DISCLAIMER: White Collar belongs to Jeff Eastin and USA Network.
A/N: I'm sad to report that this is the final chapter for this story. It has consumed my life for several months now, and my workload has increased significantly (well, I was actually unemployed when this story was first conceived, and I was bored out of my mind). Now I find that I no longer have much spare time for writing. I have really struggled the last month with trying to find time, but I appreciate everyone who has stuck with me! Reviews really make my day and have given me so much encouragement. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed! I hope you enjoy and let me know what you think!
Peter couldn't really argue with Angus, because he was accurate on several different points. Peter wasn't sure if Neal had alerted the FBI, but he was certain that even if they knew and were looking for him, that negotiation was not an option. Peter would simply have to wait to see if Neal had betrayed him or not.
Peter slowly opened his eyes; his head feeling like it was spinning. He could make out a blurry figure of Neal standing looking at him, but strangely Peter wasn't able to talk to him. As his vision started to clear, Peter saw Angus standing behind Neal, his lips moving. Peter strained to hear what Angus was saying, and closed his eyes to concentrate on Angus' voice.
"You can't trust Neal. He's a conman. He lies for a living. He betrayed you."
Peter didn't want to believe Angus, but he was confused as to what was happening. Peter suddenly remembered running, but he couldn't remember who he was running from or why he was even running. Peter opened his eyes once again, trying to focus on where Neal had been standing. He could still hear Neal's voice calling out to him, but Neal had disappeared and so had Angus. He heard Neal's voice calling again.
Peter closed his eyes. He didn't want to think about Neal betraying him. He wanted to trust him, but another part of him just wanted it to all go away. Peter felt himself swinging as if he was back in the hammock. He moved his hands to grab onto the side of the hammock for support, but found his hands were free of the handcuffs and instead of the edge of the hammock, he felt a pair of hands steadying him from falling over.
Peter opened his eyes slowly adjusting to the light. He realized that he wasn't in the hammock when he saw the railing of a hospital bed on his right side. He turned his head slightly to see Neal's worried face, as the conman was now kneeling beside him. Peter looked behind Neal, expecting to see Angus again, but he wasn't there. Peter still had a confused expression on his face as he looked over at Neal.
"Neal? You…You didn't…What are you doing here? Where's Angus?"
Neal could sense Peter's confusion and decided for once not to give him a hard time.
"I brought you a sandwich and some bottled water. I wasn't sure when you had eaten last. I know sleep is important, but you need sustenance too. You weren't responding, so I shook your shoulder a little to try and get you to wake up."
Peter didn't indicate he had comprehended Neal's statement and Neal saw the confused look still present on Peter's face.
"Who's Angus, Peter?"
"Don't start with me, Neal. You're working with him. He said you betrayed me. He said…"
Neal cut Peter off with a slight edge of impatience and frustration in his voice.
"Peter, you're safe. You're not with them anymore, ok? They're behind bars. Why would you think I would betray you? How can you trust them more than me? How many times do I have to prove myself?"
Neal stopped to take a breath and then added as an afterthought, "Maybe I should have just kept the Vermeer and let the FBI rescue you themselves. You know, see how their non-negotiation policy actually worked for you."
Neal's tone had become decidedly bitter near the end, and he wasn't sure if he actually expected a response from Peter. He hadn't really meant it; he still thought that Peter's life was much more important than the Vermeer he had discovered. Neal also realized that Peter was clearly not firing on all cylinders yet, but he still felt hurt that Peter would even consider that Neal had betrayed him.
Neal waited for a moment for Peter's reaction, but Peter didn't say a word. Neal could only assume that Peter really was mad at him. Neal reached for the sandwich and placed it in Peter's hands. Neal then set the bottle of water at the foot of the bed where it was easily accessible.
"Elle will be back soon. She stopped to talk to someone she knew in the cafeteria. You look like you need more sleep. I'm sorry I woke you."
Peter didn't respond to Neal because his mind was busy processing Neal's statement about the Vermeer. He knew it sounded familiar and it felt like it was just on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't get it out. There was something important that he felt he was supposed to remember, but his brain was still clouded; the only thing he could remember was food. He remembered Neal said he brought food. He looked down at the sandwich still in his hand and took several bites. The growling in his stomach only confirmed that at least Neal had been right about needing to eat. Only a few more bites and then he was going to sleep some more, maybe he would be able to think more clearly after another nap.
Elle pushed the door to Grace's hospital room open. She walked toward the bed and stopped by the sleeping figure of her husband. The floor creaked slightly and Elle noticed Grace opening her eyes. Elle didn't want to disturb her husband, so she stepped closer and spoke in a low tone, hoping that Grace would understand.
"Grace. I'm so glad you're awake. How are you feeling?"
"Much better. It's Elle, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's right. I'm Peter's wife. We were introduced earlier. You look much better today."
"Thanks. I feel much better. I think I was really out of it before. I don't remember much."
"It's okay. I'm sure it will just take time and you'll be as good as new. I haven't had a chance to ask Peter, but I'm sure he would be happy to have you stay with us for a few days while you are getting back on your feet and getting some things straightened out."
"You are so kind, Elle. Thank you so much for your generosity. I wish…"
Grace stopped, not able to finish the sentence and looking as if she might cry. Elle felt compassion blossoming in her chest as Grace was overcome with all the stress of the last couple days coupled by the obvious love and support from Peter and Elle. Elle moved closer to the bed and squeezed Grace's hand as a sign of comfort and support.
"You're not alone Grace. You have a family now, and Peter and I are here for you."
Grace was still too overcome to respond, but she nodded her head as a single tear carved its way down her cheek, and then it was like the dam broke and more tears came rushing out. Elle squeezed Grace's hand tighter.
"Grace? Are you ok?"
Elle turned at the sound of Peter's voice. She hadn't realized that Peter had woken up. Elle realized he was probably concerned to see Grace's bloodshot eyes and tears streaming down her cheeks.
"She's fine, Peter. She's just de-stressing from the last couple of days."
"Are you sure she's ok? She didn't remember me earlier."
"You were here before? I don't remember that, Peter. I'm sorry."
"I'm just glad you're ok, Grace." Peter looked over and noticed that Elle was still rubbing the top of Grace's hand in an obviously comforting gesture. Peter was reminded that he had married a most remarkable women and it was obvious that his wife and sister would get along just fine. Peter was interrupted from his thought process by Elle's voice that had turned a bit concerned.
"Where did Neal go? He was supposed to bring your food up to you. " Elle looked over at Peter and noticed an embarrassed and slightly ashamed look crossing his features. She knew that look and it always spelled trouble.
"What did you say to him this time, Peter? He took a huge risk to get you back, not anyone would have or could have done what he did, Peter."
"I know. He was here. He brought the food and then he left."
Peter ground the words out as if he was being forced to say the words. He wasn't particularly pleased at the turn of events, but his mouth seemed to be acting without the consent of his brain recently. He knew what Neal had given up. He remembered now that it was the Vermeer that Neal had exchanged for him, but Angus' voice kept repeating over and over in his head that Neal had betrayed him and Peter couldn't make it stop. It occurred to Peter that Neal had only been trying to help. Neal had been obviously trying to shake his shoulder because he was concerned about him. Peter wondered why he always seemed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time; could he not get anything right? Peter realized he needed to come up with a good way to apologize to Neal; again.
He finally realized that Elle had been talking to him.
"What did you say, hon?"
"Why did he leave, Peter?"
"I might have said a few things without thinking them through."
"Maybe you should just call Neal or if you don't want to talk to him, just text him. You could apologize and ask him to come back for a few minutes. Tell him Grace is awake. He might want to see her."
"You want me to apologize in a text?"
"You can apologize face to face as well if you would like."
Peter wanted to tell his wife that he didn't want to apologize at all. He didn't want Neal to come back simply he was feeling really guilty, and he didn't want to deal with those emotions right now, or really ever, but he wasn't going to tell Elle that. Peter knew better than to argue with his wife though, so he reluctantly pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through his contacts until he found the name he was looking for and choose the option to send a text message.
Neal was sitting in Peter's Taurus in the parking garage. The keys were in the ignition, but Neal just couldn't get himself to start it and drive away. Neal felt his frustration building and slammed his palm against the steering wheel. Why couldn't Peter just believe him? After everything they had been through, it just wasn't fair. As Neal shifted slightly in the seat, his ribs concurred with the statement of unfairness, as they protested the movement. Neal wondered how long he would have this constant reminder of Peter shooting him. If it hadn't been for Mozzie insisting he wear the vest…Neal didn't even want to think about what could have happened. He wasn't going to forget the incident anytime soon, but he knew he had already forgiven Peter. He wanted to go back in the hospital and give Peter a piece of his mind. He wanted to yell at him that he had given up a Vermeer painting for him. Granted, it wasn't as valuable as they had hoped it would be because it had been destroyed, but it had meant something to Neal, and he had been willing to give it up to save Peter, with the obvious side benefit of catching the bad guys at the same time. He thought Peter would have been proud of him, but it couldn't have been more obvious that he wasn't.
Neal felt the urge to run; just like every time before when he was just out of Peter's reach; taunting the agent to catch him. It had felt so natural then; just like breathing. He would just leave everything behind he had worked so hard for. It was tempting; oh so tempting, but Neal knew that this time, once he left he could never come back. This time he would honestly have to say that he would miss it. He knew he really liked working with Peter and his team. What was there really to come back for though? Was this enough? Peter was never going to trust him completely, ever, no matter what he did. His life had also been far less dangerous before starting to work for the FBI, and he was beginning to realize that if the FBI considered Peter expendable, as Hughes had stated so succinctly in his non-negotiation speech before Neal had gone searching for the painting with Jones, then Neal figured he was as well. He could be replaced just as easily by another con looking to make a deal. Were there really any actual benefits of sticking around? Why did he want more? Slowly Neal's hand found its way up to the steering column and grasped the keys tightly turning them and starting Peter's Taurus. He shifted into reverse and put his right hand on the passenger side head rest, turning to make sure no one was behind him as the car started to roll backward. Neal quickly pressed on the brakes when he thought he saw a figure behind him. It was an older gentleman that was walking behind the car, and he had turned to look at Neal almost as if to make sure he was stopping. For just a brief second, Neal envisioned Peter turning to look at him with a sorrowful look on his face.
"I'm sorry," the image of Peter said to him, "Please don't go."
Neal could only see the man's mouth move through the rear view mirror, but he could hear Peter's voice echoing in his conscience; "Please don't go." As the older man passed by, Neal knew it wasn't Peter, but he also realized he didn't want Peter to apologize to him. Neal didn't want to stay; he still wanted to be mad at him. Neal was about to take his foot off the brake and continue backing up, seeing no other pedestrians in sight, when his phone chirped indicating a new text message. Neal thought about ignoring it because it was most likely Peter, but he realized it could just as easily be Mozzie; either way, it could be important.
Neal pulled the shifter down into drive, inched forward back into the parking space and pulled out his cell. Neal noticed, much to his chagrin, that the text message was from Peter. Almost without his consent, his finger clicked the button to open the message.
"Grace is awake. Plz come back. I'm sorry. I forgot about running in the park. Thank you."
Neal re-read the message and wanted to throw his phone in frustration. Why did Peter have this effect on him? Why couldn't he just stay mad at Peter? Neal was grateful that Grace was awake, but he wasn't so sure he wanted to see Peter again at the moment. He was mad at him, but now he was saying he was sorry, and Neal didn't feel like forgiving him just yet. However, maybe it wouldn't be quite so awkward if both Elle and Grace were there in the room as well.
Neal reached over and turned the set of keys back toward him turning the Taurus off. He just sat still for a few seconds trying to decide on a course of action. He finally determined he was going to going to walk back into the hospital, walk up to Grace's room, make sure she was okay, hand Peter's keys back to him, and then walk back out to call a cab. He didn't want to spend any more time than necessary in Grace's room. As stressed as he was sure Peter was after their ordeal, Neal realized just how tired and exhausted he was, and he just wanted some time alone. Neal was sure that he could use that as an excuse to make a quick exit.
Peter and Elle were discussing details with Grace about when she would be released from the hospital. Peter was certain she would have little if any jail time for shooting her husband, and he was anxious to start over and get to know her again. He wasn't tremendously worried about what Hughes would think either, because he was certain all the miscommunication could be explained. Elle had just started telling Grace a little bit about her catering business when the door to Grace's hospital room opened; both Peter and Elle turned to see Neal entering.
"You said Grace was awake? Is everything ok?"
Peter stepped a few steps back realizing he was probably blocking Neal's view of Grace.
"I'm doing okay, Neal. Thanks for coming back. Actually, thanks for everything the past couple of days. I know that's probably not enough, but I do appreciate what you and Peter did. It means a lot to me."
Neal felt his anger dissipating as he walked over and gave Grace a light hug, careful not to disturb her bandaged shoulder.
"I'm so glad you're ok. I was worried for a while, we weren't sure you were going to make it."
"You forget that I have Burke genes, Neal, and I'm even more stubborn than Peter. I do have one request though, Neal."
"Will I like it? You look serious."
"Neal, I'm begging you, please don't let this incident fester between you and Peter. You both need to forgive and forget. I'm talking to you too, big brother. If the two of you don't make up, you will end up like Peter and I did for years and years; not talking or communicating at all. Is that what you want? I want you to learn from my mistakes. You are both too special to me for that. Please, do it for me?"
It was at that moment that both Peter and Neal felt like they had been punched in the gut, and by a woman no less. Peter was ashamed that he hadn't even realized he and Neal were having the same kind of petty fights that he and Grace did before their last showdown. He definitely did not want to alienate Neal for 30 years. Neal had become a good friend and ally, and he had proven his worth to the FBI. Peter decided he needed to show Neal more appreciation. He had heard the saying "You never know what you have until it's gone" way too many times to not realize that it could be describing Neal.
Neal, for his part, was feeling guilty for even considering running. He really did have so much to lose with this new life. Why would he want to be alone and on the run, constantly moving and creating new aliases when he had people here who really and truly cared about him?
Neal looked down at Grace, relief evident on his face.
"And here I thought I was supposed to be the smooth talker here."
Neal wasn't sure if his comment was taken as the ice breaker he had meant it as, but as he turned to Peter he noticed that Peter also had a relieved look on his face. Hopefully, the incidents of the past few days could be like water under the bridge and they could move on.
Neal's eyes drifted to the floor, but then he raised them and looked Peter in the eye.
"I'm sorry, Peter. I'm sorry for everything. I'm sorry for not telling you right away about Grace. You are important to me. You are the world to Elle, and even the Vermeer painting that was hidden for over 20 years could never be more important than that."
Peter reached over to give Neal a quick hug, he wanted to prove to Neal that he wasn't always a stern and gruff FBI Agent; that he did have feelings and he really appreciated everything he did; if only he knew how to say it. Peter hoped the hug would at least convey some of that.
"It's nice to know I'm worth more than the Vermeer, Neal."
"Peter, you got me out of prison when you didn't have to and you let me be part of your team; you respect my opinion on cases, and you are a great partner. I really shouldn't complain it could be a lot worse."
Neal stepped back as Peter let go, and Elle quickly gave Neal a hug as well.
"I was thinking though…" Neal started as Elle hugged him and stepped back. "I'm wondering what I'll find out about you next. While you were hunting me, I thought I knew everything about you. Now, I find out you have a sister. I'm wondering what I'll find out next."
"No worries, Neal. It's just the two of us; there are no more hidden brothers or sisters." Grace responded with a hint of pride in her voice.
"That's not what worries me. As Robert Brault would say 'The thing about family disasters is that you never have to wait long before the next one puts the previous one into perspective.' I'm not sure I want to know what's next."
Peter was heard audibly groaning, but as he looked at Elle, Grace and Neal, his extended family, they all shared a look. They all started laughing, wondering what would possibly be in store for them next.