Things had finally returned to normal as much as normal could be under the circumstances. Peter pushed the case as far away from his conscious mind as he could once he realized his hopes would never come to pass. His eyes reread the same passage again, something he had been doing a lot lately as he worked on their current file load of criminal cases and mortgage fraud. A slight smirk passed his lips on the last bit knowing how much Neal always hated the latter before he frowned again.
The name had buzzed in the air for the past six months like some kind of irreverent curse word or something more. The con had been missing since their last case, Peter recalling the incident almost every night in his dreams, another reason he had to read things a few times. He wasn't getting much sleep although he had finally taken his wife's advice and gone to their doctor for something. He slept now but it was the sleep of the dead, hints of what he wished he didn't know floating in the background of his drugged thoughts until he woke up feeling physically rested but mentally exhausted from fighting back those memories.
"Boss... they're ready for you in the conference room."
Diana stood there in the doorway glancing at him curiously as he nodded back with a smile he didn't feel. There was nothing wrong with his feeling towards his co-workers, especially Diana and Jones but there was an empty desk just within range of the doors that reminded him daily of someone who was no longer with them.
He gazed up from his view of the desk, Neal's desk, and gazed into the other agent's eyes. She was worrying about him, a soft look in her eyes as she closed the door, her voice only just audible.
"I miss him too Peter."
She knew what he was thinking, Diana always taking care of him as if they were family. He nodded back, sighing to himself as he closed up the case file before him and took a few other folders off to the side along with some notes he had written as he stood up. All he wanted to do was live that day again and change things... make what happened go away...
"Thanks, Diana. I'll be right there."
But that wasn't possible and every day he felt the loss a little bit more while trying to leave it behind him. Neal hadn't run this time, not in the typical sense. Neal had saved his life but he had died doing it in the line of duty. So many unanswered questions when a body was missing, the marshals and rangers finding only hints of clothing and his consultant's badge washed upon the shore from the river below.
He had to forget for the moment, live his life and do his job. Life had to go on even if Neal Caffrey was gone. Peter sighed, leaving the office and walking next door to the conference room, his manner changing from tired to his usual self as he did as his partner often did and conned people into thinking he was feeling something he wasn't. If he had learned anything from Neal, it was how to fool the audience into seeing something that wasn't there and in the last 6 months, Peter had started getting better at pretending he didn't miss his partner.
5 o'clock finally came around, Peter staying at his desk despite everyone else packing up. Jones and Diana stopped by, offering to take him out for drinks after work but he refused feigning interest in the case before him and a late dinner with his wife who had an event. They nodded, a knowing look between the two agents as they acted normal and let him be with their usual good night as they left him alone. Slowly the floor cleared out until it was after 6:30 PM and only himself and Hughes remained, the senior agent exiting his office surprised to see him there as he knocked on the door.
"Burke... what are you still doing here?"
He gazed up from the case files he was looking over, only partially attentive to the information within as he blinked at his superior and friend.
"Work... trying to catch up on a few of these cases trying to figure out which will be our next big break. How about you?"
He was acting normal, Peter trying his best to hide why he was at work so late, Reese walking inside and standing over him as he lay a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Go home, Peter. These can wait until tomorrow. I'm sure Elizabeth is worried about you."
His friend was obviously worrying about his overdoing it as he reluctantly nodded at his boss, Reese remaining close by with a thoughtful look on his face.
"I always thought... it doesn't matter what I thought. Caffrey was more than what everyone thought. Hopefully he's run to a better place."
Peter blinked up at his boss, grabbing up his jacket and the files. Hughes had said more than he ever had about liking Neal in those words.
"I knew he had my back sir... I should have had..."
He choked on the words, unable to say them even after 6 months. Guilt still ate at him and he wasn't going to get over it any time soon. Reese patted him on the shoulder, a small comfort as they walked out of the office and building with no words until the elevator doors closed.
"Partnerships are hard to give up, Peter. I've had my fair share of losses over the years. It never gets easier but all you can do it go on for both of your sakes."
The doors finally opened up on the lobby floor, Reese squeezing his arm in a comforting manner.
"Save those files for tomorrow. Spend a quiet evening with Elizabeth. G'night."
They split up outside the building, Peter walking to his car while Hughes took a taxi. He thought about his friend's words but it only helped a tiny bit against the emptiness still threatening to break Peter in half. He had Elizabeth, Diana, Jones... June. Mozzie hadn't been around lately so he had an idea the little guy was mourning in his own way or searching for their friend. The fall to the river below would have killed anyone so with all the evidence it was impossible Neal had lived. Body or no body, Neal Caffrey was gone. Only traces of blood, hair and some skin had been found but nothing else and no hint he had walked away. This was not a faked death or case of someone wandering off in a daze. The rangers thought a bear or such might have taken...
His attention came back to the road, his house coming up. Peter stopped thinking about what could have happened. Neal was gone. The con had run in the worse way possible or maybe the only way he could and get away with it. The tracker had not been found so they thought maybe... No, he was going to push this all aside tonight. El would be home soon and he could have dinner ready for her before she showed up. He was good at pot roast so that would be tonight's meal. He just needed to walk to the market around the corner for a few other items like veggies before the roast was done. Peter settled on snow peas and mash potatoes, exiting the vehicle with his files and entering their home. Satchmo greeted him sniffing at his hand before licking it. Even the dog seemed to sense his sadness as he closed the door, petting the lab and sitting down, Satchmo pushing his chin onto the agent's knee and pressing down.
"I miss him Satch... every day. That annoying smile... those little hats... he's not coming back."
The dog whined back and he petted him a bit more before getting up to head upstairs and change. Satch needed a walk and Peter needed to get dinner ready. He changed into some jeans and a black tee, grabbing his wallet and phone as he headed back down. The roast was already in the freezer so he prepared it, pushed it into the oven and headed out with Satch to the market. For a moment he was just another guy fixing dinner for his wife and walking his dog. Everything else was pushed aside.
The pot roast was nearly done, veggies simmering on the stovetop when Peter felt his phone buzz in his pocket. Elizabeth had not come home yet but had called to say her event was nearly over about an hour after he had come home. He figured it must be his wife calling again when a not so unfamiliar voice spoke.
"Suit... we need to talk."
Peter froze, surprised by the out of the blue call of the con that had called Neal friend and family in some cases. They had heard nothing from Mozzie since the week of Neal's disappearance, thinking he had gone into hiding to do his own mourning and searching for the missing consultant and former con man. The fact he was calling now seemed surprising as he stirred the pan with snow peas, onions and carrots.
"Mozzie? I'm in the middle of making dinner for my wife. How... how are you?"
He wasn't sure why he was uncertain what to say but it could be the guilt he still felt at losing the con's best friend and the idea the man had stayed away because he blamed him for it. There was a moment of silence then a cough before he heard a knock at his door echoed through the phone.
"I noticed... I'll be better if you let me in."
Peter put the spatula down, covering the veggies as he put them on a lower setting and walked over to the back door where Mozzie stood, a large folder under his arm. It looked familiar to him in some way he couldn't quite recall as he moved aside to let the con inside.
"I won't take too much of your time, Peter. I'm just... doing what Neal told me to do."
Mozzie carried the large portfolio sized folder over to the coffee table and laid it down after he removed some of the decorations on top. Peter gave a quick look at the kitchen hoping to keep an eye on the food so it wouldn't burn. Mozzie seemed to notice, untying the ribbon holding the huge folder closed and opening it up, several drawings inside on paper he knew all too well. This was Neal's artwork. His sketches but these looked far more original than he had ever seen. The agent gave the first one a glance as he realized what the sketch was of.
"How... where did you get these, Mozz? This is... I don't understand..."
It was the cliffside where Neal had fallen from. Where he had shot the man who killed his friend and...
Peter stood, walking back over to the kitchen but then pausing as he gazed at the back door a moment then turned back to the con who was still at the sofa with the large book of sketches. Neal's art... He walked back after a moment with uncertainty. Mozzie wouldn't play games about Neal's death to hurt him. Much as it was apparent he was still upset with him he had come because of something their mutual friend had asked him to do but what and why were the question as he looked at the sketch again. Mozzie was quiet, nothing like his usual self and no obvious anger or malice beyond a certain standoffishness that had to be because of what had happened.
"Neal... he told me... he said that I would know what to do with them when the time was right and when I did, I was to come visit with you."
The last part sounded forced but he was doing this because Neal had asked so that was something. Peter noted that the image was of the scene where his friend and partner had died but there were differences he wasn't quite certain what they meant.
"This is wrong... he changed something here but I..."
Peter excused himself, running upstairs to his bedroom and opened up the safe behind the large picture on their shelf. He pulled out a file marked "Neal Caffrey" and took it downstairs, pulling out a large glossy photo and holding it up to the sketch.
"This is the cri... photo they took that day. Do you see the differences?"
He held it out for Mozzie to see, the little guy glancing between the two as he took the photo and finally nodded with an almost excited look.
"You're right! It's almost like a before and after picture, the sketch coming before the day in question but why would he have been there before everything happened? It doesn't make any sense!"
Mozzie had taken to analyzing the photo and sketch while Peter started to look through the rest of the drawings. Suddenly he felt a tug on his sleeve.
"Suit... something smells like it's burning."
The con was pointing behind him, a bit of smoke starting to waft towards them as Peter cursed softly, dropping the sketches and running for the kitchen. Satchmo was in the corner watching them quietly as the con followed, his eyes looking around the house as if he'd missed the place.
"It's not burned but it is a bit more crispy than I wanted. Veggies are good... Thank you for that Mozz."
Peter was trying to get everything together, Mozzie helping him as they set the table and placed the food out, a sound of a key in the door telling them El had finally come home.
"Hun, I'm home."
He heard her voice call out, quickly moving over to hug her as she glanced around at the large sketches on the coffee table and then Mozzie finishing up with her blue flowered apron as he placed some bread on the table with a flourish, towel over his arm as he bowed.
"Dinner is served, madam... monsieur..."
Peter rolled his eyes but El looked happily at them both, kissing him again and wrapping her arm around his waist as he did the same to her and they walked over to the dining table.
"Honey... you did all this? Pot roast... You know I love your pot roast."
She kissed him again and Mozzie seemed to be trying not to be there as they drew closer and Peter sat her down, taking her purse and jacket and putting them back by the door.
"Yes, and Mozzie helped. You're welcomed to join us Mozz."
The little guy looked shocked a moment but nodded, smiling at them both uncertainly as he took a seat and Peter sat near El.
Dinner was quiet at first, uncertainty and hurt feelings leading the way although more between the lines than in actual conversation. Finally everyone started to chit chat with Mozzie asking El about her event and Peter not inquiring into what the con had found on their friend. The last thing he wanted to do was bring that up around his wife who was still upset by their friend's loss. They still had a funeral to plan if not a memorial but everyone wanted to be certain of their friend's death before going through with anything. 6 months seemed nearly long enough to mourn a missing person.
When they had finally sat down for coffee, Elizabeth noticing the sketches and remarking on their beauty, Mozzie spoke up.
"He said... Neal uhm said that he wanted you to see these. Said it was a clue and only you would be able to figure it out."
Peter was surprised by the revelation, uncertain why it sounded as if Neal had known about what was going to happen. Was this just one long con then? Had the con actually run away? Mozzie seemed to sense his trepidation at the news, shaking his head.
"Neal didn't run, Suit. He was sad when he told me about these sketches. There was no reason why only that I had to wait 6 months and you would be able to figure out what he meant. That's all he told me."
The last word spoke volumes, an emphasis indicating some unresolved jealousy that Mozzie had that this was a puzzle for Peter and not him to solve. He knew that feeling when Neal had left clues for Mozzie and not him and this was the reverse for once but what it was he was supposed to guess at. He gazed at the other sketches, one of Elizabeth standing with a sign that he had taken of her on a surveillance of the gallery he'd met her at. It said "I like Italian." He gave a soft laugh at the picture remembering taking the picture when he wasn't sure what it was she was doing. They had ended up getting a reservation despite the lateness of the call to her favorite place by chance, someone else having dropped theirs at the last minute. It had been a wonderful evening with a free bottle of some nice wine being offered since another customer had been kind to get it for them as a gift. Peter had never found out who that mystery person was but it had been one of the best evenings leading to him marrying a truly remarkable woman. El hugged him, bringing him back to the present as he smiled at her softly.
"I wonder why he was sketching this. There's a picture... Let me get it."
El left a moment and the two men looked at one another and the oddness of the sketch. It was a strange thing for Neal to draw unless he had snuck upstairs and gotten into their things. This was making Peter more curious as to what Neal had meant by these drawings as El returned with a box of photos.
"Here we are. I showed Mozzie this a while ago, remember?"
The little guy nodded at her words, Peter looking at the picture and smiling wistfully. He was holding the picture up as his eyes fell on the sketch and that's when he saw the difference. It was only a slight thing but there was someone reflected in the glass behind El. Someone looking out the window behind his then future wife, a face that shouldn't be there in the sketch. It was Neal Caffrey.
They spent the rest of the night going through the sketches after that, looking for the differences until it was very late and Mozzie declined a stay on their sofa or in their guest room.
"I have my own investigating to continue. Thank you for the good food, Peter... Elizabeth."
The little guy was being formal and using both of their names as they said their own goodnights to him and he left through the front door this time sans the sketches. He said since Neal wanted Peter to have them, they were his. Peter felt guilty again, knowing Mozzie felt left out with not knowing what kind of puzzle Neal had left for him. For whatever reason the con had left these sketches, they had definitely been meant for Peter. He saw it in the way he'd drawn that image of Elizabeth with the sign from his former stakeout. That would have been 2 years before Neal was on his radar when he thought about it. Neal would have just run away from home according to what he'd been told and barely started what crimes he was known for if anything. What had his friend been trying to tell him with these pics?
El was looking at a sketch, her face wanting to smile but something else seeming to bother her as he moved to sit beside her and look at whatever had drawn her attention.
"The green lollipop... but the angle is off here. He wouldn't have known I had it. There's no picture of me with this item or record of me eating it. There's Kate in the background but how... This is the suit I was wearing and everything. The details are perfect like a picture but I don't understand... how?"
Author's Notes: Neal is gone but he sent messages as if from beyond the grave. Something's up and he wants Peter to figure it out but what is the mystery? More in the next chapter.