White Collar

Two Degrees of Separation

Neal walked through the well manicured grass that was still holding on to its green color despite the winter chill in the air. With his hands in his pockets he walked with purpose through the strategically placed trees. Habit made him look around to make sure that he was alone, even though it was unlikely that he had any enemies here.

Walking up to a small brass plate set in the grass Neal sat down cross legged in front of it. He cleared the dead autumn leaves that had collected on the grave marker carefully. He ran his fingertips over the engraving of Kate's name and the dates of her birth and death that were underneath. He had brought along a slender green branch that had a dozen delicate white and purple orchids sprouting from it.

"You never really cared for roses." Neal smiled sadly as he set the orchids down. "Three years to the day, in some ways it's hard to believe that three years have already passed, in others so much has happened since then that I can't believe it all happened in such a short period of time. Speaking of changes..."

Neal brought his leg out from under himself and pulled up his pant leg to show off that he was no longer wearing the tracking anklet.

"I got it off just yesterday. I wasn't due for release for a few more months. Peter said something about 'good behavior', but I don't believe that for a second. I think the truth is that he did it so that I could come out here and visit you without having to ask.

Peter and I still have our arguments over the best interpretation of the 'law', but we've come a long way. I'm still not sure what the future holds for us. Our success rate was so impressive that Huges has hinted lately about giving me an actual job at the F.B.I. Although I have a feeling I'll have to do a little 'freelancing' on the side. I can't imagine a government salary working out that well for me."

Neal stopped his yearly report to Kate for a moment and spent a while just staring at the plate that commemorated her life. Under the ground was a small lacquer box, no larger than the music box that she lost her life for, with the tiny amount of ashes from the charred remains that had been recovered from the plane. He felt a little awkward sitting on the random plot in the cemetery that had been chosen for her. However he always felt the need to visit this spot on the anniversary.

"I just want you to know that I haven't forgotten you. Although I'm seeing someone else these days." Neal admitted. "You might remember her, she was at my trial...on the prosecution's side. Before you ask allow me to say 'yes, it's a little awkward for us both'. I don't know where it's going or if it's going anywhere at all. We've been on again/off again for years. She can't quite reconcile who I was with who I am. Particularly since I have kept a few bad habits. In fact we're kinda 'off again' right now, although I'm not really sure what I did this time."

Smiling ruefully to himself Neal thought about how he was going to appease Sara this time. He wondered if it was her commitment issues that caused her to find a reason to be mad at him and back away rather than something he'd truly done. Not sure if he was interested in anything serious Neal didn't mind the casual nature of their relationship.

Neal looked a few rows over as a woman approached one of the other plates and sat down in front of it in much the same way Neal was. He didn't mean to stare at her, but it suddenly occurred to him that he had seen her here before. In fact she had been here every year for the past three years just as he had.

Not wanting to disturb the woman's grief Neal turned away and brought his attention back to Kate. He wasn't sure if it was healthy or not to keep returning here year after year. In a lot of ways it just opened old wounds. Sitting in silence Neal thought back on all the choices he'd made and the paths not taken. It was starting to get late when he finally decided to leave.

Glancing over at where the woman had been he found that she was gone now. There was a single red rose left across the plate that she had been looking at. Drawn to the grave by sheer curiosity Neal read the plate. As he suspected the date on the brass was the same as the day that Kate had died, but he was surprised to find the year was the same as well. The name tugged at his mind, but he couldn't figure out why.

"Christian Tilgen. Why does that name sound so familiar..."

Peter walked up the stairs towards Neal's apartment. Part of him was expecting to find the place cleaned out and abandoned. Even after four years of being partners Neal always had a slight glint in his eye that seemed like he was just counting down the days until the anklet came off, and he hadn't exactly been a saint during his time with the FBI.

He wouldn't blame Neal for taking off, he just hoped that it didn't end in him having to hunt him down and dragging him back in hand cuffs. There was currently a pool at the F.B.I with wagers on how long before Neal added to the recidivism rate. Peter would never admit to Neal, but he currently had twenty bucks on 'less than a month'. Reaching the door Peter knocked.

"It's unlocked, Peter." Neal's called from inside.

Peter wasn't surprised that Neal knew it was him, he always seemed to know. Stepping into the apartment Peter was surprised to find Neal sitting on the floor with a flurry of paperwork surrounding him. He looked like he hadn't gone to bed the night before. Even as Peter stepped up to him Neal continued to leaf through the papers and files.

"Neal, what is this?"

"It's everything on Mentor, and everything I've ever found on the music box and all the people connected to it."

"Neal, we closed that case a long time ago."

"I know." Neal said as he read an inventory list intently.

"So why are you dragging it all back out again?"

"I'm looking for something I missed before."

Neal was so distracted that he hadn't even looked up at Peter. Peter had a letter for Neal from Huges offering him a permanent position as a consultant, but he got the feeling that Neal wouldn't be interested in the letter right now. Peter slipped the letter into his pocket and knelt down to Neal's level. He picked up a random piece of paper, it was a description of the explosive that had destroyed the plane.

"Neal," Peter said softly "I don't think this is healthy. I know the anniversary of Kate's death was yesterday, but I don't think she would want you tormenting yourself with something you can't change."

"Do you know who Christian Tilgen is?" Neal asked suddenly.

"Um..." Peter thought about the name. "No. Who is he?"

"He was a husband, a father of two...and a pilot."

"A pilot?"

"Peter, I never really thought about it, but Kate wasn't the only one on that plane. Christian Tilgen was in the cockpit getting ready for take off, he was killed by the same explosion."

"I recall reading that the pilot was killed in the original report. Why does that matter now?"

"Because Fowler insisted that Kate had planed every aspect of the flight, she even became nervous enough when she saw you to call him. She planted the explosives, all of that was her idea. Further evidence proved everything Fowler told us to be true." Neal started talking faster with each sentence. "I've combed through every piece of evidence collected from that plane. They found the hardware of two parachutes on board."

"Right, it was Kate's plan to bail to fake your deaths."

"Except that leaves the pilot aboard a doomed plane to die, there was only enough hardware found for two parachutes." Neal pointed out. "Peter, she was planing a murder, and she though I would have gone along with it."

"Neal there has to be another explanation."

"I've thought about it all night and I can only think of one other explanation. She hired the pilot herself so there was a good chance she knew him personally. There were going to be three of us on that flight, but from the beginning Kate knew that only two of us were going to survive."

"If it wasn't the pilot she meant to leave behind..."

"...it would have been me."