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A Soft Place to Land

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When Neal wasn't actively destroying evidence, Hagen kept him busy with a series of small theft jobs. As someone in the social-engineering business himself, Neal knew exactly what Hagen was doing: keeping gentle pressure on the leash, getting Neal used to its presence, until he hardly noticed it anymore.

The terrifying thing was that it was working. When Hagen called him at 5:45, just as he walked through the door into his apartment, and said "You'll be going to a party tonight", his first reaction was a kind of resigned weariness. And then he managed to get some righteous indignation together. But they both knew he was going to say yes. He didn't have a choice.

There had been times -- many times -- when he'd chafed in frustration at the anklet and Peter, and the corresponding restrictions on his freedom of movement. But that was bounded: there was a set time limit, and even more important, Peter had limits -- legal limits, moral limits. He'd sometimes felt trapped, and sometimes misused, but he'd also been aware that he had a certain amount of power in return. He could access legal channels if he thought he was being treated badly. And he'd known even from the beginning that Peter took his safety into consideration. Even now, with Siegel handling him, there was still the awareness of Peter hovering somewhere behind Siegel -- Peter, to lean on if things went badly.

He'd sometimes felt used, but he'd never felt owned before.

 

***

 

Tonight, Hagen's instructions sent him to a party at a Manhattan high-rise.

The building looked vaguely familiar, but he didn't recognize it until he gave a password -- supplied by Hagen -- to the doorman and got into the elevator. This was the same building where he and Peter had come to interview Dan Pika when they were investigating the theft of the jade elephants.

Something twisted sharply in his chest.

On a practical level, he thought it was probably a good thing that he wasn't working directly with Peter at the moment. Siegel was no fool, but Peter was ... Peter, with an absolute gift for turning up at the worst possible moment or reading between the lines when Neal thought he'd bricked up the space between the lines. Spending eight to ten hours a day with Peter would be a recipe for disaster right now.

But he missed it. And he missed being able to talk to Peter without having to be so wary of letting things slip. Even an innocuous question like What did you do last night? was an invitation to disaster these days.

I just want things to be easy again.

But right now he had a job to do.

The condo where the party was being held resembled Dan's -- huge windows looking out over the glittering lights of the city, a towering staircase going up. Tonight it was populated with pretty people, smiling and making insincere small talk and passing drinks around, so Neal slipped into their ebb and flow, doing what he was born to do.

Hagen wanted him to lift a ring from a woman named Mellie Flowers. The ring contained a particularly striking yellow diamond, and Mellie Flowers was a mob enforcer's girlfriend. This party, in general, was a sort of who's-who of New York's underworld -- the sort of criminals that Neal had always tried to stay away from as much as possible. You didn't mess with people who were connected, and you didn't work with them if you could help it. Luckily this meant that no one here tonight knew him.

And he knew full well that Hagen had no particular use for the ring. This was just another way of keeping Neal on the hook. He felt terribly exposed here, terribly aware that he had no backup and no protection. He hadn't even told Moz where he was going. Mozzie was busy tonight with his own affairs, and Neal hated to keep imposing on his friend, drawing Mozzie deeper into the downward spiral he was trapped in.

So he circulated and chatted, and managed to locate Flowers eventually. She was a pretty blonde, a little older than Neal himself. Drawing her into conversation wasn't hard, and they chatted while Neal tried to position himself to slip the ring off her finger. It wouldn't be the neatest job he'd ever pulled -- she was going to notice fairly quickly; he just hoped she'd think at first that she'd dropped it. As soon as he got the ring, he planned to be gone.

A passing water replaced their glasses of champagne. Neal sipped lightly at it while trying to get his hand -- and, more importantly, her hand -- in position.

There -- as she dropped her hand to fiddle with the clasp on her purse, Neal distracted her with a calculated smile and took off the ring in one smooth motion. She didn't notice a thing. He dropped it into his pocket, a wave of relief washing through him. He'd done it; now he just needed another minute or two to make his goodbyes and get out of the building, and he'd be home free. Another stupidly risky job down, courtesy of one Curtis Hagen.

But his wash of relief turned into something else -- a wobbly hot feeling that swept through him, turning his legs rubbery. For a moment he was so dizzy that he almost stumbled into Mellie Flowers.

She looked at him in surprise with wide, puzzled eyes.

"Sorry," he said, somewhat breathlessly. The last thing he needed was to draw attention now. He started to raise the glass to his lips again, and then his stomach cramped and he tumbled to what was going on.

He'd been poisoned.

Mellie was still staring at him in puzzlement. She looked fine, and her champagne flute was almost empty. Maybe it had been meant for her; maybe for someone else at the party. This was the sort of party where random murder attempts might not be unusual.

"You've gone very pale," she said. "Are you all right?"

"Excuse me," Neal said. "I think I need to find a bathroom. I'm not feeling well."

She pointed it out to him -- don't notice the ring, he thought distractedly, but mostly he was just focused on keeping himself together until he could get away from the party. He staggered through the bathroom door and locked it behind him. His stomach cramped again; he was bathed in cold sweat.

First things first. Get rid of it. He dropped to his knees in front of the toilet and ruthlessly stuck his finger down his throat. He was already feeling bad enough -- nauseous and dizzy -- that it wasn't hard to get rid of the champagne and what little he'd eaten that evening. He filled a paper cup at the sink and drank as much water as he could stand, then made himself throw up again, trying to get rid of as much of the poison as possible.

He slumped against the wall beside the toilet, unsure if he could even get back to his feet. His symptoms had stopped escalating, so maybe he'd gotten it out in time. But he was still horribly weak and shaky. And they were going to discover the theft of Mellie's ring any minute now, in which case he'd be trapped like a rat. It wouldn't take long for everyone at the party to figure out that there was one person who didn't belong there.

"Peter," he croaked aloud, and then stopped himself as he remembered that Peter wasn't listening. This wasn't a job for the FBI. There was no cavalry waiting to burst in. Just himself and his own resourcefulness.

He'd almost forgotten what that felt like.

He staggered to his feet and leaned on the sink, staring at himself in the mirror. He did look sick; he was chalk-white, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. Clenching his teeth, he wiped his face with a paper towel and put his hat back on, setting it at a rakish angle.

All you have to do is walk out the door.

And he did. Pulling together all his strength, he strolled out the door of the bathroom and made for the elevator at an unhurried saunter. The party seemed to be continuing as normal, which meant a) Mellie had yet to realize her ring was no longer on her finger, and b) he'd intercepted a poisoned glass meant for someone else, and the poisoner hadn't figured out what had gone wrong yet. Wrong place, wrong time, Neal thought grimly. It was hard to pull his thoughts together; his ears were humming and every part of him seemed to be disconnected from the rest. His foot went down a very long way before the rest of him followed. He reached out with an infinitely long arm to press the elevator button, then snaked his strangely disjointed body into it and sagged wearily against the wall as the doors closed.

He'd made it. Only a little more to go. By the time the elevator doors opened, he'd pulled himself together enough to saunter casually across the floor, tipped his hat to the doorman and walked out into the warm Manhattan evening.

As soon as he was through the door, he stumbled into the shadows along the building's facade, dropped to his knees and retched miserably. There wasn't anything left to bring up, really, and a series of dry heaves wracked him until he slumped in exhaustion with his forehead pressed against the cool marble wall.

He had to get up again. This was a part of town in which someone who appeared to be drunk or sick would attract attention. People would call the police. Got to get up. Got to get out of here.

Then a voice -- a familiar, worried voice -- said, "Neal?" and he found that his evening had just gone from awful to horrendous.

"Neal," Peter's voice said again, and a firm, warm hand settled on his shoulder. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"

"What --" His voice emerged as a croak. "How did you find me?" he asked plaintively, because Peter was supposed to be home in Brooklyn with Elizabeth, and was it really too much to ask for Peter to stay where he was supposed to be?

"You have a tracking anklet," Peter pointed out. "And when you're this far outside your normal routine on a weeknight, did you really think I wouldn't notice?"

Apparently it was too much to hope for. Neal squinted up at him miserably. Peter was casually dressed in jeans and a jacket. Just once, he wanted to say, just once couldn't you have let it go? But of course Peter couldn't let it go; he was Peter.

Neal's belly cramped again and he doubled over in another bout of retching. Peter kept him from falling over.

"Neal, what's wrong? You're not drunk ... are you?"

"Poison," Neal managed. His teeth were chattering.

"Jesus," Peter said, and he had his phone out before Neal's sluggish brain managed to catch up with the situation. He caught Peter's wrist.

"No," he said. "No, please."

"Neal, if you've been poisoned, I have to get you to a hospital."

"No," Neal said, as firmly as he could manage given present circumstances. Running away seemed like a good idea, but he made it exactly two steps before his knees buckled and Peter caught him.

Peter always caught him. This seemed to be a constant of the universe.

"Four and oh," he murmured as Peter went down to the sidewalk in a crouch, holding onto him. Sitting was better than standing. Less dizzymaking.

"No, this doesn't count," Peter said distractedly. "Neal, what are you afraid of? Why don't you want to go to a hospital? Will you at least tell me who did this so I can arrest them?"

"I can't," Neal said. "I can't because --" Because Peter would find out, he started to say, but that didn't make a whole lot of sense at the moment. "Because I'd go back to prison," he said, and started to shiver. Waves of hot and cold swept through him.

"Of course you would," Peter sighed. He held Neal a little closer, keeping him up off the sidewalk. "Because you were breaking the law up there, weren't you? Neal, what did you do?"

"Can't tell," Neal said. He was cold, and Peter was warm; Neal pressed against him even as a very worried part of his brain, which sounded a little like Mozzie, told him he probably should be running instead.

"Neal," Peter said.

"Can't. I really can't, Peter."

"Why?" Peter asked, changing tactics.

"To protect you," Neal said, and then tried to bite his tongue. It was hard enough to find ways to creatively lie to Peter, without actually lying to him, at the best of times. Apparently his brain had now short-circuited and was going straight to truth. Stupid brain. Sneaky Peter.

"We've had this conversation, haven't we? That lying to me isn't protecting me?"

"Not lying," Neal pointed out.

Peter made a frustrated noise.

"Peter." Neal tried to scrape his thoughts together. There was an argument, a good one -- he could feel it, dancing around in his foggy brain, and he finally managed to catch it. "You said you had faith in me, remember?"

"Yes," Peter said wearily. "Yes, I did say that. I might've known it would come back to haunt me."

"Please," Neal said. "Please, have faith now, please." He was too dazed and sick and dizzy to find his way to his normal eloquence. All he had to fall back on was sincerity, and he'd never been good at that.

But, for some reason, sincerity had always worked on Peter better than lies. "So tell me," Peter said. "If faith means I can't take you to the hospital, then how about taking you home with me tonight so I can keep an eye on you? Will that work?"

"I'm not gonna do anything bad," Neal said.

"Neal ..." Peter said, exasperated. "It's not that I'm worried about what you'll do, it's that I'm worried you'll stop breathing. My car is at a parking garage near here; can you walk?"

He could, it turned out, with Peter supporting him. A few people stared at them, especially when Neal had to stop and be sick again. Neal was actually feeling too awful to even be embarrassed about it, though he expected the embarrassment would catch up later.

There were some stairs -- that wasn't fun -- and then Peter settled him a car seat, which thankfully meant no more moving around. "Hmm," Peter said, and rummaged around in the backseat before shoving a paper lunch sack into Neal's hands. "At least try not to get sick on my new company car, okay?"

Neal leaned his head back against the seat. A moment later, Peter's fingers pressed against his neck. Neal tried to push him away. "Knock it off, I'm taking your pulse," Peter said. "You seem to be breathing okay. Hey, open your eyes. I need to say something and I need you to hear it."

Neal reluctantly opened his eyes. Even the dome light was too bright, stabbing into his tender brain.

"What I really should be doing right now is rushing you down to the hospital to get your stomach pumped," Peter said. Neal's stomach rolled over unpleasantly at that idea. "And then getting this whole story out of you and arresting a few people. I'm only not doing that as long as your vitals are good, okay? If you start to crash, I'm calling an ambulance regardless of the consequences."

"Okay," Neal croaked.

He drifted then, his head tilted to the side and his eyes closed so he couldn't see the streets rushing dizzyingly past. By the time the car stopped, he was already feeling a little better -- still very shaky, but less like he was going to pass out.

And his brain was working well enough to realize that Peter really had backed off on the questions. Peter's FBI instincts must be killing him, and on top of that he had to know getting answers out of Neal would be easier than usual right now -- but he wasn't asking.

As Peter helped him out at the curb, Neal said quietly, "Thank you."

"How about you thank me by not dying in my living room."

"Deal," Neal said, and managed a small laugh.

 

***

 

Elizabeth met them at the door, and she didn't seem surprised to see him in this state, which meant either Peter had called her from the car, or El was a lot better at dealing with unexpected circumstances than Neal had realized. She smoothly took him from Peter, and started to help him up the stairs. Neal balked.

"The guest bedroom is up here," Elizabeth said. "More comfortable than the couch. And the bathroom is right down the hall."

He was shaking by the time she deposited him on the guest bed, and the hot and cold flashes were back. Maybe he should've had Peter take him to the hospital. But ... no. Because prison. And Peter would go back to prison, and no. Just, no.

Elizabeth disappeared but was back in a moment, bending over him and helping him sit up. She held up a glass to his lips. Neal tried to push it away. His stomach was still fluttering and the bed seemed to be undulating gently beneath him. "Neal," she said, "this is activated charcoal, and you need to take it, all right? It'll help bind up whatever poison is left in your system."

He drank some of it and it tentatively stayed down. Elizabeth helped him lie back, shivering, and pulled a blanket over him.

"Can I bring you anything?" she asked. Her hand laid against his forehead for a moment, warm and soothing. "Water, crackers maybe?"

"I just want to be left alone," he murmured, and then manners belatedly caught up with him. "I'm sorry. Thank you. I guess I kind of blew up your quiet evening with Peter."

She smiled ruefully. "Not your fault. Peter's so used to chasing you that he doesn't know how to stop, sometimes."

Neal thought back to the way he'd felt when he'd first heard Peter's voice outside the building downtown: the urge to run mingled with a sense of overwhelming relief, because Peter was here and things would be okay. "I don't mind that he found me," he said. "But don't tell him that."

"No point in encouraging him, it's true."

"Where is Peter, anyway?"

Her smile was a bit impish this time. "Doing the dishes. It's his turn and I told him that running off to chase you didn't mean he'd get out of them."

"Sounds fair." He was starting to drift again. Lying down felt much better than sitting up, and his stomach was finally settling down.

The bed dipped as El sat next to him. It was companionable, having her here. He found that he liked it.

"Neal ..." she said. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Shoot," he murmured sleepily.

"Whatever happened to you tonight -- does it have something to do with Peter? With how he got out of prison?"

He opened his eyes. In the dark, it was hard to see her expression. He could have lied, but somehow he had the feeling he didn't have to. Not trusting himself to speak, Neal nodded.

"Oh God." She pressed her hand to her mouth.

"Not your fault," Neal felt compelled hastily to add. "I did it all on my own." And this was teetering too close to telling her much more than he dared. He'd said too much already.

"You haven't told Peter," she said. It wasn't a question.

Neal shook his head.

"I suppose not." She let out a breath, and began to chew at the skin beside her fingernail. She'd told him while Peter was in prison that it was a nervous habit from childhood, one she'd found returning after Peter was arrested.

The danger zone might be past. Neal's eyes dipped shut, then opened again when she said, "Is there anything I can do? To help, I mean."

"No," Neal said quickly. The idea of Peter's wife getting involved in the whole mess with Hagen ... yeah, that would end well. It might make the whole Keller fiasco look like a stroll in the park.

"You can't do this all by yourself," she said. "Whatever 'this' is. It's dangerous for you, isn't it?"

He was lying here after being poisoned; there wasn't much he could do to deny it. Neal opted to shut his eyes and pretend to be asleep.

"Neal ..." El said, and he cracked his eyes open again. "I'm sure you have Mozzie to help you, and maybe other people as well. But if you do need some backup -- call me, okay? I don't know what I could do -- maybe just give you a bed to crash on sometimes, no questions asked."

Something in his chest turned over. "Peter ..." he said.

"Peter will be my problem. Just call me, if you need to. Any time of the day or night."

He should try harder to keep her out of it. He really should. But he'd never been able to say no to Elizabeth. "Okay," he whispered.

She brushed his hair back from his forehead. "You sleep a while, then."

He wasn't aware of sleeping, but he must have. It was general physical discomfort that made him drift awake again: he was achy and thirsty and sticky-mouthed. The bed still dipped under Elizabeth -- no, he discovered when he opened his eyes, it was Peter sitting on the edge of the bed in a bathrobe, with a laptop on his knees. He appeared to be looking over casefile data.

"That's not mine, I hope," Neal said, and coughed.

Peter, looking a bit sheepish, handed him a glass of water. Neal drank; it stayed down. Actually, he felt a lot better than he had earlier. Most of his discomfort now was a side effect of sleeping in an awkward position with his clothes on -- that, and tender stomach muscles from being sick earlier.

"You don't have to sit with me."

"I'm working," Peter said immediately. "El said the glow from the laptop screen was keeping her awake."

"Uh huh."

Peter set the laptop aside. "El said you guys talked earlier."

"Yeah," Neal said warily.

Peter held up a hand. "She didn't tell me what you talked about. I didn't ask her to. Neal, I know that for whatever reason, you don't feel that you can talk to me about whatever's going on with you right now. But, if you can talk to my wife about it, I won't press her for details. The only thing I ask is that you don't endanger El."

"I wouldn't," Neal said. "Never."

"Or talk her into doing anything illegal."

Neal shook his head.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to stop investigating it," Peter added hastily.

Neal caught himself on the verge of a smile. "I would expect nothing less."

Peter studied him by the light of the laptop screen. His face was exasperated and fond. "You know, all of this would be a lot easier for everyone if you'd just tell me what's going on."

"I'd like to," Neal said, and found, to his surprise, that it was true. "But I can't."

"Protecting me," Peter said, with a wry twist to his mouth.

"Something like that."

Peter tilted his head and looked at him. "So we're back to you sneaking around doing God knows what and me trying to figure it out."

"Apparently." Neal had to stop himself from reaching down to touch his pocket and make sure the ring was still there. It would be just his luck to have a highly incriminating stolen item fall out on the Burkes' floor. However, Peter couldn't possibly fail to notice the movement.

Peter sighed, and a faint smile tugged the corner of his mouth sideways. "Well, I guess we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves otherwise. You're welcome to stay the night, if you want to."

"I'd rather get home." Neal slid off the bed. His legs held him, barely. He thought he was doing a pretty good job of looking normal, but Peter moved quickly to help him -- which meant either he wasn't as discreet as he thought he was, or Peter was, as usual, hard to fool. Neal waved him off, and the dizziness passed in a moment.

Peter backed off with a wry smile. "El left some food for you downstairs, if you want it. Soup and toast, I think."

Neal was surprised to find that he really was hungry. "Tell her thanks."

"Yeah." It was plain from Peter's face that he was thinking about saying something else, but in the end he just said. "Get some sleep."

"You too."

Neal padded downstairs into the dark living room, using the railing for support. Satchmo, in his dog bed by the couch, thumped his tail. "Hey, buddy," Neal said, and scratched the dog's ears.

As Peter had said, there was a covered bowl of soup and a plate of dry toast on the counter. Neal microwaved the soup and ate by the window, looking out on the Burkes' backyard. It was quiet here -- well, by city standards, anyway. He smiled to himself; he'd been a city boy all his life, and his few experiences with true country quiet -- on the island with Mozzie, for example -- had left him uncomfortable, as if the sound had been stripped out of the world.

He washed his dishes, called for a cab, and slipped out onto the street.

The lights were off upstairs, so hopefully Peter had called it a night and gone back to bed. Neal dropped his hand to his pocket and felt the hard little lump of the ring. At least the night hadn't been a total bust.

Another job down.

He felt a little steadier after getting some food in him, but nowhere near back to normal yet, and for a moment he was so overwhelmed that he had to sit down on the Burkes' bottom step. The idea of more nights like this, an infinite number of nights like this, stretched ahead of him, more barren and bleak than any prison sentence.

Still ...

He raised his eyes back to the dark bedroom window.

He'd spent a lot of his life on a high wire without a safety net. And yet somehow, without his even noticing it, people had ghosted into his life, moving in around him to stand at his side. Mozzie, of course. But also Peter, and Elizabeth, and a lot of people at the White Collar unit.

He'd pushed every one of them away, at one point or another. They'd pushed him away too. And yet they all seemed to fall back together again, no matter how much distance came between them. An ocean hadn't been able to separate them; nor had steel prison bars. Those were nothing. And Hagen was nothing, just a petty tyrant engaging in vindictive mind games. The ring in his pocket was only a trinket, a symbol of one man's cheap little war.

This ... this was real. This warm feeling.

He was afraid to grace it with a name, because things that were named could be stolen, lost, or mislaid. But words fluttered softly around the edges of his mind anyway. Maybe this was home. Maybe it was family. Maybe it was just a soft place to land when he needed it.

He didn't want any of them to be involved, including Mozzie, but they were. He should have known there was no other way. Because if he was hip-deep in this Hagen situation, so were they.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Robert Frost. Mozzie would approve.

There was a way out. He'd find one. Because they'd help him. Whether he wanted them to or not.