Neal walked to the far side of the room and immediately slumped onto the plush sofa, exhausted.
Peter closed the door and looked at Caffrey. It was disturbing. He seemed drawn, tired, and shaken. "Jesus, Neal, what the hell happened back there?"
Neal directed a glare up at Peter, who still stood above him, then relented with a sigh and bent over to rest his elbows on his knees and rub his face in his hands. Peter sat on the couch next to him, leaned his forearms on his thighs, and waited, large hands folded patiently at his knees.
After a while, Neal straightened himself, leaning back with his head away so Peter couldn't see him. He sniffed, then blew out a puff of air and faced Burke. Peter was a little surprised with his own reaction. Tears made him uncomfortable, and a man in tears was downright unnerving. But instead of wanting to back slowly toward the nearest exit, all Peter wanted to do was stay by his friend's side and... do something—anything—to help.
Not that Neal was actively crying. But it was clearly what he had been doing before allowing Peter this unobstructed view.
"I can do this," Neal said. "I know I can. I just didn't think it would be so... so..." He waved a hand in the air.
"Familiar?" Peter suggested.
Neal responded with a breathy laugh and tilted his head back to loll against the wall. "You have no idea." He swallowed and closed his eyes. The room was silent for a little while, the muffled echo of a page occasionally filtering through the walls. "I don't want her to die, Peter."
He wanted to reassure Neal that everything was going to be fine. They'd already rescued her. She was safe, right? But Peter felt somehow that this wasn't the time for him to talk. It was time to listen.
Caffrey drew in a deep breath and said, "She's about the same age, you know."
"I know," Peter said.
The young man shook his head. He opened his eyes and looked sideways at Peter, head still resting against the wall. "No." His voice was gentle, as though explaining something to a child. "The same age as my mother. When she died."
Peter's heart seized and his mind raced. He reeled from the completely different direction this was taking from what he had expected. Oh, God. Complicated didn't even begin to cover it. Jesus, Neal wasn't just reliving his captivity, wasn't just reminded of the torture he'd hinted at experiencing, but he was apparently—what was the word?—PROJECTING all those feelings surrounding the loss of his mother onto their victim. Was there a Goddamn kitchen sink to throw into this emotional mess?
He wanted to say or do something to fix this, to make it... better. But "How?" was all Peter could manage.
Neal turned his eyes forward again. "She was sick," he murmured. "That happened sometimes. She'd have trouble breathing. That time... I think it was pneumonia. But I don't know. She just... didn't wake up." His eyes were unfocused and sad and he closed them again for a moment. "I thought..." he swallowed again, moderating his voice to keep it even. "I thought that... that she must have wanted to go. That she wouldn't have... wouldn't have died if she wasn't ready."
"How old were you?"
The reply was so soft, Peter could barely hear it. "Fourteen."
Oh, God. Jesus fucking Christ. Burke couldn't help but picture Neal Caffrey as a lost, lonely, teenage kid adrift in a big city. Was he small for his age? Almost certainly mature beyond his years. He probably had that Caffrey confidence, even back then. He would have had to, or he never would have made it. He had probably been very, very pretty. And pretty adolescent boys living on the street... it made Peter shudder and look away.
"Where did you go?"
"Wherever I wanted. New York."
New York City. In the early '90s. Just as the police had begun to crack down, but while crime was still at its height. And Neal must have been caught right in the middle, between the police sweeps and the still-prevalent thugs, drug dealers, and sex traffickers.
Peter pivoted where he sat so one leg had to cross in front of him. He draped an arm on the back of the sofa and examined the con man. Neal was open and without artifice, much like he had been that second time Peter had caught him. But even this transparency was deceiving, like looking in the inviting, clear waters of a river that flowed pitilessly fast, ready to seize anything in its path and drag it under the calm surface. Waiting to hold you under until you stopped struggling.
"She has The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock memorized," Neal said.
"Part of it, at least. We were reciting it together. Earlier."
Burke began to catch up. "The poem by T.S. Eliot?"
"Yeah. She went on autopilot. It was strange. Like watching myself."
Neal brought his knees up to his chin, his feet resting on the edge of the couch. He linked his hands in front of his ankles and turned his head to face Peter. It was an odd and contorted position that left Caffrey's knee digging into his cheek as his gaze alternated between Peter's curious, concerned, confused visage and the fake plant behind him.
"I think there are some things I have to tell you." Neal's voice was emotionless but not cold. "But I need something from you, first."
"Like what?" Burke began to calculate all the ways this could go wrong.
"I need you to stop being an FBI agent. Just for a little while." Neal's lips felt dry. He really didn't know what Peter's answer was going to be. This was a gamble. "Don't... don't pursue what I tell you. Don't investigate."
Peter hesitated. He wanted to agree, wanted to say whatever Neal needed to hear. But this was too important and too intimate to lie about and he didn't know if he would be able to hold himself back. Not without knowing beforehand exactly what it was he was agreeing to.
Caffrey read the reluctance like an open book. "This is my life, Peter. It's not a case." He watched his partner struggle with the question. Perhaps this was a mistake, after all. Neal turned his face forward again and examined the pull of the threads in the fabric over his kneecaps. If he kept stretching it out like this, the slacks would become unsalvageable. He put his feet back on the ground and ran his fingers over the drape of the pants, smoothing the material. And waited.
"What if I can't, Neal?" Peter finally spoke. "I don't know what you're going to tell me. I need you to trust me, but I can't promise something if I don't know... if I don't know what I'm getting into. I know that sounds really one-sided—it IS one-sided. But I'm responsible for you. And I've already... I've already blown it so many times by taking you at your word. Maybe you don't mean to lie to me. I'm pretty sure you don't mean to get me into trouble. But until you trust me enough to let me in, to let me help you without strings attached, without hidden agendas and secret back-up plans... I just can't be the only one to invest trust in this relationship. Because I keep getting burned." He grimaced. "I sound like I've been watching daytime talk shows, don't I?"
"A little," Neal smiled at Peter before staring down at his own shoes.
"Look," Burke said seriously, "I want you to tell me what's going on with you. And I think it would be good for you. But don't ask me to do something I can't deliver. Just trust me that I'm not going to do anything that's going to hurt you. I'm not out to get you, Neal. You don't have to keep running."
Neal ran a hand through his hair and sat back, resting his elbow on the arm of the sofa and his chin on his palm. He considered this. He wanted freedom. True freedom. And he understood now that it could only happen when he was willing to let go of some of his control and some of his safety. But something still bothered him.
"That's fair," Caffrey nodded slowly. "Tell you what—you tell me what you already know. Or think you know. I can fill in some of the rest."
Peter winced. He detected no bitterness in Caffrey's voice, but that didn't mean anything. He'd overplayed his hand and Neal had called him on it. Neither man was a paragon of openness, and they both knew it. Still, it was a start.
"From what I can gather, you were connected to organized crime in Baltimore in your late teens," Peter began. "I can't find any indication you were involved in their more violent activities, but I think you did some forgeries, maybe fraud and money laundering, possibly some heists."
"What makes you think that?" Neal asked.
"I found a portrait you painted of your old boss. You signed it."
Neal's eyes lit with a memory. "Whoever did that—they were naive. And grateful."
"I'm not admitting to knowing any of these people you say I was 'connected to,'" Neal clarified, "But I will say that the man who... who held me, was... disposed of by some people he double-crossed. And those people searched his house for some items they felt they were owed and came across me. They weren't supposed to leave witnesses, but they thought I might... be able to answer some questions they hadn't had the opportunity to ask."
"And did you?"
"I knew nothing. I was a toy, not a confidant." Neal shut his mouth suddenly. He didn't want to go there yet. If he got there at all, it would have to be more gradually than this, so the fear and anger that had already begun to rise didn't overwhelm him and rob him of control. "But there was someone in the... organization which employed my 'rescuers' who... well, I guess he took pity on me. I don't know. He never talked about it much."
Peter nodded. "Is that where you learned to use a gun?"
Neal laughed and shook his head, but it was a discordant sound. "No. That was a gift from an old boyfriend of Mom's. Former soldier. He used to take me out target shooting with his buddies. Taught me to strip and reassemble a whole arsenal of weapons. I thought it was fun. And he really liked me."
Peter frowned. "So what happened? They broke up? How come you didn't go to him after... you were on your own?"
"He...," Neal's jaw tensed and twitched. Burke could've sworn Caffrey's lower lip was quivering, but maybe that was the flickering of the florescent lighting. "He wasn't around anymore. By then."
"So he just took off, and you never..." Peter couldn't finish his sentence. Neal had hit him with a pained stare that took the older man's breath away as an appalling realization dawned. "You don't like guns," he said simply, as though it explained everything. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, shaking it slightly before drawing his hand over his face and looking away. "Jesus."
Peter focused back on Neal, who avoided his gaze. "He shot himself?" Caffrey nodded. "I'm so sorry, Neal." Burke opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came. Because nothing he said would change anything. It seemed like the kid's life had been one disaster after another, filled with people who left him or used him. And Peter felt a little uneasy because, after all, wasn't he just one more user? Sure, he'd never openly called Neal a tool in his belt like Agent Rice had, but the thought had been there and the intent was the same. Wasn't it?
No. No, it was different with the two of them. Sure, Peter would never have helped Neal get the limited freedom he now enjoyed if the young convict hadn't had skills which allowed the New York White Collar Division to attain and maintain the significantly higher close rates than other offices achieved, but hadn't he also been moved by the prospect of guiding this prodigal son back into the folds of law-abiding society? A society which, Peter now realized, Neal had probably never really been a part of to begin with.
He thought he knew what El would say. She would tell her husband that he was a good man who had acted according to his best instincts. Unless she chided him that of course he had seized upon Neal's usefulness, but that didn't make him like all those other people because Peter was genuinely helping him and honestly cared about Neal's welfare. Neither of those was entirely satisfying, though. Peter wasn't a saint and he knew it. And if he had a weakness it was probably his at times over-zealous dedication to the ideals that had led him to join the FBI instead of take on a more lucrative profession.
But how much did any of that really matter now? At this moment, Neal was his friend and partner. He was in pain and needed comfort. Comfort might not be Peter's forte, but he would damn well make a go of it, however awkward it might feel. Because they hadn't even discussed the specifics of Neal's captivity yet, nor exactly what happened between his mother's death and his confinement. Which meant the story was bound to get a lot worse before it got better.