Title: The Sum of its Parts
Characters/Pairings: Gen, Peter, Neal, Elizabeth, Jones
Spoilers: Post season one "Front Man"
Summary: Bit by bit, it all adds up for Peter. For whitecollarswap fic prompt.
It isn't often the White Collar division gets gifts. Most of the people in their cases end up arrested and understandably not in the mood to send them the deluxe breakfast pastries basket from Dean and Deluca. But Mr. Gless was grateful for the safe return of his daughter and Agent Rice was most likely feeling benevolent after her fifteen minutes of fame a few days ago. She forwarded another one of Mr. Gless' gifts to White Collar: this time a basket trussed up in cellophane, tied off with a broad silver ribbon.
Hughes said a few words about a job well done before leaving the conference room with the only cinnamon raisin bagel, a tub of unmolested whipped butter and a sweet cheese Danish. Seniority had its privileges.
Peter had his eyes on the last onion bagel and a tub of cream cheese that had yet to be pockmarked by plastic spoons streaked with leftover strawberry and grape jellies. And because he was staring at his bagel (just nobody knew it yet), calculating when it was socially acceptable to jam a hand into the basket to grab it, Peter noticed the honey wheat bagel huddled behind it.
"Hey," Peter grunted, his chin jutting towards the round. He used it as a distraction, his hand burrowing deep into the basket and fishing out his spoils.
Neal, sitting at the edge of his seat like he was poised to do a little carb diving himself, blinked towards the direction of the bagel. He made a face for some reason before slowly shaking his head.
"Not hungry?" Jones was multitasking: smearing strawberry over cream cheese on an everything bagel, gulping down his coffee while nudging the basket closer to Neal.
Neal peered into the basket before he gingerly rolled his chair back. "Not really."
"Again?" Jones remarked. "Because you barely tried the coffee cake we got yesterday."
Neal sipped his tea. He poked the tag on the teabag (Neal had made a face when he saw all the basket had was Earl Grey). He lifted one shoulder. "June makes a big breakfast."
Peter grunted in agreement. June always made a point to brew him a fresh pot of coffee as well, though Peter had not had the advantage of June's hospitality this morning, as Neal had been waiting for him at the doorstep for once. Peter piled on the cream cheese, mentally negotiating with himself that he'd do an extra mile on his next jog (or run harder after the next perp). He shifted his eyes towards Neal, his plastic knife poised in mid-air.
"You sure you don't want it?" Peter bit into his bagel thoughtfully. He had met Neal earlier than usual today.
Neal lifted his hands in a tiny warding gesture. His mouth quirked into a hint of a smile. "French toast, omelets, muffins, coffee—"
"All right, all right." Peter rolled his eyes. He waved a piece of bagel at him. Neal grimaced and nudged the offending object away with a finger. "Not everyone has access to a personal cook, Neal."
Jones eyed Neal. "Pancakes?"
Neal beamed. "Today was chocolate chip."
There were a few scattered groans around them. Peter chuckled, shook his head and continued eating his bagel.
Peter didn't realize this was the first clue.
The second clue (when Peter stopped to look back on it) occurred later that afternoon in the van.
Their surveillance van was parked across from an Italian bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The nutty smell of marzipan and butter saturated the streets and had seeped into their van and into their clothes. Their cameras were pointed at the lofts above it. The occupants were Wall Street high flyers plotting a high-tech, internet-based version of the classic pump-and-dump. Considering the piles of half-filled Sodoku books and coffee-stained newspapers folded to the crossword section the morning shift left behind, Peter knew the rest of the day was going to be uneventful and excruciatingly long.
He liked the van. Usually. He relished the Bureau's version of fishing: a utility van and some telescopic lenses and laptops as their fishing rods, without the mosquitoes and the sunburns. But a van with a busted heater in the middle of March? Peter was beginning to wish they had a stack of Medicaid fraud files to review in his nice temperature-controlled office.
"Don't we have more than one of these?" Jones groused as he stuck a finger through the knot on his tie and yanked, trying to get some relief yet still look professional. The damp underarms of his shirt and the suit jacket draped over the back of his chair undermined his effort.
"Ruiz has the other one," Peter grumbled. He'd given up trying to look like the poster boy for the Bureau. His tie was undone, blue striped silk hanging limp around his neck. The headphones he pulled off were warm against the back of his neck. "We should have asked Lauren to get us frozen coffees."
Jones scrubbed a napkin across his face. "I can't believe she offered to get us coffee."
"Wouldn't you?" Peter wiped his brow and waved at the van's interior. The heater groaned as it pumped more thick, hot air into the space.
"You think it's too late to ask her to change my order?" Jones huffed. He glared at the monitors.
At Jones' grumble, Peter shrugged. He checked towards the back of the van expectantly but received mere silence. He frowned mildly at the only person not complaining.
Sitting on top of an upturned milk crate, Neal looked like he was meditating: eyes shut, hands loose on his lap, posture ruler straight.
As if aware of the scrutiny, Neal opened his eyes.
"What?" Neal rasped. He coughed behind a fist.
Guess the heat was affecting him after all. Peter hoped Lauren hurried with the iced coffees.
"Don't you find this stifling?" Jones grumbled. He continued glowering at the monitors as if he blamed them for the heat.
"Stifling?" Neal tapped his lower lip with a finger and tilted his eyes upwards. "Hm, I do find it stifling: the gray paint, the felt floors, very urban decay in the worse sense without any—"
"Haha," Peter interrupted. He gestured towards Neal then themselves. "Why do you still have your jacket on? Aren't you hot? You look hot."
One end of the smile curved higher, broader.
"Peter, how would we explain it to Elizabeth?"
Peter's brow furrowed. "What?" At Jones' snicker, he glared. "Wait a minute—"
Neal, spurred on by Jones, smiled brightly up at Peter. "But I'm afraid I consider myself married to my work. I'm flattered and I suppose we could see if she agrees with your assessment of my physical appeal and consider a ménage à—"
"Very funny." Peter wagged a finger at Neal, ignored Jones' poorly stifled laughter and dropped into his seat.
But Neal, never one to ignore a perfect opportunity, reached over to pat Peter on the arm.
"We can still be friends," Neal told him in a far too serious tone that only sent Jones into hiccups. Neal nodded and added, "We'll always have Red Hook."
Jones shoved his headphones over his ears, suddenly fascinated with the wires (currently recording nothing but static). Peter wasn't fooled. He screwed up his face into a scowl at the shaking shoulders. He turned it towards Neal. It faded though when he caught Neal surreptitiously tug his jacket tighter around him and shiver.
The third clue (at this point, Peter realized he better start numbering and labeling them) occurred when they returned to the office that evening. In his office, Peter gave the photo on his desk a wistful look. Elizabeth was out in Philly and wouldn't be home until midnight; he had hoped to be home, waiting for her for a change.
Peter drummed his fingers over the stack of old 13F filings on his desk before he shook his head and grabbed his takeout carton of ginger chicken (a healthier compromise because El would kill him if she found out he had deep fried shrimp again). He speared a few pieces savagely as he considered the possible reasons why they still couldn't find any proof of the withdrawals.
"I think it's already dead, Peter."
Peter lifted his eyes across his desk to Neal, who was reading his share of 13Fs.
Peter sat back in his seat and narrowed his gaze. Collar crooked, tie askew, shirt under the dark blue jacket wrinkled as if it was a day old.
Neal Caffrey didn't do rumpled.
"Not hungry?" Peter nodded towards the fried rice carton on the corner of his desk.
"Not for fried rice." Neal didn't look at the food. He shifted in his seat and Peter pursed his lips.
"Hey, we tried to find you before we put in orders," Peter pointed out. "Want some of this instead?"
Neal swallowed hard. Mutely, he shook his head.
Peter stuck his chopsticks back into his ginger chicken (fried shrimp with duck sauce would have been better) and stared at his partner for a moment. Long enough for Neal to meet his gaze, with raised eyebrows.
"What?" Neal asked slowly.
"You feeling all right?" Peter asked. He tilted his head.
"Fine." Neal dropped his eyes to the files. "You know. I think Raymond could be duping his deposits here. There's a pattern."
Peter gave the bank statement Neal offered a cursive look; there was a niggling feeling in the back of his mind. His stomach churned though he wasn't sure why.
"You are okay, right?" Peter considered the sheen across Neal's forehead and the hint of shadows under his eyes.
It was so quick, so patented Neal Caffrey that Peter leaned forward instinctively, as he would when sweating a suspect. Neal edged back in response, slight enough that it shouldn't have been noticeable except Peter noticed. Because at sometime during this odd partnership, Peter started noticing more than Neal's schemes.
"Neal," Peter fumbled. "Wilkes…When you were with Wilkes…" Neal's nonchalant comment about the last time he saw Wilkes—when he tried to kill Neal—chanted in his head in a sing song taunt.
Blue eyes stared blankly at him for a moment before they widened in comprehension. Neal shook his head, mouth curved faintly, looking surprised but touched as well.
"I'm fine," Neal assured him. "Wilkes didn't do anything."
But it was like a scratched record, stuttering over and over a groove. Peter studied him before saying carefully, "After you…forgot your tracker and started heading home, you didn't happen to get yourself checked out, did you?"
Neal knitted his brow. "What for?"
Neal stood, his hands splayed on Peter's desk for a beat. Neal closed his eyes briefly before he completely straightened.
"I'm fine," Neal repeated. Teeth flashed. "Nothing I can't handle." He pointed vaguely over his shoulder. "I better…you know…the Aimes report…"
Peter was sorely tempted to go around his desk and follow. Neal seemed to have read his mind because he took another step back that actually bumped him against the glass. He grimaced.
There were klaxons wailing in Peter's head now. He rose to his feet. Neal waved his hands to tell Peter to sit back down and was out the office, down the steps before Peter could call out to him.
Peter set his jaw. He eyed the forgotten carton of food on the corner of his desk. Neal never came back for it.
The fourth clue (because now that Peter was keeping track, it was four, damn it) came thanks to Jones.
Peter studied Neal across the bullpen from his office through the glass wall. Neal was sitting particularly straight, as if he was poised to stand up, reading the same folder for the past five minutes and making a point not to glance over Peter's way. Neal did look up when Jones stopped by his desk.
Peter's shoulders relaxed as he watched the two talk, chuckling and smiling about something. Okay, maybe he was overreacting. Peter leaned into his seat, his mouth twisted to a rueful smile.
But then Jones lightly slapped Neal on his arm and Neal flinched.
Peter narrowed his eyes. Neal tried to cover it with a roll of his shoulders but winced and aborted that move. Then Neal tried to hide that by reaching over for a pen. Neal looked up and froze, his eyes catching Peter's. There was a moment when Neal appeared tempted to turn around and pretend nothing happened, but then sighed and dropped his hands on his desk in defeat.
"I was handling it."
"Handling it?" Peter scoffed, his throat tight as he glared at the red taillights of the Accord in front of him. The wait in the ER was mercifully short but it was still past midnight by the time Neal was discharged.
"You're lucky those taser burns weren't severe enough to keep you in the hosp—" Peter sucked in his breath. He squeezed the steering wheel with both hands.
"Damn it, Neal, you lied to me."
"I didn't," Neal protested. "You asked if I felt all right. I told you. I felt fine."
Fine? Peter shot him a glare. It would have been convincing if Neal wasn't bundled up in the scratchy blue blanket the ER nurse had given him. He seemed small curled up into the corner the passenger seat made with the door. Even with his collar upturned and Peter's own jacket wrapped around him, Neal still needed to burrow into the thick folds of the blanket. But torn blisters and infected taser burns meant Neal couldn't tug everything tight around him like a cocoon to ward off fevered chills.
Peter ground his teeth together. He didn't want to dwell on why looking at Neal right now made his insides twist, more than the thought that Neal had lied to him. He reached over and nudged the heat up another degree. He slapped his hand back onto the wheel. He fought the urge to press the heel of his hand on the horn when a bicyclist zigzagged into his lane.
After a few minutes, Neal coughed. "Thanks."
Peter grunted. He got off the FDR and aimed for the ramp to the bridge.
Another beat and Neal coughed again.
"Uh…this isn't the way back to June's, Peter."
"We're not going to June's," Peter muttered. His eyes slid sideways to Neal before a frantic finger made him face forward again.
"Peter, the doctor said the infection wasn't bad. I could take care of it myself at home."
"Oh, you did a great job of that before," Peter grumbled.
"Look, I'll admit. Maybe I should have gone to see a doctor—"
Peter growled. "Maybe?" Peter snorted. "You told me you had breakfast. The doctors disagree. Your blood sugar—"
"I told you June makes a big breakfast," Neal pointed out. "And she does. You've seen it. You assumed I ate it."
No, Neal let him assume. And damn it, Peter had. Peter's mouth twisted. "Not hungry for fried rice?" he challenged.
"You said Wilkes didn't do anything."
Neal sighed. "He didn't. Technically, it was one of his men who tasered me."
Technically? Peter wished Neal didn't sound so damn…reasonable. He sighed. It was hard to yell at someone who wasn't shouting back.
"Why are you mad?" Neal asked, baffled.
For some reason, that question grated him. Whatever Neal saw on Peter's face shut him up and the rest of the ride was silent.
El was already home by the time Peter arrived. She didn't ask anything the moment she opened the door. She just nodded towards the sofa, shooing Satchmo away before the Lab could tackle them with an enthusiastic greeting. She kissed Peter lightly on the lips, whispered to him to stop grinding his teeth and that she would reheat the stir fry and soup still in the fridge.
God, he loved that woman.
Neal blinked blearily at the sofa before gingerly lying down, grimacing and flinching as the taser burns, raw from cleaning and treating, made themselves known.
Peter sat at the edge of the coffee table, merely watching because Neal insisted he could take off his own shoes. His jaw worked as Neal wobbled as he tried to bend down.
"You got it?" Peter asked gruffly after Neal, for the second time, couldn't quite reach his left shoe.
There's that word again. Peter's mouth pressed thin but said nothing as Neal finally yanked his shoe off and carefully settled onto the sofa. Neal shot Peter a grin.
"Should I applaud?" Peter asked evenly.
The smile vanished. Neal frowned up at Peter, puzzled. "Why are you upset? Look, if you think I lied to you, I didn't."
"I'm not mad," Peter bit out. At Neal's disbelieving look, Peter added, "Okay. I'm mad. But not at you—well, all right, maybe at you, but no, not really."
"Oh. That clears things up," Neal remarked dryly.
Peter closed his eyes and exhaled slowly.
"You should have told me you were hurt that badly." Peter's mouth soured at the memory of the weeping blisters slowly revealing themselves on Neal's upper arm. He had needed the nurse and Peter's help to ease his jacket and shirt off.
Neal's eyes flew open. "But I wasn't." He sat up with a muffled groan. "I thought they weren't that bad. I was keeping them dry and clean; I used an antibiotic ointment. I thought they would get better on their own." Neal shrugged then stopped with a flinch. "They didn't."
Peter pursed his mouth. "You've done this before. Playing doctor." At Neal's raised eyebrow, Peter rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean."
"Checking myself into a hospital wasn't…convenient back then." Neal flashed him a grin. "Besides, I was a doctor."
"You had two forged PhDs in classical art and finance," Peter reminded him. "Not that kind of doctor." Peter shook his head.
"You're not on the run anymore, Neal."
"Used to taking care of things by myself. Always have." Neal smiled tiredly to himself. "I found it easier to do it myself than…" Neal blinked and his eyes slid away. His shoulders tentatively shrugged. "Hard habit to break."
Peter looked at him sternly. "You're not by yourself anymore." He glanced over to Neal and bristled at the grin cast his way. "What?"
Neal's mouth quirked. "Peter, that was almost…touching."
"Yeah, yeah." Peter slapped his hands over his knees as he levered off the coffee table.
"I mean it. That was genuinely heartfelt and—"
Peter pretended to swipe at Neal's head. Neal chuckled but thankfully stopped that particular line of teasing. "El's making you some dinner. You better eat the whole thing or you'll hurt her feelings."
"Will you read me a bedtime story?" Neal asked with a cheeky smile.
"How about I read you your Miranda rights?" Peter shot back. He grumbled under his breath as he headed for the kitchen. When he reached the swinging door, he stopped. He could hear El in the kitchen. He thought how quiet the house was when she was away, how empty, how hollow everything sounded in her absence. Then he thought about Neal, back in his apartment, patching himself up, tending to his own fever, wounds festering, alone in the dark.
"Neal," Peter said quietly. He didn't turn around but he could hear the rustle of blankets.
"Hm?" Neal murmured, his voice slurred with sleep.
Peter stared at the kitchen door. He smiled to himself as he heard the clink of dishes, the burble of soup in a pot.
"Learn to break that habit." Peter scratched his jaw with a finger.
Neal was silent for so long, Peter thought he had fallen asleep. But then Neal cleared his throat, a raspy cough that sounded tiny in the space.
"I'll try," Neal offered quietly.
Peter nodded to himself. "Good." It was a step in the right direction. He continued on into the kitchen to get the soup.
Original Prompt: Episode tag for 1.13 (Front Man). Taser burn caused more pain than Neal would let on. It gets infected.
Author's Note: Dear krazykipper, now you know why I was so desperate not to drop my fic assignment. (grins)
Many hugs to penfold_x for the beta. A wave hello to brate7 because, yes, I know, what of the other WC fic I wrote? I won't lie, I is a chicken. -cluck cluck- LOL.
Pssst: Feedback is like cookies. I like cookies. -lol-