Chapter 26 - Epilogue
Still in the hinterlands of sleep, Neal felt the hand on his arm and kept his eyes closed for maximum effect.
The weight and the friction of the skin as it slid lightly down from his shoulder was like his own personal sun, warming him and attracting him with a welcome gravity. In the moments before Peter would ease his body to fit behind the inert Neal, as they lay close together for a few minutes every morning, Neal's mind and body remembered.
He was in the hospital in Chicago, only he hadn't pieced that together yet. Neal was in the midst of his drug withdrawal and his body was fighting off a massive infection, and his going theory alternated between having gone insane and existing within a carefully constructed nightmare world he vaguely intuited he'd been living in for some time.
It was all Peter's fault, was the thought that broke through the heists relived, the cops he imagined he was running away from, the women he had loved ghosting in and out of the room.
Peter was the one vivid spot who had inserted himself in his artistic idyll at Prentiss' house. His handler was the one who was constantly telling him what to do, and had now forced his way into Neal's most carefully walled-off area of his psyche with something Neal knew better than to see as love. What right did Peter have to scrutinize his CI's body and the well-hidden fact that it reacted to men?
Neal existed in this nightmare realm for some unknown length of time, raging at Peter when his specter appeared, running away from the hazily remembered men who had paid him as a teenager, and in between, approaching terrible physical sensations that had him retreating quickly back into brutal dreams as the better alternative.
Then one day he felt it. It registered as some cool oasis within his feverish hallucinations, but he intuited that it was not unfamiliar—merely, that it had taken this long for this quiet, unassuming presence to distinguish itself among the more violent sensations. He gravitated towards it, curious, in need of relief. With his eyes bandaged and his body restrained, Neal tried to articulate a question, "What is that?" but his tongue produced far too many ripples for such a succinct question.
He decided it didn't matter what it was, this cool spot that helped anchor some small part of him away from the delirium that kept beating against his mind. It was there sometimes; at times the spot moved around, and Neal was beyond all analysis. "Hello," he tried to make his mouth say. "Hello, nice feeling."
Then the hordes of double-crossing crooks and crooked cops were on him again, and Neal struggled with them as best he could without use of his arms or legs. Then he stopped. There it was, that feeling, Neal realized, beginning to slide along the path laid by that voice. It told him stories, light, amusing stories about someone who played high school football and had funny, normal conflicts with his two funny, normal parents. Neal couldn't follow all of it, but it didn't matter. He quickly grew adept at isolating it among all the sounds inside and outside his head. This silver ribbon curled just ahead of him, beckoning with the promise of something, somewhere better than this hell he was in.
As Neal's physical situation improved, he found it harder to keep his mind away from reality, and he was forced to exist in that hospital bed, subject to tubes and needles and lots of people talking over his head as if he had no say in his own wellbeing.
He preferred playing cops and robbers. At least that was familiar.
"You're sure his eyes are going to be all right?" he heard one day. "Neal has the most extraordinary blue eyes."
"Yes, the eye inflammation isn't so much the problem as his desire to itch them," replied the dry medical voice, indistinguishable from all the other dry voices that had been swirling around him.
The nice feeling was outside his head, too. Neal lay back against the pillow, reassured that it would be all right to exist in this hospital nightmare. But it proved very difficult to stay in what he was forced to recognize as reality. Everything was all confused, and the most annoying thing was that Peter kept messing everything up.
One day he was being detached from the dialysis machine he feared would be a fixture in his life from now on, and he smelled it. It was a Peter smell. Bay rum.
Neal was anything but pleased to know that his controlling handler was in the room, witnessing his humiliation and owning this, one more intimate portion of his ugly new reality.
Neal was forced to listen to Peter's voice tell him all about a so-called love he didn't want anything to do with. He heard about a future he didn't want with this man who had been his keeper for two years. He decided to get better out of vengeance, just so he could run away from this man who was benefiting so much from his CI's inert state.
But it was confusing. Sometimes Neal would find himself drifting off into that pleasantly cool oasis, and then wake up and realize he was talking to Peter.
His weakened body would harden in an instant.
"You were telling me about Scott's problem with his face," Peter's voice said softly.
"I'm tired of having my brain picked," Neal snapped to cover his confusion. "Can't you leave me a shred of privacy, or do you need to take it all for yourself?"
"It's all right, we can leave your statement until tomorrow. I'll be here," Peter replied in that infuriatingly self-assured way he had.
"I'd rather you weren't," Neal replied and then sunk into that cool river. This time it was telling him a story about him and Peter, one time when they were undercover together and got stuck in a closet. The chuckling stream relaxed Neal, made him forget about the persistent ache in his lower back and the cramp in his legs that he didn't have the strength to reposition. He didn't remember the story going this way, but he imagined the nice feeling squeezed into his narrow hospital bed as if it were the closet, and though he couldn't make sense of why, Neal felt warm and cool in the nicest way.
Finally, the bandages were removed and it was much easier for Neal to put together images and sounds. The sight of Peter in his same old suits was at least familiar, and Neal found himself falling back into something like their old routine, with a significant distance grown in between. He watched this man who wanted him, scrutinizing him for signs of possessiveness. Neal was frustrated to see that Peter had become adept at helping the nurses shift his weight when they moved him in the bed; that he seemed to know when his charge needed small talk rather than questioning and he brought him real food, if only so Neal could take a few bites and then smell the non-industrial aroma.
So Neal confronted Peter about his awkward declarations of love he remembered from his darkest moments, thinking he could flush out the part of his erstwhile friend who had laid some diabolical plan to get Neal into this position.
Where there was simply no one else.
Neal Caffrey always had choices. He was the one in control of his own destiny, and yet somehow, there he was, with only one person to look forward to walking through the door to his hospital room, clearing out the other law enforcement agents when he got too tired, the only person who saw him as Neal Caffrey, criminal genius and heartbreaker, hidden within some yellowed specter of a man hooked up to machines.
From his hospital bed, Neal could see how little of his life had survived some senseless onslaught of bad luck. He needed Peter to walk through that door, even if it was just to have someone to resent.
Which Peter seemed to take annoyingly in stride. Somehow, his visitor got him talking about the hustler chapter in his life he'd been reliving over and over these past few weeks. Surprisingly, Neal felt a little better, talking about it. He got lost in the release of speaking these dark truths, having learned in his blindness that there was that cool river flowing beside him.
When he was done, Neal started to find that the cool feeling had moved farther away.
Peter had withdrawn across the room. The nice thing was Peter.
It was something he couldn't totally comprehend at that moment, and he was ashamed at this new evidence of how far his reality had fractured, but the surprise was enough to make him agree to go out on a date with the man who might not be the dominating brute he had come to think Peter must be on some level.
For the rest of the time he was in Chicago, Neal recounted everything he could about his time at Prentiss Scott's mansion with a clarity that had been missing before. But his mind was engaged with a different problem—how to understand his own misfortunes with the part of the villain recast.
Still, the nicer Peter was to him, the more Neal began to resent his friend and protector all over again for having declared himself at a point in his life where he was ill-equipped to refuse.
"Why couldn't you have had your midlife crisis earlier, damn you? I'm Neal Caffrey, true romantic, not dependent victim. This is not the stuff passion is made of, and if I'm not careful I'm going to be stuck into some codependent situation out of misplaced gratitude."
The accusation was right behind Neal's eyes, and it was always answered by some unfathomable thing in the FBI man's gaze that never failed to make the younger man look away.
Returning to the city and the job he never planned on seeing again felt like a dream.
It all blew up in the car on the way back from his first day at the bureau since he ran. There was something about hearing his own experiences treated like a case, even more than the team's ideas about his being the butt of some sick joke, that made Neal rebel. He'd been the one stringing Peter along during their Wiley Coyote/Roadrunner days. Everyone knows the Roadrunner is in control!
Neal had never been so humiliated as he was that day. It was the last bit of his pride that the hospital indignities hadn't already taken. His excellent suit felt like a stark contrast with his pathetic state.
When they got back to the car, Peter fatally tried to fill the silence with, "So, why didn't you wear your hat today?"
"Sick people shouldn't wear hats!" Neal had exploded. "It makes everyone think of cancer. Unless you do have cancer, which is one shitty thing that hasn't happened to me yet. But who knows—maybe somebody arranged that for me, too."
"My instincts tell me no, Neal. This is about some kind of cause and effect that we can just see out of the corner of our eyes, not a disease that would be highly unlikely to have an unnatural cause."
"Glad to know that your instincts have such an insight into the mind of a sociopath!" Neal had shouted at Peter. All the way back to his apartment, Neal gave Peter a tongue lashing that was a masterpiece of invective, worthy of a Caffrey. Everything that Peter said, no matter how innocuous, was precisely the most annoying thing Neal could conceive of at that moment.
When they pulled up to his place, Neal had worn himself out to the extent that he had to rely on Peter's help getting out of the car. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning on the arm that transformed into a cool river.
"Are you all right, Neal?" he heard the nice voice say.
He opened his eyes and just managed to quell the hateful words from his lips. Neal contented himself with a nod and was led up to June's house in silence.
"I'll let you know if we need you to come in to the office again, but I hope you can rest until you're allowed back in the ranks of the hat-wearers," Peter had said, and then he was gone.
Neal stayed in bed for most of the next few days, feeling the words burning like a coal where he'd swallowed them:
"You get off so hard on me not being all right."
What Neal had found so annoying in the car ride back was that he and Peter had their own music they made together. No matter what Peter did, it was a part of their friendship symphony, built up over years. The point-counterpoint, whether in the key of laughter or anger, it connected them. Neal needed it. This was something he couldn't blame on anyone except himself, that he had allowed himself to become enmeshed with another man to this extent.
Neal had needed the excitement of the cat and mouse game with Peter far longer than he liked to admit.
Lying in bed at June's, he asked himself, over the years, why he never dated another man. It's not that there weren't plenty of attractive men in New York. Men made passes at him all the time. His best answer was that no one had tried very hard.
The superficial men were frozen out soon enough, and the more sensitive ones were quickly caught in the maze of approach/avoid signals Neal gave off to any man who dared to get too close. Every time, Neal found his axiom proved: women were more sensible, less frightened by complications. Why deal with all that if he didn't have to?
But in those next four days, Neal realized he did have to. Everything in him was sending off "approach" signals to the person who was somehow close to the center of his life, everything but the part of Neal that opened his eyes to a rare species of calm and saw himself looking at a man.
If only for his own mental cohesion, he had to figure out if the "avoid" gate that slammed into place was out of a trauma hardened into fact, or simply an optional sort of fear.
He needed to do some serious thinking. So naturally, Neal called Mozzie.
Things had been a little cool between the two of them because of his best friend's hurt at not being told about his escape. But Neal invited Mozzie over and watched him drink wine until the little man's legendary heart of gold began to melt.
There had never been any danger of Mozzie being fazed by Neal's frank discussion of the moot point of his long-avoided sexuality. The fact that the man in question was a fed did not go over well, however.
"The Suit? Why him? Look around you, Neal, there's any number of men interested in you. I can get you together with a few carrying a torch for you, people from our world."
Neal sighed. "I didn't choose this," he said with a bitter resonance that made his friend look over sharply.
"Then how can I help?" the other man asked.
"Perform one of your investigations on Peter. I haven't been paying attention to him for months. For all I know he's been going through his own hell."
Mozzie's face assumed a vague look.
"He told you?" Neal demanded, aghast that his friend would have held back something like Peter's feelings for him.
"He told me that he was having some kind of nervous breakdown. Believe me, if I knew that it was about you, I would have said something," Mozzie assured him, pouring more wine. "I'll look into it. Don't worry, I have a trustworthy source."
The next day, Mozzie had shown up with the results of his investigation. "He's moved out. I've met Elizabeth for lunch several times in the last few months, and she has a better poker face than I thought—she never let on," his best friend said. "Elizabeth told me yesterday that he got his own place not too long after you left—it's strange how calm she is about it. They see each other for lunch or dinner, but not in any way you should be concerned about, if you want to be the person in his life concerned about such things," Mozzie said, his divided loyalties apparent. "Are you?"
"I'm not sure," Neal said, doing a few more repetitions with the elastic band the physical therapist had given him for building up his muscle tone.
"I know for a fact that Peter has been freaking out for months without your being aware of it, so I can't blame you for stealing Elizabeth's husband," Mozzie muttered, looking anywhere but at his best friend.
"I haven't contributed to this process at all!" Neal burst out. "That's the problem! I'm Neal Caffrey—I don't do anything I don't want to do."
"Except if your boss, Peter, tells you to," Mozzie said pointedly.
"He's not my boss anymore, technically."
"What do you think is going to happen—you'll bring him along to meet all of your old criminal friends? You were already mixing the planes before, playing against people you know, but this—it's like you've decided to go straight indefinitely!" Mozzie burst out. Neal raised an eyebrow. "You know what I mean."
There was nothing wrong with seeing how things developed, Neal decided at some point during those four days. It wasn't a decision, so much as allowing himself to be carried by a cool river that had yet to harm him.
When Neal asked Peter to stay in that hotel room blessedly reminiscent of an old, carefree kind of luxury, all he wanted was to feel someone close to him while he slept. It was an age-old kind of instinct, he told himself while curling up inside the larger body. Wolves do the same to pool their warmth in hostile elements.
What he hadn't been quite prepared for was exactly how much heat their combined share turned out to be. Still, Neal was nervous, and so he forced himself to look at these features he had studied for so many months, these contours that had accompanied him as he unearthed his own ignored artistic impulses. Through painting this body over and over again, Neal had discovered that he could indeed still isolate the golden clockwork that lies at the center of every good painting.
Unbuttoning a quiet Peter's clothes that night, Neal rehearsed to himself what he had thought many times over the last few days. Each person was like a painting, and she—or he—had a shining mechanism inside, visible to those who were clever enough to look.
That night Neal looked at Peter with his eyes and hands until he found it. The golden coil at the center of this large body that was yet a silver river. Neal kissed it.
From then on, it was like remembering a language learned in one's youth. And Neal spoke it. For some reason it was important for him to speak through this, so that not even the pleasure was so great that it threatened to swallow him up. He might have been physically weak, but he knew secrets that his partner was eager to learn, and Neal molded Peter with his wisdom.
When it was done, Neal was as proud of the act as if it were the painting he had obsessed over for months. In many ways, it was one and the same.
Perhaps he made it sound too easy when he told Peter that night he simply accommodated things more quickly, Neal had thought many times since. It had been a painstaking process, putting himself back together to the extent that he could be the man eating room service, naked, with this big lout of a lover.
It wasn't easy at all—surely Peter must know all of his secrets by now and was simply too gracious to point out all the work that went into seeming to live effortlessly.
It was Peter who correctly interpreted the signs of unease coming from his husband about a year after they married. One evening, Neal met Peter out for some undisclosed dinner date in one of the many sunny locales that had started running together.
"Mozzie?" Neal had asked, surprised by the presence of his old friend. He looked around the room and saw a few faces he recognized from his criminal past, and several he didn't. Peter's face was grinning in the middle of it all.
"I thought you needed a gaming night," he said, motioning for Neal to sit beside him at one of the tables set up inside the anonymous warehouse.
"I'm tired of casinos," Neal objected. He didn't think much of gambling when you weren't trying to beat the system.
Gaspar rolled out a table on wheels with some blocks and papers and assorted gaming paraphernalia. "I've checked it out with your lawyers, so please, enjoy yourself."
Mystified, Neal listened as Mozzie and Peter explained the game they'd concocted together.
Despite their careful phrasing, Neal immediately gathered that a real heist was in the offing, and by couching the evening in terms of a game, the former criminal could use his dormant skills by helping to plan it.
What no one could have been prepared for was how much Peter came to enjoy their new pastime.
Neal's husband had left his old, straightlaced FBI self far behind, so far that Peter had to take a tranquilizer when they were going through customs because uniforms tended ot set off his paranoia. Nevertheless, it seemed to do Peter good to reach back into all those years in law enforcement and play at being the opposing side to the criminals who were making use of Neal's genius at planning theoretical wrongdoing.
It was very much like the consulting business Peter had once thought of setting up, except the people who hung on his every word were much more interesting than aboveboard business owners, and Peter was explaining the psychology of cops rather than perps.
He didn't feel it was a rationalization at all to say that there was nothing wrong with discussing psychology with interested parties. Neal's friends tended to be like him, Mozzie and Gaspar—nonviolent types who were allergic to living conventional lives, so the former FBI man was able to flout authority a bit without feeling like he was contributing to violence, per se. If anything, he was able to fill in some alarming gaps in gun knowledge that gave well-trained officers the edge over thieves trained only by the school of hard knocks.
Though they still spent much of their time doing legal activities such as Neal's artwork, their occasional gaming nights had brought a little unwanted attention from the law, which had caused a few terrifying moments for Peter. Still, their crafty team of lawyers had concocted an appropriately vague story to tell whenever they received a visit from a detective in whatever country they happened to be in at the time. As a former FBI agent and former FBI informant, wasn't if very likely that they were actually still occasional operatives feeding information to the US feds from their position of leisure?
Neal thought it was very likely, and he made the police in Hong Kong, France and the UK think so, too. Peter concentrated on his breathing exercises and then the adrenaline rush from having evaded further questioning gave him a high for days.
Peter woke before Neal, as he usually did. Perhaps it was long habit as a gainfully employed member of society versus Neal's more night owl customs. But Peter loved waking up in the morning and watching the other man sleep, or pretend to sleep, which is what he realized Neal did a few months into their marriage. He had come to sense that restless mind turning on by a sort of hum under the skin. For some reason, Neal liked to lay there and think, scheming, maybe, all the paths not taken.
There were parts of Neal he wasn't allowed into. Peter had always known this. It used to make him crazy, as when he used to chew his nails over possible infractions Neal was committing under his nose when they were FBI agent and CI. But so much had changed since then, and the first time Neal flew off to some undisclosed location without warning, Peter wisely chose to wait it out.
Neal had come back with the test in his eyes—would Peter react in any one of a number of ways that would serve as an excuse for his new husband to feel suffocated?
"I made some progress on this detective story while you were gone. Maybe you could read the part on the safe and give me your technical standpoint?" was all Peter said from his laptop.
Neal slunk into the hotel they had rented in Nice, and Peter allowed himself to be thoroughly examined for symptoms of possessiveness. Only after his husband had looked over every inch were they both satisfied.
He didn't believe Neal was cheating on him. Or committing any crime of note. Peter witnessed interested men and women be politely flirted into hopelessness every time they walked down the street together—Neal loved too hard to be able to hide any infatuation worthy of the word. Only when Elizabeth mentioned in an email that Neal came to visit her from time to time did Peter think anything serious was going on when they were apart, and even then, he decided it was none of his business.
You don't get to lie in bed next to a wild bird if you hold it too tight.
Slowly, gingerly, Peter crept up to the watchful, wild body as he was privileged to do most mornings. He grazed the arms, with his fingertips, slid his legs along the taut thighs and calves. Hello, good morning, his own skin said.
Peter watched his offering be considered from that quiet corner where Neal truly lived in the darkness. He was a patient man, and he watched his patience bear fruit with the slightest receptiveness shuddering over the skin.
The shoulder turned first, then the head. The face was suddenly awash in blue light.
Peter let Neal's sight flow all around him, unmoving, not needing to move because he was sure.
He watched the blue eyes perform some kind of mathematical function he was confident Neal would share with him one day.
"Good morning," Neal Caffrey said.
When his voice said so much more than that, marking with a whisper a few guideposts so that he was not lost in their early pleasure, they were both glad.
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