tightly. He couldn't believe that there weren't whistleblowers screaming this to the ceiling ...

... and then he realized that there were. He'd seen them on streetcorners, on the Internet -- people ranting about government cover-ups and mind control experiments. He'd just never believed them.

You've read the stories, Burke, he told himself bitterly. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, everything the CIA got up to during the Cold War -- did you really believe that sort of thing had stopped?

"I mentioned the lack of oversight," Rogers said. "Clearly this was not meant to happen, and housecleaning is being done at the highest levels. Believe me, we're as upset about this as you are."

"I hardly think that's possible," Peter managed through the tightness constricting his throat. Children. Little children. Good God.

Bancroft gave him a sharp glance. Outrage later, that look said clearly. Business now. So Peter forced down his sickness and fury, and got himself back into problem-solving mode. However this travesty had come to be, these hideously misused children were now adults, all of them apparently operating outside the law (and who could blame them, a small cold voice inside him pointed out). As an FBI agent, it was his job to catch them, not for being what they were, but for doing what they had done. Thinking about that made him feel a little better.

"Can this device be disabled? Because if what you're telling me is true, there's no jail cell that can hold them."

"We're working on technology that can do that," Rogers said.

"The part of the problem that's still being worked on is how to disable the device without irrevocably damaging the human brain underneath," Stark said, with a coolly ironic twist to the words that made it clear how she felt about that.

Rogers shot her a quick, quelling glare. "We believe we're very close," he said.

"All right," Peter said, trying not to think about it and instead focusing on the part of this whole mess that he was best at: catching the criminals. "So let's say that we can apprehend them and contain them. I asked for bullet points. What can they do? What should my team be on guard against?"

"They can read minds," Rogers said. "Surface thoughts, at least. They can't really take control of people -- though another reason to keep this under wraps," and he looked at Peter intently, "is to prevent the general population from jumping to those sorts of conclusions. But what these kids can do is implant suggestions and subtly push normal human minds towards a desired conclusion."

There was that phrase again, Peter thought. "Normal human" minds. As opposed to Caffrey and his fellow labmates, who were -- what? Not normal? Not human?

But he could see why Caffrey was such a skilled con artist. These were the tricks of the con's trade, dialed up a thousand percent. A confidence man who could tell people exactly what they wanted to hear ... the mind boggled.

"There's some debate over that part, actually," Stark said. "Most of the control -- and I don't like using that word -- that they have over other people's minds is very crude. We know from the lab reports that they can cause people or animals to feel pain and fear, or to experience unconsciousness ... as your team discovered," she added with another slight smile. Peter didn't get the impression that the humor was at his team's expense, but rather, the shared camaraderie of someone who'd experienced the same thing. "And, while we have less data on this," she went on, "we believe they can evoke positive emotions as well as negative ones. There is some evidence that what looks like mind control to us is actually just subtle operant conditioning of the people around them."

Better and better. A con artist who could make people feel good simply by being near them. With an embarrassed twinge, Peter remembered shaking Neal's hand -- had he done that all on his own, or had Caffrey given him a little shot of warmth and fellow-feeling at exactly the right moment? No wonder Kate was under Caffrey's spell ...

But that wasn't exactly fair. People fell for each other all the time without mental manipulation being involved.

In a sudden sharp flash of insight, he wondered if this was what Caffrey himself wondered all the time. Did these damaged children always know when they were using their abilities? Would they ever really know if someone truly loved them, or if they were merely exerting a little push on the pleasure center of their lover's brain? What a terrible uncertainty to have to live with.

But empathy wasn't useful right now. Mainly, he had to worry about catching them.

"What about countermeasures?" Peter asked. "I'm not talking about tinfoil hats -- oh, hell, maybe I am talking about tinfoil hats. Is there anything like that?"

Rogers and Stark shared a glance. "Nothing that's available for field use," Rogers said.

"Great. So now I know I'm trying to catch a telepathic bad guy, but there's nothing I can do about it?"

"You can be prepared," Bancroft said. "There is a fairly short range on their ability. Twenty feet or so, and it's most effective if they're touching you."

Like, say, a handshake. Now he really felt like a Grade-A sucker.

"Maybe some sort of non-lethal incapacitation," Peter mused. In spite of his disgust with the methods that had been used on the kids, they were criminals and he couldn't help getting caught up in the thought-problem aspect of it. How did you arrest a telepath, who could always hear you coming, who could knock you out with a touch of his mind? "Tranquilizers or tasers ... covering his mouth wouldn't work, if all it takes is his brain ..."

Bancroft looked across his desk at the other two agents. "I told you that Burke was your man." To Peter he said, "Your orders haven't changed. You and your team are still trying to bring in Neal Caffrey. It's just that you have a little more information now, to help you do that more effectively."

The meeting was clearly at an end. Rogers and Stark shook hands with Peter at the door. "We'll be in touch," Stark said. "As we said, equipment to neutralize the targets' abilities is under development. We'll get some to your team as soon as possible."

"I know it's already been said," Rogers added, "but this is absolutely need-to-know only. We felt it necessary to bring you in on this, but the rest of your team has to remain unbriefed. If we find out there's been a leak, people will start getting nailed to the wall."

From the way they were both looking at him, Peter had no doubt who would be first up against the nailing wall. "I've been with the FBI over a decade; I do understand how to keep my mouth shut."

But he told El, of course, later that evening. He always told El everything.

 

***

 

So now he knew: he was not only hunting an elusive con artist, but an elusive con artist who could literally mess with people's minds. And he couldn't tell his team.

In the grand scheme of things, though, it didn't change matters all that much. Caffrey was just one of a number of cases they were trying to close, and after the near-miss at the warehouse, Caffrey and Moreau had gone jaunting off to Europe; they were Interpol's problem at the moment. Peter wondered if there were a few Interpol agents out there who'd also had close encounters with Caffrey and were wishing for tinfoil hats.

Through persistent badgering of Bancroft, he managed to get a little more information on the other surviving telepaths. Alex Hunter was a thief and fence, wanted in several states. Like Caffrey, she seemed to be nonviolent. Matthew Keller, on the other hand, was a nasty piece of work with a hand in some pretty ugly stuff right up to murder, though he hadn't stuck around Stateside for long and had been operating mainly in France, Italy and Monaco -- so, again, Interpol's problem, not Peter's. The fourth of the missing kids, known only as Sally -- none of them had surnames until they'd picked their own aliases after running away -- had gone underground so thoroughly that she still hadn't resurfaced.

Peter wasn't allowed to make copies of the files or take them home, but he insisted that he needed to read them in order to more accurately profile Caffrey. Beyond learning a bit about the rest of Caffrey's adopted siblings, which was interesting all on its own, he discovered that the whole situation was even more sickening and horrifying than Rogers and Stark had told him. For one thing, there had been more than just six kids in the beginning. Many of the early implantation experiments had failed to come to maturity (as the files so euphemistically phrased it).

"You know me, El -- you know I've never felt good about the death penalty -- but right now it seems to me that lethal injection is too good for these people."

Elizabeth leaned on his shoulder and ran her fingers through his hair. "Well, you said those agents told you -- what was the way they put it? That housecleaning was being done. These people are being punished, surely."

"Not punished enough. They put machines in babies' brains that killed them, El. And they thought they could get away with it because those babies had no one to speak up for them."

Well, they do now, he thought grimly. If he could round up all four of the surviving kids, they'd not only have some criminal charges to pursue, but one hell of a class action lawsuit.

 

***

 

Six months later, Caffrey was implicated in a jewelry heist at an exclusive Manhattan boutique, and so he was back on the FBI's radar and back in Peter's file of active cases. He also seemed to have ditched Moreau, or she'd ditched him again, or maybe she was just lying low for her own protection.

With the whole world to choose from, Peter wondered why Caffrey kept coming back to New York. But, no, the answer was pretty obvious. Interpol had been closing on him, and cornered people go to familiar places. Neal had friends here (although Peter's team hadn't managed to finger any of them specifically), and he was also familiar with the city. He'd come back to let the heat die down in Europe.

Shortly after Caffrey went back into active rotation on the White Collar unit's surveillance circuit, Peter found a visitor in his office.

"Well, well. Agent Stark."

Her solemn mouth quirked into the tiniest of smiles. "If we're going to be liaising regularly, you can call me Lisa."

"Is that your real name?"

"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

Peter cleared his throat and made sure his wedding ring was clearly visible, just in case she was trying to flirt (he never did have a good instinct for those things).

"Anyway," Stark said, reverting to business mode herself, "I came to bring you something." She held it up.

"An FBI baseball cap?" Peter took it. "We buy these by the truckload."

"Not this kind, you don't."

She flipped it over and ran her finger around the inside. Peter followed suit. He could feel tiny bumps, like the leads on a circuit board, and he grinned at her.

"You got me a tinfoil hat. And they say interdepartmental cooperation is dead."

Another little smile. "Our lab says that this ought to block at least 90% of your target's special ability, if not more. Of course, it's difficult to know for sure without proper field testing, which we're unable to do since, obviously, we haven't a telepath of our own. But there's a box of them downstairs. And we're also making some modifications to your surveillance van. When we're done, you should be Caffrey-proof, at least when you're in the van or wearing the hats."

"Nice," Peter said appreciatively, studying the hat. "This isn't exactly inconspicuous, though. Undercover ..."

"Already thought of that." She produced two more: a Yankees baseball cap and a flat wool cap.

"Nice. I guess we're going to get used to wearing hats," Peter said. "But that only takes care of us. If we catch him, what happens next? I suppose you could shield his cell the same way you were talking about shielding the van, but there will be prisoner transport, and the exercise yard ..."

Stark nodded. "I know. We're still working on a way to deactivate his device permanently. We have a functional prototype now; it worked in tests on laboratory animals."

"Without harming them?" Peter said, remembering what she'd said before about brain damage.

"I wouldn't worry about that," Stark said, and when Peter frowned at her: "Listen. I know it's your case and you feel responsible --"

"It's not that," Peter said, although it was that, sort of. "Look, I agree that Caffrey can't be allowed to run around loose. But this kid is a U.S. citizen, and he's entitled to the same rights and protections as any other citizen. Including the right to be free of the government sticking anything in his head that isn't approved by the FDA."

"I'm not sure what guarantee I can give you, Agent Burke. You'll just have to trust us."

There had been a time when that wouldn't have been hard for him. Now, though ... now, after all he'd heard and all he'd seen, he wasn't so sure.

 

***

 

Bit by bit, they closed a net around Caffrey again.

As before, the kid seemed to consider it a fun game. He sent flowers to Peter's office and coupons for free pizza to all the agents in the White Collar unit. (Forged coupons, according to the lab.) He even managed to send them on a scavenger hunt around the city, from one clue to the next, until Peter finally looked at the calendar, realized that it was April 1, and told his agents to knock it off and stop playing along with Caffrey's games. (And never mind if he went back after quitting time and found the last hidden envelope himself, taped to a mailbox in Harlem. It contained a Looney Tunes card showing the coyote under a rock and the roadrunner making his getaway, with "XOXO" written on the inside.)

It didn't feel any different from chasing him before, and Peter often managed to forget that he was after a telepath who could alter the contents of his head. He loved chasing the smart ones, and Neal Caffrey was the smartest one he'd come across. Okay, yes, now he knew that a lot of it was cheating. But even taking that away, Neal was still damned smart, and so audacious and bold that it made Peter laugh even through his own annoyance.

Still, he wore one of the doctored FBI hats in the field whenever he could get away with it.

 

***

 

They finally cornered Neal in a Manhattan high-rise. The building was closed for renovations, except there was a suspicious amount of electrical usage that the contractors couldn't account for. And so they ended up in a very athletic chase around the top floors. Neal seemed to be alone, and Peter had both stairwells and the elevator shaft under guard (and hats on his agents, just to make sure). Still, they couldn't seem to corner him; they'd catch a flash of an expensive Italian loafer or the flare of coattails around a corner, and by the time they got there, Neal was already gone.

"He can't keep running forever," Peter panted. Damn it, chasing Neal wasn't supposed to be this literal. "All right, we'll split up. Jones, you take this floor --"

He assigned himself the top floor and roof, because he had a very strong suspicion that Neal, when cornered, would go up. And he was right. Peter found Neal on the roof, lounging against an enormous rooftop air conditioning unit, and not making any particular attempt to hide once he saw that Peter was alone.

"Neal."

"Agent Burke," Neal said cheerfully. Having rested while Peter and his team were running around the building, he looked obnoxiously cool and fresh. "No handcuffs this time? I'm disappointed."

Making a snap decision, Peter didn't call for backup quite yet. He wanted to be able to talk to Neal for a few minutes, just the two of them, without having to hedge it around with half-truths and omissions -- because he could guess that there was going to be a dramatic reaction when Neal realized that he couldn't influence Peter's mind anymore.

"What is your plan here?" Peter demanded, approaching him cautiously with his gun half-raised. Neal didn't look at all worried, which was in itself worrisome. "You're trapped at the top of a forty-story building. This is not going to end well for you. Oh, and you're under arrest, by the way."

"I don't know. Things work out." Neal smiled at him winningly. "Why don't you put the gun away and we'll talk about this."

"Uh-huh, no. I know what you're trying to do, and you can just put away the charm, because it won't work this time."

Neal looked suspicious, then worried. Peter could see him concentrating. And then his eyes went wide.

"That's right," Peter said. "I know who you are. I know what you are. Your tricks won't work on me."

Neal stared at him. Then he backpedaled frantically, his amused resignation changing to terror.

"Stop, goddammit!" Peter bellowed. The kid nearly took a dive over the railing; the attempt failed because Peter tackled him, squashing him to the rooftop. Peter had a couple inches and probably forty pounds on Neal, and he used all of it to press him down -- and didn't even think, until the whole thing was over, that touching Neal was a bad idea, leaving him wide open to Neal's powers if the hat didn't work as advertised. He'd seen Neal about to sail over the railing and reacted on pure gut instinct.

"What are you trying to do?" he demanded, adrenaline singing in his veins. Neal had come within a hairsbreadth of turning himself into a Neal-sized smear on the pavement. "You can do a lot of things, but one thing I know you can't do is fly!"

"I don't care," Neal gasped, bucking his body under Peter's with the frantic energy of panic. "I don't know how you know, but you do -- I can't hear you, can't feel you, somehow you're blocking me, and you're going to send me back. I can't go back there. I won't go back there."

"The only place you're going is to your court date, and then prison."

Neal stopped struggling and looked up to meet Peter's eyes. He and Peter were pressed together so closely that Peter could feel the wild flutter of Neal's heartbeat. At least the hat had stayed on.

"Is that what they told you, Agent Burke?" Neal said. "Do you really believe that?" He sounded incredulous. "Once I'm in the system, I'm not coming out. No one will ever hear from me again. They're going to bury me so deep I'll never see daylight, and then I'll have an accident, so no more inconveniently incriminating test-subject Neal Caffrey to worry about. Come on, you're smart; you know that."

He's trying to manipulate you, Peter told himself. Neal didn't need psychic powers to be charming and manipulative; a lot of it was pure Neal Caffrey. And Peter desperately wanted to deny Neal's claims. Trust the system, he wanted to say. It won't let you down.

Except it had already let Neal down, hadn't it? No one had ever come to save Neal when he was a child. The only person who'd ever saved Neal had been Neal himself.

And, in this case, Neal was right. Peter knew it. As thoroughly as this had been covered up already, were they really going to let Neal sit in court and tell his side of the story for the law and the papers? Not a chance.

Peter had devoted his life to justice. And if Neal went to prison, justice wasn't what he'd get. Peter knew it as well as he knew his own name.

He let go of Neal and stood up. Neal lay flat on the rooftop, staring up at him.

"Go," Peter said.

Neal blinked. "What?"

"Go. Get out of here. Use the west stairwell; it's the least heavily guarded. There's an agent at the twenty-seventh floor, but you can get around him on the fire escape."

Neal scrambled to his feet, frowning in wary bewilderment. "Am I --" He touched his forehead and looked at Peter. "I can't hear you. Am I -- are you --?"

"No," Peter said, "you're right, you're not. This is all me. Get out of here, go, before I come to my senses."

Neal stared at him for a moment longer, looking like he thought Peter had lost his mind -- and Peter was inclined to agree with him -- before he took off running for the stairwell.

Peter's report said that Neal had slipped the cordon somehow. There must have been an exit they hadn't covered.

 

***

 

After that, they focused on other cases for a while. Peter pointed out somewhat brusquely that Neal Caffrey was not the only criminal in town, he'd already escaped them twice, and perhaps it was time to direct their efforts towards cleaning up some of the other cases they'd been neglecting and come back to this one later.

It was a sensible decision, and he tried to make himself believe that's all it was -- allocating manpower most efficiently rather than wasting resources on a case that wasn't progressing.

They're going to bury me so deep I'll never see daylight, and then I'll have an accident...

Paranoia, Peter thought. Of course Neal would be paranoid after the experiences he'd had. It didn't mean the government was out to get him. Neal was a criminal. He'd lied, cheated and stolen -- and used a deeply creepy ability in order to do it; the idea that Neal might have been in his head all the way back at the warehouse still gave him the shivers.

He tried to convince himself that if he did run across Neal in the course of their investigations, he'd arrest him. Just because he wasn't actively investigating Neal at the moment didn't mean Neal was off the hook for the things he'd done. Whatever else he might be, Neal was dangerous. He couldn't run around loose, and Peter would deserve to lose his job if he let him go. (Again.)

There had to be another way -- a middle route between letting Neal carry on his crime spree unimpeded, and feeding him into the jaws of a government cover-up machine. Peter thought about sending out some feelers on the street, seeing if he could get a meeting with Neal one-on-one, but every time he thought about it, he backed off. How deep do you want to get? he asked himself, and: How do you know this isn't something he planted in your head, manipulating you?

A few weeks after their near-miss with Neal, the morning mail delivery included a postcard addressed to Peter. It had a Minnesota postmark, though Peter had a feeling as soon as he saw it that the postmark was a fake -- he'd bet his retirement account that the postcard started its journey right here in New York City. The card depicted an attractive pastoral scene: green hills, a red barn. Peter wasn't much for art, but this was the sort of art that he could imagine hanging on his living-room wall. No naked winged babies or scribbly dots of paint, just a nice peaceful country scene. It was, he thought, a pretty good guess at his own aesthetic taste.

There was nothing written on it other than his name and the FBI building's address in block letters.

Peter sent it down to the lab, who were able to ascertain nothing other than, as he'd suspected, the postmark was fake -- it almost certainly had not been sent through the postal system, but had been put in the mail at the FBI building somehow. The postcard was heavy cardstock with the painting done directly on it. Expensive paints, recently painted, but that was all they could determine. They found no fingerprints and no clues to its origin.

After they were done with it, Peter tacked it up on the corkboard in his office.

He knew a thank-you card when he saw one.

 

***

 

The next time he saw Neal was by complete accident, on an unrelated case.

Peter's team was investigating a money laundering operation run by a sleazy ex-drug-dealer named Risetti, using a chain of restaurants as a front. Risetti had been on their radar for awhile, but they'd never been able to nail him on anything. This time, Peter opted to take the undercover gig, playing the part of Peter Blaine, thug for hire. He'd managed to finagle a reference from Risetti's cousin and was now running errands for Risetti's operation, hoping to collect enough evidence to nail him.

It was considerably less upscale than some of the jobs they'd done, but Peter was, in a way, having fun, although he had to watch himself. Risetti, a former teen gang member turned restauranteur, was stuck on the outside of the New York mob scene in part because of his temper and penchant for ill-considered violence. Peter had heard stories of Risetti's fists-and-concrete-blocks style of retribution that made him think Just you try it in front of me, you bastard, while I'm recording you. However, Risetti had yet to do anything directly incriminating. All they could possibly get him for was a string of minor offenses, but Peter knew he was into bigger stuff. It was just a matter of hanging on long enough for Risetti to slip up.

Meanwhile Peter got to unload a lot of trucks that, for the most part, contained nothing more interesting than restaurant supplies.

He'd taken to wearing the Neal-proof Yankees cap as part of his downscale undercover wardrobe; general caution about Neal's mind-reading abilities had become a habit by now. This became suddenly useful when Neal, out of the blue, turned up at one of Risetti's restaurants.

Peter was hanging out in the office, ostensibly to lend a hand with some cargo that Risetti needed moved (and hoping that maybe this time, the cargo would be something more interesting than bottled water or laundered tablecloths). He heard Risetti greet someone, and then he heard Neal Caffrey's voice, and for an instant he was paralyzed with startled shock.

Neal knew him. Neal could blow this wide open. Neal could get him killed.

Peter wasn't sure how to dodge him. At least with the hat on, Neal (supposedly) couldn't pick up his thoughts, but as soon as Neal saw his face ... Peter wondered just how suspicious it would look if he slipped out the back.

"Heads up, guys -- I might need backup in a minute," he murmured. Because Risetti was starting to get wise than someone was watching him, they'd been forced to park the van several streets over; backup was several minutes out at the very best.

Then Risetti, damn him, remembered that Peter was still hanging around and said, "Hey, Blaine, get some coffee for us, wouldya?"

Neal turned and saw him; the tiniest of flickers ran across his face. Neal was still basically Neal, though a bit more greasy than Peter was used to seeing him -- hair slicked back, suit just a teeny bit cheaper than his norm (which still put it thoroughly out of Peter's price range).

"On it, boss," Peter said in the Bronx accent he'd been affecting for the role, doing his best to send Neal vibes of Give me away to these people, and I'll shoot you.

Neal's usual, slightly plastic smile dissolved into an expression of genuine amusement as soon as Peter spoke. He managed to squash it almost instantly, but mirth still danced in his eyes as he turned to resume his conversation with Risetti.

At least being dismissed gave Peter an opportunity to murmur, "Stand down. False alarm." After a moment, and a brief moral tug-of-war with himself, he added, "Caffrey's here. I don't know why, but I plan to find out." He grabbed a coffee carafe and two cups off the nearest tray in sight and hightailed it back to the office.

He'd still missed the beginning of the conversation and hence what the hell Neal was up to, barging into the middle of Peter's operation like this. But since no one pulled a gun on him, Neal must not have given him away, so Peter attempted to do a credible wallpaper impression -- he'd been getting a lot of practice, playing flunkie for Risetti -- and just listened.

It was the first time he'd had an opportunity to see Neal in action, so to speak. Always before they'd relied on second-hand accounts from witnesses and victims, many of whom turned out to be surprisingly sympathetic to him -- along with anger at being taken in, there was, often, a certain amount of rueful affection for the con man even knowing what he was. After finding out about Neal's abilities, Peter had generally written this off to Neal having messed with their heads.

But seeing Neal in his natural element ... he was charming, and it wasn't all show. Beneath the surface gloss was a genuine liking for people and ability to connect to them. That wasn't fake, and it wasn't any sort of psychic power; at least Peter didn't think so -- he was wearing the Yankees cap, and also tried to stay out of Neal's range as much as possible, so he wouldn't have been affected in any case.

Neal and Risetti's conversation had to do with "certain documents" of a vague nature. At least that explained why Neal was here -- Risetti needed a forger. Peter perked up, although it probably wasn't anything more interesting than a fake passport or some such thing. He knew from years of Caffrey-watching that Neal kept his skills sharp and his hand in the game by doing little jobs like that. He'd vanished since his close encounter with Peter on the rooftop -- Peter had assumed he was either lying low to stay out of sight of the FBI, or working on something big. Maybe both. In any case, this was a simple bread-and-butter sort of job -- for a forger of Neal's caliber, just a few quick bucks for an afternoon's work.

Neal passed Risetti a large manilla envelope, and Risetti made a "go away" motion at Peter and the other staff in the office. As he stepped out, Peter caught Neal's eye and jerked his head. Then he slipped off in the direction of the storerooms, quietly deactivating his transmitter as he went, and trying not to think too much about the implications of that. He'd explain it as an equipment malfunction later. Mostly, he needed to talk to Neal without anyone listening in.

A moment later, Neal joined him. "Da Bronx, Peter?" he said quietly, grinning.

"Laugh it up," Peter retorted. "Don't suppose you want to tell me what's in that envelope?"

"Incriminate myself?" Neal said. He looked amused. "Yeah, I don't think that would be a good idea. Especially not with your FBI buddies listening in."

"They're not listening in at the moment."

Neal's eyes sparkled. "Really? Peter, just when I think I've got you figured out, you turn out to have hidden depths. I hope you don't arrest him before I get paid. Did you like the postcard, by the way?"

"I knew that was from you." Neal looked pleased, and Peter thought, Oh damn, now I'm encouraging him, and hastily switched gears. "I don't know what you're trying to prove or whether you simply enjoy dangling in my face that I haven't caught you yet, but I plan to."

"I'm right here," Neal pointed out. "You could handcuff me right now."

Damn it. He had a point. "We're here for Risetti today," Peter said. "And I don't have my handcuffs on me anyway."

"Awww, Peter, I'm starting to get the impression you're not actually trying that hard."

"Knock it off," Peter said. "I don't feel sorry for you, but I don't intend to throw you to the wolves without having a contingency plan in place."

Now Neal looked wary. Good. It was better than his I've got you all figured out, Peter grin of a minute ago. "Running a long game, Peter? If so, you ought to know that when it comes to feds doing that sort of thing, my side is better at it."

"I'm not your average fed," Peter said.

"I'd already figured that out." Neal hesitated, then said, "I really can't hear you at all, you know. But I could before. You have some kind of technology that's jamming me, don't you?"

Peter's eyes narrowed. "So you admit that you were reading my mind before? Even us 'feds' don't do that sort of thing." Though if they could get a warrant for it, how useful would that be ... He firmly tamped down that particular line of thought. This was exactly the thinking that had led to a lab full of little children being used as human guinea pigs.

"You people made me this way, didn't you?" Neal countered, and though his voice was still flippant, now it carried a dark undercurrent of bitterness. "Not my fault if I use the talents I was given."

"I wasn't involved in any of that," Peter said.

Neal studied him. "I believe you," he said at last. "It came as a shock to you, too, didn't it? And you certainly didn't know about me at the warehouse. Either that, or you were relying on technology that didn't work. But I didn't see anything in your head about it."

Peter tried not to shudder. "You stay right the hell away from my head."

"Not like it would do me any good right now, anyway." Neal grinned. "Come on, tell me. How are you doing this? Can I guess?"

"We aren't turning this into a guessing game!"

"It's the hat, isn't it?" Neal asked, and Peter just knew that his face gave it away, because Neal's grin widened. "I knew it! You never wore hats before. The FBI actually has tinfoil hats that work. I'm going to have to tell M-- a friend of mine who'd love to know that."

He reached for the Yankees cap, and Peter batted his fingers away. "Knock it off! You may not be the reason I'm here, but I can still arrest you if you annoy me. And reading my mind definitely falls under the heading of 'annoyance'."

"I can't really read minds, you know," Neal said, withdrawing his hand. "Not the way you're thinking. It's just ... basic surface thoughts, I guess. I don't want you thinking that I sucked everything out of your head or anything like that."

The look on his face was earnest -- suspiciously so, Peter thought, and yet, he couldn't help wondering if Neal really did care what Peter thought of him. "What's it like, anyway?" The question slipped out before he could stop it. After all, he'd been wondering for months, and now he had Neal right in front of him and could actually find out.

"What do you mean?" Neal asked, instantly wary again.

"Being able to do what you can do. You said that you can't really read minds -- what do you see? Or hear? Or is that even the right word?"

Neal gave him a narrow-eyed look, clearly trying to figure out Peter's angle on all of this. Then he sat down on a crate and patted the seat beside him. Peter opted to take the next crate over, to keep a cautious space between them. The hat seemed to be doing its job, but if Neal's abilities were stronger when he was touching someone, Peter didn't want to push it.

"It's just a background hum most of the time," Neal said. "Like having a TV turned down low. I'm used to it now, I guess. Cities were a little weird when I first -- well, anyway, I've gotten used to it."

"But you can pick out specific thoughts if you -- what, listen for them?"

Neal nodded. "Sticking with the TV metaphor, yeah, it's like the way you can tune out a TV in the background of a noisy room, but then tune in again when the commercial ends and the news comes on. Or the way you can listen to the conversation at your table and ignore the next table in a crowded restaurant."

"Sounds distracting."

"Well, like I said, you get used to it." Neal shrugged. "I don't know what it would be like not to have it there. Kind of like some people need to have a radio playing in order to fall asleep, because a quiet room is too quiet. I'd probably go off the deep end if the only thing I had to listen to was my own head. I'm not sure how other people can stand it."

Peter couldn't help wanting to know more -- this was just cool. "Can you hear anything now?"

Neal nodded. "A sort of vague hum from the rest of the office." He closed his eyes. "Risetti's thinking about lunch, mostly. From this distance, that's all I can really tell. And someone else is thinking about his girlfriend -- he's worried that she's cheating on him. And people are just doing their jobs, filing paperwork and stuff." He opened his eyes and saw Peter looking at him. "It's not as coherent as I'm making it sound. Like I said, I'm used to this. Mostly it's random emotions and impressions and images ... things like that."

"And you can also project things." Neal clammed up. "Come on, I've read your file."

"Have you now," Neal said, his air of friendly camaraderie tucked back behind his formidable emotional walls. Peter could feel the tentative rapport they'd shared for a moment starting to slip away. "Well, I guess you had to find out about me one way or another."

"I'm not your enemy, you know," Peter said. "The government isn't your enemy either, believe it or not."

Neal gave a short, harsh laugh. "If you've read my file, then you must know that's an incredibly stupid thing to say to me."

"Terrible people did terrible things to you and your friends -- Neal, I know that. And I would give anything for that not to have happened to you. But that's not all that the justice system has to offer. You can tell your story. You can make sure that those people are punished. The system is there for that, too."

"The ones who needed to be ... they were already punished." Neal's eyes were distant and troubled, and Peter felt a chill. What had happened when Neal and the others like him had escaped from the lab? This was one thing that none of the files he'd read had even hinted at.

"So who are you punishing now, then?" Peter asked, and Neal gave him a sharp look. "All this stealing and cheating and forging -- do you believe the world hurt you, so it owes you for that?"

"Welcome to amateur psychiatrist hour, starring Peter Burke."

Peter pushed on: "But the people you're hurting aren't the ones who --"

"You don't know anything about me." Neal slid off the crate, standing up, smoothing down the wrinkles in his pants.

"Neal --" Peter reached out, caught his arm without thinking.

Neal plucked his hand off. "You've read my file and you've probably got an official FBI profile on me, so you think you know me. But you don't." He straightened his jacket and left without looking at Peter.

It wasn't until Neal was out of the storeroom that Peter realized Neal, while disengaging his hand, had stolen the watch right off his wrist. The transmitter watch. That he'd turned off to talk to Neal.

Smartass little jerk.

This was going to be hard to explain if he had to requisition a new one.

 

***

 

Neal was back in Risetti's office when Peter got there. Neal glanced up, caught Peter's eye, and a quicksilver grin flitted across his face. His hands were tucked into his pockets, but he lifted one just enough to give Peter a flash of the watch before dropping it out of sight.

Apparently when Neal was pissed off, he got petty. I should have just arrested him.

The contents of the big manilla envelope were scattered on the desktop -- several passports, which intrigued Peter, and some papers he couldn't get a good look at, which intrigued him even more. It was pretty typical bottom-level forgery work (Neal was clearly in it for the money), but Peter wondered if he might have finally stumbled onto hard evidence of some of the things they suspected Risetti was involved in.

Neal noticed Peter looking at the passports, and Peter didn't miss the sparkle of amusement that flickered in his eyes. Neal plainly didn't care what happened to the papers after they left his hands, as long as he was paid for them. In fact, Neal, who clearly had no fondness for Risetti, would probably find it highly entertaining if Risetti went down on the basis of documents that Neal himself had forged.

And he still had Peter's watch. Neal being Neal, the watch would probably be mailed to the FBI a week or so later, possibly with another sucker taped to it. Hopefully Neal didn't discover its radio transmitter function before he mailed it; the potential consequences of that were even more embarrassing than the report Peter feared he was going to have to write, admitting that a known con artist had stolen an expensive piece of FBI surveillance equipment while he was wearing it.

"Looks all in order," Risetti said, and passed Neal a small, neat stack of bills.

Neal flipped through them. "Clean?" he inquired archly.

"Squeaky."

"Well, in that case." Neal pocketed his earnings and grinned. "Pleasure doing business with you."

"Walk you out," Risetti said -- which, well, damn: there went a chance to get the watch back. Still, it meant that Risetti would be leaving the office unattended. Peter shadowed them out of the office, and as soon as Risetti wasn't paying attention, he practiced his "fading into the background" routine and dropped behind.

Neal, without looking back, gave him the tiniest of little waves with his fingertips. Peter studiously ignored him.

He slipped into the office as quietly as possible, drawing the door gently shut. The contents of the desk were just as Risetti had left them. Peter shifted two of the passports aside so that he could see what was under them. This turned out to be a stack of bills of lading for various cargo shipments -- forged bills of lading, Peter presumed, since Neal had been delivering them. They were for the sort of prosaic items that customs inspectors would hardly care to examine closely: pipe fittings, toilet paper, that sort of thing.

Peter grinned. This was obviously Risetti's play to move into the major leagues and start competing with the big boys on their own turf. No telling what he was smuggling -- drugs would be too obvious and wouldn't require shipping containers of this size, so possibly electronics or some sort of uncommon ore. But they had ships' names, dates, and container numbers. Some had already arrived, and others were yet to dock. Got you now, Risetti.

He took his cell out of his pocket and began snapping pictures. He'd only captured two of the documents when the phone vibrated. Peter jumped -- even the vibration sounded overly loud. The caller ID read "Nick Steele". Oh lovely: that was a known Caffrey alias, and meant that Neal apparently had his phone number, as well as really lousy timing for taunting him.

He let it go to voice mail and snapped a few more pictures before it went off again. This time he decided to answer it.

"If this is you, Caffrey, I'm going to arrest you," he murmured into the phone.

"Peter, if you're in Risetti's office, he's noticed you're gone and he's throwing off suspicious vibes in every direction," Neal said, in a fast undertone. "He's on his way back."

Oh shit. Peter hung up on him; paranoia said that Risetti and Neal were working together and this was an attempt to get him to give himself away. But he discarded that a split second later on the memory of Neal's teasing, almost fond grin. Neal had been through hell at the government's hands, and he was unscrupulous in certain ways, but he wasn't violent and Peter didn't think he'd manipulate someone else into doing his dirty work for him.

Which meant the warning was genuine and Peter needed to get out. He didn't have time to put things back in order -- he sprinted for the door, and nearly collided with Risetti coming in.

"Peter Blaine," Risetti said flatly. He looked past Peter's shoulder at the rifled papers, and his eyes glittered like a snake's.

Peter wished he'd been packing; no one at Peter's low level in Risetti's organization was allowed to carry on the premises, but a gun would've really come in handy right now. A badge, too. "I can explain."

"Who planted you here? The Italian mob? The Russians?" Risetti's eyes went narrow, his expression cold and ugly. His fists clenched. "You are about to be one sorry son of a bi--"

Peter straight-armed him into the wall and made a run for it. Since he still had his phone in hand, he punched the button for Jones's preset.

Jones, bless him, picked up on the first ring. "Peter! What's going on? Your signal's dead and we just got a call from a Nick Steele who claims you need backup. Isn't that one of Caffrey's --"

"Do it!" Peter said. "I've been made." Sort of, but it didn't matter if Risetti thought he was working for another branch of organized crime rather than the feds; he was just as dead either way.

At least he'd been here long enough to learn the general layout of the restaurant. The fastest way out was through the kitchens. He body-slammed open the swinging doors and knocked an unlucky sous chef out of his way. Risetti barreled through the doors a moment later, as Peter slalomed around kitchen staff and gleaming steel counters, aiming for the back door that he knew was just behind the walk-in freezer --

More of Risetti's thugs burst in from that direction, blocking Peter's escape route, reaching for the suspicious bulges under their jackets.

"No guns!" Risetti barked. "Too much noise!" He snatched a kitchen knife from a rack on the wall. It was sharp and long, eight inches at least. "We're doing this the old-fashioned way."

Well, this op was certainly going to hell in a handbasket. Peter zagged left and kicked over a head-high rack of trays containing baked goods, throwing a temporary obstacle in his pursuers' path. Jones was dependable; he'd be on his way. But the van was still a few blocks away, and they'd need time to mobilize ...

One of Risetti's thugs was right on his heels. He snatched up a baking sheet as he passed it, spun around and slammed it across Thug #1's face. Thug #1 staggered backwards into Thug #2, and momentum carried them both to the floor in a heap.

"Idiots!" Risetti bellowed.

There was a door straight in front of him and Peter made for it, realizing too late, as he kicked it open, that he'd just trapped himself -- there was nothing on the other side but a small utility room. No exits. Nowhere to hide. He spun around and came face to face with Risetti.

"Nobody," Risetti snarled, "cheats me --" and Risetti stabbed him.

Peter felt the knife go in, eight inches of cold steel. He felt it tear out and he heard the sound it made. He used to hunt deer with his dad, back when he was a kid, and he'd helped with the butchering too; he knew that sound. And he thought, very clearly, as he fell: No way can I survive that.

There was blood all down Risetti's arms and across his front and down his legs. Blood on the walls, blood on the floor. Peter fell in a pool of it. Hot to the touch. Mine, he thought, my blood ... Risetti had all but disemboweled him, and all he could do was lie on the floor, his body like a great lead weight, watching Risetti raise the knife again --

Risetti jerked all over, his whole body seizing as if he'd been struck by lightning. He went down hard in a boneless heap, revealing Neal behind him. Neal's face was white, his eyes like an avenging angel's, and every person around him -- kitchen staff and thugs alike -- had crumpled in so many heaps.

Risetti, Peter thought distantly, was going to have one hell of a headache when he woke up. If he woke up ...

It seemed too much trouble to keep his eyes open, so he closed them. He was cold. His legs wouldn't move. He felt light fingers in his hair, pulling off his hat, and tried weakly to struggle, but nothing was working right.

"Stop it," Neal said. Peter opened his eyes and stared up at him, trying to focus. His vision was telescoping, going dark ... "I needed that off so I can do this," Neal added, and then suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, the pain that had been excruciating a moment ago was muffled, fading, receding.

Of course; if Neal and the others like him could dial up pain or pleasure, then dialing pain down must be just as easy. "Better than morphine," Peter murmured, "no side effects, they should patent you ..." and he was slipping, slipping, going down.

"I'm probably already patented, and, Peter, no." Neal's hand patted the side of his face, and Neal's eyes -- wide, scared -- were all he could see. "Peter, no, no, hang on, all right? You're bleeding a lot -- just hang on, keep breathing, give me a minute here --"

Breathing was too much work, he could have said, but he had no breath to say it, just a copper taste on the back of his throat. He wished El was here. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was. He'd always promised to come home, and he'd really meant it ...

Neal was still talking, his voice chasing Peter down into that dark place. "This is the thing they don't know about -- well, one of the things they don't know about; I hope this works on you, Peter, because I've never tried it on anyone who wasn't like me before ..."

Neal's hands under Peter's shirt felt shockingly cold. Whatever he did next managed to penetrate the warm fuzzy blanket wrapped around the pain, and Peter somehow found the breath to gasp.

"Sorry, sorry ..." Neal really sounded sorry, too. "Just hang on and try not to move. You're gushing blood; it's an artery for sure, you'd never hold out 'til an ambulance gets here ..."

Peter drifted. He was only dimly aware of the kitchen filling up with FBI personnel. He heard "FBI! Freeze!" and glimpsed Neal submitting to being handcuffed without a fight. Neal's shirt was soaked in blood and he was red to the elbows. Neal's been hurt, Peter thought, and No, wait, that's me ...

He lost some time and then he was in an ambulance; he knew by the jolting and the bright lights. "Just lie still, sir," a paramedic told him.

"How bad?" Peter rasped.

The paramedics traded a look over the top of him, and Peter thought, It's never good when they do that. His head was clearing, and with it came pain, surging back as whatever Neal had done to his brain started to wear off. But he could breathe easily now, and although he was dizzy, he didn't feel too bad as long as he kept lying still.

"Could be an old wound that broke open ..." one of the paramedics said.

"Have you been injured recently, sir?" the other asked him.

"I was stabbed." Really, what were they teaching EMTs these days?

"I mean within the last few days. There's a lot of blood and bruising, but this isn't a fresh wound; it looks like the healing process has already begun."

Peter tried to sit up, but the surge of pain and vertigo brought him close to passing out. Then they gave him something that made him spiral off into darkness.

 

***

 

He woke feeling washed-out and exhausted, with a drug hangover and Elizabeth holding his hand. The doctor didn't believe him that he'd only been stabbed a couple of hours ago -- apparently it looked like he'd been healing up for several days, and although his abdomen felt like it had been worked over with a baseball bat, he could move around as long as he was very careful.

Jones and Diana arrived along with an update on the latest happenings on the case. Risetti was in custody -- alive, Peter was relieved to learn. Attempted murder of an undercover agent had been more than enough to get a search warrant for the restaurant, and they were having a very interesting and fruitful time going over the forged documents they'd found. Risetti had apparently been involved in importing containerloads of cheap Nike knockoffs to be resold at a tremendous markup -- "Shoes?" Peter said in disbelief, and Jones retorted, "There's a lot of money in those stupid things."

"Did they arrest Caffrey too?" Peter asked, hoping for and fearing the answer. "I didn't dream that, right?"

"Nope. I put the cuffs on him myself," Jones said. "And this time, they stayed on."

Only because most of the agents in the room had been wearing their tinfoil hats, Peter thought, but he wasn't quite drugged enough to say it out loud. He told himself that Neal being arrested was actually a good thing. He would've come closer to believing it if it hadn't happened because Neal had been busy saving his life. "And he's still in custody?"

"For some reason, Homeland Security's taken over jurisdiction," Diana said. At Peter's startled look, she said, "Yeah, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me either, but I guess the paperwork's all in order. Probably," she added, because Diana was no dummy, "that part has something to do with a room full of inexplicably unconscious kitchen workers. Even some of the restaurant patrons had headaches. We've been busy squashing rumors of a terrorist attack all afternoon --"

"I have to get out of here. Where are my pants?" He swung his legs out of the bed, got a head rush and nearly passed out on El. The combined persuasive force of Elizabeth and his two agents got him back into bed, but he demanded Diana's cell, started to dial Hughes, then went right over Hughes' head to Bancroft.

"What's going on, boss?" Diana asked while he waited on hold.

"I wish I could tell you both." And after all this was over, he thought he just might. "Sorry, guys, I need to have a private conversation. Honey ..."

El, who probably suspected at least some of the content of his "private" conversation, took Diana and Jones in hand, herding them out into the corridor just as Bancroft picked up.

"Neal's in custody," Peter said. "Homeland Security has him. Can they do that?"

"What happens to him once the cuffs are on is out of your hands, Burke," Bancroft said.

"The hell it is. They're going to make him vanish, Bancroft. You and I both know it. We've been around the block too many times not to know how this works."

There was a brief silence, then Bancroft said, "The Bureau's been after Caffrey for years. This is a win for our side."

"He deserves justice," Peter said. "He deserves a trial. He's not going to get it, and you know it." More silence answered him. "Look, all I'm asking for is time. Buy me some. I'm not saying I want him to go free, but I want this done right. That kid's already been fucked over enough. I'm fine with watching him go down for what he's done, but I don't want to see him buried for things that aren't his fault."

He waited, and Bancroft said, "I am absolutely not authorizing anything that's outside normal procedure."

"I'm not asking you to. All I want you to do is stick to procedure. Come on, you don't want to see him crucified any more than I do."

"If time's what you need, I don't know how much I can give you," Bancroft said, and Peter closed his eyes and thought, Thank you, thank you.

"I know," he said. "Thank you, sir. You won't regret this."

"Burke, knowing you're involved, I already regret it."

He hung up and lay there for a moment with the phone in hand and his eyes still shut, thinking, thinking. Then he called, "Hon?"

El's head popped in the door immediately.

"Did Diana and Jones already leave?"

"I think they're headed out. Do you want me to catch them?"

"Please," Peter said, and as her head vanished in a swirl of long dark hair, he thought, Because I'm about to violate an NDA from a segment of the government you really don't mess around with.

 

***

 

They took it better than he was expecting. He wasn't entirely sure if they would have believed him without El to back him up, but she could be pretty persuasive when she wanted to be. And the otherwise inexplicable wound told its own story.

"He healed you," Diana said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"I didn't know he could do that," El said.

Peter shook his head. "I don't think anyone did. But there's no doubt in my mind that Neal Caffrey is the reason I'm here now, and it's because he stopped to save me that he isn't out there somewhere thumbing his nose at us right now. And I can't just sit by and do nothing about that."

It turned out that Diana and Jones had both had their suspicions that something was going on -- Peter's sudden shift from "catch Caffrey at all costs" to "let's focus on other cases for a while" had not escaped their notice. "And now we know why you kept insisting on those damn hats," Jones said.

Diana frowned. "How much trouble are we in for knowing this, exactly?"

"As long as no one ever finds out that you know, none at all." Peter sighed. "I'm sorry. I really am. Both your careers will be at stake if anyone finds out. I didn't want to drag you into this, but I have a lot to do and I don't think I can do it by myself."

"If there's going to be a jailbreak," El said, "I have some cake recipes that could be modified to include files."

That broke the tension a little; they all laughed.

"No jailbreaks," Peter said. "No files in cakes. We're doing this by the book -- but we're going to pick and choose which pages."

 

***

 

Two days later, he sat in a prison interrogation room while Neal was brought out in chains. The guards escorting him were heavily armed, although Neal had never looked more harmless; he was chalk-white, moved slowly and sat down even more slowly. He smiled at the sight of Peter, though, looking genuinely glad to see him.

"You okay?" Peter said, at the same time as Neal said, "How are you doing?" There was a brief pause and Neal made an "after-you" gesture.

"I'm still limping around." Actually, he was not supposed to be out of bed at all; his energy level was still rock-bottom, and he'd been working himself to exhaustion, even with the willing help of Diana, Jones and Elizabeth. But Neal didn't need to know that. "What about you? I hear they've got a ... thing on you."

"Oh, yeah. Stylish." Neal turned his head carefully to give Peter a glimpse of the silvery contraption wrapped around the back of his neck. It gave Peter the shivers; it looked like it belonged on a high-performance automobile, not on someone's head. There was surgical gauze taped around the base of it. From what Peter had been able to get from Bancroft, they'd basically hustled Neal straight from lockup into surgery and shoved their experimental telepath-damper into his skull. God damn them. And yet, he could understand why they were paranoid. Tinfoil baseball caps could only get you so far, and Peter was starting to understand that no one really knew the limits of Neal's abilities -- including Neal himself.

So a lot of Neal's pallor and the careful way he was moving was the fact that he was still recuperating from brain surgery. And from the way he blinked unhappily under the bright lights of the interrogation room, Peter got the impression that he wasn't very comfortable. Another bit of information that Peter had obtained, this time from a sympathetic guard, was that the device had been giving Neal blazing migraines; he'd been throwing up in his cell that morning.

"I'll make this quick," Peter said. He shoved an open folder across the table to Neal, who squinted at it. "That conversation we had? About you being arrested, and what would happen next? You were right, Neal. And I'm not going to let the bastards get away with it. Take a look at this."

Neal rotated the file, started trying to read and then blinked and swallowed. "Fill me in," he said.

"No one wants this to go to trial," Peter said. Since he knew they were being recorded, he refrained from saying They won't LET it go to trial, but he thought they both heard it. "So let's cut a deal. I can get you out of here. I have a plan. There's even some precedent for it."

Neal frowned at him; Peter could see his initial surge of hope being flattened by distrust. "Uh-huh," Neal said.

"The way it would work is you'd be released into my custody as a confidential informant. Basically, you'd serve the term of your sentence by lending us your expertise to help the FBI solve crimes." Peter leaned across the table and flipped a page. "You'd be on a GPS tracking anklet, probably on a very tight radius. And you'd have to wear that thing you've got on. Sorry about the last part, but that's really not negotiable."

Neal blinked at him. Looked down at the file. Looked at Peter again. "I'd be solving crimes," he said.

"Yes."

"In your custody."

"Exactly," Peter said. "I have the paperwork right here --" and he flipped another page "-- for you to plead guilty to a handful of the more pressing charges we have against you, in return for getting the rest dropped. The U.S. Attorney's office agreed; they're overloaded as usual and as long as we're happy, they're happy. I think you can guess who's really not happy, but the faster we can get you in front of a judge, the less of a leg to stand on they'll have."

As soon as he said "plead guilty", he saw Neal's tentatively hopeful (though still baffled) expression crash into flat distrust. "So that's what it comes down to," Neal said. "I plead guilty, I vanish into the criminal justice system ..."

"No, you stubborn kid, listen to me. The paperwork's all ready to go -- and I've been pulling strings like you wouldn't believe, getting that to happen. As soon as your conviction is filed, we can turn right around and get the other half of it signed off on, and you can probably walk out with me the same day."

"I don't get it," Neal said. A small furrow of concentration appeared between his brows, and Peter realized that Neal was probably trying to read his mind without even noticing he was doing it. For Neal, having to guess what people were thinking was probably a new and unpleasant experience. "Why are you doing this? What do you want?"

"It's more like what I don't want," Peter said. "You had your hands in my guts, so let's not stand on ceremony here. I know what you can do, Neal, and you can't keep doing it like you have been, but I also know that you're smart and you're talented and you could be a real asset to the Bureau." And even if you were rock-stupid -- which you're not -- you still don't deserve to rot in a lab somewhere, without a single person in the world giving a damn.

Knowing that they were being recorded, and maybe listened to right now, he didn't want to upset the apple cart by even hinting at the other half of what he was thinking: that once he had Neal out of here, they could start working on a plan to make sure that justice would indeed happen on behalf of Neal and his lab-siblings and all those other long-ago babies who'd never even had a chance.

But maybe Neal still retained a vestige of his augmented abilities, or maybe there were times when it wasn't necessary to have telepathic powers to read someone's mind. Neal flashed Peter a smile that was unexpectedly genuine and sweet. "Where do I sign?"

 

***

 

In the end, it turned out that he'd been wildly optimistic. Getting Neal released into his custody took weeks ... weeks during which he was on tenterhooks, worried that a last governmental loophole would snatch Neal out of his grasp and into the depths of a cover-up from which it would never be possible to retrieve him.

And then there was the inevitable worry about why he was spending so much time and effort trying to free a mind-reading felon who would probably head for the hills, GPS anklet or not, the minute he got out. Peter spent a lot of sleepless nights staring at the ceiling and wondering if Neal had planted a suggestion in his mind, which had then taken root and grown ... Neal could easily have done it during the healing, and maybe the healing itself was all part of Neal's master plan ...

But, no; if getting locked up was part of Neal's plan to be freed again on someone else's terms, then it was an incredibly stupid plan, especially considering that he could have been free if he'd only taken off rather than sticking around to keep a particularly careless FBI agent from bleeding to death. And Neal's apprehension and surprise had seemed genuine. No, Peter didn't think Neal was playing him, at least not in that way.

It was early autumn when they cleared the final hurdles and he picked up Neal at the prison. "Show me your ankle," he said, and Neal rolled his eyes and showed it to him.

Neal looked a little better than he had before, but only a little; he was still pale, his eyes smudged with blue shadows. Peter had meant to greet him with a firm talking-to and a set of ground rules -- get this whole affair off on the right foot -- but instead he asked as Neal got into the passenger seat, "That thing still giving you headaches?"

"Only on days ending in Y." Peter's expression must have been concerned, because Neal brushed it off. "It's getting better. I only get the bad migraines every once in a while." He drummed his fingers on the dashboard. "So this is for four years."

"Yeah." That had been as far as they'd managed to plea-bargain down.

"When I get the anklet off, do I get this thing on my head off, too? Are they really going to let me just walk around?"

"I don't know," Peter said. "Look, let's take it one day at a time here, okay? We're way out on a limb as it is. First let's prove this can work; then we'll start taking baby steps the rest of the way." He looked at Neal more closely, at Neal's obvious exhaustion and pain, and said carefully, "You told me once ... that you didn't know what it would be like not to -- be able to hear things like you do. That you thought the silence might be hard to take."

Neal heaved a sigh. Peter could see him trying to decide how much to tell him.

"Look, Neal, this isn't a trap. I'm not trying to find a reason to put you back in. You're out; that's done. I just want to know what I'll be needing to deal with. If going to a doctor would help --"

"It won't," Neal said. "You asked if it was hard to take? It is. Mostly at night." He gave a sharp, bitter laugh. "There were a lot of times, you know, when I wished I was like everyone else. Hard to believe, huh? So, be careful what you wish for, I guess."

After a moment Peter said slowly, "It's not impossible that we might be able to have the blocking thing taken off sometimes, for some of your undercover missions." Neal gave him a hard look that he couldn't decipher. "I haven't discussed it with anyone, but it's not impossible ... Okay, what's the matter with you?"

Neal's hand hovered over the door handle. They were driving at about 30 mph -- he wouldn't jump ... would he?

"Neal, come on. Talk to me."

"Just ... I finally figured out your angle." Neal laughed again, shook his head. "I might've known. You FBI guys want your own pet telepath. For awhile I thought -- yeah, no, I don't know what I thought."

Peter wrenched the steering wheel, skidding across two lanes of traffic (to the sound of honking horns) and fetching up in a McDonald's parking lot. Neal was clutching the dashboard, wide-eyed.

"Jeez, Peter! Do you always drive like that?" Neal pried his white-knuckled fingers off the dashboard. "I might have been safer in a cell with the spooks ..."

Peter didn't say anything, and Neal gave a nervous little laugh. "You're starting to worry me here, Peter. I'd like to point out that I'm harmless, de-psychified and unarmed --"

"I'm not worried about you," Peter said. It came out more harshly than he'd intended. "I mean, not in that way. Neal ..." He turned, hooking an arm over the back of the seat so that he could confront Neal face-to-face. "You're nobody's pet telepath. Not mine, and not the FBI's. You're never going to be anybody's pet telepath if I have anything to say about it."

"So you say," Neal said, and his eyes kept darting away, refusing to meet Peter's.

"I do say. And I mean it. Is it really that foreign to you," Peter said, almost plaintively, "that someone might want to do something for you out of nothing other than concern for your welfare?"

From the look on Neal's face, it really, truly was.

Peter sighed and pulled back out into traffic, more carefully this time.

After they'd driven for awhile longer, he said, "The FBI is paying for housing for you, but they're not going to shell out for more than it would have cost to house you in prison. Which pretty much puts you at the bottom end of the New York housing market."

"Yay," Neal murmured.

"Look upon this as a temporary living situation. I'll help you look for something better. We might even be able to get the FBI to cough up a stipend if you can prove that having you around is an asset. And," Peter added, "on the bright side, you don't have anything to steal at the moment, so that won't be a problem."

"Not inspiring confidence here, Peter."

"Hey, look, I'd offer you a spare bedroom at my place, except that it's a clear and blatant ethics violation. But Diana knows a few people, and Jones might have a friend who's looking for a roommate." Peter tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. "On the other hand, there's no reg I know of that says I can't feed you before I send you over there. How about it? El's making her famous meatloaf. That'll perk you up if anything can. El's my wife, by the way."

"I know your wife's name, Peter. I did my research on you, too. And, uh, I hate to say this, but meatloaf is not exactly the kind of thing I normally --"

"You could be eating prison food. You'll eat my wife's meatloaf and you'll like it."

El had been dying to meet Neal. Peter decided not to mention that part; no point in giving Neal ammunition. He felt a quiver of conscience at taking the mind-reading con artist to meet his wife -- but, no, Neal was ... what would the word be? "Tamed" had entirely the wrong connotations, and he wasn't reformed. Dampened, Peter thought; that was certainly how Neal looked, kind of damp and wilted.

He couldn't help noting the contrast between this wilted, unhappy Neal, and the playful, energized, devil-may-care Neal that he'd chased for nearly three years. Neal's life had been dangerous and unethical and it had almost gotten him killed any number of times. But it had made him ... alive. And, Peter thought, it was up to him now to prove to Neal that a life on the wrong side of the law, a life of stealing other people's possessions and stealing their thoughts, wasn't the only thing that could fulfill him. What could he say that would get through Neal's thick skull, impress on him that there were other ways to go, that the life he'd known wasn't the only life he could have?

"When I was growing up," Peter found himself saying, "I knew exactly what I wanted to be. Know what that was?"

Neal, slouched in the passenger's seat with his head resting in his palm, rolled his eyes in Peter's direction. "A giant pain in the ass of the criminal element in this town?"

"I wanted to be a major league baseball star," Peter said, and he had the satisfaction of getting a mildly surprised look from Neal. "Growing up, baseball was my whole world. Well, that and math. I was good at it, and I knew I was good at it."

"That's very you," Neal murmured, without (much) rancor. "So you turned out not to be as good at it as you thought you were, and the point is?"

"I was drafted by the Twins right out of college," Peter said, and this time the look was not just surprised, but long. Measuring. Wondering where he was going. He waited, and then went on, "And then I blew out my shoulder in spring training. Had surgery. Went back. I could have gone on. But if I had, I would've destroyed my shoulder for good. I could have had a few months on the pitcher's mound. Maybe even a few years. And that would have been it; I'd have been in pain for the rest of my life, and no FBI career, that's for sure."

It was funny that the memory still hurt after all these years. And he couldn't even say why. He didn't tell El until years after they were married. El didn't care about baseball; she cared about him. What did he think, that she'd kick him out of bed if she knew he'd turned down the possibility of a short, glorious career in the spotlight for a life of dangerous work catching bad guys for the U.S. government? Of course not; she'd been as sympathetic as she knew how to be. Peter knew it hadn't changed his image in her eyes one iota. But that wasn't really the point; the point was that El didn't understand, she couldn't understand. You couldn't know unless you'd been there, holding one dream in your hands and giving it up because it cost more than you were willing to give.

He could have gone his whole life without telling Neal this.

But he had to, because of that "wilted houseplant that hasn't been watered in a month" droop to Neal's demeanor.

"Life is cruel. It's not perfect. Stuff happens," Peter said. The words felt clumsy in his mouth; this was El's area, not his, this whole talking-about-feelings thing. But El wasn't here, and anyway ... this was something that El couldn't really help with, because as far as he knew, she'd never known that feeling -- when your whole world falls down around your ears, when the future you've planned for so long turns black and you can't see where the road is going, or if there is a road at all. She might want to help, but she couldn't really know.

"You make plans and they blow up in your face. And then you go on. You find something else that gets you up in the morning. You have to do that, or you just ... stop."

"The FBI," Neal said, on the exhale of a sigh. "That's what it was for you."

"The FBI," Peter agreed.

He drove. There was a long silence between them, measured in the flickering of the lines on the road. Then Peter said, "But it can also be little things in the meantime. There was a while there when I had no idea what I was going to be. Who I even was, if I wasn't Peter Burke, baseball star. But there was still Mama Burke's award-winning cherry pie, or a cold beer with the old man on a hot summer night. Reruns of Rockford Files. The satisfaction you feel when you finish a hard crossword puzzle in ink."

"Or Elizabeth Burke's meatloaf," Neal said.

"That too."

"You are so ..." Neal trailed off, on the verge of whatever he'd been about to say, and shook his head. "Never mind. So you, I guess."

He went silent, gazing out the window, but Peter could tell that he was less wound-up than he had been a few minutes ago.

It was up to him, Peter thought, to show Neal that there was more to life than screwing people over before they screwed you. More to society than just a bunch of people who wanted to use and hurt him. Neal was smart, and compassionate, and Peter really believed that the kid could be more than what he'd been so far -- a victim, and then a thief.

He caught himself wishing that Neal could still read minds, if only for a moment. It would be so much easier to prove his sincerity that way. As it was, though, he'd simply have to show Neal the old-fashioned way.

Peter had always been a believer in the old saying that actions speak louder than words.

And maybe actions spoke louder than thoughts, too. Sometimes.