It had been eleven days on house arrest. Neal had spent three of those days answering a barrage of hostile questions, first from OPR about Roberts, then from Hughes' superiors, and finally, from the Marshals Service. They had eventually, although reluctantly, agreed to reinstate the supervised work release with no changes or charges. Fortunately, a steady stream of visitors had helped to reduce the monotony of the other eight days.
Peter was on his way to pick him up. First day back to the office.
Neal readjusted his tie and slicked back his damp hair. The bruises had disappeared from his face and most of his battered body. A couple of marks from Zantele had persisted, and the gash up the side of his head would be a constant reminder of 'brotherly love' from Ryan. Fortunately, unless he shaved his head, the scar was covered. Neal closed his eyes and breathed in the welcome aroma of June's Italian Roast. Some things he had missed more than others over the last two months. He was still apprehensive about his return to the White Collar unit, but anxious enough that he met Peter curbside.
Peter raised the mug of coffee Neal had given him in a silent toast of welcome. "You good?"
"Always." Neal beamed.
Neal shot him a questioning side-on look when Peter's travel took them away from the Bureau.
"New case?" Neal asked but received no reply.
Peter parked the car on a side street and motioned for Neal to join him. "Walk with me."
Neal's attention had remained on Peter. He hadn't taken in the location, the tree-lined street or old brick buildings.
"The Monet is beautiful." Peter grinned.
Neal opened his mouth, closed it, and tried to cover the sheepish look that crossed his face. He shrugged, questioning. A Monet—one he'd stolen, or forged, or one he was being blamed for? Peter was grinning like he'd just swallowed the canary? His reprieve from a return to prison might now be very short-lived.
Peter was grinning even broader, if that was possible, and pointing to something. "Thought I'd come see her in the morning."
"Her? Who, her?" Neal had lost his smooth command of the English language. After everything—recovering the Gardner Art and dropping it in Peter's hands, trusting Peter explicitly—what was he being accused of now?
Neal flinched when Peter grabbed his arm and pulled him closer. He pointed down the street and whispered with a soft reverence, "She, your Monet, in the morning light."
It was only then that Neal realized where he was; the wrought-iron gate was only a few steps away, the sunlight streaming through the gap between the two old brick buildings and spilling out onto the street.
"How did ... Mozzie."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Peter stepped through the gate of the community garden.
Neal shrugged. His eyes traced the same path Peter's had to his mural of Monet's Garden at Giverny. His eyes brightened, then sparkled. It was the first time he'd seen the mural with the garden in full bloom.
"Want to explain this forgery, Caffrey?" Peter smirked.
Neal huffed, "I thought you were accusing me of stealing a Monet?"
"Mmm, should I be?" Peter feigned concerned interest.
"Some things never change." Neal rolled his eyes in mock annoyance and sat down on the wooden bench in the center of the garden.
"Some things do." Peter stared intently at Neal until he had the other man's full attention.
"Neal, I talked to Mozzie after you sent the two texts. Said you wanted to come home. I wanted to talk you, make sure you were good with everything before coming back to work. This place just seemed like the right place to talk honestly with you."
"Honestly? You know words like that scare me, Peter." Neal frowned.
Peter continued. "It was easy chasing you."
"Easy?" Neal sounded incredulous and slightly indignant.
"Not like that." Peter held a hand up. "Chasing: there's rules; even if you broke some of them, I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Who I was, who you were. This ... being partners ... friends ... it's... uh..."
"Neal, everything about you is complicated. I doubt I'll ever truly know all about you but I'm starting to understand. You like the thrill and the rush of the con, the ability to forge anything put in front of you, rise to any challenge. But..." Peter stood in front of the Monet mural and swept his arm across the garden. "You want more than the moment, the rush. You want to be able to walk out the door and always know that your return will be welcomed. That you'll be welcomed."
Neal wasn't entirely sure what to say to that, and shrugged. "I painted a mural in a garden."
Peter laughed softly. "It goes well beyond a mural. You recovered the Gardner Artwork. You could have easily disappeared with the art: you said it yourself. Instead you asked me to come bring you home."
"Right, like you wouldn't have been on my heels, ready to put me back in prison, the moment some clue of my whereabouts turned up. Come on, Peter, you like the chase but you like the collar even more, especially when it's mine. It was just easier for now to stay in your good graces." Neal tipped his head, challenging Peter to disprove his assertion.
Peter didn't miss the attempt to deflect the conversation away from anything emotional or revealing. Neal had revealed so much of himself in Northern Ireland and Scotland that Peter was almost concerned the man was set to run just so he could reinvent himself. Instead, Neal not only managed to return to New York, but he'd set the Gardner Artwork in Peter's hands, really with little asked in return.
"Yeah, I like the chase, Neal. But I'd like the partnership better. So, I'll try to accuse you of a few less things, believe you when you assert your innocence, and only threaten to throw you in prison on special occasions."
"Gee, thanks, Peter; the generosity is overwhelming," Neal huffed with a light smile.
"You trust me?" Peter asked quietly. He was still directing this conversation.
"You know I do," Neal responded, unabashed. In the same moment he also realized he was being led right down the path Peter had chosen. They weren't here to see his Monet, he was here to see himself in Peter's eyes, whether he wanted to or not. Neal didn't like having his walls breached; he wasn't ready for that yet. Peter was watching him intently.
"You said you trusted me above all others." Peter waited for Neal's nod in agreement. "Now, I'm starting to realize why you've never really wanted my trust in return."
Neal stood, ready to counter that comment. Peter again held a hand up. El had told him repeatedly that Neal might just surprise him if he spoke honestly with him. Peter didn't like surprises. He braced himself with a deep inhale of the crisp morning air.
"Let me finish, Neal. What you've wanted, needed, for a long time, isn't trust but faith."
The words spun in Peter's head—'Faith that you are important, worth fighting for, worth being called a friend, part of a family. What you needed from me wasn't my trust but my faith. I gave that to you without knowing how much that would affect you. How complicated it would be. How much it could devastate you if it was withdrawn. I always believed that Neal Caffrey could be so much more than a con man, and you started to see that belief, that faith.' Peter held his words in check, as he caught the moment of panic flash across Neal's carefully constructed facade. Honesty was good but smothering Neal Caffrey with it might just have the reverse effect.
Peter opted for less is more. "You're still here, Neal, not because I believe you all the time, but because I believe in you. I believe in you, Neal."
Neal couldn't hide the slight tremble as he was thrown out of his comfort zone. He felt exposed and safe all in the same breath. He wanted Peter to know everything there was to know about him, and nothing. Anonymity had its benefits. The con worked because you could be whomever you wanted, move from point to point, and never worry about saying goodbye because there was no return, no welcome back. All you had to do was believe in yourself; it was, after all, a confidence game. Peter, however, had given him another type of confidence. The confidence to trust someone else because they had your back. And ultimately, even when things weren't always at their best, when you screwed up, failed miserably to meet their expectations, they'd still pick you up, say something inane, like 'Cowboy up', and be happy to walk side by side with you, to call you a partner, a friend.
"Umm, Peter." Neal let out a held breath. "This is nice and all, but this is my first day back in more than two months. And, while you're in charge of me, Hughes is still the guy in charge of the office and I'd sooner not tick him off by being late."
Peter laughed. What else would Neal Caffrey do but redirect the tension he was showing onto something else. Peter draped an arm lightly across Neal's shoulder and jostled him warmly. "Come on, buddy, let's get you to work before Hughes has you for breakfast."
"For breakfast. Thanks, Peter, that makes me feel sooo much safer." Neal rolled his eyes.
As Peter opened his car door, Neal tapped the roof of the car.
"Peter." When those brown eyes found his and held his blue eyes intently, warmly, he really didn't need to say anything but, "Thanks."
Hughes immediately gave Neal the two-fingered summons on his entry into the office. He hadn't even managed to flip his fedora onto his desk. He'd anticipated the summons, but after he'd had at least a few moments to acclimatize. Hughes held the door open for him—not the norm. The desire to bolt was overwhelming. Hughes shut the door firmly.
Neal exited ten minutes later; he failed miserably to rein in the look of consternation. Peter latched onto him and guided him to his office and Neal's favored chair.
"Neal?" Peter spoke softly. "You okay?"
"Huh, yeah." Neal absently stared ahead.
"What did Hughes say?"
"Yes, Hughes. What did he say?"
"He apologized for yelling at me two months ago. Then he said you're ..." Neal blinked up at Peter. "... singled-minded when I'm AWOL and I'm never to do that to you again or he'll personally drive me to prison, my fault or not." Neal stared at some unfocused point over Peter's shoulder. "And, I'm never to sleep on his couch again; actually, I'm never to go anywhere near it again, ever."
Peter squeezed Neal's shoulder.
"It's all good," Peter reassured but the chuckles snuck into every word.
"That man ..." Neal scowled up at Peter. "... scares the hell out of me."
"Good, someone needs to." He tapped Neal on the back. "Come on, we've got cases to solve, your pick." He held two files up. He studied their contents for a moment and smiled. "Ummm, mortgage fraud or mortgage fraud?"
Neal showed Peter where he'd secreted Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, only on the condition that he be allowed to paint another two copies of it, marked as such: one for himself, one to present to Adeline of the Art Crimes Unit on her retirement. (Adeline had kept the real painting safe for all the years it hung at the FBI, even though it was supposed to be a well-rendered copy, and when Neal had later asked her personally to store it away for him, she'd smiled and nodded with her years of experience, not only in knowing artwork, but people too.)
Neal refused to say anything against Agent Bob Roberts. Roberts, instead, took a suggested early retirement without severance. Given his early departure from Ireland with Neal, Roberts also wasn't surprised to find that no money had ever gone into an off-shore account for him. He had never planned on taking the money; the Gardner Artwork had simply consumed his career, and not recovering it had become his personal failure.
Peter waited for a month before initiating their investigation into the Gardner Artwork theft. The opening of the case was based on a review of Agent Bob Roberts' findings, as well as Zantele's father's connection several years before with a stolen Rembrandt, and the tie into organized crime, both in the US and abroad. The names slowly came out and within a year arrests were made through joint investigations with counterparts in several other countries. It would actually be nearly two years before all the arrests were made and the recovery of the Gardner Artwork could be revealed to the world.
Neither Peter Burke nor his consultant, Neal Caffrey, were ever interviewed, photographed or mentioned in any of the news releases. They didn't do the job for the glory. And some things were better left unspoken.
Of note, six months after Neal was officially released from his work term, he took the current love of his life to the South of France for a little rest and relaxation. Coincidentally, an unusual theft occurred around the same time in France. A Monet was "unstolen," as the headlines read. The thief had apparently returned one of Monet's garden paintings, with a note stating they had returned the original, as they preferred their own forgery better. A forgery which had hung in a Paris museum for nearly 10 years unnoticed. Peter had smiled as he read the news clipping. It had been sent to him inside an unsigned birthday card.