He turned the key and opened the door. The apartment was eerily silent. He walked straight across to the windows and didn't bother turning on the lights. It was easier to stare out into the night and try and come to terms with his anger. Anger… he smiled bitterly. The word didn't even touch on it. As a matter of fact he was livid. Better make that burning with rage.
Worst of all was the terrible frustration which gnawed like an ulcer inside him. He'd been impotent and utterly powerless ever since El had first called. There was nothing he could say to comfort her. No inanities to help ease her pain. Nothing he could do. No game plan. No slicked-back, Neal Caffrey solution. Just a sense of inevitability. An insidious choking fear.
The world had fallen out from underneath him. The dark water had returned with a vengeance. It lapped at the edge of his vision. He felt trapped like a rat in a pipe.
Her words had been careful and studiedly calm. He had sensed she was fighting for composure. Peter had been assaulted so badly there was a very real chance he could die. There was no point asking how or why. Neal was cynical enough to know the answers. Money and power could unlock any door. Somebody had clearly been bought.
She hadn't been informed immediately. Not until they'd untangled the protocol. The whole incident was a major embarrassment and would lead to an internal enquiry. Someone would have to carry the can and it was likely that heads would roll. No consolation. He couldn't give a flying rat's ass. He was pretty sure El didn't either. Words and platitudes meant less than nothing. Not when Peter was so gravely hurt.
Even though El was his named next of kin, there was some query about her visiting. It had taken more time and some calls to Reese Hughes before she'd been grudgingly allowed.
Peter's condition was critical and he'd been transferred to Bellevue Hospital. El had been forced to wait another six hours until they'd given her permission to see him. By then, all the fight had gone out of her. She could barely suppress her terror. She'd become so white-faced and unnaturally quiet that Neal was concerned she might faint. He was almost glad when a short-tempered Calloway arrived, stalking on her heels up the corridor. She'd glared at the stony correctional guards and made a big show of pulling some strings.
It was a power-play and Neal understood that. She was pissed off because they'd overlooked her. She wanted to know who made the call to Reese Hughes, making a point he was no longer in charge. Elizabeth had straightened her shoulders and spoken up with quiet dignity. She'd called Hughes because she'd known he would help and because he was Peter's friend.
Her admission stopped Calloway dead in her tracks. The inference was glaringly obvious. Elizabeth Burke clearly didn't believe she had Peter's best interests at heart.
Calloway's discomfiture was priceless. At any other time, Neal might have enjoyed it. Right now the small triumph was meaningless. A void had opened up inside him. All he cared about was Elizabeth and that the bastards would let her see Peter.
He sat in silence with his arm around her and the void inside him grew deeper. Anger swirling into a black vortex as it metamorphosed into hate.
Hours later they eventually came for her. A doctor and a prison representative. After speaking for a while with Calloway, at long last, they turned around to El. She was escorted alone to the ICU and accompanied for the entire visit. There was no yielding or special dispensation from the correctional officers on guard.
He supposed they were only doing their job and acting under given orders. All he could see was how much it was hurting El and the stricken look on her face. Not just her face. Peter's team had arrived and were summarily barred from the unit. The long wait became especially uncomfortable and their accusatory looks were hard to take.
Not that he blamed them.
In the end, James had done this. The man who was genetically his father. The scientific term helped keep things in perspective. It was James Bennett's only claim to the title.
Closing his eyes, Neal took a deep breath. The whole day had been like some kind of nightmare. Things had been awful – had been wretched enough – but now they were a thousand times worse.
He sent the first text after El's phone call and the second later on in the morning. It gave him a small thrill of pleasure to imagine how James must have felt. Even better was the stutter of fear in his heart. The unequivocal truth of discovery. He must have thought he was home and dry. That he'd escaped and was safely in the clear.
In his dreams.
Or maybe his nightmares.
Neal's lips curved, slowly, cruelly. James was insufferably arrogant. He needed to learn a sharp lesson and Neal was more than happy to oblige. Point one and uppermost in his mind was that no one got away with hurting Peter. Point two and almost as important…no one should underestimate him.
James had done so and that was insulting. To be tossed aside and treated so carelessly. His father was about to realise he would not be so summarily dismissed.
He sent the third text after seeing El's face when the guards brought her out of the unit. Her eyes had been red-rimmed with crying. Her skin parchment-white with shock.
"They wouldn't let me stay with him."
She'd looked at Calloway for some sort of assistance. The woman had the grace to look a little shame-faced before quoting the usual vapid party line. Visiting was strictly prohibited for reasons of staff and officer safety. Hospital security was inadequate and far too easily breached.
Neal had given a silent cheer when Elizabeth stiffened with anger. "It seems no one gave a damn about security when it was Peter's life on the line."
Calloway had no answer apart from issuing a stream of orders. She would see her team first thing in the morning. No excuses, eight o'clock prompt. Berrigan looked like she was about to protest, her dark eyes burning with ferocity. Neal shook his head imperceptibly so she said nothing and compressed her lips. Settling back on the hard plastic chair, he went over the last few days again. He watched Calloway from under his lashes and sadistically enjoyed her unease.
Pratt's puppet or simply an ambitious bitch?
He wasn't sure yet which hat she was wearing. Right now, she was not his priority. Her time for comeuppance could wait. One thing he was absolutely sure of. Her involvement had hurt Peter badly. He didn't care if she was innocent or guilty. If Peter died, she would pay.
After that it turned into a nightmare. He remembered the sudden fear and confusion. Things had rapidly gone to hell in a hand-basket as the code-blue alarm rent the air.
He shivered and looked out at the night sky. The apartment was full of shadows. An atmosphere of silent expectancy seemed to quiver and pulse in the air. Neal exhaled and watched his breath fade on the glass. A fine mist which vanished in seconds. It was transient and unbearably fragile. An ephemeral proof of life.
Nothing lasts forever.
The old adage mocked him. It sounded like the worst kind of cliché. Either that or the title of a novel or a sad romantic song. The words meant nothing when you were young and immortal and life was thrilling and full of possibilities. His future glittering with infinite potential and the entire world spread out at his feet.
Nothing lasts forever.
He smiled derisively. Perhaps he was just getting older? There was danger involved with putting down roots and gradually letting folk in. If you loved, you got hurt. It was simple. Yet again he had found out the hard way. Caring made you weak, made you vulnerable. It exposed you to heartache and pain.
Like Kate, like Ellen, like Peter…
Face hardening, he reached for his cell phone and scrolled down through his list of contacts. He wanted some serious payback. Time to send another message to James. Walking across to the small kitchen counter, he didn't bother turning the lights on. In a strange way the darkness was comforting. It felt more in tune with his mood.
No more half-assed threats or innuendo. The anger inside him had crystallised. Not a game or an elusory war of words. James should know this was for real.
He hadn't slept now for twenty-four hours but every nerve in his body was humming. His mind seemed to vibrate with energy as his thumb hovered over the key-pad. Julius Caesar, his favourite Shakespeare. Full of scheming, deception and treachery. The choice of play was more than appropriate. It was a tragedy of so-called friendly alliances and free will versus human fate.
James might behave like a maverick but appearances could be deceptive. In reality, he was a control freak and every move was carefully planned. Neal knew by now he would be seriously spooked. Being hounded wasn't part of his strategy. He could sense James out there in the darkness, simply waiting for his next show of hand. The link was sentient and strong and he could use it, the sudden spark of connection to his father. However much the inherent bond sickened him, it was still a way of making James pay.
Send. It was done. He let out a long breath and was surprised to see his hand was shaking. As though the energy had been sucked out of him and sent flying through the ether with the text. He didn't doubt that James was reading it now or that the words would mean something to him. All the pieces were lined up on the chess board. It was time to play his opening gambit.
He laid his cell down on the counter and poured a large glass of Rioja. Holding it up to the windows, the dark wine was the colour of blood. He drained it unusually quickly, the smooth tannins embracing his palate. It gave him a shot of Dutch courage and a measure of fire in his veins.
He threw a few essentials together. A fake passport and a few thousand dollars. A burner cell and a driver's license and a handy strip of forged credit cards.
The anklet key was hidden in the bookcase. He stared down at it for a long moment. It was suddenly immensely heavy as he held it on the flat of his palm. No going back. There would be no going back. He would effectively be burning his bridges. The price of revenge would be permanent if he pursued this vendetta against James.
Elizabeth's grief at the hospital and her description of Peter's injuries… the piercing alert of the code blue alarm and the terrified look on her face…
His fist clenched forcefully over the key. Sinews' tightening until his hand was in agony. The images were vivid and shocking as it pressed down like a brand into his flesh. Prison… the word made his gut roil. Stench of terror and sweat and corruption. Every day another fight for survival. The memory made him feel physically sick. He'd been there. Knew what they were capable of. The levels that such men could go to. He closed his eyes against the blood and the horror and took another shuddering breath.
Peter didn't… he hadn't deserved any of this. He was a kind man and decent and honourable. He believed in a world where people did the right thing and the good guys won out in the end. Not this time. They didn't… they hadn't… and Peter had paid a terrible price. James had spotted an ideal opportunity and Neal didn't doubt it was personal. Framing Peter for the senator's murder must have seemed like a sweet recompense.
Some of the blame was unquestionably his. It was clearer when he looked back with hindsight. Some of the comments he'd made about Peter had been intentionally designed to wound James. It didn't matter if they were true. What he felt was a separate issue. In the end, he had wanted to punish his father. James had looked upon Peter as a rival. Relaxing his hand, he uncurled his fingers and waited for the ache to rescind.
The need to strike back was implacable. He gathered strength from the feeling of ruthlessness. The flame of anger burned in him brightly. He knew what he had to do. He had started this and now he would end it. At the very least, he owed Peter. He placed his foot on the edge of the bookcase and pulled up his trouser-leg.
His cell phone splintered the darkness, the strident tones disturbing the silence. He paused in the act of undoing the anklet, the key still poised in mid-air.
Not James, he looked down at the screen. The name flashed again, more insistently. He was strangely reluctant to answer it. Didn't want to have to deal with the pain. It was gutless and decidedly cowardly. His finger hovered over the off-switch. He wished to god, he had done it earlier. Sighing, he pressed answer instead.
"Neal, thank god I caught you," she sounded brittle and husky from crying. "Whatever it is you're planning to do, please don't. It just isn't worth it."
"Where are you?"
His mind raced as he tried stalling for time, feeling unnerved and a little incredulous. What the hell, was Peter's wife psychic, or just good at reading his mind? He remembered her face at the hospital and felt a quick pang of humility. It was amazing she'd noticed anything at all in the middle of all her distress.
"Neal, please," she ignored his question. "Not you too, I just couldn't bear it."
"Elizabeth, I - "
The lies were already poised on his tongue. All slick and lined up, ready and waiting. He could convince her in the space of a heartbeat and deliver them without breaking sweat. This he knew – this he was good at. The evasiveness came tripping so easily. He could tell her whatever she wanted to hear, make her believe him… and yet…
It was Elizabeth and she was suffering. His gut clenched in sudden frustration. For a second or two he was angry enough to wish he hadn't picked up the phone. The red mist burned brightly inside him and he really needed to do this. James had taken everything away from him. It was time for his father to pay. Elizabeth had friends, she had family. Plenty of folk she could lean on. It was unfair of her to play the conscience card or resort to emotional blackmail. He couldn't really believe she needed him. She was pure and tough and gutsy. People would rally around her, and in the end, she would survive.
He took a breath and leaned against the counter. The dark room was crowding in on him. His blood pulsed and throbbed with the same kind of fire as when he'd taken the gun after Fowler. Peter had stopped him, and now it was El. She was trying to talk him out of it. He gave a ragged sob of frustration and to his horror there were tears in his eyes.
"He wouldn't want it."
Her words pierced right through him. It didn't matter what Peter wanted. Neal fought off the subsequent images and tried desperately to push them aside.
"I want it," he said, passionately. "Don't you see, El, I need to do this. It's my fault James went after him. It's my fault that Peter…"
"Don't!" her voice broke over the line. "Don't say it and don't even think it. Peter went after Pratt of his own accord, no matter how much we tried to prevent him."
Another time, another hospital, and other old lies lay shattered between them. The memory was not a happy one. They'd both sought pretty hard to save Peter from harm, but at close of day, that ploy had failed. He smiled sadly. Peter had spiked their guns. He'd been unwavering and moreover damned determined. The man had been too single-minded. He was nothing if not resolute.
"You were right," he said, wretchedly. "From the start, you were right. I wish to god we had stopped him. That I'd never started this business with Pratt. I shouldn't have listened to James."
"No," he heard the catch in her throat. "I was wrong for all the right reasons. In trying to protect him from danger, all I did was deny who he was."
Neal laughed, softly, brokenly. "He could never be anything but Peter…"
"Peter - " Elizabeth echoed the name and then gave a muffled sob.
He hated to hear her cry. Hated that he was responsible. For a second, he wished she was here in the room, and then he could give her a hug. Who was he kidding? The need was mutual. He was lost and the world was imploding. All the shields he had so carefully constructed were crumbling and turning to dust.
"Peter would really hate this. He'd do anything… anything to stop you. If you go after James and you start breaking rules, then we'd both be letting him down."
"Not you," he spoke softly. "No one knows we had this conversation. James knows he can't hide forever, and I can force him to clear Peter's name."
"At what cost, your conscience, your freedom? Dear god, maybe even your life? You can't risk it, Neal, I won't let you. Stay here and do the right thing."
"Then James gets away?"
"I don't care about him, but I do care about you and Peter. He wouldn't allow you to do this. You have to promise me you'll stay here for him."
"I made you a similar promise before. It didn't turn out so well that time."
It was a low blow but he couldn't help it. The words seemed to sum up his bitterness. They came deep from somewhere inside him and burst out of their own accord. The awful thing was, he knew she was right. Peter wouldn't want him to do this. He would insist on finding another way of bringing Pratt's killer to justice.
"Guess I deserved that," El sounded subdued. "I was wrong, but it doesn't change things. Don't throw it all away for a man like James. Step back, Neal, he isn't worth it."
"But Peter is."
"Exactly, Peter is. He's the reason you have to stay."
Peter…oh god, Peter…all the adrenalin suddenly drained out of him, and he slid down the side of the counter. His knees bent like jack-knifes up to his chest as he came to a halt on the floor. He hated himself for feeling so weak but the feelings of rage had sustained him. He was rudderless, left with no means of support, now that the anger was fading.
Staying was going to be harder. It would take courage and a measure of sacrifice. Neal knew with a sudden flash of instinct, it would be the antithesis of James. Instead, it was the kind of thing Peter would do. The man who had gone out on a limb for him. Who'd seen past the carefully constructed façade and given him a chance to change his life.
Not James, but Peter, who was dependable, upright and honourable. All the things his father could never be. All the qualities James despised. He caught his breath at the contrast. The comparison had never seemed starker. No more thrills, no more games, no more egotism, just one vital... make that, critical choice.
He could carry on skating over the ice and deny the embrace of black water. Look ahead to a brighter future whilst trying to refute who he was. In the past he had behaved like his father. Done certain things to prove he was clever. Stolen items just because they were pretty with no regard for the consequences or cost. The admission was tough and it hurt him, but the truth was an intense revelation. Even now, when his heart was breaking, he was trying to outsmart James.
"Are you still there? Neal, please, just answer me?"
Elizabeth sounded frightened. He looked down at the key he held in his hand and took a long shaky breath. If he ran, he would be taking the easy way out and giving in to his desire for retribution. It was a short-term, even selfish solution. He would be acting exactly like his father.
He exhaled and the darkness drained out of him. His muscles releasing the anger. Nothing was set in tablets of stone. He didn't have to be a blueprint of James. They were father and son and therefore alike. He could exploit the fact to his advantage. He could be stronger and smarter and wiser, but in the end, he was his own man.
Maybe he had just cowboyed up… the ghost of a smile lit his features. There'd been a time when he'd hated that saying but now it felt like a comforting friend.
"I'm still here," he spoke the words softly. "I'll be here for as long as you need me. Doesn't mean I won't do everything possible to try and prove Peter was framed."
"Thank god," her voice broke down on a sob. "I wouldn't expect anything else."
Her comment caused him a tiny pang. He had so nearly trashed her expectations. Been so close to discarding the anklet and heading off on a course of revenge. It was still there, a burning trace of the anger, but now it was focused and rational. He was staying because he was needed… his self-respect was more important than vengeance.
Self-respect and his love for Peter. The man who really wasn't his father. Who had nonetheless supported and believed in him. Who might have sacrificed his life to call him friend.
He switched his phone off and replaced the anklet key. Went to the window and stared out across the city. He had a sense of definition, of purpose. The ice no longer cracked beneath his feet.
Lisa Paris - 2013