One minute later: the reality in which Neal is married to Kate
He climbs the stairs with his heart in his mouth, three at a time, calls her name again when she doesn't answer the first time. And for a moment -- a brief, endless moment -- he is suspended in time, seeing a ball of fire erupt in front of him, feeling a bottomless tearing grief that goes on and on --
She steps out of the baby's room, where she's been hanging wallpaper. Plaster dust frosts her hair, and her oversized coveralls are gently rounded across the six-months-along bulge in her middle.
Neal sweeps her up in his arms and buries his face in her neck.
"Hello to you too," she says, her voice warm with affection and surprise. Her arms come up to wrap around his back. "What brought this on?"
He just shakes his head against her skin, unable to find the words to explain. He can't even explain it to himself -- the wash of blinding grief that came over him this afternoon, the haunting fear that somewhere out there is a world in which Kate is dead and this life he has come to value so much is a possibility that can never be realized.
He remembers it as if it really happened, but of course it didn't. The memories and the grief are already starting to fade.
"Neal?" Kate says. He's still holding her as tight as he can, and now she sounds a bit concerned. "I can't breathe."
He lets her go quickly, easing back so that he can look down into her beautiful face, smudged with dust. He kisses her, taking away her breath and his own.
"Forget the wallpaper," he says, and leads her into the master bedroom next door. He meant to spend this afternoon filling out paperwork -- he'd never realized that going to grad school would mean so many forms -- but that can wait. Right now he needs to hold Kate, and feel her, and remind himself that his visions of despair and loss are only a waking daydream, nothing that has any meaning at all.
One month later: the reality in which Neal discovered Peter was killed in the line of duty
There's copper in his mouth and a leaden, heavy feeling in his chest. He's run as far as he can, but he has a terrible suspicion that it isn't far enough.
Nothing he can do about it, though. He can't feel his legs anymore. Neal slumps against a brick wall and tilts his head back, looking up the side of the building and into the blue, blue sky.
For some incongruous reason he finds himself thinking about that afternoon a few weeks back when, for no reason he could ever figure out, he used the library computers to look up a dead FBI agent he'd never heard of. He'd been daydreaming -- must have been; something about a whole other life, working for the FBI. Not anything he'd ever do, and he's not sure why he was thinking about it at the time. But it's interesting to think that there might be other versions of him out there, versions of him who possibly weren't stupid enough to partner up with Ryan Wilkes. Never trust anyone at your back, Mozzie told him once, and Mozzie was right, as usual. Damn, he misses Mozzie sometimes.
His mind is wandering. That's not a good sign.
It's been a really good run, though. A good life. He lived it to the fullest, had a grand crime spree across three continents, and no one even came close to catching him. He's twenty-nine, and he can't breathe anymore, but he has no regrets.
"There he is, over there." Wilkes's voice, distant, laced with triumph.
Neal closes his eyes and gives in to the dark.
Six months later: the reality in which Neal works at a gallery in Amsterdam
He doesn't think they'll actually show up. Even when he drives to the airport to pick them up, there's still a part of him that doesn't believe it. He isn't really convinced until they appear out of Dutch Customs: Peter looking relaxed and cheerful in a polo shirt and jeans, Elizabeth all cool and swishy and touristy with a skirt floating around her legs. She's the first one to see him, and a huge grin breaks across her face. Then Peter's grinning too; then Neal is swept up in both their arms, and he's thinking, How did I ever think I could leave these people behind?
"Good flight?" Neal asks as they pile into his tiny car.
"Long," Peter says. They barely fit in the car; Elizabeth has to share the rudimentary backseat with the luggage that won't fit in the trunk. Peter doesn't say anything teasing about it -- nothing about how he would have expected Neal Caffrey to be driving a sports car. Neal expects he's thinking it, and he suspects that Peter doesn't say anything because he knows why Neal isn't driving a Maserati: because Neal has been living on a relatively unaugmented gallery manager's salary, and pumping every spare euro into starting a gallery of his own.
Which opens tomorrow.
"We can't wait to see the boat," El says, reaching from the backseat to squeeze Neal's shoulder as they merge into traffic. "The pictures you sent looked terrific, but I really want to see it for myself."
"I can't believe you turned a houseboat into a floating gallery," Peter says. "Only you. Is it safe?"
El punches him reprovingly in the shoulder.
"Only you would ask that question," Neal says, but his heart is so light that it feels like it's grown wings. A little piece of him that he never realized was missing has slotted into place. He can't wait to show them his gallery, and the city that is starting to feel like home.
One year later: the reality in which Neal called Peter from prison
Peter is waiting to pick him up when they let him out. Somehow, he didn't believe until this moment that Peter really would be there.
"Show it to me," Peter says, and Neal dutifully lifts his pants leg and reveals the tracking anklet.
A part of him is still struggling to accept that this is all real. He was put away for four years, but in the end, he only served two. And he has Peter Burke, of all people, to thank for the fact that he's standing on the outside right now.
He still doesn't know what prompted him to call Peter on a long dull afternoon a year ago. Maybe it was just boredom. Maybe something else. I'm not going to be your prison pen pal, Neal, Peter had said, but in the end, that's more or less exactly what happened. Kate, rolling her eyes, told him at their weekly visits that he was off his rocker to be corresponding with a fed, but Neal couldn't help it. Twisting Peter's chain while Peter was chasing him always was part of the fun, and now he gets to twist Peter's chain in person, through a series of cards and letters and the occasional phone call.
He even speaks to Peter's wife Elizabeth once when Peter's not home. She sounds friendly and nice and very amused by the whole thing.
It's Kate who actually comes up with the tracking anklet scheme. "If you're going to make friends with an FBI agent," she says, in a warily sarcastic tone which indicates that she's still trying to figure out Neal's angle on the whole thing, "maybe we can use it to get you out of here." Neal doesn't expect Peter to go for it, but after he uses some of his hard-won prison contacts to dig up information that helps Peter crack the White Collar unit's latest case, Peter goes a few rungs up the chain of command and gets the go-ahead.
"Remember," Peter says as Neal gets into the car, a part of him still unable to believe that he's breathing fresh outdoor air and that he'll be able to see Kate without a pane of bulletproof glass between them. "For the next two years, you belong to me. If you try to run, and I catch you -- which you know I will -- you'll be back in here for a long time. Are you listening to me?"
"I can tell this is going to be a lot of fun," Neal says absently. He's already turning over possibilities in his head. Calling Kate once he's found out which flophouse the FBI plans to put him in, so that she can help him arrange something better. Getting back in touch with Mozzie. Between the three of them, they can probably come up with a plan to help him crack the anklet and get out of New York.
"This isn't supposed to be fun. This is business." But there is a slight smile quirking the corner of Peter's mouth -- Neal isn't sure if Peter even realizes it's there -- and a strange thought occurs to him: this might actually be fun.
He'd never had any intention of staying on the anklet for two years. Never been skipped on sounds like a fun challenge to him, and who in his right mind would spend two years working with the FBI when he could be living it up on the French Riviera?
This thing with Peter is very, very temporary. More temporary than Peter knows. But, Neal thinks, there's no point in making solid plans yet. He still needs to talk to Kate and Mozzie, see how much things have changed while he's been inside, get the lay of the land ...
"You want to get a cup of coffee before I drop you off in your new digs?" Peter says. "We can talk over the case. Your reason for being here, after all. There's a place right on the way that makes a great cup of joe."
"Sure," Neal says easily. No need to make plans yet. And suddenly he's wondering if two years is really such a long time after all.
Two years later: the reality in which Elizabeth is dead
"What's her name?"
"What makes you think there's a her?"
"You can't con a con man, Peter."
Peter doesn't say anything, but his eyes sparkle with a lightness that's rare in him these days. And there is a part of Neal that breaks, just a little, seeing that expression on Peter's face -- the painful/peaceful feeling of another part of him, of both of them, slotting back into place.
They're at a little cafe not too far from the FBI building. It's a low-key celebration. Something just for the two of them.
They've slipped back into this gradually, one day at a time.
Neal still isn't quite sure what made him go over to see Peter on that night two years ago, during the lowest point in both their lives. The whole thing feels like a dream to him now, like someone else took possession of his body and moved him around. Depression, he thinks. Dissociation. There are whole weeks in there that he barely remembers at all.
But that night, he went. And he stayed. And they talked.
Elizabeth's ghost will always hang between them. There is no way around that. They don't have what they once did. They have something new, something that has been built slowly and painfully, piece by piece, over the last two years. It isn't the easy rapport they used to enjoy, and there are still cracks. Lots of cracks. Technically, they don't work together anymore; Peter never resumed as Neal's handler, and Neal has been through a series of different ones, some good, some not so good ... Past tense, he reminds himself, twirling his foot and feeling the new lightness of his freshly anklet-free ankle. He and Peter still consult from time to time on cases, but have to go out of their way to see each other otherwise.
But they do. Sometimes it's stilted and awkward. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes they laugh, and finish each other's sentences, or sit in comfortable silence and don't say anything at all.
And underneath it all -- under the sometimes crushing weight of their muddled, tangled, painful history -- there is something rock solid. If everything that happened with Elizabeth didn't irrevocably sever them, Neal doesn't think anything ever can. And that's why he knows the decision he's made over the last few days is the right one.
"So what do you want to do next?" Peter asks as if reading his mind, changing the subject from his ambiguous love life before Neal can press further.
Neal doesn't allow himself to hesitate. "Work with you," he says.
Peter pauses with a beer on the way to his mouth, and just looks at him. And Neal, so sure a minute ago, finds himself suddenly uncertain. He has to force himself to meet Peter's eyes.
"I don't know what I'd need to do. I'm not sure if going to Quantico is really the right way. Maybe a paid consultant position would be more my style." He still can't read Peter's expression.
"You're free," Peter says, almost combatively. "You have the whole world to choose from."
"I know." And now, finally, his nerve breaks, and he looks away, dropping his eyes to stare into his glass of wine. "I want to work with you," he says, and he doesn't say the rest of it -- but he thinks Peter might hear it anyway: I want to be your partner again.
The breath Peter takes is deep and shuddering, with a slight hitch in it. Neal can't look, doesn't want to look, doesn't want to know.
Peter's hand on his is a surprise. Peter's fingers are warm and strong, slightly rough with gun calluses, curling around Neal's, holding on.
"I'd like that," Peter says.