Title: We Build Our Lives On Shifting Sand
Characters/Pairing: Neal, Peter; Gen
Word count: 2000
Warnings: SPOILERS for 5x11. Also please see notes below.
Notes: This is my hc_bingo fill for the "suicide attempt" square. This is NOT anything explicit; just a (slightly oblique) discussion of events in the episode.
Summary: Episode tag for 5x11, Shot Through The Heart. Peter gets a phone call in the middle of the night.
Peter was jolted out of a sleep thick with uneasy dreams by his cell phone ringing. The time and the caller ID set his pulse pounding — 3 a.m. phone calls meant bad news. "Neal?" he asked, already throwing the cover off and finding the floor with his feet. "What's happened?"
"Peter," Neal said. He sounded tired, his voice slow. Not frightened, or even particularly energised. "Are you there?"
El mumbled sleepily, and rolled over. Peter stood and left the room as quietly as he could. "I'm here," he said, leaning against a wall in the dark hallway. "Are you alright?"
Neal was slow to answer, which was enough time for Peter's heart-rate to begin to return to normal. "I don't know," he said, finally.
Which ratcheted up the worry again, because that just wasn't the sort of thing that Neal ever admitted to. "Talk to me," Peter said. "Are you in trouble?"
Neal gave a low laugh, which should have been reassuring but somehow curdled Peter's stomach. "Depends how you look at it," he said.
Peter finally identified the slight dragging of Neal's speech. "You're drunk," he accused.
"Yeah." Neal made no attempt to try and deny it.
It was cold out in the hall. Peter fleetingly considered hanging up and returning to his warm bed, but… the unease which had disturbed his sleep hadn't faded. He headed for the stairs instead, switching on a light so that he didn't have to feel his way down. "Why are you calling?"
There was another, longer pause. "I don't know," Neal said, reluctantly. "Just wanted to — Never mind."
"No, don't hang up." Satchmo didn't stir in his basket as Peter settled onto the couch, pulling a blanket over his legs. Over the phone line he could hear faint traffic noise in the background and pictured Neal out on the terrace, leaning on the balcony in his shirt-sleeves, holding a glass of wine.
Neal's voice was strangely dispassionate. "Rebecca called me. I mean, Rachel."
Oh, Jesus. "What? When?"
"A while ago," Neal said. "She said she's going to see me soon."
There was a coil of dread in Peter's gut, curled there like a snake. "Neal, she's not getting out. You're safe."
"She said it wasn't a threat, just a promise," Neal continued, slightly dreamily, as if he hadn't heard.
"She won't get near you. That's a promise, you hear me?" He spoke it firmly to the darkened room. But the night-time unfamiliarity of his own home robbed it of the power he meant it to have.
Neal sighed. A heavy, sad sound.
Peter remembered now that he had dreamt about the expression on Neal's face as they had cuffed Rachel. How did you know she wouldn't kill you?
Turning away, into the shadows.
"Please," he said. "Talk to me, Neal." Suddenly he was afraid.
Neal's voice was soft. "I don't know what to say," he murmured. "I don't —"
Peter didn't know what to say either. There was only a presentiment that he had to keep Neal talking to him, to not allow that fragile thread of connection to snap.
"She thinks I'll be back in prison soon. That I'll never stop being a criminal or a, a bad person." There was nothing to indicate whether Neal believed this or not — his voice was flat, simply stating facts.
An emotionally flat Neal was just… wrong.
"Neal, I can't really tell where your head's at right now, but you're not a bad person." There was the soft clink of glass against stone, and Peter sighed. "I doubt whatever you're drinking is helping you think clearly."
"I'm fine," Neal said.
"Yeah, convincing." Peter rested his face in one hand, without moving the phone from his ear. He wished he was able to get a read on quite how much alcohol Neal had had. He wondered whether he should go over there.
"Please, stop worrying over me," Neal said. "You're as bad as Mozzie."
That Mozzie had felt the need to give a similar talk wasn't reassuring. Unable to continue sitting still, Peter got up and began to pad quietly back and forth across the carpet. How did you know she wouldn't shoot you…
And Neal had refused to tell anyone how he had managed to get the handcuff onto Rachel. Or how, exactly, Hagen fit in. There were too many details he didn't dare press for, for fear of the answers. Too many raw edges. The gulf between his world and Neal's was as clear as it had ever been, and more painful. "I can't not worry," he said, quietly. "Not after everything that's happened. You used yourself as bait, Neal! You were in danger."
"I'm often in danger," Neal said. "Why's it only bad when it's on my terms?"
"That's not the only time it's bad!" Peter hadn't meant to, but his voice had risen to almost a shout. Satchmo stirred anxiously, and whined. "Neal, in two weeks I'm not going to be here any more to keep an eye on you, and I don't want someone calling to tell me you got in some reckless situation and now you're dead!"
There was a brief period of silence after his outburst. Peter looked up at the ceiling anxiously — he had been far too loud.
Neal made a tiny snuffling noise. "Dammit, Peter," he whispered.
Peter squeezed his eyes shut, and pressed his fingertips against his eyelids. "Just promise me," he said. "Promise me you haven't stopped caring."
"Or what?" Neal's voice was very small.
"There isn't any or what. Christ, Neal."
Or he would find his heart in his mouth at every unexpected call from a New York number. Or he would have to tell Jones and Diana everything he suspected about Neal's current state of mind, which Neal would probably never forgive him for. Or he could get a cab over there right now, a coat on top of his pyjamas, whether Neal wanted him there or not.
"I'm not suicidal," Neal said, defensively.
"No," Peter said, tiredly, trying to damp down the instinctive flare of relief to have that fact voiced. "But you're self-destructive and lacking preservation instincts. Am I right?"
"And I'm drunk," Neal said, and gave a little sad laugh that cut Peter to the quick.
"Yes, you are," Peter agreed, trying to keep his tone light. "How about you go to bed? We can talk about this properly in the morning." His steps had brought him to the mantelpiece, in front of the picture of him and Neal in matching tuxes. They were both smiling.
"Yeah. Maybe." The sound of Neal's footsteps let Peter know that he was moving entirely without his usual effortless grace. There was the clumsy bang of the terrace doors closing.
"Go get some water," Peter advised.
"Hmm." Peter listened to the sounds of Neal crossing the room, locating a glass, running the tap. "There," Neal said, eventually.
"Good. Now bed."
Neal didn't disconnect the call, and Peter wasn't inclined to tell him to. He listened to the small sounds that travelled down the line as Neal changed, and finally there were the creak of bedsprings. He had thought Neal had forgotten about the phone entirely, but he abruptly spoke again. "Peter, are you there?"
"Yeah," Peter said. "I'm still here. You're in bed now?"
"Yeah," Neal said. He sighed. "Did you mean it? That I'm not a bad person?"
"Of course I meant it."
"But I'm a criminal," Neal said, matter-of-factly.
Peter wished he had gone with his gut and taken a cab to Neal's apartment anyway. At least he would have been able to see whatever expression was on Neal's face right now.
"Neal," he said, speaking slowly, trying to feel his way as he went, "You are a criminal. You've broken laws. That's just a fact. But that doesn't mean I think you're a bad person, because I know you aren't." Once he might have said something different. Everything had used to seem so straightforward; so black and white.
He still wasn't sure which to prefer.
"You're my friend," Peter said. "You're family, Neal, and you are a good person." The thought that he might have lost Neal to one of Rachel's bullets chilled him. He had already had one nightmare about that. There would be many more.
"I can't tell anymore," Neal whispered, very softly, and his breathing hitched for a moment.
Peter's heart ached. He wished he hadn't seen that deep, painful sadness in Neal's eyes earlier; that he could write this off as just the alcohol talking.
And — wasn't this also getting to the heart of his own pain, and his guilt over walking a path that had been bought with a price he had sworn he would never pay? He closed his eyes. "I can't tell about myself either," he admitted, and his voice cracked.
Neal inhaled sharply. "Peter, you are," he insisted. "You do good things, not bad ones. That's why —"
"Hey, calm down," Peter cut him off. Neal's voice was rising steadily. And Peter couldn't bear to hear again the justification of his acquittal. He sighed. "You trust me, don't you?"
"Yes," Neal answered, without hesitation. Peter remembered his little speech about faith, months ago now. Even when things were difficult between them, they had trust when it mattered. When it was important.
"Then trust me now," Peter said. "I'm not your moral compass, Neal — you have to take responsibility for that yourself. But you're a good person, and you try to do the right thing." He sighed again. "Even when we disagree about what the right thing is."
There was a short period of silence, during which Peter listened to the soft sound of Neal's breathing and watched Satchmo's ear twitch in his sleep.
Then Neal exhaled heavily. "You make everything sound simple," he said, like it was an accusation. "I just… I don't know. Everything's tangled in knots."
"It'll look better in the morning," Peter said and hoped, desperately hoped, that that would be true. "We won. We caught Rachel. Focus on that." And he would see if he could find a way to stop her from being able to contact Neal. She couldn't be allowed to continue to play games with him.
"Yeah," Neal said, dully, drawing out the word. He sounded like he was edging towards sleep.
"I'll come by before work," Peter said. "With pickle juice. I expect you're going to need it."
Neal groaned. "I'd rather have the hangover."
"We'll see how you feel in a few hours." Peter was relieved to hear a lightness in Neal's voice. He smiled. "Go to sleep now, okay?"
"Okay," Neal agreed. "Hey, Peter. Thanks."
"No problem," Peter said. "Three a.m. phone calls are what friends are for, right?"
Neal laughed softly, and fell quiet. Peter had expected him to hang up, but he didn't — the line was still active as his breathing slowed and evened out. Peter didn't disconnect the call on his end, either. He just sat and listened to the sound of Neal's breathing mixed with the soft ticking of the wall clock.
"Neal?" he whispered, eventually, but there was no answer. Peter hung up, and sat where he was for several more minutes, phone in his hand.
How did you know she wouldn't shoot you… Am I a bad person…
Finally, he went back to bed, turning out the lights behind him. His sleep, when it came, continued to be troubled by uneasy dreams.
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