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A Perfect Storm

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“Well, that was a goddamn waste of time,” Peter said, striding out into the bleak city under his personal black cloud, like a figure from an Edward Hopper painting.

Neal rolled his eyes and trudged after him through the snow, dreading the long drive back to New York. The day had been spent in Hartford following up an initially promising lead on the pension scheme fraud they were investigating. But dead end after dead end had left Peter in an especially foul mood, compounded by that fact that they had made a wasted trip in what was turning out to be pretty unpleasant weather.

For his part, Neal had started the day in good spirits. Although his relationship with Peter had taken a nosedive since the mess with Adler and the warehouse, he had been looking forward to the chance to finally leave New York so much that he hadn’t cared that they would be in a confined space together for several hours. It hadn’t even mattered that Hartford wasn’t that far; it was a different view, different people, different scenery, a salve for what he was so desperately missing. If someone had told him four years ago that the thought of crossing just one state line would make his heart flutter he would have laughed in their face. But sometimes, on days like this when the next three years stretched out before him imposingly, he almost wished he’d never seen just what the world had to offer. He'd been cautiously optimistic, though, that the scenic drive would lull some of the tension between him and Peter, providing a fresh perspective to temper some of the animosity. But investigating a tedious case with the simmering threat, as Peter perceived it, of Neal running had well and truly hammered the last nail into that coffin.

As it was, the final remnants of his good mood had now deserted him, with Peter’s grumpiness seemingly as contagious as whatever it was Neal had caught in the meantime. Since late morning, a dull ache had been forming in his ear, spreading rapidly across his jaw and temple. He had been prone to ear infections when the weather got really cold ever since he was little and all he ever wanted when they struck was to curl up in bed with something warm against his ear and earn himself a little sympathy; it hadn’t been forthcoming back when he was a kid and he suspected it wouldn’t be now, the way things stood with Peter.

They reached the car and slowly pulled out of the parking lot, tires momentarily spinning on the frozen ice. Driving through the city took twice as long as the journey in and by the time they reached the highway light had already faded, the leaden sky so close to the ground it was like it had been tipped and spilled across the horizon.

Neal shivered and moved to adjust the heat for the third time in as many minutes, but Peter batted his hand away.

“Would you stop? It’s like a sauna in here already,” Peter said, without looking at him.

Neal held his hands up in surrender, pulling the collar of his thick winter coat up and hunching down in an attempt to keep his ears as warm as possible. The throbbing pain matched his heartbeat, the muffled rush of blood making everything feel distant and hazy. He tried to concentrate on something else, forcing himself to listen to the radio station that was playing quietly - a political debate show of some kind - but the low background static seemed to be the only sound that would reach his ears. His attention drifted to the scenery outside as it blurred past in the dirty light. But the rapid procession of the snow covered countryside combined badly with the undulating movement of the car, and soon Neal could feel heat rising in his face, his stomach clenching as saliva pooled in his mouth. He took a couple of deep breaths, hoping the nausea would eventually pass. Sweat was starting to prickle on his forehead and he thought, begrudgingly, that maybe Peter had been right about the heat after all.

Snow began to fall with menacing intent over the next half-hour and the flow of traffic gradually slowed as the layers of snow and ice froze and compacted. Cars were skidding, coasting across lanes with grinding tires. By the time they hit the outskirts of Bridgeport traffic finally snarled to a complete and utter standstill, the blizzard now raging around them in earnest. Peter brought the car to a shuddering stop and switched on the hazard lights. “Fantastic,” he sighed, peering out of the windshield where the wipers were clearing a dismally small area from which to see out of.

“You think we're gonna be stuck out here?” Neal asked, anxiety creeping in. 

Peter shrugged, not really looking at him. He turned off the car engine, presumably to preserve gas, and called both Elizabeth and Hughes on what appeared to be a very bad line, seeing as though he repeated everything twice and at full volume. He seemed to get his point across eventually and hung up, letting blissful silence reign over the car once more.

“But what if we do get stuck?” Neal said, after a moment. His version of trapped usually involved handcuffs, prison cells, or lost passports, not snow, ice and a few hundred bad drivers. This really was more Peter's area of expertise. 

“Your guess is as good as mine, Neal.” There was an edge to the way Peter said his name, like he was talking to a child who’d been kicking the back of his seat for hours. It was the tone he'd been using all day, and something about it made all the muscles in Neal's body tense. He bit back a retort and turned away from Peter, leaning against the car door. He could already feel the drop in temperature from having the engine off for a short while and the layer of sweat that had dampened his shirt earlier now felt cold against his skin.

With nothing else to do, he let himself drift, breathing deeply to calm his agitation. Like most other quiet moments these days, the treasure crowded in on the landscape of his mind. Gleaming, golden, completely at odds with the dank warehouse around it. He ran a finger across the frame of the Schiele (the surface still a little dusty and rough), before his eyes came to rest on the gentle lines of a Degas he hoped Mozzie wouldn’t talk him into selling; it was of a circus performer, elegantly posed in the top left of frame with her face turned away from the viewer, yet the motion and feeling of her performance was starkly rendered in the fluid lines of her body. The vibrant orange of the circus canopy was so perfectly balanced Neal could sense the heat of the crowd gathered underneath, could almost feel the vibration of their applause –

Neal started at the sensation of falling. He pushed himself up in his seat, wincing at the throbbing in his ear. He shot a surreptitious glance at Peter, who hadn’t seemed to notice his brief lapse in control, focused as he was on the nest of case files in his lap, his briefcase and knees serving as a makeshift desk. Diana had once said that Peter would continue to write a report even if the bureau was falling down around him, and Neal could believe it. That same stoic countenance was all Neal saw of Peter these days. They were amicable at work, professional, but Peter still kept him at arms length, barely making eye contact, brushing him off when he tried to talk about anything but work. And more and more frequently, Neal found himself wondering whether Peter regretted taking his deal. If there was one thing Neal hated it was to feel unwanted.

He shifted in his seat, trying fruitlessly to find a comfortable position; there was a flu-like ache in his lower back now and the cold was making his muscles feel stiff. 

Peter looked up. “What the hell is the matter with you? You’ve been antsy all day.”

“Nothing,” Neal said, suppressing the urge to move again. He let out a breath, watching the little white cloud slowly dissipate in the air.

Peter tore off a sheet of paper and held it out to him. “Why don’t you make some of that origami stuff? It’ll keep your fingers warm.”

Neal looked down at the sheet of paper. He knew Peter probably thought he was bored and this was his way of making an effort to be considerate, but the gesture was patronising all the same. Wordlessly, Neal took the piece of paper, leaving it untouched on his lap; if Peter noticed, he didn’t say anything.

Moments later there was a sharp knock at driver's side window, causing them both to jump. Peter rolled down his window, bracing himself against the bitter wind. The state trooper who was standing beside their car bent down to eye level and nodded curtly. “How’re you folks doing in there?” she said, in a way that suggested she’d already asked the question one too many times that night.

“We’re fine.” Peter flashed his badge. “You guys need any help?”

The trooper straightened slightly in deference to Peter’s status. “No thanks, we’re getting through it, but I think it’s gonna be a few of hours before we have everyone in this section out. The snowploughs are trying to clear the exit road into Bridgeport now. Where are you headed?”

“New York.”

“Not tonight I’m afraid. We’ve got a lot of people stuck on the highway down there. Best bet is to spend the night in Bridgeport and try again tomorrow.”

After getting directions to a hotel on the outskirts of the city, Peter thanked the trooper and closed the window. “Wonderful,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Neal knew this wasn’t a great time to complain, but any lingering warmth had escaped through Peter’s open window and the air inside the car must have been the same temperature as outside, far too cold in which to stay sitting still. But before he could ask Peter to turn on the heat, the bright lights of a passing emergency vehicle momentarily illuminated the inside of the car and Peter did a double take, looking at Neal strangely. Neal met Peter's gaze, irritated. “What?”

“You all right?”

“Fine.  Just - fine” Neal said, not quite able to keep the testiness out of his voice.

“You look pale.”

“I’m cold.”

Peter pursed his lips, holding back whatever he wanted to say. He turned the key in the ignition, the engine choking before it sputtered back to life. “Happy?”

“Ecstatic,” Neal said, but a sudden, electric wave of pain shot through his ear and the end of the word was lost in a gasp. He pitched forward, riding out the pain while very much hoping that he wouldn't throw up all over Peter's car.

“You sure about that?” 

“It's just an earache," Neal said without inflection, cautiously leaning back again; at this point he wasn’t in the mood for a pep talk, or sympathy, or anything else Peter might have to offer.

“You know what my mom always did for earaches? Warm compress. Never failed,” Peter declared with an emphatic sweep of his hand.

“Well, that’s a lot of help here in this frozen abyss. Thanks, thanks so much for that.”

Peter rolled his eyes and rummaged in the glove compartment, eventually pulling out a half empty bottle of Tylenol, which he handed to Neal without a word.

"Thank you," Neal said, but Peter had already turned his attention back to his case files. Neal swallowed two pills on the spot, washing them down with the cold remnants of the coffee he'd bought on the drive up. He closed his eyes and hunched down in his seat, willing the drugs to kick in quickly.

 

*

 

A couple of hours went by in relative silence as the snow continued to fall around them, further encasing them in their own isolated world. The mediocre effects of the painkillers had long since tailed off and the ache in Neal's ear had become agonisingly high pitched. As time passed, Neal found himself starting to feel strangely claustrophobic, his skin hyper sensitive to every movement of his clothes, legs restless and uncomfortable despite his exhaustion. Desperate to be free of the stale atmosphere in the car, he turned to open the passenger door, but Peter’s voice stopped him.

“What are you doing?”

Neal bristled. “I need to take a leak.”

Peter looked at him disbelievingly and gestured to the storm raging outside. “In this?”

“Well, what else do you suggest?” Then, catching the expression on Peter’s face he added, “I’m not going to run, Peter.”

“That’s not – ”

Tired and in pain, Neal’s patience finally snapped and he cut Peter off, wading into the fight that had been brewing for months. “You know what? I’m sick of this. There’s clearly nothing I can do or say that will make you believe that not everything is part of some great con. You ever consider that maybe I’m just human, like everyone else?”

“That’s not fair and you know it, Neal.” Peter’s voice was low, putting weight on each word, the way he did when he was really upset.

“Then what do you want from me?”

“I want you to stop giving me reasons to doubt you.”

Neal looked at him incredulously. “We’re back to the art again?”

“I guess we are.”

Peter’s accusations still hurt. He didn’t steal the art, had never intended to; his only thought was to get Adler, to get revenge or justice for Kate. Something, anything, to make her loss bearable. Neal thought Peter, of all people, would have seen that.  “I just thought - ” he bit off his sentence as another wave of pain rolled through his jaw.

“You just thought what, Neal?”

“That you would have had more faith in me,” Neal said, bitterly, honestly.

Peter stilled sharply, his expression unreadable in the darkness. “Yeah, I thought so too.”

Neal felt lightheaded; the need to escape the confines of the car and Peter’s disappointment was overwhelming. He moved to open the door again and this time Peter didn’t try to stop him. 

The cold took Neal’s breath away as he sunk into the deep powder. The wind was strong, snapping around him violently. His eyes immediately started watering and he had to hold his hand up in front of face to see. The lights of the highway and the stranded cars revealed a landscape covered indiscriminately in white; it disguised everything beneath with a thick veneer, making him feel momentarily disorientated. Peter's car was in the outside lane so Neal carefully picked his way across to the far side, hopping over the crash barrier and scrambling up the embankment to reach the shelter of the woods. Out of the wind, everything fell silent. It was darker, too, but it was just possible to see through the trees to where the highway curved around in a wide 'U' as it climbed the hill. The snowploughs had reached this section, their flashing orange lights just barely visible from where Neal stood.

He could run. The thought occurred to him as he turned and walked a deeper into the privacy and protection of the woods. The storm would provide enough of a cover with the authorities already overstretched; it would be hours, days even, before a proper search could be mounted. Canada wasn’t unreachable in that time. But then, how long would he last out here in what he was wearing? Three hours? Four? Neal shook his head. He must be sicker than he thought, but for thinking about running in those conditions or deciding to stay, he wasn’t entirely sure.

Neal relieved himself quickly and started back towards the car. There was a heaviness in his ear now and when he touched it the scratch of his fingers across his skin sounded strangely distorted, as though his head was underwater.  As he walked, Neal realised he could hear the churning of the ploughs ahead of him and he pulled up short thinking he was walking back to the wrong part of the road. He listened carefully but couldn’t pinpoint the sounds exactly. The wind had clearly strengthened over the past few minutes and was now pushing through the tress, lashing the snow into wide drifts. His field of vision narrowed sharply to just a few metres. Realising he must have been walking towards the wrong section of highway, Neal turned and headed back the way he had come.

He walked blindly for a while longer but failed to emerge out onto the roadside.

Neal stopped again, teeth chattering violently. He could barely see his hand in front of him now, his eyes straining to to interpret the landscape in the grainy static. The signal on his phone was weak and the map he tried to pull up to get his bearings wouldn't load properly. It was ridiculous, he thought, that he could get so completely disorientated in such a short amount of time, like someone overwhelmed by the smoke of a fire. He was growing increasingly uneasy, knowing that if he didn't return to the car soon Peter was definitely going to think he was trying to run and he really didn't have the energy for another fight. He took a breath and tried to think. There was road on three sides of him so chances were he’d find the highway again if he just headed in a straight line. Although, it would be his luck to take the fourth direction and walk deeper and deeper into the woods. Suppressing his rising anxiety, Neal continued to pick his way across the uneven ground, but still couldn’t see anything more than the shadowy outlines of trees and rocks. Occasionally he thought he caught the faint sound of a snowplough, metal grinding against asphalt, but it always drifted away before he could pinpoint it. 

“Neal!"

Neal stopped short at the sound of his name, but he couldn't hear anything beyond the roar of the wind. He squinted against the driving snow, sure he had been imagining things when a dark figure emerged into view. When it got nearer Neal realised the figure was Peter, out of breath, his face etched with worry. Neal grabbed hold of Peter’s coat as soon as he was close enough and saw the lines of concern deepen.

“Peter? I know what this - how - how this - ” Neal started, fighting to get the words out in the right order.

He expected Peter to be angry, but when he spoke his voice was gentle, even though it was raised to cut above the roar of the storm. “It’s okay, it’s all right. Come on.” Peter held Neal by his elbow as they made their way to the highway. By the time they got back to the car Neal was shivering so hard he could barely speak, and Peter looked at him then, really looked at him for the first time in a long while. Without hesitation he reached across and placed the back of his hand against Neal’s forehead. “Jesus, Neal. You’re burning up.”

He was? Neal reached up and to feel his own temperature but there was no demarcation between the heat of his hand and his head, so he decided he’d have to take Peter’s word for it.

“Why didn’t you tell me you felt this bad?” Peter said. Neal wasn’t sure what answer he was supposed to give, but Peter didn’t wait for him to think of one; there was a sudden blast of air as his door opened and closed and Neal was left staring bemusedly at the empty space he'd left, watching the dusting of snowflakes melt into the fabric of the seat. Peter returned moments later with a couple of blankets from the trunk. He wrapped them around Neal’s shoulders, giving his arms a quick rub. The blankets smelled a little musty, but they were thick and heavy, blocking out the worst of the chill. “We should be out of here soon, Neal, then we’ll get you somewhere warm, okay?”

Neal gave a jerky nod and let his eyes fall closed.

 

*

 

Neal woke just as Peter pulled the car up to the offensively bright entrance of a Holiday Inn, the dirty snow on the ground outside glowing with garish primary colours. The clock on the dashboard told him he was definitely missing some time.

Dignity firmly checked in at the door, clothes piled on the corner chair, and Neal finally found himself in bed, albeit a small, lumpy bed that he would have to share with Peter. Peter had already helped divest him of his shirt, tie, pants and shoes and after a quick phone call to Elizabeth, was now looking at his white t-shirt with intent.

“El says it’ll be better for your fever if you’re under layers of blankets, rather than layers of clothes,” he said, not looking particularly convinced.

Neal wasn’t much convinced by this logic either, but found his vision clouded with damp, white cotton before he could say anything about it. He winced at the rush of cold air that swept over his skin, before Peter quickly settled the covers over him. He left shortly after to see if the front desk had a first aid kit of some sort to hold them over, leaving Neal to stare blearily at the TV with a cool washcloth on his forehead.

Everything felt foggy and strange and he couldn’t tell how long it was until he heard the swipe of the keycard in the door. Peter entered waving a bottle of Tylenol with codeine, and a thermometer. “This should knock you out for the night,” he said brightly, setting the items down on the bedside table.

Neal squinted at him. “There’s no need to look so happy about it.”

“You get some sleep, I get some sleep. It’s win win.” Peter said, but his words didn't have any bite. He placed the thermometer in Neal’s mouth and they quietly waited for the device to beep, the chatter of the news channel filling the room. “102.4," Peter made a face as he read the number. "No wonder you're feeling lousy. I’ll get you some water to take the painkillers. Hopefully that'll take the edge off until we can get you to Urgent Care tomorrow."

As Neal swallowed the pills, a little water caught in his throat sending him into an eye-watering coughing fit, the pressure causing the pain in his ear to flare unbearably. He closed his eyes tightly, waiting for it to subside. 

“Here.”

Neal felt the bed dip and opened his eyes in time to see Peter press a hand towel, warm from the bathroom radiator, to his ear. Neal looked away, a lump forming in his throat from the unexpected gentleness of the action. 

“Better?”

Neal could only nod gratefully as Peter guided his hand to hold the towel in place. Peter leaned back then, surveying the scene. Clearly satisfied that he had done everything he could given the circumstances (and followed all of Elizabeth’s instructions), he loosened his tie and toed his shoes off. “If you need anything in the night, you wake me up okay?”

“You won’t be grumpy?”

“Nope, you have full immunity from my grumpiness for the next twelve hours.”

Neal narrowed his eyes. “That’s not really a great deal if I’m going to be unconscious for most of it.”

“Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it, I’ll take it,” Neal said, quickly.

Peter laughed and for a moment there was a flicker of the easiness had always defined their relationship. “You need anything else?”

Neal shook his head and Peter squeezed his leg before disappearing into the bathroom. A few moments later Neal heard the sound of the shower running. He rolled over and curled up on his side, already feeling the weight of the drugs pulling at him. Peter’s shoes lay on the floor outside the bathroom, his socks, the ones with the dogs on, piled on top, and there was something so innocent, so open about it that Neal felt a sudden, disquieting pang of grief. He knew Peter would be disappointed in him for keeping the art while arguing bitterly about the finer points of trust, and perhaps that was partly fuelling his frustration, that Peter was not entirely wrong in his accusations or unjustified in his animosity. But then again, this is who he is, how he survives. He could never feel guilty about that.

It was strange, Neal thought, that he and Peter could circle one another for years, preserve each other’s lives and freedom time and time again, see the other at his best or worst, and yet, sooner or later, they always seemed to reach an impasse. It was always too much or never enough. There was hope though, tonight had shown him that much, that maybe they could move past this hurdle like they had all the others, find that careful knife’s edge balance that seemed to work for them. For now Neal decided, that was good enough.