Someone bangs into his arm. Neal jerks his hands up so he doesn’t spill two cups of piping-hot caffeine all over himself, and stumbles back with the momentum. Incidentally, this plants him back in the person’s path before they can escape. Peter so owes him for this. Sending him on a coffee run in the heart of a foreign city, during lunch hour? The air’s muggy and humid, sweltering in his suit, and this is the fourth time this has happened.
The person, a girl who looks 16 at most, with tan skin and her dark hair in a braid, startles just a little when he blocks her path.
“Oh, sorry,” Neal says, flashing her a smile. He’s tucked one of the coffees under his arm already, and rests his other arm briefly on her shoulder in a display of support. “I didn’t get any on you, did I?”
She shrugs, cool as you please, already stepping around him. Neal’s hand flickers out, lifting his wallet and gloves back out of her jacket before she disappears into the crowd.
Maybe he should spill some of the coffee on the next one. It’s not that he minds the practice, it’s that the pickpockets here have the subtlety of a school of piranhas, too used to oblivious tourist bait. Four attempts. Four, all equally lacking in finesse.
He’s not here for pickpockets, though. He quickens his stride, weaving through the crowd. Peter’s doubtlessly scowling now, pacing uselessly in the heat and working himself up into a caffeine-deprived, jet-lagged haze that can only mean more grouchy threats to put him back on anklet. Or maybe he’ll just accuse him of being lazy again. Or a reckless idiot.
Taking him off-anklet now wasn’t strictly necessary, according to the Bureau. Who apparently think that Lowrey wouldn’t question the logistics of a cross-country tourist with an active radius of only two miles. Peter, by virtue of not being a self-concerned bureaucrat, is on his side of the issue, but Peter’s also pretty worked-up about the impromptu upgrade to first class they received on the way over. Neal had helpfully explained his friend’s tragic claustrophobia condition to the flight attendant while Peter was in the bathroom. Pointing out that the seats had been empty anyways had earned him the silent treatment for the first 15 minutes they were in the air (“Really, Peter?”) and increasingly narrow-eyed looks every time the matronly flight attendant offered Peter wine for his nerves. The lecture is still incoming. Neal can taste it in the air. Like a summer storm. Peter’s got to be doing it on purpose, not giving him anything to work with, just that flat, slow-burning disapproval. Whatever Peter thinks, Neal has not been getting too lax with the rules as the end of his sentence approaches. Peter’s just getting more grouchy about it.
He’s hoping the coffee will help.
Neal breaks through the last of the crowd, heading for the side street they’d stopped on while Peter checked in with the Bureau, lined with broken-down brick buildings and sandwich shops typical for the area. There’s only a few stragglers around here, a mom and her son, a thin-flanked dog, and a guy in a black jacket leaning against the stucco wall of a defunct pet store.
If he wasn’t so on edge from all the poor-quality pickpocketing attempts, he might have missed the gleam of the guy’s gun at his hip. For half a second, Neal just keeps walking, but then the guy pushes off the wall and moves to block him on the sidewalk’s corner.
Neal slips into a despondent shuffle, one shoulder sloping down as he hangs his head a bit, his movements slurring together even as adrenaline surges through him, sharpening the washed-blue sky and the bright graffiti decorating the storefront. He eyes the guy from under his lashes. He’s lean, but muscled, and has thug written all over his body language. He’s got a pin on his white shirt, under the jacket, with a funny symbol on it. Like a bisected circle.
“Oh, hey, sorry, road’s closed,” the guy says. Points for sounding pleasant, but he’s not even trying with the lie, there are two cars are turning off that road at that very moment and no construction signs. Neal’s starting to wonder why they needed him and Peter at all, if the criminals here are so incompetent.
“What?” Neal says, stumbling to a stop. He yawns. “Look, I just need to get these to my boss before he fires me.”
The guy clenches his jaw. Neal yawns again, long and deliberate, and it catches this time, the guy’s features loosening as he yawns too, his hand dropping back to his side from where it had been hovering near his hip. He’s eyeing the coffee, and he looks tense, like someone who’s been “on” too long for a job and hasn’t been sleeping.
“You know how it is,” Neal says, keeping his voice low and soothing, shifting in place so that he’s leaning further out to see around the corner. If Peter’s been shuffled along off the bench where Neal left him waiting, he doesn’t need to be here. But the guy blocks him.
“Right. It’ll be safe in a minute,” the guy says. Someone honks, and he can hear a car screeching to a stop.
“Right,” Neal says, agreeably, and steps forward anyways, brushing against the guy’s leather jacket. He can see the side street now, through the heat shimmering on the pavement.
Peter’s pressed forward on a splintery wooden bench, handcuffs cinched too tight behind his back, and a gun pressed to the back of his neck to keep him there. His gaze flicks to Neal, catching the movement at the corner, and he stares back at him, steady as bedrock. His lips are pressed together in a pale line, his cheek bloody, his hands too, grazed at the knuckles like he put up a fight. Neal takes an involuntary half-step forward.
The guy- the lookout- blocks his view, looming over him. The brass pin on his shirt collar, some catches the light. Behind him, two others loiter beside the one holding a gun to Peter’s neck, and a woman gets out of a gray van parked at an angle on the curb, all with brass pins. Local gang affiliation? He doesn’t recognize any of them. Doesn’t give him much to work with.
“Street’s closed. You’ll have to go a different way,” the lookout says.
“You sure I can’t just-” A door slides shut. The van. Peter. He can’t stand here while they take him.
“Leave,” the lookout says, hand edging to his hip again.
Neal takes a shaky step back and trips. Which means, of course, that he throws his arms up in surprise, sloshing a double-dose of scalding coffee directly into the lookout’s eyes. The lookout yelps, pawing at his face, and Neal darts around him.
The side street’s empty. The van’s pulling out. It’ll be gone in minutes. His heart pounds, his vision narrowing to the van. Can’t lose Peter to a local gang that’s either too stupid to tell clever lies or too powerful. Not a good ending, either way.
He can’t make out the vehicle’s plates because they’re covered. Peter’s phone is smashed open on the sidewalk in front of him. He hasn’t seen any high-tech traffic cams. So how are they going to track him? All he’s got to go on is the van, pulling into the middle lane, disappearing into the crush of city traffic like another dull gray minnow in a school of minnows.
A blue car in front of it slows as the traffic light turns yellow and stops. The kidnapper’s van idles to a stop behind it, after a short blast of their horn. Neal can hear the lookout cursing behind him, coming closer. He has probably a two second window before the guy recovers enough to tackle him.
Two seconds later, Neal’s slipped through traffic and is clinging to the bottom of the van, heart pounding as the engine rumbles and the car creeps forward.
His hands are locked around the coolest part of the van’s undercarriage, exactly where Mozzie taught him, shoes hooked on the suspension. Back-up plan for getting into the Brazilian embassy number three, never used. He locks his elbows too, stiffens his muscles, and turns his head to the side. Three inches up and his clothes will get caught on the car’s moving parts and yank him into the driveshaft. Three inches down and he’s going to have the worst case of road rash ever.
The engine whines higher and they pick up speed. The back of his suit flutters loose, but not too loose, he’s wearing a slim-fit gray Devore, so that’s good.
He’s breathing too fast. He takes a couple deeper breaths and forces a controlled pattern, ignoring the stench of oil and exhaust fumes as the hot tar rushes below him like an urban river. The engine heats the bottom of the van and his palms start to sting. Not his best plan. Then again, not his worst plan. There aren’t any caverns and 14th century cutlasses involved yet.
The flow of tar slows, then stops. Neal lowers his head to see people crossing the street. Another traffic light. He unlocks his muscles and lets go, the tar a jarring relief against his back. He could roll away now, make it to the sidewalk. He’s at least made it clear of the guy who was going to pummel him.
He wipes his hands along his comparatively cool front and pulls the gloves he’d brought for any potential breaking and entering out of his pocket. The supple leather is soothing on his too-hot skin. Familiar, too. The last group of sandals shuffles along the crosswalk. Light’s about to change. Neal tucks his suit jacket in. He grips back onto the undercarriage of the van. Pulling himself into position is easier with the leather acting as a barrier, reminding him that he’s done stupider things for less. Not as many as he would’ve done if Peter hadn’t been around.
Neal gets two more breaks at traffic lights before the tar below him shifts to cracked asphalt, and he locks his knuckles even tighter, raising himself an inch higher and bracing each time they hit a pothole. The driveshaft whirs above his head. He’s both grateful to Mozzie for showing him the only semi-safe way to do this ever, and quietly furious with him for making it an option. This looked easier in the movies.
An indeterminable time after that, the van turns onto a dirt road and starts winding its way upwards. Neal’s half-numb from the vibrations and the wind, but appreciates the drop in wind force on his strained muscles as the van is forced to slow. He can make out ferns and palm tree trunks on either side, and he takes a deep breath of humid jungle air. They make one last curve, and then a medium-sized, shingled brown house comes into view. There are more cars and a black van parked in front, a battered lawn with targets set up on it like a practice range, and jungle sprawling away on all sides.
A door slams and someone yells about parking out back. The van pulls forward, then backs up onto a grassy patch and the engine cuts out. Neal hauls himself closer to the now-still frame of the car, and the heat is almost welcome on his wind-chilled body. The van door slides open and two booted people step out, yanking someone with FBI-fail attempts at stylish, glossy shoes after them. Peter. He stumbles, but he’s upright. They lead him over to the house and prod him in the back to get him on the concrete steps. Unnecessary, because Peter’s already climbing them. His eyes are cast down, but he’s got that tense watchfulness to his shoulders that means he’s categorizing everything in sight. They push him inside and the door slams.
Neal exhales, gives it another fifteen seconds, and drops onto packed dirt. His muscles are shrieking at him like Italian opera villains and his hands won’t unclench, but he’s here. He rolls out from under the van and into the undergrowth of the jungle beside him. The ferns are pretty good cover, but he doesn’t stop until he reaches some kind of bush and wriggles behind it. He takes a second to rest, and smiles up at the canopy. To his wind-battered brain, it almost looks like some kind of painting. Ascension to heaven or something.
He yanks off the gloves, and he’s going to have to replace them because they’re a bit melted in places. He uncurls his fingers in stages, not looking at any shiny red patches of skin and going over what he knows to distract himself. It isn’t much. He didn’t recognize the kidnappers, they didn’t recognize him. Which was a large factor in him desperately clinging to the bottom of their van. Someone from Peter’s past? Neal doubts he’s ever been to this country before, but Neal accidentally sought shelter from a notorious US mass murderer in Cape Verde, so anything’s possible. Just really unlikely. They’ve only been here a few hours.
And what a few hours it’s been. He didn’t even get to have coffee.
Probably he should’ve just let them go and waited for a call to the FBI with their demands, but they barely got Peter back last time. He flexes his fingers straight, then calls Diana, levering himself up on his elbows and peering over the bush to get another look at the house while the phone rings. There’s a bigger version of the bisected-circle symbol he saw on the pin carved into the gun rack at the practice range.
“Hey, I need you to trace this call,” he says, when she picks up.
“On it,” Diana says, and the crisp efficiency in her voice is exactly what he needs right now. Neal settles lower on his elbows and listens to the rustling in the background, knowing she’s shuffling papers out of the way and logging into the tracking program. They’ve set up a field-base for the operation, a van away from home with an extermination company decal on the outside. It’s just as stuffy as the one in New York.
“Just stay on the line for another minute. Now, what’s going on?”
“Some gang kidnapped Peter.”
That earns him a microscopic pause.
“What gang,” she says, voice getting cooler by the second.
“The gang part’s speculation, I didn’t recognize any of them but they had this mark… I can send you a picture, actually.”
“Do it,” Diana says, and Neal levers himself up on one elbow and snaps a picture of the gun rack with the circle carving. He sends it to Jones too.
“Is that a shooting range?” Jones says.
“Recognize the symbol?” Neal says.
“No. Jones is running it through the database now. What’s going on, Caffrey?”
“Beats me,” Neal says. “One second I’m getting coffee and the next a lookout’s telling me to move along. Aside from that guy, there were three others, all locals. No one I recognized. They pushed Peter into a gray van and took off.”
“They didn’t try to take you too?” Diana says.
“I don’t think they even knew I was with Peter.”
“Where are you now?” Jones says.
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
There’s a short pause. Neal squirms, itchy in the heat. A red ant crawls up his leg. With a swear, he rolls off to the side, slapping at his trousers- now covered with dirt and too many insects for comfort, tugging the fabric up to brush them away. He supposes it was too much to hope for that the suit would make it out intact.
“You okay there?” Jones says.
“Fine,” Neal says, flopping back into some ferns.
“Okay, we’ve got your coordinates,” Diana says. “About five miles north of the city, at the top of a hill.” Neal closes his eyes in relief for a second. “How far away are you from Peter?”
“I’m about twenty feet from the house they dragged him into. Brown house, kind of run down. Might be their base of operations, judging by the shooting range and the three other cars parked here. Blue Toyota, beige Honda, and a black van.”
“How’d you even get there?” Jones says, fading out like he’s moving away.
“Magic. Called in the cavalry yet?”
“Jones is scrambling the police department now,” Diana says. “If you’re not talking about it, I’m going to assume your route was embarrassing and illegal.”
No, just stupid. He’s been trying to lay low as the end of his sentence nears, distance himself from this job and these people, but watching an unknown gang drive off with Peter just wasn’t in him. He imagines that somewhere, Mozzie’s pouring a double dose of wine and frowning instinctively at his poor life choices.
“Diana, when have you ever caught me doing something embarrassing?” he says, smiling up at the tree canopy. “That time with the mystery lunch meat doesn’t count, because it was sabotage. Hey, for the FBI, you’re pretty slow at bringing people to justice.”
“We’ll worry about your taste buds later. Anything else you can tell me about the gang, what they look like?”
“The driver was tall and thin, dark hair. The lookout hasn’t shown up here yet, but he was stocky with dirty blond hair and a delusion that he’s subtle. The other two, I didn’t get a good look, just dark hair, average build.”
“Caffrey,” Diana says, and her voice, too calm, jolts him back to full awareness. He didn’t even know he’d relaxed. “They’re not a gang. They’re a terrorist organization. That symbol belongs to a group called Javeres, dedicated to bringing the country back to the people by overthrowing the military and anyone else in charge. They’ve been having altercations with law enforcement.”
Of course they’re a terrorist group. Of course. Neal turns his head and eyes the innocuous-looking brown house, skin prickling.
“I’ll keep you posted,” Diana says.
And then nothing happens. Nothing continues to happen for quite some time. Or maybe something is happening seeing as this group hates law enforcement and have a law enforcement officer, but Neal can’t tell because the place is eerily silent, and the terrorists have a worrying obsession with thick green and orange floral curtains. One on every window.
The FBI knows where they are, Neal just has to sit tight. He feels the prickling feet of another ant on his leg and shakes his leg like he’s doing the hokey pokey, which is fine because no one’s around to see. He hauls himself away from the damned bush, closer to the clearing around the house.
This is like all the bad parts of a stakeout minus the protection from vicious insects, the stale coffee and staler jokes, and Peter. The stuffy heat’s about the same though. Buzzing starts up near his ear and he swats at a mosquito the length of his pinky finger.
“You still don’t know who they are? I could go check the license plates on the cars,” Neal says.
“You heard me say terrorist organization, right,” Diana says.
“I’m not running up my phone bill with roaming charges so you can repeat things I already know,” Neal says. He crawls about ten feet back into the jungle, stands, and starts edging his way around. His impulse control hasn’t gotten any better with FBI guidance, it’s just been redirected. Besides, he’s always felt better the more he knows about a mark. And now the mosquitos are having a harder time swarming him.
He cases the place as he goes- two story, some windows at basement level, a door in the back like the one in front, but padlocked shut. The paint’s chipped in a lot of places. Some of them look suspiciously like bullet holes. But it’s fine, because now he’s on the side with the cars. He snaps some pictures with his phone. Diana huffs when she gets them.
This side of the house is exactly like all the others except there’s a window open on the right corner, curtains slightly parted. Neal’s so fixated on the movements inside- a shifting arm, someone adjusting their stance, the low rumble of voices like the thrum of a radio off in the distance- that he almost misses the car coming over the hill. At the last second he turns, catching the sound of tires on dirt, and the glint of metal in the sun.
Neal crouches low, scrambling back into the woods, and flattens himself to the ground. The tan car wind its way towards him, kicking up dirt in its wake. Two people inside. They park five feet from where he’s hiding between two trees. Neal barely breathes.
One is lean, dressed in practical shorts and a black t-shirt, corded arm muscle on display. He turns towards Neal’s hiding spot, eyes narrowed, but eyes fixed off into the distance. The other is the one Neal temporarily blinded with coffee. He’s still got stains on his shirt. Maybe he should feel bad about that, instead of quietly smug. They shut their doors and march off into the house.
“Two new arrivals,” Neal says, and describes them.
“Neal, we’ve got a problem,” Jones says, afterwards.
“A problem?” Neal says. The voices from the window pick up, rising higher.
“The police here know exactly what place you’re talking about,” Jones says. “They’ve tried raiding it before. A tall hill, surrounded by thick jungle, and the whole area’s mined.”
Neal goes so still he stops breathing for a second, acutely aware of the smell of peat and moss rising from the jungle around him. A swarm of mosquitos could have started their Thanksgiving dinner and he wouldn’t have moved an inch.
“The road up is safe, and probably the jungle area immediately around the house, since they wouldn’t want to blow their operation up-” Neal starts breathing again “-but that road’s pretty narrow, and it’s the only way in.”
“So they’ll see us coming, have plenty of time to put a gun to Peter’s head, and then use whatever stockpile of weapons they’ve got in there on everyone outside,” Neal says. Shocking, that adding a team of snipers is going to make the situation more volatile. Still, he’s kind of gotten used to backup…
“Police offered aerial support too, but they can’t risk firing on you and Peter,” Jones says.
“And it’s not exactly subtle. I hate to say this, but any suggestions? You’ve seen more of the place than we have,” Diana says.
“Other than adding bug spray to the list of required field items, no,” Neal says, his voice too flat, not at all the flippant he was aiming for. “Sorry. What do they want with him anyways, do we even know that yet?”
He’s trying not to think about sketchy basements, and the kinds of things that terrorists would do for fun. He’s run into some crazy criminals.
“Bargaining chip, hopefully,” Jones says. “Police grabbed some of their buddies off the streets the other day. Maybe they want revenge, or maybe they just want their friends back.”
“So set up a trade,” Neal says, staring at the house. The phone plastic is getting sweaty against his skin, so he switches ears.
“They haven’t gotten in touch yet. And the FBI doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.”
He closes his eyes. So it’s up to him again, to make sure Peter doesn’t pay the price for their policy. Except this isn’t like Keller. This time, the kidnappers don’t know him, and he doesn’t have a multi-million dollar ring stashed nearby. Neal closes his eyes and rubs his free hand across his forehead, feeling something gritty catch at his skin and smudge.
“Look, we don’t need to negotiate, we just need to get Peter out of here before a civil war breaks out between the terrorists and the strike team,” he says. Or before the terrorists take out their authority issues on a US federal agent. He sees more movement at the not-so-curtained window, catches a glimpse of the lean late-arrival pacing by. The voices inside are rising again, and Neal would sell his left arm for some Russian military surplus right now.
Or he could just try to get closer.
Jones is talking about knockout gas, Diana’s pointing out that the strike team won’t be able to get in range for that without being spotted. They’re probably not going to be cool with him getting closer to the terrorists’ base. Neal’s not particularly cool with it himself.
“Look, guys, my phone’s dying, I’ve got to save the battery,” he says, rushing his words. “Think you could text me when you come up with something?”
There’s a sigh. Maybe he’s paranoid, but it sounds suspicious. It’s a plausible excuse though.
“Of course. Hang in there, Caffrey, don’t do anything stupid,” Diana says, and the line clicks off.
Neal slips the phone into his pocket and wipes his sweaty hand on his shirt. Then he pulls the phone out again and double checks it’s on silent. He’s still got 70% battery, of course.
The terrorists are still talking, but there’s no one by the window. Neal rises into a crouch, digging his hands into the damp jungle earth, poised like a runner at the starting block. Is he really going to do this? He could just stay hidden. Or get out of here before any shooting starts, try to pick his way along the road without getting spotted.
Or he could move to Toronto, live in a shack for the rest of his life, change his name to Justin Bieber, and never look at another painting again. Maybe he could have left Peter to the FBI’s dubious options a few years ago, but it hasn’t been the anklet keeping him on a two-mile radius, not for a long time. And if he’s going to stay, he needs more information. He’s got nothing to work with.
He fixes his eye on the blue Honda, and surges forward, keeping low as he sprints across the hard-packed dirt driveway. He ducks behind the car’s tires, still crouched, tie swinging forward to bump against the silver tire rim, and listens. He can make out a word here and there- idiot, check, kitchen.
His back feels exposed, and he’s on-edge for a yell, or a gunshot. But seeing as he’s already out here… the black van would make better cover anyways. It’s taller.
He slips around the back of the Honda this time. The distance from it to the van is shorter, but his breath is harsh when he reaches the back tire. He takes another deep breath, and bingo. He can hear much better now, and the angle of sight’s actually better. He can’t see the uncovered window, so they can’t see him, but he’s still got eyes on the door at the front of the house.
“-you wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit you on the ass,” someone’s saying.
“Like yours are any better.”
“Stop bickering. Al, the prisoner?” That’s the lean guy, the latecomer. He sounds sure, authoritative. Leader, Neal decides.
“Welll,” and okay, he knows that voice. So Al’s the one he got with the coffee. “He’s still out.”
Frustrated cursing from the leader. Neal joins in, mentally. Pretty hard to effect an unknown crazy rescue if Peter’s unconscious somewhere. Possibly bleeding.
“They’re probably closing in on us already. No point killing him now, he’s more useful as leverage,” the guy says. Neal’s stomach twists. He sounds faintly regretful. Like it’s an attractive offer he’s just got to leave on the table. “Still, next time you pickpocket a badge? Don’t take the guy too. If I’d wanted hostages, I could’ve got hostages. You idiots just jeopardized this whole operation.”
“No, I don’t want to hear it. Now, did you get in touch with Porino?”
They start talking about places Neal doesn’t know about, vague future operations. Weapons deliveries. Nothing more about a mission. Neal idly commits some names to memory. Porino the Queen-o. Collins the walrus. Lichted the brickhead.
As the tense atmosphere fizzles, their voices drop. Neal’s leaning around the edge of the van for a better angle on the window, even though he’s terrible at lip-reading, when something moves at the edge of his vision.
He’s pressed flat against the other side of the van in a half-second, listening for footsteps, but there’s no noise besides the rustling of leaves, the cries of strange birds, and the ever-present buzz of insects. Neal eases down the side of the van and peers under the bottom. He can’t see anyone’s feet in the yard. And he didn’t hear a door.
Movement again, and light. Neal’s gaze snaps to a ground-level window on the front of the house, on the far side from him. The window wobbles again, rocking at the dirt packed against the bottom of its frame, light glancing off the glass. Peter?
“What do you MEAN you didn’t even set a guard outside?” the leader shouts, suddenly audible again in his fury, and Neal’s focus snaps back like a rubber band.
He’s got seconds. He’s sprints back towards the jungle, keeping close to the cars. He hears the heavy creak of the front door and throws himself behind the Honda’s back tire again. A screen door bangs open. Neal stares at the sliver of ground he can see underneath the car. This time, there’s a pair of boots and khaki pants, brushing through the grass in the yard. They stop and pivot, facing the road.
For several minutes, nothing else happens. The window’s stopped rattling. The leader’s stopped shouting. The guard stands there. Neal, sweating bullets in the hot sun, longingly thinks of iced tea on safe, stone balconies in the morning, secure in his place with June and sure that Peter would be along soon to nag him into working another boring mortgage case.
It’s weird the things you get nostalgic for. The first time he went to prison, he missed peanut butter and wine, Mozzie and Kate, and the crappy dive they’d shared in the months before the music box. Every other time, it’s been Manhattan. He would give anything to be drinking crappy coffee in the FBI right now. Maybe what he should be nostalgic for is his sanity. Also he’s having some ill-timed revelations here about what he wants to do with his life.
The black boots turn and start away from him. Neal waits until they’re around the edge of the house, waits another five seconds, and then tilts the Honda’s side mirror up until he can see the only-partially-curtained window. No one there. He double-checks under the car for boots, then rushes back into the jungle. He’s just itching to put distance between him and the gun-toting revolutionary, but he forces himself to stop before he’s ten feet in. Mines. Right. After checking the ground for ant nests, he huddles behind a rock this time. For one surreal moment, he wonders how he even got here, huddled behind a rock outside a terrorist base in a jungle. Then his phone vibrates, and he tugs it out.
Strike team deployed to about halfway up the road. Still waiting for contact from the terrorists.
Black-boots is rounding the side of the house now, a stocky woman with a dirty-blonde braid.
Someone’s trying to force a window. Think it’s Peter. Basement, third window to the left on the front of the house. They know you’re planning to attack, want to use him as leverage.
His phone starts vibrating three seconds after he sends it. Neal clamps it against his chest, muffling the buzz, and declines the call. Black-boots doesn’t bother to circle around the cars, just sticks to the side of the house. She’s swiveling her head, taking in as much as she can, but her pace is regular. This is routine for her. When she rounds the corner into the front yard, Neal crouches again and weaves his way through the trees, ferns rustling as he circles back towards where he started, the far side of the house. The side Peter’s on. His phone buzzes. He doesn’t pull it out until he’s hidden again, well before black-boots appears on her second circuit of the house.
Strike team’s holding off for now, but you might want to find someplace safe.
Yeah, he’d love to be out of here before the shooting starts. He moves a little faster now, but he’s good at keeping quiet. Anyways, what with all the mud and leaves on his suit, he probably blends right in. He makes it around the back and to the side of the house, and stops when he’s at the part of the jungle closest to the window. He times the guard’s next circuit, and times it again. One minute, thirty seconds before she shows up again. All the windows on this side are still curtained, but he’ll stick close to the side of the house to be safe. The guard rounds the corner. 1. 2. 3…
Neal feels like he’s training for the Olympics in crouch-running. The grass whisks softly against his shoes, and he doesn’t make much more noise on the dirt. He stops just before he gets to the window and carefully leans his head forward, ready to pull back if there’s a guard inside. He doesn’t see anyone in the room, and for a moment he wonders if the heat’s getting to him, if he dreamt the window moving. 15. 16. He leans further forward, and looks down.
Peter’s slumped against the wall right below the window. There’s blood matted in his hair, near the front, and he’s not moving. His hands are slack in his lap, cuffed. Crap. He loses count for a couple seconds. His hand goes to the glass, and he adds ten to where he was. 28. 29.
“Peter,” Neal whispers. He runs his hand down the window, sees where the dirt, rising a few inches higher than the window, has been forced back a few inches in a straight line. The window’s cracked open near the bottom, so he hooks his finger in and pulls. The frame swings outward from a hinge at the top, stopping at that line of dirt.
“Peter,” he says again, into the gap between the window and the wall. 34. 35.
Peter stirs. His head tilts back and brown eyes squint up at him. He stands, too fast, and has to catch himself with an arm against the concrete. One of his eyes is black, and there’s more blood smudged across his face from a gash on his forehead.
“Neal?” Peter says, looking, frankly, baffled, brows drawn down in a confused tangle. It’s a good look on him.
“Hey,” Neal says, with a little of his usual grin. “Listen, I’ve only got another 30 seconds before I have to hide.”
“What are you- nevermind.” And now Peter just looks exasperated, like he did when he shooed Neal off to get coffee an hour and a half ago. “What’s going on?” 55. 56.
“We need to get you out of here. They’re going to use you as leverage when the military comes, which is going to be sooner rather than later because they’ve been itching to get rid of these guys and now they have FBI support.” 72. 73. Oops. “Be right back,” Neal says, pushing the window mostly closed again. He turns to go and freezes. Footprints, he’s left footprints in the dirt. 78. 79.
He yanks his jacket off and drags it behind him over the ground as he makes for the jungle, hopefully blurring the prints. He full-out sprints once he hits the grass, practically diving into a dip in the ground once he reaches the trees. He’s stuck facing the wrong way, looking into the jungle instead of the house, heart racing. He doesn’t dare lift his head and make himself a moving target to be picked out of the greenery. 89. 90.
The guard should be there now. Now, and not before. He’d been quick with his counting. Given himself a margin for error, even if just a small one. He counts out another 30 seconds. Slowly, as slowly as he’d go if he were peeling apart the pages of a delicate manuscript, Neal rolls over. He barely lifts his head out of the jungle loam.
The guard’s just put her back to him, heading for the far corner of the house again. Okay, good. Neal swings himself up and into another crouch, lurking behind a tree until the guard’s gone.
He’s still got his jacket clutched in a deathgrip in his hand, and he lets it drag again when he runs, blurring his footprints better this time. Peter’s standing just to the side of the window, and he looks up when Neal blocks the light.
“There’s a strike team a little ways down the road, waiting,” Neal says.
“And you’re here instead of them because?”
“Because I was in the neighborhood.” Oh, and there’s the narrow-eyed look again, lingering on his ripped suit sleeve, his lack of tie, the brown dirt stains reclaiming the gray color in his suit. 33. 34. “There’s no way they can move in without being seen. The terrorists mined the jungle and the road’s visible from the house.”
“You got here.”
“One-way trip.” Peter’s lips are pursed, but he’s got the decency to hold off on the recklessness lecture while Neal’s trying to save his life. He’s acting calm, but his hands are shaking. “Long story short, if they’re seen storming the place, and you’re the easy-access hostage in the basement, it doesn’t end well for you.”
45. 46. Peter nods, eyes flicking to the cement walls of the basement and back to Neal’s.
“Even if I could get the door open, the hallway from this room opens up right into the central room of the house,” Peter says. “The window’s our best option.”
Neal stops examining the dusty corners of the mostly-bare room and prods at the dirt he’s kneeling on. The soil gives.
“Okay. Anything you can bar the door with in case someone decides to interrupt?”
Peter shakes his head, winces at the motion. “With any luck, they won’t. They just checked ten minutes ago. Think I’m still unconscious.”
“The guard’s on a 90-second loop around the house,” Neal says. “We’ll need to shift the dirt and get you out in one loop. She’ll notice the digging if we don’t.” Peter nods. 65. 66.
He can loosen the soil though, so he pushes the window half-closed again and taps his fingers at the line the window’s made, softening it.
“I’ll need your help getting up, too, with my hands cuffed,” Peter says.
“Sure,” Neal says, absently, and- 74. 75- runs for the jungle again. He makes it with time to spare, and thinks.
Updates? He texts.
Still waiting. Arguing blueprints. Not much luck.
Okay. Rescuing Peter from basement, may need cavalry in three minutes.
His phone buzzes again, almost immediately, but Neal’s on a tight schedule. The guard’s barely turned the corner when he sprints, this time full-out, not bothering with his tracks.
“Okay,” he says to Peter, as he uses a flat rock from the jungle to scrape away the dirt. “Let’s do this.”
44, 45, and Neal’s a mess and his palm hurts where he’s gripping the rock, but he’s dug a trench in the dirt that looks big enough. He yanks the window, and it opens until it’s angled up at the sky. Peter’s handcuffed palms appear. Neal grabs him below the wrist and pulls, bracing himself against the wall.
His grip slips, and Peter’s shoes scuffle against the cement wall, fighting the drop. Neal’s hand catches on the edge of the handcuffs, and Neal tightens his hold just under them, ignores Peter’s grunt as the pressure digs the metal into his wrists, and yanks, because this is it, either he gets Peter out or the guard’s going to catch them and, with their luck so far today, shoot them and shove them both into the cellar. Peter’s feet scrabble against the wall again, and this time they catch on some tiny niche in the concrete, and with the extra leverage Neal heaves Peter halfway out of the window. Peter digs his elbows in and pushes, and from there it’s easy to drag him out flat along the lawn.
For one second, Neal breathes, and then he’s knocking the window partly closed again, pulling Peter up by the elbow. 71. 72. Neal sprints for the jungle, Peter right beside him. Now they just need to wait for backup.
Peter stumbles, dragging Neal with him, and a bullet zings by into a palm tree, where Neal’s shoulder would have been. Neal glances back and sees a rifle sticking out from between one of the ugly curtains, along with the leader’s narrow, furious face. Great.
Peter yanks him around before he’s even got his feet back under him, changing course. Neal follows, and bullets shred the palm fronds and ferns where they were headed, the shots loud in his ears like a second, erratic heartbeat. Peter drags Neal down behind the gun rack he’d all but forgotten about and grabs a pistol, hands still cuffed with what looks like his own handcuffs now Neal can see better and is somewhat desperate to keep his mind off of being shot at. Peter returns fire as the screen door at the front of the house bangs open. There’s a choked-off scream and the screen door slowly creaks shut again.
“Dammit,” Peter says.
Neal attempts to meld his body into the grass. The posts of the gun rack are thick, but nowhere near enough protection. Peter’s to his left, barely behind the other one, and there are guns bristling from every window in the house. It’s like they’re attacking a weaponized hedgehog. Movement to the side. The guard’s taking aim, and she’s got a great angle on Peter.
Neal reaches up and grabs a rifle, a bullet tearing through his sleeve, making it, oh, the second time he almost got shot today. He sights, breathes, and shoots. The guard goes down, her own shot going wide as she’s hit in the shoulder. Peter grunts beside him.
Neal glances over, but he’s fine, just tossing his gun aside. Out of ammo, then. Peter eyes another gun, near the middle of the rack, but no way is Neal going to let him go for that. He tosses his gun to him instead. Peter nods and shoots again, everything about him steady. He shoots several times in a row, probably trying to lay down enough cover fire that the terrorists will stop. They remain a trigger-happy mess.
Neal’s running escape routes in his head- jungle, road towards their backup, maybe he could hotwire one of the cars or they could use them as a shield- but they’re all too far, too exposed. He pulls out his phone, and there are two unread text messages.
Goddammit Caffrey, STAY PUT and another one, a minute later, Goddammit Caffrey.
There’s no way they’ve missed the gunfire, but he’s dialing for backup anyways when something rips across his arm and through the phone. He drops the electronics as the screen goes dark and stares, numb. For a second, that’s all it is, the world strangely muted, and then the pain radiates outward. He looks and clamps his other hand around his arm. A graze, okay. Not even deep. Just shocking. And horrible. Really, really horrible.
Neal must make some kind of noise, because Peter’s gaze snaps to him, wide-eyed and pale.
Peter’s leaning towards him, but yanks back when another bullet thuds into the grass beside him. He pulls back too far, and he’s still looking at Neal, frustrated, when a bullet catches him. He jerks, toppling back onto the grass.
For a moment, it’s like everything’s gone silent. Just flashes of light from the gunfire and the sun, and the overwhelming pressure of the jungle air on his lungs. And then Neal can hear more guns being fired from behind them. Cavalry. The terrorists redirect their fire and Neal squirms across the grass towards Peter. His face is drawn with pain, and he’s gritting his teeth, and it’s wrong, and Neal needs to stop the blood staining his suit, spreading out from a hole to the left of Peter’s collar. For a second his brain shorts out, because Neal’s jacket is dirty, and his hands are dirty, and Mozzie’s in his head saying Au contraire, there are approximately 300 new strains of diseases in that lovely country you’re visiting, some in the very soil, but then Neal’s pulling out his tie, half-forgotten in his pocket, and pressing it against Peter’s shoulder. Peter groans at the pressure and clutches at his wrist before he realizes what Neal’s doing and lets go.
“Did the bullet go through?” Neal asks, and it’s a terrible thing to say.
“Don’t think so,” Peter says, between his teeth, and at least Neal won’t have to stop the bleeding on the other side too. He’s not doing a great job on this side.
“Peter,” Neal says, voice low, burdened with everything he should have said in the last month, and Peter fixes him with that piercing stare of his. Within half a second, his brown eyes are unfocused from the pain again, and the wrongness settles into Neal’s gut to stay, like- like the time he got food poisoning from bad sushi in Madrid. Definitely not worse than that, because Peter’ll be back to scolding him in no time. “Peter, hang in there, you’re going to be fine.”
Peter nods. And breathes. And closes his eyes, scrunching his forehead up.
“Peter,” Neal says, curling his fingers harder into his shoulder.
“Neal,” Peter mutters, crossly.
“Peter,” Neal says again, sharper.
“Neal,” Peter returns, but he cracks his eyes open again, blinking. The sun’s in his eyes, oh. Neal shifts position, leaning over Peter to block the light.
“You should know, I didn’t mean any of it, before,” Neal says, unable to help himself.
“Shut up, Neal.”
“No, I’m really sorry,” he insists, glaring at Peter, “You’re not- I don’t actually think you’re-” and Peter rolls his eyes like they’re disagreeing over something in the office, despite his gritted teeth and his tight breaths as blood seeps out around the tie.
“Neal. I know,” he says. He lets the second so shut up remain implied, which could be grace, or pain, or both.
“Fine. We’ll talk later,” Neal says, voice shaking only a little. He makes himself believe it. “How’d they know you were FBI, anyways?”
“Pickpocketed me. Badly.”
Neal snorts, thinking of his own coffee-run experiences. “No disagreement there,” he says. Blood’s still oozing out, warm and slippery, too red and corroding his belief, and he presses harder. Peter sucks in a breath.
“Tried to stop them. They noticed they’d grabbed an FBI badge. Pulled out guns.” Peter squints at him, that familiar stare again, like whenever he’s confronting him with evidence. “You don’t have a badge.”
It’s oddly comforting that Peter’s still trying to figure out how Neal got there. Maybe Peter will be fine. Or maybe he’d still be trying to track Neal’s movements from beyond the grave.
“When have I ever needed a badge, Peter? I hitched a ride on the underside of that van they threw you in. Guess I’ve gotten used to other people chauffeuring me around.”
Peter pauses for a second, eyes flicking to the left, brow scrunched up as he fails to picture it. “Thought you never lied to me.”
“I don’t,” Neal says, simply, and Peter grimaces. Glass splinters, and there’s a roar as the black van by the house explodes in flames. Neal hunches closer over Peter, even as he can’t look away.
“You know. When I said you weren’t taking this job seriously enough anymore? Wasn’t a challenge,” Peter says, and Neal drags his gaze back.
“You’re the one who got kidnapped hours after we set foot in a foreign country, not me. At least I lasted a couple months in Cape Verde.”
“Not a competition.”
“No, because clearly, I already won.”
“Still have a scar?”
“On my leg? Sure.”
“El’s going to kill me- for getting another one,” Peter says with a groan.
“Maybe,” Neal says, easily able to picture El on the warpath. There’s another blast of bullets, and then it goes silent again. The firefight’s dying down. “Wait, another one? Peter, you’re the one who’s always saying we shouldn’t keep secrets.”
“College. Doesn’t count.”
With one final yelp, the area goes eerily silent. And then there are feet pounding across the ground towards them. A woman kneels beside him, the universal sign of a red cross on her arm. He slides out of the way before she can ask, and she peels the tie away from Peter’s shoulder. Another medic hands her some gauze and she presses that to the wound instead.
Neal doesn’t leave, doesn’t have anywhere he needs to be, just sits cross-legged in the grass beside Peter as the medic gets to work and Peter breathes harsh, shallow breaths and glares at Neal when Neal brings up the head wound. Peter has to go through a round of orientation questions about who he is and where he is. He draws a blank on the leader of the country they’re visiting, and Neal helpfully supplies the answer.
“What? Can’t have them thinking the revolutionaries brainwashed you,” Neal says, as Peter’s glare turns into a slow-burning glower. And then more medics arrive, and Neal’s shunted further away. He takes a second to examine the scene. Most of the terrorists are dead, their bodies being dragged out of the house as the strike team sweeps the place. The leader’s alive and glaring on his knees in front of the strike team. So is the guard he shot in the shoulder, and two men and a woman. Coffee-guy Al’s dead though, and Neal can’t look at his slack face. Laid out like that on their yard, they look more like toy soldiers playing army in a poorly-decorated house. The leader, on the other hand, looks like nothing more or less than an animal, spitting invectives one moment, staying calculatedly still the next, before leaping against his bonds, like he can break the handcuffs with righteous fury.
Neal glances back at Peter, and they’re lifting him onto a stretcher. There’s a large, murky patch of ground where he was lying, where blood’s started mixing with the grass and dirt. His stomach twists again.
“Sir, is your arm okay?” another medic says, and Neal blinks and focuses on her, realizing he’s got his hand clamped around the graze again.
“Uh. No,” he says, letting go. It doesn’t take her more than ten minutes to clean and bandage it. Peter’s gone by then, hopefully halfway to some hospital in the city.
Jones shows up in the middle of the chaos. Shakes his head at Neal. Tries to give him some sort of half-hearted lecture, but Neal just waits him out.
“So, you know which hospital they took Peter to?” Neal says.
“Yeah, let’s go,” Jones says.
It’s several hours before they actually let them see him. Eventually, a nurse directs them to a dim hospital room, cramped but clean-looking, with three curtained areas. Jones pulls the middle one back, and there he is, asleep in a narrow hospital bed and gown. His shoulder’s swathed in bandages, the bruises are painting his face unnatural colors, and there’s an IV line running from his hand. Diana’s already there, sitting in a small wooden chair off to the side.
“He’s lucky,” she says, rising to her feet. Neal makes his way over to her while Jones goes for the chart. “The bullet fractured his collar bone, nicked some blood vessels, but missed his lung. Barring infection, he’ll be wearing a sling for a while, he’ll get stuck with desk work and physical therapy, but he’ll be good in a couple months.”
“Back to mortgage cases and badly-concealed irritation in no time,” Neal says. “Is he going to have to use one of those elastic things, for the physical therapy?”
“Yeah,” Diana says, raising an eyebrow like, duh.
“Ten bucks says he ‘snaps it’ within a week and comes into the office to check if anyone has an extra. And just happens to see what cases we’re working on.”
Jones smirks. Somewhere, a machine beeps. Diana narrows her eyes. Hmmm. Never a good sign. He opens his mouth to say something but she beats him to it.
“You’re lucky too,” Diana says, nodding at Neal. “I thought the head of the strike team was going to shoot you himself. For future reference, three minutes is not enough warning time to convince a foreign military branch to attack a highly-defended group of terrorists.”
“Luck’s my middle name,” he says, with a smile, “Anyways, I knew you could do it. You underestimate your powers of persuasion, Diana.”
“Cool it, Caffrey. This might have been one of our only options, but it wasn’t the only option. You could’ve waited instead of almost causing an international incident.”
“Everyone keeps saying that,” Neal says, his smile starting to feel fixed, “but no one else had a plan that ended with Peter okay, either. Can we just blame the terrorists and call it a day?” He looks between the two of them, beseeching. “We do get the day, right?”
Diana sighs. “Yeah, we do. Don’t get full of yourself, but you and Peter seem to have accidentally averted a series of IED bombings. Somehow, the press got ahold of the story, so your cover’s pretty thoroughly blown.”
Neal’s completely forgotten about the art thief they’d tracked here, Lowrey. That’s going to drive Peter crazy, even more than the arm.
“We could still keep an eye out for fences, maybe put word with them and on the street that it’s too hot to sell, steer Lowrey towards a fence of our own choosing,” he says.
“Thought you wanted the day off,” Diana says.
“What, I can’t protect the interests of the US government in my free time?” His abundant free time, in a foreign hospital with- darn, without even a phone to distract himself.
“It’s just good to see you showing some initiative again. On that topic, you could fill us in on how exactly you managed to get in there without being spotted when a strike team couldn’t.”
Neal shrugs. Diana crosses her arms.
“And I’ve never seen one of your suits look like that,” Jones says, gesturing to the collection of rips, tears, blood, dirt, and other dubious stains that was once a perfectly lovely Devore.
“Really? We just averted a series of IED bombings and you’re focusing on the suit?”
Jones coughs. It sounds a lot like Accidentally.
“Fine,” Diana says. “Don’t tell us. I’ll just let everyone know that it was definitely embarrassing.”
“Wow, et tu, Diana?”
“I’m going to get coffee,” she says, looking between him and Jones. “When I get back, we’re working out a strategy for Lowrey.” And then she’s gone, brushing by them. Neal drops into her vacated seat by the front of Peter’s bed.
“You did take some risks,” Jones says, and Neal can’t look at him. He knows, he knows that part of this is his fault, and Jones must know it too. He fixes his gaze on Peter. Jones shrugs in his peripheral vision. “You’re the best and worst deal he ever made, you know? But this time, it would’ve taken us a lot longer to find him without you.”
Oh. “Thanks,” Neal says, staring at his hands, clasped in his lap.
“Don’t mention it. Ever. I don’t want to be on record as approving of one of your crazy schemes.”
“What do you take me for?” Neal says. “Anyways, isn’t that just standard operating procedure by now, unofficial rule number one of White Collar division? Never let on how many of our cases were solved by the ex-con?”
“Careful, a little more hot air in that head of yours and you might pop.”
“You’re right. Luckily,” Neal says, swiveling around in his chair, before turning back to face Jones. “We’re in a hospital.”
“One day, that luck of yours is going to run out,” Jones says, direly, with a little smile. “And I’m going to be waiting with a camera.”
Apparently, that day isn’t today, because Diana chooses that moment to barge back in with a tray of coffees, saving him from coming up with another clever reply. The adrenaline crash is messing with his ability to fake cheerful smiles. He keeps missing by just a degree too much or too little. Of course, he could just lift Jones’ phone before he realizes he already has a camera.
“So. Lowrey was last spotted in…”
Two cups of coffee later, Neal’s kind of envious of whatever sedatives Peter’s on. Coming up with a gameplan to take down Lowrey had gotten his mind off things for a bit, but now he’s burnt out. Except he’s also on edge, and he can’t stop tapping his foot, because every time he tries to stop and relax, his brain starts conjuring up paintings of martyrs and the sound Peter made when he hit the ground. He runs his hands through his hair again.
Jones is out in the hall, talking with Hughes. Diana’s masquerading as their new underground source with the help of some intelligence contacts they gained during the fiasco today. They’re not beyond trading on the goodwill they earned via accidental aversion of terrorist attacks to secure their suspect.
Neal counts the ceiling tiles. Overlays the likely path the wiring takes through them in his head. Tries to come up with modern art featuring plastic pipes and can only think of that stupid screensaver of pipes unfolding illogically all over the screen. His nose itches with the smell of antiseptic.
The thing is, he can’t quite blame the terrorists. Oh, he does. And if Peter had stopped breathing those harsh breaths, he can’t guarantee he wouldn’t have picked up another gun and waded into the fray himself. But Peter hadn’t died, and it wasn’t the terrorists fault he was out in the open, and Neal had been useless, lying on the grass, letting his control of the situation slip just long enough to draw Peter out into the open.
He thinks back to the airport diner with the chrome tables and red booths, before they left New York. Neal had been smiling at the pretty waitress with the tiny faux-gold earrings who’d come over to offer them napkins. Peter had been frowning over his soda.
Lazy, Peter said. Reckless. He’d wanted to know why Neal had been stepping back during operations, had told him not to take this trip as a vacation.
“Trip’s a synonym for vacation. You can’t blame me, Peter, warm sun, new places,” Neal had said.
Peter had pursed his lips and later informed their lovely server when she came to ask Neal if he wanted any ketchup, or fries on the house to prepare for his big mission, that actually, Neal wasn’t an agent at all.
“And in three weeks you’re not my handler. Good riddance,” Neal had said, as she shot him a look of barely-concealed horror, like she’d just avoided picking up an STD, and walked quickly back to the counter.
“Just like that?” Peter said, and Neal didn’t respond. “Fine. Skipping dinners with El and I, not letting agents around your apartment, researching travel plans at the office instead of chasing down criminals… Lately you’ve got me wondering if it really was all an act.”
“Suspicion’s not a good look on you, Peter.” It wasn’t suspicion though, or not just. There was real hurt there.
“Says the conman.”
“Says the jailor to the ex-con.” Peter was right, some things never did change. “That’s all I’ll ever be to you, right?”
Which wasn’t entirely fair, just trying to goad him into a response, change the topic. He can’t keep throwing himself head over heels into taking down thieves, because he’s not going to be doing it anymore in three months. He absolutely has to get out of New York, out of the FBI, and clear his head. Heck, he’s already got travel plans. And it is completely unacceptable for him to like this job. Because he doesn’t like this job. Every time they have to collaborate with another agency, or another division, Neal goes back to being a faulty tool, or an animal that’s likely to bite. Meanwhile, he’s still a half-step from losing everything from the cons he’s running for their sake, which is fine, except this time he’s not sleeping in thousand-count sheets and hanging Matisses on safehouse walls for his trouble. What does he get? Lectures. Eternal lectures, and suspicion so solid and pointed he could probably hang his hat on it.
Neal can’t wait to be free of all that. He does have some self-respect. But the thing is. He likes his job. Just maybe because of the people in it.
But Peter didn’t deny it, and he didn’t agree, just looked at Neal, and Neal was the one who looked away, feeling like something was scraping at his chest.
Neal taps his foot against the hospital tile, not looking at the bed. How could he have thought it would be easier to just cut contact?
The point is, Neal thinks, jiggling his foot, that distancing himself, pretending not to care, acting lax about the casework, Did Not Work. In fact, it’s been about as successful as Mozzie’s toupee. He still cares too much, and despite that, he was still uselessly slow today. He should’ve checked the windows better that last time. Shouldn’t have flinched when that stupid phone splintered in his hands. Shouldn’t have distracted Peter. Shouldn’t be so used to backup pulling them out of the fire. Should have had a better plan, period. Peter deserved better.
And now Peter’s lying too-still in front of him, and Neal doesn’t belong here anymore, and there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
He counts the floor tiles, from his dusty shoes to the edge of the curtain and back. He leans forward in the chair, clasps his hands together to keep from fidgeting and stares. Maybe he should take it as read that his lack of phone is the universe punishing him for poor decisions today.
The sheets rustle and Neal jerks his head up, his neck twinging, sore from his impromptu van ride. Peter shifts on the bed, trying to move his arm. He stops, abruptly, face going tight.
“Hey,” Neal says, sitting taller. “You with us?”
Peter opens his eyes, and tilts his head towards Neal.
“Sure,” he says. He scans the curtained room he’s in.
“Well, I say us. Diana’s already running down a lead and Jones is doing damage control for you with Hughes. You should thank him when he steps back in.”
“Mmm,” Peter says, closing his eyes again. Neal thinks that’s going to be it, he’s back to sleep, and it’ll be another couple of hours of phoneless purgatory for him, but then Peter tries to pull himself up on his elbows.
“Whoa, hey,” Neal says, putting a hand on Peter’s arm as Peter goes the color of curdled milk. “Take it easy. They’ve got these things called bed controls.” He grabs the remote and presses it into Peter’s hand.
The bed hums as Peter raises the end a few notches, so that he looks like he’s reclining in a lawn chair. If they made lawn chairs out of scratchy-looking hospital beds. Neal settles back into the hard lines of his visitor’s chair.
“Next time, I’m picking the vacation spot,” Neal says, with a significant glance at the flickering fluorescent hospital lighting.
“No. No deal. The last time you went on vacation I found you living with a mass murderer.”
Neal shrugs and tries one of his innocent smiles. It doesn’t work. It never works on Peter, which is the point. Peter shakes his head at him, trying to hide his smile. He’s doing a worse job than usual.
“Maybe we both just have terrible luck,” Peter says.
“Maybe,” Neal says. “But this one was pretty bad.”
Peter gives a little half-nod and fixes his gaze on Neal. Wait, had Neal thought he’d missed that scrutinizing look of his?
“I’m blaming you, by the way,” Peter says.
“Oh?” Neal says, trying to sound politely disinterested. He really is off his game today, and it earns him another sharp glance.
“Yeah. You must have terrible karma.”
“You think my alleged bad karma is attracting terrorists?”
“We’ll leave it out of the reports.”
Ah, the rare conspiratorial smile. It’s gone too soon, and Peter’s back to looking at him seriously again.
“Thanks for coming after me, Neal.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Tone’s a touch flat. Strike three. Neal schools his expression, but it’s too late.
“Do we have something to talk about?” Peter says.
Neal’s instinct is to look away, so of course he keeps looking right at Peter, the shadows under his eyes and the bruises and all, but he focuses on listening to the rhythm of someone’s heart monitor.
“You tell me.”
He’s pretty sure the patient has tachycardia. The beeps are a bit fast.
“Fine,” Peter says. “Leaving aside the fact that I thought you had better self-preservation instincts, you don’t look nearly pleased enough to have pulled off a daring rescue. In fact,” his eyes narrow. “You look like you’re waiting for me to rake you over the coals and kick you out.”
“So you’re not going to lecture me on the self-preservation instincts?”
“Neal.” Later, then.
“What can I say, Peter?” Neal’s smiling again, and it’s definitely wrong, and he doesn’t know how this got so out of hand. “I’m sorry. I should’ve come up with a better plan.”
“Your plan was fine. It’s not your fault someone looked out a window at the wrong time. God knows we’ve had enough operations go south because of something like that.”
Neal swallows, and he can’t help listening, but Peter’s wrong, because Neal just almost lost him.
“Yeah, but I was supposed to be monitoring the windows.”
“While you were digging me out, hiding from the guard, and hauling me out the basement window.” Peter has faintly incredulous down to an art form.
“Yeah. That kind of thing, pretty much in my job description.”
“It really isn’t. But there’s no one I’d have been gladder to see there.”
Which. Is pretty nice to hear, actually. Maybe his attempts at distancing haven’t worked on Peter, either.
“I didn’t mean any of it, before. This last month,” Neal says.
“Once we get back, you’re coming over, and you’re apologizing to Elizabeth,” Peter says. Which is surprisingly nice of him still. Hmmm. Maybe they shouldn’t be having these conversations while he’s on painkillers.
“Deal,” Neal says, never one to argue with an advantage.
“Now we’ve got that settled, you really think it would’ve been better leaving me in the basement with the impulsive terrorists?”
And people think Neal’s the sneaky one. Maybe they should be having these conversations with more painkillers.
“Maybe.” Peter got shot anyways, after all.
Peter gives him a look. The thing is, Peter’s rarely wrong.
“Okay, no, probably not.” He had been pretty sure, at the time, that that scenario ended in a body bag.
“Here’s how I see it. You tracked me down. You called for backup. And then, when backup wasn’t enough, you offered me a chance, and I took it. And I’m not sorry. Don’t let anyone else tell you you should be. They weren’t there.”
And you were. Because they are, for each other. He catches Peter’s eye and holds it. Dammit, he still will be, who is he kidding?
Neal clears his throat. “Okay.”
“Okay, it was a daring rescue. I’m going to tell the whole office.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t already.”
“No phone,” Neal says. “Hey, is that covered in the FBI budget if it got shot during an unauthorized operation?”
“What do you think?” Peter says, tapping the bed control again, to lower himself down.
“Fine. And Peter? Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Peter says, wry, which means it’s Neal’s turn to shake his head disapprovingly, albeit with less weight than Peter usually manages, as Peter drifts back to sleep.
A few days later, Peter’s up and about, albeit drowsy with painkillers and with his arm and collarbone immobilized. Neal manfully resists the urge to prank him for two days, and then he draws a tiny Mario with an impressive mustache on the cast where Peter can’t see. For two days after that, Diana keeps erupting into giggles around Peter. Neal just shrugs whenever Peter looks at him, brows knit in confusion.
Before the week is out, Diana catches Lowrey making a deal with their fence. He slips away, but they’ve got five safehouses they can check. Peter narrows it down to two based on a boat slip he finds, and Neal reasons which one he’d use. Jones visits that one first, and tackles Lowrey right off his boat, which unfortunately results in the boat crashing through the dock, though they do get Lowrey into custody. Not that the city minds, still enamored of Neal and Peter, and the list of names Neal gave them.
Neal’s more than happy to leave the stifling heat of the jungle behind. Even with the anklet chafing at his leg, the sounds of New York are much more soothing. Not a week later, he’s sitting on his balcony with Mozzie, having just come back from the Burke’s for dinner. He left when Elizabeth found Peter trying to retrieve the file he’d nudged under the couch. His ears are still full of Peter’s stubborn complaints, his tongue still a bit burnt from El’s extra-hot cheesy risotto, so it feels almost sacrilegious to be sipping semi-rare, decades-old wine, but it’s not like he’s the one who opened it.
Mozzie’s in the middle of a story and Neal’s not really listening as well as he should, relaxed and warm with the wine, staring off into the distance on his balcony. His balcony.
“You know, I won’t even get a proper last case with Peter stuck at home,” Neal interrupts, and Mozzie stops talking.
“I thought you were sick of being shot at.”
“I am, I just. What a boring way to go out. What am I even going to do? Mortgage fraud? Five weeks of mortgage fraud? And there’s a case next month that Peter and I have been working on for months...” He rubs a thumb along his glass.
“Nothing’s ever going to be neatly tied up. Everyone leaves life mid-thread,” Mozzie says, drumming his fingers on his chair.
“Yeah, but Moz… I don’t think I can go to Bolivia,” Neal says, looking out at the skyline.
“Neal, I never even bought tickets for Bolivia,” Mozzie says.
Neal looks at him over the wineglasses, maybe a little surprised, maybe a little not. Touched, definitely.
“But we are definitely going on that celebratory tour of Europe we talked about.”
“Of course,” Neal says, still peering at him over the wineglass.
“You think I don’t know you?” Mozzie said, putting his glass down on June’s patio table. “We’re not doing a repeat of last time. The way I see it, it’s not like you have to stick around forever. You like this situation, I can’t talk you out of it, fine. Once you get bored, once things change in the office, you quit. We move to Bermuda. Everyone’s happy.”
Mozzie raised his glass to the New York skyline.
“You’ve got something going on in New York, don’t you,” Neal said, taking another sip.
“It may be in my best interests to stick around for another year. Hey, where did you get this specimen?” He held up the bottle. “This vintage is surprisingly excellent for an ’84.”
“Same place I always get them, Moz. June’s wine cellar,” Neal said, and Mozzie looks chagrined. “Just kidding, I picked it up for El’s event next week. But this is good too, I guess.”
Mozzie hmphs. Neal smiles. His phone rings. Peter. A lead on the string of antique carpet thefts out of the homes of prominent New Yorkers.
“Hey,” Neal says. “Yeah, I’ll be right there.”
“Sorry, Moz,” he says and Mozzie pours himself another glass of wine.
“Yes, go, get out of here. You’re going to drive me mad,” Mozzie says and Neal rolls his eyes and leaves him in his apartment, pulling on his coat and heading out into the night.
It’s not that he needs to stay. Or that he doesn’t want to leave- although this last trip has cured him of some of his wanderlust, he still needs to get out of here, just for a little.
But he has a balcony, and a wine cabinet, and a weekly dinner night- and that’s the whole point of getting the anklet off, is he can leave whenever he wants. If he wakes up the next day and feels like chewing his own leg off out of panic, he can just fly to Barcelona. He’d probably end up moping about the part of his life left in New York, but he could, and also that metaphor got away from him. Maybe he’s been spending too much time with Mozzie. Maybe it’s just the wine.
He could get stuck here, so easily, and he doesn't feel settled. He feels restless. That’s why he panicked in the first place. But it’s not a bad place to get stuck. And if anyone can convince the FBI to keep an ex-con around (and pay him enough to keep a wine cabinet stocked) he can.