By Alone Dreaming
Disclaimer: If I owned it, it wouldn't be under fan fiction.
Rating: PG (for a gun and mild violence)
Warnings: Gun, mild violence, a lot of thinking, a lot of unresolved tension, a bit of blood
Author's Note: Really, just rumination, inspired by (a) a quote and (b) the fever meme at ariadnes_string's LJ. While it did not turn out precisely like the prompt (in fact, I think it doesn't really answer the prompt at all), the prompt got me thinking a little and the quote helped direct me.
When a person cannot deceive himself the chances are against his being able to deceive other people.
Before Neal goes into a con, he convinces himself of its reality.
First, he works with his cover. He studies it from all aspects starting with the way his cover dresses to the way he speaks to his family to minuscule things like his favorite color and food. To sell it, he tries to make it as close to fact as possible so that it doesn't become too fantastical for him keep straight. By the end of it, he can stand in front of a mirror, look at himself, say his cover name and, honestly, without a doubt, believe himself that man.
The next thing he does is study the circumstances. Whatever plan he has conceived, he views from every point of view. He starts with his, pondering every detail as a conman. Then, he views it as his cover, pouring his false name over it. When he's through with that, he flips it to the view of those he intends on conning, be it a museum or person or group. If the plan remains secure under their scrutiny, he thoroughly checks it as an independent party with no investment in the situation; a false painting, he scrutinizes like an expert of the era and a robbery schematic he probes like a government agent trying to solve the crime.
With this secure, he does the most important and most difficult part. He believes, without a doubt, that his cover deserves whatever he has set out to acquire. As the loosest piece of his foundation, it takes him the longest amount of time. He mortars it, sets it, adds concrete and extra support, and eventually, he can step out the door thinking that he has the right to that money, that painting, that artifact.
And when he does this perfectly, he sells a scheme better than any man alive. His nearly pathological lying talents aside, he can forge better than anyone he's ever met; he doesn't dare say anyone alive as he knows there are stronger, faster players who will happily swat him down like the young cub he is. Most paintings, even without his extra inspections, would puzzle the best authenticator, much like his bonds have. Pair this with his connections and easy charm, and no one will argue he's a force to be reckoned with.
Except… maybe now.
He felt himself slipping when he signed on with Peter, felt some of his edge dulled. Initially, he thought it due to his association with the law. It killed half of his social network because no one wanted to deal with him; many thought him a snitch and those who begrudgingly admitted he had made a comfortable (if not good) decision, did not want to get close enough to chance getting caught in the riptide.
Then, he thought maybe it had to do with the impromptu work of his job. The FBI did not give him the time to carefully establish his identity and plans. Everything came in rapid fire, and while he had the ability to think on his feet, the ground that he used to build his identity on wobbled like wet sand on the beach. One or two cases like that would not matter but the steady stream loosened his tight control over his powers and encouraged him to go soft. His practice waned before his eyes.
But, finally, he realized the truth.
Mozzie had hinted at it for a while with his subversive commentary about Peter. Neal understood it, finally, one night as he enjoyed a glass of wine and his books. And when he did understand it, it came clearly, with the knowledge that it was Elizabeth, Jones, Diana and Peter and June and all of them together.
They had revived in him a conscience.
The other things had weakened him, without a doubt, but Peter and his damned white knight morals with Elizabeth's kind understanding, Diana's fiery passion, Jones's patient goodwill and June's stability had coaxed to life something Neal had stamped dead. A sense of morality had reanimated in him and the last step of his perfect conning had choked under the pressure. No longer could he fully convince himself that what he did was right when he put on that mask and the cornerstone of his operation was compromised.
Flash to now, as he considers the broad view of his life and choices. In a storage unit, he has millions of dollars worth of Nazi goods, waiting for him to dispose of them and collect his reward. He has a friend- a loyal, long-suffering, true friend- who is willing to do all the heavy-lifting to help him escape. He has the promise of an easy life before him if he can just find it in him to say 'yes' to the plan. All he has in his life is a rented room with a good view and tasteful clothes. All he does is work as a dog for the government. All his relationships are those based upon eggshell treading and half-lies; not trust, not from anyone except June.
A clinical eye tells him to sell a piece and flee. Peter refuses to truly trust him and Elizabeth will side with Peter. He cannot blame Peter for it completely; he has done a number of less than kosher things since he has been on work release. But it frustrates him that every time something happens, Peter assumes that he has a hand in it. Whatever friendship they have is a joke because Peter will never believe what Neal says first, without proof. If he sells the piece and it's on Peter's list, then, at least, Peter has a reason to doubt him.
And better to live on the lam than continue playing house. Nothing he has belongs to him, not his apartment, not his money, not his clothes, not his food; everything belongs to someone else, either Mozzie (who carefully refers to it as their funds) or June (who tells him she would've donated it anyway) or the Bureau. He's a doll, dressed up and played with, but never respected; whatever he can do for the Bureau is fine. Whatever he has leftover, useless or unnecessary.
But that conscience nips him whenever he justifies himself. He has proven himself untrustworthy. He has broken out of jail. He has obfuscated. He has run. He has not given Peter all the details and that has caused strife between them. Sometimes, it's even put people in danger. He has often been in the wrong.
He has a headache.
He blinks and tilts his head, concealing everything with a carefully raised eyebrow. "Yes?"
"Just checking to make sure you're not spacing out. Need you focused," Peter says. He watches Neal like a particularly fascinating animal in a cage; a lion tamer who knows his animals every move, mood and expression and uses that against them to control them.
"Sorry." He turns his attention to the building, the pedestrians coming and going from it. "Anything interesting?"
"Not remotely," Peter removes a sandwich, neatly wrapped with a note attached to it. Neal can see Elizabeth's handwriting. Peter offers a piece to Neal who refuses. "But something will. I know it."
"Your infamous gut giving its opinion?" he teases.
"Yes, it's hungry. My powers of deduction, however, say that the facts and history point here. Now, all we have to do, is wait."
The dinner sits in a brown paper bag, each item wrapped in plastic. There's enough to feed an army in it; Elizabeth caters for a living and she won't half-ass it at home. Fruit, sandwiches, homemade chips, several kinds of cookies; a feast for an army or for her husband and his criminal consultant. She even packed a few things that Peter wouldn't eat, things that Neal prefers, and it pushes all the wrong buttons.
The conscience makes him certain he wants to stay. These people, good, steady people, have given him a chance to turn his life around. His skills, so drawn towards crime, have a legal outlet now, one that- if he plays the game properly- may continue post his work release. As an undercover consultant, he can still play the game- con the bad guys, pull a few heists- but he won't end up in prison for it. He won't have to run. Every day, he can return home to a nice apartment, with nice clothes and freedom to practice art for the sake of art. The thirst to pull a heist for the sake of pulling a heist will be somewhat satiated, enough so that he might survive and he can live without looking over his shoulder, without playing the game of chance.
He barely recognizes himself anymore.
He has identified himself by his abilities to run a scam for so long that the idea of not living that way frightens him. He doesn't know if he can. Initially, when he escaped the very first time to find Kate, he thought if he could just find her and convince her to give him another chance, he would go straight. He'd call in every favor he had, sell everything he ever collected and settle them happily in a vineyard in Italy. He thought that Kate, beautiful, perfect Kate, could be his ticket to a life without crime, without moral compromise; Kate would steady him, be his conscience and his guide, and would teach him how to live.
But she was gone on that last day in prison and with her, his hope for stability shattered. Even Sarah and Alex, beautiful, smart, cunning, don't hold a flame to the promise that Kate offered him. Without her, he has nothing but the game to soothe him.
He is lost.
"Neal, you with me?" Peter nudges him and he jerks slightly, pretending to rouse from a nap. The building remains suspect free.
"Sorry, thinking," he apologizes, absently. He removes his hat and places it in his lap.
"Nothing too important or devious, I hope." Peter half-teases but Neal can sense the seriousness in his tone.
"You know me, Peter," he says and leaves it at that.
"Too well," Peter adds, focusing on him. "Everything all right?"
He applies his most innocent mask. "What?"
"Are you all right?"
Aye, there's the rub. The expression Peter wears is so earnest that Neal cannot question the other man's concern. Peter cares for him in an overprotective manner that reminds him of a paranoid older brother. Because of that, he wants to trust Neal- Neal can read this on his face- but the perpetual disappointment causes him to second guess things. He can read Neal like a book, knows his true nature, but thinks that maybe, if he scans the pages enough times, that his willpower alone can change the ending. Half of Peter's irritation comes from the subconscious knowledge that he will never, ever change Neal because the only person that can change Neal is himself.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
Peter frowns at him, the kind of frown that wrinkles his forehead and makes him ten years older than he actually is. For once, he doesn't push it, just watches. Watching has become a pivotal part of their relationship since the explosion and Adler. Neal watches Peter to see how close he's come to the buried treasure and Peter watches Neal to see when his facade will drop and reveal the truth. They're dancing, again, but instead of Neal running and Peter dogging his steps like a hound on scent, they're tangoing their way down to hell. First person to misstep loses and Neal's lost so much of his former strength that he knows it'll be him. The bear trap of the conscience on his one foot with the treadless heel of his opposite shoe can only be ignored for so long.
"Neal." They've been quiet for another fifteen minutes. "You know that you can tell me and we'll find a way to work it out, right?"
Could it? If he opens up right this minute and spills every drop of information that he's kept damned up in him, could they work it out? Could they work out the bunkers of stolen goods he gave to Moz or, more importantly, the locker of full of the Nazi plunder that Moz has given to him? If he, with every ounce of veracity that he possesses, informs Peter of what had happened, could Peter believe him and make things right?
He has no answer and dares not advance lest he trip and fall. The real problem springs to life before him in a technicolor blossom. His skills aren't fading; they're overstretched and overused. He has spent so much time lately fighting them and using them, stabilizing them in front of Peter, and dropping them in front of Mozzie that he's lost the most important part of the scheme- the blank canvas. He has lost himself.
He leans his head against the window and waits for the epiphany that always comes. Whenever he's faced with a roadblock, he inevitably finds a way around it, over it, under it or through it. Somehow, he'll find his way out of this whether it's by running or staying or something else all together.
"There he is," Peter murmurs, setting aside the cookies and unlocking the doors. "Come on, Sundance, let's go."
He slips out his door, hat going back on his head, thoughts swirling about like a veil in front of his eyes. The charm may ooze from his pores but he's preoccupied with the future and not the now. It's lesson number one, keep complete focus on the game, but his head's pounding and the problem weighs on him too heavily to ignore.
"Mr. Frankel," Peter calls when they're within two yards and closing. "FBI."
Frankel's middle age, middle height, middle weight, middle colored and so nondescript that Neal wouldn't look at him twice on the streets; the plain suit he wears only furthers the image of ordinary, paper-pushing bureaucrat. He couldn't have a better disguise if he tried.
And he couldn't look more guilty by bolting the moment Peter announces himself as law enforcement.
Peter doesn't need to tell him to pursue. Despite the distrust and uncertainty, they make an almost flawless team. At first, he thought it came from practice, from working with people who did not trust him and who he did not trust in the business because achieving the goal gave them enough of a bond to stabilize the plan, but it's not the same with Peter. There's an ease to their partnership that he's never felt anywhere else, an ease that he can't even feign with others. He and Peter may not trust each other all the time- or, rather, Peter may not trust him all the time- but they know each other so well that it doesn't matter.
Peter sprints one way and Neal turns down the alley, skidding across garbage and puddles. If it turns out right, he'll intercept Frankel just in time for Peter to sweep in with the cuffs. His shoes aren't made for running- fine leather, thin soles, perfect for walking and preening- and his balance keeps wavering as he splashes and trips. Just a few more steps, he encourages himself. He's oddly winded and exhausted but, then again, he hasn't exactly been doing cardio the way he used to.
Frankel and Peter pass him just as he reaches the sidewalk. Peter's running full speed and he follows in Peter's trail, keeping pace if not overtaking him. Frankel will run out of steam soon. The most important part of a chase is the first half-mile; outside of marathoners, no one can keep speed after that. They'll catch him if they can just keep him in sight for the next few minutes.
Frankel cuts across the road and into another alleyway with the pair of them in pursuit. Peter's hand is inside his jacket, on his gun, and Neal feels uncertainty creep into his throat. They break apart again, this time with him circling around and Peter taking the alley. He cuts his journey short by passing through the building, flashing a woman departing with a charming smile and shoving through the emergency (alarm will sound, hah) door. If he can trip Frankel up, they can go home faster and he can sleep off the dilemma and the pulse thrumming behind his eyes.
"Stop right there," Frankel squeaks. His voice trembles as he says it. In his hands, he holds Peter's gun and Peter's sprawled on the pavement, dazed, a lump growing on his forehead.
"I'm not moving," Neal holds his hands up. "Look, unarmed."
Frankel holds the gun on Peter. "Come any closer and he's dead."
He doesn't want Peter dead, not ever, no matter how many times Peter disbelieves him or foils him or catches him. The world has too many people like Neal in it and not enough people like Peter; too many shadows with too few white knights. Even at his angriest, he has never wanted Peter gone so much as out of his business; permanently out of his business would be perfect. Permanently out of his business and through a situation out of his control would be better than perfect because then he wouldn't have to say goodbye.
But not like this.
"I'm staying right here," Neal tells him. "After all, you have him right where I want him."
Frankel shifts, sweat gathering on his brow. "W-what?"
"Oh, please, like you aren't aware," Neal sniffs.
"Don't… don't play games with me!" Frankel's voice reaches a new pitch and, now, Neal's sweating.
"Don't YOU play games with ME," he snaps. "Everyone knows about this." He lifts his pant leg just enough that the tracker's light can be seen. "Or are you telling me a swindler like you is so far out of the loop you haven't heard about Tattletale Caffrey?"
"I… I've heard," Frankel mumbles. Neal can see right through him.
"Then you know you have him right where I've wanted him for years," Neal says.
"Neal…" Peter whispers and Neal can't tell whether he believes or if he's helping sell it.
"Shut up," Frankel snaps, waving the gun in a manner that makes Neal's stomach drop to his feet. "Shut UP!"
"Shut him up and get it over with," Neal says and prays he's pinned Frankel right.
"B-but…" Frankel stares at him.
"But what?" Neal asks. "Is it a matter of money? I've got plenty to pay you for the favor. Name your price. It's worth it to get free. You have no idea how awful it is, day in, day out, paper work, commands, the lack of appreciation, passing over perfectly ripe opportunities due to this," he shakes his leg, "And the knowledge that I will never be free of him, regardless of what I do. Pull the trigger, Frankel."
"H-how do I know you're telling the truth?" Frankel practically whimpers it. Peter's watching him with an inscrutable expression. "D-didn't they confiscate your funds when you got arrested?"
He laughs. "Do you really think that I don't have back-up accounts? Spare warehouses? Tell me, Frankel, what exactly do you know about me?"
Frankel's eyes keep flickering back to Peter, who's moving into a crouch, to Neal. "J-just the rumors. That you were the best and now you're a Fed. That you lost everything when you got arrested. That you're the one to call when something impossible needs to be done. The basics." His hand strengthens some. "And I also heard that you've changed since you got out."
Here's the proof that he's getting sloppy. He can't even fool an idiot. "Well, you can't-"
"No, shut up," Frankel snaps. He sounds far too confident. "They also say you've got a silver tongue, Caffrey, and you can talk your way out of anything. That you're almost all talk these days. So, shut up!"
"What's your price?"
The gun goes off and misses Peter by inches. Neal's heart speeds up until it's almost painful in his chest. His head throbs even harder. "What about a whole room of lost treasures from the Nazi regime?"
"You don't have that!" Frankel snarls. "I know what happened to that. It burned."
"No, you're wrong." And he might be, too, judging by Peter's expression. But he's out of ideas and the best lies to tell are the ones he's completely convinced of and there's nothing he's more convinced of than the truth. "I've got it all in a storage unit in this city. I rescued it before it burned and, now, it's just waiting to be liquidated. How about half? Half to free me from my chains."
He can't see Peter because Frankel's advancing on him. "How do I know you aren't lying?"
And hopefully Peter won't see this. "Because of this."
He holds up a phone, one that Mozzie wired for him so he could keep an eye on the treasures at all times. It doesn't work perfectly and often needs recharging but it lets him check in when he needs to. He holds up the live stream so Frankel can stare at the images, all the camera angles and the time stamp.
"See," he says, wondering if he can keep Frankel distracted long enough to disarm him. "A treasure trove. And I will split it with you."
Peter hits Frankel around the middle and the gun goes off again. The three of them end up in a pile on the ground, Frankel shouting and flailing, Peter doing his best to pin him and Neal simply trying to crawl free of the fray. The gun has bounced off some two feet away and he rolls towards it, then on top of it. His fingers close around it and he locks the safety. The clip slides out at his then does he sit up to see if Peter's won the battle.
Peter has, his knee pressed between Frankel's shoulder blades. He's speaking rights but his eyes are fixed on the rigged cell. It lies, its wares bared like a cheap hooker, and Neal feels the ache in his stomach increase. He struggles to his feet, hoping to snatch it away before Peter can get a good eyeful, but he knows its already too late. The decision he hoped to make has been made and the time to run is now.
"Neal," Peter says, his voice a deadly calm. "Gun, please."
He hands the gun over, looped over his finger. The clip follows and he wipes his hands over his rumpled clothes afterwards. He cannot meet Peter's eye, cannot dare to see the disappointment, because that conscience that Peter's given him is chewing him apart.
Peter drags Frankel to his feet, his balance a bit unsteady. Neal fights the urge to grab his arm and offer support. It will not be welcome, now, likely never again. No matter how much Peter suspected that he had the treasure, he knew that Peter hoped to be wrong. Paranoia dictated that Peter dig and block and watch but the idealistic side of Peter had hoped that it hadn't been true.
Peter starts a steady limp towards the car and Neal follows in his wake, a forgotten raft. He doesn't know what to say, how to fill the silence, and he refuses to look down at the phone as he pockets it. Peter wavers a bit as they trudge along, Frankel whimpering incoherently under his breath, and Neal tucks his hands in his pockets. There's a hole in his jacket, skimming over his left hip, and it draws a frustrating comparison that he doesn't want to acknowledge.
They reach the car, Peter calls in back-up, Neal hovers in the background. He's aware that he hurts as the adrenaline fades but he's turning inward again, like he has for most of the day. His next step splays before him, unabashed, encouraging him to send Mozzie a text. Whatever tricks the little man has up his sleeve, it's time for the grand finale. In his scenarios, he had rarely entertained the idea of returning to prison. Either he escaped or he stayed, never did he pay for a crime he did not commit.
He cannot return there.
He fumbles with the phone, the phone that betrayed him, the phone he regrets he has and regrets he used-
He sits heavily on a bench when he realizes that he'd be deceiving himself to take that thought any further. What he currently feels is not regret, or anger over saving Peter and spilling his secrets. What he feels right now is frustration, anger and guilt over showing the truth. And if he regrets it that much, so much that he can barely define it, then he has truly deceived himself all along. He knows what he wants most and it's not millions of dollars in Nazi treasure.
An eternity passes, maybe two, and he doesn't move from his bench. The phone remains in his pocket, clenched in his fingers, but he doesn't text. For the third time in his life, he's willing to take whatever the world will dole out to him. Like the two times he risked jail (or extended time) for Kate, risking imprisonment for Peter comes just as easily, as selflessly. Under the layers of paint, he's scratched the surface of himself again and oddly, finds it just as white as Peter's shining armor.
Someone sits next to him. Judging by the shoes, it's Peter. He swallows and starts to count the scrapes on the surface and gouges in the soles.
"That was a pretty impressive show you put on," Peter says, carefully, slowly, talking to Neal like he's a perp, not a friend.
He doesn't reply.
"And it leaves me with two questions," Peter continues. "First of which being, why that?"
He lets his eyes travel up to Peter's pants. They're torn and dirty. There's a splash of dark red at the corner. of one ankle and he can see blood trickling from a scrape on Peter's calf.
"First thing that came to mind," he says. "First thing to tempt him and distract him. Everyone's heard about it. Everyone knows I was involved. It was easy."
Peter's silent. Neal's gaze travels to his thighs then up to his steepled fingers. Peter's not looking at him which makes things simpler. His vision blurs and he forces himself to look at his own shoes. The water's ruined them.
"So, instead of using those accounts you have in the Caymans," Peter baits. "Or any of the other treasure troves you've stored away, you use something that you know I have concerns about in order to encourage him to kill me?"
"You heard him." He feels an odd flare of annoyance. "He didn't believe I had any funds from the old days. I had to sell him on something, Peter, long enough to distract him so you could get his gun." He pauses, feels Peter take a breath to continue, but rambles on before his friend can speak. "And you had to sell it to. It was the best choice for the moment. I would never… I couldn't… You know… I wouldn't ever…"
A hand squeezes his shoulder and he's surprised to find he's shaking. He's chilled, uncomfortable and so drained that he could probably sleep on the bench without a complaint. On top of the headache, he's dizzy and his thoughts have started tumbling about messily.
"I know, Neal," Peter says, gently. "Killing's not in you. Neither is having someone kill for you."
"You're wrong," Neal murmurs. "It's in me to kill. Just not in me to kill you."
Peter gives him a moment for which he's ridiculously grateful. They sit as Diana and Jones take over the scene, quiet. Instead of wide and open, New York feels condensed to that single pinpoint, that one street with the bench, the cars, the light post. Nothing else exists.
"One more question," Peter says, as everything calms down.
Neal's focused on his hands. He skinned the right one when he fell and it throbs with every beat of his heart. His left one, oddly, has blood on it even though it doesn't hurt at all.
"What the hell did you show him on that phone? He sure looked convinced."
He almost tells Peter the truth because he knows that Peter saw; he looks up- he needs to meet Peter's eyes when he says it so he can see the sincerity- but is startled to find that Peter genuinely inquiring. He is confused and curious, not attempting to get Neal to admit to something that he already knows to be true.
Tentatively, he reaches into his left pocket and removes the phone. The screen has shattered in a gorgeous array of blues, blacks and whites. It flickers weakly at the pair of them.
He laughs a little, then a lot. Peter must think he's crazy but he can't help himself; he laughs just to keep tears of relief from pouring down his face. The laughter must mean something else because within seconds, Peter's laughing with him.