A/N: I know it's been a couple years since I have published anything, but I wanted to give it one last try. This is not at all what I had envisioned, as this was supposed to be a story about Peter & Mozzie dealing with grief, and specifically about Mozzie's comment about "Where Do I Fit in the Picture," but apparently since I am not dealing with it well, I found it impossible to write about it, so I ended up punishing Neal instead. This may or may not be complete. I just don't know if I can't write any more without getting upset. Either way, please let me know what you think!
Obviously I don't own White Collar, or I would have never let it end. However, I will be forever grateful to USA and Jeff Eastin for bringing it to life. All quotes in italics are direct episode quotes.
A small apartment:
11 months after the Panthers were arrested.
The figure tossed and turned on the bed, twisted in his sheets, and caught up in the throws of a bad dream.
Rebecca's voice echoed in his head. "People like us, we live on borrowed time. We either end up behind bars or dead…It catches up to you eventually." Behind her, Keller sneered at him "Collateral damage is a conman's byproduct, Caffrey…Guys like us, we hurt people around us." Amy walked up behind him "I don't use and manipulate people to get what I want. I'm not like you. Thank you for making me realize I don't belong in this city." Dr. Summers peered over her folder at him "Your behavior is sociopathic. You work on perception…deceit and manipulation are the essential characteristics of the disorder. You excel at both." She disappeared, but Keller was back, knocking over his chess pieces. "Take down the panthers, we get our freedom, then what? We live happily ever after? …We're hunted men…They'll come looking for us…Their reach, my friend, it is far, and it is wide…they don't stop looking for a rat until they're dead. Until then, guess who they go after. People closest to you…they make it hurt so bad you'll wish that they found you. So you enjoy this freedom you're working so hard to get, because when you are footloose and fancy free, those people that you love so much are on death row." Keller disappeared, but in his place, Peter appeared, advancing toward him, with a furious expression on his face. "You impersonated a fireman, and you robbed a vault under my watch. Don't you dare try to justify what you did. I put myself out on the line for you all the time! I nearly lost everything."
"I did it for you!" Neal sat up with a start, only half realizing that he had shouted the words out loud to his empty apartment. He realized he was sweating as he untangled himself from his sheets, and ran his fingers through his hair. The nightmares hadn't stopped, in fact, they were getting worse.
"I did it for you." Neal repeated softly this time. He glanced over at the clock, three o'clock in the morning; too early to get up, but he didn't think he could get back to sleep. He laid back down on his bed, now completely wide awake. For some reason, during the day he had no problem slipping into his new persona, but at night the mental montage just went on. He didn't know how to make it stop. He closed his eyes and Peter was back in his head.
"Neal, Do you realize what you have done?"
"Yeah" he had replied. "I made sure justice was served."
"No. That's what I do."
Neal could envision Peter approaching him with his handcuffs, fully prepared to arrest him for the theft of the gold coins that he had stolen in return for Peter's freedom. Freedom, oh how he hated that word now.
"I'll do the time, but you think about it, Peter, what this will do to your life, to Elizabeth. I did the right thing."
"None of this is right."
Looking back, Neal realized instead of asking Peter what it would do to his life, he should have been pondering it himself. He had fought for Peter's freedom, and then he had fought for his own, but he never considered the consequences, never considered what would happen once he had his freedom. It was never supposed to be this complicated or hurt so badly he could barely breathe. When he and Mozzie were searching for the diamond, he had wanted to believe Mozzie, even if only for a little while. "Everything we've always dreamed about. It's within reach." Mozzie was dreaming more about the money though, while he had been dreaming about his freedom. He had only slightly rebuked Mozzie, "It was never about the money. My freedom is worth more than anything that diamond could by."
He had truly believed it at the time, and he kept pushing and pressuring Peter into getting the Justice Department to sign off on his contract for freedom in exchange for taking down the Panthers. He had nothing but tunnel vision for his freedom. Peter had tried to warn him. Peter had tried to protect him, but he wouldn't have any of it.
"Neal, you can't walk back in there, you know how dangerous the Panthers are…I'm trying to protect you."
He had been stubborn and bullheaded at the time, because he snapped back at Peter.
"I don't need you to protect me, I can protect myself."
"Is your freedom worth dying for?"
"It might be." His response had been immediate. He had been actually shocked by the question, and had said the first thing that came to his head, not really thinking about it.
Neal opened his eyes, suddenly feeling nauseous. If this conversation was running through his head, he could only imagine what was running through Peter's head. Peter thought he was dead.
He should be congratulating himself because he had just pulled off the biggest con of his life by faking his own death, he had absolutely every detail in place, and he was even pathological enough to request special video footage of him in the morgue just to make sure that Peter and Mozzie really thought he was dead. His death would have been in vain, had the Panthers even caught a whiff that he might have survived. He really needed to know if Peter and Mozzie were convinced. If they weren't, they would be in grave danger. He hadn't watched the video though. Leaving hit him a lot harder emotionally than he thought it would, and he hadn't needed another thing to deal with at the moment.
He had at first traveled around to Austria and Switzerland, breathing in the fresh air from the Alps, then he went on to Italy, Spain, and Portugal before coming to France. He had spent several weeks living on the Cote 'de Azur, selling original paintings, and trying to enjoy the peace and quiet. However, like Cape Verde, reality set in and there was just something missing. A part of him had hoped that Peter would come after him, but realized that would be the worst possible thing that could happen. The Panthers did have a very long and wide reach, and could very possibly find out if there was a search for him. He had finally sat down, last night, and watched the footage. It had taken him hours to stop crying once he saw Mozzie break down. They really and truly believed he was dead. Neal hadn't realized how good the coroner's staff were; if he hadn't known better, he would have believed it himself.
Even though he had always had a small hope that Peter would be searching for him, after seeing the video, it was clear why Peter had never started searching for him, and he knew Peter would be blaming himself constantly. He could only hope that his death hadn't had negative repercussions, and that aside from the massive amount of paperwork he realized his death would have generated, he hoped Peter at least still had his job. On the personal side, the fact that the last words Neal had uttered to Peter "You're my best friend" had to have only made it harder for Peter to deal with; the emotional repercussions would have been far greater than any professional ones. Neal had faked his death many times on many occasions - Panama City, Bangalore, Monterey Bay and the famous great white shark mauling, just to name a few and he had always moved on without any issues. Peter had even commented "Who doesn't love a good shark mauling?" It had been fun, it had been exciting, adrenaline inducing even, although it really hadn't been successful in keeping Peter off his trail. So why was this time different? Why was he feeling something this time? It was far more than just something; it was nearly suffocating and paralyzing, and Peter wasn't chasing him anymore. It wasn't fun anymore.
Neal got out of bed and made his way over to his safe, he slowly entered the combination, and for the first time since he had left New York, he pulled out an unmarked manilla envelope. He carefully slid the photo out, laid it on the floor and sank down next to it. It was the same photo that he had found in Peter's wall safe. The same photo that had changed everything and made him rethink what he was doing in regards to the manifest. He had gotten Peter to make him a copy and it was one of his most cherished possessions; not that he would have ever admitted that to Peter. Tears slowly streaked down his cheeks as he realized what he had lost in his stubborn pursuit of freedom. His stomach revolted as the weight of what he lost caught up to him, and he barely made it to the small bathroom in time to empty the contents of his stomach, and then sank down beside the toilet. This was his fault, and his fault only. He couldn't blame his father or even Peter this time. His father had nothing to do with the Panthers, and Peter put his whole career on the line to get his latest deal signed. He hadn't really felt the pressure at the time. He had been far too arrogant and Peter hadn't told him the conditions right away, but he should have known. He should have known that Peter would go to such lengths for him, and for what? He had forever given up the thrill of working with Peter, and the rest of the team, of being allowed to work undercover and get his adrenaline rush via legal means. How could he ever forgive himself? He forced himself to get up, rinse his mouth out, and shuffled back into his small living room, seeing the picture still laying on the floor.
"Where do I fit in the picture?"
He had actually been rather perturbed that Mozzie had dared to question his intentions with regards to the Panthers. He knew Mozzie had been completely serious when he had asked Neal the question, and felt shut out of the operation. Neal admitted to himself that he was trying to keep Mozzie in the dark, and wanted Mozzie to trust him and, yes, he was manipulating the situation, but now it made sense in a different kind of way. Mozzie realized he didn't fit into the picture, and he was jealous. It may not be the same picture that Neal had, but the idea was still legitimate. Mozzie wanted to belong; he needed to belong. Neal had become his support system, his wingman, and his front man. Mozzie would be lost without him. As if that wasn't bad enough, Neal realized that he didn't fit into his picture anymore either, and he never would again, even though the picture was one of the primary reasons why he had done what he did. He thought he was protecting them. Anyone in that picture could be associated with him, and Keller had been spot on when he reminded Neal that not only would the Panthers be looking for him, but anyone else he cared about. Most pictures you take are with people you care about. Pictures were dangerous. Relationships were dangerous, but freedom without relationships was becoming completely unsatisfying. He had been playing with fire, and he had lost everything.
What had Dr. Summers said?
"Your behavior is sociopathic. You work on perception, the perception of others. How you think they'll feel. This influences your actions and thoughts more so than your own emotions. Deceit and manipulation are the essential characteristics of the disorder. You excel at both…Not everyone believes their own lies."
"Why would I delude myself?" he had snarkily replied.
"Because you don't want anyone to see your vulnerabilities." She had been right, "Just because a person starts doing good things doesn't mean he wants to stop doing bad things."
Even Adler had been right about him when he said "There is nothing sadder than a conman conning himself." He had never said it out loud until Mozzie had drugged him with his own private version of Good Night, Cinderella. "I like doing things I shouldn't and I don't feel guilty. I don't feel remorse. I don't feel anything."
He hadn't then, but he did now. He didn't see how he could ever forgive himself and it was killing him mentally and emotionally, even if he had physically recovered from the effects of the puffer fish. He needed his family, and he needed them now. He couldn't survive like this anymore. He had to let them know, he had to let them know how much he loved them and missed them, and the 1982 bottle of Bordeaux would be the perfect place to start.