A/N:- This story is a triptych which follows the events of 'In the Wind.' The protagonists are Neal, Peter and James. There have been some tags exploring Neal's feelings, but none have really touched on Peter's, so I wanted to go a step further and take a hard look at all three men. With a large dose of angst for good measure...
Part One (Neal)
He was trapped in a nightmare, splintering, as black water closed in all around him. He awoke in a tangle of twisted limbs, too afraid to turn on the light. Darkness had long been a friend to him and he waited, his eyes adjusting. It took a while for his breathing to settle again and the residual terror to fade.
In a scramble of dreams, he'd been drowning, sinking down through the deep cold water, far too tired to kick out for the surface, too disillusioned to even try. The dream always started the same way, with a transitory thrill of buoyancy. He was skating through a silvered landscape, across the frozen level of a lake. Then with a horrible tearing and groaning, the world began rending beneath him. There was no one to hear him screaming for help as he fell through the cracks in the ice.
Ice, black, cold and alone… the nightmare was an allegory. The world around him was frozen, shattered. James had gone. He was here by himself.
Truth was he should have seen it coming. Christ, he really should have known better. There had always been something instinctive, a tight knot of suspicion in his gut. The trouble was, he had wanted it. He had craved a true sense of belonging. James was smart. He had used that hunger as a means of seducing him on-side.
As for love? It wasn't part of the picture. In conclusion, it never really existed. Curiosity, perhaps some competition, maybe even a little warped pride. James had wanted him for all the wrong reasons. Not because he was his father and he loved him. He had seen him as an easy way of getting at Pratt. He had merely been a means to an end.
That was it, pure and simple. Pull the trigger and find the fall-guy. Do the job and then leave without a backward glance, just a little twisted fatherly advice.
"In this life everyone takes a fall. Don't let it be you."
Oh, it wasn't, it never had been. Most of his life, he'd been too damned clever. In his own way, he'd done the same as James. Pulled the trigger and headed straight for the exit. Except in his case, the trigger was figurative. It was a Manet, a Turner, or a Rubens. It didn't matter who took the bullet. He was always the one to walk away.
They were alike. More alike than felt comfortable. James – god-damn him - had even remarked on it. It was funny how the words came to haunt him. You are the blue in my eyes. He shook his head at the horrible travesty. James had really known how to work him. His soul had soared briefly with a glimmer of hope but the comparison was a cynical lie. For a shining moment it had pierced his heart. Breeched the walls he had so carefully constructed. He had weakened just enough to risk taking a chance and James had scented the blood in the water.
Just a con. In the end, the words were empty. It was something he'd learnt back in the early days. Always try and get the mark to like you. Sneak in through their emotions, and not through their window. It was the first rule when working a scam.
James had used it, seen through him, and duped him. He'd lifted the sash on the window. Family was his vulnerability and James had prised him open like a clam. Locate the weaknesses, use the triggers and levers. Seek out any ghosts in the closet. Take their frailties and twist them in your favour… James had found his Achilles heel.
Swinging his legs out over the bed, he discovered all his limbs were trembling. There was wetness on face, on his eyelids. The self-accusatory sting of tears. He dashed them away and despised himself more. They were a luxury, he didn't deserve them. All the glass walls inside him were shattering. James had lied to him and played him for a fool.
His father… his father…he felt sucked dry, hollowed out and empty. If ever a man was not fit for, or any more unworthy of the name. Reaching up, he raked his hands through his hair. If only he could stop himself shivering. James had turned him into a patsy. He would never let it happen again.
Scent of coffee, rich and aromatic. He felt better after drinking several mug-fulls. It was just after three in the morning and he was strung out on a caffeine high. His eyes strayed to the cell phone on the table. Then he remembered he couldn't call Peter. For a second, the black ice almost returned. He took a deep breath and pushed it aside.
It was be easy, so easy to succumb to the guilt and let the pain and rejection engulf him, to crawl back into the bedroom and pull the covers over his head. Like Kate and all the bad times before. Like the endless days locked up in prison. Long periods when he had lain on his bunk and turned his face to the wall.
He prowled around the apartment like a tiger. Not this time. James wouldn't beat him. He'd placed his fate in the hands of others. He would not be so dumb again. Everyone wanted a piece of him, especially those who professed to love him. Good guys, bad guys, they were all the same… even his closest friends.
He was this, he was that… who was he?
He smiled grimly at his reflection. One thing he knew for certain. He was no longer James Bennett's son.
No more soul-searching. No more questions. No more trying to establish an identity. He was Neal Caffrey, James Bonds, Nick Halden, the same man he'd always been. Was he? He looked hard into the mirror and examined his reflection frankly. The man he saw was almost a stranger. An outsider who'd stolen his face. He stared harder as if seeking answers and blue eyes gazed evenly back at him. Not the same man who skated over the ice, but the man he intended to be.
There was another man…another man who needed him. Right now, more strongly than ever. To his surprise, it didn't feel like a burden. It felt warm and natural and real.
Peter was a little like medicine. You'd always known he was good for you. Didn't want to be a good boy and swallow a dose, but got worse when he was taken away. He smiled faintly – sadly - ironically. Since when was he dependent on medicine? The answer was kind of irrelevant and the remedy was locked up in jail.
It wasn't even a question of choices. The only course of action was a no-brainer. He was going to do everything, whatever it took, to get Peter Burke out of prison. He looked back up at his reflection and the man in the mirror smiled at him. If James thought blood was thicker than water, he would discover the idiom was wrong.
Like he had.
His face twisted bitterly. James was the poster boy for selfishness. He was hard-nosed and economically ruthless, eaten-up by his desire for revenge. So consumed, he was prepared to do anything. Clearly family meant nothing to him. He used those around him to serve his own ends, like expendable pawns in a game. The metaphor was distinctly uncomfortable and made Neal feel sick to his stomach. There had been plenty of times in the past when he'd looked upon life as an exercise. He thrived on the sheer excitement, always one step ahead of his opponents. Planning his moves with a cool sense of strategy and he was the master player.
Be first past the post, walk away with the prize. He realised he hated losing. It wasn't so much about the rewards. He just had to prove he was smarter.
Did that make him like James?
God, he hoped not.
In the end, being smarter meant nothing. Not if it meant losing Peter. Not if he turned out like his father who would do anything to win at all costs. He took another long drink of cold coffee. The irony wasn't lost on him. If James thought for a second this was over, he was in for one hell of a shock.
To the victor, the spoils. It went without saying, and this time, it was not about ego. In simple terms, the reward was priceless. Peter Burke was the endgame.
It was lighter and he moved to the windows. Dawn was rising grey and wet over the city. He was filled with a fierce sense of purpose and a cold and implacable resolve. The silence was rudely shattered by the strident ring of his cell phone. The black waters closed back over his head when he saw the caller was El.
Lisa Paris - 2013