"When I said you could stay anywhere you could find for the same price," Peter said, surveying June's rooftop terrace, "this isn't exactly what I had in mind."
"I'm not breaking any rules," Neal pointed out, leaning back with a cup of June's perfect Italian roast in hand. It felt good to put one over on Peter -- like he was finally doing his part to reestablish the proper boundaries of their con-artist/cop relationship.
"I know, I just ..." Peter trailed off, shaking his head, then looked sharply at Neal. "You didn't -- you know --" He tapped his temple.
"Influence her? Peter, I can't. You know that." Neal leaned his head forward and reached behind his own head to touch the device at the base of his skull. A cold quicksilver sensation skittered through him when his fingers came into contact with it, like tapping a fork to one's teeth. The med guys at the prison claimed that he was imagining things, that he couldn't possibly feel anything through the device. Of course, they never told him it'd give him a nonstop, low-grade headache and once-a-week migraines, either.
Peter still looked suspicious, which meant this was a good time to distract him. "Here," Neal said, shoving the carafe of coffee in Peter's direction. "Try some of this. I should get dressed."
"Yes, you should," Peter said. Neal decided to ignore him and went back into the apartment, resolving to take a nice long shower just for the hell of it. Peter had June's coffee to keep him company.
He'd been out of prison for two weeks now, and was starting to settle into a sort of routine at the White Collar office. He was getting to know his ... well, for lack of a better word, co-workers. And he was finally out of the series of local dumps in which Peter kept trying to install him for $700 a month.
He still had some trouble wrapping his head around the idea that June had let him into her house without his having used what he and Mozzie called "The Touch" on her. Mozzie claimed that Neal was naturally talented even without it. Neal always countered by pointing out that no one could possibly know that. Deep down, he strongly suspected that if he couldn't psychically influence people into being his friends, he'd have no friends at all.
But Mozzie was ... Mozzie. Mozzie was the only person Neal had ever told about himself who had believed him instantly and completely. In fact, when Neal had told him that the government was conducting secret mind-control experiments, the first words out of Mozzie's mouth had been, "I knew it!"
And Mozzie was also the only person he'd ever met, besides the handful of others like him from the lab, who wasn't afraid of him -- the only person who didn't look at him sideways, wondering if he was rummaging around inside their heads. And that included Kate. Once upon a time, Neal had thought Kate was different. He had believed Kate could accept him for who and what he was. But that wasn't how things had turned out ...
When he allowed himself to think about it -- on long sleepless nights, with nothing but the contents of his own head for company -- he had to admit that he bore his own share of blame for things going south with Kate. Because he just couldn't be around her without pushing on her. Not much. Just little tiny things. He did it to Mozzie too. He didn't mean to. It was so easy to just put a little pressure -- right here -- if they were having a bad day and he wanted to make them feel a little better. Or if he was losing an argument. Or to distract them from something he didn't want to talk about. Or to forestall awkward questions, or to encourage Kate into a venture that he knew would be best for both of them ...
And then she'd found out about it. And that hadn't ended well.
Mozzie, on the other hand, usually knew when he was doing it. Neal had no idea how; it was like a sixth sense. Maybe it was just that Mozzie was so deeply distrustful of any pleasant feeling at all that he suspected it originated from a source other than himself. In any case, he'd usually say, "Neal, stop it," and he'd be right.
Not a problem anymore, though. In the warm, humid bathroom, he touched the device at the base of his neck. It was covering up the old device -- series of devices, actually, that they'd implanted in his head from the time he was less than a year old, into his early teens, forming one complicated whole mess. They were unable to take that mess out, since it had fully integrated with his growing brain as a child. So they had put this thing over the top of it, hooking into all the little connections on the other one, turning it off. Or so they had told him, anyway.
He hadn't been given a choice about it.
There was one small part of him -- an interested, curious part -- that was enjoying the challenge of his new situation. He'd always loved novelty, loved being pushed to do better, and it had gotten a little boring doing the con-artist thing with psychic powers. But the novelty and challenge would only be fun if he could turn it off when he got tired of it, and also, if it didn't make him feel lousy a lot of the time.
He'd slept badly last night, which wasn't unusual, but he'd awakened with a hazy feeling that he suspected might herald an oncoming migraine. He didn't feel bad, though, just weird. And he wasn't sure how much malingering Peter was going to put up with, particularly since he knew he was pushing against the edges of Peter's patience with the June thing anyway.
Neal swiped a hand across the fogged bathroom mirror and turned his head to look at the silver glimmer at the base of his skull. Even more than the headaches, even more than the strange emptiness in his head where other people's thoughts used to be ... more than all of that, he loathed the visibility of the device. Wearing a hat made it less noticeable -- at least, people looked at the hat rather than at his neck -- and he'd been explaining it to anyone who asked as an assistive device for spine problems. But it still stood out. It made him feel ridiculous and self-conscious, which was just about the worst possible feeling for a con artist who'd spent his lifetime learning how to blend, chameleonic, into any setting.
A tapping on the bathroom door made him jump. He was still unused to people being able to sneak up on him. "Did you fall asleep in there?" Peter inquired through the door.
"Drink your coffee and exercise some patience," Neal said, toweling his hair. "You can sit in the van without moving for hours. Ten more minutes is not going to kill you."
"The van is work. Where we, I might remind you, are not."
Neal snorted. Ten minutes later, give or take a bit, he emerged onto the terrace in one of his crisp new suits from June's Byron collection.
"Did you steal that suit?" Peter said, although he sounded more amused than angry. Perhaps the excellent coffee had mellowed him -- Neal noticed that the chocolate croissants on the table had also been demolished.
"It came with the house."
"Of course it did."
Neal still couldn't figure Peter out. Just when he thought he had Peter down, that he'd managed to distill the essence of that twisty FBI brain into a simple equation, then Peter would do something to surprise him. Peter was wryly amused when Neal expected him to be angry, sympathetic when Neal expected condemnation, insightful when Neal was expecting a wall of willful FBI obtuseness -- and, just when Neal had decided that he could always count on Peter to be all of those things, then Peter would decide to be none of those things.
"You do realize," Peter said, as they trooped downstairs to the car, "that what you're doing here -- cashing in on freebies, living a high life you haven't done anything to earn -- is exactly the sort of thing that gets you locked up, right?"
Case in point. "She offered, Peter. I swear it was her idea all the way. I'm actually doing her a favor by being here."
"You are completely missing my point, and you're doing it on purpose."
"Is this about the coffee? Because I can ask June where she buys --" Neal broke off because he'd just stepped outside into the bright sun, and it went through his head like an icepick.
"You okay?" Peter asked, shifting gears with his usual disconcerting speed and peering at Neal's face.
"I'm fine," Neal said cheerfully, flipping his fedora onto his head and tilting forward to shade his eyes.
He really did think he could make it through the day. But as the morning wore on in the White Collar division, the fogginess in his head got worse, and then the pain started, which he'd really been hoping would hold off until he was out of the office and could crawl back to June's and expire in peace. As usual, the headache started from the place at the top of his spine that hadn't stopped aching since they'd put the device on him two months ago, then crawled across his skull to press agonizingly against the back of his right eyeball. His carefully constructed card-tower of self-control began to crumble, and then fell apart utterly when one of the probies brought in a tuna-fish sandwich for lunch.
To add insult to embarrassment, Agent Jones caught him throwing up in the men's room.
"You okay, Caffrey?" The concern seemed to be genuine, or at least made a passable appearance of it. So far, no one on Peter's team had shown any open resentment or dislike; Neal seemed to be getting along tolerably well with all of them, which of course had made him instantly suspicious that Peter had ordered them all to be nice to him for some reason.
"Headache," Neal managed, rinsing his mouth at the sink. His head felt as if it was about to explode.
"I don't know." Neal rested his forehead against the cool glass of the mirror and closed his eyes to shut out the stabbing light. "I suppose so. This started recently."
"My brother's had migraines since we were kids. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy." A hand settled on Neal's shoulder, making him flinch. "You want me to talk to Peter?"
"No!" Neal said quickly. "Just ... I feel better now."
He was lying through his teeth, and he was somehow unsurprised when, a few minutes later, he looked up from the blurred paperwork on his desk to find Peter standing over him, car keys dangling from one hand. There was nothing on Peter's face but honest sympathy, which, if anything, made Neal feel worse. He was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, still waiting for Peter's grouchy-nice-guy exterior to fall apart and reveal a soulless government bastard underneath. It hadn't happened yet, and the longer that it didn't, the easier it was to slip into thinking that what he saw of Peter was all there was ... the easier it became to like him, to trust him.
"Yeah, you're going home," Peter said, and Neal realized that he'd spaced out, staring in the general direction of Peter's tie.
Peter gave him little nudges to keep him pointed in the right direction, down to the parking garage and the Taurus. He was miserable enough that he didn't notice which direction they were driving until they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge.
"We're not going to June's?"
"No," Peter said. "El's working from home today, and I have to go back to work, so I figured it'd be better not to leave you alone."
The concern was simultaneously touching and annoying, all the more so because he could barely think, so he was having to work his way through this conversation one sentence at a time. "Peter, I've been dealing with these by myself ever since they put this thing on me. It's not like I'm going to have a seizure and die." Okay, he really wished he hadn't had that thought.
"I know you're not," Peter said. "And I know you can. El won't hover; if you want to be left alone -- and lord knows I don't want anyone hovering over me when I'm sick -- she'll leave you alone. It's just ... why be completely by yourself if you don't have to be?"
Neal didn't really have a good answer for that.
Peter wondered if it was just a headache or something worse, because Neal not only looked awful, but he'd been thoroughly off his game all morning. When Peter had picked him up from his desk, he'd been filling out a supply requisition form upside down. In French.
Neal slouched down in the passenger seat and covered his eyes with his hands. "Are you, uh -- okay?" Peter said after a moment, and hoped like hell that this wasn't the start of a psychic-damper-induced brain meltdown that was going to end with Neal going into cardiac arrest in his car.
"Light hurts," Neal said. His voice was a little mushy-sounding.
"I have sunglasses in the glovebox."
Neal shook his head and pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, fingers curling to dig into his skin. Sometimes he'd let go with one hand and slide it behind his head to touch the device, rubbing around the edges where it contacted the skin; Peter wasn't even sure if he was aware he was doing it.
Peter tried to divide his attention between the traffic and Neal, hoping he'd be able to gauge the difference between "minor medical problem" and "full-blown crisis, call 911 STAT." They didn't make a training manual for this. He'd driven most of the way home when Neal lurched upright and smacked his arm. "Pull over," he said thickly.
Peter hovered helplessly while Neal threw up into the gutter. When he seemed to be done, Peter gave him a hand back into the car. Neal was greenish-pale and limp. Peter had known all along that the telepathy-damper on Neal's neck gave him headaches, but this ... "Is it always this bad?"
"This?" Neal cracked an eye open, squinting at him. "This is a piece of cake compared to when they first put this thing on. They said I'd adjust."
"Do you have meds for it?"
"They tried me on a couple of things. Nothing ever worked, just a dark, quiet room, which is also hard to come by in prison." He swallowed, hunched against the passenger door and closed his eyes again. "Speaking of which ... how close are we?"
They were, as it turned out, only a few minutes away. Peter was prepared to offer assistance, but Neal stubbornly made it to the door under his own power.
El had only met him once so far, when Peter had brought him over for dinner the first night he'd been out of prison. But she took charge readily, shepherding Neal to the guest bedroom and closing the curtains before leaving him alone with a glass of water, some crackers and a bottle of aspirin.
"Does he have any medication?" El asked quietly once they were back downstairs.
"He said no. I think tomorrow I'm taking him to ..." Peter hesitated. Neal's psychic-damper device was mostly concealed by his hat and could pass for an unusual sort of prosthetic technology to laypeople. But not to a doctor. Peter had never stopped to think how he was going to explain Neal to medical personnel if he ever had a health problem. "I guess I'll talk to the doctors who originally did the surgery. Because, damn it, this isn't something he should have to deal with. Maybe they did it wrong. At least they should be able to give him something for it."
He'd planned to go back to work, but ended up dropping by briefly, picking up a box of files and heading home for the rest of the afternoon. There was no real point; Neal seemed to be sleeping, or at least quiet. El smiled at him, though, and the two of them settled on the couch to work on their individual tasks -- she was using her computer to place online orders for a reception that weekend, while he combed through old case files pertaining to their latest investigation.
Around five, Peter padded upstairs to see how Neal was doing. The room was dim and Neal was a dark lump on the bed, but when Peter tapped very lightly at the door, Neal said softly, "C'mon in."
Peter sat on the edge of the bed. Neal was stretched out on top of the covers, lying on his side with his tie off and his back to the door. The device on his neck glistened in the dim light, under the bottom fringe of his hair.
"Feeling any better?"
"Some," Neal said sleepily. "I might be able to eat something a little later." He rolled over and rubbed his eyes. "How's work?"
"Work is work." Peter was not about to admit that he'd spent the afternoon at home. "El is planning an invalid's menu even as we speak. I believe chicken soup was mentioned."
Neal groaned and threw his arm over his eyes. "I thought you said she wasn't going to hover."
"She's not hovering; do you see her hovering?"
"No, you're hovering instead."
Peter couldn't exactly deny it. Instead, before he could stop himself, he said, "You're really not used to this kind of thing, are you?"
"What kind of thing?" Neal asked, instantly wary.
People being nice to you, Peter thought, looking down at him. People taking care of you.
When he was sick as a kid, his mother would stay home from work so that she could bring him glasses of water and orange juice, and bowls of soup with toast cut into triangles. Now there was El; he and she had both taken their turns on sickroom duty for each other. And even though he generally felt awkward about it and he knew he wasn't the world's best patient, there had always been someone there -- his mother and father, or El, or an aunt or uncle or cousin; he could never remember a time when he wouldn't have had people to rely on, at the very least to drive him to the hospital or sit around to make sure he didn't have a fatal seizure ...
Not that Neal had been completely alone all his life, of course. He'd had Kate, and his odd little friend that Neal probably thought Peter didn't know about. And his quasi-siblings at the lab. But it still must have been a strange, lonely childhood.
"You're staring at me," Neal said. "That never ends well."
"I was just wondering ..." Peter began, and then bit it off, but the words were out.
Neal waited a moment and then said, "Since you've never had any problem asking me awkward questions, the fact that this is something you obviously don't want to talk about is making me nervous."
That made Peter laugh. "It isn't that. All I was going to say ... you didn't exactly have a normal childhood." And he balked, again -- he wasn't sure what he was trying to say, or perhaps, to ask. He didn't want to turn this into an interrogation, and that was how these conversations tended to go.
"What's normal?" Neal said. The words slid out of his mouth so quickly and easily that Peter knew it was a practiced response. "Normal is a social construct that's made up by TV ad executives to sell brand-new SUVs and lawnmowers and Coca-Cola. Nobody has a 'normal' childhood, Peter."
"But to answer the question you were really asking," Neal said, softer, "it wasn't bad. Our caretakers were nice to us. Most of them."
Nice was not the same thing as nurturing, not the same thing as parental. "Caretakers" implied a certain kind of relationship, and not an especially maternal one.
"You once told me that when you and the others escaped from that place -- you told me that the people who needed to be punished were punished." Neal was silent. Peter looked at him. "Are they dead?"
More silence; then, in the dim light, he saw Neal's head incline once in a small nod.
Peter closed his eyes briefly. "Did you do it?"
"No!" The answer was sudden and vehement. "No, Peter. I didn't." After a pause, Neal said, "It was Matthew. He'd always been ... he was the oldest of us, and he'd seen a lot more than we had, been through a lot more than any of us ..."
"Matthew ... that's Matthew Keller?"
"That's what he calls himself now. I haven't seen him in a long time." Neal huddled into the bed, and murmured, "We don't have a lot in common."
And in spite of himself, it had become an interrogation anyway. "You're not him," Peter said gently. From the reports he'd read, Keller was a fairly nasty piece of work, even now.
Neal murmured, almost too quietly to be heard, "I hope not. Sometimes I wonder."
Peter hesitated, then reached out and put an awkward hand on Neal's shoulder. He wasn't sure if it would be accepted or not, but Neal didn't shrug him off; in fact, he leaned into it. Peter could feel the tension in Neal's muscles, rock-hard at first, then slowly relaxing as Neal went limp, bit by bit, under his hand.
"Neal?" he whispered. There was no response. Neal had fallen asleep.
For a moment Peter looked down at him. Neal Caffrey, a mystery wrapped up in an enigma, a bundle of contradictions and hidden scars; a criminal; a badly wounded child; a man who'd saved his life.
Then he rose as quietly as possible, and went downstairs to see how El was coming with the chicken soup.
Neal wasn't aware of falling asleep, but when he woke, the soft light filtering through the curtains was the glow of streetlights rather than the afternoon sun. Sitting up, he saw by the bedside clock that it was after 10 p.m. He still felt dazed and out of it, like his head was wrapped in cotton, but nothing really hurt beyond the vague ache at the base of his skull that never quite went away. He hadn't been able to sleep like that since ... since they'd put this thing on his neck at the prison, perhaps.
And he was hungry.
He wandered downstairs quietly, unsure if the Burkes were still up. There was a pool of lamplight in the living room and the TV was on, tuned to a basketball game with the volume very low. Peter, reclining on the couch with an open file folder in his lap, looked up at Neal's soft tread on the stairs -- he almost seemed psychic himself, sometimes.
"Hey, sleeping beauty," Peter said with a quick tug of a grin. "El's in bed; she gets up early. Food's in the kitchen -- here, let me give you a hand --"
He started to swing his legs off the couch. "I've got it," Neal said quickly.
There was a covered pot of soup on the stove and a plate of rolls on the countertop under a dish towel: fresh-baked and crusty, still a bit warm. He microwaved the soup and ate on the patio, in a quiet enclave of darkness that made it hard to believe he was still in the city. Somewhere he heard a door slam; voices; a car pass on the street; but the darkness behind the Burke residence was lit only by a few strategically placed solar lights -- the cheap Wal-Mart ones on spikes that Neal had always considered impossibly tacky, but somehow, here, they fit, contributing to the air of suburban homeyness that clung to the Burkes' house like soft perfume.
"You find everything okay?" Peter asked, hovering in the doorway, a beer dangling from his fingers by the bottle's neck.
Neal nodded. "You guys have ..." and he hesitated, because what he was going to say -- a compliment to Peter's house, or his wife's cooking, or something along those lines -- was the sort of casual pleasantry that he'd have said to anyone he was trying to con. "You have a very well-organized kitchen," he said at last.
"It's a joint effort on the part of Team Burke," Peter said, sitting across from Neal at the patio table. "El and I are each insanely well-organized in certain areas and absolute slobs in others; luckily, we complement each other's weak areas."
"Who cleans the fridge?" Neal teased.
"That would be me. And you can blame Mama Burke for that. She impressed upon me that expiration dates are there for a reason and no leftover should be allowed to live past its prime." Peter raised his hand to his forehead, made a little flicking gesture. "You, uh --"
"Headache's mostly gone," Neal said. "I should be good to work tomorrow."
"That's good. Yeah. Good."
Silence. It was funny, Neal thought, how Peter was perfectly good at small talk in a work-related context, or if you could steer him onto a topic that he liked talking about. But then he had these walls that he'd run into, where he clearly felt like he should be saying something, but couldn't seem to figure out what, exactly.
And perhaps there was still some lingering awkwardness from their conversation this afternoon. Neal braced himself for more questions, but Peter didn't seem to be headed in that direction; maybe he'd gotten it out of his system, for the time being.
"I was going to offer to drive you home," Peter said, "but ..." He held up the beer, now mostly empty and probably, from the slight softness around his edges, not the first he'd had. "Wasn't sure if you were going to wake up before I went to bed ..."
"I can get a cab." Interesting to think that he had somewhere to go that wasn't a total dive. He'd sent Moz a message with the place's address; he wondered if he'd show up to find June and Moz sharing wine on the terrace. Based on his limited interaction with June so far, he thought they'd probably get along.
"Well, I'm about to turn in," Peter said. "Long day tomorrow and all that. And -- I hope you don't take this the wrong way -- but I don't think that we've reached the level of trust that is required to leave a felon and forger completely unattended in my living room, so ..."
Neal called a cab from his cell, while Peter, unasked, quietly cleaned up the dishes and then walked him to the front door.
"I want to take you to a doctor," Peter said, with a suddenness that let Neal know Peter had been rehearsing the conversation in his head, working up to it. "Not tomorrow, necessarily. I need to talk to Hughes -- no, Bancroft, and find out exactly how need-to-know your ... condition is. But soon. This isn't something you should have to deal with."
"Bancroft might say it's part of my sentence," Neal said, aiming for a joke, but the black humor fell leadenly between them.
"Then he's wrong," Peter said simply, then added, "You deserve jail time," as if he'd been hit with the sudden fear that he might be mistaken for a soft touch. "You broke the law. But this isn't -- It's not what I -- Damn it, Neal, I'd like to have you looked at by a different doctor, a specialist, maybe."
"There aren't any specialists in what I am."
"Diana," Peter said, snapping his fingers. "Have you met Diana? My top probie? Of course you have. Her girlfriend's a doctor -- not the right kind, exactly, but I bet she knows people. I'll talk to Bancroft and to Diana tomorrow."
The cab pulled up to the Burkes' curb, but Neal hesitated a moment longer. "Why are you doing this?" he asked, honestly curious.
"What do you mean, why?" From the look on Peter's face, he hadn't even asked himself that question. "Is this some kind of masochistic thing? Do you want to be incapacitated with headaches?"
"Well, no, of course not."
"There you go, then." Peter held the door for him. "See you tomorrow." He moved as if to pat Neal on the shoulder, then shifted to a possible hand-shaking position, and finally rested his hand on the doorframe.
"Later," Neal said.
From the cab, he looked back at the house. The lamplight in the Burkes' living room gleamed through the curtains. Something fast and sharp scissored through his chest. He'd wanted that with Kate, once: home and hearth, a dog and a white picket fence.
Moz always said Guys like us don't get that kind of happy ending.
And guys like me even less, Neal thought. He reached around to the back of his head, running his fingers over the bumps of metal and plastic, the tender spots where it connected with his skin.
"What is that, anyway?" the cab driver asked, and Neal looked up to see the man's curious face reflected in the rear-view mirror. "Some kind of brace?"
"Something like that," Neal said, and slouched in the backseat, trying to give off a heavy vibe that he wasn't in a talkative mood. Despite sleeping away most of the afternoon, he was still exhausted and achy, and now, out of sorts for reasons he couldn't quite put his finger on.
... Well, yes he could. The feeling was loneliness. He knew it well. And he didn't think it was leaving the Burkes', specifically -- it was just the reminder that what they had was something he'd never have. He might tangentially intersect the edges of their lives, but they belonged to another world than his own, one that he'd never be part of.
He tipped the driver well at June's, and slouched up the stairs in the dark. No sign of Moz. Probably just as well. He wouldn't have been good company. All he wanted to do was sleep some more and try to shake this hung-over feeling.
As he opened the door to June's apartment -- which he supposed he ought to start thinking of as his apartment -- his phone buzzed. He had no intention of answering, until he saw Peter's number on the caller ID. No point in ignoring him; Peter was more than persistent enough to keep trying until he got an answer.
"Miss me already?" Neal said flippantly as he toed off his shoes.
"Smartass." Peter's voice was a little slurred; he sounded half-asleep. "Too comfortable to get up and check your anklet tracking data. Just making sure you're where you belong."
Neal slumped on the edge of the bed -- it had been nicely fixed; apparently June's maid came into the apartment, something he'd have to keep in mind. "No, Peter, I'm not out hustling three-card Monte on a streetcorner. I'm at June's right now, and that's the only place I'll be all night. The anklet will back me up on this."
"As long as that's settled," Peter said. He yawned. "See you tomorrow."
Neal hung up, still on the verge of annoyance, until he looked down at the phone and the realization hit him: He just called to make sure you got home okay, dumbass.
He changed into his pajamas and tried to squash the warmth blossoming in his chest. It didn't work. As he relaxed into June's sumptuous bed -- the lap of luxury after weeks of thin prison mattresses and even thinner motel beds -- he found himself curling around that little core of warmth in the dark.