The door to the apartment was standing open as Peter reached the landing, and he paused in the portal. Neal was standing in front of the glass balcony doors, seemingly staring out at the rain. He was dressed casually, jeans and a white t-shirt, and he looked very small against the grey sky beyond the windows.
Peter thought he'd been very quiet in his approach, but apparently not quite silent. He could tell the moment that Neal realized he was no longer alone. The younger man's posture tensed, and then his hands moved slowly to his sides, an empty wine goblet in one.
"I'm ready," Neal said, very softly, as he began to turn, his eyes widening in surprise as he faced the door.
Peter took the opportunity to step all the way into the room. "Not who you were expecting?"
"Not exactly," Neal admitted as he walked across the room. He turned the tap on the faucet, rinsing out the glass.
"I got something of a surprise myself," Peter said. "The Marshals' office called to say that there had been an escape on a transfer from Hawthorne, and all their deputies were on scene."
Neal still hadn't turned from the sink. "Imagine that."
Peter stepped a little closer. "They said there would be a delay in getting a team to carry out the probation revocation I had requested, and they hoped it wouldn't be too much of a problem."
"I hope you assured them the subject would be waiting quietly."
"Actually, I told them there had been a mix-up, and they could cancel the order." He took another step. "Especially since I didn't recall making the request in the first place."
"You shouldn't have done that," Neal all but whispered. "But for the record, I never called them and pretended to be you just to get out of my radius."
Neal finally turned, a slightly puzzled look on his face. "I don't know. I guess it would have been cheating."
"So why now?" Peter asked.
"You should know why."
"I wouldn't be asking if I did." Neal didn't respond, just walked toward the table, leaning against the back of one chair, so Peter stepped in that direction too. "Neal, you have seventeen months left on your sentence."
"You'd be in segregation."
Neal nodded once. "I can do it." Then he nodded again, as if trying to convince himself.
"It's not a question of whether you 'can' do it," Peter said. "Why would you want to?"
That got a short, bitter laugh from Neal. "I don't want to do it. It's just the right thing to do, for everyone."
"Including you?" That just got a small shrug from Neal, so Peter continued. "Explain it to me, please, because I don't understand."
It took a moment, but Neal finally looked up and turned so they were face to face. "Do you believe I've tried to change?"
"I know you have, Neal."
Neal nodded. "I have. I really have. It's just…"
"My past," Neal whispered. "My past just won't let go. And other people keep paying for it."
"You like evidence," Neal said, turning away again to face the balcony. "Well, here's evidence. Kate's dead, because of me. Ellen's dead, because of me. Hale's dead, Mozzie got shot and almost died, because of me."
Neal's words were coming faster and faster, tumbling out like the rain falling from the sky outside. "Pratt's dead, Flynn's dead. Adler almost killed you and Alex – and you did have to kill him, because of me. Lindsay Gless was kidnapped so Wilkes could get to me. Keller kidnapped both you and Elizabeth, to get to me. You were just arrested, and you could have gone to prison, because of my past. And how many times have you almost lost your job…" Neal finally had to pause for a deep breath, and his shoulders shook with the effort. "You and Elizabeth have both talked about consequences a lot recently, and maybe I finally understand." He turned back to face Peter, though he didn't look up. "I need to figure out who I am," he continued softly. "Who I'm going to be."
"And you think the best place to do that is in a segregation cell?"
Neal just gave that a small shrug. "I'll have plenty of time," he said. "And no distractions."
Peter nodded slowly, considering his strategy. "That is a lot of evidence," he admitted.
"It's what you like," Neal whispered.
"Normally, yes," Peter conceded. "But let's approach this like a court case and consider the rebuttal."
"It's hard to rebut facts," Neal said wearily.
"But maybe the interpretation of those facts isn't so clear," Peter suggested.
"No, you had your say," Peter countered. "Now it's my turn."
Neal just shrugged, so Peter took a moment to gather his thoughts and then began. "Kate," he said, as he slowly shook his head and sat down at the table. "I knew you were looking for her. I knew it was the main reason you proposed your deal to me. Oh, you'd help catch Hagen, but the main thing was to be out of prison so you could look for Kate. Am I wrong?"
Neal shook his head. "No."
"I didn't know exactly what you were doing to look for her, of course. But here's the thing," Peter continued. He sighed, staring down at his hands clasped on the table. "As we both know, I did find her. It would have been easy for me to put the two of you in a room and not let either of you leave until we all had some answers." It was his turn for a short, bitter laugh. "But did I do that? No, because I was convinced that she was using you. And because I was sure… I was so damned sure that I was right, I didn't even consider what it was doing to you to not find her. And if you think I didn't ask myself a million times how things might have been different…"
"It might not have changed anything," Neal said, and Peter watched as he stepped forward and then dropped onto a chair across the table. "Adler was still pulling the strings."
"True, and we'll never know for sure," Peter replied. "And Adler?" He paused, shook his head. "When I came around that corner and saw him, raising the gun on you, I knew it was either shoot him, or let him shoot you. And that wasn't even a choice. Taking another human life should never be easy, but I can honestly tell you that I never lost a moment of sleep over pulling the trigger there. Now what came afterward…" He paused again, struggling to find the words he wanted. And when he continued, his voice was shaking. "I lost a lot of sleep over what happened next. I lost my objectivity, something a good agent should never do. And that wound up costing me my partner, my friend, at least for a while."
"You had every right to suspect me," Neal offered quietly.
"Suspect, maybe. But convict on the spot like I did? No. After everything we'd been through together, I owed you a chance to be heard, to tell me your side. Who knows how differently things might have played out."
"That treasure was a lot of temptation, Peter. I might still have fallen."
"Maybe. But maybe I would have been there to catch you when you fell. At least I wouldn't have pushed you further away. It's just something else we'll never know."
Neal was nodding slowly. "So much can hinge on a single moment."
Peter nodded too. "Yes, it can. Like that moment in the Empire State Building, with Pratt and James."
"You can't say that wasn't my fault."
"Of course I can. Neal, you're not James."
It was Neal's turn to stare at his hands, fingers twitching nervously. "I brought him into your life."
"Well, that much is true. Though as I recall, you actually tried to keep me away from him – and I sort of insisted on being invited in." Neal apparently had no reply to that, still staring at his hands on the table, so Peter pushed on. "The thing is, Neal, once I was in, I believed James. I believed that he was a good man who made mistakes, who tried to get himself out, and who got caught up in something much bigger than anything he had bargained for."
"You believed him because of me."
"Well, I wanted to believe him because of you, yes. But the thing is, I really did believe him." Peter reached across and tapped the table, waiting until Neal looked up. "And believe me, by your words and actions, you proved that you're a much better man than your father."
One corner of Neal's mouth rose in something that was part grimace, part bitter smile. "But you're still losing your job. Again."
"I'm being reassigned. That's not the same as losing my job."
"Semantics," Neal argued.
"Not at all," Peter countered. "Reassignment just means change. It doesn't have to be bad." He paused, smiling a little. "Let's think about those other times. Fowler tried to frame you for that diamond heist, but he also came after me with Clark and that bribery charge, and he threatened Elizabeth. Punching him was worth every minute of that two week suspension. Well, except that it meant I didn't have a badge when you needed me most."
"You mean after the plane exploded?" Neal shook his head. "There wasn't anything else you could have done, Peter."
"I might have been able to keep you from getting sent back to prison."
"Not sure anyone could have done that. There were too many questions."
"You shouldn't have been alone."
"I needed the time to get my head together again. And there were only a few rumors about me working for the Feds at that point, so it wasn't that bad."
"Well, I guess we can't change it anyway," Peter admitted. "But that suspension was all on Fowler. And with Julian Larrsen? As I recall, you had agreed to do things my way on that one."
"So you're saying you're not perfect?" Neal asked, the first hint of a real smile playing at his lips.
"Well, most of the time I am," Peter insisted, allowing a small smile himself. "Just not always."
"And this last time," Peter continued, wanting to move on. "Kramer crossed the line, and I told you to run. But that didn't mean I stopped feeling responsible for you, or that I stopped missing you. When I inadvertently led Collins to you… Well, I had to try and make it right. Hughes told me I needed to decide what was important, and if it was you, he'd understand, but he couldn't protect me. I understood that, Neal, and I made my choice. Just like you made the choice to trust me that bringing in MacLeish would let you come home."
"And when there isn't trust, there's faith," Neal said softly.
"Yeah, there is," Peter agreed.
Neal looked as though he was about to say something else, but then he turned and stared at the apartment door; a moment later, Peter could hear the footsteps and voices coming up the stairs. "I thought you said the Marshals weren't coming," Neal said.
"They aren't." Peter got to his feet. "But people were wondering where you disappeared to, so I may have told them the party was moving over here."
"Just a small group," Peter said, trying not to laugh at the shocked look on Neal's face. "But you should probably at least put a different shirt on," he added, pointing at the t-shirt. "You don't look dressed for a party."
"No, I suppose not."
Peter stepped around the table and put a hand on Neal's should, gently propelling him toward the hallway. "Go change. We'll talk more later."
Neal stepped out onto the balcony, taking in a deep breath of the fresh air. The rain had stopped, though the leaden grey skies held the threat of more precipitation to come. And the wind had picked up as dusk began to fall, the stiff breeze whipping at the loose sleeves of the silk poet shirt he'd hurriedly pulled on as the unexpected party moved into his apartment.
Not dressed for a party. Right…
That had been almost two hours earlier, and a few of the 'small group' of people had started to head for home. Even the celebration of definitively clearing Peter's name had to wind down at some point.
The city lights were winking on, the glow familiar, comforting. Neal took a sip of champagne - which was at least now contained in a proper glass flute, courtesy of June.
And then he was aware that he was no longer alone.
"Never get tired of that view," Peter said as he stepped up alongside.
"So, I was thinking we could continue our discussion from before."
"I'm not sure it really changes anything, Peter."
"What do you mean?"
"I still signed the revocation form."
"Oh, that." Peter gave that a grave nod as he sipped from his own flute. "You know, in a big office, sometimes paperwork goes missing."
"Yup. Or gets shredded. Accidentally."
"There's no shredder in your office."
"In fact, the nearest shredder is behind…"
"Behind Arlene's desk," Peter finished. "Outside Hughes' office."
Neal nodded, looking out over the city. "So, you just happened to walk behind Arlene's desk."
"Getting reacquainted with the office after being gone so long."
"Uh huh. And then the form just happened to fall into the shredder."
"That's the way I remember it."
"And the shredder just happened to be on."
"Never know when something might need shredding."
Neal nodded, taking another sip. "I can always print out another form."
"I can always confiscate your printer," Peter countered. "If, as your handler, I deem it detrimental to your probationary status."
"It could happen."
"Then I could…"
"It might be detrimental for you to have access to the office printers as well," Peter continued. "I'm sure the IT department could take care of that. As your handler…"
"Not for much longer," Neal pointed out.
"Maybe not. Then I'd just have to do it as your friend."
Neal didn't answer right away, staring out at the growing display of lights. "It's not right," he finally said.
"What, my getting reassigned?"
"Exactly. You didn't do anything wrong. Why should they take you away from a job you do better than anyone else could?"
"You know, change doesn't always have to be a bad thing, Neal. Sometimes it's good to shake things up a little bit."
"So you'll be fine with it if they send you back to the Cave?"
"Well, I'll admit, that wouldn't be my first choice. And I don't think that's what's going to happen. But the thing is, evidence is important."
"You may have mentioned that once or twice," Neal muttered.
"Glad you were listening!"
"Over and over and over…"
"Anyway," Peter said, cutting off the complaint. "The reassignment may only be temporary. And if it's the Cave, I'll make it work. Just like you'll make it work with a new handler."
"I made my deal with you."
"So you're saying you are incapable of providing Caffrey brilliance with someone else?"
"Oh, sure, I can be a tool on another agent's belt."
"Neal, this isn't another Kimberly Rice situation."
Neal turned to face the agent, eyebrow raised. "No? How can you know that?"
"Well, for one thing, you'll still be in White Collar, as will Jones and Diana. They'll have your back. Plus, Hughes is sticking around as Bureau Chief until all of the Pratt connections are sorted out."
Neal looked over Peter's shoulder, to where Hughes and Bancroft were involved in an animated discussion with June. "He could be around for a while then."
"I think he's kind of counting on that," Peter agreed. "Not a man for early retirement – but a man with a lot of influence. And he's in your corner, Neal."
You're a son of a bitch… but you're the best damn son of a bitch… Neal considered those words, spoken by the elevators, what seemed a lifetime ago now. He'd gotten a new understanding of the senior agent in that brief encounter. "It'll be good to have him there."
"Good for Hughes, and good for the department," Peter agreed. "And the thing is, Neal, even if we're not working together every day, that doesn't mean our paths won't cross."
"Yeah, there might be another water delivery truck that needs to be reviewed by Evidence."
"Or a mob case that crosses over into White Collar," Peter countered. "Regardless, it doesn't change us, Neal, you and me."
Neal sighed and turned to lean against the parapet. "No?"
"We've been through too much together to let it." Peter stepped up alongside. "Hey, remember that conversation at my house, the day before… Well, the day before. You said family doesn't just turn up after thirty years?"
"Well, the thing is, sometimes they do just show up at your doorstep, when you least expect it. And you come downstairs in your own house, and you find them sitting on your couch, talking to your wife, playing with your dog."
"Do you threaten to send them all to prison?"
Peter laughed and nudged Neal's shoulder with his own. "Only the special ones."
"Right." Neal couldn't help but smile a little himself, remembering.
"Because the thing is," Peter continued. "Family isn't just about blood. It's the people you let into your life. The ones you'd do anything for, and the ones who you know would do anything for you in return. You always have faith that family will be there when it counts."
"So it's just luck of the draw, for better or worse."
"Pretty much," Peter agreed. "But remember what else I said that day?"
"You said the Empire State Building had a big boiler room."
"Well, yes. But I was specifically thinking about telling you that I'd do it all again. Remember that?"
"Of course, there are a few experiences I could do without repeating," Peter added.
Neal nodded heartily in agreement. "Me too."
"Maybe there's something we can do to help that along."
"Well, like what we're doing now."
Neal glanced over his shoulder at the people still gathered inside. "Celebrating you not going to prison for a crime you didn't commit?"
Peter laughed softly and shook his head. "I'm kind of hoping that's a one-time deal. But I was thinking something a little more immediate. What we're doing here, just you and me."
"Exactly. Look, Neal, we'll always have some secrets from each other. It's who we are. But maybe…"
"Maybe we could try having fewer secrets," Neal finished.
"Yeah. What do you think – worth a try?"
"I'm generally open to new experiences."
"Good. We can get together over beer, or wine…"
"The wine has to have a cork."
"And the beer has to be domestic. Tell you what, when it's beer night, I'll buy. You can be in charge of wine night."
"That sounds fair."
"So, we're good? Or do I have to confiscate the printer?"
"Keep your hands off my Epson."
"I imagine Mozzie would just show up with a Canon anyway."
"Moz is actually more of a Lexmark guy."
They both laughed, and then Peter put a hand on Neal's shoulder. "Sometimes change can be a good thing. We'll just have to see. But we're all right, you and me, right?"
"Yeah," Neal replied, nodding. "We're good."
"So, when do you get your new assignment?"
"I'll have a meeting first thing Monday morning. I think they're planning to have some ideas on your new handler by then too, even if the agent isn't in the office yet."
"And until Monday?"
Peter looked over his shoulder, a soft smile on his face. "Until then, I'm taking my wife out of town for some much needed and well deserved R&R."
"The Rusty Egret?"
"No stops on the way out of town this time."
"No, absolutely not." Peter shook his head forcefully. "I'm filling the gas tank on the way home tonight. Then in the morning it's out the door, into the car, and straight to Vermont."
"Sounds like a good plan. Do you need me to watch Satchmo?"
"Nope, Satch is taken care of." Peter paused for a dramatic moment. "Besides, you're going to be busy."
The sly smile playing at Peter's lips was a bit suspicious, Neal decided. "I am?"
"Yup. Bancroft's decided to stay in town for a few days."
"And he's taking the time off work."
"You don't say."
"He has this whole list of museums and galleries to visit – and he figured you'd be the perfect one to go along."
"Me, with Bancroft, for three days."
"Four! He's not going home until Sunday."
"Yeah. Come on, you like that kind of stuff. And I thought the two of you had a good time at that White Bored exhibit."
"It wasn't bad," Neal admitted.
"Well, apparently Bancroft thought it was pretty good," Peter replied. "And you know, when that anklet comes off in seventeen months, having an Assistant Director of the FBI in your corner might not be so bad."
"That could be true."
"Just remember, no 'shopping' outside of the gift shops in the museums."
Neal gasped and slapped a hand to his chest. "I'm wounded."
"Of course you are."
"But I'll feel better if you bring me the syrup you owe me."
"That I owe you?"
"Yeah. I gave you the new alarm code, but I never got the syrup."
"Well, I never got to Vermont."
"Still, you got the code for free."
"I wouldn't have needed the code if you hadn't changed my alarm system."
"I was only thinking of you, Peter."
"Your security. It's important to change codes now and then."
"Yes, because some sneaky, light-fingered thief might change it – while I was being kidnapped, no less."
"You think I'm sneaky?"
"You probably think that's a compliment."
"And I didn't know you were being kidnapped."
"So not the point, Neal."
"No, the point is, I never got my syrup!" Neal insisted. "I suppose I could change the code again."
"I'm calling the Marshals to have the exemption for my house removed," Peter muttered.
"That would make it more challenging, but not impossible."
"No, you'd just get Mozzie to do it."
"Oh, I hadn't even thought about that! Thanks, Peter."
Peter sighed and shook his head. "How about if I just promise to bring you some syrup."
"Not nearly as much fun."
Neal grinned. "All right. As long as I get syrup."
"Tasting the pancakes already?"
"Actually, I have this great recipe for maple syrup brined and glazed ribs."
"That actually sounds good."
"Maybe I'll make it for one of our 'talk' nights. It'll have to be a wine night, though, no beer…"
"Beer goes great with ribs!"
"Not my maple brined and glazed ribs."
"Fine," Peter capitulated with a grin. "Wine night it is. But right now, I'm going to go inside and find my wife so we can head home and get packed." He drained the last of his champagne. "You should come in and work out tomorrow's itinerary with Bancroft."
"Yeah, be there in a minute." Neal watched as Peter went inside, and then he turned to look out over the city once again.
No, you sure couldn't beat that view…
He turned again, looking into the apartment, at the people gathered there. Mozzie wasn't present, of course – too many Suits – but other than that, they pretty much represented his chosen family. The people he'd do anything for, and the ones he knew would be there for him when it counted.
He drained his own champagne flute and stepped toward the door.
It didn't get much better…