Author's Note: Many people loved the ending to the last chapter. After re-reading it, I loved the fic as a standalone. In fact, I considered just leaving it at that, and using this as scrap material for future stories. But, in the end, Neal's headache and behavior needed explaining and this got to be a REAL chapter. I apologize for all grammar and spelling errors. No beta, just me, tired and loopy.
Special thanks to SilentTrainConductor who helped me with Mozzie's voice.
The pair of them are practically rolling by the time Diana walks over, her expression quizzical.
"Maybe I should call an ambulance for you, boss," she says.
The lump on Peter's head is an easter egg, round, red and purple, but he waves a dismissive hand at Diana. "I'm fine. Takes a harder knock than that to get me."
Neal leans back, his left hand over his eyes just in case any tears find their way out. He drags the hand down his face and grins in the manner that Diana's deemed devious.
"What about you, Caffrey?" Yet another frown. "You hurt?"
"Skinned my hands," he replies, the fall-out from adrenaline making his voice weak. He shows her his right palm as proof.
Getting into the car remains somewhat of a blur to him. He goes from animated and alive to completely drained. Diana, who ought to look after Peter and his head injury, actually guides him back to the Taurus instead. She offers to drive, which Neal encourages in a half-hearted, dazed manner, but Peter insists he's fine. Once they're safely ensconced in the warm interior, she glares at the pair of them and informs Peter that she'll be calling to check-in.
The bag of food surprises Neal for some reason. He almost forgot about the stakeout in the rapid change of events. Only an hour ago, they'd been sitting here, him ruminating, Peter enjoying El's cooking. How odd that life could change so quickly, that he could go from quiet contemplation to almost devastating revelation in such a short period of time. He leans against the window, exhausted, now, instead of bored and stressed. Everything mashes together into a semi-coherent blur and he's barely aware anyone's in the car with him. Everything's warm, safe, comfortable and it's all he needs for the moment…
"So, you never said," Peter interrupts his drifting.
"N'ver s'd wha?" he mumbles.
"What you showed him."
They pull up to June's house. It should have taken longer, Neal thinks, but a glance at the clock reveals twenty minutes have passed. He blinks and looks at Peter who waits expectantly. Pawing at his vapid brain for something witty and ambiguous (because this can't be his first true lie to Peter, not this), he finds himself completely devoid of responses. His fingers tingle as he attempts to disengage the seatbelt and fails repeatedly. Peter finally reaches over to help him.
"You feeling okay?"
No, not even remotely, but that's the headache and his out of control emotions and the fact that his coat, heavy with detritus from the alley, has stained the seatbelt. Distraction and illusion, his two best friends, wearily step up to bat and he pulls a sickly grin from no where. Peter clearly doesn't believe it.
"I'm tired," he answers because that's the truth. "See you tomorrow?"
"Neal…" Installing a warning light over Peter's head that brightens in accordance to the agent's stress level would make Neal's life easier.
"Good night, Peter."
He forces grace into his legs and arms for the minuscule walk into June's house. Once the door closes behind him, he allows that energy to work at simply keep him upright and moving. The stairs take forever, the key to his door doesn't fit no matter how he jams it in, and when he finally manages to twist it into place, he realizes that it was unlocked anyway. He almost falls into the apartment, weary beyond measure and explanation.
"So, how were the salt mines?" Mozzie asks. He has opened the '97 Chianti Neal hid in the storeroom.
He opens his mouth to answer, makes a noise somewhere between a whine and a groan, and collapses.
"…the phone, Suit." The stuffiness of his head and the thrumming of his skull muffle Mozzie's voice. "He's practically comatose. Don't touch him. You'll spread the plague."
"I knew he looked off last night."
"Yes, so 'off' that he passed out in the doorway. No! NO! Don't touch the table either. I haven't disinfected it, yet."
"Mozzie, I don't think-"
"No, you don't think and because of it, I am going to contract whatever fatal illness he's wasting away from. These gloves and mask will only do so much. I already had initial contact with him without appropriate precautions. Who knows? We might BOTH die."
"Now, you're being melodramatic."
"No, I'm a realist. And- don't touch him!"
A hand settles on his forehead, comfortably dry against the clamminess that surrounds his body in a wet blanket. It comes and goes before he has a chance to enjoy it.
"Fever's not too high. Probably a cold."
"You're a doctor, now, too?"
"Will you tell him I'll be by again tonight?"
"I'll consider giving him fair warning if he hasn't perished."
A derisive snort.
He shifts under the blankets, his one arm numb, his leg hurting.
"And one more thing, Moz?"
"I plead the fifth."
Another huff. "Do you know what Neal uses this for?"
Silence. "Judging by its resemblance to a cellphone, I'd say he previously called and texted people on it. He may have browsed the internet and played solitaire. Why? Did his sneezing seem overly devious?"
"He used it last night. Showed it to a suspect who seemed convinced that he had a certain Nazi treasure stored away."
"Seems highly unlikely with the facts I am privy to. Best to ask Neal if he survives."
"I did already, he didn't give me an answer."
"Then it must not be important."
"Listen, Suit, I know that you and Neal are in the midst of soap opera level drama in your Stockholm Syndrome induced love affair but I do my best not to get involved when Mom and Dad are fighting. You talk to him, not me."
"Good. And just so you're aware, in hypothetical situations when Neal's supposed acquaintances allegedly offer him scores, Neal declines regardless of how possibly beneficial the results of said imaginary heists might be. He deserves your trust."
"It's hard to trust someone who doesn't always tell me the truth."
"As far as I am aware, Neal has never lied to you." Good, old Mozzie. "And that's more than I can say about him and me. Now, go, use the sanitizer and leave before I have to deep clean the entire place again."
He waits until he hears the door open and shut before running a hand over his face. His vision remains foggy even as he rubs his eyes. Five feet away from him, Mozzie's perched in his arm chair. He has doctor's gloves on his hands and a mask over his face but (this time) he has skipped the full hazmat suit. Just beyond him, on the table, sits the largest container of hand sanitizer Neal has ever seen.
"It lives," Mozzie says, monotone, but Neal can detect worry behind his glasses.
"Barely," he rasps. "Water?"
"A moment, please."
Any time Mozzie agrees (or is forced) to care for a sick individual, all actions take more than a minute. Gloves are changed, hands sanitized, glass is thoroughly scrubbed, water is fresh poured from a purifier, and gloves are changed again; by the time Mozzie returns, he's dozing.
"Take these," Mozzie commands, an assortment of pills in his hand. When he doesn't immediately reach for them, Mozzie adds. "Tylenol 3, antibiotics and a multivitamin. Hopefully, it will stem off the worst of your cold and whatever infection you're bound to develop."
"'m not going to get an infection from a cold, Moz," he says, shakily taking the pills and the water. He feels utterly wretched.
Mozzie takes the cup back, holding it with two fingers and as far away from his body as possible. "But you will from that bullet wound in your leg. By the way, thank you for your dramatic entrance last night. I've lost part of my immune system and several years of my life."
Neal pulls at the blankets, pushing at them until he can see his leg. Instead of the grimy clothes from last night, he's wearing silk pajama bottoms and a light t-shirt. His left leg gives a particularly violent throb, and he struggles to pull his pants down enough to look at it.
"If you tear those stitches, I will let you bleed out," Mozzie calls from the kitchen. "Friendship only stretches so far."
"You're bedside manner's fantastic," Neal takes in the white bandaging taped over the outer side of his thigh. It wraps around a solid five inches and specks of blood decorate it. "Compassion should be your middle name." He's too drained to wiggle the pajama bottoms back on so he drags the blankets up instead.
"I'd like to think I'm distantly related to Florence Nightingale," Mozzie has started the glove process again.
"Thought you wanted to be Jefferson Smith's great-great-great grandson." His throat itches from drainage and his chest feels heavy. How did he not recognize the onset of illness last night?
"That better not be sarcasm I detect in your voice, invalid." From his position, Neal thinks he could see Mozzie scooping something into a bowl. "Let's not forget you are completely at my mercy. Besides, I do recall someone declaring to a room full of dangerous men that he was the direct descendant of Valfierno."
"Hmm, better than Soapy Smith," Neal ribs. He's on his way out again.
"Soapy Smith made hundreds of dollars off of a scheme that cost him barely anything," Mozzie returns, before him a bowl of soup on a tray. He sets it on Neal's lap and backs away quickly. "Besides, you're failing to acknowledge the point of this conversation."
Neal has no interest in the soup. It looks great and probably smells great, too, but he's nauseated and tired; not a good combination to eat on.
"Eat it," Mozzie says. "You'll offend June if you don't."
He watches Neal patiently as Neal attempts to choke down a bit of it. Neal knows he's waiting for Neal to broach a subject but for the life of him, he's drawing a blank. Everything's complicated for his torpid brain which could lead to embarrassing conclusions.
"Fine, I'll ask. Why didn't you let the Suit take you to one of those infested pits of sickness last night? You were hurt."
Oh, that. He sets the spoon down and slouches back onto the pillows. "I didn't realize it at the time. Shock, adrenaline… had me all twisted around."
"And the cell phone," Mozzie adds.
Their eyes meet. Mozzie's gaze is resigned. "Yes, and the cell phone."
"What does he know?" Mozzie asks.
Neal shakes his head. It hurts. "No more than before but his suspicion's up. He'll be riding me harder, now."
There's a few moments of quiet. Mozzie has his fingers steepled but away from his face and Neal's watching the room spin lazily. It doesn't help his stomach but doesn't make it much worse. He recognizes it as the unfortunate combination of sickness and blood loss and knows it's going to continue.
"I didn't have a choice. Frankel had a gun on Peter. It was the first thing that came to mind and the easiest thing to sell."
To this, Mozzie says nothing, at first. He stands and removes the tray when it becomes obvious Neal isn't eating anymore. The glove process commences, filling the apartment with running water. It lulls Neal back into half-consciousness and he's barely aware of Mozzie returning to the armchair.
"Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change - this is the rhythm of living." Mozzie radiates sageness.
"Bruce Barton," Neal mumbles, drowsily. And then, "I had to, Mozzie."
Mozzie studies him. "We can't take him with us, Neal."
"I know, Moz."
"One day, you will have to leave him or… well, this." He motions to himself and in the general direction of Neal's easel.
"In the end, you can't have both."
He knows but doesn't accept. Mozzie can read it off him from a mile away, no doubt. Another minute passes before the little man stands up. "For my pain and suffering, I am taking the 1986 Silver Oak that you hid under the floorboards. I will also be contacting Elizabeth so that she will smother you with food, affection and lectures. And I know you heard it, but the Suit's coming back tonight, so be prepared."
He's asleep before Mozzie leaves the room.
He doesn't prepare for Peter's arrival.
He blames a number of things for that. The foremost among them is, without a doubt, infirmity. The drugs that Mozzie forced upon him help immensely for the first few hours but as they wear off, so grows the suffering. The bottles (with intricate hand-scrawled warnings) sit on his bedside table and he swallows down more Tylenol 3 but doesn't touch the antibiotic. His stomach barely tolerates the water that he uses to wash down the painkillers and he has no interest in the vitamins despite the encouraging "take with abandon" written over the proper dosage.
He's curled up on his good side when a knock on the door startles him awake. His head has progressed from unpleasantly clogged to just short of erupting. Sneezing and coughing have integrated themselves into his breathing so that the pattern goes from in, out, in, out to in, hack, sneeze, out, sneeze, hack, in. Though Mozzie left him some tissues, he has reduced them to snotty messes and now, to his disgust, has to inhale the worst of the dripping so it dribbles down his throat. His leg throbs happily, obviously in cahoots with the virus.
Peter steps in and quietly shuts the door behind him. He has a bag in his one hand, his coat over his free arm. His forehead has a spectacular set of bruises on it that drift down to his eyes, giving him a look reserved, normally, for raccoons. The furrows on his face have deepened to a permanent grimace that Neal finds terrifying for no good reason.
Peter settles everything on the table before he realizes that Neal's watching him with fever-fogged eyes. He smiles (somewhat stunted) and unloads three large tupperwares. Neal feels a faint amount of gratitude when Peter leaves them; he doesn't think he can eat and has no energy to put on a good front. Instead, he keeps the blankets tucked in the crook of his neck and pretends that he's exhausted. If he can convince himself of it, he can get himself thinking clearly and rationally. If he can think clearly and rationally, he can keep Peter from asking uncomfortable questions and balance their precarious relationship back on the pin top.
"Stupid question," Peter starts. He settles into Mozzie's forgotten arm chair. "How are you feeling?"
"Hmm." He remains noncommittal. A few struggling pushes has him propped up if not sitting. "How was the office?" His throat protests and he swallows hard.
"Mortgage fraud cases," Peter says. "I'm sure you're devastated."
"Inconsolable." He clears his throat and winces. The wince triggers a sneeze which he holds in and his head attempts to explode with the force. "Get anything from Frankel?"
"He's cooling his heels in a holding cell." Neal knows that means, no, nothing. "At the very least, we have him for assaulting a federal agent so he's not going anywhere."
"Neither will the case unless someone does something," Neal points out. He sits up a bit further. "I could… convince him."
Peter snorts, ungentlemanly, disbelievingly, and so Peterly, that Neal smiles a bit despite himself. "The only thing you can convince him of right now is the zombie apocalypse. He can wait, Neal. You need to rest and eat some of Elizabeth's goodies. She's sorry she's not here herself but she had an important meeting. Says for you to feel better and she'll see you tomorrow."
His stomach clenches and he sinks down a fraction. Peter stands again, wandering back to the table, and he watches his keeper with a careful eye. There are no signs of personal disappointment, anger, regret- nothing to show that Peter believes Neal has Adler's treasure trove more than usual. There's nothing to imply that he trusts Neal any less than he trusted him yesterday, pre-Frankel. Reasonably, he understands that the dismissal of his expertise is due to the dripping snot and lethargy he sports like a slogan shirt.
But he still feels empty. It's a pit, an itch, a sickness, almost like the cold, but it's spurred on by the conscience and at war with his basic instincts. What makes him an asset, what makes him GOOD, sits in conflict with what Peter wants for him, and he can't reconcile the pair of them. If he makes a decision, chooses Peter over conning or conning over Peter, then he has to kill a part of what makes him. There's no other option, no trick answer, no rescue; either he straightens up and buys into the American Dream or he goes back to life as it always was. Half-way in either direction simply will not work.
Another tray with soup he can't smell or taste and a cup of water. Peter peruses the bottles Mozzie left for him, frowning, prodding and, finally, following the directions. He forces Neal to take them, coerces him into a few bites of food, and insists that Neal finishes the water. With exceptional patience, and much to Neal's embarrassment, he helps him out of bed, to the bathroom and back across the room again.
In the time that it takes- filled with head rushes, frowns, screaming agony from his leg, chills and a thoroughly chewed lower lip- he twists himself into knots. He knows part of it is fever and part of it is pain but the rest is his psyche fighting inevitability like a rabbit in a snare. It raises sweat on his forehead, sends shivers down his spine, makes his gorge rise. If he had panic attacks, he would think it is one, but even in the worst situations, he has never let fear gain control over him.
"You taken your temperature at all today?" Peter asks, as he burrows into the blankets and trembles. He attempts to touch Neal's forehead but Neal dodges him.
He means to say, "No, but I'm all right," but it comes out wrong. "Peter, do you think you'll ever trust me?"
"Neal," gentle, soothing, "I don't think now is the time for this conversation."
He agrees but his mouth doesn't. "If I serve out my time, and get a respectable job, will you trust me fully?"
"When," Peter corrects, softly. He sits down.
"When," Neal says.
"Let's wait until you're feeling better and then we'll talk about it," Peter repeats.
"No, I need to know," and he does. "I need to know if I keep in line, if I do the work, will you trust me?"
Peter sighs, the sigh of a man resigned to a fate he does not like. He looks at Neal. "Neal, I don't know. Will you ever trust me enough to tell me the truth?"
He tries to say he does, that he lies for Peter's protection, but it sticks in his throat like the mucus from the cold and he coughs instead. "I work without complaint, give my expertise, and do everything in my power to help you solve your cases. I do what you need me to do in order to get the job done."
"Neal, I need to know that I can trust you to do what's right. Always. Not what you feel is right, not what will bring out the best conclusions, not what pulls the perfect con. I need to know that you'll be honest with me regardless of the outcome."
"I've never lied to you," he says, though he knows it's meaningless. Mozzie said it earlier and he's said it on multiple occasions previously.
"A lie of omission is still a lie."
His mother had said that to him, years and years ago, before he decided to do what he did, before he chose this life to satiate his desires and talents. Not telling the truth is bad but hiding the truth may be even worse. It not only maligned you but it maligned others as well. Of course, his lifestyle required ignorance to both those lessons and until this point, he had never questioned his decision.
"So, you're saying that as long as I work with you or with the FBI," he says, slowly, his fingers at his the bridge of his nose. "I am destined for lie detectors, second guessing and raised eyebrows?"
Peter shakes his head. "No, Neal. I'm saying that as long as you're working with me, I will always know when you aren't giving me all the facts, no matter how much honesty you hide behind."
"I didn't take the treasure."
Peter forces them to meet eyes. "I know." But you do have it. "What did you show Frankel last night?"
His heart lies here even if it means betraying himself. Under the glowing light of truth, kindled by fever and self-doubt, he can see the splotchy whiteness of his reformed morality and the surging "goodness" it requires of him. His decision was made a long while ago, probably after a dinner he shared with Peter and Elizabeth, probably after a simple park-bench, brown-bag lunch with Diana, probably after a grueling night in the spy van with Jones, probably after a dance across the living room with June.
But he can't let go. Not quite yet. "Something a friend gave me in confidence with the hope that I would keep it safe." He swallows.
Peter is weary. He runs his hands through his hair, down his face and cups his chin with them. "All right."
"Yes," Peter stands and approaches the bed. He fumbles in his jacket for a moment and relinquishes the broken cellphone to Neal's bedside table. Neal closes his eyes, still empty, still drained, but, strangely, calm and accepting.
This time he lets Peter touch his forehead.
Author's Note: Soapy Smith is famous for "The Prize Soap Racket" and a number of criminal empires.
Valfierno supposedly masterminded the theft of the Mona Lisa.
All knowledge gleaned from the internet and potentially has errors.
I apologize to the ghost of Bruce Barton for using his quote this way.