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Stranger in a Strange Land

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“Holy crap, Neal you look like crap!” Peter said.

“Thanks, that’s…pithy,” Neal said, standing at his door, slightly bent over and shoulders slumped, like a human comma.

Peter took a step closer and held the back of his hand against Neal’s forehead. “You’re burning up. There’s no way you’re in on the Osman takedown today. We’ll find another way.”

“But we’ve been working that guy for over three months. I’ve been working him for three months.” Neal was aware he was whining. “No one but me can do this.”

“You may have a point. So you’ll reschedule with him. Even bad guys get the flu. Come on, lay down. You look like you’re about to fall over.”

Neal had to admit, he felt like he was about to fall over. He turned on his heel and headed straight for his bed, climbing back under the covers, where he’d been just prior to Peter’s arrival. He settled in, curled up on his side with the blanket pulled up under his chin, trying to suppress the shivers.

“Here, take this,” Peter said, suddenly standing right next to the bed. He held out two Tylenol and a glass of orange juice.

Neal sat up and complied readily, hoping the pills would make him feel better. He ached all over, his head was throbbing, and he felt slightly nauseous. He coughed as he handed the glass back to Peter, who set the half-finished juice down on the nightstand and peered at him owlishly. “How long have you been like this?”

“Woke up this way,” Neal said miserably.

“You hungry?”

Neal shook his head and sank back down under the covers.

“Want me to stay with you?” Neal shook his head again, but after a second, it turned into a nod. He hated being alone when he was sick, especially since a bout of strep in Monaco almost turned lethal.

Peter smiled. “OK. Let me run down and get my briefcase from the car, make a few calls, and I’ll be here for the duration. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”

“ ‘K,” Neal said, and closed his eyes.

----

“Hey, you gonna lie there all day? Come on, get up.”

Someone was shaking him by the shoulder. Neal opened his eyes and peered up at them. “How long have I been out?”

“I dunno, since lunch? You really shouldn’t be burning the candle at both ends so much. All these public appearances are taking a toll.”

Neal shook his head to clear it. Peter was speaking English, but not making sense. “We going to run that Osman sting tonight, Peter?”

Peter looked at him like he’d grown another head. “What are you talking about? That was last week. Come on, we’re done for today. They’ve got to reset for tomorrow’s shooting.”

Neal looked around and suddenly realized something was seriously wrong. He was in his apartment, but it was only half there. There was no ceiling – there were lighting rigs. His kitchen was too far away, his front door was gone, and there was a strange sense of an expansive, warehouse-like building beyond that. A man with a Bluetooth device on his ear and a light meter strolled out onto the terrace and began communicating instructions to whoever was at the other end of his call.

Where the hell was he? He looked over and the only person who might be able to explain it to him was walking away. He scrambled out of bed and hurried to catch up with Peter, who was leaving what was very obviously a movie set that had been set up to look exactly like Neal’s home. He touched him on the shoulder. “Peter, what’s going on?”

Peter turned and gave him another odd look. “Aw, don’t go all Method on me now, Matt. It’s been a long day. Come on, let’s get outta here.”

Neal followed him through what was obviously a film studio, past pieces of sets he recognized as the Burkes’ living room, Peter’s office at the FBI, and – was that Thursday? Peter pushed through a door and they were outside, walking along a wide alley aside an immense building with doors labeled “Studio 6” and “Studio 7.” Neal hurried to catch up, and they eventually came to a line of white trailers sitting under a stand of shade trees.

Peter stopped at the bottom step of one of them; it had been bisected – space seemed to be at a premium. He stood with his hand on the rail, and glanced back at Neal. “See ya later?”

Neal nodded and watched him enter the trailer. As the door slammed shut behind him, Neal noticed a sign on the door said, “Tim Dekay.”

He looked around the area; while there were plenty of people walking around, going about their business, none were close enough to ask a question. He glanced up at the door to the other half of the trailer Peter had disappeared into and saw a sign on the door that said, “Matt Bomer.” Recalling the name Peter had called him earlier, he took a chance that he belonged there. He looked down at himself – he was still wearing his sleep pants and a t-shirt, and he was barefoot. Maybe there would be clothes inside.

He mounted the steps and hauled open the door. The inside was tiny but comfortably furnished, with an overstuffed couch – more like a loveseat, really – some shelves with books and a tiny sound system, a guest chair.

A poster dominated one wall of the trailer, and he was startled to see it was a close-up photo of his own face set against a white background. The caption said, “To catch a thief it helps to be one,” and there was a logo on it that said, “White Collar” and another that said “USA.” He blinked at it, almost not registering what he was seeing. It looked like a movie poster. The caption pretty much described him. Was “White Collar” supposed to be a depiction of him, his life, his situation? Had his life been turned into a movie or something? Was his life a fiction?

He suddenly felt the need to sit down, and he took a seat on the small couch, burying his head in his hands.

Maybe he was dreaming.

But it didn’t feel like a dream. It was too realistic, for one thing, and the timeline too linear - no jumps in time or distance that were the usual hallmarks of his dreams. He chanced pinching himself and only left a bruise. Anyway, if it was a dream, then he’d wake up soon enough – what else was there to do in the interim?

He didn’t know how long it was, but there came a knock at the door. He ignored it. Whoever it was kept it up. “Matt?” a voice called. Female. Unfamiliar. Slightly scratchy. “Matt!”

“Yes?” he answered finally.

The door opened and a young woman entered. She was dressed in black pants and a sweater that had an appliqué of a Scottie dog on it; a gold-plated necklace at her throat read, “Becky.” She was medium-sized, with dark, curly hair and a turned-up nose. She had a Disney World fanny pack around her midsection and a headset and microphone around her head, like she was working the drive-through at Arby’s.

And she was looking at him like he was five and she was his annoyed big sister, made to babysit on the night of the Big Dance. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Uh…”

“We need to get that thtuff back to wardrobe. They’re waiting.” The invisible braces she had on her teeth appeared to be ill-fitted, causing her to lisp. She made a gesture at him that encompassed the clothes he was wearing – sleep pants, and a ratty old Quantico t-shirt he’d stolen from Peter. He sat up and looked down at them, then up at her, puzzled. She gave him a get a move on, buster look, turned on her heel and left, the door slamming behind her.

He looked around and spotted a small closet in the corner inside of which he found a single outfit– jeans and a cotton tee. Expensive designers, Neal noted with passing approval. A black leather jacket, the leather as supple as a baby’s bottom. Also expensive.

He changed into the jeans and tee; found some socks and shoes at the bottom of the closet. He noticed there was a wallet in the inner pocket of the jacket, and he pulled it out. It held a little cash, some credit cards, a California driver’s license with a picture of himself on it. All of these had the name Matthew S. Bomer printed on them.

There was a cell phone on the edge of the coffee table, so he stooped to pick it up and went through this Matt person’s email and contact list. Not a single name was familiar to him; the emails were innocuous, pertaining to schedules and appointments – nothing that gave him much of a clue about who he was supposed to be to these people.

It was surreal, this additional evidence that he was supposed to be someone else laid out so plainly before him. He had originally thought maybe Peter was playing an elaborate joke – he certainly wouldn’t put it past him, and it was probably within his power, if not his budget to stage this ruse. But why?

The door opened a crack and the same young woman was standing there, her back to the opening. “You dethent?” she called.

“Uh, yeah.”

She came through the door and looked at him. He held the clothes out to her mutely. She sighed, located a couple of hangers and hung them up.

“Well, uh, thanks,” he said dismissively. He’d already decided he didn’t like her, and he didn’t need to be nice. She stared at him and actually tapped her foot. “What?” he asked.

She glanced pointedly down at his left ankle. He followed her eyes and realized she was looking at the anklet. She shifted her weight to her right leg, threw her hip out and held her right hand out to him. He stared at her, confused. She rolled her eyes, tossed the clothes across the back of the guest chair and got to her hands and knees in front of him. Grabbing his foot, she hauled it forward, nearly unbalancing him, and unsnapped the anklet’s strap. It opened easily in her hands. She stood, snapped the closure together again, gathered up the clothes, and left.

Neal stood there, staring at his newly anklet-free foot, completely gobsmacked. She had just taken it off. She had unfastened it like it was a watch band or something, and he was free.

He was free.

For the first time in two years, he was free of it, and not because he was working a case for Peter, or heading back to prison. He was. A Free. Man.

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In the end, he decided on neither. Grabbing Matt’s wallet, phone and jacket, he headed for the door. As it slammed shut behind him, he wondered how far Matt’s credit cards would get him. And if this was a dream, he hoped he’d never wake up.

----

Neal found the main exit from Silvercup Studios with little difficulty, turned left and began walking. He’d find the subway and head back into the city, make a plan from there.

“Hey, where ya goin’?” someone asked from behind him and he turned. About thirty feet behind him stood a young, dark-haired man in a well-cut dark suit, leaning against the trunk of a Town Car.

Neal gestured vaguely. “Back to the city.”

“You walkin’?”

“Well, no. I thought I’d get the subway…”

“You high?”

“Uh, no.”

“You sure? Because the last time I checked, I was still your driver.”

“Oh, sorry, sorry!” Neal exclaimed, covering. “I guess I was on another planet. I think I’m coming down with a flu or something.” He walked back to the car and the young man opened the back door for him. He slid across the leather seat and watched as the door was shut behind him.

“You mind if I put on the radio?” his driver asked as he pulled out into traffic. Neal thought he heard the hint of an Eastern European accent. “You're doing your meditation today?”

“What? No – go right ahead.” Neal said, as the driver tuned to a talk radio station set at a low volume.

Neal settled himself into the comfortable leather seats, laid his head back, and closed his eyes. Man, he was tired. Whatever flu bug he was fighting still had a hold of him and he was looking forward to lying down for a while. It suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea where he’d be going to get that rest, exactly. If Neal Caffrey didn’t exist in this – what should he call it, a reality, a world, an alternate universe? – then it stood to reason that June didn’t either.

He opened his eyes and noticed they were in stop-and-go traffic on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Well, at least Matt lived in Manhattan. He thought he might crash at his place for a few hours and see what presented itself to him as a plan when he felt a little better. Meanwhile, the sun was shining on his head through the window, warming him and making him sleepy. He closed his eyes and let it lull him to sleep.

----

“Here we are, Matt. Home, sweet home.”

Neal started at the driver’s words, sat up, blinking sleep out of his eyes. “I’m up!”

“Yes, you are.” The driver got up and opened Neal’s door for him. As Neal got out, he noticed the man’s NY Taxi and Limousine Commission license displayed on the dashboard, saw the man’s name – Andre Popov – beside his picture. At least he had a name for the man. “So – usual time tomorrow?” Andre asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

“All righty. You have a good one, OK?”

“You too, Andre. Thanks for everything.”

Neal turned and looked up at the building he’d been brought to – one of the newer skyscrapers in Battery Park City. He jangled the keys he had found earlier in his jeans pocket and vaguely wondered which apartment was his. Luckily, it didn’t take long for that information to be presented to him.

“Evening, Mr. Bomer,” said the doorman as he entered.

“Hey there, you...”

“You got a package today – you want to wait for it, or should I bring it up later?”

“I’ll take it now.” The man went to a tiny secure room behind his desk and emerged with a flat box that looked to be about 12”x12” and maybe 6 inches high, and handed it over. Neal smiled at him and slipped him a fifty. “Thanks!” he said as Neal wandered over to the elevators.

Neal let himself into apartment 1205 and stopped short right at the doorway. He leaned back out into the hallway to double check the number, then shook his head – if the key fit…

The space was larger than he’d have expected, open plan with a loft overhead that must have held the bedroom. If he had to sum the place up in a word, that word would be…grey. The walls were painted a very pale dove grey, the floors were stained black. The kitchen, which held every modern convenience, sported black marble counters and all stainless steel appliances. The furniture in the living room was upholstered with a grey suede, the walls held black and white art photographs. He whistled, low, wondering about his doppelganger, but then reasoned the décor was a matter between Matt and his therapist, maybe.

He closed the door and crossed over to the kitchen, depositing the package on the counter and heading for the fridge. He grabbed a bottle of water from the door and downed half of it in one gulp; he must have been dehydrated from being sick. Running his hand through his hair, he looked around, spotted an answering machine on the counter with a blinking number 1 on it. Taking another swig of water, he pressed the play button.

”Maaatt, honey, it’s your Momma,” an entirely unfamiliar voice said. She had an accent of some sort…Southern, maybe, or Texan.

“Listen, your Gee-maw saw you on the TV last week,” she put the accent on the “T” in “TV,” he noticed with amusement, ”and she said she thought you were looking too thin?” He also noticed that she ended most sentences on an up-note, so that they sounded like questions.

”Well, I told her that that’s just the way it has to be these days, but you know how she is? So…don’t be surprised if she sends you a little care package in the mail. I tried to stop her. You can probably just share it with your friends, but don’t forget to call her, darlin’, she works so hard?”

Even though this wasn’t his mother, Neal found himself rolling his eyes a little at the reminder to practice good manners.

”OK, darlin’, I’d better go…Bunco tonight! Talk to you on Sunday? Love ya to bits!”

The message ended, and Neal’s finger hovered over the Erase button, but he didn’t press it. Instead he hit Play once more, a slight smile playing over his lips as he listened. Matt had a mom, one that called to tell him to call his grandmother and thank her for her gifts. It was a long time since he’d thought of his own mother, a long time. He wished this was the type of relationship they had. He let the message play out, then hit Save.

He glanced around the apartment and was again struck by how tired and worn out he felt. This place might not be his idea of the perfect home, but it’d do for the time being. He began to root through the cabinets looking for something to eat and maybe something a little stronger than water to ease his slumbers.

“Huh,” he commented when he completed his kitchen recon. While it would be unfair to deem the cupboards “bare,” they certainly weren’t overflowing with what Neal would call food. The fridge was stocked with what looked like an entire rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetable juices, with labels that read “Royal Flush” and “Beet It” and – he almost couldn’t believe this one: “Soygasm” – from what he assumed to be a local juice bar. There was little else except water, tofu and fruit to be found in the fridge, and the cupboards were similarly filled. If there was a carb in the joint, Neal was hard-pressed to find it, and it seemed that alcohol was also strictly verboten – the wine glasses were still in their boxes.

Neal sighed, and began to think that maybe Gee-Maw had a point. He wondered if his favorite Thai place still existed in this “reality,” but was spared the heartbreak of learning one way or another by a knock on the door.

“Pe…uh, Tim! Hi. How, uh, how’s it going?”

Tim stood there with a brown paper bag in one hand and a sheaf of papers rolled up in the other. “Got the new pages for tomorrow. Feel like running lines with me?”

“Uhh…”

“Great!” he said and strode into the apartment on his long legs. Neal shook his head as he closed the door – apparently, Peter showed up unannounced in this reality too. Wait, no – Tim. His name was Tim.

“Can I get you anything?”

Tim glanced at the fridge and failed to effectively suppress a look of revulsion over what he clearly knew was to be found inside. He lifted the bag. “Brought my own!” He headed for the living room and sat down on one of the couches, reached inside the bag and pulled out a beer. He set the bag down on the floor without offering one to Neal, who surmised the offer must have been rejected in the past, and he was past the point of offering. He grabbed another bottle of water and joined the man in the living room.

He glanced down at the pages Tim pressed into his hands. He’d never really seen a television script before, and it was a little strange to see his name printed on there as if he was a fictional character. He skimmed the content, the stage directions embedded in there. The scene was apparently one that was to take place in the conference room at the FBI. Peter had most of the lines…it seemed they were looking into another art forgery case…this one a Gustav Courbet painting that had apparently been on loan to the National Gallery, and whose owner intended to sell for some quick cash.

“Huh, Courbet painting, huh?” Neal said.

Tim rifled through the script. “Looks like it.”

“Does it say which one?”

La Grotte de la Loue,” Tim said in mangled French.

“Huh.”

“That significant?” Tim took a drag at his beer.

“Just a, um, really good example of Realism,” Neal said lamely, covering. In truth, he was trying not to let his concern show to his guest.

La Grotte de la Loue was a painting he had forged years ago, which Alex had broken into the owner’s collection to swap for the original, and which currently adorned the wall of a Japanese rice tycoon’s home in Osaka. They’d each made a ton of cash off the job, but now that the forgery might be coming to light, it complicated matters for Neal. The statute of limitations for stolen art began when the theft was discovered, not when it occurred.

“Well, let’s get started, shall we?”

They went through their lines for a few minutes, and eventually Neal was too distracted to really continue. His lines in the scene were minimal, so he wasn’t concerned; what really mattered was finding out how much Peter knew about the forged painting. “This isn’t working for me,” he hedged, and got up to stretch his legs.

“I’m sorry!”

“Huh?”

“It’s me,” Tim said unhappily. Neal turned to look at him. His shoulders were slumped and he was rubbing at the back of his neck. “I suck.”

“What?”

“I’ve been phoning it in all week. I just haven’t been feeling it. Man, I suck!” He got up and began to pace.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“That’s easy for you to say, you’re the star of the show!”

“You play a, uh, very integral –“

“Eastin’ll kill me off, I just know it.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“He hates me.”

“No one hates you.” Neal couldn’t believe they were having this conversation. Tim was pacing back and forth, rubbing the palm of his left hand with the thumb of his right. “You are a talented and, um, powerful actor. That thing you did last week? With the guy?”

“That last scene with Ross?”

Neal pointed at him. “That’s it! Mesmerizing.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you think so. It gets so easy to get down on myself sometimes.”

“Don’t let the stress get to you, buddy,” Neal said sincerely, and put a hand on his upper arm. This man may not be Peter, but he wore the face of his friend, and it was hard not to engage. “You hungry?”

Tim’s mood brightened. “Starving! The usual?”

“Sure.”

Turned out Matt’s “usual” involved steamed chicken and vegetables from a local Chinese place, with the sauce on the side, and no rice. And he was not surprised to find that even the man’s dishes were grey.

Later, after a bit more line-running and a lot more reassuring Tim that he was a talented and worthy member of the cast, Neal saw his guest to the door and said goodnight.

He was about to head up to the loft to get some sleep when he spotted the package he’d received earlier in the evening on the counter. Grabbing a box cutter he found in a drawer, he slit it open and had a look. Carefully wrapped in layers of plastic wrap, then nestled in a bed of bubble wrap and shredded paper packing lay nothing short of a miracle: a home-made pecan pie.

“Thanks, Gee-Maw,” Neal said appreciatively, glancing over the hand-written note that accompanied it and carefully removing the pie from the box. Snagging one of the beers Tim had left behind “for next time,” he grabbed a fork, sat down and ate half the pie in one sitting.

----

Tired. So, so tired, Neal thought as he trudged up the stairs to the loft that comprised Matt’s bedroom and master bath. The bathroom, unsurprisingly, was also done in shades of grey, white, black, with brushed silver accents. He took a quick shower, found an unused toothbrush and brushed his teeth and padded into the bedroom, a towel around his hips, looking for something to sleep in.

A vibrant splash of color caught his eye and he looked up. Hanging on one of the bedroom walls, set off by a tiny spotlight, was what appeared to be a Frank Stella painting. Neal approached it slowly, almost reverently, taking in the lines and use of color. When he was right next to it, he leaned in to examine it further - the brushstrokes, signature – all seemed completely authentic. He whistled, low, impressed. Either the television business paid well or Mr. Matt Bomer had other talents.

He lay in bed staring at the painting with an appreciation approaching awe, and his dreams were filled with color and light.

----

BRRRR-RRRING

“Aauuugh, what the fuck?!” Neal complained, suddenly awake.

BRRRR-RRRING

His mobile was ringing from its spot on the nightstand. He opened a single eye and looked around the room. Whatever disappointment he felt at still being in the midst of whatever nightmare this was was outstripped by the fact that it was still dark outside.

BRRRR-RRRING

He turned over and snatched the thing up. Andre it said. 5:00 am, it also said.

“Gwuh?” he answered.

“Man, where are you?”

“Sleeping, I’m sleeping.”

“You better get your ass down here, or you will be late.”

“Really?”

“Don’t make me come up there.”

Neal hung up the phone and burrowed back under the covers.

BRRRR-RRRING

“I know you didn’t just fall back to sleep!” Andre scolded, and Neal hung and got dressed.

“Good morning, sunshine!” Andre said cheerfully when he got to the car, and handed him a Starbucks cup.

“What’s this?” Neal asked darkly, expecting the worst.

“Your usual,” Andre replied and opened the door.

Neal almost shuddered to think of what it might be, but this time his usual turned out to be regular coffee with milk and no sugar. He nearly wept with gratitude. He had slept like a rock, but woke up still feeling fuzzy-headed and achy.

The sky was brightening by the time they reached the studio in Queens. Once inside, Neal began to head back toward where he remembered his trailer being, but Andre called after him. “Where do you think you’re going? Hair and makeup is that way.” He pointed in the opposite direction.

“Hair and makeup?”

Andre waved his hand palm out in front of Neal, as if encompassing his entire being. “Mr. Matt Bomer, he needs the hair and makeup today, you feel me?”

“I, um, yes, I 'feel' you.”

He trudged off and was saved having to ask directions by the sound of a familiar voice. “There you are, buddy!” Tim said, greeting him with a wide and friendly smile. “Here.” He shoved a sheaf of papers into Neal’s hands.

“What’s this?”

“New pages. They were busy last night in LA.” Tim opened the door for him. “Hey, aren’t you late today? I thought you like to get the hydrating eye mask before we hit the set? Helps with the puffiness.”

“What?” Neal asked incredulously and looked at himself in a nearby mirror. “My eyes aren’t puffy.”

“Whatever. Hi, Janine!” One of the women in the trailer smiled and approached the chair that Tim was settling himself into.

“You ready for me, Matt?” said a quiet voice behind him.

He turned in place – the trailer was too small and cramped for him to do otherwise – and found he couldn’t breathe suddenly. The petite brunet standing in front of him had pale skin and the most beautiful hazel eyes he had ever seen. She had her dark hair pulled back and tied into a haphazard bun with a length of leather cord, an earring through her left eyebrow, and a delicate tattoo of a flower on the swell of her right breast. She bit her lip as she peered up at him, an expectant look on her face. She was beautiful, and almost the complete opposite of his “type,” and he didn’t care.

“I’m ready, yes,” he answered, but what he really meant was, please marry me. He shook his head; this flu bug was clearly robbing him of some of his mental faculties.

She indicated the chair beside Tim and he stumbled over. Tim was chatting away with Janine – innocuous chit chat about spouses and kids, and Neal figured he ought to do the same with the young woman who was working on him, but he was at a loss for words for perhaps the first time in his life.

She started with his hair – were curling irons really necessary? – leaning over him, the deep V-neck of the simple t-shirt she wore revealing ever more tantalizing glimpses of her breasts. He didn’t want to be accused of staring, so he closed his eyes, but her perfume – honeysuckles – invaded his nostrils and he found himself leaning closer to get more of it.

She moved on to applying his makeup, running a sponge over his skin so lightly, it felt like angel’s kisses. He watched her, the way her eyes crossed slightly as she concentrated, the way she bit her lip, the fullness of that lip; he wanted to taste it, taste her. He imagined he could.

He was suddenly very thankful for the script pages he held, and made sure they were covering his lap.

“All done,” she said with a shy smile, and turned to tidy up her station.

He turned his head to look at himself in the mirror. Aside from the fact the freckles on his nose were only slightly less prominent, he looked exactly the same as he always did.

“The magic of television,” he said, bewildered.

“Ready to head to wardrobe?” Tim asked, stood and left.

Neal got up and followed reluctantly. He paused at the bottom of the stairs to the trailer, realizing he didn’t know the young woman’s name.

“Matt, come on, we’re gonna be late to set!”

Neal trotted to catch up. “Sorry.”

“You OK? You’ve hardly said three words all morning.”

“Yeah, no, I’m fine. I’m fighting his bug –“

“Don’t you like the new girl?”

“Who?”

“The makeup girl, Daisy. Don’t you like her?”

Daisy “I like her fine.”

“You barely talked to her.

“Like I said –“

“Janine thinks she’s got a crush on you.”

“Really?” He stopped walking and glanced hopefully back toward the makeup trailer.

“Oh – here we are.”

They were back at their trailers where a woman with some clothes on racks waited for them. She followed Neal inside his trailer, some clothes over her arm, and he was disconcerted to see some of his favorite pieces among them. He accepted them, waited for her to leave, and changed quickly. When he emerged, the bossy young woman from the night before was waiting for him, a fedora in one hand and his tracker in the other.

“You’re late,” she pointed out with a scowl, glancing at her watch.

“I’m sorry…”

She made an annoyed sound and tapped her foot as he bent to affix the tracker to his left ankle. When he stood up, Tim was emerging from his side of the trailer.

“Morning, Becky,” he said with a pleasant smile.

“Morning, Tim!” she fairly sang. Neal noticed how she stood up straighter in Tim’s presence, flicked her hair with her right hand nervously. She was clearly flirting with him. “How are you today?” She handed him Peter’s wedding ring and watch, smiling the whole time.

“I’m very well. I hope I’m not late,” he said with a small frown.

“Right on time, jutht like alwayth. But they’re expecting you on thet thoon. Better hurry.”

“Aw, you’re so kind to keep me on my toes. See you later, Becky.” She beamed and flounced off.

“Fawning toady,” Tim muttered, and in that moment Neal realized how much he liked Mr. Tim Dekay.

----

Neal sat on a set that, if he looked at it from a particular angle, was almost completely unlike the conference room at the FBI’s White Collar unit. The glass walls were movable, and the crew had been doing just that all morning as the director lined up different shots of the scene. It seemed like they’d filmed it 100 times, each time from a different perspective, to get one person’s line, then their reaction to another. He no longer knew what exactly was supposed to be happening.

He did think he’d gotten the hang of the acting, though. It wasn’t hard, actually – he was playing himself. But somewhere inside it felt fake, like he was mugging for the cameras. He hoped it didn’t come across that way.

“I bloody well don’t care! Tell him he can fuck himself sideways!”

Neal turned his head as Diana – strike that: Marsha - strolled onto the set, cell phone pressed to her ear. He still could not believe that she was British, and her broad Manchester accent was made even more pronounced by the animated conversation she was having.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Tell him I said –“ She paused as the person on the other side spoke. “That fucking fucker,” she commented. “Yeah…. Yeah, but... Of course I told him that, I’m not completely fucking daft…..Yeees.”

Neal tried not to hear, but she was standing right behind him with only one of the sliding glass partitions separating them.

“Fine, fine,” she continued, smiling and nodding at Neal when she caught sight of him. “Can you just tell him I said to do it, but quick, and if not, I’ll fucking sue his arse ten times to next Sunday? Only nicer? Yeah? OK. Thanks, Mum.”

She switched off her phone and came to sit across the conference table from Neal. She rolled her eyes. “Contractors!” she said to him as if he understood. “You hear the news? We got picked up for another two seasons.”

He had not. Where would he hear these things? He belatedly thought of Matt’s cell phone, which he’d left in his trailer. “That’s great.”

“I know, now I can put in that swimming pool I was after. I guess they’re going to have to invent new ways to keep Neal Caffrey around, eh?”

“What do you mean?”

“The writers – they need to figure a reason for Neal to stay around with the FBI. His agreement’s almost up - he’s not gonna just hang about. They have to make him do something bad so they extend his sentence or something.”

“Can’t they just ask him to stay?”

“What?”

“What if the FBI just asks Neal to stay? He might want to.” Neal wanted to.

“Don’t be daft. Why’d he stick around? To get shot at week after week?”

“Or, you know, to contribute. To be with his friends.” He was aware he sounded defensive, but he couldn’t help it.

She looked at him like he’d sprouted an extra head.

He was about to explain when Tim and Sharif came on set. Tim looked around. “We early?”

“It appears so,” Marsha answered. “We were just discussing the renewal.”

Tim beamed. “It’s great, isn’t it? I guess my kids get to go to college after all.” They all laughed.

“The good part is that Eastin can plan longer story arcs, tell bigger stories,” Sharif said.

“You’re such an ass-kiss,” Marsha chided.

“How is taking an interest in the plot of our show kissing ass? Anyway, I heard this ep’s gonna be a doozy – the finale to end all finales.”

“Yeah? When do we get to find that out? We only have to play it,” Tim said with a laugh.

“You know how they are out in LA. Ya gotta give ‘em time,” Sharif said.

“But how much time?” Marsha asked. “Come hell or high water, this season’s shooting is over by this time next week. Some of us have other fucking projects to prepare for.”

“And kitchen remodels?” Tim teased, and she laughed.

“Come on, let’s not rush things. You’ve got to admit the writers know what they’re doing most of the time. I mean, did anyone see it coming when Keller kidnapped Elizabeth? Not me.”

Neal was feeling increasingly upset by this conversation. Some of the most essential and painful incidents in his life were mere plot points to these people. He didn’t know what this place was, he didn’t know if it was all a dream or some alternate universe where his fate and that of all his friends were being controlled by some unseen mystery being named Eastin, and he didn’t know why he was here.

What he did know was that from the glimpses of the script he’d seen, it was clear his role in the Courbet forgery would be coming back to bite him in the ass pretty soon, and it was freaking him out. And if this “reality” reflected - or worse, exerted some control over – his own, he needed to know what would happen, needed to use whatever he could learn here to prevent whatever consequences he was going to have to face.

He needed to see the rest of that damn script!

These thoughts made his head swim. Well, that and the fever he’d been fighting off the last couple of days. He laid his head down on his arms on the conference table and closed his eyes with a frustrated sigh.

----

The rest of the day’s shooting revolved around more scenes in the FBI offices. Nothing really important seemed to be happening – Tim called it padding. By the time Neal found himself on his way back to his trailer, all he wanted to do was lie down and maybe die. His head was pounding, he was exhausted, and he knew he had a temperature.

“There you are, mon frère. I was beginning to despair of ever seeing you today.”

Neal thought his heart might be leaping for joy. That, or the burrito he’d dogged down on the sly from craft services was coming back to haunt him.

“Happy to see you too,” he said with a relieved smile. If Mozzie were here, he reasoned, things couldn’t be all that bad. Not anymore. “I have had the nuttiest couple of days.”

“Do explain.”

“I don’t know if I can, properly. Suffice to say, I haven’t quite felt like myself.”

“You were looking a bit ill the other day. You run yourself ragged, too often. I think you give them too much, I really do.”

Neal gave him a don’t go there look and sat down on the couch opposite him. He leaned forward and removed the tracker, held it up. “And look at that. It looks so flimsy here.”

“As long as it looks good on camera, what does it matter?”

Neal blinked at him and could feel a heat rising on the back of his neck. “I guess not,” he said hollowly.

“Listen, say you’ll reconsider about dinner tonight. You know how much Iman and David love you.”

Iman and David?

“No, no. Thanks for inviting me, but I – I’m just feeling so run down.” He could feel his throat tightening, the disappointment affecting him more than he wanted to show. Of course this wasn’t really Moz. Why would it be?

“Next time, then.” The man who was not quite Moz rose, took a step towards him and put a hand on his shoulder. “You sure you’re OK, Matt?” he asked kindly.

Neal closed his eyes. “I will be.”

The man smiled at him and left. Neal lay down on the couch in the fetal position until Becky came to yell at him for his clothes.

----

 

Neal barely slept that night. He was restless, disjointed, lost. He rooted around in a cabinet in the living room and found Matt’s DVD collection, within it a copy of “White Collar, Season 1.”

He wished he hadn’t watched it.

It covered most of his early partnership with Peter, from the time he’d escaped from prison to search for Kate. To see her again, alive, was almost as much of a shock as seeing some of the scenes between Peter and Elizabeth he didn’t know had happened. To see how worried Peter got every time it seemed like the higher ups might send Neal back to prison – it touched him, and it made him feel a little guilty and a lot homesick for his friends, all at the same time.

He watched until the story got to the case where he was framed for the theft of the pink diamond at Le Joyau Precieux – the one where he’d first met Fowler, the one where he had mistakenly deduced that Peter was behind Kate’s abduction - and just had to put a stop to it. He knew where it was going, and he didn’t want to see it. He couldn’t live through Kate’s death again in high definition and living color.

If he were at home, he’d have poured himself a large brandy or six and called it a night, but he wasn’t, and he was living in the apartment of a monk, and so he just tossed and turned until about 3:30 when he fell into a deep sleep that was mercilessly cut short by the alarm he’d set on his phone for 5:00 am.

He sat on the couch with the tv off, waiting for Andre, but he didn’t arrive until 6:30. He was going to have to figure out Matt’s schedule so he could get a decent night’s sleep. He’d run a fever the night before, and felt like hell. He wondered if he could ask for a day off.

He sat up as he realized the car was heading uptown instead of to Queens. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Rockefeller Center. You’re booked on the Today Show, remember?”

“Oh?”

“Don’t sound so excited. There’s a walk-on on the Plaza at 8:15 and then you’re on with Kathie Lee and Hoda at 9:20.”

“Why leaving so early?” Neal could barely form coherent sentences.

“You know this business, hurry up and wait. They want you there at 7:00.”

Neal watched placidly as the city passed by the windows of his car. It was a beautiful summer morning, with golden light making the dew in the grass sparkle, the kind of light that made every color pop, and made him fairly itch to paint it. And that made him feel so lonely and lost he almost couldn’t breathe.

“Hey, do you mind coming inside with me?” he said as Andre parked the car. “I could really use a friend in there.”

Andre nodded. “Sure thing, Matt. You sure you’re OK?”

“Everybody keeps asking me that.”

Neal barely registered the first appearance. He arrived in a small dressing room to find a set of clothes had already been left for him (what was wrong with what he was wearing?), so he changed and sat as a makeup woman blithely prepped him for the appearance.

He was directed to walk out onto the Plaza and do a quick meet and greet with the show’s hosts. He met Al Roker (shorter in person than he’d expected), Ann Currie (utterly stunning) and Matt Lauer (who seemed kind of douchey). They asked him innocuous questions and he gave innocuous answers and it was over in two minutes. He retreated to the relative safety of his dressing room and waited until he was told what else he had to do. He was bone tired.

“WHERE IS HE?” said a loud, booming voice out in the hall.

Neal jumped – he’d dozed off. He glanced over at Andre, who sat on the couch reading Variety. “Uh-oh,” Andre said.

Uh-oh?

“THERE HE IS! MATT, IT IS SO GREAT TO SEE YOU AGAIN.”

Neal hoped the panic he was feeling wasn’t written on his face. “Hi, Kathie Lee. Lovely to –“

She cut him off by sweeping into the room and pulling him into her arms in a bear hug he wouldn’t have thought a woman her size capable of. “OH, YOU FEEL SO GOOOOOD,” she said, finally releasing him. He noticed, though, that she stayed a bit too much into his personal space. He took a subtle step backwards. She started rubbing his arm, prodding his bicep with her fingertips.

“Is that Matt?” said Hoda Kotbe from the doorway. Neal thought she wasn’t just making conversation – it was a legitimate question.

“OF COURSE IT IS, YOU OLD DRUNK! HE WAS JUST ON LAST MONTH, DON’T YOU REMEMBER?”

“Sure, sure, sure,” she replied and toddled off on four inch heels Neal thought might be the end of her one day.

“CONGRATULATIONS ON THE SHOW BEING PICKED UP! THAT’S GREAT NEWS. MEANS YOU’LL BE BACK IN NEW YORK NEXT SUMMER.”

“Yeah, it’s great,” Neal said uncomfortably. Kathie Lee’s hand had migrated and was now rubbing circles against the small of his back. “Great to be a part of something so popular with the audience.” He thought he’d heard George Clooney say that once, and it had worked with Roker, so he decided that was his go-to line of the day.

“I’LL SAY. YOU’RE JUST BLOWING UP ALL OVER THE PLACE, AREN’T YOU? SAW THAT PICTURE OF YOU IN LAST MONTH’S HARPER’S – ROWR!”

“Uh, thanks. I’m happy to have the opportun – hey!” He jumped as she literally threw herself at him, one hand around his back, the other snaking down towards his crotch.

“Matt!”

“Kathie Lee!" he said, trying to squirm out of her arms, but she had the grip of a baby spider monkey. "You’re a married woman!”

“Who has needs. Come on, my husband is, like, a million…gimme some sugar!”

“OK! I’d say the pre-interview is over,” Andre said calmly, suddenly standing beside them. Kathie Lee extricated herself and stood back, smoothing her hair. Neal noticed she had a predatory gleam in her eye.

“WELL, SEE YOU ON SET, MATT. LOVELY TO SEE YOU AGAIN! GIVE MY LOVE TO TIM.”

She left and Neal had to physically suppress a shudder. He glanced at Andre, who raised his eyebrows at him. “Wow, she’s, um, enthusiastic.”

“The word ‘cougar’ doesn’t cover it.”

Thankfully, the interview went off without further drama (Neal was relieved to see that Hoda was the one sitting next to him), and he and Andre were back on set by 10:30.

----

“You’re late!” Becky snapped at him the second he was on set.

“I had an interview!”

“I’ve got my eye on you!” She gave him the stinkeye and stalked away.

“Did I pee in her Cheerios or something?” Neal wondered out loud.

“We’ve got your wardrobe over here, if you’re ready, Matt,” Daisy said with a shy smile and Neal quieted immediately, biting his lip. He walked meekly over to her and took the clothes from her. She turned away from him and went back to making up an extra and Neal stood there uncertainly, watching her.

“Get dressed, moron!” Becky called nastily from behind a piece of the set and he ducked into the small changing room that was set up nearby. He emerged dressed in an outfit much like the one he’d been wearing – he still failed to see why it all mattered – and proceeded to sit around and wait with the rest of the cast and crew as the lighting techs worked out some tricky bit of business with the director. Daisy had disappeared, so he had no hope of striking up a conversation with her.

At last, everything was ready, and Neal found that the scene about to be shot involved Peter and Elizabeth, alone, in their dining room. He stood on the edge of the set as the scene was shot from numerous angles, watching as the three dogs that apparently had the job of being Satchmo were trotted in and out of the scene to sit placidly at Tim’s feet on cue.

Watching them laughing between takes, he almost felt like he was home again, with his friends, and he realized how acutely he missed them. The realization hit him like a wave at the beach, like a physical blow, and maybe it was his exhaustion or the bug he had that refused to become the flu or just go away, but he suddenly felt a need to sit down.

He left the scene behind, wandered through Peter’s office, something that resembled an interrogation room, and finally found his way back to the set he’d first encountered – his own apartment. He sank onto his couch with a groan he was embarrassed to have emitted, placed his hand over his eyes and massaged his own forehead with the fingertips of his right hand.

He didn’t know how long he sat there – he thought he fell asleep again – and when he woke, he found Elizabeth Burke – Tiffani, her name was Tiffani – standing in the doorway to his apartment (set), looking at him curiously.

“Hi,” he said wearily.

“Hey,” she replied. She came over and sat down on the couch sideways, tucking her legs beneath her and taking his hand in both of hers. She cradled it in her palm and stroked the back of it with the fingertips of her other hand, tracing random shapes and swirls there. He found it strangely soothing.

“What’s wrong?” she asked after several minutes.

He sighed and shook his head, but did not answer her, merely stayed in the position he was in, head resting on the back of the couch, legs stretched out in front of him. He couldn’t have answered if he wanted to; there were too many things wrong for him to even begin to voice them, and what was he supposed to say to her? That he was the embodiment of the fictional character who was the protagonist of the show she worked on, stuck here by some twist in the universe, doomed to endure endless hours of makeup and wardrobe and groping by morning talk show hostesses? He realized there were tears in his eyes, but he no longer cared to hide them. “I’m lost,” he finally said.

“Tell me all about it,” she replied, turning his hand over in hers and massaging his palm with both her thumbs.

“Lately I don’t feel at all like myself. It’s like I’m a complete fraud. I’m not at home in my own skin.”

She smiled at him, but her eyes were thoughtful, and he swore he was talking to El. “Oh, honey, that’s normal. But why all of a sudden? What’s changed?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I’ve been dropped out of the sky, like I don’t fit. It’s not something I’m used to. I can usually adapt to anything,” he said sadly.

She nodded, lowered his hand but held onto it; he squeezed hers back. “Matt, that’s just an unfortunate side effect of doing a weekly television show. The days are long and tiring, and it takes so much out of you. It doesn’t help that we’re all here in New York away from our homes and families, everything that’s familiar.

“But when you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you pick up a few tricks. To keep you sane. What you need to do is find something that centers you, reminds you of who you are, where you come from. For me, it’s my wedding ring – I don’t ever use the prop ring they give me. I use my own, and when I look at it, I know I’ve got a husband and family back home who are waiting for me to call, and who will love me whether I flub my lines or what. You just need to find that thing – let it be your anchor. What makes you feel like you’re you? Like you’re real? Once you have that, you’ll never forget again.”

“You’re right. I have needed that something.” He shifted in his seat and when he did, he caught a glimpse of the prop tracker sitting on his ankle. And now that he was looking at the thing – lighter than his, flimsier – he found he missed the real thing. Rather, he missed what it represented to him…home, his commitment to work side-by-side with Peter to right whatever wrongs he could.

The anklet was, in fact, his anchor, his tether. And he realized suddenly that while anchors could be seen as something that weighed you down, they also kept you moored. Safe. Safe from floating away, safe from the rocks that lay beneath the surface if you strayed too close to the shallows. In so many ways, it had come to symbolize him and his journey in life, and he hadn’t even noticed. And now it might all be gone from him. Again, he felt almost unbearably lonely and alone.

“I’d better be getting back. There’s no way those dogs are going to last the afternoon!”

He blinked slowly at her, taking comfort in her presence, her calming influence – Tiffani, like Elizabeth, was a beautiful and kind person. “Thanks, El,” he said quietly as she got up to go, and if she noticed his slip-up, she didn’t say anything.

He closed his eyes and could feel the tell-tale heat behind his lids that meant the fever was coming back. He sighed – this fact made him feel even sorrier for himself, and suddenly he was riding a spiral of self-pity that almost stole his breath. What a fool he’d been – how long ago was it now, only two days? – thinking he was finally free of the tracker, his sentence, his obligations. He now realized it really meant that he was free of his life, and he wanted that back now more than anything.

His reverie was interrupted by a familiar and hateful voice. “How did I know I’d find you lying around, doing nothing?” He hadn’t heard Becky’s approach.

How easily his sorrow turned to anger. He stood up abruptly, ignored the dizziness that motion brought on, and got right in her face. “What exactly is your problem with me? Have I offended you? Kicked your puppy? Am I the dirty rat that killed your brother?“

She looked up at him, eyes wide and face pale. Neal was willing to bet that, like many a bully, she’d never been confronted on her behavior. “No!”

“Then what?!” He was suddenly aware he was looming over her and took a step back, then another.

“I…I…” she closed her mouth abruptly, unable to say it. He gave her a foul look. “I never liked Brythe Larkin!” she finally said, as if it were a deep and painful confession.

“What? Who?”

“Brythe Larkin? The character you played on Chuck?” she answered condescendingly. He raised an eyebrow and she backed off on the attitude. “I never liked him – he was thuch a Mary Thue.”

Neal didn’t know how to respond to that. “I don’t know how to respond to that,” he told her.

She was staring at her pink Minnie Mouse Keds. “I wath a Chuck/Tharah shipper from the beginning. I shouldn’t take that out on you and I’m thorry.”

“Uh, you’re damn right.”

“We should keep thingth professional, it wath wrong of me. Can we work together without thith thing between us?”

Neal thought she must be insane, but decided to let it go. “Sure.” He shook the damp, clammy hand she proffered and tried to give her a smile.

“I’ve got the last pages of the script for you,” she told him, and pulled a sheaf of papers out of her clipboard.

“These are the final ones?” he asked, holding them so tightly the beds of his fingernails were whitening. He’d learn what happened in there – what happened to him, to Peter.

“Yeah. Mr. Eathtin wath up all night polishing. It’th good. Juithy. You’ll love it.” She walked away and he sat back down on his couch to read them.

The pages detailed two scenes – one between Neal and Osman. “Osman?” Neal said aloud, alarmed, wishing now he’d taken a look at the script for the scenes that had been shot before he’d arrived here. The man’s name always filled him with dread – he was powerful and ruthless, and Neal had spent half his criminal career trying not to have dealings with him. The fact that he’d had the FBI backing him up the last couple of months he was undercover never filled him with confidence. He read on.

OSMAN

If we’re going to have a deal, Mr. Caffrey, there will be a few stipulations.

NEAL

I would expect nothing less.

OSMAN

I need you to be wholly mine. Without other obligations or entanglements.

NEAL

Smiles winningly

You’ll be my only client.

OSMAN

I was referring to your connection to the FBI. While it’s had its usefulness to me in the past, I will need you to sever all ties.

NEAL

Licks lips nervously

That’s easier said than done.

OSMAN

And yet I am resolute on this matter. There is no going forward without it. Your FBI handler is smart, adept at reading you, finding you, and I’m afraid that tendency is a complication I cannot entertain for this project.

NEAL

I can give him the slip easily. I’ve done it before.

OSMAN

Gestures to long CASE sitting on nearby desk, walks over to it.

I had something more permanent in mind.

Opens CASE. There is a SNIPER RIFLE inside.

I need you to kill Peter Burke.

FADE

EXT. ROOFTOP DAY

NEAL has set up the SNIPER RIFLE. He watches the street below. PETER emerges from a restaurant. NEAL sights PETER along the RIFLE’S scope. He is aiming at his chest.

EXT. STREET DAY

PETER pauses just outside the door of the restaurant. He is joined by ELIZABETH.

ELIZABETH

Well, that was nice. Thanks for taking the time to see me in the middle of your busy day, hon.

PETER

It is always my pleasure.

They kiss.

EXT ROOFTOP SAME
NEAL pulls the scope away, surprised to see ELIZABETH is with PETER. He seems to be reluctant to do this. Below, PETER has done embracing ELIZABETH. They are about to part. NEAL is running out of time. He sights along the scope, lines up the shot, closes his eyes and fires.

EXT. STREET SAME
Chaos erupts as PETER goes down. People scatter. Some bystanders point to where the shot has come from.

EXT ROOFTOP SAME
The rooftop is empty. NEAL has gone.

EXT. STREET SAME
CLOSEUP of PETER’S face pulls back to reveal ELIZABETH at his side, grief stricken.

FADE TO BLACK

Neal read the pages twice, convinced he’d missed something important, but no. No, there it was in black and white – the script had him shooting Peter. The script for a show that seemed to be very accurate at depicting his life showed him killing his best friend.

He stumbled to his kitchen and was noisily sick in the sink. He straightened, felt a sudden chill as a clammy sweat broke out on his face, down his back. Revolted, he backed away from the sink and stumbled away from the set, heading back the way he’d come earlier. He needed to get somewhere he could think things through, somewhere he could concentrate.

As he walked, cast and crew members gave him strange looks. One of the grips made a gun with his fingers and shot at him, winking, smiling. Clearly he’d seen or heard about the script. Neal couldn’t share in his jollity. All he knew was that he had to get out of there.

His route to the exit took him back toward the sets of the Burkes’ home. Tim and Tiffani were sitting on the couch, laughing with a crew member as Daisy touched up Tiffani’s lipstick. Tim waved when he spotted him, gave a huge smile. Neal kept walking. He couldn’t see him, couldn’t talk to this man with the face of his friend, yet he wasn’t his friend. He was Matt’s friend.

Still, he couldn’t look him in the eyes knowing what he was apparently capable of, even If he wasn’t really Peter. Couldn’t sit and chat with not-Peter and not-Elizabeth and pretend he didn’t have a care in the world. Not when he knew what was going to happen in his own world. Not when he knew what he would do to them.

That was it, wasn’t it – he wouldn’t put them through this again, not Peter and Elizabeth. He wouldn’t hurt them again, not for Osman, not for his freedom, not for anything. He stopped by Matt’s trailer long enough to pick up his wallet and cell phone and left the studio.

It was early, so Andre wasn’t waiting for him yet. Neal turned right and walked three blocks until he found a used car dealership. He plunked down his credit card and bought the first car that appealed to him, got inside the thing and just drove without thinking.

He drove out of the city, not noticing what direction until he saw a sign that said “Welcome to New Jersey.” He drove with the windows open, because he needed the air rushing through his hair, and he needed that to keep him alert and awake. Even though it was midday, he was exhausted, and run down, and he knew but didn’t want to admit to himself, feverish. He kept driving until he started seeing black dots floating in front of his eyes, and then he got off the highway and checked into the first halfway decent hotel he could find.

He booked three rooms together so he’d have no one on either side of him, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the outside of each and crashed out in bed on top of the covers.

----

BRRRR-RRRING

Neal twitched, kicked out his leg. Fucking phone!

BRRRR-RRRING

He opened one bleary eye and glanced at the clock radio – it was 5:00 am. He’d slept for over twelve hours.

BRRRR-RRRING

“What?!” he said, annoyed, and sat up. Then moaned, groaned and lay back down. His head was throbbing, he was still too dizzy and his tongue was practically stuck to the roof of his mouth. Ignoring the phone, his thirst and his need to pee, he turned over and went back to sleep.

BRRRR-RRRING

“What. The. Fuck?” He glanced at the clock. 8:15 am. Wow. Ignoring the phone, he got up, went to the bathroom to take a piss and shoveled cold water into his mouth with his bare hand. Glancing up, he caught sight of himself in the mirror and almost didn’t recognize himself. He looked like absolute hell – sunken eyes, hair matted on one side of his head, wan and pale.

“Great,” he told himself, turned and returned to bed.

BRRRR-RRRING

This time, the ringing of the phone seemed to have reconfigured itself for exactly the right frequency to vibrate his entire brain apart. He fumbled for the thing, hit “Accept” and mumbled something resembling a hello.

“Matt? That you?”

“Mmphbl.”

“Jesus, where the hell are you?”

“Jblrzl.”

“What?”

“Jersey.”

“What are you doing in Jersey? I’ve got fifty crew set up in Midtown, waiting on your ass to begin shooting the sniper scene. What the hell?”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Jeff, Matt. Eastin. Your boss.”

It may have been the fever, but Neal felt a hot stab of dread pierce him through the middle like a poker. Jeff Eastin – the man who had created the show. The man who knew way too much about Neal’s life and maybe, he thought irrationally, maybe he was the one controlling it.

“You there, Matt? You’re not going all Charlie Sheen on me, are you buddy? Because I don’t think I could handle it.”

“No.”

“Well then, what is it? We’re just about to wrap this season up with a big fat bow and you’re off traipsing through the Garden State. There are Teamsters waiting, Matt.”

“I saw the script,” Neal said to him, the quaver in his voice betraying his emotions, but he didn’t care. He felt so very bad, and it was too much of an effort to try to con this man.

“Whatcha think? It kicks ass, right?”

“No. No, it doesn’t. It’s terrible.”

“Well, admittedly, it’s shocking. And there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among the fangirls, but that might be half the reason I did it. I always told you we’d end season 4 with a bang.”

Neal was suddenly so dizzy he could barely keep his head up. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes. “I don’t like it. I wouldn’t…Neal wouldn’t do this. He hates guns. He always said…I don’t like it.”

Eastin’s voice was suddenly serious. “Well, no, I don’t expect you to like it. That kind of betrayal is hard to take, hard to play. But you know, life has consequences, and there are tough choices that must be made. But I do have a plan. It all comes out right in the end, you have to believe in that.”

“I don’t understand.” Neal could feel despair wash over him, overwhelming him. He didn’t understand, he didn’t know.

Eastin sighed. “I don’t expect you to, Neal.”

“What?”

There was no answer. His vision was beginning to tunnel.

“What did you just call me? Hello? Hel -” But illness took hold of him again and he passed out on the bed.

----

“Hey, come on, wake up, buddy. Wake up.” Neal could feel a cool, dry hand on his forehead, a firm grip on his wrist. He moaned.

“Is he awake?” came another voice.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Finally.”

Neal opened his eyes and blinked at the bright sunlight in the room and immediately knew he was in the hospital. He looked over at the man who sat on the edge of his bed, smiling at him with a relieved expression on his face.

“Tim? What are you doing here?”

“Tim? Who’s Tim? Are you still delirious?” Peter asked.
.
“Peter?”

“I knew we should have gotten him to the hospital sooner, I knew it!”

“Moz?”

“You were the one who objected to our society’s reliance on pharmaceuticals to subjugate the downtrodden masses.”

Moz rolled his eyes. “Well, if you’re going to hold it against me…”

“Guys! What’s going on?”

“You were really, really sick,” Peter said to him gently. “Your temperature was so high, you went into convulsions. We brought you to the hospital.”

“How long ago?”

“Three days. They said it was meningitis. You had us really worried, Neal.”

Neal could see the extra lines in Peter’s face, the three-day old growth of beard, bags under his eyes. “Were you here the whole time?”

“Despite some people’s efforts.”

“The Suit’s badge comes in handy for some things,” Moz said. “He threatened legal action.” Neal looked over at his friend, who looked as drawn and haggard as Peter.

“I don’t know what to say.” He was touched at their concern, their devotion to him. He closed his eyes and sighed, happy to just be with them.

But then he remembered something and his eyes flew open. “Osman!” he said.

“What?”

“The Osman case. I need to talk to you about that. I don’t want to do it. I can’t go through with it.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s all taken care of. When you didn’t make contact, he went with Jimmy Paulsen.”

“Jimmy the Snitch?”

“The same. We picked up the whole thing on the wire, and Jones busted him day before yesterday.”

Neal felt lightheaded suddenly as the relief washed over him. “I thought I killed you.”

“What?”

Neal looked at him, and felt the fear he’d felt the day before all over again. “I – guess it was a dream, or a hallucination, but I thought I killed you.”

“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” Moz said, kidding. Neal and Peter each gave him a dirty look and he held his hands up. “Sorry.”

“What do you mean you dreamed you killed me?” Peter said, concern written on his face.

“Well, I guess it was a dream, but it really didn’t feel like one. But the other day, when you came over to pick me up? I woke up and I was at home. But it wasn’t my apartment – I was on the set of a TV show called White Collar.”

“White Collar? Huh,” said Peter.

“I know, not exactly imaginative. Anyway, it was about me, and you, and Moz was there, and Diana and El and everyone. But you were all actors, with families and incongruous accents and there was a lot of sitting around. My name was Matt, and I lived like a monk in one of those horrible modern places downtown. And you were played by a guy named Tim, and Moz, you were someone called Willie.”

Moz flinched. “Willie?” he mouthed, insulted.

“What’s a TV show got to do with you killing me?” Peter asked, starting to get impatient.

“It was in the script.”

“You killing me was in the script?”

“It was complicated. There was a forged painting and some other stuff.” Neal felt like he was losing steam…it all seemed so important in his dream.

“What forged painting?”

La Grotte de la Loue by Gustav Courbet. And -”

“We just closed a case on that Courbet, how did you know?” Peter said.

Neal’s stomach dropped. “I don’t know. What happened?”

“Nothing. There were some irregularities, but they brought an expert in from San Francisco and it was authenticated. It wasn’t a case at all, really.”

“Really?” Neal asked, relief washing over him. He suddenly felt too warm.

“Yeah. I woulda brought it up with you, but the case was over before it started. So – you were about to kill me.”

“I didn’t want to kill you. It was in the script.”

“So you keep saying. Did the script say why you’d want to kill me?”

“To prove myself to Osman. I think.”

“Jesus, Neal, that’s pretty thin. You sure maybe it wasn’t a setup?”

“No. I was supposed to kill you.”

“You were supposed to kill the star of the show?”

“You weren’t the star of the show. I was.”

Peter was incredulous. “What? Who makes a show about a conman?”

“I don’t know. But people liked it, I think. They were in the fourth season already.”

“Four seasons, huh?” Moz said. “You know what happens after four seasons? Syndication.” He rubbed the fingers of his right hand together. “Big moolah.”

“Is that important right now? The point is that I was not the star of the show.”

“The point is that I was going to kill you, Peter. Right in front of Elizabeth. In cold blood. It was awful. To think I was capable -” Neal was truly upset. He reached a shaking hand up to rub at his eyes.

“Hey, stop it, it wasn’t real,” Peter said, putting a hand on his arm and squeezing reassuringly.

“It sure felt real.”

“You look peaked. Here –“ Moz went to retrieve his messenger bag. “Drink this – it’ll give you a good energy boost.” He pulled out a plastic pint bottle and handed it to Neal. The label read, “Soygasm.”

“No thanks,” Neal said, making a face.

“How’s the patient doing?” said a woman’s voice. All three men turned toward the person who had spoken. A petite nurse stood in the doorway, the medication trolley just behind her. “Oh, is he up?”

“Daisy,” Neal breathed, transfixed to see her here.

“That’s right,” she said, amazed. She touched her name tag with her fingers. “You can read that from all the way over there?”

Neal was at a loss for words, and just stared at her. She was as beautiful as in his dream. She walked into the room and handed him some medications and a cup of water, which he dutifully took. His eyes never left her face the entire time she was there, and followed her as she left.

Moz waved his hand in front of Neal’s face. “The thunderbolt,” he said to Peter.

“Without a doubt,” he replied with a grin.

Neal gave them both a look, but found he was getting very sleepy, so he laid his head back on his pillow.

“You gonna sleep now?” Peter asked and he nodded. “Good. Want us to stay?” Neal nodded again. He didn’t want to lose them ever again. “Fine.

He closed his eyes.

“Jutht what do you think thith plathe ith, a lounge?” said a familiar voice.

Becky

“Vithiting hourth are over.” She stood in the doorway to Neal’s room, dressed in Disney nurse’s scrubs, tapping her foot.

“So you keep saying, but as I keep reminding you, this man is under Federal protection,” Peter said sternly.

She flounced, opened her mouth to speak. “Do I have to call my friend the hospital administrator again?” Peter interrupted her. She made a high pitched sound in the back of her throat and left.

Neal let out the breath he was holding. “Is she gone?” he whispered.

“Off to menace Munchkinland, I expect,” Moz said with a shudder.

“She was in my dream,” Neal admitted.

“The dream about the TV show called ‘White Collar’ that’s about your life?” Peter asked.

Neal nodded.

“Boy, you sure have an active imagination. Who’d ever want to watch that?”

----

Thank you for your time.