Confidence Lost - Chapter 20

Seven years ago (continued)…

Of course, the next morning, Talia received the the confirmation that she’d been expecting. The following months were spent traveling across Europe by train, as Promise immersed the newly christened Neal in the skills he would need for his future life as the criminal.

***

“I won’t kill anyone,” Neal said flatly as he glared distastefully at the gun in his hand. “Especially not with this. I told her I’d become a criminal. I won’t become a murderer!”

Alexandra shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me one way or the other if you learn how to shoot or not. I really don’t like to kill either. But Talia wants you to know how, just in case.”

“Just in case what?”

She made a gun’s shape with her thumb and forefinger and pointed it straight at him. “Just in case there’s ever a situation where it’s shoot or be shot.”

With a sigh, he took careful aim at one of several soda cans lined up on a stone fence in a small rural area just outside of Barcelona. At the end of the day, he still hated it, but turned out he had a pretty decent eye.

***

The week they spent in Paris was interesting, to say the very least.

The challenge Alex gave the two of them their first day in the city was to put together a new wardrobe each without spending a single coin of their own money in the Galeries Lafayette. Neal eased his conscience by constantly reminding himself that the people they were stealing from would consider the cost of a new suit in the designer laden department store mere pocket change.

After collecting enough euros, Alex made it entirely too easy to ignore the guilty twinges he felt afterward.

“Armani looks good on you,” she said with an appreciative grin as she forced him to model his new suit for her.

“It feels good,” Neal admitted reluctantly as he glanced at his reflection in the full length mirrors, adjusting first his tie and then his cufflinks.

She tilted her head as she studied at him. “It’s missing something.”

Neal looked himself over critically. If something was missing, he didn’t know what it could be. As he tried to figure out what was wrong, Alex had gotten up and started moving around the department.

“Aha! Found it!” she said triumphantly.

“Found what?” He turned to look at her and promptly had a black fedora placed on top of his head.

Alex smiled brightly at him. “Now, the look is complete.”

The young man slowly turned back to his reflection in the mirror. Neal stood there for a moment with a contemplative expression before reaching up and tilting the hat at a slightly off-kilter angle. A small smile dared to creep up on his lips.

***

It was close to midnight when Alex and Neal stumbled into their shared hotel suite in Brussels. Talia glanced at them from her seat by the fireplace, her interest in the book she was reading momentarily forgotten.

“You two were out drinking?”

Alex and Neal glanced at each other before dissolving into snickers. They were both giddy from a combination of amusement, adrenaline, and alcohol.

“Celebrating,” Alex clarified. “Neal’s plan worked like a dream,” she laughed as she held up a long cylindrical black tube.

“I still can’t believe they didn’t notice,” Neal said with abject disbelief, though his smile never faded.

Talia smiled. “You’ve always had a good eye for details,” she said. “Never thought it would translate so well to art.”

The young man rubbed the back of his neck. “It was just one painting,” he said modestly.

“It was an Erte, and the gallery still thinks they have the original,” Alex emphasized with a smirk, tapping Neal on the head with the tube. “It’ll be weeks, maybe even months before they realize it.”

“And by the time that happens, you’ll be long gone and the trail will have gone very cold,” Talia said. “Good work.”

Alex handed her the tube, then squeaked with surprise when Neal wrapped his arms about her waist and pulled her in close. The effects of the drinks they’d celebrated with earlier after their successful heist were still strong and they both stumbled off balance, laughing as they managed somehow not to fall completely over. “It wouldn’t have worked without you,” he said as he nuzzled the side of her neck.

“You-” she observed as she twisted in his embrace, swiped his hat, and placed it on her own head. “-are drunk.”

“Am not,” he muttered as he closed his eyes and touched his forehead lightly against hers.

“Are too,” she whispered as she tilted her lips closer to his.

Talia chuckled and gathered up her book along with the tube. “Good night, children,” she said with a shake of her head as she made her way towards her room. Once inside, with the door firmly shut, she took out the painting and studied it appreciatively.

***

“Why does it have to be like this?”

Talia stared down Alex coldly as the younger woman yelled at her with a desperate, pained expression. They’d finally reached the end of their travels, a secluded chalet in the Czech Republic, in the forests outside of Prague. The last leg had been exhausting, and Neal had decided to go to sleep in his room as soon as they’d arrived.

Alex never suspected that he was being slowly drugged over the course of the last twelve hours.

She didn’t find out until she found herself being dismissed by Talia, ordered sternly to head into the city.

“You knew that this was going to happen,” Talia reminded her. “Everything, from the moment you rescued him from my father and all the training across Europe, was leading up to this point.”

Tears were welling up in Alex’s eyes. “I know, but-“

“Promise…”

“He’s really good at what he’s learned!” the younger woman tried to argue. “He’s got his new personal history memorized. He’s already mastered the basic skills. With a little more time, he’ll be absolutely perfect. Even better than Catwoman. Tim can act like Neal Caffrey no problem!”

“And that precisely is the problem,” Talia said. “Acting like Neal is not enough. Timothy has to believe he is Neal, and there is only one way to accomplish that.”

“I won’t let you-!” Alex had thrown down her duffel bag and was about to try moving past Talia towards Neal’s room when the Arabian woman pulled out a pistol.

“It is not your decision,” Talia said sternly.

“It’s alright, Alex.” Neal’s voice, thick with weariness, startled both women. They turned to see him leaning heavily against the door frame of his room. He was clearly exhausted and struggling to stay upright, but his blue eyes were focused on her. “It’s… alright. I want this.”

Alex went immediately to his side, but this time Talia didn’t try to stop her, choosing instead to holster her weapon. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said. “You don’t know what she’s planning to do!”

“She’s going to kill me.”

The young woman stared at him in shocked silence for a long moment. “You knew?” she asked in a small voice.

He nodded calmly. “For a few weeks now.” Neal reached out and stroked Alex’s face in a comforting way, his expression gentle and reassuring as he brushed away some of her tears with his thumb. “In order for this all to work, I need to be Neal Caffrey completely. Talia has explained how everything will work, and I trust her.”

“Aren’t you good enough as you are?”

He shook his head. “The person he is and person I am are incompatible. I may not remember who I was before the demon got to me, but I know deep down that being a criminal goes against everything I ever was. I may enjoy some parts of the jobs and the cons, but afterward I still feel guilty about it. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about doing the right thing and trying to either return the things we’ve stolen or turning myself in.”

Impulsively, Alex wrapped her arms around Neal. If he weren’t leaning against the door frame, he might’ve fallen over in surprise. She had her face buried against his neck. “How can you be so calm about dying like this?”

Neal closed his eyes and held her close. “I’ve been murdered over fifty times in cruel, terrible ways. If Talia’s experiment works, and I’m revived again, then all’s well. If it doesn’t, and I don’t come back, well at least I’ll have drifted away peacefully in my sleep without any pain to chase me into the afterlife. Either way-” He pulled Alex back a little so that he could look at her face to face. “-the memories of all those other deaths won’t haunt me anymore.”

In the end, Alex wouldn’t allow herself to be sent away. She stayed by his side through the entire process, though her heart ached and the tears never stopped falling.

“Is he alright?” she asked as Neal’s unconscious body was removed from the Lazarus Pit beneath the chalet by Talia’s servants. Talia herself was checking his vital signs and nodded.

“He’s fine,” she said simply. It was an experimental technique she’d used on Neal, one that she’d theorized would negate the customary madness that usually overtook a person when they were revived by the pit. Talia hadn’t been sure it would succeed, but things were looking positive.

“Will this really work?” Alex murmured as she brushed Neal’s damp hair from his peacefully sleeping face. “When he wakes up, will he really not remember anything of his real identity?”

“When my father possessed Timothy and was trying to break his spirit by killing him over and over again, he didn’t realize that his personality had split. He couldn’t break the guardian because he didn’t know the persona existed. This last death and revival was to remove the shield of the guardian on his mind. With this protection removed, Timothy will finally be susceptible to actual reprogramming.”

“Will he believe that he truly is Neal Caffrey?”

“He will if you do your part well,” Talia said.

***

When the young man finally woke up, everything was a mess, both inside and out. His head pounded, his vision blurred, his stomach was churning, and for some reason he was surrounded by burning paintings.

“Neal?” a desperate woman’s voice called out through the choking thick smoke. “Neal! Where are you?”

That name and voice sounded familiar. It sounded right. That was his name, wasn’t it? “Here!” he yelled, coughing as he tried to crawl towards the sound of the woman’s voice, doing his best to stay below the smoke filling the room. As he got to a narrow hallway, a woman’s hand grabbed his arm.

“Oh God! There you are!” The woman who spoke to him looked so familiar. “We gotta get out of here, Neal! We were set up!”

He shook his head. “Who are you?”

Her eyes widened with disbelief. “We’re about to be roasted alive, and you’re worried about my name?” She grabbed his arm hard and started to pull him down the hallway. “There’s a window with a fire escape at the end of the hall!”

After a quick glance to his right, wincing at the heat radiating from the flames and the glowing red cinders that floated towards his face, Neal followed quickly after the woman. When he caught up to her, she was struggling with the window.

“It’s stuck!” she cried with alarm as she stopped jerking on the latch and was pounding on the thick glass with her fist.

Looking around frantically, Neal saw a bronze statue of a human figure on a nearby pedestal, next to a wall that was being licked by flames. It looked far too large and heavy for his companion to wield, but perhaps not for him. He pulled off his jacket and used it to shield his hands from the burning hot metal. The blasted thing was so heavy that as soon as it was off the marble pedestal it jerked his arms nearly clean out of their sockets when it fell to the floor. Still, these were desperate times, and he used every ounce of strength he had to hoist the statue up

“Get down!” he yelled. With a gasp of alarm, the woman saw what he was about to do and threw herself to the floor. Neal swung the statue like a baseball bat, sending a wide pattern of spiderweb-like cracks across the glass window. It took two more blows to finally break through the glass completely, and the pair of them narrowly escaped from the flame engulfed building.

Of course, their luck being what it was that night, a downpour broke out five minutes after they escaped the fire, as they were trudging through the side streets and alleyways of Prague.

“My name is Alex,” the woman explained as they took shelter in an abandoned building. “You honestly don’t remember?”

Neal followed her through the previously boarded up window he’d ripped off, then readjusted the wood panels to make it less obvious that they’d just broken in. “Alex… Alex…” he muttered to himself. It sounded so familiar. Then something clicked. “Alexandra!”

She smiled at him. “Yeah. Wow… Those bastards must have really done a number on you when they knocked you out.”

“Bastards?”

Alex nodded. “It was supposed to be just a snatch and grab, remember?” she explained. “Get a few pieces and get out.” She scowled. “I think we were set up.”

“We were there to steal art?”

At his confused question, Alex’s face became even more concerned. “You don’t remember much of anything right now, do you?” She picked as comfortable a spot as she could find in the empty, broken down room and motioned for him to take a seat next to her. “C’mon. Maybe I can job your memory.”

They talked for several hours there in the dark, the room only occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning from the storm outside. They talked about the past.

He grew up in Gotham City…

She was from Chicago…

His parents had been murdered a few years earlier…

She was a foster kid nearly all her life…

After his father died, he had no reason left to stay…

She just wanted to see the world…

They met in Paris, grifting people in the same shopping district for spending money…

He had an eye for detail and a talent for counterfeiting paintings…

She had a talent for distracting marks and an eye for finding willing buyers…

By the time the storm started to weaken, Neal and Alex were leaning against next one another, sharing warmth, comfort, and memories.

“I think I’m starting to remember things a little more clearly now,” Neal admitted. “I remember our shopping spree in Paris.” He frowned. “My hat got lost in that fire, didn’t it?”

“‘Fraid so.”

“Damn it,” he cursed. “I really liked that hat.”

Alex smiled at him. “We’ll get you another one as soon as we get out of Prague.” She sighed. “We should probably consider getting out of Europe for a little while, but we’ll some fast cash for that.”

Neal sighed. “Do we still have that Erte we picked up in Brussels?”

She looked at him oddly before nodding. “He remembers the Erte?” she thought to herself. “I didn’t mention it at all tonight.”

“Oh don’t give me that look,” he said, misreading her expression. “I know you wanted to keep it, but our choices are kind of limited.”

“You remember?”

Neal nodded. “I remember how much you like the Erte. I promise, when we get back on our feet, I’ll get you another one.” He smirked. “Maybe we’ll even get that one back from whoever we sell it to later.”

Alex laughed softly and curled up closer to him. They didn’t remain in the abandoned building for much longer. As soon as the rain had completely stopped, they slipped out and quietly returned to the hotel they’d been staying at. While Neal was in the shower, Alex pulled out her cell phone.

“Status?” Talia asked.

“It’s just as you said would happen,” Alex confirmed as she spoke softly on the balcony, far from the bathroom door. “Neal doesn’t remember anything about his real past or identity. He doesn’t remember anything about you or your father. He does remember the training trips we took around Europe, though not your involvement. To him, they were just jobs we did for ourselves.”

“Good. Everything is going according to plan. You remember what your role in this is, correct?”

“Of course.” Alex sighed. “Keep him away from cities where vigilantes often work. If we go to one of those cities, keep low profiles. Stay away from cities that are known League strongholds. Especially stay away from Gotham City. Avoid anything involving Wayne Enterprises like the plague.”

“I’ll keep you updated on where the League rebuilds itself,” Talia said. “Other than that, there will be no contact between us unless either of your covers are blown. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Talia.”

“Good.” Alex could hear Talia’s sigh softly on the other end of the line. “You are Timothy’s guardian now. Protect him from anyone who might try to harm him. Hide him from the family who is still looking for him. I know it will not be an easy task, but I know you can handle it.”

“I understand.”

A few minutes after the call ended, Neal offered Alex the shower. Once she was done, she stepped out to find him unconscious on the bed. Her heart lodged itself in her throat until she crept close enough to see that he was, in fact, still breathing. She breathed a sigh of relief and settled in beside him. Only then did she finally allow herself to relax enough to sleep.

----------------------------------------------------

Author Notes:

 This is, I think, the longest chapter I’ve written to date. Originally, I was going to split this into two, but decided instead to make it all one, because I wanted to return to the present day in chapter 21. In this story, Alex and Neal became very close in these early days. She taught him how to enjoy being a con. Talia also was ultimately the one responsible for completely burying Tim’s original personality because there was no way even his broken personality could truly abide being a criminal in the long-term.

The End

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