A/N:Many thanks to all the followers, reviewers and favoriters !
Part Two: Of fathers and friends.
Neal rode with Peter and El in the Taurus, Diana and Jones following in Clinton's car. Jones would give Neal and Diana a ride home after the late dinner at the Burkes'.
The ride was mostly silent. From the back seat, Neal observed his friends. Elizabeth was driving, her right hand on the gear shift. Peter rested his own hand on El's, tangling delicately his fingers in hers.
El was discreetly checking on her husband, sending him side looks and smiling each time their eyes crossed. Peter turned toward the window, lost in his thoughts. He seemed preoccupied.
Neal heaved a sight. Peter could say whatever he wanted; Neal knew it was all his fault. He was the one looking for his father, the one who reached out to him. And all it did was to bring pain, death and destruction. If it hadn't been for Neal, Peter would never have been after Pratt, never been victim of a sabotage of his car, never been accused of a murder committed by James. It was so obvious that Neal couldn't understand how Peter could not see it, how Peter and Elizabeth could still welcome him into their home.
Looking up, Neal caught Peter's gaze in the rear-view mirror. It was as warm as ever, but Neal couldn't bear it. He looked away, through the window, at passing-by cars, pedestrians. All those people living their happy lives, oblivious of his pain, his guilt, the mess of his life.
When they arrived, Neal did his best to make himself useful, going with the flow and keeping himself busy. As Elizabeth was ordering food and Clinton and Peter retrieving additional chairs from the basement, Neal followed Diana to the kitchen to grab glasses and plates and dress the table.
When this was done, Neal just stood there, and it took him a moment to realize Peter was standing right in front of him, hands on his hips, looking at him. Peter didn't seem angry or anything, but Neal was feeling more and more uncomfortable. Finally, Peter seemed to make his mind. Taking two beers from the fridge, he gestured Neal to follow him outside on the patio with a nod from the head.
"There, sit down," Peter said as he uncapped a bottle and put it into Neal's hands.
Peter sat on the other chair. He uncapped his own beer and took a sip of the fresh amber before setting it down on the garden table.
"So, tell me. What happened?" he asked with a neutral tone, pointing a finger to Neal's bruised face.
Neal brushed his cheek with his fingers and looked down at his hands.
"He-" he started but stopped, words struggling in his mouth, in his mind. Neal took a deep breath and went on. "I was with James when Diana called. We were… talking."
"About the box?" Peter asked tentatively.
Neal nodded but didn't elaborate. Peter didn't press further, which Neal was grateful of. He wanted Peter to know, but it wasn't easy to say the words. James was a murderer. James had conned him all along.
"Anyway," Neal continued, waving off his inner thoughts, "I asked him to testify for you but he refused. I begged him, Peter. I couldn't understand why he wouldn't testify."
Neal paused. There was a painful ball obstructing his throat. He had to swallow hard before he could continue.
"He threatened me," he said, and he could hear that his voice was unsteady. "My own father. He said someone had to take the fall… I was so shocked, and lost. I couldn't believe it!" Now he could feel the anger he had felt earlier rising again, burning his chest. "I ran after him, to the street. I yelled at him. I tried to stop him, and…" Neal's voice broke off. "He hit me," he finished in a murmur, pointing to his bruised cheek.
Neal was looking pensively at his hurt hand. "That was so violent… And unexpected. It took me off-balance. I fell on the concrete. That's how I hurt my hand. Hell of a fight, huh?"
Neal looked up and the intensity of Peter's look unsettled him a little. Looking at Neal straight in the eyes, frowning very slightly, Peter had that intense and dead serious look he showed when he was totally adsorbed, assessing a situation while listening to a witness or a case report – or trying to figure out if Neal's latest shenanigans were a good or a bad thing. But there was something more here. His look was softer. A little sad, too.
"By the time I got on my feet, he was gone," Neal said. What he didn't say concerned his frantic run in all the nearby streets, going circles, literally and figuratively; the useless screams to call back an already lost ghost. Neal didn't say either how he suddenly stopped, breathless and heartbroken, collapsed on the sidewalk and cried. Cried for the father he had lost once again and for the friend he was scared to death he would lose as well.
"But I still don't get it," Neal went on instead. "You said it was self-defense, right?"
"Yes, it was self-defense," Peter said softly. "Pratt was about to shoot. Maybe he was afraid his past would come back to haunt him?"
It was less and less bearable. It was burning in his chest. It had to come out, and it blurted out of Neal's mouth before he realized it.
"He did it, Peter! He really did it!"
"Kill that cop! My father is a cop killer!"
There. It was said. He was the son of a murderer.
Suddenly, it occurred to Neal that he had been waiting that moment all day, the opportunity to share his burden, confide the painful truth to his friend, the one person in the world that might relieve him from that pain, just a little. Sure Mozzie had been sympathetic, and he was the first person Neal called. June had been wonderfully nice too, understanding without needing to ask. But Peter was different. Neal didn't know exactly why. Maybe because Peter's opinion of him has always mattered to Neal. Maybe because Peter was seeing him differently than most people.
An awkward silent settled.
Peter leaned forward across the table, putting his hand on Neal's forearm. Neal tensed. Part of him wanted to pull away. Peter wasn't the one supposed to comfort him, take care of him. That was a father's job. But the other part of Neal, the one that James' rejection had broken, longed for the comfort of that simple contact, and Neal didn't move.
"I'm sorry," Peter said.
Neal didn't say anything. There was nothing to be said.
Peter locked his intense and warm gaze into Neal's. "You deserved better."
"Nobody deserves a murderer as a father," Neal replied bitterly.
"True. But I know how much it meant to you, getting to know your father. And I wished it had turned out better."
"This is all my fault. It was such a waste. A complete disaster… You almost got killed, because of me. Ellen was killed, because of me."
Neal cupped his face in his hands. He wanted to cry, he wanted to crawl down into a hole and disappear. But he heard Peter move his chair to come closer. He felt his grip on his arm, gentle but firm, forcing him to put his arms down.
"Neal, look at me."
But Neal couldn't.
"Neal, please, listen. None if this is your fault. You are not responsible for anything your father did, 30 years ago, or today."
"Doesn't mean I don't feel responsible…" Neal said in a low voice.
Something in Peter's tone made Neal look up but he simply smiled and looked away. Peter took a sip of his beer before relaxing back in his chair.
"But you're wrong, it wasn't a complete waste. At least, we learned something really important," he said. Neal looked up, surprised. "You're nothing like your father," Peter continued, a fond smile on his lips.
Neal felt an uneasiness in his chest. The conversation with his father the day before came back to him. "He said he was the blue in my eyes… And I wanted to believe him."
"You do have his eyes," Peter admitted. "And there's something in his smile too, that reminded me of you. But that's only genetics, Neal. He is the blue in your eyes, but he is not who you are, and certainly not who you want to be."
Neal wanted to argue that it was more than genetics. That, just like him, James was a liar, a conman. A criminal. But Neal didn't say anything. Instead he let Peter talk.
"I know this is hard for you, because this is quite an adjustment to make. You always believed you wanted to be like your father and you were looking for the reassurance that it was who you were. You told me, once, that when you were a kid, you thought your dad was a hero."
Neal nodded. Yes, his father was a good cop then. A fallen hero – in Neal's mind at least. And all he wanted was to be like him…
"Later, you learned he was corrupt and you ran. Then, you told yourself you were like him because it was a convenient excuse to embrace a criminal life."
Neal opened his mouth to protest, but he had to admit there was some truth in Peter's words.
"But when Ellen told you your father might have killed a cop, your story didn't hold up anymore. You believed him when he said he had been framed because you wanted your father to be like you. Because the truth is, now you're a grown man, and you already know who you are. And you're not a killer. Things your father did, you wouldn't have done. I'm sure deep down you know it, you just didn't want to see it. I know you, and I know you're not that kind of guy. You know you're not that kind of guy. You're better than James, Neal. You're a good person."
Neal gave Peter an embarrassed smile and looked down. Peter had his own ways to show his appreciation of people, but he rarely expressed them in words. When he did, though, it was always coming right from the heart. And this sincerity was always a little unsettling for Neal.
The young man wasn't himself totally convinced he was such a good person, but he knew Peter meant every word, and actually believed them. Maybe that was the reason why Neal had never been able to really lie to Peter, had never been able to decide himself to run away. Peter was holding him back with the most powerful and traitorous of all weapons: his faith. That was something Neal didn't want to break. Peter liked him, he had said. And Neal knew it wasn't just for his skills and good looks. Peter believed in him. The first person, since Ellen probably, and that was a comforting feeling that Neal couldn't resign himself to let go.
"You remember, last year?" Peter asked.
So much for the comforting talk, Neal thought. There was no anger in Peter's voice, yet Neal couldn't help feeling defensive. Yes, he remembered, how could he ever forget?!
"Please, not the treasure again, Peter," he snapped. "I'm really not in the mood for yet another lecture."
He looked at his friend with a defying look, but Peter raised a hand in sign of peace.
"This isn't a lecture, Neal," he sighted. He paused, looking for the right way to say what was on his mind. "Just, listen. Last year, you kept that treasure, and you hid it until all went to hell and Keller kidnapped El."
If it wasn't going to be a lecture, Neal didn't know where this could go.
"You could have run," Peter went on. "Right there. But you didn't. Because that's not who you are. You have hurt people, but you wanted to fix it. You did not run. Instead..." Peter's voice shook a little. "Instead, you stayed by my side. Instead, you took responsibility for your own actions and you even offered a full confession."
"You're nothing like him, Neal," Peter concluded with fierce.
Neal didn't know what to say. It seemed all so obvious said like that, and yet... Was he really that good person Peter wanted him to be?
"You know," he said after a while, "I thought about running today."
Peter frowned. "Really?"
"Wouldn't your life be easier without me?"
Peter relaxed and shook his head. Neal wasn't sure if he was detecting disbelief or amusement, though there was nothing funny.
"Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I would have chosen another CI and he would drive me crazy – crazier! But it doesn't matter, Neal. What matters is that you're my friend now. I don't want you to go away… Plus, if you run, I'd have to go after you and that wouldn't make my life easier. And of course, I'd catch you again, so we would still be stuck together."
Neal looked up at his partner, who was watching him, smiling. This time, Neal hold his gaze, and smiled back.
"So, you would still do it all over again?" he asked.
Peter grinned. "Well, about that. I've been thinking… Maybe I could have done without El being kidnapped, the car accident and the perp walk, today."
Neal chuckled. There were a few things he wished had been different too. He wasn't so sure he would do it again. Not for Kate. Not for Ellen. But then, that's not how life works anyway. You cannot change the past. You can only look after the future. And if his future was in New York City, with his new family, it wasn't that bad.
The silence that settled this time was much more comfortable. They clanged their bottles together and drank the last swallow in chorus before sitting back in their chairs, taking in each other's presence by their side, after the fear of being taken apart.
Neal was a little more at peace with himself. He wasn't sure if he was as good a person as Peter said, but for sure, he'll do his best. Peter was worth the try.
His father was gone, but Neal didn't really need one, after all since he had all the family he needed right here. He glanced at his friend, who was looking at an invisible point in front on him while absentmindedly fidgeting with the neck of his empty bottle. Peter looked significantly better than when Neal saw him earlier, through the one-way mirror of Interrogation – Neal had been assigned to "conference room arrest" but he needed to check on Peter and had sneaked out unseen while everyone was busy elsewhere. There, through Peter's mask of impassibility, Neal had seen the cracks, the questions, the fear. Now, Peter looked much more relaxed, yet Neal detected a certain stiffness in his attitude. Peter Burke, usually so confident and straightforward, was showing an uncharacteristic brittleness. It was slight, and it disappeared when Peter had his mind focused on Neal. But now that his mind was wandering on its own, Neal could see it again.
"So, what about you, Peter?" he asked softly.
Peter startled slightly, and looked at Neal, surprised. "What about me?"
"How do you feel?"
Peter swallowed but shrugged off whatever was on his mind.
Neal couldn't help a small chuckle. Peter was as good as him at admitting his feelings.
"Don't even try, Peter. It's me, I know you. I can see you're not fine."
Peter sighed and passed a nervous hand in his hair.
"I don't know… It's just that… I feel like there is a weight in there." He pressed a hand on his chest. "Like guilt, you know. But… I don't know…"
"Well, you had a tough day today. I guess it's normal," Neal said, comforting.
"Yeah… I guess." Peter didn't seem convinced.
Neal had been there before, of course. The arrest. The cuffs. The coldness of law enforcement officers, doing their job and not seeing they're wrecking up your entire life. The interrogation – Neal smiled inwardly remembering his first confrontation with a certain Special Agent Peter Burke. Not knowing what was going to happen. The perspective of prison. The loneliness…
Of course, Neal was prepared for it. When you commit a crime, you know there's a risk of being caught. You do your best to ignore it, you learn to live with it. So, when it happens, somehow, it is expected. It doesn't make it less painful, but at least, you know why this is happening to you. But Peter hadn't committed the crime. Peter was actually doing his job. So Neal could perfectly understand how unexpected and disturbing the experience had to have been for his friend, a man who breathed law and order.
"Not so much fun to be on the wrong side of the table, huh?" Neal asked, trying to keep his tone casual.
A small smile appeared on Peter lips as he shook his head. "Damn, no."
Neal felt there was more. Something Peter wouldn't tell. "But?" he pushed gently.
Peter met Neal's gaze before looking away. After a moment, he heaved a sight and turned back his attention to Neal.
"I feel… lost. I'm not sure I'm still on the right path anymore."
Neal frowned. He wasn't sure exactly what it was, but something had clearly shaken Peter more than he thought. "Why that?" he asked softy.
"I always thought that doing what I believed was right would keep me on the right path. You know, you do what's right…"
"…And let the pieces fall where they fall," Neal nodded. "You were doing the right thing, Peter."
"But I almost lost everything, Neal. This was not right. I thought that by going outside the System – just a little – we would restore it. I wasn't going against it, I was working for it. And yet…"
"But you didn't lose everything, Peter. You're cleared."
Peter smirked. "The only reason I was cleared was because Mozzie is paranoid."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"Yes. No, I mean, I'm grateful of Mozzie, really. I owe him a big one. But… That's not the way it's supposed to be. Mozzie… Mozzie is a criminal…"
"And that makes you uncomfortable."
"Not per se. Well, in a way, maybe. It's just that, I'm not supposed to be friends with a criminal like Mozzie."
"But Mozzie isn't just a criminal, Peter. He is your friend too – in his own way."
Peter sighed. "I know, Neal. I know. It's not about Mozzie. I'm just wondering how I became so reliant on criminals... Look at me! Without Mozzie, I would have been sent to prison, for murder. Without that video, there was no proof I didn't commit that crime. The only reason I'm home and free tonight is because a criminal helped me. A criminal that isn't even in the System…"
"Oh…" Neal was starting to understand where Peter was headed. "You're thinking the System failed you."
Peter shrugged, uncomfortable and lowered his head.
Neal leaned forward to catch Peter's gaze. "You don't know that. First off, we've been spending the whole day on finding a way to clear you. Diana, Jones and me. We would have found something. We would have find James if that was the last option. And people aren't thrown to prison without a jury. That is the system. You just didn't give it enough time to prove itself."
Peter narrowed his eyes. His brows were furrowed and his jaw clenched. Neal could almost see the spinning wheels of his thoughts.
"Or maybe it's the other way round. Maybe I failed the System…" he whispered. "So many people have warned me this past year. I wouldn't recognize myself. I would get myself too deep in troubles… Reese told me this morning that sometimes we have to redraw the lines. I believed it, this morning. I'm not so sure anymore. Isn't that precisely the dangerous path I shouldn't get down?"
"Peter, the System isn't a machine, it is made of people. They are humans, they are fallible. If you want it to work, you need to make it work. It's people like you who make the System work. You have to keep faith in the System. The System needs you."
Peter made an embarrassed pout.
Something suddenly crossed Neal's mind. "You know," he said with a slight grin, "I think it all goes back to that moment when you did the right thing by accepting Mozzie into your life."
Peter raised an eyebrow, visibly skeptical. "It's not like I seemed to have a choice. He seemed to be part of that 'Caffrey package'…"
Neal's grin widened. "Actually, I think you had. Well, or at least you could have pretended to. But you never asked me to stay away from him. Which you could have, as my handler."
Peter smiled. "Damn, and I didn't think about it…"
"My point is, this is probably where you made the right decision, accepting Mozzie as your… unconventional ally?"
"Look," Neal went on, "I know Mozzie and I, we may have complicated your life a little. Maybe we have pushed you too much into the grey lines. But sometimes this is the only way."
Peter looked away. "Maybe."
"You think the investigation on Pratt would have been more successful on record?" Neal asked gently.
Peter shrugged, still looking away – at the Rai stone, Neal noted. "Probably not. I guess you're right."
"Peter," Neal called. "I know you don't like it, because in our territory, you are more vulnerable, and I understand, this is not the way it's supposed to work. But sometimes you have to step out of the System to defend it. That's why you have CIs, after all."
Peter looked back at Neal and smiled fondly.
"But you need allies in this off-record world. This is why we are here. We have your back, you know that, right?"
Peter leaned back on his chair.
"Yes, I know that."
"And you and I, we're here to catch the bad guys. It's our job to set things right, remember?"
Peter's smile widened. "You're right."
"We took some risks, investigating Pratt, but that was the right thing to do because it's gonna pay off. There are a lot of things in Ellen's box. Tomorrow, we'll continue the investigation, and we'll take all those dirty people down."
Peter nodded. "Set things right," he said, and Neal caught sparkles in his eyes.
The doorbell rang. Given the particular rhythm, it had to be Mozzie.
"My unexpected friend", Peter said, feeling cheered. "I hope he brought that Pistachio ice-cream! Time's up, let's get back inside with everybody."
They stood up in choir and Neal noticed Peter looked more relaxed, more assured. He would be fine eventually. And Neal would, too. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder.
Their gaze met. Peter's was warm and grateful. Neal knew it was an exact match to his.
"It was good talking to you too, Neal."
To Be Continued...