Peter handed in his resignation the next day. With it, he tendered the records from the several different psychiatrists he'd consulted upon Terence's advice.
"Should I consider this the beginning of a lawsuit?" Hughes asked.
"Not at all, sir. It's actually the God's honest truth, and from the 180 degree change in my attitude towards you, I think you know it," Peter said pleasantly. There was a certain peace in knowing there was nothing else to do. "If it weren't for the very competent help from Terence, I'm very confident my brain would be in much worse shape. But you can't have an agent who's afraid of certain cops."
"Caffrey has to come in and give a statement about the kidnapping yesterday," Hughes said. "Last straw, huh?"
"You could say that. He's coming in after I leave. I wanted to do this alone," Peter said.
He and his now-ex supervisor spent almost an hour talking about terms for his exit. Now that Hughes was no longer in charge of him, Peter felt the old ease he used to feel with the man.
"There's no way around this?" Hughes asked at the end, and Peter knew it was his way of saying he wish things were different. They both knew there was no other way. He'd grown out of the bureau, and his supervisor wasn't fool enough to deny it.
Peter turned in his badge and gun and felt only the slightest pang. Once he was out of the building he sent emails by phone, carefully worded messages that he'd readied last night. One for Diana. One for Jones. Inviting them together to an evening with him and Neal, where they'd talk about things.
Then Peter went to the Bronx Zoo while Neal had his interview. He'd earned it. He saw that the bonobo chimp pen no longer bore Scott's name. Now it was credited to an anonymous benefactor. "Smart donation, Neal," he murmured. The small wins had to be enough.
Neal sat down for his statement. "I'd hoped to never have to come here again," he smiled at Hughes.
"The butler hauled you in to tell you some crazy story about slavery?" Hughes asked in disbelief. "That sounds like an awful lot of trouble."
"The man is off his rocker, that should be obvious by now. We've tried our luck with the FBI, and it's not working for us, Agent Hughes. Peter and I have earned a chance to try to live our lives as best we can less one set of surveillance."
"Fine, Caffrey. Stop by the tech unit to help narrow down which block it was you saw from the window of that apartment."
"You're a very decent human being, Agent Hughes," Neal said, standing up and offering his hand. "Thank you for not doing any number of things to stand in the way of Peter and me."
"You've done right by him so far," Hughes said, shaking his hand.
Neal noted the cagey compliment.
Two days later a large package was delivered in the lobby of the FBI. Naturally, bomb squad was called because of the unusual size. Hughes stood by waiting for the box to be cleared.
"It's addressed to you, sir," someone finally said.
"I know," the old agent said. "I know what's inside, too. Clear the area of anyone squeamish, will you? Open very carefully."
Once open, the box revealed what was left of Tomas Maria Mendonça, on a bed of dry ice.
"I lost count at thirty of the number of stab wounds," Jones said. "That's a mess such as you don't see every day."
"Murder on the Orient Express style, a lot of people wanted a piece of this man," Hughes noted. "What's that paper say?"
Diana extricated a sheaf of papers protected from the gore with a ziploc bag. "Oscar Simpson, shipping magnate, one of the people we've identified from the gaming network." She scanned the pages quickly. "Someone has put together a nice file linking him to the butler as the one providing financial support and helping him lay low."
"How nice of them," Hughes said neutrally.
Later that day the appeal made its way to his desk. One of Peter's cases, being appealed on the grounds that he'd planted evidence. The proof was quite substantive. Hughes sat there for a long time.
"Burke," he said into the phone. "You and I both know you didn't plant evidence. But as your friend, I want to know—did you have anything to do with the butler arriving trussed up on my doorstep?"
"No," Peter said, thinking it wise not to feign ignorance. "I left the city right after I quit. The news did reach us here, however. Neal and I are having a rest in Long Island. Us and a couple bodyguards.
"Of course you are," Hughes said after he hung up.
"Don't worry, Peter, Hughes isn't going to rake us over the coals. He knows an airtight alibi when he sees one," Neal said. He had no regrets about spreading the news of the imposter through the criminal community. Many people had been roped in to doing a lot of risky work for this complete stranger. And yes, Neal liked to think that Mozzie was a symbol that everyone needed to believe in and keep safe.
That some people did not at all take kindly to their trust being violated in the name of their beloved everyman was not Neal's affair. Nor Peter's. They spoke about it once, and never again.
They had spent the last several days being whipped by the cold sea wind as if it could purify them and their relationship of so much darkness.
The two men bought fish and had simple meals, simple wine, long silent sits by the fire that would sometimes erupt into thoughts that had long been brewing.
"You know, I think the hardest thing of all this was going to those shrinks and having to listen to them call our relationship a mid-life crisis," Peter said, their bodies intertwined under the blanket.
"Your average mid-life crisis dissolves quickly in the face of adversity, and many a relationship wouldn't have survived to this moment, together, warm and quiet, " Neal said into Peter's shoulder. "Although," he looked up at his partner, "a lot of times people tend to discount same-sex connections, or anything different, as being less valid. Maybe your shrinks had some problems of their own."
"To hear Terence tell it, they always do. Was this my first incidence of being stereotyped?" He shook Neal. "I feel like I've arrived. Welcome to your gay new life, Peter Burke." He threw back his head and laughed, and then pressed Neal down on the couch. "One of many aspects of this life that I wouldn't change."
"You've changed so much, Peter. You're yourself, only more so," Neal breathed in Peter's ear.
"Change started heading towards my life a long time ago, I think. When everything started getting shaken up, I chose the right thing to hold onto," Peter folded his body around Neal's.
Neal gave into the smoldering being infused into his body from Peter's. But like the fire warming him on one side, another side of him was cold. He wasn't at all sure that his lawyers would be able to get Peter out of serving some jail time, but he'd promised his lover, and himself, that he wasn't going to ruin their time until then by worrying about what he had done to bring all of this about.
"It doesn't seem grand enough, after all this, but I love you, Peter," Neal said, resting on the other man's chest after they eventually tumbled onto the rug. "I suppose it's like art—I fuss over it and obsess about proportions being just right, and in the end, it just is. It's alive and it is greater than me, if I'm lucky." He stared into the crackling flames. "I did my best, and it can be summed up with four letters that have been misused and abused. A word as trite as they come—"
"Shut up," Peter said. "I didn't go through all this to keep caring what others think of us. About what's in my medical chart or what someone says behind our backs when we walk down the street so in love it knocks them back a foot." He kissed gently up the length of Neal's still-sore jaw. "I'd never realized the extent to which people saw me as this big child, too innocent to understand the subtleties of the world. But you of all people, please give me the credit for what I've fought through to the adult who has chosen you, is choosing this. For the last time, Neal Caffrey, let me in."
And perhaps because he was tired of fighting it, Neal let some last barrier fall. Peter saw it clearly, in a new shade of blue washing over those irises. "Move in with me. Officially. Do this for me, until—we have to do otherwise. Let's have a home," Neal proposed.
"You know that bodyguard just walked by outside and saw us crying our eyes out through the window," Neal sniffled some minutes later.
"If we've cried separately before, why not together?" Peter reasoned. "I left my sense of shame somewhere along the way, and I have to tell you it's quite a heady sensation."
They made love again. Under the blanket. Slowly. Respectfully. For a little while they feared nothing, regretted nothing, were beyond any need to justify what they were doing. At last they fell asleep, but not without coming up with a plan for the next few months.
Neal wanted to sell the cold apartment at the Setai and move into his old apartment at June's. Terence was now fast friends with their landlady and could move into one of the lower rooms.
"We can have Diana and Jones over," Peter said excitedly. His life was now an open book. He could have friends in.
The next day they went back to the city. Neal said he was going to see Mozzie, who was still shaken by having his identity corrupted all this time.
"Why, Neal, it's so good to see you," Elizabeth said from where she was straightening the meditation cushions in the dojo. "Oh, hold on. Come with me."
She led him up some stairs to where a series of small meditation rooms were located. "Sit down," she said, turning the dial on the room to "occupied."
Neal's tears broke into sobs and he cried for a long time. "I didn't want to, but Mozzie can't do time. I couldn't open him up to his whole past being looked at under a microscope."
"I know, Neal. And Peter knows. Yes, he called me. We've talked several times." Neal's surprise made him compose himself. "If Mozzie went away, it would be for decades, those were Peter's words."
"If Peter had stayed with you, Elizabeth, none of this would have happened."
She sighed. "You sit right here, and let me tell you a story."
Stroking her hands through Neal's hair as he rested his head on her lap, Elizabeth spoke. "When Mozzie recommended I study with this Buddhist monk, I didn't know what to expect. The first day, I showed up for the appointment, and he asked what made me not at peace.
"My answer was nothing, except for the people who kept trying to turn my life into a tragedy. The phone calls from women looking to commiserate about how rotten men are. A few relatives that never thought Peter was good enough for me My father, most of all. And my mother, treating me as if I'd been wronged and needed to take Peter for all that he was worth.
"Neal, I've never been a showstopper." She held up her hand. "My grades were extremely good, but I'm not someone you remember. I don't stand out. Which has put me in a good position to observe people, and that's something I'm very good at.
"My father can be a harsh man, but his ability to turn everything into someone else's problem, probably typical of psychiatrists, did teach me one important thing: a lot of times, if there's a problem, it's someone else's problem. This single insight has helped me get through a lot of things in life, so that when the sympathy calls started coming in, I knew that there was something wrong with the world, but not with me."
Elizabeth looked down at Neal affectionately. "Life isn't a tragedy, Neal, it's not meant to be, that much I know. For all the people that insisted upon making me into a victim or Peter into a monster because our marriage broke up, well, they're part of the large percentage of the population I have to let do their own thing, because it makes no sense to me. Literature runs on tragedy, to be sure, but life isn't meant to make good reading, in my opinion.
"The three of us are reasonable people who happen to all love each other, perhaps in different ways, but our level of respect is equal. Certainly it's been painful for me, but I believe that if Prentiss Scott hadn't entered our lives, the wheel of chance might have landed somewhere else." She traced her finger around Neal's lips. "I've stopped going to counselors, because they keep making this," she caressed his cheek, "to be some disaster that hit my life, and that of my husband. And you may be many things, Neal Caffrey, but I do not regret your entry into a space that I still think we were reserving for you."
He opened his mouth but she put a finger to his lips.
"This is what I poured out, more or less, to this little monk who was a complete stranger. And when I was done, he took my hand and led me into a classroom, making a signal to the monk who was teaching the class, and sat me in front of the room where the instructor had been.
"'But I don't deserve this! I don't know anything!' I protested.
"Then the monk took me to where someone was sweeping the floor. 'Do you deserve this?' he asked. 'No!' I said. 'Well, then, which will it be?' he asked me. So I went back to the class and told them some of the things that had been on my mind. About how things just sort of happen, and there was a much larger picture at work. A picture I've always had a sense of, but just assumed that everyone else would never see it, so it was useless. Something made me express the things I think about every day, while I'm at work, or washing the dishes. And the monk stopped me every once in awhile to translate what I said into some of the basic tenets of Buddhism."
Elizabeth laughed. "Don't look so impressed! They do these things, the Buddhists, everything is an object lesson. But I can't tell you how good it feels to be able to share this sense I have and not feel like I'm the odd woman out, like I always have.
"My father doesn't think I've done enough in my life. It's very clear he thinks event planning is way down the intellectual totem pole. But for me, it's like that book that came out a few years ago—'The God of Small Things.' I like working with all these details that I know are meaningless, the centerpieces and the bread baskets, and making something out of nothing. A little universe, that lasts for a couple hours. Life is made up of insignificant things. And I'm good with absurd little details."
She smiled. "For some odd reason, this makes me an excellent Buddhist. I spend a lot of time here, when I'm not working. Here, I'm not a wronged spouse. I'm an atom in the middle of this huge, absurd universe. And also an instructor, should you care to learn more about the Noble Truths," she bowed, giggling, and then lay on the floor next to Neal. "We're moving so fast through the universe it only feels like we're standing still," she confided.
He took her hand and they shot through the universe together. "Come see me as often as you like, Neal. Bring Peter. This seems to be an unpopular view, but I think some people are too important to allow to leave our lives, simply because things change."
Neal sat up. "I've been doing a lot of crying, recently, not all of it the bad kind. Now hold very still." He gathered her up in his arms and kissed her for real, just the two of them, a man and a woman, alive, naked in the way that really matters.
"There," he finally said, laying her gently back down. "That needed to happen."
"Yes it did. Now we know," she said, getting to her feet and pulling him up by the hand. "I'm glad I wasn't crazy to think we could share that. My future is totally wide open, and I have no expectations that the rest of my prophesy for the three of us will ever come true." She laughed. "But should you need an event planner, please book at least six months in advance."
Neal looked stricken. "We need to get through the next few months first."
"Thanks for seeing me as an atom, Neal. I feel as though we disappointed a lot of people by not getting into a hair-pulling fight," Elizabeth whispered as they walked through the dojo.
"Who knows what the future holds?" he said, kissing her on the cheek. "But yes, I won't take you for granted, Elizabeth. You're always yourself for me."
Hughes called in Marina DiGioia to make a statement about her group. She came with a minimum of fuss and made two statements: one on the record and one off. When she emerged from the private meeting, Jones and Diana cornered their boss.
"Did you get anything? Anything we can prove?" Jones demanded.
Hughes shook his head. "They're a bunch of rich people who occasionally do something in the spirit of the law that the letter of the law can't do. Sure, there's probably illegal surveillance galore, but we can't keep wasting the manpower on bringing down the pillars of several communities. We've got this Oscar Simpson fellow for aiding and abetting all kinds of things this butler did, simply out of boredom, I suspect. That's going to have to be good enough."
The old man didn't get his moral victory he so yearned for. Instead, he spent the next few months until his retirement trying to fight Peter's bogus evidence-planting charge that was expertly contrived, he had to admit.
When he retired, he called together a bunch of his sober retired law enforcement cronies for one of their games of matchstick poker and root beer. "This time I want to play a different game," Hughes said, with a smile playing around his lips. "It will require a wager…"
Eight months later, Peter was released from prison. Thankfully he had only been in four months, but the impeccably planted evidence had made it seem like he'd been guilty of tampering with evidence. Really, he told himself many times that he was lucky Neal's lawyers tried every trick in the book and then some to get him out of it, because the whole charge was perfectly trumped up and could have meant more jail time.
Minimum security confinement meant that all of Neal's frightening prison survival lessons had been thankfully unnecessary. Terence's coaching helped him prevent most of his problems with the authority figures surrounding him, but Peter had to do some work to keep from giving in to occasional paranoia.
Mostly he read—the prison library lent itself mostly to cheap crime novels and self help books, but Neal sent him whatever he asked for, which was history, books on the stars, some philosophy. Things that made him look at the big picture. Mozzie had sent him Voltaire, which ended up being very apropos for incarceration. Elizabeth sent copies of funny old photographs, and Terence sent him a journal with instructions to write in it every day.
Peter filled it up quickly and asked for another.
The first time he came to visit, Neal took one look at Peter in his grey work suit, and he wept.
"At least it's not orange," Peter soothed him without breaking the no-touching rule.
Neal wiped his eyes. "If it had been Mozzie, there would have been a domino effect, and he would have been in prison for decades on all his undiscovered exploits," he said for the hundredth time since he was released by his kidnapper.
"This is nothing, I tell you. A mere inconvenience. The weeks go by like nothing—"
"If you say 'nothing' one more time I'm going to scream."
"Tell me what's been going on. I'm dying for real conversation here," Peter said. "Everyone is mostly trying to one-up each other with their white collar crimes, and I want to tell them that they're not the best criminals out there." He flashed a smile at his visitor.
Neal pulled himself together and told all the amusing anecdotes he'd been saving up, marveling that Peter was dealing with things so well.
"Every time you walk through that door you make me into the luckiest man alive," Peter said. "Even if I can only show you off to a bunch of low-level embezzlers, I love having you to show off."
"You decide where you want to go and you can show me off anywhere in the world when they let you out."
"At night I bunch up the scratchy blanket between my toes and pretend it's sand," admitted Peter.
Never much of a writer, Peter spent every spare minute-after chores, occupational therapy and exercise there wasn't as much as he would like—trying to put his thoughts together about these tumultuous months. It sounded so impossible when he put it on paper, but he knew it had happened. It was especially entertaining to pretend he was other people, and by imagining Neal's side of the story he was able to feel close to him.
The thought of being in prison without Neal to look forward to was too dismal to be entertained.
On this day Peter was released with a sack of journals and the books he didn't give away.
He walked towards the limo with tinted windows. The door swung open before him. "You always did like the big statements."
"I wanted to give you a deluxe welcome back to society," Neal said. "Pardon us, Jeeves."
Gaspar put on a pair of headphones and started the car. Neal pressed the button that slid a tinted dividing window into place.
The first kiss after four months bloomed between them like a seed bursting into flower at the first touch of sun.
There was a brief tussle about the division of pleasure. Neal won. "The next time I'm released from prison, it's your turn," he stated.
"Marry me," Peter groaned some time later.
"I see I haven't lost my touch through enforced abstinence," Neal observed, righting himself and settling his clothes.
Peter contented himself with catching his breath and holding Neal close. They drove out to Long Island to a rented house. It was a cool day in October, but Peter stripped to his underwear and plunged in for a moment. He ran back to the house dripping.
"Left that smell behind?" Neal asked sagely.
"Thank God. Industrial disinfectant seeped into my dreams." Peter toweled off and got into some dry clothes. They had real food and he had thirds it tasted so good. When they were lying in the bed with gloriously non-scratchy linens, he turned to Neal. "I meant it."
"Never make a decision on the day you get out of prison. It's how a thousand bad tattoos and ill-starred marriages come into being," Neal said gently, tracing his lover's form with his finger, over and over.
Six months later they were married on a Long Island beach. In tuxes, and barefoot in the sand. Mozzie officiated. "I'm always happy to preside over the union of two members of the criminal world," he proclaimed.
Diana was maid of honor to Peter. Gaspar was best man to Neal. There were assorted guests like Terence and June. And there was Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, taking care of the small things. "Remember, it's the details that bring down a criminal, and a marriage," she whispered to Neal. Her plus-one was a monk who did card tricks. Just a friend, she insisted.
After the wedding, Peter and Neal disappeared.
Gaspar and Mozzie declared that they didn't know where the two had gone. Gaspar was still in charge of making Neal's millions give birth to millions, however, so presumably he knew that there was money being deducted—and added—to the various accounts.
"People burn out on a town and they have to go reinvent themselves," Mozzie shrugged. "They'll be back."
Elizabeth found a box in the mail. "It may not be much, but this is how I think it all happened," said the top sheet in Peter's handwriting.
She read every page and stored the box with other little atoms that, together, meant love to her.