Chasing Clouds

Chapter Two

"We all do things we desperately wish we could undo. Those regrets just become part of who we are, along with everything else. To spend time trying to change that, well, it's like chasing clouds."

- Libba Bray

Like any professional fraternity, the United States Marshals had their own lingo. To them, the fugitives they pursued were bandits. It was a macho term, a Wild West kind of term, but it was their vernacular. Now Neal was the bandit to them, the quarry that they would hunt relentlessly.

And Peter's job was to help them.

He reached the hallway outside Neal's door, seeing the crowd ahead. The apartment was fairly bursting at the seams with LEOs. No surprise there. It wasn't every day that the marshals' target was someone who'd run multiple times, yet who'd never been apprehended. Well, not by the marshals, anyway, Peter thought with the old, familiar burst of pride, but it felt hollow today.

Now that he'd given Neal leave to go, the fact that he'd caught him twice just didn't seem that important anymore.

Neal's status as a repeat escapee would make him the marshals' singular focus. Peter knew how bitter they must be about failing to capture Neal during any of his previous stints as a fugitive.

No, they'd needed Peter to do that for them.

He thought back to his last involvement with the marshals, to the start of the Franklin case, when Deckard—the marshal who'd turned out to be dirty—had questioned Neal's presence, and Peter and Neal had combined so neatly to shut him up, in a moment that was emblematic of their partnership.

From the instant he met him—even before he'd known the man was corrupt—Peter had sensed that Deckard was the kind of cop he hated—domineering, smug, and way too hung up on his own authority. In fact, the man had been so arrogant that Peter couldn't resist putting him in his place. So he'd innocently posed a question to his consultant that would remind everyone in the room of Neal's special skills—and the marshals' failure to measure up.

Neal, how long did you evade the U.S. Marshals?

Well, technically, they never found me, Neal had said, with just the slightest hint of insolence in his voice, meeting Deckard's furious stare with a satisfied smile. Then waiting a beat, waiting the perfect amount of time, before shifting his gaze to Peter—with something that looked suspiciously like affection—and saying, You did.

Thus reminding everyone in the room of Peter's special skills. And, yes, of the marshals' failure to measure up.

Deckard, of course, had had no answer.

You could always count on Neal to rise to the occasion.

Peter had smiled, but he'd really had to fight the urge to laugh, at how much Neal was enjoying that moment and how pissed off Deckard was in response, and all of them keeping their emotions just under the surface, but visible to anyone who was paying attention.

He was actually getting nostalgic thinking about it. It was the kind of byplay between him and Neal that came so easily it could have been scripted, but it wasn't. They just instinctively read each other, knowing what the other was thinking. And the ability to appreciate each other's talents, even when it came at their own expense, was one of the things that made their partnership unique.

But none of that mattered now. Now that Neal was gone, so was their partnership. Now what mattered was the pursuit.

Those past failures were only going to spur the marshals to redouble their efforts. Their dignity, their pride, was at stake; Peter knew how that felt, and how powerful a motivator it could be.

He knew he shouldn't think it, but he did: Thank God Neal's a pro at this.

What else had he said to Deckard that day? If anyone knows about evading arrest, it's Neal Caffrey.

Of course, even Neal had been caught eventually. He remembered the jibe he'd thrown at Neal, at the conclusion of their first case, as Hagen was being cuffed and Neal, grinning wide, was puffing on an illegal victory cigar, sprawled on that credenza as if he owned it.

You know, you're really bad at this escape thing.

Neal had considered it thoughtfully for a moment before chuckling and saying, Maybe I'm not trying hard enough.

He'd better try hard this time. It was painfully clear now to Peter that the only times he'd caught Neal had been when Neal had lost focus, or when his heart hadn't really been in it.

Knowing that made Peter nervous. Neal's heart wasn't really in this escape, either.

Peter hoped it wouldn't be his downfall yet again. Not this time.


Peter displayed his Bureau credential as he walked, glad at not recognizing anyone. He introduced himself to the deputy marshal who stood just inside the door and asked for the marshal in charge. The man gave a perfunctory nod, then angled his head toward the glass doors that opened out onto the balcony, where another man was talking on the phone. He looked tough and experienced. Like someone who didn't just chase people, but who caught them.

Then again, that pretty much described every US marshal he'd ever met.

Peter walked toward him, waved his badge. The marshal acknowledged him and raised a finger in a be right with you gesture. Peter waited, expressionless, looking around the room, at the table where he'd sat with Neal, more times than he could count. Where he'd laid down his badge the night he'd given Neal immunity—a promise that had turned out to be worthless. Where he'd first caught sight of that damn painting of the Chrysler Building that, in some ways, had started this whole mess.

Where he'd sat, engulfed in despair that they wouldn't find Elizabeth, and Neal had quietly said, eyes blazing with raw, rare honesty, I didn't want to go.

Because of you.

Peter Burke was the soul of pragmatism. He lived in the here and now, and what might have been wasn't important. It was why he'd never bothered telling Neal about his brief baseball career or the injury that had ended it. That was in the past, you couldn't change it, and therefore it didn't matter in the present.

But now, as he stared at the apartment that had been Neal's, being swarmed by a contingent of grimly efficient U.S. Marshals, he couldn't stop his mind from playing the "what if" game that he normally had no use for.

He thought of all the ways this could have turned out differently, could have ended without the two of them boxed in, cornered so that Peter had no choice but to tell Neal to run. Some ending that didn't involve Peter never seeing Neal again. Or, at least, hoping he wouldn't, because if Peter saw Neal again, it would be with his ex-partner behind bars for the rest of his life. A life that might not be a long one, given that FBI informants were popular in prison for all the wrong reasons.

Peter pushed that alarming thought away hastily, preferring for once to let his mind wander and consider what might have been.

So many ways things could have been different . . . .

Mozzie could have resisted the temptation to pilfer the treasure from Adler in the first place. But, Peter realized with a jolt, that scenario probably would have ended up with the treasure gone, Adler free, and Neal dead by Adler's hand. Somehow, through the kind of serendipity that seemed to happen only to him, Neal had located the treasure on his own that morning. Peter had only found them because of the explosion Mozzie had caused. Without that smoke to guide him, Peter would never have gotten there in time to save Neal's life. Peter felt sure that Adler would have had no compunction about gunning Neal down to assure his own escape.

No, there was no happy ending there.

But Peter could imagine many other, more positive scenarios.

Neal could have shut Mozzie down earlier, could have told him unequivocally that he wasn't leaving. That might have ended up with Mozzie behind bars, though. If he'd sold the Degas and Neal hadn't been there to save the day for Mozzie by—doing whatever he'd done to switch the painting. Once again, Peter thought about Neal's words—his last words, a treacherous little voice in his head said. Neal had claimed to have jumped 43 stories, which had seemed too fantastic to be credible. Though after seeing Neal's stunt on the tram firsthand, Peter was starting to rethink his position on that . . . .

Kramer—the very thought of the name brought a bitter taste to his mouth—Kramer could have somehow not turned into a Javert-like figure, so jaded and selfish that Peter didn't even know him anymore.

Or if Keller hadn't kidnapped Elizabeth—that was just another way things might have been different. If Neal was to be believed—and, now, despite it all, Peter did believe him—then the likely outcome, minus Keller, would have been Mozzie taking off for some tropical paradise on his own. Or maybe deciding to sit on the loot for a while, until Neal's sentence was up and he could convince Neal to go with him once he was free. Either way, the treasure would have stayed hidden, and Neal wouldn't have gotten the misplaced credit for finding it. Which had led to the whole commutation mess in the first place.

Of course, it was easy to speculate on what other people could have done differently to change the outcome. It was also utterly pointless.

Peter knew that he didn't, couldn't control what other people did. His own actions, though—those were something else entirely.

What Peter could have done . . . .

What if he hadn't accused Neal that day outside the warehouse? He didn't like to think about how quickly he'd assumed Neal's guilt, with the smell of smoke clogging his nostrils and Adler's blood staining the ground. He'd told Elizabeth—when Neal's threatened, he gets himself into even more trouble. And what had Peter's impulsive accusation been but a direct threat? It was a great unknown how Neal would have reacted if Peter hadn't instantly jumped to the most negative conclusion possible. But Peter couldn't help thinking Neal's conduct in the weeks following might have been very different.

Or, what if he'd made a different decision that day when Neal had taken him to Yankee Stadium? Thinking back on it now, the simple generosity of Neal's gesture, with nothing sought in return, made Peter's heart twist a little in his chest.

Peter had gone to Neal's apartment that day with the proof in his hands of what Kramer was up to—not that Peter had realized the extent of Kramer's perfidy at the time. Still, he'd known that Kramer was gunning for his CI—and yet he'd said nothing. He'd talked with Diana about it; he'd even spoken to Jones, for God's sake. But the one who'd needed to know, above all, was Neal.

And Peter had left him completely in the dark.

If only he had spoken up, Neal would have instantly realized the danger he was in, how exposed he was. He could have retrieved the Raphael earlier, without having to resort to the public high-wire antics on the tram that had given Kramer all the pretext he needed to arrest Neal again.

It made Peter feel only marginally better to know that Kramer, driven as he was to find something, anything, to hang on Neal, likely wouldn't have let that stop him.

Or what if Peter had gotten his boss more involved? What if he'd obtained Hughes' support, on the record, and convinced Neal to commit to the FBI, post-anklet? Maybe if Neal had signed a contract to work as a consultant for White Collar even if his sentence was commuted . . . maybe that would have made a difference. Hughes, so opposed to this arrangement at the beginning, had come to appreciate the benefits of having Neal around. Perhaps he could have gone to bat to keep Kramer from appropriating an asset that was so valuable to the White Collar division.

Alternatively, Peter could have tried to squelch the whole idea of a commutation early on, before Kramer got his claws into the process. He could have insisted that Neal needed to serve out his two years on the anklet, that he didn't deserve to be free. It wouldn't have been fair. It would have been difficult to do without bringing up awkward questions about that damned treasure. And Neal would have been furious at him—justifiably so. But maybe it would have kept him out of Kramer's clutches. Even if Neal had never forgiven him—which struck Peter as an unlikely possibility, anyway—it would have been worth it.

Of course, now, with the perfect, chilling clarity of hindsight, it was easy for Peter to see what his biggest, his most damning mistake had been: calling on Kramer in the first place. The man he'd trusted and looked up to, the man he'd viewed as a mentor, had turned cold and calculating, determined to set in motion a chain of events that would destroy Neal—whether Kramer realized it or not. Truthfully, Peter thought that Kramer just didn't care. And for all his experience, all his knowledge, Kramer was truly clueless about Neal if he really thought the man would just work docilely for him in DC for the rest of his life.

In his mind, Peter understood that he couldn't have known what Kramer would do, what he would become. But in his heart, Peter couldn't help feeling that he should have known, that he'd let Neal down, completely and utterly. Peter was clever and he could certainly think multiple steps ahead. But he'd been blindsided by the magnitude of Kramer's betrayal, by the cynicism that had overtaken everything that Peter had once found admirable in him. It was a level of almost Machiavellian intrigue that Peter hadn't seen coming—until it was too late.

(Although there was the nagging voice inside Peter's head that said, He's not evil. He thinks he's protecting you. From Neal—and from yourself.)

He thought back to when he'd first brought Kramer in, after hearing chatter about the Degas. Though Peter hadn't spoken to his mentor in some time, Kramer had been well aware of Peter and Neal's success. All of DC is talking about Gotham's best cop and robber, Kramer had remarked; Peter had felt a glow of pride at the recognition.

Yet, from the very beginning, Kramer had been dismissive of Neal's prospects for change. It's in their blood, he'd said, using his own CI's return to crime as proof. He'd told Peter to treat Neal like a suspect—and not to protect Peter from the damage to his career, but to protect himself from the emotional fallout.

When Kramer had told him about his own CI, Peter had thought only of how that story might be analogous to his situation with Neal.

Now he knew that what he should have been considering was the effect it had had on his mentor. It must have been more than just everyday recidivism. Surely, it must have been a monstrous personal betrayal to turn Kramer into—into what he'd become.

A worse betrayal than being lied to for months? that persistent little voice in his mind asked. A worse betrayal than setting in motion a chain of events that resulted in your wife being abducted?

Peter swallowed hard. Not a line of thought he wanted to pursue. He still got angry when he thought about the length and breadth of Neal's deception, and he still wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten past it.

A big part of that was knowing that Neal would never have done it on his own. His loyalty to Mozzie had been his downfall—and there were worse character flaws than standing by your friends. Peter was reminded of a line from a book he'd read long ago: that the best way to discredit a good man was to put him in a position where he had to do something faintly reprehensible to help a friend.1

Something faintly reprehensible . . . and there was another thing he'd never know—how exactly Neal had done it. Elizabeth had had that scrap of painting tested and Neal, somehow, had found out and rigged the test. Right? He must have. Peter would love to know Neal had pulled that off. Now he'd never get the chance to ask.

Which was probably for the best. Truth was, he didn't typically ask those kinds of questions expecting—or even wanting—an answer. Peter didn't need more examples of how devious Neal could be when he put his mind to it; there were far too many instances of how duplicitous Neal could be when he wasn't even trying.

No, the point of asking Neal that kind of question was seeing the man improvise one of his patented, artless non-answers. It was a skill Peter had always admired—probably more than an FBI agent should, he thought with a sigh.

And as an FBI agent, he should have paid more attention to whatever had happened with Kramer and his CI. Kramer had cloaked his motives in concern for Peter, but it wasn't about that anymore. It was about selfishness and bitterness and an utter refusal to see Neal as anything more than a criminal and, more chillingly, a commodity. Something to be used—no, worse—something to be used up.

And now, because Peter had failed to see that until it was too late, Neal was gone, irrevocably and irretrievably. It was over—


No, Peter's mind retorted. This can't be it.

This isn't an ending.

He started when he realized why those words rang so familiar, and that the voice in his mind wasn't his own—it was Neal's. Neal had said those words during their first case, fresh out of prison. He'd been talking about Kate, shoving that picture of her at Peter and refusing to believe that someone he cared about could be gone forever, just like that.

An uncomfortable parallel to where Peter stood right now.

Peter had thought Neal was indulging in fantasy that day. And he'd done his level, brutal best to squelch it, to force Neal to face reality. But now . . . .

Now, Peter had a whole new appreciation of the sentiment.

Neal had steadfastly refused to give up on Kate. Didn't Peter owe Neal the same kind of perseverance?

He felt something soften, and then spark inside; it was as if the world were slowly opening up around him again.

Yes, Neal was gone. But this wasn't over, this wasn't the end. It couldn't be.

It didn't have to be.

Peter couldn't deny that he'd changed—that Neal had changed him. But one thing remained the same: Peter Burke was the kind of guy who fixed things that were broken. He didn't throw up his hands and walk away.

That was another aspect he and Neal had in common: neither of them believed in predetermined outcomes. Neal had always believed he could shape things to his benefit, and Peter did, too. He had a pretty good track record of getting what he wanted—even if his position meant that he was more constrained in his methods than Neal was.

He'd wallowed enough in blame, Peter decided. Yes, it was partly his fault that Neal was in this mess. But all that really meant, in the grand scheme of things, was that it was his responsibility to get Neal out of it.

He had no idea how he'd manage it. But give me a little time, he thought to himself, as the lead marshal began to wind down his conversation.

Peter was resourceful. And persistent. And working with Neal had honed his ability to think outside the box. Between the two of them – him and Neal, because surely Neal was thinking along the same lines – they'd come up with something.

They always did.

In fact they'd even dealt with a similar situation before, Peter remembered suddenly. When Neal had been arrested—framed, a little voice in his head said (and the voice sounded just like Neal's)—for the diamond heist at Le Joyaux Precieux, Neal had run then, too. And Peter had stood there and watched him do it. He'd never forget the churning in his gut, the feeling of his heart in his throat, as he watched Neal jump from four stories.

He's not in the van. That had been the extent of his initial pursuit. And he'd said those words to himself—nobody else. He hadn't pointed out the existence of a floor panel in the van until Neal was safely away.

You let Neal go then, too.

That was different, though, Peter thought. It's not going to happen that way this time. He's probably already left the country—or soon will. Back then, Neal came to the house, first thing.

No, he corrected himself quickly. Not quite.

"Special Agent Burke? I'm Deputy Marshal Rex McCauley."

Actually, Neal coming to the house was the second thing.

"Marshal," Peter responded, shaking the man's hand. "What have you found?"

The first thing—the very first thing Neal had done was—

McCauley relayed what Peter already knew—that Neal had left no obvious clues behind (of course he wouldn't, he's Neal). But Peter was only half-listening. He had only one thought.

He really needed to talk to Elizabeth . . . .


1 Paraphrasing from Dorothy Dunnett's wonderful novel, The Disorderly Knights, part of the Lymond Chronicles, the best historical fiction I have ever had the pleasure to read.

A/N I do apologize if there have been a million and one stories like this written since Judgement Day aired. I haven't had the chance to do any reading since then.

The author Ali Shaw said, "Writing is like going underwater - thank you for being there when I come back up." I echo her words. Thank you for reading.