A/N: Hey guys! I hope you all are doing well. This is my first fanfiction on White Collar (just finished with the series a while back and I just can't get enough!), so please let me know how you like this one. This piece will be a one-shot post the series finale, and I know there's plenty of amazing works out there on this theme, but another one to the collection, I guess. ;)
So without further ado,
It had been two years. Two years since Neal Caffrey had breathed his last to the world. Since he'd left behind a family of strangers who were once on a mission to send him to this ultimate fate. The family, who even after two years, still mourned him.
Neal Caffrey - Conman. Forger. Artist. Expert. Generous. Vivacious. Charming. Lovable. Romantic.
Neal Caffrey, a breeze of spring in oceanic blue eyes and leafy brown hair, was now a dusted file in the archives of the FBI's New York quarters, sitting aloof with hundreds of similar files, stamped deceased. The archive room barely spoke of any life more than what the files were, much less give justice to who Neal Caffrey was supposed to be in person. But it was only natural, he guessed. This was the price you had to pay for choice.
Thousands of miles apart, in a luxurious apartment in Paris, Vincent Moreau sat in his apartment, sipping a glass of Bordeaux. It was part of his daily routine, but one he saw as more akin his taste than monotonous work. If someone would have asked him why Bordeaux was his favourite six years ago, the answer would have been a name. The name of the woman he loved. Kate.
But somehow, the answer today was still a name. But no longer the name of a person. It was the name of what intoxicated him the most in life. The name of the place where life had taken true meaning for him again for the first time since he was 18.
The wine tasted as fine as his life there, the swirl in his mouth just like the twists of events in his life, the sweet, lingering aftertaste only reminding him of his adventures with Peter Burke. The only man who'd dared to see good in him amidst a canvas of grey. The man who'd given him a new family, who'd given him a new identity of his own. The man who was the closest he'd had to a father-figure, a brother... but above all, a best friend. Since Mozzie atleast.
"Any new plan passes through me before Woodford hears it."
"Why wouldn't it? We're partners."
"Yeah, the partner routine may have worked with Luc, but you and I – let's just say good anklets make for good partners." Peter says.
"Okay. But I got to say,"
"This has been more fun than a prison sentence has any right to be."
Even now when he thought back to it, he wondered how he'd managed to do something so damningly selfless. Or selfish, he couldn't say. He knew what he would be putting the people who he loved most (and who he hoped loved him enough too) through, especially Mozzie. But he had to do it. Those people had now become his only family ever since Ellen died and his father stomped what last little hope of a reconnaissance that he had. And he couldn't - wouldn't let a scumbag like Keller dictate terms on them forever, whether or not without The Pink Panthers.
He knew that even in spite of his attempts at keeping his plan fool proof, there were loopholes. The Panthers always came after the loved ones of the deceiver. And yet Neal was forced to bring in another player into the game. The same player who he'd been trying to protect in the first place.
The options had been obvious right from the start when he'd planned to become a part of the Panthers as a final straw to free himself of the constant deception the FBI played with him. He'd been so engrossed in earning his freedom that he'd barely noticed when he had lost his title as a Criminal Informant. He'd become FBI's most priced asset. An asset they wouldn't let go of now.
And that was just what he wanted to do - leave behind everything and everyone to a better future.
"That's not the future I have in mind. The promotion at D.C. your case history was a huge factor in that decision, right?"
"That's right. It was based in part on my successes as a field agent."
"Our successes," Neal turns to stop him in his tracks, "No more handlers, no more cases, no more anklet."
"Neal, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying I want my sentence to be dropped."
It first struck him when Peter learned of the truth oh what cost his freedom had been obtained at. He knew that Peter wouldn't be approving of his ways, but when the older detective chose to separate paths and hand him over to a new handler, he knew that something had gone terribly amiss. How was it even his fault if his father had left him in such a terrible mess? That was the only option he had left, and if it bought Peter another day of freedom and Elizabeth her husband back, it was worth it. And he was willing to do it every single time.
But that was still after he knew of the truth. What had gone wrong before it? He knew that trust was always a shaky base between them and he hadn't given Peter an exact 100 reasons to trust him either. Even though he hated it, Peter's judgment had always been right on his motives and after a while, he simply counted upon Peter to fill in the missing pieces on his own.
But each time, every time, it was more like him being up to mischievous cons. Some a little too cheeky, some a little too risky. There was always the greater good he kidded himself into, but he liked to believe that as long as he wasn't harming anybody good the bad way (basically killing anyone), it was alright. And Peter understood where that reasoning came from.
It was perhaps why he had never called him a criminal outright.
Until the end of his first case after he was back from prison. That was the first night amongst several nights where he'd lost sleep. What was it that had changed in Peter to actually bring him around to use this term? Peter had seen him as a conman, a consultant, a partner and even almost as a friend who was becoming family.
"It's not what you think."
"Neal, you impersonated a fireman, and you robbed a vault under my watch."
"I can explain, all right?"
"Don't! Don't you dare try to justify what you did! I put myself out on the line for you, all the time! I helped your father. I was charged for murder because of it –."
"Will you please –?"
"I nearly lost everything –"
"I did it for you!"
"I know why you did what you did,"
"Yeah. To help my friend."
"And because you're a criminal, and you can't help yourself; shame on me for expecting anything else," he met cold, brown eyes. "Things are gonna change for the both of us."
"Yeah. It's time they did."
Why the intrusion?
And then it struck him the second time when he heard Peter call him a regret through the bug. That was obviously in the days after Peter knew of his little scheme, but that didn't mean that it didn't hurt. It stung, hard.
"Jones. Don't volunteer to take him on. Trust me. You'll regret it."
And every day, there lay another jibe. A conman, no conscience, a criminal, a liability, a crook. Every single identity he had tried so hard to leave behind to become something else for a change. To try to do better for the people who put that kind of trust in him.
"Jones and Diana, everyone in the White Collar offices, we're all family and you're a part of that family. You're also a criminal. I forget that a lot. And until you've served out your sentence, that's exactly what you are. I've made mistakes because I let emotions cloud my judgment, and I can't let my next handler make those same mistakes."
"You're choosing someone from outside the office to be my new handler,"
"Someone with the right perspective; someone who will see you as you are,"
"A criminal," Neal says.
But with each passing day, his resolve grew lesser to stay back in New York after everything that had happened. He loved life there still, but it was a life that was fast inching towards its end, he knew. And like each time, he needed to give himself the perfect farewell.
The perfect con.
Getting entangled with Rebecca and knowing such brutal betrayal in love had never been a part of his plan, but the bitterness it brought on had only made his intentions smoother. He was done trying to live for others. He was done serving his time.
And then, fate finally smiled.
In a turn of events, he'd found himself standing upon the doorstep of the Pink Panthers, the smartest most dangerous syndicate of thieves in the world. It had been sheer impulse to hijack his kidnapper's audition but lulling him into it, but what happened after that was only him. It had been fairly obvious since the moment he lay eyes on Keller that he was going to need an inside man to count on to ensure his final con was the biggest and the best for the last. And he had only two options.
Mozzie or Peter.
Every pore in his body knew that Mozzie was the better choice anyday. The more effortless choice. Mozzie had no one that they could hurt and he was smart enough to go underground with a different name after whatever would show down. But he was tired of making Mozzie play stakes far higher than he wanted.
Mozzie undoubtedly enjoyed the thrill of the chase, but he didn't want him having a life like that anymore. Mozzie had nearly died for him twice. He couldn't and wouldn't risk anything happening to him again. Especially not on his account. He knew Mozzie would tell him that choice was often not another's to determine, but this was a choice he found himself responsible to make.
He wanted Mozzie to live the remainder of his better times proudly as Teddy Winters.
And in spite of Mozzie's countless protests for being recommended and pulled into the Panthers, he'd gone against his better judgment and chosen Peter. He knew that it was a selfish choice. Peter had a family on his own and a child on the way no less, and should things go south... the thought of it alone gave him shivers. Yet he knew that if anyone would make his resolve stronger to see this through, it was Peter.
"Hey, before I go back, you should know this. Out of all the people in my life, Mozzie, even Kate, you know? You're the only one."
"The only one what?"
"The only person in my life I trust."
It had nearly been four years of working together and he knew that even during those last days, if he could trust anyone with his life, it was only Peter. And this was going to be his life at stake. He'd planned and researched upon everything carefully and yet... there was a feeling he couldn't shake. Some called it instinct. He called it impulse.
And to make sure that he didn't back out of his own plan and turn it a 180 degrees north, he had to keep Peter with him. Besides, it was a nice way of saying goodbye. Their first case was with Hagen, the bond forger. Their last case would be the Pink Panthers, thief syndicate. It was symbolic of the graph of the kind of relationship they'd had as well.
"But even when there isn't trust, there's always faith. Faith; that whatever the other's doing, it's for a good reason."
"As long as Peter has faith in me, I'll have faith in him."
Vincent Moreau smiled in nostalgia, taking another sip from his glass. There were wines even better than the Bordeaux but there was something utterly homely about this one. It was warm in spite of the cool, just like how his lodgings felt when you stepped into the room from the balcony on a winter night.
And God, he missed the view.
"You're upset. Sour grapes."
"What was that?"
"Look, you tell me which rule I broke, and I will thumb it back to prison myself."
"For starters. I work hard. I do my job well. And I don't have a 10-million-dollar view of Manhattan that I share with a 22-year-old art student while we sip espresso."
"Why not? Because I'm not supposed to. The amount of work I do equals certain things in the real world. Not cappuccino in the clouds."
He felt the slight chill from his balcony view where stood before him the towering majesty of the Eiffel Tower, to the French a wasted beauty. But he wondered whether the chill hadn't resonated entirely from within, thinking about that final confrontation with Keller.
The make or break of his plan.
Including Keller in their share of the profits had been the most integral aspect of his plan right since it's inception. He was the second bird he'd wanted to kill with one stone, although Peter befitting happened to carry the honours out finally. This was the only part of the plan where he wasn't entirely sure. He'd made sure to send Mozzie away out of harm's way and Peter was probably on his way to the basement. Now all he had to do was stall. And like the feeling in his heart, things had not gone entirely to plan.
The scuffle was not supposed to happen until much later. And yet, when Keller brought Kate up in such poor taste, he'd found his restraint crack. And before he knew it, he found himself lunging at Keller with his gun, his impulse getting the better of him. For his only good fortune, the trigger went off and struck him right where he wanted it to.
The rest had nearly gone to plan, acting his way through with ease while silently praying that Peter arrived soon enough, having held on to the anklet only for the precise hay day that was today. It would all go in vain if he faked his death and Keller escaped. But in either case, he had to be prepared fully for the scene. And so once Keller had escaped, he quickly gave the paramedic student he'd hired a call and pulled out the poison capsule.
It was the dumbest thing he was about to do.
"Is your freedom worth dying for?"
"It might be..."
It was a slow poison with immediate effect of symptoms, although to the onlooker, it could easily be attributed to either a cardiac arrest or a gunshot wound. The poison would eventually reduce his heart rate to one beat per minute, enough to keep him alive for a couple of minutes in spite of being pronounced dead. It was as risky as being put under a medically induced coma, but he had to take the chance.
If he were to be honest, he hadn't expected the drugs to work as fast as they did. They singed his throat a bit, and within ten minutes, his surroundings began to grow disoriented. He was barely aware about Haley, the paramedic girl finding him or even changing him out of his shirt that looked too unbelievably bloodstained. She replaced it with a clean one, as was discussed earlier while letting the fresh cloth absorb the remnants of the blood in the sac, staining it just enough.
At one point in time, he felt a rude light shone into his eyes. And when he opened it, he realized himself to be no longer in the basement but being run somewhere on a stretcher. There was a lot more noise than he had anticipated, and from the looks of it, he'd blacked out. And suddenly, he wondered if this wasn't all just a big mistake. He felt the urge to be comforted, to feel the warmth he'd been losing because of the poison.
And then, Peter happened.
The moment their eyes met, he felt a sudden tiredness creep in. He'd only been running since he could remember. This was the first time when he contemplated to just stop. And this was the man who convinced him why. He did not find the need to think upon his words. They were what he always wanted to tell Peter, but he couldn't. He was too daunted to think about how Peter perceived him and would often wonder whether the older brother even thought of him in any light beyond a criminal.
But that day, he did not care.
He could feel the edges of his sight grow white, the sting of the blocked bullet beginning to form a bruise ache at the point of contact. And when Peter held on to his hand to ground him to reality, he realized that this was it.
Neal Caffrey was dying for real.
"We're gonna get you out of this."
"I don't think so."
"Don't say that."
"You're the only one who saw good in me."
"Stop it, Neal."
"You're my best friend," he finally let go off in a whisper as he felt black squeeze in with white, confessing to what he'd always wanted to let the detective know. He was dying to let him know of this since perhaps the day Peter sacrificed himself for his father in jail. He just wished he didn't actually have to die to let him know this.
He had left behind Mozzie well secured and Peter was more than capable of handling himself and the trial that was beginning to ensue. For the sake of records, Keller and Peter (and now himself) would all be taken as deceased, as was discussed since the moment Peter stepped into the ring for securing his wellbeing.
He'd left behind the proof of his biggest con in the trailer he knew Peter had once tracked him to, giving specific instructions to the nurse boy to hand its keys over to him. He knew that Mozzie would never be convinced of his death and would put the pieces together faster, and hoped that risking the poison for another 20 minutes to convince him otherwise would not be in vain, especially with Peter saying otherwise. The idea was Mozzie's undoubtedly about the theory of JFK's empty hearse.
But only this time, it would carry Neal Caffrey.
He also knew that the day Peter would catch on to it, there was a good chance that Peter may try to convince him otherwise. But for now, his key was going to be safe with him. Because no matter what, at the end of the day, Peter believed damning proof. And this was it. Perhaps he would get to the locker immediately. Or perhaps later, once Burke Jr. took his first breath in this world. Or perhaps never.
And he wouldn't blame him either. He was discardable from people's lives too, after all.
"So why did you take Neal to the auction house in the first place?"
"That was a mistake."
"Listen, I wanted to ask you earlier. What happens to Neal when you leave?"
"He's the next ASAC's problem."
After regaining consciousness 18 hours later and on an emergency plane for treatment to Paris in the next 4, Neal Caffrey was officially given a burial until then. He was pretty much out of it for the most of the time to remember swaps and deceiving, but another two day's worth of treatment at a small, private medical facility in Paris under the name Vincent Moreau got him back his strength.
And in starting a new life in his dream city (a dream he once shared with Mozzie) all alone spent he his first year away as a small time street artist who soon turned into an private security and art consultant within the first six months. And when street contacts and a person exhibition drove his worth up further, he was awarded a security contract by the Louvre to authenticate and secure all of its paintings on a new trial basis.
A year after keeping check on his storage container every single day only for it to remain unclaimed, Vincent Moreau decided to celebrate his first birthday by sending his favourite wine to his favourite people with an extra hint for the Burkes. The extra hint was only attributed to the fact that the Panthers had officially been sentenced for life on that particular day, the imminent danger fading away from all of their lives from as long as possible.
He'd learnt that Peter had not taken up the job in Washington afterall, and that was about all he let himself know. He found the tempt intense to know how everyone else was doing, but he preferred sticking to how much he knew. And the fact that Mozzie had gone underground, no one having used him a fence or vice versa since then.
A day after his wine being delivered, the awaited for happened after all. The storage unit had finally been opened. And with that, another person now knew the shared secret of what had really transpired that day. But when neither Peter nor Mozzie got into touch with him in spite of the same, he knew that Peter had gotten the point across and had perhaps kept Mozzie out from the loop, respecting the bliss of an undisputed life and living with the lie.
"You know, it's scary." He looks up from the new tracking anklet he had put on.
"It feels strange when it's not on; like I'm missing something. That's how used to it I've gotten."
He'd told his goodbyes to everyone in the best way possible. To June, who'd taken him in and treated him just like her son. To Mozzie, who'd always had his back like a shadow, until the end. To the Burkes, who'd been the best thing he'd found in his sentence. To everyone at the Bureau, who'd been just as much of an unspoken family to him. And even to his previous life with the biggest con he'd pulled up until now. He wished he could have mustered to courage to tell goodbye to Alex... they'd had a long run of adventures in these last few years.
And then there was Sara. Perhaps she was the only one he didn't have the guts to say goodbye to. Post Rebecca's death, there was a void in his heart that he couldn't ignore, a void that somehow grew lesser every time he thought of Sara and his proposal to her. The thought of her even this day brought a smile upon his face, his mind reminiscent of some of the best times' he'd had in his 'shackled' life until things had to blow up.
"Mr. Caffrey, do you deserve to be free?"
"That's not for me to decide. I won't sit here and give you some monologue about how reformed I am. Actions speak louder than words, and, hopefully, my actions while in service to the FBI say more than I can.
"And what would you do with your freedom?"
"Well, I can tell you one thing. I won't be going anywhere anytime soon."
"No. I'm happy here. You know, someone once told me my life is a dream with an anklet attached. If I wake up tomorrow and that anklet is still on - I have a good job, a wonderful home, a partner and a best friend. A family. But to wake up and answer only to myself - that would mean everything."
"Hey. How'd it go?"
"As well as it could go, I think. You know what the nice thing is?"
"It doesn't matter."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you're gonna go in there and say your piece, and the board's gonna make their decision. But with or without my anklet, come Monday morning, I'm gonna step off that elevator on the 21st floor and go to work.
And so smiled Vincent Moreau with a bittersweet taste in his mouth as the wine in his glass finally drew to an end. This was the choice he had made for himself. To walk away with his freedom on his terms. And this was the price he chose to pay for it. For now, he raised a silent toast to his memories that belonged to a different time. To a different place. To a different him.
To a Neal Caffrey quintessentially dead.
This OS is basically something I've had in mind since I first saw the finale. Peter's change in approach wasn't something I quite liked although I think somewhere down the line I was kind of expecting it to happen, but it was more S3 material than S5 although I do agree that six weeks' of prison must have been harsh on Peter to bring on the sudden saltiness.
So, how did you guys like it? Yay or nay? This is one perspective I have on the post series finale. If you guys like this, I could explore more perspectives in either a continuation to this chapter or else as separate one-shots as well. :)
Constructive criticism will be more than welcome and sorry for any typos! :D