Disclaimer: I do not have any claim to White Collar, merely an interest in getting the ideas it inspires in me down on paper. All rights belong to the network and show creators.
For all that Neal Caffrey presented a charismatic, confident face to the world, people often forgot that he was only thirty years old...which made him twenty-five the first time Peter caught him...which in turn made him significantly younger once he began the exploits that had earned him reputations among the legally and illegally employed.
Not even Peter knew much about Neal prior to his days as a career criminal, only what the consultant had allowed to slip through in the past year of working together, and for all that this time had allowed a great partnership to develop, expanding on the tentative bond that had formed during the four-year chase, the mask had yet to drop. Neal trusted Peter more than anyone else in the world, but that didn't mean he'd trust even Peter with his real self. The ability to be himself around others had been burned out long ago, the product of too many bad experiences and too much pain.
It simply wasn't worth the inevitable heartache, and after all this time, he'd forgotten how, anyway.
Still, most days he could ignore the lingering secrets between them because for the most part, he enjoyed his life now. Confining though it might be, Peter gave him more leeway than any other agent would have—part of the reason he trusted him as much as he did—and he was still able to put his skills into practice. He could do what he did best, and once in a while, every once in a while, that high he'd found in stealing the unstealable would return in other ways like the look on June's face after he'd helped her granddaughter. It was a different reward, to be sure, but work that rewarded him nonetheless.
And Peter had faith in him...most of the time; that in and of itself had to be the greatest gift he'd been given. Peter's faith had kept him out of prison, made him a partner rather than another FBI asset to be used and dismissed, created a new family for him as his other all but shattered, saved his life.
The feeling of the plane exploding behind him would be forever bound up with the tumultuous emotions of that conversation with Peter. How torn he'd been, how he'd wanted to stay and be the man Peter believed him to be, said he could be. No, not could be. Is. Was.
But Kate...god, Kate...
Mysteries, lies, uncertainty, a cat-and-mouse game that had made his head spin, that he had fought so hard to win, and in the end he had still lost her, failed her. Not even Neal Caffrey could steal someone from death.
...not that he hadn't...hadn't thought about it, sent his mind coursing down every possible scenario where she still might be alive, might somehow have escaped the blast, might not have been on the plane to begin with. Those first few days after, he'd been nearly catatonic as his bright mind worked as hard as it ever had, realigning everything he knew and trying desperately to make it equal what he wanted it to...Kate alive and waiting for him.
As the days had passed, though, Peter, Mozzie, June, and even Elizabeth had slowly pulled him back, made him face reality (which by then had included the return of the orange jumpsuit). And, as much as he tried, his current default setting, personality-wise, limited how far he could sink into such disruptive despair. Neal Caffrey was a driven, resilient individual who eventually bounced back from everything, absorbed the events of his life, assimilated them, and moved on. There was still a desperation to his actions—and he had definitely swung from the mourning period to the vengeance stage of grief—but enough time had passed that his mask was once again in place, though a bit burnt in places yet to heal over.
Soon, like it or not, the experience would become another shade of the mask that he wore, another notch to mark the passage of time. Twelve, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty. He had learned long ago, long ago, that while society might have certain stereotypes for how people these ages should behave, truth rarely matched the concept, yet the stereotypes persisted and of necessity, so did the charismatic façade.
It allowed him to blend, using his ability to read people to fit in with them when the reality of his life experiences sought to cast him apart. It allowed him to move forward, to function, to be what was expected, to live the life Peter had offered him.
And most of the time, he even managed to believe it.