WhiteCollar-Neal sidelight

White Collar/Fallen London ficlet

Another installment in the slightly chaotic crossover/fusion between White Collar and the web game Fallen London (aka Echo Bazaar) that [personal profile] frith_in_thorns and I are batting back and forth. The early installments contain a basic explanation of the game for people unfamiliar with it.

Stories by [personal profile] frith_in_thorns: A Boat Trip | A Game of Croquet | Jack-of-Smiles | The Taste of Lacre
Stories by me: The Search for Sleep | An Unusual Pail of So-Called Snow

Title: An Infernal Contract
Word Count: 2000
Summary: This is what comes of flirting with devils. Comes sometime after A Game of Croquet.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," Peter muttered. Sweat trickled into his eyes, and he wiped it away with the back of his forearm; he needed both hands for the lock picks.

"You can do it, honey," Elizabeth encouraged him.

Peter gritted his teeth as another tumbler slipped. Lock picking really wasn't his forte. "Could you go check on Diana, see how she's doing at distracting the guard?"

El nodded and gathered up her skirts to sneak along the wall and peek around the corner. Peter glanced up at Neal, who was leaning casually against the wall, toying with making a piece of Nevercold Brass appear and disappear. "You could help, you know."

"Oh, I suppose I could." Neal smiled. On the surface, it was his usual glossy con-smile, but there was something just a little colder, a little meaner underneath. "But it's more fun watching all of you." The brass sliver teetered on his fingertips. "What if I drop this? It would be interesting to see all the devils come running."

Peter's heart lurched. "You'd better not," he snapped.

Neal hesitated, then made it vanish again. "I suppose it would end the fun early," he agreed.

Peter bit his lip and focused on getting the tumblers to fall into place.

El came tiptoeing back along the wall. "Diana and the deviless seem to be having a friendly chat," she whispered. "She flashed me some signals -- she thinks she can keep it up for a few minutes, but she's not sure beyond that."

Peter tried not to think about his wife knowing the secret spy hand-language. This was made easier by the final tumbler clicking into place and the door swinging open on soundless, well-oiled hinges.

Peter took a deep breath -- a part of him really didn't want to see what was inside. He grabbed Neal by the arm. "You're the reason we're here; let's get on with it."

All three of them stopped inside the door. "Oh ... my," Elizabeth whispered. Peter was thinking something much stronger and less gentlemanly. The room was filled with shelves going up to the ceiling, every shelf lined with soul bottles. It seemed to go on and on. The souls' queer radiance bathed it all in an unearthly glow, and their desperate keening, barely audible, scraped a fingernail down Peter's spine.

They should have brought a hand truck, he thought despairingly. They should have brought six wagons and a bunch of strong-backed men from the docks. But he didn't dare disturb the neatly arranged racks of bottles -- there was too much at stake. Peter bit his lip until he drew blood, and thought that the next time he arrested a spirifer, he was going to conveniently forget his usual standards on police brutality.

"Well?" he said, giving Neal a little shake -- but a gentle one. As annoying as Neal was in this condition, Peter didn't want to hurt him.

Neal shrugged. "I don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know? How can you not recognize your own soul?"

"Peter," El murmured reprovingly, casting a glance towards the door.

"I never had to recognize it from the outside before," Neal said sulkily. "And I like myself this way. I'm just fine without one."

"You might think so, but the rest of us liked you much better before. And I'm sure you'll agree once you have your soul back." Peter sighed and looked at Elizabeth. "Any ideas? They all look alike to me, too."

"I think we'll recognize Neal's when we see it," El said firmly. "It will be the brightest, the most beautiful."

That sounded like wishful thinking to Peter, but he started into the maze of shelves, keeping a firm grip on Neal; Peter wouldn't put it past him to slip off and warn the devils. This ... this was what flirting with devils came to! He'd known it all along. Why did no one ever listen to him?

As they went deeper into the soul warehouse, Peter began to realize that El was right. The souls really did look different. Some were smaller, some so large they filled their bottles. Some had settled into a quiescent pool at the bottom of their vessel, while others writhed in fear or pain or mere agitation.

Neal's hand slipped out of his pocket and towards a rather small bottle with a small soul huddled in it. Peter smacked his hand. "Unless that's yours, hands off." Neal gave him a wounded look, but Peter suspected he'd thank him for it once they got his soul back. Prior to Neal's current bout of soullessness, he and Mozzie had scrupulously avoided anything to do with the soul trade.

"There!" El breathed, and at the same time, Neal's head snapped around as if pulled by a string. And, Peter had to admit, there was something particularly ... Nealish about the soul in the bottle that El had picked up. It was many-faceted and bright, with hints of half-hidden colors deeper within; you had to look very close to see them. And Peter didn't think it was his imagination that the soul seemed to have cozied up to the side of the bottle where El was. When Peter reached out his hand and touched it, the soul pooled against that side of the bottle as if it was trying to touch him back. It was gently warm.

And now another problem occurred to him. "How do we put it back?"

El looked just as baffled as he felt. Peter looked at Neal, but saw no help would be coming from that direction. Neal kept sneaking glances at the soul bottle, looking both attracted and repulsed.

"We'd better do this at home," he decided. "There's no telling how long Diana can hold off the guard, anyway, and we don't want to be caught in the middle of something we can't interrupt."

He was infinitely glad to get out of that room, though he felt as if no bath was long enough to wash the taint of this place off his skin. El had given him the bottle, and Peter held it cradled against his chest with infinite gentleness; it seemed so fragile that he was desperately afraid of breaking it. The bottle was as warm as the touch of a human hand, and Peter thought it seemed to pulse in time with his heartbeat.

Their escape went smoothly (there was a little bit of unpleasantness involving some hounds, but Peter's time in the Labyrinth had given him plenty of experience at making friends with hostile dogs), and they rendezvoused with Diana in an alley outside. To Peter's relief, she seemed undamaged; he looked carefully at her eyes, but there was no sign of the cool flatness that had marked Neal's loss of soul.

"I'm fine," Diana said, brushing off his concern. "We just talked, that's all." Peter got the impression that she wasn't telling the whole story, but he'd long since given up on trying to pry into Diana's secrets. "Did you get it?"

Peter opened his coat to show her the bottle, snug and safe.

"Thank you so much," El said, kissing Diana's cheek. The two women clasped hands. "Don't forget, tea at the Palace --"

"I'll be there." Diana smiled and lifted a hand to Peter. Then she faded away into the gloom of Fallen London.

Peter and El walked home through the faintly fungal twilight, with Neal in tow. Needing all his attention to keep Neal from slipping off, Peter passed El the bottle -- not without a slight twinge; as much as he trusted El, there was a part of him that didn't want to let the bottle out of his hands now that they'd recovered it.

But they made it back to their cottage without incident. These days, the cottage was ably guarded in their absence by El's Tigress (when El didn't take her along) and Peter's ... well, "henchman" was entirely the wrong word, no matter what Neal and Mozzie claimed. Hired muscle from the Docks was more accurate. Peter slipped him a few Echoes and took Neal inside, bottle and all. He parked Neal on the chesterfield in front of the fireplace and said, "Stay."

Neal slouched down and sulked. He'd gotten much worse about that since losing his soul. However, what he hadn't done was become violent, which Peter supposed he should be thankful for. Neal without a soul was basically still Neal, just less scrupulous and willing to sell out anybody to make an Echo.

"I don't suppose you've heard anything that would help," Peter said to El. "I know you know soulless people at Benthic."

"They prefer 'soulfree'," El said. "And there isn't much scholarship on the topic. Most of the soulfree I've met aren't interested in becoming resouled."

"Neither am I," Neal protested. Both of them ignored him.

"We could just uncork it and see what happens," El suggested.

Peter had a horrible vision of the soul flying out of the bottle and floating away to ... wherever souls in the Neath went. He'd followed Neal to the Tomb-Colonies; Neal had followed Peter into Death. But if they lost the soul, Peter wasn't sure if he was capable of going wherever it had gone.

It doesn't matter, he told himself firmly. Even if we lose it, I'll get it back. No matter where it's gone.

He took the bottle from El -- the soul within flowed to brush his fingertips -- and placed it in Neal's lap. Neal looked warily at the bottle, and then at them.

"Really, do I have to?" He looked beseeching and unhappy. "It's so much easier this way."

"Yes," Peter said heartlessly. "You'll thank us afterwards." Peter firmly smothered a tiny twinge of conscience that protested Neal actually might be better off this way. He'd probably die a lot less, and worry less, and he certainly wouldn't do stupid things like get himself killed to help Peter cheat at dice ...

But he also wouldn't smile that bright, warm smile, and he wouldn't come over for dinner, or bring El bouquets of Surface-flowers. He'd drift away from them, losing himself in theft and games of chance and honey-dreams. Neal was a thief, but he was also sweet, gentle and kind. This Neal was none of those things.

Peter uncorked the bottle before he could lose his nerve.

The bright, many-faceted soul flowed free. For an instant, Peter thought he felt its gratitude brush him like a warm wind from a meadow under the sun that none of them had seen in years. Then the soul flowed into Neal -- into his mouth and nostrils, into his chest. Neal jerked as if he'd been galvanized with electricity, and slumped sideways.

El caught him, and looked up at Peter, worried.

"I think he's okay." Peter felt for a pulse. Fortunately there was one. Neal's skin was cool to the touch. "He's okay," Peter repeated, hoping it was true.

Neal slept for a long time; they took turns keeping an eye on him, El watching him while Peter went out to patrol with the Constables, then Peter taking his turn while El went off to conduct her lectures at the University.

El had just checked in and then left to attend some Palace function or other, when Neal stirred and opened his eyes. "Hey," Peter said, setting aside the Avid Glove he was mending (while trying to avoid being bitten). "How do you feel?"

"Like I just had the worst honey-dream ever." Neal rubbed his eyes. "I think I have a soul hangover. Is that possible? I feel awful."

"I never guess at what's impossible anymore," Peter said, and went to make him a cup of tea.

This entry is also posted at http://sholio.dreamwidth.org/876298.html with comment count unavailable comments.
Oooooh, I love this! The whole atmosphere of the place is very dark and creepy and haunting. And I love Peter and Diana and El taking care of Neal.

Why did no one ever listen to him?

And I love this - poor Peter! ♥
Thank you! :) It's such a fun, dark, complicated world to write in.

(On a side note, Mozzie really should have been in this story, but there is one reason and one reason only that he isn't -- because I already had so many characters that I didn't think I could handle another one! Like I told Frith when I was writing this, my headcanon is that Mozzie's off on some side quest or another, and didn't know this was happening until it was already over. She suggested that maybe he's so freaked out by soulless!Neal that he didn't want to get close. *g*)

Edited at 2013-02-16 07:15 am (UTC)
Awwww, the three of them ♥ (that seems to be my motto in this 'verse:D) Loved that Peter and others are so determined to bring their Neal back.

And your soulless Neal makes a lot of sense to me - still not violent, but distant and unscrupulous; and though he would probably have better chances to survive, but he would become pretty unsympathetic person.
And I especially liked Neal's soul being all affectionate to Peter & El. Awww ♥

Edited at 2013-02-14 03:43 am (UTC)
Thank you! ♥ One thing I love about this AU is that it's SO dark that they all have to band together against it -- the AU really brings out the love between all of them.

The bits with Neal's soul being all affectionate and cuddly were my favorite parts to write. :D
Awwwwwww, I loved Peter and El and Diana working together like that to help Neal, and I loved Neal's soul being all adoring of them. And I really liked how you wrote soulless Neal, with that edge of coldness and meanness, but the others kept on looking after him anyway. I loved Peter and El debating about how to put the soul back and just ignoring Neal complaining about not wanting it XD
My very favorite thing to write in this ficlet was Neal's soul being all affectionate and cuddly. ♥ Because Neal sans defenses would be the sweetest, cuddliest thing ever!