The door to Hughes's office was closed but it only served to lower the volume of the heated argument that was taking place on the other side. Down in the bullpen stood a nervous group of FBI agents, including Diana, Jones, and a soon to be free Neal. They were clustered in a group around Neal's cubicle, making small talk and pretending not to listen to the shouts bouncing back and forth between the two lead agents, but eavesdropping was inevitable. Neal took a sip of his coffee.
"I'm not going to miss this," he said, holding up his cup.
"You know, I had a pretty good cup from Danny's down the street the other day," Jones said, and Diana and Neal nodded apathetically in response.
"—AN ESSENTIAL ASSET FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS—"
"So, see any good movies lately?" Jones tried to turn everyone's attention away from the shouting.
"Christie doesn't like movies," Diana replied.
"Anklet," Neal said as he looked down at his plastic adornment, "But I can let you know tomorrow." They all laughed uneasily.
"-A LIABILITY FROM DAY ONE—"
"That's nice," Neal said sarcastically. Diana looked at Neal.
"You know, he's trying really hard Neal."
"Oh, I know. I know," Neal said but looked down anyway.
"—FOUR YEARS OF REFORMATION—"
"So, are you, uh, planning to stay at June's?" Jones tried a third time to take the focus off his bosses' argument.
"I don't know. It might be time—"
"A CRIMINAL! YOU CAN'T TRUST—"
"—To move on," Neal said, nodding in the direction of Hughes's closed door.
"Neal, you know that your always wel—" Diana started, but stopped when Hughes's office door opened and abruptly slammed shut again after an enraged Peter Burke stormed into his own office slamming his own door.
Neal looked at his friends. "Should I, uh, go talk to him?"
"No, I'll go." Diana said as she got up and headed to Peter's office. She bounded up the stairs and knocked on the door. Peter didn't even look up.
"Boss?" she questioned softly as she peeked her head in the door. Peter looked up, but didn't say a word. "Everything okay?"
Peter looked up at her with bloodshot eyes, face flushed. "No luck."
"Hugh's won't give Neal his job back after tomorrow?" Diana clarified.
"Not a chance," Peter said as he put his face in his hands, "He's been a liability since day one, and will always be a criminal you can't trust, apparently."
"Boss, I—I'm sorry," Diana said softly. Peter just looked down.
"I just—argh," Peter was clearly frustrated, "I just don't want him to go back to what he was."
"You have to trust him, boss," Diana comforted, "You did what you could. It's up to Neal now." Peter looked out at the window at the bullpen, seeing Neal sitting at his desk, chatting with Jones. He wondered how much of his conversation with Hughes Neal had just heard.
"Send him up here," Peter said without breaking his gaze. Diana obliged, and in a few seconds, Neal sat down at Peter's desk, and Diana closed the door and left. Peter looked across the room at his partner. There Neal sat, with that stupid hat and his damn feet on the desk again. Of course, he was wearing one of those half tie things he always tried to get Peter to wear. But something in his face was different. It wasn't mischievous, the way it was when he pickpocketed Peter's wallet for the third time in an hour. And it wasn't excited, the way it was when he found the answer to a current case. It wasn't impatient, or eager, or anything else Peter would have imagined it to be on Neal's last day in his anklet. It was something different.
Of course, there was the million-dollar smile. The million-dollar smile that said "I'm your ticket to the top of the world" to just about everyone but Peter. Peter knew that smile; it was fake. And while it hurt a bit that Neal would still try to use it to con Peter, he knew it was to cover up something he had been trying to hide all along. That was hope. Hope of a life away from the underground, away from images to keep up and dangerous people you've let down, hope for a life shared with people you love and who love you. Hope of a permanent partnership with Peter, and a place in the FBI family. Hope for an excuse not to turn back into what he was, because while he didn't want to, what choice did he have, really? It killed Peter to not be able to fulfill that hope, to not be able to be that excuse anymore.
"I talked to Hughes again, Neal," Peter started.
"Well, things got a little… charged."
"Well, I'm honored, Peter. I didn't know you cared that much." There goes that smile.
"Don't get too excited, Neal, Hughes won't let me keep you as a consultant."
"Let me guess… I've been a liability since day one, and I'll always be a criminal you can't trust?"
Peter looked up, half surprised. So he had heard.
"Neal, you know I don't think that. You know Diana and Jones don't think that—"
"No, I get it, Peter," Neal looked Peter in the eye, "Really, I do. You can't change your past, and your past shapes your future, right?"
Peter met his partner's gaze.
"You can't change your past, Neal. But you can make your future."
Neal squinted and half laughed quietly.
"I guess I'll go clean up my desk, then, if you don't need me anymore right now?"
Peter nodded in response, and Neal left. Four years ago, he didn't imagine that this moment could hurt so much. But here was, proven wrong.