A/N: spoilers for the last episode of season 3.
"Good. Then let me tell you this: you're "here" in my office, and more importantly in my home, because you are so much more than what you believe yourself to be."
Neal blinked. He could remember only one other time when Peter had reached out to him in that way, just before the explosion that took Kate's life. He didn't know how to respond! He was worn out both physically and emotionally, and couldn't find the energy to deflect, distract or make a witty comment.
When he opened his mouth, the words that came out surprised him. "It's not worth all the trouble." Obviously the filter between his brain and mouth wasn't working. Not good! But at least he hadn't exactly said what he really meant-he couldn't bring himself to say it.
Peter looked at him knowingly, and nodded his agreement. "You're right. Your inside knowledge, smarts, and the skills that you can't put on a resume, are not worth it. But you are."
Neal wanted to argue with that. Conversely, he wanted to believe it, accept it and let it restore something inside him that had been hurting for a while now. On the other hand, he wanted to go back to being the Neal Caffrey who didn't need a friend to reassure him of his worth.
Neal was sure he was about to embarrass himself in some way that may involve tears (God forbid), or honest words that he wouldn't be able to deny later. So he kept his mouth shut, and tried to put on his "appreciative face".
Peter simply looked at him for a while. He seemed to reach some conclusion. "I know this isn't the best time to have this conversation. So how about I drop by your place in a couple of days?"
Neal cleared his throat. "Sounds good."
"All right." Peter headed towards the door, then stopped and turned to him. "Try not to think too much about all this stuff, at least till your head feels better and we have a chance to talk, okay?"
"Yeah.. my head agrees totally with you."
Peter smiled and left, closing the door gently. Neal took a deep breath, and decided to do just as Peter had suggested. He wasn't in the best shape to deal with the thoughts, doubts, and emotions that had been plaguing him for the last few months. Perhaps, together, he and Peter could figure it out.
Two days later
"Hey Peter.. how is the shoulder?" Neal asked as he let Peter in. He was glad that Peter looked less exhausted, and the limp wasn't as bad as before.
"Better. You look better too, minus the raccoon eye."
"Raccoon eye huh… I think it gives me a rakish and dangerous look." Neal said as he turned to examine his face in the mirror.
"Sorry to tell you this buddy, but you can't pull the dangerous look." Peter said with a smirk.
"Well," Neal acquiesced, "I prefer the harmless look any way. It can be effective in my line of ...uh.…previous line of work."
Peter shook his finger in warning. "Try to behave. Here, Elizabeth sent you this little package."
"Oh, that's nice of… is that Camomille Tea?" Neal asked in a disbelieving tone.
Peter shrugged. "Bear and wine are out of the question. Besides, she thinks we're going to need something that has a "calming effect", as she put it.
"She may have a point there." Neal muttered.
They sat on the couch, none of them speaking for a moment. Neal broke the silence. "I appreciate all this Peter." He trusted Peter would know what he meant by this. "What you said yesterday….I…it's…" Neal stopped, flustered. He was not usually at a loss for words.
Peter waited patiently for him to gather his thoughts.
"I came back to New York with lots of …"Neal trailed off, trying to find the right word.
"baggage?" Peter suggested.
"Yeah.. hadn't been able to sort it out or get rid of it."
"I noticed." Peter said. "You've been restless, and almost on edge, which is unusual for you. I first thought it had to do with being stuck in the office working on cold cases. Then I realized it was much more than that."Peter hesitated, then continued. "I was almost certain that you really regretted coming back to New York, and that I had dragged you back selfishly…"
Neal interrupted quickly. "No, no .. that's not it at all Peter."
Peter shook his head. "Yeah, I can see that now, or to be precise, your actions and what you said in the van clued me in a bit." he looked at Neal sheepishly, "but before that, I had managed to convince myself that you would eventually leave.. one way or the other."
Neal didn't know whether to feel hurt, angry or resigned. Could he really blame Peter for thinking like that?
"I wouldn't do that to you, Peter, not after all of this." He sounded hurt to his own ears.
" I know.. I know.. I just.." It was Peter's turn to be at a loss for words.
"Let me tell you what was really going on, okay?" Neal said calmly.
Peter was obviously relieved that he didn't have to elaborate on his own thoughts, and he nodded enthusiastically.
"Just know that there are many contradictions, I've even managed to confuse myself!" Neal admitted.
"You're a man of contradictions, Neal." Peter simply stated.
"Yeah, but I'm used to make that work for me. Not anymore." Neal took a deep breath, and continued resolutely. "I have something to admit too, Peter. I was forced to cut the anklet and leave New York –you know that. But, I haven't been free to do what I want for a while, and that first taste was so good. I really enjoyed it .. for a while."
Peter raised his eyebrows, and waited. Neal's voice was less calm as he continued. "But, unbelievably, after the first few weeks, instead of feeling free, I started to feel trapped. I was trapped in "Paradise"! Kramer had stolen from me the chance to explore a different life, a life where I'm neither a felon nor a fugitive. A life where I'm with people who matter to me.. and who care for me. He had taken away from me the chance to make that decision on my own."
Neal stopped to take a deep breath. "Even when I was telling the commutation committee that "I believe I have changed," I wasn't really sure if that was true or false. I didn't know if I really wanted to go through life without breaking the law. Then when that choice was taken from my hands, I became angry, and I realized that I was more serious about exploring a different life than I've thought … but it didn't matter anymore, because I had been forced to remain a criminal whether I wanted to, or not. Ironic, isn't it? .. and if you want me to confuse you even more: now that I'm back here and have this chance again, I have doubts if I can in fact maintain this life.." Neal shook his head in frustration. "I don't see things as "black" and "white" as you do Peter.. I don't know if I can."
"I know there are gray areas, Neal. I've walked in some of them. You know that." Peter said dryly. "But, there are also basic and clear lines you shouldn't cross, most people learn that in Kindergarten!"
"Believe me, I was an upstanding citizen when I was in Kindergarten, Peter. Never stole anyone's lunch, and all my art and craft were my own!"
Neal continued seriously. "My "problem with the law" started later. Except I didn't see it as a problem then, it was more of a game. But that was before prison, before losing Kate, before costing you and Elizabeth so much.." Neal trailed off, unable to continue.
"I understand, Neal." Peter said quietly.
"Do you, Peter?" Neal asked softly. "Do you understand what it is to be completely torn between two different directions? What it is to be torn between two very important friends who are on opposite sides?"
Neal waited until Peter said it. "Mozzie.."
"Yeah, Mozzie who left paradise – his dream life – to come back with me!"
Neal couldn't sit still anymore, he started to pace. "I cost Moz Paradise, and I cost you so much more." He turned to face Peter. His face reflected the confusion, exhaustion and frustration he felt. "No matter what I do, I will end up disappointing one or both of you! It's just not worth it, Peter. You know I'm not prone to modesty, so you should believe me when I say it's really not worth it to you."
"Neal…" Peter started, but Neal raised his hand to stop him. "After coming back, and realizing the price you paid because of that whole fiasco, I felt that I owe you too much. I needed to do something to deserve it. Working cold cases didn't help." Neal sighed. "Meanwhile, over here Mozzie has been too quiet, almost depressed since we got back."
Neal felt deflated. He was done. He hadn't shared everything, but it was a start.
"Neal.. I told you what I think yesterday in the hospital, and I stand by it. You are worth it." Peter said after a few minutes of silence. "But you need to remove me and Mozzie both from the equation. As much as I would love to "force" you into a good life, I know it has to be your choice. You need to figure out where you're heading, instead of just reacting to what I or Mozzie want from you."
"I know." Neal said wearily, with his eyes closed. "It's not easy, especially now. It was never easy actually." He opened his eyes and looked directly at Peter with an unreadable expression. "A friend had once called me a "People Pleaser". I tried to tell him that it was a tool of the trade. My friend wasn't convinced, and I think he was right."
Before Peter could think of a suitable response, Neal shook himself out of his thoughts. "I'll figure it out, Peter. It's about time I do. Talking to you has definitely helped. I'm still trying to wrap my head about what you said, but I'll get there." Neal said confidently.
Neal could tell that Peter was relieved to see him acting more like himself. Peter clapped him on the shoulder gently. "Good. I'm here to help if I can. You know that."
"Thank you.. Peter. Just.. thank you!" Neal tried to put all what he couldn't say into those simple words. He and Peter have been able to communicate non-verbally since day one, and he relied on that.
He still had a lot of baggage to deal with. He also needed to revisit that moment in his life when he had decided to become a conman instead of a policeman. He needed to confront himself with some hard facts. But he felt more confident. He also felt lighter-burdens shared are burdens halved and all that. Peter, however, looked as if his half of the burden was weighing him down.
"So, what about a cup of that tea?" Neal suggested with a smile.
Peter thought about it for a minute. "Yeah, that's actually not a bad idea."
"Elizabeth is a wise woman." Neal said while filling the kettle.
Peter shook his head ruefully. "That she is. But I think this tea package is a misguided gift from a friend and she has been trying to get rid of it ever since!"
Peter laughed as Neal sniffed at the package suspiciously, muttering "calming effect, my foot!"
A/N: Thank you for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts!