One of the Best
Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to Jeff Eastin and USA Network.
A/N: Wow. I finished it! I'm proud of myself for a first attempt. I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did. Thank you so much for the reviews, and let me know what you think of this ending.
Three months later…
Peter pushed the elevator button for the 21st floor.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Peter couldn't see Neal's face, but he was certain he knew the answer.
"Yes, Peter. I'm sure."
The elevator dinged and the doors opened; Peter rolled the wheelchair forward. Jones was standing by the glass doors waiting to open them for Peter as he turned around and rolled Neal's wheelchair backward so the big tires would be easier to get over the door jam. Peter stopped just inside the bullpen, locked both wheels and then grabbed Neal's hands to help him up. Neal assumed Peter was just going to help him to his desk.
Neal wavered slightly as he stood trying to maintain his balance. He felt Peter's hand supporting him on his back, but at least he was standing! He had been practicing for several days now and Kenzi, his physical therapist, thought he was making great progress. Kenzi had suggested to Peter that it might be a good idea for Neal to get out and enjoy a park or museum; something that could be done in a wheelchair, but also allowed him to stand for short periods of time.
Today, Peter had asked him to come to the office to consult on a case, and Hughes had been very generous in overlooking the conman's absence from the office. Peter felt that Neal was finally ready to come back at least for a few hours when needed. Neal was just excited that Peter was finally letting him get out of the house, and took Peter up on his offer to come with him to the FBI headquarters. Neal told Peter that fresh eyes reviewing case files couldn't hurt.
Neal was about to take a step toward his desk when he heard applause beginning behind him and growing in volume. Peter helped him turn around so he didn't lose his balance. Neal saw a large group of agents standing in the bullpen, and up on the level of Peter's office all clapping for him. He also noticed there was a big "Welcome Back Neal!" sign hanging from the ceiling.
Neal was stunned. He was certain Peter had planned this…yet another thing he didn't tell him and the list kept growing. Neal struggled to maintain the cover he had created over the last several months. He was sure Peter had no idea that he had remembered anything and he was bound and determined to keep it that way until he could decide what to do, but this…this was threatening to bring tears to his eyes.
Neal didn't remember any of the agents except for Peter, Jones and Diana, but he recognized several faces from pictures he had been studying and they were all smiling at him. Peter had given him the pictures and descriptions of quite a few of the agents that they worked with so that Neal would feel more comfortable once he was able to come back to work full time. He saw Peter turn to face him and hoped he looked appropriately surprised instead of angry that Peter had kept yet another thing from him, even if it was a surprise party for him.
"See, they all missed you and they're glad you're back."
Jones came over and shook his hand, holding a paper plate with a fork embedded in a large piece of white cake with confetti sprinkled frosting in his other hand.
"Good to have you back Neal. You look so much better! Elle made cakes for us to celebrate your return! They're in the conference room. You should come back more often."
Diana did not look amused at Jones' comment and smacked him on the shoulder almost making him drop his cake.
"He didn't mean it. It's just really good to have you back, Neal. We've all missed you, but don't go getting yourself hurt like that again. Ok?"
Neal was actually enjoying the camaraderie that was evident among his co-workers and he was trying to relax somewhat. The other agents formed a line to shake Neal's hand and welcome him back. Neal was trying to put names with faces as they shook his hand. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel, he was so overwhelmed with mixed emotions that were threatening to blow his cover that all he could say was 'Thank you' to each one. Some of the agents even shook Peter's hand, since he had been standing next to Neal just in case he needed any extra support. They congratulated him on getting his partner back before they hurried upstairs to the conference room to inhale more of Elle's delicious cake.
Hughes was the last to shake Neal's hand. He had a hat in one hand, and reached out to shake Neal's hand with the other.
"It's good to have you back boy! You've been missed more than you realize."
"Thank you, sir. Good to be back."
Hughes looked Neal up and down.
"Is that a DeVore? That's a nice looking suit, but I think something's missing."
Neal looked at Hughes with a confused expression. The only thing he could think of was his tracking anklet. Peter had put the anklet on the same day he was released from the hospital, so it couldn't be that. Peter had told him he had to wear the anklet so the FBI and the U.S. Marshalls could track him for his protection. There were a lot of criminals they had put away that might want revenge. Since Neal wouldn't remember them, Peter had said he was in danger because they might see him as an easy target while he was recovering. Neal had believed him for a little while.
Hughes had a very patient expression on his face as he realized Neal really was trying to figure out what the problem was.
"I have no idea what's missing, sir. This is what Peter gave me to wear. He said it was what I normally wear to work, but this is all his gave me."
Neal had an angry expression on his face as he looked around for Peter, who had slipped away unnoticed. He was mad at Peter to begin with because he knew Peter was now lying to him on a daily basis about who he was. Now it appeared that Peter had planned a surprise party for him and then set him up to be humiliated by Hughes. Neal felt so confused. Unfortunately, his memory was still spotty; there were many things he still couldn't remember and it appeared the dress code was one of them. Peter had told Neal on the way to the office that it was of the utmost importance to impress Hughes. Now Neal felt Peter had set him up to fail…Peter was going to regret this…he had pushed too far this time and Neal was far from a forgiving mood.
Neal's gaze returned to Hughes and noticed that he had an even bigger grin on his face as Peter walked up behind Hughes.
"Did I miss something?"
"I was just telling Neal that something seems to be missing from his appearance."
"Did you now? I wonder what that might be?"
Neal noticed that Peter had a fairly big grin on his face as well and had a funny feeling that something was going on here and he was totally missing it. Neal felt even more justified in his anger against Peter, but carefully slipped a hurt expression over the anger underneath. He needed to keep up the façade for just a little while longer.
"Why are you doing this to me? I have no idea what he's talking about."
Neal looked over at Peter with pleading eyes. Peter was contemplating tell him, but knew what Hughes was up to and wanted to hear Neal's response. Neal felt he was at a serious disadvantage; the most important thing in a con was to know your mark, and he could only hope that he was reading Peter right; there were still so many things he didn't remember. His anger was squeezing the life out of him, and he was feeling a desperate need for air. He needed to know why Peter was lying to him; why he was trying to humiliate him…he remembered Peter's gun.
Maybe just maybe he could get his hands on it; he could demand the answers he was looking for. He wasn't sure he could do it; it had been so long…hopefully he wasn't too rusty.
He noticed both Peter and Hughes staring at him, he must have gotten pale, but he had to do this, he had to have answers.
"I don't feel so good."
Neal started falling, but Peter caught him before he could hit the floor and helped him back into a standing position.
"Neal, are you ok?"
Peter really looked concerned.
"Can we just go home already? I'm tired, I'm apparently violating the dress code, and I…I don't think I'm ready for this."
Hughes started laughing and handed Neal's trademark fedora over to the confused conman.
"We simply can't have you working here without this."
Neal took the hat as Hughes walked away and twirled it in hands; it felt strangely familiar. He twirled it, flipped it up his arm and it landed perfectly on his head. It just felt right.
Peter smile disappeared. He had been watching Neal and saw him do his hat trick without thinking. He wondered briefly if there was more Neal had remembered, but wasn't telling him.
In the last three months, Neal had been a model patient; he had gotten Shari and Holly, his nurses, and Kenzi, the physical therapist, wrapped around his little finger; they simply adored him. It occurred to Peter just then that the 'old' Caffrey charm had been hard at work with those ladies, but he wasn't sure if Neal realized it or not. Was there something more here? Something he was missing?
Neal interrupted Peter's reverie; his eyes appearing concerned at first, but when Peter looked a second time he could have sworn he saw those same blue green eyes filled with anger, just briefly, before resuming their concerned appearance.
"It's nothing, Neal. Never mind. I need to grab a file from my office; we can discuss the case particulars at home."
Peter walked up the stairs to his office; he couldn't shake the feeling…something just felt wrong. He knew he had no proof, just his gut feeling, as he ran his fingers through his hair thinking miserably, 'Neal, what have you done to me now?'
Peter was rummaging through the files on his desk, he thought he had put the folder on his keyboard, but it wasn't there. He heard footsteps approaching and just assumed it was Neal...he never knocked. He finally found the folder he needed under another pile of papers on his desk, and looked up expecting to see Neal.
What Peter looked up into was the barrel of a gun. His gun. He looked past the hand it was extended in and up into Neal's eyes. All traces of innocence were gone, and in its place was a look of betrayal mixed with anger. Peter felt his holster, and for the first time noticed that his gun was missing. Neal must have taken it when he had pretended to faint; apparently old habits are hard to break. Unfortunately for Peter, Neal's back was to the door, so no one in the bullpen saw anything unusual; it was completely natural for Neal to be in Peter's office.
"Neal, put the gun down."
"You don't like guns."
"Yeah, I think you've mentioned that in a story or two you've told me. Unfortunately, I don't remember that. It feels pretty good to me."
Peter was going over his options in his mind. He wasn't sure who he was dealing with: the Neal Caffrey who despised guns, or this new creature who had taken over Neal's mind and body and was currently holding a gun on him, and who was apparently as good a pickpocket as the original. He just needed to stay calm.
"Why did you lie to me?"
"What did I lie to you about?"
"You can't con a conman, Peter. You of all people should know that."
Peter felt slightly guilty; so…Neal did remember he was a conman. Who knows how long he had been conning Peter and Elle into believing he still had amnesia.
"Neal, don't do this. This isn't a game."
A strange expression crossed Neal's face. He had heard that line before.
Neal, don't do this. This isn't a game. It doesn't feel right this time. It's too dangerous.
Another piece clicked. Mozzie. Mozzie had told him not to take the painting. What if he'd listened? It didn't really matter now.
Neal snapped back to the present. He may have given up the painting, but he was not going to let Peter win again. This time he was the one with the gun; he was the one laughing.
Peter noticed Neal's expression had changed into a sneer, and then the corners of his mouth twitched upward as if he was going to laugh.
"I have to give you credit for a creative explanation for the tracking anklet. It was believable…at least for a little while. You lied to me Peter; you said I could trust you. I wanted to trust you, and you let me down."
"Neal, I swear, it was only to protect you."
"You embarrassed me in front of Hughes! How could you? You and Elle…you made me believe that I was worth something, you made me believe that I made a difference…that I was an FBI agent that did good and honorable things. But I started having dreams…bad dreams…dreams that just didn't make sense. I couldn't get rid of them; they would haunt me, and I couldn't figure them out…until one night. One night, it started to make sense…several pieces were still missing; they still are, but more and more pieces fell into place until I had a fairly decent picture in my head, and it wasn't pretty. Do you want to know what I saw Peter?"
"Neal, stop it. We were only trying to help. We…"
"No! You stop. No apologies. I asked you a question."
"Neal, put the gun on my desk and we can talk about this. I can see you're upset, but holding a gun on me is not going to improve the situation."
"Yes, it will. I want answers, and I want them now. I know you lied to me and I want to know why. I asked you if you wanted to know what I saw in my head that finally convinced me of who and what I was. Do you even care?"
"Neal, I know you don't believe me right now, but I do care about you; both Elle and I care. Ok? You never told us about the dreams. Why don't you sit down, give me the gun and you can tell me all about it. You can even put your feet up on my desk."
"Nice try, Peter."
Neal gave no indication of moving or lowering the weapon.
"It was you. You were laughing at me. In my dream you pulled a gun on me, you shot me, and you were laughing that you had won; after three years you had won. Then I felt you pull my hands behind my back; I felt the cool metal of the handcuffs on my wrists…I heard the click and I remembered."
Neal stopped to take a deep breath, but the gun never wavered. Peter cringed at the look of betrayal that he saw in Neal's eyes, and didn't miss the tears that had escaped.
"I never shot you Neal. I know you don't like guns. I respect that. You're a non-violent person. You don't want to do this."
"It was you. You arrested me, you put me in jail, and now you're acting like it never happened. You couldn't even tell me the real reason why I needed to wear the tracking anklet! Are you that ashamed of my past? You said I could trust you! You said you were my partner, but you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth."
"Neal, I wanted to, but I just never felt the time was right. When you first woke up, we were just so happy that you were alive that we didn't want to burden you right away. We wanted you to focus all your energy on healing."
Peter edged back in his chair; looking up to see what Neal's reaction would be. The gun didn't move. He slowly stood up.
Peter took a step forward.
"We wanted you to remember on your own time. You never shared with us that you had remembered anything other than your mother. Yes, Elle told me. We didn't want to burden you while you were recovering. You had a traumatic injury and we were concentrating on helping you get better."
Peter had taken several steps very slowly, keeping his eyes on Neal's and not the gun.
"So, truth is a burden you thought I couldn't handle because I lie for a living anyway?"
"Neal, it's not like that. Elle and I even got into a horrible fight about what to do. We didn't know how to help you. If you had told us what you were remembering, maybe we could have helped fill in the pieces, but you didn't trust us with that information either. We didn't know. I'm sorry. When you asked me why you worked for the FBI, I didn't know what to say, but I didn't lie…I just didn't tell you everything. I was wrong, but what I said was true, all of it. You are the best at your job, you really like helping people, and it makes you feel good. We make a great team."
While talking, Peter had taken several more steps until he was directly in front of Neal; the gun pointed directly at his chest, just inches away. He kept his gaze locked on Neal's eyes, daring Neal to look away. Neal looked frozen, unable to move as if he couldn't decide what to think or do.
"Neal, trust is a two way street. You need to trust that I will do what I think is best for you at the time, and I will trust you not to do something stupid like pulling the trigger. We both win."
Neal hesitated, but then slowly lowered the gun and placed it in Peter's outstretched hand. Peter could see that the fight had gone out of him; he looked exhausted.
"No one needs to know about this. Ok? I won't tell anyone, and I promise I won't send you back to jail. It will be our little secret. You can trust me."
Neal's look was still way too serious, so Peter tried to diffuse the situation with humor to see if he could get Neal to smile.
"What went wrong? I thought we were having a great time! The agents here all congratulated you for coming back; Elle baked several cakes just for this. You even charmed Hughes with your 'I have no idea what's missing, sir' line. I gave him your hat; I wanted to see what happened, but I didn't want you to know I was in on it. You had me fooled. I really didn't think you knew, but when I saw you flip your hat…."
Neal looked tremendously uncomfortable; not the charming grin Peter was hoping for.
"I didn't know. I didn't remember about the hat. It was a subconscious routine I guess. I don't know how I did it, but it just felt right."
Neal didn't know if he should continue, but he wanted Peter to understand what he was feeling; why he did what he did. Why was he feeling guilty? Why did he want to explain?
"I felt...betrayed. I was mad…mad that you didn't trust me; mad that I remembered and you didn't tell me. But then…then I was…unprepared for this kindness…no one's ever done this for me before…I was confused…again…and then I felt humiliated…about my clothes, and I…I snapped…I wanted answers…I wanted you to feel what I feel…I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me…I wanted you to feel betrayed…I had to get your attention…I wanted to point a gun in your face and laugh at you, just like you did in my dream. I remembered where you kept your gun, but I didn't even know if I could still do it; I thought I was rusty and you'd notice…I haven't practiced in a long time, but it's just like riding a bike…"
Neal wished the floor would open up and swallow him to put him out of his misery. He paused to look up at Peter, expecting to see deep disappointment, but Peter's face was reflecting more compassion than he deserved.
"I would never have pulled the trigger. I just couldn't…"
"I know. You forgot to take the safety off."
Neal looked up at Peter with a shocked expression on his face.
"You just let me stand there and hold a gun on you knowing full well that the safety was on?"
"It seemed to be cathartic for you. You looked like you needed to work through some anger management issues. I was just trying to figure out which Neal you were…the Neal that doesn't like guns, or some crazy person that had gotten in your head and wanted to shoot me for trying to help. My gut was telling me you were the first one and that you wouldn't be able to pull the trigger. It also helped knowing you forgot to take the safety off."
Neal looked chagrined, but Peter put his hand on Neal's shoulder and looked straight into his eye.
"You accomplished what you wanted without hurting me. You got my attention, and you were able to talk through your issues, that's half the battle. I could tell that you wanted to trust me, but weren't sure you could. I understand why. You didn't involve any other agents, so I felt the situation was for the most part under control; otherwise I would have taken you down sooner."
Neal looked floored, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"You really are always trying to protect me, aren't you?"
"Always protect your biggest and most valuable investment…especially if it's irreplaceable. I almost lost you. I don't want that to happen again."
Peter put his hand on Neal's shoulder and looked into his eyes with confidence trying to reinforce the concept.
"Now, let's get you home before you keel over. I think you've done enough for today. Elizabeth will be home soon enough to make us dinner."
"You aren't going to tell her are you?"
"Tell her what? That you're irreplaceable or that you held my gun on me?"
Peter inwardly cheered when he saw a smile slowly light up Neal's features.
"I told you, no one has to know. You can trust me. One question though…How on earth did you manage to hold the gun steady for so long?"
"Steady? I almost dropped it…twice. I thought you noticed."
"I was looking into your eyes to see what you were going to do. I was trying to ignore the gun."
"Oh…Peter? I don't feel so good."
"No. No, Neal, you are not getting my wallet this time. I won't catch you if you try and fall."
Neal's face lit up into a mega watt smile that Peter hadn't seen for months.
"I already have your wallet Peter."
"That's it. No cake for you."
"Come on Peter, Elle baked it because of me."
"I don't recall seeing a piece with your name on it."
"Maybe you should trying looking for it under a polarized light."
Peter laughed heartily and slapped Neal on the shoulder.
"It's good to have you back Neal."