This is a work of fanfiction for entertainment purposes only. The characters and concepts of White Collar do not belong to me, but to their creator.

AN: In S2E09, "Point Blank," we see Neal come unhinged in a way we've never seen before—going after Garrett Fowler with murder on his mind. After the crisis is over, we see Diana lead an almost shellshocked Neal away in handcuffs, then suddenly we're back in Peter's office gathering information from Fowler. You know that's too big of a jump for me to let stand.


Inflection Point

Cheride

Cuff him.

I hadn't really expected Peter to issue that order, no matter how reasonable it might have been, but Caffrey hadn't seemed too surprised. A little disappointed maybe, though I don't know what he thought an FBI handler should do after his CI has to be talked down from cold-blooded murder. Still, Neal didn't say a word and he certainly didn't resist, just put his hands behind his back and let me put the cuffs on. Of course, even these days, he was used to the cuffs—so many fake arrests at the end of an op, just maintaining a cover. Part of me hoped maybe he was pretending that's what this was, too, because I realized I didn't like putting cuffs on a teammate—even Caffrey—no matter how reasonable it might have been. But Peter wanted him taken back to the office in cuffs, so that's what I would do.

The marble staircase seemed a hell of a lot longer going down than it had going up, but things had been a lot more urgent on the way up, so I'd cleared them pretty quickly. It was slow going now; Caffrey was more subdued than I'd ever seen him, his gait barely above a shuffle. I'd heard Peter talk a little bit about how Neal had been after the plane explosion, and I was sure that had been exponentially worse than what I was seeing now, but this was still bad. Everything about this was bad.

"Neal?" He'd slowed completely to a stop when we reached the landing and was kind of teetering toward the wall, not quite leaning against it, but close enough it would catch him if he fell. I stepped in front of him for a closer examination. "Neal, are you okay?"

He was steadfastly looking down, like maybe he'd forgotten how his feet worked and was trying to figure how to make them move. This obviously was not deliberate resistance, but a patent inability to continue. Finally, he raised his eyes to mine, and breathed out a tortured question.

"Diana . . . what did I do?"

00000

Take him back to the office, and I'll figure out what to do next.

I heard Peter's words through a muffled roar that seemed to swirl inside my head. It didn't make sense, but I thought it sounded gray. Numbly, I watched him while I let Diana put the cuffs on me. She was moving slowly, like maybe she was as shocked by my actions as I was. As for Peter, there was no telling what he was feeling, but I figured disappointment had to be a big part of it. I should probably be grateful that the man's next move had to be considered at all; he could just as easily have instructed Diana to take me straight back to prison. But he'd said the office, and Diana pushed me out the door to do as he asked.

I stepped carefully as we made our way down the stairs, telling myself it was to ensure I didn't trip and fall on my face. Diana had a steadying hand on my arm, but with my wrists bound behind me, it would still be easy for the slightest misstep to cause a disaster. But, of course, it wasn't about the stairs at all. The truth was, it was starting to sink in now, what I'd done—and what I'd almost done.

But I thought maybe the worst part was that I wasn't sure which I was most ashamed of—that I'd wanted to kill Fowler, or that I ultimately hadn't been able to bring myself to do it. I could feel my chest tightening as I thought of his face—scared, angry, resigned—while he looked back at my gun. If he had killed Kate, he deserved to die; nothing had changed my mind about that. Maybe I even had a right to kill him. That part was a little less clear, but not out of the question, and that was difficult to reconcile with the person I thought I was.

But then my entire body felt like it had been snared in a vise, suddenly making it hard to move, hard to even breathe, and Fowler's face was replaced by Peter's. Peter, who had been telling me for months to let him handle this investigation. Peter, who knew immediately I'd been responsible for having the music box stolen from Diana's apartment. Peter, who could always catch me. Peter, who insisted I wasn't a killer even when my finger was on the trigger. Peter, whose face was scared and angry, too—maybe even more than Fowler's—but never resigned. Peter, who knew who I was even when I didn't know myself.

I'd let him down today, and in a big way. The kind of way that maybe can't be fixed.

I thought maybe I did stumble a little then, unsteady on my feet as we reached the bottom of the staircase. I stared at the ground, still trying to watch my steps, but I couldn't see anything. The roar that had clouded my brain had somehow reached my eyes; the grayness was spreading, covering everything. But just before all was lost, I heard Diana calling to me, pulling me back. She sounded worried, and that was unusual. Normally, she would just threaten to hurt me, so I knew I must've screwed things up pretty badly.

"Diana . . . what did I do?"

00000

"Neal, we can talk about this later; right now, I need to get you out of here. Do you understand? We need to move." I kept my voice firm, but it was unexpectedly difficult. Peter often got a little protective of his CI; I'd seen it time and again, but I'd never really felt it myself. Until now. The guy was spiraling fast, the shock and despair written across every inch of him. I needed to get him out of here, and the approaching security guards meant it needed to happen now. I flashed a badge in their direction and didn't wait around to answer questions.

With one hand on his arm and the other on his back, I nudged him into motion. I could see the crowd looking at us and heard the growing murmurs as I walked him through the main hall, and Neal stiffened just a little bit beneath my hand. I still felt the unusual protectiveness, though surely this couldn't have been the first time he'd had to do some kind of perp walk. I glanced over at him, intending to offer some sort of encouragement, but he'd pasted that damn Caffrey grin on his face, looking like he was in control of the world. The slight tremor I could feel beginning in his body assured me it was all for show (as if I'd had any doubt), and I prayed the show would hold just a few more minutes.

Finally, we made it out of the museum and I steered him down the block toward the car. Other than that one agonized question earlier, he hadn't uttered a sound, but even from his profile, I could see that being back out in the open was giving him ideas of freedom. The grin had vanished and now his face was slack, no real emotion at all, but in his eyes, I saw the look of someone who thought he didn't have anything left to lose. I tightened my grip on his arm and rasped a single word at him. "Don't." He blinked once and I felt him relax slightly under my hand.

When we reached the car, I opened up the passenger side and pushed him down, seated, but facing me, legs still outside the car, then squatted down so I could face him more directly. His eyes watched me closely, but he still didn't speak.

"You asked me what you'd done," I said to him. "And, honestly, Neal, I don't know if I can even put into words how badly you've screwed up."

His eyes widened briefly at that, but then seemed to accept the idea, and he nodded. "I know."

Like his face, his voice was flat. In my experience, that kind of withdrawal could be dangerous. I grabbed his shoulders and squeezed, wanting him to feel connected. "But we've all screwed up before, Caffrey, you understand me? Even badly. So, I need you to get a grip for me, all right? You do not get to fall apart on my watch."

It took a minute, but finally, there was the faintest glimmer of Caffrey in his eyes. "Diana. . . are you trying to tell me to cowboy up?"

I laughed as I stood up. "Yeah, I guess I am; the boss must be rubbing off on me. Is it working?"

For an answer, he straightened slightly, then repositioned himself into the car properly. I reached in and fastened the seatbelt around him, and hoped it would hold him in place enough that he wouldn't even consider trying any funny business with the cuffs. Not that he really seemed capable of too much funny business at the moment, but it wouldn't do to forget this was Neal Caffrey I was dealing with. I locked the door as I closed it, but still stood next to the passenger side as I pulled out my phone to call Jones. If Caffrey noticed that I was trying my damnedest to make sure he had no opportunity to make some sort of stupid choice that would only magnify the day's problems, he gave no sign.

I gave Jones a brief rundown of events—highly glossed over, since we hadn't yet read him in on the music box saga—and told him we needed to come up with some sort of cover story that wouldn't cause an international incident but would also give Peter enough wiggle room that he could still protect Caffrey—if that's what he wanted to do. I took a couple of steps away from the car for that last bit; the kid was in bad enough shape already without hearing me say out loud that he might've just burned his last bridge.

After the call, I went around to the other side and slipped in behind the wheel, but didn't rush to start the engine. I gave him a quick once over; he looked like he might be dragging himself out of whatever hell he'd been in, though not totally. "You still with me?"

He sucked in and then blew out a breath, long and ragged, before he finally answered. "Yeah. Sorry."

I wasn't sure if that was supposed to mean, "sorry for almost melting down on you," or a more all-encompassing, "sorry I went crazy, ditched my anklet, and tried to kill someone," so I let it be and started the car.

But before I had it in gear, Caffrey turned to look at me more directly, and his dull, flat affect had been replaced by apprehension that was well on its way to fear. "I don't suppose," he said softly, "you might know what's going to happen to me?"

I breathed out a noiseless sigh and shook my head. "I really don't, Neal. Jones and I are going to try to craft a Bureau response that doesn't totally throw you under the bus, but you know the final decision is above my paygrade."

Neal stared at me for a long moment, like he wanted to say something but maybe wasn't quite sure what. But then he must've reconsidered, because he just sort of nodded, turned to face the front again, then leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. When it became clear he didn't intend to speak further, I put the car in gear and headed for the federal building.

00000

There were a lot of things clamoring for attention in my mind as I felt us move through the city streets, but underneath them all was the persistent thought that handcuffs are uncomfortable in a car. It occurred to me that I'd been pretty fortunate not to have had more firsthand experience with that, but that did nothing to diminish the fact that I was not enjoying it now.

I kept my eyes closed as we drove, trying not to think about anything, but that was a losing proposition. I supposed my brain was fixated on the cuffs as some sort of protection against thinking about other, more important things, like the fact that I'd just tried to kill an FBI agent (and wasn't entirely convinced I didn't still want to finish the job) and would probably soon be headed back to prison for the rest of my life. All things considered, the cuffs were surely the safest point of focus. But it was that fixation on the handcuffs that caused my hands to almost instinctively begin flexing, testing the restraints, contorting just so—

"I will shoot you myself, Caffrey."

Diana was obviously feeling more like herself; I stopped moving my hands.

We rode along another mile or two before I finally gave up the pretense that I was blocking out anything at all, and opened my eyes. "I wasn't trying to run," I told her mildly, "just trying to get more comfortable. And even that wasn't really on purpose."

She glanced over at me quickly. "You were accidentally trying to escape handcuffs?" She didn't seem very convinced.

I just shrugged—as much as I could in the cuffs—and didn't try to explain.

"What about the rest of it?" she asked suddenly. "I suppose that was an accident, too?"

I might've liked her better when she wasn't being quite so caustic, but I'd known that wouldn't last. "The rest of it was . . . ill-advised."

"Ill-advised? That's what you call stealing a gun, manipulating your tracking data to leave your radius, and attempted murder? Ill-advised?"

"Fowler killed Kate. He should pay for that."

"Killing him isn't the way to get justice, Neal."

"I didn't say—" I clamped my mouth shut before I could confess to a federal agent that justice wasn't necessarily my intent, though the evil eye Diana shot me made me think she might've understood anyway. I really needed to get my head straight. If only everything weren't so damned gray.

"Besides," Diana continued, "you're assuming a lot; he said he didn't do it."

"You don't believe that?"

"I don't know. I do know there's a reason we have trials instead of executions."

Dammit. I closed my eyes again and tried not to think about how much sense she was making. I was sure Garrett Fowler was somehow responsible for Kate's death, and that meant he needed to pay. Besides, I wanted to hold on to my anger; I needed it. Not for the first time, I thought that without the anger, without some sense of purpose in going after Fowler, I might never have made it through the past several months. Anger was probably the only thing that kept me hanging on. Well, anger, and . . . "Peter."

"What about him?"

My eyes popped open at Diana's question. Either she was reading my mind now or I'd spoken aloud without meaning to. Since she was asking for clarification, Diana had obviously not somehow become clairvoyant, which meant I really needed to get my head straight. As much as I had wanted to kill Fowler (and maybe still did), I had to consider the possibility that the anger I thought was keeping me grounded might actually be pulling me under.

"Neal? What about Peter?" Diana was clearly growing impatient.

I let out a sigh and tried to think of a less dramatic way to say what I was thinking, but there was still an awful lot of grayness clouding my thoughts. "He tried to save me today," I whispered, "but I think it might've been too late."

00000

Several minutes had passed since Neal's fairly fatalistic declaration and neither of us had spoken since. He had turned his head to stare out the passenger window, though his face was blank again, so I doubted he was really seeing anything at all. As for me, I was spending enough time watching him that I was probably a menace on the road. But what the hell had he meant by that? Too late? Too late for what? Peter had stopped him from killing Fowler, which, as far as I was concerned, meant nothing had gone past the point of no return. I could only hope that Caffrey's cryptic comment didn't mean that he still had sinister plans—either for Fowler or, worse, himself. Because if that were the case, I'd have to report that to Peter and Peter would then be forced. . .

I let my thought trail off, surprised to find I didn't even want to consider it. A year ago, I would've bet good money that Caffrey would end up back in prison sooner or later—and probably sooner. But sometime since then, he'd become part of the team, someone I was starting to assume would always be around—or at least until he'd served his time. The thought of him going back to prison now was . . . well, not out of the question, this was still Caffrey we were dealing with; but it had started to seem a hell of a lot less likely. And it had certainly started to seem like something I'd like to avoid, and I knew I wasn't alone in that thinking. Peter, of course, would be devastated. Even as much as Caffrey had managed to work his way into the team, I still didn't fully understand the connection he had with the boss, but that didn't mean I couldn't see it. Just another reason to keep the CI on this side of the bars if at all possible.

"Caffrey, what did you mean it's too late? Are you planning something else?"

He didn't answer or even turn his head, so I tried again, more forcefully. "Caffrey. What are you talking about? You better not be planning something that's going to cause trouble for Peter."

"You mean more than I already have?" Neal asked softly, still not turning from the window.

Ah. We might be getting somewhere now. "Exactly. He's going to have enough of a mess to clean up without you adding to it." The kid was still in bad shape, but this didn't feel like the time for coddling.

"I know." His voice was still unusually quiet, and without much inflection. "I hope once he sends me back the Bureau will understand this wasn't his fault."

So, I wasn't the only one thinking those thoughts. I supposed it wasn't all that surprising; Caffrey was a smart guy, and attempted murder of a federal agent is a big deal, even if you're not on probation. Maybe I should coddle just a tiny bit. "Neal, Peter doesn't want to send you back to prison."

"Maybe," he allowed. "But that doesn't mean he won't."

I couldn't argue with that, and he wouldn't have believed me if I had. Instead, I settled for, "So what are you going to do to help him out?"

Finally, Caffrey turned to look at me. "Like I said, I was kind of thinking it might be too late; do you think there's something I can do?"

The smallest glimmer of hope in his eyes was almost more heartbreaking than the dull lifelessness I'd seen since the minute I put the cuffs on him. I stuck with the honesty. "I don't really know for sure. I'd say just talk to him; don't lie, don't make excuses."

And then he actually grinned. Not much, certainly not that mega-watt grin he usually sported, but it was reassuring, anyway, like maybe he was finally coming around. His words were even more encouraging. "You make me sound like a kid telling dad about a fight at school or something."

I grinned back at him. Also not much, but trying to do my part. "If the shoe fits."

He seemed to claw himself a little bit closer to normal. "Think maybe dad'll just ground me at home instead?" But then he shook his head. "I'm sorry, I know it's not funny. God, Diana, I know I screwed this up so bad." He was back to staring out the window again. "I just . . . I hate Fowler so much, and I want him to pay for what he's done. But I really don't want Peter to get in trouble; he already lost his badge once because of me, I can't let it happen again. I'd—"

He let the thought hang there for several seconds, long enough I thought he'd changed his mind about admitting something, and I was starting to wonder how bad the idea had been. I wasn't prepared for what he finally said.

"I'd go back to prison to keep him safe. I can put an end to our agreement as easily as he can." He turned a suddenly imploring gaze my direction. "Diana, I need you to tell me if it gets to that point. Will you do that for me?"

"Neal . . ." I didn't have any idea what to say to that.

But Caffrey was incredibly focused now, his eyes glowing with sincerity. "I don't know how things are going to go, Diana. He may already be done with me, but maybe not. And if he decides to try and protect me, I won't be able to trust him to say when it's gone too far, when he should cut his losses. But you'll know; you'll be able to see the writing on the wall if it's getting too bad. And if that happens, I need you to tell me, okay? I made this mess; Peter shouldn't get stuck cleaning it up. If it comes down to a choice between the two of us, you and I both know I'm the expendable one. So, promise me, okay?"

Still not having a response, I focused on navigating the last couple of blocks to the office; it was the first time I could recall being grateful for traffic. But I could feel Caffrey still watching me, like he was prepared to wait for an answer no matter how long it might take.

A few short minutes later, I had the car parked and was out of excuses to avoid the conversation. And, maybe for the first time ever, I fully understood how Caffrey had managed to con so many people—the way his eyes held mine, like nothing was more important than what I had to say; his head leaned just fractionally toward mine, making our conversation feel intimate; and his face open and sincere without a single trace of doubt. He made it easy to want to go along. But this was a big ask.

"Look, Caffrey, first of all, Peter's suspension wasn't your fault; Fowler did that all on his own."

"Because of me," Neal insisted, and, of course, that much was true, though that still didn't make it Caffrey's fault.

"And, secondly, don't you think it should be up to Peter? He's a big boy; he can take care of himself."

His eyes were still locked on to mine when he made the winning argument. "If something happened and he actually lost his job or even got demoted behind all this, the Bureau wouldn't have any problem holding me responsible and they'd revoke my probation anyway. And, really, no matter what the cause, there's no way my deal holds up without Peter; no one else is going to take responsibility for me, and you know that as well as I do. So, in the worst-case scenario, I end up back inside and Peter's still out of a job. But you could help mitigate the loss; you could help make sure he doesn't take a fall in some misguided attempt to protect me that's ultimately doomed to fail. All I'm asking you to do is something that should come pretty naturally, anyway: protect your boss."

"Dammit, Neal—"

"Diana, please."

And finally, I nodded, because he was right about all of it. It felt awful to rank them like that—one person inherently more important than the other—but Peter and the Bureau should be my priority. I said the only thing I could say. "Okay."

And, unbelievably, Caffrey smiled then, looking relieved as he leaned back against his seat, but I was the furthest thing from relieved. "Shouldn't we discuss some ground rules, or something? Agree on some sort of trigger point for pulling the plug?"

His smile didn't fade. "You'll know," he assured me. "You know how to read the politics of it all far better than I ever could, and you'll know if he's in over his head. I may be too much of an outsider to be able to recognize it, especially if he's actively trying to keep me out of the mix."

"But—"

"I trust you, Diana."

This guy was full of surprises today. And I really didn't have anything to say to that, so I just pocketed the keys and climbed out of the car. On the other side, I reached in and released Neal's belt, then helped him out of the car.

As we rode the elevator to the twenty-first floor, I couldn't help but notice that Caffrey was shrinking in on himself again. I watched him closely as he leaned silently against the back wall, wondering if he was regretting the deal we'd just made. "You know," I ventured, "even if I tell you I think it's time, the decision is still yours; it's not like I can force you to get your deal revoked."

He shook his head. "You won't have to force me," he answered softly. "But you never know, once Peter gets here, the decision might already be made for me." He seemed to think for a minute, then added, "Probably easier for you that way, no guilt or second-guessing if you made the right call."

It was amazing to me how matter of fact he sounded about the whole thing, no indication at all we were talking about years of his life in a prison cell. I reached out and thwacked him on the arm. "That's not what I want."

The door slid open then, and I led him into the office, hoping I'd never have to live up to my end of the deal.

00000

I nodded at Jones as Diana led me past his desk. "I'm sorry you got dragged in here on a Sunday." He didn't speak, just lifted his chin in my direction and didn't look surprised at the cuffs, so Diana must've filled him in. I seemed to recall she'd made a phone call earlier, though a lot of the past hour or so was something of a blur. I continued to follow her direction up the steps and into Peter's office.

"You can wait here for Peter," she told me, but she hesitated before pushing me down into one of the chairs. "Can I trust you to stay put if I take these cuffs off?"

"As much as you can trust me if you don't," I said, though what I'd intended to be a lighthearted quip came out sounding morose and vaguely sinister. I tried again. "I mean, I'm not going anywhere."

Diana looked like she wasn't sure exactly what to make of me or my response—not that I could blame her for that; I knew I was a gray mess—but she did go ahead and take off the cuffs. I let her shove me down into the visitor chair and I got the message even before she put it into words. "Stay there." Then she disappeared out of the office, pulling the door closed behind her.

I had started massaging my wrists as soon as the cuffs had come off, and that repeated motion kept me occupied for a couple of minutes, and by then my foot was tapping, my leg bouncing, and I'd started clenching my fists—close, open, close, open—over and over again. My eyes scanned Peter's desk, but apparently, I'd listened on Friday when he told me not to leave the rubber band ball cluttering up his office, and there was nothing else that looked nearly so entertaining. Agent Peter Burke was pretty much the poster boy for all work and no play.

I lasted maybe ten minutes before deciding Diana surely hadn't meant her directive literally and she wouldn't care if I Ieft my seat—and if she did, she'd just have to shoot me. Honestly, right now, that didn't sound like such a bad alternative anyway. Jumping to my feet, I walked the maybe five steps to the window behind Peter's desk then turned and walked back to the door, then repeated the pattern. There wasn't even enough room to work up a really good pace in here and I tried really hard not to consider the idea that this small office was still bigger than a prison cell.

After a few loops back and forth, I glanced down into the bullpen and saw that Jones and Berrigan were huddled together doing whatever they were doing, so I slipped through the side door into the adjoining conference room—at least there was more walking space in there. As I paced the length of the larger room, I thought about what Diana had said earlier about talking to Peter. It sounded simple; don't lie, don't make excuses. And at least part of that should be easy enough; I hadn't told Peter a lie yet, I didn't intend to start now. But . . .

I let myself sink into one of the chairs at the long table and considered my options. I didn't want to lie to Peter—I won't lie to Peter, I corrected myself. Except that I still didn't know what I intended to do about Fowler, and it occurred to me that that might somehow necessitate at least withholding the whole truth.

On the other hand, what if Fowler really hadn't killed Kate? It was possible, but could I really trust something he'd told me while he stared back at a loaded gun? I dragged a hand through my hair, thinking about that, seeing his face again. I'd come so close to pulling that trigger. If Peter hadn't been there . . .

Leaning forward on the table, I dropped my head into my hands. I felt the grayness trying to twine its way back into my brain so I focused on taking deep, even breaths. I wasn't going to accomplish anything by melting down again. But the longer I thought, the more likely it seemed I was probably thinking in vain anyway. None of these decisions were really mine to make, and I'd certainly put better than even money on Peter shipping me right back to prison. But I hadn't been lying to Diana; if that's what needed to happen to protect my handler, it was a price I was willing to pay.

Of course, that would eliminate any chance I had of personally figuring out what had happened to Kate, but I was pretty sure Peter would continue the investigation if I asked him. I might not even have to ask; I knew he understood how important it was to me. And even if he hadn't before, today had surely driven that point home.

Now that my thoughts had started down this logical path, I couldn't seem to dial them back. There were a lot of things to dislike about the idea of being back in prison, but, somehow, the only one I could focus on right now was Peter. Dammit. When had that happened? I could accept—grudgingly—that offering to revoke my deal to protect Peter was sensible, really the only thing to do; I wouldn't have him penalized because of me. But sitting here wondering what the man would think of me was something else altogether. Just how harshly would he judge me? Would he blame me for whatever inevitable fallout remained even after I was gone? Would he ever visit me? Would he even miss me? These were the thoughts of the grayness, trying to subsume everything again.

"Stop it!" I muttered, scrubbing my hands across my face. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and other than following Diana's advice to basically throw myself at Peter's mercy, there was literally nothing I could do to change it. Sinking further into this morass of self-pity wasn't going to help, and it sure as hell wasn't going to help me clear my head for whatever would be taking place once Peter arrived. Closing my eyes, I leaned back in the chair and tried to push everything out of my mind. . .

"Neal?"

Damn. I'd zoned out, hadn't even realized Peter was in the building, much less already in his office, and I didn't miss the slight undercurrent of suspicion in his tone when I wasn't sitting where he expected to find me. I pushed myself out of the chair quickly. "I'm in here, Peter," I answered, moving back toward his office.

But Peter was faster than I was. He moved into the conference room, closed the door behind him, and stepped close to me—all of it effectively blocking me from slipping out of the room. I tried to read his face, but sometimes his masks are as good as mine. I drew in a breath, ready with my first apology, but he was quicker to speak, too.

"Are you all right?"

I blinked at him. I'd imagined this conversation a lot of ways while I tried to keep the grayness from taking over again, but not a single one of them had started like this.

"Neal? Are you all right?"

I must've waited too long to answer if he was asking again. "I'm f—"

I had to stop. I wanted to offer up a casual reassurance, but I wasn't fine. Not even in the same neighborhood as fine. Far enough from fine that I felt like even uttering the word would constitute my first actual lie to Peter. I collapsed back into my chair. "I'm sorry, Peter."

The genuine concern on his face surprised me. I watched him swivel the nearest chair so he could sit and face me directly, then he rolled it toward me, closing the distance between us once more, so close our knees were almost touching. Only then did he finally speak again. "I'm sorry, too."

I blinked again, and swallowed hard, assuming his next words would be something along the lines of, 'It's time to make a change,' or maybe even, 'I wish it could've worked out.' But I'd been preparing for this and was determined not to make it any harder than it had to be, for either of us. "I know I didn't leave you any choice, Peter."

Now it was Peter's turn to look surprised; he didn't seem to be understanding my words. "What choice, Neal? What are you talking about?"

I couldn't believe he was going to make me actually say it. I took a breath. "I know you have to send me back."

Peter looked like he'd taken a gut punch, like his first instinct was to recoil, get as far away from me as possible. But that only lasted a second or two, and then what he actually did was lean in even closer, and rest his hand lightly on my knee, physically connecting us. "Neal." He spoke softly, gently, his eyes locked with mine, connected there, too. "You never answered my question. Are you all right? Because you don't seem all right."

"I'm . . . better now," I said honestly, feeling more grounded than I had all day. "But you don't have to try and soft pedal this, Peter; I know what I've done."

"And later on, we're going to talk about what you've done," he said, a new firmness in both his tone and his eyes, "and there are going to be consequences, but understand this: going back to prison isn't one of them. You hear me? Diana and Clinton have already issued our statement to the museum, explaining that we were operating on a tip that someone was planning to steal the music box while it was on display and that we apprehended that person on their premises with the help of one of our undercover operatives—you. They'll send us a bill for some property damage and then that part will be over. Okay?"

"And Fowler?" I asked, hardly daring to believe that today could be swept under the rug.

"He's not going to contradict anything I say," Peter assured me, and something about the way he said it let me know that he had personally taken care of that part of the deal.

Relief swept over me, and I was grateful for the steps the team had taken to protect me from myself, but I still needed to know one other thing, more important than all of it. "Peter, what about Kate?"

Peter still hadn't moved, hadn't let his eyes waver from mine, so I knew he wouldn't keep this from me, whatever the answer. "He didn't kill her, Neal." He spoke evenly, sincerely, leaving no room for doubt. "I don't have details, don't know who it was, but I am sure it wasn't Fowler. He's going to tell us what happened."

"Us?"

"Yeah, us; told him you deserved to hear the story. I was a little surprised he didn't argue much about it, but I think he understood I wasn't really asking. But, Neal—only if you're up to this. You have to keep yourself together. You understand me? This is a chance for you to get some answers, not revenge. Am I clear?"

"You're clear, Peter, I got it. And I'm. . . well, like I said, I really am better. I need to hear what he has to say."

And, as surprising as the rest of the conversation, Peter seemed to accept my assurance at face value, simply nodding once and then moving as if to stand. But before he could separate us too much, I reached out and grabbed onto the wrist he'd just lifted from my leg, keeping him from pulling away. I hadn't gotten to tell him the most important thing yet.

"I really am sorry, Peter. Not only sorry for what I did, but sorry you got stuck in the middle of it. But, I'm also really glad you were there. I don't know what I would've done otherwise."

He smiled at me then, a small smile that was tinged with guilt and sadness. "I wish I'd been there for you sooner, Neal. I knew how much you were struggling since Kate, but I let you keep it to yourself. Hell, the way things are with us sometimes, maybe I even made you keep it to yourself, but I should've seen how close to the edge you were. It should never have gotten this far."

"Peter, it's not—"

He held up a hand, stopping whatever absolution I'd been about to offer. "Don't get me wrong, Caffrey; you're not off the hook for today, not by a long shot. And I'm still mad as hell at you. But, mostly, right now, I'm just glad you're okay." Then, before I could say anything else, he jerked his chin toward his office next door. "You ready to hear what he has to say?"

I didn't have to think about that at all as I nodded and rose to my feet. It wasn't going to be easy facing Fowler, I knew that, but Peter had managed to cast out most of the lingering grayness that had been threatening me all afternoon, and he'd be there with me to hear whatever Fowler had to say. Of course, the nightmare wasn't entirely over. I still didn't know who'd killed Kate, and there would certainly be repercussions from my actions today, but for the first time in a long while, I thought I'd be okay.

And that's when I realized I might've been wrong before; maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe Peter had managed to save me after all.