Title: Saving Chris Clayton
Summary: Neal's timing isn't all that impeccable when he comes down with the stomach flu during an important undercover assignment.
Written for: kriadydragon as a response to the LiveJournal "Running Hot" multi-fandom fever comment fic meme
Prompt/Request: White Collar, Gen, Neal & whoever you like
Would Like: Neal gets incredibly sick while undercover, and the target of the undercover op is very, very dangerous. I would like the situation to be serious, lots of Peter worry and lots of nervous, uncertain, even scared Neal. And lots of comfort later on.
Characters/Pairings: Neal, Peter and some OMCs & OFCs
Author's Note: This comment fic meme is pushing my buttons like you wouldn't believe. Thank you, ariadnes_string, for hosting it!
kriadydragon, I hope this is what you were looking for. I have a feeling it's a little less intense than you wanted, but I hope you'll like it anyway.
A big thanks rabidchild67 for the beta.
Disclaimer: Bla bla Jeff Eastin, bla bla USA Network. Bla bla not mine, not making any money from this. Bla bla characters should be totally mine, especially Neal, uhm, no, wait... welcome.
Esteban Garcia was a dangerous man. What he lacked in visual conspicuity, he made up for in fierce deceitfulness. It was said he had a tendency for violent outbursts and a mean Cuban accent to show for it.
Esteban Garcia was also their target. Neal had reluctantly agreed to go in undercover, try to get close to Garcia, become one of his paper pushers.
In theory the whole thing didn't look all that dangerous. Garcia owned a medium-sized medical equipment company. There was nothing wrong with that, but there was something wrong with claiming money from Medicare in the six digit range for supplies he never provided to patients. So far, nothing could be proven, so they needed a man on the inside. Enter one Neal Caffrey.
Problem was, Garcia was leery by nature. Every new employee, especially those with potential access to confidential records, had to go through a thorough evaluation. This was similar to what big companies called an "assessment center", only more specifically tailored to Garcia's needs. Failure was not an option, especially not if Neal wanted to get into the inner circle.
But Neal was not comfortable in the medical field—he'd never been a science person. Medical details grossed him out, and the mere thought of catheters, syringes and IV bags made his skin crawl. It was almost reminiscent of Mozzie's paranoia about hospitals.
The fact that he'd come as far as this was a small miracle. Neal Caffrey could charm his way into almost anything, but Garcia's confidants were a tough bunch. By now he'd piled so many lies on top of other lies that it was hard to keep track. He just needed to get this last thing over with, and he'd be in. He'd be able to help Peter solve this $10.7 million fraud case and move Peter's name one step up the ladder—possibly more than one.
He knew that Garcia didn't take kindly to betrayal. He'd overheard some of the guys talking about his predecessor, whom Garcia had locked up in a walk-in cold storage room for two days. The man had barely made it out alive. It made Neal acutely aware of the fact that if his cover was blown now, he might be suffering an equally undesirable fate. Failure was not an option.
Neal didn't really know what to expect, and that scared him a little. He hated to go in unprepared. Garcia's men had assured him that, with his credentials, he would be fine. The only problem was, those credentials were almost entirely fake. And Neal possessed close to none of the knowledge or experience that his CV said he did. By the time he realized that would be a problem, it was already too late.
He hadn't discussed any of this with Peter. Well, he'd hinted at a few things, but if there was one thing that Neal excelled at, it was deflection. He knew how badly Peter wanted to crack this case, and so Neal had smiled and assured everyone that things were moving along just fine.
Given Garcia's suspicious nature, the tracking anklet was out of the question, so Neal was given a bracelet that had a tracking device and wasn't as conspicuous. Garcia's paranoia also contributed to the fact that Neal couldn't be hooked up to any audio surveillance equipment because it was more than likely that he'd be swept for bugs.
He was now sitting outside the office, waiting to be called in. Esteban Garcia himself would be there. Beads of sweat were forming on Neal's brow and he felt himself starting to perspire underneath the suit jacket. A queasy feeling spread through his stomach, all of which he attributed to his uncharacteristic nervousness.
"Mr. Clayton?" a female voice called, and Neal took just a second too long to react to the alias they'd created. Darn, he needed to concentrate!
"Yes," he quickly replied, getting up from the seat.
"If you would come in, please," the young woman asked.
Neal followed her into the rather depressingly dark paneled room. She showed him to a small table that faced a larger wooden one at which three men were sitting. None of them was smiling.
"Mr. Clayton," the one on the left said. "Welcome to your final interview. My name is Thomas Munson, Head of Outsourcing and Contracts. This is Esteban Garcia," he indicated the man in the middle Neal, but had already recognized him, "and to my far left is Sheldon Blake, Assistant Manager, Manufacturing Supply, whom you've already met."
Munson shuffled some papers in front of him, looking at one particular sheet of paper. "Mr. Clayton, your CV is very impressive. I hope you don't mind telling us a little bit more about your experience."
Shit, Neal thought, he'd been afraid this would happen. It didn't help that the queasiness in his stomach had now turned into full fledged nausea. He also felt chills running up and down his body, and he knew now that it wasn't just nerves. Perfect timing to get sick...
But Neal realized he couldn't botch this, so he tried to ignore his discomfort as best as he could, trying to convince himself it was just a little stomach bug. Nothing to worry about, and nothing so bad that he would let it compromise the assignment. He also realized Garcia was getting fidgety. With the guy's reputation, Neal didn't want to take any chances.
So he rattled down his well rehearsed speech, going into as much detail as he was comfortable with. It was easy to fool people with choreographed pseudo knowledge when they were uninformed in that area. It was going to be very hard to fool these people.
So far, however, it seemed to be working. Blake asked him another question about Good Manufacturing Practice when Neal's stomach suddenly lurched. He flinched, breaking out in another sheen of sweat.
Blake scrutinized him. "Are you not feeling well, Mr. Clayton?"
Not only could Neal not hide it any longer, he also knew that if he didn't find a restroom in the next few minutes, he would be spitting his breakfast out right here in front of Garcia himself, and that was something he needed to avoid at any cost.
"I, uhm, I'm sorry," Neal asked guardedly, "but could we maybe take a short break?"
Garcia didn't look happy. His voice bordered on the menacing, which his strong accent only underlined. A muscle underneath his eye twitched. "I have no patience for men who are wasting my time. Please tell me you are not wasting my time."
Neal swallowed, nervously shuffling his feet. "I'm not wasting your time, sir. I will be right back."
Garcia grunted, then added, "You better be." He gave Munson a look that, for all Neal knew, was telling him that he should send someone after Neal if he wasn't back within two minutes.
Neal's stomach lurched again, this was getting tricky to control. It was all Neal could do not to bolt from the room.
It was a good thing he had already used the restroom earlier so that he could run right for it. He stumbled into one of the two stalls and kneeled in front of the toilet, retching up his stomach contents so hard that tears ran down his cheeks. When his stomach finally stopped heaving, he leaned back until his head touched the stall door, pressing a piece of toilet paper to this mouth. He tried to catch his breath and he shuddered as his body temperature climbed another notch.
This was not good. He felt weak and a raging headache was forming behind his forehead. He closed his eyes and just breathed in and out for a minute. Another wave of nausea hit with a sudden fierceness Neal had not been prepared for, and he bent forward again.
He barely heard the restroom door open over his own misery. Despite the haze in his brain, it suddenly occurred to him that this might be one of Garcia's goons, checking what was taking Neal so long. Panic washed over him as the last onslaught of acute nausea abated. Relief quickly followed when he heard someone use the urinal. Still, the adrenaline gave him newfound energy and he quickly wiped his mouth and flushed the toilet.
On unsteady legs, he made his way to the sink, rinsing his mouth, splashing the cool water on his face. The man at the urinal was just zipping up his fly and washed his hands at the sink next to Neal. He gave Neal a sideways glance. "You okay? Sounded like you were having a rough time in there."
Neal forced a smile. "Yeah, I don't know. Must've eaten something."
"Sorry, man," the guy said. "Hope you feel better."
"Thanks," Neal muttered.
For a split second, Neal debated just getting the hell out. The thought of going home and curling up in bed had an allure so big that he almost gave in. But even in his feverish mind, the thought persisted that Peter needed him to see this through. Even more of a motivator was Garcia's unspoken threat, the twitchy demeanor, the man's you-better-not-fuck-with-me persona. It took Neal another minute to summon up the strength to go back to the conference room.
Maxwell Parker went back to his office, a frown on his forehead. He knew the man he'd just run into in the restroom was Neal Caffrey, here as undercover informant Christopher Clayton. Parker himself was with NYPD's Organized Crime, deep undercover. He'd been briefed on the FBI operation, but they had decided to withhold from Neal that there was another undercover agent involved.
NYPD had suspected Garcia for a long time, and even though they had talked to Burke, who had assured them that Caffrey could be trusted, the decision had been made: Caffrey was better kept in the dark for fear of blowing Parker's cover. Burke hadn't been happy about it, but he'd agreed to it so that it wouldn't endanger NYPD's man on the inside.
Parker's encounter with Caffrey conjured up a sense of dark foreboding. The haunted look on Caffrey's face, the glazed eyes, the throwing up. The man was ill, and definitely not up to running a successful undercover assignment. This wasn't good. This could ruin everything.
Parker snatched his cell phone and a pack of smokes and went outside. Behind the building, well out of earshot of anyone, he dialed Burke's number.
When he got Peter on the line, he told him, "Burke, you need to get your man out of there."
"Neal? Why, is he in trouble?"
"I'm not sure, but he's not doing so well."
"What do you mean?" Peter asked.
"Looks like he's come down with something. I found him puking his guts out in the restroom ten minutes ago. He didn't look so good."
"Do I need to call an ambulance?" Peter asked, his voice heavy with sudden worry.
"No, I don't think it's that bad. He's having some sort of meeting with Garcia as we speak, and I have a feeling he's not gonna be able to hold up to their scrutiny. Especially not if he doesn't have his wits together. Judging from what I just saw, he's just barely keeping upright right now."
"Shit," Peter muttered under his breath at the other end. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"I don't know. Call him. Get someone to call the company and ask for him. Just make sure he doesn't fuck this up. And he can't know about me, got that?"
"Yeah," Peter said. "Do you have a number where I can reach you?"
"I'd rather you didn't."
"Okay. Listen, Parker. Call me if..." Peter trailed off.
"I'll be in touch if I need to." With that he hung up.
Frickin' FBI. Just like them to screw this up.
Peter punched the speed dial button on his phone. "Dammit," he muttered when he only got Neal's voicemail. Of course he would have his phone switched off.
Then he took Parker's second piece of advice. He called Garcia MedCare's switchboard and asked to urgently speak to Christopher Clayton. When they asked who he was, he said he was Christopher's father.
"Hold, please," the lady at the other end told him. He listened to elevator music for too long before the female voice came back. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Clayton isn't available at the moment. Can I leave him a message?"
Peter reiterated that it was urgent, but to no avail. He hung up and exclaimed another, more forceful, "Dammit!"
He rubbed his hand over his face. What could he do? His first impulse told him to just go, wave his badge, physically pull Neal out. But he didn't want to blow the operation. He called Diana and Jones to his office. They needed to come up with a plan.
By now, Neal was sweating profusely, trying not to shiver from the chills that washed over him. Munson, Blake and Garcia were eyeing him warily, but continued their interview. Neal's answers were short, sluggish, evasive. He could see this wasn't going well by the way that at the men exchanged looks with each other. Garcia was getting more and more impatient. Not a good thing for a man prone to violence who said he had no tolerance for people who were wasting his time.
His stomach was still in upheaval, his head ready to explode whenever he moved, and he tried his best not to let it show. The physical discomfort wasn't the worst part, it was that his brain had stopped working somewhere along the way. He had a hard time concentrating on the questions, and an even harder time coming up with answers that made sense.
He wasn't sure what was going to happen if he asked for another recess. He had a mental image of Garcia just reaching under his desk, drawing out a gun and shooting Neal with the words, "What did I say about men who wasted my time?"
Blake took another look at Neal and got up. He took a bottle of water from the tiny dorm refrigerator in the corner, placing it in front of Neal. "You look like you could use a break, son," he said.
'Thank you,' Neal said inwardly, so grateful that he almost wanted to cry.
On weak legs, he stumbled into the restroom again. He was halfway through splashing water on his face when his stomach made him lunge into the bathroom stall. He gave a repeat performance, which was even worse than the first two times because by now his stomach held nothing but acid and bile.
Spent and scared after this new nausea attack, he let his body sink sideways until his hot temple met the cool wall tiles. He sat that way for a long time, just breathing, wishing he was somewhere else, in a healthy body.
Diana, Jones and Peter had gone over a few options, and had discarded most of them. In the end, Diana had the winning idea. Why come up with some convoluted plan when all it took was a family crisis?
Peter asked her to elaborate, and she told him to just go in there, pretend he was Neal's (or rather Christopher's) oldest brother and their mother had been in an accident and was in critical condition. If these people had even half a decent bone in their body, they'd let Neal leave without it looking suspicious. Peter mulled it over, and found that it had surprisingly little flaws.
Diana went with Peter, though she waited in the car. At least she would only be a phone call away if she was needed. Peter left his holster and his gun with her, Parker's warning still ringing in his ears. There didn't seem to be an immediate threat here, and it wasn't like he was rushing headfirst into a gangbanger's outing.
The receptionist had as saccharin a smile as he expected, but at least she didn't stall right away. Peter knew Garcia was a security nut, so he hadn't expected to be able to just waltz in. He had to tell his (fake) story again to the smartly dressed woman who came to meet him.
The look on her face was concerned, even compassionate when Peter got to the part about their mother's accident. "Oh my God, that's terrible," she said, dismayed. "Let me see if we can find your brother for you."
Peter had hoped he could go with her, find Neal himself. "If you don't mind, I'd like to tell him myself. He and our mother are very close, and him hearing it from a stranger..."
She looked perturbed for a moment. "We don't normally let visitors enter without an appointment, but I think maybe we can make an exception. Here, let me get you a visitor's badge."
Peter inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. Diana had been right, the story was holding up to scrutiny better than he could have hoped.
The young woman led him through a number of corridors. She finally placed Peter in an empty conference room, telling him to wait a moment. Just before she left, she turned around. "Oh, one last thing. What's your mother's name?"
Peter was flustered, but only for a second. He didn't know where it came from, but before he knew it, he said, "Elise." She nodded and left, and Peter suddenly realized that his brain had made the connection even before he realized it—because Elise wasn't his own mother's name, it was Neal's mother's name. He sent a silent prayer to the powers that be that Neal would make the same connection.
While he was waiting, he looked around the room, finding it oddly sterile. The large, abstract print on the wall he stared at for the next five or ten minutes reminded him of a microwaved guinea pig. How anyone could possibly want to hang something this hideous in their workplace was beyond Peter's comprehension.
Neal didn't know how he had managed to get from the restroom back to the conference room. Yet, here he was, the bottle of water in front of him untouched because he had a fleeting suspicion the water wouldn't stay where it went if he drank it.
Munson had only just asked another question when a young woman in a blue dress entered the room. She went up to Garcia and in a hushed voice explained something to him. Garcia listened, then met Neal's gaze.
Garcia addressed Neal personally. "Mr. Clayton, would you care to tell me what your mother's name is?"
Neal frowned in confusion. What was going on? Was this some kind of test? Through the haze in his brain, he still fought to buy some time. "With all due respect, could you explain why you need that information?"
"Just answer the question." Garcia was as no-nonsense as Neal had feared.
He tried to think—quickly, frantically. They hadn't set up parents for Christopher Clayton's alias. In the end, he decided to go with his gut. "Elise," he said, using his real mother's first name. "Elise Clayton."
"Very well," Garcia said, seemingly satisfied with the answer. "It looks like your brother is outside, waiting to urgently speak to you."
Neal opened his mouth, but bit back the impulse to ask, 'Brother? Which brother?'
He got up from his chair a little too quickly and had to resist the urge to grab a hold of the table, the sudden pain shooting through his skull was so fierce. The woman Garcia had talked to took Neal to the conference room. Neal almost did a double-take when he saw Peter sitting there.
"Christopher," Peter greeted him, his expression grave.
Neal didn't know what to say in response. He didn't know if Peter had used his real name, so he tried to improvise. "Hey, bro, what are you doing here?"
Peter looked at the woman, asking, "Can you please give us a minute?"
She nodded and closed the door behind her as she left.
Even though Peter had tried to search the room out with his eyes while he waited and hadn't see any indication of surveillance cameras, he still figured they needed to be careful. "Chris, I... There's something you need to know."
"Okay," Neal hesitantly said, realizing that he was supposed to play along.
"It's Mom. She was in a car accident. She's in bad shape. She's in surgery now, but they don't know if she—"
Neal's brow furrowed, and it took him a second too long to react.
Peter took in his partner's state, and for the first time truly registered how miserable Neal looked. Parker hadn't exaggerated when he said Neal was in bad shape.
"Car accident?" Neal echoed. "How bad is it?"
"I don't know. It's pretty bad. The doctors wouldn't tell us anything. They say the surgery's likely to last another hour or two. That's why I came to get you. Can you come with us? Chris, Diana really needs you there, she's been freaking out."
Neal blinked, and Peter was suddenly worried he wasn't playing his part well enough. He'd never enjoyed acting. He'd once tried out drama class in high school, but found he pretty much sucked at it.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll be there. Of course," Neal then said. "I'll have to let someone know."
Neal used his last strength to go back and talk to Garcia. He was almost beyond caring what Garcia would say or do. At least Peter was here, waiting outside, hopefully rescuing Neal if Garcia went ballistic. Very surprisingly, Garcia was sympathetic to Neal's plight. Maybe he had a soft spot for family matters.
Neal and Peter were taken back to the main entrance by the woman in the blue dress. She told Peter before he left, "I really hope your mother's going to be okay."
"Thank you," Peter said before they walked through the glass doors.
They didn't dare talk freely until they got back to the car. Diana was waiting for them, leaning her back against the side of the Taurus. One look at Neal, and she opened the passenger side door for him.
They all got in, and as soon as the doors were closed, Neal asked, "Peter, what the hell is going on?"
"You tell me. I get a call from Garcia MedCare, telling me that you're as sick as a dog, and in order not to let this blow up in our faces, I had to come up with some sort of cover story to get you outta there."
"Yeah, nice job you did there, brother," Neal tried to joke, but it came out feeble and forced.
"Neal, cut the crap, why in God's name didn't you say you were sick?"
He leaned his head against the backrest, closing his eyes. "I wasn't until they started interviewing me. By then it was too late to get out," he said in a meek voice.
"How bad is it? Do I need to drive you to a hospital?"
"No," Neal replied quickly. "No, I just need to sleep."
Peter reached out with his hand, feeling Neal's forehead. It said a lot that Neal didn't even flinch. His skin felt hot to the touch.
"You're running a fever," Peter commented.
"Yeah, I figured," Neal sighed.
"I'd feel better if you at least saw a doctor."
"No, please," Neal begged. "Diana, please tell him it's just a stomach bug. I don't need medical attention."
Diana almost had to smile. If Neal had to ask for backup from her, it meant he was pretty desperate. "Peter," she said in a conciliatory voice. "Just drive him home and put him in bed. Make him see a doctor if he's not better by tomorrow. I don't think sitting around a waiting room is gonna do him much good right now."
What could Peter do against the combined force of Neal and Diana? So he drove. Neal did not say a word, his head supported by his hand that he had propped up on the window ledge. About ten minutes into the drive, he suddenly said, "Peter, please stop the car."
"If you don't want me puking all over it, you'd better stop the car now."
Peter did. Neal bolted from the Taurus and stumbled onto the grass verge, doubling over. Peter turned and looked helplessly at Diana in the back seat. She just shrugged, looked at Neal through the window, and exited the car.
She could see Neal was dry heaving, spitting out stomach acid onto the ground. "Neal," she said in a soothing voice. Her hand found his back, and she could feel the muscles underneath tensing and relaxing in sync with the contractions of his esophagus. She just stood with him, gently stroking his back until it was over.
He remained standing there with his hands digging into his thighs for another, long moment, spitting the last offending remnants from his mouth out into the grass.
She softly touched his arm. "Come on. Let's get you home."
He sucked in a breath through his nose. "Yeah," he sighed.
Back at the car, Neal sat down with his back to Peter, his legs still outside in the open door. He leaned his elbows on his knees and let his head drop into his palms. Peter thought he could hear him sniffle, but wasn't sure if it was just from the physical strain or whether Neal was so vulnerable, so exposed, that the sheer relief of having escaped from what could have become a very dangerous situation was too much to hold in.
His hand reached towards the small of Neal's back, and after a moment's hesitation, he placed it there and softly patted it. "It's gonna be okay," he mumbled, feeling strangely self-conscious.
Neal quickly composed himself and drew his legs back into the car, closing the door. They drove the rest of the way in silence.
Both Peter and Diana accompanied Neal to his apartment. While Neal grabbed his pajamas and ventured into the bathroom, Peter went downstairs to see if June had any medicine for Neal. Diana roamed around the kitchenette, looking for herbal tea or something equally suitable that Neal's stomach might be able to take.
If it was even possible, Neal looked worse as he came out of the bathroom. Diana carefully watched him crawl into bed, drawing the covers up to his chest. She placed a mug of tea on his nightstand.
"I know you probably don't wanna drink anything now, but you should try. You need to stay hydrated. I've made you some chamomile tea."
He opened his eyes, and she could see even that took some effort. "Thanks," he muttered.
She then checked underneath the kitchen sink, but didn't find what she was looking for. She tried the bathroom, and the adjacent storage room, where she finally discovered a small plastic bucket. In the bathroom she quickly rinsed it out and covered the bottom with an inch of water.
"Neal," she softly addressed him back by the bed, putting the bucket on the floor. "Here's a bucket, in case you get sick again. Careful, there's some water in there."
He nodded almost imperceptibly, closing his eyes again.
She felt for him. She'd only been sick with a bug Christie had brought home from work a couple of months ago. She still remembered how much it had sucked.
Peter also came back with a supply of drugs. He sat on the edge of Neal's bed, lightly touching Neal's thigh through the covers. "Neal, I brought some medication. You should take some Tylenol for the fever. June said this will help with the nausea." He put both bottles on the nightstand. "I've also put some ginger ale in the fridge, and I see Diana already made you tea."
"Yeah, thanks" Neal said in a raspy voice.
Peter felt his forehead again, then showed him a small, white and blue apparatus with some kind of nozzle. "Can you turn your head so I can take your temperature?"
"Peter..." Neal feebly protested.
"Ah. No discussion," Peter said in no uncertain terms, and Neal complied.
Peter carefully held it into Neal's ear. "101.6. Yep, you're definitely running a fever."
He placed the thermometer on the bedside table with the other items. "Here, I'm gonna leave this on your nightstand. Call me if your temperature rises above 102. Your phone is also right here."
"Yes, Dad," Neal said mockingly, despite his exhaustion.
"I mean it, Neal. You can call if you need anything. Day or night. June's also downstairs, I've asked her to check on you. Don't be a hero. We're here to help."
It must have gotten through to Neal, because he met Peter's gaze. "Thank you," he said, and there was rare honesty to this tone. "I really appreciate it. And Peter? Thanks for getting me out of there."
"Yeah," Peter gave Neal a last, fatherly pat on the thigh and got up from the bed. "Get some rest. I'll check in tomorrow, okay? And I'll have El bring by some of her chicken soup. "
Neal grunted an unintelligible reply, which Peter took as approval.
He gave Diana a look that said 'let's go'. She got up from where she had been sitting at the dining table.
As Peter carefully closed the door, Diana turned to him, a wistful smile on her lips. "Who'd have thought the unflappable Caffrey was actually vulnerable?"
"Yeah, he's only human after all." He gave her a small smile. "But don't tell anyone in the office. I have a feeling if this got out, Neal's revenge would be fierce and swift."
She chuckled. "Oh, I won't. His secret's safe with me, Boss."