This is for DAY 3 of the Advent Calendar on whitecollar community
Title: The Hollowed Out World
Warnings: graphic depictions of sickness
Spoilers: post Countdown season 3 (assumes Peter and Neal have found a way to work together again)
Summary: I loved this prompt on whitecollarhc so I decided to write it for the advent calendar - Keller kidnaps Neal for whatever reason. He realizes Neal is sick. Really, really sick. Keller reluctantly tries to take care of Neal, but as Neal grows worse, Keller is forced to call Peter and tell him where he can get Neal so Neal could get medical treatment. It also covers the hospital stay square on my hc_bingo card. Three birds with one stone! Is that allowed?
Disclaimer: you got it, I don’t own it, Eastin and company do. Just having fun, I swear.
He finds a hollow in the world, but it is soft and yielding. He falls through it as if it is hole, a void in life. Plummeting he realizes he drops through the rabbit hole or even farther through a black hole toward the other side of time and space itself. He wonders where he will come out, what he will find, who he will discover. He considers if he will be himself or someone completely different.
Sometimes he hopes so.
As he plunges his side aches, even the slightest twist or motion to his side causes pain to streak through him like lights of fire, blinking on and off. The image of fireflies dancing into the early summer night flies through his head and he smiles. Why don’t fireflies burst into flames, little jets of flames? He knows why, has to do with green fluorescent proteins or some such, but he likes the idea of little rocket fueled asses on insects. He giggles again.
"You know, you're a pain in the ass when you’re sick?"
The voice rings in his head. He knows he should recognize it. There is a crunching sound to accentuate the words. It sounds like someone is chewing on an apple. Neal peals back his eyelids, but the light is too bright, too hard to see in. A shadow against the bare bulb stands over him. The shadow swings his arm up and the apple is bitten again.
“I’m not here to be your nurse maid, Caffrey, so snap out of it.”
He rolls over and hisses as his right side touches the floor. He slides onto his back again and tries to focus on the man above him. Glancing around, Neal surveys the area. It looks like a storage room or basement. The smell of rotten fish makes him gag. They must be somewhere near the markets. He shifts his left leg to get a feel of the tracker but there is an absence and his breath hitches.
“Yep, don’t go worrying about that.” Another bite of the apple, then a snicker is added. “I had a bit of a time trying to get it off. Sorry about the ankle.”
As the words are spoken, Neal realizes his leg throbs. It doesn’t just throb, it screams.
“I had to beat the hell out of that thing to get it to stop transmitting.” The shadow moves into the darkened area of the basement. Neal decides it must be a cellar or basement of a food market. “Silly me, I shoulda sawed it off before I tried to turn it off.” He shrugs and clicks his tongue. “Still had fun doing it, ya know.”
He struggles to sit up, to examine his leg but his side protests and he curls over his abdomen. Sweat blossoms over his brow and he puts a hand on his side. “Did you shoot me too, Keller?”
“You hurt me, Caffrey, you know that. You harm me.”
“I think you have that backwards, as usual.” Neal looks up at the man leaning against a packing crate.
The basement isn’t large, or at least the room they are in is only about 12 by 12 feet. Boxes and trash litter the area. Old newspapers are stacked in a corner, with packing materials cluttered over the floor. Only two windows with bars are near the low ceiling. Neal won’t have any trouble getting to the windows; the problem would be fitting through them. He frowns.
Keller laughs. “Ain’t no way out, just forget it, now. I know the famous Caffrey antics. You’re here, Caffrey, for one thing and one thing only.”
Neal keeps a hand on his right side, the pain intensifies if he shifts or moves. A chill shivers through him and he bites back a groan. The pain in his side and the one beating a rhythm in his leg fight for his attention. He only half listens to Keller’s monologue.
“You and me, see, we’re gonna talk about an arrangement.” Keller tosses the half eaten apple into one of the empty packing crates. “You have a nice deal working for you, don’t ya?”
Neal glimpses his ankle. It is swollen and ugly. The foot turns inward and he can’t move it or even feel it. When he reaches down to his ankle, his side tightens and he cries out.
“What the hell did you do to me, Keller?” He pants, trying to catch his breath. His side is on fire like a thousand of those damned fireflies exploded in his gut. The world vacillates indistinctly. He cannot make out the lights or the room for long minutes.
Hands are on him and he pushes them away. A bowl finds its way to his mouth and he pukes. He cannot stop the dry heaves from taking him but it wrenches his gut and he allows the pain to take him.
“Hey, hey, take it easy, Caffrey,” Keller says.
He realizes he is leaning against Keller. It is Keller’s hand on his back, Keller holding the bowl under his chin. He shoves a hand at Keller; it is weak and futile, but he doesn’t want Keller’s hands on him, doesn’t want the man who took Elizabeth and got away to touch him.
“Have it your way.” Keller drops the bowl in Neal’s lap and stands, wiping his hands on his pants as he walks away.
Neal grabs the bowl and sets it aside. He doesn’t know if he’ll need it again. He doesn’t feel right. It isn’t the leg, he knows that. He glances up at Keller as the man regards him. He tries to piece together how he ended up in a basement with Keller hulking over him.
He recalls waking this morning but feeling ill. He had called Peter and asked for the day off. Peter agreed but asked Neal to meet him for lunch so that they could go over the particulars of the case they were currently assigned. Neal hesitated. It had been months since Elizabeth had been rescued but Peter remained distant, keeping Neal at arm’s length.
Peter had said, “Come on, Neal, lunch. I’m buying.”
Sitting on his bed, Neal leaned against the pillows and agreed. Though he might not partake in eating the way he felt, Neal wanted their relationship to mend, and maybe this was a step. Peter was making a conciliatory move, Neal had accepted.
He closes his eyes. He never made it to the café. On his walk to the small restaurant, Keller had stopped him. As Neal had passed an alley, Keller’s voice pulled him in.
“Maybe next time, she dies,” Keller had said.
Neal went after him – and played right into Keller’s hand.
Whatever Keller hit him with it dulls his brain and blurs his vision. He feels a knot on the side of his head. He looks up at his assailant again and knows he has to piece together the macabre puzzle Keller has laid out for him. He flinches as he adjusts, but nods to Keller.
“If you’re going to kill me, get it over with,” Neal says. He glides his hand over his pockets, searching for the cell phone – but it is gone, removed by Keller.
“You are a little off today, aren’t you?” Keller snickers and squats down in front of Neal. “You’re looking kinda gray-green. Not a good look for the Caffrey charm.”
“What the hell do you care?” Neal turns away and groans as the motion teases at his side. The pain spears through him like ribbons of hot lava.
“I care, Caffrey, you see,” Keller says as he puts a hand on Neal’s shoulder. “You are my ticket to the final score.”
“You’re insane,” Neal says, but cannot stop his curiosity from peaking.
“Listen, Caffrey, you mighta lost out on the ultimate treasure, but not me,” Keller says. “And maybe, just maybe, I’ll cut you in on the deal.”
“Deal?” Neal has had enough with deals to last him a lifetime.
“The Nazi treasure is long gone, but you’re still sitting pretty at the FBI, right? Pretty good, got the whole FBI eating out of your hand.” Keller fingers his injured ankle and Neal muffles a cry. “How you pulled that one off, well, that is the best con I ever saw.”
He stands and paces in front of Neal. As he moves back and forth, the light behind him takes on a flashing quality and Neal grunts as nausea spills over him.
“So, you’re gonna start working with me, for me. Get me free access to what is going on in the White Collar unit of the FBI. With your inside knowledge and my freedom-.” He taps on Neal’s blood stained sock. “We’ll have everything we need.” Keller sits on his haunches again and says, “You do this and Miss Pretty will stay alive. You don’t, well, I’ll make sure to implicate you.”
A curse slips from his lips but he fails to form it. The searing through his gut takes hold and pulls his breath from him. He curves and crumples forward as Keller topples next to him.
“Stop the act, Caffrey.” Keller shoves at him and Neal curls further into himself. “This is low even for you.”
In panting breaths, Neal says, “What – did – you –do?” His ankle cries out as the burning in his abdomen ebbs and flows.
“I beat the hell out of your leg not your stomach,” Keller admits. He reaches out to Neal but he tries to slap Keller aside. “No, let me.” He touches Neal’s forehead. “Christ, you’re burning up.” He kneels next to Neal and tells him to stretch out.
“No, can’t.” Neal puffs out air.
Keller puts his hand on Neal’s right side and presses. The cry erupts, bursting in his ears and ripping from his throat.
“Crap, this ain’t good.”
Keller shakes his head. “Okay, just relax. Maybe you ate something off?”
Neal hears Keller stand up but the tremors shaking his body deafen him to all else. Any motion to his leg and it battles the pain in his abdomen. He inhales in deep breathes through his nose, keeping his nostril wide.
A cool wet cloth is placed on his forehead and Keller bends over him, wiping his brow.
Neal stutters as his body is racked with fever. “I didn’t know, know you cared.”
Keller offers only a half smile. “Sometimes, Caffrey, you’re an idiot. You’re a pretty hot commodity, worth a lot to me.”
“Worth enough to hobble me, huh?” Neal says.
“Figured that one out, didja?” Keller lifts a shoulder. “Had to make sure you couldn’t run on me, the great escape artist.” He feels the back of Neal’s neck. “You got a fever, you know.”
Neal only murmurs an agreement to him. The crests of pain are building again and he tightens his fist around Keller’s hand. He is barely upright; he collapses into Keller’s embrace. He hears mumbles around him, quiet words of solace.
As the wave ends, Keller pats the cloth against his forehead and says, “Water, you think water will do any good?”
Neal can only shake his head. The pain blasts through him like a battering ram. He feels the world stretch, pierced through and hollowed out. A great vacuum absorbs him, forms a bubble around him as the pain encompasses his definition. Images juxtapose and he recalls Elizabeth in Peter’s embrace, finally saved from her ordeal with Keller. He remembers those first few weeks as Peter shunned him, then Elizabeth softening Peter’s reaction, and finally the slow thaw as the holiday season approached. He doesn’t expect gifts or cards, but the offer of lunch today with Peter was more than he could ever ask.
Through the haze of pain the electronic sound of a cell phone being dialed draws his attention. The words are a jumble but he hears an address. Keller adds, “Get here soon, he needs a doctor.” There is a pause and Keller whispers, “Oh and Burke, you follow me, I make sure he dies along with her.”
Neal glares at Keller. He feels like he is looking at a living paradox. “Why did you call Peter if you were just going to threaten him?”
Keller tilts his head and says, “Some motives are left unsaid.”
“I never thought of you as philosophical.”
“Don’t start now,” Keller replies but gently shifts Neal so that he is lying on an old pile of rags. He offers him the bowl and retrieves a bottle of water. He hands him the wet cloth. “Take care of yourself, Caffrey, you’re worth a lot to me.”
“Is that a threat?” Neal says through gritted teeth.
“Now, here I was trying to be nice,” Keller answers. He stands and backs away. There is a distance ring of a siren. “Saved by the bell. Gotta go, Caffrey. See you ‘round soon.” He salutes him and disappears into the shadows of the basement.
The siren sings in wails in his head; it opens up the hollows places in the world as the pain engulfs him. He doesn’t even care about the contorted leg, only the ache building to a crescendo in his belly. He’s bent into a curved arch and he thinks of the architecture of the Romans; how they figured out how to construct such lovely arches and viaducts. He wonders if the grand bridges and road works of Rome would span the holes punched in the world by the pain.
He realizes the pain has subsided, eased away and he smiles as someone yells, “Over here, he’s over here.”
There are hands on him, checking his leg, focusing only on his leg. The utter loss of the pain mutes his voice, makes him forget to tell them about the black hole in his belly.
Peter hovers over him as the paramedics work on his leg. “It’s all right, buddy. He’s gone.”
Neal only nods and smiles. The pain is fleeting but the thing inside him eats him alive. He doesn’t want to make Peter worry; he’s worried enough already, besides the pain fades away. One of the paramedics cannot understand why his temperature is elevated.
The team of paramedics hoists him for transport. As the sun hits his face, Neal grimaces and the tightness in his belly hurts. He groans, but they mistake it for the leg again. He grapples to tell them, but someone pats his arm and soothes him. It will be okay.
He calls out, “Peter.”
“Right here,” Peter says as he jogs up to the side of the gurney. The wheels roll over the bumps of the pavement and Neal moans. Peter grabs his extended hand, but his phone rings. He pauses to take the call.
From the cavern of the ambulance, Neal hears Peter saying, “What the hell do you want, Keller? Haven’t you done enou-.” Peter pauses and stops climbing into the ambulance. “What? What?” He disconnects and curses, “Neal, do you have a pain in your abdomen?”
“Did, not so bad now,” Neal says.
“Check him for appendicitis,” Peter orders the paramedics.
Neal cannot capture the activity around him. It is as if the thing devouring him has pulled all the light toward it, a singularity of pain and purpose. Someone is yelling and Peter grips his hand as the ambulance jolts forward.
He grasps Peter’s hand, holding on as the hole drags him downward. He wants to ask Peter not to let go, but words are pulled from his mouth and the gravity well of pain consumes him.
Neal doesn’t remember much of the next two weeks. Occasionally, consciousness blesses him and he hears words like peritonitis, another round of antibiotics. He thinks this cannot be good and tries to ask the white blurs scurrying around him, but they don’t hear him. At some point, he realizes there are things- tubes - in his mouth, eating his air. He wonders if they are trying to remove the void in his body, the hollowed out center inside of him.
By the beginning of the third week, Neal understands a cosmic singularity was never in him, but he doesn’t confess his doubts about this fact to anyone. They remove all kinds of tubes and wires and he nearly feels human again, only to lose that feeling when they haul him off to surgery on his ankle. It seems surgery is not such a great idea when your body is fighting off a massive infection. It is safe now to risk the surgery.
He spends two more days in a drug induced haze. When he climbs his way out of it, Neal believes he can count the number of brain cells he might have left. Peter sits with him, folding the newspaper in sections like his father used to do. Neal wonders why Peter doesn’t have a tablet to read the news. Peter notices Neal staring at him and shuffles the paper away.
“I think.” Neal isn’t sure what the right answer is. He knows Mozzie would tell him to obfuscate, but then again Mozzie likes to use words people don’t say in real life, words only characters on shows like The X-Files say.
“It’ll be a few days until you’re released,” Peter says as he points to the ankle. It hangs in a contraption Neal thought only lived in cartoons. “Hughes has okayed your recovery without incarceration. It was just a formality.”
Neal isn’t sure if he should thank him or give him a sarcastic remark. He chooses to remain silent. Instead, he picks at the threads of the sheet.
“Why, Neal? Why do you think he did it?” Peter asks.
Neal glances up at Peter. The sun is low in the sky. It must be almost sun set, but it isn’t late. The winter solstice is only days away. The glow through the window gives Peter an almost ethereal aspect. It suits him Neal thinks, but then he realizes he is in shadow. The hollow still exists.
“He wanted me to help him,” Neal confesses. “He wanted me to give him information on the FBI cases.”
Peter shakes his head. “No, Neal, why do you think he called?”
Neal shrugs. “Maybe I was too much trouble.”
“Or maybe not enough,” Peter says. He stands and points a finger in the air. “He wants you alive, Neal. He values something you have.”
Neal stays silent.
“You say he wanted to use your knowledge of the FBI?”
He only nods.
“He’ll come after you again; he saved you because he’s determined.”
Neal agrees. “Keller always gets what he wants.”
“Not this time,” Peter says. “Not my wife and not my friend.”
Peter keeps talking, spinning strategies to apprehend Keller based on this new knowledge. Neal tries to follow the weaving of the plan but he cannot. He simply circles back to the words – not my friend. The hole shrinks, falls, contracts.
“You think we can pull it off?” Peter is asking him. He gestures to the cast on Neal’s leg. “Of course, after all this. Do you think you’ll be up to it?”
He has no idea what he is agreeing to, but Neal says, “Sure, Peter, no problem.”
“It’ll be a bit difficult to do, though.”
Neal shrugs. “I’ve jumped off skyscrapers in a single bound, Peter; I think I can handle it.” Whatever it is.
Peter stops and stares at him. “You have? Wait, wait, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.”
The smile spreads and fills up every part of him. “No, you probably don’t.”
Peter looks up at the ceiling as if he is having a private conversation with God. He shakes his head and says, “You okay?”
Neal says, “I’m fine, good actually.”
Peter leans down and places a hand on his shoulder. “Good, good.”
Neal smiles again, and the void fills up while the hollowed out world descends and collapses away.
A/N: Just a note, I wrote this early in the week before I read a story just posted this week by Sahiya. Sahiya wrote a wonderful piece as well with Neal and appendicitis called The Mercy of the Fallen. It is highly recommended.