Rating: T, Gen
Characters: Peter, Neal
Summary: With Neal, nothing is as it seems. An aftermath story, beta'd by Writer JC
When Peter gets the call that Neal is gone, the first words out of his mouth are, "Damn it, Neal!" followed by, "What the hell did you people do!" The former is out of habit, the latter because he can't seem to learn; never lend Neal out to other agents. This may be two for two, but Peter would prefer to keep his learning curve down to one lesson a year.
Peter doesn't jump straight to the conclusion that Neal ran. Took advantage of an anklet free ankle to achieve his own ends or to pull some side job - definitely; grabbed the opportunity to solve the case his own way - possibly. But run? Peter considers it because he has to, but he won't buy it without proof. He knows Neal. If Neal is going run, he would do it after a case, when everyone is happy and busy booking the bad guys, before anyone has a chance to get Neal's anklet back on. And this case would have been a cake walk, sweet-talking counterfeiters into doing business with Neal's non-existent employers and dumping money into a non-existent account. In and out, quick and easy. Neal would wait, because Peter knows Neal likes getting the bad guys just as much as he does.
Unless something came up: an opportunity, a problem, a deal. Day one of what would have been a day and a half operation, and Neal is gone.
A week of no leads forces Peter to ponder all the possibilities; the ones that include Neal running and the ones that include Neal dead in a ditch. It's stressful, tiring, putting his appetite and sleep on the life support that is El's concern and kind badgering. On week two when Peter is brought a case that is right up Neal's alley – some ancient jade statue replaced with a forgery – Peter sighs in relief. It smacks of Neal's handiwork, which means Neal isn't dead in a ditch somewhere.
Week three and it's hard for Peter to see another statue forgery as anything but Neal back in the game. He tries to see it as something else, he does, because with Neal nothing is ever as it seems and he wants to give the kid the benefit of the doubt.
He wants to believe that working with Neal hadn't been one long con. But it's hard, because he knows Neal.
Week four is quiet, dropping Peter back in the mire of concern and nightmares of finding Neal's body a body in the morgue. Peter had always figured that the damn kid would be the death of his career, but not the death of him. Peter's appetite and sleep are back on life support.
Week five, Peter gets a call. The local sheriff of some podunk town an hour outside of New York City wants him to come down and come down, now. Peter and his team make it there in forty five minutes. The Sheriff tells him about a man in their jail cell who is refusing medical treatment, food and water unless he can talk to an agent Burke. The Sheriff is baffled, nervous, pissy and more than happy to hand the guy over.
Peter walks into the cell. A bruised, battered, raggedy Neal huddling in the corner looks up and smiles as though Peter is the god of hope and Neal wants to pray to him.
Peter watches Neal the same way he stares at a file for a case he's not making any headway on. Neal is sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to Peter, arm in motion sliding charcoal across sketchbook paper.
"How do you even whip up a jade statue in that amount of time?" Peter asks.
"You don't," says Neal. "Not if you want it perfect. They just wanted enough similarities to buy some time." He is rail thin and wearing his silk pajamas, and Peter catches himself counting how many ribs he can see pressing into the slick cloth.
"The other counterfeit was a lot more fun. They let me actually sculpt that one." Neal never calls the statues by name, which Peter chalks up to Neal being obscure out of habit, as though by not naming the statues then he can't be indicted. But the way Neal talks about the pieces is with the same regard he gives whatever he happens to pick out of someone's pocket, like passing things of no real value that he will soon forget about.
Peter nods sagely. He asks, strictly curious, "How does that work, anyway?" And Neal tells him about making the copy first out of clay then casting a mold. It's a casual conversation between two regular people, not fed and con, not cat and mouse. They did the cop and robber dance in the hospital while Neal was confined to a bed with three broken ribs, a broken left wrist, a lot of bruises and a chest infection. Peter and the US Marshals questioned him in between visits from El, Mozzie, and June. Neal answered in between coughing fits that made him whimper with pain. Peter had been doing his job, Neal, El and June understood – Mozzie not so much, obviously – but Peter had still felt like an ass.
Peter still feels like an ass, because he's not sure. Something feels off, wrong, but he doesn't think Neal lied. He believes that Neal was taken for his talents with the promise that he would live if he used them. What he can't wrap his brain around is that the guys abuse Neal then keep their promise. Neither is he completely convinced of Neal's pleading trauma-induced memory lapse as the reason he can't remember the faces of the guys who took him. Peter knows Neal, knows when Neal is traumatized. He's seen it, and knows that a traumatized Neal is a Neal who remembers with a knife's edge clarity that becomes his driving force.
But that had been the death of someone Neal had cared about. This was Neal beaten senseless and left to crawl his way back to civilization. You couldn't really call that two sides of the same coin.
"I like clay," Neal says. "Makes a mess but I like that it offers multiple dimensions to work with."
"Why don't you sculpt more?" Peter asks.
Silk whispers over the bony knot of Neal's shoulder when he shrugs. "It has it's limits. Cost, mostly. And it's not like you can pull out a wad of clay on a bus or plane and start shaping it." He coughs wetly into his fist. "Not like drawing. You can draw any time, anywhere, anything. With color, without. You can sculpt a sun; you can't sculpt a sunrise."
Again, Peter nods. It had been a redundant remark on Neal's part because Neal likes just about every medium the art world has to offer. Neal has been in a rambling state of mind - not talkative, not unless engaged to speak – but whatever he has to say never means much. They are words for the sake of words, and Peter wonders if this is indeed trauma he is seeing or pain medication turning Neal's brain to sludge.
As if to answer the question, Neal releases a tired sigh and closes the sketchbook. He tosses the charcoal back into the wooden box by the bed, wipes his hands with a wet washcloth, then slides the book under his pillow and lays down. Neal isn't a fan of letting people see his original works, Peter has no idea why.
Peter waits until Neal's breathing is slow and even before getting up and covering him with the throw blanket El had given him. Speaking of El, he needs to call her, get her advice on what to get for dinner – something that Neal would want to eat that isn't soup. Peter can't leave. Neal had said with exhausted certainty that the guys who took him wouldn't come after him. Peter doesn't care whether Neal is right or simply placating everyone; until these people are caught, then Neal is under house arrest for his own protection.
Neal, tired, hurting and sick, had shrugged and accepted it.
Peter often boggles over how he has gone from hunting Neal to watching his back. One of the US Marshal's offers up the theory that maybe, just maybe, Neal's injuries were a cover-up, and he asks Peter if Neal would go that far in a con. It takes everything Peter has not to shove his foot up the guys ass, and so he lets a glare slip.
"Just asking," Marshal Riley says, hands up, face a picture of startled innocence.
It pisses Peter off because Riley had been a part of the hunt for Neal and yet he still didn't know a damn thing about Caffrey. That's just sloppy. Neal toes the line but he has his limits or he wouldn't hate guns and violence.
It also pisses Peter off because it makes him think. Neal has his limits and is so damn in control that those limits have yet to ever be a weakness. Neal has a weakness even if she is six feet under. Neal would have let himself take a beating if it meant helping Kate. He's foolishly romantic like that, foolishly loyal.
And it makes Peter wonder and worry that there might be other Kates in Neal's life, other Mozzies Neal would clip his anklet for, run off with, take a beating for if it meant saving them.
"What do you think?" Peter asks Moz outside of June's house. They had crossed paths as they'd been doing since Neal came home. June is away, and Neal currently under Jones' protection, whose shift ends in five minutes.
"I don't need a name," Peter assures. Mozzie had that look on his face, the one where he's seconds away from going vague and cryptic because Peter is the suit and that's the game suits play. Peter isn't in the mood but he's not going to say anything that would only chase Mozzie off. "I just... want to know what I'm up against, what I need to watch out for."
He knows Mozzie can't argue that. They're both on opposite ends of the same bridge when it comes to what they feel is in Neal's best interest, but it's a short bridge and they meet in the middle more often than not.
"There are... acquaintances... that Neal may feel he owes," Mozzie says.
"To the point of letting himself get his ass handed to him?"
Mozzie shakes his head. "Not this badly. No."
Peter asks weakly, "What about, I don't know, relations?"
Mozzie sighs, cloudy breath streaming out of his mouth. "Good question. There's a lot he doesn't like to talk about and I don't ask. I mean, I did ask because it's wise to know as much as possible about the people you're working with - obviously. But every time I asked Neal would shut down, so I gave up asking. It's possible, though, I suppose."
They go inside. Peter relieves Jones. Neal is sitting Indian style on the bed, back still to Peter, sketchbook in his lap, casted wrist resting on a pillow. He's shirtless and Peter wishes he wasn't. Neal's skin is like a black and blue abstract painting, and there are the bumps of his spine to go along with his ribs. It makes Neal look fragile, and it makes Peter feel uncomfortable.
Neal stops drawing, sliding the book back under his pillow, brightening up now that Peter and Mozzie are here. He can't drink wine but he gets up to play the gracious host and fetch Moz a drink. Mozzie beats him to it, pouring himself a glass of wine then Neal a glass of milk ("because growing boys with broken bones need milk," Mozzie says. Neal rolls his eyes and reminds Mozzie that he's stopped growing. Mozzie tells him that doesn't null the fact that Neal has broken bones).
Peter gets himself a beer and tries not to laugh. Mozzie is badgering Neal, telling him it's too cold for him to go wandering around in nothing but half his birthday suit, then throws Neal's robe over his shoulders. Neal tells him petulantly that it was too hot for shirts let alone a robe, yet he's pulling the robe tight around his shoulders. His fever's up, Peter can see it in the pink staining the hollows under Neal's cheekbones. Mozzie confirms it when he corners Neal long enough to feel his forehead.
Then they are at the table, Neal with his milk and Mozzie with his wine, playing a quiet game of chess. Neal makes sure to turn his head away and cough into his shoulder. Peter watches them out of the corner of his eye as he pretends to read reports. He's unsure if Mozzie cringes because of germs or because Neal's coughs are still wet. The kid had suffered through pneumonia and there's still a chance he could suffer through it again. Mozzie calls Neal a disease factory, yet remains seated not far from said factory.
Peter wonders how far Neal would go for Mozzie. He doesn't think Mozzie has anything to do with what happened to Neal, doesn't believe Mozzie knows the people who took Neal, or Mozzie would have said something. It would have been cryptic and vague to deny Peter a reason to arrest him, but not so vague that it would be useless. The little guy had been hell bent on finding Neal and Peter hadn't been the only one to suffer uncertainties; Mozzie was still looking a few pounds lighter.
Mozzie would do anything for Neal. So what would Neal do for Mozzie?
Get the hell beaten out of him and pretend it never happened.
Mozzie wouldn't have to know the people for them to use him as leverage. If the people knew about Neal they could have found out about Mozzie, and that would have been enough.
Mozzie won't shut up about germs and a government conspiracy that involves using Neal as an incubator. It's funny for a while, not so funny when he keeps it up, but Neal doesn't stop smiling the entire time.
Neal isn't getting better, not at a rate his doctor is happy with, but he's not getting any worse. The doctor says Neal isn't getting enough rest, enough to eat. Peter can vouch for the eating thing but all he's seen Neal do is draw, play chess with Mozzie and sleep.
The doctor thinks Neal is under stress, and that adds fuel to Peter's belief that Neal is holding back. Any other time he would corner Neal, call him out, remind him of the tenuous nature of Neal's position as a criminal informant. It's not smart to play nice with Neal when he's keeping secrets.
But Peter hesitates. It's hard to give the kid the third degree when he looks a strong breeze away from collapsing.
Agent Riley beats him to it.
It's Peter's shift, but he arrives early after getting an SOS call from Diana. She sounds frantic, forced to speak above a badgering Riley demanding that Caffrey stop screwing around and tell everyone what they needed to know. When Peter arrives, it's to Riley towering over Neal, Diana trying to get him to back off and Neal sitting on his bed hunched into his robe while leaning away from Riley.
"Riley, what the hell!" Peter growls. Then twice as loud, "Riley, damn it, what the hell!" when Riley raises his hand. It's an act of emphases, of frustration, but looks like something a hell of a lot worse that has Neal cringing away and Peter grabbing the man's wrist. There is too much noise, too much shouting. Peter telling Riley to back off and Riley yelling the same at Peter.
"That is enough. All of you."
It's startling; June doesn't shout, barely raises her voice yet manages to cut through the noise like a recently sharpened knife. She is standing in the room, tall, straight, with her hands on her hips and the air of a queen looking for someone to behead.
"Agent Riley. Please leave," she says, level and solid, like silk and iron. "Now. I will not have you upset my guests and tenant." She doesn't wait for Riley to comply, though he does, reluctantly. She is already making her way to Neal. She sits by him, wraps her arm around his shoulders while saying soothing words, then rubs his back. Neal has his head down, but Peter can still see that his face is blank, tired. He can also see Neal's grip on his sketchbook that has turned his knuckles bone white.
When Riley is gone, Peter says, "Neal... June... I am so sorry..."
"It's all right, Peter. I was the one who allowed him to come in," June says, fussing Neal's hair into a semblance of order.
If she could adopt Neal, she would, Peter would bet a years pay on it. Her maid answers the door but it's June who takes Neal's guests up to his loft at most, points them the way at least. Screening them, Peter thinks. Assessing them, determining if they are friend or foe, someone to welcome or to watch. Maybe she sees Byron in Neal, maybe she sees a wayward child lost in a world of his own making, or maybe just a lost child in desperate need of a family. Who knows and what does it matter? Thank goodness for June because Peter isn't the comforting type and doesn't have a clue how to help.
While June comforts, Peter turns to a contrite Diana.
"I'm sorry, boss. I had no idea he'd get hostile like that. He said he just wanted to ask Neal some questions-"
Peter holds up his hand. "It's okay. You wouldn't have been able to stop him, anyway. Hell, I was barely able to stop him." He looks back at Neal. June has convinced the kid to lay down but she can't seem to get him to relinquish the sketch book. June stays with Neal a little longer as Peter and Diana debrief out of ear shot.
"You think Riley's right?" Diana asks. "You think Neal's not talking?"
Peter exhales through his nose. "As much as I hate agreeing with Riley right now, yeah, I do think that. But I don't think..." he squints, remembering when Riley raised his hand, the way Neal braced himself, expecting a hit.
"I don't think this is something we should push him on."
"You sure?" Diana asks.
Peter chews the inside of his cheek in thought. Neal likes the finer things of life, he likes art and classical music and wine. He balks at violence and pales when a gun is pointed at him (but, then, who doesn't?) But that doesn't make Neal some delicate, fragile creature. The kid is resilient. He might freeze up when face to face with a gun but keeps it together enough to keep talking whatever the outcome, and the outcome is usually Neal not shot. Neal is a thinker, not a fighter, but the pen is mightier than the sword for a reason. A quick, brilliant mind can be just as much a danger or defense as a weapon. Neal knows how to fight back.
But he'd cringed. He'd kept silent and cringed. He had thought Riley was going to hit him.
"Yeah," Peter says. "Yeah."
June gets up to leave. She's barely on her feet when Neal's hand grabs hers, squeezing his silent thanks. June goes with it by clasping his hand in both of hers. Reassuring words whispered for only Neal to hear finally convinces him to let her go. She covers Neal up to his neck before moving on to Peter.
"He okay?" Peter asks.
June sighs. "He's going to try to sleep." She levels a serious look at Peter. "But that can't happen again."
"It won't," Peter promises, and intends to keep it, even if he has to get Haversham to step in as Neal's lawyer.
June nods. "I'm going to have some tea brought up for Neal that should help calm him," she says, then leaves.
"Maybe we should leave the security detail up to June," Diana jokes.
Peter chuffs. "Yeah. Doubt anyone with evil intent would make it past the front step."
After Diana leaves and while June is having the tea prepared, Peter drags a chair over to Neal's bed and sits. He's not going to stand over the poor kid and look down on him. Neal is curled up under the duvet, only his eyes and the top of his head is visible. He's staring vacantly, blinking languidly.
Peter compresses his lips into a thin line. He wants to ask "what for?" Instead he says, "It's okay. Not your fault."
"Yeah it is," Neal says, so soft that Peter barely hears it.
Peter wants to ask why so badly it makes his spine itch. He doesn't ask; it's too soon, Neal is too tired, and when tired he's vulnerable. Telling Diana that he wasn't going to push Neal hadn't been lip service. Maybe he's making a mistake, maybe a push is what Neal needs. Maybe it's the only way. But Peter can't bring himself to corner someone who's already caged. Even if it is Neal.
Maybe because it's Neal.
Peter doesn't know anymore.
"You okay?" Peter asks.
Neal's head whispers against the pillow when he nods. "Got a little freaked out. That's all."
Why Peter's brain asks. "Oh," Peter's mouth says.
June arrives with the tea.
"What are you drawing today?"
Neal, sitting Indian style on the bed, slides his casted arm under the flap of the sketchbook, ready to close it.
"Nothing much. Just... whatever."
Peter, sitting on the couch, watching Neal more than the TV, smiles. "Seeing as how that corner of the room is kind of boring I'm guessing stuff from your head?"
"Pretty much," Neal says. He closes the book and slides it under the pillow. Then he gets up, stretches carefully. "I'm kind of bored with it. Think I'll do some painting. Something scenic." He coughs into his arm, not as wet as the other day, but hard enough that he still winces. Broken ribs and congestion are a recipe for agony.
Peter glances at the glass doors to the veranda. It's November outside with a November rain pouring down in sheets. He raises an eyebrow at Neal. "A scene from your head, right?"
"Naw," Neal says as he moves the easel into position. "It's perfect outside."
"You have a strange idea as to what's perfect."
"And you are narrow minded in your concept of beauty. Rain's just as beautiful as the sun. Think about it – it's water, everything needs water, everything can't survive without water. Water is life. Ergo, it's beautiful."
Peter smiles on the outside and chuckles on the inside. Leave it to Caffrey to find something to praise about the rain.
"I love rain," Neal says as he lays out his paints and brushes on the fold-out table next to the easel. "I love how clean the world is after it rains; like it's baptizing the world."
Crap, leave it to Caffrey to make you feel guilty over something as trivial as disliking wet and miserable.
"Like it's giving the world a second chance?" Peter says.
Neal smiles, regarding Peter with an amused spark in his eye that Peter hasn't seen since Neal vanished. Once upon a time that spark had annoyed the hell out of him. He suddenly realizes that he's kind of missed it.
"Something like that," Neal says. He then heads to his closet, rooting through it until he pulls out a black sweater. He goes to the bathroom to change. It's a new habit, starting a few days back when Neal's fever had finally backed off and he was no longer suffering fluctuating temperatures. After that, Peter could have sworn the kid had gone self conscious, no longer sleeping shirtless, going into the bathroom just to change his shirt.
When Neal comes out he's wearing the sweater, a rather ratty paint-stained piece of cloth that he probably bought at the thrift store. It has a V-neck, not wide but Peter can see the tip of Neal's collarbones and the edge of his bruises. The kid is trying to walk with his usual perfect posture but those bruises and the bones underneath won't let him. When he reaches the blank canvas, he picks up a pencil and sketches. The easel is angled just right so that Peter can't see. Neal has to pause every so often to cough.
"Neal," Peter says. "Tell me again how you got away?"
The pencil whispers over the canvas. "I told you, Peter. They let me go."
Neal had told him that, more than once, without making eye contact. Just like now. They had let him go by dropping him off in the middle of nowhere to hike through the trees, bare foot and dressed only in his undershirt and pants. He had lamented the loss of his shoes, not because they were nice, but because they had belonged to June's husband and he felt terrible for losing them. Same with his jacket. He had nearly sobbed in relief when on the day he came home he found his hat and favorite vest laid out on his bed. He had planned to wear them the next day, it was the only reason he would set them out, he had said.
Peter sighs, rubbing his face.
"I also told you," Neal says, trading his pencil for a brush, "that you don't have to worry. Those people got what they want. They aren't going to come after me."
"Until they want something else."
"You sure about that?"
Neal says nothing. His brush is thick with paint, making its movement silent as it slides down the canvas.
Peter prompts, "Neal?"
"I'm sure," Neal says. He's not smiling.
"How are you sure, Neal?"
Neal swallows. "You're just going to have to trust me."
"I want to," Peter says. "I do, Neal. I really do. But, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to give me a reason-"
"Please," Neal says, begging, honest to goodness begging, like he will never ask this of Peter ever again if he will just do it this one time, but terrified that Peter will say no.
And if Peter says no, then the kid might shatter.
"Fine," Peter says, in part because he has to, in part because deep down he wants to. "I trust you. But I don't trust them."
Neal swallows, nods, accepting the middle ground and Peter can see a tension he hadn't realized was there drain from Neal's shoulders.
"I can live with that."
The brush slides silently up.
"Oh it's beautiful, Neal," El says, breathless with wonder.
Neal, sitting on the his bed while petting Satchmo, smiles lightly. "Not one of my best."
"Are you kidding?" El about yelps. Peter can't blame her, but he remembers that artists are their own worst critics. Neal completed it in a day, the same day he started, had deemed it okay then went to bed. It is the veranda, painted as though the French doors hadn't been in the way. It isn't photographic realism but Peter is sure that if he touches it, his finger will come away wet with water. Everything is shiny and clean and Peter has to admit, it does justice to the rain.
"If this is your worst then your best must be out of this world," El says. "I'd love to see them."
Neal winces. "Yeah that's... not... really... um, possible."
Translation: they're currently in a museum pretending to be someone else's painting. Peter has to exhale through his nose to keep from sighing.
"You can have that if you want," Neal says.
"Really?" El says like it's the greatest honor ever bestowed. "Oh, Neal." Then she softens, biting her lip as her eyes go dewy, and Peter's a little panicked that she might start crying. Instead, she goes over to Neal and gives him a kiss on the cheek. Peter wishes he has a camera, because Neal is blushing so badly it's a wonder he doesn't pass out.
"It's really not my best," he says lamely.
El tells him to stop talking like that and come to the table. They eat what El has brought, left overs from the caterer she hired for some grand event the other night. It's the kind of food that should please Neal's palate to no end, but Peter gets the feeling Neal's only eating for El's sake.
Peter doesn't get it. The kid's been getting better, still coughing but his fever's gone and his breathing no longer rattles. One would think that would also mean a more cooperative digestion but Neal is still leaving food on his plate.
When Peter escorts his wife outside (mostly to watch Satchmo's back in case Bugsy goes for round two in trying to eat him) he tells her about it.
"What do you think it is?" she asks, doe-eyed with concern.
Peter rubs the back of his neck then shrugs. "I don't know. He keeps telling me these people aren't going to grab him a second time, asked me to trust him on it. And I'm trying, I am, but it's hard. He's holding something back, I know it. But if I push he's just going to say the same damn thing he's been saying since we found him. I have the US Marshals and Hughes breathing down my neck and Neal up there, right in front of me, still going through hell because something's wrong he either can't or won't tell me about. Something's gotta give. Something's going to give if he keeps this up and I don't know what to do about it."
El purses her lips in that way that always makes him melt. Rubbing his shoulder, she says, "You'll figure it out, honey."
"If I don't?"
"You will. You're good at figuring things out, figuring Neal out."
"Doesn't help my situation with the Marshals. They want answers. Hughes wants answers. Hell, I want answers."
"At what cost?" El says, cringing ever so slightly as though worried about what the answer might be, or unsure if she had said the right thing. But she shakes it off and adds, "Maybe Neal isn't holding back. Maybe... maybe it's just a matter of time and he'll talk when he feels ready. Look, honey, I know you want to catch the people who did this to Neal. And you will, I know you will. But at this very moment I think you should focus less on justice and more on making sure Neal gets back on his feet. He needs you. It may not seem like it, but he does. Believe me."
El then leans in to kiss her husband, and when her lips meet his he once again feels like he's melting.
"You'll figure it out," she reminds him after pulling away. With Satchmo's leash in one hand and Neal's painting in the other, she carefully climbs into the waiting cab. Peter is all ready missing her the moment the cab door shuts.
Peter heads back to the loft.
"You don't have to stay," Neal says. He's back on the bed, back to sketching, like it's something he has to do, like Sisyphus and his boulder.
Peter drops onto the couch. "Yeah I do."
Neal pauses. He's wearing jeans and a V-neck sweater that's charcoal gray. It doesn't hide the center of his backbone nor the sharpness of his shoulder blades.
"And I want to," Peter adds. He clicks on the TV. "Why not take a break, let your mind go lazy for a little while? I'll promise to let you watch whatever your want."
Neal snorts. "Uh, my loft, my TV, Peter."
"Technically June's TV."
"So how about it?"
Neal is silent for all of five seconds. He turns his head, a partial angle that isn't a profile but shows enough of Neal's eye to betray his indecision. He wants to say yes, is poised on the precipice of it and is ready to jump.
Then his head twitches and his eye is gone.
"Maybe later," he says, and resumes drawing.
"Neal," Peter says, harder than intended. Neal stills and Peter can see the muscles of his back go rigid.
"Want some popcorn?" Peter asks.
Neal's back inches out of its tension, like a spooked animal inching out of it's hole. "O – Okay."
Hearing Neal stutter is like a kick to the gut that's hard to ignore.
Peter gets up and makes microwave popcorn.
In stories and on TV, when people wake up from a bad dream their bodies jack knife upright and they gasp, sometimes scream. It always makes Peter's eyes roll. He's had his fair share and then some of bad dreams, the kind that pull him from a deep sleep, leaving him gasping for air and disoriented. But never bolting upright with a scream dying in his throat.
Neal is the same. He dreams the dreams that make for a bad nights sleep, a lot of pointless naps and an unhappy doctor. Neal has a bottle of sleeping pills that Peter always tries to badger him into taking. And Neal does, but Peter's sure it's a con, some slight of hand making the pill vanish before it reaches his mouth. Neal always regards the bottle in misery, saying again and again how they don't help, how they trap him in his mind. In other words, how much they scare him.
Peter doesn't always have the night shift – Hughes won't let him. But he tries to schedule as many shifts as possible, because if something's going to happen it's going to happen in the cover of dark. Too much coffee and sports helps keep Peter awake. His sleep pattern is so skewed, now, that night might as well be day. But he's used to it. The life of an FBI agent doesn't cater to his circadian rhythms and Peter's body has adapted. He can sleep any time, anywhere.
Neal knows this, and Peter knows he knows. Hell, the kid is pretty much the same. Probably even better. Peter knows what time the kid sleeps and when he gets up, and knows that he can turn that schedule on and off like a switch. For Peter, it usually takes a day or three to establish a regular sleeping pattern.
Peter makes sure to keep the TV turned down and the lights off when Neal goes to bed. He hopes Neal doesn't become dependent on the dull sound and flickering screen. Peter has an aunt that has to sleep with a fan on, not for the air circulation, but for the noise. Without it, sleep is impossible. Peter can't imagine being a slave to something so trivial and he doesn't want Neal ending up like that.
It's five minutes until two in the morning, when TV is at its worst and most of the channels have shut down for the night. It's at this time that Peter will risk reading case files, most of them mind-numbingly dull.
Neal begins to shift, writhe, moans accentuated with whimpers. Peter goes still, watching, waiting.
Then Neal's body jerks. He gasps as though remembering how to breathe, blanket rising when his lungs and body inflate. Neal slides from the bed, stumbling, hands groping even though there's light enough from the TV to show Neal the way to the bathroom. At least Peter assumes Neal is heading to the bathroom. If Neal is, then he's taking the scenic route, keeping one hand to the wall then French doors as though feeling his way.
Peter furrows his brow. The worse the dream, the more it can disorient. He gets up and moves to Neal.
"Neal, buddy. You're going the wrong way, there's a faster way-" He reaches out and touches Neal's shoulder.
Neal spins around, fist swinging. It happens fast but not so fast that Peter isn't able to intercept. He grabs Neal's arm but that only makes the kid fight, lunging forward, his casted arm swinging, growl ripping from his throat.
Peter knows how to fight. It's not something he's a fan of, but he goes to the gym as often as he can, keeping his skills sharp enough to come in handy when needed. Neal... he's a thinker, not a fighter, but he's putting up a hell of a fight, now, giving Peter's sharp enough skills a run for their money. Neal is wild, uncoordinated but that only makes him that much more dangerous. He and Peter are stumbling all over the place, Peter trying to stop him without hurting him and Neal lashing out, punching, kicking, hell even biting at Peter and many of the blows connect – stomach, ribs, chest, jaw, cheek... a near miss to a rather sensitive area. But Peter manages to get his arm around Neal, pinning the kid's arms to his sides. Neal jumps, kicks out, lurches forward and backward, bucking his way toward freedom. Peter can feel Neals grunts and growls vibrate against his arm, feel the kid's heart racing like a runaway horse. He has no choice but to bring Neal to the ground, twist his arm behind his back and use his own body to pin the kid in place.
He shouts, "Neal! Neal! Listen to me, listen. It's Peter. Do you hear me? Peter!"
Neal stops. If it wasn't for his heaving breaths and trembling, he'd be perfectly still. He whimpers something inarticulate and frightened that sounds like, "What?"
"Peter," Peter says. "It's Peter. You're home, safe. You're okay. Do you understand?"
Neal doesn't answer. He's shaking badly. Peter eases some of his weight off Neal, but when he places his hand on the kid's back, Neal's flinch is full-bodied and violent. He's like an animal cornered and wanting so badly not to die, and it makes Peter want to throw up. He slowly, carefully eases off Neal. When Neal doesn't try to bolt, Peter releases his hold on Neal then helps him sit up.
Neal is staring at Peter as though Peter has just appeared out of no where.
"You okay?" Peter prompts.
Neal nods, still shaking, his eyes wide. There's enough light from the TV for Peter to see how bloodshot and dilated they are, and moisture glittering on his eyelashes. Then Neal breathes, a sharp inhale, a slow shuddering exhale, and he's as composed as he's going to get. It's not much, but enough for Neal to speak coherently and for Peter to know that whatever the hell that was only a moment ago is now over.
"Some dream I was having," Neal says. His follow-up laugh is breathy and weak, his smile brittle with cracks.
"Some dream," Peter says, trying to smile back. "Remember what it was about?"
"No," Neal says. He swallows. "Not... not really. Can we get off the floor. Kind of chilly down here."
Peter helps him up then leads him to the table. He gets Neal water, after which he puts on the coffee pot because no way is Neal going to want to go back to sleep. Neal doesn't speak his gratitude (he does his guilt when he asks contritely if Peter's okay), but it's there in his still wide, bloodshot eyes.
When morning comes and Peter's shift ends, he doesn't go straight home. He goes to the office first to bring home a file. He's had a thought, a feeling, incoherent but persistent. He sits in his car, outside his house, flipping through image after image of Neal's abused body: bruises fist shaped and foot shaped, covering most of his skin, swelling his eye shut, denying him the ability to stand up straight.
Peter looks close at the image of Neal's hands and wrists, black, blue and red like the rest of him.
He looks at Neal's knuckles. The thought/feeling solidifies.
"Guess I'm still full of surprises after all," Neal says with a lopsided smirk.
"Not really," Peter counters. "It's human nature to fight back."
"But you never pegged me as a fighter."
"No," Peter admits. "But you're good at surviving, and people good at surviving are also people who know how to adapt." He's at the couch, Neal on the bed sitting Indian style, but his side to Peter instead of his back. He's dressed, jeans and a black long-sleeve shirt, his feet bare, and he's sketching.
Peter goes on. "You said it yourself, once. Just because you don't like guns doesn't mean you don't know how to use them. Stands to reason the same goes for fighting." And Peter has the bruises to prove it. Nothing too bad, Neal even wild and mindlessly scared had been too weak and sleep addled for any real damage.
"Yay for me," Neal says dryly. "Where are you going with this? So I fought back? So what? People do that when other people are trying to beat them up."
It's a valid question. Mostly, the image of Neal hitting back is a novelty and an interesting one, because Neal is the poster-boy of non-violence. That doesn't mean Peter had ever thought, for one moment, that Neal will never physically fight back. The kid leads a dangerous life. Brains got him far but there had to be times when all he had left to him was his fists, and the kid hates guns.
Peter had looked at the pictures of Neals' damaged hands, those scabs and bruises on his knuckles.
"How bad was the fight?" Peter asks.
Neal shrugs. "How bad is any fight when you're trying to keep a bunch of guys from pounding you into the ground?"
In other words, Neal isn't going to say much on the matter, so Peter might as well not try.
"I hate going to the doctor," Neal says.
"Find me someone who enjoys it?" Peter retorts.
Neal makes a noise that might be a laugh or might be a derisive breath. They are heading up the stairs to Neal's loft, Peter leading the way. "There's no point to it. He keeps telling me the same damn thing. Eat more, sleep more... nothing's improved."
"Your fever's gone," Peter says. "Your cough is clearing up. That's something."
They enter the loft, Peter with his hand out holding Neal back in case anyone is around who's planning to jump them. This time, Neal's breath is a weary huff.
"It's been three weeks-"
Peter cuts him off. "In two days it will be three weeks."
"Not long in my book." Peter recalls the days of chasing Caffrey, of knowing everything about him down to his shoe size and Neal still managing to surprise Peter, to stay one step ahead. Sometimes it would be months before Peter found a new lead on Neal, sometimes weeks, sometimes days. Neal had fluctuated on how long he took to lay low until the heat passed. One time, it was only a day – he stole a painting, and the next day stole an expensive Ming vase.
But the people who took Neal aren't Neal. They may not fluctuate. They may have no patience what so ever.
Neal goes to his bed, drops himself onto the edge and pulls his sketchbook out from under the pillow. Peter stands there and watches him.
"But you're right, Neal," he says. "It's gone on long enough, don't you think?"
Neal draws, charcoal whispering over paper. "Peter-"
"I want to trust you, Neal. But you need to put yourself in my shoes, see it from my point of view. You need to understand I – I can't... I don't..." he tosses his hands up, frustrated, wanting to yell at Neal, to shake him, to beg the way Neal had begged Peter to trust him. It eats at him that the one time Neal needs his trust the most, as much as Peter wants to give it, as much as he tried to give it, he can't. The scenarios of what could be if they stop watching Neal are too many and too nauseating to think, and Peter won't be able to live with himself if he screws up. Maybe it's selfish, but he doesn't care. He wants to watch Neal's back, and to do that he has to be able to catch the bastards who did this.
"I know," Neal says, quiet. His shoulders slump. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Just help me out here."
"I wish I could."
"Damn it, Neal!"
Neal flinches, but says calmly, "I'm sorry, Peter. I can't."
Anger heats Peter's skin until he wants to rip off his coat. He can't, his shift ends in five minutes.
"Then we stay."
Peter plants himself on the couch, listening to charcoal sliding over paper. Five minutes pass like its an hour, then Jones arrives.
Neal stops drawing. "Almost three weeks is good enough."
"Not really," Peter says as he gets up to debrief Jones. After the debrief, he heads for the door.
"You know," Neal says. Peter stops, hand hovering at the doorknob. He turns his head to see Neal unfolding himself from off the bed. Neal is smiling. "It's not really fair that Elizabeth should be the only one to get something."
He holds the sketchbook out for Peter to take.
Startled, Peter frowns. "You sure about this, Neal?"
Neal, still smiling, doesn't say anything. He's statue still, as though he will stay that way for eternity if Peter doesn't take the book.
Peter takes it. The world expands, like waking up. Neal isn't still, because his hands are shaking. His smile doesn't reach his eyes.
"I'm gonna take a nap." Neal goes back to the bed.
Peter leaves to go home, but finds himself sitting on the steps leading to his front door, staring at the sketchbook. He's afraid to open it, and has no idea why.
He opens it anyway. Quickly, like diving into cold water.
The first three pictures are of a field, surrounded by trees and dominated by a large building, like a barn or warehouse. That's not so bad. Bolstered, Peter moves on. The next pictures are of various rooms, dark and old and lonely. Sketching fast with charcoal doesn't allow for a lot of detailed realism but Neal's painting hadn't been photo perfect and didn't need to be. Peter easily imagines these rooms; probably with a leaking roof, weeping walls, smelling of mildew and mold. One room is solid with a smooth floor, no floorboards, so concrete. All the windows are boarded up.
Five of the pictures show Peter different angles of that same room, with a rickety bed in the corner, a dresser next to it with a bottle on top and a lamp. There are ropes...
No, there are chains. Not heavy medieval manacles but the kind of chains they put on dangerous convicts when transferring them, thin but strong hooked to the bed and winding across the floor like snakes. They are long enough to allow the one chained a small radius of movement, say to the bucket several feet from the bed.
Peter thinks he might throw up. But the horror is short lived, smothered by dawning realization. Damn it, they had searched the surrounding area. Apparently, they hadn't searched far enough. Peter pulls out his cell phone and dials Diana.
The podunk town where Neal had been found has plenty of warehouses slash barns to choose from and search, and Peter and his team had searched. Peter reminds himself of that, reminds himself that each warehouse, though different in design and abandoned, might as well have been clones of each other. The kidnappers had cleared out, cleaned up, and left the FBI wanting.
Neal's drawings provide. The bed and chains might be gone, but each picture has been drawn in order of the layout. Peter had made copies and handed them out, then divided everyone into teams. An hour into Peter searching the warehouse he had assigned his team, another team calls; the warehouse slash barn has been found.
It is a factory, Peter isn't sure what kind and doesn't care. They have their crime scene and he sends the CSIs in to attack. They don't find much; they do find what they need – clay powder scraped from the floor, and jade dust.
Records on who owns the place gives them a name that Peter has no doubt is a fake. As much as it makes him squirm to do so, he drops the name to Mozzie. The little guy is efficient as a Fed if not better. The alias has been used before, more than once. Between Peter's team and Mozzie and three days of work the alias lets them know who they are dealing with and how to deal with them. A sting operation brings the guys in.
The man who took Neal looks like someone's jolly old uncle, older than Peter, a head shorter, with salt and pepper hair and beard. He's thick, like a man who let himself go at the same time he's trying to stay fit, but dresses like a college professor in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbow. Peter easily imagines Neal sneering at this man behind his back over his choice in clothing.
The man's name is George Fetterling, and the bruises haven't faded completely from his face. Neither have the cuts and scrapes on his knuckles. He's smiling at Peter from across the table, but it's a smile that stops short of his gray-blue eyes.
"You're in big trouble, Mr. Fetterling," Peter says, folding his hands on the table top. "Counterfeiting, robbery, kidnapping, assault. And don't try to deny it. We offered your partners a deal and they took it. We have it on audio if you don't believe me."
"Oh, I believe you," says Fetterling, his voice the deep gravel tenor of a heavy smoker. "I had to work with the bastards. I very much believe you. Which is fine. I have very little to add."
"Oh, I don't know." Peter pushes a file toward Fetterling and opens it. At first glance Fetterling doesn't look like he reacts, but Peter knows what to look for... there, in the corner of the man's mouth, a twitch. The files are of a bruised and battered body.
"I'd kind of like to hear what you have to say about those."
Fetterling sifts through the pictures, pretending they don't bother him. Except his mouth keeps twitching.
"Are you offering another deal?" Fetterling asks.
"Not really. We have your DNA from blood on Neal's shirt. We just couldn't match it until we had you in custody."
Fetterling closes the file slowly. His smile is strained, his eyes are flashing hot. He states calmly, "Little bastard."
"Watch your language, Mr. Fetterling," Peter says, just as steady. "Neal's not the reason you're here. Well, no, that's not true. He is reason... when he managed to get a hit – I'm guessing to the face – that landed a couple drops of your blood on his clothes. But what really got you here was good old fashioned FBI ingenuity. If Neal had said anything, you would've been here a lot sooner."
Peter leans forward, side of his hands resting on the table, fingers entwined. "Who is Neal to you, Mr. Fetterling?"
Fetterling cocks an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"Neal. Who is he to you? I'm not stupid, Fetterling. I make it my business to know how the people I catch think. Anyone else would have killed Neal when they were through with him but you didn't."
"Because he was useful," Fetterling says with a shrug. "Rather stupid to waste useful things."
"Cut the crap, Fetterling. If Neal was so useful, you would have kept him. All Neal told us was that you made a promise and kept it. Why?"
Fetterling is silent for a moment, weighing his options – his options being toy with the agent to salvage his crumbling sense of control out of spite, or tell the truth and get the damn interview over with.
"I knew him," Fetterling says, tight and annoyed. "We worked together. He was a kid at the time, only nineteen. He was a good kid, good at what he did. He was like a damn son to me."
"A damn son you didn't have problems kidnapping and beating."
Fetterling's smile is rueful. "Who knew the kid could be a scrapper when he wanted to. Fights dirty but he makes it work."
Peter's hands clench until they are hurting each other. "Why?"
"Well." Fetterling scratches the back of his head. "Thing is, you've gotta believe me when I say I didn't want to rough him up. Just scare him, that's all – he was refusing to cooperate. But the kid's got a spine, kept screwing up on purpose, trying to escape. Some of my boys, they went a little overboard but did it do a damn thing? Hell no. So I said some things. Said I'd hurt some people if he didn't do what I asked. He cooperated but, man, did it piss him off. Like thinking you're poking a chihuahua only it turns out it's a pitbull. Kid took a swing at me every chance he got."
Fetterling's eyes drop to his hands. "We had to step things up: cut back his food to keep him weak enough so that he wasn't a pain in the ass to handle. But it made him useless. After the first two counterfeits, I let him go. Didn't want to, but I wasn't gonna kill him, either."
Peter, eyes narrow, asks more out of curiosity than anything else. "Who was he trying to protect?"
"You," Fetterling says, like it should have been obvious.
Peter freezes up.
"Any wife or kids you have. That land lady of his. The little guy, what's his name? Mozzie, right? Yeah, I remember Mozzie. Paranoid creep. Took a while to find you guys out. And I told him, if he talks, you people are dead."
"Then I guess we're not dead," Peter forces out. "Because he didn't talk."
Fetterling chuffs. "Loyal little bastard, isn't he?"
"Just not to you."
"No," Fetterling says, almost sad, but otherwise resigned. "My fault. I scared him off. Neal, he doesn't like violence, even when I told him that sometimes it's the only way."
"Maybe in your world," Peter says, pulling the file away from Fetterling. "Not in Neal's."
Fetterling reluctantly nods.
"El wants you over for dinner, tonight," Peter says, negotiating traffic. He knows he's a decent enough driver and that the Taurus can handle anything, but for Neal's peace of mind he's being cautious. "She raided more left overs from one of her caterers that she says will blow your mind. And by 'you' I mean you personally. I think she's given up on me."
"Can't wait," Neal says, honest with an honest, sun-bright smile. The kid still has issues with being too skinny, but he's been eating, and eating like it's something he enjoys rather than something he has to do.
They are two minutes away from the office. Peter still has qualms about Neal getting back to work, but Neal is bored and when bored more trouble than he seems to be worth. Plus both his doctor and Hughes are adamant that he sticks to desk duty instead of going out in the field. Peter can live with that, if reluctantly. But the moment he catches Neal asleep at the desk, he's sending him home. Neal may be eating, but he still looks tired.
Peter sees Neal out of the corner of his eye, the kid's smile, the gray under his eyes and his arm still in a cast. Peter also knows that no matter how Neal tries to hide it, his ribs still bother him.
Peter asks like it's a hypothetical question, "Think something like this will ever happen again?"
"Like what?" Neal asks.
"You know what," Peter says, not unkindly. "Is there anyone out there we need to worry about?"
And Neal says, tired with an underlying current of worry so that Peter knows he's being sincere, "I hope not."
Peter can only nod. There are days when Peter has to remind himself of who Neal was, who he could still be (who he still is, as much as he hates to admit it). Neal is brilliant and that brilliance allows him to create a world where anything is possible, where he can have limits and standards and make them work without them getting in the way. But his world is a population of one (two if you count Mozzie), and what to him is a possibility is to others a hindrance, and Fetterling can't be the only partner Neal's worked with who felt violence a justifiable means to an end.
Neal may have made his bed and has to sleep in it, but Neal he's Peter's responsibility now and that means Peter doesn't have to like it.
"I'm sorry, Peter," Neal says as though his thoughts had been wandering the same path.
But Peter shakes his head. "Don't be."
"It's my fault."
"It's happenstance. We know to be careful, now. I can make sure this doesn't happen again."
Neal is also his friend, and that means he will do something about it.
Neal looks at him, alarmed. "How? I can't drop names, Peter."
"I know," Peter says. And he does. "But I'm FBI, remember? I've got resources. I'll keep this from happening again."
"What if you can't?"
"Neal, this makes it, what, four for four, five for five that I've found you?" He says more seriously. "I'll find you again. That is, if you don't find me, first."
Neal smirks. "You trust me to?"
"I do, actually," Peter says with a nod. "I do." And means it.