The Journey 3/3:

Summary: Peter and El are doing all they can to help Neal, but nothing's working and time is running out...

"Is he any better?"

"I can't tell. He's still not talking much. He's just sitting there watching T.V."

"That's bad?"

"He's watching 'Cops', Peter." El clarified, her exasperation leaking through the fa ade of calm she'd been trying to maintain for the last two weeks. "As of... five minutes ago, he 's on his second hour of a four hour marathon. You have to do something."

"Such as? I've tried everything, honey. He's not giving it up any time soon."

"You have one option left and you know it. You just refuse."

"El, c'mon..."

"Compassion failed, waiting him out failed... go in there and piss him off, Peter. It's the only way."

"You can't tell he's already there? I push him much harder and he's going one of two ways. Either he'll break through, break down and end up ready to go back to work..."

"... or he'll never forgive you. This doesn't make sense. Why is he suddenly so angry? It's only been the last four days..."

"No clue. He's gone back to not talking, remember? At least not to me. I don't know what to do."

"Neither do I, but we *have* to keep trying. The timetable Hughes gave you is almost up. We have less than a week. If we can't reach Neal in six more days, he goes back to prison. I know how much it's going to hurt, but you have to get through to him before then. I'm not losing that boy. I'm not."

"He's no boy, trust me. Plus... hurt? That's not even close..."

El reached out and pulled his head around so that their eyes met.

"I understand."

"What? No... no, hon, I swear..."

"It's alright, Peter. Whatever he is to you now, whatever you want him to be... we can talk about it later. First you have to make sure there *is* a later. You have to help him put his head back on straight."

"El... for God's sake... how can you be so calm and-and..."

"I said I'm not losing Neal. If that means eventually I'll end up sharing you more than I do now... I can roll with that." she assured him, placing a soft kiss on his mouth. "Now go. Get in there and save him again."

Peter stared at her, his expression twisting slightly in silent protest, but a few moments later he surrendered. Returning her brief, gentle kiss, he turned, drew and expelled a slow deep breath and strode forward. The words he had to speak stuck in his throat at first and ripped him apart inside, but he knew they were closing in on the end of their leeway, and eleventh hour moments called for eleventh hour tactics.

Steeling himself, Peter stepped between Neal and the television and popped the power button with the flat of one hand, darkening the screen and abruptly shifting the room into silence. Under normal circumstances, Neal would have loudly protested, but the moments and hours they were all currently struggling through were far from average. Neal sat forward, but merely gazed at Peter without speaking, his misery and fury striking the agent in almost tangible waves. After a moment, he rose slowly to his feet and began to walk away, only to find Peter standing in his path.

"Don't..." the younger man tried, the word just barely audible.

"Don't what? Hmmm? Don't try to keep you here, where you belong? Don't push, don't butt in, don't give a damn? No dice, pal. I'm done with coddling your sorry, self-indulgent ass. The pity-party is officially over, Caffrey. We have six days before they toss you back in that hell-hole of a prison for two and a half more years. Six days to turn this around, get you back on track and back to your job. I refuse to let you waste that time as a lump on the sofa, brooding over why you weren't smart enough, strong enough or fast enough to save Kate. We clear? No more."

"You think that's... I can't believe you..." Neal spat, whirling on his heel and moving away from Peter.

"What am I supposed to think? You were... we were *all* doing really well. Then you start avoiding me like the plague, acting like you wish I'd never been born. Damn it, tell me what I did so I can fix it."

"Nothing."

"Oh, really? I can hear the rage you're holding back... I can see it in the way you're shaking."

"God... I can't do this with you, Peter. You see too clearly, you know me too well... and you care too much. Any other day, any other situation, that last one would be... it *has* been an amazing thing and it's healed a lot of wounds... some I didn't even know I had. This time it's just..."

"Okay. So what can I do? How do I help... without helping?"

"Call Lauren."

"Cruz?"

"She's what I need."

"Why?"

"Peter..."

"Got it. No questions. I'll go... give her a call."

"Thanks for doing this." Neal offered, his voice still a bit creaky, despite his earlier confrontation with Peter. Grinning ruefully, he sipped at a bottle of water before continuing. "I'm sure they had to twist something to get you to say yes."

"You kidding? No way. I was just thrilled you finally decided to talk to *some*body. I don't understand why it's me... but I'm not complaining."

"Peter's too close. El and June wanna mother me. Moz... most of the time he doesn't know what to do, so he stares and does a great imitation of a carp then runs away. You... you're neutral. Sort of."

"Jones?"

"No. He was here during... let's just say it was a bad scene and leave it at that. You're it, Lauren."

"Peter said I'm allowed to pass on information. To tell him what you tell me."

"Yeah. If being my intermediary isn't something you..."

"No. I can absolutely handle it. So? Spill the beans all over me."

"Like it's that easy... " he retorted, beginning to pace. "Look, we both know what I am. Not exactly a secret, right? A genuine good guy isn't anywhere on the list, but in Kate's eyes..."

"Hey, you are good. You've got an incredible heart. Peter knows."

"I'd be more sure if he'd show that faith more than once a month Sometimes, I swear... you all think I wanted nothing more than to get back in the game, that I couldn't resist. That's not *true*, damn it. It was about her. It sounds nuts, I know... but there were times, when I did something really *right*... when I was on and I could talk a mark out of damn near *any*thing... that Kate looked at me like I was Superman. I can hear you thinking it. Keep it to yourself, okay?"

"I just told you, I know how big a heart you have. If anybody found out I was the one who stomped on it, my name would be mud in the office for at least a year. On my honor, my lips are sealed. Might do you some good to say it, though."

Neal huffed and grinned tightly for a moment over her not so subtle hint before he conceded.

"Okay... I was Kate's masterpiece con. I wanted so *bad* to believe, even though deep down... I knew it was nothing but another lie. When she said she'd been kidnapped and needed my help... the hope that always sucked my brain dry was right there again and I chased it. For once... just for once, I wanted her to look at me like a hero and have it be real. She always felt like we were meant to be together forever... told me once it was that or go out like Butch and Sundance. I fell for that, too. The only options I could see out at the airport were save her... or be with her."

"And Peter stopped you. That's what all the anger is about."

"Pretty much. I don't think I can ever forgive him for making me stay here..."

"Whoa. You're saying you hate him for loving you?"

Neal's head snapped around and he looked at Lauren with such clarity and intent that she felt her pulse stutter and her breath catch as he suddenly realized how beautiful he truly was, in all aspects.

"Why would you say that? What could possibly make you think anything of the kind?"

"He smiles." She eventually responded. "The whole time you were inside, that was something... he just didn't do at work. Here, at home, I wouldn't have a clue because none of us ever got close enough to earn an invitation except on the holidays and everybody's fake and formal at times like that. Once you were in the office day to day, it was like he turned into somebody I'd never met... in a really good way. You challenge him, you make him work harder and think faster to keep up with you... and it's like he's been waiting forever for that to happen."

"He loves Elizabeth."

"Yeah, well... his heart would give yours a run for its money. There's way more than enough room for you."

Neal studied her cautiously then shook his head and backed away.

"No. Not possible."

Lauren grinned at him broadly.

"None so blind..."

"Care to elaborate?"

"That look you craved from Kate? Every time you figure something out or see something nobody else did, just for a second... that look is all over Peter's face. You get so wrapped up in the mystery and the planning I'm not surprised you've never seen it."

"One example."

"The warehouse, when you helped save that big-wig's daughter... before he muzzled it to be sure nobody else saw, the pride and the love were shining out of him like he swallowed the damn sun. You go back and look at the news footage. You'll see."

For a long time, Neal would say nothing more, simply letting his eyes drill into her as though he were certain if he did it long enough he would force her to confess the lie or the prank. Finally he moved close, touched her shoulder, pecked her on the cheek and whispered his thanks in her ear before moving out of the room.

"Peter? Peter..."

"I'm here. What is it? Is your arm okay?"

"It's fine. I need to get out for a while, go take a look at something. Can you drive me?"

"Yeah? Of course. Lemme find my keys and get some shoes on. Where are we going?"

"Work."

END