CAN'T BE BOTH
Summary: In the aftermath of Elizabeth's kidnapping, Neal has to make a life-defining choice - and then he has to face its consequences. Post 3.10 Countdown story.
When Neal, Kramer, Peter get to the airport, Neal can't help it and lets out a small sigh.
How he had wished for these past two years to be allowed to leave New York! Not that he didn't like the city and working with Peter; however, the two-mile radius was somewhat stifling, and he often longed he could get away, if only for a short while.
Well, now he was about to get his wish, but not in the way he imagined it.
Still, while he wishes he was leaving as a free man, Neal acknowledges that this… well, it's not a dream coming true, far from it, but it's … fine. Mostly.
While Kramer is quietly cursing as he searches his bag for their tickets and Peter is studying the board for information about their flight, Neal lets his mind wander to the farewell dinner at Peter's house.
"Peter, you don't have to… are you really sure you want me here?" asked Neal hesitantly. After all, a few hours before, he had thought that maybe Peter had washed his hands on him forever. He didn't want their tentatively rebuilding friendship to be endangered by making steps that they weren't yet ready for again.
Peter let out an exasperated sigh. "No Neal, I've obviously been threatened by a flesh-eating ghost and then hypnotized by the pet anaconda that El keeps in her nightstand. Just come in already!"
That sounded quite definite, so Neal answered: "Okay," and followed Peter to the house that he had last seen some five weeks ago on the day of El's kidnapping.
And suddenly, he stopped short in his tracks.
In the living room, there were Sara and Christie on the couch, talking and laughing about something, while El, Jones and Diana were playing cards at the table in the dining room.
It was Christie who noticed them first.
"Hello Neal, Peter," she got up from the couch and greeted them with a smile. "What took you so long? We were starting to worry that you had been swallowed by a New York traffic jam."
"Now that's almost insulting. We would never be overcome by something as insignificant as traffic," replies Neal charmingly, quickly recovering from the shock of seeing all the people here.
The others noticed them by then and came to living room as well.
Suddenly, Neal flashed back to the moment when he had to Peter's house to see it full of agents and with things upside down, and his chest tightened so much that it hurt –
"Hi Neal," said El with a smile.
And like that, Neal could breathe again.
"Hi everyone," he said softly.
He didn't quite remember what exactly happened next, but suddenly, they were playing a game of cards and he was teaching Jones how to cheat at poker – ahem, how to notice someone cheating at poker – Diana was telling them about her and Christie's plans for their upcoming anniversary, Satchmo was trying to eat his dinner, El and Christie were discussing El's new event plan, Sara had her arm around his waist – and Peter –
Peter was smiling, and everything felt just right.
"Here they are," says Kramer at last and pulls out the tickets for their flight.
They walk over to line up before the check-in desks and prepare their ID's – Neal's stomach makes a flip when he realizes that this is the first time in who-knows-how-many years that he's traveling under his own name.
He checks the nametag on his luggage before he surrenders it to be x-rayed and then taken away by the mysterious system of the airport transport.
"You know, these things have the tendency to get lost," murmurs Peter as they watch Neal's suitcase disappear. "I hope you've put at least some clothes in your bag in case your luggage ends up in Texas or Argentina."
"I'm not ten, Peter," says Neal and rolls his eyes. "Have you ever lost your luggage?" he asks curiously.
"Once," admits Peter. "It turned up a week later. I always try to fit everything into a carry-on if I can help it."
"Me too," admits Neal. "It would have been a little difficult this time, though."
Suddenly, Peter smirks. "There was this time when I and El went on vacation and she…"
"Neal, stop. Don't apologize for Keller's actions," said Elizabeth to interrupt Neal's self-loathing speech.
When he had seen her heading to the kitchen, Neal had known that he had to talk to her, because there was nobody who had suffered more because of his actions than El. But he hadn't been even halfway done with his apology when Elizabeth stopped him.
"I'm not saying you couldn't have done things differently," said El. "But it was solely Keller's decision to kidnap me. I don't blame you. Peter doesn't blame you," not anymore at least. "So why do you keep beating yourself over this?"
"I understand what you're trying to say, Elizabeth," replied Neal. "But – "
"No buts," said El firmly. "I want to move past this. I don't want to spend the rest of my life pondering what "could have happened". So, if you want to help, forgive yourself. For me. … I don't want to lose a friend, Neal."
Neal swallowed. "Have I ever told you how amazing you are?"
El gave him a playful smirk. "Maybe. Once or twice. I can always hear it again, though."
"You are amazing, Elizabeth," said Neal intensely. "And I'll try, I promise."
"Good. Now help me with these, please."
Neal obediently picked up the two plates, before he noticed Peter in the doorway.
Peter gave him an approving smile and then came in to help El with the rest of the things.
Life was good.
Neal shakes his head, recognizing that his thoughts have wandered away once again.
"Sorry, I wasn't listening," he says apologetically when he realizes that Peter's story is over and he doesn't remember a word of it.
Peter and Kramer exchange a look.
"You seem to be far away a lot," says Peter.
"Well, I have a lot on my mind," says Neal a bit defensively.
Peter raises his eyebrows. "Looking for an escape route, maybe?"
"No, Peter," answers Neal sharply. "Do you really think I would do that? I know how hard it was to arrange this – "
"I was joking," says Peter.
"Then it was a bad joke," says Kramer crisply.
Peter has no reply for that.
Neal suppresses a sigh. The waiting alone would be enough to put them all on edge – but this might also be the biggest step Neal has taken since Peter first got him out of prison, and it's affecting all of them.
They expected him to give a speech.
"Well… I guess I just want to tell you that I really appreciate everything you've done for me," said Neal. "You've been great to me these past two years. And I'll never forget what you've done for me at my hearing," he said quietly. "If not for all of your written statements and then some of you speaking before the judge…" He hesitated.
"I owe you all a lot," he said at last. "I know I couldn't have wished for better friends. So… thanks."
"You better stay in touch, Caffrey," said Diana and Neal smiled.
"Don't worry, I will."
Suddenly, Neal noticed that Kramer had slipped into the room. He looked at his wristwatch, and realized that he still had some time left.
They had made the most of it before it was finally time to leave.
They move to one of the departure gates.
"All right Neal, let's take care of your anklet," says Kramer and pulls out the key.
Neal lifts his eyebrows. "Now?" They still have about an hour and half till the plane's departure. "Okay."
They find an empty ledge of the wall. Neal places his foot there, takes the key from Kramer's hand and unlocks the anklet. He battles down the jittery rush of freedom and takes a deep breath. He puts his leg down, pulls back the trouser leg and places the key and the anklet into Kramer's hand.
If he wasn't already able to do this himself, then Peter's eyes on him would have been all the support that he needed.
"So, what are you doing here?" asked Neal Christie. "Not that I'm not happy to see you here," he added hastily
"You, mister, are spoiling my date time with Diana," poked Christie Neal into his chest. "Since the exhibition runs for another two weeks and you're leaving today, you obviously have priority."
"I see," said Neal.
"I've heard about your new arrangement," said Christie. "It sounds harsh."
"Well, it won't be the same as here, that's for sure," said Neal carefully.
"I just wanted to say – I don't know you very well," said Christie. "But Diana thinks you're a good guy. … Just try to make the most of it, alright?"
"I will," said Neal seriously.
He had rarely been more determined about something than this.
"So this is it," says Peter.
"This is it," agrees Neal.
"Whatever you need – "
" – just call. I know. And it goes both ways," says Neal resolutely.
They stare at each other for a few seconds.
Then Peter pulls Neal into a hug.
"Take care of yourself, alright?"
"Only if you do the same."
"Then we have a deal – "
" – and if you finally replace this horrible suit," finishes Neal with a smirk.
Peter rolls his eyes. "Very mature, Caffrey. And keep your hands off my wardrobe."
"Hmm, I think I need to corrupt someone else to this cause – maybe Diana or June."
"Okay. Go ahead."
Neal looks at Peter with suspicion.
"Are you telling me I can corrupt your agent to instill you with some fashion sense?"
"And your wife…?"
"If you want," says Peter with a shrug.
Neal's suspicion only grows. "And what will you do, then?"
Peter smiles. "Now that would be telling, wouldn't it?"
Neal groans. "Peter…"
"You have been warned," says Peter with a broad, dangerous smile.
"Come on, Peter…"
"You're no fun," pouts Neal.
Kramer clears his throat.
Neal sighs. "Right." They need to go.
"Call us once you arrive, alright?" says Peter seriously.
"I will," says Neal.
There are so many things he wants to tell Peter right now. Or better, he wants to stay here and repair everything that has been broken in the last few months. But one look into Peter's eyes tells him that he understands.
Peter's eyes also reassure him that even when separated, they could make this work. No matter the distance and all the screw-ups between them, they are still partners, friends. Family.
"I will come back," says Neal suddenly. "If you'll have me, when my time is over, I'll book the first plane or train and come back."
"I know you will," replies Peter.
"Goodbye, Peter," says Neal.
"Goodbye," echoes Peter with a hint of pain in his face.
Then Peter and Kramer exchange their farewells as well and Neal and Kramer go through security to let their carry-on bags be checked by the x-ray machine. Neal looks back one last time to see Peter lift his hand in a parting gesture.
The Peter turns around and leaves.
Neal takes a deep breath and steps into the metal detector frame. It feels like taking another step into his new life.
As he starts to beep and the airport security officer frisks him for potential bombs and weapons, Neal hopes that the other steps won't be quite this difficult. Then he thinks about it… no, not a chance.
Not a chance in hell.
"Will you be alright?" asked Sara as she took his hands into hers.
Neal smiled. "Yes. Yes, I think I will."
Finally, Neal is sitting on a plane, next to his new supervisor, about to leave for the life of two hundred feet radius, curfew, no privacy and extreme caution, because this time, Peter won't be there to catch him if he slips up.
Then he thinks about today's goodbye party, about the painting at June's home, about all the times with Peter, about El, Sara, June and the others, and he takes a deep breath and smiles.
Peter has said that he could do this. He has told him that it would be worth it.
And Neal knows that as much as this journey seems difficult right now, Peter is right.
He is ready to undertake it to set himself free.
Once again, I need to thank my beta GrayWolf84, who checked all this, gave me the nudge that helped me to finish this story and finally get it posted.
Can't Be Both is completed! It was wonderful reading all your feedbacks, and I enjoyed every step of this.
As for the matter of the sequel: my exams start this week, so my time for writing anything will be very limited for pretty much the whole January. After that… I'm not making any definite promises - but I already have a rough draft of the storyline, and if the Muses stay with me, at least a little, I think I'll go for it.
Thank you all for staying until the end and have a wonderful year 2012!