Neal Caffrey has a gun in his hand and all his bridges are burning.
Nine seconds ago, that was fine. Didn't matter. He'd made it to the other shore, found Fowler, saw the look in his eyes when Fowler saw who had come for him (and ev'ry death its own avenger breeds, Pope, Kate loved the classics), and then Fowler had said, voice cracking, "It cost me everything!"
He'd said, "My wife is gone."
Neal has a gun in his hand and there's a pounding at the door.
There's a moment when the gun gets heavy, falls almost of its own accord to Neal's side, but it can't last; the shore without Fowler, without Fowler dead, is just more burning-bridge river, and he can't–
Everything certain in his life has pulled him to this moment like a guy-wire, and if that frays, if it fails, everything falls.
(What if justice isn't good enough?)
The gun comes up again.
There's time now, just a sliver of it, but that time is running out. Peter's on the trail – got here before Neal did – but Peter plays by the rules, and Neal's never met a rule he hasn't known how and when to break. Fowler's blocked Peter's way in, and now he's trapped himself with Neal.
Fair, isn't it?
There's fear in Fowler's eyes and that's right, this is right, but it's all already fraying. Neal has a gun pointed at Fowler's head and his hand is shaking; his heart is going fast with nerves he hasn't felt for too long, except this isn't excitement. Feels like terror.
He's lowered the gun once, but he can't do it again.
He steps forward, out of words and intending to shoot, and the door heaves open and Peter is there, gun up and ready, Diana fanning from his side with her gun out too, and he can feel them trained on him like the heat of the bomb blast. His hand is shaking and Fowler's lost someone (gone), and Peter's voice is rough with thoroughbred fear as if Neal is the one in danger: "Neal, put the gun down!"
"You know he killed Kate," Neal says, though knowing feels as far away as Kate is.
"I didn't," Fowler says, as Peter says "Don't do this," and another fiber frays from the edge of Neal's mind. He did. He has to have.
Fowler is the one at gunpoint, so it must be him. The bomb was his. His alias on the Semtex receipt. And now Neal's played his hand, he's been made, the gun is aimed, and Fowler is here, caught up against a wall. Neal knows how this is – instant he lowers his weapon, it's over. FBI endgame.
He can't. Right now, right here, something can still happen.
Peter knows it. It's why he's holding back. Can't move.
"What do you know?" Neal asks.
Fowler can't answer that. Neal can feel the trigger, filling too much of his mind while the rest is smoke and white noise. He's pulled it once already; the line between firing and not firing is thread-thin, friable, ready to snap at the barest pressure. Just a little pressure to snap the thread and bring the entire situation crashing down. Done.
But Fowler would be dead. Know how it felt. He'd know.
"Tell me what you know!"
Fowler drops the act. (It must be an act: he's discarded all his other options. Neal has no other options.) "You want to kill me, Neal? Go ahead and pull the trigger."
And, like an interruption, softly: "Jesus, Fowler, you're not helping this."
Neal'd almost lost that Peter was there.
"Neal," Peter says. "Do not do this."
"I know he killed her," Neal says, like if he says it enough, it'll come through the noise in his head, the racing of his blood, he can put the certainties back together again. All the King's horses. "He killed Kate."
"Listen to me," Peter says. "If you pull that trigger, you will regret it for the rest of your life, Neal." The words buzz. There's meaning there, but he can't grasp it. "You're not a killer."
"I want him to know how it felt," Neal says, but he can't hear his own voice. "How she felt."
Peter says, "Look at me."
Fowler has lowered his gaze. Like he's waiting for the bullet. Knows what's coming.
Peter says, "Look at me, Neal."
There's a pressure rising up his spine and his throat. Neal closes his hand on the gun. It's the only thing that feels solid.
Can't focus. Not on (My wife is gone–) Fowler, not the name which keeps floating through the murk like smoke (Neal–) in a crowded room, or some familiar scent, caught once and disappearing, pulling the mind to something forgotten. Cheap wine in an old, fancy bottle. Tarmac and smoke and fear.
"Look at me, Neal," (pulling him away from the heat and the fire). "Come on."
He'd tossed the pistol alongside the metal detectors: fancy sleight of hand, parabolic arc, trusting reflex and gravity. Sometimes gravity is what's left and it feels like gravity now, pulling at his attention from the corner of his ear. He can't look; can't not look (Look at me), and then he's lost, the game is up, there's one way out (and pull the trigger), and he's turning.
Something comes at him (Fowler!) quick, from the side, and his arm's pushed aside, down and aside, and someone's grappling him ("Fowler!", Peter yells; Neal tries to get his shoulder up, throw him), and the pistol goes off in his hand.
Except it isn't pointed at Fowler any more. Fowler isn't the one who catches the bullet.
Everything blossoms – blood on a gray blazer, Peter's name from Neal's throat, one hard shot from an FBI-issue Glock biting past his shoulder and Neal can feel Fowler crying out, falling back and taking him down with him. For a moment Neal doesn't know he hasn't been shot.
Diana is over them, moving fast, and there's the glint of cuffs (where did she hide cuffs?) and saying "Neal," (her voice is sharper, like another bullet, or the bullet-heated barrel of a gun) "call 911."
A second later she's kicking the pistol away from his hands. Neal's eyes have gone to the blood on Peter's suit and stayed there, oddly at eye level, with both of them down on the ground. It's bubbling through Peter's closed fingers. At the edge of his mind, at the edge of his vision, he registers that Peter's eyes are stuck there, too, and then they jump to him.
"Neal!" Diana says, and steps over him, and then Neal's view is obstructed by the golds and umbers of her top as she kneels over Peter. Peter makes a choking noise – too loud, in Neal's ears; the noise is gone, replaced by the noise of the room, labored breathing, blurred smalltalk downstairs – and Diana is doing something to Peter's abdomen, saying "I've got it, boss," in that tone that says Oh, that's bad, but hell if I'm going to say so. A second later she's turned around and is dragging Neal forward by the arm, all but dumping him at Peter's side, taking his hand, and saying "Keep three points of pressure here" as she pushes his fingers into her driver's license, which is held against the bare, bloody skin of Peter's lower chest. There's something floating in the back of his head, and he can't tell if it's about occlusive dressings or fake IDs, and he realizes that the little choking-swallowing noises Peter is making are probably him drowning in his own blood.
He almost chokes, himself. "Peter, I–"
Above them, Diana is on the phone with a dispatcher, filling them in ("I think it punctured a lung,") in clipped, no-nonsense tones. She crouches, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Neal, and her fingers go to the pulse on Peter's neck. His chin and throat are speckled with blood, and there are bubbles of it in the space between his lips.
"No," Neal says, and it keeps spluttering out of his mouth like the froth of air from beneath the license he's holding down. "No. No, no no no no. No."
He thinks he's still staring at the blood, but somewhere in there his eyes have snapped up to Peter's, and Peter is looking at him with an expression Neal can't interpret. Can't. He's a good cold-reader, but his brain can't or won't parse this. Won't parse–
Deep breaths. It comes to him, like a sudden splinter, that he's broken character – let the mask slip; let everyone see (gun in his hand) past. It's too late to salvage the situation, but the deep-seated need to doesn't listen to that; keeps telling him it'll be all right, he'll be all right, just needs to pat down his hair and smile and he can talk his way out of this, he'll see.
Instead he keeps his fingers pressed against the license as Peter's breath is shredded in his throat and Peter's eyes are locked on him. Quickly, almost spasmodically, Peter reaches out and grabs Neal's shoulder, grasping for purchase but latching on so hard when he finds it that Neal has to grit his teeth. A moment later his hand slips and falls to the floor again, curling into a fist.
"Hang on," Neal says, a tumbler clicking into place in his mind and giving him something, at least. "Help's on its way; it's – Peter," because now Peter's gaze has slipped onto the ceiling, onto nothing, almost like he's rolling his eyes or like the control he used to look anywhere has slipped out of his fingers like the blood is slicking out and around Neal's. Neal can feel his own hand shaking, his own heart racing, but forces his voice calm and steady as it should be, ignoring the disconnect between what he feels and how he sounds because it's never been important before. "Peter, stay with me. Stay with me."
He keeps talking until other, gloved fingers disengage his own.
He looks up and the room is a restrained chaos in navy blue – police swarming the entrance, covering Fowler, EMTs pressing Neal gently but firmly away from Peter so they have access to see the damage that he's done.
Neal can hear sirens outside, now that he listens for them. The room looks different; the entire palette has been changed, and despite the late-evening sun spilling in, it seems cloudy and dark, here.
There's a touch on his shoulder, and he glances to the side and catches, out of his peripheral vision, Diana crouching down, trying not to startle him. He doesn't move when she pulls his arms behind his back and settles the cuffs onto his wrists. He stands when she takes his elbow and pulls him up.
"There will be agents on their way to keep an eye on him. As soon as he's releasable, I want him escorted to the Bureau," Diana says, and for a second Neal thinks Peter, but the way Diana's got him, he can see Fowler with a dressing on his shoulder, head hung low. He must not have meant to shoot Peter either.
Maybe he just knows he's lost.
Neal swallows. It doesn't go down, and tastes of adrenaline and iron.
For some reason, the FBI seems to cuff him more often now that he's working for them. It's a certain kind of trouble when they're Peter's cuffs, though. Neal does remember Peter cuffing him to a chair in a clinic's conference room, keeping him hidden, secure; he can also remember that first interaction with Fowler; how quick Peter was to think the worst of him, how quickly he was framed. Then one minute's argument, and Peter went to clear his name.
This is far downhill from there.
Diana takes his arm and leads him down through the party's remnants – abruptly cancelled, it looks like; there's another perfectly good evening they've ruined – and to the car, where she guides him in, hand on his crown.
Jones and Hughes are at the office when Diana walks Neal in, and Neal is shaking, though he's pretty sure it's not visible. Hughes looks livid in the same way the firebombing of Dresden must have, and Diana hands Neal off to Jones and goes to speak with Hughes personally.
That's it. Bridges burnt. It's not like he didn't see this coming.
Jones sits him down in a chair in the corner of the bullpen, hands still cuffed behind him. Neal can think of three things at least, in reach, that would let him pick the cuffs – knows that without thinking of it, there and ready at the edge of his mind – but Jones has a look on his face like he's chewing tacks and rubber bands, and the part of Neal's brain that's weighing his options writes Jones off as anyone willing to tolerate a little misbehavior.
Now that he's got his breathing down, he's left with only his own thoughts for company, and those thoughts are neatly divided: there's a dense, dark core that's all horror and aching guilt, but above that, like a gesso, there's the space where he can sketch out the angles. There's nothing he can do with the guilt. Contrition isn't a skill he ever learned, because contrition has never been essential to his success or his survival.
He is what he is.
So, yeah; he might give everything he has for a chance to go back and change things, but that's never an option, and he knows that. So here he is, cuffed in a chair, and he can't tell his mind not to test the cuffs and look for the exits. It'd be easier to stop breathing.
In the back of his mind, he can hear Mozzie telling him You work the situation. Well. I work the situation. For you, it's probably more like 'charm the situation'.
He risks a quick glance up. Jones doesn't look like he's about to be charmed.
Back to plan nothing, then.
He sits there and retraces his steps, trying to see what he's left himself with, but it isn't much. Another agent comes in and disappears into Hughes' office, and not long after, Hughes and Diana emerge, Diana looking about as exhausted as Neal's ever seen her look. She's got his anklet in hand, and kneels down to clip it on him without a word.
Hughes still looks like he's going to file for some Old Testament justice. Sign for it personally.
"Berrigan's going to take you home," he says, nodding at Diana, each word a masterpiece in restrained, encoded anger. "But I am curtailing your radius. You are not to leave that house until we come to a decision on what to do with you, and I will have a team of agents sitting on you to make sure you comply. Give me any reason – any single small reason – and I will see you sent back to prison personally, without waiting on whatever Agent Burke will have to say. And I will personally instruct the prison to throw away the key. Do you understand me?"
He's talking about Peter in future tense, and that's good, though Neal doesn't know to what extent that reflects reality. Could be that Hughes is just more sentimental than he gives the man credit for. Doesn't want to admit a possibility.
Neal doesn't parse that as something to be responded to until Hughes steps in front of him, hands on his hips, and stares down at him.
"Do. You. Understand. Me?"
Neal puts enough on the gesso to answer, "Yes, sir."
Home doesn't feel like home right now, but it's what he's got. With the anklet on and his radius curtailed, it's all he's got, and it's probably just a temporary stop before prison. Peter knew this would get him in trouble.
Neal's shoulders ache, and he moves automatically to the wine on the counter before he realizes he has flecks of Peter's blood on his fingertips, on and under his nails. He's already next to the kitchenette sink, but feels a sudden panic that he won't be able to wash the blood off – not that it'll stick to his skin, indelible, but that he physically won't be able to turn on the water, put his hands under the faucet, and scrub. His forearms are frozen.
He's caught, and his mind flickers back to the antique shop, that moment where he almost walked away from the pistol. When he could have. Would have been hard to tell him that, though; it's amazing how it feels to have no control at all, and amazing how much control you feel with a gun in your hand and a single person to pin your troubles on. There's enough control there to let you not care that there's no way out from it. What's more powerful than a bullet?
It's (you know I don't like guns) a hell of a drug.
Peter could have told him that.
Not that Neal would have listened – that hypothesis has been tested – but Peter's good, whether it's an FBI thing or a Peter thing, at finding a truth and hammering home a point. He's honest. That's the problem; Neal's not got a lot of experience with honesty.
Most of the people in Neal's life are smoke and mirrors, chiaroscuro, and that's fine – that's the life. It's the way the business has to be. But Peter is like an underlying grid, his motives frustratingly straightforward, which is what Neal can't understand about him. He can predict Peter, yeah; play him, lead him, but when it comes to understanding him Neal just can't work out what the underlying game is, or whether it's possible that Peter gets by without an underlying game at all.
(You do what's right. Let the pieces fall where they fall.)
That philosophy hasn't worked well for him today. Neal's influence, no doubt.
He reaches out and turns on the faucet.
Sloppy work. The whole of it. Most of his jobs don't end up with him washing blood off his hands, or being made by the FBI, or leaving a party full of witnesses to a break-and-enter, or leaving his fingerprints on the trigger of a stolen gun.
And now his mind is replaying every instance where he left his fingerprints – literal or metaphorical – on anything over the course of the evening, and it won't shut off, even when it gets to Diana's driver's license keeping the air out of Peter's wound.
It occurs to him, with habitual disconnection, that he doesn't remember Diana taking the bloodsmeared thing back when the EMTs took over. That would be... something, if she had driven back to the Bureau without a license.
It would be... something. Not funny. Not today.
It takes him a while and seven trashed drawings – three charcoal, one graphite, two oil pastel, and one ink – before he attempts sleep, and when he does, he doesn't get much of it. Gets to watch the dawn break over the Manhattan skyline, though, which he supposes is something.
Mozzie usually texts him, first thing in the morning, with the day's phone number and a predetermined passphrase so Neal knows it's him. When 7:30 sails past and there's nothing, Neal knows something is wrong. Mozzie knows these feds well enough that he's not going to be scared off by a couple of them staking out June's building, and when Neal's tries all the previous contact protocols (Mozzie may grump, but if he hasn't completely burned the lines, he'll answer anyway) and still receives no answer, he does the only other thing he can think of: he calls Diana.
It rings long enough for him to start worrying she's not going to pick up, and then she answers, with a tone like she's pre-emptively not amused by anything he has to say. "Caffrey, what is it."
"Diana, I..." he stalls. He doesn't do well when he doesn't have something someone wants, and he knows exactly how far his reputation will get him with the FBI today: no farther than jail. "I need a favor."
"A favor?" Diana sounds exactly as incredulous as Neal expected her to. "Neal, you're not exactly in good standing here."
"I know." He swallows. "Believe me, I wouldn't risk giving Hughes a reason if it wasn't important." He hesitates. "Please."
There's silence on the other end – well, background noise, Diana's implied growling, the usual static of the connection. Neal is reaching for something else to negotiate with when Diana says "What favor." He can tell she's angry with him – if that's not putting it too mildly – by the way half of her questions sound like declarations. Or like sentences, in the courtroom sense of the word.
"I need to find Mozzie," he says. "He was supposed to contact me about something, and he didn't." He stops to wonder whether Diana will understand the significance of that. "It's not like him."
Diana sounds skeptical. "Why do you need to find him?"
Then Neal realizes that if Diana doesn't think he needs Mozzie for a non-FBI-approved side project, she probably thinks he needs him for a jailbreak.
"He was working on the code from the music box," he blurts.
Diana's next words transmit like a shock through the phone. "With the proprietor of the antique shop where you got your gun?"
"How did you–" Neal starts, but part of him already knows the answer, and the rest of him is afraid to. The background noise spikes, changes, and he knows without seeing that Diana has mobilized.
"The owner was found dead yesterday."
There's no more air in the room.
"We'll find him," Diana says. "Do you know where he might be?"
"No." (No.) "He was going to meet me here if he found anything, but I–" Had a side job to run at the Russian Heritage Museum.
"Right." Diana must be raring to go; the phone is a tether holding her back. "Caffrey, I'll call you if we find anything."
"Diana," he breathes, and Diana hangs up.
If we find anything. No promises. Just a sense of impending disaster like a forecasted hurricane, and he's curtailed here.
There's a shuddery, unsound feeling behind his ribs and he starts pacing, wearing a hole in the floor until Bugsy comes up and whines for attention at his door, and he lets the pug in and stands at the doors to the balcony and stares out at the skyline and doesn't scream, or break anything, because that wouldn't help, much as he might want it to.
He's lost all track of time, though his phone tells him it's barely been an hour, when Diana calls and he answers so fast it makes his head spin. "Neal," she says, and his stomach clenches up. She's been calling him Caffrey since the museum.
"Someone matching Mozzie's description was admitted to NewYork-Presbyterian yesterday evening with a single gunshot wound," Diana says, and the world drops out from underneath him. Feels like he's not seeing in colors, any more, just an oil-pastel smear of black across his vision. "He was released from surgery late last night. Jones went to identify him as soon as we found out."
"It's him." Diana wouldn't have called, otherwise. "Is he okay? Is he going to make it?"
"He's still in critical condition," Diana says. "We have an agent just inside his door."
In case whoever shot him once comes back to finish the job.
Mozzie is going to have a fit when he wakes up – if he wakes up (can't think about that) – but Neal is desperately glad that the FBI finds Mozzie useful, for now. Him and whatever information on the code is locked away in his strange, savant head. There can be advantages to having the FBI on your side.
Though it sure didn't help him earlier.
He hangs up.
He's never going to argue that June's guest room is a prison, but right now it feels like bars on the windows and concrete floors. It took him a month and a half to escape the prison Peter put him in; he wonders what he can do from this place in the next minute or two.
If the feds are sitting on the entrances, then there must be another way of getting out of here. There's always another way. The ankle tracker would be a problem, but he's a problem-solver, right? That's what he does. Solve problems. And he's got a balcony; given the events at the museum, he's half-convinced he could just leap from it, take flight. Sure, the logical part of him adds, he'd probably break a few bones, could even die if he was unlucky, but– and at that but, he catches what he's thinking and slams the door on that line of thought so hard that his fingers ache.
A second later he notices to unclench his hand.
The house is intrusively empty, and Neal's not sure what he can do about that.
June is away, Peter's in the hospital (gone), Mozzie's in the hospital, Alex wouldn't come within three blocks with the sort of eyes he's got on him now, Kate is dead, Diana – well, he thinks, let's be honest, here; Diana seems to make allowances for Peter's pet project but he'd be deluding himself if he thought there was anything to bank on between them, and at the moment she seems justifiedly enraged (if that's not putting it too mildly) that he went and brought a gun into things and wound up shooting her boss with it. The same goes for Jones, and the rest of the FBI agents he's been so careful to cultivate himself as an asset for. Thing with assets: even when they're friendly, not gunslinging accidents waiting to happen, you generally don't invite yourself to their houses for coffee and commiseration.
And with the feds at the door and the balcony emphatically not an option, it's not like he can slip away for a moment, charm a lady at a bar, or a cafe, or a corner deli, or a park. Can't just pluck a moment of human contact out of the ether. Have to actually have the materials to work your sleight of hand.
He's never bought into the phrase without a friend in the world. Way he sees it, everyone in the world is a friend. Some of them just haven't had cause to realize it, yet.
That rings hollow, here.
Noon arrives, and he's contemplating whether or not he'd eat anything if he did bother to order in. He's considering a lobster bisque from Lusardi's, but ordering soup seems too convalescent, too self-indulgent, and regardless of it being something he might – might – be able to swallow, he has appearances to keep up. For whom, he's not certain. Everyone he knows has probably made up their minds about him, and if they haven't, they're idiots.
And then someone knocks at the door.
It's a quick ta-ta-tap, too springy to be a fed, not the cadence for anyone else he knows, and he jumps like a startled rabbit. His heart's going too fast, accelerated by uncertainty, when he gets the door.
And there as he opens it stands one Mrs. Elizabeth Burke, with shadows under her eyes, in a skirt suit that looks like she was wearing it yesterday.
"Elizabeth," he says, trying for pleasantly surprised – what he knows, all he knows – although his throat is dry and the tone feels unpracticed. That's wrong. He tries again. "I wasn't expecting to see you–" –without an ivory-handled pistol; it's what, as we all know now, I would have done.
She gives him a smile – Peter has married a stunning woman – but it's a sad smile, and it seems to include him in that sadness like a fan brush. "You look awful."
I feel awful, Neal doesn't say. He also doesn't say Looks can be deceiving, or So do you.
"Come in," he tries, not sure that's the right response. Much as solitary would – and could – drive a man mad, he's not sure he actually wants company. Especially not when that company is Elizabeth Burke. "Um. Have a seat?" He gestures to the couch, and Elizabeth settles herself onto it gingerly.
"So," Elizabeth says, and glances out his windows. "...that really is a magnificent view, isn't it?" There's an edge, the faintest undercurrent, of desperation to her tone.
You didn't come to talk about the view, Neal thinks, but he bolts on as much of a smile as he's able to and says "Ten million dollar view," –Peter called it.
"I think I almost prefer it at night," Elizabeth says, and smoothes her skirt over her knees. She's talking around something, and the way she's doing it just leaves a big obvious negative space where she's too polite to say.
Neal doesn't want that politeness. "Why are you here?"
Elizabeth blinks at that, and gathers herself up. "I thought I'd come–"
"What? Hear my side of it?" He looks at her, then walks to the wine on the counter.
"No. Neal." Elizabeth shifts, on the couch, but doesn't stand up. "I wanted to make sure you were all right."
He pauses with his hand on the Shiraz, and turns back to stare at her. "Me? Why?"
Elizabeth takes a deep, steadying breath. "You were in a traumatic situation," she says. Neal scoffs, but quietly.
"I wasn't the one who got shot."
"Neal," she says, and there's a polished-wood hardness to her tone; supple and smooth, carved with sadnesses, but strong. Elizabeth has a kind of class that's completely foreign to the slick and practiced facades of the people Neal works with in one of his lives. "My husband is unconscious in a hospital bed, and God knows what's been happening to you. Talk to me."
He takes the bottle and two glasses back to the couch and its table. He did just shoot her husband in the chest; the least he can do is offer her a drink.
As for what she's actually asking him...
"What do you want me to say?"
She watches him uncork the bottle and pour for each of them. "I don't know," she admits, and the honesty catches him offguard. "I – I want to know what happened. Hughes told me–"
"Hughes wasn't there," Neal says, and Elizabeth's jaw closes with a click. She's waiting for him to say something, and he's staring at the glasses, because he feels like the red of the wine should remind him of the blood on Peter's skin, but it just looks like wine, to him. "Fowler was there."
Elizabeth is nodding; he can see it in his peripheral vision. Hughes probably told her as much.
But it's Elizabeth, and he wants to tell her – has to tell her – more.
"He–" (Killed Kate. Blew up Kate's plane.) "–bought the bomb that was on Kate's plane. I had to–" (Kill him. Do to him what he did–) "–confront him. And it–" (broke.) "–went wrong."
Elizabeth slides a hand across his back, rubbing little circles into his suit jacket.
He takes a moment to focus on that, because she's not touching him like Kate or Peter (slug on the shoulder, tell you to cowboy up) have ever touched him, or like any of his contemporaries have touched him, or like he would reach out to touch any of them. There doesn't seem to be an angle, there, just her hand on his back.
He wraps one of his hands in the other. Elbows on his knees. "It was stupid. I was stupid." He doesn't want to admit this to anyone – just bluff it off, never make excuses, never beg forgiveness, those aren't the rules of the game – but it's Elizabeth, and she still has her hand on his back, and he doesn't know if he just owes her something or needs to get this off his chest or needs her to understand or what. Maybe he needs her to know that he wasn't lying. That this wasn't his angle. "I – don't like guns. I don't. I knew as soon as I saw that, as soon as I – soon as I realized I could take it. I knew it was a bad idea."
I didn't listen.
"Fowler grabbed for it. He was trying to protect himself, but it went off, and–"
(Blood between Peter's fingers, spluttering out of Peter's mouth, a Pollock painting flecking its way down his chin.) Neal's knuckles are pressing against his lips, and it doesn't stop him from saying something he hadn't intended to say.
"I panicked," he says. "I completely froze. Peter was–", and his throat quietly roadblocks the words, hijacks the convoy, makes off with their contents for destinations unknown. He breathes through it, like he's taught himself to do. "I do know first aid." He covers it with a chuckle that probably doesn't meet the technical definition of the term.
"You were in shock," Elizabeth supplies. He shakes his head.
"No, I wasn't."
"Wh–," she says.
"I don't go into shock."
The hand on his back pauses, and Elizabeth shifts herself more to face him. "Neal!" Her voice is disbelieving. "You talk like you're not human."
"No," he says, kiting the words on his breath. "Just like I'm–" Very good at what I do.
"Like you're what?" Elizabeth asks.
"I'm fine," he says. Hopes that'll be convincing.
"No," says Elizabeth. "I don't think you are."
Neal turns to look at her, meets her eyes, and studies them. He would not, could never, take this time and make her a mark – there are lines you don't cross, or he's sure he wouldn't cross – but she's looking back at him, open and concerned, and he lowers his voice, so the words are just barely carried along by his breath. "Can you get me out of here?"
Elizabeth's expression softens. "I can't, Neal."
"Listen," he says, because say what you will but Neal Caffrey is not a man who lets No stand as an answer, "they've had me locked up in here; Mozzie is hurt, I can't go see him, I can't go see Peter–"
"Neal," Elizabeth says, "I'm an event planner. I'm not the FBI."
"No, but you could talk to them," Neal says.
Her lips pull up into a moue, her eyebrows gather, and the effect is such portrait-perfect futile pity – as for a condemned man – that he feels it on his stomach.
She's not going to get him out of here. She's not even going to try.
"Okay," he says, and shrugs off her hand. Sticks his hands in his pockets, gets up, walks to the balcony.
He's coming to hate this skyline today.
After a moment, he turns back. "How is he?"
Elizabeth exhales, and it's a shuddery sound. "Doctors say he's going to be okay," she says, and her tone makes a valiant effort to sound more sunny than she does. "But he hasn't... come around, yet. I've been with him all morning, but–"
"Maybe you should go back there." He keeps his gaze and tone even, and she picks up on the meaning there.
"Yeah," she says, gathering herself up. "I suppose I should."
She makes her way to the door, he approaches, and she takes his elbows. "Don't beat yourself up, Neal," she says, and gives another pained smile. "I mean – just leave something for Peter." She pats his arm.
He can't tell if that's meant to be encouraging. "Yeah."
She turns away, he reaches out to get the door for her, and then she's gone, leaving the wine untouched on the table.
Day wears on toward evening, and the light outside coasts toward the golden hour. He cracks and orders the bisque he was considering earlier, and finishes it by the mechanical process of sticking one spoonful into his mouth after another. He stops tasting it after the second or third.
It's 6:45 and the sun is resting on the roofs of the skyline when there's another knock at the door, but this time he knows it's a Fed by the rhythm and the curve of the sound. Each rap is as crisp as a pressed suit.
He thinks Time to face the music, straightens his vest, and walks to the door.
Diana is standing there when he opens it, car keys in hand. "Peter wants to see you."
Neal steadies himself. Part of him lets out a breath, at that announcement; the rest of him wants to flee the country. "How long's he been awake?"
"A while," Diana says. "Hughes and Elizabeth had first dibs on his time. Let me see your ankle."
He puts one foot forward and tugs up his pant leg. Yes, the monitor is still there.
Diana nods. "Good. Come on."
He gets the passenger seat, this time, which is an improvement.
Diana doesn't seem to be in the mood for conversation until three streets go by, when she says, with no introduction, "Fowler talked."
Something sharp and unsteady crawls up Neal's spine. "Did he?" he says, as though he can pass this off as pleasant disinterest. He can't. "What did he talk about?"
"He was blackmailed into finding the musicbox by an anonymous third party," Diana says. "There was video footage of him assassinating his wife's murderer."
Something cold grows in the pit of Neal's stomach.
"He set up Project Mentor to make you and Kate disappear, but apparently Kate wasn't satisfied with it," Diana goes on. "The bomb was her exit strategy. You two would bail out over the water, and the plane would blow. Fowler doesn't know why it went off early."
Neal stares at the rubber where the door meets the window, running a fingernail along it. His hand's not shaking. That's good. He just needs a second to get his breathing in check, and then he says, albeit softly: "Kate called him from the plane."
Diana is already shaking her head. "He didn't have any contact with her after having his agents escort her to the airstrip. She was talking to someone else."
Neal looks over, and his breathing's tightened up all on its own. "Who?"
"He doesn't know." Diana doesn't look back; no, good agent, she keeps her eyes on the road. It occurs to Neal, pointlessly, uselessly, that this would be a bad time to ask about her license. "He says if we can find that, we'll find the man pulling the strings."
"We have the name of an intermediary," Diana says. "Julian Larssen. We're tracking him through all his known aliases. Think he might be the one who shot Mozzie, but we're waiting for Mozzie to wake up so he can ID him."
"But he is going to wake up? When?"
Diana glances at him, then it's back to the road. "We don't know, Neal. Whoever shot him had better aim than you did."
That hits, hard, a knife between the ribs, and Neal grits his teeth with a sudden intake of breath. Diana doesn't even pause.
"The bullet caught him two millimeters from his heart. It could be a while."
Neal takes a deep breath, and drums his knuckles against the door. "Okay." There's not much else he can say.
Diana signals a turn, and sighs. She seems to chew on something, then shakes her head. "You were on the silver stakeout when I got the information about the Semtex. I brought it to Peter first – see what he had to say about it. I asked if we were going to tell you." There's a beat of silence, and Neal tenses. "Peter wasn't sure you could handle it."
There are times when he hates proving Peter right.
There's nothing to say to that, either, and Neal just turns to stare out the window. The back of his neck prickles, like Diana has turned to look at him, but he doesn't look back, and she drives them the rest of the way in silence.
Neal is not overfond of hospitals.
They're too white, really, like a canvas that's rejecting all its paint, and then there are the doctors and he's not comfortable with anyone looking at him that closely. But Peter is somewhere in here, and Mozzie is somewhere else in here, and besides, he got himself into this situation so he might as well deal with it.
Even if he'd rather do almost anything else in the world than deal with it.
He begs Diana's indulgence – not exclusively stalling – to slip into the gift shop, where he spends more time than is necessary debating what bouquet adequately conveys I'm sorry I shot you and glad you're not dead! before picking up a pot with a spray of peace lilies. Diana gives him an Are you stupid? look when he walks out. He clears his throat and ignores that.
Diana leads him up an elevator and down a hall without saying anything, then parks herself just outside a door and nods him in. "Go on."
Neal takes a deep breath, pushes the door open, and steps in.
The room is functionally identical to every other first-world hospital room Neal has ever seen: clean and impersonal, and there's not even a painting on the wall to scribble behind. There's a side chair that looks like someone designed it to give every appearance of comfort until one actually sits in it, and a couple tables that don't even try to pretend they're anything beyond utilitarian. The curtains and the hospital blanket are a shade of blue that started on the path to being an interesting color but had it beaten out of them before it could develop, and Peter is under those blankets, occupying the only bed in the room.
Peter looks like he's in pain. Not too much, though, or he'd be looking a lot more drugged; or possibly he's just better at concealing these things than Neal has given him credit for, or, more disconcertingly, he's just used to being shot.
Neal chooses not to consider that too much.
"They want me to take it easy and not yell at you too much," Peter says. His voice is hoarse. He takes a breath – shallow, shallow – to continue speaking, and then he seems to register what Neal is carrying. "You brought me flowers."
"Well, yeah," Neal says, with a shrug. He takes a few more steps into the room, and lets the door swing closed behind him, grasping at the first thread of almost-normalcy that he can manage. "I thought, you know, a splash of color, you could liven up the place. And these are great for your indoor air quality."
Peter looks... more amused, than anything. It puts Neal on the back foot. "You brought me flowers."
"It's nothing much," Neal offers. "They didn't let me out of June's house. I had to get these at the gift shop. Have you ever seen hospital gift shop flowers? Not exactly a world-class selection." Not even a New York-class selection, he could say, but the words don't have any meaning beyond Hey, keep talking to me, and about anything other than why we're both here. And Peter–
Peter's still giving him that look. "You," he says again, enunciating carefully this time. "Brought me flowers."
Neal isn't sure what he's supposed to do from here. His first instinct is to feign mild affront, and it's the only thing that's coming to mind, though most of him is afraid of giving Peter an opening to blow up at him. Send him back to prison. Shoot him.
Something like that.
"If you don't like them," he says, "I could–"
"Yeah, whatever. Sit down." Peter nods to the side chair, and Neal sets the flowers aside and drops into it without thinking twice. He very meticulously does not fidget, then notices an awkward silence, notices he's not actually looking at Peter, and looks up to notice that Peter is staring him down.
He freezes, locks his gaze on Peter's, and tries to look innocent. Pleasant. At the very least, not like a walking shipwreck.
Something like that.
"Neal," Peter warns.
Peter looks down, fiddles with the IV going into the back of his hand – Neal resists the urge to swat his hand away, tell him Don't do that – and smooths his hand on the sheet before meeting Neal's eyes again. "I remember telling you something about revenge. When we were working the Kent case."
Neal looks down at his own hands, and lets out a breath that he'll call a laugh. Smiles, more or less, if only briefly. "You said, 'it's shortsighted and it's dangerous'," he says.
Peter feigns surprise. "You do remember."
"Yeah." A fast, phantom sensation skips across Neal's fingers, like a coin he's dancing across his knuckles. He curls that hand into a fist.
"And what you did at the Russian Heritage Museum..." Peter prompts.
Neal nods. "...was shortsighted, and was dangerous," he answers, quietly. Then he looks up, trying with all the weight of a very persuasive pair of eyes to convey something, "Peter, I–"
"Ah," Peter says, and Neal's teeth click shut. He nods, and his gaze skitters across the surface of the room.
Nothing he can work with, here.
"I would like to stop getting sent to the hospital because someone went on a vengeance crusade," Peter says.
Neal doesn't even bother picking apart Peter's choice of words, there. Just bites down and looks away.
"You going to send me back?"
"To prison," Peter says, and Neal would swear he was savoring the word before his voice drops and becomes very serious indeed. "Let's talk."
A wash of fear goes through Neal, and he sweeps it aside, plants on a smile, and spreads his hands. Talk. "What do you want me to say?"
Peter frowns. "Elizabeth said you spoke–"
"Yeah," Neal breaks in, and glances over to the door. It's closed, but he can see the shadow of Diana's shoes under it. Waiting for him? Guarding the door? "I don't think she liked what I had to say."
"I don't think she liked that you didn't have anything to say," Peter says. Neal shakes his head.
"Well, what am I supposed to say?"
"You're supposed–," Peter starts, then doesn't finish that. "It's – when someone like Elizabeth wants you to talk, I don't think they're looking for a specific – mmh." When he can find them again, his words are careful, calm. The words of a person trying not to upset their lung too much. "They want you to talk. You know – get things off your chest." He stares at Neal for a moment, and Neal stares back. Peter's next words are somewhat harder. "This is an entirely unknown phenomenon in Neal Caffrey's world, isn't it?"
Neal doesn't really have anything to say to that, and thinks that the accusation is somewhat unfair. He'd told Elizabeth more than he'd intended to; needing more beyond that just seems excessive.
Peter sighs, and his weight slumps back into the bed.
Neal looks away, because Peter has that God help me look in the set of his mouth and the corners of his eyes. He doesn't like seeing that look on Peter's face, possibly because it looks too much like despair, and thinking about Peter and despair feels like a subtle assault on one of the bulwarks of his reality. And then it occurs to him that Peter's probably seen the look of it on his face – when the plane exploded, and again, just recently, when he had to face down the choice between letting Fowler go with all of his guilt and shattering the entire life he'd earned with a bullet.
In the end, he'd got the worst of both worlds. Hadn't finished anything. Had broken everything.
There are reasons he doesn't like guns.
"Diana told you we had a name," Peter says, and Neal nods. That, at least, is automatic. Talk about the case.
"We get him, we can flip him on someone higher up in the food chain," Peter says, which both of them know. "What are you going to do when we find the person responsible for this?"
When, not if. Neal shrugs. "I'm not going to pull a gun on him, if that's what you're worried about." And it's strange how aware he is that the question assumes something he's not sure of, now: whether or not he'll be behind bars when the person responsible is found.
"That's not what I'm worried about," Peter surprises him by saying. Then, after a moment, "...not entirely."
Neal ducks his head, just momentarily, to acknowledge the sheer scope and variety of things Peter could be worried about. "That I'll go off reservation again?"
"That's a mild way of putting it," Peter confirms.
"I'm sorry," Neal offers. And he is, though he can't tell if he's sorry that he ran off to put his own plan in motion or just sorry that he screwed it up and got Peter hurt. Peter would probably like him to be sorry for both, if he even saw a distinction.
But that's the thing. They are distinct, and for all that Neal knows Peter is disappointed when he falls back on the con, the con is still a damn good way to get things done. It's his skillset. His instinct. It would make about as much sense for him to feel guilty for breathing.
Over the course of his life he's learned a lot of things, and foremost among those is that if you find something that works, you employ it. Being a part of Peter's life is like having a panoramic view into some strange other world where trust can be a fact of existence instead of a commodity; where people walk around with obvious cares and vulnerabilities, all vulnerable to exploitation, and don't think too much about that; where the right thing to do can fly straight in the face of self-interest, poetic justice, and common sense.
He's not made for that world.
"You scared us," Peter says.
Neal startles. It's not an admission he'd ever expect to hear – it's definitely not something he'd ever admit – and he has a feeling Peter means something other than We don't like it when criminals run around with guns.
When Neal doesn't say anything to that, Peter gets a scrutinizing look on his face, then shakes his head. Abandons this little dance they have, this talking-in-circles-around-each-other, and goes straight for the heart of the matter. "You broke a lot of rules, Neal. Plenty of people, including Hughes, feel like you're too much of a liability."
Neal nods, and tries not to pay attention to the hurt that presses from the back of his throat down deep behind his sternum. It's not as though this comes as a surprise. Still, it's difficult to press out the words: "What about you?"
He can hear, before Peter says anything, the answer in the air: I have to agree with them. There can't be any benefit to Peter in this kind of relationship – none that outweighs this. At the great bargaining table which is Neal Caffrey's life, he doesn't have anything right now that he can offer.
And then Peter, whom Neal thought he could predict, surprises him. "I've got your back. On four conditions."
Peter must interpret that as a question about conditions, because he explains. "One: you do not touch a gun again unless I or one of my agents hands it to you, or it's the only way to prevent someone from getting shot."
"Done," Neal says, too quickly. Peter raises his eyebrows and Neal shuts up again, biting back the part where he says What do you mean, you've got my back?
"Two," Peter says, "you tell me if you don't think you can stay away from something. If you're in too deep, if it is messing up your head as much as this did. You tell me."
A scrabbly panic starts up at the corner of Neal's mind, whispering that this deal might not be worth the price. He goes against his gut – can't say why – and ignores it. Rule two of Neal's life: you don't just give things away. "...okay."
"And three," Peter says. "You never, never circumvent your anklet, or steal from the Marshals, the Bureau or any of their agents, again."
"Done," Neal says, too quickly again. Then he catches himself, and says "You said four conditions."
"Yes, I did." Peter gives him a look three degrees faux of grave. "I'm going to be stuck in here for at least a week while they monitor me," he says. "And I will be damned if I spend all that time eating hospital food."
The incongruity is enough to confound most of the noise in Neal's head, if only for a moment. "...you want me to be your room service?"
"Which means I see you every day, and I will be asking what you're up to." And you had better not lie to me, his tone says, and Neal thinks this would be a bad time to bring up that he's very careful not to technically lie.
"I... can do that."
Peter watches his face – for what, Neal's not exactly sure – and then grins. It's familiar in a way that floods Neal with something. Adrenaline, maybe. Possibly relief. "All right, then."
Neal blinks. "That's it?"
"Diana's taking over this investigation," Peter says. "Doc says it'll be a few months before I'm back to work. Don't give her any trouble. She's not as forgiving as I am."
"I've noticed," Neal says, dryly. "And after you're..."
"After I'm out, I get to be the one holding your leash again," Peter says. "Don't get any ideas."
The sooner the better, Neal doesn't say. "I won't."
There's a pause.
"I am sorry, though," Neal says. Peter's eyebrows rise like he's heard enough on that topic already.
"Yeah. I got that."
"No more firearms."
"You could consider wearing a vest, though." It's like prodding a healing injury: he can't resist. Peter gives him a warning look.
"I'm just saying, it worked out pretty well for Fowler."
He closes his mouth, and gives Peter a smile which, if he says so himself, looks almost not entirely fake and feels almost as good.
"No prison?" he asks.
Peter chews words for a moment, mouth half-open, then jabs a finger at Neal as brusquely as he's able to. "I'll be watching you."
The corners of Neal's mouth pull up, and the smile spreads a little bit toward true. "Wouldn't have it any other way."