Peter lost sight of the con but had an idea he was nearby watching. The sense that Neal was intentionally avoiding him made it all the worse for the guilty feelings the agent already had. He hoped this meeting with Mozzie and possibly June being intermediaries would help but apparently Neal was still angry with him. He understood, sighing as he raised his hand to hail a cab and head home. Elizabeth would be there soon and he didn't want her to worry, his eyes glancing down to the sling around his left shoulder. It still ached but not as much as his conscience about what he had done to his partner and friend.
"Where to buddy?"
Peter slid inside the back of the cab, closing the door and thinking a moment before he answered. The vehicle started up, the motion making him lean back against the seat so that he turned partway and saw a figure watching him. It was Neal. Peter decided to play dumb, watching the faint reflection of his friend watching him in the rear-view mirror as the cab took off. He gave another sigh, leaning back in the seat more and closing his eyes. This was turning out to be a very bad month. He sat up when his cell buzzed in his pocket.
He listened, eyes widening some as he realized who was calling.
"Reese. I was just heading back home. Had to run a few errands. Nothing too strenuous. They did?"
Hughes words made him tense. OPR was going to file their decision about Caffrey and his future as a consultant. Reese didn't sound very enthused but that didn't mean he knew something.
"The report comes to you tomorrow? I'll be there. No, I want to be. I have to... be there so I can drop the bomb if necessary. Neal will take the news from me better than anyone. Just make sense."
Secretly he figured it was better for Neal to continue hating him if it came to that then making things harder if it went south. He finished the call and hung up, pushing the cell back into his pocket and hitting the seat with his fist. Fowler knew better than anyone that Caffrey was a victim but he was off on another assignment so he was incognito for the moment. Neal had thought him protected and out of bounds but Fowler had been on their side despite what everyone thought. He had gone a bit far with the persecution of his wife which was when he'd hit him, an apology from Peter to Garrett about the fight when it was safe to do so. It had been heat of the moment and they'd had to play their parts. It was forgiven but Fowler hadn't been nicer to him afterwards. They were friends of a sort but the OPR agent didn't understand why he was trying so hard to help Neal. That was their point of contention and it irked Peter nobody understood how much he'd come to respect the con man. There was a part of him that wouldn't express that in public because of the implications but now he would gladly say so if it meant Neal would forgive him.
Peter nodded with a distracted look up, handing the driver cash and a tip before exiting the vehicle. He'd been gone about an hour, going inside his house and hearing sounds from the kitchen.
"El... honey is that you?"
He saw her poke her head around the corner, Satchmo running out from the kitchen to greet him as she nodded with a curious look.
"Were you expecting someone else?"
She was teasing but he shook his head, his mind still back on Neal. Peter looked up when El hugged him, wrapping her arms gently around his shoulders.
"I'm guessing you went to see Neal?"
He nodded, the two moving over to the kitchen to speak while he grabbed a cup of coffee and she handed him a plate of food.
"Leftovers from a show I went to after today's meeting. This was one of the better caterers. This chicken parmesan is to die for."
She was trying to distract him as they sat at the dining table and he picked at the food. When he finally took a real bite, Peter chewed on it until it was practically mush, a cough bringing him back to where he was so he swallowed the bite and stared down at the rest of it without much interest. Food was the last thing he was thinking about right now.
"Sorry, hun. Neal... he won't talk to me. Mozzie was trying to help but even his opinion doesn't seem to help or June's. They set up a little get together..."
He let his voice trail off and she nodded knowingly, a frown on her lips.
"June told me. Said Samantha was practicing her soccer and they figured it would be a good meeting place. I'm so sorry, hun. I..."
She paused, looking at him guiltily before it occurred to him why.
"You told him about what happened. Mozzie said he knew everything. Why didn't you tell me... or Reese? I don't think he knows Neal has been told. We were waiting for the right time."
He was mulling over this revelation, El moving closer to hug him.
"I was going to tell you but I thought... he was so angry with you and me. Couldn't understand why I wasn't gone and then I knew I had to tell him. Reese had just told me everything and I couldn't let him think you weren't his friend, Peter."
Elizabeth was apologetic but he heard more, a kind of duty he knew his wife felt to always tell people what was up if it meant things would be better... or not. They didn't lie to one another but she had omitted the fact she had let Neal know about the truth and it had made things harder for him. He sighed.
"When did you tell him. He's been pretty much avoiding me like the plague, not that I blame him. Mozzie was trying to be an intermediary. That's why I went out. He stopped me while I was walking Satch."
His thoughts were swarming around trying to see why Neal was still so angry when El finally answered.
"The day you were both brought into the hospital. It was after I initially saw you. He was angry and upset. I told him then and he was quiet. Neal's never quiet so I knew he wasn't buying it. I told him to talk to you about it. I'm sorry hun if I messed things up."
She looked unhappy not just for Neal but for him. El had tried to help and it had failed but this meant... Neal knew the truth all this time and kept away out of stubbornness. The agent sighed.
"I need to talk to him. I knew he was watching today when I lost him but... but this has gone on long enough. I didn't know he knew until Mozzie said something. Now you confirmed how."
Peter had to do the right thing. This concerned not just Neal and Peter's agreement but the con's past. Simon had wanted to get rid of James and use his own nephew to do it. It was the only reason at that moment Neal was ever "guided" towards being Peter's consultant. It was neither fate but happenstance and a serendipitous one at that. He understood that now. He had not initially liked the idea of having the con with him nor had Hughes but it was a chance to take down a man whose corruption spanned decades and ruined several lives. He would do it again. Neal was more family than Simon had ever been. El kissed him on the cheek and smiled softly.
"Go. Invite him to dinner if he'll come. I'll make those "chickens" he likes."
She was teasing him as he rolled his eyes back and kissed her on the lips and winked.
"Cornish Hens hun. Even I know that."
Neal was uncertain what he thought, pacing his room as Mozzie watched him. The little guy was quiet, sipping at a glass of wine and giving him that look one gives a crazy person ranting to themselves on the street.
"I know... boring a hole through June's floor. You can stop thinking so loud, Mozz. It's very annoying."
He paused, moving out to the terrace and glancing down at the view as he took in a deep breath of city air. Probably not the wisest idea but his whole life was one big lie and even this new family... where did he sit now? Peter only did this to take down his uncle so where did that leave him? Was everything finished? Did they drop him like the burden he always felt he was and let him back out on his own devices in prison? Maybe that's why he didn't take the truth so well. For all the promises Peter made on helping him, what if that had been a lie too? Elizabeth's words only made the truth so much plainer but Mozzie seemed to take what she'd said to him as gospel. It wasn't like his friend to be so trusting. Nothing felt right and yet it was as it should be if that made any sense at all. He gave a deep sigh, a cough making him turn.
It wasn't Mozzie coughing, another figure there standing just inside the terrace doors and staring at him in quiet contemplation. There was a tension between them like two dogs meeting up for the first time. Neither one wanted to make the first move and yet...
"He's downstairs with June. Said you were reading his mind and it was annoying so he left you alone."
Peter neither smiled nor frowned, his expression bland but his eyes and body language spoke volumes. Perhaps his did too as Neal wasn't sure he could hide anything at the moment. This was what he had dreaded and wanted to avoid, his eyes moving back to the cityscape as he took in another deep breath and tried to think what to say or do.
"Just Mozzie being himself. How's... Satchmo?"
Now he felt stupid, avoiding both humans and going for the pet that couldn't say anything. So much for being a suave silver tongued con man. Now he was just being foolish and obvious.
"Missing his favorite toy. It was something he found at the park and couldn't be parted from. Now it's lost. None of the other toys seem to compare."
Neal blinked but didn't turn back around, his eyes scanning the skyline but not really seeing anything. Was Peter saying what he thought. It was all rather juvenile.
"He'll be happy with a new toy. Dogs forget easily. Just give it a week."
Now he was being childish, a hand touching his shoulder as he shuddered slightly but didn't respond back. Peter's fingers only lightly touched his shoulder but there was no grip, no gentle squeeze and then it was gone.
"I don't think so. He's been... looking. Searching I guess. Doing a slow but deliberate search around the house. He's not giving up."
The agent sighed, a heavy sadness there which made Neal turn and finally look directly at him. Now Peter was looking away, his brown eyes doing his own scan of the skyline. There was more to this allusion than what he could read between the lines.
"Hughes... he called me today. OPR has finished its report on the status of your assignment with me. It comes in tomorrow to Hughes. I thought you should know."
Peter left it at that, turning without looking at him to walk away. The man's shoulders slumped and his body language spoke of someone who wasn't happy with what he'd said. Neal reached out and touched his friend's arm, clinging lightly as he gave a little squeeze.
Peter perked up some, turning to give him a glance with a slight smile touching his lips.
"I don't know yet. Hughes said he'd keep me in the loop. Want to discuss it over dinner?"
He was expectant, Neal nodding back as the atmosphere changed between them and the room seemed less stuffy than before. They heard a cough from the doorway and saw Mozzie was standing there, a curious look on the little guy's face.
"I'm guessing this means we have a truce again?"
Peter looked at Neal with a smile and then back at Mozzie as both nodded to him. Neal grabbed his jacket and followed the agent out as Mozzie glanced at him and he whispered audibly: Yes.
Dinner was quieter than usual but not so tense as it could have been. Mozzie had thankfully not invited himself meaning he knew the significance of this event as something the agent and con had to deal with on their own. Peter was glad for that as he said goodbye to both the con and June who were playing high stakes Parcheesi as they left.
"He lost a bottle of Shackleton in a game of Candyland?"
Peter sounded incredulous but El giggled slightly smiling at them both.
"June told me that story in confidence... I never imagined she meant it. Still, a Shackleton is rare and expensive. At least you were able to enjoy it for a case."
Her voice was full of mirth, Peter watching his wife and his partner seeing how comfortable Neal was with her and seemingly with himself but they weren't alone yet. He still had to talk to him about tomorrow when his phone rang and he walked away to answer it.
"Reese... thank you. No, we were just finishing. 10 AM... Perfect. You too, sir. Night."
He turned back to see two sets of blue eyes looking at him curiously from the dining table. The pressure was on and Elizabeth seemed to understand as she smiled and pointed at the kitchen.
"I think I'll get dessert ready."
She nodded at him as the two men moved to the living room and sat down, Peter feeling more tense than he had when he thought Neal had hated him.
"Hughes expects me at 10 to hear what OPR decided. Honestly... I never expected any of this to happen. I thought..."
Peter didn't know how to tell Neal how he felt initially, the feelings he had then were not the ones he felt now. Things had changed.
"You thought you'd find Simon, stop him and be done with me. I heard what you said before..."
Neal was blunt, voice low so El wouldn't hear but his tone was bland almost emotionless. There was an iciness to his eyes when he spoke but it softened slightly as they stared into Peter's.
"I thought you really felt that way Peter. I want to believe you don't but you're under no obligation to do so."
He shrugged, his manner almost dismissive as if he had expected this despite everything they'd been through. Had Neal really give up on him so quickly? Peter wondered how things had gone from good to bad so quickly but he knew why. Faith only went so far and trust was not something they had between them as a permanent means of belief. Still, Neal had sacrificed for him and he had to have seen that Peter had done the same leaving the pick kit for him in the trunk. He had tried to give him a clue things weren't as they seemed and now they were both feeling the worse for all the lies.
"I'm not... but I can't let you go back because things have changed. You're more than just my responsibility, Neal. You're..."
He was about to say something more but El walked over with coffee and plates with pie on them. He gazed up at his wife wishing she had waited a moment longer but it was too late, the moment broken for now as Neal nodded and they took the food.
It was tense again after that although on the surface it seemed anything but. El spoke to Peter once Neal had left, refusing a ride as he hailed a cab. She wrapped her arms around him as they sat back down on the sofa and Peter gave a deep sigh.
"Tomorrow's the day, El. They decide if Neal can stay. I told Reese I'm going to be there and I want to be sure Neal stays out of prison."
He was angry, frustrated and worried about what the future might bring. Liking much more having a partner who was an ex-con hadn't been the plan initially but he liked Neal and the kid deserved better than to be tossed back into prison. He had initially done this out of justice but now it was more than just his duty. Neal was his friend.
"Oh, hun... Is he going with you to the meeting? I don't see how you could keep him away."
She was looking sad as he felt, blue eyes watery at the thought of their friend going back. If he had done something wrong, then it wouldn't be an issue but they had dragged Neal through hell and back and he didn't deserve to be put into a cell if he had done his job. Peter wouldn't allow it.
"I told him I'd bring him but nobody knows he's going. I figured a surprise might shake things up in his favor... I hope."
Neal felt like he hadn't slept a wink all night although he had dreamed a few times of his old cell back before Peter had pulled him out. He spent part of the night tossing and turning and the rest staring up at the dimly lit skylight above his bed. He listened to the sounds of the city outside until he heard his alarm ring and knew it was time to know his fate. He took a cold shower to wake himself up and then put on his best suit, a navy blue blazer with darker lapels over a crisp white and blue stripe shirt tucked into a dark blue shiny pair of slacks. A simple tan and navy blue striped tie finished off the ensemble and he glanced tiredly at himself in the full length mirror. It was early, even more so than Peter would be here but he was surprised to hear a knock and June's voice.
"You're up... and dressed. Lucky for you I was up early to check on some recipes for an upcoming meeting when I heard knocking. There's someone here to see you."
She smiled knowingly, her eyes meeting his a moment before stepping aside to reveal a tired looking Peter dressed to the nines in his one suit not from Brook Brother's. El had bought it for him when he had to go undercover once and Neal had helped to pick it out. It was a dark gray suit with an expensive dark red silk tie and crisp white shirt underneath. Peter had huffed about the present from his wife and co-worker but it had been a necessary evil when it came down to it. The undercover story wouldn't have worked out with Peter coming across as a millionaire in a cheap run of the mill suit and tie. Apparently he felt that same expression was needed today, a hint of something more than the ordinary as Neal motioned him in with no more than a nod of his head. June left them with a word about finishing up her task as the door was closed and he started some coffee at the kitchenette. It was only 7:15 now and they had time before they had to be at the Bureau.
"I'm guessing you had as much asleep as I did?"
Peter was trying to be funny but Neal shrugged, waiting while the pot boiled and bubbled on the counter.
"An hour or so. My dreams weren't too great. Did you want some eggs? I haven't eaten yet."
He had pulled out a pan, removing his jacket and pulling on a neat dark apron with a few dried paint smudges but otherwise clean. Peter nodded with a thankful smile, removing his own jacket as he moved over to the counter and started to make toast next to his partner, then digging in the fridge for butter and juice. They were quiet, no words as they just fixed a small breakfast for the both of them as if this were perfectly normal. Finally they sat at the table, everything perfect but still quiet as they continued to eat without much more than a few sounds of "mmm" here and there from Peter.
"I have to ask you what you did with these eggs, Neal."
He just blurted it out, blushing a bit but smiling as Neal grinned back, some of the tension released with that simple request.
"I'll send the recipe along to El. She can keep you guessing better than I could."
He winked back, finishing up his own meal and sitting back to poke at a few bits of fruit he had added to the course and sip Italian roast with closed eyes. Peter was eating a bit of cantaloupe when Neal finally spoke again.
"I don't blame you... when you think about it, I can be quite a handful. If things don't work out..."
Neal's voice was calm, measured but there was a hint of something else there that sounded almost dejected but more saddened by the prospect of leaving this place. Of leaving Peter. The consultant's face was momentarily hidden behind his coffee cup and the agent could only chuckle, blue eyes finally looking at him directly, curious for the action.
"They will. I'll make certain of it, Neal. I don't want to have to train another partner."
Now they were staring eye to eye for a moment before the stare ended mutually, nobody being the first to give in. It was a natural thing and he saw a smirk grow on Neal's face where it had been frowning before.
The drive up to the Bureau was quiet but they chit chatted a bit and finally arrived around 9:30 AM, early enough to see Reese was already talking to people in suits closer to their own expensive jackets. Jones and Diana remarked on Peter's apparel and wished they'd "break a leg." It was now or never as they both walked up at 9:48 and Hughes blinked not at Peter but at the fact Neal was there. He gave them the two finger motion, both walking in but Hughes pulling Peter aside.
"I authorized your being here, not Caffrey, Burke."
Reese didn't seem happy but he understood, Peter giving him the honest truth as he spoke back just as quietly despite the two OPR agents waiting outside where Caffrey was.
"He deserves to hear this too. It's his future we're... you're determining. I already know where I stand on things."
Peter was a bit more firm than normal, Hughes raising a brow and then nodding with a not so happy frown.
"Fine, but he has to be quiet. No interruptions. They aren't going to be happy... Agent Sikes... Erickson, please come back in."
He heard the tension in his boss' voice and realized these men were staring at them both, especially his partner who stood just inside the now closed door. One of them pulled out a folder and handed it over to Reese, a frown on his face as eyes moved towards Caffrey then to Peter and back to Hughes.
"I think you'll see that we did a fair analysis of the situation. It's what's best for everyone involved. Agent Burke..."
Agent Sikes gave him a once over and seemed impressed by the suit, smiling ever so much in an almost genuine manner before turning back to Hughes and the report with business like intentions again. The older agent's eyes widened a bit before he handed it over to Peter and gave a nod of his head without making comment.
"Thank you agents. I appreciate your time and effort in this matter. I know you're busy and this was a long and arduous case. We put some bad people away."
Peter took the file as his boss spoke, trying to listen but feeling a wrenching tug in his gut as he anticipated what he might be seeing. He opened up the manila folder and read the single page within, his breath held until he had to let it out and he felt a bit lightheaded. He turned to Neal as the con moved closer and took a peek as the file was moved to his hands. Sikes and Erickson were still chatting with Hughes as if they weren't there when Neal let out his own huff of breath and suddenly that wrenching feeling left him. They were both just staring at the file until the two OPR agents took their leave and Hughes closed the door again.
"Don't everyone speak at once. I think... well I know I have some scotch available. Your ears and eyes only..."
He closed the blinds and suddenly they were standing around toasting.
"To 2 more years. Congrats, Caffrey."
Neal was shocked to say the least, seeing all the comments in the short letter sized sheet that made reference to him not as a tool (as Agent Rice once said) but to him as a valuable team member. The board had no other option but to go by majority whim and allow the two to remain partners on the positive feedback and their record as having the best closure rate in the Bureau. Peter seemed happy with the news as did Hughes, the three having one glass of scotch before Neal was asked to leave long enough for Hughes to have a private chat with Peter. He figured it had to do with him staying and he had no qualms about allowing them to discuss things, he was certain his fate was sealed. He was going to stay in New York and continue to work with his friend and partner. The past month seemed to fade some as he realized that Peter hadn't given up on him and his faith, misdirected as Mozzie originally thought it to be had been restored. He quickly texted the con man telling him to get a good bottle of wine ready. Mozzie texted back, he had already drunk most of his over the past month but something would show up. Neal rolled his eyes at the comment, going downstairs to his desk and seeing Diana and Jones glancing curiously at him. Jones sniffed then gave him a knowing look.
"Someone smells of congratulatory scotch. Only been taken out one other time. I'm guessing something good happened, Caffrey?"
The agent was fishing, Diana looking between the two.
"Scotch? I prefer a smooth Whiskey myself. What's the occasion?"
They were both curious but he didn't want to give anything away as he pointed back to the now exiting figure of Peter Burke. The blinds to Hughes' office were open again and the two men were saying their goodbyes. The agent came down to meet them, glancing between them all and seeing that look.
"Just debriefing about the case. They congratulated us on getting rid of one of the most corrupt kingpins in this region. Why is everyone smirking?"
Jones just feigned ignorance, Diana nodding back with a pat to his shoulder when he oofed a bit and sighed.
"Sorry, shoulder still. I should have brought the sling but left it at home. Didn't think this was going to take so long. You ready, Neal? I was going to head home to tell El the good news."
The four chatted a moment when his cell buzzed in his pocket and Peter went off to answer it. His face paled slightly but he just nodded, few words leaving his lips as he returned, pushing the cell back into his pocket.
"Neal... you coming?"
The agent seemed to be in a hurry as he nodded back, saying goodbyes to the agents before they left and he walked to keep up with his friend as they quickly made it to the elevator. The doors opened and they slipped inside, something about Peter's manner odd until the doors shut and he finally spoke.
There was no remorse there but something else. Neal wasn't sure if it was relief or not, the idea of telling his family what happened and why but Peter had kept it from them thus far. Simon had done terrible things under another alias and framed his father in the process. Now he was dead and Peter had been the one to kill him. The lack of color in the agent's cheeks seemed to express that thought all too clearly. Neal understood now why Peter felt so responsible for him.
They didn't speak the rest of the way down, finally exiting to the lobby and out to the street to get a taxi. They walked several blocks in silence before Peter finally hailed one but it was obvious he was still in shock at the news.
"It's finally over. Everyone's free now."
The words were quiet, barely audible but Neal understood. The ghosts of the past were gone and hopefully once they had the evidence box, James would be cleared without threat of Simon's wrath.
"Thank you Peter..."
Author's Note: The end is here. The story is over and you can now say that whatever happened at the end of the last chapter sort of ties in here. I didn't want to do too much AU now that the storyline is kind of coming out on TV. Just enough to get it caught up with canon. ;)