A/N: This originally started out as a piece for my collection of short ficlets but then it got way too long so I decided to post it as a separate story. I wrote the entire thing with good old pen and paper, which, surprisingly for me, was a lot easier to get my ideas out for. I think it was the fact that I was able to draw arrows and scribble things out.
It's based on that story that Neal told Diana in...I can't remember which episode of Season 2. Actually it might have been the first. It was an intriguing story that added a bit more to our very limited knowledge of Neal and Kate's relationship. So I thought it might be interesting to write a story out of it. I wasn't sure where the bridge was but I placed it in NYC for the purposes of this fic.
Also, I'm not an expert on wine, so that mention of an expensive (hopefully) wine that Neal makes was the product of some hasty and confusing research. If there's a mistake, please let me know.
Finally, it is not beta'd so I apologize for any mistakes.
There was an old dilapidated bridge that sat spanning the banks of a wide, wide river. Newer, more modern bridges had been constructed both to the north and south of it, for citizens had been complaining of the dangers of that old bridge which was falling apart, until finally, after much debate and discussion, the city council had relented and allotted funding to build not one, but two new bridges a short distance away on either side of it. And so the old bridge was forgotten in the minds of the citizens, and they happily used the new bridges for their travel and commercial needs.
On one gray summer day though, a person stood in a building almost as old as the bridge and gazed out the window at that old, broken bridge. And looked at it. Really and truly looked at it, instead of allowing it to fade into the background as if nothing were even standing there. But then his eyes unfocused and it seemed as if he were not looking at it anymore, but rather a memory, a mere shade of it. The door to the room creaked open, and a man stepped inside. The figure at the window didn't seem to notice as his gaze continued to see more than an old bridge much past its prime. The man in the doorway spoke.
"Was there actually a reason for us to come here?" His head tilted and he eyed the other man thoughtfully, voice cool and reserved. "Or did the reason apply only to you? A trip down memory lane?"
The other turned slightly at his voice. "What? Oh. There's nothing here." He went to move toward the door, but stopped when his companion joined him at the window. They both stared at the bridge in silence.
"That bridge looks like its due to be taken down soon," one said, his tone losing some of its previous frost, with an almost tentative friendliness. "I wonder why they kept it up all this time when there are two perfectly sound bridges nearby."
The other was silent for a moment, then said, "Never burn a bridge down, Peter, just close it for renovations for awhile," his voice quiet and almost a sigh.
Agent Peter Burke frowned. The deal that had brought the unlikely pair, the suave conman and the FBI agent who had finally caught him, together was still quite new, and he wasn't sure whether Caffrey had meant that strange comment as a simple remark or a statement with some real meaning and history behind it. Caffrey was tricky like that, and though Peter definitely couldn't say that he trusted him, or even see a day when it would be possible, he also didn't want to alienate him. He honestly didn't know much about the conman, despite the fact that he had obsessively hounded him for years, and had memorized every word of his file. The problem was that the files, while informative, were too clinical, too cold, to even begin to scrape the surface of this young man, whom Peter had recognized to be a singularly brilliant person, even when they had been on opposite sides of the law.
But then Caffrey's mouth quirked up in a little smile, and said with obviously faked nonchalance—to Peter anyway— "Just a quote I read somewhere once."
And Peter decided to let it go, for now, but kept this baffling exchange tucked away in the recesses of his mind just in case.
Neal had been acting strange today, Peter decided. Shifty, in fact. It was as if he had a sixth sense where Neal Caffrey was concerned; he just knew when there was something wrong with him, and his gut was rarely wrong. He groaned softly to himself and looked at the clock. The sky outside his window was dark, but the bright lights of the never-sleeping city shone brightly. It was ten. Not the latest he'd ever stayed at the office, not by a long shot, but also late enough that he would be watching tv, or talking with El. On a usual day at least. Neal had obviously decided that today was not going to be a "usual day" and acted shifty when he'd left.
He sat at his desk, trying to decide whether to go home and sleep, or to find out what was wrong with Neal. Finally, his curiosity and concern won out. El wouldn't be returning home until Saturday anyway, and he didn't really feel like there was any point going home to an empty house and worrying about Neal. There wasn't even Satchmo to talk to, as Peter's wife had asked a friend to take care of him while she was away, especially since he had been working on a hard case last week. Which was all good and well, but now that they had caught the guy, it left him with no one to discuss Neal's possibly shifty behavior with.
But most of all, he didn't want to get home, shower, get changed, and fall asleep only to be woken up by a phone call telling him that a certain conman had cut his anklet or been kidnapped or went out of his radius or was the prime suspect in the theft of a priceless painting. Yes, where Neal was concerned, it was always better to be prepared.
He did some more filing work as the last few agents finished up and waved goodbye to him. No point getting the wrong people suspicious of Neal. While Peter was well-liked and respected by the members of the White Collar unit, Neal was hardly their idea of a perfect FBI consultant.
Peter walked over to Neal's desk. It looked rather chaotic, but Peter knew that its owner probably had the whole mess memorized down to the last carelessly strewn paperclip. Carefully, he opened some drawers and poked around at some items. A quick glance at the papers lying haphazardly on the desk and a check of Neal's computer history both led to no revelations of any evil plans Neal was hatching. He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat back down in his office.
He resisted the urge to put his feet on the desk.
His tired mind absentmindedly ran through the day's events. Neal had arrived on time despite the fact that the case they had just finished had been an exhausting one and that Hughes had ordered them all to do paperwork and filing. He remembered filing endless reports as Neal, who had been reading a newspaper instead of doing work, had stood up, tossed the paper into a trashcan and actually walked up to Peter's office and asked him if there was more paperwork for him. At the agent's incredulous look—Neal hated paperwork just like the rest of them—he had simply shrugged a carefully careless half-shrug and said that he was bored.
Peter, glad at least that Neal was channeling his boredom into something productive had decided not to question his sudden helpfulness and gave him a stack of files to sort. Then he had forgotten the incident as he returned to work.
Now, his trained detective mind dragged that particular scene up out of what seemed like a billion other scenes just like it and he turned it over for a little while. Had there been something in the files that had upset him? Peter knew that Neal and his various aliases knew a great many people and had been involved in a lot of alleged, as Neal would insist, crimes. But as quickly as that thought came to him, he discarded it. The cases and information within Neal's file work was way before his time.
The other theory Peter had was the newspaper. With no prying eyes left in the offices, he allowed his excitement to take hold and he sprinted down the stairs to the wastebasket and peered inside. A few scrunched up pieces of paper and a pen cap looked disinterestedly back at him. He mentally reprimanded himself. Obviously, the trash would have already been emptied.
It didn't matter though, for he could always get another one. As long as it was today's. For all Peter knew, Neal could have simply been reading a three week old paper just to avoid doing work. Actually, now that he thought about it, it might be yesterday's paper by now. He glanced at the clock. Sure enough it was just a little past midnight. Figuring out what Neal was up to sure was time-consuming work, he reflected.
And no, it was not "spying."
Peter shrugged these random and not quite useful thoughts out of his head. And anyway, as usual, he was invading his privacy for Neal's own good.
There was a stack of newspapers tucked away in a corner of the FBI offices. Peter didn't know why; no one ever had time to read them. Except for Neal, apparently. And besides, most news was bad news, and if there was bad news, he thought, then somebody in the FBI or police, or law enforcement in general, hadn't been doing their job properly. Or it could just be bad luck. Either way, it was pretty depressing to see how thick the newspapers were.
Today's—or yesterday's—papers were on the top of the pile and Peter took one, scanning headlines and skimming articles that seemed promising once he was back in the comfort of his own office. After half an hour of reading, his eyes began to hurt a little and he was beginning to wonder if there had ever been anything important at all. He put his head in his hands and wished that his internal Neal-is-acting-shifty-and-he's-probably-going-to-do-something-that-they'll-both-wish-he-hadn't-done-very-soon sensor wasn't so sensitive.
He began to idly go over the articles he'd seen in his mind until his head clunked onto the table. Blearily lifting his dead again, he reached for his cup, but it felt much too light and he finished the cold coffee in a gulp. He waited a moment. The tiny amount of caffeine that he'd just ingested didn't really seem to help much. Grumbling under his breath about annoying conmen-turned-consultants and damned paperwork that bored him to death, Peter got up to get some more coffee.
Halfway through filling his cup with reheated, stale coffee, his ever-analyzing mind found a connection. He grabbed his half-full cup and ran back to his office and the newspaper lying open on his desk. Flipping through the pages, he quickly found the one he was looking for.
It was a small article. One of those local news pieces that people only bothered to read the headlines for. "Old Bridge to be Demolished," Peter read. After reading through it, he was sure that he had found the source of Neal's earlier shiftiness. As always, it was something random and unimportant to most people that got to Neal. The author of the article certainly thought so. In fact, the general tone was that she "doubted anyone would even notice it was gone, except perhaps to feel relief that the old eyesore was no longer standing."
Peter sighed. It was just his luck to be friends with the one person in the world who did care.
A check of Neal's anklet location and a short drive later, he arrived at the fancy apartment that Neal called home. He walked up the steps to the door and was about to knock when he hesitated. It was already past 1:00 o'clock a.m., he realized, and he didn't want to disturb June, Neal's amiable landlady. On the other hand, she was his friend and cared about him too, so maybe she wouldn't mind. But there was also Neal's dark window to consider. He could very well be asleep already and he would never let Peter hear the end of his "paranoia and mother-hen behavior."
Not for the first time, he wished that the endless monotony of filing hadn't dulled his mind so much.
Then the door opened and he was looking at June. He blinked at the sudden light spilling out of the house. "I heard your car," she told him. When Peter didn't react she said, "Well? Aren't you going to come in?" and turned and disappeared into a room, obviously expecting him to follow. He did, closing the door behind him, and traded his coat and hat for a steaming hot mug of coffee when she returned.
"You were already up?" Peter asked.
"Yes. Neal was acting strangely when he came back today," she replied, answering the unspoken question of "why?"
"Yeah, I thought so too," he said, glad that he wasn't the only with an internal Neal-is-acting-shifty-and…and he couldn't remember the rest of the name, but that didn't really matter.
She smiled at him and then continued, "So I thought I'd stay up and read some novels just in case something happened. But I didn't expect to find the FBI at my door!"
Peter grinned sheepishly. "I just didn't want to be woken up in the middle of the night and be told that Neal had done something stupid."
"I worry about him too." Then, looking apologetic, she said, "But it is late now and I am confident that you'll be able to fix the problem so if you don't mind letting yourself out later, I will be retiring now."
"Oh no, don't worry, I'll be fine," Peter said. "Good night." And she gave him another smile before heading to bed.
Peter climbed the stairs that led to Neal's flat. He knocked gently, but there was no response. The doorknob was locked when he tried it.
"Neal," he said, "open the door!"
A moment of silence later, the sound of footsteps revealed June.
"I thought you might need this," she said, holding a key and unlocking the door for him. Peter nodded his thanks before entering the dark room and closing the door quietly.
It was a cloudy night, but the lack of moonlight shining through the window was made up for by the lights of New York City. Peter stood near the door as he waited for his eyes to adjust. As shapes came more clearly into his view, he could see a figure on the floor propped up against the bed.
"Neal? Are you alright?" Peter quickly crossed the room and knelt next to him. Neal's face was turned away and he didn't respond. He smelled of expensive wine. Peter sighed and, locating the bottle, reached for it to put it on a table. It felt light in his hand.
"Leave it," Neal growled, his voice slightly hoarse.
"What's wrong Neal?" Peter asked. "How much did you drink?" Neal grumbled under his breath.
Since he was already there, and was obviously going to be robbed of sleep that night, Peter found a comfortable place, free of sloshed wine, on the floor to sit down on. He was fairly certain that Neal would talk to him, but he had to be patient. He hoped it wasn't about Kate, though previous experience told him that most likely it was. That girl had already messed up Neal's life enough. And she was still doing it from beyond the grave.
After a long moment of silence from Neal, Peter decided to prompt him some more. "Remember that day, when the tracking anklet," and here he kicked it gently with his foot to make sure that he had Neal's attention, "was still newly chafing your ankle?"
"Lots of days like that," Neal finally mumbled, when it became apparent that Peter wasn't going to go on until he replied.
"Yes, well," Peter said, "This day stands out. We were investigating a small-time painting theft. And you said that you thought we should go check out a random hotel room. He looked up in time to see Neal's eyes drop down. Stifling an outward sigh into an internal one, Peter decided that it was a good sign that he was at least listening. "So anyway, I agreed, we went, you stared at an old bridge from the window, and then we left."
"Neal's eyes flicked briefly to Peter's pocket, where the article he had hastily torn out was concealed. Even when drunk, few things got by Neal, he supposed.
"It…has to do with Kate," Neal said, and Peter couldn't stop himself from frowning at the name. Either Neal didn't notice or he chose to ignore it and continued with his story. "One day, after one of our…escapades, we ran back to our safe house. It hadn't been a completely smooth operation and we knew that we should probably leave before the police arrived, but for some reason we didn't. Outside, we could see this old broken bridge that was probably an eyesore, but at that moment, that single moment, it was simply…perfect." He groped for the bottle, but realized Peter had already moved it out of his reach.
Gritting his teeth, he continued, "I guess when I saw how they had torn it down, I felt like I was losing her, losing what we'd had. I mean, I know she's dead…but all these things that connect me to her, remind me of her…I don't want to lose that too."
And here was the heart of the problem. Neal simply couldn't—or wouldn't—let go. Even when she had been alive, he had been obsessed with finding her, with making sure she was alright. Peter doubted that she had had the same devotion to him. But Neal refused to see that, and the desire to find Kate haunted his every move, his every motive. It seemed as if every time Peter made some progress with putting Neal back on the right track, there was Kate standing at his shoulder telling him to walk the other way.
The analyzing FBI agent side of him, who saw things in black and white, good and evil, was glad that the infallible Neal Caffrey had a weak point, an Achilles' Heel that could be used against him. But being his handler, partner, and tentatively friend had blurred the lines for Peter, at least where Neal was concerned. And now he wasn't sure whether he could say it was worth it to have something over Neal anymore, not when it caused him so much pain.
"Hey!" Peter said, "No more alcohol tonight. You've had more than enough." He took the bottle that Neal had managed to grab while he was distracted by his thoughts.
Neal didn't protest, and said instead, "Told Diana that story awhile ago. I thought she would've passed it along to you at least. I'd always thought there was, like a rule or something where 'any story relating to Neal Caffrey must be reported to Peter ASAP.'" He looked at Peter, but there was no accusation in his gaze, only an acceptance of the fact that despite his help catching criminals, he was still a distrusted outsider at the FBI.
Peter felt a flash of anger. "Neal," he snapped, "It's been over five years since I caught you, over one year since we made that deal, and who knows how many criminals we've caught with your help. Do you honestly think you haven't earned some trust by now?" Neal looked at him, eyes wide with surprise. But Peter didn't let him speak, didn't even pause to weigh his words before he spoke them because he was angry and frustrated and too concerned for his friend who was still heartbroken for a woman who had probably stopped loving him years ago, if she ever had.
"It's been over half a year since Kate died. And you haven't moved on, not even a little. You have to snap out of it Neal! There are other people in this world who care about you. Don't let her death destroy you, who you've become, the good that you're doing now."
Neal looked as close to physical violence as he had ever come. "So that's why you've come," he snarled. "You just wanted to make sure your asset," and he spat out the word, "was mentally stable enough to work tomorrow!"
"It's already tomorrow, actually," Peter's anger made him obliged to point out.
"Who cares?" Neal snapped.
"I've been up all night worrying about you! Worried that if I didn't find out what the problem was, I would find out later that you'd ran or was back in jail!"
"Good for you," Neal said acidly. "You sure are living up to your reputation as a model FBI agent."
"It's not about that!" Peter had to take a deep breath and remind himself that Neal was very drunk and angry and that he knew that Peter cared. He just had to remind him of that. Lowering his voice, Peter said, "I was worried for you. Not because it was my duty, not because I was afraid that I'd be in trouble if you were in trouble. You're my friend, Neal. I don't think I have to keep reminding you of that fact."
Neal visibly deflated. "I know, Peter," he said quietly.
"I just wished you'd see that there's more to life than Kate," Peter said, more to himself than Neal, but Neal seemed to become enraged again.
"I loved her!" he shouted, "Why can't you just accept that and leave me alone!"
Peter made a mental note to himself that Neal had a penchant for wild mood swings when drunk. Briefly, he wondered why it wasn't in his file, but then he remembered that Neal had simply never got drunk, at least not that the FBI had been able to observe.
"Yelling at me isn't going to bring her back, Neal," Peter replied mildly.
"I wake up sometimes," Neal said, anger gone as quickly as it had come, "and I can smell her hair. When I close my eyes, I can see her's staring back at me. When I dream, I can feel her hand holding mine." Peter was instantly worried. He hadn't realized that Neal was this traumatized by Kate's death. Outwardly, he had seemed fine, with only occasional moments of grief that were normal for someone who was still accepting that the person they loved had died. He felt a surge of guilt for assuming that Neal was alright when he had been hurting that much.
"And that feeling, that feeling of her," Neal continued, voice anguished, "disappears just as fast as it comes. And then I remember that she's gone. And sometimes, I get angry," He looked away.
"You get angry?" Peter repeated, slightly confused.
"At her!" Neal shouted. "At Kate," he echoed in a quieter voice, "for leaving me. For dying. For causing it to hurt so much."
Peter listened to Neal's ragged breathing and understood. To him, the worst part was not the emotional pain, but rather the guilt that came from feeling anger at feeling pain.
"Neal," he said, "Neal, look at me." He waited until blue eyes lifted reluctantly to meet his own before continuing. "It wasn't your fault. Do you understand? It wasn't you fault. None of it was." He looked at him, as if by doing that, he could force Neal to understand that, and that he was important as a person too, not just for the information he could give the FBI. After what seemed like an eternity, Neal finally let out a deep sigh like Atlas shrugging off the weight of the world. Peter thought that Neal would probably congratulate him for making a classical reference.
"And my alleged crimes?" Neal smirked his trademark smirk, and Peter was relieved at this evidence of things returning to normal, "None of that was my fault either?"
"Go wash out your mouth," Peter grumbled, "Your breath smells like alcohol."
"It's not just any alcohol, Peter," Neal said with mock indignation. "It's 1991 Château d'Yquem."
Peter rolled his eyes, and he got up and turned on the lights. "Argh!" Neal groaned, "I've been sitting her in the dark for hours! You can't just turn on the lights and expect me to be fine!"
The door opened and June appeared, carrying a cup of coffee and some biscuits. "I thought I heard normality returning," she said, smiling as she handed Peter the cup.
"Don't I get one?" Neal asked, turning the full force of his puppy-dog eyes onto June. Peter shook his head with fond exasperation. Unfortunately for Neal, June was by now immune to that particular trick and was thus unmoved by Neal's pleas for coffee.
Besides, as she said sternly, "You've already had enough to drink tonight, don't you think?" The almost-empty bottle answered the question for him.
Neal sighed. "I'm going to regret this tomorrow morning," he said, putting his head into his hands.
"It's already tomorrow morning," Peter reminded him. A muffled groan was his only response.
A sudden thought struck Peter and he turned to June guiltily. "I'm sorry we woke you up. I didn't really mean to turn this conversation into a shouting match." Neal paused in his moaning to add his apology as well.
"Don't worry about it," she said kindly. "I had planned to stay up until I was sure you were going to be alright anyway," she added to Neal.
His answering grin quickly turned into a grimace. "I think I'm going to be sick…"
"Lesser men than you have gotten drunk and survived," Peter said, but with some sympathy, "You'll be fine."
Neal ignored him and lurched over to his bed and flopped down. Peter decided that now was a good time to get some sleep himself. He felt exhausted all of a sudden and sway a little as he got to his feet, fighting off a yawn.
June, noticing, asked, "Why don't you just sleep here tonight? There is plenty of space and there's no point in going back home when you have to come here to pick Neal up tomorrow anyway."
Peter was about to decline when a sleepy sounding Neal mumbled, "Yeah…we could have one of those…sleepover…things." June left, saying that she would go fix up a room for him.
"Did you have a lot of those when you were a kid?" Peter asked, deciding to just give in since the choice had already been made for him. He sat back down on the couch. If neither exhaustion nor alcohol could lower Neal's defenses, then it seemed that the combination of both might be able to get him to open up a little about his past.
"No…" Neal said, pondering the question, "Not really…"
He didn't elaborate, and Peter suddenly didn't feel like pushing him for more. Still, not for the first time, he felt a stab of curiosity about Neal's childhood. There were precious few files with that information. What had he been like as a kid? What could have prompted such an obviously talented and charismatic young man to a life of crime? But these were questions for another day.
He leaned his head back against a cushion and closed his aching eyes. "I think your quote was wrong," he said, eyes still closed, after a long enough pause that he wondered if Neal might have already fallen asleep. It didn't matter if he had. He wanted to say this, wanted Neal to hear it, whether awake, dreaming, or in a drunken stupor.
"You can't keep every single thing from your past, every relationship. Whether because of the one you love, external events, or simple bad luck, sometimes you have to let go. Because if she truly, truly loved you, then she would want that for you, to be happy." There was no answer from Neal except for the sound of his breathing.
"You've always been good with metaphors, so why don't I rephrase that," Peter continued. "No matter how beautiful a bridge is when it's first built, it's going to fall apart if you don't keep maintaining it. When it becomes as decrepit as that old bridge you saw long ago, there's no reason to keep it standing anymore. Not when newer bridges are being built. With better foundations, hopefully. Do you understand what I'm saying here now? That bridge was an eyesore to everyone except you. Don't leave it standing there, ugly and hurting. But you have to do it yourself. You have to dismantle it, because it's not going to fall down by itself."
Peter had almost dozed off when Neal finally responded. "Do I get some help taking it down?" he asked, his voice quiet, "Because it's a pretty big bridge…"
"Of course," Peter said, relieved, "Anything you need."
"A crane. Always wanted to drive one of those. Oh, and a truck. And some bomb-sniffing dogs."
"Why would you need dogs?" Peter asked, confused.
"I don't. I just like dogs."
"Ok, you've lost me on the metaphor there…"
"No, you were on a pretty good roll over there. I never thought I'd ever hear you use the finer points of the English language."
Peter could practically hear Neal's smirk. He wondered if he should tell him about his classical reference.
"Aren't you supposed to be passed out from an overdose of alcohol?" he grumbled instead.
"Don't remind me…" his voice trailed off.
Peter smiled into the darkness. And all the hours of being awake when most sane people were asleep, frustration, and shouting at and making up with Neal paid off when said conman—but also his friend—said "Thanks, Peter." Simple words, but Peter knew and heard the unspoken sentiment behind them.
When June finally came back to tell Peter that the room was ready, she found him asleep on the couch, relaxed and unstressed. Neal was also asleep, smiling faintly. And June found that she was smiling also. She closed the door quietly and went to get some sleep herself.