A/N: Been awhile since I updated. Thanks for the amazing patience!
Minor spoiler for 'Out of the Box' (S1E14)
This chapter involves thoughts regarding the last chapter, so read that first if you're rusty (like me) on what happened.
Beta credit: She's eternally patient like you guys; thank you Mam711!
Chapter 21: Doubt
Neal realized he was in trouble. Elizabeth had come by and pulled the rug out from beneath him on the very first 'lesson'. He had to assume the rest of what she intended to share with him would have just as much merit.
If she was making him doubt himself this early, he wouldn't have a hope in withstanding her attempt to 'reform' him. And normally, that wouldn't be so bad—Neal could live with the idea of being like Peter—but Neal knew that no matter what, his desires to continue conning and thieving would never go away. So if he allowed Elizabeth's morals to take the place of his own, he would have no respite from the guilt. He would constantly question his actions and no one liked that kind of uncertainty in life.
He stood and paced, wanting to throw something to vent the sheer frustration he felt. He took a shaky breath and cursed. He cursed all the people out there who couldn't accept who he was and just let him be, starting with the Burkes.
They claimed they cared about him. Neal couldn't understand that part. He knew the Burkes did care about him but wouldn't a person who cared about you let you be who you were and not try to change you?
No, Elizabeth had done this because she thought he was wrong.
Neal paused, realizing that this train of thought did him no favors. The idea that he was wrong was not new. For instance, the law thought he was wrong. He'd gone to prison for it. But he'd never really thought about it. Neal guessed it had something to do with the fact that Elizabeth wasn't some faceless piece of paper written by a bunch of stiff and boring suits. She was a woman that Neal knew had a heart of gold. If she thought he was wrong….
Then she was probably right.
To cut right down to the heart of the matter: the world could be divided into two categories. Right and wrong. Neal hated looking at things in black and white ways like that, but to understand Elizabeth's actions—and he did want to understand because he respected her at least that much—he had no choice but to keep it simple.
If he was wrong and Elizabeth and law were right then that put him in the same camp as all those other people who were wrong: the ones that went out there and disturbed innocent people's lives because of some selfish reason.
That thought devastated Neal. He was a people person. He loved people and he would freely admit to being a softie when it came to the things that mattered like love and family and friendship. The thought that he might be part of the population of people who threatened those things … it enraged Neal.
Damn it. Elizabeth had really messed him up.
Neal was antsy, edgy and couldn't settle. He decided to put his nerves to good use and headed to the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, searching for some new idea on how to break the chain. Nothing was infallible. Leverage, proper application, force, elements, tools, and methods: As many as he could remember flashed through his mind.
Then his head shot up. Neal straightened and turned. The simple little red extinguisher sat in the corner as if smugly waiting for Neal to notice it. Neal edged towards it. He regarded it warily.
He realized it could be perfect.
So, of course he turned and walked away, shaking his head, and trying to work out if he should acknowledge the fact he'd just seen a possibly perfect escape key. Then he spun and headed back into the kitchen, ignoring the protesting scrape of the steel chain as it whipped across the floor carried by momentum.
He was in front of the extinguisher again. He needed to find out (and hope) that the extinguisher was the type that would belt out sub-freezing temperatures. Foam would not help. It needed to be CO2. If it was then it would serve double as a heavy metal object to hit the chain with once it had been frozen. The steel would shatter and the chain would be in two. Of course it might not work, Neal had to admit inwardly; the steel might be too thick or the CO2 freezing properties may have been greatly exaggerated. Still, any possibility was worth investigating.
Was this any different from pushing that button for emergencies on the wall?
Yes, Neal decided. Because this way he wouldn't be involving any third parties. He would just slip out, find a blacksmith (Mozzie) and run.
But the end result would still be the same. El would complete her threat and go to the Bureau and confess. And then Peter would want to die.
Neal picked up the extinguisher and carried it out of the kitchen and over to his bed. He placed it carefully on the ground and sat on the bed, staring at it with apprehension. From here, Neal couldn't see the classification details on the label. He would have to turn it for that. But he wasn't quite ready.
Peter was very quiet. Neal hadn't heard any sign of his arrival until the door was opening. Neal looked up like a deer caught in the headlights and froze. He knew it wouldn't take much for Peter to know what he was doing, sitting with a fire extinguisher at his feet.
Peter was concerned. He stood in the doorway, his mind filling in the blanks and his eyes flashing with realization. But Peter spoke gently if not with a tinge of curiosity to it. "Neal?"
Neal turned away, unable to answer the query. He leaned forward, tipped the extinguisher and spun it until he could read the label.
Then he sat back, letting the extinguisher wobble back into place and shrugged. "It's foam, anyway. It'll only cut off the flow of oxygen; smother the fire…." Smart woman.
Peter looked down, wondering how to handle this. Then he moved forward, nudging the door shut behind him.
"I'm guessing the talk with El didn't go well this morning?"
Neal felt it as Peter sat down beside him. Neal shrugged.
"I think El will be sufficiently pleased."
"Ah," Peter accepted, apologetically. "She made you feel bad?"
Neal cocked his head, and quirked his eyebrow for a second, conveying a cavalier attitude. Peter wasn't fooled. This had affected Neal. He needed to tread carefully.
Then Neal stood and like a switch had been flicked, Neal looked easy-going, casual and not in the slightest bit stressed. To the naked, untrained eye. Beneath it, Peter could see Neal's tense hips and shoulders.
Neal bent, picking up the extinguisher, and carried it to the kitchen. Peter followed his path with his eyes and stared as Neal popped back up, having replaced the extinguisher in its spot. He reminded Peter of a millionaire host; completely at ease in his mansion and wondering how to best entertain his guest. Neal tilted his head and smiled. "Coffee?"
Peter stood. He answered slowly with a hint of wariness that he knew Neal would notice in his tone. "Black." He nodded. "Please."
Neal seemed to receive the message. He toned down his exuberance and turned his back on Peter, heading to the coffee machine.
"Here in the middle of the day," Neal noted, lightly. "No crime going on?"
"Plenty," Peter answered gruffly as he reached the bench and leaned against it on his palms. "It's my lunch hour."
"Did you bring the files?" Neal asked as he turned to deposit a hot black coffee in front of Peter.
Peter paused. "In the car."
"Well," Neal spoke politely. "Could you please go get them?"
Peter sipped his coffee and when Neal didn't shift his gaze with that same expectant expression, Peter hastily lowered his mug. "You mean now?"
"Hmm." Neal nodded. "You'll forget later."
Peter frowned, indignant, preparing to argue the point, and then he stopped. He exhaled softly. "Neal," he murmured, worried. "What did you guys talk about?"
Neal grimaced, and then rolled his eyes, his redirection having failed. "Just the time I gave you the lollipop."
Peter frowned. Of all the things Elizabeth could have talked about … she'd picked the thing that bothered him the least?
Neal saw Peter's confusion. "Because it was the beginning; first impressions and all that."
And then it came back to Peter in a flash. The anxious, wary mood he'd lived with for months, wondering what Neal's next point of attack would be. The measures he'd taken to protect Elizabeth, the many, many profiles he'd read of Neal, each seemingly worse than the last.
Finally Peter pulled himself out of his mind and looked at Neal who was quietly, mildly tracing patterns on the bench.
"That," Peter started. "That wasn't something you meant. She's making you feel guilty because of our perception of you, Neal? Neal, that's not something that even I would blame you for."
Neal looked up, surprised.
Peter shook his head mildly. "I'll talk to her. This is ridiculous. She can't bring up issues like that. There are plenty of other things that you really do deserve to feel guilty about."
And Neal did appreciate Peter's opposition of El's view but then Neal remembered the gist of El's reasoning. He sighed. "She does have a point though; cross a line and there's bound to be consequences. Intended or otherwise."
"Sure," Peter threw out casually. "But blaming you for how the Bureau reacted after you gave me a lollipop is going too far."
"It's not that she blamed me, Peter," Neal said quietly. "She was trying to show me how something—even something that innocent—can have terrible effects."
Peter realized El had hit Neal where it hurt most, in the heart. There was only one person he'd listen to now.
"All right, well," Peter spoke, heavily, casting a look around. "Let's have some lunch and we'll worry about this later?"
He'd talk to Elizabeth when he got home, he decided. He'd leave work early. This was something he couldn't let fester. Elizabeth would fix this mess.
El was pretty strong-minded and determined when it came to things she cared enough to fight for, so Neal had accepted Peter's silent promise that he'd set the record straight with Elizabeth about the sorts of things she could condemn Neal for, but he hadn't expected anything to come of it.
So when Elizabeth entered the room that night after rapping politely and Neal saw in her eyes everything that he suspected Peter had told her, he inwardly corrected his earlier presumption. Yes, Elizabeth was strong-willed but she was also open, a good listener, fair, and reasonable.
She didn't look defeated. She didn't look guilty. She didn't even look apologetic. But Neal knew—he could see in her eyes—that she had listened to everything Peter had said, and judging by the depth in them, Neal could see Peter had actually successfully made a point.
"Neal?" She spoke cautiously, ignoring Satchmo's wet nosing. "Peter said you've been agonizing over our talk?"
"I have not been agonizing!" Neal protested, looking appalled. Whatever happened to brotherhood? The thing where men protected each other's image and helped keep each other looking tough.
Peter would probably argue that Neal ruined his tough image all on his own by fretting over suits and buying fabric softener, but that was beside the point.
There was a silence while Neal chewed his lip, wondering why he cared. Maybe he just didn't want Elizabeth thinking she'd gotten to him. That was fair enough, Neal told himself defensively.
"Neal," Elizabeth murmured gently, coming near him before turning and peering down and up to see Neal's supposedly uncaring expression. "I wasn't trying to make you feel bad. I don't want you feeling guilty."
Neal frowned and looked to the side, challenging her words visually.
El straightened and clasped her hands to stop herself from lifting Neal's unruly hair off his forehead. "Put it this way," she suggested. "In the future, when you see someone you know in the street who you've been playing a game with, or eluding, are you going to consider giving them a toy or chocolate and thanking them for the hard work they're doing without considering what happened last time you did that?"
Neal looked away, downwards. He moved back to lean against the bench which was behind him. He inhaled, taking his time with the question. Then he had to admit that it was probably impossible to consider anything of the sort without being reminded of the lollipop. So he exhaled and spoke without changing his stance. "Point."
Elizabeth nodded. "That's all I'm trying to do, Neal."
Neal looked at her. She was earnest in her statement. He suddenly realized that her aim hadn't only been to change his morals but to arm him with something he'd apparently always lacked his whole life: a sense of consequence.
"I'm trying to get you to think about it a little so that next time you're faced with a similar event you might—"
Neal nodded. "I get it."
"So that maybe next time you won't let—"
"El," Neal said softly.
"You can avoid getting hurt or imprisoned just by considering—"
"El," Neal said, louder. "I understand."
Elizabeth sighed. Neal realized that she was as worn out as he was. It was probably harder for her, because she held the power to call the whole thing off and was presumably fighting that temptation, day in, day out, probably telling herself that she'd come too far to give up.
Neal knew it was bad when he was internally wondering whether he wanted her to give in or not. Of course he wanted her to give in, but then he'd be surprised and a maybe a little dejected, because Elizabeth never gave up.
What if she did? If she did, he'd have to acknowledge that he was basically unsalvageable.
Neal didn't want to be unsalvageable. That white picket-fence life still beckoned. He wanted children someday—he could practically hear them: the sound of their little voices as they talked out their random thoughts, the feel of one tugging on his clothes to get his attention, the smell as a chocolate-covered face hugged him, the sight of the proud smile as one offered him a homemade mug for Father's Day.
Neal became aware of Elizabeth's close, analytical gaze on his face, so he smoothly spoke, careful to keep his expression the same. "Weren't you going to work late tonight?"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Peter threatened me with a warrant to search my place of business if I didn't come out and talk to you."
"He did what?" Neal's eyes went wide. Peter had threatened Elizabeth's business with a warrant—something Fowler had done a little over three years ago. Elizabeth's business had recovered with Neal's help. Barely.
"Hmm," El murmured. "Overkill, though. I was already in the car after he told me you looked depressed."
"He said I looked depressed?" Neal was going to talk to Peter about a little something called dignity and how not to ruin his.
"I didn't know whether he was bluffing or not," El admitted. "It doesn't matter, though."
Neal braced his palms on the bench behind him; his palms had gotten sweaty with his arms crossed. "You came right over … why?"
"Neal," El spoke plainly. "Look what I've done to you. I have certain obligations. Making sure you're not out of sorts is one of them. The Neal Caffrey I know doesn't get depressed."
"The Elizabeth Burke I know doesn't kidnap people." Neal shrugged.