Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.
(Later that evening in Brooklyn …)
Peter was sitting on the patio with a bunch of sports papers stacked on the table beside him. Yep, he was on his own again; there was no annoying, paranoid conspiracy theorist talking his ears off. Just blissful silence, only himself and his wife in the kitchen preparing a feast for tonight. In a little while, he'd probably watch a sports game on TV, and take a long walk with Satch in the park. Later on, well, he might get some ideas involving El.
But, why did he feel so worn out? After all, they hadn't come out empty-handed from the case. They had caught Tatjana Orlova, as well as her crew, and the Marshalls had arrested her father, Michail Lasarew, at the airport when his flight had landed. Indeed, they had scored full points.
Even Sara was pleased, her job saved once again. It was likely that she was celebrating the victory with Neal right now, not to mention their reunion.
Agent Burke was more than happy that no one had been hurt seriously during the rescue. Everyone would be back to work tomorrow in the office. Elizabeth thought he should take a couple of days off, being wounded and all. However, she has known him for too long to expect him to stay home and recover.
Someday soon, he had to face Neal to talk things over. They needed to move on. Burke had toyed with the idea of changing the department. If he left White Collar, Neal could spend the rest of his sentence working with the team. He hadn't talked to Hughes about it because he hadn't made up his mind yet. He would miss working in White Collar dearly. It was a perfect fit for him. At least, it had been until recently.
Somehow, they had to find a solution. The situation with Neal wouldn't resolve itself. You had to give a little, take a little … That way, Neal would stay out of prison, whereas the team would function as a sort of safety belt to keep him out of too much trouble. Peter himself would have to settle with a different team, a new task. Nothing he was looking forward to, but he could cope.
Just then, the door bell rang, interrupting his thoughts. Since El was busy in the kitchen, he went to open the door. To his utter surprise, Neal was standing there, holding a bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer.
A winning smile on his face, he brushed past Peter into the house. "I thought this operation called for a celebration. Will you get out the glasses? This beer needs to see the refrigerator." And off he went to the kitchen.
After hugging Elizabeth, Neal opened the refrigerator to store the bottles. He inspected the contents interested and moved the food to make space. Satisfied with the results, he closed the door, grinning mischievously. Then, he took the wine plus a bottle of beer to join his handler outside on the patio.
He handed Peter the bottle and poured himself a glass of wine. It was an exquisite French claret with a full bouquet, old, obviously expensive. By contrast, the beer was the cheapest brand available. Lukewarm, it tasted disgusting. Neal sneered. "You like it?"
"Ah hm. It's definitely an experience. Still, it's not one I'd like to repeat too often. Do I have to drink it?" Peter was puzzled, unable to read the con man's face. What was this? Day of reckoning or a happy ending?
"Yep. You've deserved a treat. Let's raise a toast to faithful partners and trusting friends!" He lifted his glass to clink the beer bottle.
Peter's stomach turned. That probably meant no happy ending, then. He cleared his throat and groped for words. But before he started speaking, his young partner made the opening move.
"I can't believe it took me so long to see through this con. I have to acknowledge, without grudge, that this was downright brilliant. You laid out the bait masterfully, and I took it. And apparently, you've got everyone involved, from Sara to your wife, June, Jones, Diana, even Hughes. Correct me if I'm wrong!"
His handler just shrugged his shoulders and hung onto his beer, waiting for the rest to come.
"Did I forget anyone? Orlov and his men were real, that much I can tell. Oh yes - the most important accomplice, Mozzie! I guess he must have driven you crazy, being at your home day and night without means of communication to the outside."
"You've spoken to Mozzie? He let on about the scheme?" Peter wasn't surprised. He hadn't expected Moz to keep secrets from his friend for long.
"Nope, he didn't. You've just let it out. Besides, I've raided your fridge. Unless you've developed a taste for lactose-free produce or vegan food, I guess you've hosted him for a while. Tell me, how did that work out? He must have driven you crazy!"
Peter nodded agreement. "Goes without saying! How can you keep him around all the time? He doubts everything, suspected the neighbors of being CIA spies, and accused me of poisoning him when I confused his soy yogurt with dairy products. Not to mention the constant stream of Indian Sitar music to ease the flow of his thoughts. But it was the only choice, and if I had to, I would do it all over again."
"Thank you, I appreciate the effort. I really do. This was a truly touching thing you did for me. I've got to hand it to you. You plotted this very skillfully. I have to give you credit for the scheme. I never suspected that you were the one pulling the strings. I have the deepest respect for this con. Take that as a compliment from con artist to con artist!"
The agent smiled sheepishly. "I learned from the best."
"Allegedly, don't forget. You never admit anything."
"Oh yes, allegedly. So, where do we stand now? I know it wasn't right to con you, but I couldn't think of any other way to save you. After all, it was my mistake that started this miserable course of events. So I had to make it right. Then again, going behind your back was an awful idea." Peter looked ineffably sad.
Neal got serious. "No, I wasn't joking. I really appreciate the effort. Conning a friend contradicts your own beliefs. You need strength to do that and pull it through to the end. Thank you."
Peter was amazed. "I don't know what to say. I don't think that I deserve any gratitude. How can I ask you to forgive what ..."
The CI stopped him. "That's enough! I don't want to hear any more apologies. You've done nothing else but apologize in the two months I've been back."
"But you haven't listened. You were somewhere else with your thoughts. I need to do this properly. Allow me to tell you the truth and tell you how sorry I am, just this once. After that, you can make up your mind." When Neal nodded silently, Peter sighed, bracing himself for the difficult task ahead.
"I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions. I've known you too well to assume you would cheat on the White Collar division. Yes, you might have your own interpretation of what's right and wrong, but you wouldn't betray a partner. I should have trusted you. I should have stood up for you, helping to prove your innocence. Instead, I was the first one to put the blame on you. Ever since then I've realized my how wrong I was, and I've regretted it bitterly."
Caffrey didn't object. "That's right - I wouldn't have done that. And I thought you knew that. I thought we were friends... No, I even considered you family. Neither friends nor family would act like you have. I don't understand how you could have turned your back on me. Burke the jerk!"
Peter was aware that his partner deserved an honest answer. Even if the truth reflected badly on him. "I guess I was still feeling sore about the instant bonding with your dad and the turn it took when James killed the Senator. But that's not a good excuse. I was a turncoat, letting you down. I am dreadfully sorry - sorry for what I did, and the hardship I caused you."
Neal was listening closely, his face not giving away any emotion, rubbing the scar on his forehead.
Watching him, Peter couldn't stop the memories flooding his mind. He recalled his partner's abused and battered face back in prison, the angry wound shining out glaringly. There had been nothing but contempt and hate, combined with despair in Neal's eyes that day. The agent often experienced these flashbacks, reminding him of his own guilt. He couldn't think of any way to break through it.
Peter sighed in resignation. "That scar of yours, for example. It will always remind me of my failure. How do you deal with it? How can we overcome the rift?"
The younger man looked astonished. "The scar? It's actually a good simile. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with. Apart from that, it gives me the air of being beset with danger; it really gives me an edge with women. You made me a chick magnet, don't you know? Seriously, I've been bitter for too long. It's eating me up. I don't want this anymore."
The agent was skeptical. "I don't know. Ever since you were released from prison, you've been withdrawn, obviously suffering from the aftermath of the ordeal. Now, only one week later, you're telling me everything is fine, wounds healed, all is forgotten and forgiven? That doesn't seem right. Have you even talked to someone about what has happened to you in prison? "
Neal's stomach clenched, and when he spoke, his voice sounded thin. "Not all of the wounds have healed yet; they go very deep. Frankly, I don't think that I will be able to ever forget any of them. Most certainly, I won't talk about that time in prison anytime soon, probably never. But, I don't want to grow old and bitter. I don't want my bitterness to defeat me. That would be suicidal. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by my suffering, or I can choose to rise from the sorrow. I want to make a fresh start."
His partner was deeply impressed. "Words to live by. Why don't you tell me more about the fresh start you're planning? As I've told you before, you can always be assigned to another handler. I understand if you don't want to work with me any longer. I won't be offended. Besides, I thought about climbing up a step on the career ladder myself, moving to another department. You see, there's more in the FBI universe than just the White Collar division." He tried to sound optimistic.
Neal was worried. "Don't! Don't do that! I don't want another handler. You're my partner. You can't believe that I would let you off the hook so easily. Consider it as your punishment to bear with me and my shenanigans over the next couple of years. "
Even though Peter wanted to believe this could work, he wasn't convinced yet. "It will be too dangerous for both of us if we can't trust each other. This job puts us at risk every day. You need to trust that your partner will back you up when the situation gets nasty. After all, it was you who said trust is like glass. Once broken it can't be glued together."
The CI remembered very well the day he had confronted his FBI handler, sitting in this desolate visiting room in prison. He had been so desperate, so frightened. If he had a say, he'd never go down that path again. Frankly, it wasn't so easy to go back to normal. It wasn't sunshine and roses. He was still working hard to get over his grudge. Then again, he also knew that he could make this work. He was one of the world's best con artists. He was able to con even himself. That's part of the job description. First you start pretending you're the sunshine boy, put a smile on your face; but somewhere along the way, you realize that the smile has found its way into your heart, and you actually feel at peace.
Neal put on a reproving look. "Peter, don't you know anything about environmental protection?"
"Environmental protection? What are you talking about?" Burke felt completely lost by the sudden change of subject, even wondering if his consultant had gone around the bend.
"Come on, it's perfectly obvious; what do you do with glass waste? You'll recycle it into new glass. Once this beer bottle is discarded, it will be melted down and re-created into a lovely perfume flute or a nice vase. It just needs a furnace with a lot of heat to do the trick."
The agent thought about that and chuckled. "We've had quite some heat, haven't we?"
Neal agreed. "Oh yes, there was a lot of heat. Volcano-like heat."
"The last bit of this disgusting beer in this ugly bottle will probably evaporate into thin air when it gets melted. That's another good reason to try it. This beer sucks!"
Both of them laughed. Holding on to their guilt, resentment and hurt had given both of them a sore jaw from clenching their teeth. Forgiveness on the other side, gave back some laughter and lightness to their life.
Eventually, Peter allowed himself to indulge in hope. "All right, then. You reckon we can rebuild the trust just as well? I guess it will take time. Trust is built step by step, commitment by commitment, on every level. It might take us a while, but I'd give everything to make it work."
Neal tried to calm his partner down. "Hey buddy, take it slow! I don't need you acting as my human shield whenever things turn ugly. That was creepy. I appreciate the effort. But that's not what we need to rebuild trust. First of all, to have a working relationship it would come really handy if both of us were alive. Step by step. Focus!"
El came outside to ask if Neal would stay over for dinner. In fact, she had already set up the table for three. The question had been purely rhetorical. As she told her guest, there was always a place at their table for him. She would have been very disappointed if the invite had been turned down. However, Neal was actually looking forward to it.
Elizabeth went back to finish the cooking, awaiting the evening ahead in joyful anticipation. She had been missing Neal's company, too. Plus, she had missed the sound of her husband's laughter over the recent months.
There has been one question puzzling the agent ever since he had visited his injured friend in the prison infirmary. That missing piece didn't make sense. "Why did you kept that sheriff's star in prison? I imagine it must have been an agonizing reminder of my back-stabbing, like a constant thorn in your side."
Neal smiled affectionately and got the badge out of his pocket. His partner was surprised.
"You're still carrying it with you!"
"It has been a promise for a better life. I didn't want to run anymore, I felt like having found a home, a meaning, even a family after all. That fake sheriff's star was my symbol of a happy future."
His friend still wasn't able to comprehend. "But it didn't work out! You've ended up in prison once again. Particularly with regard to the circumstances, how could you stand the sight of that shattered dream day by day?"
Neal sighed deep. He'd never let the truth of this to sink into his conscious mind before. "I guess it was like a life belt, my last straw to cling to. If I had let go, I would have gone insane. Even in my darkest moments, there was this tiny, indestructible glimmer of hope. It helped me to get through. And here it is, waiting to be ignited into a bonfire of hope."
His friend nodded his assent. "Hope has something to do with things that are not at hand. Let's make this something better, let's make it real, tangible."
Both men were sitting at ease in the evening sun, with no need for further discussion. The only sounds to hear were Satchmo barking and a neighbor's children playing in the back yard. They could already smell the delicious food, rich and tasty scents coming over from the kitchen. Feeling more peaceful than he had in many months, Neal was certain that he wouldn't want to be at any other place right now. Not in his apartment, nor at the Côte d'Azur.
Tomorrow, there would be business as usual. Peter would annoy him by eating deviled ham sandwiches, mock his Devore suit, even monitor his tracking data. In turn, he would play his little tricks bending the law to get some fun into the consulting job. There would be tiring stakeouts, boring mortgage fraud cases and endless reports to write. However, he wouldn't have to face it alone; there would be a friend right by his side.
Maybe Shakespeare had said all's well that ends well. But then, Neal wasn't yet willing to let this partnership end. The happy ending has to be put on the back burner.
The con artist smiled winningly. "By the way, have I told you about that fantastic exhibition of postmodern surreal charcoal drawings starting next week? Just slightly out of my radius. I guess El would love to see it. If you need an art guide, you should know that I had a girlfriend once, a fascinating artist working in that field. My knowledge in this artistic style is literally unparalleled. I wouldn't let you down if you need my expertise ..."
That's it! I actually wrote a story without a happing ending! Never thought, I woud... Okay, a happy not-ending is even better. I'm not fooling anyone here.
It feels a bit strange, rather bittersweet, to eventually end this story. It has been in my mind throughout the last 3 months and now it's done. During those first, dark chapters I already had the last chapter in mind and it kept me going. I really suffered with Peter and his guilt and felt Neal's hurt and despair! But thanks God, I knew they would fix it. I guess I have to find a way to become less emotionally attached to my own stories ...
I don't know, perhaps I'll write an update in the distant future to re-visit Peter and Neal and see how they've worked it out. Just a thought at the moment. But for now, the story is complete.
Thanks to all of you who have kept reading the story, even though it took me sometimes weeks to post a new chapter. And I really, truly appreciate all those reviews! This is not just fishing for compliments. It helps a lot, particularly in such a long story, to receive that feed back and get some clues if the plot is still comprehensible and interesting.
And last, but definitely not least, a big thanks to larura who beta read this chapter, as well as many other of the chapters I've posted. I was afraid that she would have been scared off sooner or later because of the big workload involved. But on the contrary, she not only reviewed the documents but encouraged me with her sweet comments.