continued from The Ryan Exchange Part Three
Later that day
Chance was pleased the job had gone well. There was nothing to connect them or Caffrey to the robbery; they had been extra careful with Burke along to make sure that the guards they took down with ruthless proficiency wouldn’t suffer anything more than headaches from the knockout gas they had used. The small man, Mozzie, had proved useful; he didn’t have the story as to why the man always looked petrified around Guerrero, but then that wasn’t anything unusual. Mozzie was in the life, knew who and what his old friend was, and by the veiled references to Detroit that Guerrero made, Mozzie had clearly met him on a professional basis—not that many people walked away from that.
That, of course, led him to the con man, Neal Caffrey; he knew the connection between the two of them, and it amused the hell out of him that the handsome young con man could walk through the eye of the storm that was a pissed-off Guerrero without one hair on his well-coiffed head out of place. Chance gave a grin; he was going to have to ask Caffrey the secret of that—he could do it, but he had learned it the hard way, which had involved a few painful breaks and thrown punches along the way.
Milton was a threat to Neal and to Ilsa, because a man like that had appetites, and if he was allowed to walk away now after all that he had done to Neal—and Chance had seen the looks the man had given Ilsa—they would only have more problems with him later. It had to end now.
Twenty Four Hours Later
Milton Gardner had just gotten back from the office; the FBI had been called in over the theft of the painting. He had met Agent Burke professionally for the first time, and it amused him to think of how he had played the man. He had particularly savored having Neal Caffrey there; if the younger man thought he was finished with him he was mistaken. Now that he knew Caffrey's Achilles heel he could use it again and again; he would be able to enjoy him and his talent, and revel in the powerful hold he had over the younger man. When you had money, it was the things that you couldn’t buy that became important, and one of them was Neal Caffrey in his bed at his demand.
Milton prided himself on how well he had played his part: when he had overheard one of the police officers making a crack about tame cons, he had acted insulted that the FBI would bring such a man into his home—more smoke and mirrors. He has still been concerned, until he had had it confirmed that the painting had been destroyed.
Loose ends: he hated them; Caffrey was too important to lose, but his crew—he would make sure that his men got the names of his crew from Caffrey, and then they would disappear. He mused over that thoughtfully; perhaps he would have them plant a little evidence to incriminate them in the robbery. Their deaths would be written off by the police as a falling out among thieves.
Milton switched on just the study lamps to save on the electric; he poured himself a glass of 40-year-old Scotch, and savored the aroma before taking a sip. He didn’t bother putting the main lights on; save the cents and the dollars take care of themselves—that was his motto. He took a seat behind his desk and switched on his computer. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw movement; before he could react he felt the cold pressure of a gun against the back of his head. His hand froze on the way to grasp the telephone, and then slowly dropped away.
“Don’t kill me; I have money.” Milton panted.
“It’s not about money, dude. You had your men rape Caffrey; you really think that you could get away with that?” Guerrero said; his soft voice was ice cold: his words would be the last words that Milton would ever hear. Leaning into him, Guerrero whispered into Milton’s ear a secret that Gardner would take to his grave.
Milton’s eyes flew open in shock. “Your br…” was as far as his got as the bullet plowed through his brain.
When the FBI crashed through his door in the early morning—after an anonymous tip-off—they found Milton Gardner slumped forward on his desk, his head in a pool of blood, a gun in one hand and a typed suicide note gripped in the other. In the note he confessed to arranging the theft of the Thinker so that he could replace the funds that he had embezzled from the Foundation, and how, once the painting had been destroyed, he knew he faced ruin and saw death as his only way out of his disgrace.
Late Christmas Eve
The Burke House
It had been Mozzie that had telephoned Peter at home; the small man had been apologetic about disturbing them. Peter had waved that away. “What’s wrong, Mozzie?”
“It’s Neal; there’s a problem, Suit, he needs your help.
Peter sat up in bed, putting a hand up to hold off El as she wanted to know what was wrong.
Mozzie continued, “Neal was in a state when I got here tonight; he finally admitted to me that since Gardner approached him over the painting, he hasn’t been able to sleep. The problem, Suit, is it’s brought back a lot of bad memories of their last meeting in 2004, and it’s all been compounded by the rape. He told me that he spends his nights tossing and turning, waking in a cold sweat screaming his head off trying to escape from his attackers, but they always catch him. Neal has started to take some sedatives; look, I don’t know where he got them from, but when they failed, he got some stronger stuff. He’s here now and he’s as high as a kite. You know that Neal doesn’t do well with drugs; he has some weird reactions to them. It’s got something to do with his fast metabolism.”
Mozzie paused. “Look, I don’t think that Neal needs to go to a hospital, but he needs someone to stay with him, and the problem is, Suit, that person isn’t me. He keeps asking for you and Mrs. Suit; he’s scared that you don't want him, that he’s dirty now because of the rape, not worthy of you. I tried to tell him he was wrong but in the state he’s in at the moment he’s not listening to me.”
Peter was angry—not with Neal for getting into this state, but with himself for not realizing what was happening to his friend and partner; he had missed all the cues. “Tell Neal I'm on my way, Mozzie; tell him to hang on.”
When he tried to explain what was happening to El as he pulled his clothes on, he wasn’t surprised when El refused to be left behind once she heard that Neal needed them.
El dressed quickly; Neal needed them both and there was no way she wasn’t going. A least Peter had the sense not to spend time in foolish arguments; she knew that the tension between the two of them had come back, and she wanted what was best for both of them, and that meant being there for them.
But on arrival at the apartment mshe was taken aback when Mozzie blocked the door. “Neal needs you both, but you have to understand that you can’t be here for the short haul; what’s wrong won’t be put right overnight. Because if you walk out on him later, I will destroy you just as sure as it will destroy him.”
Both of them looked a Mozzie in a new way; this was a part of him they had never seen before, and it was as if for the first time they understood how Mozzie could have been the Dentist—there was a strength in him that could easily be overlooked. Only when he was sure he had made his point did Mozzie step back and allow them in.
As he looked around the apartment and saw the damage to it; it was as if a tornado had ripped through it: chairs were overturned, the bedding from the bed was dragged half way across the room, books were thrown all over the place. Neal was sat huddled in one of the chairs in the darkest corner of the room. Mozzie went over to where Neal was sitting and spoke quietly to him. Peter noticed the way Neal caught Mozzie’s arm as the smaller man tried to leave, as if he was frightened of being left alone with him. The anger at this obvious mistrust dissolved as Peter remembered that like this, Neal would be prey to his worse fears, so that every uncertainty was plastered across his face, and his naked emotions were hard for Peter to look at; it was so raw.
Peter knew they had to do something for Neal, even though officially they couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to him without risking getting him involved in the on-going police investigation into Gardner’s suicide. He had a few names of people that he trusted that could help Neal later to work through the rape, but for now, it was up to them. There was no way that he was dropping the ball on his watch; Neal meant too much to them for that. But a drugged, paranoid Neal was not an easy-to-deal-with Neal; he refused to go with them, even though it was plainly what he so desperately wanted. El started to cry, and for Neal it was then a lost cause; he immediately caught her and held her tight, and was clumsily stroking her shoulder and back as he tried to comfort her, flinching when Peter’s hand dropped on his shoulder. Peter didn’t pull back; he spoke gently to him, and with El playing her part and getting Neal to focus on her, they managed to get him out to the car and into their home. He ended up sleeping in their guest room but only after El had stayed with him until he had gone to sleep.
They woke to hear him screaming; when they went to his room, they found him tossing and thrashing in the bed, yelling her name and that he had lost her and had to find her. His body was drenched in sweat and, because of the drug, he couldn’t break free of the dream on his own.
Somehow Peter finally managed to wake him up only to find Neal come awake fighting; he just managed to avoid the fist that—if it had connected—would have broken his jaw. Neal began to yell for El.
El immediately ducked past Peter, sat down on the bed and pulled Neal into her arms to calm him down. He buried his face against her throat; only now that he had her did he begin to relax—she was safe, he could protect her.
It didn't take long for him to fall asleep—caused by a combination of the drugs and exhaustion—as he lay clutching El like a human teddy bear. Only then did she reach a hand out and draw Peter down to lie on the bed on the opposite side of Neal so he was cradled between them.
After an hour it was plain to Peter that the bed was way too small and it would play hell with his back tomorrow if he didn’t do anything about it soon. When he tried to get off the bed, Neal became agitated, grabbed at his wrist, and tugged him close; when El tried to move he was inconsolable. So it was natural for them to move Neal to their bed; it was bigger and would be more comfortable for all of them.
Seeing their bed, Neal began to resist; she saw the fear in his eyes, so El caught his face and made him focus on her. “This isn’t about sex, Neal; this is love and friendship—you need us; let us do this for you, sweetie, please.” It was the 'please' that had done it in the end. For a long minute they didn’t know what he was going to do, but then he nodded, suddenly yawned, and allowed them to take him to their bed. He tensed when Peter helped him settle and eased in behind him, only relaxing as El slipped in on the other side of him. Peter reached across him to join hands with El; that simple touch was a commitment to care for Neal.
Neal didn’t want pity; what he needed to know was that he belonged. Peter spoke softly to him, “We will always be here for you, Neal, and we will never desert you.”
“Gardner, he.…” Neal’s voice was almost breaking—the gentle touches and loving words of Peter and El were his undoing; like this, he couldn’t censor himself. “His men…. Don’t belong here.” He started to try to pull away.
But El wasn’t going to let him get away with that. “You did nothing wrong, Neal; you want to be here, and you need to be here with us,” El said, laying her hand against his face, and leaning forward, gently kissed his forehead. The kiss wasn’t passionate—it was more maternal—but it was what he needed. Neal’s breath came out in a long shuddering sigh; it was as if he had been holding it for an eternity.
“It’s okay, buddy; you’re not alone anymore,” Peter said as he tightened his grip on Neal, holding him close against his chest. The tears began to run down Neal’s face; finally he felt safe enough to let go. The sob was heartbreaking and soon El was crying as well, as she wrapped her arms around him. How long he cried Neal would never know, but in the end, when he had no more tears to shed, he felt exhausted but cleansed. Now, laying in the arms of the two people that he loved more than life itself, he knew that he was finally home.
Hotel Penthouse Suite
Ilsa stood looking out across New York and the bright Christmas lights that decorated the shops below. When she was little, Christmas had been a time of wonder and amazement. Now all it brought to her was a dreadful feeling of loss, as it seemed to magnify her feelings to the point of almost drowning her in sorrow over the loss of Marshall. When she went to bed, she cried herself asleep, hugging her pillow against her, needing something to cling to.
When she woke again it was 3:00 in the morning, but the cold sorrow inside of her was gone now, because this time she was not alone. His arm was wrapped around her waist from behind, and she felt his face pressed against her shoulder and his breath warm against her neck; she felt safe and protected.
No one would have believed that a man like him could have been able to understand that what she needed tonight was to be held close. But he had understood. Now awake, she turned in his arms and buried her face against him, her own hand sliding around him to hold him close. Her fingers traced the long curving scar that ran from the center of his chest around his back; the scars new and old that had helped shape him into the man he was today were like a map of pain under her fingers.
She wasn’t a foolish girl; she knew that life with the man she had grown to love was never going to be simple, and she wasn’t sure that they would both survive it, but it was going to be interesting finding out.