Neal was expecting to walk into the office the day after a three-years-of-work case had completely fallen apart in court to see everyone in their various versions of a bad mood: Blake looking like he'd personally failed the entire department and was afraid of getting demoted back to Quantico; Jones with his jaw set, digging into cases with single-minded determination, Diana radiating an aura of try-it-I-dare-you and cowing files into submission by sheer force of personality, Peter with his sarcasm turned up as high as it would go and not a terrible pun in sight, and Hughes...
Well, Hughes always looked like the universe had poured turpentine in his coffee, to Neal. But Neal was sure that Hughes had a setting more prickly than his default state, and fully anticipated this to be the day he got to see it.
He was not expecting to see Blake setting up a side table laden with hors d'oeuvres, a sheet cake, and catering-boxes of coffee.
He paused inside the glass doors, hat in his hand, but when he couldn't pick up any clues from context (no Hallmark card at the end of the table, no streamers or banners, no message on the cake, no one with presents on their desk, no one in the office acting as though this was at all odd), he walked up next to Blake and picked up a chocolate-covered potato chip to examine it. "I'm guessing this is for Peter?" If there was anyone else in the office who'd willingly put this kind of junk-food abomination in their mouths...
Well. No. Neal was absolutely certain there was. Probably several of them.
Blake shook his head vigorously, though. "No," he said. "This is for the office."
Neal looked over the offerings. There were the usual sorts of fresh-cut fruits, meat-and-cheese-and-crackers platter, a few kinds of miniature muffins, and a hummus plate, but there was also the bowl of chocolate-covered potato chips and the plate of finger sandwiches, and a not insignificant number of those were deviled ham. Neal indicated them with the chip.
"This is for the office."
Blake was a really terrible liar. Neal thought it was probably a good thing that he wasn't about to be sent undercover any time soon. "Yep," he said. "Er, help yourself."
Neal let the indicative chip sweep over the table. "Why is there a cake?"
Blake shrugged. "No reason."
Neal stared at him. "Cakes usually indicate a special occasion."
"Not in White Collar," Blake lied.
There was the sound of a rolling chair being pushed away from a desk and Neal looked over to see Diana approaching, probably to rescue one of them. "Did I miss a birthday, or something?" he asked.
Diana looked more smug than she really had any right to be. "I thought you knew everything that went on in the office."
"Can't we just tell him?" Blake asked.
Diana looked Neal up and down. "He'll enjoy it too much."
Well, one of them sounded like they were enjoying it too much, and that just added another layer to the mystery. "Oh, come on. You can't promise something like that and not deliver."
"Sure I can," Diana said, then gave a pointed look to their probie. "Blake."
Blake looked at her, and then said "Oh!", and turned back to Neal. "Now, there's no pressure at all, but if you did want to contribute, you could toss five or ten dollars into the pot." He pointed to a coffee can with a slit cut into its lid. "We don't keep track of who put in what, so there's really no obligation."
"Right," Neal said. He was missing subtext, here, but he had five dollars. He had a respectable stack of small-denomination bills, actually; he'd lifted them from a man who was being unbearably rude to a barista when he stopped for coffee on the way in. Considering it hadn't been his money to start with, there was no particular reason not to share the wealth.
He slipped in a ten as Diana went back to her desk.
The mystery persisted through the morning, and Neal got no help from Jones ("Don't look a gift buffet in the mouth, Caffrey."), nor Diana ("One of us has more important things to do than answer questions about finger food. I suggest you make it both of us."), nor Peter ("Do you think I'm part of a conspiracy to set up party trays? Ask El. She can vouch for my innocence."), nor Blake ("...I've been sworn to secrecy.") By then, he was beginning to suspect that the office found his bafflement amusing, and that videos shot hastily from behind case folders would be making the rounds on the email list. He decided to cut his losses and escape with his dignity.
Hughes walked in from a meeting at a quarter after ten, and immediately double-finger-pointed Peter and Neal into his office. That was nothing major; he wanted them to take a look at something which had been sent over from Organized Crime on account of the crime not being nearly organized enough: a money laundering effort run out of a seafood restaurant on City Island, officially the outskirts of civilization, which looked like it was more likely a counterfeiting operation, and not as connected to the Mob as initially thought. Hughes wanted it out of the way as soon as possible, caseload permitting, and sent them out to start on it.
Neal hung back.
Peter glanced at him, expecting him to head back out into the bullpen, and when he realized that Neal intended to linger and continue the conversation with Hughes, he shook his head with a small laugh and abandoned Neal to his folly. The door clicked shut behind them, and Hughes gave him a look. "Is there something you need?"
"I just thought you might want to know that several of your agents are acting very suspiciously–"
"You're wondering about the food, Caffrey?" Hughes interrupted.
Neal raised his eyebrows. "Was it that obvious?"
Hughes leaned back in his chair. "It's a tradition Peter started when he was a probie in this department," he explained. "Department of Justice gift-giving regulations prohibit employees from giving gifts to official superiors, with a few very narrow exceptions which don't include 'having a bad day'."
Neal saw where this was headed, and mouthed an Ah. "But there's no prohibition on bringing in a nice catered table for the entire office to share."
"Exactly," Hughes confirmed.
Neal chewed on that. "And it's always the probies?"
"Superiors can't ask for contributions from anyone who reports to them," Hughes said.
"And no one reports to the new guy. How... devious and underhanded." Neal tilted his head, examining Hughes. "This doesn't bother you?"
"It's an expression of solidarity, not bribery," Hughes said. "Even if it doesn't exactly obey the spirit of the law as written, it doesn't contradict the spirit of the law as intended, which is to safeguard against corruption. And besides." He stood up, indicating that Neal should exit the office ahead of him – for some reason, and Neal was sure he had no idea why that could be, really – Hughes didn't seem to approve of leaving him in his office without supervision. Even momentarily. "I'm never going to turn down hummus from Mimi's."
Mimi's. Well, Neal thought. He felt as though he'd learned something today.
The secret, Neal had learned, to making things look effortless was to put in more work than a sane person would ever dream of devoting to a skill. You just had to make sure to put in that work where no one could see you, and Neal had put a lot of work into cultivating the impression that his free time was spent sipping wine and preening on his balcony, rather than pouring sweat and blood into learning the skills that made him appear superhuman.
Which was why he wasn't overpleased when Peter invited himself into his apartment while he still had the detritus of a marathon weekend of disassembling and reassembling small electronics scattered across the table.
Peter breezed in, and started talking with characteristic Peter enthusiasm. "I think I have an angle on how we can take down Lassiter. If we move on Monday, we – what's all this?"
Neal sighed, and set down the antique radio he'd been working on. "It's for Mozzie," he admitted. "He decided that his birthday was going to be next week, this year."
Peter raised his eyebrows. "He decided that?"
"He likes to shuffle it up," Neal said, with a shrug, and Peter pulled up a chair without even asking.
"Is that a Bulova 250?" Peter said, reaching across the table and picking up the radio with the kind of care and respect Neal himself usually reserved for works of art. "With the leather case? These things are impossible to find."
Well, that certainly dated him. "Not if you have the Internet," Neal pointed out. "I'm trying to restore it. ...and build in a secret compartment."
Peter gave him a sharp look. "Secret compartment?"
"Mozzie's request. I don't want to know. Neither do you."
Peter seemed to accept that. "May I?"
Neal blinked, didn't quite get what Peter was asking, and then said "Sure" out of habit. Peter glanced across the table, picked up one of the tools that hadn't been explicitly recommended in the reference materials Neal had been reading, and set about opening the chassis and examining the components with apparently effortless ease. "Do you actually know what you're doing?"
Peter grinned, the way people who had happy childhood memories could sometimes be caught grinning. "I used to work on these with my dad."
"Your dad was a bricklayer," Neal said. Peter gave him a guileless look – which, coming from Peter, actually didn't seem to have any guile.
"He had hobbies."
Neal stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. "You know," he remarked, "it shouldn't surprise me that you know your way around a transistor radio–" Peter did seem to exude a charming sense of the old-fashioned, "–and yet, it does."
"I'm a man of many secrets," Peter said, deadpan.
Neal was startled into a chuckle. Then he leaned back, waving a hand over the chaos of the table. "This is what you and your dad did for fun? Small electronics?"
"One of the things," Peter said. "Have you ever listened to a Yankees game on an old-fashioned transistor, out in the woods, fishing a creek, with a cooler of sandwiches and a beer in your hand?"
Neal gave him a flat look. "What part of that scenario would appeal to me?"
"I'm surprised you can't enjoy baseball."
"I'm surprised you can enjoy deviled ham."
"You've never had a good deviled ham," Peter said. Neal shook his head.
"I've yet to be convinced that exists." But now Peter was switching out tools and prodding at one of the components, and Neal leaned forward again. "What do you see?"
"These models didn't have the little guard that would prevent you from putting the battery in backwards," Peter says, indicating the battery connectors. "People would put them in wrong, bust the transistors, so you'd wind up having to replace them. Looks like somebody did, a few times, but they didn't do it well." The corner of his mouth quirked up. "We can replace them, do it right, this time. Shouldn't be hard."
Corollary to effortlessness: when something complex appeared easy, there was usually a story about how it came to be so. How useful, or how interesting, those stories were varied wildly.
Neal filed this one under "curiosity," subsection "Peter", and handed over the bag of transistors.
It was one of those weeks when everybody and their mother seemed to decide it was a good time to branch into art and antiquities theft, and the rash of burglaries snowed the rest of the White Collar caseload into next season. The thefts all had different locations, different MOs, different sizes and sorts of hauls; there didn't seem to be any pattern to any of it, except in the too-carefully-randomized randomness of it all. NYPD said there were no connections, Peter's gut said there were, and White Collar moved in to prove Peter right.
On the minus side, it was a headache and a half, trying to figure out who could have possibly orchestrated all of this. On the plus side, Peter was in his element.
On the minus side again, that meant that the number of truly awful puns the office had to endure skyrocketed.
Neal had escaped those puns for the day and was on his way home when he noticed that he'd picked up a tail. A man in a bowler hat, hanging about half a block back and making no particular effort to be subtle about it, going so far as to direct a little wave his way when Neal paused to adjust his tie in the reflection of a car window.
If that wasn't an invitation for a clandestine meeting, Neal wasn't sure what was.
He finished with his tie and walked into a coffee shop a few buildings down, buying some kind of Ayurvedic tea drink that he wasn't especially interested in, just to have an excuse to be there and to have something scalding in his hand just in case his tail turned out to be an extremely friendly enforcer of some sort. He found a table in a corner near the door, and sat down.
It was a few minutes before his tail came in, glanced around, and eschewed the menu entirely to slide into the chair opposite him. Neal didn't recognize him until he took off his hat, quirked an eyebrow, and said "I never hear about you any more, Caffrey. Does that mean you've gotten a lot better, or you've flunked out of the life entirely?"
"Answering that would give up the game," Neal said, keeping his voice low and easy. "I didn't expect to see you in the city. What are you going by, these days?"
The man considered. "Let's say Christopher Merlo, just for you. Should I still call you Neal?"
"That depends," Neal said. "Why were you following me?"
Merlo shrugged a shoulder. "I'm in a difficult situation with regards to a client of mine, and looking for a new contractor to complete a job. Job plays to your strengths, won't upset anyone you don't want upset with you, and pays fifty large. Time-sensitive, though; this weekend. And the rest of the details are privileged. Sound interesting?"
A few things ticked over in Neal's mind.
The man who was now Merlo had never been particularly friendly or unfriendly to him, in his previous, more criminal life. He'd been known for a devious streak and his share of unsavory connections, and was no more or less honorable than he could get away with. Not someone Neal owed anything to, and not someone he'd lose too much respect for taking down, among the people who might find out what he actually was doing with his life, these days.
So, the algebra there came back obvious. "I'd say that sounds like a worthwhile use of my weekend."
"Good," Merlo said, and pressed something into Neal's hand: a business card with an address, no name, no detail. "Here, Sunday, 2:30. AM. Come alone; my driver will pick you up and have everything you need."
"How do you know what I'll need?" Neal asked. "Everyone has their own individual–"
"I remember you from the old days," Merlo interrupted. "If you've updated your process since then, well, I guess you'll have to go a little retro." He stood up, stuck his hat back on his head, and tweaked the brim. "It was nice running into you."
"And you," Neal said, and Merlo disappeared out the door.
The next day, bright and early, he caught up to Peter at the elevators. "Any good news?"
"Not on the thefts," Peter said, and handed him a case file. Neal had to wonder why he'd taken it home – did he really just never turn off? "Got a windfall, though – copyright infringement case. Can probably put this one away before lunch."
Neal opened the file and skimmed through it as they got onto the elevator, deemed it straightforward and boring by the ninth floor, and closed it. "I think I may have a lead on the person organizing the theft ring."
Peter looked at him with appreciation. "Do you?"
Neal nodded. "And a lot more than that, potentially."
"Really." He had Peter's full attention, now. "Did one of your underworld friends turn out to know something, after all?"
"Better," Neal said, and Peter's eyebrows hopped.
"How much better?"
Neal bopped him in the chest with the corner of the file. "What if I told you that I could get myself hired as one of the thieves, and lead you straight to the drop?"
And the appreciative look was abruptly gone, and now Peter was looking at him with a vaguely-sick expression. "Neal," he said, carefully. "What did you do?"
Neal blinked. "You mean, what would I do, hypothetically, if–"
"No." Peter didn't sound like he was in the mood for the runaround. "What did you do. In the real, non-hypothetical world. Since you left the office yesterday."
One of these days, Neal thought, Peter was really going to have to become a little less paranoid of him. Though that might be a difficult concept to sell, considering that half the time, Peter's paranoia struck truth, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. "I... may or may not have agreed to be on call for an old acquaintance who wants me to steal an as-yet-unspecified item valuable enough that he's willing to pay me fifty thousand dollars to get it."
The response was more or less instantaneous. "Neal!"
Neal glanced at the elevator lights. Well, level 18 now knew that Peter was annoyed with him. "Look, the offer was only on the table for a couple minutes," he said. "If I'd have stalled, or refused, he would have disappeared back into the woodwork and we wouldn't have anything on him."
"Except a name!" Peter snapped. "And a face, and whatever else you knew about this guy. Neal–"
"–but instead, we have the perfect chance to take him down!" The elevator arrived at the 21st floor, and Peter stalked out of it, Neal sticking close by his elbow. "You don't even have to work out a way to get me in, because–"
"–because you've already jumped at the chance to engage yourself in some illegal activities, without asking," Peter said, and shoved the office doors open.
"I saw an opportunity, and I took it. For the good of the case. –oh, come on," Neal said, as they passed through a gauntlet of knowing looks from the bullpen. "Your gut is practically enshrined in the FBI policies and procedures handbook. I'm not allowed to trust mine?"
"My gut has never caused me to agree to steal an item of extravagance that may or may not bear any connection to the case I'm supposed to be working on," Peter groused.
"Come on." Neal caught his elbow, stopping them at the base of the stairs, and gave him a look. "How many people can there be working on high-profile thefts like this that require both an intermediary and a contract thief, right now?"
"According to our caseload, at least eighteen," Peter said. "Plus God knows how many copycats using this little crime spree as a smokescreen. We could have done this right."
"Or, we could do it effectively," Neal countered. "Best-case scenario, we can close this case before Monday. Worst-case, we pick up someone else and put another criminal off the streets."
"You can't just decide to set up an undercover sting," Peter said. "There's a chain of approval and–"
"–paperwork, and discussions, and secret rituals done over file cabinets in the dark recesses of the Bureau, I know." Neal pressed forward before Peter could say anything about the secret rituals. "Come on. We can stand here all day arguing about the FBI-approved way of doing things, but I know you want this guy, and you know this has a good chance of delivering him. So can you talk to Hughes and get an approval and some op orders rushed through?"
Peter glared, but Neal could tell he was close to relenting. In honesty, he was probably only putting up this much of a fight because some obscure FBI regulation demanded it; he certainly pulled this trick on Hughes often enough.
"Someone just came up to you on the street and offered you this job," Peter said.
"And we can't just bring him in."
"He never even said the word 'theft'," Neal said. "I doubt he'd say anything under questioning."
"What makes you so sure it is a theft, then?" Peter asked.
Neal gave him a look. "Unless he has a forgery he needs done at exactly two-thirty in the morning on a Sunday, it's a theft." Then, when Peter looked less than satisfied by that, he added "He made a few passing remarks concerning my reputation."
"Hmm," Peter said, and watched him for a few more seconds, then started up the stairs toward his office. "How do you keep up that reputation these days, anyway?"
Neal raised his eyebrows. "Do you honestly want me to answer that?"
The real answer was more along the lines of inertia, but sometimes, it was good to keep Peter guessing. And Peter sighed, and said "No," and pushed open his door and sat in his chair and stared at Neal with that particular stare, the one that said I'm glad you're on our side with a thick swaddling of I really hope you're on our side. "I'll talk to Hughes."
Neal grinned. "You won't regret it."
And when the intel did prove to be good, and the op on Sunday went down well, and Peter was able to mop up the ringleader and a good chunk of the thieves and clients, Neal successfully resisted telling him "I told you so."
For about forty minutes, as they drove back to Manhattan for an early lunch.
From the moment he was given the anklet, Neal was aware that he occupied a precarious position – morally, existentially, pragmatically. An allegedly-reformed (or at least reforming) criminal inside a division of the FBI, surrounded by people who were trained to be suspicious of his kind, and trained to hone and follow those suspicions to a conviction. (And there was something to be said for the dual meaning, there: conviction, meaning belief; conviction, meaning legal judgment of guilt.) He'd taught himself, years before the Atlantics, before prison, before the anklet and the FBI, to keep a keen eye on how the people around him regarded him; exactly how that fit into his life as a survival skill changed, from one year to the next, but it was never far from his mind.
Which was why the chance to go to a gallery exhibit with his handler's boss's boss – his great-grandboss, maybe? – wasn't an opportunity he could pass up, even if he hadn't been agitating to see the exhibit all weekend.
He was fully expecting Bancroft to be using the outing to dig into him, so he wasn't surprised when, after they passed the first couple of whiteboards, Bancroft said "That was some unorthodox work the team pulled."
Always a dangerous thing for a superior to take note of. The difference, Neal had found, was whether they regarded it as a good thing or not. "It got results."
Bancroft chuckled. "Peter's always been good at that." He glanced at Neal. "As I'm sure you know."
Ah. Neal wondered if it was an FBI thing, this need to rattle his chain every once in a while. Put him in his place. But he kept his tone light, his expression pleasant, and said "Yeah, I do have that experience."
Bancroft was silent for a moment, then said something unexpected: "He speaks highly of you."
"Does he?" Neal grinned, perhaps a bit more widely than appropriate. That fact did not go unremarked-upon.
"Where you can't hear him, I assume." Bancroft raised an eyebrow. His tone was familiar, almost familial, with an undertone of the sardonic. Neal smoothed his grin into a close-lipped smile, and Bancroft continued, "The two of you work well together."
Neal shrugged that off.
"He's a good agent," Bancroft said. "And a good man. The kind of man who makes people want to make him proud."
"I'd noticed that," Neal said.
Bancroft gave him a knowing look. Neal ignored it.
Their conversation returned to the carefully casual as they moved from piece to piece, touching more on art than work. Bancroft was a fan of classical and conceptual work; abstract and modern frustrated him. Neal looped him into a conversation on music and mentioned how fond he was of John Cage's 4'33"; Bancroft not only caught that, but raised him by saying he preferred Erwin Schulhoff's In Futurum, which certainly kicked Neal's appraisal of him up another few notches. He was beginning to wonder if the White Collar division just attracted the kind of agents he'd want to work with, all the way up the hierarchy.
Hopefully, though, he'd never have to test that any higher in the hierarchy than he was testing, right now.
They paused in front of a whiteboard which had been carefully cut and folded into a kind of awkward, bulky, three-dimensional origami suit. The marker on this one was clearly a diagram: dotted lines and occasional instructions saying cut here or fold here step 3, though the visible ones cut across the lapels and suit front in a way that said they hadn't been followed.
"What do you see in this one?" Bancroft asked.
And oh, what a loaded question that could be. And what loaded answers Neal could give. He could say, I see an installation that would be difficult to transport through a public place but also difficult to secure, which might fetch thirty or forty thousand from the right buyer. Or he could say, I see a preconception about form overriding an individual attempt at expression. Or maybe, I see that the artist likes implied humor; the piece is full of contradictions, but it takes close study and inference to realize they're there.
He took a chance. "Do you mind if I ask what you see?"
Bancroft laughed: short, genuine, wry. "I see a deliberate ambiguity," he said. "The form and the specifications contradict each other. That could be inattention, incompetence; it could also be rebellion, or even improvement on the original plans. But until you're able to see the whole of the plans it's overridden, or what those diagrams would have constructed, it's easy to jump to a conclusion but difficult, even dangerous, to come to any firm judgment on the implications therein."
Neal half-turned to study him. "...I like that," he said.
And he had a feeling that answer had been just as telling as Bancroft had wanted it to be.
When it came to himself – him, Neal, the con artist, the criminal, the CI – and his relationship with the Bureau, the deal he'd struck with Peter, he'd never got the sense that Peter was reserving judgement. He'd got the sense that Peter was judging him every moment of every day, against an encyclopedic list of criteria which sometimes rendered a favorable balance and sometimes didn't, but that his judgement was elastic enough to admit new evidence without hesitation. It was the kind of judgement you could come back from.
Bancroft, on the other hand, had the air of someone watching very carefully and collecting evidence for the moment a final judgement had to be made. Until you're able to see the whole of the plans, he'd said. Not It's impossible.
Neal could work with both varieties, of course. In some ways, Bancroft's type was easier – you put on your best, most leading behavior until you'd sold them on one opinion or another, and then so long as you avoided anything drastic, you could coast on that basic reputation. With Peter, as with running from Peter, it was a marathon.
"I think it says volumes," Neal says, waving a hand over the piece. "Despite the best-laid plans of mice and... men who draw on whiteboards... things can take an unexpected shape." He cracked another grin, this one sidelong. "Probably unexpected to the whiteboard, too."
Bancroft looked at him, and seemed to get what he was saying. And also why he'd settled on that metaphor, with an option on the degree of genuine feeling behind it. Neal thought he'd be a hell of a poker player, and he should see if Bancroft ever showed up at Peter's poker nights. To which he was generally not invited.
They moved on to the next piece.
"Hopefully things will quiet down in the office for a few days," Bancroft said. "Give all of you a bit of a break."
"Hopefully," Neal agrees. "If it does quiet down, Peter's got his eye on a few cases we haven't been able to dig into." He shrugs one shoulder. "You know, it's been one thing after another, between the Merlo thefts, and... this."
A faint, dry smile tickled Bancroft's expression. "I did get the impression that it was never quite quiet in New York White Collar."
Neal laughed. "Well, with respect, sir, there's no reason for you to come down and see us when we're stuck with identity theft and mortgage fraud cases for weeks on end."
"I detect a note of resignation."
"They don't play to my strengths."
"Aha," Bancroft said, and his voice warmed. "I've been told that the greatest fulfillment in life can be found by pursuing challenging tasks over which one has obtained mastery."
"Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi," Neal said. "His principle of flow."
"You've read his work?"
"I'm familiar with it." Neal eyed Bancroft. "I'm surprised you are. I wouldn't have taken you for a man interested in psychology." And that's a lie, but sometimes lies are better bait to lure out larger truths.
"I like to understand people," Bancroft said, and Neal had the feeling that this was why he'd invited him out to the exhibit in the first place. "To see how people work, and how they work together."
"Must come in handy, in your position."
Bancroft raised his eyebrows, and let the answer to that assumption stand as implied.
The final installation of the exhibit was a blank whiteboard.
They stopped in front of it, and Neal cast a look at Bancroft. "Unsettling," Bancroft said.
Neal quirked a smile. "I was going to say 'provocative'."
"I think they're the same thing, in this case." Bancroft spread his fingers out, indicated the whiteboard with a sweep of his hand. "It's a blank page. It demands action. Completion."
"Well, there's tension in it, I won't argue that," Neal said. "As long as it's blank, there's the potential for everything, and the temptation to everything. No guarantees."
"Mm," Bancroft agreed.
"How would you complete it?" Neal asked. Final exhibit, and there they were. It'd be nice to know if they'd come to any conclusions over the course of the evening.
Bancroft regarded it evenly. Finally, he said "I'm not sure I would." Then, after a moment, when it seemed like there was more to it than that, "but I'd be very interested to see who did."
"So would I," Neal said, half-under his breath.
They walked out of the exhibit into the still-warm evening air, and Neal turned another grin on Bancroft. "The next time the artist has an exhibit in New York City, you should look me up," he said. "I think you and Diana may be the only people in the office with an interest in the style."
"I may take you up on that, Mr. Caffrey," Bancroft said, and who wouldn't, in his position? Another little checkup, another chance to see how people worked, how they worked together. If they were working against each other.
And, Neal had to admit, he almost looked forward to another round of the cordial sparring they had done.
"Let me escort you back to your radius," Bancroft said.
By the time they finally got around to taking down the Lassiter counterfeiting operation on City Island, it was the dead of winter, in a week that made half the city wish it could work from home. Neal was undercover in the back of a seafood restaurant that had shut down abruptly a month ago, whose industrial kitchen now held various and sundry commercial cooking supplies as well as a printing press and its accouterments, and outside, what had been snow was evolving into freezing rain.
Lassiter's operation was already falling down by the time Neal went in. What had been a four-man team was down to just Lassiter, desperately trying to find someone who could supply him with the raw materials he needed, and getting something that would serve as a confession into the wire Neal wore was almost disappointingly easy.
Right up until the takedown.
Normally, when a half-dozen federal agents appeared wielding badges and guns, smart money was to give up gracefully and take your lumps in court. Running, or resisting more actively, was not something that generally ended well.
Neal had assumed that Lassiter was smart enough to know that – an illusion which persisted until Lassiter darted for the back door, pausing only to launch a repurposed paint can directly at Neal's face.
Neal threw his arm up and ducked, squeezing his eyes shut, but that didn't stop the can from crashing into his forearm and bursting open, filling the air and coating him with a fine, chalky, incredibly bitter powder which rode the next breath he took straight into his lungs.
He choked, then gagged, then he was on his hands and knees in the stuff, diaphragm feeling like it was trying to crush his ribs from the inside, trying to throw the stuff out of his lungs with whatever violence it could muster. He could hear someone – Jones, maybe, sounded like his gait and weight – pursuing Lassiter out the back of the kitchen; hear Peter approaching him, and he threw out a hand to ward Peter away. The stuff was burning on his face and hands, searing the oxygen out of his lungs, and if there was one thing he was going to do before succumbing to the panic of not enough air, of chemicals tearing up his lungs and no oxygen, the world tunneling out? He was making sure that no one ran into a potentially dangerous chemical environment without thinking about it, first.
He was already in trouble, contaminated and burning. He'd rather that everyone else on the scene stayed out of trouble, so they could focus on helping him.
"Does anyone have any idea what that was?" Peter yelled. Apparently no one did, because no one responded out loud. "All right. Gloves," Peter snapped, and there was a controlled chaos of fabric rustling. "Someone find out what was in that can. See if it had a label or a MSDS or something."
Then there was a hand on his shoulder – Peter – and someone else came up on his other side, and they supported him and half-carried him away from the spill.
Neal wrenched his eyes open to see Peter and Diana, who got him against the far wall and started messing with his clothing. His jacket was completely whitened with the mystery powder, and Peter eased his arms out of it, then unceremoniously threw it across the room. Diana was loosening his tie, undoing the top buttons of his shirt, opening up his vest.
He hadn't passed out yet, which meant something, but he was still gulping air and not getting enough of it and expelling what he did get with increasingly painful coughs. And he was shaking, jittery, bone-rattling shakes, like he was about to come apart. Most of what he could hear was a high-pitched ringing.
Then two of Diana's fingers were pressed into his neck, and two of Peter's were – very carefully – prying one of his eyes further open, and then Peter was reaching into his suit to pull out his phone. Dialing. Talking to someone – 911 dispatch, probably; he was giving the location, what had happened, and Diana listed off a heartrate which Peter repeated into the phone which Neal recognized as way too high, which didn't help.
"Deep breaths," Diana said, and squeezed his shoulder. "Stay calm."
Neal resisted mentioning that every time he tried to breathe deeply, he ended up trying to cough his lungs out. Mostly because he couldn't get enough air in to say it, or enough concentration to put the words together in the first place.
Stay calm. Shock. People in shock got scared. The first symptom of shock was anxiety, and cardiogenic shock could be triggered pretty easily by a tachycardic heart rhythm, and from what he could feel above the pain in his lungs and his ribs and the thank-god-plateauing stinging of his face, tachycardic was the nice way of putting it. Peter was saying words into the phone, low and fast, and Neal couldn't catch more than one in every handful.
"Diana," Peter said. "Get him somewhere you can open a window." He turned back to the agents searching the kitchen, and his voice got hard and impatient again. "Have any of you found out what was in that canister yet?"
"Don't worry, I've got you," Diana said, and slipped her arms under Neal's armpits. "On three, two, one..."
Then she hauled him up like a sack of grain, and retreated with him out through the dining area and into a small office near the front doors. After a step, he gave up trying to help; his legs didn't want to listen to him, and he got the impression he was just making it harder for Diana, twitching like a landed fish.
By the time she had him situated by the office's wall and got the window cracked to let fingers of frigid air in, the coughing had settled down from constant to merely frequent. Now he was panting, trying to make up the oxygen deficit; huddling against the wall because it was stable, and because he was desperately cold and burning up and his heart was still too fast, still trying to vibrate him to bits.
He looked up when he heard footsteps and saw Peter already standing in the doorway, hand over the phone mic, and another agent – Soto, a new transfer – approaching him. "Jones got Lassiter," Soto said. "He tried to run, slipped on the ice, and cracked his head."
"Great," Peter grumbled. "Make sure Caffrey keeps breathing. I'm going to go make sure Lassiter hasn't managed to kill himself on our watch."
"Right," Soto said, and Peter vanished to take care of his second medical emergency in one day.
Neal put his head back and focused on the clean, icy air.
Less than a minute passed, and there was Peter's voice calling "Diana!" from the kitchen, and Diana shot Soto a look and then said "Be right back," to Neal. Then she left, leaving Soto staring down at Neal.
"You breathing?" Soto asked.
Neal glared at him.
"Right," Soto said. He stuck his hands in his pockets, glanced at the door, then whistled and turned back to Neal again. "Man, today is fired."
Neal was surprised to find himself laughing. He was not at all surprised to find that it hurt.
A minute or two passed, and Diana reappeared to tell Soto "Help the guys clean up the equipment. I've got this." Then she brandished something at Neal – it looked like a terrycloth. "Good news: they identified the stuff, and it doesn't react to water. We can get it off your skin."
"Oh, thank God," Neal croaked.
Diana crouched down in front of him, and started in on his face at the hairline. It was, he reflected, the perfect time to make some sort of clever remark, but none were coming to him.
"When I was ten, my dad collapsed the night before a state dinner," Diana said, working the cloth over the bridge of his nose and across his cheekbones. "He got taken to the hospital, and people kept telling me he'd be fine, everything would be fine, and not to worry about it. Then they went and talked behind closed doors and got upset when I tried to listen in." She smiled, and Neal tried to shake up an answering smile, but didn't get very far with it. "Would have been so much easier if they'd just talked to me. So. Are you the kind of person who needs to know all the details, or are you happy just trusting the experts?"
Neal swallowed. Tried to swallow. He could feel something at the back of his throat, but his mouth was too dry; it was just swallow, swallow, swallow, but nothing went down. "How bad?"
"Well, you're going to have a really awful night no matter what," Diana said. "Could be messed up for a while if we don't get you out of this. You'd have to have the luck of the anti-Caffrey to die from it, though."
Reassuring. "Anything I can do about it?"
"Right at this moment?" Diana finished wiping down his face, and patted him on the knee. "Not a damn thing, other than keep calm and trust the experts."
Neal nodded, shortly. "...details later."
"Okay," Diana said, and handed him the cloth to take care of his hands.
Cleaning himself up was more difficult than it should have been, but between the cold air coming in from outside, his still-hammering heart, the rattling in his bones and the way everything was swimming, he came perilously close to losing track of his hands more than once, and did drop the cloth twice. Diana handed it back to him without comment each time, for which he was inordinately grateful.
He'd just finished when Peter walked back into the room, arms full of tablecloths. "The ambulance is going to be delayed," he said. "City Island Bridge is completely iced over. But they'll make it." Then, to Neal: "How are you feeling?"
"Not okay," he said, because anyone who looked at him could tell that, and if Peter was the point of contact with the EMTs and the EMTs needed any additional information in order to tell Peter what to do, he'd rather they had that information than think him perfectly fine. "Shaky. Cold. Thirsty. Ribs hurt."
"Well, we can do something about one of those," Peter said, and handed a couple of the tablecloths over to Diana. She folded them further, slipped one behind his neck and the other behind the small of his back, and Peter shook out his and started layering them over him. "Lassiter is in cuffs and whining for Tylenol, and the crew is taking care of the evidence. So. Until the ambulance gets here, we're going to keep you warm, comfortable, and calm, and you're going to cooperate with us by staying warm, comfortable, and calm. Sound good?"
Neal managed a shaky laugh. "Sounds like a party."
Then Peter was lowering himself to the ground next to Neal, a solid presence against his side, and Diana was fiddling with the tablecloths on her side before settling in just as close opposite Peter. Anchors, the two of them, or ballasts.
"So," Peter said. "What are we going to talk about?"
"Anything that doesn't involve Lassiter?" Neal suggested. He caught Peter giving Diana a questioning look, and Diana's meaningful nod.
"Pirard?" Diana suggested, and Peter snapped his fingers.
"Pirard. Excellent." He shifted into what Neal hoped was a more comfortable position – the minimal carpeting in the office wasn't doing any of them any favors – and started, "About a year and a half after I arrested you, I was working this Belgian telemarketing fraud..."
And then he launched into a long, convoluted story involving an anonymous tip and planting a bug on a man's dog and fewer telemarketers than one would expect, from a lead-in like that, and at one point broke out into the worst, the worst Belgian accent Neal had ever heard, and it was the kind of story that could make a night in the van bearable. It even made the chemicals in his lungs and the jitter in his heartbeat fade a little from his mind.
He did notice, of course, the way Peter paused slightly too long for effect in places, as though he was listening to the quality of his breathing. And the way Diana's fingers stayed curled against his radial pulse. And the way they both got very quiet whenever he started coughing, and let his tremors sink into them like earthquake dampers.
But none of them mentioned it.
And that was just fine.