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Kept in the Balance

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It was a scene straight out of Peter's nightmares.

Every time he'd watched Neal do something impossibly daring and reckless, he'd been caught between horror and a certain reluctant admiration. There was something about watching Neal in his element that made it impossible to do anything but stare in amazement; it was like watching a pitcher throw a perfect game. Frustration and a sort of helpless anger came before and after -- it had become increasingly obvious that nothing he did could stop Neal from taking those risks, and on some level he didn't even want to; clipping Neal's wings in the name of keeping him safe would be a travesty.

Still, he sometimes woke at night in a cold sweat with his mind playing out all the possibilities: Neal missing that impossible leap between tram cars and plunging into the icy embrace of the East River; Neal's weight ripping through the Greatest Cake awning and shattering his bones on the sidewalk.

And now it was happening in front of his eyes, and he was too far away to do anything except shout Neal's name, for all the difference that would make.

It wasn't really Neal's fault except in the sense that it was just Neal being Neal. He'd gone up the fire escape like a lemur, light feet bounding three at a time up the metal steps, while Peter was still trying to figure out how to make the leap to the bottom ladder.

And then rusted bolts popped out of the wall and Neal's foothold shifted, dropped, and three stories in the air, he went over the railing.

Peter couldn't move. He should have been able to do something; the world seemed to go into slow motion, and he had time to level a mental curse against the building's safety inspectors who were going to have the book thrown at them for every goddamn regulation they'd violated. He could run -- catch him -- but that was stupid, and there was no time anyway, and as he screamed Neal's name, Neal hit the sidewalk.

Hit and rolled, because it was Neal, and Neal knew how to fall -- but even as Peter thought it, Neal tumbled end over end and his head cracked the sidewalk and he sprawled in a boneless tangle of limbs.

"Neal, Neal, God damn it, Neal," Peter chanted as he dropped to his knees beside the limp heap of his CI. A fall like that could have killed him. Neal's face was white and blood trickled down his temple, but he was still breathing, thanks to any deities who had been paying attention.

Right now Peter couldn't care less that their forger was escaping over the rooftops. Time to worry about that later, and take whatever lumps the Bureau wanted to dish out in his direction. Right now the only thing that mattered was whatever damage had been done to Neal, and particularly to Neal's clever brain. "Jones!" he barked into his radio. "Man down, we need medical out here yesterday."

"Help's on the way, Peter," Jones said, and right, the van had heard the whole thing. Well, acting like an idiot in front of his team was so far down on Peter's list of priorities right now that it was completely off the charts.

"Neal," Peter said helplessly. He checked airway, breathing, heartbeat, and all those things were good, but Neal was still unconscious and that really, really wasn't. Peter shrugged out of his jacket and covered Neal with it. He squashed his impulse to slide anything under Neal's head, because spinal damage was a very real possibility; the best thing he could do was make sure Neal moved as little as possible until the paramedics got there. Neal had ended up on his side with his body twisted and one arm under him.

"Waking up would be good now," Peter told him. "I can make it an order if you need me to." It was hard to discern blood in Neal's dark hair, but there was a fine thread running across his forehead and down to wet the dust on the sidewalk, and another thread tracing a red line across his jaw. He'd bruised the side of his face, taken off some skin. Road rash. That was going to take a while to heal.

Peter wasn't sure what would be okay to touch. Don't shift the spine and neck out of alignment -- okay, basic first aid, he could do that. What about trying to stop the bleeding? It might move Neal's head, which could be bad ... He compromised by cupping a hand over Neal's face, along the line of his jaw, close enough to feel the warmth of Neal's skin and the feather-soft, rhythmic brush of his soft breathing.

Neal's lashes fluttered and his lips parted. He made a faint sound. Peter suddenly found a use for the hand currently laying along the side of Neal's face; he pressed down gently but firmly so that when Neal started to move, an instinctive flinch, he couldn't.

"Neal," Peter said, and Neal's eyes, half-lidded under a dark fringe of lashes, tracked to him. That was good. "Neal, you had a bad fall. Your neck or spine might be injured. Don't move." He felt Neal's head start to twitch in a nod, and pressed a little harder, stopping him. "Neal, don't move your head."

Neal's lips moved. "Okay," he whispered.

Peter curled his fingers over Neal's cheek and jaw, carefully to avoid the bruises and the road-rash scrape bleeding away from the corner of his mouth. "Help's coming," he said, feeling so useless, so goddamn useless. "Just keep still."

"What happened?" Neal whispered.

"You fell. Went up an old fire escape and it broke under you. I'm gonna make sure the city sues the bastards for every cent they've got."

"You would," Neal murmured, and his breath caught on a laugh. "That's so you." His lashes fluttered closed, then opened again. "Peter?"

"Yeah?" Peter said, brushing the side of Neal's face with his thumb.

"What happened to me?"

He asked it five more times while they waited, always acknowledging Peter's response, sometimes laughing quietly at himself -- and then forgetting. By the time the ambulance got there and Peter was able to turn Neal over into their hands, he was stone-cold terrified, but fighting as hard as he could not to show it.

As soon as Neal was trundled into the ambulance in a back brace and neck collar, Peter slumped against the wall and let his hands shake. There was blood on the side of his hand, dark against the skin, and concrete dust on both knees and his sleeves. He tilted his head against the wall.

"You okay, boss?" Diana's voice penetrated his reverie. She was close enough to touch him, but didn't quite bridge the distance.

Peter opened his eyes and regarded her wearily. The ambulance's lights swept across the scene, painting everything blue and red, the color of a bruise. "Any sign of Jakes?" That was their forger. Long gone, probably.

"No, but we have a description out." The ambulance pulled out with a whoop of its siren; Diana's voice skipped like a scratched record before resuming. "And a stakeout on his girlfriend and his mom. We'll get him."

They'd worked two solid weeks to build a case against the guy, and right now Peter had to scrape together the energy to even ask about it, let alone care. "Good work. I'm going to drive over to the hospital."

Diana simply nodded. "Jones and I have the scene, boss. You good to drive?"

Maybe she had the wrong idea about how everything had gone down. "I'm not hurt," Peter said.

"I know."

It wasn't until he'd already pulled out, following the ambulance, that he finally tumbled to what she'd really been asking about, which was a clear sign that he wasn't quite tracking at the right speed. All right, yeah, not quite a hundred percent, I guess.

 

***

 

It took awhile for Peter to get to the hospital, park, locate the emergency room, and then make his way back to Neal's cubicle by a combination of badge-flashing, polite explanation, and judicious bullying. By the time he got there, Neal was more awake, and feeling crappy enough to be petulant with the nurses. When he saw Peter, he simply pulled the sheet over his head.

"Good to see you, too," Peter said.

The sheet came down slightly, enough to reveal a white bandage on Neal's temple. They'd trimmed some of his hair and cleaned the scrapes on the side of his face. The bruises were starting to swell up, vivid against his pale skin. "The lights are too bright," he groaned.

Peter leaned a hip against the side of the bed. Neal was still strapped into a brace immobilizing his neck and spine, though he could move his arms. It looked uncomfortable, especially for someone who was clearly in pain. Through the thin curtain-walls separating them from the other patients, he could hear someone who was obviously drunk arguing with the police.

"They think you hurt your neck?"

"I don't know," Neal mumbled, and pulled the sheet over his head again.

Peter found out from a nurse that Neal was waiting for X-rays as a precaution. "Is it possible to get the lights turned down in here?"

She looked at him like he was dense. "No." But she helped him obtain a clean towel to cover Neal's eyes and block some of the light. When Peter gently twitched the blanket away to apply the makeshift compress, Neal squinted at him, going almost cross-eyed in an attempt to focus. "Peter? When did you get here?"

"A little while back," Peter said, forcing down another wave of fear. Disorientation and loss of short-term memory were normal consequences of a concussion, he told himself. He'd been through the required Red Cross first-aid training often enough to have it memorized. The doctors would check Neal out. They'd find out if anything was badly wrong.

Permanently wrong.

Stop thinking about it.

"I feel like hell," Neal murmured as Peter arranged the compress over his eyes. "What happened?"

"You fell off a building," Peter said patiently, and then added, since if it was a lie Neal probably wouldn't remember anyway, "You're gonna be okay."

"I know," Neal whispered, but he didn't start to relax until Peter settled a hand on his shoulder.

When they came to get Neal for X-rays, Peter sat on the edge of the bed and called El. People in neighboring cubicles could probably hear him as well as he could hear them -- there was no privacy, and even with the curtain-walls drawn he could see the ghostly shapes of people moving behind them -- but it wasn't like he planned to say anything classified.

"Gonna be late tonight, hon," he said when she answered, and filled her in on what had happened.

There was a brief, horrified silence before she said, "Is Neal going to be all right?"

"No one seems to be panicking, so I guess that's a good sign. They're getting X-rays right now."

"Do they plan to keep him overnight?"

"I don't know," Peter said. "I'll be here a while longer in any case."

"I can come down."

"No ... I'm sure Neal would appreciate the thought, but I'm not sure if he's up for visitors right now. He's really out of it." The memory of Neal's circular questions and the vacant look in the normally sharp blue eyes still made Peter shudder. "Besides, you've got that thing tomorrow, right?"

"The Hartman reception," she said.

"Yeah, that. I know you'll be working this evening, and if you take time to come down here you'll be up 'til midnight."

"You do pay attention," El said with a laugh.

"Well, I am an FBI agent."

"Keep me posted," she said firmly.

"I wouldn't dream of leaving you out of the loop."

Diana called as soon as he'd hung up on El, catching him up on the progress of the case. The stakeout team had caught Jakes at his girlfriend's house. "He's shut up tighter than a clam and wants his lawyer, but I think we've got a pretty solid case against him. How's Caffrey?"

"Awake, cranky, and getting X-rays," Peter said. "Sorry to dump this on you. If you want, you can just leave the paperwork on my desk."

Diana laughed. "Like I'm going to pass up an offer like that. Should I pick up a get-well card for Caffrey?"

Her tone was teasing, but the thought occurred to Peter that Neal might actually appreciate that. He knew that he was slightly tone-deaf on that kind of thing, and maybe Neal didn't really care at all, but it seemed to Peter that it might be nice for Neal to know his absence from the office was noticed. "Yeah, do it."

"I was actually joking." She paused. "It might be kind of nice for him, though, don't you think?"

"Make sure everyone signs it."

"I'll make sure they wouldn't dream of not signing it," Diana said cheerfully.

After wrapping up a few case details with Diana, Peter had nothing to do but wait for Neal to come back. He was playing a game of poker on his phone when they wheeled Neal back into the room, looking hunched and miserable, but more alert than the last time Peter had seen him. He was out of the back brace.

Peter gave them a hand getting Neal into the bed. He was limp and compliant in a very un-Neal-like sort of way.

"Better lay him on his side," the nurse said, efficiently manhandling him into that position. "He threw up twice in X-ray."

"I'd like to die," Neal moaned. "Peter, please shoot me."

"No one is dying on my watch," Peter said, supporting him with a hand planted in the middle of his back, between the shoulder blades. Neal's scrubs were damp with sweat. "So, X-rays were good, I gather?"

"Are you a relative?" the nurse wanted to know.

"I'm a friend," Peter said.

"My X-rays are fine," Neal said, slightly muffled because he'd burrowed his face into the side of Peter's thigh to block out the world. "Now they want to give me a CAT scan. Peter, make it stop. I just want to go home."

"Call me crazy here," Peter said, cupping his hand gently around the back of Neal's head, "but I'd like to know you aren't going to drop dead from an embolism before you leave the hospital."

"Thank you," the nurse said, gratified. "We just need to see if the machine is free."

It turned out to be almost an hour until they were able to fit him in. Peter spent most of that time sitting in a slightly cramped position on the side of the bed, running his fingers through Neal's hair and lightly rubbing the back of his scalp and neck. When he tried to stop, Neal murmured, "No, don't, feels good."

"Do you remember what happened?" Peter asked, pressing in slow careful circles at the base of Neal's skull.

"I remember you said I fell off a building," Neal said after a moment. "Is there an I-told-you-so lurking in all of this?"

Peter relaxed a little. Neal was definitely tracking better now. "Because I'm a nice guy, I'll wait until you're back on your feet."

"Awesome," Neal muttered into Peter's thigh. "Something to look forward to."

When the conversation stalled out, Peter fell back on his well-honed techniques for passing time on a stakeout, and started telling a story about an old case -- this one was all the way back from his probie days, because he figured Neal could use a laugh at Peter's rookie mistakes. Neal didn't laugh, but he pressed closer to Peter's thigh and sighed when Peter scritched his fingernails lightly down the back of Neal's scalp.

Neal actually seemed to be in danger of falling asleep. Were people with head injuries still supposed to stay awake, or had that changed? Peter couldn't remember. Well, they were in a hospital. Surely if he was supposed to be keeping Neal awake, someone would have said something.

Maybe they just thought it was too obvious to mention.

Neal didn't fall sleep -- Peter could tell from his breathing -- but by the time a nurse came to get him for the CAT scan, he'd gone completely limp, the tension of pain and discomfort bleeding out of him and leaving him wrapped loosely around Peter. It hurt Peter's heart to gently jostle him out of that loose, relaxed state, feeling the tension coil back into him.

Still, they were into the home stretch now. While Neal was off somewhere in the labyrinthine depths of the hospital, Peter filled out paperwork, mostly asserting that yes, the government was paying Neal's medical bills since he was still a ward of the prison system. After that he went to collect Neal and found that Neal had been given, if not a clean bill of health, then at least he was free of life-threatening complications and good to go.

"He should have someone with him tonight, if possible," the neurologist said, and gave Peter a sheet of paper with a terrifying checklist of complications to watch out for. Neal had gotten dressed at some point and was slumped on a chair, tilting to the side and very pale.

"Are you sure he shouldn't be in the hospital?"

Neal stirred, squinting against the overhead lights. "Peter, no, I just want to go home, please."

Peter shepherded him outside to the car. Neal still had a tendency to list like a ship on the high seas as soon as Peter let go of him. Night had fallen while they were inside; Peter was disconcerted to realize how much time had passed.

"You can spend the night at our place, if you want. I know El won't mind."

Neal shook his head and clearly regretted it. "I'll be okay. I just want to sleep. June's there." He slumped against the window of the car door and closed his eyes.

Peter could relate to the desire to be left alone in familiar surroundings; still, given the magnitude of the danger signs they'd told him to look for (convulsions; unresponsive to stimuli; uncontrollable vomiting...), he didn't think that June, in her bedroom at the back of the house, counted as "not being alone". Arguing with Neal in his present state felt like kicking a puppy, though. He wondered if El could be convinced to drive all the way uptown to bring him a change of clothes for tomorrow.

"You don't have to stay," Neal murmured as Peter guided him up the stairs, correcting Neal's trajectory every time that he drifted off course and making Peter feel a little like a seeing-eye dog.

"I never said I was staying."

Neal made a soft, non-committal noise.

The apartment wasn't empty, though. Peter opened the door onto lamplight and the quiet noise of voices rising and falling in a cadence of terrible English dubbing.

"Oh God," Neal groaned, supporting himself on the door. "Tiles of Fire. That's the perfect ending to a wonderful day."

Mozzie stirred from the couch. "Au contraire, mon frère. This is the Tiles of Fire spinoff Tiles of Blood. You just missed the classic scene in which the gangster's daughter, failing to realize that her suitor wasn't eaten by sharks after the cruise ship explosion --" He broke off, finally realizing something was wrong, and sat up all the way, setting down his glass of wine. "Are you all right?"

"Oh yeah, I'm wonderful." Neal took a step away from the door and swayed dangerously. Peter swooped in and caught him by the arm. "I can stand up on my own," Neal muttered.

"Evidence would suggest otherwise," Peter said. "Bed?"

"Bathroom."

Peter helped him to the bathroom and hovered in the doorway, looking with concern at all the many possibilities for dangerous tripping and falling, until Neal glared at him, pushed him out, and shut the door. Peter turned around and jumped when he discovered Mozzie standing almost close enough to touch him. Mozzie was scowling.

"What did you federales do to him?"

"It wasn't us," Peter said quickly. The guilt was, in reality, quite strong, but he didn't need to give Mozzie that much ammunition. "He fell off a fire escape." And boy, was he going to have nightmares about that tonight.

Mozzie stabbed Peter in the chest with a finger. "A fire escape he wouldn't have been on if not for you."

Peter removed Mozzie's hand from his personal space. "I'm sure you've tried to stop Neal from risking his health and safety, haven't you?"

Mozzie stared at him for a long moment before retrieving his hand with a mutter of "Touché, Suit. Touché."

"I hope you both realize I can hear you out there," Neal said through the door. "Could someone bring me pajamas, please?"

Peter brought a pair at random from Neal's closet -- it was gray silk and looked like it cost more than any of Peter's suits -- and cracked the door enough to pass it through. Neal retrieved it and shut the door firmly.

Mozzie handed Peter a glass of wine.

"I'm really not that much of a wine guy."

"Wine's how we roll around here. Suck it up."

Peter snorted and took a sip. He didn't hate wine, though he still couldn't tell the difference between a four-dollar bottle of plonk and a two-hundred-dollar Bordeaux. He harbored a private suspicion that most people who acted like they could were actually going by the price tag rather than flavor anyway.

"So," Mozzie said. He'd muted the TV. "What happened?"

Peter gave him the bare bones of events. He had to force himself to talk about it; the image of Neal lying limp on the sidewalk was burned into his brain, probably forever. "We did get the guy," he added.

"Not actually my biggest area of concern, Suit."

"No," Peter said, deflating. "Probably not."

There was a brisk tap on the door and an instant later Elizabeth came in, bearing a large bag. "Hi," she said, giving Peter a peck on the lips. "I hoped you'd be here by now. Hi, Mozzie. Where's Neal?"

"Bathroom," Peter said.

"How is he?"

"All right, I guess. Kind of woozy, but not too out of it." Peter peeked into the bag. "What's this?"

"Oh, I thought I'd bring over some soup for Neal, and I picked up takeout along the way for everyone else. There are gluten-free offerings," she assured Mozzie.

Mozzie smiled absently, but turned an anxious stare on the bathroom. "He's been in there for a long time."

And he'd been very quiet. Peter knocked on the door. "Neal?"

There was a too-long pause before Neal said faintly, "I'm good."

Now Mozzie and Elizabeth were hovering too. "Neal, do you need help?" Elizabeth asked.

An even longer silence passed before Neal said, "... maybe."

Peter carefully opened the door, unsure what he was going to find. He was relieved to see Neal sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, changed into pajamas and resting his head in his hands. There was no visible blood or any other sign of disaster.

"You okay?" Peter asked, kneeling beside him.

"Basically," Neal mumbled. He swallowed. "Just ... dizzy."

Peter tried to remember if dizziness was one of the Terrible Warning Signs the hospital had told him to watch out for. He was pretty sure it wasn't, though Neal looked pale and miserable. Between the two of them, Peter and Mozzie got him on his feet and maneuvered him over to the bed. Neal helped as much as he could, though his legs had gone wobbly and he slumped heavily on Peter's shoulder, his hair brushing Peter's cheek. "This really sucks," he said weakly as they settled him on the bed.

Elizabeth reached for the blankets but Neal got hold of them first, obstinately tugging them over his legs. "No one needs to tuck me in. I can manage." He hesitated, apparently just now becoming aware of who he was talking to. "Elizabeth? What are you doing here?"

"I came to check on you, of course. I brought soup if you want it later."

"Oh." He looked awed and a little confused. "You ... didn't have to."

"Of course I did." She patted his knee. "Do you want anything? Painkillers? Water?"

"They gave me some stuff at the hospital." Neal's eyelids fluttered shut, then opened again. That might be half his problem right now, Peter thought; the painkillers were making him sleepy, adding to his disorientation.

"Go to sleep, then," Elizabeth told him. "I'll put the soup in the 'fridge for when you wake up."

She squeezed his knee and then went to do that. Mozzie followed her after a last, anxious glance at Neal, no doubt drawn by the appeal of free food.

Peter lingered, though he wasn't sure why. Neal was either asleep or heading rapidly in that direction, and everyone else clearly had things under control. The lights in the room were dim, and they were off completely over the bed, so that Neal was a study in light and shadow, his face a pale blur with a dark swoop of hair over his eyes.

Neal was safe, and he was going to be all right, Peter reminded himself. Still, he couldn't shake the terrible memory of Neal going over the railing, Neal's absolute stillness when he hit the pavement. It had been too damn close: closer, in fact, than he ever wanted to come again.

"It's too bad your anklet doesn't come with a leash," he murmured.

He'd thought Neal was asleep, but Neal stirred, turning his head slightly. "Not your fault," he whispered.

Peter sat on the edge of the bed. "Never claimed it was," he said, perhaps a little too quickly.

Neal's eyes were still shut, but one of his hands went questing across the bed in Peter's direction. Peter caught it and gave it a light squeeze. Neal squeezed back, and then his fingers went slowly limp and his breathing evened out as he finally lost the battle to stay awake.

At the kitchen table, Elizabeth and Mozzie had broken out the Parcheesi. Peter laid Neal's hand gently down and went to join them.

At one point in the game he happened to look over and noticed that Neal had turned in his sleep, rolling onto his uninjured side to face towards them, and then drifting off to sleep again.