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True North

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It’s Neal’s stillness when they receive the news that makes Peter reconsider. There’s none of his usual sly jokes or smiles or the hundred subtle mannerisms he’s perfected over the years aimed at getting people to do exactly what he wants. They read the email together, which talks about better control over the C.I.s, in general, and some crap about the handler/C.I. memory transfer making it easier for Neal to gain his freedom in the future and Neal just stands there, unmoving. It looks unnatural on him.

“We don’t have to,” says Peter.

“I know,” says Neal, a slight twitch in his jaw.

Not stillness, then, but rigid control. Neal isn’t sure which way Peter will jump and doesn’t want to push him in the wrong direction.

Peter studies him. Which way is the wrong direction? Surely Neal can’t want Peter inside his head, privy to every impulse he’s ever had? He just waits for Peter to make the call, not even trying to plead one way or the other.

The clock flicks over to 10:02 P.M. and Peter remembers Elle will be home soon. He closes the laptop and says, “We can talk about this later.”

Neal visibly relaxes.

***

They never do talk about it again, but Peter thinks about it now and then over the next year. The whole point is to deter criminal informants from reverting back to old ways. It’s supposed to keep them honest, they say. Peter is mostly convinced Big Brother is overstepping its reach.

He asks Clinton and Diana for their take on the situation. Diana frowns, says it’s too invasive and the practice should be stopped. Jones laughs, saying he’s just glad it’s not him taking a walk through Caffrey’s mind.

There are other handlers and CIs that do it. Peter watches those cases with interest, waiting for it to go wrong, but if any do he doesn’t hear about it. Neal watches him read the reports and doesn’t say anything.

***

Occasionally an old friend from the bureau with their own C.I. will look Peter up and ask him if he’s considered the procedure. They have nothing but good things to say about it. Peter is all too aware none of the reports are from the C.I.’s perspective.

Neal has always skirted the line between right and wrong and Peter’s friends remind him the procedure will keep Neal on the right side. The Bureau is offering clemency for anything the handlers find out, short of physical harm, in the first memory dump, but the C.I.s are responsible for everything they find out in each successive dump. Only the very stupid would try breaking laws knowing their handler would find out.

Peter doesn't think Neal is a bad person. If he had, he never would have made a deal with him. Neal has a moral compass, one that doesn't let him knowingly cause serious harm to other people, but that compass doesn't always point north. Neal's impulsive and impatient and it means he skates over the line and justifies it as being for the greater good. If Peter could just say the right thing or show Neal enough compassion and trust then he could point Neal's compass north and keep it there, he’s sure of it. He sees how Neal looks at him. He sees Neal considering the lessons Peter tries to impart and he watches Neal struggle and try and sometimes succeed. The procedure would ensure Neal would walk the straight and narrow, but Peter feels it has to be his choice. Otherwise, what happens when Neal's sentence is over?

Peter lies awake some nights worrying he'll have to arrest Neal because he's squeamish about forcing this artificial bond between them.

***

Peter doesn’t understand how they’ve gotten to this place. He feels raw inside at the places where he was afraid Elizabeth was going to be ripped away from him. She’s mostly unhurt, just shaken, but his mind supplies visions of her bruised and broken body, souvenirs from Keller. It’s hard to look at her and not see what might have been.

Neal won’t look him in the eye when it’s over. He stares off at nothing, body hunched in on himself. Peter watches him and thinks about that broken moral compass of his and whether there is anything they can do to fix it.

On his monitor, a new email pops up advertising the handler/C.I. memory procedure. Peter watches Neal and thinks about Elle.

***

“I’ve decided we’re going to do it,” Peter says. Neal doesn’t react except to swallow. He stands with the same stoic stillness as before, so Peter knows he understands what they’re talking about. “Do you know how it works?” Peter asks him.

“You and I will both be given a microchip, which will stay in place until my sentence is up. It will record my memories which will be downloaded into your brain at regular intervals so you can keep a closer watch on me. I’ll be given clemency for anything you see during the first dump, but I’ll be held accountable for everything thereafter.” Neal says and then adds, “I won’t be given access to your, memories.”

Peter wonders how many times he read the brochure before that was committed to memory. “Do you know why I decided we’re doing this?”

“Yes,” says Neal, not offering an explanation. He doesn’t need to.

“It’s scheduled for next Friday.” Peter says. Eight days for Neal to commit more crimes and get off scot-free. Peter wonders if he’ll take advantage.

Neal jerks his head, acknowledging the appointment. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and his fingers pull at the edges of his jacket, his facade finally cracking. Maybe the acknowledgement was actually a flinch. Peter wonders, but doesn’t ask. After next week it won’t be a secret.

***

They put Peter in a small room with a desk and a bed before the transfer starts. Neal’s long gone, his part of the procedure already completed. He’s told to push a button when he’s ready for the transfer and left alone. Peter’s not sure how it will be so lies down on the bed and closes his eyes before he presses the button that will let him know, without a doubt, who Neal Caffrey really is.

The memories start soft and gentle, hazy, like he’s watching through water. Whether it’s because so much time has passed or because they’re from Neal’s childhood, he doesn’t know. They flicker faster, but Peter can slow them down and back up if he wants. He sees a woman who’s like a mother to Neal, but isn’t. Peter grasps for a name and comes up with Ellen and, with a shock, the name also comes with the information that she was Neal’s father’s partner and that they’re in WitSec.

Peter slows the memories to watch as Neal grows up. He sees his mother pulling away, choosing to live in the past. He hears the stories she tells Neal about his father’s heroism and he feels Neal bursting with pride and admiration for the father he doesn’t remember. He sees how smart Neal is and the joy he feels in life, in discovering how the world works. How solving mysteries makes him feel proud, like he’s going to be a great cop just like his dad.

Peter speeds up the memories and doesn't slow down until Neal is a teenager. He watches Neal grow and learn and fall in love with both girls and boys. Peter raises his eyebrows. That is information no one has suspected about Neal before. He lets the memories slide forward again.

He listens in with Neal as Ellen tells him the truth about his dad. He feels how wrenched it leaves Neal’s heart, and sees how hollow the world becomes. When Neal looks in mirrors he no longer sees the proud son of a fallen policeman. He sees shame and evil, a black, cancerous thing that threatens to choke him.

His mind, which so far has enabled him to see order and beauty in the things around him, turns sinister. He uses his gifts to catalog tells, to work out how to manipulate and scheme. He no longer talks to anyone without calculating exactly how to smile, how to pitch his voice, and how to move his body in order to slip smoothly into their cracks. He’s become a perverse puppetmaster, moving people to his will.

The memories march on to New York and Peter sees Mozzie show up and all the little cons they pull. He feels how Neal relaxes and tries to let people in again. And then there’s Kate, and Neal is full of hope and love for the first time in years. He tries so hard to be something better than he has been, even as the dark places threaten to swallow him when he’s not paying attention.

Abruptly, Peter sees himself enter the scene and, with a jolt, sees how much Neal likes him in spite of himself. He feels the joy Neal gets out of the game of cat and mouse they play. Peter is smarter than Neal expects the feds to be. He sees how Neal lies awake at night developing new and creative ways to outwit Peter and how he feels a little sad because he’s convinced they could have been friends. And then Peter is catching Neal and Neal is glad to see him, because if his downfall is going to help anyone’s career, he’s glad it’s Peter.

Peter fast-forwards past his time in prison and lands on Neal being released into his custody. Neal is anxious and hopeful. He wants to find Kate, already making plans to search even though Peter has told him not to. Part of the hopefulness is for Peter, for the friendship that might have a chance now.

Seeing himself through Neal’s eyes as the memories go on is eye-opening and humbling. Neal can’t help but try to charm everyone around him. The impulse is too long engraved in who he is and he generally sees others as being malleable. The trick is figuring out how to make them bend. The thought is automatic, an unwelcome reminder of his criminal nature.

If the other people around Neal are like soft clay that he can mold, Peter is an immovable mountain. Neal feels Peter’s presence is weighty and unbreakable, a solid force Neal can lean on in times of trouble or doubt. Neal still tries to charm Peter, he couldn’t turn that off if he tried, but underneath the smiles and glib responses is a vast well of respect and a deep desire to please.

Peter thinks about his wife telling him not to underestimate Neal’s desire to make Peter proud of him and here, wrapped up in memory, with love and pain, is the proof that Peter married a very perceptive woman. Out of all the people in Neal’s life, Peter is the only one who truly believes Neal can be good and Neal is desperate for that to be true.

It’s not all roses, of course, because even if Peter believes in Neal, he knows he’s a criminal and Neal can see Peter struggle with which side of Neal to believe in. Peter is wholly unprepared to deal with how much it hurts Neal every time Peter so much as jokes about his criminal activities. Even so, he feels he owes it to Neal to watch through every one of those memories. He feels every stab of shame, anger, and pain when Peter accuses Neal of doing things he hasn’t. He watches time after time when Peter cracks jokes and Neal shrugs it off all while inside he feels like he’s breaking apart. He feels how Neal wants to sit at his feet and beg for his trust and affection and how he never lets on, because he’s afraid Peter will balk at the strength of his emotion and send him away.

It gets better as time moves on, both of them on the same page more and more, a tentative truce in place. He feels Neal practically vibrating with happiness when Peter looks at him with pride and how certain Neal is that his life of crime is in the past. All he needs is for Peter to have faith in him. Neal nearly tells him everything as they kneel, facing certain death, on the deck of the U-boat, about how much Peter means to him and how glad he is to know him and that he loves him. In the end, there’s too many people listening and not enough time, but he thinks Peter might understand.

Peter stops the memories, breath shaky, trying to get a handle on what he’s seeing and because he knows however painful it’s been up to this point, it’s about to get worse and he’s going to have to accept blame for some of it. He considers stopping all together, but he knows he won’t be able to work or even sleep until he knows for sure, so he lets himself fall back into memory.

There’s an explosion and Neal is trying to look for a way into the building to save the artwork. He feels crushed by the thought of all those masterpieces lost, but at the same time, a part of him is glad for the explosion because it means Peter will be on his way and Neal will be safe. Peter does show up, just as Adler accuses Neal of masterminding the whole thing and Peter is giving him a questioning look that makes him feel sick before he’s able to convince Peter he doesn’t know what Adler was saying.

Neal’s ready to leave for home when Peter grabs him, eyes full of disgust and anger, and he accuses him of rigging the explosion. Neal’s not really getting enough air and his brain won’t make sense of what Peter’s saying, because they just went over this, but he gets the gist. Peter’s mannerisms and expression are screaming “criminal scum” and Neal remembers he’s the son of a criminal and Peter knows it and has to see the evil just under the surface even when Neal is technically innocent. Neal walks away, their friendship disintegrating along with the burning art.

The next few months are marked with highs and lows. Neal is angry and wants out. He feels broken and betrayed and he wants to rail against the injustice of Peter never believing in him no matter how hard he tries. Neal doesn’t see the point anymore. When he looks at Peter his stomach twists in pain that he has to push down.

And then there are days when things seem better. It feels like the wounds are healing and Neal wants nothing more than to confess everything, begging forgiveness. He fantasizes about wrapping his arms around Peter and feeling Peter just hold him close while telling him everything is going to be okay, redemption is in his reach after all. Instead, Neal smiles his impish smile at him and watches him walk away again and again.

Peter stops the memories. He knows what happens next and Elle’s kidnapping is too fresh in his own mind to want to add Neal’s memories. He goes far enough to note the amount of shame and horror Neal feels for being responsible for Elle getting hurt and decides that’s far enough for now.

He rubs his hands over his face, unsure of what to even do now that he knows all of this. He remembers being curious about Neal’s reaction to the procedure, so he lets himself fall again just to verify that, yes, Neal had flinched at the thought of Peter knowing all this about him.

Peter sighs, this was supposed to make things easier between them. Funny how he’s always trying to get Neal to go straight, to find some way to point Neal’s moral compass north, when all along it’s been pointed at Peter.

***

Peter avoids Neal all week at work, not really sure how to broach the subject. He doesn’t miss the hurt looks Neal thinks he’s concealing or the way his speech is more clipped than usual. In meetings, the mask is in place. Neal is all smiles and teasing, but Peter can see right through it to the frantic energy behind it. It’s in the way his eyes widen a little too much and the subtle tension at the corners of his mouth when he smiles.

At the end of the week Peter stops by Neal’s desk. “We need to talk.” The smile on Neal’s face fades a little. He nods, not needing to ask what about.

It’s late when Peter gets to Neal’s apartment. He lets himself in. Neal sits hunched over his table, grip a little too tight on a glass of wine. Neal doesn’t look up, studies his hands instead. Peter sits across from him, waiting for some reaction. He’s taken aback at Neal not even making an attempt to put up a front, but then, Peter thinks Neal will never be able to hide anything from him again. This is Neal, without walls or prevarication. Hurt, broken, and scared.

“I’m sorry, Neal,” Peter says. “I shouldn’t have forced you to do this.”

Neal’s head snaps up, eyes wide. “Peter, no. You have to be able to trust me. I didn’t give you a choice.” He reaches across the table, just short of grabbing Peter’s hands. “Elizabeth--” his voice cuts out, his body rigid with tension.

“I did have a choice,” says Peter, firmly, willing Neal to understand. “I made the wrong one.”

Neal sits back, a brief shake to his head. He pulls his hands back, wraps his arms around himself, the only wall he has left to use against Peter. “I’m sorry, too,” he says. “That you had to see all of that.”

Peter watches him a minute, all closed off, waiting for some axe to fall. It hurts him that Neal thinks Peter would be mad about anything he saw. There’s too much broken trust and jagged feelings between them. It has to stop. Neal isn’t going to want to let Peter accept any blame in this, but he’ll have to. For this to work, they’ll both have to take responsibility for where they’ve ended up. Anything less will doom them to repeat all their old failures, a neverending cycle of trust, betrayal, and pain.

“Neal,” says Peter. Neal doesn’t respond, arms still wrapped around his chest, head down. “Neal, look at me.”

Neal’s head comes up, slowly. His eyes are red-rimmed, brows furrowed.

“I see you,” Peter says. His hand comes up to stop whatever question is on Neal’s tongue. “I see the kid you were, full of pride, wanting to be like your dad, the hero. When I look at you now, I still see that little boy.” Neal doesn’t speak, but he turns ever so slightly towards Peter, tense and waiting.

“If I’d thought you were a bad person--that you weren’t capable of reform or that there wasn’t good in you, I never would have given you your deal. You know that, right?” Peter asks. Neal half-shrugs and nods, but his face is closed off. He’s still on edge.

“Neal, you’re still that kid. You’re still good. Nothing your dad did can ever change who you are and I believe you want to be good, to do the right thing.”

“But --” starts Neal, frowning. Peter holds up his hand to stop him.

“You made some mistakes,” He says. “It happens. It doesn’t have to define who you are for the rest of your life. The choices you’ve made in the past don’t define who you’ll be in the future, because tomorrow you can make a different choice. A better one.” He waits, watches as Neal’s breath hitches and he wipes moisture from his eyes.

Peter leans back. Says, “I can make better choices, too.”

Neal’s head comes up, again, “Peter, no, this is on me.”

“No, Neal, it isn’t,” he says. He can’t let Neal win this one, not if things are going to change.

“About your memories of me,” Peter starts. Neal visibly stills again, watching him. “I am honored you think so highly of me. The amount of faith you’ve put in me is humbling, but I don’t deserve it. You can’t keep me on this pedestal.”

Neal shakes his head again, turning away, but Peter can’t let him deny it.

Peter gets up and moves slowly in front of Neal so as not to spook him. He reaches a hand down and cups Neal’s jaw, feeling his damp skin and the roughness of stubble against his fingertips. He tips Neal’s head up.

“I’m human, Neal, I make mistakes. You have to let me make mistakes and forgive me when I do. We both have to. We can’t continue on this path of expecting perfection from each other all the time. Mistakes here and there aren’t going to make or break us. Do you think we can do that?” Peter can feel Neal swallow, sees his jaw working to get the words out. He looks wrecked and Peter’s heart breaks that he’s the one that did this to him.

Peter drops his hand, reaches down and gently pulls Neal out of his chair, wrapping his arms around him. He’s still for a moment, but when Peter doesn’t immediately pull away, Neal’s arms come up, his hands clutching at Peter’s back. Peter runs his hands down Neal’s back, soothing away the trembling. He waits for the hitching in Neal’s breathing to stop and his hands to untwist from Peter’s shirt.

Minutes go by, Neal’s breathing evens out, deepens, and he says, “Yes, the answer is yes, we can do that.”

Peter smiles into Neal’s shoulder, “Good.” He gives him one last squeeze, pats his back, and lets go. He feels light. The tension from the last week, maybe the last year, is gone. He feels like he’s in danger of floating away and he laughs because he can for the first time in a long time. “Got anything to drink?”

Neal huffs out a laugh. “Absolutely.” He grabs him a beer from the fridge and they sit across from each other again.

Neal sits straighter, like his old, confident self, half-smile back in place. It was almost worth all the pain and tension to get to see him happy again.

Peter takes a drink. They have one last thing to talk about. “I’m putting in a request to have the chips removed.” The smile on Neal’s face falters and Peter hates himself for it.

“Are you sure?” he asks. “Don’t you want proof I’m staying on the straight and narrow?”

“That’s the point,” says Peter. “I have faith in you to do the right thing and I want you to know that I have faith in you. I don’t want you to think I need the chips to believe in you.” Peter waves his hand between them. “We can do this. I promise to have faith in you and you promise to trust me not to abandon you at the first sign of trouble, deal?”

Neal smiles, face open and honest. “Deal.”