Chapter Five – Brand New Ending
Note: This is set just after Peter and Neal's return to New York, so events depicted in this season's subsequent episodes have not yet occurred in this story.
"Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending."
― Carl Bard
Peter watched Neal staring out into space. Was he merely pensive? Or maybe confused? One thing was certain: his near-giddiness of earlier was gone, but Peter wasn't sure why. This was one of those times when he would have paid serious money to know what Neal was thinking.
He knew he should have been prepared for this. Of course, Neal, who always wanted to know everything, was going to wonder how it had all gone down; of course Peter inevitably was going to have to tell him. Peter had known that; yet, somehow, he'd never quite gotten around to figuring out just how he would explain it all to Neal. Instead, he'd just kept . . . postponing it. He'd never been one to ignore a problem and hope it would go away. But in a sense, that was exactly what he'd done, and as a result, now here he was, stuck trying to improvise, to think of what to say and how to say it, something he should have been rehearsing so that—
Neal spoke first. Probably tired of waiting, Peter thought.
"I meant what I said: Collins just wasn't bright enough to find me on his own. No way. I know he used you somehow," Neal repeated, then shot him a look that was unreadable; there was an emotion there, but Peter couldn't decipher what it was. "Peter. Did you—please don't tell me that you called my pager from a phone they could trace."
Peter shook his head. "Burner phone."
"No, right. Okay," Neal said, nodding. "Then . . . ." his voice trailed off as he appeared lost in thought. "Wait. Ah. I think I know! He hacked your travel reservations and—and then connived somehow to get there first. That must be how it happened."
He looked at Peter again, with that odd expression on his face. Was it merely expectant, or was it almost . . . hopeful? It was then that Peter had a thought that jolted him.
Did Neal already know?
Maybe he'd found out from Jones and Diana somehow? Peter's mind raced. They wouldn't have told him, though, would they? But Neal was . . . well, Neal. He didn't need to be told things. Maybe he just suspected, because he was so goddamned smart.
But regardless of which it was, it almost seemed like Neal had carefully crafted an alternative explanation for Peter—one that was not only plausible, but mostly guilt-free. Had he, in true Neal-fashion, concocted the lie that Peter had promised himself he wouldn't tell? Served it up on the proverbial silver platter for Peter—and given Peter the implicit approval to adopt it as his own?
Peter was struck, suddenly, by how Neal had phrased it. Neal hadn't said, Is that how it happened? like you would expect him to. He'd said, That must be how it happened. A statement, not a question. And he was still sitting there, with that peculiar mixture of almost-hope and . . . something else on his face, as if he were just waiting for Peter to agree with him so they could move on.
It was exactly the kind of thing Neal would do. Really, it was Neal pulling a con—albeit with the express purpose of covering for Peter. Formulating a lie that could convincingly masquerade as the truth. Manipulating Peter into going along with said lie, so he'd be protected.
Doing it in such a shrewd way that Neal looked innocent and Peter looked . . . well, competent.
If he was right, if Neal really was trying to help him save face by absolving Peter of blame for his own idiocy, it was gratifying (and, of course, sneaky). But Peter wasn't going to take the easy way out—even if Neal wanted him to.
"Neal." Neal's expression changed at the commanding note in Peter's voice. "You already knew about what happened with Ellen. Do you know this part of the story, too?"
For a long moment, Neal stared at him, unblinking, and Peter could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he considered why Peter would ask the question. "No." Peter thought he heard disappointment in Neal's voice.
"You sure about that?"
"I swear," Neal insisted, raising his right hand to pantomime oath-swearing. "Though," he added, sotto voce, "I'm starting to think I'd be better off not knowing this part."
Peter ignored the last comment. "Your theory is a solid one. But there were no reservations to hack. I had no plans to go to Cape Verde until I found out Collins had already gone, until I had no choice. He already knew where you were."
"He bugged your phone?" Neal demanded, looking angry (and still, also, possibly just a little hopeful? Peter wasn't sure).
"Then how?" The words were said almost unwillingly, like Neal had to say them—but didn't really want to.
Peter took a deep breath. "Collins said I wasn't being . . . forthcoming. He suspected I was looking for you."
"Which you were. So he . . . what?" Neal had another thought. "He thought you were lying to him—of course. Did he interrogate you? Christ, Peter—did he polygraph you?"
Shit. If he had, that would be really bad, Neal knew. The mere thought of the words Peter and polygraph in the same sentence was enough to flood his chest with fear. Peter was about as adept at lying as he was at flirting—in other words, mostly hopeless. The idea of straight-arrow Peter being able to beat a lie detector was just inconceivable. Even worse, Peter failing a polygraph, being on record as lying about an ongoing investigation—that was the kind of thing that could get Peter fired. Very easily.
He could picture it in his mind. Peter, hooked up to the apparatus, tension in every muscle, the pen jumping on the paper strip—and the resulting lines looking like a seismograph during a 9.5 magnitude earthquake.
Peter looked alarmed, too, like he hadn't even thought of that possibility. "No."
"Thank God. Did he bug the house, then?"
"No. But he did come to the house."
Neal frowned. "Oh, hell. I'm sorry. That can't have been fun—to have him barging in on you at home."
"I wasn't there. El was."
"Then I'm even more sorry," Neal said, looking stricken. "But I still don't understand—"
Peter rubbed his forehead and plunged in. "There was . . . there was a map."
"Excuse me?" Neal said.
So many times, when people said excuse me, they were being sarcastic, or arch. They had heard what you'd said perfectly well, but were making a point about how ridiculous it was. But other times, when people said excuse me, they meant it quite literally. Because they truly could not believe they had heard you correctly. They thought there must be some mistake.
This was one of those times.
And, oh yeah, there had been one hell of a mistake.
"There was a map." Peter repeated glumly. Nice job with the passive voice there, he couldn't help thinking. He ran his finger convulsively over the neck of the bottle, up and down and around, watching as bits of the label peeled away from the glass with the motion.
"A map? A map of what?" Neal inquired. Peter glanced at him; a little line had appeared between his eyebrows as he frowned.
"The world," Peter said. His voice had gotten lower without him realizing it.
"I see," Neal said, but he really didn't, Peter knew—not yet. His frown had deepened, and his manner was tentative. "Studying for the national geography bee?"
Peter shook his head mutely.
"Practicing your international capitals?" Neal ventured; he was going for flippant—and failing.
Neal looked a question at him.
"I was using the map to . . . track you."
"Oookay," Neal prompted. His voice was carefully neutral, even gentle—the kind of tone one might use to avoid spooking a nervous animal.
"I was making notes on places where I thought you might go . . . and where I was reasonably sure you hadn't gone." Peter looked up to see Neal watching him, but now with slightly narrowed eyes. He took a deep, fortifying breath and looked down at the table again.
"When we analyzed the audio of the phone call, when we realized you must be in Cape Verde, we were . . . I was—I was pretty excited that we'd figured it out."
"I can imagine," Neal responded, his tone still calm and even, but Peter could sense an undercurrent of . . . something.
"I grabbed a pen and I . . . I circled Cape Verde on the map. And told Jones and Diana we needed to figure out how to get you back."
When he looked up again at Neal, Neal's eyes weren't narrowed anymore. They were wide open and unblinking, filled with either disbelief or horror. Maybe both, Peter thought resignedly.
"Whoa, whoa, waaaaaiiit a minute, Peter," Neal said, holding up a hand, stop-sign fashion, in the universal gesture, favored by non-native speakers everywhere that said, I'm don't know what the hell you are talking about. Slow down.
"You're—you're conducting a clandestine search, on your own time, for a wanted fugitive who just happens to be your former CI, which means some suspect you of favoritism. Your primary goals are to make sure that, one, no one knows you are conducting this search and, two, that no one else from the FBI finds him first. Would you say that's accurate?"
At times like this, Peter thought that, in another life, Neal would have made a hell of a prosecutor. But of course he didn't say that.
"So, knowing all this, you left a . . . an annotated map of the world in your house, with all the locations you'd eliminated crossed out and my actual location circled?" Neal said. His earlier calm seemed to have deserted him as his voice began to rise. "You actually did that?"
Peter nodded, wincing, but stayed quiet. What could he say? Wow, it sounds so bad when you say it?
Because it really, really did. It sounded beyond bad. It sounded horrible. It sounded like the most senseless thing he'd ever done in his life.
And maybe it was.
"Oh, my—oh, my God," Neal said, running both hands through his hair. He got up again, pacing again—his limp more pronounced now—but this time his movements had a disturbing, almost manic quality. His eyes darted around the room a little wildly as he lurched, like everything had shifted and he suddenly didn't recognize the world around him. Peter watched him anxiously and tried to decide if he should say anything—or just let Neal vent for a while.
Finally Peter said the first thing that came into his head—because he was honestly concerned about him— "Neal, why don't you sit down while we talk. That can't be helping your leg any."
Neal ignored him and just kept going. He'd started muttering under his breath. Peter couldn't quite make out the words, though, admittedly, he wasn't trying that hard.
It was bizarre to see Neal so utterly dumbfounded—Neal, who was too smart for his own good, who never lost his composure, who was so unsurprisable because more often than not, he was two steps ahead of you. Normally, Peter would have taken pride in catching Neal off guard. But not today.
There was no glory to be had in doing something so asinine that even your incredibly imaginative partner couldn't possibly envision it.
Screw honesty, Peter thought. I should have told him Collins hacked my travel reservations. Instead, he said, "Yeah. I know. I screwed up, big-time." Why even try to defend the indefensible?
"Hell, yeah," Neal exclaimed fervently, still looking aghast at the whole situation, "but I was also referring to me. This is a failure on many levels. Have I taught you nothing at all? I have done a really terrible job of inculcating you with the principles of subterfuge."
You've had your own problems with hiding evidence, Peter thought. He recalled the flight data recorder the NYPD had found in Neal's apartment, but of course Peter didn't mention it. He didn't want Neal thinking about Kate right now. Neal didn't do it often, so far as Peter knew, but when he did, he got morose and quiet. And when Neal was quiet was when Peter worried about him most of all.
Anyway, this was about Peter's mistake, not Neal's.
"But you're not—" Neal broke off abruptly, because he realized he'd been about to blurt out, You're not that stupid, and he just couldn't say that to Peter. "You're not serious," he finished awkwardly.
Peter's gaze was steely—and he'd seen right through Neal with it. "No. Go on. Finish what you were going to say. 'You're not that stupid.' Isn't that what you were going to say?"
"No. I was thinking it," Neal admitted, "but I wasn't going to say it. Because you're not."
"This time, I was."
Neal shook his head. He'd stopped pacing and was now leaning on the chair at the far end of the table, letting it take some of his weight.
"I never thought he could get a warrant!" Peter said, livid again at the memory. "In fact, I still have my doubts about that. I mean, what was the basis? I'd love to see that affidavit of probable cause."
"What, you think he's got a judge in his pocket?" Neal asked, momentarily distracted from the sheer, mind-boggling insanity of Peter and his marked-up map.
Peter shrugged, disgusted. "It wouldn't be the first time we've seen that. I had plans to look into it, but I didn't have time. And it doesn't matter now. The last thing we want to do is make waves on this."
Neal sat down again, grunting at a sudden shooting pain in his leg, and rested his head in his hands. At Peter's insistence, he'd learned more than he'd ever wanted to about warrant law during their time together—starting with their very first case—but in light of Peter's stunning revelation, it was hard to focus on legal technicalities at the moment. "So. Wow. You just . . . left the map there for anyone to find."
"For God's sake, Neal, it's not like I posted it on the bulletin board in the office," Peter muttered, chagrined. "It was hidden in my house."
"Not well enough," Neal said in a low voice, almost to himself.
Peter sighed. Neal was right; there was no denying it.
"But . . . but you should have burned it," Neal said plaintively, in a how do you not know this voice. It wasn't accusatory, though, just mildly reproving. He'd lifted his head up to gaze out the window; at least he'd gone from looking appalled to merely contemplative. "It's the only truly reliable way to eliminate incriminating evidence. Because even the cleverest hiding place can be revealed, given enough time. And, as I know from personal experience, shredding is really not—"
"Yes, Neal, I know that. I was incredibly foolish. I don't know what I was thinking. Correction: I wasn't thinking at all. And in the future, I will be sure to—no, wait. We're never going to be in this position again, so I don't even want to discuss it."
"I agree wholeheartedly," Neal said. He was observing Peter once again, looking relaxed again, loose-limbed, sprawled in the chair.
Peter glanced at him, surprised and a little bit wary. Just like that, Neal's agitation had dissipated, replaced by his customary sangfroid. That was Neal, though. He so rarely lost control; it stood to reason that when he did, it wouldn't last. "You agree? With which part?"
"That we don't need to discuss it. Hey, you made a mistake," Neal said, and Peter could hear the carefully calibrated nonchalance in his voice. "Granted, it was an unbelievably colossal mistake, a mistake of epic proportions, the kind of mistake that—"
"Yes, thank you for reminding me, Neal. I'd forgotten." Peter gave him a dark look before adding sarcastically, "It's always nice when a friend tries to make you feel better."
"—but the ending was still happy. And I'd be a hypocrite if I condemned you too harshly," Neal finished, voice patient. "Speaking as someone who may have . . . made a few mistakes in my day, as well."
"May have?" Peter repeated.
"Okay, point taken," Neal acknowledged, a ghost of a smile flitting across his face finally. "I have definitely made my share of mistakes—"
"None of which ever resulted in me getting shot, though," Peter interrupted, somehow managing to look both angry and morose at the same time. He could almost feel his Catholic upbringing kicking in, a rebellion against being let off too easily for his sins.
"No, but my mistakes almost cost you your career," Neal answered. And your wife, his mind added, but Neal really didn't want to go there. Instead, he continued, "As I was going to say, I've made my share of mistakes and you've been really, really good about not holding them against me. I'd say I owe you the same courtesy."
And you don't even know about the worst mistakes I've made, Neal thought, mind shying away from the memory of the night he'd broken into their goddamned house to get a look at that manifest.
Neal wondered, sometimes, how Peter would react if he knew about that. There weren't many things in the world that Neal was truly afraid of—but that was one of them. Because there weren't many things he'd done that he was ashamed of—but that was one. Maybe the biggest one. As a very intimate and personal betrayal, it was quite possibly the worst thing he'd ever done to Peter—and not just to Peter, but to Elizabeth, too. Because that had been their house that he'd broken into, their bed he'd perched on, staring blindly at the paper he'd come for, as an oblivious and absurdly caring Peter told Neal, in earnest tones, how he, a burglar, a thief and a liar, deserved to be happy.
Yes, that was the night he'd made his first break with Mozzie about the treasure; he'd lied to him about finding the manifest. But that didn't change what had come before. He'd used Peter and Elizabeth's trust in him to manipulate them, to betray them, to violate their home, and it still made him feel sick inside that there was a part of him that could do that to people he considered his friends. That was a part of who Neal Caffrey was, and it was still there, which meant he could do something similar again. Neal didn't like it, but it was the reality of who he was. Who he'd always been.
Next to a character flaw that fundamental—well, he had to admit that Peter's brain cramp with the map paled in comparison.
Neal cut off that line of thought abruptly to return to the subject at hand, pondering what Peter had done. It only took him a minute to realize it.
"Aha!" Neal exclaimed, in a Eureka voice. He looked transported, like he'd discovered something momentous. "I get it! I get it now, Peter. It all comes back to the thing that, above all, you can't bear to admit."
"What an idiot I was?" Peter asked, grimacing liked he'd tasted something foul. He didn't see why this was a Eureka moment. This was obvious.
"No—oh. Well, I mean, yeah," Neal conceded in a duh voice, rolling his eyes and throwing a hand in the air for emphasis. "Obviously. Of course you were. But not only that. I was referring to how much you missed me."
Peter just looked at him.
"That's it, Peter. That's why. Think about it!" Neal said excitedly. "Look at what you did. That incredibly foolish, remarkably careless act of leaving the map—"
"Yeah, I think we've firmly established that that was not my finest hour," Peter retorted. He accompanied his statement with a mild glare, even though he knew how hopeless it was to try to stop Neal when he was on a roll. Peter knew all too well the tell-tale signs of Neal believing he'd made some sort of breakthrough.
"—the unimaginable act of leaving the map where Collins could find it," Neal continued patiently, as if Peter hadn't spoken. He was warming to the topic now, alive with the glow of discovery. "Why did you do that? Emotion, Peter. When you realized you knew where I was, you were so overcome with emotion, with jubilation, that it overran your mental faculties. This, this is the proof of how much you really missed me. See, I knew it!"
"Uh. Huh." Peter said it very slowly.
"And I know, you're a hardened FBI agent," Neal went on. "You don't want to admit that you missed your criminal consultant that much. I totally get that."
"Oh, I mean that in the best possible way," Neal said, waving a hand. "You know. Tough. Hard-boiled. Seasoned."
"Seasoned is better."
Neal nodded approval. "As a seasoned FBI agent, you have to a reputation to uphold. It wouldn't do for people to know that you left the map there because you were overcome with excitement about finding your wayward CI. And you don't even want to admit it to me. I get it. It's fine. Your secret is safe with me. And Jones and Diana, too, I'm sure." He smiled a righteous smile, looking vindicated.
"Where do you get this stuff?" Peter said, looking up in exasperation as he spoke, as if he were addressing the ceiling.
"You do realize that, as far as I'm concerned, this takes what happened from insane to almost-adorable, right?" Neal said earnestly. "You temporarily lost your faculties. All because of the overwhelming joy you felt upon realizing that you might once again have me around to . . . to complain about that revolting coffee, and whine about the van, and never listen to anything you say—all the things you missed, and more. All the things you can't admit that you missed. You lost all ability to think rationally, and I have to say, that only happens when you really, really miss someone, Peter. That's why you left the map there, and it's totally understandable." He ended by beaming at Peter.
Peter groaned. "Or maybe I left it there because subconsciously I wanted Collins to find you—so I'd be assured of never having to put up with your crap ever again," he said in a warning voice. "How's that for a theory?"
Neal threw his head back and laughed heartily, like it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. "That's a good one! Points for creativity, Peter."
Peter scrubbed at his face and wondered: was it too late to suggest that Neal run? Again.
Yes. Much too late. You're stuck with him now.
"Okay, enough," Neal said, taking pity on Peter, because, really, he'd suffered enough (and it wasn't like Neal didn't have the rest of their natural lives to tease Peter about that map; seriously, it was going to be a veritable gold mine).
"Moving along . . . so Collins gets a warrant, possibly through nefarious means that we're not allowed to discuss, and he finds the map. Disaster has struck. Then what?"
"I lost it a little bit," Peter admitted. It was a relief to have the worst part over with, like a weight had been lifted. "I went to Hughes's office and I just kind of . . . went off."
Neal's eyes widened in alarm. Just thinking about that conversation made him cringe. He'd known that this mess had to have put Peter in a difficult spot, but he was only now realizing just how difficult. "What'd he say?"
"That Collins had every right to do what he'd done and that he'd already left to find you. That I needed to get my priorities straight."
"I'll bet," Neal said, exhaling slowly and then drinking some more.
"Then he basically gave me permission to go after you," Peter added, voice carefully casual.
Neal choked on the wine he'd been drinking and promptly went into a coughing fit. Peter wondered at first if Neal had done it deliberately to give himself time to decide how to respond, but the coughing went on too long to be fake (at least, he thought so).
When Neal had recovered enough to be able to talk again, his tone was one of disbelief. "You're kidding."
Peter shook his head. 'He said to think about my priorities. And he said if I decided it was you, that he couldn't protect me, but he'd understand."
Peter watched Neal's eyes narrow thoughtfully as he assimilated this information with what he already knew about Hughes, trying to figure out his motivation.
"I think he was worried about you, too," Peter added. "You don't give him enough credit."
"Only because he doesn't give me any," Neal muttered.
"That's overstating it a bit. Maybe at one time, but not anymore."
"I guess you're right."
"You know I'm right," Peter shot back. "And I'll tell you something else. This whole arrangement—reestablishing your deal—doesn't happen if Hughes isn't totally on board with it."
He leaned forward. "I talked to a friend at Justice. They wanted McLeish, sure, but they were skeptical as hell about your end of it. If Hughes hadn't gone to bat for you, talked you up, along with what you do here, you could be back in supermax right now. Or on the run permanently. I'm told he made quite the impassioned speech on your behalf."
"On my behalf. Really?" Neal said, his voice quiet and incredulous. He ducked his head and fiddled with the stem of his wine glass.
"Really," Peter answered.
He watched Neal's face carefully. Neal looked surprised and maybe a little bit proud, but it wasn't the normal aren't-I-great look he had when he was pleased with himself. This was hesitant and slightly shy, like he couldn't believe it and was almost afraid to show it.
"That's . . . that's just—wow," Neal said.
"Yup," Peter agreed. He drank his beer and Neal sipped his wine.
Finally Peter cleared his throat. "I'm just glad that everything worked out."
"Me, too," Neal said.
A small silence ensued before Neal spoke again.
"There's one other question I do have, Peter," he said, a little hesitant, but serious.
Peter looked at him guardedly before he answered. "Sure. Everything's out in the open, now."
"Good," Neal said, a broad smile breaking across his face. "That's what I thought. So . . . if that's true, well, I was wondering . . . I'm sure you wouldn't mind—could I see the infamous map?"
Peter exhaled slowly. "I thought we agreed not to discuss it. And no, you cannot see the map. It's in evidence. I assume."
"Come on, Peter. Please?"
"Because I was just wondering—after you circled Cape Verde, did you write in big letters, Neal is here? Like at a highway rest stop, when you look at the map and there's a circle with an arrow and it says, You are here . . ."
"You are like a dog with a bone," Peter sighed as Neal smiled wickedly.
"And you are such an easy target," Neal told him, chuckling.
After Neal had stopped, Peter cleared his throat. "Since we're getting things out in the open, there's something else I . . . I want you to know."
Neal looked up at him quickly. His expression was bland; probably no one but Peter could have seen that all his senses were on alert.
"When you talked, before, about what it felt like to be free, you were honest and I appreciate that. I appreciate that you didn't sugar-coat it for me. But I didn't say anything—and I should have. I should have said how sorry I am that you got so close and had it snatched away from you—here and on the island. That's probably worse than if you'd never gotten close to it at all."
Neal gave him a long, appraising look and then shrugged. "I'm very adaptable. And you and I both know, even if hardly anyone else does: it's not like I really deserved it, anyway."
Peter stared at him. It was jarring to hear Neal Caffrey talk about deserving something. The word wasn't normally in his vocabulary. In Neal's worldview, you got what you could get—legally or otherwise—and that was it. If you had something—whether it was because someone had offered it to you, or you just figured out a way to get it, then presto—you deserved it. Because you had it. There was no moral component, no question of whether you ought to have it.
Neal leaned his chin on one hand, raised an eyebrow and flashed that blinding Caffrey smile. Peter couldn't help wondering if Neal was doing that scary mind-reading thing again, where he knew what Peter was thinking without a word being said (something Peter was all too aware of because, truth be told, Peter could do the same thing back to Neal, given the right circumstance).
Peter looked at that smile, which he found perpetually annoying because he knew it was fake—it was a tool Neal used rather than a genuine expression of emotion. And despite all that, despite how much Peter had always disliked that smile, he was now realizing he'd actually missed that too.
Damn, but he was getting soft.
"I'm sorry," Peter said, deciding to keep things light. "I thought I just heard you say you didn't deserve something. Are you sure your brain hasn't turned to mush?"
Neal's hundred-watt smile mellowed into a devilish grin as he spoke. "Hmm. Someone who left a map with the words Neal is here lying about in his living room may want to think twice before questioning my thought processes."
"The map did not say that," Peter said, squeezing the words out through gritted teeth. "And maybe your thought processes do leave something to be desired, because I seem to recall us agreeing that we weren't going to discuss it."
Neal pushed his chair back, stretching out, and gazed heavenward like he was searching for strength. "Oh, I know, but it's sooo tempting, Peter. And you know how hard it can be for me to resist temptation."
"Unless you want me to start reciting chapter and verse of your mistakes, I suggest you try," Peter said.
His voice was ominous. But when Neal looked at him, Peter was smiling. "Deal?" he asked.
"Deal," Neal said, smiling back.
"I'm only human, though; you said it yourself, Peter," Neal intoned solemnly. "Which means that, while I'll try very hard, I don't know if I'll be able to forget about the map."
"Didn't think you would," Peter sighed.
Sometime later, Peter was on his third beer and Neal his second glass of wine.
" . . . whoa, wait a minute," Peter said, holding up a hand as he eyed Neal in disbelief. "You're telling me that, to celebrate your return, June opened a fifty-year-old bottle of Scotch—"
"Actually, it's more than fifty years old, now," Neal remarked.
"—that cost twelve thousand dollars?" Peter demanded. Only Caffrey . . . .
Neal raised his eyebrows and nodded, beaming. His white teeth gleamed in the darkness of the room.
"I like Scotch," Peter pointed out, sounding just a tad grumpy.
Neal gave him a pitying look. "Which is why it's really unfortunate that you weren't here that night. And I hate to say it, but until you've tasted the Dalmore, you haven't really had Scotch. If you know what I mean."
"Oh. No wonder you wanted to come back here," Peter said, shaking his head in wonderment.
"I do have it pretty good."
"It also makes my welcome-back gift look pathetic by comparison," Peter muttered.
"Honestly, your gift was . . . lacking even before we compared it to the Dalmore," Neal said, chuckling at Peter's disgruntled look before adding in a more serious tone, "Kidding, Peter, kidding. You've done more than enough for me—too much."
"I was worried about how you'd react," Peter said abruptly. At the non-sequitur, Neal's smile vanished, replaced by something softer and subtler. Peter wasn't talking about his gift anymore. "How you'd react to me . . . to my doing something so careless, something that put you in danger. I thought it might . . . I don't know, shake your faith in me, maybe."
"It would take a lot more than that," Neal assured him, a fond expression on his face. "Plus, we've already established that it was temporary insanity, Peter. So you get a pass."
He leaned forward, a mischievous glint in his eye. "And don't forget: I did try to give you an out—more than one, in fact. My theory about the polygraph wasn't bad. And the bit about hacking your travel reservations was even better." He shrugged. "Personally, if I were you, I'd have gone with that one."
"The bit about—" Peter echoed. He glared at Neal, but inside, a part of him was exulting: I was right. He was trying to con me. "You're saying you wanted me to lie to you?"
Neal looked pained. "Peter. The word 'lie' is so . . . indelicate. Let's call it an alternate version of the truth."
"You might call it that. Most people would call it what it is: a lie," Peter countered. "Answer the question. You wanted me to lie to you?"
"Of course," Neal said dismissively, rolling his eyes. "Why not? It was plausible enough."
"But it wouldn't have been the truth."
Neal flapped a hand in the air. "Truth, schmuth. You think I would have cared? Hardly. I just would have pretended to believe it, with you none the wiser. The perfect image of Peter Burke is safely preserved, you remain blessedly ignorant of the fact that I know it's a lie, all the while saving you the trouble of a nervous breakdown. Everybody wins."
This was the duplicitous side of Neal, the one that made Peter nervous. Sometimes it was easy to forget that Neal thought this way all the time. It would take a normal person an interval of planning to come up with this kind of ingenious scheme, with multiple possible lies built in. They'd have to work at it to devise a strategy this clever, this calculating.
Neal did it in a heartbeat, effortlessly, and with the blithe nonchalance of someone ordering a latte at Starbucks.
Peter swallowed his misgivings at Neal being . . . well, Neal. This was what he'd had signed up for, after all. "Everybody wins, huh? With you never knowing what really happened?"
"Well, now. Never is a very long time. I'm sure I would have coaxed it out of Jones or Diana sooner or later," Neal admitted. "I have my ways, you know."
"I do know," Peter said dryly.
And over the last six weeks, he'd missed those, too.
Thank you for sticking with this story 'til the end! Sorry it took longer than planned. Hope you enjoyed. As always, comments and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated.