Neal was frustrated and bored.
It was an unfortunate combination. He knew that.
He sat alone in his apartment late that night, rotating his glare across the room, from the blank screen of the television, to an untouched canvas that waited patiently on an easel in the kitchen beside an array of oil paints, and finally to a book on the couch that he'd had on his list for a while but had not yet touched.
At the moment, none of these potential sources of entertainment elicited any feelings of interest or prospect. He felt anything but inspired or motivated. He mostly felt restless. His eyes moved from one option to the other as he let out an audible sigh.
Eventually, he got up from his seat and began to slowly pace the room, running his hands over his head, fingers coursing their way through his hair, feeling it grow unruly as the gel from hours ago was now long gone.
Despite its square footage, tonight the apartment felt like a jail cell. He felt boxed in and confined. Because that's exactly what he was. Imprisoned.
Considering this, he reflected on his day. While it had started out as fairly ordinary, it had quickly progressed into one painful, very bad, unfortunate day that he wished to not repeat.
That morning, they had finally been close to solving a particularly challenging case that was stretching into its third week, and tensions were running high even early in the day. While energy was taut, Neal also felt an excitement to know that closure was in sight, and that he would be part of another success for the FBI. Despite that, the progression of the day itself had been aggravating, as Neal kept finding himself feeling like he was constantly in the way rather than able to directly help.
Over their short period of time working together, Neal thought he'd found a good rhythm with Peter, one that usually came naturally. But that day, whatever he did, it felt like he was always underfoot. As the day progressed, he felt a lot less like a partner and more like an inconvenience.
That sentiment had started from early that morning, first after being late to a meeting because he'd run out to get coffee, which earned him a glare and a few sharp words. To his defense, the meeting had been scheduled last minute, and he hadn't known about its impromptu start until being late was unavoidable. Then as the group debriefed, he'd disagreed with Peter on the details of the motive they were assuming of the suspect, causing yet another uncomfortable glare in his direction. As the day drew on, it got worse. It just seemed like Peter was constantly correcting him or asking him to step aside. Discouraged, Neal tried to heed the instruction without taking it personally, but while doing so, he ached to be able to step up and just contribute somehow.
He knew this whole relationship with Peter stemmed from his ability to positively contribute. If he couldn't clearly show that he was the one influencing case results, then why would they have a reason to keep the arrangement? If he merely got in the way, and created more work for Peter than benefit, then wouldn't they prefer he go back to prison and be out of their hair? Peter certainly threatened it enough, and it wasn't lost on him that if he didn't show the right results consistently it could happen with little effort.
Despite the short age of their arrangement, he'd had a few good wins with Peter already in the last few months. And that felt good, especially when Peter gave him that satisfied grin and acknowledged something he'd done had been right. But he knew he had to keep that momentum steady to prove this deal made sense. If the threats to send him back outnumbered the case closures… That would mean trouble.
This was in the back of his mind as the day's friction seemed to continually escalate further. After a couple missteps during the concluding events of the case, which admittedly were perhaps due to Neal not exactly following the orders Peter had given him (though Neal's opinion was that his actions were not really a direct insubordination as Peter later accused), he then found himself precariously within range of the crossfire exchanged between the agents on the case and the suspect before the latter was swiftly apprehended and arrested.
The close call seemed to be the tipping point for Peter, and Neal had found himself dragged onto the sidelines with a forceful grip on his arm and at the receiving end of a scathing lecture from his handler, all while in the audience of a dozen or so other scattered agents, which made Neal feel humiliated and angry. He held his tongue then, just wanting the moment to pass as quickly as possible, and swallowed back his defensive response for later.
The ride back the office hadn't been any better. It only provided a still heated Peter a further platform to lecture him, and Neal continued to refrain from speaking as long as he could before inevitably responding back.
"Actually, I stepped in at the right time," he said assertively as Peter took pause to breathe between his repeated accusations of Neal being 'irresponsible, disobedient, and boneheaded.' "In fact, me stepping in is part of the reason the suspect is even in custody, Peter. Your guys didn't even see him at first."
He quickly regretted the comment.
Peter clearly didn't like that answer, and he'd gone so far as to (with squealing tires, Neal would add) pull over into an open space on the side of Queens Boulevard by a hydrant, which unnerved Neal both from the driving tactic itself (he'd crossed two lanes seemingly without thinking twice, never mind checking his mirrors) as well as the wrath in Peter's tone that followed.
"You want to repeat that to me?" Peter asked. It was a dare. His hands gripped the wheel, and Neal could see the white of his knuckles.
"You heard me," Neal responded instinctively before he could school his tongue. Perhaps bottling up his response for most of the afternoon now made it harder to refrain from defending himself. "And you know I'm right."
Then the car was put into park, gear stick jammed forward angrily, and Peter turned in his seat, sending a glare Neal's way that made the younger man's heart sink to his stomach and sent a small shiver down his spine. He knew that look. This look was usually the precursor to something Neal was not going to like. He started to feel the need for self-preservation.
"Neal," Peter began, tone low.
Neal knew what it meant when his name was spoken that way, and he wasn't just going to allow himself to be easy prey. Peter wasn't always right. Without thinking much of it, his one hand moved towards his seatbelt, swiftly unbuckling it, while his other hand went towards the door handle beside him. He'd heard enough of this repeated lecture; he could get home himself before things escalated further. "I'm done, Peter," he said.
"No," Peter said firmly, quickly reaching to lock the doors from the panel on his driver side door. "What are you doing? You are not done. No one gave you permission to leave the car. Not to mention we're in Sunnyside. Where the hell are you gonna go?"
"I can take a cab," Neal said stiffly. He stared at the door handle that had betrayed him and then futilely tried to pull it open again.
"No, you can't." Peter's tone was curt. "We're not done, Neal. Put your seatbelt back on."
Neal tried the door handle once more, as though it would give him a different answer, and then simply turned his head to give Peter a sullen look.
"Put your seatbelt back on," Peter repeated stiffly. "You get out of this car, then I get out of this car. And you're not going to like what happens."
"I'm faster than you," Neal responded with a small smile. He wanted the smile to be contagious and to bring some levity to the discussion. Maybe charming Peter out of his anger was an option. Sometimes that worked quite while.
This time it did not.
Instead, Peter shook his head in response, that slow back and forth motion that indicated he was not in the mood to be defied or to give up his anger. "I'm telling you a third time. Get your hand off the door, and put your seatbelt back on. You make me repeat it again, and—"
"Fine." Neal hastily rebuckled his seatbelt before Peter could finish the statement, smile vanishing as he felt like a chastened child. Buckled in once again, he gave Peter a pointed look, but tried to keep his expression neutral. "You've been lecturing me for an hour, Peter. And no offense, it's becoming a bit repetitive. I promise to try not to get in the middle of a shootout again. Okay? And notice I said try because it's not like I did it on purpose. So if it happens again—"
"It won't happen again because you might never be on a case again," Peter interjected irritably. "And you did it on purpose when you chose not to listen to me."
Neal's eyebrows shot up at that. Never be on a case again? If he couldn't be on cases, then how could he be useful? And if he wasn't useful… He swallowed. "Peter, that's not really fair. You'd take me off of cases? Over this?"
"Fair?" Peter repeated, raising his eyebrows. "Let's talk fair, Neal. Let's talk about what you just did back there. I specifically told you to stay back. I told you where to stand. You had no reason to do what you did. The agents had it under control. If I've gotta spend my time worrying about whether or not someone on my team is going to make a boneheaded decision when there's a shootout going on, then I don't want that person on my team."
"The shootout happened after I moved in," Neal pointed out. "When I moved in, he—"
"I don't care! I tell you to stay somewhere, then you damn well better stay there!" Peter spoke the words while jabbing a finger into Neal's shoulder. "You don't listen, then this doesn't work. I didn't get you out of prison to become my liability!"
This doesn't work, Neal repeated in his head. He considered the words. 'This' was their arrangement. "I just told you," he replied, keeping his tone sincere and patient despite feeling anything but, "that I'll try not to do it again."
"Trying isn't good enough." Peter shook his head. "You'll 'try' to listen? Dammit, Neal… Do you even realize what could have happened back there? If you were just a few feet over? If you got hit?"
"You'd probably have a lot of paperwork," Neal commented slowly. He resisted the smirk that was rising to his lips, retaining a solemn expression.
Peter abruptly hit his hand against the steering wheel in exasperation at the response, hitting the horn accidentally, and the startling sound of it made Neal jump slightly.
"Do you think this is funny?" Peter continued angrily. "Paperwork? That's your answer? If my words aren't getting through to you, Neal, I can use some other methods to make sure you understand. Should we try that instead?"
"No. I understand the words," Neal replied, squirming beneath his seatbelt. He yearned to try the door handle again but knew that thought was pointless as it would be locked. He wanted nothing more to be in a cab on his way over the 59th Street Bridge. "I was just joking, but I really do get it."
"Do you?" Peter challenged irritably. "This isn't the first time you've done something stupid like this. But it better be the last."
Neal nodded. There was no appropriate response in this situation other than to agree, truthful or not, and he realized despite the effort that light-heartedness was not going to extinguish the anger. This version of Burke was not easy to reason with and was easily incensed. "It'll be the last time," he confirmed, noting Peter was forcing him to lie. He wanted to tell Peter he didn't have a crystal ball. Deep down, he knew he'd probably mess up again. He always did. Half the time he tried to help, he later realized there was some sort of procedure or rule he was ignorantly, yet in the Agency's eye heinously, crossing. He swallowed. "I understand," he added to the lie.
"Well, I actually disagree. I don't think you understand just words," Peter told him, narrowing his eyes at him in scrutiny. "I think you grasp to the alternative, subversive meanings of words. And I don't think you get the seriousness here. And if I had time, I'd show you that. But I can't take you home because El is having the neighbors over for dinner. So you know what's going to happen now? When I drop you off at home, your radius goes to one block. Not an inch more. I mean it."
"Wait— what? One block?" Neal echoed, staring at the other man incredulously. He'd been about to attempt to have Peter let him out of the car again – offering to save him the return trip over the East River by traveling on his own – when the end of Peter's statement caught him off guard. Hearing the words, Neal's calm exterior suddenly crumbled, his unruffled façade replaced with a deeply furrowed brow. "Peter, are you serious?"
"Dead serious," Peter answered irritably, shaking his head while gripping his hands tightly on the steering wheel again. Neal considered this was maybe to force him to keep his hands to himself as he watched the grip tighten. He tried to be attentive as Peter continued. "I'm serious as hell, Neal. One block. And then tomorrow you can look forward to the stack of paperwork that will be on your desk. Paperwork is clearly all I can trust you with."
"That's not true," Neal objected, starting to brood. "And that's really not fair."
"You keep repeating that, but you have no idea what's fair," Peter responded, shaking his head.
"What I did helped the case," Neal challenged.
"What you did nearly got you killed," Peter snapped in return. "You think I have you out on this deal so I can plan a funeral on the Agency's dime? I swear to God, Neal. If you're not going to listen to me right now, there's going to be hell to pay. You're lucky I'm only changing your radius."
"One block," Neal repeated again, shaking his own head in disbelief. He glared out the windshield in front of him, staring at the traffic of the multilane road. All those people in front of him, in cars and on the street, had freedom. All those people could go wherever they wanted. He felt angry and resentful, despite the fact that this arrangement was a better deal than the alternative- the time in prison that he had earned himself. "What if my block has an emergency? What if June and I have a fire?"
"Oh, don't start. I mean it," Peter responded stiffly. "No hypotheticals. No conjecture. You say one more word, and it'll be a one block radius for the rest of the week and a much longer conversation with me."
Neal scoffed at that, huffing out a deep breath of aggravation with a few other inaudible choice words added in indiscernibly.
"Neal…" Peter warned.
Neal turned his head to respond with a glare. "I didn't say a word, Peter."
"Well, that was six words. Zip it," Peter answered rigidly. "I'm dropping you at home, and I want to hear nothing else from you on the way there. You've given me enough grief today."
With that, he shifted the car's gear back into drive, and he began to pull away from the curb, muttering to himself before turning the volume up on the radio, a clear indication to not attempt conversation again.
So Neal was quiet for the rest of the car ride, leaning his head back against his headrest at an angle to look out the window sullenly. He didn't bother to hide his discontent nor to come up with any compelling objections. The afternoon was a failure, and he might as well leave it at that. At this point, he just wanted to be home and to put an end to this very bad day. Throughout this whole case he'd wanted nothing more than to help bring the suspects to justice. He wanted a 'good job' and an indication that Peter thought having him around was worthwhile. This was the opposite of that. This was negative points. In Peter's own words, he'd offered 'grief' and not support.
When Peter dropped him off after a traffic-riddled return to June's house, the older man said nothing, simply putting the car in park once he pulled up to the curb and reaching to press the button on his driver's side door to unlock the car. Neal paused for a moment, waiting to see if there would be any final word, but Peter remained silent, not even looking at him. He stared straight ahead. Neal cast one last look at his handler's stony face, debating a forced apology or something to elicit a response, before deciding against it. He resisted the desire to ask Peter if they were good. He couldn't bring himself to ask.
So he quietly left the car without trying an attempt for reasonableness or to better terms. While he preferred not to end the day with the silent treatment, it was preferable to getting himself in further trouble by annoying the man further, risking an extended sentence, or worse, triggering Peter to follow him upstairs.
But once upstairs in the confines of his home, by himself and with the missteps of the day weighing on him heavily, as the clock ticked by, he felt trapped.
His thoughts towards Peter were conflicted and frustrating. On one hand, he felt infuriated at the confinement that had been imposed on him, and Peter's inability to understand that he couldn't just always be on the sidelines. But the other part of him now felt an emptiness, a deficit in the part of him that had been trying to gain Peter's approval the last few months. He knew that the infrequently gained approval was never unconditional, hence the need to constantly reinstate it, but ending the day with the man not even wanting to acknowledge him was rare and beyond a failure.
The irritated part of him wanted to call Peter's bluff, and to push up against the alleged one block radius. Maybe go two blocks. Or three. Or a mile. He knew the radius hadn't really changed. It's not like Peter would make a call into the Marshals on this.
It would all depend on Peter looking at the tracking data. In the car, he had referenced El was having company over. So he doubted she would permit him to be anything but social. However, even if Peter didn't actively watch him tonight, Neal was pretty sure it would be the first thing Peter reviewed in the morning. And as tempted as he was to make his point by both literally and figuratively stepping over the line, he also didn't want to deal with the repercussions of doing so. He wanted attention but that could cause the wrong kind of attention.
So he rolled his eyes in frustration, feeling constricted and undermined, as well as simply annoyed that a stupid threat was actually working on him. Wasn't he beyond this level of control? He was accustomed during certain periods of his life to feel his freedom be curtailed, even as an adult, such as while in prison. Now on the outside, even in this arrangement, he felt he should have some sense of independence within his real radius. It irked him that Peter was holding this invisible power over him. But he simply stewed over it, knowing that, invisible or not, the control was there.
He glowered over this for half of the evening. It wasn't even that he had somewhere to be. He didn't. It was the whole concept of it.
He considered inviting Mozzie over. But that would lead to him complaining to his friend about the situation, and Mozzie likely convincing him to cross that line after enough wine. While Mozzie was more than supportive of Neal standing up for himself to the Suits, Mozzie wouldn't be the one to have to deal with the consequences.
Then, in thinking of his friend, an idea for an activity to take his mind off things suddenly struck him. The day prior, Mozzie had told him a story about a bank robbery gone awry, with two robbers caught on the rooftop, unable to escape.
"Always be prepared," had been Mozzie's teaching words. "What would you do in that situation?"
Neal agreed and admitted he wasn't sure what he'd do and had to think about it. There had to be a way out from every situation.
"Preparation requires multiple options. Outside of the box options," Mozzie had continued, before they evolved into a hypothetical conversation on how they would maneuver themselves in such a situation. Neal had to say he was impressed with their creativity during the discussion.
And so that evening, after enduring a couple hours of boredom and self-deprecating thoughts and anger at Peter and his stupid rules, he found himself not just out on the patio of the beautiful home of June's, but also exploring its escape methods. After all, Mozzie was right. One never knew when it might be required to find an alternative option for escape. Even at home. Like he knew too well, homes could be temporary.
To his delight, there appeared to be many points of exit from his patio, and he made it his night's conquest to adequately assess them all, considering their advantages against their disadvantages. This activity was a much better distraction than painting or television. Or dwelling on the day.
Neal was no stranger to unique exits. He had, to Peter's chagrin, frequently used unconventional ways to enter and exit premises, locked or otherwise. He'd been perfecting that skill for years with the same enthusiasm he perfected his forging and sleight of hand skills and exercised the ability when needed.
In his exploration of June's, he now also found himself appreciating the skill of climbing. With surprising ease, he was soon slowly scaling parts of the building, considering alternative ways to make it to the ground if that were ever needed. The ornate building's architecture surprisingly offered him a variety of possibilities. He tried to stay away from the windows to avoid catching June's attention (the last thing he wanted to do was explain this endeavor) and felt pleased with himself at his agility. There was a small sense of excitement as he climbed, a welcomed feeling versus the sentiment of the earlier part of the day, and he breathed in the cool evening air, testing out his ability to get down or across the building with more speed.
He was just thinking about whether or not a neighbor might see him, dressed completely in dark clothing and suspiciously hanging off of the side of the opulent home, and hoped it was late enough to not attract anyone's attention, when he suddenly misjudged his distance from the thin ledge that bordered the start of the second floor. As he felt his grip slipping, he tried in vain to readjust and get himself another hold or footing. He failed.
As he fell, it seemed like the descent took place in slow motion, but at the same time it happened in a flash. He futilely reached towards a distant tree branch as though he could somehow grab it and swing to another landing. His fingers didn't even get close enough to brush against it.
He landed with a thud on the ground after the approximately ten-foot free fall, first landing awkwardly on his ankle and then collapsing to the ground on all fours. He groaned when his hands and knees hit the concrete below, unable to brace his fall.
He was in shock at first. He stayed in place on the ground, heart beating in his chest as he took a few deep breaths.
Then reality hit him.
"Dammit," he cursed out loud as he started to pull himself into a sitting position. He brushed the dirt and dust off his hands and started to do the same to his legs.
The first thing he noticed as he drew his knees up to sit was the pain in his ankle. It was throbbing with a sharp and persistent ache. He hissed in discomfort as he reached down to touch it. It was the same ankle he wore the anklet on, so it was hard to actually touch the joint directly. He moved it slowly, right and left, then up and down. While it ached, he was hopeful it was a temporary pain and wasn't seriously injured.
He then tried to quickly take inventory of the rest of his body. His hands were slightly scraped up and his knees felt similar, though a cursory look indicated he hadn't torn any clothing. After a moment, during which his heartbeat also came back to a normal pace, he considered that despite the aches and shock of the impact, he was likely okay, which was a relief.
The freedom and whimsy he'd felt moments before had vanished, now replaced with physical pain and a mix of emotions ranging from shame, regret, and irritation.
As he climbed to his feet, he winced. Clearly putting his full weight on his ankle was not a good idea at the moment. He frowned down at his foot in annoyance, as though it had failed him.
Then he stood there for a minute and gaped up at the wall from which he'd fallen. He eyed the distance between the lower part of the second floor and the ground, swallowing back a lump in his throat.
He then realized a critical fact. He had neither his phone nor keys.
"Dammit," he repeated, rubbing a tired and sore hand across his face. The earlier feeling of freedom was long gone. He suddenly felt stupid.
There were two options now. Option one: he could go through the front door, which required disturbing June to let him in, which then also required fabricating something about what had happened and why he was outside. Then there was option two: he could return the way he had gotten here.
He glared up at the building. A minute ago he'd felt not a care in the world.
Now he once again hated Peter's rules. That's what had gotten him in this situation to begin with. If he hadn't been forced to a one-block radius, and hadn't been required to think of an alternative way of distracting himself, then this never would've happened.
Reviewing his slightly scraped up hands, Neal let out a resolved sigh. He'd made up his mind. It was time to return the same way he had gotten here. For better or for worse.