Summary: Neal is missing and Jones thinks about how it all went wrong. Prequel to Fragile.
Warning: Some language.
Author's Note: People really liked seeing Jones' POV before, so here's a bit more to the story!
Peter Burke may not have been the most demonstrative boss that Jones had ever had the pleasure of serving under, but he was a fair, even-handed man who led by unwavering, steadfast example. He was a man who genuinely cared for his agents and in his own brilliant way, inspired them to greater things. Jones couldn’t imagine working for or trying to emulate a better person and for that reason, had chosen to remain in New York with Peter’s team in the relatively small White Collar Division, even when he had been offered a promotion to a more prestigious position in DC. Peter had never spoken of it, but Jones liked to think Peter rewarded that loyalty with his trust.
He also liked to think he knew the man fairly well. In his tenure with the White Collar Division, he had seen Peter at his best, and at his worst, when he was furious, when he was hair-pullingly frustrated, when he was grief-stricken, when he was surprised, when he was smugly pleased with himself, when he was proud of his team.
But as they sat opposite each other in the van, speeding towards a location on the docks, he’d never seen Peter so visibly anxious and worried in all the years he had known the man. Neal was missing and had been missing for over a week now. The pragmatically realistic part of him knew that their chances of recovering Neal alive and unharmed at this point were very, very small.
Jones had come into work ten days ago and had immediately noticed Peter and Neal in Hughes’ office with Ruiz from Organized Crime. Even from a distance, Peter had been distinctly displeased. Hughes looked surprisingly resigned. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. Peter suddenly stalked out of the room in disgust, with Neal trailing him like a faithful hound. They talked some more in Peter’s office before Neal left with a jaunty wave and fake smile that fooled nobody. He was already inscrutably unreadable by the time he was seated at his own desk, right beside Jones’ own.
Neal looked up at him.
Neal was uncharacteristically silent after that. No compliments on his tie that day, whether he’d had a good night, plans for the weekend, how was his mother and so on.
Tentatively, Jones decided a direct approach might be best.
“So what’s up with Ruiz?”
Jones was well aware that Ruiz objected to Neal’s presence at the FBI, and had openly derided him without censure on numerous occasions. It hadn’t sat well with Jones then, and he definitely had a bad feeling about it now.
“Ruiz wants to borrow me for his latest fishing expedition with the Russians.”
Jones tried not to baulk. The body count on that stack of case files was more of a running tally.
“Hughes approved his request?” Jones couldn’t help the feeling of incredulousness. He already knew how Peter felt about all this.
“I get the impression that Hughes doesn’t want to, but he knows the stakes; Ruiz has an in, he’s got to take it. And he’s going to use every...asset...” Neal all but spat the word out “that he has access to. Win some, lose some. That’s how this game is played, isn’t it.”
His brow knit in worry. Jones knew Peter liked to joke that he owned Neal and he wasn’t entirely sure what Neal’s consulting contract covered but Neal didn’t seem to think he had a choice in the matter.
“Neal. You know, regardless of how you came to work for the FBI, you’re a consultant with a civil service and there are laws that protect you. If you’re not comfortable or you think it places you in danger, you can refuse the assignment. Peter will back you on that.”
Neal stilled, serious as Jones had ever seen him, and looked Jones straight in the eye.
“Peter doesn’t answer to himself. That’s how that game is played.”
Jones was no stranger to office politics but this felt wrong on so many levels. It felt wrong that there were people he worked with who thought that they could play fast and loose with a man’s life, but he realized it galled him more that Neal seemed to think he was expendable.
In Jones’ mind, the only word he could use to describe the op itself was one giant clusterfuck. Ruiz being the bastard that he was, refused to let Peter’s team take part in the sting. They’d had to follow every painstaking moment from a hastily set up satellite com station in the conference room. Neal had done exactly as planned and had issued the agreed-upon take-down signal after securing the evidence they needed on tape. But Ruiz had refused to send in back-up, insisting that Neal keep cover until further notice when shots started ringing over the wire. They lost him before they could recover the scene. All they found was an ominous blood trail leading out to where a getaway vehicle must have been stashed.
Hughes had been furious. Jones personally felt that Hughes should have known better, given their track record for all the times they had loaned Neal out to other departments, though Hughes had probably been expecting a modicum of professionalism from Ruiz as head of division.
If Hughes was furious, Peter all but went berserk. He had never seen rage of such intensity flashing in Peter’s eyes or such tension in the lines of his back and in his coiled fists, gripped so tight his nails might have broken skin. When Ruiz’s team finally slunk back into the division office, the whole floor watched as Peter stormed down the stairs, crossed the bullpen in a number of strides and shoved open the glass doors to grab Ruiz by the lapels and slam him into the wall by the elevators.
Jones scrambled out of his chair while everyone else had stood rooted to the spot. It took every ounce of his not inconsiderable muscle mass, and went against every hard-fought instinct of his own to grab and restrain Peter’s fist before it met Ruiz’ wretched face. Because lord knows, Jones bore no love for him either.
“PETER!” Jones ground out; the sheer effort of holding Peter back making his voice shudder in exertion. “Peter, he’s NOT worth it!”
His words had the opposite effect and Peter only struggled harder, cursing him out with words that Jones hadn’t known Peter possessed in his vocabulary.
Jones felt his mind grasping for something, anything that might reach Peter.
“If you do this, Hughes will have no choice but to suspend you and who’s going to find Neal then?”
And thank god it worked, because the fight slowly bled out of Peter and he released Ruiz from his vicious grip and shrugged off Jones’ hold on him too. Maybe he’d picked it up from Neal, because although his eyes were still shooting daggers, Peter tugged his clothes into order, and had schooled himself into a facade of deliberate, straight-backed respectability in that span of moments, intense and severe, as they turned to take in Hughes and Diana standing in the doorway, every eye in the room following them through the glass.
What followed was the longest slog of a week that Jones could think of in living memory. The entire White Collar division had thrown themselves single-mindedly into getting Neal back, and even Hughes had joined them on the floor. Part of him hoped that Hughes felt guilty about his part in all this, though Jones was mature enough to know that at Hughes’ level in their line of work, hard decisions sometimes came with a price. He thought back to his conversation with Neal that fateful morning and felt his own guilt sear through him for not bringing it up with Peter. But Jones looked over at Peter, who was already tormenting himself with enough guilt for all them, and he decided that Peter did not need to know just then that Neal had essentially chosen Peter's career over his own safety and quite possibly, his life.
Jones knew that Peter saw Neal as his responsibility, not just in terms of keeping Neal in line, but also in terms of his protection and well-being. Jones had also watched that improbable relationship grow from the day it started. People wondered how on earth two men so unalike in every way and with a history such as theirs could work so well together. As he turned the thought over and over in his mind, he came to the realisation that it was because they respected one other. And against all odds, they liked each other. He was well aware that Peter turned to Neal first on most any case that came across their desks, that he valued Neal’s input as a partner, and not as a subordinate. Not for the first time, it occurred to Jones that he had every right to resent Neal for seemingly usurping what he could see as his position on Peter’s team, as his most senior agent, and yet, he found he couldn’t and he didn’t. Still, there was something more. Neal wasn’t just Peter’s partner. Jones thought about how they finished each other’s sentences, and anticipated each other’s actions and bickered in alternating fashion like bratty siblings and the world’s strangest old married couple. How they take lunches with Elizabeth at least three times a week and how Neal brings a flask of Italian roast for Peter in the morning and how Peter grumbles halfheartedly but takes Neal to visit his favourite museums outside his radius anyway. How Neal is a frequent guest at the Burke residence and how he takes Satchmo to the dog park every so often (He knows. He’s checked Neal’s ankle monitor often enough) and how Neal straightens Peter’s tie before his meetings with the oversight committee and how Neal makes sure Peter doesn't forget his own wedding anniversary. Somewhere along the way, Neal had become Peter’s friend and Jones could sense that Peter’s turmoil wasn’t just because he felt he’d failed Neal in his responsibility for him, but because he’d failed Neal in his friendship.
They took turns crashing for a few hours on the couch in Peter’s office but otherwise they followed up every scrap of a lead that came into the Bureau, no matter how slight the connection or what the hour was. Tempers were fraying, faces were growing haggard in weariness and desperation permeated the office. Peter seemed to age ten years. Jones didn’t think he fared any better as he took in his appearance in front of a mirror. As he splashed water on his face to wash the grit from his eyes, the thought occurred to Jones that he wished Neal could see this, if only so he could be sure of his welcome and his value on Peter’s team; that all these people didn’t think of him as Peter’s pet con but that he truly was one of theirs, one of them, and they took care of their own.