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White Collar Fic - Long Road Home
Matt TNH 1
Title: Long Road Home
Rating: Gen
Length: ~2500
Spoilers: Post-series fic
Characters: Neal (with references to Mozzie, Peter & Elizabeth)
Summary: Neal tells himself he's really cutting all his ties this time. And how's that going, Neal?

AN: My entry for the 2015 whitecollarhc Advent. Somehow I was convinced that my posting date was today (the 24th), though looking back at the master list, I gues it was yesterday? Oops.Pretty much emotional hurt with a promise of comfort. Not beta read, as I was still finishing up today, but big thanks to the theatregirl7299 for the super helpful brainstorming yesterday. Thanks also to jrosemary for word warring with me on Tuesday when I finally had time to start writing. Section headers are from "I and Love and You" and "Paul Newman vs. The Demons," both by the Avett Brothers.

One foot in, and one foot back
It don’t pay to live like that.
So I cut the ties, and I jumped the tracks,
For never to return.

Neal Caffrey had always loved Paris. The history. The art. That little patisserie he’d stumbled on completely by accident one day, and that he returned to again and again, as much for the conversation with the owners as for their amazing pastries. Nathalie and Didier were happily married, with a joy for living that came through in their ‘arguments’ about which restaurant had the best wine list as much as in their chocolate mint eclairs.

But Neal Caffrey was dead. And while Nicholas Carver, American expatriate in Paris (and certainly not a former con man and art thief), still loved the art and the history of the city (and the pastries), he found that it just wasn’t the same. It was more than a year since he’d arrived in the city, and he was still prone to bouts of melancholy. Perhaps if the whole “make a clean break” idea had been more of a success, but what do they say about the ‘best laid plans’…

…Neal Caffrey knew what he had to do. He should have seen it sooner, shouldn’t have needed Keller, of all people, to point out the fundamental flaw in his plan to finally gain his freedom. But there it was. The Panthers might have once been gentleman thieves, but those days, if they truly existed, were long past. Keller was right. If Neal took down the Panthers, no one he cared about would be safe from their revenge. At first Neal was upset. He had finally been able to see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, the promise of an anklet-free future. He and Peter were slowly finding their footing in their relationship again. And Neal hated feeling backed into a corner. But as he continued to play an all too dangerous game with the Panthers, all the while scheming to essentially escape custody once and for all, and in the meantime shopping for baby gifts for the Burke’s soon to be born child, Neal came to what seemed to be an inevitable conclusion. As much as part of him wanted a life in New York, and as much as he thought of Peter and Elizabeth as family, he’d spent too much time living in two worlds. No longer a con, but not fully the “man” Peter wanted him to be. And Peter and Elizabeth weren’t family, not really. As much as Elizabeth often seemed to understand Neal better than even her husband, as much as she’d brokered peace between them on more than one occasion in the early days of their relationship, when it came down to it Neal was the odd man out. And that was as it should be. Peter’s her husband after all. But still, to be told that she trusts him “to a point” and then be asked, no told (Elizabeth’s own words) to do whatever it takes to protect Peter? It hurt. Neal may not be entirely trustworthy, but he has always – will always – do what needs to be done to protect Peter and Elizabeth, and now baby Burke. That said, he didn’t blame Elizabeth. Neal had brought more than a little chaos into their lives. And as much as he needed to leave to protect them, he needed to leave for his own sake as well. He can’t keep living in two worlds. And who was he kidding? He’s a con at heart. Best to make a clean break of it. He’d told Moz once that he was going to cut all of his ties. He hadn’t gone through with it then, but now…

…now, Neal found that he could change his name, he could convince the world that Neal Caffrey was dead, he could move thousands of miles – and an ocean – away, but he still couldn’t break those ties. He’d convinced himself that after pulling off Neal Caffrey’s greatest con, the world would be his for the taking. He’d cased the Louvre…the Louvre…and it had been as much of a rush as he’d expected. It was amazing how vulnerable even the greatest museums were. Although he’d known this before, it was a thrill to rediscover it. He’d cased the place thoroughly, thought about what pieces would make the best targets (some were easier to find buyers for, others he was drawn to purely for the thrill of taking them, of holding them in his hands). And then he’d planned. And planned some more – this wasn’t a job to take lightly. And planned some more. And did his best to ignore the voices in his head asking whether he really wanted to do this. And resolutely refused to acknowledge that it wasn’t so much voices, plural, as one voice, which sounded suspiciously like one Peter Burke.

Neal Caffrey was good at convincing other people of pretty much anything. He was also pretty good at convincing himself of a great many things, or at least of pushing down thoughts of things he didn’t want to think about or deal with. But one day, sitting at the dining table in Nicholas Carver’s small but nicely appointed apartment overlooking the Seine, the dam broke. With a sweep of his arm, ‘Nicholas’ sent the various maps, floor plans, and other papers off the table, watching as they scattered across the floor. “You’re stalling!” he chastised himself, banging his fist on the table, then running both hands through his hair in frustration.

Neal Caffrey was, contrary to what some might have thought (when he was officially alive), also capable of being honest with himself. And perhaps it was time. He was stalling. Had been for some time. In a way, it was like the treasure all over again. But as much as Neal had been reluctant to leave his life in New York then, and as much as he had harbored doubts about being able to leave ‘the life,’ about wanting to leave it behind for good, he’d also been caught between his best friend and, well, his other best friend, pushed and pulled in two different directions by the two most important people in his life. But Nicholas Carver was a free man, and even if the voice of his conscience sounded an awful lot like Peter Burke, it was his life, his choice, his conscience, he realized. And looking at the mess of papers on his floor, he allowed himself to acknowledge what he suspected a part of him had known for some time now. Whether he was Nicholas Carver or Neal Caffrey, he wasn’t the same man he’d been when he’d come to Paris the first time, when he’d been gallivanting around Europe. He wasn’t the same person he’d been when Peter Burke had taken a chance on a convicted felon because Elizabeth Burke thought said felon was a romantic. He might as well admit it, once and for all. And he wasn’t going through with any of the plots he’d been hatching. Quite the opposite, he realized, as he gathered up the papers strewn about on the floor and started hatching a new plan in his head, the one where he found a way to let the right people at the Louvre know how vulnerable their beloved museum was.

You may have to drag me away from my demons,
kicking and screaming.

Nicholas Carver does like Paris. He likes the history and the art. He likes the view of the Seine from his apartment window. He loves his boss, Camille, who hired him to work in the art supply shop she inherited from her father, and who brings him leftovers from family dinners for lunch and gives him what he’s pretty sure is more than an employee discount on everything from brushes to the most amazing pastels. Camille still occasionally tries to set Nicholas up with various acquaintances, despite his protests. Her latest project has been trying to convince Nicholas to display a few of his paintings with one of her many gallery owning friends. So far he’s resisted, but Nicholas isn’t sure how long he can keep it up. It’s not a bad life he’s made for himself here, he knows.

But somehow, no matter what roots he puts down, no matter how happy he is – and he is happy, a lot of the time – he still can’t quite shake the ghosts of his former life. It helps when the Pink Panthers are finally put away for good and Neal is able to let his oldest friend in on his secret. Mozzie is angry at first, understandably so, but the two of them get through it and come out the other side. But Moz had irons in the fire, and hanging out in Paris with a reformed ex-con man and thief doesn’t quite fit those plans. They keep in touch, and Neal knows Moz will be back, eventually. But having him here, only to see him leave again, brings its own sadness.

And then there’s Peter. Peter, who was always more than Neal’s handler. Neal sometimes finds himself replaying their final conversation in his head. Yes, he was conning Peter, conning everyone – Neal Caffrey’s greatest con. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t truth in it. His relationship with Peter may have been fraught with all the difficulties you might expect from a friendship between an FBI agent and a former (or not so former) con man and thief. But Peter was still the person who saw good in Neal when many others would have written him off. Okay, so sometimes Peter was the one writing Neal off (and that had hurt most of all), but somehow, in the end, Peter really was Neal’s friend, a good man who believed that Neal Caffrey could be a good man too, that Neal Caffrey was a good man.

So Neal enlists Mozzie (who surprisingly doesn’t object or argue that Neal is making a mistake) and sends Peter a clue. And then he waits. Or he tries not to wait, not to expect too much. It’s not like Peter can drop everything and fly to Paris on a whim. He has a son now. And it’s not like he left Peter a phone number or an address. But he can’t quite help himself. He lives Nicholas Carver’s life, and it’s a good life. He goes on a few dates with Marie, who works in one of his favorite cafes. He paints. He takes weekend trips to the countryside and to London. But he also sees Peter out of the corner of his eye far too often, and half expects it to be him every time his phone rings or there’s a knock at his door.

Time passes, and Neal wonders if Peter figured out Neal’s message. Wait. What is he thinking? Of course Peter figured it out. The man is like a dog with a proverbial bone. He’s ‘The Archaeologist.’ So then Neal isn’t sure what to think. After all, Neal did fake his own death and leave his friends to mourn. Maybe they don’t want to see him. Or maybe, he chastises himself, you should have left them a clearer message, made it clear that you wanted to be found. Maybe Peter is simply happy to know Neal is alive and content to let him live his life. Or maybe, Neal needs to make the first move. Nicholas Carver is a free man. Nicholas Carver can travel to London for a weekend getaway, and he can get on a plane to New York City. And he almost does, maybe half a dozen times. But every time, there’s some reason not to go. Camille comes down with a nasty bug, and he can’t abandon her and the shop (even if she insists that it’s just a touch of the flu and she will be fine).  Neal comes down with a nasty bug, which he can’t, in good conscience, share with the Burkes. It’s just not the right time. Or something.

And then, one day, his phone rings, and it’s a New York number. He doesn’t try as hard as he is capable of to hide the disappointment when the voice on the other end of the line is Mozzie and not Peter. Then again, he figures Moz will understand. Any worry about that is soon forgotten, in any case, when Moz gives him the news. Peter is in the hospital, something to do with chest pains, though Neal only half hears the rest of what Moz is telling him (including the part where he might have said that Peter would be fine). Neal berates himself for all the stalling he’s done these past months. He thanks Camille, who is more than understanding when he tells her he needs to take some time off. And not even twenty-four hours later, he’s on a plane from Charles DeGaulle to JFK.

Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.
Are you aware of the shape I’m in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins.

For the second day in a row, Neal Caffrey (whatever his passport says) is standing outside the Burkes’ townhouse in Brooklyn. By the time he got to the city the day before, Peter had just been released. Neal needs to see Peter for himself, but now that it’s no longer an emergency, he’s back to doubting himself, and his place here. Peter has Elizabeth, has his son. Today Neal’s made it as far as the Burke’s front stoop. Which is good, because it’s started to snow, and his hair and coat are dusted white, and he probably isn’t dressed quite warmly enough. He raises his hand to knock, again. And he hesitates, again. And bangs into some sort of decorative stone figurine that he hadn’t noticed until his foot found it. A moment later there is the sound of Satchmo barking, and footsteps, and Peter’s voice asking Satch what is up. And Elizabeth telling Peter she’ll take care of it.

Neal’s hand stays in the air, but he doesn’t knock, just stands, shivering. Moments later the door swings open. And there is Peter, looking a little drawn, but otherwise whole and well. Elizabeth appears at his shoulder, still chastising him for not letting her get the door. They both freeze, eyes wide, and Neal momentarily wishes he were anywhere but this quiet street in Brooklyn. And then a smile breaks out on Peter’s face, wide and bright, a smile that goes all the way to his eyes. And Elizabeth’s shock morphs into a smile of her own, tender and gentle, as she pulls the door all the way open. And suddenly there is nowhere Neal would rather be than stepping through the door of this townhouse on this quiet street in Brooklyn, and he lets himself smile, glad, finally, to be home.

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This is wonderful and the ending is perfect. It's full of angst and hope and happily ever afters.

Fantastic Job.

Starting my belated replies to comments now. Thanks so much for the great feedback, for reading my story so soon after it went up and commenting, and for the super helpful brainstorming while I was working on it.

Edited at 2016-01-04 09:11 pm (UTC)

What a wonderful story. The ending was absolutely perfect. Thanks so much for sharing.

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Neal's home! :D I love how you laid out the reasons for why Neal had to leave -- and the angst was great too. Thanks for sharing, and Merry Christmas!!

You're very welcome. Thanks for reading, and especially for telling me what you liked. Hope you had a wonderful holiday. :)

This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it!! <3

Awww. Thanks for the lovely comment. Glad you enjoyed the story.

Aww this is beautiful. Glad Neal is finally home

I'm glad he's home too. :) This idea of Neal going off and thinking he's going back to being a thief and then discovering that he doesn't want that has been in my head as one post-finale possibility for a long time. I'm glad the story worked for you.

Wonderful story, glad all of them are together again.

More much-delayed replying...thanks so much for your comment! Glad you enjoyed the story.

Awwwwwwwwwww poor Neal!

So angsty and sad!

But, yay for the happy reunion ending.

Merry Christmas, doc!

Belated happy holidays, Pooh! And thanks for reading & taking the time to comment. I have been so behind in commenting on fic for some time now. :( Glad you liked the story.

Awww, poor Neal! Love the ending *hugs them all*

I struggled a bit with where/how to end the story, so I'm glad what I ended up going with seems to have worked so well for people. Thanks for the feedback!

Awww, this is wonderful and so very true to all of them. *Pets Neal* Lovely fic :)

"So very true to all of them" is the sort of comment that really makes my day. Sorry it took so long to get around to thank you for the feedback.


Such a great moment, well earned there at the end. *sigh*


Glad you liked the story so much. Thank you for the wonderful comment.

I feel as if you're in my head. That's exactly how I see Neal - how he semi-reformed, has Peter in his head, and how he felt about everything that had happened. I love how he reasons everything out ('Peter can't come right away'), doubting and hesitating, but ultimately coming back. Loved it!

I had a few different ideas in my head of how things might have gone after the finale (despite Jeff Eastin thinking the finale wasn't open ended, and despite his bizzaro 'born bad' thing). And this one seems so plausible - Neal thinking he's making a break of it, but coming to realize that he doesn't really want that. Thanks so much for your lovely feedback. It's always nice to hear that something I've written really resonates with people!

Edited at 2016-01-20 10:20 pm (UTC)

They say better late than never /o\

Such beautiful story, awwww... poor Neal, of course no matter what he did and where he went, there would always be something missing in his life... thankfully he finally found his way home :D ♥

Love ♥

What a perfect ending! You kept us guessing but hoping right to the very end. Great job!

Neal's out of the cold and back in the warmth of family

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