Disclaimer: White Collar doesn't belong to me; no copyright infringement is intended.
Thanks to lstuds for beta reading. You were a great help!
Bitterness of the victory
When Peter first caught Neal Caffrey there was an unmistakable feeling of triumph connected to it. Three years of hard work had finally paid off.
He went to the trial to testify, and he went again when the sentence was set. That day started as a good day. He felt good about himself when he was entering the courthouse. He had made this happen. Justice would celebrate yet another victory because of him.
His bright mood only darkened slightly when he first spotted Neal as he was led into the courtroom. There was something unsettling in seeing him. When he entered, he actually looked a little scared. Maybe there was even resignation on his face. His waver in confidence was only momentary, however. Once his eyes met Peter's, it was gone. He smiled brightly and waved at him as much as he could with his shackles in place.
Then the verdict was read. Four years. It wasn't a lot. God knew that if Peter could prove all of Neal's crimes, he would have gotten a lot worse. Neal was lucky.
But when Peter thought about Neal in a small cell with nothing but concrete, suddenly four years seemed like a very long time. The kid could take it; Peter was sure about that. But still, the victory seemed just a little more bitter than it had that morning.
On his way out of the courthouse, when Peter passed Neal's holding room, he stopped. He didn't have the intention to talk to him, but something made him change his mind, and he went to the guards to ask for a few minutes. They let him in and stepped out of the room. Neal was sitting on a bench lined by the wall, with his hands cuffed to his waist and ankle restraints on. At first, he didn't seem to notice Peter. He was staring at the opposite wall, and there was a wistful look in his eyes.
What Peter saw surprised him. From up close, he could see that the kid looked tired. There were shadows under his eyes and his shoulders were slumped. He probably hadn't slept much the night before. That would explain his expression when he stepped into the courtroom. Neal Caffrey didn't show his vulnerability very often, but apparently the anxiousness before the sentencing was too much even for him. Combined with the exhaustion from sleepless night and Peter couldn't blame him if Neal didn't look as composed as usually.
Peter cleared his throat, and Neal finally looked up at him. A small smile appeared on his lips. "I suppose I should congratulate you. You've won."
Now, that was definitely the Caffrey he knew. "You didn't make it easy."
"It wasn't supposed to be easy." He smiled brightly and paused a little. "Elizabeth must be thrilled. She can finally have you all to herself now."
"Yes. We opened the champagne and everything." Peter chuckled, but Neal's smile didn't waver.
"Tell her that I truly am sorry for all the missed anniversaries and birthdays." Much to Peter's surprise, he looked completely honest when he said that. "There are days when people shouldn't be left alone."
Peter briefly wondered what kind of memories were behind those blue eyes while Neal stared somewhere past Peter. "Listen. Four years isn't that much. It could have been much worse. Just keep your head low, and it will pass in no time. Then don't give me any reasons to catch you again, and you will be fine. You can do better than this, Neal."
"Yes, dad," Neal said mockingly.
Then, one of the guards entered. "His ride is here."
"See you around Peter." Neal stood up and offered Peter his shackled hand.
Peter shook it. "I hope that it will be under more pleasant circumstances."
"I hope so too, agent Burke." Neal gave him one last nod before the guards escorted him down the hall and to the van that was waiting for him outside.
When Peter left the court that day, he didn't feel victorious anymore. He felt bitter. He knew that the jury had done the right thing. Neal Caffrey was guilty of his crimes. There was no doubt about that. Justice had been served.
But despite all of that, he couldn't forget the light that had appeared in those blue eyes each time he had come across Neal in the previous three years and how that light just hadn't seemed quite so bright in the courthouse. And he couldn't help but wonder if prison would kill that light completely. Somehow, for some unknown reason, that thought terrified him.
When Peter next saw Neal Caffrey, he was sitting on the floor of Kate's empty apartment with nothing but an empty bottle and a broken heart. The fact that he wasn't running at that moment told him a lot. He had nothing to run for. He had no one to run to. Peter felt sorry for the kid.
But he also felt relieved. Despite the fact that Neal had just been dumped by the love of his life, arrested again, and was facing another four years in prison, he still teased Peter about his suit. And when he did, his eyes lit up mischievously. Prison hadn't killed that light after all. Neal was tougher than he looked.
When all was said and done, and when Neal was in prison again for another four years, and Peter was thinking about Neal's proposed deal, he couldn't help but remember that day in court four years earlier. He remembered the uneasiness where there should have been satisfaction and the dread where there should have been triumph.
Yes, at the end, when all was said and done, the decision wasn't all that difficult to make after all.
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