A/N: I had a lovely response to my first White Collar piece, so I thought I'd try my hand at another. This one is a bit more fleshed out.
There was something quite wrong with seeing Neal Caffrey in prison. Peter had put a lot of bad guys behind bars; he wasn't one to gloat but he was one to be satisfied, content.
Something here was wrong, something bigger (or smaller) than the moral map that usually guided him.
He told himself afterwards that he only let Neal out on the anklet as a strategy move, that there was no other motivation.
He told himself, when Neal's smile lit up like sunshine, that it meant nothing.
(Peter frowns, but only just.)
They keep winning cases. Neal makes sly remarks, Neal meets Elizabeth. Neal is suddenly a part of Peter's life.
Peter pretends that this is all very disagreeable—but it just..it isn't. There is something quite right about solving cases with Neal Caffrey.
"I don't understand," said Neal, in a pained tone, "Why we couldn't play chess."
"Because you know everything about chess." Peter paused, rearranged the tiles on his ledger, and pursed his lips. It lent his expression a thoughtful guise, when in fact he was nothing but smug.
"And you write the Times crossword in pen, so this option is hardly equal."
"Scrabble is the great equalizer."
"Alright, Horace Mann, have it your way." Neal made an irritable, elegant gesture with his hands and then propped his chin on his palm, glaring at the board.
"I would think that you would like Scrabble. You have a Scrabble board, you can crack any code…"
"Peter, you flatter me," Neal interjected, with a winning smile. "And yes, I can play Scrabble. I've played it in eight languages. That's not the point. The point is…"
"You don't like coloring in the lines, I get it." Peter played J-U-N-G-L-E, and tallied his points.
Neal sighed. "And yet here you are, metaphorical coloring book in hand, demanding that I go against my very nature."
"Elizabeth is spring-cleaning, which goes against my very nature," Peter answered, taking a complacent sip of beer. That was, after all, why he had crashed Neal's apartment in the first place. It was a courtesy, bringing a game instead of making Neal watch the game.
"I'd prefer Bananagrams," Neal grumbled, but he was plotting now, Peter could tell.
(Peter wins, but only just.)
If Peter was counting tragedies, there would be too many. But on the brighter days, the days where no one's dying and no one's hacking a Nazi sub and no one's trying to take Peter's job, Peter wonders how sorrow could follow as bright a smile as Neal's.
Then he wonders how it couldn't.
Neal was only rarely sick. This was a mercy, because he always ended up on the Burkes' couch when he was. Peter blamed Elizabeth, or Neal, or both of them.
Neal croaked his sly remarks around bowls of chicken soup and Peter kept the volume low on the game so that Neal wouldn't complain. (It wasn't so that he could get some sleep. Not at all.)
"Are we ever going to kick him out?" Peter asked, on the third night. He didn't mean it.
Elizabeth was making tea. She had three mugs hooked through her fingers. "Oh, Peter," she said. The little furrow, the kissable one, appeared between her eyebrows. "Of course not. We're his family."
"Yeah." And Peter glanced over at Neal, wondering if he heard.
(Peter thinks he's asleep, but only just.)
The mistrust has always been the worst of it. It's an underlying theme that's been the dark side to their friendship. Neal's always keeping secrets. Secrets, like sorrows, follow him around. And Peter's an honest man. He likes to be trusted, and he wishes he could trust.
"Trust his heart," says Elizabeth. "It's the best part of him."
Peter tries. But Neal Caffrey's heart is at war with his head, sometimes, and the most formidable mind in…most of the world, as far as Peter knows…doesn't wait for anyone.
There's always something wrong just when it's almost right, and that's what hurts.
Over the years, Mozzie and El have been the ones to explain it best.
"It's not about believing someone, it's about believing in someone," Mozzie said, in a rare moment of cogent rationality.
He was talking about Whitney Houston.
Peter was thinking of someone else.
The gunshot was under his feet, but it filled him up like a thunderclap, time and space and Neal, all in a second.
He was running.
Somewhere, somewhere. Anywhere.
Peter didn't know what to do, but he knew, somehow, what he'd find.
There was so much blood, there was too much blood—it was always that way when someone was dying, in those final, fatal, awful moments when the living can do nothing for the dead.
Afterwards, Peter will grieve. Afterwards, the first shock will pass.
But there was nothing left but afterwards, and Peter saw that at once.
(Peter's too late, but only just.)
There's a funeral, and there's a year that is the best and worst of his life. His son is born, but his best friend is lost forever.
Neal won't get to meet Neal. Peter doesn't know which one he's sorrier for.
The storage unit was like an art piece, and that was no surprise. Peter found old newspapers, older wine. Everything was a clue, but he'd already figured out the puzzle.
He found a Scrabble board tucked flat against the back of a shelf, and he wondered if it was the same one.
Peter could track him down, if he wanted to. Peter could-Peter thought, someday, but it was hope, not retribution.
(And Peter smiles, because Neal's gone-
but only just.)