He had tried. He had tried to be angry. He imagined what men like Keller felt the moment before they pulled the trigger. Was it satisfaction? Relief? Or was it nothing… just the easy, thoughtless, void of knowing that the twitch of a finger was destroying another human being, and not feeling much either way about what that meant. What he wouldn't give not to feel. Neal was certain that Keller couldn't possibly feel the wrecking, immeasurable grief that was consuming him now. Surely nobody could survive that more than once. It crushed in on him from all sides - an unspeakable pain that was too intense and terrible for words or comprehension.
Anger was all he'd had left. It had worked, at first. The hatred that burned in his chest for the beast who'd exploded Kate's place - only sharpening when he learned it was Fowler, when he had a name and face to pair with the rage - that hatred had been enough to keep Neal from caving in on himself. It had allowed him to walk through the weeks and months that came on the heels of Kate's death with a bright, flashing grin and a quick wit and the happy-go-lucky confidence that both the FBI and the criminal world knew him for. Because without that, he was nobody. Or, at the very least, he was a stranger to himself. Charming was all he knew how to be. Grief did not wear well on Neal Caffrey.
Yet the moment he'd fired the warning shot past Fowler's head, Neal knew that this wasn't what he wanted - couldn't even remember through the haze in his mind why he'd ever thought that it was. His anger had burned out to the end of its fuse, and without that heat keeping him alive, making him remember that he was human, he was destroyed. He'd turned into his father. Into a killer, or as good as one, because what was the difference, really? He could have done it. His finger had been right there, flush against the trigger, and he would never know now what he'd have been capable of had Peter not intervened when he did.
"You didn't do it, Caffrey," Diana had told him in the car on the way back to the Bureau earlier that day. When he hadn't responded, she'd sighed loudly and added, "You heard Peter, you're not a killer."
Neal had nodded, keeping his eyes down, fixed on his handcuffed wrists, unwilling to look at her and see the gentleness that he could hear in her voice. They should have been scolding him, he should have been in a cruiser on the way to a super-max with mesh caging separating him from the driver, not seated behind Diana as if they were just on the way back from a job.
"I could have done it," Neal had insisted forcefully. He needed her to understand how close he'd been. It hadn't been one of the thoughtless, impulsive acts of his that drove Peter crazy. This had been thought out. It had been deliberately and perfectly arranged. Diana, of all people, should have been able to see that and berate him sufficiently for it. "I could have shot him." The words were sour in Neal's mouth, but they were the truth, and he couldn't bear to lie anymore, even if only by omission or false assumption. Let Diana know me for what I am.
"Since when has Peter been able to stop you from doing anything you really want to do?" Diana had asked, and the question was unexpected enough to make Neal pause for a moment. He raised his eyes to glance at her expression, reflected in the rearview mirror, just in time to see her smirk at his silence. "Exactly. If you'd really wanted Fowler dead, he'd be cold by now."
Neal had shuddered involuntarily at the language she'd used and wondered when in between Kate's death and now he'd forgotten how to conceal his feelings.
Of course, Diana had noticed right away and said coolly, "Look at you. You're a mess. You weren't going to kill Fowler. You wouldn't have done it, even if Peter hadn't broken in the door."
"You can't know that." Neal's voice was a constricted whisper, one that he thought only he could hear.
"Like hell I can't," Diana had said unyieldingly. "You might think that you deserve to be back in your super max, but as of right now you're still my consultant and you're in massive trouble - and not wearing your anklet, I might add - so you're going to shut your smooth mouth and drop the little insubordinate comments, because you still work for me."
Neal knew that Diana was only saying it for him, but nonetheless, her tone - disciplinary and sure and very similar to how Peter spoke to him - made him remember who he was, or at least who he wanted to be. Who he would have still been if he'd trusted Peter and done things his way.
So he straightened up in his seat and tried to appear as dapper and put-together as he could with his hands still in cuffs and the sound of the one bullet he'd fired still throbbing in his temples. It was just in time, too, because Diana was pulling into the parking garage below the FBI headquarters, and in a moment Neal would have to turn himself into a man again and face what he'd done.
"Get out," Diana ordered, throwing the car into park and coming around to hold his door open for him.
Neal had swung his legs out of the car awkwardly, the lack of use of his hands making it difficult and his mind too exhausted to put on any kind of façade of bravado or control over the situation.
"Back against the car and hands out," Diana commanded, and Neal's brow furrowed in confusion. What was she doing? Couldn't she see that he was more helpless than he'd ever been, that there was no need for this, that he wouldn't run now, because no matter how far or fast he went, he couldn't run away from himself - the one person he still wanted to escape.
"Don't make me tell you twice, Caffrey," Diana snapped, and Neal pressed his back against the Ford instinctively, extending his cuffed hands as she'd instructed.
She'd pulled a small key from her pocket and was reaching for Neal's wrist before he realized what she intended to do and yanked his hands back as if he'd been burned. "What are you doing?" And why are you being lenient, the one time that I deserve a punishment so much worse?
"Caffrey!" Diana grabbed his wrist, her fingers hard against him, and pulled it roughly towards her. It wasn't until he'd let her get the key into the lock that her grip relaxed slightly and she looked up at him, the cuffs still secure, the key not yet turned in its lock. "Look at me."
Neal cast his gaze to the ground, and Diana rolled her eyes and pulled down, hard, on the cuffs, the metal edge biting into Neal's skin. When he finally complied and raised his head, trying to look everywhere but at her, Diana relaxed the pressure on his wrists. "Stop acting like a petulant child, Neal." Irritation was evident in her face and voice, but it had no effect on Neal, his blue eyes hopeless and unreachable. "I'm going to take the cuffs off, and you're going to let me. Do you understand why?"
Neal shrugged, his expression devoid of any remaining will to fight.
"Tell me why."
"Because you don't want me to have to walk through the FBI like this." Neal couldn't conceal the grief in his voice, and accompanied with what he'd just said, he hated how weak it made him sound.
"Wrong. You think I'm taking pity on you? You're irresponsible and unreliable and you removed your anklet without permission and stole a gun. You don't get pity."
"Because you're not a criminal." Faint incredulity flickered for a moment over Neal's otherwise lifeless expression, and Diana amended, "Not this time. That's why. Don't you forget it."
"Okay." Even Neal had been able to hear how empty his own voice sounded.
"Believe me, Caffrey, I don't have any sympathy for you."
He knew that she was lying for him because she saw that his pride was all he had left, but he accepted the lie for the gift it was and repeated, "Okay."
Diana tilted her head, trying to meet his eyes, and Neal let her do it. So what if she saw reflected in them everything that he'd felt since Kate's death? That was part of the consequences for what he'd done - consequences that would never be enough.
Seeming to have found whatever she was searching for in Neal's face, Diana turned the lock and pulled the cuffs free, tucking them into her pocket. There was a thin line of red circling Neal's wrists where he'd deliberately chaffed his skin against the metal in an attempt to feel something, anything, even pain. Diana's eyes had lingered on it as Neal let his hands fall limply in front of him, his wrist still crossed over each other, as if the cuffs were still there.
He saw the set of Diana's mouth soften almost imperceptibly and was bracing himself for kindness that he didn't deserve, but Diana recovered herself and prodded him in the side of his shoulder with the back of her knuckles, her touch gentler than he wanted it to be. "Move, Caffrey," she had ordered.
That familiar phrase had been enough to snap him back into the world of cons and aliases and facades, and he managed to maintain a semblance of calm while Peter interrogated Fowler, more out of a sense of self-preservation than any real control over himself. He had poured all his grief for Kate into finding the person responsible for her death - every painful breath, every moment he missed her, every time he saw their wine bottle lying on his bookshelf - and as long as he was actively a part of Peter's investigation, he could occupy himself with the need for answers and stop himself from feeling.
At least until Diana and Jones re-entered the room. "The Marshalls reset the key," Jones informed Peter, hardly looking at Neal.
"Take him home," Peter had instructed, and Neal had gone cold the instant he'd heard the words. He tried to get Peter to let him stay, to make Peter understand that he needed it, that it wasn't about Fowler or Kate anymore, but that it was because he couldn't bear to be alone with himself. Peter, so able to know Neal's true intentions at any other time, hadn't caught the desperation in Neal's eyes when he asked to stay - or maybe, Neal realized later on, he had seen it and had deemed it an appropriate punishment for what he'd done that morning.
Diana had been the one to take him home, the drive to June's apartment even more difficult than their earlier trip back to the Bureau. "There's going to be a pair of eyes on your tracking info at all times for the next twenty four hours," she told him.
"Good," Neal had said hollowly. They were right. He couldn't be trusted. He should be watched. He'd crossed a line that he never imagined was in the realm of what he was capable of. He didn't know who he was anymore. He'd lost control - conned himself into thinking that he could be anything better than the criminal son of a dead beat father.
"So don't try anything," Diana was continuing.
"I won't." As if he had it in him to do or be anything anymore.
"I know you won't." This time, Neal was grateful for the gentleness in her voice.
Diana might have trusted Neal to be on his own, but Neal didn't, and now he was left in his apartment with nothing but the crushing feeling that his chest was tearing itself apart while collapsing in on itself at the same time.
So he clung to the anger that had sustained himself for the past four months as if it was the only thing that could keep him alive, even though he knew as he did so that it was no good, because he had nobody to hate but himself for this. He'd promised himself when he came to New York that he would never be anything like his father. So much of what he believed was because of that - his fear of guns, his disdain for violent crime, his loyalty to the people who mattered. It was why he'd been able to look a judge in the eye only a year ago and claim truthfully that he was proud of most of what he'd done. He'd known who he was, and he'd known that, whatever else he might be, he was not his father's son. And now, because of one bullet directed at the wrong man, that fragile peace he'd made with his past was betrayed.
The realization of it broke something inside Neal, and suddenly the backs of his eyes were burning in a way that they hadn't since Kate had died. The involuntary tremor that he'd developed in his right hand after the plane explosion resurfaced for the first time in months, the muscles in his palm tightening and his fingers trembling uncontrollably. He clasped his hand in front of his mouth, resorting out of habit to the technique he'd used to hide it from Peter in his first weeks back at the office, when everyone had been watching him for what seemed to them like an impending breakdown.
Here it was.
Neal shook his head, trying to stop his mind from spiraling into a full-blown panic attack. He looked down over the desk in front of him for a distraction, his eyes settling unhelpfully on the box of bullets he'd stolen. He hated them, his body wanted to recoil from them, but Neal forced himself to reach out and pick one up, to understand fully what he'd become, to feel the weight of it in his shaking hand and smell the stench of metal slick against his flesh. Bile rose in his throat, and Neal distracted himself by placing the bullet on the book that lay in front of him and then reaching for another one. He stacked them in diagonal lines across the book, pretending that they were chess pieces, fighting the way his chest constricted around his heart.
It didn't help, and painful recollections were flashing unbidden across his mind, the shattering burst of sound and heat from Kate's exploding plane, his own shrieks of horror, Peter's arms around him, strong and rough and restraining, keeping him away from the flames that were consuming the only person he'd ever allowed himself to love with all that he was. Neal sprang from his seat at his desk and paced the apartment, trying to make it stop. He had wanted to be consumed along with her. He didn't know how to exist in a world where Kate didn't. He shouldn't have had to learn how. He should have been on that plane, dying with her.
And today he'd come so close to bringing that torture into someone else's world. In all of his and Mozzie's digging into Fowler's past, they'd never bothered to find out who else's life they were destroying. Had he remarried? Did he have a daughter who would have had to bring flowers to her daddy's grave? A son who'd have wondered why his father didn't come home?
It was too much, and Neal sank back into his chair, unable to bear seeing the bullets laid out before him. He flung them to the floor with a wide sweep of his arm, the bullets flying in all directions and pattering onto the floor. Somehow, that wasn't enough, and the destruction that was ripping Neal apart inside emerged and turned his self-hate outwards. He snatched up page after page of labor that had been dedicated to finding Kate's killer and crumpled, tore, and threw each to the floor.
Finally, a page with a bar of sheet music written across the top made Neal stop. It had been from shortly after Kate died, and it'd had nothing to with the music box or revenge or anything. It was Kate's favorite piece of music, one that they'd played softly from an old stereo on many nights, dancing to it and pretending that they were in an extravagant ballroom instead of a bare apartment. The song had played through Neal's mind over and over in the weeks after Kate's death, and one day he'd written it down so that he could let it go, get it out of his head without being afraid that one day it would slip away forever, just like Kate had.
For a moment, Neal considered trying to smooth out the already-crumpled paper and salvage it, but it was smeared with gunpowder and charcoal that had rubbed off from his hands, and it was useless now. A piece of classical music couldn't bring Kate back. It couldn't take away the fact that this morning he'd fired a gun past someone's head. He tossed it gently to the rest of the mess on the floor and buried his face in his hands, trying to press back the pressure behind his eyes, reminding himself that this shouldn't feel like losing Kate all over again.
He curled his fingers into his hair and tugged on the roots, hard, wanting the physical pain to ground him in reality, which - awful as it was - was better than the torture of being trapped in his mind. When that did nothing, he raised his face and stared down at his hands, feeling strangely detached from them, as if they weren't his own. They were small - he'd been teased for it as a kid - slim at the wrist, with long, delicate fingers that were perfect for sliding in and out of pockets unnoticed, for picking locks and forging the most minute details of art and documents. They weren't hands that should be blackened with gunpowder. They weren't hands that should hold a gun. They weren't hands that killed. And yet they could have been.
He rubbed his palms against each other hopelessly, trying in vain to get some of the gunpowder off of them. And suddenly, his burning eyes were full of tears.
It's just gunpowder, he tried to tell himself, but that was exactly the problem. It was gunpowder, and it was everywhere, on his hands, under his fingernails, smeared across his cheeks and in his hair, and he couldn't get rid of it. It clung to him, the color, the grimy feel of it, even the smell, and he couldn't make it go away any more than he'd been able to change himself, to be trustworthy, to be an FBI agent, to be the heroic public servant he once thought his father had been. He was a conman, and no matter how long he believed that he could be something else, when it came down to it, underneath it all, a conman was still all that he was.
So Neal gave up, gave in to the tears, and let down the carefully constructed barriers that had kept him together for so long. He looked over at the clock on the wall and gave himself five minutes. Five minutes of weakness.
Three minutes in, Neal thought that he should probably try to reign it in. He bit down on his lower lip and tried to keep it from trembling and wiped the tears from his face. It was useless. They kept coming, and the more he tried to stop them, the harder and faster they came, his throat constricting until each breath came in a loud, ugly gasp that ripped painfully from his chest.
At six minutes, Neal stopped trying and buried his head in his arms, bowed over the desk.
After seventeen minutes, he finally caught his breath. He was exhausted and drained and felt helpless, more exposed than he could remember being in a long time, but strangely better. Less hollow. Less like his internal organs were being ripped apart. He stood, looking around the room, and set about cleaning up the mess. He took care of the bullets first, because seeing them strewn across his floor made him want to lose it again and not bother timing himself this time. He arranged them neatly in their cardboard box and then dropped it into the bottom of his trash barrel before piling on top of it all the papers he'd destroyed.
He took out the trash even though it wasn't even half-full, and it wasn't until he was back in his apartment that he looked at himself in his bathroom mirror. He froze in shock at his reflection - the tops of his cheek flushed, his hair mussed, his eyes soft and hurt and rimmed in red, his face streaked with tears and gunpowder.
He stared, trying to memorize this nearly unrecognizable person in the mirror. This is what you look like, he reminded himself. When you take off the hats and the custom-tailored suits and the Forzieri ties, this is you. And it wasn't the reflection of a murderer or a con or even the smooth-talking CI he tried to be all the time. He was just a man, appearing a little sad - but wasn't that normal for someone who'd lost the love of their life? - and a little less handsome at the moment than how he'd like to imagine himself, and more than a little broken, but none of those things were permanent or branding like the other roles he'd tried to fit himself into. He was just himself, and in that instant, being himself was enough.
A/N: My first White Collar story. Please review? :)