Where You Stop Your Story

Annealing: heat (metal or glass) and allow it to cool slowly, in order to remove internal stresses and toughen it.

Or, Neal has had a hard life.

Neal was no stranger to this game. He’d been in it since birth, even if he didn’t know it. He wasn’t even sure who he was anymore, Neal Caffery (conman, son of a dirty cop come to live up to a legend, a felon with a moral code, the legend that got caught, who sold his soul for a girl, the traitor who worked for the FBI), or maybe Nick Halden (thief and conman, rich, fencer, slipped through cracks and never left a trace, no one even has a fingerprint yet, come to think of it, he’s not sure Neal Caffery does either), He grew up as Danny Brooks, a witsec name, art prodigy, disappeared at 15 about to graduate early, a genuis, quick and nimble, could sing and knew how to hotwire a car since he was 7. The only thing they had in common was looks, morals, a hidden past and art (maybe the only reason he didn’t completly lose it).

Maybe if he never knew he wouldn’t have run, he might have a real, true painting of his hanging in a gallery with his name signed proudly (but what is his name?), maybe he would have been a cop, and he could have gotten his happy ending the honest to goodness way. But it’s in his blood and he learned the truth so he ran, changed his age, changed his name to the only truth he ever knew (Caffery, his dad’s last name. Neal was a name he found on a burnt scrap of paper in Ellen’s wallet that had the faint edge of a hospitale seal on it). He ran, away from lies and a bittersweet life he thought was his, but was never real, away from St. Louis and everything he ever knew. And Mozzie finds him, all because of “find the queen” a game he mastered at 5 years old (maybe she was training him all along) and he gets his first taste of the underworld. And he likes this part, the acting and playing the cards of a game were only you know the rules. Having power and getting away with it all. The thrill and adrenilin.

He meets Kate and his world kind of shatters cause he loses himself to the con, and wants so bad for it to be real, and she breaks his heart, and he knows he’s always going to chase her like a ghost. Always there but never close enough to touch. She blew up in a plane a year ago, and he’s still holding on to the bottle wondering if it really meant goodbye after all. (He was a lost boy trying to make it in wonderland, wrong fairytale, wrong ending and he’s still looking for that second star to the right.) He’s starting to think that the city lights are too bright and that this world is too dangerous for a kid (not that he’ll ever tell) when the underworld (it stopped being wonderland when he learned it was do or die, like he was Alice facing down the jabberwocky but Hatter sold him out and the Red Queen wanted to eat him alive) gets wind of him, a legend’s son, a master forger, innocent (not so trusting though), easy to play (they think), and a legend in the making. Well he ran for six years and they caught him because a girl tripped him up, they think of him as a kid then, still thinks love will conquer all and that he can still get a happy ending without hurting anyone. In the four years he’s inside he learns a few things, love will break your heart (but he won’t give up), emotions are weakness (he won’t show them), and you’ve got to grit your teeth and lie straight through them to get the truth, to get away from pain.

You’re always either running away or running towards something in this life. And, you’re never, ever safe. Because there isn’t any fairytale here. He starts to wonder whether the “blood runs too deep” rule outweighed the “good guy does bad things for love” thing. He remembers Alex too, a best friend and partner, different then Mozzie, who saw right through him and lured him with the siren song of the music box, the girl who’s heart he broke when he ran away from St. Louis (neither of them with admit to that though). He remembers Keller too, a best friend of his once. Old habits die hard, they still can’t completly rat each other out, and Keller still can’t kill him. A competition, a game that relies on the flip of a coin, enemies now but parallel. Exactly the same but completly different. Their fathers were partners, he guesses it’s inevitable. But it’s dangerous, because he’s friends with a suit (he thinks), and now he knows all the tricks and trades of both sides, he’s a genuis kid with all the knowledge of the law and morals codes as well as how to con and get away with it.

It makes him valuable, and a risk. A liability. He’s starting to remember why he ran away. Because he hates this. The lies, and secrets, and not trusting, and caring too much that it hurts when he knows the truth. The breaking people’s hearts and hurting them because it’s against his very nature to be anything else no matter how hard he tries. He’s learned that once your in on either side, you can’t get out without hurting someone. So he takes risks and plays both sides because he’s never been able to make that choice and he just laughs because he can’t cry or scream. And he acts like a kid turning the music far too loud, and he acts like a man who’s seen far to much with the haunted eyes. He can’t stand blood because it reeks of broken dreams, and promises, and goodbyes left unsaid. It means someone got hurt because of him, that’s the last thing he wants. He wants out but he wants to stay, he loves the chase, and the story but hates the endings because no matter how happy someone always ends up dead or hurt or broken hearted with that bittersweet flash of blood spilled over the pages and he needs it gone. Because the one thing he never was is a killer. Never a villian. But never the hero. He was, is, a kid that still wanted to believe in true love and good intentions with bad outcomes. That wanted everyone to get a happy ending and never hurt. He could never betray a friend, even if said friend was a traitor. But he never knew where to end the story to get the ending he wanted, so he ran, so not to face the pain. Nothing but his memories. And he’ll see pictures and laugh because he can’t cry and you’ll wonder the name and story to it. But he’ll never tell. No one but himself knows the entire story, but if they saw the little boy with bright blue eyes with honest to goodness wishes and hopes and dreams for the world, they thought him beyond redemtion. But the little boy was still there, he was just tainted. Doomed by the very blood in his veins to never have the ending he wants and needs. Doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying though…

He’s fifteen when he first meets Mozzie. A street kid who caught the eye of a conman because of a card trick. Mozzie holds his hand out to Neal, a partnership, a friendship. Neal follows him, he doen’t take his hand. He’s 18 when he starts working for Alder and meets Kate, and Alex. He holds his hand out for Kate, she breaks his heart. He doesn’t sell his heart after that. He’s on the run looking for Kate (can’t find her, he’s losing it) when Alex shows up again (comes and goes like a shadow whenever Kate’s not around) she’s about to jump, he holds his hand out again, it saves her life. She disappears, and Kate comes back, and he’s behind bars and he laughs because he must be cursed, every time he tries to trust he gets burned. He’s 25, freshly escaped (for Kate, the girl forever destined to be running away. They say he’s not good for her, well she’s no good for him) sitting on the floor of a grimey, abandoned apartment down in Brooklyn, bottle in his hands and fist in his hair, tracing patterns in the dust on the ground. And he’s got nothing left so he slips on the mask and smiles up at agent Burke and jokes, says he knows he’s going back, that he doesn’t care. He makes a deal, because he’s got nothing left and Mozzie will come up with something and if it fails then all he really wants is to get his name in the history books. Burke holds his hand out for the kid and Neal smiles because he’s cursed and he takes his hand just because the risks makes it fun. But Kate’s gone, Mozzie trusts a little more, Alex tries to stay and visit normally, he’s got an anklet, his deal worked and Burke made him his partner. He’s one of the good guys (like he wanted to be as a kid), he’s still waiting on that curse to tear his heart out all over again…

For some reason those words bad struck a nerve. Peter kept saying he thrived in the grey areas that he would have to make a choice between being a con or a man. He’s not sure he can make that choice. As a kid he wanted to be like his dad. One of the good guys. When he found out his dad was a dirty cop he decided that blood ran too deep to change it. He ran away. For someone who spent his whole life running he spent forever holding on and looking back. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. He ran for the first time when he learned the truth. He was 15. New York city made a good life for him. At 18 he found mozzie and the adrenilene rush of a big heist. Bad blood will out after all. He cant make that choice though because it would be choosing between the past and the future. When be worked for Adler he found Kate and Alex. But he alsofl found Keller and the FBI. 18 when he showed up on the radar. 23 when he got tired of running and got caught. Then at 27 he gets a chance. To do good. To get the happy ending. And the one thing he cant seem to forget are the only words he can remember his father ever saying “their are good people who do bad things and bad people who can do good things. No such thing as a pure motive either black or white. You can’t trust anyone. Same way no one can trust you” he doesn’t want to let go. So he cant make that choice. If he’s not a con and a man then he not him. And hes changed to many times to change again. A game is one thing. Life is another. There’s a reason he has certain rules. Not that he’d ever admit it…

There’s a reason he never told Peter. There’s a story behind it, and it’s not a good one. Yes, his father dies when he was two. Yes, his mother let him hail him a hero, rather then loathe him as a villain. All little kids look up to their fathers. Maybe she did it so he could feel that too, or maybe because she, and later Ellen, didn’t want him to end up a criminal. But he guess blood really is too thick to wash it away with lies. So when he overhears Ellen talking to an agent about how they should tell him the truth, he doesn’t stay to hear the whole story. He grabs what he can, shoves it into a bookbag and runs, until he reaches New York city. It takes him a week to clear his head enough to realize how messed up it all is, everythings a lie. He’s a 16 year old out on the streets without a person he knows within a 200 mile radius. And he doesn’t care, because somehow, lies are easier then the truth. He can’t bring himself to be the bad guy, because it goes against everything but his blood. He doesn’t want to break hearts, only fix his own. But being a good guy doesn’t work when no one will look past your (real) name. So he does something different. Not good, not bad. He does what it takes to survive, tries to help people in a way the good guys can’t, but refuses to hurt people. His father died dealing with guns and mobs, it doesn’t get you a happy ending. But honesty and goodness doesn’t get you too far either. And then, he’s so far gone his schemes get bigger and bigger, a little bit for the money, a little bit for the adventure. How far he can bend and sneak around the rules until warning bells go off and he’s long gone. The only thing better then running away was being chased, was running towards something. Being in a grey area really opens your eyes, because there is no black and white after all, just light and dark shades with a line you don’t cross. He’s been crossing it his whole life. No one really understands the grey area thing though… The happy ending dream. That a conman can have a moral code. Maybe he’s too good at this, or maybe he’s the only one that’s seen both sides of the line… Or maybe, it’s just his artist eyes trying a justify something that can’t be explained.

Pale skin, black hair, blue eyes. Mirror image of his father. Charming smile, quick fingers, and an artists eye. Skills and tricks bred through his DNA. HIs father was a dirty cop, and bad blood runs deep. Lies built on lies will surely make you fall and break, but to which side of the line. He’s always danced on the grey areas. But when you change the lights (all smoke and mirrors right?) he’s a skinny little kid from St. Louis out on the streets of Brooklyn. Odd jobs and no family. always running away. Bruises and scars but never lets anyone help, but he doesn’t hurt people. Change the colors (lights can do that too) and he’s a conman, just like his father (all smoke and mirror again). But he’s a little to wild and to to attached and full of heart. He loves and lies and has too much emotion, but he can fake it just as well. Clear the smoke (it messes with your head you see) and he’s working for the other side, same thing, same heart, same love, same art skills, but for the good guys (an aklet’s a small price to pay for truth). He’s a mirror image, nothing but a trick with some small reality. Everyone else sees him with different eyes. He’s still dancing in grey areas, he thinks…

He’s always loved art. Made paintings and sketches all the time as a kid. Paper shapes and comics too. So years later he cons a congirl and she slips a paper flower into his pocket, with five little words written inside “you’re good, but i’m better” and he knows it’s just a game, he’s going to win. So flowers become a code and messages become their methods. A flowers in a wallet, left in the mail box. Skirting around, forever living off little words and paper shapes. It’s a habit he picks up, making those shapes. He can make birds, and animals, shapes, and letters. Flowers are forever his favorite. Alex finds out he’s winning, she comes around and face to face they talk. A heist is planned, a music box learned of, paper flowers left behind each time. Each time he kisses her she finds a pink flower slipped into her bag with a single word “stay” and each time she runs again. Because in this life you don’t get to be attached, she watched his heart break as he broke her’s. They wear their flowers like hearts on a sleeve. No one gets to win this game, but it’s the only thing that keeps them sane… “A story of flowers dies and wilts as it ages, paper flowers live forever between pages, one just might need to know the stories told between them to read it” it’s another Mozzie quotes from who knows where, he thinks it sums them up. Paper flowers mean promises and secrets and hope for a happy ending. It’s their own fairytale, ending it, giving it a happy ending is like signing your own death sentence… Because when their story ends, so do they…

He got caught. And he found it bittersweet, the only way to see Kate again, to protect her, was to get away. And he’s too good to let them see how hurt and heartbroken he is, so he laughs. He smiles, and makes little coded promises, and doesn’t run because he’s tired of playing a cat and mouse game that’s rigged by his own designs to make him lose. Because there’s a difference between slipping through cracks and slipping on thin ice. One gets you out, and one gets you too far in. All he wanted was a happy ending, four years go by and he’s left wondering, if a bottle can really mean goodbye. It’s a classic (Kate always loved the classics) treasure maps, and goodbyes, and love letters long since lost at sea found in a bottle. But it’s empty, and the papers faded and worn from years gone by of empty promises. But he’s still chasing after the girl who played him, destined to break his heart. Because it’s the oldest trick to make the plane blow up as you get away. Mozzie warned him (but he never listens) and he ends up wondering if that bottle really meant goodbye. Because the one time he lets his mask slip, and he starts to believe in happy endings, is when the fairytale ends. And he’s left pretending he doesn’t care all over again. A smile and a promise (of secrets and revenge, not of coming home) and he stares at the sky and sees the second star on the right and wishes more than ever fairytales could come true. But the thing about fairytales is the villain always gets a broken heart… Even when he tries to make things right…

Neal turns around and his world burns to the ground behind. A getaway plane, a plan, and the women he loves. The one he gave up everything for burns to the ground. Rains down in ashes and goes up in smoke. He holds Neal back while he screams. Cries like Peter is killing, torcuring him. Like Peter was the one who ripped the world from under his feet, turned it inside-out and up-side-down. Like it was Peter who burned him out at both ends, sent him to war with himself. And it breaks Peter’s heart to hear Neal plead himself hoarse. “Please, please, please, I have to save her, please” Like Peter is some monster and he kicks, struggles, and screams like it’s the only thing keeping him and Kate alive. But, she’s dead. He’s breathing in her ashes. Neal chokes and goes silent. Not that he stopped screaming, but that he just couldn’t. Because if the hope and fighting and denial broke his heart, then Neal’s silence now tore it to shreds. Because it was the silence of a man who screamed himself hoarse. Who knew his fate and would walk himself to the gallows. Neal now hangs limp in Peter’s arms and stares at the rements of smoke drifting in the air, like he could see Kate in the pictures it painted just for him. It takes until Peter’s dragged Neal off the scene so other agents can do their jobs to realize what’s so different about Neal, what’s causes the worry in his heart. And it’s this: the lights gone out of Neal’s eyes. He’s looking right at him but he’s not seeing a thing. Neal’s got the eyes of a man who knows he’s dead, but his body just hasn’t caught up yet. Peter drives Neal to the hospitale. The whole way there Neal stares unseeing at the smoke that drifts and floats and mixes with the New York air. Peter drives faster.

The doctor sees them quickly. Peter answers all the questions because all Neal seems capable of doing is blink and stare like a baby bird and cock his head to the side when someone speaks to him, like there’s a fly buzzing around inside his head. What Peter is afriad of: Neal having brain damage. What Neal is diagnosed with: strained vocal cords, a congested chest full of smoke, and severe emotional trauma. Neal comes home with painkillers, sleeping pills, and instructions not to speak for a week. Neal is tense and all strung up but doesn’t fight the medicine and doesn’t try to speak.

Peter finds Neal the next morning at June’s house surrounded by the broken glass of a wine bottle that couldn’t hold all the answers and he’s got blood dripping from his hands and ankle. Like he tried to shred the aklet with shards of glass. Neal comes home with Peter from the hospitale with 7 new stitches on his leg and bandages wrapped up to his elbows from his knuckles on both arms. Neal sits in the guestroom with a sketch book and color pencils and stares out the window. It’s 3 days before Peter can take him back to June’s and not have serious reason to believe he’ll throw himself off the terace. It’s been 4 days since Neal Caffery’s ‘devil may care’ smile was replaced with a dead man’s eyes. He grips his pencils like a lifeline and draws like it’ll bring Kate back.

Mozzie calls Peter. Not the other way around. Peter goes over and finds Neal on the ground, chess pieces scattered and the board broke in two, hands fisted in his hair, knees drawn to his chest, mumbling “No, no, please, no” in rapid sucsustion under his breath. It takes 10 minutes to get him to breathe normally. An hour to fall asleep. One of these days Neal will either snap back to them or will fall off his ledge all together. Peter hopes it’s the foremore.

It’s 4 more days until Neal makes another sound.

7 until he smiles. Just a little bit.

9 until Kate’s furneral.

The day before Mozzie, Elizabeth, June and Peter lay out Neal’s clothes-a suit and a blue tie-and tell him it’ll be ok. Neal just says he wants to go alone, that he’ll meet them there, thanks but no thanks, that he’ll be fine. They don’t believe him but give him space and lets him pretend they can’t see him cry.

The thing about seeing Neal Caffery at the funeral is this; he doesn’t look like Neal caffery. Because the man standing by the grave stone is stumbling and tripping over his words and his feet. Clad in paint splattered jeans and a black t-shirt. HIs hair a wet, glittering mess of curls falling his eyes and ears. He looks all of 19 and all alone in the world. Far to different from the man who could walk in a straight line drunk. And Neal doesn’t even try to stop from letting them see it. It’s just June, El, Moz, Diana, Jones, and Peter at the funeral. He doesn’t need to hide. But he does lay roses and paper flowers on her grave, along with a hand-painted portrait of Kate. Neal sits on the ground and stares at the grave. There is no body to bury and no family to tell and no one there has even met Kate except for Neal so no one can say anything. And the kid starts humming under his breath a song that seems familar but they can’t quite name; he sings like it holds all the secrets of the universe in barely a whisper, like he can speak to Kate with it and hear her answer in the wind. But if he can, then no one else does.

And, Caffery just starts laughing out of no where. But it’s not a ‘ha-ha thats funny’ laugh. It’s an ‘im so pathetic look at me because the world is ending and nothing you do will stop it’ laugh. Peter thinks that maybe he’s finally snapped because here he is sitting on the ground in a graveyard honest-to-god laughing like his heart is breaking but he doesn’t care. But somethings shifted again. Neal gets up and smiles his devil-may-care smile and looks down at his clothes and laughs all over again. It isn’t uuntil their walking home that Peter sees what changed: The lights are back in his eyes. And maybe Neal figured something out, or maybe Kate’s memory knocked some sense into him, or maybe he’s just trying to dig his own grave beside her. But he’s humming again. Neal’s back to the land of the living. They’ll be alright.


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