Note: I don't read spoilers, still I've heard enough to know that this is not going to be the way it'll happen. Doesn't really matter, though. I trust the real White Collar writers to come with a smart and compelling story. In the meantime, I needed some "good feelings" stuff.
The story has kindly been beta'd by Ansel. :-)
Peter left the car in the parking lot and headed toward the Arrival gate. It had been four months. Four months that seemed like an eternity. An eternity since that day his world collapsed. He hated remembering that day, that awful day. The day that he had lost so much. Peter has always felt that it was the people around him that had made him who he was, and the two people he had lost that day left him feeling as if a part of himself had been amputated.
Well, not that he exactly lost Philip that day. It might have been easier for Peter if Philip had disappeared just like Neal. But no, he had been wandering around the office for days, making Peter's life even more miserable than it already was, his presence making Neal's absence even more difficult. What Peter had really lost that day was his faith in Philip. Philip, who had taught him everything. Philip, who had made him the good FBI agent he was today. Who had shown him the way. How did they come to be so different today?
But the most painful part of it all was that it was his fault. Peter was the one who had asked Philip for his help in the first place. And it appeared that Philip's judgment was even more impaired than Peter's…
Peter looked up at the huge billboard announcing arrivals. The Air Caribbean flight from Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, was on time. Peter smiled as he imagined his friend on a Caribbean island… Wasn't that Neal's ultimate dream, retiring on a tropical island? Well, actually, Peter thought, it was more Mozzie's dream. Neal was too much of a city guy. You just don't wear Devore suits on an island. And somehow, Peter had a hard time picturing Neal in a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and flip flops. Oh and a huge straw hat!
At least Neal must have had a good time. Better than he would have had in DC, or in prison anyway.
Peter's heart was beating hard in his chest now. Was he anxious? Yes, probably a bit. How will Neal be? Of course, when they talked briefly over the phone the other day, Neal said he was fine, that he was happy to come home, but he seemed a bit… off?
Peter shook his head, and cleared his thoughts. Of course Neal was happy to come home. Neal had told him he never wanted to leave New York. "I have a life here." Neal's words echoed in Peter's head, bringing back that other awful day Peter didn't like to think about. He was too preoccupied worrying about El's safety then, to really pay attention to Neal's own feelings. And he had been so very grateful to Neal for understanding. Yet, days later, when the dust had settled, when the case was closed and over, Neal's words would still resonate. Peter had thought about all this treasure… thing. What it had meant to Neal. And Peter understood. Neal had been trapped. He hadn't asked for it, and he had to face a choice. An impossible choice between his two best friends.
And Neal had chosen Peter.
This realization had given Peter various feelings. Selfishly, he was simply happy. He was also very proud of Neal. But most importantly, it helped to heal the wounds left by the treasure thing. Neal had forgiven him for thinking he had stolen the treasure in the first place, and in the end, Neal still chose him. How could Peter not forgive Neal for hiding the treasure? Everything else that happened was nobody's fault. Or perhaps it was Keller's. Maybe Mozzie's too, a little bit…
Peter has always been a bit ambivalent about Mozzie. He did like the little guy, but Mozzie was a true conman, and always will be. Peter had always feared that Mozzie would be a bad influence on Neal. And heck, he was right! But at the same time, Mozzie was Neal's longtime friend, his roots, the closest thing to a family for Neal. Keeping Neal from Mozzie would do no good. And when Neal disappeared, Peter had hoped with all his heart that Mozzie was with him. He was just praying that Mozzie would not take advantage of the Suit's absence to lead Neal right back into his life of crime…
But Peter knew Neal would never take advantage of this situation. When Peter had given Neal the warning, he knew Neal would run. Not because that was what Neal used to do, but because Neal had said it enough, he did not want to run anymore. No, Neal had run this time because it was the best thing for him to do. Peter trusted Neal, and he knew Neal would not betray that trust now. Not precisely when Peter gave it. Neal would come back as soon as Peter would tell him to. And Neal was coming back.
Peter reached into his back pocket and took out his old rookie card. He had kept it with him every day since Neal had disappeared. He knew it was stupid, but it was his way to virtually keep his friend close to him. More than his own past as a baseball player, it reminded him of that wonderful, priceless moment at Yankee Stadium with Neal. It was funny how Neal was impressed knowing Peter had a career. Seeing Neal's bright smile over Peter's own happiness while they stood on the pitcher's mound had been a very moving moment. Peter had been touched by Neal's gesture more than he could ever express.
Putting the card back in his pocket, Peter was absent-mindedly strolling around the Arrival area. He was getting impatient. Neal's flight was now announced as "landed". Neal should not be long now.
There were so many things he wanted to tell Neal. How he finally got rid of Kramer. How they solved the Silver Fox case. Neal would have loved that one! How Hughes had to take part in the undercover job, because the Silver Fox's contact was about Hughes' age! Oh, and Peter has to tell him about the new clerk who looks like a female version of Neal.
Peter will also tell Neal how sorry he was. Sorry for letting him down. For not being able to protect him better. For not having anticipated Kramer's moves. Peter had kept so many things to himself the last few months that he felt an urge to talk, to explain. He would tell Neal that he could even keep the part of the treasure they still had. Not that Peter was very pleased when he first realized that Neal and Mozzie still had pieces of the treasure.
Diana had come to his office one morning to tell him that the French police had seized a Rembrandt. A known local fence was trying to sell the piece in Guadeloupe. At first Peter had not thought anything of that. But then he had seen a picture of the seized painting and his heart had skipped a beat. It was a portrait of a young man. The very same portrait that was in the first crate Peter and Neal opened in the U-boat. He had felt betrayed, and sad. It hurt. But then he had looked at the details in the case file. It was a sloppy job, really amateur. Almost as if the fence had wanted to get caught. That's when it had hit Peter. It was not a betrayal, it was a sign from Neal, just for him, Peter. The painting was not on the manifest and when they recovered the treasure, Peter had forgotten about this it. Until now. Neal wanted this painting to be found. Peter was the only other person who knew this painting was on the U-boat. Peter would have preferred a postcard, but a postcard would have been seized, analyzed, locked into evidence. No, this was better. Trying not to look too happy, Peter had shrugged. He had pointed out that it was not Neal's style at all, that it was nothing to worry about. And yet, that was so Neal.
Neal was in Guadeloupe!
Back at home, Peter had opened his atlas, looking for the tiny island. It was, of course, right in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, with a sort of butterfly shape. Of course, because in Neal's wonderland, even the shape of the island looks pretty. Guadeloupe was a French territory. Yes, definitely, it was Neal.
Peter smiled remembering that day. He still had a long way to go before Neal could come back home safely, but he was closing in on Kramer. And Peter was sure now, Neal was waiting for him. He had felt a sudden warmth inside his chest, and a renewed determination to get Neal home.
People were starting to come out of the gates now. They were mostly families, obviously coming back from vacations. Parents were carrying, pushing or dragging huge suit cases, while keeping an eye on their running kids.
He would invite Neal for dinner tomorrow. And alright, Mozzie too. He wanted to invite them over tonight, but El had pointed out that they might feel tired from the flight, and be eager to go home and get some rest. It didn't even really matter anyway. Just knowing that Neal could come over was enough. That had been a strange realization for Peter that day, when he went home alone. It had only been a few hours since he had seen Neal, and he was already missing him so much. Not that he couldn't live without Neal. Neal didn't come over every night before. And Peter was actually enjoying the Neal-free days back then. But the sudden realization that Neal could not come over anymore made him feel terribly lonely.
But all this was over now. Neal was back. Watching the crowd, Peter could not help but smile. He was happy.
There he was. Peter caught sight of him the minute Neal passed through the doors. He was wearing white trousers and a blue linen shirt, carrying a light hessian bag on his shoulder. Neal's version of "coming back from vacation". He had a nice tan, and a scruffy face. He had not seen Peter yet, and his eyes were anxiously scanning the crowd.
3 months, 23 days, and 10 hours – or so. Not that he had been counting…
As he was about to reach the customs room, Neal felt someone grabbing his arm, forcing him to turn around. Neal rolled his eyes in anticipation of another round of warnings. Mozzie had been in full paranoid mode since they had left the island.
"Neal, it's not too late. We can still turn around. Technically we're not yet on American soil…"
"Mozz!" he protested. Neal was getting tired of that conversation.
"Okay! Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you. I'm sure the suits are waiting for you on the other side."
"The only suit that we'll find on the other side will be Peter, Mozzie. He said he would come on his own. He wouldn't have called me if it wasn't safe to go home."
He was going home, at last. Before everything happened, Neal would never have thought that he could miss a city this much. But of course, New York was not just a city. New York was his life. New York was Peter, Sara, June, the FBI, everything, and everyone. New York was his second chance. And he was so determined not to let it go…
He was tired of running. It had felt good to rediscover that feeling that you belong. He had not really paid attention to it when he was living his conman's life. He would go from city to city, from heist to forging, from Alex to Mozzie, to Kate. He didn't feel alone, but partners and places seemed interchangeable. But now things were different. He wouldn't trade Peter for anything else in the world. How ironic that the man who put him in prison had become so important to him. As important as Mozzie – more important than Mozzie? No, not more, just different. Mozzie was the first to see all the potential Neal had. More than Adler, Mozzie was the one who made him who he was – The Great Neal Caffrey. Because Mozzie was the first one to believe in him. And Neal was still proud of that life.
But Peter was the first one, in more than a decade, to see Neal as more than a criminal. Even if Peter seemed to doubt his own conviction sometimes, Peter had faith in Neal. Because that was simply who Peter was. He had faith in people. Peter didn't only see Neal as a valuable asset. Peter saw Neal as a good person, who could do the right thing, who could help others.
They were waiting patiently in the customs room. Mozzie, for once, was quiet. Probably afraid of any possible recording device and camera, he didn't say a word and kept his face down.
Neal smiled as a thought popped in his mind. Peter and Mozzie couldn't be more different, and yet they had one thing in common. They'd forgive him anything. They were both truly loyal friends. He could count on them, and they could count on him. They would always be here for him.
And yet, he didn't know how it happened, but he almost lost them both at the same time. He had been trapped, torn between the two of them, and he just couldn't choose. He didn't want to betray either of his friends, but he ended up betraying both. Neal wasn't sure how they could have forgiven him. And yet, Mozzie was there, by his side. He had been in exile with him, and was coming back home with him.
And Peter was out there, waiting for him. Peter had made it all happen to allow him to come home. He hadn't given many specifics when they briefly talked over the phone. Peter just said that Kramer was gone for good, and that it was safe to come back, if Neal wanted to. Peter sounded almost sorry when he mentioned that the commutation hearing had simply been cancelled. They would have to work on the details with the marshals, but Peter seemed confident that if Neal was coming back on his own, his deal would be reinstated.
There were so many questions he had wanted to ask. How had Peter handled the aftermath of him running? How did he deal with Kramer? How was his closure rate going? Did he get the Rembrandt? Neal didn't know where to begin. He must have sounded kind of cold. He hoped Peter didn't get the wrong impression. It was just so good to hear Peter's voice.
Peter, who after all they went through, had given him the best gift of all. The man who had caught him – twice, Neal mentally added with a smile –, his handler, had told him to run. Neal knew Peter well enough to know that it must have been a hard decision for him to make. Neal had no idea exactly what had happened on those stairs. But obviously whatever Kramer had up his sleeve was not good, because Peter seemed furious. The presence of all those marshals was not a good sign either, and Neal had looked into Peter's gaze to understand what was going on. And Peter had met his eyes, shaken his head, told him to run.
That image of Peter, alone on the top of the stairs, facing Kramer and all the marshals, had haunted Neal for days. He had been so worried about Peter. Would Peter face any disciplinary action? Neal knew first hand that it wasn't a good idea to piss Kramer off. And they sure did that day. And then Peter was left to face the consequences on his own.
When he presented his passport to the customs officer, Neal put on his most innocent smile, but his heart was anxiously beating against his chest. Mozzie had gone just before him, and passed through without any trouble. But Mozzie was less likely to be blacklisted. Neal wasn't sure Kramer had ever heard of Mozzie anyway, and Neal had always made sure that none of his contributions ever appeared in the case file reports. The officer looked up at Neal, then his passport, back at Neal, and after a second that felt like an eternity, handed over his passport to him. Trying not to look too relieved, Neal hurried his way to the baggage claim where Mozzie was anxiously waiting for his numerous bags and suitcases. Not easy travelling with Russian surplus…
Neal had thought about staying, to help Peter fight Kramer. Even after he had reached the island, he kept thinking about going back. But going back for what? Kramer would have nailed him for one of the hundreds of illegal things he has been suspected of. Neal would simply have ended up in prison, or on a 10 foot radius in DC forever, depending on how pissed Kramer was. Kramer would have made sure that Neal could not communicate with Peter, and Neal would have been helpless and miserable. Peter seemed to have understood this quicker than Neal. And Peter had chosen to set him free instead. Peter had had his back, as always. Peter protected him.
So Neal stayed on his island, Guadeloupe. He didn't actually pick the destination. It was Mozzie's escape plan. But it was a lovely spot in the Caribbean Sea. A French tropical paradise. The first days were the hardest. Neal didn't want to ruin everything for Mozzie, who seemed to be having the time of his life, but Neal's heart was not in it. Then, as if Peter had been talking to him, he decided to "cowboy up", and enjoy the life he had been offered by his friend. Seeing it as a vacation with Peter's blessing made him feel better. After all, he deserved some quality time after all his hard work for the FBI. He was just hoping it wouldn't last for too long. Holidays could get surprisingly boring when they didn't have any expiration date, even in paradise. Particularly because he had made Peter a silent promise not to do anything that he would not approve of. So Neal would just go for long walks along the shore, enjoying his freedom, or swim in the beautiful transparent sea surrounded by rainbow fishes. When he was missing his old life too much, he would built a sand castle of New York, with as many sky-scrapers as he could, until the ocean tide came and swept it away.
Mozzie had been nice enough not to drag him into any dubious plans, and Neal did not ask where his friend was disappearing to all day long. But they had talked, a lot. About New York, Peter, the treasure, Kate, everything. Mozzie had promised that he would never again do anything that could jeopardize Neal's partnership with Peter and his deal with the FBI. They would have plenty of time when Neal's sentence had been served and Neal was a free man again. Assuming that the deal was still on.
Neal had thought hard about sending a sign to Peter, something that would not put any of them at risk. A postcard was not a good idea, because if Peter was under investigation, it would be seized. That would probably not help Peter's case, even though a postcard would hardly mean that Peter was in touch with Neal. It had to be a sign that only Peter would understand. That's when Neal thought about the Rembrandt. It was not on the manifest, but Peter had seen it, even if he hadn't mentioned it when the treasure was recovered. It could work. And even though Neal wasn't sure if it was a bright idea to tell Peter that part of the treasure was still out there, it was his only idea. He had to give it a try. Mozzie was not easy to convince, but in the end, he agreed. If Peter knew about that piece anyway, they might just as well give it a try. It only took Mozzie two days to set the whole plan up. The painting was seized, and the message was sent. At least it had given Neal the feeling he was doing something for his friend over there.
Mozzie seemed to have all his bags now, and they headed toward the exit door. Neal's heart was pounding. His mouth was dry. Doing his best to hide his emotions, he took a deep breath and walked through the door.
When Neal caught sight of Peter, he felt overwhelmed by emotion. A bright smile instantly illuminated his face, reflecting his friend's own smile.
For a second, they both stood there, suddenly unable to step forward, as if a move would make the whole dream disappear. But all of the sudden there was no space between them and they fell into each other's arms. They hugged tight, processing the feeling of being together again, remembering what it was like. They didn't say a word, just remained in the embrace, not willing to let go.
A soft cough brought them back to reality. They finally pulled apart, but kept their eyes locked.
"Nice to see you, Suit." Mozzie said with a bow.
Peter turned around to face Mozzie. He nodded back. "Nice to see you too, Mozzie."
Looking back at Neal, Peter noticed his bright eyes. He felt a wave of emotion in his chest. They both had a hard time hiding their emotions.
Clearing his throat, Peter suddenly tucked his hand in his pocket. "I have something for you…" he said, tentatively, as he took out the anklet.
Neal smiled. "Oh the anklet…. Thanks, Peter I'm touched." Neal took it from Peter's hand and kneeled to put it back where it belonged. Neal looked up at Peter. "I missed it, you know…" His voice suddenly trailed off.
Peter gave Neal one of those soft warm smiles Neal had missed so much. "I know."
When Neal stood up, his old mischievous smile was back on his face, his eyes sparkling. "I have something for you too!" He opened his bag and took out…
"A coconut?" Peter frowned, then rolled his eyes. "What am I supposed to do with a coconut?"
Neal gave him an innocent smile, and shrugged. "You can ask Elizabeth, I'm sure she will know."
Peter shook his head. "Of course. Ok guys, let's go." Looking at Mozzie he asked "Need any help with your Russian stuff?"
Shaking his head vigorously, Mozzie gave Peter a disapproving look and glanced around to see if anyone had heard.
Heading toward the parking lot, Peter put his arm around Neal's shoulders, his grip a little tighter than usual.
"Welcome home." he said.