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Culture Shock

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It was, Peter thought, the kind of ridiculous accident that could only happen to Neal Caffrey.

They were at a DeArmitt Gallery holiday art opening that Elizabeth had organized and curated, so Peter and Neal had showed up for moral support. Well, Peter was there for moral support; Neal was there because he actually liked this sort of thing. When Peter had asked him if he wanted to come, he'd lit up like a puppy that had been offered a Frisbee and a walk.

They arrived a half-hour or so before the show opened at six. The gallery was already open to the public, and a few people in expensively tailored suits were circulating among the art installations, most of which were complicated tangles of rusty metal welded into arcane shapes and wrapped in layer upon layer of Christmas lights. Some were lit up, glittering like weird Christmas trees; others were ominous dark hulks lurking around the room. Peter skimmed the exhibit statement so that he could avoid sounding like a complete idiot if someone tried to talk to him about the art. Something to do with commercialism of Christmas and the exploitiveness of capitalism milking the holiday for material gain; fair enough, he could bluff his way through at least a few short conversations.

El breezed past in a green velvet dress, and heels that must be at least four inches tall, elevating her from the level of his shoulder to somewhere closer to his nose. "Hon, could you help me move this table, please? It's blocking the door, I don't know what the caterers were thinking ..."

She put Neal to work, too, organizing canapes on a tray. "This figures," Peter said, passing him while carrying a stack of chairs. "I get all sweaty dragging furniture around, while you're folding napkin roses."

"To each according to his abilities," Neal said brightly, moving a canape a fraction of an inch to the left.

As he worked, Peter tried to keep an eye on him, not that he expected Neal was going to steal a sculpture made of half a ton of rusty metal, but it was just habit by this point -- looking up every minute or two to be sure he still had Neal in sight. He got a little twitchy if he couldn't see him. You know, he told himself, one of these days he's going to get that anklet off, and then you'll need to break this habit or else it's going to be really embarrassing.

One of the installations, which looked sort of like the mutant offspring of an old-fashioned steam tractor and a Macy's show window, made a fizzling sound and all its lightbulbs died. "Oh no," El said, stopping in her hurried rounds to peer at it. "I think maybe one of the bulbs is loose -- Peter, you're tall enough --"

"I've got it," Neal said. Peter saw, out of the corner of his eye, Neal leaning on the bare metal frame and stretching on tiptoe to reach the top.

He didn't see exactly what happened next, just that Neal jerked backward and went down flat on the floor, and belatedly Peter registered a sharp popping sound and a smell of ozone. There was a brief hush and then a rising murmur of voices, most particularly El saying, "Neal!" and as Peter's brain caught up with the situation he realized what must have happened.

"Don't touch it!" he snapped, and crossed the room in a few quick strides to yank the power cord out of the wall.

When he peered around the mass of metal, Neal was lying flat on his back with El kneeling next to him. She removed her lacy jacket, leaving her arms bare, and rolled it up to put under Neal's head.

"Neal?" Peter said, dropping to his knees beside them. Neal's eyes were open. That was good. He was also blinking vacantly at the ceiling, which wasn't so good. "Neal!" Peter said sharply, which got him an exasperated look from Elizabeth but made Neal's eyes snap to him. Even El, who knew him better than anyone, didn't always get how he and Neal worked.

Peter looked up to discover that the gallery patrons had clustered in a claustrophobic little knot around them. "I plan to arrest whoever's responsible for code violations," he announced, which resulted in another look from Elizabeth. But it also made the crowd back hastily away, plus it got a faint smile from Neal, which made it a win in Peter's book.

Neal was pale but he was breathing okay, and when Peter pressed his fingertips to Neal's throat, he found a rapid but steady pulse. Neal tried weakly to fend him off, pushing with uncoordinated gestures that didn't do much. Peter caught his hands. "Lie still," he ordered, and Neal complied, which must mean he was feeling bad.

El got to her feet and started giving orders, moving people away from the sculpture, sending her assistants off to put the finishing touches on the dessert table. She was back in a moment, leaning over Peter's shoulder. "Yvonne's called 911," she reported, and Neal managed to look annoyed, even flat on his back. "This place is going to start filling up with people in a few minutes. The sculpture --"

"I unplugged it," Peter said. "I think we ought to unplug the rest of them. I'm serious about arresting people if this is a safety hazard." Across the room, he saw an unshaven and slightly frantic-looking man -- the artist, he guessed -- having a frantic argument with someone else that Peter recognized from El's business lunches as the gallery owner.

"No one is getting arrested," El said with some impatience. "I'll deal with the sculptures -- Peter, there are offices in the back; do you want to take Neal somewhere more private? Neal, sweetie, can you walk?"

"I can walk," Neal said. His voice was shaky, and it took both Peter and El to get him on his feet, although once he was up and walking he was less wobbly than Peter had worried about. El pointed them in the direction of the offices, hovering with little touches that Peter recognized as apology. She didn't want to leave them, but she had a job to do. He tipped his head back toward the gallery and gave her a little smile. She smiled back, squeezed Neal's hand, and hurried off on her heels toward the gallery owner.

Peter took Neal back through the door El had indicated, where he found a hallway with a bunch of doors. The first door led to an office with the lights off and computers shut down for the night: nice and private, and about as good as they were going to get. He eased Neal down to the floor.

"This is absurd," Neal groaned. "I think this is the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me."

"Are you kidding?" Peter asked, taking his pulse again. "I seem to recall an incident involving the roof of the Met and a rainstorm --"

"Okay, the second most embarrassing thing." Neal's annoyed look was at about half its usual strength. He looked like a puppet with its strings cut, sprawled partly on the floor and partly against the wall. Peter was reminded vaguely of the Howser Clinic incident; there was a similar bonelessness to him.

"What exactly did happen?" he asked, turning Neal's hand over and examining it. There was some mild reddening, but didn't seem to be any actual burns. More concerning to Peter's mind was the fact that his hand was cold and trembling.

"I don't know," Neal said. He retrieved his hand irritably. "I mean, something on it shocked me, obviously, but I'm not sure if it was something I brushed against or if the whole thing was live."

"Culture shock," Peter remarked, removing his jacket to drape over Neal.

"What," Neal said flatly.

"Culture shock. You were shocked at a cultural event." Peter grinned. "I'll have to remember that one to tell El."

"No. No, you don't. Not unless you want her to throw a drink in your face, and you will completely deserve it."

The door, which Peter had left half-open, swung all the way to admit two paramedics and one of El's assistants. Peter stepped back while they examined Neal. "Do you think you could go find some blankets or something?" Peter asked the assistant quietly, mostly to get her out of the way so Neal could have a little privacy, and she scurried off.

Peter stepped outside and almost collided with El. "I saw the ambulance pull up," she said. "How is he?"

"I don't know. They're with him now." The terrible distress on her face made his heart hurt. Peter put an arm around her and drew her in to kiss her forehead. "It'll be okay, hon."

"I just feel awful about it. I had no idea there was any danger. The artist feels terrible as well. I've had to stop him three times from coming back here to apologize."

"How about the rest of the pieces?" Peter asked.

"We shut off the power to all of them. They're still impressive without the lights, and I've already arranged for an electrician to come in the morning and examine them to make sure there aren't any other shorts or bad connections that could hurt someone." She gave Peter a small smile. "The show must go on."

"Neal would want it that way," Peter said, realizing only as the words were out of his mouth that it sounded like a eulogy; El's face crumpled again. "He's fine, hon, really -- well, mostly fine. He was griping about the embarrassment. That doesn't sound like a Neal who's on death's doorstep."

The paramedics emerged from the office. "There's no need to transport him," the senior of them told Peter. "He's basically okay. Just keep him lying down until he feels steady enough to stand up. If someone could stay with him for the next couple of hours that'd probably be good. There's always a risk of heart arrhythmias after a shock."

He gave Peter and El a quick list of symptoms to look out for -- dizziness, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat -- but reassured them that it was unlikely; Neal was young and healthy and should be fine.

El's assistant came back as the paramedics were leaving with an armful of fluffy blankets. "I found these in the break room," she reported, looking pleased with herself.

"I have to ..." El said, wavering back toward the gallery.

"Go, go. It'll be okay." Peter gave her a quick kiss, took the blankets and went back into the office.

Neal was sitting up, looking grumpy. He didn't object to Peter piling blankets on him, which let Peter know that he still wasn't feeling great. "I'm missing the hors d'oeuvres and the wine bar," he complained. "Can you bring me some wine?"

"Are you kidding? I don't think people who've had an electric shock get wine."

"The paramedics didn't say anything about it."

"That's probably because they didn't think it needed to be said." Peter settled down next to him. Neal made a move to get up, blanket and all, and Peter planted a hand in the middle of his chest. "Stay."

"I'm feeling a lot better," Neal said.

"You think you can stand up without getting dizzy?"

"Mmmmmostly."

"Right. You're staying there for awhile."

"We're missing the whole opening," Neal muttered, slouching deeper into his nest of blankets.

"You've already seen the art," Peter said. He glanced down to find that Neal had become a blanket-wrapped bundle with nothing showing but the top of his head. "What else is there to do? Wander around talking to boring people about pretentious art, sipping wine ..."

"That, exactly," Neal said, his voice muffled. He pushed his head up enough to say, "I like that sort of thing. And in case you've noticed, my social calendar has been a bit limited lately." He poked his left foot out from under the blankets and waggled it.

Peter knew full well that he was being manipulated, but he felt little tendrils of sympathy sneaking up through the cracks of his Caffrey-proof emotional armor. Neal really had been looking forward to the evening, for some ungodly reason. "Look, if you'll stay here and lie down until you can stand up without falling over and cracking your head open, I'll find some other gallery show to take you to later, okay? Call it an early Christmas present."

"Outside my radius?" Neal asked hopefully.

"Don't push your luck."

"Because there's this one opening at a little gallery in Red Hook --"

"I said don't push it."

 

***

 

About a half-hour later, El pushed the door open quietly and paused.

Peter had found a couple of sports magazines in one of the desk drawers and was reading them by the light of a desk lamp which he'd put down on the floor next to him. Neal, meanwhile, had fallen asleep in his bundle of blankets, oozing slowly sideways until he was nestled against Peter.

"I know," Peter said quietly, seeing the look on El's face. "Don't wake him up. If you do, he'll start talking again."

El slipped off her shoes and padded over to sit down on Peter's other side. She looked as if she was struggling very hard not to laugh, but finally got control of herself. "I came to see if I can bring you anything -- canapes, a beer maybe?"

"There's beer?" Peter said, perking up. "Sure. That'd be good. And yeah, I could eat something. How's the party going?"

"It's going well. It doesn't look like the gallery is about to collapse under a flurry of lawsuits, anyway." She accepted his quick kiss. "I would say I'm sorry you two are having to spend it in a back room, except I imagine you'd actually rather be back here than out there."

"It's peaceful," Peter admitted.

"And yet you were willing to suffer through the opening just for me -- and for Neal." She touched his nose with a fingertip. "You're a soft touch, Peter Burke; you can't fool me."

"Shh," Peter said. "Word will get out."

"Your secret is safe with me. I'll bring something for you to eat, and for Neal when he wakes up."

She padded softly out of the room. Peter glanced down at the curly top of Neal's head. It really was peaceful. He didn't often end up with downtime in which he had absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to be. Granted, if he'd had the choice, he'd rather have spent it in front of a baseball game with Satchmo on his feet, rather than Neal making his arm fall asleep ...

"I hope you appreciate this," he told Neal quietly.

Neal made a sleepy little snuffling noise, and snuggled in closer.