It was comforting, after everything, to do something so familiar. Sitting in her garden, with a cool breeze and a hot tea, listening to her husband complain about Neal.
“And where do I find him? Talking about poetry to a bunch of moon-eyed teenagers!”
El smiled at that. “I bet he would be a really good teacher.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Yeah, the kids ate it up of course. This is how he gets into trouble, you know? He decides to run some crazy con in the middle of a job, and he gets rewarded for it. This is why he is the way he is – because his ‘charm’ and his brain let him get away with any scheme that crosses his mind.”
Elizabeth listened as Peter continued to talk about how Neal keeps making bad decisions, how the world works a certain way and it’s not the way Neal thinks it does, how actions have consequences and one thing should always cause another, and how these various principles make it perfectly reasonable to be enraged that Neal was talking about Byron and Keats at a prep school. She understood his perspective, though she only actually agreed with a couple of his points.
“It’s just that he’s never faced consequences for his mistakes. Not really. That’s why he’s so….”
She sympathized as he trailed off, his frustration dwindling into something Peter generally handled much less gracefully: uncertainty. She knew it was hard for him, to be stuck between his loyal protectiveness and his principled concern. Despite her empathy, however, there were things that El wanted to say, objections to the very premise of his dilemma. But marriage is at least as much about what you don’t say as what you say, and so she kept the challenge back, letting just a question slip forward.
“I wonder if that’s true,” she said.
“Hm?” Peter said, still deep in thought.
Peter looked up from his coffee. That was a name that always got his attention.
“Mozzie getting shot. Prison. Those seem like bad consequences to me.” She omitted from her list the guilt Neal must feel at her kidnapping at Keller’s hands. And, before that, at Peter being taken, which in some ways had scarred her far more deeply.
Peter sighed. That wasn’t exactly what he had meant, El knew. But he didn’t ever take her words lightly.
“I just--” Peter fumbled. “I just don’t think it’s okay to let him off completely for hiding the treasure. For lying to us for months. For working against me while he looked me in the eye and said he was on my side. And the end result was that Keller --- sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up…”
“It’s okay,” she smiled, warm but wary, “I know I’m safe.” Intellectually, anyway, she knew she was safe. “I can talk about him. And I understand why you’re worried about what you’re going to tell the Bureau about Neal.”
Peter nodded. She could see the conflict resting heavy on him, the fear. She knew exactly how her husband thought, could practically see the gears turning as he continued talking about his dilemma. Would saving Neal one more time take away Neal’s last chance to change? Would one more kindness be Neal's damnation?
Elizabeth didn’t mind that he couldn’t always know her mind in quite the same way. Peter had a deep need to be understood; El preferred to keep some parts of herself private. It was part of why they worked – they accepted each other’s differences.
But again, like any marriage, they were sometimes saved by the things they had the sense not to say out loud.
El would never tell Peter that a big part of this mess was Peter’s fault. For accusing Neal the night of the explosion, for making Neal think that he would always be a criminal in Peter’s eyes.
Peter already felt guilty for it. But El doubted that either Peter or Neal understood why that night had done so much damage.
Peter and Neal’s relationship was based on a con. Specifically, Peter had conned Neal into believing that people can change. Not just that they break some bad habits – everything they had together was based on the hope that Neal could change.
Peter believed this, of course, and so it’s not as if he were intentionally conning Neal. Peter truly believed that people can change and that a good heart is enough to make a good life. But as much as Peter was a brilliant and sensible man, as much as Peter wore his realism on his chest like a medal, in this one way, he was like Neal in his high-flying days, the days when Neal honestly believed that he could spend every day of his life eating caviar in other people’s penthouses.
Neal and Peter, when it came down to it, were both idealists. They had very similar views of the world, in fact – they both romanticized self-sacrifice, they both thought the good guys should always beat the bad guys (even if they differed as to who went into which column), and neither of them could stand to work for long for someone whose integrity they didn’t respect. More importantly, they both thought that it simply wasn’t acceptable for the world to be its ordinary self, and so they both made it their mission to make it less dreary (in Neal’s case) or less corrupt (in Peter’s).
And so with all that idealism brimming, almost overflowing, it had been easy for Peter to get Neal to believe that he could change, that he could be someone else entirely. (That Neal could be Peter, if they were really getting down to it.)
El loved this about them. That even though they had seen horrible things in their line of work, that even though they were both far from naïve, in this one way they were lovely and innocent.
Her sweet boys -- lovely, innocent, and so very wrong.
But Peter and Neal needed to believe that it wasn’t all that hard, that it was just one step in front of another and soon enough you have a new life and a new self. Their friendship – and their work – hung on that cobweb-thin wisp of belief.
When Peter accused Neal, when he all but told Neal that he would always think of him as a criminal – when Peter pulled on that thread of hope, having no idea how delicate it was – things had gone downhill from there.
This was another thing that El couldn’t tell Peter; that another big part of his “Neal problems” were precisely because he believed that Neal could change. Again, both men needed to think it was true, and it wouldn’t do any good to tell them otherwise.
Elizabeth did believe that people can change some things – their habits, their relationships, their goals. But she didn’t believe in the kind of personal transformation that they sold on talk shows and self-help books. She didn’t believe that people could change who they are.
This was why El didn’t think that Neal would change much more than he already had. He was loyal to Peter and part of him really did care about different things than the young, impetuous Neal did. Neal had changed what he wanted out of life, partly because of the things he lost, but also because of the things Peter had given him.
It was a big change, and a necessary one. But El wasn’t sure it was wise or reasonable to expect more. Neal would always make mistakes; Neal would always walk the line. His mind wasn’t made for fixed boundaries and rigid plans, which is exactly what drew Peter to him in the first place.
This definitely wouldn’t change. And there wasn’t much sense in trying. It would be better to keep the status quo, with Neal trying hard to do better and Peter riding him every step of the way, and both of them trying to fix it when the inevitable snag occurred. And Neal might even continue to cool off with age, maybe take fewer risks, but he would always find some way to surprise Peter, for better or for worse.
In El’s opinion, Peter needed that. And would it really be justice for Peter to lose something he needed?
Elizabeth really did sometimes want to yell, “Who do you think you’re fooling? You would be miserable and BORED without Neal to drive you crazy!”
Neal was good for her husband, and she wasn’t all that interested in seeing Peter lose a good friend. And, ironically, a good influence. He had opened Peter up in a way that El respected, challenging him to have faith in people without evidence, to put friendship above his career goals. To enjoy himself a little more, which he sorely needed, and especially to enjoy the pleasure of breaking a little rule here and there. His friendship with Neal – often precisely because it was so fraught, so difficult – had awakened Peter in ways that El savored.
This wasn’t the only reason El cared about Neal, of course. Neal was her friend, too. She cared about him, and she absolutely believed that he was doing more good than harm. Although she loved Peter for his principles, she didn’t share them in this case; she didn’t think that the value of learning a lesson or following the letter of the law should have any impact on her opinion of Neal or what she wanted for him.
This was new, actually. Even before she was kidnapped, she very much wanted Neal to be okay. But she also knew that it was Neal’s mistakes and it was Peter’s decision, and more than anything she just wanted to make sure Peter didn’t get hurt too badly in the process.
But now part of her just wanted to tell Peter that she’s suffered enough for that damn treasure and she shouldn’t have to see Neal go to jail on top of that. She knew that there was no legal basis for this opinion, and maybe even no ethical one, but she felt – deep in her bones – that after everything, she had the right to make that call.
She wasn’t sure this change in her was for the better. But there was a clarity to it, and the clarity felt… restful.
These days, few things did.
Another wisely chosen silence: El knew that she shouldn’t tell Peter that Neal already had an overdeveloped sense of consequences. An almost pathological one.
Neal already felt guilty for lying to them about Adler’s treasure. Not because it was a crime, but because it was them. And he felt that his lies led to El’s kidnapping -- which, indirectly, it had.
But Neal felt a guilt beyond what was fair or reasonable.
Neal, of course, blamed himself for Kate, too….
El knew that feeling responsible for everyone around you is a sign of a generous heart. She also knew that it was a terrible habit.
After Kate died, Peter woke up sweating for months. He thought it was his fault, for not putting the pieces together fast enough. For worrying only about saving Neal and wishing Kate would just leave him alone. A woman died, and Peter thought it was his job to save her.
El knew the details of every case that Peter didn’t solve quickly enough to save a life in danger. The cases, the people, weighed on Peter too heavily to miss.
And then this.
El being taken. To get to Peter.
El was taken because she was Peter’s wife.
They didn’t talk about Peter’s guilt. El was kidnapped and Peter was not the sort of man to expect her to emotionally bolster him through this difficult time.
But El knew her husband. And she knew that it largely wasn’t even conscious – rationally, Peter knew that Keller’s deeds were Keller’s responsibility, period. But she could see the guilt lie thin and constricting on his brow whenever she looked troubled, whenever something reminded them.
Sometimes, when she made pasta, she would catch him staring at the floor in front of the stove, where sauce had stained the tile pink.
He looked so lost.
She also saw the guilt seep over him every time he mentioned Keller. (And it is always him who brings up Keller, never her.) If she were a different sort of woman, if theirs were a different sort of marriage, she knows that she could have taken advantage of this. After everything, there was nothing that Peter would refuse her if she asked.
Of course, all this illogical guilt was the problem with men who have a savior complex. When life happens – when shit happens -- they secretly believe it’s all their fault. Everything that hurts is their fault. Every choice they’ve ever made becomes a tragic flaw that they should have predicted, should have prevented.
Which was just one of many problems with Peter’s theory about Neal, getting away with things, and the moral imperative of consequences. She didn’t believe that Neal’s problem was that he hasn’t been hurt enough, and she didn't see how more hurt would make Neal better or the world a fairer place. She knew that Peter didn’t believe it either, not really; she knew that she was missing his point, and likely on purpose. But people like Neal (people like Peter) lived with their mistakes the way injured men live with an unremovable bullet. She didn’t particularly want to see Neal carry another one.
One thing that Elizabeth would never say to Peter is that she didn’t really believe that, in general, actions had consequences. Unlike most people, Elizabeth did not need to believe it. But to say it would shock Peter, would worry or disenchant him in a way that would be unnecessary and cruel. Before now, it was a mere difference of opinion, a subtle philosophical distinction that was neither here nor there. But now, listening to Peter talk about how it’s absolutely essential for Neal to understand the obvious truth that everyone has to live with the just consequences of their actions, she wanted to speak up. For some reason, she had a strange impulse to argue about what was really just a matter of semantics.
Of course, Elizabeth understood that choices caused things to happen, which in turn caused other things to happen, and so on. Yes, doing something stupid could obviously bite you in the ass. But Peter believed that, in general, good actions are rewarded and bad actions lead to negative consequences for the one doing them. There are exceptions, of course, but these exceptions are repugnant, they are grotesque; the exceptions prove the necessity of the rule.
El was pretty sure that there are plenty of people who make all the right choices who get jack in return for it. She also thinks that most people who do wrong don’t suffer much of anything they have coming.
Mozzie would agree with her, to a point. Of course, Mozzie would also say that the divide is purely economic. Most people’s lives are determined by the actions of the powerful few. The elites get to act as they want and make others live with the consequences.
El thinks it’s more complicated than that. To her, it’s like the old saw about the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a storm on the other side of the world. Cause and effect, choice and consequence, fear and desire, psyche and action: quickly, it all gets messy and complicated, with no clear lines connecting one thing to another. Bad things might be punished. Good things might be rewarded. Randomness might rule. The universe might prefer absurdity to fairness.
She loves that Peter believes that what you do always comes back to you. And she has none of the cynic’s desire to make others see the sharpness in the world that she does. Besides, Peter takes her opinion too much to heart for her to casually crack his worldview for the sake of quibbling over a definition.
But as Peter is talking about consequences, when he thinks that maybe Neal should be in jail because that’s how the world works when you do what Neal’s done, that maybe driving home this lesson will finally make Neal have the strong moral character that he has the potential to have, she balks somehow. For some reason, something foreign and rough inside of her, some tiny crystal of pain, wants to tell Peter that he has it all wrong. That everyone suffers, but it almost never has anything to do with their choices.
Over a decade ago, Elizabeth told a handsome, nervous man that she loves Italian food.
A couple of weeks ago, she made pasta with red sauce for dinner and talked to Satchmo as if he were a person.
Three years ago, she encouraged her husband to give a young con artist a chance.
Ten years ago, Neal became friends with Keller, and then left as soon as he realized what kind of man he was.
How any of this leads to her being grabbed from her home, to having a man’s arm around her neck as he dragged her outside, to feeling the wet of the man’s bloody hand seep into her blouse as he throws her in a dark van, El really can’t say. She can’t think of anything she, or Peter or Neal or Mozzie did, that should have led to her being trapped, scared and angry, at the end of a gun, thinking that she would never see Peter again, that she would never leave that foul-smelling, airless room with the cruel, stupid thug who was keeping her there.
People getting what they deserve, people living the lives that they have earned and nothing more and nothing less – Elizabeth does not think that this is the way of the world. She can see its appeal, and she can see why men like Peter are willing to sacrifice to make these moments of balance happen. But she thinks they are rare.
They are not representative. Balance and consequence is not the way the world works. And convincing Neal that it is, by forcing him to face “the consequences” …
She’s not sure that’s her priority.
“I just… don’t know what I’m going to do….” Peter said. She wanted to reach out to him, to comfort him, to tell him that she understood how painful this choice was for him. But his pause meant that he was waiting for her advice, waiting to see if she would point out something he has missed. Or if she would, as she most often did, remind him that he is a good man and that she would support him no matter what.
That was still true. She would support him. And she knew that Peter would probably stand by Neal. But she was no longer interested in ‘probably’ when it came to her family and friends, to the people who made her feel safe and loved. And so she chose her next words carefully, the way a master swordsman chooses a blade.
“If you ask me, the right man is in prison.”
Peter looked at her, and then back to his coffee. He was thinking, she knew. She changed the subject to more pleasant affairs, then, knowing that her words would linger, would seed in his mind as he weighed his fear for Neal against his faith. It would still be Peter’s choice.
But the truth of her words would be hard to refuse.