Not a Fan of the Bittersweet
The Things We Thought We Wanted
What we want
is never simple.
We move among the things
we thought we wanted:
a face, a room, an open book
and these things bear our names -
now they want us.
But what we want appears
in dreams, wearing disguises.
We fall past,
holding out our arms
and in the morning
our arms ache.
We don't remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
It is there all day
as an animal is there
under the table,
as the stars are there."
― Linda Pastan, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998
Peter knocked on the door and got no answer. Frowning, he tried again. June had assured him that Neal was here, and Peter hadn't bothered to check the tracking data. Only recently released from the hospital, Neal wasn't in any shape to be wandering the city yet, anyway. He had to be here.
"Hey, Neal. It's me. You decent?" Peter raised his voice a little louder this time.
Still no reply. Peter felt a flash of anxiety and considered barging in; it wouldn't have been the first time, but given the circumstances, it was something he would rather not do. Just then, he heard Neal's muffled Come in. Breathing a tiny sigh of relief, he opened the door.
When Peter advanced into the room, he found his consultant stretched out on the couch, propped up on pillows with a blanket thrown haphazardly over his lower half and a book resting on his lap. He couldn't have been reading, though, because the room was in semi-darkness. Neal's hair was a mess, half sticking up and half flopping down over his eyes—which looked slightly glazed over from what Peter could see of them.
Neal cleared his throat before speaking; even so, his voice was hoarse. "Hi, Peter."
"Did I wake you up?" Peter asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
"Huh," Neal said, considering the question as he straightened up, blinking slowly in the gloom. "I guess I must've . . . nodded off, but 's okay. I've slept too much today, anyway."
"Well, if you did, that's only because your body needs rest."
Neal rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Dr. Burke. I see you brought something." He gestured at the plastic bag in Peter's hand but made no move to get up.
"Dinner," Peter replied, holding up the food so Neal could get a better view and then moving around the room to switch on some lights. It was too damned dark in here.
"Oh, that's nice of you, but—"
"You ate already?"
"Um . . . I ate lunch," Neal ventured. His voice was tentative—like he knew exactly what Peter's reaction to this comment would be.
Peter wasn't going to disappoint him. "Well, congratulations, but this is dinner. It's not an either/or, Neal."
Rubbing his eyes, Neal winced slightly. "Not really hungry."
Peter's frown deepened. It was late, past what should have been dinnertime, and the idea of Neal skipping meals was worrisome. He'd dropped a few pounds during his recovery, and he hadn't had any extra weight to begin with. Also, June (who was keeping a very close eye) had reported earlier today that Neal still wasn't eating quite enough of the meals the staff prepared for him—at least not enough to make June happy.
Which was why Peter had very deliberately brought dinner—and not bothered to ask Neal first.
"Not really hungry? Well, that's too bad," Peter told him. "Because I am—and I'm not gonna sit here and have you stare at me while I eat."
"If it bothers you that much, I could look away," Neal suggested, but he said it listlessly, as if his usual smart-ass voice was just too much effort for him right now.
Peter ignored that, waving the bag at him. "Food for two, Caffrey. Right here. And you know I don't like shrimp lo mein, so you're gonna have to come over here and eat it."
Neal sighed, but he didn't argue. Peter set the food down on the kitchen table and started opening the cartons, watching out of the corner of his eye as Neal set his book aside, with atypical clumsiness, then threw off the blanket. It snagged on his bare feet and he pulled at it irritably, finally leaving it in a messy heap on the ground—which also wasn't like him. Slowly Neal dragged his legs off the couch and let his feet fall to the floor. Using his arm to push himself up, he stood.
Peter could hear the quick intake of breath as Neal stayed there for a moment, careful not to move and keeping a hand on the couch to steady himself. A few seconds later he began to shuffle haltingly over to the table where Peter was arranging the take-out cartons in front of their usual chairs. The plodding, graceless pace he set was a far cry from Neal's usual smooth, confident stride.
"I hope El's not eating dinner by herself just so you could babysit me for no reason," Neal groused.
"Nope, she's running an event at the Frick tonight."
"Oh." Neal considered that for a moment. "Satchmo, then."
"Charlotte's taking care of him. We're covered, Neal; don't worry about it."
Now that his CI was up, Peter could see more evidence (not that he needed it) that Neal wasn't feeling like himself. Normally his consultant was perfectly put together, even when in casual mode. But today he was wearing a heavily wrinkled short-sleeve shirt with buttons—probably easier to put on than a T-shirt, Peter realized—except one of the buttons was undone and the shirt half-tucked in. And while Peter was far from fashion-conscious, even he couldn't help noticing that the striped pajama pants Neal was wearing clashed badly with the shirt. Neal was unshaven—really unshaven, not his usual fashionable scruff—and still had a serious case of bed-head. Belatedly, Neal seemed to realize the latter; he reached up to run a hand through his hair, looking annoyed and muttering something under his breath that Peter couldn't make out.
"So, how are you feeling?" Peter asked, making sure to keep his voice casual. He knew Neal was tired of the question—tired of being fussed over in general—but Peter couldn't help asking. Neal looked and moved like a man in some pretty serious pain, and Peter was congenitally unable to ignore that.
Neal gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Right now? Kinda groggy, but otherwise the same, I guess." Peter assumed he meant the same as when they'd spoken on the phone earlier in the day. When Neal had assured him he was feeling better. Except he didn't look much better.
Pulling out a chair, Neal sat down gingerly, hissing as he did so. The exertion of walking the few feet between the couch and the dining table had left him pale and breathing a little too hard, and Peter suddenly felt like a heel for making him cross the room. They could have eaten with Neal where he'd been—on the couch. He said as much, but Neal only scowled and shook his head impatiently, staring down at the table.
"I've been lying on that couch all day. Have to get up sometime."
Abandoning all pretense of nonchalance, Peter leaned on the chair and studied Neal intently. Neal endured the examination in resigned silence, staring back at Peter for a few bleary-eyed seconds before looking away, his mouth twisting into a frown.
At his latest follow-up appointment, Neal's doctor had said he was healing well, that there were no complications. It was just that, with the damage he'd suffered and the major surgery he'd undergone, it would take a while before Neal felt like himself again. In the meantime, the only real prescription was to rest and dose up on pain meds.
Speaking of . . . .
"You taking your medicine?" Again, Peter knew the question was going to annoy Neal; again, he couldn't help asking it. Neal looked tired and thin and unwell, and Peter hated seeing him this way.
"Trust me—I wouldn't have been sound asleep at this time of day if I hadn't," Neal said shortly. Then he sighed, pressing the heel of one hand against his forehead and grimacing. "Sorry, Peter. I'm just . . . a little out of sorts today."
"Good thing I'm here to cheer you up, then," Peter said, which brought a small snort from Neal. "Are the pills still making you sick to your stomach?"
"Sometimes. Vicodin and me don't seem to mix too well right now."
"I used to tolerate it pretty well," Neal said glumly, slouching down in the chair. "In my younger days. I guess this means I'm getting older."
"Older and wiser," Peter suggested.
"Wiser, huh? You think?" Neal sounded doubtful.
"We can hope," Peter answered brightly. He was rewarded with a minor grin from his consultant.
"About the pills, though—" he added, "is there something less powerful you can take?" This was starting to feel uncomfortably like an interrogation to Peter.
"Yeah, but it doesn't help—" Neal threw out a hand in frustration "—so there's no point."
"Well, then—eating is even more important, right?" Peter said with a smile. He expected this to elicit further Dr. Burke snark, but all he got in response was a shrug. Neal was gazing out the window, seemingly distracted. When he didn't answer, Peter prompted, "You don't wanna take that stuff on an empty stomach."
"You're right." Neal paused and then met Peter's eyes, an apologetic look on his face. "I really am sorry; I don't mean to be such a grump. Thanks for thinking of me, Peter."
"Hey, I should have offered you something to drink." Neal looked annoyed again, at himself this time, and shifted in the chair. "I can—"
"What you can do is stay right there while I get my own beer," Peter informed him. He held up a hand in a don't get up gesture and walked over to the refrigerator. "What'll you have? No wine, right?"
Neal groaned. "Not with the Vicodin, sadly. Water's fine, thanks. June brought up some Evian; it's in the fridge."
"Of course, Evian," Peter teased, but Neal didn't respond. For a moment, he was tempted to fill a glass with tap and see if Neal noticed, but Peter recognized this was probably not his best idea ever. Instead, he grabbed a beer and the bottle of water, picking up a glass for Neal along the way, and returned to the table. Neal was looking out at the terrace again and had made no move toward the food. "You want a plate?"
"Huh?" Neal glanced over, watching Peter pour the water. "Nah. One more thing to wash."
"I always said you were smart," Peter joked, twisting the cap off the beer. Neal smiled—it was wan, but at least it was something. "So we won't bother with real silverware, either," he added, removing the wrapping from the plastic cutlery.
"Works for me." Neal eyed the opened carton in front of him with an uneasy look on his face. "But, really, I'm not sure I can eat this right now."
As was his custom, Peter had prepared for this possibility. "Okay, so start with some soup." He whipped the container of won-ton soup out of the bag and slid it over in front of Neal, who gave Peter a knowing glance but nonetheless took the spoon Peter handed him.
Gesturing toward the container, Neal asked, "Isn't this yours, though?"
"Nope, I got egg drop for me." Peter pulled it out of the bag and unwrapped a spoon for himself.
"Oh." Seemingly admitting defeat, Neal peeled the lid off the soup and blew on it, which seemed excessive (and a likely delay tactic) to Peter since the soup wasn't that hot. After a few moments, though, Neal started eating—slowly, but at least he was eating.
"So, did you have any visitors today?" Peter already knew the answer, but sitting there in silence was getting a little awkward.
Neal didn't look up from his soup. "Mozzie was here earlier." Indeed—he'd called Peter to say that Neal was tres moody and Peter should approach at his own risk.
(Mozzie had also noted that Neal really could use some company—even if he wasn't in any state of mind to realize it.)
"Look, Suit, as a general rule, Neal doesn't do 'depressed,'" Mozzie had said flatly. "Not his style. But if he did, it's a safe bet that it would look pretty much like . . . well, like he does right now."
Which was why Peter had rearranged his plans on the fly, calling Charlotte to look in on Satchmo and then ending up here, Chinese food in hand.
"Mozzie came by? That's nice." Peter said casually. If Neal had been on his game, he probably would have picked up on the fact that Peter knew this already. But Neal was very far from being on his game, and so Peter's little deception slid right by him.
"Yeah, well, he didn't stay long. I didn't have patience for his . . . quirks." Neal sighed. "To tell you the truth, today, I find I don't have patience for anyone's quirks. Present company excepted, of course," he added, rather belatedly as he looked up at Peter.
'Of course," Peter echoed, unable to suppress a grin. "When it comes to Mozzie, I often have the same reaction—for different reasons."
"Yeah," Neal said, a ghost of a smile flickering across his face and then disappearing. "Guess you do."
Peter let his eyes rove around the room, catching sight of something on Neal's easel, barely begun. He automatically kept track of Neal's painting (as he tried to keep track of anything Neal was up to) and this wasn't anything he'd seen before. "Starting a new one, huh?" he asked, tilting his head in the direction of the easel.
Neal flicked a disdainful glance at it. "Started, but didn't get very far."
"It seems a little more . . . abstract than your usual stuff," Peter observed neutrally, squinting to try to see better in the shadows. It looked very preliminary, just a charcoal sketch really, with a few random streaks of color. Much of what Neal did was copy other works, but he produced his share of original stuff, too. Peter couldn't tell what this was at all, though.
Neal shrugged half-heartedly. "Who knows, right now. I had a flash of inspiration, but then I got tired and kind of lost the plot, so to speak."
"When you're feeling better, I'm sure it'll be a masterpiece."
Neal gave him a sardonic look. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. So . . . what's new at the office?"
"Ah, you know, the usual," Peter said, pausing to take a swallow of beer.
"Okay, Peter, that's not gonna cut it," Neal informed him. "Because I survived being shot, but boredom might kill me yet. Any little crumb of news will do."
Peter chuckled and sipped his soup. "That bad, huh?"
"Worse. I'm serious. Whatever the most trivial, menial thing you did today was, it will still be the most exciting thing I've heard about all day."
"Hmm," Peter said, pondering. "Well, I reviewed some budget projections. We spend a whole lot on office supplies. That exciting enough for you?"
"Fascinating," Neal assured him, and a little gleam appeared in his eyes. "Think there's fraud involved?"
Peter gave him a reproving look. "You have such a suspicious mind."
"Pot, meet kettle," Neal said, sounding dismissive.
"True." Peter couldn't deny that. "No, no fraud that I can see."
"Yeah," Neal reflected, "after all, office supplies would be such a dreadfully boring thing to steal."
Neal scoffed. "But where's the fun in that? Nobody steals practical things."
"Correction: you don't steal practical things," Peter clarified. "Everyone else is not you, however."
"You can say that again," Neal noted with a smirk as he stirred his soup.
"Yes, I'm reminded of it often. Every single day, in fact." Peter let out an exaggerated sigh. "Oh, I also worked on performance reviews."
That got Neal's attention. "Anyone I know?"
"Yes, pretty much everyone you know," Peter said, shooting a mock glare in Neal's direction. "And it's confidential, so don't ask me for details."
"Right, right, I get it. Nothing too negative, I hope?"
"We have a good team," Peter said simply. He finished the last of the soup and started in on his chicken and cashews. "There's always room for improvement, but I have very few complaints." He observed Neal for a moment. "You know, I just realized: we've never had an official performance review for you."
"Bring it on." Neal punctuated the challenge with an insouciant grin, and Peter felt secretly pleased that his consultant's dark mood of earlier seemed to be lifting.
"You say that now," Peter remarked. "But for a full performance review, the policy is that you first have to do a self-assessment—"
"Self-assessment?" Neal repeated, grin fading a little.
"Oh, yes. You have to fill out the F-915, the Employee Self-Evaluation Form, which usually takes a few hours, because you have to thoroughly review the previous 12-month period, as well as last year's evaluation. Copies go to HR and the supervisory agent, and then you—"
"Never mind, stop," Neal groaned. "I take back what I said earlier. I'm bored already. Is there anything you people do that doesn't involve massive quantities of paperwork and suck the joy out of any endeavor?"
"Not much," Peter admitted, laughing.
"You know what would be fun, though?" Neal said, with the air of someone who'd just had a brilliant idea. "If the FBI instituted 360-degree feedback."
"Look at you with the business-school jargon," Peter replied, pretending to be impressed. "I actually think employees providing feedback to supervisors is a great idea. But I guess a lot of people don't feel comfortable giving honest assessments of their boss."
"Oh, I so would not have that problem." Neal's smile had turned wicked.
"Really?" Peter feigned shock and Neal laughed. "Okay, fine. Let's have it."
Neal pursed his lips. "Well, like you said, I'd really need time to fill out the—what was it?—the F-915, but—"
"The F-915 only applies to you, not to me. Are you chickening out?" Peter countered. "And here I thought you were good at thinking on your feet."
"Oh, don't worry about that." Neal looked excited. "Okay. Here it is." He considered for a moment. "Truth is—much as I hate to admit it—you're not that bad. My major suggestion would be for you to . . . y'know, loosen up some." He waved a hand in the air for emphasis. "Color outside the lines a little."
"Are you serious?" Peter stared at him in disbelief. "Neal, if we colored outside the lines any more than we do, we'd be giving Jackson Pollock a run for his money."
"I do love it when you try your hand at art analogies," Neal told him, an appreciative smile on his face. "And I bet you hate Jackson Pollock, too."
"I'm not a fan," Peter admitted. "Nevertheless, the point stands."
"But getting you to go off the beaten path, as it were, is the whole reason I'm here," Neal said airily.
"That is not—"
"Though I guess it's all relative," Neal mused, as if Peter hadn't spoken. "Compared to the typical FBI agent, you probably venture outside the lines a fair amount. But compared to, say . . . ."
"To an internationally renowned criminal, say?" Peter supplied dryly.
"Exactly!" Neal shot him an approving look. "Compared to that, you're just an amateur at the outside-the-lines stuff."
Peter gazed at him, his expression as stern as he could make it. "And I plan to stay that way,"
'Yeah, we'll work on that," Neal told him, grinning again.
"Hey, I got something else for you," Peter said, ready for a change of subject. He dug into his pocket.
"A present?" Neal's eyes lit up. "A get-well gift?"
"Um, kind of. Call it the Peter Burke version of a get-well gift."
Some of the excitement faded from Neal's expression. "Okay, my expectations have been officially lowered."
"Probably not a bad idea," Peter agreed.
It all reminded him of the last time he'd handed this particular item to Neal. (This was actually the third time, but Peter couldn't help thinking about the second . . . .)
Things had finally gotten back to normal. Or, at least, as normal as things ever got where Neal was concerned.
The Walker case was over, the string of clever bank heists solved. The Midtown Mutual robbery had been an inside job, with Edward Walker using an employee to get him inside. It took a while, but Peter and Neal had finally beaten the smug bastard at his own game. Walker was going away for a very long time, and it had been ages since Peter had gotten this much satisfaction from an arrest.
Neal felt it too, Peter knew. Walker had singled him out for ridicule in their encounters, and though Neal hadn't said a word in response, Peter knew him well enough to realize that the man had gotten under Neal's skin. So Peter felt contented not just for himself and for the Bureau—but for Neal, too.
Midtown Mutual had its money back. Peter had his badge back. Neal had his deal back.
And most importantly, as a result, Peter had Neal back.
With the case against Walker secure, Peter could relax a bit. The specter of an embarrassing lawsuit was gone, and the memory of Peter's recent suspension had faded, thanks to the capture of a notorious multiple offender. Neal's rash actions during the case had receded in Peter's mind, too. Such as the con of Walker's personal assistant to obtain his schedule. And the bad intel about what Walker's next target would be—which had earned Peter the enmity of SWAT.
All of that was water under the bridge, though, thank God, and Peter thought that, now, the time was right for something he'd been meaning to do for a while. Before, it had seemed, maybe, a little too soon, but now that both he and Neal were back on firmer ground, somehow it seemed appropriate.
Peter had just finished giving Hughes a quick update on Walker's processing. Jones and Diana were following up with other Bureau offices to tie in the robberies he was suspected of pulling off elsewhere. There was still a great deal of legwork to be done to bring more charges against the man, which Peter fully intended to do; he was nothing if not thorough.
Returning to his office, Peter saw Neal down in the bullpen. Not reading the new case file Peter had asked him to review (of course), but lounging on a desk and apparently regaling Jones and Diana with some story that had the former laughing and the latter shaking her head.
Observant as always, even out of the corner of his eye, Jones was the first to notice Peter standing at the top of the stairs. He raised his eyebrows at him. "What do you need, Peter?"
"Neal, whenever he's done with story time," Peter replied, as Neal turned to look up at him.
"Boss man's calling," Neal announced, grinning as he quickly slid off the corner of Jones's desk and strode up the stairs.
"You could have finished," Peter remarked when Neal met him at the top of the steps.
"Oh, I was finished," Neal assured him. "Anyway, you're the priority."
"Wow, I'm honored," Peter drawled.
Neal grinned and followed Peter into his office. "As well you should be."
"Did you read the file I gave you?"
"Of course," Neal said, giving him a look. "I'm hurt that you would doubt me. They're using the hedge fund to launder the cash, you know. At least, that's the most likely method."
"Interesting theory," Peter said, and he couldn't help smiling. Not only had Neal read the case file after all, but he'd already come to the same conclusion as Peter. No surprise there . . . .
Neal saw the smile and returned it. Once inside the office, he began to sit, but halted when Peter spoke. "Why don't you shut the door?"
"Uh oh," Neal said, looking wary as he turned to close the door. "Am I getting fired? The big pink slip?"
Peter almost joked, As if it were that easy to get rid of you, but given recent events, those words hit a little too uncomfortably close to home. He settled for a mock glare instead. "Sit."
"Because, you know," Neal said reflectively, "that would actually be a first." He settled into his customary spot, across the desk from Peter. "I mean, over the years, I've held quite a few . . . positions that I wasn't, well, exactly qualified for. Strictly speaking."
Peter sighed. "Am I supposed to be surprised by that revelation?"
"And, despite that, I was never fired from any of them." Neal paused, quite pleased with himself. "It's sort of become a point of pride."
"Oh, I'm sure," Peter said sarcastically. "And later, I'm gonna want to see your full CV—no, wait." He stopped himself. "No, that is the last thing I want to see. Anyway—"
"Of course, you're not firing me. Maybe you're promoting me?" Neal interrupted, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"Promoting you? To what?" Peter was indulging this only because he'd missed it more than he'd care to admit.
And also because there was a time, quite recently—with him suspended and Kate dead and Neal back in prison—that Peter had thought he and Neal might never do this again.
"Now that's an excellent question." Neal pondered it for a few seconds, looking delighted to be asked. "I guess something between consultant and agent . . . ."
"Except I don't think there's anything between consultant and agent," Peter observed.
"No? Well, I'm sure an agent with your level of intelligence and experience could easily come up with a workable solution to that problem."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Peter warned.
"And after all, it wouldn't be the first time a position was created specially for me," Neal continued modestly.
"Oh, I'll bet." They exchanged a grin and Neal prudently didn't volunteer any details. "Okay, now can we get back on point?"
"Yes, yes, of course," Neal said, his smile now imbued with false apology, and Peter knew he was enjoying their back-and-forth just as much as Peter was (even if Neal probably would never admit it, either). "You want to hear my hedge-fund theory?" He eyed Peter shrewdly. "No. Because you've already figured it out, too. I should have known."
"Yup. I do want to hear your version. Later, though. Right now, I do have something for you. Not a promotion, though." Peter added quickly.
Neal looked pleased. "Oh, really, you didn't have to buy me a present."
"Don't worry; I didn't," Peter assured him, chuckling quietly as Neal pretended to be wounded. Instead of drawing out the suspense, Peter opened his desk drawer and took out Neal's FBI credential, sliding it across the desk to his CI.
Looking a little surprised, Neal reached out a hand, but he didn't pick up the wallet like Peter had expected him to. Instead, he flipped it open with one finger and examined it, staring silently as Peter watched.
The moment began to stretch out uncomfortably. The ID was the same—same text, same picture, so there was no reason for Neal to look at it that closely. Peter stayed quiet, wondering if Neal would tell him what he was thinking and, if not, how much Peter could get out of him if he really tried.
"It's, uh, it's the same one," Peter finally said, feeling awkward as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Of course, Neal would know that.
He expected some kind of derisive comment from his consultant. But Neal merely nodded, now running his finger delicately over the picture. Peter couldn't read the expression on his face.
"Were you wondering why I didn't return it?" Peter asked abruptly, speaking his thoughts aloud.
That made Neal look up and focus on him. "I guess I—" his voice was tentative and very un-Neal-like, "I thought maybe . . . I'd have to earn it back."
That didn't make any sense to Peter. "Why would you think that?"
"Because I was going to leave," Neal said simply.
Ah. Peter regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment. "Were you?"
Neal's gaze sharpened. "When I went to that airstrip, I had every intention of leaving, yes."
For several seconds, Neal scrutinized him without speaking. "Then you came along."
Everything about those moments stood out in sharp relief for Peter. Every look, every thought, every word was burned into his memory with striking clarity. Peter could relive it in his mind's eye anytime he wanted (not that he really wanted to). And though they'd never really talked about it, he imagined it was the same way for Neal.
On that frantic drive to the airstrip, while Peter alternated between dialing Neal's cell again and again (getting nothing, no response, straight to voicemail) and fighting traffic and narrowly avoiding accidents as he drove like a madman, his mind was racing, too. Worrying about what he'd do if he was too late.
Worrying about what he'd say if he wasn't.
The buzz of his phone jolted him out of his reverie, and he answered without looking. Maybe it was—
"No, honey, it's me." Elizabeth's voice was concerned—and regretful, like she knew it was the rare time Peter was disappointed to hear her voice. "Are you okay? You sound a little . . ." she didn't finish the sentence.
"Sorry, El. I'm okay." He took a deep breath. "We got Fowler and I—I'm going after Neal."
"Neal." She didn't sound at all surprised, and that ratcheted his anxiety up a notch. "That's why I was calling you. He—he called me."
Peter swore, jamming the brake pedal hard as a cab cut him off. Frustrated and angry, he laid on the horn for good measure.
"It's okay, just the usual New York drivers. Tell me about Neal."
Peter listened in silence as she told him about the flowers sent to their house (which she'd assumed were from Peter) and the phone inside. Neal on the other end, making sure Elizabeth had an event she would never have been able to get, an event that would be a huge boost to her business. Neal, trying to fix what he'd broken.
And when El had said 'see you later,' Neal hadn't responded in kind. He'd said goodbye.
Peter's gut twisted. It didn't sound good. No, it sounded final, too damn final, and Peter didn't want to think about that. He let his professional instincts take over, instead.
"What about the number?"
"The number?" Elizabeth repeated, sounding confused.
"The number you called to get him. Did you—"
"I tried to call him back, yes, right away. A gut instinct, I guess."
Peter smiled a little at that.
"I tried a few times." She paused. "No answer, nothing. It just . . . didn't feel right. So I called Mozzie."
Peter sucked in a breath. "And?"
El sighed. "He was pretty oblique about it, you know how he is. But I guess—he had his goodbye with Neal, too. He muttered a quote from somebody named Howard, I think? Something about freedom being measured by the number of things we can walk away from. And then he said he had to go."
Peter swore, inwardly this time. Neal had tried to help Elizabeth and then called her to say goodbye. And he'd said goodbye to Mozzie, too. But not to Peter—and Peter was pretty sure he knew why, damnit.
A small, traffic-free space had miraculously opened up in front of him, and Peter sped up to take advantage of it. He had to get there—now. Every second was precious.
"Peter, you said you were going after him. Where is he?"
"He's at an airstrip. Fowler arranged for a plane and new identities so Neal can disappear. With Kate."
"Kate." Elizabeth's voice was flat.
"Yeah," Peter said heavily.
El was silent for a long moment, and when she spoke, her voice was thoughtful. "That—that must be why he asked me . . . ."
"Asked you what?"
The light up ahead was turning yellow, and the van in front of him was stopping, dammit. Why, Peter didn't know—there was plenty of time if the driver would just floor it, but no, apparently he was too timid for that. Peter looked around, saw an opening, and veered momentarily into the other lane so he could dart past the van and through the intersection. A horn blared from somewhere, which he ignored.
"He asked about us," El said, sounding worried, (though maybe as much about the sounds she was hearing from the other end of the phone, as about Neal). "You and me. How we knew that what we had was real."
Shit. Kate was Neal's Elizabeth—or at least, Neal thought so.
"And I told him there's a difference between loving the idea of someone and loving who they really are."
Even in the stress of the moment, Peter appreciated Elizabeth's way with words. "You hit the nail on the head, hon. What'd he say?"
"Nothing. Except goodbye."
Peter exhaled in frustration—loudly enough, he realized, that El could probably hear it.
"Okay. Listen, honey," El said, and he drank in the confidence, the strength in her voice. "You're going to get there in time and you're going to fix this, okay? You're going to help him see things clearly. Help him understand how important he is, how much we want him to stay. You can do it—I know you can."
"Thanks, hon. I appreciate that." Peter only hoped she was right. Because now Fowler's parting comment about Neal was echoing in his ears: He wants to go.
What if Fowler was right?
"You call me as soon as you can, okay?" El insisted. "Hell, put him on the phone with me if you want. I can be pretty persuasive."
Peter smiled. "You sure can. I promise I'll call."
"Okay. Love you."
"Love you too, El."
He ended the call and concentrated on focusing his thoughts. If he got there in time, he had to be ready. This would be his last chance and he had to do it right—had to bring the full-court press to make Neal see the situation for what it was.
The problem was that Neal saw things his own way. He always had.
Peter had delivered his speech, about the life Neal had in New York, the people who cared about him, the difference he was making. He thought he'd done a pretty good job, and he was ready to do more. But Neal didn't want to hear it. In the end, his only response was to hand his FBI ID back to Peter, to thank him, and to turn away, walking toward the plane. Away from the life he had—to the life he said he wanted.
Whatever that was.
In a lifetime full of bad decisions, Peter thought, here was another one. Maybe the worst one—and considering that Neal's previous decisions had landed him in prison, that was really saying something.
Peter stared down at the ID in his hand and then at Neal's retreating back, shaking his head in disbelief. What did you say, what could you do—when you offered something of great value, something that most people would jump at, and the person you offered it to just . . . didn't want it?
In Peter's case, you tried one last desperation tactic. To stick with the basketball analogy, you tried the three-point shot from beyond the arc with one second left on the clock.
He kept his gaze fixed on Neal, willing him to turn around, and called out across the tarmac. "You said goodbye to everyone but me. Why?"
Neal did stop, did turn around. Peter could tell he hadn't expected that particular question—because his answer was a baldfaced lie, badly delivered. "I don't know."
"Yeah, you do," Peter challenged. "Tell me."
Neal even tried the lie one more time before realizing that Peter would have none of it, before finally saying, "You know why."
Which had the virtue of being true—Peter did know. But it still wasn't an answer.
"Tell me," Peter demanded again. He refused to let Neal off the hook that easily. He wanted to force him to say the words. To think about them.
And, finally, Neal responded as Peter had known he would (if he were being honest): "Because you're the only one who could change my mind."
"Did I?" Peter asked, staring into his eyes, looking for a sign of . . . something. Indecision, maybe.
But in his heart, Peter feared he already knew the answer to his own question. He'd already tried—and failed. His last-second shot had clanked off the rim and the buzzer was sounding.
Peter had detailed all the reasons for staying, thinking that maybe Neal just hadn't focused on them sufficiently. He'd reminded Neal of what he had. But that wasn't the issue.
No, Neal knew exactly what was on offer. He just didn't want it, and Peter realized, his heart sinking, that there was no way around that particular obstacle.
Peter liked to think that he had some influence on Neal, but now he knew the truth: it had been foolish for him to think he could ever compete with Kate.
Neal turned to look at her and walked away—for good this time, Peter thought grimly. Out of the blue, the realization hit him like a sledgehammer—that this was the last time he'd ever see Neal Caffrey. The bitter taste of failure flooded Peter's mouth; it felt as if he were choking on it. The day was cold and yet somehow he hadn't noticed that he was freezing, but now he did. Now it was all he could feel—as if the numbing cold had suddenly sunk into his bones in that instant, chilling him to the marrow.
Peter had an out-of-nowhere urge to run after Neal, to grab him—maybe cuff him, and wasn't that dark and disturbing, not to mention crazy? Whatever Peter might think, this was Neal's life, for Christ's sake. Peter had no cause to hold him, no matter how big a mistake he thought Neal was making.
Neal was an adult and thanks to that bastard Fowler, he was free. Meaning he was perfectly free to throw it all away.
But then . . . then Neal turned around one more time.
He said Peter's name and was clearly about to say something else. Peter saw the hesitation and a spark of hope flared inside him. He could almost feel Neal struggling, between the pull Kate was exerting and what Peter was offering.
Then the plane exploded.
And Peter ended up grabbing Neal and holding on to him to keep him from running away, after all—though in a horrific context he could never have imagined a few seconds earlier.
Kate was gone and Neal was still there, but the world was changed. Whatever Neal had intended to say was instantly irrelevant.
Well, it had been irrelevant. Until now.
Peter suppressed a shudder at the memory. He could almost smell the smoke from the explosion and taste the ash in his mouth—even though they were sitting in his office at the Bureau. Even though Neal was here and safe.
"That day," Peter said, forcing his mind back to now, where Neal was staring at him from the other side of the desk, still with that inscrutable expression on his face. He'd withdrawn his hand, and he still hadn't taken back his FBI credential. "You told me you were getting on that plane. Those were your exact words."
"And yet, the other day, when we talked, you said that it would have felt like an escape," Peter remarked. "That you didn't want to run any more. What changed?"
He wondered if it was really as simple—and harsh—as the fact that Kate had been there and then . . . she wasn't. Yes, Peter, maybe it is that obvious. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he regretted the question—or at least the way he'd framed it.
But Neal was unperturbed. "I had quite a bit of time to consider things in the interim." His expression turned wry. "When you're locked up, escape is one of those things your mind kind of gravitates to."
"I guess so," Peter said, again feeling keenly the unfairness of Neal being back in prison, having to deal with the loss of freedom and the loss of Kate, with no one to help him.
"Prison's really good for one thing: you have time to think," Neal continued. "Clear your mind, put things in perspective. Re-evaluate what's important. You know, all the clichés."
"And you have time to realize what . . ." Neal cleared his throat and glanced out the window, "what the things are that . . . that you miss."
He brought his gaze up, then, and Peter was taken aback by the intensity of the emotion on his face.
Silence fell, as Peter considered whether Neal thought he'd already said too much. His CI liked to keep his cards close to the vest, after all. Neal looked away and Peter watched him, wondering if he dared to ask the question that was at the forefront of his mind.
Finally Peter spoke. "You said that it would have felt like an escape."
He waited for an acknowledging nod from Neal before continuing.
"But that's—" Peter halted and then resumed. "That's not the same thing as saying you were going to stay."
"No," Neal said. A bitter half-smile flitted across his face and was gone. "No, it's not."
"If the plane hadn't . . . if everything had gone as planned," Peter said, choosing his words with exceeding care, "do you think you . . . would have left?"
Neal looked at him, eyes narrowed but his face expressionless, and Peter felt a twinge of anxiety that he'd gone too far. "It's . . . not a fair question," Peter said, almost to himself, speaking his thoughts aloud.
"It's an honest one," Neal said, with a little shrug as he added, "and I do appreciate that about you, Peter."
Neal took a deep breath. "And it's one I've asked myself, so it makes sense that you would, too. Normally, as you know, I like hypotheticals, but this one . . . ."
Peter was quiet, watching him.
"This particular hypothetical, well, I've thought about it. A lot." Neal had a rueful smile on his face. "Another byproduct of incarceration."
Peter nodded, but didn't return the smile—because there was nothing humorous about that.
"I've considered it from every angle. What I was thinking in that moment, and feeling. All the various scenarios and—" Neal hesitated. "The truth is that . . . all I know is . . . I'm not sure."
Neal gazed out the window, but Peter could see the pain in his eyes. "I loved her, Peter."
Peter's heart twisted in his chest. "I know you did."
"I wanted a life with Kate." Again Neal reached out for the ID wallet, flipping it open and studying it as if he'd find some answer there. "I had every intention of leaving with her. I mean, it was what I wanted, right? But then you showed up, being your usual pushy, annoying self . . ." here Neal paused again and looked up, flashing Peter a smile. It looked forced, but Peter returned it this time. "And, now, I just don't know. I don't know what I would have done."
The brittle smile on Neal's face turned melancholy, and his voice was suddenly very soft. "I'm sorry, Peter. It's the only answer I can give you and I know—at least, I'm pretty sure—it's not the answer you want to hear."
"Neal, no." Peter shook his head. "It's an honest answer." Neal smiled faintly at the emphasis, yet again, on the word honest. "That means a lot. And I wish you'd understand that honesty is all I want from you. All I ever want from you."
"Now, that's not quite true," Neal said, his tone gently scolding. "For example, sometimes, like on this case, you want my mad bank-robbing skills."
"Fair enough," Peter admitted, smiling as he quickly added, "So long as they're used in the name of justice."
"I think that goes without saying," Neal assured him gravely.
Peter eyed him. "Maybe, but it never hurts to say it anyway. Just in case."
"Just in case," Neal agreed. "It's too bad that using my skills that way kinda ruins all the fun."
"Oh, come on," Peter said, not believing that for a moment. "Don't try to tell me you didn't have fun robbing that bank. Honesty, remember?"
Neal gave him a severe frown, but he could only maintain it for a few seconds before breaking into a grin. "Okay, yeah, it was fun. I can't deny that. It's just that it . . . would have been even more fun if I wasn't doing it for the FBI."
"Yeah, but this way, you don't have the threat of prison hanging over your head."
The pained look Neal gave him was priceless. "Peter, the threat of prison is a big part of what makes it fun."
Peter winced. "How did I know you were going to say that? See, that's the part I don't get."
"I know you don't," Neal said, an affectionate little smile on his face. "And I don't expect you to. But, hey, if we saw everything the same way, think how boring that would be."
"Given recent events, a little boredom sounds pretty good," Peter informed him. "Could be refreshing. Not to mention a lot less stressful."
Neal rolled his eyes and mouthed the word boring in the most disdainful way possible. "And I mean it, Peter." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Look out there. You've got a whole office full of Peter Burke wanna-bes, whose whole goal in life is to do and see things your way. They probably lie awake at night pondering the question of What would Peter do? I think Blake has WWPD tattooed on his wrist."
Peter laughed in spite of himself. "He does not."
"You say that, but have you checked?" Neal raised an eyebrow at him. "Might want to ask him to roll up his sleeves before you assert that as fact. Anyway, you don't need another Peter Burke to think just like you do. No, what you need is someone like me, who sees things differently. Who brings his own . . . unique perspective."
On the last part, Neal was right, of course. Not that Peter wanted to admit that in so many words. "Oh, you're unique, all right."
"Thank you." Neal smiled, looking thoroughly vindicated. Finally, he picked up the ID, giving it one last glance, and folded it up so he could slide it into his pocket. "And thank you for this."
"I'm just glad you're here to give it back to," Peter said. He couldn't help noticing that Neal had used exactly the same words that day on the tarmac—except that day he'd been giving the ID up, and today he was taking it back.
Maybe Neal had the same thought, because his next words referred back to that day, too. "And thank you for not trying to . . . make me stay. That day at the airstrip."
"Make you stay?" Peter repeated, swallowing hard and hoping that Neal hadn't noticed.
Neal chuckled. "It's crazy, I know, but from that first moment, when I saw you there, I had this flash of you . . . I don't know, trying to keep me from leaving somehow. And not just by sweet talking me, either. Whether you had your badge or not."
Peter stared, remembering that momentary urge he'd had, to grab Neal and hold onto him. An urge he didn't ever want to admit to having. "Um, that's crazy, all right."
The look Neal gave him was penetrating enough to make Peter wonder if Neal knew exactly what urges he'd felt that day. But if Neal suspected, he at least had the good grace to keep it to himself.
A secret here and there wasn't such a bad thing after all, Peter decided.
And now here they were, in Neal's apartment, to do this yet one more time.
"Quarter for your thoughts," Neal announced, jarring Peter out of his memories. He set down his spoon—Peter was gratified to see a good bit of the soup was gone.
"Quarter, huh? You really think they're worth that much?"
"I figure they must be," Neal replied. "You've been sitting there long enough, meter's gotta be running. Meanwhile, I'm still waiting patiently for my non-get-well gift."
"True. And I know patience is not your forte."
"Oh, it is sometimes," Neal answered. He picked up a fork and gave the shrimp a desultory poke. "It depends."
Neal raised an eyebrow. "On whether the item in question is worth waiting for." He paused, looking skeptical. "Then again, you've just told me to keep my expectations low, so . . . ."
Instead of answering, Peter reached into his pocket, pulled out Neal's Bureau ID, and set it on the table. Neal glanced at it, then looked up at Peter with a pensive smile on his face. "Ah," he said. "I should have known."
"Yeah," Peter agreed. "It's all becoming very repetitive."
"You're probably getting tired of this," Neal suggested.
"Honestly, if I don't ever have to do this again, I'd be just fine with that," Peter assented.
Neal set down his fork. "Well, at least this time, it's not my fault."
"And I'll do my best not to get shot again, so we don't have to keep doing this."
"You damn well better," Peter told him.
Neal chuckled quietly, his smile growing wider as he picked up the wallet, looked it over, and then put it into his shirt pocket. Something about the careful way he handled the ID and tucked it away for safekeeping—instead of just leaving it lying there on the table—made Peter's heart swell in his chest, just a little bit. "Thanks. So I'm official again.'
"You were always official, Neal. Well," he amended, pausing to enjoy the grin on Neal's face, "as official as you ever get, anyway. I guess I was just waiting 'til you were feeling a little better to give it back."
Neal gave a satisfied nod. "Say, does this mean I'm cleared to come back to work?"
"It certainly doesn't. Your doctor's the only one who can do that."
"Too bad," Neal sighed. "Hopefully he'll do that before I lose all semblance of sanity."
"Look at you," Peter declared. "The man who complains about having to go to the office every day is now practically begging to come back."
"Yeah, well, sometimes the things you think you want . . ." Neal admitted, "turn out not to be so great, after all."
"Very profound. Oh, I almost forgot about these." Again Peter dug into his pocket; this time, he had Neal's lock picks in hand.
"My tools!" Neal said, excited again as he took them from Peter. "I was thinking maybe these had disappeared."
"You don't have another set?"
Neal scrutinized him warily. "Am I incriminating myself if I say yes?"
Peter rolled his eyes. "No."
"Okay, then," Neal allowed. "Of course I do. But I like these ones." He gazed down, satisfied. "I've always had a special fondness for this set, for some reason. Not even sure why, really."
"I can understand that," Peter remarked. "Some things you develop an attachment to, that you don't expect."
That made Neal look up at him quickly. "Yeah, sometimes it happens that way. Funny how that works."
They looked at each other, and Peter thought about how surprisingly easy it was to develop attachments to things—and people—that you never saw coming.
"While you were hanging onto these," Neal said, lightly flicking the case up in the air and catching it after the second flip with an effortless, one-handed dexterity that was classic Neal, "did you practice with'em? Perfect opportunity, really."
"Why would I do that?"
"Well, no offense," Neal said gently, "but lock-picking is an important life skill and one you haven't quite . . . mastered. Yet."
"Good thing I've got an expert on staff, then," Peter commented, tilting his head in Neal's direction."
"Oh," Neal said, looking a little sheepish, like he hadn't thought of that but belatedly realized he should have. "Right. Of course."
"Unless . . ." Peter eyed him quizzically. "Unless you're planning on going somewhere."
"Do I look like I'm going anywhere?" Neal asked, gesturing at his general state of dishabille and muttering under his breath, "I'm not even wearing shoes, for God's sake."
Peter looked him up and down. "Knowing you, I don't think you'd be caught dead in that outfit—" he took note of Neal's grimace and suppressed a smile, "so, no—you're not going anywhere right now. But I was speaking more . . . generally."
"Oh. Then perhaps you've forgotten about this?" Neal pointed down at the anklet.
"Now that you mention it, I do recall that particular item," Peter remarked, his voice laced with light sarcasm. "And yet, a very reliable source recently told me that the anklet is now . . . irrelevant."
Neal frowned for a moment, but then comprehension dawned. "Right. I said I didn't want to run any more. Well, that was—"
"Actually, I wasn't referring to you," Peter replied, enjoying the immediate look of surprise on Neal's face.
"Oh, I can't reveal the identity of my sources," Peter said gravely.
"Don't give me that," Neal retorted (as if he hadn't just pulled the same thing in the hospital the other day). "Who told you that?"
"Well, I probably shouldn't say . . ." Peter remarked and let the pause lengthen while Neal fixed him with a withering gaze, ". . . but you might want to talk to Mozzie."
Neal's shock was undisguised. "Mozzie said that?" Then, quickly, with a hint of accusation, "Did you get him drunk?"
"Are we back to that again? I assure you: stone cold sober," Peter assured him in a tone of utmost solemnity.
"Wow," Neal said, still astonished. "And . . . when was this?"
"In the hospital cafeteria. After you got shot."
"Ah." Neal contemplated for a moment, then picked up his fork once again and twirled his noodles aimlessly. "Extenuating circumstance, then."
"I guess you could call it that," Peter said. He indicated the take-out carton. "And by the way, do you plan to actually consume any of that, or are you just gonna sit there and play with it? You should eat."
"You're a nutritionist, now?"
"No. Unlike some people," Peter informed him, "I am not anxious to claim fancy job titles I don't deserve. I am merely asking a question."
"I'm working up to eating it, okay?" Neal pursed his lips thoughtfully. "You think if I ask him, that Mozz would cop to that comment?"
"Hell, no," Peter answered. "So—is it?"
"Is it what?" Neal was trying to play dumb—the rare deception that Neal couldn't pull off, Peter thought, because he was just too goddamned smart to ever make it convincing.
"Is the anklet irrelevant," Peter said patiently.
"Irrelevant as in totally irrelevant?" Neal hedged. He took a sip of water.
Peter wasn't on board with the hairsplitting. "Irrelevant as in irrelevant."
"Hmm," Neal mused, almost to himself. "It's such a . . . strong term and . . . ."
""And not one you would apply in this case'?" Peter suggested, grinning slyly.
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Neal told him, bestowing an admiring look on Peter. "And I see what you did there, by the way."
"And I see you're avoiding the question," Peter countered. "Is that a no?"
Neal looked at him for a moment, then glanced down and stirred his shrimp lo mein, examining it more closely than he needed to. Peter could see the makings of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "Aw, c'mon, Peter. I can't answer that."
"You know why."
"Tell me," Peter insisted, and why did the words sound so familiar? It took only a few seconds for him to realize that they were reprising their dialogue from the tarmac that day.
"Because . . . you know . . ." Neal hesitated; when he met Peter's gaze again, the look in his eyes could almost be described as pleading. "You know how it is. I—I've got a reputation to uphold here."
Peter smiled and shook his head, recognizing that he could only push Neal so far.
"Fine. Eat your shrimp," he ordered, and, looking relieved to be let off the hook, Neal eagerly complied—proving that he was actually capable of doing what he was told. When it involved something trivial, anyway, Peter thought with a sigh.
And, as for the question that Neal had evaded—well, Peter decided that the sparkle in Neal's eyes was pretty much the only answer he needed.
Dear Readers (and you are dear to me, all of you!),
It's finally done—hallelujah! You may have been thinking this day would never come, but here it is, at long last. Thank you SO much for reading and hanging in through the various delays; hope you liked the story. I have had so much fun writing and reading your comments, corresponding with many of you and hoping that I brought you some enjoyment. An extra special thank you to everyone who reviewed—you are the best. If you've got a moment to share your thoughts, reviews are, as always, greatly appreciated!
Have had many lovely comments about my "next" story. Well, right now there is no next story (I need some inspiration!) but maybe someday.
Thanks again and Happy New Year to you!