Last chapter, I can't believe it… Thank you all so much for your encouragement and your feedback, it kept me work hard on this. Thanks to liebedero for looking through this and Phoenix-cry for a little insight of the American health system. If I still got anything wrong, it's entirely my fault, because it's way too complicated to understand…
I cannot thank canadianscanget enough for her help, I certainly needed it. I enjoyed working with you very much, so hugs and kudos for leading me through this story the way you did!
The poem in the beginning is from Rainer Maria Rilke. The translation is not the best one, but it still holds an aspect of this story. If you didn't know Rilke by now, you should look him up, he is a true genius.
Disclaimer: White Collar does not belong to me.
I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every hour holy.
I am too small in the world, and yet not tiny enough
just to stand before you like a thing,
dark and shrewd.
I want my will, and I want to be with my will
as it moves towards deed;
and in those quiet, somehow hesitating times,
when something is approaching,
I want to be with those who are wise
or else alone.
I want always to be a mirror that reflects your whole being,
and never to be too blind or too old
to hold your heavy, swaying image.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere do I want to remain folded,
because where I am bent and folded, there I am lie.
And I want my meaning
true for you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I studied
closely for a long, long time,
like a word I finally understood,
like the pitcher of water I use every day ,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the deadliest storm of all.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
For the first time in his life, Neal Caffrey was upset about being released from a hospital. The doctors were reserved, the nurses grumpy and the food was close to solid proof that the hospital wanted to see him dead rather than alive. But everything - the people, the food, the smell ... hell, even the pain he had suffered when they started to reduce the morphine - everything, was better than the uncertainty he was about to face with his release.
Diana had brought a new anklet the day before. She had looked a little bit guilty, but Neal had shrugged his shoulders with a smile. He had expected this. To be honest, he wondered what had taken them so long to put him back under the constant monitoring. Probably the fact that he couldn't get from one end of the room to the other without help…
Anyways, he was back on the leash. Diana had informed Neal that Hughes had set a hearing in a month, a little time to convalesce. He was allowed to stay at June's until then. The hospital had Neal transferred to the transitional care unit on the 6th floor and they had wanted to keep him there some time but Mozzie had objected as Neal's lawyer. His client wouldn't survive the hospital food that long. It looked as if it was going to be homecare for Neal. He wasn't sure why his insurance was willing to pay for that but on the other hand insurance policies weren't hard to forge…
Neal had asked Diana if she'd heard anything about his returning to the White Collar unit. She hadn't, but seemed hesitant and finally admitted that Peter hadn't spoken out on the question, and she had no idea if he was on Neal's side on this or not.
Actually, Peter hadn't spoken about anything. Elizabeth stopped by every day and stayed for hours. Neal knew that she tried to make up for her husband's absence. It hurt him that he wasn't able to pretend as if everything was fine for her sake. Neal realized things would be complicated between Peter and him, but he had been almost positive that getting Elizabeth out of harm's way would give him at least the right to explain himself. That seemed to be anything but the case.
What really bothered Neal most about getting released tomorrow was the fact that it wouldn't be Peter, who was going to pick him up. Neal had asked both Jones and Diana if they were, but both of them had shaken their heads. Neal snorted with a bitter smile. Of course, Peter wouldn't allow his best field agents to play driver for a felon.
Neal sighed and picked up another piece of paper. After they reduced the morphine, there was nothing to stave off the dreams and thoughts that haunted him, only the countless drafts and sketches offered him any reprieve. It was the Mona Lisa. Always the Mona Lisa that he drew: the soft edges of her eyelids; the dark shadows under her chin; the floating curls of her hair. The hardest part was to capture the thought her face bore. People could keep rambling about her smile, but they didn't see that it wasn't her mouth that made her look pleased. It was something in her eyes, not the line between her lips, that held that impression. Neal tried to get behind it like he had so many times before, but he failed again. He knew he wouldn't be able to restore the painting if he wasn't even able to fill a sheet of paper with her smile. His hand would make a forgery out of her.
Neal stashed away the sheet with a half-finished draft of the Mona Lisa and called for a nurse. He didn't have the nerves to do this tonight, not when he had to face some random Marshal rookie picking him up tomorrow. An elderly woman came in and looked at him with earnest concern. When she saw that he wasn't dying, the impression on her face changed from red alert to suspicious annoyance within seconds. Gotta love night nurses.
"Mr. Caffrey, can I do something for you?"
"Uhm, I don't know, ..." Neal squinted his eyes to read her name tag. "… Jackie? Is your name really Jackie?"
She was clearly huffy.
"Look, Mr. Caffrey, I don't know what you're up to but Agent Burke told all of us to be careful. We know who you are. Don't even try to trick me, it won't work. So, do you need anything?"
'Agent Burke'had told them? Now, that explained their attitude toward him.
"Do you have some time to spare?"
Neal waved with the pencil in his hand.
"Would you sit for me?" She was obviously surprised and torn between believing him and calling security. "Look… I'm not up to do anything bad, it's just… I'm bored and thought you might have…"
He got interrupted by the nurse stepping forward.
"There are three other nurses on the watch. I can spare half an hour. That enough for you?"
She sat down on the chair next to him, obviously uncertain what to do.
Neal nodded and concentrated on the blank page in front of him. His left shoulder throbbed a little bit, but he pushed the feeling aside and focused on the lines of the woman's face. He didn't put in too many details, just where he thought it was necessary. There was a light scar under her lower lip and laugh lines around her eyes – stories he wanted the drawing to tell. Neal didn't have problems with the glimmer of curiosity in her eyes, nor with the dawn of the grin on her lips. It didn't take him half an hour to finish. He signed the drawing and handed her the small piece of paper. She smiled warmly and nodded.
"Impressive… Thank you."
"No, thank you. It was a pleasure."
She asked him if he needed anything else and when he told her that he was alright, she left. Neal curled up in his bed as far as his shoulder and his broken ribs let him and closed his eyes. This shouldn't have been easier than drawing the Mona Lisa, but after all, the nurse was real. He had seen some truth in her and that alone made Neal relax. Maybe he could still do it; maybe he was still able to get the truth behind people. Neal smiled. Sleep came easily.
Neal didn't know if he woke up because he was well-rested or because he felt the presence of somebody in his room. He opened his eyes and found Peter standing at the window, his hands on his hips, his back to Neal. Peter must have felt Neal's eyes on him, as he glanced over his shoulder.
Neal was… confused didn't really describe it.
"How're you feeling?"
Neal sat up and slowly anger replaced his bafflement.
"Nice of you to ask, Peter… Well, I got shot, you know, so… it still hurts a little. And my ribs were broken, but it's fine as long as I don't breathe… What else? Uhm, I'm missing a tooth, but hey, that's what happens when you get captured by the mob, right? Nothing special. Nothing that would… let's say… make your partner visit you in hospital."
Peter didn't turn around, but Neal saw his shoulders tense.
Neal didn't let him finish his sentence.
"What? Sorry? What for, Peter? I get it, it's my own fault. You could've spared yourself the duty call."
Finally, Peter turned towards him. The way he frowned, the way he avoided eye contact, shook Neal to the core.
"You think that's what this is for me? A duty call? You're a self-righteous idiot, you know that?"
Neal felt his heart bumping hard against his chest.
"Prove me wrong. Why did you come? Why now?"
Peter hung his head.
"You can't do that to me. First El. Then you… I…"
"No, you don't get it," Peter's voice was harsh, almost cold. "If you did, you wouldn't have kept the treasure a secret."
Mozzie had told Neal that Peter knew the whole story. But obviously his handler still didn't see the reason behind keeping it a secret. Or he didn't want to see. Neal hadn't been sure about his ability to stay, not until Mozzie had issued an ultimatum. Neal couldn't deny that the treasure had been a sort of exit strategy for him. But that wasn't the whole truth.
"If I'd have wanted, I could have been gone a long time ago. I stayed. What more do you want from me?"
Peter didn't raise his voice, but the undertone of his words was more demanding now. This was turning into an interrogation.
"The truth, Neal. I wanted the truth. And I still don't have it. Why didn't you come to me? Why didn't you tell me? You put El in danger. Do you have any idea what could've happened?"
"Yeah, I do. That was the whole point in going after Keller. To make sure she was safe. And I didn't tell you because Mozzie is family. And you don't turn your back on family."
"But it's okay to turn your back on a friend…"
Neal winced when he heard Peter talking about him as a friend. After everything that happened, how could it still sound so right to him?
"I'd go through hell and high water, Neal, but you can't ask me to go through something like this… to have my wife taken from me, to... to nearly lose my partner, and expect me to simply forgive you."
That hit home.
"I didn't, I… I don't. I don't expect you to forgive me, Peter. I just thought… Dunno… that you'd be here." Neal dropped his gaze. "You weren't here."
"Nobody would tell me what was going on."
"I thought you were through with me."
Oppressing silence followed, until Peter sat down and sighed. Neal looked at him, almost smiling.
"Don't know. You've been questioned by Diana?"
Neal nodded as he remembered the interview three days ago.
"That should be enough for Organized Crime to investigate Irina Sokolowa. Seems as if her fiancé stepped into Sokolow's footsteps on his death. Not sure if we can get her behind bars. She has good lawyers and an alibi."
Neal laughed. Smart girl. Typical.
"We all saw what happened to Keller and OPR will investigate the shooting on Sokolow and my involvement in it but that's more of a formality."
"That's all very interesting, but you know that's not what I meant, right?"
Peter looked up, his eyes full of expectation. Neal had missed that wanna-be smirk.
"Well, what did you mean?"
Neal rolled his eyes.
"You're impossible, Peter… Don't make this more embarrassing than it already is…"
The wanna-be smirk turned into a real Burke-smirk. Neal had missed those as well.
"I have truly no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, come on… What's going to happen with… You know… you and me?"
"Well, youwill be released in the evening; they want to run some tests before they let you go. You'll stay with June. They say rehabilitation and physical therapy will take quite a while. But they're also impressed with how fast you seem to recover."
Neal was running out of patience with Peter. He was set to interrupt again, but before he could, the agent stood and took off his jacket.
"Me… I will pick you up this evening. El wants to cook for you as often as she can, so I'll play meals on wheels from then on, until you get well enough to join us at our home. When you're ready, and if Hughes clears you, which he will, I can promise you that your desk in the bureau will be waiting, if you still want it."
Neal didn't know what to say. All these days Peter had refused to visit him, had refused to talk to him. It seemed like a miracle that he was willing to give him his life back now. But in the end it was choices like this that made Peter Burke the man he was. Peter had never fully trusted him, but he had also never hesitated to put his faith in Neal. Not many people had ever done that for him.
"You didn't have to do this."
"You could've sent me back to prison."
"But you're giving me a second chance."
"We're running circles here, do you know that?
Peter thought about that and laughed.
"Yeah, we do."
"Thank you, Peter."
Neal had problems picking up the conversation again and Peter obviously felt the same way. Neal was about to start a random chitchat about his doctor that seemed to be stiff as a poker, when Peter suddenly jumped up.
"I almost forgot. Brought something for you." Peter opened a suitcase Neal hadn't noticed and pulled out something in wrapping paper. "El bought it, but… It was my idea."
Peter smiled and handed him over the small package. Neal had problems removing the tape with only one hand and he could tell from Peter's sigh that the agent was the kind of person that tore wrapping paper in shreds. Neal shook his head and continued to remove the paper carefully. What appeared was a wooden box. The checkerboard pattern got its magic from the shiny varnish. It was classic - dark brown and ecru, obviously new. Neal wasn't sure what to think. He opened the box and expected chess pieces and was surprised to find 24 equally round shaped pieces, twelve in black and twelve in white. Neal lifted his eyebrows.
"Checkers? Are you serious?"
Peter didn't seem to understand the meaning of Neal's question.
"Thought you'd have enough of chess for a while. And checkers is fun." Neal was trying to pretend to be happy, but he failed miserably and Peter noticed. "You don't like checkers, do you?"
Neal tried to save what was still there to save.
"Nah… It's okay… It's just…"
"We can play checkers… if you want to. No problem."
Peter sighed and sat down again.
"What would you play, Neal? Right now, if you could pick, what would you play?"
"Good question." Neal thought about it for a moment, looking Peter over. Suddenly something very obvious popped into his mind. "Parcheesi."
Peter's jaw dropped.
"Parcheesi? Are you kidding me?"
"Compared to checkers… It's less about forced capture and not being able to move back and more about getting four pieces home."
Peter's eyes got the soft touch Neal had been looking for.
"Huh, maybe Parcheesi is a good game to play."
"But checkers is great, really… It's like chess but without… the mind part… But hey, you were right. Not really enthusiastic about playing chess right now. So, I'll be happy to play checkers with you!"
"You're a terrible liar."
"Excuse me? I'm a great liar. I'm a con man." Peter glared at him. "Was. I was a con man. Long time ago."
Neal cleared his throat and got the pieces on the board in front him to get Peter distracted.
"Let's play checkers, shall we? White moves first. Go ahead."
They played until Neal was too exhausted to go on. He had won every game, but he knew that Peter wasn't trying to beat him. A doctor came in, checking his vitals. When she told them that Neal would have to stay for at least five to six more hours, Peter decided to leave him alone and let him rest.
Neal slept almost the whole time and when he woke up he felt remarkably refreshed. Peter's presence had lifted a weight from Neal's shoulders. If he ever had doubts about whether it had been the right decision to stay, they were gone now. He couldn't promise to keep his fingers from doing their magic in the future, but he was sure that he wasn't willing to jeopardize what he had with Peter and the FBI. Maybe some low profile jobs. Nothing serious. Just to stay in shape.
Peter brought him home from hospital. Neal was exhausted from the short drive to June's house, but something kept bothering him and would not let him rest. He tried repeatedly to settle, until it finally hit him - what he wanted, needed to do right now.
Neal stood up again and pulled out a large-sized scratchpad from under his bed. He carefully sharpened his pencils, again struggling with his left hand and prepared everything on the large table in his kitchen. Neal slowly breathed in and out. He closed his eyes and tried to recall Elizabeth's smile and the contentment it could hold. He tried to recall Mozzie's dark playfulness and their friendship that had grown out of it. He tried to recall Peter's eyes, a light brown and warm place that promised so much, and that constantly reminded him what was at stake.
Neal started with her cheeks that slowly evolved into the curves of her jaw. He only outlined her hair, her neck. It was her face that was important. He shaded her nose. He curved her lips, the line over her chin. He knew that he made it wrong. He should have started with her eyes, but it felt right to keep them for last. He darkened her lids, pushed harder to get her lashes right. Then he got to her irises, her pupils, dark and soft, holding a secret she didn't want to share with the world. Neal forced her to become real on this paper, as real as she needed to be. He was breathing hard when he finally stepped back. His head hurt. His shoulder hurt. His ribs hurt. But he was satisfied. He looked at the draft in front of him one last time and went to bed. Everything would be fine. The Mona Lisa was smiling again.
*Sitting in the corner, waiting for your reviews.*