Peter wasn't certain what specifically woke him up later that night.
After about an hour of quality time just one-on-one with Elizabeth, catching up on their mutual weeks and simply appreciating each other's company after the time apart, they had gone to bed. The conversation of the evening had continued to briefly circle back to the topic of Neal as well; while the intent was to focus on each other that evening, it seemed they just couldn't avoid Neal being the center of their attention.
While feeling annoyed and worried himself about the whole situation, Peter felt the need to assure El that it would all work out as she started to express a little concern over what might happen to Neal next. He then tried to change the topic, to force them to focus them on other topics.
Once in bed, Peter found himself initially staring at the ceiling in the darkness, deep in thought, worries coming back to him. He tried to dismiss them, to focus on his breathing, eventually then slowly beginning to doze. But inevitably his thoughts started to creep back to him, and he found the initial descent to sleep abruptly interrupted.
This case was weighing on him.
Especially the unofficial aspects.
Neal, Neal, Neal.
Since when did his insomnia revolve around Neal?
He realized that was a silly question. It often did.
This 'almost-sleep' followed by then abrupt lucidity and worry happened enough times that he finally found himself sitting up in bed, frowning at his clock, and despite a longing look towards a slumbering Elizabeth, getting to his feet.
On his slow descent downstairs, stairs creaking below his bare feet, the first thing he noticed was the television on. He couldn't hear it right away, but could pick up on the flickering lights, and began to wonder if he had accidentally left it on.
He made his way the rest of the way down the stairs and started to approach the television, eyeing the old movie playing across the screen.
"Did I wake you?"
Peter slowly turned, slightly in surprise at the voice, and found Neal on his couch, once again in the same corner as earlier, though this time turned so that his legs could stretch out over the rest of the couch. He looked strangely surreal in the artificial lighting from the television screen.
"No," Peter told him, after a pause. "You didn't wake me." He frowned at him, feeling tired. He'd come downstairs with the intent to be sitting exactly where Neal was. Alone. He spotted one of the Chinese takeout containers on the coffee table, a fork sticking out of it. He looked back up at Neal. "Why are you up?"
"Why are you up?" Neal replied in return.
Peter refrained from criticizing the response of a question to a question. "Probably the same reason as you," he said instead. "Couldn't sleep?" he asked, stepping further into the room towards the couch.
"I could sleep," Neal answered carefully. "I just wasn't sure my subconscious and I were on the same page about dream content. So I decided to let the television be the intermediary." With that he, turned his eyes back to the screen behind Peter.
Peter couldn't help but slightly roll his eyes at the roundabout and artistic way to describe what must have been bad dreams. The fact there were unsettling dreams didn't surprise him, nor the fact that Neal hadn't woken him to talk about it, despite having earlier given him permission to do so. Asking him to do so. Even if he was annoyed at his CI, he wasn't in favor of anyone struggling alone.
He stood there for a moment, glancing back toward the television as well, and then returned his gaze to Neal. Then he sighed in resignation and moved towards the couch. "Move," he directed.
Neal didn't respond verbally, but readily accommodated the request, shifting himself to sit up straighter and pulling his legs up through bending his knees. He tucked himself up further into the corner of the furniture, sock-covered feet curling closer to himself. A small grimace was the only indication that such movement was painful.
Peter took the space that was vacated, lowering himself onto the couch.
Silence passed between them at first, both pairs of eyes conveniently locked on the television.
Peter hadn't been prepared to speak to Neal again that night. He'd been nervous enough about handling the many topics they need to discuss tomorrow. In coming downstairs, he'd fully intended to zone out in front of the television until he could force himself to be tired enough to overcome his active mind and fall asleep. But now here they were.
He glanced over at Neal, who was quiet himself, focused on the television at least in concept, though Peter was fairly certain there were equally troubling thoughts running through the younger man's mind.
"Did you call Mozzie yet?" Peter asked, clearing his throat as he searched for an uncontroversial topic.
Neal turned his head, giving Peter a small frown. "No," he said slowly. "Why?"
Peter shrugged. "Thought he'd be your first call now that you're back," he replied. In the back of his mind, he was reminded that Mozzie nearly was Neal's first call as he sat in a stolen vehicle. But he pushed that idea far out of his thought process for now to the best of his ability. "He was worried about you," he added.
Neal's face remained impassive. "I never charged my phone," he stated.
"Oh," Peter replied, a little surprised. Neal had commented on his phone's battery being dead the moment he received the device back. "Why not?"
Neal rubbed his hand against his leg and gave a half shrug, favoring his hurt shoulder. "I don't know. Maybe I wasn't ready to be officially back yet."
Peter didn't respond to that. He'd been more than ready to be back himself. He glanced back at the television briefly as he noticed Neal's attention turn there once again. "Maybe tomorrow," he offered.
"Maybe," Neal agreed without much emotion or conviction behind it.
Peter paused and then said, "I didn't hear you come downstairs." He nodded towards the takeout container. "Or scavenge."
"You weren't supposed to hear me," Neal responded.
Peter nodded slowly, pressing his lips together briefly. If Neal had needed him, surely he would have allowed himself to be heard. He considered that, but then tried not to overanalyze the behavior pattern. Neal's tendencies were to be discreet, and not seek help, even if he needed it. Shifting the topic, he said, "You know we're going to the office tomorrow."
"So you should try to sleep."
Neal nodded back, eyes locked to the television screen as the reflection of lighting danced over his features. "You should too."
"I should," Peter replied in agreement. "We both should." He paused again. "What were you dreaming of?" he asked. "Can you tell me?"
"Can't remember," Neal replied, a little too quickly.
Peter considered whether or not to call him out on the lie. He was silent at first instead, slowly turning his head to watch the television for a moment. It was a commercial for some pharmaceutical company, though Neal's eyes were locked to it like it was some fascinating action-packed vignette.
Another moment of silence passed between them.
It was then Neal that spoke first next.
"There's something else I should tell you," he said simply.
Peter suddenly felt a hollow pit in his stomach. That was not a statement he'd been expecting to hear tonight. Not at all. In fact, his whole approach in sitting next to him currently was to avoid controversy. To have some sense of business-as-usual and to get them to bed before inevitably addressing their outstanding issues tomorrow. "Neal…" he started slowly, tone warning as he turned his head to view the other man.
"I should have told you to begin with," Neal persisted. His eyes remained on the TV and his tone stayed nonchalant. "I don't know why I didn't, actually."
Peter felt his frustration from earlier in the day building back up. His heart started to beat harder and he felt his hands clenching slightly. He'd successfully calmed himself over the course of the evening, and had been civil and patient, focusing on only what he needed to take care of tonight instead of getting back into the case or any of the other issues with Neal. Now all that went out the window. Now he started to feel that angry sensation build within him once again. The events at the end of the case loomed in front of him, ugly reminders, and he wondered what else there could possibly be.
"I don't know what this is you're about to tell me, Neal," Peter began, hearing his own tone turn reproachful, "but I swear to God…"
Neal now turned his head as well, meeting Peter's eye. "What do you mean?" he asked, sounding slightly startled at Peter's initial reaction.
"I thought you already told me everything, Neal," Peter began, unable to remove the annoyed tone from his voice. "I thought you were honest with me."
"I was," Neal began. "I was honest. But—"
"But, Neal?" Peter interjected. "But what?" He let out a deep sigh of aggravation. He was losing patience for these repeated situations. How many more times would he have yet another discussion with Neal like this? Would it never end? He suddenly realized there was a strong likelihood that he was going to have to deal with Neal tonight. There would be no rational, thought-through approach tomorrow. Not after this. "I'm getting tired of your excuses."
"What excuses?" Neal asked, looking somewhat puzzled.
"I'm in a hard enough spot with you as it is," Peter began stiffly, shaking his head. "Don't you get that?" He sighed, trying to maintain a voice of reason. "Neal, this case would have been a huge success. It was a sure thing. We'd be in a really good place right now. But instead you had to go and do something stupid at the end of it." He continued shaking his head. "So go ahead and tell me. What elsedid you do?"
"What else did I do?" Neal echoed. "Peter, what are you talking about?"
"You said you have something to tell me, Neal," Peter replied impatiently. "So what the hell is it?"
Neal's brow furrowed. "Peter. I didn't do anything."
"No?" Peter asked, exasperated. He leaned in closer to him, pointing a finger. "If there's something else that happened in the last forty-eight hours, Neal, then you better tell me now. I'm pretty much at my wit's end with you, and you're about to push me over the edge."
"Stop," Neal interjected. "You can't punish me for something I didn't even do." It was Neal's turn to be frustrated. He stared at his handler with his own look of exasperation. "Peter, I already told you everythingI know about the last forty-eight hours," he said, tone a bit annoyed and defensive. "This has nothing to even do with any of that." He paused, tilting his head slightly. "Is that really what you think? That I'm still hiding something?"
Peter stared back, silenced though his frustration was still not subdued. His hand dropped to his lap. "Then what is it, Neal?" he asked in exasperation. Until Neal told him what it actually was, he found it hard to not assume it was some other willful discretion or some sort of tiptoeing around the law about to be disclosed.
Neal's frown deepened. "I was going to tell you about Willy."
Peter felt a complete flip-flop in his gut at that comment. "Willy?" he echoed. "What about Willy?"
"About where he came from," Neal said. "That's what I wanted to tell you."
"Now?" Peter found himself feeling a bit taken aback by that response.
"Now," Neal repeated. He tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling, exuding exasperation. "Or never." He paused. "Maybe never."
"Neal," Peter started. While it started to subdue slightly, he still felt the burning sense of frustration, though he started to realize its unfounded placement. As the feeling lingered, he tried to mentally take a step back. He was too quick to anger. He realized it. He knew he had to work on it. "Okay. Go ahead."
"Go ahead before you prematurely accuse me of something else, you mean." Neal dropped the angle of his head to turn his view to Peter and make eye contact.
"Peter," Neal repeated, a little coldly.
Peter gave him a look. Neal stared back at him with icy blue eyes. Peter sighed. "Neal, you can't blame me. Considering the events of the last few days, when you're suddenly telling me cryptically that you have something else you need to tell me… What did you expect me to think?"
"The worst, obviously," Neal replied.
"That's not fair, Neal. Like I said, I'm in a tough spot with you. When you made your statement just now, you were vague. I assumed it was going to be something related to what just happened. Do you really blame me for that?"
Neal's expression remained stony.
Peter's conversation with El from earlier floated back to his mind. Her admonishment of his tendency to assume the worst started to proliferate in his thoughts. He was again doing exactly that. But he didn't really think he was to blame in this instance. Not after what they had just been through. "Do you need me to remind you how many times I've actually been right when I've suspected you of something?" he asked. After the words left his mouth, he reminded himself that he had no reason to need to defend himself. His suspicion was directly correlated to what Neal put him through. The situation that they were in. It was justified.
But the words were already out. And the question clearly seemed to aggravate Neal. He narrowed his eyes slightly and then turned his head back to watch the television. "Sometimes you've been wrong," he replied simply.
"Like this time," Peter replied, shrugging slightly. As it became Neal's turn to be annoyed, he felt his own resurgence of anger dwindle a bit more. In his view, he wasn't wrong to suspect that there was a more serious impending confession, but he could see how it could be hurtful. "I'll be the first to admit it. I'm not always right."
Neal simply raised his eyebrows, not responding, and not moving his vantage point from the television.
Peter let a moment pass and then tried again to spark the discussion forward once the movie on the screen was replaced yet again with a commercial. "So are you going to tell me?" He studied Neal for a moment in the artificial lighting, and could notice the younger man was working his jaw, still looking frustrated. "Neal." He repeated the name more firmly.
Neal turned his head, meeting his eye, but said nothing.
"I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions," Peter stated simply, earnestly. "Okay?"
Neal paused, brow furrowed as though considering the statement, and then just nodded. "Okay," he repeated.
"And I'll try not to be so quick to do that," Peter added. "Alright?"
"Alright," Neal echoed. He sounded reluctant. His eyes returned to the TV.
"Good?" Peter asked.
Neal paused but then cast a quick look Peter's way and said, "Okay."
"So Willy Loman," Peter started after clearing his throat, trying to encourage whatever this disclosure was meant to be. He was curious about the origin of Neal's alias. It was something he had tried to speculate the origin of on his own, but with little success. "What made you pick that name?"
Neal sighed. He shifted in his seat, wincing just slightly. "Well…" he started. "There were a few things going on before I created him, so I need to give you a little bit of that background…" He paused. "I was working under a different name at the time, and—"
"What name?" Peter asked.
Neal rolled his eyes slightly. "Not one you know, Peter…"
"Another one I don't know? Which one?"
"Trust me, you don't know it," Neal replied. "And this isn't about that name anyway."
"Fine," Peter conceded. He waved a hand at him. "Go ahead."
After a slight pause, Neal continued. "I was working with this guy… Warren. He owned his own gallery. He was an aspiring artist. I mean, he was probably in his fifties, and he'd been painting for most of his life, and he was good and all… But he was just never really formally recognized, I guess. He thought he was great though, and he was constantly reaching out to other galleries and symposiums to get himself featured. Most of them always declined, so he seemed to constantly be in a state of disappointment."
"What were you doing for him?"
"Odd jobs…" Neal started slowly. "He needed an assistant. Sometimes it was errands. Sometimes it was other stuff. He… he was pretty well connected. Despite his lack of actual artistic recognition, he did have access to a lot of other well known artists and other galleries."
"Which gave you access."
Neal gave a small smirk. "Exactly."
"Well… The ironic thing… He was so critical of all these well-known artists. I mean, you'd think he was a professional art critic or something, the way he'd go on… Talking about their techniques, throwing out terms like 'overrated' and 'too commercial.' Meanwhile, he himself had never been featured anywhere close to their level. Honestly, I think he was probably just jealous. But he was a nice enough guy. Married. One kid, who was going to college, something he'd never done. He talked a lot about his son, and what he was majoring in. I think he wanted to be a lawyer or something. And he'd constantly talk about how one day, his art would be recognized and he'd pay off all his son's student loans, and his house, and take his wife on a vacation…"
"So while working for him, I was also taking some classes."
"Classes?" Peter echoed, a little suspiciously. If there was one thing he knew, it was Neal, including his education history. "What kind of classes?
Neal gave him a slight look. "I knew you were going to jump in there," he said. "I was… unofficially taking some courses at NYU."
"At NYU…" Peter repeated.
Again, Neal rolled his eyes. "Yes, Peter. NYU." He paused. "You know, in those large lecture halls, honestly anyone can show up. You don't have to be enrolled. You think the professor recognizes everyone?"
"What sort of classes?" As he asked the question, Peter expected the response to be something art history related.
"Literature," Neal replied. He raised a hand, rubbing at his jaw. "I started to realize that there was a lot I didn't know. I found myself more and more encountering paintings that had some sort of literary influence or allegory, and most of the time I'd never heard of the reference or even if I had, I'd never read it." He paused. "Even if I think about the artists I forged this week. Take Magritte. You know his piece called Domain of Arnheim?"
"I don't know it," Peter admitted.
"Edgar Allen Poe," Neal replied. "One of the quotes from the story is that 'no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce,'" he stated. "I'd never even heard of the story when I first saw a print of the painting." He cleared his throat. "So anyway, I realized there was a lot I should probably learn. So I found a course listing, and started to dabble. Once I was in, there was access to the class syllabus, and the library…" He gave a small smile. "And I may or may not have had a crush on one of the professors."
Peter didn't speak, waiting for Neal to continue. He found himself not surprised, but incredibly impressed by Neal's desire to acquire as much knowledge as he could. Neal's ability to quote and reference what he did learn always amazed him. It reminded him how smart Neal actually was. The kid was a sponge. How much knowledge was hidden within him? If only he'd always applied that intelligence to a lifestyle that was honest…
"Anyway," Neal continued. "So while I was taking some of these courses, there was one that was covering American literature, and for one of the lectures they were covering Arthur Miller and specifically this play, Death of a Salesman. I started to see a ton of similarities between the main character of the play and Warren. His biggest goal wasn't to save the world or to be a hero, or anything like that. It was really just to overcome the ordinariness of middle-class life. Warren thought he was this great artist, and couldn't understand why no one else saw that, after fifty years of painting. He felt like his work should have provided for him and his wife and son, and instead he was mostly in debt, rejected over and over again, getting more and more insecure. It was like I was observing a slow descent into depression or insanity… No matter what he did, he wasn't getting to the financial and social status that he wanted. That he thought he deserved."
Peter continued to simply listen. Neal's narration was careful and insightful, a look on his face as though he was remembering more than what the words were conveying.
Neal continued and then stated, "He died in a car accident."
"What?" Peter frowned. He hadn't been expecting that. He looked at Neal in question, but his expression remained somewhat passive. "What do you mean?" This was an abrupt ending to the story of Warren. He'd been expecting some sort of lavish tale of what happened next. But then he reminded himself of the ending of the work of Miller to which they were comparing Warren…
"Belt Parkway," Neal continued. "Only his car was involved. It was the middle of the night. He was gone before they even got him to the hospital."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Neal…"
"I'm sorry for his wife…" Neal replied. "For his son…" He made a face. "Not for me. After all, I was kind of using the guy in a way… I told him what he wanted to hear but only because I wanted the connections."
"Did you take anything from him?"
"Take?" Neal echoed. "Like something tangible? No. Never. I never stole from him."
"Then you have nothing to feel sorry about."
"They ruled it an accident. But I don't know… I worked for him for about a year… And the few weeks before his death, he was… just a bit different. A bit darker. A bit more self-deluded, if that were possible…" Neal paused. "I don't know," he repeated. "If they hadn't ruled it an accident, and claimed he pulled the steering wheel… I wouldn't have really been surprised." He shook his head. "Anyway, after he passed… I needed a new start. And I needed a name."
"So Willy came to be," Peter replied.
"Yeah," Neal replied. "I know it's not really an exciting story or anything… But you had asked earlier in the case where that name came from… Like, why I picked it… And that's why… I guess that story resonated with me because it was so much like his story. And there were parts of Willy's beliefs that I sympathized with… So I just used that name. And while I was using that name was when I first got into contact with Jason and… and then the rest I guess you know."
"For the most part…" Peter slowly replied. A moment of silence passed between them. He leaned across the couch, reaching to pat Neal's thigh. "Thanks for telling me, Neal," he added. "Really, I mean it. I appreciate you telling me that."
"Versus telling you I robbed a bank, or whatever else you thought I was actually going to say," Neal replied sarcastically.
"Hey." Peter's parting pat to his thigh came down harder in a soft slap before he leaned back into his spot. "With you I never know…" he replied. He paused. He found himself pacified by Neal's story. Saddened almost. It reminded him of Neal's potential, his insight, and his connection with the human element. Neal was good, deep down, despite his record. Was knowing that enough? "I'm glad there's nothing else, Neal."
"Yeah…" Neal replied. His focus returned to the television. "Isn't it already a lot?"
"Yes. It's already a lot…" Peter agreed. As he watched Neal noticeably stiffen, he clarified. "I mean what you've been through, Neal." He paused, searching for the right words. "Take a step back for a minute. I know you're focused on the other stuff you did, but listening to your statement today, Neal… I'm sorry you had to go through that. This case was never meant to be like that."
"There are worse things," Neal responded. "I wouldn't say this is one of my favorite cases, but it could have been worse. I'll heal."
"You'll heal," Peter agreed. "And the case itself has a good ending."
Neal turned his head, raising his eyebrows skeptically. "Does it?"
"The case is solid against Messier and Jason," Peter responded to the look.
"And everything else?"
"Everything else isn't part of the case. And everything else is what we aren't talking about tonight," Peter replied. "Remember?"
"It's technically tomorrow…" Neal said dryly.
"So let's not be technical," Peter replied.
Neal didn't respond at first, nodding slowly. But then after a long pause and a sigh, he said, "I'm worried about what I might have left behind…" He spoke slowly, tentatively. "Or who might have seen me." He raised a hand to rub at the back of his neck. "Normally I'd never be worried about that. Because those are the sorts of details I control. But this time, I don't even completely remember."
"Neal…" Peter slowly shook his head. "If you—"
"Not tonight, I know, Peter," Neal replied. "I know," he repeated.
"No, that's not what I meant," Peter began. "If you needto talk, we can… I just don't want to get into it again with you this late. But is that what's keeping you up?"
"I mean…" Neal started, drawing out the word. "I guess. Among other things."
"Other things like…" Peter trailed off in question.
"Like me," Peter repeated.
"Like lots of things."
Peter sighed. "Look, Neal…." he started. "We're not going to solve this tonight…"
"I know. And I'm not asking you to solve it. Especially tonight. El told me I shouldn't bring it up, and she's right, and—"
"And you guys talked about this?" Peter knew they had. It had contributed to some of the concern she had expressed for him later.
Neal hesitated. He stared at Peter, frowning slightly. "Not really in detail." He paused. "But you told her."
"You know by now that I tell El most things, Neal."
"Sure," Neal responded. "Honesty. Healthy relationships. All that stuff."
"All that stuff," Peter echoed.
"But she thought that if someone does happen to find out, that the fact that I may not have been acting in my full capacity could—"
"Could what?" Peter interjected. He sighed. "I thought we weren't going to get into this detail tonight, Neal... If something is keeping you up, let's address that, but the rest of it is for tomorrow."
"She said you admitted I was 'out of it' though," Neal persisted.
"Yet I thought when we talked about this the first time, we agreed that you had no excuse for what you did," Peter replied, a little exasperatedly. "You specifically said 'no excuses.'" He exhaled again and continued, realizing he was already giving in to having the discussion to an extent, simply by responding. But then again, maybe this was the aspect that was keeping him up. "But putting that aside for a moment, given the circumstances, fine. Anyone would agree you weren't in your usual state of mind. But a defense doesn't work that easily."
"Well, there's a psychological assessment that would need to happen, Neal. And while I used to think otherwise, it's actually harder to qualify on than you think…"
"Well to start, Neal…. Most people under duress in that situation would have called 911 at the gas station or asked for help. You had finally gotten to where you could resolve it all with a phone call. Instead you robbed a woman and then escalated to carjacking…"
Neal winced slightly at the comment but then said, "Well, maybe that shows real insanity."
"Maybe, Neal…" Peter rolled his eyes slightly. "But let me repeat myself: we are not going to determine any of that tonight. Besides, you know an insanity plea can result in a court-required continued psychological care. You want that?"
"Not like they'll commit me. Not when it's temporary insanity."
Peter just shook his head. "You're speculating that any of this is going to be needed or relevant, Neal."
"I have to though. You even said there's a chance." He frowned. "Also, it wasn't premeditated," Neal added. "That should count for something."
"I don't even really remember all of it anymore."
"Maybe that's good. Try not to tonight…" Peter persisted. "We're not about to build a case tonight." He exhaled tiredly. "It's way too late in the evening for anything like that. Are you not tired?"
Neal looked thoughtful for a moment, turning his head towards the television. His brow furrowed a bit. "Peter. If there is a case…" he started slowly. "Whose side are you going to be on?"
Peter's instinct was to dismiss the question. To once again tell Neal 'not tonight' and that it wasn't time to have this conversation. He was tired, and he wasn't prepared to decide what would happen next. He didn't even know what was going to be in their control. But as he started to formulate the words, he studied Neal's face and despite a profile perspective, with only the television's artificial light cascading over his features, he could tell he looked tense and troubled. "Neal," he started, cutting off his own initial response before it could leave his mouth. "Look at me."
Neal jaw stiffened for a moment, and then he slowly turned his head.
Peter waited until the blue eyes met his own brown. Then he said, "There's only one side you're on." He spoke firmly and raised his eyebrows. "It's our side. Got it?"
"Ours," Neal repeated slowly.
"What about right and wrong?"
"We will deal with that," Peter said, a little stiffly. "But you're on my side. Tell me you understand that."
Neal paused but then slowly nodded. "Okay."
"Good…" Peter cleared his throat. "So I'm drawing the line at that. That's it. We don't talk about this any more until tomorrow. Right now it's mindless television and then going back to bed. You bring up anything else and I'll smack you." He started to stand, stretching his arms over his head and yawning. "Television is the only thing I can handle right now. And ice cream."
"You're out of ice cream."
Now standing, Peter turned at that response, dropping his arms to his side almost in defeat. "What?" he questioned. "You're kidding me." He narrowed his eyes as he glared down at the younger man on the corner of his couch. "Don't tell me you finished it."
"I won't tell you I finished it," Neal replied simply.
Peter exhaled and rolled his eyes, sinking back down to sit on the couch. "I swear, Neal… Do I need to make a rule about you not eating the last of stuff in my house? This isn't the first time." He paused. "Wait, it's already a rule – called common sense."
Neal said nothing and stared straight ahead at the television screen, a small smirk spreading on his lips.
Peter leaned back into his couch with another sigh, unable to refrain from a small smirk himself. He acknowledged the annoyance he felt now was finally more of a business-as-usual, run-of-the-mill annoyance. That was a welcomed annoyance over the other more stressful triggers. He welcomed business-as-usual. He welcomed any topic that moved them away from the details of the case for tonight.
He longed to get back into their normal rapport. He hoped they would be allowed to do so. The list of what he needed to address at the office tomorrow made him want to sigh yet again.
Not tonight, he reminded himself. He had to adhere to the same rules he gave Neal, even mentally.
With that thought, another thought crossed his mind.
"Hey, Neal," he began.
Neal turned his head to look at him, expression a little cautious.
"There's something else you can tell me," Peter started.
"Like what…?" Neal asked, skeptical. "I told you. I didn't do anything else."
"Pre-dates this week. When did you fly a private jet?"
Neal narrowed his eyes just slightly, pressing his lips together. Then he slowly replied, "Why?"
"So you did. When?"
"How do you even know about that?"
"Apparently you mentioned it to Jones once." Peter shrugged. "Came up when we realized your mode of transportation on the way to Vermont."
Neal continued to frown.
"So…" Peter persisted. "I presume you've got a story."
"I do have a story," Neal admitted. "But I'm not sure you're going to like it."
"Won't be the first time. I'll add it to the list."
Neal looked a bit alarmed. "So there isa list?"
"What?" Peter replied, confused at the response to his figurative statement. Then he shook his head. "Just tell me the story. How'd that come about? I don't think I had 'pilot' in my repertoire for you."
Neal looked a little hesitant, as thought the wheels were turning in his head on the pros and cons of telling the story. "I'd like to point out that these events happened before I knew you."
"All your typical caveats and disclosures are noted. Mine as well. Now spill."
Neal sighed, glancing towards the television briefly before he started to speak. "Fine. But then I'm going to bed. No more stories."
"That's the plan," Peter replied.
Neal rolled his eyes. But with that, he slowly started to explain a situation he'd gotten into years before. "It started with a poker game…" he said.
Peter listened, storing the additional information in his mental Caffrey files. He yawned slightly, relieved to be beyond "case" talk for the night.
During the next morning at the Burke's, events took place as they would any other morning that Neal woke up under their roof. It happened often enough that there was a certain course of routine that they were silently used to. This morning was no different despite the previous days' events. Waking, showering, dressing, coffee, eating. All while moving around each other in some sort of symbiotic understanding that worked for them. In any dialogue, Peter and El did most of the talking, moreso about their schedule for the day, such as to coordinate who would be home when, who would let out Satchmo, etcetera.
Despite that routine, and the usual morning interchange, Peter didn't feel back to usual. Peter wished for a sense of normalcy to wash over him at some point while he got ready that morning. With success on this case looming in the near distance, he wished he could focus on that. But in a process that would normally be nearing a call for celebration, it was tainted. It was skewed by everything else that was going on and could possibly still happen.
Part of his late night discussion with Neal had tugged them back into that sense of normal. But he also reminded himself that most of that exchange was a forced procrastination of the inevitable.
This morning, he could no longer procrastinate. It was time to be strategic.
It was going to be an interesting day. Peter tried to continue to heed El's advice, to take it moment by moment. He couldn't predict everything, so he had to manage it in piecemeal. But while doing that, he also had to be able to anticipate what would happen. To be proactive and not reactive. To protect Neal.
After leaving the Burke residence, the first stop that morning was to take Neal home. While Peter was anxious to get to the office, he couldn't expect Neal to be dressed in his old sweats nor the attire he'd been in the earlier day from the hospital. He knew getting Neal into his own wardrobe would help to get Neal's frame of mind back on track. To start to feel like he was 'officially' back.
When they arrived at June's, Neal was predictably showered with affection from the older woman, who expressed concern and worry over him, exuding a genuine motherly and nurturing presence over Neal that reminded Peter, despite skepticism in the early days, once again how fortunate it was that Neal lived there. He watched Neal downplay the attention and insist he was 'absolutely fine,' assuring June that there was nothing out of the ordinary. During this, his expression remained with an unwavering smile, even as she embraced him tightly, unaware of his injuries. He remained in his unscathed, nonchalant character act throughout it, though Peter could see the small beads of sweat starting to form at his brow.
Upstairs, behind closed doors, Peter told him pointe blank with a bit of reproach that he should be honest with June about his injuries. Neal quickly dismissed the idea. "She shouldn't have to worry," he responded. "Besides, I'll be feeling better before long anyway. She doesn't have to know."
While he wanted to push back, because after all he'd been shot, Peter accepted that, reminding himself it was Neal's decision who he shared his medical history with, although with reservation. He was also a little surprised Neal was passing up a chance to get special treatment. He focused instead on the fact they were there for one purpose that morning, and so he left Neal to his wardrobe as he resigned himself to the couch.
In short order, Neal completed his transformation, and returned to Peter donning a crisp white shirt and dress pants, in the process of sliding on his suit jacket. Peter watched what was clearly a painful process, wincing himself at Neal's change in expression as he, with what seemed to be quite some effort, got his arm through the sleeve on his injured side.
"You know, Mr. Fancy Pants, that you don't haveto wear a suit…" Peter told him, glancing down at his own suit. He looked back at Neal, wondering if he should have been clear about that upfront. "Is that comfortable?"
"Like a second skin," Neal responded, voice just a little bit stiff. Once again, his brow shined with a thin veil of sweat from the exertion.
Peter looked down at his shoes. "And your feet?"
"Peter, they're fine."
"They don't hurt?"
Neal sighed. "They do, Dr. Burke, but they—"
"So why don't you wear sneakers?"
Neal shot him a look of disdain. "Sneakers, Peter? Really? Because sneakers clearly go with a Brunello and—"
"And I just said you didn't have to wear a suit!" Peter exclaimed in slight exasperation.
"I'm already wearing the suit," Neal responded. Then stubbornly he added, "And after the effort it took to get it on, I'm going to keep wearing it. Maybe for a few days like you did with your suit in Vermont." He then made a face. "How did you do that, by the way?"
Peter ignored the comment. "So you're sure you want to wear a suit?"
Peter just eyed him warily. "Fine." Despite the frustrating discussion, dressed like this, Neal looked like himself on a typical day. And Peter was relieved at that. It was also at that moment he realized that neither of them had mentioned the case to each other that morning. Neal hadn't once asked what was going to happen that day. He didn't question going to the office. He didn't question anything. Despite all of his late night insecurities, he'd been relatively quiet once daylight hit. Peter weighed on this for a moment before he simply said, "OK. Let's go."
In the car, Neal became uncharacteristically quiet again. The ride from June's house to the office was one they had done countless times together. Despite this, Neal was gazing out the window as if taking in the route for the first time, absorbing in all the scenery. He figured Neal hadn't had much scenery recently. A basement, a hotel, a federal office, the Burke residence…
Peter didn't mind the quiet. He had enough discussion going on with himself inside his mind. He still had a lot he needed to decide, independent of Neal's input.
It wasn't until they were relatively close to the office that Neal finally started to speak.
"So, Peter…" Neal began, hand going to the car radio, switching the frequency from AM to FM and fiddling with the knobs.
Peter waited, eyeing the distracted hands on his radio briefly and resisting the urge to smack the hand away from the dials. He knew from experience that despite Neal's currently casual, unconcerned tone that this was nervous energy.
"If this whole thing does go south," Neal continued, tone a bit detached, "and they do think I'm responsible for certain events— and I know I am responsible, so before you say that, Peter, just let me—"
"We're not talking about this."
"It's tomorrow. You said we'd talk about it today. And I'm not being technical now. It's today."
"We'll talk about what you did. And what we are going to do about it. Not whatever it is you're about to speculate about. Like last night. Don't do that."
"Just hear me out, Peter."
"Where are you going with this, Neal?" Peter tried not to get frustrated. He was determined not to get this frustrated so early in the day, before even getting to the office… They'd been off to such a good start.
"I had a dream last night after we went upstairs, and it actually gave me an idea." He paused. "To be honest, I actually have a lot of my good ideas through dreams first, believe it or not."
"Is that so…" Peter replied, skeptical though also curious from the introduction whether Neal's dreams from the night before may have turned from bad to decent… Maybe he had helped. "And how many of those ideas are constructive to society?"
"Define constructive," Neal said. "And actually, define society. They're certainly mostly constructive, but I guess to whose society would be a relative question since my personalinterpretation would be—"
"Okay, enough conjecture. Stop. What was the dream?" As he asked, Peter wondered where he could possibly be going with this. Neal never shared dreams. He rarely admitted to dreams, particularly ones that bothered him.
"In my dream," Neal persisted with surprisingly little persuasion needed to talk, "I actually got arrested. For all of it. For everything I told you."
Peter frowned, keeping his eyes on the road. His stomach turned slightly. In the background, the music changed every few seconds, intermittent with commercials as Neal distractedly flipped through the radio stations. Where was this going to lead to…
"And they knew everything," Neal continued. "They had video, they had fingerprints, I left stuff at the scene… I mean, you name it. They had it."
Peter resisted sighing out loud or asking him to stop. The whole idea of what Neal had done still didn't sit well with him, and it was combined with his own nerves around the fact that what Neal was describing couldhappen. This was still a potential outcome of all this. This is what had kept Peter up last night. Especially after their discussion about sides and speculation…
"Neal, this doesn't sound so promising," Peter began, curbing his own troubled feelings to keep his tone benign. Again, determined not to get frustrated so early… "Why are you telling me this?"
"I know, the intro doesn't sound so promising, and that's true. I figured you'd say that, but listen," Neal continued. "So in the dream, after this happens, I actually come up with a brilliant explanation for all of it."
"An explanation…" Peter echoed skeptically, keeping his eyes on the road. "Brilliant no less."
"It's a perfectly reasonable explanation. In fact, I'm disappointed I didn't think of it earlier," Neal added.
"Why – so you could have used it on me?"
Neal scoffed slightly. "Peter…" he began, stressing the name. "Of course not."
Something about the glib tone of that response, even though it was very much Neal and he was relieved to start to hear Neal be Neal, perturbed him a bit. He gripped his hands on the steering wheel. "So what was the brilliant idea, Neal…?" he asked, with a bit of reluctance. Did he really want to know?
"It's actually pretty basic," Neal continued. "So after I get arrested in the dream, they obviously have some questions… And as I start to tell them what the plan was, they begin to understand."
"What do you mean what the plan was?"
"So while I was undercover, I obviously would have found out that Messier was involved with law enforcement. I also would have found out that he had a local presence and potentially a local support system," Neal replied. "I wouldn't know exactly who he was connected to, but that anyone could be a possibility. He—"
"You didn't know that. You didn't know he was involved in law enforcement."
"Can I talk?"
"Only if you stop with this," Peter replied, finally reaching over to push Neal's hands away from the incessantly turning radio dials. He rapped his fingers against the knuckles that hovered there. "Enough with that."
Neal's hands dropped to his lap. "So in my dream, because I knew of this potential risk of being compromised if I spoke to or confided in the wrong people," he continued, "then I had a very good reason when I got to the gas station to not want to just simply tell them I needed help or to just call 911. You said that a normal person under duress would just call 911, but I had good reason why I wouldn't. One that isn't insanity."
"I know that tone Peter. And you're not hearing me. It makes sense. If I truly thought that the only way to ensure getting the appropriate authorities involved and aware of what happened and also where I was, and if I had to do that while guaranteeing that Messier and Jason would not have an opportunity to manipulate the situation, then I acted in the only way possible."
"You could have just asked to make a phone call…"
"No. Not if I didn't know their potential connection to them."
"So this was your dream."
"Yes," Neal affirmed. "And it worked. In the dream, what seemed like truly the end turned into an acknowledgment that I had no choice. That I acted as anyone else would have in the same situation, and no charges were formally made."
"In your dream," Peter repeated.
"A fabricated story," Peter said. "So your brilliant dream is an account of perjury."
"I don't think I was under oath in the dream."
Peter sighed. "Neal…"
"It might not be fabricated either," Neal said. "Maybe that's what I wasthinking at the time. Who's to say I wasn't? I told you, my memory of the events is… not completely clear."
"Did you know Messier's connection with law enforcement before you found out at the office after we found you?"
"No," Neal admitted. "I don't think so."
"So you answered your own question then…"
"But it's all like a blur now…"
"Neal, we are two minutes from the office. Why you had to tell me this dream, I have no idea, but it's not really helping because –"
"Because," Neal interjected, a little insistently. "It is helping, Peter. I think this is a valid explanation. More than valid." He exhaled, a bit impatiently. "I don't know what's going to happen once we get into that building, Peter, but if I need to have a response for what I did…"
"Didn't we talk about this last night, Neal? And what side I'm on?"
"Yeah, Peter, but you've also said it might not be up to you. And if it's not—"
"Neal. Nothing happens in that building without me."
"No, Peter. That's not guaranteed. And this explanation makes sense. If I could even say that we prepared ahead of time for this scenario, that we agreed that if there was any chance of compromise, that I would make sure that I would call you and only you, and no one else, then—"
"Neal…" Peter found himself nearly at the parking garage. They were minutes from entering the office building.
"If I could say we prepared," Neal repeated. "That this was the plan we had… It holds together."
"You're asking me to lie for you?"
"Not lie. Peter. You had lots of contingency suggestions. Surely one of them would have been similar to this."
"Actually no. Not at all Neal. I can't recall any involving what you did…"
Neal sighed. "Only because you didn't think of that particular scenario. But it does make sense. Right?"
Peter didn't respond. Instead he focused on driving, and staying level-headed. He also wasn't exactly sure how to respond. He was weighing in his mind what was a more realistic explanation – Neal being out of his mind in the moment and reverting to extreme measures to escape- measures that weren't representative of his true intentions or his nature- versus this newly constructed alternative scenario that was a basis of a dream. This explanation that came down to a fabricated predetermined order to contact Peter and only Peter.
"You're not saying anything," Neal remarked.
"Because I'm thinking," Peter answered honestly. They reached the parking garage and he pulled into the entrance.
"Thinking what?" Neal persisted.
"That you should be quiet," Peter replied, "and stop planning for something that might not happen. Like I told you last night."
"But it could happen the moment I walk through the door, Peter."
"Trust me. I'd have gotten a phone call, Neal."
"Maybe you wouldn't have told me," Neal said, a little sullenly. "You knew I wouldn't come here with you if you told me something like that would happen."
Peter exhaled in exasperation, wishing he could pull over but unable to do that as he maneuvered down the single-lane curved entrance of the garage towards the actual underground parking. "You're lucky my hands have to be on the wheel right now, Neal…" he said instead, tone reproachful. "First you ask me to lie for you, now you're accusing me of setting you up."
"I didn't accuse you," Neal objected.
"You just did." Peter sighed. "Neal. Do you not trust me? Do you think that I wouldn't tell you something like that?"
"No. I do, Peter… I do. I trust you," Neal replied. "You would."
Slightly appeased at the response, Peter glanced over at Neal as the roadway straightened and caught him distractedly nodding. He then returned his focus to the garage to drive to the usual section he parked. He focused on finding an empty space.
Once he was able to pull into a spot and to shift the car's gear into park, Peter turned his full attention to Neal. "We talked through this last night," he stated firmly.
"I know." Neal continued to look straight ahead, though the view ahead was merely a gray concrete wall.
Peter paused. "Neal, you've often said there's a lot of stuff you've done that I don't know about."
"Peter. I'd give you more credit than that…"
"I'm sure. But you know you've said it. My only point is that all of that stuff is always at risk of being discovered, and you don't walk around speculating about it. You don't spend your time worrying about it. Not like this."
"Because enough time passes," Neal replied. "If you don't know about something after a week or so, I figure then you're probably not going to know. My theory holds so far."
Peter rolled his eyes. "That might not be the safest assumption…" he replied. "Or admission. Regardless, do me a favor for now. Let's just focus on closing this case, Neal. Okay?"
Neal didn't look convinced, but finally said, "Fine."
"You said you trust me."
"Good. So let's go. It's a day at the office. You're back. That's it. If anything else happens, we'll handle it together."
Neal looked slightly uncertain, but nodded.
"You and me," Peter stated.
"You and me," Neal repeated.
A short while later, Peter found himself in the doorway of his boss's office. He cast one more glance behind him, down across the bullpen, locating Neal at his desk. Despite Neal's slight uneasiness in the car, upon nearing the office entrance, he had quickly returned to his more confident self. Once he was in the elevator, and by the time they reached the floor, Peter was certain that no one who encountered him now would even imagine anything other than the usual self-assured, loquacious version of Caffrey that they were accustomed to.
Turning back to his boss's office, he took a deep breath before knocking his knuckles against the doorframe.
Hughes looked up from the paperwork he'd been focused on. "Peter," he said, giving a tight smile. He rose from his desk and walked around it to approach Peter and extend his hand. "Welcome back."
Peter stepped into the office, accepting the brief handshake, appreciating the gesture. "Thank you, Sir. It's good to be back."
"Great work these last few days," Hughes continued. "I was a little skeptical of what this whole exercise was going to bring us in the end, but you made the right call. Sending Caffrey undercover was the best move we could have made in this case. Speaking of Caffrey, where is he anyway? I heard he was injured. Shot in fact…"
"He's at his desk," Peter responded. "And yes, unfortunately he was… But it could have been much worse. He's actually doing quite well… Physically."
"Well, that's good… That's good to hear. I'll have to walk down and thank him myself," Hughes continued. "Diana has me fully caught up on the case, and I know we still have some work to do to close this out, but this was nothing short of a success. And that's due to both of you."
"Thank you, Sir." He paused, watching as his boss walked back around his desk to return to his seat. "Has there been any contact from the Vermont office today?"
"Not that I'm aware," Hughes looked up. "Diana said they were pretty supportive?"
"Yes," Peter replied. He had his own slight grievances against certain aspects of that 'support,' but at the end of the day, they had been critical in finding Neal and generally supporting the case. Even despite the nuances of the questioning they put Neal through, there was nothing worth a formal complaint. "They were helpful. They extended their resources to us."
"Good," Hughes replied. He picked up a pen from his desk, tapping it lightly against the surface of the furniture. "Let's lock down this case as soon as we can, Peter. The US Attorney's office wants to discuss this as soon as you're ready."
Peter nodded. "Good. I'm happy to move it alone as fast as we can. Trust me, I'm relieved to be at the paperwork stage of this, Sir," Peter replied.
"I'm sure. Speaking of paperwork…" Hughes began. "You're probably going to get a call today or tomorrow regarding Caffrey."
"Sir?" Peter frowned slightly.
"He was shot, Peter. And apparently fired a weapon himself, according to the report I read this morning," Hughes replied. "In addition to being held hostage… Like it or not, as you know the Bureau takes that pretty seriously, especially since he's not an agent." He paused. "After the initial paperwork, they'll likely ask him to speak to Nancy."
"Nancy," Peter repeated with slight skepticism.
"I know your thoughts on psychologists, Peter, but—"
"Mine?" Peter scoffed. "Don't worry about mine. What about Neal's?" He shook his head. "Really, Sir, unless you want to waste Nancy's time…"
"You know it's standard procedure after something like this," Hughes responded dryly. "You'll have more of an issue if you try to get him an exception."
Peter simply exhaled.
"And make sure he realizes that as well… There's also the medical report," Hughes continued. "Like I said, lots of paperwork. Anyway, you'll likely get a phone call today." He cleared his throat. "It's good to have you and Caffrey back."
Neal sat stiffly at his desk, intently studying his computer screen. After the initial attention he received in returning to the office, which he skillfully deflected for the most part, he was now left to his own devices, and it felt strangely foreign but comforting at the same time to be back at his spot in the bullpen. The last few days were a stark contrast to the familiar office setting, and now that he was back in a suit and surrounded by structure, that experience seemed to be distancing itself more and more, except for that distinct part of it that had happened before calling Peter… That part, moreso the implications than the details, was still burning brightly within his memory.
His cell phone buzzed impatiently on the desk, a couple inches away from where his hand manned the computer mouse. A glance down at the device displayed Mozzie's name and several missed messages.
Since finally charging the phone and powering it back up, he had expected to find an accumulation of missed calls and messages. He had found exactly that, and only scanned peripherally through the series of messages from Mozzie, some less cryptic than others, before texting his friend back.
Without knowing quite what to say, Neal's initial text, after writing and re-writing a few times, simply read, 'The Eagle has landed.'
Mozzie's response was immediate. '10-20?'
Neal stared at the text and then glanced back at his computer screen. He wondered if Mozzie would be disappointed in the response that he was back in his humdrum surroundings of a federal office building. After all that….
The phone buzzed again. 'What's your 20?'
"I knew what you meant the first time," Neal muttered to himself. He longed to see his friend, his closest confidante, but also wondered how the man would react at Neal's description of the last few days. He imagined he was going to get a guilt trip that was a 180 spin from the guilt trip driven by Peter's reaction. Mozzie would likely be equally disappointed in Neal, but from a completely different perspective. Neal had literally had freedom at his fingertips, and hadn't taken it.
Neal picked up the phone and wrote back. "Suits now. Meet me tonight." He then dropped the phone and returned his attention to the computer.
His search engine was filled with the results of his multiple search iterations of phrases to return information about recent car-jackings in Vermont. First he had stared at a calendar, figuring out what the day of the week and date of the month was, grounding himself in the present to figure out where he had been and when.
He was eager to find the account from the newscast that he had almost been able to see at the hotel that morning. Surely that would describe the most recent events and potentially what they had in terms of suspects or information for the public to look out for…
He clicked through the links, scanning the information, most of the initial articles coming up from time periods outside of his scope.
He tried his search again, changing the words of the search again.
He tried again and again.
With interchangeable typing and clicking the mouse, he found himself scanning rapidly through articles that didn't seem to indicate anything from the past few days.
He felt like he'd been through dozens and dozens of articles already. But he also knew he had to exhaust the search before he could even start to feel comfortable at what might be out there.
He sighed in frustration, clicking 'back' on the browser window yet again.
"Looks like you're back to work full-force already."
Neal quickly minimized the browser on his screen and slid his hands back from the keyboard and mouse. He looked up at Peter's voice and smiled. "Of course," he said.
Peter raised his eyebrows. "Whatcha looking at?"
Neal shrugged slightly, shoulder resisting the movement with a sharp stab of pain. He swallowed back the lie that was quick to form on his tongue, and instead said, "Just catching up." That was benign and vague enough.
"You want to catch-up in my office?"
Neal tilted his head to the side slightly. "I feel like you're not actually asking."
"I see your perception skills are back," Peter replied with a smirk. He made a small gesture with his hand. "Come on."
Neal reluctantly pushed his chair back and started to get to his feet. He watched Peter turn and start to walk away. He then glanced down at his desk. His eyes scanned the screen of his computer, itching to continue to search the web for any of his leaked secrets.
His eyes then settled on the small white Socrates bust. He pursed his lips, reaching to settle his hand over it, material smooth and cool under his touch.
He needed any luck he could get at this point. Peter had been surprisingly reasonable in recent hours, but he knew that meant nothing.
He looked up, letting his hand slip away from his desk as he took a step away, following the voice to where Peter stood several feet away, now turned to face him once again.
He had just about caught up with him as Jones happened to be approaching from the other side of the floor, a thick folder in his hand.
"Hey, Boss," Jones greeted, causing the man to turn his attention from Neal to the other agent. "Welcome back."
"Hey, Jones." Peter smiled. "Thanks for holding down the fort here this last week."
"Of course," Jones replied with a small flash of a smile. He nodded towards Neal. "Hey, Caffrey. Nice job this week. You doing good?"
Neal nodded back and gave a tight smile. "Yes. Glad to be back. I'm good."
"You saw quite a bit of action," Jones persisted. "Not your typical White Collar case."
"El says cases like this make her reconsider White Collar," Peter said with a chuckle.
"Tell me about it." Jones turned his attention back to the senior agent. "Here's the research you requested," he said, offering the folder.
Peter accepted the folder. "Good. Thanks for doing this so quickly."
"What's this for anyway?" Jones asked with a frown. "Find a new case while you were up there?"
"No…" Peter replied slowly. "Just doing a little fact-checking for a good friend of mine."
"Okay. Well let me know if you need anything else," Jones answered. "And again, welcome back."
"Will do. Thanks, Jones." Peter watched the other agent head towards the other side of the floor and then turned his head back to Neal. "Alright, let's go."
Neal glanced across the room at the other agents buzzing around the floor, as he followed Peter towards his office. All of these agents were oblivious to what he had done. To what might happen. To them, this was a normal day.
Once inside Peter's office, the routine was the same as any other day prior to this whole experience. It was like it took place from a required protocol.
"Sit," came the instruction once they were within the doorway. Peter held back within the entrance as Neal passed by him, their shoulders just barely brushing each other.
Then once he closed the door, Peter made his way around his desk, taking his seat.
Neal first stood behind his intended chair, simply observing the office that he hadn't been in for a few days. Before the imminent second request to "sit" came, he moved to lower himself into the chair, body aching as he did so.
He looked across the desk. Perhaps this was it. Peter had been reluctant to talk at his house about what specifically happened next. He'd postponed it until today. And while walking through the office doors hadn't been proceeded by handcuffs and the reading of Miranda rights as Neal's dreams had suggested, he knew it was early enough in the day that anything could happen.
Before he could speculate further, Peter dropped the folder in his hand across the desk, in front of Neal.
Neal stared down at the folder, frowning slightly. Then he looked back up at Peter. "What is it?"
"Take a look, Neal." Peter jutted his chin towards the folder. "Go ahead. Bet this is what you were actually trying to look up a few minutes ago."
Neal felt a little wary, unknowing what the folder in front of him contained. Last time he'd flipped through some folders, it hadn't all been what he'd expected. Like finding a picture of Adam, deceased. But he also knew that's not something Peter would put in front of him again.
"Go ahead," Peter repeated.
Neal sighed and reached to flip open the folder. When he did, on top of the stack of papers he found in front of him the print-off of a news article. Behind that, as he flipped through, a police report. Then more of the same behind. A consistent theme was evident.
"What is this?" Neal asked. He continued to flip through. The subject of the articles and police reports were familiar. Car theft, jackings, and vandalism in Vermont.
"You can see what it is," Peter replied.
"When did you ask for this?" Neal asked, a little surprised.
"I called Jones yesterday."
"Did you look at it yet?" Neal asked. This was much more detailed than what he had been able to find in his own search engine exercise, though that had been only a half-hour attempt. He noted the dates of the reports. They were all within the last few weeks.
"No," Peter answered slowly. "Neal, you saw him just hand it to me now. This is hot off the press. So I didn't look at it, but judging by Jones lack of reaction…" He shrugged. "We'll have to go through it. Or rather, maybe you have to go through it."
Neal swallowed, feeling somewhat grateful. He tucked the papers back into the folder and closed it. "I will," he said. "But what if it's just that nothing was reported yet?"
"Unlikely," Peter replied. "But possible." He paused. "We can run the same search for a little while just in case."
Neal nodded. He looked down at the folder and slowly ran his finger across the edge of it. "You said this was for your friend," he said factually.
"You're right," Peter replied deliberately. "I did."
Neal paused. He then hesitated but then asked, "So you called me your friend?" He looked up.
"I called you my good friend."
Neal felt small blush rising and tried to downplay it. He stared back down at the folder. "I haven't felt that way," he replied honestly.
"Neal…" Peter replied with a small sigh. "Do you not get it by now?" He shook his head. "You messed up. There are repercussions to messing up. We'll deal with that. And hopefully I'm the only one that has to deal with that. In which case, that doesn't change anything between us. Not at the core. You can trust me. I told you it wouldn't change our arrangement. And that includes being friends."
Neal nodded at the folder. He felt a weird sensation in his belly. He wasn't sure how to interpret it. "Alright."
"This takes me back to the talk we had right before this whole case even escalated, Neal. We were talking about you and being part of the team. A team works together. Or it doesn't work at all. Remember?"
"I remember," Neal told the folder. "You say it all the time."
"You give me a reason to say it all the time."
"You do… Anyway. On this case, despite what you did, eventually you called me," Peter replied. "And you did it before your situation turned into what could have been the end for us. The real end. And it matters that you called me."
"I should have called you immediately." Neal noticed a slight smudge on the corner of the folder. It was maybe coffee. He wondered if Jones had done that, or whether this was a folder that had been repurposed. What other secrets might have lived inside it in a previous life? "I know that."
"You should have," Peter agreed. "But you didn't."
"I didn't," Neal acknowledged.
"But you did call me in time," Peter replied. "And you always should call me, Neal."
Neal nodded. "I know." Part of him was comforted by Peter's statement that things wouldn't change. And the words so far weren't from anger. But he knew this wasn't close to being the end of the conversation. Peter was repeating things he should already know. That he did know. The repeat of those things sometimes were the precursor of the worst discussions. And repercussions.
Peter leaned forward, resting his arms against his desk. "I think that even putting aside your physical injuries for a moment, Neal, that you've felt like crap the last couple of days. Am I right?"
Neal made a face. "Well… I guess."
"And if I continue to be right, I think you've felt that way because you feel what you did was wrong. And you feel that inside you. The guilt. The conscience. All those things I know you hate to talk about or to admit you have a semblance of. But it's all those feelings I know you have. Because you're good, Neal."
Neal didn't respond. He didn't like this conversation. He favored the possibility of disappearing through the door behind him. But he sat there, motionless to the best of his ability, and tried to still the leg he felt starting to bounce. At least there was no yelling. At least yet.
"You told me you wouldn't run," Peter continued. "When we started this case, before I even fully agreed you'd actually go with Jason. You told me you wouldn't run, and I believed you."
Neal nodded courteously. He didn't have any contribution to make to this conversation. He hadn't run. Not in the end.
"And honestly, I don't know what I would've done if I were you, in that situation," Peter said. "Neal, whether or not you've fully appreciated it, or maybe you'd rather just downplay it, you were chained in a basement for three days. Enslaved basically. I'm not immune to that fact. Trust me, I'm not. And that's where I feel guilty."
"Don't, Peter," Neal responded. He shook his own head. "I wanted this undercover scenario. I knew it would work. But I also knew the risks. I knew Jason."
"You did and yet you didn't," Peter replied. "Neal, if we knew this was a scenario, we'd have had another way of tracking you. We had no idea this would happen. Neither did you."
A moment of silence passed.
"When you finally got free," Peter started, "then yes, I wish you'd just called me, Neal. And, yeah, I'm angry and annoyed that you didn't as a first decision. I'm not as angry as when you first told me, but it isn't just an easy thing to move past, Neal. Your first instinctual thought was escape. And honestly, dammit, I don't know if that's a normal instinct that someone would have, all things considered, or it's you being you. Because I'd think normal would be to call me."
"But I did call you."
"You did," Peter replied. "Eventually you did." He pressed his lips together briefly. "But not right away, Neal. And I don't cover things up, Neal. I don't bury evidence."
"There is no evidence." Neal tapped his finger on the folder.
"Officially. Until we find out otherwise," Peter answered. "But you know I don't operate that way. Not when I know that crime has been committed. I take the crime officially. Except this time."
Neal paused, as though interpreting the response. Then he said, "For me."
"Yes. For you," Peter repeated. "You need to understand the profoundness of that Neal, and not take it lightly. I'm taking yet another chance on you."
Neal nodded. "I know." He tried to ensure that the earnestness he felt was in the tone of his words. "I'm sorry."
"And don't give me a reason that will make me reconsider. Because you won't like it."
"I currently believe you're worth the investment," Peter replied. "Even if I'm doing something against what I would normally do. What I would theoretically do. You make it a bit less black and white."
"What if someone finds out?" Neal asked.
Peter frowned. "Meaning what?"
"What if this," Neal tapped at the folder again, "gets another report added. And it's me."
"Well, there's nothing we can do about that…" Peter responded. "And we'll tackle that if it happens. But for today, that's not the case."
"That we know."
"And we can only live by what we know, Neal."
"Mozzie says we should live for everything we don't yet know, Peter," Neal replied.
"Mozzie, your guru… I swear, whenever you begin with 'Mozzie says,' Neal…" Peter replied, shaking his head. "But putting his foolhardiness aside for a moment, something tells me his principle applies to something a bit more opportunistic and advantageous. Not a speculative guilt-ridden hypothesis of defensives."
"If something changes, we'll deal with it, Neal. And I emphasize the we. I mean it. When I get mad, that doesn't change that. I'm on your side here."
"Okay." Neal swallowed. "Thanks, Peter."
"But like I said, don't make me change my mind," Peter persisted. "Getting mad is one thing, but you're skating on the edge here, Neal. I can't have any more of these situations."
Neal nodded. "I know." He pushed at the folder on the desk. "So that's it, then?"
"That's it?" Peter repeated. "You mean you think you're getting off that easy?"
Neal looked up, frowning.
"Don't give me that look," Peter objected. "Neal, you're the one that broke the law. And I know the circumstances, and I acknowledge that, and that's what we just discussed. But you've got to think about the bigger picture. What could have happened."
"I have thought bigger picture," Neal insisted. "I do think about it, Peter. I know."
Peter studied him, working his jaw. He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then he said, "You say you know. Well, it's not enough…" He paused, summarizing all of his culminating thoughts from the last day. This was where head to make a decision. "Here come the repercussions. Your radius? It's now cut in half."
Neal started to make a face. "But why do—"
"No. Don't start. Don't even." Peter shook his head. "No whining. You want me to pick something else?" He raised his eyebrows. "I actually happen to think I'm going easy on you. I know a bunch of things you like far less, Neal, and I've got no problem choosing one or multiple of them."
"Want me to pick something else? Neal, I guarantee you'll be sorry. I can do that right now."
"Fine," Neal quickly interjected. "Half the radius. How long?"
Peter paused and then slowly responded, "A month."
"A month?" Neal echoed, voice rising in pitch slightly. "But, Peter—"
"You want two months?"
Neal shut his mouth.
Peter continued, "And I'll add another month if you step out of line at all this month, Neal." He studied the sullen face across the desk from him. "Hey, you give me that look, but you realize I could make it a zero radius? You're getting a deal."
"That's a real silver lining here, Peter," Neal responded sarcastically.
"I mean it, Neal. Despite what you might think, I think I'm being quite fair. Besides, you're injured. You really shouldn't be doing much anyway. You were shot, you know."
"Trust me, I know. You're not officially going to change it though, are you?" Neal asked.
"The radius? You mean with the Marshals?" Peter asked. He slowly replied, "No..." He then looked at him skeptically. "Why are you asking me that…? Do I need to?"
"No," Neal replied quickly.
"I'm going to watch where you go," Peter told him, giving him a scrutinizing look. "You're so much as a foot further than you're supposed to be, then I will know. Don't push it, Neal."
"I would never push it," Neal replied, shaking his head with forced sincerity. "I shall remain within my half-radius for your viewing pleasure."
Peter just gave him a look. "You want me to make it house arrest? I can do that, Neal. Maybe it'd remind you that you could very easily be back in a cell for what you did. Maybe that's more fitting. Easier for me as well."
"No," Neal replied insistently. "Half is good. I wasn't being sarcastic. It's enough, Peter. And I'll do it. You don't even have to check."
"Oh, I'll check," Peter answered dryly. "You know I will. Okay, and next…" he started.
"Next?" Neal asked. "What do you mean, next? Isn't that enough?"
"You'd think so," Peter said with a hint of sarcasm. "But it's not. You're going to have to talk to someone," Peter began. He shrugged and leaned back into his chair. "You know Nancy. She—"
"The shrink?" Neal interjected. "You're kidding, Peter." He shook his head. "Don't do that. Please."
Peter let out a small chuckle. "That's not me, buddy. That's actually not a punishment. That's policy."
"Policy?" Neal repeated. "Well can't you do something about it? It's going to be a waste of her and my time."
"That's what I told my boss too," Peter acknowledged wryly.
Neal's brow furrowed. "When do I have to do it?"
"Don't know. Waiting for the phone call."
Neal just shook his head. "Don't answer that call please."
"You just have to just get it over with," Peter replied. "And please don't make a game out of it."
Neal simply continued to shake his head.
"Similarly, you've once again earned us an unimaginable amount of paperwork," Peter commented. "So I'm pretty sure that paperwork is what you're going to be busy with for the next few days."
Neal pressed his lips together but nodded. "You feds love your paperwork," he mused.
Peter gave him a small smile. "We do. Process, policy, order… It's the small things."
"I can name some small things…" Neal mumbled. He caught Peter's admonishing look and gave him a smile. "I'll stop." He paused. "I'm glad to be back, Peter." He paused, as though hesitating, and then said, "Today is better than I expected."
"Well, I'm glad we're back too," Peter agreed, nodding slowly. He considered whether his repercussions were enough. The half-radius versus what else he could have done. Neal didn't seem entirely upset by it. But for now he felt at least something was in place. "This was an unusual case, Neal. And you got much closer to it than I ever expected."
"Considering you almost took me off it."
Peter rolled his eyes slightly. "Exactly."
"You always say things happen for a reason," Neal replied.
"We needed you for this case, Neal," Peter replied. "I don't agree with how you almost ended it, but we're going to work through that. In the end, you solved it."
"We solved it," Neal replied. "I don't know what I would've done if you weren't in Vermont, Peter. I never really thanked you for coming there."
"Of course, Neal," Peter replied, a little dismissively. "There was no other place to be."
"Sure there was. You could've been home with El. You could've been here. I mean, you didn't know what was going to happen."
"Exactly. I didn't know. That's why I went. To be there whenever it did happen. El didn't need me. You did."
Neal gave a small smile. "Thanks."
"If you want to thank someone, thank Diana. I think she kept me sane the last few days," Peter said slowly. "And, Neal, if you want to talk at all about what happened…"
Neal shook his head. "I'm good."
"I mean it. That was an unusual experience, Neal, and –"
"Isn't that what Nancy's for?"
"I'm serious," Peter replied, giving him a look. "If you want to stay with us or you need some time, you just have to tell me."
"No," Neal said. "I'm fine. Really."
"Well, you heard El this morning. She owes you dinner this week. She feels bad her last two meals for you weren't a culinary experience. So pick the day."
Neal rolled his eyes.
"I was going to tell her you don't deserve it," Peter persisted, "but then I realized I'm a mutual beneficiary in the whole thing, so…"
"Clearly." Neal laughed a little. He realized it was the first time he'd laughed in a while. And then he realized he actually felt a little better. "So is that it?"
Peter frowned slightly. "Meaning what?"
Neal swallowed. "Well, to be honest I didn't expect you to be so… calm today. You're only cutting my radius?"
"The day is young," Peter replied. He then shook his head. "Neal, I thought a lot about it. And, yes, I was not calm before. And I was angry. And I meant everything I said to you. And I'm still somewhat angry. But in the long run, deciding on what to do with you out of anger isn't constructive."
"Can I quote you on that in future scenarios?"
"Let's limit the future scenarios," Peter replied with a tone of reproach.
Neal simply nodded at that. Despite the pain in his shoulder and his ribs and his feet, he felt comfortable. He felt safer than he had for a while. The folder in front of him still elicited a small sense of fear, but he knew once he got back to his desk he could figure out what was truly there. Peter was Peter again. Despite what Neal had done, and despite the previous day's anger, Neal now felt it was addressed. Peter could have done many things. And Neal had expected him to. This was… fair.
He suddenly felt closer to Peter. And thankful.
Before he could reflect on that, there was a knock at the door behind them. Then the door creaked open just a small amount.
"Boss?" came Diana's voice. "You have a minute?"
"Yeah, Diana, come on in," Peter replied, breaking his eye contact with Neal to look up towards the door.
Diana pushed the door open another few inches and slipped into the office, hugging a case file to her chest. She cast a quick look at Neal, who had turned his head to view her, and then looked back at Peter. "So I know it's premature since the ink hasn't even dried on this case yet…" she began.
"New case?" Peter asked, raising his eyebrows.
She gave a tight smile. "Yes. Thought you'd want to hear this… This one's a bit unique. The press is calling it the 'Arson Artist'…"
"Arson?" Neal echoed.
"What's the case?" Peter asked, frowning.
"There's been a few fires," Diana continued, "that seem to strategically target art galleries. There's been three so far, and there are some unique, correlated circumstantial clues. They're worried another one will happen today or tomorrow given the timing between the others." She then trailed off and seemed to hesitate.
"And?" Peter urged.
"And we're planning to keep watch over the most likely gallery this evening," she replied. "Like I said, I know you just got back, but Hughes wanted me to come by after I filled him in."
Peter turned his attention to Neal. "Sounds like someone's going to be spending some quality time in the van tonight."
Neal made a face, frowning at the implied message. "Peter…"
"You want a month to be two, Neal?" Peter began, alluding to the radius restriction.
Neal shifted in his chair. "Will you be there too?"
Peter glanced up at Diana and then simply nodded. "Yeah, I will be. It'll be good to get our mind onto a different case. We have enough to do during the day to close this one out this week."
"Thanks, Boss." Diana gave a small smile in the doorway. "Let me coordinate the rest of the details, and then I'll bring you guys up to speed this afternoon."
Peter nodded. "Good. Thanks, Diana."
As Diana exited, Neal gave Peter a critical look. "Am I allowed to be on a new case before I talk to Nancy?"
Peter rolled his eyes. "Look at you… Looking for an 'out' already."
"I'm just saying… The van is what started this whole thing, Peter…"
"Arson. Art. I'm surprised you're not more up in arms, Neal."
"I am. Don't doubt that. That's a travesty. But so is being in the van, Peter." He shifted again in his chair. "Do I have to?"
Peter frowned slightly. "What's the matter? This is more than the van, Neal. What is it?"
Neal rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "I was supposed to see Moz tonight…" he said slowly.
"Oh," Peter replied. He looked a little taken aback and then just shook his head. "Of course. I know he's been worried. You should see him."
"I can join you after and—"
"Play it by ear."
Neal felt a little surprised at the lenient response. "Okay. Thanks."
Peter studied him for a moment, and then said. "One last thing, Neal."
Neal blinked and then remained silent. Maybe this was it. This whole discussion had been less confrontational and painful than he had expected. Surely there was a catch.
Peter reached for his desk drawer, sliding it open.
He reached into the drawer and then emerging in his hand was a familiar device.
Neal eyed it morosely.
"I know," Peter said, noting Neal's expression. He pushed back his chair and stood, walking around the desk. He pulled back the second chair behind his desk and took that seat next to Neal. "You ready?"
Neal sighed, but without objecting shifted his chair to turn himself at an angle towards Peter. Wincing slightly, he moved to raise his leg, propping his foot up against the corner of Peter's chair. "Go ahead," he said.
Peter reached over, gently pushing up the edge of Neal's pants. "This is a sign of you being officially back."
"We should consider other signs," Neal replied glumly. He watched with a frown as Peter gently reattached the inevitable anklet, locking it back into place. As it connected, he simply sighed.
"And it's official…" Peter tugged the pants back down to cover the ankle. "You're back." He patted the leg.
"Champagne would be nice," Neal said.
"And not that sparking wine imitation crap. I mean some real champagne."
Peter nudged the foot to drop to the floor and Neal complied. "I think the lenient sentence of a temporarily reduced radius, some paperwork, and a session with Nancy is plenty a welcome back," he told him.
"I suppose you're right," Neal replied, grunting slightly as he shifted his weight again in his seat.
"You know I'm right."
"Though last night you said you're not always right."
Peter smirked and then reached over to squeeze Neal's knee. "I did. But I'm right enough," he said. "Don't forget that."
"I don't," Neal agreed. He paused. "One other thing. From your opinion, do you think I'll have to testify?"
"I'll make sure the recorded testimony is enough, Neal."
A moment of silence passed between then.
Neal rotated his foot, acclimating himself to the familiar anklet again. "After all this… I still say it's the pen," he then said slowly. "I blame the pen."
Peter chuckled a bit, recalling the discussion from the hotel room that evening two days ago. Before he had any idea why Neal was acting so vulnerable. "The pen. Indeed." He cleared his throat. "But if you could do me a favor, Neal… If you could allow a little bit of status quo to take precedent before another adrenaline rush for a little while. I'd appreciate it."
"I'll do my best."
"That's all I ever ask."
Neal paused. Then he said, "And if I have a need to extend my radius temporarily…"
"Already?" Peter raised his eyebrows.
"I told you we'd get your bike. Don't even think about trying to yourself."
"Neal, you really need it while you have a one mile radius?"
"I'm going to have to agree to disagree there, Neal."
Neal just sighed.
"We'll get it," Peter committed. "Between the paperwork, Nancy, and this new case… If you think you have too much free time, Neal, then I can think of a few other—"
"No, I'm good," Neal interjected. "That's fine. I can wait."
"Good. Then we'll get it for you," Peter committed.
Neal just nodded, silent. Then he said, "Thanks." He looked down at the folder in front of him, materials he was anxious to go through. "Another quote from Miller…" he started. "Was that 'Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.'"
Peter simply raised his eyebrows.
"But I don't want any more regrets," Neal stated.
Peter nodded slowly. "Sounds like wise goal, Neal."
"I figure I have enough for the foreseeable future."
"We'll work through it, Neal."
It was then Peter's phone began to ring.
Peter reached over and gave Neal's knee another squeeze as he got up to return to behind his desk. "Go through that folder," he told him, gesturing at the paperwork in front of Neal. He moved towards the phone.
Neal flexed his ankle, but then reached to grab the folder, getting to his feet himself. It was as he stepped towards the door that he heard Peter's address on the phone.
"Oh, hi, Nancy," Peter said. "It's been a while. How are you?"
Neal turned, delivering a serious look to Peter.
Peter waved a hand at him, indicating he should go. "Yes," he said into the phone. "It was an unusual case." He stared at Neal, who remained frozen in his office. "Can you give me just a minute, Nancy? Thanks. Just a minute."
"Tell her it's not necessary," Neal said as he watched Peter move the receiver of the phone to hold it to his chest.
"It's necessary," Peter told Neal. "It's part of the paperwork. And if you don't go back to your desk right now and start to go through that folder I gave you, then I'm going to tell her you need weekly sessions."
Neal narrowed his eyes but then moved to open the office door. "I'm going to tell her she should talk to you. You're irrational."
"You do that," Peter said with a nod. He pointed beyond the door. "Go. Now."
Neal rolled his eyes, but acquiesced.
"Hi, Nancy, sorry about that…" Peter continued on the phone.
Neal stepped outside and closed Peter's door behind him once he exited. He leaned against it for a moment, and then looked down across the bullpen.
For the first time, he finally felt officially back.
So this is the end. I struggle with endings. I really do, and that's probably why this story was close to 460 pages or something like that. Am I happy with the ending? No, not really, but I had to pick one. I never actually intended this story to be as long as it grew. I had a concept I thought I could wrap up in less than 20 chapters and Neal and Peter's inspiration put me well double that. I know I am verbose, as I like to go into the characters' minds and that can go on and on, so I am VERY thankful for folks that stuck with me until the end despite those "boring" parts. I appreciate it immensely, even to those folks out there that never left a comment. I did have an idea for a story based on the "Art Arsonist" that I was toying with next, as well as another White Collar fic. I may dabble. But thanks again to everyone for the support of my pastime. :) Another caveat is that i'm sure there are typos in the HUGE final chapter. I will try to address them...