At the gentle rap on the door-frame, Neal looked up with a faint smile that swiftly transmuted into an angry scowl. He rose and stepped forward, clearly intending to exit, but Huang held up a hand.
"I know, you'd rather ice-fish in Antarctica wearing nothing but your favorite fedora. Hear me out. Please."
Neal hesitated then lifted his chin slightly, as if in indignation, and turned away, moving to stare out the window beyond Peter's desk. "I'm willing to make you a deal. If you try to answer my questions honestly, including letting me follow up if I think it's important… you get three chances to declare a veto and not respond. I swear, I'll respect your choice and not push."
Neal grunted and shot a terse reply over his shoulder.
"But you'll save the tough questions until I run out of refusals."
"Not necessarily… but no promises." Huang told him with a grin. "You don't know me or trust me, I get that. I just ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt and treat me a little better than you would your worst enemy. With more of the same effort you displayed yesterday… an hour, two at the most and I'm out of your life."
"Until next year?"
"No. This is a one-time thing. You've been doing really well working with Agent Burke. The higher ups like what they're seeing, but, no matter when your release hearing comes up, the parole board will need reassurance that you're emotionally and mentally ready to be set free. Essentially, that's why I'm here."
At last, Neal turned and faced the other man.
"I am. You saw that yesterday."
"I saw what you wanted to show me. I got a tiny glimpse into your genuine feelings, but that won't be enough. As I said, I'm not going to demand your deepest fear and pain. Just be a little more open about how all this has affected you… and the people around you."
Neal hesitated, then paced a bit more then finally consented to take his seat again.
"New rule: no games on either side, okay? You know exactly what I'm asking."
"Maybe, but it's a lot more complex than you make it sound. It's not… 'all this'. It's my life. The pieces don't always work together and sometimes…"
"…you get stuck in the middle and can't see a way out?"
Neal sighed heavily.
"Which one makes you more frantic and frustrated?"
"Impossible to tell. Peter's showing me a life… I never thought I'd want. When I was in it, I really believed the cons and scams were the only path to peace and security. Never get attached, be ready to pick up and go the second you even *think* they're closing in, stay one step ahead, always. Two if you're very lucky."
"The ultimate control."
"You know better. It's the ultimate illusion. There are things and people around me, now, that I can't… that I *won't* give up. I'm truly happy in this life. Understanding that the decision to keep living it or throw it all away is in my hands… that from now on it'll always be my choice, my responsibility… that's real power and real control."
"Impressive insight and well said. What about the other side of the vise?"
Neal's lips thinned and he turned his gaze down. "Veto?"
"No. Not yet. But no digging into his past or his life. I won't let him be hurt."
"Okay. Go ahead."
"You told me what draws you to Peter and the things he's offered you. What pulls you in the other direction.?"
A mischievous grin appeared on Neal's face and Huang felt as if the whole room had suddenly brightened.
"It was so damn much fun. When he's fully invested in a scam, Moz… he's just so amazing. He makes me laugh every other minute, keeps me on pins and needles wondering what he'll think of next… Sometimes I miss it so much my whole body aches."
"You're worried he'll eventually vanish if you stay the course with the FBI."
"I know he will. He wants the old Neal back, but it's harder and harder to remember who that was. Every time June kisses my cheek or Elizabeth hugs me and calls me sweetie… when Peter smiles and tells me I did a good job… it washes away a little more of what I used to be."
"Does that scare you?"
"To the marrow."
"Do you think Agent Burke recognizes that?"
"He wouldn't be Peter if he didn't."
For several minutes, Huang let silence dominate, waiting patiently for the conclusion he sincerely hoped Neal was about to come to. Gradually, the epiphany took hold and the young man continued. "He knows. He never should've let me stay at June's… but he managed it somehow. He knew El would mother me so he took the risk of letting me into his home and his private life. He made sure I had strong connections… to replace the ones I was letting go of."
Huang allowed himself a momentary grin and rose to his feet. Shaking off the fog his revelation had created, Neal stood as well. "Are we done?"
"Not quite, but close. I think you have enough to think about for today, though. Another short conversation tomorrow and I'll have what I need. I'll meet you here…"
"No. The park."
"Okay. And I have all my lifelines left."
Huang strolled out, hands in his pockets. Neal stared after him for a long time, then curled up on the couch once more, despite knowing that this time he wouldn't be able to sleep no matter how badly he needed to.