"Hey!" He smiled.
Shannon did not smile back. Her eyes were wide with confusion and terror, and she clearly had no idea who he was. Her heart rate shot through the roof, her gag reflex kicked in, and she started to buck the ventilator and panic. Neal tried to calm her, but she jerked her hand from his grasp and continued to fight. The monitors were screaming and the nurses came running. Neal backed out of the way into the corner of the room as they flocked in to treat her.
"Easy, easy, darlin'," said one of them, who injected something into her IV. "Just relax, now."
It took a few minutes for the medication to kick in, but eventually she was calm enough to have the ventilator removed. Neal cautiously approached the bed, and Shannon allowed him to take her hand. She was able to blow out hard enough to help the nurses pull the tube from her throat, and once it was free, she coughed weakly.
"Good job," Neal said, and she looked at him again with something like recognition.
"All right, we're gonna give you something to wet your whistle." the first nurse said, as another noted the time and scribbled something on Shannon's chart. "How are you feeling?"
"Thirsty. Sore," she croaked.
"Are you in pain?"
Shannon closed her eyes, and for a second Neal thought she wasn't going to reopen them.
"Yes, but it's not too bad." She attempted a small smirk. "What happened?"
"A lot of things," the nurse said with a smile. "I'll let your boyfriend fill you in. He's hardly left your bedside." She nodded at Neal, who was trying not to look too embarrassed. "Just go easy on her, okay? Here are some ice chips for her. I'm going to see if I can extradite Dr. Sydney from her interrogation, so she can have a look at you, Miss Gregory. I'll be right back." She left the cup of ice chips on the bedside table and walked out.
Shannon peered at Neal, and Neal knew why. Shannon wore contacts (it said so on her chart), and obviously the ICU personnel had taken them out on her arrival. He imagined he was probably a blur to her.
"Rick?" she asked as her eyes landed upon Neal. Neal leaned in so he was no longer blurry. "You're…" Disappointment filled her gaze.
"Not Rick. I know. They keep thinking we're a couple." He smiled. "Here, have some ice chips."
She allowed him to spoon them into her mouth. A few swallows later, she had enough of her thoughts together to remember something. "I know you, I think."
"Well, not that well," Neal hedged. "My name is –"
"Peppermint schnapps guy. I remember."
He smiled and fed her some more chips. "Yeah, that's what my ID says: Peppermint Schnapps Guy. So, who's Rick? We didn't know about him, so we haven't notified him about what happened to you. Should I call him? What's his number?" He reached into his pocket for his cell.
She closed her eyes in regret. "No, forget it. He was my boyfriend a couple of years ago, but I … I got obsessed with something, and I crapped it all up. We drifted apart." She paused. Then she turned her sharply captivating gray stare back on him. "What would bring a random customer to the bedside of a bartender who can't even remember why she's lying in bed in the first place?" Her voice was quiet and steady, but her tight jaw betrayed her fear.
Neal took off his coat and lay it down on the end of the bed, and then settled himself in the bedside chair again.
"I went back to Allegretto's, and call it good timing, or whatever, but when I got there, two guys were dragging you out into the alleyway. I saw you fight them, and I saw them shoot you."
She twitched slightly. "I got shot? I don't remember."
Neal nodded. "Doctors say that's normal. Probably for the best, anyway."
"You never did answer me. Why do you wear a tracking anklet?"
Her random change of subject surprised Neal. "Well, I'm a…" He shrugged and went for it. "I'm a criminal." There. It was out. She didn't look too worried, so he went on. "Mostly I forged paintings and ran scams. Now I'm out on parole, and I work as a consultant for the FBI. I'm with a White Collar task force here in New York. The Bureau keeps tabs on me, so I have the anklet and a two-mile radius. It's part of the deal."
Shannon blinked in surprise. "Wow. Okay. So, wait, you dragged the Bureau into this?"
"Yes." He held eye contact with her.
"And you took my case?"
"Well, we tried. As, um, as part of the investigation, we went to your apartment." He glanced away before looking back directly at her.
"And, we tried to continue what you'd started," Neal said delicately, "but the NSA took over. As it turns out, though, that's not why you were shot. Someone put a hit out on you."
A more visible tremor went through her left arm. "W-Who?"
"You're going to need to change dentists."
Shannon looked confused.
"Dr. Mitchell is a paranoid crook. He thought you'd overheard something pertaining to one of his illegal activities, and he hired two guys to eliminate you. Fortunately, they had crappy aim, and now he's in FBI custody. Agents are interrogating him as we speak." He conveniently left out the part where Dr. Mitchell had sneaked into the hospital and tried to kill her with the morphine. She didn't need the nightmares that knowledge would bring.
"Oh." She looked exhausted, and every time she blinked it took her longer to reopen her eyes.
"I should let you rest." He started to rise, but she caught him by the arm. Her grasp was surprisingly strong, and her stare was steady despite the tear that slipped down her cheek.
"I don't know you. But could you…" She trailed off. Neal understood. He nodded. Her hand slipped off his arm, and she closed her eyes. Her brow was still crinkled up with anxiety, but it slowly smoothed out as she fell back to sleep. Neal took her hand again and sat back down.
A touch to the shoulder woke him. Peter was standing over him.
"I said take a nap, not practice your human pretzel routine."
Neal looked down at the blanket under his cheek. He'd fallen asleep bent at the waist, with his head on Shannon's bed and her hand still in his.
Slowly straightening up and relaxing his tight muscles, he grinned at Peter. Peter grinned back.
"You can't resist a pretty girl, can you?"
Neal let that comment slide. "She's been awake."
"I can imagine. Getting shot does that to you."
"NSA call yet about WitSec?"
"Nope, still waiting. We should know by tomorrow."
Just then, three raps sounded on the door. It swung open to reveal Agent Jeremy Alston and a younger man with very similar facial features. Neal gently disentangled his hand from Shannon's grasp and stood to join Peter.
Alston scowled at Peter. "Burke, is your phone broken?" he complained. "We spent an hour driving around Brooklyn trying to find the right hospital." Peter started to apologize, but Alston waved him off. "You were too busy mention she was actually in Manhattan all along. I understand. I heard about what happened with Mitchell."
The younger man looked at Shannon briefly, and assured himself that she was sleeping peacefully before addressing Peter and Neal. "'Ello. I'm Rick Alston. I know this is Agent Burke, but you are…?"
"Neal Caffrey." He took Rick's hand and shook it heartily. The man stood two inches taller than Neal. He had a chiseled jaw and the physique of a star quarterback. And the way he stood – he was an FBI agent in the making, if he wasn't carrying a badge already.
"You're the guy who saved her?"
Neal nodded, and then looked back at Shannon. "Someone had to watch out for her."
Peter cleared his throat. "We haven't been formally introduced. I'm Peter Burke. How are you?"
Rick shook his hand. "Good, good. Boston's finally starting to thaw out. 'Bout time, too. This winter's been awful." Rick's voice was deep and smooth, and Neal couldn't help but be a little irritated by it. "The doctors told us how she's doing, but what happened to her?"
Neal tuned out Peter's summary of the case. At the moment, it was almost too much to even look at Rick. He just wanted to go away and be alone. It was childish to sulk, so he did his best to keep up his calm façade until he could safely excuse himself. He waited until Peter took a breath.
"Well, I've been here for too long, and I stink," he said. The other men smirked. "I need to grab a shower and some sleep. Good to see you, Agent Alston, and Rick, it was nice to meet you. Peter," he acknowledged respectfully, and left the room. He was no longer needed. Rick would step in and be there for Shannon. He was someone she knew and trusted. Walking away was the right move. But as Neal weaved his way through the crowd of afternoon visitors in the lobby and stepped out into the cold New York winter, he couldn't help but feel empty inside. Frustrated, he found the nearest subway entrance and trotted down the steps.
A week and a half later, Neal was pacing back and forth across the floor of his apartment, rhythmically slapping a file folder and wondering what to do. He had wanted to stay out of Shannon's life after her release from the hospital a few days ago, but this information was too important to keep from her. And that was what ultimately made the decision. He pulled out his cell and pressed speed dial one.
"Neal?" Peter answered. "What's up? It's Saturday. You have the day off."
"Yeah, I know. Peter, I need a favor."
"What is it?"
"Can you escort me somewhere outside of my radius?"
"Where?" Peter was suspicious.
"Shannon Gregory's apartment."
A groan. "Neal, I thought you gave up on that."
"I did! I just … I want to say goodbye. I called Allegretto and they told me she quit," he explained.
A gusty sigh came through on the other end. "All right, fine, give me a few minutes."
"I can swing by your place, if that's easier."
It was easier. Neal arrived at Peter's house with the contents of the folder safely folded up and tucked in his jacket pocket. Peter was just locking the door as Neal jogged up the steps.
"El's got a cold. She's taking a nap, and I don't want to disturb her. Let's go."
"Okay. Um, one more favor. Could you wait in the car when we get there?"
Peter rolled his eyes. "Sure."
They climbed into the Taurus and headed for the address. "Just do yourself a favor and don't flirt too hard," Peter advised him along the way.
"This is different, Peter. You don't need to give me the speech."
Peter had already sensed this, so he didn't argue. They rode along in comfortable silence until Peter pulled over and parked on her street. "Okay, here we are. You have fifteen minutes before I go in there and get you."
Neal looked over at Peter. "Thank you." Peter nodded. Neal swung open the car door and walked to the apartment building, passing by a mother pushing a heavily bundled toddler in a stroller, and gracefully side-stepping an unfortunate man being walked by his massive dog. A cry of "Heel, Serby, hee-eel!" trailed out behind him. Neal winced. But he'd found the right glass door that peeked into the right lobby. He started to open it when the doorman came running.
"Hello, who are you here to see?" the man asked as he opened the door.
"Oh. She stepped out about twenty minutes ago. She went to get some fresh air … oh, here she comes now." He pointed up the street. There she was, wrapped in a heavy coat, her fiery red hair tucked into a hat and a cheerful knitted scarf around her neck, sitting a wheelchair. Rick was pushing her. Neal nodded in thanks at the doorman and walked towards them. He faltered for a split second before approaching, but he had to give her this information.
"Hi, Shannon." He gave her his best smile.
"Schnapps! Uh, I mean, Neal. Neal, right?" Her grin was unguarded and open. It was contagious.
"Yeah, that's me. How are you? Good to see you, Rick." He grinned as he shook hands with them both.
"I'm good. Recovery has been a little rocky, but it's getting better. Rick's been helping out a lot." She broke free from their shared stare and looked back up Rick, who smiled pleasantly but was doing his best to remain aloof. "I mean, look at him! I said I was going stir crazy and he actually agreed to take me out in this weather. That's dedication."
"No kidding. So, no threat of witness protection. That must feel pretty good."
"The NSA said I didn't need to worry about it anymore." The lightheartedness disappeared, and her guard went back up.
He nodded. "Yeah, I know. Listen, if it's not too much trouble, could I talk to you privately for a moment?"
Shannon looked back up at Rick. "Babe, is that okay?"
Rick looked like he'd rather tightrope between skyscrapers than leave her with a known con artist and thief, but he said, "Sure thing. How about you guys talk in the lobby? Then you'll bring her upstairs in ten minutes." His stare bored into Neal.
Neal swallowed. "Of course."
Neal held the door open as Rick pushed Shannon up the handicapped ramp into the lobby of the building, and the doorman shut it behind them. Shannon squeezed Rick's hand and let Neal wheel her over to the seating area near the reception desk, so he could sit on the couch and she could sit across from him. As soon as Rick was gone, she turned serious.
"Okay, what's this about?"
"I have a friend in the information business, and he happened upon this." Neal handed her the papers. "We figured out what the NSA's interest in this case was, and why they shut us down. Apparently, one of their agents infiltrated the Boston mob. And normally this would have been a good thing, but the agent went rogue. He had access to government information, and he used the mob connections he cultivated to get in touch with other crime organizations. He was getting ready to put a lot of sensitive information up for sale overseas to … unfriendly powers. Our investigation into your…" he paused, "shooting, dug up his identity and his activities. The NSA jumped on it immediately and caught him, but they kept the FBI in the dark."
Neal scratched his head. "Um, total embarrassment, would be my best guess. I mean, seriously, a national security agent tries to undermine the security of the nation? Come on. Anyway, they caught the guy, and the man who actually tried to kill you is in custody as well, so either way, witness protection is no longer necessary."
Shannon nodded. "But there's more."
"Yeah." Neal steeled himself. "Shannon, there's enough circumstantial evidence to prove that this NSA agent was the man who murdered your father and mother. Your dad … he was like you. Tenacious. He kept digging into that mob case, even after he retired, and this guy got scared that he would be discovered, so he decided to keep your father from talking."
"You have proof?" she said. Her face was hard, and her jaw was tight.
Neal nodded. "Everything I just handed you is proof. And it's in the hands of NSA's internal review department right now. So, the murder charges will probably be added to this agent's laundry list of a rap sheet, but even if they're not … Shannon, he committed treason. He'll be locked away forever in some terrible, miserable place. You don't have to worry about him."
Shannon looked a bit shell-shocked by all of this, mechanically slipping the folded papers into her coat. "Wow. I … I'm sorry. I just didn't expect to get all these answers, after such a long time looking. Thank you for telling me." Her hardened expression eased a bit.
"Of course. Let's get you up to your apartment."
She nodded. He stood up to grab the handles on her chair, and pushed her a few feet when he heard a sniffle and looked down at her bowed head. He stepped around in front of her, knelt, and gently tipped her face up just a little so he could see her. The tears were streaming down her cheeks.
"Oh, I'm a dead man. Rick will take one look at your face and use me for a punching bag," Neal said seriously. "Here." He handed her his handkerchief.
She began to laugh through her tears, and she blew her nose. "I'm sorry," she said again, and her voice cracked. "I swear, this isn't the way I normally am. I just … I don't know what to do with any of this. I worked so hard and so long to solve the mystery. And now I have the evidence, and the man who killed my parents is going away … but nothing is ever going to bring them back. I have nothing left. This stupid case took over my life, and I pushed everybody away."
Neal took her free hand. "Hey, shh, relax. It's going to be okay. You have so much in front of you, you don't even know. You can go back to school, or back to Maine, or forward to something else, because you're really smart. You'll find something you love to do, and you'll be just fine. But, listen to me, you aren't alone. You have Rick. You have a guy who loves you. You have a guy who came back to you. He's one of the good ones. He's waiting for you upstairs, right now. … And if I don't get you up there in two minutes, he'll probably kill me. We need to go."
She laughed again and wiped her face, and nodded. "All right. I'm sold. Let's get up there."
Neal wheeled her over to the elevators and pressed the button.
She smiled weakly up at him. "Thank you."
Neal leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. "No, thank you."
She straightened up to her full sitting height, and despite the wince from her still mending injuries, her steely gaze pinned him.
She wasn't done healing by any means, but Neal had a gut feeling about where she'd end up. He knew, in that moment, that he was looking at a future FBI agent. He just hoped that he wouldn't ever be interrogated by her; he wouldn't stand a chance.
"For one hell of a drink."
She smiled. "You know, we should all get together sometime. You, me, Rick, maybe even Jeremy and Peter, if they want to come. Maybe actually just talk to each other. That might be fun. Oh, and I'll make you something with peppermint schnapps."
"Uh uh. No way," Neal protested as the elevators door opened and he rolled her in. "Not without a disclaimer. People need to know what's involved before they order from you."
She laughed. "Yeah, I'll write one up."
When the door dinged on her floor and he pushed her chair out onto the carpeting, Rick was right there, leaning against the wall. He made a show of checking his watch.
"Nine minutes and thirty seconds. Your life will be spared."
"Rick, play nice," Shannon warned. She took Neal's hand. "Bye, Neal. Take it easy."
Neal squeezed her hand gently. "I'll see you guys around. Stay safe, all right?" He stuffed his hands in his pockets and made his escape.
A few minutes later he was back in the Taurus, sitting perfectly still in the front seat as Peter glanced over at him. "Everything go okay?"
Neal nodded. "She's got her whole life in front of her. I'm glad I could help her move on."
"Yeah, the whole investigate-and-get-revenge act can be pretty short-sighted." The subtext of Peter's comment didn't go unnoticed.
Neal wasn't about to rise to the bait, though. "Can we go now?"
Neal looked out the window as they drove past buildings and people and cars, and thought back to Shannon. And Kate.
Even as he thought about his loss, he thought the similarity of his and Shannon's situations, and the truth of her words. Knowledge wouldn't bring anybody back, and the only way out of the mire of grief was forward. It was kind of inspiring to hear that from someone else. It made him think that maybe he could do it, too. Until then, there was plenty of work at the FBI to keep him busy and feeling useful. He just hoped that most of it wasn't mortgage fraud.
Peter parked in front of June's. Neal thanked him, told him to tell Elizabeth to get well soon, and climbed out of the car. As Peter watched Neal nip into June's house, he knew the young man was still sifting through the wreckage of Kate's death and coping as best he could. Neal would pull through this, eventually. Of that, he had no doubt. He just hoped that if they ever found Fowler, Neal would resist the temptation to seek brutal revenge. Then he scoffed and physically shook himself free of the thought. Right. Like Neal, Mr. Let's Not Hurt Anybody, would give up on the healing process, throw all of his progress away, and tear off after Fowler with a gun or something. What a ridiculous idea.
Peter smiled as Neal waved and closed the door, and he headed home. If nothing else, his CI made life very interesting. Sighing softly, he prepared to enjoy a Saturday afternoon feeding his congested beloved some soup, and watching hockey with the dog. There was officially a moratorium on craziness for the next 24 hours.
The next week, more snow arrived. On Wednesday morning, Neal walked into the office a few steps behind Peter and saw something very ostentatious and gift-basket-shaped sitting atop of a pile of mortgage fraud cases on his desk. Diana was smiling at him from her seat, Jones looked curious, and Peter gave the thing a frowning once-over and then took off for his office. Neal draped his heavy, knee-length wool coat over his desk chair, took off his gloves and scarf, ignored everybody's stares, and had a look through the clear plastic. It was indeed a generous woven gift basket full of tasty objects, but it had the look of something very personalized. This wasn't some Harry and David production. This was homemade.
Neatly nestled in the bed of fake straw was an interesting assortment of items: a high-quality stainless steel Nissan Thermos with a tag that announced it as a "leak-proof backpack bottle," a clear plastic bag tied with a silver ribbon that was full of handmade, artisanal peppermint sticks, a white ceramic coffee mug with a picture of a white ceramic coffee mug on it that said "This is a mug" (which made Neal laugh), a box of quality shortcake cookies, two 3 ounce bars of Scharffen Berger semi-sweet 62% cacao chocolate, and an hourglass-shaped, no-slip-grip OXO double jigger measure. Standing tall at the back of this impressive display was a one-liter bottle of Rumple Minze Peppermint Schnapps.
"Wow," Neal said quietly. This was quite a basket. A string around the neck of liqueur bottle held a small index card. The side that faced him read Hot Chocolate with Peppermint Schnapps – Instructions. Presumably the recipe was on the back. And tucked between the jigger measure and the chocolate bars was a bit of folded card stock that said simply, Neal.
He took out his pocketknife and cut a precise slit in the plastic to retrieve the card without messing anything up, and he flopped down in his chair to open it. The handwriting was neatly lined up, if a little shaky.
Rick thinks this is a terrible idea and a waste of money. I don't. Thank you for everything, from the bottom of my heart.
The thermos is for your finished product. But if you have time to sit down with a cup, don't forget the whipped cream and the chocolate shavings.
Neal tucked the card into his pants pocket, gently set the basket on the floor next to his chair, and began to sort through the mortgage fraud cases on his desk with a small smile. The day was gray and freezing and he had way too much paperwork to do, but suddenly everything felt a little less impossible.
A/N: This has been an awesome run, made all the better by you readers! *hugs everyone* I really enjoyed borrowing these characters for a time, but I cannot wait for June! *passes a round of cookies and peppermint schnapps* :)
Also, I found out that this was the final beta to be done by Kiki Cabou, and honestly, she did an amazing job. I know I already said this in the first chapter notes, but she truly did. FFN will miss her!