The stomach pains started during Neal’s meeting with O’Reilly. They were ignorable at first, but they worsened over the two hours Neal spent chatting with O’Reilly in code about his money laundering schemes. Even the worst of them weren’t anything Neal couldn’t work through, but since O’Reilly liked to sip whiskey during his meetings, it was pretty inconvenient.
Neal kept his sips small enough to avoid the second glass O’Reilly poured for himself. But at the end, when he still had liquid in his, O’Reilly gave him a pointed look, and Neal ended up swallowing the rest anyway. It burned all the way down and kept burning even in his stomach.
Outside, Neal shook O’Reilly’s hand and saw him into his Town Car. He watched as it pulled away from the curb and disappeared around the corner, then let his shoulders fall. He swallowed hard, finally giving into the urge to press a hand to his stomach. What a time to get food poisoning, he thought grimly. He hoped it would be short lived. This was only his third case with Peter and the team, and he knew the higher ups were watching them closely. If they thought Neal wasn’t being useful, they’d put him back in Sing Sing, and Peter had made it clear that he’d spent most of his political capital with the Bureau just getting Neal out to begin with. Neal could not afford to be out with food poisoning for three days in the middle of a case.
But try telling that to his stomach.
Peter and the others were in the van, parked a few blocks away, listening in through the bug Neal had dropped during the meet. Neal himself wasn’t wired, for which he was suddenly very grateful. He walked down the block until he hit a side alley. He ducked inside and finally let himself double over, heaving up the twenty-six year old Irish whiskey O’Reilly had served him. It’d burned going down and it burned even worse coming back up.
When he was done, he leaned against the wall of the alley, heedless for once of what he might be getting on Byron’s suit. He could feel cold sweat sliding down the back of his neck, and the pain was still there in his stomach, even if the nausea wasn’t as bad. He really didn’t feel ready to move, but he was conscious of Peter and the others waiting for him. If he didn’t show up in a reasonable amount of time, Peter was going to want to know why, and Neal didn’t want to have to explain he’d been puking in an alley.
Finally he managed to straighten up. He brushed away the dirt clinging to the side of his sleeve and tried not to hunch over as he left the alley and started walking toward the van.
The walk felt twice as long as it had before the meet. Neal was unusually glad to see the van come into view. He knocked twice on the back doors and they swung open to reveal Peter, Jones, and Diana. “Hey,” he said, holding back a wince as he climbed inside. “How’d we do?”
“Not bad,” Peter said, removing his head phones. “Good work. One or two more meetings like that, and I think we’ll have them. We couldn’t hear anything after you left the bar - did he say when he wanted to meet again?”
“Saturday,” Neal said. “But not here. He said he’d let me know the location.”
“Good,” Peter said, sounding satisfied. “O’Reilly’s a big fish, Hughes will be thrilled if we catch him.”
“And when Hughes is happy, everybody’s happy,” Diana added with a grin.
Neal hoped his smile didn’t look as forced as it felt. The smell in the van, which always reminded him of an old school cafeteria, was bringing the nausea back and then some. “Anything else for today?” he asked Peter.
Peter raised an eyebrow at him. “It’s two-thirty. You got somewhere you need to be?”
Neal shrugged. “No, but if you don’t need me, I thought I’d head home. Since it seems like I’ll be working on Saturday.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Work releases don’t come with comp time, Caffrey. But I guess I’d rather you go home, prep for the next meet. As long as that’s what you’re really doing.”
Neal put his hands up. “I’m going to straight to June’s. Check my anklet data if you want.”
“I will,” Peter said. “All right. See you tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” Neal said, and escaped.
Outside the van, he gulped fresh air for a minute or two, swallowing back the queasiness, and then pulled out his phone to text Mozzie.
Meet me at June’s, he sent, then shuffled down the block in search of a cab.
Moz wasn’t already at June’s, as Neal had half-expected, and he didn’t immediately answer Neal’s text. Neal was sort of glad for that, as it meant he had a few minutes to just be miserable in peace. He stripped out of Byron’s suit and put on his loosest pair of track pants and a tank top. Then he lay down on his bed and curled around his stomach, wondering what the hell he’d eaten. Maybe the milk in his latte had been bad.
By the time Moz showed up, Neal had given up lying in bed, and was lying on the bathroom floor instead. He was definitely running a fever, and cool tile felt good against his forehead, even if the rest of him would have preferred to lie on his mattress. He didn’t have anything left in him to throw up, but he kept dry heaving bile.
Moz didn’t bother knocking. “Neal?” Neal heard him call.
“In here,” Neal managed. He tried to sit up, knowing it’d alarm Moz to find him lying on the floor. And if Moz was alarmed, Neal might end up in the emergency room. If he ended up in the emergency room, Peter would find out, and if Peter found out, he wouldn’t be allowed to work, and if he wasn’t allowed to work, he’d end up going back to prison. He was not going back to prison just because he’d drunk a latte made with bad milk.
“What are you - whoa,” Moz froze in the doorway and immediately took a step back. “You look like death warmed over. What the hell happened?” He frowned. “Did someone at the FBI poison you?”
“What? No,” Neal said, scowling back at him. “I have food poisoning.”
Moz crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. I’m puking and running a fever. And my stomach hurts.”
Neal blinked. “What?”
“Where does it hurt?”
“Oh. Here, I guess.” Neal rested his hand on the right hand side of his stomach. “It came on at work today, I barely got out of my meeting with Mickey O’Reilly before I threw up everywhere.”
“And the Suit didn’t make you go to the doctor?” Mozzie harrumphed, even as he finally stepped inside the bathroom. “Callous, even for an FBI agent.”
Neal rolled his eyes. “I didn’t tell Peter. I don’t want him to know. I don’t get sick time, and if I blow this case because of food poisoning, they could send me back to prison.” Neal frowned as Mozzie knelt down on the tile next to him and made like he was going to touch Neal’s stomach. He flinched away from Mozzie’s hands. “Wait, what are you doing?”
“Testing something. Stop moving.” Moz pressed down, right over the pain, and let go. Neal yelped as the pain flared hot and sharp in his side. “Yeah, you don’t have food poisoning, mon frère. You have appendicitis.”
“No,” Neal said flatly.
“No.” Neal shook his head. “No, no, no. I can’t have appendicitis. And what the hell do you know about it? You’re not even a doctor.”
Mozzie eyed Neal over his glasses. “No, but I’m a professional paranoid and a seasoned hypochondriac, you think I don’t know appendicitis when I see it? Much as it pains me to say it, you need to tell the Suit and get yourself to the hospital.”
“No,” Neal said, shaking his head again. “I can’t, Moz. If I blow this case, they’ll put me back in prison, and I really, really don’t want to go back to prison.”
“Neal, even I know the Suit wouldn’t put you back in prison for appendicitis.”
“Peter won’t be the one making the decision,” Neal replied. “And I have no idea what the people above him would do. Moz, come on, you have to help me. I can’t have surgery now. I can’t.”
“Whoa, calm down,” Moz said, putting his hands on Neal’s shoulders. “Are you looking to agitate yourself right into a rupture?”
“Comforting, Moz, thanks.” Neal closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath. When he opened them again, he felt a little less like he was about to have a nervous breakdown. “There has to be another option, Moz. Come on.”
“Well,” Moz said, very reluctantly. “Appendicitis is an infection. You can’t really cure it, but I did hear something once about a friend of a friend who took antibiotics to control it for a while. Almost no one does it because it’s crazy, but it is possible.”
“That’s great,” Neal said, feeling hopeful for the first time since Moz had said the word ‘appendicitis.’ “That. Let’s do that.”
Moz sighed. “You’re going to have to have it out eventually no matter what.”
“Yeah, I know, just - just not today, all right?” Neal swallowed, feeling weak and nauseated again all of the sudden. “I still can’t go to the hospital. But do you know a guy? Please tell me you know a guy.”
“I know a guy,” Moz said, reluctantly. “He’ll come here. But it’ll cost you.”
“I don’t care,” Neal said. “I think I can get what we need from O’Reilly in our next meeting. As long as he keeps me upright through Saturday, I’ll pay whatever he wants. Just - take care of it, please.”
“Fine,” Moz said. “For the record, I think this is really stupid. If you just told the Suit -”
Moz heaved a sigh. “I think you could. But I’m not going to argue about it.”
He left. Neal let himself slump backward, propped upright only by the juncture between wall and bathtub. Moz might not think this was necessary, but Moz wasn’t the one who was going to end up wearing an orange jumpsuit if he was wrong. The truth was that Neal was about seventy percent sure that he’d be okay telling Peter, even if it meant blowing the case. But that thirty percent of doubt was enough to keep his mouth shut.
It was only for a couple of days. Neal had asked a lot more of his body in the past. It would be fine.
Moz was as good as his word. In under two hours, Neal had antibiotics, fluids, and painkillers, all courtesy of Moz’s “guy,” Steve. Steve had no last name, and he didn’t talk much as he put an IV in Neal’s arm, but Neal wasn’t paying him three grand to talk.
He felt a hell of a lot better afterward, even before the antibiotics had really had time to do their thing. Fluids and painkillers were amazing. Even though Neal could still feel that he was pretty ill beneath the drugs, he was comfortable enough to fall asleep, exhausted from being sick and stressed all afternoon.
He slept straight through to the next morning and woke feeling even better. He was a little dizzy and off balance, kind of woozy, which Steve had warned him were possible side effects of the heavy antibiotics he was on. But he wasn’t vomiting and his fever was down, even if it wasn’t completely gone. He’d be able to get through his Friday and hopefully they’d wrap up the O’Reilly case on Saturday afternoon.
At the office, Peter was wholly focused on catching O’Reilly. Neal sat through a meeting planning the undercover operation the next day and did his best to contribute usefully. The wooziness didn’t improve as the afternoon dragged on, and he definitely didn’t have his usual energy. Peter was distracted enough not to notice, but Neal saw both Diana and Jones giving him the side-eye at various points.
He did his best to pull himself together, but by five o’clock, he was ready to go home and sleep for twelve hours. So of course, that meant that Peter decided it was time for team bonding at a bar they’d been to a handful of times.
“I think I’m going to pass,” Neal said, when Peter announced that the first round was on him. “I’m kind of tired.”
Peter frowned. “You never pass on social time.”
“Well, I am today,” Neal said, irritably. He felt vaguely nauseated - another side effect of the antibiotics, Steve had said, and he hoped it was that, and not his appendix getting ready to rupture.
Peter crossed his arms over his chest. “First you want to go home early. Now you’re passing on team bonding night. What’s going on, Neal?”
“I’m not allowed to be tired?” Neal replied. He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. Clearly he was setting off the Peter Burke Bullshit Detector, which meant it was time for a dose of the truth. “Look, I think this undercover op has been taking it out of me more than I realized. I haven’t felt that great the last couple of days.”
Peter’s face softened. “I thought you weren’t quite yourself today. You don’t need to go to the doctor or anything, do you?”
“No,” Neal said, shaking his head. “I just need to get some good sleep tonight. Especially with the meet tomorrow. Hopefully I can close the deal.”
Peter nodded. “Okay. Let me know if you need anything, all right? I don’t want you to run yourself into the ground with this.”
Neal nodded. “Thanks. I will.”
He slept worse that night than he had the night before and woke up feeling tired and woozy and weird. It took him a long time to get out of bed and even longer to shower and dress. He had no appetite, but Steve had had dire warnings about what would happen if he took his antibiotics on an empty stomach, so he forced himself to eat a piece of toast and down a glass of water.
“You look like hell,” Peter greeted him when he arrived to check in at the van before going to the meet.
“Thanks,” Neal said dryly.
“No, I mean it, you’re pale and sweating.”
“I just walked here, that’s all. I’m fine, really. Bug?” Diana held it up, and Neal accepted it. “Thanks. See you all on the flipside.” He put his hat on and left before Peter had the chance to stop him.
Neal had pulled a lot of jobs in the past under less than ideal circumstances. He’d had a cold when he’d stolen the Antioch manuscripts, and he’d once sprained his ankle on a job and still gotten away clean with a Renoir. This was no different, he told himself as he forced a spring into his step. He’d get in there, get what Peter needed, and get out.
It seemed to go okay at first. He and O’Reilly did their usual dance, familiar now after several meetings like this. But then O’Reilly pulled out his bottle of Teeling Gold Reserve and Neal knew he was in trouble.
He’d forgotten about the whiskey. How could he have forgotten about the whiskey? He couldn’t possibly drink it; even if Steve hadn’t been very clear about the need to avoid alcohol, Neal knew it wouldn’t stay down. But not drinking it was not an option if he wanted O’Reilly to trust him. And O’Reilly had to trust him, because he had to close this deal today.
O’Reilly was talking, Neal realized, and he had no idea what he’d been saying. Damn, this was bad. This was really bad. And now O’Reilly was standing up, and Neal wished he had any idea at all what was going on.
Which was when he heard the most welcome words in the world: “FBI! Drop your weapons!”
Neal managed to stay out of the way during the arrests by stumbling off toward O’Reilly’s study, which just happened to have a leather sofa. Neal sat down and closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes again, he was lying down. It seemed like a lot of effort to sit up.
“Neal?” Peter said, coming around the corner. “Neal, are you - Neal!” He crossed the room in three long strides. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m okay,” Neal said, blinking up at him. He knew he should sit up, but the wooziness was suddenly much worse.
“I really don’t think you are,” Peter said. He picked Neal’s wrist up in his hand, held it between two fingers, and frowned. “You’re lying on O’Reilly’s sofa, and you were a mess in the meeting.”
Neal blinked. “I was? I thought we got him.”
Peter grimaced. “We did, but that was all down to the groundwork you laid last week. You barely said anything, and I could tell it was about to go south. That’s why we busted in.”
“Oh,” Neal said dully. “Sorry.”
Peter shook his head. “Your pulse is racing. I think we should get you to the hospital, something’s clearly wrong. You don’t think - did you drink any of the whiskey? Do you think you could have been poisoned?” He didn’t wait for Neal to reply, before raising his walkie talkie to his lips. “Diana! I need an ambulance!”
Got it, boss! Diana replied.
Neal swallowed. “I had a sip of the whiskey, but I was feeling bad before that. I, uh. I should probably tell you. I have appendicitis.”
“Yeah, I got . . . Thursday? Yeah, Thursday.” It seemed so long ago now. “My stomach started hurting, that’s why I asked to go home.”
“You’ve been walking around with appendicitis since Thursday?” Peter said, eyes wide and face very white.
“No,” Neal said, defensively. “Well - yeah. But I got antibiotics. I’m okay.”
Peter stared at him. “Neal, you are, on many levels, profoundly not okay. Where the hell did you get antibiotics? And what possessed you to do that? It’s appendicitis, not strep throat!”
Neal waved a hand, listlessly. “But it controls it. For a while. Long enough to get O’Reilly.” He swallowed. “It works. Most people just don’t do it.”
“Because most people aren’t crazy,” Peter retorted, unknowingly echoing Mozzie. “Neal, what were you - no.” Peter stopped himself and took a steadying breath, visibly pulling himself together. Neal watched him, a little fascinated despite himself. “Never mind. We’ll talk later. Right now, we’re going to get you to the hospital, and we’re going to hope that whatever you’ve done to yourself doesn’t delay them taking your appendix out.”
“I -” Neal started, prepared to defend himself. But the look on Peter’s face stopped him cold. He’d thought he’d seen Peter angry before, but he suddenly realized he hadn’t. He’d seen Peter annoyed and exasperated, but never really, really mad. Until now.
Peter didn’t say much to him after that. The ambulance arrived, and Neal heard him tell the EMT’s that he’d had what was probably appendicitis for about forty-eight hours, and he’d taken some form of antibiotics to control it, he didn’t know what kind. Neal didn’t know what kind either, and he couldn’t very well text Mozzie to ask.
At the hospital, Neal was whisked into the back, and within half an hour or so the doctors confirmed that Moz had been right. Neal expected someone, at some point, to berate him for his poor life choices, but they seemed a lot more interested in getting him into surgery.
He saw Peter briefly then, right before they took him back. “Hey,” he said, feeling kind of drowsy on something they’d given him - just to relax, the nurse had told him.
“Hey,” Peter said, then fell silent. He looked kind of weird, Neal thought. Like his face couldn’t decide on an emotion. One second he was mad, then he was sad, then he was kind of fond. It wouldn’t settle.
It was hard to put all of that into words. “You look weird,” Neal finally said.
Peter snorted. “You look like hell. Caffrey -” Peter stopped and sighed. “Never mind. You and I are going to have a serious conversation very soon, but it isn’t going to be tonight or even tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Neal said. ‘A serious conversation’ didn’t sound great, but he was too medicated to care.
“You’re going to be in the hospital for a couple of days after this,” Peter said. “And you’re going to need someone to look after you for a week or so after that.”
Neal shrugged. “June has staff. And -” Just in time Neal realized Peter didn’t know about Moz. “And people will be around.”
“Yeah, no,” Peter said, shaking his head. “After all this, I’m not letting you out of my sight. You’re coming to stay at the house so El and I can look after you. No argument,” he added sternly, when Neal opened his mouth to protest. “Consider this repayment for the gray hairs you gave me today.”
Neal frowned. “Something’s wrong with that math.”
Peter patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t think about it too hard.” He looked up as two orderlies entered the room. “I think this is your ride. Good luck, okay? I’ll see you when you get out.”
“Thanks, Peter,” Neal said, touched despite himself. Peter didn’t have to be there, he thought. Peter probably had other places he wanted and needed to be. And Peter didn’t have to invite him - well, all right, drag him - home with him, either. He could have let Neal get by with help from June and June’s staff and Mozzie.
Peter was a good guy, Neal thought. Maybe he shouldn’t have doubted that.
“Mr. Caffrey?” someone said. Neal blinked and realized that he was in an operating room. The lights overhead were very bright. “We’re giving you the anesthesia. Count backward for me from ten, please.”
“Ten,” Neal said obediently. “Nine . . . eight . . . seven . . .”
Recovering from an appendectomy sucked. Not as much a having appendicitis had sucked, but it was still in Neal’s bottom ten life experiences. The only redeeming aspect of it was that he basically got to live off green Jell-O for three days, and one of Neal’s shameful secrets was that he loved green Jell-O. It reminded him of summer in St. Louis, when Ellen would make it for him.
Neal didn’t tell Elizabeth that he liked green Jell-O, but she figured it out anyway. She kept coaxing him to eat other things after he got out of the hospital and went to stay with her and Peter, but somehow a little bowl of green Jell-O was always on his tray. Neal didn’t say anything about it, and neither did El. It had been a long time since anyone had treated him with such unreserved kindness as Elizabeth Burke. He tried to enjoy being pampered.
He might’ve been more successful if he hadn’t kept waiting for the other shoe to drop - for Peter to initiate the ‘serious conversation’ he’d promised Neal they were going to have. But Peter didn’t say anything. He worked from home Tuesday and Wednesday so that he could fetch and carry for Neal, who wasn’t supposed to move around much. Neal spent most of the day staring blankly at reruns of mid-nineties sitcoms and wondering when Peter was going to yell at him.
He thought he should be worried, but the Vicodin made caring pretty hard.
On Wednesday night, after Neal had picked at a bowl of El’s homemade chicken soup and eaten most of his Jell-O, Peter helped him up the stairs to bed. “How’re you feeling?” Peter asked, as he turned down the covers while Neal changed into fresh pajamas. He sort of wanted a shower; he’d been running a low-grade fever all afternoon, and he could feel that he was covered in a fine layer of dried sweat. But showers were something of an ordeal at the moment, and Peter had just helped him with one that morning.
“Okay,” Neal said, sliding between the sheets gratefully. “Think I’m still running a fever.”
“Hmm,” Peter said, and pressed the back of his hand to Neal’s forehead. He picked the thermometer out of the accumulation of bedside detritus on the nightstand. “Open.”
Neal opened his mouth obediently, and Peter slid the thermometer in. He sat on the edge of the bed and they both waited until it beeped. “100.3,” Peter reported. “No ER.”
“Good,” Neal said. He closed his eyes and waited, but Peter didn’t wish him good night and leave, as he had Monday and Tuesday nights. Instead, he sat on the edge of the bed until Neal opened his eyes again. “Everything okay?”
Peter sighed. “Neal, I need to know why you felt you couldn’t tell me you were sick.”
Neal shrugged. “I didn’t want to end up back in prison.”
Peter’s face went pale and stricken. “Neal - my God, what made you think I would ever put you back in prison for being sick?”
“Maybe not you,” Neal said hastily. “But the people above you - Hughes or Hughes’s boss, I don’t even know. You keep saying that if we blow a case, you can’t protect me.”
“Neal,” Peter said, still sounding stricken. He stopped and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
Neal blinked. “What for?”
“For making you think you were that much at risk of going back inside,” Peter said. He rubbed a hand over his face. “Look. We need a good record for the Bureau to continue thinking you’re worth the flight risk. And if you pull something stupid and blow a case, I can’t protect you. But for something like this, something totally out of your control - Neal, no one would put you back inside for that.”
“Are you sure?” Neal asked, hating how small his voice was. “Peter, are you sure? Because they could. The Bureau can end my deal at any time. Hughes would’ve been pissed to lose O’Reilly, you know that.”
“He would’ve been pissed,” Peter allowed, “but I think honestly think he’d be more pissed if he found out you thought so little of him. Has he ever given you any reason to think he’s that kind of man?”
“I don’t know him,” Neal said. “And he has a lot of power over me. I couldn’t risk it.”
Peter was silent for a long time. Neal was sorry to have upset him, but he wasn’t sure he’d have done anything differently. Maybe he had misjudged Hughes and the Bureau, but maybe Peter was the one who was mistaken. There was no way to know for sure, and Neal wasn’t eager to test the system.
Finally, Peter drew a deep breath. To Neal’s shock, he took one of Neal’s hands in both of his, pressed it against his chest, and squeezed. “Neal. I swear to you, on my badge. No one will ever put you back in prison because you’re sick. Even if it means you can’t perform your job for a few weeks.”
Neal’s throat was suddenly tight. It was only his hand caught between both of Peter’s, but Peter’s eyes were so intent on his, it felt as though Peter were holding the rest of him, too. For the first time, he believed him. He nodded, swallowing against the tightness.
“Do you believe me?” Peter asked.
“Yeah,” Neal said, knowing his voice was shaking. “Yeah, I do, Peter.”
“Good,” Peter said, and laid Neal’s hand down on his chest. “Good.” He was quiet for a moment, and then he sighed. “You need anything? Water?”
“Water would be good.”
Peter left. Neal took a deep, trembling breath, but he managed to pull himself together - more or less - by the time Peter returned. Peter gave him the glass of water and went to turn off the light. “Wait,” Neal said, catching Peter’s wrist in his own. “Wait. Peter, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have thought what I did. I just - I didn’t know for sure.”
Peter’s wrist twisted and he was suddenly holding Neal’s hand in his. “I know,” he said. “It’s okay. But next time, trust me to have your back, all right? I won’t risk your freedom for something like this. So please, don’t risk your health for it, either.”
Neal nodded. “Deal.”
“Deal,” Peter said. He squeezed Neal’s hand again, just once, and dropped it. “Get some sleep, all right? Good night.”
“Good night,” Neal said. Peter turned the light out and left, leaving the door cracked slightly.
Neal lay awake in the dark, overwhelmed by everything. That Peter was a good man, he’d known - not the sort of man Neal thought he’d ever be, but a good one. But he hadn’t fully trusted him ever. They were, in the end, the fox and the hound, and Neal wasn’t sure how far Peter would bend for him. But Peter had sworn on his badge, and Neal believed him.
Neal’s phone buzzed on the bedside table. The mockingbird sings at midnight, Mozzie had written, code for: Do you need a rescue? Moz had been a lot less pleased than Neal about Peter making him go to Brooklyn for his recovery.
The mockingbird’s fine, Neal wrote back, smiling to himself, and turned his phone off before going to sleep.