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The day the tracking anklet comes off, the White Collar division throws Neal a party: just a quick office bash, like they do when someone has a birthday or retires or gets married. Diana orders a cake, and Cindy from Accounting hangs balloons. There's a generic "Congratulations!" card signed by the whole office staff, and Coke instead of champagne. Neal is as cool and charming as if he'd known it was happening all along. Which, Peter thinks, he probably did; they made an earnest stab at keeping the thing a surprise, but there's only so long you can keep a secret when forty people are in on it.

The real party is at the Burkes' later, and there are only a few people there: Peter and El, of course, and Diana and Christy, Clinton Jones with his new girlfriend, June and some of her grandchildren. Mozzie, though invited, doesn't show. With 20/20 hindsight, Peter suspects that he probably spent the night packing instead. Peter sees a lot of things in hindsight that he doesn't that night.

Things like June's uncharacteristic silence, or the way that she hugs Neal a lot. Things like the way that Neal adeptly steers the conversation in another direction anytime it turns to the topic of what he's going to do next. Neal is, as always, charming and flirty and self-possessed, but there's a soft wistfulness about him sometimes, overwhelming the barely contained elation he'd shown at the FBI office party. He always has a glass of wine in his hand, but the level never seems to go down. Peter, for his part, keeps knocking back beers, and he's not even really sure why. He's already planning to take the day off tomorrow, and while he wouldn't exactly use the word drunk, he's definitely looser than he normally lets himself get.

This, too -- maybe his subconscious knew what his conscious mind wouldn't accept. Because every time he keeps wanting to bring up the all-important question of What next, he ducks away from it and accepts Neal's next easy conversational curveball instead. He doesn't manage to steer the conversation to the elephant in the room until the end of the evening.

"There's no reason why you can't stay on as a consultant," Peter says, sprawled on the couch with Neal on the opposite end, just like a hundred nights over the last four years. El is curled on the couch opposite, asleep with one fist tucked under her cheek like a little girl. Christy already drove herself and Diana home; Clinton is crashed in the guest bedroom, and June called it a night early.

"Or go into law enforcement as a career," he adds, because this is his fondest hope for Neal, really. Neal has a brilliant mind and a gregarious affection for people that he never will admit to. Peter has met enough natural-born cops over the years to know one when he sees one, even if that cop is still a diamond in the rough. "You have enough experience by now that you could probably get yourself waived right past most of the educational requirements. I know Hughes will go to bat for you, I sure as hell will, and after that thing with the governor last year, you have friends in high places. You could be back to work in a few weeks."

Neal is smiling. It's soft and warm, and it touches his eyes. "Yeah," he says. "I could do that."

Neal has never lied to him. In four years, that's always been true. He's edited, deflected, and committed a thousand sins of omission, but when it comes right down to it, anytime Peter has asked him a question to his face, the answer he's received has been the absolute and literal truth. Maybe not the whole truth, maybe not the answer to the question he asked, but always true. And maybe that's why Peter doesn't go ahead and ask the next question, why he doesn't push it until Neal has to give him a yes or no answer: But WILL you?

They say a casual goodnight just like always, and Neal nudges El awake to kiss her cheek. Sometimes, over the next few months, Peter looks back on that night, analyzing it for hidden clues, trying to figure out if there was a goodbye or a thank you or maybe a see you around, Peter hidden in there somewhere, but he never finds one.

The next morning the loft has been cleaned out. June smiles and shrugs when Peter confronts her about it, friendly as always, but cool and distant as if they haven't known each other for four years now. He recognizes the barrier that has slammed down between them. When it comes to con artist versus FBI, she's firmly on Neal's side, and on this subject, at least, he's no longer a friend -- just a faceless member of the establishment that she holds at arms' length.

Peter pulls strings and calls in favors, but there's nothing to be found at airports or rental car agencies or credit card companies -- nothing anywhere. If Neal is still calling himself Neal Caffrey, he's found some way to go to ground so thoroughly that even the U.S. government can't find him. And if not, if "Neal Caffrey" was all along just a skin to be shed, and he's someone else now, someone Peter wouldn't even recognize --

"Son of a bitch," he says to El, as he works through a six-pack and digs down beneath the gut-clenching fury to the bottomless well of pain, grief and worry that was always lurking underneath. "How can he do it? How can he throw it all away -- everything he's built here? Turn his back and go back to forging bonds and knocking over jewelry stores?"

Elizabeth is, as always, calmer than she has any right to be. She cried in his arms when he came back from June's and told her what he'd found, and then she dried her tears and went on with her life. But then, she's always known Neal, in some ways, better than Peter has -- she's always had more faith in him, at least. And El is convinced that Neal is still on the straight and narrow, and that he will get back in touch with them someday.

"Think about it, hon," she says as she briskly cuts lemons into flowers at the kitchen table. "He's spent the last eight years of his life with no privacy, no aspect of his life that could truly be considered his own."

"Oh, that's complete bull ... stuff. I never invaded his privacy ... any more than I had to," he qualifies when El gives him one of those looks.

El sets another lemon rose on a crystal tray. "The point is, of course the first thing he's going to do is the one thing that he never could do when he wore that monitor on his ankle."

"Steal something," Peter says bleakly. "Go back to destroying his life just like he did before."

"No, he'll run," El retorts. "He'll run because he can, because he can buy a ticket to anywhere without having to account for it, to you or to anyone else. And eventually the novelty will wear off, and he'll find whatever he has to find, and then he'll show up on our doorstep looking for a place to crash. You know he will."

"Or Interpol will bust him with the British Crown Jewels in one pocket and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the other."

El sighs and reaches out, cupping his chin in her lemon-scented hand.

"That's what freedom is, hon. The ability to make the wrong choices, as well as the right ones."

Peter can feel himself weakening, and he fights it, because if he stops being angry, it's going to hurt. "I thought that's what I was doing over the last four years: teaching him to make the right choices. To be a law-abiding citizen, to be -- well, what he could have been, if his life hadn't been like it was. And now ... this."

El looks away, and digs the small, sharp knife through the lemon's skin a little harder than she has to. It's these little tells that let him know she's hurting, too. "You can't teach people to do that, Peter. You can't teach them to be anything. All you can do is love them, and let them go, and hope they come back."

So, because he has no choice, eventually he learns to do that.

 


 

Five months later, the first postcard arrives.

It's blank -- just Peter and El's address, and a Monaco postmark. It's not a commercial postcard, but a little postcard-sized painting of a very blue ocean flecked with small white sails. Peter immediately calls in a few more favors to get it analyzed on the down-low. It doesn't seem to be a copy of anything, at least not anything that's in any art database he can access, and it isn't signed. The paint is expensive, probably bought in Italy, but modern. No useful prints can be recovered. It doesn't seem to have any hidden messages that the lab can find. It's just a small, pretty painting.

El sets it on the mantle, beside a photo of Grandma Burke and Satchmo II's puppy pictures.

The next one comes a month after that: an acrylic painting of a gray seacoast, postmarked in Dover, England. Like the other, it is devoid of writing or clues beyond the address and postmark.

"Look," El says, studying the two paintings side by side, as she and Peter lie on the sofa with puppy Satchmo on their feet. "It's obviously the work of the same artist."

Peter snorts and toasts her with his beer. "You know, I think we have some openings at the office. Put that keen detective mind to use."

El wrinkles her nose at him. "No, I know it is, technically. But that's just the thing about Neal's art -- it never used to have a unified style to it. He was like ... like an artistic jukebox, producing different sorts of work to order. Not everything he painted was a copy of something specific, but it was always in the style of a specific artistic school -- art deco, impressionist, Hudson River, cubist. He never had a style of his own."

Peter mulls this over. It's very strange to think that as long as he knew Neal, as much as he studied Neal, there are still things that he doesn't know about him, important things. "I never noticed that."

"You're an expert about some aspects of art," El says, "but you're not a connoisseur." She holds the paintings out at arms' length, tilting them. "See how much more sure the brushstrokes are on the second one? They're not so cautious and overworked."

Peter can see nothing of the sort, but he nods.

"It looks like he's finding his artistic voice," El says with a smile, and rises to put both paintings in their place on the mantle. "Good for him."

 


 

The paintings keep coming for the next year, every month or six weeks or so, always from someplace different: Russia, Nigeria, Laos, New Zealand. After starting out as simple seascapes, they become increasingly complex. One features a ruined temple in the jungle, and another shows a small seaside town. Peter hates to admit it, but even he can see the difference between the first painting and the most recent ones. It's not a matter of technical expertise, but, like El had said, it's a confidence thing. The first couple of paintings are obviously done with skill, but they're also a little stilted, a little flat. The recent ones are bolder, brighter, full of splashes of color and -- it sounds so trite he hates himself for even thinking it, but it's true -- full of joy.

The ninth is not entirely blank. On the back, a heart is scrawled in pencil, with two dashes to bracket it like a schoolgirl might sign a note to a classmate.

"Awww," El says as she seeks a place for it. "That's sweet." They're running out of space on the mantle, so she adds it to the collection of her nieces' baby pictures on the table near the door. And, although the painting is quite pretty -- a cluster of fishing boats in a South African harbor -- she turns it around so that the back is displayed. Peter doesn't try to fix it.

The next one is a glorious rendition of the Sphinx at sunset, an enigmatic smile just visible on its stone lips as the shadows of twilight creep across them. On the back, next to the Egypt postmark, there is a brief note: Just window shopping, in case you were worried. -N

"Which is tantamount to a confession that he's been stealing again," Peter points out, but it's hard to muster enough willpower to even sound angry, with his heart so light and free. It's not quite a phone call, but it's the best they've gotten so far. Neal is talking to them again.

"He never said that," El says. "And, look. He's still going by Neal. I know you were worried about that."

"He wrote 'N'. That could mean Nick or Nigel or Nathan -- or Nefertiti, given his current location."

El just kisses him and goes to put it with the others.

 


 

The notes get longer and chattier. Tell Diana that I wished I'd had her at my back when two muggers tried their luck on me the other night, says a postcard from Chile, on the back of a sweeping vista of mountains and ancient stair-stepped Incan terraces. Luckily I did remember a few things you guys taught me. By the way, have she and Christy tied the knot yet? I need to know where to send a painting of a toaster. And on a painting of Acapulco's brilliant white sands thronging with tourists: I seem to have forgotten all the Spanish I ever knew. How do you say "I will pay cash for your donkey?" And do you have room in the garage for one? It's just a small one.

"He's getting closer," El says as she puts this one on the side table with the pictures of Peter's cousins and their kids.

Peter's noticed that as well, but he's been reluctant to mention it aloud, as if by doing so he could jinx it. "Yeah, and the next one could come from Beijing. It's a small world, you know. All he has to do is hop on a jet plane and he'll be on the other side in a few hours."

But the next postcard comes from Iowa, and on the flipside of a painting of a threshing machine rolling through a field of grain as flat as a table, it reads:

Corn
Corn
Corn
Corn
Corn
Corn
And more corn
Wish you were here. No, on second thought, I wish I was there.
-N
p.s. In conclusion ... corn.

"Apparently there's a lot of corn," El says, her voice light, but her eyes catch Peter's, bright with optimism.

"Don't get your hopes up," Peter says. "This is Neal we're talking about, remember?"

But he can see in her face that she can't help it, and neither can he. Neal has always loved clues and games and puzzles, and while it's possible that the last lines of the postcard are nothing but a throwaway joke, it's just as possible that it's his way of saying he's coming home.

The next day, in the late afternoon, Peter's phone rings. He almost doesn't answer it because he's in the process of sorting through a huge array of mind-numbingly dull information on the Wall Street fraud case he's currently working, and he just wants to get done and get out of here before Diana drops off another stack of files on his desk. But it could be important, so he glances at the caller ID, and almost drops the phone when he sees N CAFFREY.

"I can't believe you have the same number," Neal's voice says, familiar and light and casual, as if they'd just talked yesterday rather than a year and a half ago. "How do you save yourself from drowning in a sea of telemarketers?"

"Three letters for you. F. B. I."

It's so easy to fall back into the familiar pattern they used to have. He's rehearsed this conversation in his head a dozen times, a thousand times -- in those early months it would have been a tirade of angry recriminations, and then slowly it shifted to a barrage of questions about where and why and what, occasionally taking a detour into soppiness that he'd never admit he'd even considered. But not once had he thought that it might be like this: easy and affectionate, as though no time at all had passed for either of them.

"So," Neal says after a few more verbal parries and thrusts. "As it happens, I'm at JFK, and while I could hail a cab, I thought first I'd try --"

"What? Why didn't you say so?" Peter's already out of his chair and halfway down the stairs. Then he remembers his coat. Then he decides it doesn't matter. "Look, stay put! Right where you are! Don't go anywhere."

"I'm not someone's runaway parrot," Neal says, sounding amused and something else, something Peter can't quite put his finger on.

"Breakthrough on the case?" Diana asks hopefully, dodging out of his way with her arms filled with color-coded folders.

"Better," Peter calls back over his shoulder, punching the speed-dial for El's phone. "Neal's back."

Diana's spontaneous grin is full of sunshine. "You tell him that he'd better come in to say hi, or we'll put out an APB on his ass."

 


 

Neal looks ... great, actually. Of course, Neal would be impeccably put together if he'd just pulled himself out of the rubble of a burning building. But there's something different about him, aside from the uncharacteristic tan and slightly longer hair. He's lighter somehow, like a weight's been lifted off his shoulders.

Or his ankle.

Neal goes for a handshake, but Peter hauls him into a rib-crushing hug. "Notice me not asking questions," he says into Neal's hair. "Or yelling at you. I expect to cash in this voucher at some future date when you deserve a good dressing-down even more than you do right now."

Neal laughs, and God, Peter missed this -- missed him. "Nice try, but you do realize that it doesn't actually matter if you yell at me now, because I don't work for you anymore?"

"Punk," Peter says, and ruffles his hair, just because he can get away with it.

They struggle home through rush-hour traffic, and Neal keeps the conversation full of entertaining little anecdotes about all the places he's been -- navigating Mumbai in rickshaws, getting lost in sheep country in New Zealand. Peter wonders if Neal is aware that it's completely obvious he's trying to deflect the conversation from more sensitive territory (why did you leave, where are you going next) but he's happy to let him; he reciprocates with some of the wilder cases he's had to handle in the last year and a half.

"Incidentally," Neal says, with studied casualness, "you haven't mentioned whether you got the postcards or not."

Neal darts a glance sideways at Peter, who grins back at him. "Oh, you'll see them soon enough. It's not often that a couple of working stiffs like me and El manage to obtain a private art collection by a famous artist. Even if art's not exactly what you're famous for."

Neal looks pleased and a little shy. "They're not that good. Not gallery caliber."

"Neal, your work has always been gallery caliber. In fact," Peter adds, "I wouldn't be surprised if some of it is still hanging in galleries that I haven't discovered yet."

Neal chuckles softly. "Like I'd tell you if it was. I'm not an idiot." But the flippancy slips away after a moment. "No, it's different, what I did before and what I'm doing now. I don't think I ever quite realized what the difference was, but I've been painting a lot the last year, Peter -- in fact, that's pretty much all I've been doing. It's nice to know that a few of them will still be around."

"You threw the rest away?" Peter says, aghast.

"Gave them away. To whoever watched me paint them, usually. I've been living out of a suitcase; I can't exactly carry large canvases around with me. There are Caffrey originals now gracing the tents of alpaca herders in Chile and more than a few Malaysian houseboats."

It's just so very, very Neal. "You probably could have sold them."

"It was never about money, Peter," Neal says gently. "It never has been. You know that."

"Yes. I know. So ..." Now it's Peter's turn to give him a side-look out of the corner of his eye. "I guess you're looking forward to having someplace to let those big canvases stack up, right? Someplace with good light to paint by? I doubt June's found a new lodger ..."

"One thing at a time, Peter," Neal says, softly but firmly, and then deflects the conversation to a discussion of rush-hour traffic in Mexico City.

 


 

Neal stops just inside the door of the Burkes' townhouse, and his quick observant gaze catalogues everything, pausing on each painting as he locates it. The nearest is the one that's flipped around to the heart side. Neal reaches out and turns it over, with the air of someone absently, reflexively straightening something that must have got knocked over. As soon as his fingers leave the painting's edge, Peter flips it back over. Neal gives him a look that he doesn't quite know how to read, though he recognizes the poised on the verge of escape part of it.

Peter reaches out and takes Neal's arm, tugging him gently forward. "If I know El, she's probably got something special planned -- okay, wow."

From the look and the smell of things, El's apparently been cooking nonstop since he called her: there are cookbooks everywhere, little plates of hors d'oeuvres, cooking utensils he doesn't even recognize. "You never cook like this for me," Peter says.

"Disappear for a year and a half, and see what sort of dinner you get when you come home," El retorts, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She kisses Peter first, but most of her attention is on Neal, and her eyes are bright and wet as she hugs him. "Welcome home," she whispers into his ear, and Neal goes sort of stiff, and then relaxes against her.

The awkwardness that Peter fears never materializes. There's excellent food, good conversation, and El even went so far as to pick up a bottle of expensive wine, the kind that needs a corkscrew. After clearing away enough leftovers to feed an army, they retire to the living room couches, and Satchmo II sprawls by Neal's feet.

El's been curating art exhibits and getting up at five a.m., and though she clearly wants to stay up, Peter steers her off to bed when her eyelids start drifting shut. "He'll still be here in the morning," he whispers in her ear as he helps her slip off her blouse.

"Promise?" she whispers back, curling her arms around his neck.

He can't, of course. He never realized that having Neal off the ankle monitor was going to be so nervewracking, sort of like letting a cat out of the house into the backyard, never knowing if it would come back or not. In fact, as he tucks El into bed, Peter realizes that he's half-expecting to come back down and find the living room empty, and another six-month wait for new postcards.

But Neal's relaxing on the couch, petting Satchmo. Peter tops off Neal's wine glass and gets himself a beer from the fridge.

All you can do is love them, and let them go, and hope they come back, El said. She's right, and if Neal's taught him nothing else, Peter thinks, it was worth learning this, because he's never been good at the kind of love that doesn't hold on. He holds on tightly. He wants to control everything around him. He's always known that about himself; it's what makes him a good FBI agent. But you can't crowd someone like Neal. The entire U.S. prison system couldn't hold Neal for long. If he stayed on the monitor anklet until his sentence was up, and walked away a free man, it was because he wanted it that way.

Peter stops with his hand on the bottle opener. It's always been a choice Neal makes, hasn't it? There had always been times he'd tried to run, and more than once he could actually have made it. The consequences would've been worse, of course, and would have included Peter and a dozen FBI agents on his tail. But it was nothing he hadn't done before.

I never had control. Just the illusion of control.

And after a dizzy moment, when his world tilts on its axis, he finds himself grinning. That's why nothing feels different now, because in a lot of ways, nothing has changed. He and Neal have always played the same game with each other, whether they were on different sides of the law or (ostensibly) the same side -- a constant struggle of wills, both of them with their own aims and goals that only occasionally coincided.

And he's missed the hell out of it.

Neal's four years with the FBI, the ankle monitor, all of that wasn't the final endpoint of their cat and mouse game, just one more step along the way. As he heads back to the living room, Peter realizes that the tension uncoiling from his shoulders is the release of the stress he's been under -- the fear that Neal's gone back to a life of crime and is going to end up either in jail or dead in a ditch somewhere. He really doesn't think that Neal's forging again -- at the very least, the paintings all over the house are proof that he's trying something new -- but if so? If so, well, they've dealt with that before. If they weren't trying to stay one step ahead of each other, if he always knew exactly what was going on in Neal's life, they wouldn't be them.

"You look cheerful," Neal says as Peter settles opposite him.

"Just thinking about old times."

Neal raises an eyebrow. "Uh-oh. Good times or bad times?"

"Both." Peter leans over and clinks his beer bottle against Neal's glass. "To old times. And old friends."

Neal quirks a smile, and takes a sip. After a moment he says, not meeting Peter's eyes, "I must have worried you guys a little."

"Gee," Peter says, "you think?" And he drinks deeply, letting the gentle burn of the alcohol wash away the lingering ghosts of anger and resentment and fear.

"I had to, Peter," Neal says, and now he's serious in that heartbreakingly earnest way, with his soul in his eyes. The way he'd once said You're the only person in my life I trust. "I had to get away, had to --"

"Neal," Peter interrupts him, "Neal. I get it." And when Neal gives him another raised eyebrow, he says again, "I get it."

"You do, don't you?" Neal says over the wine glass. "Huh."

"So how's Mozzie these days, anyway?"

"He's living with an heiress in Sweden, last I heard."

"As in living with, living with?"

"Peter. Don't sell Moz short. He can be charming when he wants to."

"I guess he must have done something all those years before he met you," Peter muses.

Neal laughs, and then sobers again, swirling the wine in the glass, watching it catch the light like the facets of a deep-red jewel. "You know, one thing I ..." he begins, then trails off before starting again, addressing the wine rather than Peter. "One reason I left was because I needed to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be. I've been a lot of people, and you'd think that would make it easier -- just pick one, right? Except every one of them has been an act of one kind or another."

"Did you find out?" Peter asks gently.

Neal looks up, and nods towards the paintings on the wall. "I think I'm getting there. Neal Caffrey the art forger is about the closest I've come to being, well, me. But it was becoming obvious to me, even before you caught me the first time, that I couldn't be that person and stay out of jail."

There's something Peter has always wanted to ask, but he never could quite find the right opening. There'll never be a better one. "Neal Caffrey's not your real name, is it?"

Neal looks up and meets his eyes with a deep sincerity that Peter doesn't think is faked. "It is now," he says simply.

And for some reason, that's all the answer that Peter needs. He returns Neal's serious look with a smile, and taps his nearly empty beer bottle against Neal's wine glass.

"Welcome home, Neal."