He wonders what Peter is doing. What they’re going to do with the cakes. What June will think. Imagines Kramer saying I told you so and thinks, for a moment, that he understands how people feel when things are stolen from them. He hopes Peter doesn’t take this too hard. He hopes Peter will forgive him. (Stupid, to think for a moment…)
It’ll be a long flight. He should sleep.
Neal isn’t sure he’s ever hated anyone like he hates Kramer right now.
Maybe this was always inevitable. Maybe he doesn’t know how to stop running.
Neal closes his eyes and misses home.
Europe is beautiful. (It always is.) Neal’s ankle feels weirdly light, which it shouldn’t. Mozzie seems to sense Neal’s mood and by turns keeps his distance and sticks close, like he’s worried Neal will wander back to New York if he doesn’t watch. They aren’t stopping here, but for a few days…
He wonders if El is upset, or angry. If Peter is in trouble. There’s no way of knowing. He can’t go back. (Probably ever.)
Of course it turns out that his first taste of freedom is bitter.
He goes to the Museo del Prado (because he can) and sees echoes of old cases through the canvases. He keeps remembering little things. (Sara. Maybe in a couple months he can send her a message, if he’s careful. Diana. She risked a lot, giving him a two minute ride and a couple more seconds.)
He tries not to think about Peter; Peter standing up for him, Peter believing in him, Peter giving him all the chances in the world. It doesn’t go very well. He writes a hundred variations of I’m safe, I’m fine, I’m sorry in code and doesn’t send any of them.
Mozzie catches him at it and he doesn’t say anything, which says enough.
Mozzie is a good friend.
They go to the Canary Islands for what appears to be ‘no good reason.’ It’s gorgeous. The birds aren’t as showy as he’d think, and there are a couple really weird buzzards. He sketches, and realizes that he hasn’t done a whole lot of sketching in the last years.
It was what kept him sane in prison, in part.
He wonders if it’ll keep him sane now. They aren’t running hard yet, but he’s already tired. He misses having a place to go back to every night. Misses being able to sleep without one eye open. Misses…a lot, actually.
Yep, you’ve been domesticated, he tells himself, and the thought isn’t bitter like it should be. Domestication is Peter. Is June. Is Sara and El and Diana and Jones. Is New York, known and loved.
Neal buys a postcard and writes on the back wish you were here. He leaves it unsigned and hesitates a long time before sending it to Sterling Bosch. They’ll know who it’s from, and maybe it’ll be confiscated and she’ll never read it, but he’ll be long gone by then.
He wonders what Peter expected him to do. If he expected him to do this or expected him to just retreat and sit quietly and hope for another miracle. Neal’s a gambler, but he knows how to play the odds.
He knows when to cut his losses. (This time, the losses feel pretty damn high.)
Mozzie’s taken to watching him almost unnervingly closely. When Neal catches him at it, Mozzie narrows his eyes and says, “Looking back makes you trip on what’s in front of you.”
“Who’s that?” Neal asks, drily.
“Me. I know this isn’t your notion of ideal-”
Neal lets out a harsh, short laugh. Mozzie winces, so apparently it sounds worse than it feels. “It’s what you want,” he says, and it comes out sounding nastier than he wants it to. Mozzie stares at him like he doesn’t know what he’s looking at. “For months. I bet you’re not disappointed it fell out this way.”
Mozzie half opens his mouth, closes it, and says, “Talking to you isn’t worth the trouble.” He leaves the little house they’re staying in for the moment.
Neal feels bad after he’s gone. Mozzie didn’t have to leave with him. Mozzie loves New York as much as Neal does. Did.
Mozzie’s what Neal has. He should be grateful. He is grateful.
Next time he has access to internet, Neal goes fishing. There’s a fair amount of coverage of his escape, and Peter gets mentioned by name a couple times, but he never gets quoted. Neal wonders if reporters are bothering him at home. El at work. If Peter’s decided he was more trouble than he was worth yet.
One article has a picture of Peter on it, looking harrassed and harried. Neal stares at it for fifteen minutes. When Moz finds him, for once he doesn’t say anything reproving.
“I hope he’s all right,” Neal says, and after a few long moments of silence that Neal privately suspects are mostly for form, Mozzie says, “Me too.”
They had a good run. (It’s always past tense.)
“We should get moving,” Mozzie says, after a couple seconds.
“Yeah,” Neal agrees. “Probably.” He looks at the picture of Peter just a little bit longer before closing the window.
They zig-zag across Europe into Asia. They visit India. Neal’s been once. In the motion and the people and the newness of everything, it’s almost easy to forget why he’s here. He works on it. For everybody’s sake.
In the nights, though, when he’s lying back trying to sleep, he wonders if Diana and Christy have pinned down a date for the wedding yet. If Jones has found a steady girlfriend.
Peter creeps into his dreams, in weird, sideways, surreal kind of ways. In one of them, he and Kate and Peter are running a con to steal Death’s scythe. “They’ll never suspect us,” Kate says gleefully. “Not once we bring in the buffalo.” Another one features El and a donkey with Mozzie’s voice having an argument over the value of Voltaire as a philosopher while Neal sculpts Peter out of bread dough.
He wonders what his life would be like if he hadn’t bolted, now. On Kramer’s leash in DC Art Crimes. Maybe it would have been fine. Maybe he would have gotten a chance to see Peter and El sometimes.
Isn’t sure he’d make a different choice, going back.
It’s a little muggy.
On a warm Saturday, Neal buys him a card and scribbles something meaningless and inane on the back. Then he rips it up and scatters the pieces. It’s supposed to be cathartic. It’s not, really.
It’s five months, two weeks, and six days since he left New York when Neal gets knifed in Southeast Asia. There’s no name, no familiar face, no whispered this is my revenge like any good dramatic death, just a short, sharp pain between his ribs when someone stumbles into him that spreads and spreads until it eats him alive, which takes a lot less time than he’d expect.
People are milling around and saying things. They sound concerned, but everything’s a little muddled. Mozzie should be here. Neal wonders bleakly if this is really how he’ll go down.
(Peter will never know. Peter never has to know.)
Except that Peter is leaning over saying pay attention, dammit Neal and his face is clearer than anyone else, and Neal is very, very relieved. Peter’s here, it’ll be okay. Nobody dies on Burke’s watch.
(Well, Kate, but he wasn’t really watching her.)
“Peter,” Neal says, even though it feels a little like he’s running out of air. “I’m sorry. I had to. I’m sorry.”
Peter’s face is the last thing to blur out.
He comes back around feeling like something has chewed him up and spit him out. Twice. He’d like to call the noise he makes a groan, but really it’s more like a whimper.
Mozzie’s face is abruptly hovering above him. “Neal?” he says, a little too loudly. He’s not wearing a mask, so this isn’t a hospital. “You’re awake, oh good, it looked pretty bad for a while there,” and Moz never babbles, never ever, so yeah, ‘bad’ is probably an understatement. Neal can feel that.
Pretty literally, still.
Oh, wait. Peter.
Neal tries to sit up, and abruptly regrets that, along with the rest of his suddenly very miserable existence. When he can see straight again, Mozzie is hovering and holding a glass of water and looking simultaneously worried and mutinous. It’s not a good look. “Peter,” Neal says, and Mozzie shakes his head.
“I’m almost offended you could mistake me for-”
“No,” Neal says, though words are currently hard and it doesn’t feel like his lungs are inflating fully. “Peter. He was here.”
Mozzie’s eyes narrow. “No,” he says, quite clearly. “He wasn’t, or we wouldn’t be. Remember, Neal? We can’t see the Feds anymore. Any Feds.”
“No,” says Neal, and blames the fact that he feels a little like crying on the fact that he’s not at his best and is frustrated, because he knows what he saw, he knows- “I saw him. He was there when-” When I thought I was dying, he almost says, but doesn’t, because Mozzie probably gets the idea and looks stressed enough as it is, however well he’s managing to hide it.
“You were bleeding a lot,” Mozzie says, carefully, “Maybe-”
“I didn’t make it up!”
“Just because you wanted him to be there doesn’t mean he was,” Mozzie says, more snappishly than Neal has heard him say anything in a long time. “It’s like Kate all over again-” And then Mozzie stops, seeming to feel that he’s crossed a line. It just…hurts. All his happy endings. Always up in smoke. Peter was never there. Peter will never be there.
Trying to be bad lost him Kate. Trying to be good (too late) lost him Peter (and all of New York).
Neal abruptly just wants to go back to sleep.
“As soon as you can get on your feet we should go,” Mozzie is saying. “I’m thinking Indonesia.”
Neal is already sinking again. “Mmm,” he says. Vaguely.
“It’ll get better soon,” Mozzie says, and he’s not completely talking about the knife wound, because yeah, that’s what bodies do, they heal.
Neal isn’t sure about the other one. It’s not that he’s forgotten how to live this life. It’s, maybe, that he’s forgotten why he wanted to.
It’ll be Peter’s birthday in a month. Maybe he’ll send a card.
(He dreams that he and Peter and El are all holding hands on the edge of a dock, with clear blue water not at all like the Atlantic stretching out forever in front of them. “On three,” El says. “One, two-”