"Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love entrusts me here, ever this day [night] be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen"
Prayer to The Guardian Angel
Don't you want me?" she asked.
Neal knew his answer would disappoint her, but he couldn't manage to say a thing. Instead, he drew her body closer to him; slipping his hand around her waist, a gesture now born more of affection than desire. As she lay next to him, her breathing slowed and its steady rhythm calmed his anxiety. Nothing was making sense. Alex was more beautiful than ever, her hard edges softened by need and concern. This, after all, was what he had wanted; to disappear into her body, to lose himself if only momentarily. He lifted himself over her. As he looked down into her face, it suddenly became a darkened blur. Out of the blackness, a small pool of crimson formed under her head. Horrified, he watched as it grew, spreading. It was blood, thick and sickeningly sweet, threatening to engulf them. Choking for breath, he stumbled to his feet. His nightmares had turned to waking dreams, and anxiety turned to terror. Was he going mad, he'd crossed some threshold without knowing it? He felt faint, his body heavy and exhausted from too many nights without sleep, when he collapsed onto a nearby chair. Gradually through distracted senses, Alex's startled face mercifully came into focus. She had her hands on his shoulders.
"Neal, are you okay?"
He was hunched forward, shivering. He could not stop, even though she hugged him and tried warming him, whispering words of comfort.
He couldn't remember when the rain stopped. Drenched, he tugged at the tweed coat hanging limply from his frame, his body tense and shuddering in the cold. Claps of thunder sounded in the distance. All that remained of the storm was the occasional lightening strike turning the black night sky into day. Alex's voice low and plaintive played over and over in his head.
He had no idea what time it was, nor how far he had walked. It was far enough to temporarily wipe away the pictures in his head. Time was racing earlier, but now seemed curiously still. He didn't recognize his city and it didn't recognize him. He tried convincing himself he wasn't really lost. However the old cons had lost their appeal. A cardinal rule of the con, always know your terrain; but old latitudes had become greyer and greyer lately.
He felt his balance return slightly, breathing was easier and reason seemed within reach. He recognized the outlines of the building up ahead, St. Alphonsus Church, where he and Peter first confronted the Dutchman. Peter would have a field day with his anklet recordings tonight, if only he knew. At first he had hated the device and the deal he bartered with Peter. Then he grew to depend on it, now he needed it. He needed something to tether him, someone to know he existed. His faith in everything else in doubt, he lingered outside the old church wall for a moment.
"Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God's love commits me here."
The long forgotten childhood prayer unexpectedly tumbled from his lips, as tears squeezed through closed lids.
His thoughts drifted to how much easier it had been after Kate's death. Concentrating on the pain of others had made his own grief tolerable; it distanced him from his own tragedy. Peter's pain and Moz's pity... there was something seductive in being pitied. He'd returned to work straight away; sorting cases, detailing, cataloguing, referencing. Misdirection, distraction, the ability to intuit another was a gift. It served him well in his line of work. When that laser like focus hit its mark, it was totally disarming. He felt in control, safe and protected. And to all the world, it looked as if the old Neal Caffrey was back to business as usual. This time the con had worked. As he made his way across town to June's, the rows of neatly kept brownstones were oddly familiar. It was inevitable he would find himself outside Peter's door this night.
He waited outside wringing his hands, and remembered himself as a boy. Even then he was self sufficient. Moving around so often while growing up, taught him to deal with loneliness and the isolation of an incoherent childhood. It was then he learned to conceal, pretending to belong, while secretly feeling so alone. He always imagined roots, and the unquestioned connectedness of belonging. In his dreams the Burke house becomes his house; they eat meals together, tell jokes together, travel in the country, drink fine wines and visit friends. He and Kate would have what Peter and Elizabeth shared, abandoning the illusory charms of freedom and splendid opportunities. No more secrets and lies, they would find trust. He would save them both.
But happy endings aren't for guys like us, Mozzie had warned him.
The words hung heavy in the cold night air. Instead of beautiful salvation, his last image of Kate was filled with horror and he had led her to that place. The thought was unbearable. He felt sadness so overwhelming he could barely climb the stairs.
After what seemed like eternity, Peter came to the door.
"You look like hell," Peter said with alarm, studying the dark circles under Neal's eyes.
"Thanks, and here I thought I was your friend," he said trying to force a smile.
"I am, and you still look like hell." A gust of icy wind blew through the open door; Peter gingerly moved aside to let Neal in. "You want to tell me what's going on?"
"I can't sleep. I keep having these nightmares."
Peter gently took the wet coat from the younger man.
"First things first. Before you get pneumonia; there are dry clothes in the guest room, second drawer on the right. I'll put on a pot of coffee."
Neal looked at him quizzically and mouthed "Can't sleep."
"Oh that's right. Coffee, not such a good idea; huh. I'll think of something."
It tugged at his heart to see Neal still in such pain; he hadn't known just how much he had come to care for him. As he puttered about the kitchen, Peter couldn't remember when duty and responsibility turned to friendship. The competitiveness and wary allegiance had long given way to mutual respect. He was a shrewd observer of the human condition and other people's frailties. He spent three years of his life finding this kid, studying him, detailing, cataloging, referencing. It was a heady experience coming to know the young con man as he did. The freedom and abandon to live unfettered, without judgment that was Neal Caffrey; both intoxicated and scared him all at once. He hadn't understood the grief he felt when the chase was over, until now.
He liked smart, but Neal was a different smart. He admired how Neal saw the world as opposed to almost everyone else, the lightening wit, his uncontrolled imagination, the silly flights of fancy and improbable schemes that leaked out of him at every turn. Hell, he preferred Neal's delusions to other people's reality. But much more than that, with Neal he could become part of another country with its own customs and culture. He was welcomed there, taken in completely, seduced; no passport was ever necessary. He never felt like a tourist, they were limited only by their audacity and inventiveness. He had rediscovered the usefulness of beauty and the charms of vice. He had found Neal and to his great surprise Neal had found him.
Peter placed the kettle on the stove. When he returned from the kitchen, he found Neal sitting, fidgeting on the couch. Neal tried to disguise the shaking of his hands by pressing them against the table in front of him. Peter was struck by how young he looked in his worn out sweats. He took a seat across from him.
"So, tell me about these dreams," he said.
"Not much to tell. It's my death or my bringing death to someone else."
"Neal, it's not all that uncommon to have nightmares following a traumatic experience. You might want to reconsider the Bureau counselor."
"That's the thing, Peter. I started having the nightmares before Kate died, the night I decided to steal the music box actually." He drew in a deep breath. "You warned me that, Fowler wasn't going to let us just walk away. I had to know the danger she was in. My dreams were keeping me honest and accountable, even then. I'm responsible, I got Kate killed. "
"Look Neal" he said evenly, "I know it's tempting to blame yourself. But let's remember who the bad guys are here. A moment sooner and you would have been on that plane too. You didn't kill Kate."
"I know…. I know I didn't plant the explosives or rig the remote. But I was the reason she was on that plane. If she thought she could work an angle with Fowler, maneuver them somehow; I taught her that. In the Caffrey playbook, no one was beyond conning. I asked her to trust me, but how could she when everything about us was based in lies? "
"Kate was like quicksilver, she was smart and she was special. But for a girl like her to get by, she needed someone to rely on, to show her the ropes. Kate knew what she was getting into. She was a willing apprentice Neal, as complicit in any deception as you. She knew Fowler and the people behind him would stop at nothing to get that box back. We all have choices, Neal. Kate chose."
"Did she, really? I don't know anymore. The people behind Fowler wanted to remain in the shadows. Everyone thought I had the music box, even Moz thought I had stolen it. When they found I didn't have it; they knew I would steal it with the right incentive, with Kate as bait dangled in front of me. I steal the box, Kate and I go up in flames. End of story. Everyone else who wanted it thinks the box is history. Fowler and company walk away with it and get Kate and me out of the picture."
"You and Kate were their front men."
"Exactly… a con I could run in my sleep, a con I could see a mile away, but I walked in with both eyes wide open."
He had been on the run most of his life, city to city, con to con. He had a string of aliases as long as his itineraries. It was getting to where he couldn't remember them all. He collected pasts like other people collected clothes, reinventing himself was a full time occupation.
"I thought if I invented all these pasts, I could outrun the only one that mattered. But Kate didn't know about all my pasts. I convinced her that every time I landed in trouble, I could extricate myself, no matter the disaster and reinvent myself. But you can't change your past, any more than you can change your name. You can't try on the truth like a fancy suit. I convinced myself that I could outrun the demons that took me to the brink of self destruction time and time again, and time and time again I failed. But you already knew that about me Peter. Kate didn't know this. She was collateral damage of the one past I could never escape and I don't know how to live with that."
He wanted to cry out with loss but couldn't, for it was a loss he thought he didn't deserve to feel. The kettle whistle pierced the uneasy silence, and Peter was grateful for the interruption. There was something in Neal's' eyes, a darker untouchable place that frightened him. He knew no simple cowboy up pep talk would work tonight. Hell, he didn't know if the entire cavalry could help.
One and a half ounces of whiskey, one ounce of honey, one third lemon juice and three ounces hot water. It was the only drink recipe of Ell's he could remember, guaranteed to take off any chill; and he felt chilled to the bone. If all else fails, whiskey was always a reliable stand by to drown one's sorrows. He wished Elizabeth was there, she always knew the right thing to say at times like these. He believed women were better at managing their grief than men, in most men the faculty was undeveloped. Men managed their pain differently, like some foreign object had taken up residence in their bodies. For women pain was more organic, familiar terrain. When his father died, Ell had dissipated a grief in him so overwhelming in force, the vector threatened to tear him apart. He wished a similar moment of charity for his friend. He brought out the mugs and sat them on the table separating the two men.
The warmth of the clay mug stilled Neal's unsteady hands, as the whiskey worked its salutary effects. As he looked across at Peter, his face was so sincere. He seemed constitutionally incapable of dishonesty. Neal knew from the concentration in his eyes, that he was searching for a way to help him. Peter had no idea how much he admired him and how he longed for his approval. It was Peter, who had offered him a chance to become the man he believed he had the potential of being; to live a life with grace and honesty… an ordinary life made extraordinary by commitment and belonging. He feared he was unequal to the task, but he knew there was no turning back; he was on a collision course with the truth.
"At the plane that day, you asked me if you had changed my mind and I never answered you."
"I remember, said Peter. I figured you had your reasons and you'd tell me when you were ready." He leaned forward and said softly, "Something tells me you're ready."
Neal fought to hold his voice steady. He was bracing himself against a flood of emotion; it was if a current had been switched on. Part of his brain resisted and was reluctant to give in, yet another part thought it best not to have his heart fight off the pain anymore, to feel so tired … exhausted. He was tired of the deception, tired of deceiving others and most of all tired of deceiving himself.
"I wanted to say yes... I wanted to stay."
Struggling to continue, he remembered the night Peter said he had made a difference and that he had a choice. In that moment, he imagined a different life for himself; leaving behind being rootless and untied. But did Kate have the capacity for the life he imagined? Could she see her life as he did? He thought she loved him, he thought he felt love. In the end it didn't matter, because he knew he loved her and maybe that was enough. He owed her that much.
"You changed my mind, Peter. I couldn't say goodbye to you, because... you're the only one I couldn't lie to." Tears began to well in his eyes as he thought back to that day, and how in that moment his past life was no longer an option for him, running was no longer an option.
"You changed me. You did... and I wanted that for Kate too, for us."
His head ached and his heart pounded. He could barely hold onto the mug, that a moment earlier had provided him a measure of comfort. Trembling, he placed it on the table. He felt as if he were falling.
"I felt my love would be enough to save us," he said choking back his tears. "I was going to tell Kate, we didn't have to run anymore. But I never got the chance... and now she'll never know."
There was such pain in this thought, such hurt he scarcely heard himself begin to cry. Tears streamed down his face and into his hands like drops of rain hitting the bottom of some long buried well.
"She knew, Neal."
Peter's voice was sure and steady. The sound of Neal's crying was oddly calming. His heart had been racing earlier, uncertain if he could help Neal through this. If it were possible to take on his pain, he would have willingly accepted it. He knew from his experience that Neal had to give in to his grief to move on and this was a start. It was his job to help Neal complete what he had began, failing was not an option. He wanted his friend back, selflessness and selfishness had become one for him.
"You want proof of love; I can't give you that. But what I can tell you is that you were there for Kate. God knows I am no expert, but it seems to me the key to love is being worthy of it, taking responsibility, showing up. You showed up for Kate. I was there on that tarmac."
"I can't stop thinking about her," he almost shouted oblivious to Peter's reassurance.
For the moment it was too difficult to go on, he pressed his hands to his temples, in some vain attempt to physically contain the images in his head. Her death was real and not real to him. At times she is still somewhere, breathing, dancing, permanent... waiting for him. Then the reality of the blast settles in, seizing his brain with horrifying sounds of Kate screaming in pain; every good memory always vanishing in a flash of flames. Kate was like some phantom limb, a muscle memory locked in his mind, his brain continued flexing long after it no longer existed. If only he could sever the connection that continued to torment him.
He sat almost trance like, eyes unfixed as if focused on some inward location. His voice was calmer now. "No matter how hard I try, I can't make it stop. I am tired of being afraid, of living like this. Maybe I should have died with her."
"Neal, look at me," Peter said with a sense of urgency. He knew if he could help him conquer this pain, face it, he would be a free man. When he spoke his voice was firm and patient. "You lived and Kate didn't. You were stronger than her, you could see what she couldn't and you feel guilty for surviving...for living. You couldn't save Kate, but you can save yourself."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because, I know you," Peter said leaning forward across the table.
"What if I am not the man you think I am? Responsibility, roots, an ordinary life; what if this is all a con, a lie? It's what I do Peter, it's who I am."
"Bullshit, Neal. You said I am the only one you couldn't lie to. Then don't start now."
"That's not fair."
Neal wanted to protest more vigorously, but he knew Peter was speaking a painful truth.
"This isn't about fairness, you got a raw deal. It was horrible what happened to Kate, but life's not fair. You know that better than most. It doesn't matter if you lie to me, stop lying to yourself. I am sorry Neal, but this is about more than Kate."
"You don't understand. …You don't know how hard it is not to run. Every day I struggle to stay," he felt the accelerated beating of his heart.
"You are right, I don't know, so tell me. What has you so afraid?"
"What if there is some darkness in me? Something in me I don't understand, something I can't control."
"Then, you have to fight it. If you don't, you'll never be free. You've already shown the courage to change, just by being here tonight. "
"What did you mean when you told me I had a choice?"
"You have to see the choice, not be driven by something you don't understand. I don't know what's blocking you; it's not for me to say."
"How do you fight something, you don't understand?"
"I think you already know the answer to that. Life goes on Neal. You're not in this alone. You don't have to fight this alone. There are people who care about you, love you Neal. I think you know that."
Neal got up and walked to the window.
"I know, Peter. I don't want to let them down. I want to … I need to try." Peering out at the night sky, he saw with perfect clarity. He had survived, he had come through.
The rain had stopped and a luminous moon hung low over the New York City sky line. Every color was intensified; it shone like a jeweled box against the brilliant night sky. For a moment, Neal was lost in the beauty of it. He turned to Peter, "You should really see this."
Peter stood and joined him at the window. The city always seemed so beautiful to him after a rain storm. They stood shoulder to shoulder for some time gazing out into the night. They had reached a place where speaking was irrelevant. As the night began to fade, Peter was the first to break the silence.
"You should get some sleep and I had better clean up."
"Just one more thing, Peter. Did you mean it when you said that about me lying to you if I want?"
Peter tried to stifle a grin as he turned from Neal. It was the first time he had seen that wide and wonderful smile of his in quite some time. He picked up the drinks and headed back to the kitchen, filled with a mixture of hope and relief. As he cleared away the dishes, his thoughts drifted to Ell and what a lucky man he was, lucky beyond imagination to have the people he cared most about safe and protected under his roof tonight. When he returned, he found Neal quietly sleeping. He stood and watched him for a time, his breathing deep and rhythmical. He placed a blanket over his friend and finally made his way up the stairs to his and Ell's bedroom. He tried not to wake her as he climbed into bed.
"How's Neal doing?" she asked turning into his arms.
"Sleeping like a baby," he said pulling her in close.