AN: Be aware that there are several references to canon events here, up through season three. They lack a lot of context, so some might not consider them full spoilers, but they are certainly at least spoilerish.

Also, many thanks to friends from the White Collar Fandom group, who were willing to use part of our Zoom hangout time for talking this fic through with me when I wrote myself into something of a corner weeks ago. (Find our group on Facebook if you're looking for more WC friends.) And even more thanks to drwhogirl and thelastphoenixever for reading over the (supposedly) finished product and helping me make it better.


In Extremis

Cheride

Neal stood in the back corner of the room watching the bustling activity of agents and technicians and marshals, all rushing around tending to their business. He tried to only look at the people who were still moving. A small part of his mind was trying to follow their movements and understand everything that was happening, but mostly he was detached from it all, isolated.

Not that he was alone. A young marshal, Blaine, Neal thought the name was, though he wasn't sure if that was first or last, stood beside him—right beside him, menacingly close, really—tasked with ensuring Neal Caffrey didn't pull one of his famous disappearing acts while everyone else was otherwise engaged. In the part of his mind that hadn't shut down, Neal thought that was overkill. He also thought First or Last Name Blaine might've been the wrong guy for the job, had disappearing actually been his plan. The guy was awfully young, and no matter how menacingly he was standing, Neal was pretty sure he was also awfully kind. But, with his hands cuffed behind him and a dozen or more federal officers between him and the only exit, escape seemed unlikely, anyway. Not to mention the six inches of snow on the ground outside with more still lightly falling, and him in nothing but a pair of jeans and a bloody tee-shirt, not even shoes on his feet, much less a coat.

Most important, though, Neal didn't want to run. He was sure he'd told them that, and pretty sure Peter, at least, had believed him. But since Peter was dressed almost identically to him instead of in his regular Brooks Brothers clothing, maybe the other suits wouldn't listen to him right now.

He looked at Peter now. First talking to the marshals. Then on the phone. Angry. Yelling. Bruised and bloody. Neal felt a tendril of fear clenching in his gut as he watched, but he didn't understand it. He wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but he didn't think Peter was mad at him, not this time. He hoped.

But he didn't know why Peter was bleeding, either, and that was almost scarier than not knowing why he himself seemed to be pretty battered.

But Peter kept yelling at everyone. It looked like he was shouting loudly enough to be heard from back here, but Neal couldn't make out the words, even though Peter and several of the people he was yelling at kept looking back in this direction, looking at him. He thought he probably should know why, but the tiny part of his mind that was trying to pay attention couldn't figure it out. Then Peter stepped away, out of Neal's view.

The fear grew.

Neal shifted slightly on his feet and flexed his hands experimentally, but the marshal took a step closer, glaring a clear warning. Young or not, he didn't seem to be fooling around. Neal forced himself to stillness and went back to watching the activity he didn't really understand.

But when one of the men gestured toward him and the young marshal grabbed Neal's arm to propel him forward, the stillness evaporated.

"No!" Neal shouted, his face contorted in terror as he wrenched free of the marshal's grip. "Peter!"

Neal ran toward the group of agents, the last place he'd seen Peter, heedless of the marshals' commands to stop, oblivious to their weapons being drawn. His only thought was reaching his partner. "Peter!"

And then Peter was there, hands grasping Neal's arms, stopping his charge, blocking him from the bulk of the marshals' weapons, turning to force him closer to the wall so that even the young marshal behind Neal no longer had a clear shot.

"I'm right here, Neal," Peter said firmly. "Quit fighting."

Neal let his eyes meet Peter's, and then, like a switch had been flipped, he was still again. Still, but not yet composed.

"Peter." He drew in a shaky breath, his eyes darting around the room, then back to Peter's face. "You're here."

"Of course I'm here. Calm down, okay?"

Peering over Peter's shoulders fearfully, a memory tickled at the back of Neal's mind. He lowered his voice and whispered, "You said it would be okay. You promised."

Peter sighed heavily. "I know." Then he twisted his head around toward the marshals, still not moving his body. "Lower your weapons!"

It took a few seconds, but finally, the marshals lowered their guns, then slowly began returning them to their holsters.

Seeing the weapons being put away, Neal blew out a relieved breath and slumped against the wall. "Can you take the cuffs off now?"

Peter's eyes flashed with guilt. "Not yet."

Neal tensed again, but he didn't allow himself to move. Most of the marshals had put their weapons away, but they were still watching him closely, and Peter hadn't moved away from him, so Neal recognized he wasn't safe just yet. He clenched his eyes shut against returning memories, wishing he could keep them at bay. But that didn't seem possible, so after a moment, he forced them open again.

"I wasn't trying to run," he said sadly, though he was still sure he'd said that already. "Not now or before. You believe me, don't you, Peter?"

"I believe you, Neal. But this is complicated."

As the fog continued to lift from his mind, Neal straightened himself and looked again at the waiting marshals, and things finally fell into place. "They're arresting me, aren't they? Taking me back to prison." He turned his gaze back to Peter, quietly accusing. "You promised."

Peter gripped Neal's arms more tightly. "Listen to me; I am going to fix this. It will be okay. The marshals are going to take you to the hospital to get checked out first." He took a breath. "Then they are going to keep you in custody, Neal, but they're not taking you back to prison. They're going to take you back to our office for questioning, and if they need to keep you longer, they'll hold you there."

"But—"

"It's the best I can do right now," Peter interrupted. "But it's only temporary, okay? I'll take care of it."

"You're going to the hospital, too, right? We can go together." It would've been hard to miss the barely restrained, frantic hopefulness in the words.

"I'm going; Hughes insisted. But they won't let me stay with you, Neal. Not yet. They have to get our statements. You understand?"

Neal nodded slowly. "Hospital. Jail." He shot a dark look at the waiting marshals, then dropped his eyes to the floor before whispering, "With them. Alone."

"Hey." Peter ducked his head down until their eyes could meet again. "You missed the most important part: temporary."

"You'll take care of it," Neal answered dutifully, obviously unconvinced.

"Have I ever lied to you?"

Neal thought about his answer; thought about a secret meeting with Kate, the music box, the real reason for Agent Kramer's first visit. "Yes."

But when he saw the single word land like a punch, Neal added, "For my own good, mostly." He considered further, wondered if Peter might think a lie was necessary to protect him now, then straightened to face his handler directly.

"I'll go with them, Peter. I won't try to run, I promise. But please tell me the truth."

Peter appeared to gather himself, swallowing down his emotion. "I am telling you the truth, Neal. This will be okay. Just behave and answer their questions honestly; that's all you have to do."

"I can do that." But then his face crumpled into despair. "I didn't want to do it, Peter; you have to believe that." He leaned close and whispered in a ragged voice, "Please don't let them keep me."

"Hey, hey, I know that." Peter cupped one hand comfortingly on the back of Neal's neck and looked directly into his eyes. "I believe you."

That was all the encouragement the younger man needed, and Neal let his head fall forward to rest his forehead against Peter's chest, repeating his plea. "Please don't let them keep me."

Peter tightened his grip as he spoke softly into Neal's ear. "No one gets to keep you, do you hear me? I will always come for you. Always."

"Agent Burke, it's time."

Upon hearing the unknown voice, Neal stiffened, but Peter rubbed a hand across his back and continued speaking. "You remember what I said. This will be okay. I will come for you."

Neal sucked in a deep breath and held it to the count of five before exhaling; then, he straightened slowly. Several U.S. Marshals were hovering just a few steps away, but it was the young man who'd been watching him earlier who stepped forward. Some of the older marshals looked decidedly unfriendly, so Neal had no problem sticking with Blaine, uncertain first or last name notwithstanding.

Blaine moved closer, almost tentatively. "We found some boots. And a blanket." He hefted the items up briefly, as if proving the truth of his words. He gestured at the boots as he spoke to Neal. "They'll probably be a little big, but at least they'll cover your feet."

Neal nodded, but looked at the boots uncertainly, then glanced around the room before looking back at Peter.

Understanding dawned in the agent's eyes right away. Peter took the boots from Blaine and gestured behind Neal. "Back up, Neal; lean against the wall."

Neal shuffled backward and did as instructed, then lifted his right foot as Peter crouched down and positioned the boot in front of him. His foot slid in easily, and they repeated the process with the other foot. They were too big and looked ridiculous on him, but they had a soft lining inside that warmed his feet immediately, so Neal wouldn't complain. He let his eyes travel upward to meet Peter's.

"Thanks, Peter. And . . ." He lowered his voice again. "I'm sorry about what I said before. I trust you, Peter."

"I know." Peter gave his arm one last squeeze, draped the blanket around his shoulders, tying the ends into a loose knot to keep it in place, and then finally stepped aside, giving up the defensive positioning and giving the marshals room to move in. "And I'm trusting you to behave yourself for once."

Neal rewarded the awkward teasing with a weary smile. "Yes, boss." His muscles tightened instinctively when Blaine placed a guiding hand on his elbow, but he fought down the panic and allowed himself to be steered toward the exit.

But as Blaine led him away, Neal craned his neck back around, keeping his eyes on Peter as long as he could.

00000

Peter's jaw clenched tightly as he stared into the interrogation room through the observation window. He had his hands pressed against the glass as if he were trying to get just that much closer to the man inside.

On the other side of the one-way mirror, Neal was sitting alone, waiting.

Someone had moved his handcuffs to the front, and he sat with his chained hands in his lap, his shoulders slightly hunched, and staring at the glass wall in front of him, a blank expression on his face. He was still in the bloody tee-shirt he'd been wearing at the scene, but at least the hospital had cleaned his face. But removing the blood from his face just made the cuts and bruises that much more apparent. Peter could see a butterfly bandage over Neal's right eyebrow and a larger bandage on his left cheek, gauze around both wrists where the handcuffs rested. The kid had definitely been worked over. Peter hated to think about what might lurk where he couldn't see.

He reminded himself the hospital had signed the discharge, so Neal probably looked in worse shape than he actually was. Even so, he wasn't sure he'd ever seen Neal Caffrey look so small. He was sure he didn't like it. He didn't like any of it.

Peter glanced over as Reese Hughes came to stand beside him. "He's not the bad guy here, Reese. There's no reason he should be sitting in there chained up like some kind of perp."

"The marshals think differently."

"Of course, they do." Peter wasn't making any effort to hide his bitterness.

"They're not going to clear him until they question him, Peter; you know that."

"And I suppose they're not going to question him until they question me. I've already typed up my preliminary report, so I'm officially on record, which seems to be what they're worried about. Like they think I'd cover for him."

Hughes shot a pointed glare at his agent, like maybe the idea wasn't too far off base.

"Oh, come on, Reese!" Peter shouted. "This is ridiculous!"

At Peter's outburst, Neal's head jerked around toward the observation window. "Peter?"

The softly spoken plea held so much anguish, Peter thought his heart might break. Regardless of his instructions, he intended to help his partner, and he started immediately toward the entrance to the interrogation room. Hughes's firm grip stopped him, tugging him back in place.

"You know you can't go in there," Hughes said.

"And you know I can't leave him in there alone," Peter countered, keeping his voice lower this time. "This isn't right, Reese. The marshals are just throwing their weight around because they've never liked him, and you know it."

"It's true that most people aren't as amused by Caffrey's hijinks as you are."

Peter didn't deny it. Even at his most infuriating, Neal could be entertaining as hell. But there was nothing entertaining about what was going on now.

He met his boss's gaze. "He needs someone in there with him, Reese. I'd rather it be me, but . . ."

"I was thinking you might need someone with you," Hughes retorted. "Do you think you can keep yourself in check?"

Peter almost grinned. Neal would appreciate the irony of his handler being told to behave. "Yes, sir. Strictly professional." Not that it would be easy, but he'd manage.

Hughes hesitated a moment, then sighed. "I'll stay with him. You get back up to the conference room; surely they're ready for you by now."

Moving back to the observation window, Peter took one last look, sending whatever positive thoughts or good vibes or whatever he could toward his friend and reminding himself why he really had to keep himself together with the marshals. If he lost his cool, they'd never let him in there, and he didn't intend to do anything that would cause that.

"Tell him I'll come back," he said as he turned back to look at Hughes. "Make sure he understands, Reese."

"I'll tell him, Peter." Hughes clapped a reassuring hand on his agent's shoulder, then moved toward the interrogation room. Peter waited until Hughes seated himself at the table and Neal's expression moved from blatant surprise to the first inkling of wary relief before he let himself turn away.

He made his way to the conference room and gave a quick rap on the door—remembering he should be polite. He greeted the marshal before stepping into the room. "Hayward. Wasn't sure if you were ready for me."

Max Hayward gestured at the computer screen in front of him. "I was just reading over your prelim here. Sounds like a chaotic few days."

"Chaotic is one word for it."

The marshal pointed Peter toward a chair. "Just give me a couple of minutes, and we can get started."

Peter seated himself at the table and waited. It took him about sixty seconds to develop an even greater sympathy for Neal; he didn't enjoy being at the marshals' mercy, and he wasn't even wearing cuffs.

And, as he watched Hayward reading, Peter was glad he'd asked Elizabeth to bring a change of clothes to the hospital. Peter knew Hayward was roughly his own age because he'd done some discreet checking on several of the marshals the agency had assigned to Neal's case at the start of his probation. But even though they were contemporaries, Hayward had a kind of stately air about him, and it didn't help that the man always wore fancy suits—the kind with designer labels that Neal always knew. It simultaneously annoyed Peter and made him feel like a tag-along kid brother instead of a collaborating federal agent, so he was glad to at least be in his standard work attire.

Still, it occurred to him that even though Hayward wasn't particularly his favorite person, he probably was Neal's favorite marshal because sometimes when their paths crossed, they'd talk about restaurants or wine or other things Peter had absolutely no interest in discussing. Peter appreciated that, which is why he never let on about his own frustrations with the man. So maybe if Hayward were in charge of the interrogation, Neal would feel more comfortable. He decided if he got the opportunity, he would try to put out that suggestion. The marshals might not like him butting in, but they'd get their information easier, and he'd get a less traumatized CI; that was a win for everyone.

Finally, Hayward pushed the laptop aside and looked at Peter. His first words were surprising. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it down to the location earlier."

Peter was sorry about that, too, but that didn't stop him from blurting out his first thought. "Yeah, I heard you were over in Jersey chasing down a lead on Neal."

Hayward didn't react much; he simply folded his hands in front of himself on the tabletop and raised a curious eyebrow. "Are we going to have a problem, Burke?"

But Peter was already regretting his words. He had to behave. He shook his head as he dragged a hand over his weary face. "No, sorry, not at all. I just need some sleep, so maybe we can get this over with so you can go talk to Neal, and then we can all go home."

"I won't be talking to Caffrey; Marshal Wilson is handling that now."

Peter straightened quickly, suddenly rigid in his chair. "He's interrogating him now? He shouldn't do that. I thought . . ." He took a breath and shook his head again. "Never mind. Let's just do this, okay?"

The marshal gave him an understanding smile. "Peter, Wilson won't even let me in there because he thinks our shared taste in wine makes me too close; you honestly think he's going to let you?"

"He's making it harder than it has to be," Peter muttered. "On everyone."

"Probably. But all we can do is what we can do." Hayward pushed a small recorder to the center of the table. "You ready?" He pushed the start button when Peter nodded.

Hayward began by reciting basic information, their names, the date, the case number—and how Peter hated that Neal had an active case number again—the location. Then he said, "Agent Burke, you know what we need to know. How about you just tell me the story, and I'll stop you if I have any questions?"

So Peter began. "We were working on an identity theft case, had been chasing it down for weeks. Finally, about two weeks ago, we latched on to Mason Rodgers as our primary suspect. We did all the normal things—the usual research, surveillance, stopped by his office and rattled his cage a little, surveilled some more. We weren't making any progress. We decided to send Neal Caffrey undercover to get closer to Rodgers. He went in as a job applicant at Rodgers' consulting firm; we sent him with an alias we knew wouldn't withstand much of a background check."

"You wanted his cover to fall apart?" Hayward clarified.

"We did. We didn't expect that part of the plan to work quite so well."

"Don't get ahead of yourself."

"Right, right." Peter took a second to refocus, then continued his narrative.

"We wanted Rodgers to discover Caffrey's forgery conviction, see if he'd offer Neal a job on the less legitimate side of his business. He took the bait, but we didn't have all our facts straight. We knew the suspect was gaining access to victims' identities with forged documents, though we weren't sure if Rodgers was doing the work himself or if he had a forger on the payroll. Either way, we thought an extra pair of hands might be handy for Rodgers, but we didn't expect anything much bigger than a two person operation. We were wrong about that.

"At first, Caffrey was basically a gofer, and he realized almost immediately that Rodgers had an inside guy over at vital records—Josh Minton. Minton could mine all sorts of personal data; sometimes from people who were requesting official copies of particular documents, sometimes he searched for people who met specific criteria that Rodgers provided. It also seemed Rodgers had someone in the state records office in Albany, but we didn't have a name yet. But though Caffrey had determined it wasn't Rodgers doing the actual work, he hadn't met the forger.

"Then, after a few days, Neal overheard some conversations that led him to believe Rodgers had a partner somewhere, or maybe a boss; that part wasn't clear. But Rodgers was being pressured to ramp things up, and then part of Neal's gofer duties started including pickups at various mailbox centers. After that, personal data started coming in from other jurisdictions—not just other areas here in the state, but other states entirely. It didn't take long for Rodgers to ask Neal for help with the extra work."

Hayward looked up from the notes he was taking. "So you got lucky? Caffrey just happened to be there at the right time?"

"It works out that way sometimes," Peter replied. He waited a couple of seconds to be sure there wouldn't be any follow-up questions, then continued his story.

"Anyway, we also pieced together more details about how they were actually using the documents. All of our original victims were here in the city, but all their losses had originated somewhere else. We realized that all the documents that were being made from the information from Minton were actually sent off to other areas for use. Rodgers had low-level runners all over the place using the documents to get driver's licenses, social security cards, access bank accounts, and open lines of credit; you name it. He would produce the documents then pass them off, and the runners could conduct their business far away from the victims, taking that much longer to put the pieces together. And the reverse was true, too; only identities that came from the Albany office or other states were used here in the city.

"Anyway, Rodgers first put Neal to work creating documents that came from Minton here in the city. That information had the easiest access, and Rodgers seemed to think it was a good way to test out Neal's skills."

"What about the stamp for the seal? Did Minton provide that, too?"

"No. Caffrey made it."

"If I understood the notes from your case file correctly," Hayward said, "the commissioner at vital records and the city comptroller both inspected some of the documents Caffrey created during this op."

"Yes."

The marshal's eyebrows rose in disbelief. "And they both thought they were authentic?"

"Yes."

"With a forged seal?"

Peter felt a totally inappropriate twinge of pride. "Yes. Look, this is going to take a while if you're going to need to be convinced of Neal's skill set, and I'm not sure that's the point of this investigation, anyway."

Hayward gave a nod and waved his hand for Burke to continue.

"Anyway, the other guy, the partner or the boss, he was the one coordinating all the runners and handling any online applications they were submitting. We wanted to get him, too, as well as the original forger—or at least be able to identify them—which is why we left Caffrey in as long as we did." Peter sighed as he propped his elbow onto the tabletop and let his forehead rest in his hand, rubbing at a persistent frown wrinkle just above his eyebrow. Leaving Neal under had been the beginning of a terrible situation.

"Do you need to take a break?"

"No. Let's get it over with." Peter straightened himself and drew in a steadying breath before continuing.

"Things on the op were rolling along. Caffrey was churning out the documents and reporting the victim names back to us so we could protect their assets and try to intercede as any new accounts were being created or existing accounts accessed from out of state, but we had no way of knowing exactly where the documents were being sent for use. Before Caffrey started working on the docs himself, he'd done a couple of drops at some of the same mail centers where he had pickups, but we were never able to see who was at the other end of those exchanges. It could've been another inside job, but we didn't have that pinned down yet. We were trying to take care of things discreetly so we didn't spook Rodgers until we knew who else was involved. It was slow going, but Neal was carrying an eagle transmitter every day, so we were getting invaluable audio evidence. We just didn't have the other guys.

"Then, three days ago, things fell apart. That afternoon, Rodgers called Neal and told him to stop work early and instructed him to come to his office; he went. There were a couple of musclemen there, as well." Peter's tone had slowly become a bland monotone; he was reciting facts, trying to distance himself from the reality of what had happened.

"Of course, when Neal changed locations, I sent another team immediately to cover Rodgers' office, but they had to mobilize quickly and didn't have time to set up to monitor the eagle. My team and I followed as quickly as we could, but we had to be careful not to be identified."

"You lost Caffrey's transmission," Hayward clarified.

"Yeah. For almost an hour. A lot of that was his travel time, but we missed out on about twenty minutes of his time with Rodgers. It was all being recorded, of course, but without real-time communication, it left Neal vulnerable." Peter let out a sigh. "By the time we could pick up his transmission again, all we heard was Rodgers offering Caffrey a job and a way to escape his custody agreement and Neal accepting. They made plans to meet the next day, and then the transmission went out again. We were just about to move in when we saw Neal leave the office." Peter could still remember how relieved he'd felt—and how short-lived that relief had been.

"What kind of protocol were you following while Caffrey was off-anklet?"

Peter forced down the frustration at answering questions everyone already knew the answers to; Hayward was just doing his job, after all, and Peter still needed to get back to his partner.

"Well, he had the eagle, obviously, but Rodgers had a ridiculous number of security people, so we couldn't risk Caffrey getting spotted trying to get back to us in the van or coming here to the office, and we could hardly tail him through Manhattan in the van. So we had a temporary residence set up in an extended-stay hotel. We had an adjoining suite so we could debrief each night."

"So Caffrey should've been heading to the hotel when he left Rodgers?"

"Right." Peter huffed out a quick breath and raked a hand through his hair. "He never made it."

"What did you do then?"

"What do you think we did?" Peter snapped. "We started looking for him."

"Right away?"

"We waited an hour, in case he'd just stopped to pick up dinner or something." Peter still regretted that hour, even though the logical part of his mind was certain it wouldn't have made a difference. "Then we mounted the search."

"You didn't call us in until the next morning."

At least Hayward hadn't made that one a question, though Peter figured he was supposed to answer it, anyway. "No, I didn't."

"Can you tell me why?"

"Yeah, because it's not your job to find missing FBI consultants."

"It is our job to find missing probationers."

"Finding fleeing probationers," Peter corrected, "that's your job."

"You heard him make plans to do just that."

"Under duress."

"You didn't know that."

Peter locked his eyes on the marshal's. "Yes, I did."

Hayward shook his head. "So, what finally prompted you to call us in at all?"

A beat passed, and Peter drew in a slow, deep breath, then blew it out loudly.

"Look, I'm not blind to the possibilities, okay? And I understand my responsibilities, no matter what kind of insinuations you want to throw around. I didn't think Caffrey ran, but I understood I could be wrong."

He didn't figure Hayward needed to know that after twelve hours with no trace of Neal, Hughes had laid down the law and insisted he notify the marshals, overriding Peter's intention to wait another twelve before calling them in.

"Then why didn't you cooperate with us?"

Peter bristled at the question and spat out his answer in a clipped tone that betrayed his difficulty controlling his temper. "I gave you every bit of information we had on the case, told you every lead I was following. Most important, I told you—and everyone else—that Neal hadn't run. You can't blame me you didn't want to listen."

Hayward released a weary sigh of his own, and Peter wondered if that meant the guy might finally be starting to come around to his way of thinking. But he got his answer pretty quickly.

"Maybe not," Hayward said, "but you can't blame us, either. We're not the enemy, Peter, but you have the luxury of trusting him; we don't."

Hayward was probably right, but Peter didn't like that any more than he liked the rest of it.

"For the purposes of this statement, then, let's just agree that we each had our own job to do. You were looking for a fleeing felon; I was looking for a kidnap victim." Peter shrugged. "Different motivations, but we all wanted to find him."

It seemed Hayward might still have some reservations about that response, but he motioned for Peter to continue, anyway.

The further along he got in his narrative, the less Peter wanted to continue, but he reminded himself Neal was going through this same ordeal without him and forced himself to go on.

"Yesterday morning, I got a tip on a place Neal was thought to have been for a while."

"Your report doesn't say who this tip came from," Hayward interrupted.

"No, it doesn't. It was from a CI."

"Exactly how many of those do you have on your speed dial, Burke?"

Peter shot the marshal a grim smile. "Caffrey came as sort of a package deal.

"Anyway, I got an address. My informant didn't believe Caffrey was still at this location, but I thought I might get a lead on where they'd taken him next. And before you ask, yes, that's exactly why I didn't tell you guys I was going. My team—including my ASAC—was aware of the lead I was following, and we all agreed that since it seemed unlikely to lead directly to Caffrey, it made more sense to let you continue your own search unless or until we had better information."

And, sure, Peter might've been fudging a little on the details again, but he'd felt certain Rodgers intended to keep using Neal's skills, though he'd been equally certain it would've been without Neal's full cooperation. So, if he'd felt it was his right as Caffrey's handler to get first dibs on any evidence of illegal activity, well . . . how the FBI conducted their own internal investigations really was outside the marshal's purview. Besides, as far as he was concerned, being permitted to go alone had really been Hughes giving tacit approval for him to deal with anything he might happen to find, so Peter's conscience was clear.

"But you found more than you expected," Hayward said, apparently growing impatient with the pace of Peter's storytelling. "We are talking about the place you ultimately found Caffrey, right?"

"Yeah, I found him." Peter fought back a sigh; he was sure he'd been sighing too damn much the past few hours. "Or, more accurately, I was found in the same place Neal was being held." He shook his head. "It was an empty office building in Brooklyn, not even ten minutes from my house. He was so close . . ." This time, he didn't even try to stop the sigh.

"I wasn't as cautious as I should have been," Peter admitted, picking up the tale again.

He knew that was true, but part of him had honestly believed the place was going to be empty, though the largest part of him simply believed it was taking far too long to find Neal, and wherever the kid was, Peter wanted to get to him sooner rather than later. It had made him sloppy.

"I hadn't even made it through clearing the first suite when a couple of Rodgers' goon squad got the drop on me." He blew out a loud breath, still angry and embarrassed that his reckless behavior had contributed to the nightmare they were living through. "They locked me in some sort of closet or something, and that's where I found Neal."

Peter was back to rubbing at his forehead again, remembering his fear when he'd realized the unmoving lump in the corner was his missing CI. But there was no mistaking the vindication in his tone when he said, "He was tied up and barely conscious; they'd been trying to convince him it was in his best interest to keep making their documents.

"We weren't in there very long, less than half an hour, then they bundled us up and moved us to the house on Long Island where you guys found us today."

"And how long were you held?" Hayward was back to asking stupid questions, but Peter was grateful for every extra second he didn't have to talk about today.

"Me? Not quite twenty-four hours. Thirty-six more for Caffrey. By the time we got to the house, Neal was alert again, but it turned out that wasn't such a great improvement; Rodgers thought Caffrey might be more cooperative with a different incentive . . ." Peter trailed off, not seeing the need to go into a lot of detail.

Hayward seemed to agree. "So that's when you got the . . ." He gestured vaguely toward Peter's black eyes and swollen lips, the stitches on his earlobe, and the bandaged knife wound down the side of his neck. All of it together still not nearly as bad as what Neal had been through.

"Some of it." Peter's voice came out a little raw, and he wished he'd thought to bring something to drink, though he wasn't sure that was the entire problem.

"I told Neal not to do what they wanted, and the first time they roughed me up, he called their bluff. They got a little more serious the next time, and the kid never has been very good at doing what he's told."

"So, he started making the documents again?"

"Yeah, they had him working all night long. Wouldn't let him sleep or eat or even give him anything to drink. He was already in pretty bad shape and last night was . . . rough. I think Rodgers had realized his time here was dwindling and that there wouldn't be any practical way to take Caffrey with him if he didn't want to go, so Rodgers wanted to get everything out of him he could."

"And at this point, there was no way Caffrey was going with him?"

Peter glared at the marshal. "Not at this point; not at any point. There was nothing voluntary about Neal's involvement."

Hayward pulled in a long breath. "Agent Burke . . . Peter, I need you to think about this carefully for me. Is it possible that what you witnessed was a partnership gone bad? Is it possible that Caffrey had been working with Rodgers and tried to back out for some reason? Or renegotiate? Possible that he just miscalculated and ended up paying the price for a double-cross? With everything that you saw and heard while you were there—is it at least possible?"

It took several long seconds before Peter could force down the urge to reach across the table and throttle the other man, before he could unclench his jaw and trust himself even to speak rationally, much less calmly. And even after allowing those long seconds to compose himself, he couldn't will the dangerous fury from his voice.

"I don't need to think carefully about that, Marshall Hayward," Peter said, "because I know what I saw, and because I know Neal Caffrey. It wasn't ever voluntary."

Once again, Hayward seemed less than convinced, but he didn't push it. "All right. Caffrey was forging documents all night; tell me about that."

This line of questioning wasn't doing anything for Peter's frame of mind, but he looked at his fisted hands, knuckles white with the strain of control, and forced his fingers to uncurl. "Does it matter?" he finally asked. "No one is disputing that he made the documents."

"Humor me."

Remembering Hughes's admonishments, and still hoping it would get him back to the interrogation room with Neal, Peter nodded and kept answering pointless questions.

"Like I said, Rodgers wanted to get everything out of him he could. He kept coming in with new names, new victims. He'd had Neal branch out by this time, different documents, different states. They used a computer to let Neal see examples of the originals, and he told them that was a bad idea, that you can't accurately see the colors or really see the intricacies of the seals, but it didn't matter. Rodgers just kept giving him more work."

Peter shook his head, pinching at the bridge of his nose and trying not to remember how exhausted Neal had been by the end, how weak and unsteady on his feet, how hopeless.

"Caffrey's a fast worker," he continued, "but Rodgers was still pushing too hard. I think he ended up with docs for close to a dozen different people. I still don't know how he managed it."

"And what were you doing during this time?"

"Nothing useful," Peter answered bitterly. "They had me chained to a chair, keeping me handy to make sure Neal wouldn't suddenly decide to stop cooperating. The guy they had with us was bigger than me and Neal put together, and really keen on the idea of following orders. I tried to make him a deal at first, and Neal tried to sweet-talk him, but his backhand was like a heavyweight right hook.

"I tried to distract him once, so Neal could try to use the computer to get an email out or something, but Neal ended up out cold for about ten minutes for his trouble. I thought he'd killed him." Peter shuddered at the memory. "We pretty much behaved after that."

"Pretty much?"

Peter shrugged. "Caffrey can't really help his mouth."

That got a quirk of a grin from Hayward. "I could see that.

"But, we're here because eventually, he did more than run his mouth."

"Yeah," Peter answered with a sigh. He still really didn't want to talk about today, not with the marshals. He wanted to talk to Neal, but no one was going to let him do that yet.

But when the door was suddenly flung open and Marshal Blaine burst into the conference room, near panic written on his face, Peter immediately remembered that you should be careful what you wish for.

"Agent Burke, they need you in the interrogation room."

Hayward frowned at the interruption. "Blaine, what's the problem? We're not finished here."

But Peter was already on his feet and talking over the marshal. "Is Caffrey okay?"

Blaine directed his answer to his superior. "I'm sorry, sir, but Wilson and Hughes both agreed; they need Burke now."

Not waiting to hear anything else, Peter pushed past Blaine, sprinting down the steps and through the bullpen. The two marshals followed closely behind him.

As he ran, Peter wondered what could have happened that would suddenly warrant allowing him to be with Neal before they could complete their independent statements, but whatever it was, he knew it couldn't be good. He cleared the distance to the interrogation room in record time, barreling past desks and down hallways, trying to ignore the various potential catastrophes tormenting his mind.

But he came to a sudden halt as he took in the scene through the glass walls of interrogation. Of all the things his imagination had conjured up during the short time it took him to reach the small room, finding Neal Caffrey cowering on the floor had not been one of them. Hughes was squatted down a few feet away, talking to him but obviously not getting through. Marshal Wilson appeared to have the good sense to stay away and was standing silently on the other side of the room.

"Looks like it's gotten worse even since I left," Blaine said from behind Peter as he and Hayward reached the room. "He was agitated, pacing the room, yelling, demanding proof that you were okay and—" He broke off abruptly.

Peter whirled around. "And what?" he pressed.

Blaine wore a pained expression as he quickly licked his lips and didn't quite look at the agent. "And that you weren't mad at him."

"Son of a bitch!" Peter snarled. He turned a glare on Hayward. "I told you this was a mistake."

But then he drew in a breath to steady himself. "Okay. I get it; no one wanted this to happen.

"You two stay here," Peter ordered, turning away from the marshals again. "We don't need more people in there adding to the confusion."

Then he straightened his shoulders, erased the anger and pain from his features, and tugged open the door, moving immediately toward the terrified man in the corner.

Hughes glanced up at him. "Peter. Thank God. I was only gone for five minutes to take a call and when I came back . . ."

Peter nodded his understanding and Hughes eased back to the table, leaving him to try to reach his consultant.

"Neal? Neal, it's me." Peter spoke slowly, softly, not wanting to cause Neal any further distress. "Is it okay if I come sit with you?" He waited, hoping for a response before he got too close.

Neal didn't answer, didn't seem to even register Peter's presence. He had scrunched himself into the corner and was hugging his knees to his chest like he was trying to make himself as small as possible. His eyes were closed tightly, and his lips were moving, but if he was actually speaking, Peter couldn't hear it.

Peter spared a moment to be grateful that even as out of it as he was, Neal hadn't tried to make some grand escape, though that had almost certainly been the kid's first instinct. He sucked in one more fortifying breath.

"I'm coming over there, Neal," Peter said as he closed the last few steps that separated them. "It's okay; I'm right here."

Peter sank to the floor beside his friend and leaned his back against the wall, as close as he could get to Neal without actually touching him. But as soon as he got seated, Peter realized Neal was speaking after all, barely whispered words repeated over and over, like a mantra.

"I'm sorry, Peter; please come for me."

He felt his breath catch and rage immediately burned in him again at the thought of a damned interrogation pushing Neal to this point, but he swallowed it all down. He quit worrying about startling the other man and scooted himself closer, letting his shoulder press against Neal's as he laid his hand gently on Neal's knee.

"Neal? I'm here, Neal. I've come for you, just like I promised." He started his own mantra, answering the pleas of his CI, waiting for the words to be believed.

"I've come for you, Neal; I'm right here."

It took several repetitions from Peter, but eventually, Neal's muttering slowed and then finally stopped. He still didn't open his eyes, but the fear on his face gradually gave way to curiosity as he seemed to listen intently.

When Peter felt Neal lean into his side, relaxing against him, he allowed himself the first breath of relief since he'd watched the younger man led away hours earlier. He kept talking and didn't move.

"I'm right here, Neal; you're okay. We're okay."

"Peter?" Neal breathed out the name fearfully, uncertainly. He moved one hand to lay it on top of Peter's, still resting on his knee. "Are you really here?"

"I'm really here. Why don't you open your eyes and see for yourself?"

Neal barely relaxed the squint of his eyes, opening just the tiniest slit as he turned his head. Peter concentrated on keeping a slight smile on his lips, offering him as much reassurance as he could manage while having no idea what was going on.

"I'm right here, partner."

Neal released a sigh of relief as he finally opened his eyes fully. "You came." Then his eyes studied Peter and his face fell. "They were right; you're hurt."

"Hey." Peter shifted enough that he could look directly into Neal's eyes, but he kept his hands on the younger man, folded his legs so that they also brushed up against Neal, wanting to give the kid as much tangible proof as possible that he wasn't alone.

"I'm fine." He lifted one hand just long enough to gesture at his face. "This is nothing. Besides, we already talked about this, didn't we? You knew I got hurt a little, remember?"

There was a pause while Neal made a thoughtful face before nodding once. "I remember, though I really wish I didn't." Then, still seeming confused, he shook his head a little. "I'm sorry; I don't mean to keep freaking out on you. And I'm sorry you're hurt; I do remember that was my fault." Neal grimaced, and Peter watched him put some effort into forcing out his next words.

"But you said you weren't mad. You said it would be okay."

"I'm not mad," Peter assured him. "Why would you think that?"

When the anxious blue eyes cast a quick sidelong glance toward Marshal Wilson, Peter had his answer, but he didn't allow the building anger to show since Neal had immediately returned to studying his face.

"I'm not mad," Peter repeated. "Nothing that happened was your fault."

Neal let out a shuddering breath. "It's all my fault, Peter."

Peter reached out and grabbed Neal's arms tightly. "It's not." Then he quirked a small grin. "Besides, as long as I've been trying to get any kind of confession out of you, do you really think I'd let you slide if you needed to take the blame for something?"

The smile Neal flashed was even wearier than the one he'd managed hours earlier, but Peter wasn't going to complain. After the past few days—after this morning—Peter thought even a faint smile should probably be more surprising than finding the kid trembling on the floor. And the day wasn't over yet.

"Listen, Neal, I hate to bring this up, but I assume you weren't finished with your statement?"

"You mean, were they finished with their interrogation?" Neal corrected. "And, no, they weren't." His eyes drifted downward, and he lowered his voice even further. "He wants to put me in prison, Peter."

Peter tightened his grip on the younger man's arms. "Hey. Hey. I don't care what he wants; you're not going back to prison because of this."

"Don't make promises you can't keep." Neal's voice, still too quiet, had become resigned.

But Peter wasn't deterred. He suddenly tugged on Neal's arms, pulling him close enough to hear a whisper. "You know I don't do that. Whatever I have to do, whatever it takes, you are not going back to prison for this."

"But—"

"Whatever it takes," Peter said again. "Trust me."

He sat back then and watched Neal try to parse out the meaning of his words, and eventually, the blue eyes widened in disbelief.

"Peter . . ." Neal sounded skeptical, shocked even, and more than a little frightened. "You can't—"

"Shh. One step at a time, okay? Just know that you can trust me on this."

"I do," Neal whispered. "I always do."

Warmth spread through Peter's chest, and his throat suddenly felt thick and constricted, but he forced himself to speak, anyway. "Are you ready to finish this?"

Neal nodded. "But, can you . . . will they let you stay?"

"Let them try to stop me."

That finally pulled a quick chuckle and a genuine smile from the younger man. "I could get used to this rebellious side of you."

"Exigent circumstances," Peter replied with a wink.

He pushed himself off the floor, then reached down and tugged Neal to his feet. Keeping a hand on Neal's back, he leaned closer to offer a quiet assurance—"You can do this, Neal,"—and steered his friend back toward the table.

Hughes was watching the entire scene with a layer of concern covering his normally crotchety expression while Marshal Wilson was just . . . watching.

Peter waited until Neal got seated again before dragging over another chair and sitting down close to him.

Wilson froze halfway to reclaiming his own seat and glared across the table. "Burke, we're going to continue his statement now."

"I figured."

"That means you need to leave," Wilson said as he straightened to his full height, still glowering.

Peter recognized the stance—though he hoped he himself never looked quite so despotic. He wanted to appear authoritative during an interrogation, maybe even overbearing; he rarely wanted to seem such a total ass.

"I'm staying," Peter told the marshal.

"That's not an option. You know the protocol."

Peter kept his seat, not wanting to escalate the tension in the room, but he didn't flinch under Wilson's steely gaze and forbidding tone.

"What I know is that in the spirit of inter-agency cooperation, I've made my consultant—my partner—available to you without restriction, not to mention subjecting myself to an oral statement even though this office has already provided you my official documentation of events. You've chosen to repay that cooperation with antagonism and seem to have forgotten that Mr. Caffrey is not some random perp for you to intimidate but is, in fact, a valuable member of my team.

"He will be happy to complete his statement and answer reasonable questions so long as I am present. If you can't accommodate that, I'll instruct Mr. Caffrey not to say anything further until he can consult with an attorney. And having met his counsel of choice, I can assure you that he's well versed in the adversarial component of our criminal justice system. You'll wish you'd opted for cooperation while it was still an option, but it's your choice."

Wilson appealed to a higher authority. "Agent Hughes—"

"Caffrey is Burke's consultant," Hughes interrupted, waving a hand dismissively, "so it's his call." He paused thoughtfully before adding, "But I will say, I wouldn't want to tangle with that lawyer." He pulled up a chair and settled in to wait as if the outcome were a foregone conclusion.

Peter fought back a grin, and a quick sideward glance showed the barest hint of amusement in Neal's eyes, but Wilson apparently still wasn't ready to give up his argument.

"Protocol dictates he give his statement separate from other involved parties or witnesses. Agent Burke hasn't completed—"

Marshal Hayward had obviously been listening in and chose that moment to enter the room and the conversation. "I'm satisfied with Agent Burke's statement," he said. "While it's true that we were interrupted just before we would have finished, everything he said corroborated his written statement. I have no reason to believe further questioning would change that, and it seems his time is better spent here than rehashing information he's already provided in good faith. We can always revisit it later if there should appear to be any discrepancies."

Peter saw the gratitude in Neal's eyes as it became clear to him he really wouldn't have to be on his own. On the other hand, Peter wasn't sure how many people Wilson thought he could glare at with one look, but the man was making a valiant effort at encompassing the entire room with his anger. But at least he finally seemed to recognize a lost cause, and he sank into his chair with a huff.

"All right, Caffrey—" he gritted his teeth as Peter shot out a glare of his own, then corrected himself and moved on, "Mr. Caffrey. You were telling us what happened this morning before we finally found you."

Neal's hands were on the tabletop, gripped tightly together, skin stretched taut across white knuckles. He swallowed, then flicked his tongue across his lips, the moisture easing the cracks left behind by angry fists. He didn't raise his eyes to meet Wilson's as he started speaking.

"Right. Yeah." He sucked in a breath. "I was making the documents Rodgers asked for. I don't even remember everything he brought in. Mostly birth certificates and marriage licenses, some wills, a few deeds. I never did figure out where he was getting all his information." He glanced up at Hughes then. "I'm sorry, sir; I really tried to ID his partners."

"I know you did; don't worry."

Peter found himself hoping Neal wasn't so out of it he couldn't appreciate the unusual kindliness from Reese Hughes. But whether it was appreciated—or even recognized—Neal simply gave a stiff nod in response and dropped his gaze back to his hands.

"I was working as fast as I could. Rodgers had made it clear there would be . . . consequences for not keeping up." He frowned as he cast a fleeting glance toward his handler. "Peter—Agent Burke—had already been hurt because of me. I didn't want it to happen again." He shook his head and clenched his hands even tighter.

"But I was so tired. I didn't know how much longer I'd be able to go on."

Peter felt a renewed wave of anger at the marshals and their tunnel vision approach to things. There was no reason Neal's statement couldn't have waited until tomorrow so that the kid could get some much-needed sleep. Except, of course, they considered this a suspect interview rather than a witness statement, and that made all the difference. Peter had managed to grab almost an hour of sleep at the hospital and he could only hope Neal had done the same, though he knew it was unlikely while the kid was scared and alone and probably handcuffed to the bed.

"We recovered dozens of documents at the scene," Wilson said, "including a few stock certificates, which you haven't mentioned."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot about those. They were different from most of the stuff; there weren't many."

"So, to be clear, you admit you forged all the documents?"

"Yes, but—"

"Just yes or no."

Neal's shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly, and Peter saw the resignation settle back onto his face. "Yes."

"And you gave all the forged documents to Rodgers?"

"Yes."

"Didn't hide away a few of them for yourself?"

"No."

Peter hated the way Neal didn't even seem surprised by the question, the way he almost expected to be a suspect, but Peter suddenly hated even more that his own behavior toward his CI had undoubtedly contributed to that conditioning.

"If you were doing what Rodgers wanted, what happened to the partnership?"

"It wasn't a partnership," Neal replied, and he finally raised his head to look at the marshal directly. "It was an undercover operation. Until it fell apart. And then it was stalling for time until I could find a way to escape or until help arrived. I was just trying to stay alive—and keep my actual partner alive."

Surprisingly unconcerned with the optics, Peter reached out a hand and laid it gently on Neal's arm, offering a quick squeeze of thanks. He had intended it to be just a brief show of support—of partnership—but almost immediately, he felt some of Neal's tension melt away under his touch, so he left his hand right where it was.

"You were still doing what he wanted, even if it was under duress." The emphasis Wilson used as he continued his questioning wasn't subtle; he obviously wasn't convinced and just as obviously didn't care who knew it. "What happened next?"

Peter could see the effort it took for Neal not to look away again, not to let Wilson see how badly he simply wanted to hide away from what was happening. The young man wasn't really pulling himself together as much as reassembling a façade, putting on the face that people expected to see. It felt like an invasion, somehow, being witness to the process, knowing how vulnerable Neal was truly feeling. He added it to the list of things he didn't like about this situation.

"It was a mistake," Neal was saying by the time Peter refocused his attention. "I should've just kept going along. But he brought information to make a marriage certificate—Martha and Edgar Murphy, married in Massachusetts in 1940. Not much different than any of the others, except that he also wanted a death certificate for Edgar, and an insurance policy, and a deed to a house." He drew in a shaky breath. "They'd been married seventy years, and Edgar just died two days ago, and Rodgers wanted to use me to make the worst time of her life even worse." He shook his head. "I couldn't do it."

Peter felt a renewed surge of pride in his young friend, but Wilson was looking at Neal like he'd suddenly grown a second head. After a few seconds of silence, Hughes stepped in, gently nudging Neal back to his recitation. "And after you refused?"

"Rodgers had just dropped off the information and left the room again, so it was just us and the hired goon. Jacob, he was the one who guarded us, the one responsible for reminding me of consequences. Peter had drifted back off to sleep, or maybe unconsciousness, until Jacob backhanded him hard enough to knock over the chair they had him chained to. He woke up then, but there was nothing he could do to protect himself. Jacob was just kicking him and kicking him and screaming at me to get back to work. Peter didn't even know what was going on, but he told me right away not to do whatever it was they were asking."

He turned then to face his partner. "I am so sorry, Peter."

The agent flashed a wry grin. "I don't think you have to apologize for actually listening to me for once."

Neal didn't quite grin in return, but Peter was content with the glint of gratitude he saw in the blue eyes before Neal turned back to face his questioners and continue his tale.

"The only good thing about Jacob's sheer rage was it made him careless. Once I'd started cooperating, they hadn't restrained me since I wouldn't have been able to work, and my earlier efforts at fighting back hadn't been remotely successful, so I'm sure Jacob didn't consider me much of a threat."

Neal paused then, and Peter knew he was trying to figure out a way to give an accounting of events that would let him avoid talking about the one thing everyone wanted to know about. He wished he could spare his young friend this moment—wished he could have spared him all of it—but all he could do was tighten his grip on the arm under his hand again, offering silent support. The tension didn't seem to abate this time, but Peter couldn't blame Neal for that.

His voice was strained when Neal finally began speaking again. "I couldn't let the guy keep whaling on Peter like he was, but he was so focused on inflicting as much damage as possible, he didn't even realize I'd picked up a chair until I threw it at his head. That caught him off guard enough that I was able to tackle him; I actually even landed a few punches afterward, but what I was really after was his key to the handcuffs. I had to get Peter away from them somehow, but they never left us alone long enough for me to pick them, and now that I wasn't cooperating . . . well, I was pretty sure we were running out of time.

"I managed to get the key, and then let him throw me down close enough to Peter to pass it off without Jacob seeing, but that was the last thing that went according to plan."

Despair written in every line of his face, Neal raked his left hand through his hair—not disengaging his other arm from Peter's comforting grip.

"I was still fighting with Jacob," he continued, "trying to buy Peter enough time to get loose. I didn't stand a chance in the long run; the guy could've pulverized me—probably would've already if he hadn't been too pissed to see straight. Anyway, somehow, I'd managed to hold my own, which was only making him angrier. We were fighting, or wrestling, really, rolling around on the floor, and he finally just screamed that he was going to kill Peter just to show me who's boss and he was reaching for his gun, so I was hanging on, trying anything I could to stop him, and that's when Rodgers barged back into the room."

Neal was picking up speed now, words tumbling out, and his voice was droning dully, like he was reading a report of something that had happened to someone else.

"He must've heard the commotion because he stormed into the room with his own gun in his hand, demanding to know what in the hell was going on. Jacob kind of froze for a split second, and that let me punch him one last time, and then, as he was getting to his feet, trying to answer Rodgers, I got in a well-placed kick. He fell back down to his knees, right in front of me, and Rodgers yelled, 'I told you to keep things under control, and you're gonna let this candy-ass forger beat you?' and then he just shot him, right in the back."

Neal's voice broke a little then, and Peter remembered the shock he'd seen on the young face when the gun went off and Neal hadn't been able to scramble out of the way quickly enough to keep Jacob from falling dead on top of him.

That had been the moment Peter was sure they were both going to die.

The air in the room was thick with anticipation while Neal breathed deeply, deliberately, in and out. One more grievance for Peter's list—they all knew what had happened in that room this morning, and Neal's description really should've been nothing more than dotting Is and crossing Ts, if only his initial disappearance hadn't led to immediate suspicion instead of concern. But they were all waiting, waiting to pass judgment on a young man who would never try to defend his actions, no matter how justified.

Peter gritted his teeth as he glanced around the room. Hayward and Blaine had stayed, remaining unobtrusive against a far wall; Hughes looked like he was working hard to maintain a demeanor of gruff stoicism, but Peter could see the horror in his eyes, the only other person present who understood how these events would impact Neal; Wilson just seemed impatient, and Peter wondered if the man possessed even an ounce of compassion.

But delaying was only going to make the marshals doubt him more, so Peter leaned closer and spoke softly, reassuringly. "You're almost done, Neal. Just a little bit more."

After a moment, Neal slowly turned his head and met Peter's gaze, blue eyes searching for reassurance he wouldn't ask for now that he had started putting his mask back in place. Peter offered it anyway.

"It's almost over, partner; just get through this, and we can get you out of here and home."

"Home," Neal murmured, almost inaudibly, and Peter nodded, willing him to believe it. And if the young man's gaze held more hope than actual belief, well, that was another thing Peter couldn't blame him for.

"Jacob fell on top of me," Neal went on, not fast this time, but almost forcing out his words, "pinning me down so I was kind of twisted. He was so big, I couldn't just push him off the way I was stuck; it was taking too long. But my hands were in between us and I could just reach his gun; Rodgers couldn't see what I was doing. He was yelling about what a mistake I'd made, that it was my fault Peter was going to have to die. I could see Peter was still fumbling with the handcuffs, trying to get loose, but Rodgers was pointing his gun right at him; there wasn't going to be time for Peter to get away. I got the gun free and fired, shot Rodgers in the leg. I thought he'd go down, that it would give Peter enough time to get free, that I'd be able to push Jacob off of me. But—but even though he fell, he didn't drop the gun. He was pushing himself back up, moving toward Peter. I was begging him to stop, but he just laughed. Said I had to watch, and then he was going to kill me next.

"I was . . . I think I was crying, or maybe I was bleeding; I don't really know, but I couldn't see clearly. I wanted to shoot his arm, just make him drop his gun, make him stop what he was doing, but I—I missed, and he laughed again. And then he was getting too close, it was happening too fast, I couldn't risk Peter's life. I shot him in the chest. He didn't get up."

Neal closed his eyes then and let out a long, gusty breath. His hands had clenched again into fists on the tabletop as he spoke, and he didn't show any sign of relaxing them. Under Peter's hand, there was a fine tremor beginning. There were long seconds of silence before he looked back across the table and started speaking again, still addressing Hughes.

"I finally managed to crawl out from under Jacob, and I tried—I really tried—to help Rodgers. There was blood, so much blood, and I tried to hold it in, but I didn't really know what to do. He was—he was still alive for a minute, but . . .

"The next thing I knew, Peter was pulling me away, trying to get me out of the room, but it seemed wrong somehow, just to leave him there after what I'd done. And I was too shaky, anyway, couldn't even stand up. Peter finally let me just sit over in a corner to wait for him. He—he left for a little while, I don't know how long, but he came back, like he said he would. Peter always comes back.

"He sat with me then, and talked to me. I don't think I said much back, but I remember he told me I didn't do anything wrong—I'm not sure he was right about that."

Peter squeezed his arm again, hoping Neal wouldn't dwell on that particular topic. Fortunately, he moved on.

"I don't know how long we had to wait, but then everyone else was there—Diana and Jones and Blake, I think. I'm sorry; I'm not sure who all was there. It was a lot of agents. Then the marshals came, and I got arrested, and they took me to the hospital, and then here." He blew out a deep breath, looking thoughtful, then added, "I think that's all."

And still no one else spoke. Peter patted Neal's arm, let out his own breath of relief, and waited for Wilson—who was reviewing the pages of notes he'd scribbled—to understand that none of this had been any kind of scam.

But when the silence stretched to almost a minute, Neal turned back to Peter and asked in a heartbreakingly small voice, "Can I go home now?"

And before Peter could even steel himself to deliver bad news, Hughes was speaking.

"Yes, you can. Peter, get him out of here. I don't want to see either of you back until Monday."

Peter stood immediately, gently tugging Neal to his feet. "Yes, sir, thank you." He steered Neal toward the door, completely ignoring the sputtering Marshal Wilson.

"I'm satisfied with my consultant's explanation," Hughes was saying, "particularly as it coincides entirely with my senior agent's, and there isn't a shred of evidence to contradict it. If you've got a problem with that, you can take it up with the DOJ."

"You hear that?" Peter grinned as they left the room and moved down the hall toward the elevator. "The marshals have gone and pissed off Hughes now, all because of you."

Neal froze. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"

Peter grimaced at the misunderstanding and moved in front of the other man to look into his eyes. "Hey, that's not what I meant. I meant he's mad at them for the way they were treating you. He's on your side in this, Neal, because you didn't do anything wrong. Nothing. Do you understand me?"

Neal stared back, eyes impossibly wide and darkly haunted. "Can we please just go home?" he asked softly.

"You bet." Peter draped an arm around Neal's shoulders and started them moving again. And when it became impractical to walk with an arm around his young partner, Peter dropped his hand to the small of Neal's back, or lightly gripped his elbow, but he didn't once break their physical connection until he had Neal safely in the passenger seat of the car.

Once the door was closed solidly behind Neal, Peter rounded the car. Pausing briefly in the convenient mirror blind spot, he gave himself five seconds to squeeze his eyes shut, breathe deeply, feel the full weight of how totally fucked up everything was, and wonder if Neal would ever be the same. But then he pushed it all down, assured himself Neal would be fine, and then climbed into the car, determined to do whatever he had to do to make it true.

Neal was sitting silently, head leaned against the seatback, turned away slightly, staring absently with still-wide eyes that Peter was certain weren't really seeing much of anything at all. There had been too much silence today with Neal withdrawn into himself, shellshocked, lost.

Right then, Peter promised himself he would never again try to shush his partner's animated chatter—even though he was convinced sometimes Neal went on like he did just to drive his handler crazy. Never in his life had Peter actually wished for someone to annoy him, but at this moment, nothing would've made him happier.

Glancing over at Neal as he started the car, Peter realized he very much didn't want to let the young man out of his sight just yet, wished he could take Neal to Brooklyn and keep him close for their mandated four-day weekend. El would pamper Neal—really, she'd pamper them both, and Peter wouldn't be too proud to enjoy it, even though Neal was the one who really needed it—and he'd be there to make sure the pampering actually helped and wouldn't let Neal get by with a fake smile and 'I'm fine.'

Except, as much as Peter needed that, Neal had been clear that what he needed was to go home, and Peter didn't intend to force him into another decision against his will. Especially not when he owed Neal literally everything.

But when Peter exited the garage and pointed the car west to head uptown instead of east to cross the river, Neal's thin veneer of resilience slipped as he closed his eyes and made a stifled whimpering sound that seemed to come from deep inside.

"Neal? Are you okay?" Peter tried to keep the alarm from his voice, but he doubted if it was much of a secret that he was still worried about his partner, and growing more worried with each passing block of enduring silence. When he saw Neal open his eyes just long enough to scan the passing landmarks, then quickly squeeze them shut again, Peter began to wonder if he might've misunderstood. He took a chance.

"By the way, I know I should've asked you first, but I told El I'd bring you home for dinner tonight; thought I could just wait on you while you shower and change, if that's okay? Of course, Elizabeth'll understand if you're not up for it. But if you're not too sick of me by now, we could even pack you a bag and you could stay over. If you wanted to, I mean."

Peter saw the relief wash over Neal's features, an honest display of emotion and vulnerability that the young man would never have allowed under other circumstances.

"I'd like that," Neal answered softly. He finally turned his head to look at Peter and added, "Thank you."

It still felt like an intrusion, seeing Neal so unguarded, so Peter forced his eyes back to the road—if Neal were in better shape, he'd be yelling at him for his distracted driving, anyway—but he wore a small, relieved smile, grateful at least that he'd be able to keep his partner close a little longer.

Almost as soon as that decision had been made, Neal's eyes drifted shut again, and he was asleep. For a second, Peter considered just turning around and heading straight to Brooklyn. He had a shower, and plenty of clothes Neal could lounge around the house in, and the guy clearly just needed to go to bed. But Peter remained mindful of all the control that had been stripped from his friend over the past few days and knew that if given the choice, Neal would gladly lose out on a little sleep for the opportunity to wear his own clothes, so he kept driving. He took his time in the throng of afternoon traffic and Neal got half an hour of rest before they reached Riverside Drive.

Peter was glad to find parking almost right in front of June's house; Neal's bloody clothes, clunky boots, and Peter's too-big coat draped over his shoulders—not to mention his slightly zombiefied demeanor—would definitely attract some attention if they had to walk too far, especially in this neighborhood.

And though Neal was obviously working hard to force himself back to at least a facsimile of his normal behavior, he was still oddly compliant, allowing Peter to help shuffle him across the street, handle ringing the bell and getting the door open, and keeping a hand at his back up three flights of stairs.

As he escorted Neal inside the loft, Peter saw immediately that Mozzie and June were seated out on the terrace, apparently enjoying a cup of tea, though they were neither frozen solid nor covered in snow, so they obviously had not been outside long—probably not much longer than it had taken for him to get Neal upstairs once they saw the car on the security monitors, if Peter had to guess. He thought it a fairly transparent way to await Neal's arrival without seeming to invade his private living space, but he couldn't blame them for wanting to see the young man. Of course, he'd assured them both earlier that Neal was mostly unharmed, at least physically, but he definitely understood the need to see for themselves, the need to be sure.

Neal must've agreed. "Tell them to come inside," he said as he moved to the kitchenette. He reached immediately for the nearest bottle of wine, though Peter was relieved when he poured just enough to cover the bottom of the bowl and then barely sipped at it.

Peter waved the others in, then watched as Neal turned slowly to face them, not bothering to offer a false smile, and using both hands to hold the glass in front of him like a barrier. He wasn't surprised to see them stop quietly outside Neal's personal space rather than pulling him into a warm embrace, which certainly would've been June's preference, or peppering him with a dozen questions and profundities, which would've been Mozzie's. Peter didn't always understand these people and their life choices, but he never doubted their genuine affection for Neal.

"Neal, dear," June said, finally breaking the silence, "I'm so glad to see you. Is there anything we can do for you?"

"Yes, mon frère," Moz agreed readily, "anything."

Neal did give them a smile then, not false at all, but one of the real ones Peter knew was reserved for only a select few. "I'm glad to see you, too. But I'm fine. I'm just going to clean up and then go to Peter's for the night, or maybe—" He broke off suddenly, casting a quick, uncertain glance at his handler before lowering his eyes and bringing the glass back to his lips for another small drink.

"Or maybe longer," Peter filled in smoothly, and he thought June and Mozzie looked almost as satisfied as Neal himself.

After Neal excused himself to go shower, with a promise to see them again before he left, the others sat together at the table and Peter quickly fielded all the questions Mozzie and June hadn't asked Neal, including giving them a more complete picture of everything that had happened today.

"And I know this isn't really my story to tell," he said, "so I'm not going to even attempt to speak for him, except to say that it's been as hard as you would imagine and he's going to need all the help we can give him."

"Whatever he needs, Peter," June said, "you know that." She quickly swiped a hand across her eyes to banish the welling tears and when she rose from her chair, she had her own mask of unwavering strength back in place. Peter rose with her.

"Mozzie, my dear," June went on, "we should wait downstairs, give them a little space."

"I'll be down in just a minute," Moz told her, even as he pushed himself to his feet.

June surprised Peter by stopping to brush a kiss across his cheek on her way out. "Thank you for being his friend," she whispered, and all he could do was stammer some sort of meaningless response. He was pretty sure no one had anything to thank him for today.

Peter was even more sure that Mozzie was staying behind to tell him just that, to remind him—yet again—how dangerous the FBI was for Neal, how dangerous Peter was for him. And for once, Peter didn't think he'd be able to offer any sort of defense.

As it turned out, the agent was surprised yet again.

"Suit," Mozzie said sternly, pinning Peter in place with a piercing gaze, "are you all right?"

"I'm fi—what?"

"You look like you're running on fumes, and it's pretty obvious that Neal's drastic measures didn't keep you safe from all harm."

It took a second longer for Peter's brain to catch up, then he gave a fond smile. "I'm okay, Mozzie, just worried."

"Yeah." Mozzie sighed deeply. After a moment he said, "You know, I bet we'd been working together almost two years before I realized he even knew how to shoot. You could've knocked me over with a feather."

Peter knew the feeling. "Tell me about it. You chase a guy for three years, you think you know him. Then the next thing you know, you're out on the Sound watching him blow clay birds out of the sky like he was born with a shotgun in his hand, or looking at a bullet hole in your pant leg after he pulls off a shot most trained agents couldn't make. Hard to reconcile that with the guy who practically has 'I don't like guns' tattooed on his forehead." He shook his head as he leaned heavily on the table. "Still, I never meant for him to have to . . ."

"Yeah, I know. And so does he."

Then suddenly, Mozzie was in motion. "Why don't you sit back down? Take a load off for a few minutes." He scooted a chair a little closer to Peter, simultaneously pushing the agent down into it almost gently. "I'll throw a few things into a bag so you'll be ready to go once Neal gets done."

Peter thought about objecting, but that was honestly the best idea he'd heard all day, so he just mumbled, "Thanks, Moz," and let the other man go about his task.

Just a short few minutes later, Mozzie had a fully packed duffel bag, and Peter forced himself not to think too much about the circumstances that made the man so quick at packing Neal's belongings.

"Take care of him this weekend, Suit," Mozzie said as he dropped the bag unceremoniously next to the table and continued toward the door, "and tell him to call if he needs anything." He paused briefly in the open doorway, looking back over his shoulder. "That goes for you, too." And then he was gone before Peter could even mutter another word of thanks.

Finally alone, Peter sent a quick text to Elizabeth to let her know they'd have company—and that it was her idea—then laid his head down on the tabletop and closed his eyes.

Suddenly convinced he didn't want to do anything other than sleep for maybe twenty-four hours straight, he thought for a moment about texting El again to say they'd changed their minds and would just stay at Neal's place tonight. Surely it would be worth enduring a night on the couch just to avoid fighting rush hour traffic to get to Brooklyn. But he dismissed the idea almost as quickly as it appeared; he still wanted El's pampering and Neal still needed it. He would just rest here for a minute.

Half an hour later, Neal finally reappeared, only Peter didn't realize it until he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Neal call his name.

"You okay?" Neal asked softly as Peter sat up and rubbed at his eyes.

"Yeah, I'm good," Peter answered quickly, though finishing off the thought with a wide yawn didn't do much for his credibility. He shrugged. "You take long showers."

Neal didn't argue the point and Peter took a moment to study him, probably not as unobtrusively as he could've, judging by the response.

"Stop staring; I'm good, too."

Neal did actually look immeasurably better, Peter had to admit, though he knew it was mostly just window dressing. But, clothed uncharacteristically in jeans and a loose-fitting cable knit sweater, sock feet, with his hair dried but not styled and curling casually around his face, he also looked about a decade younger, making his still-haunted eyes that much more heartbreaking.

Peter catalogued it all, then tamped it down. He had a feeling he was about to be subjected to some low-key Caffrey contrivances, and while Mozzie and June might've both surprised him earlier, he was still the resident expert on Neal Caffrey. Might as well get it over with.

"You about ready? Mozzie packed your bag."

Neal glanced down at the bag at Peter's feet, then let his gaze move around the room, very obviously not looking at the other man. "Listen, Peter, I really am feeling a lot better, so—"

"Neal."

The young man's jaw tightened, and he swallowed hard before he tried again. "I'm sure Elizabeth was scared; she'll want to see you—"

"Elizabeth wants to see us both."

"But you don't have to—"

"Neal." Peter had remained in his seat, still trying so hard not to take control, exert any hint of force, cause any more distress. But he rose now, standing just beside his partner. "Will you look at me? Please?"

The movement seemed almost unwilling, but Neal turned toward his friend and raised his head to meet Peter's gaze, blue eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Peter, please. I just don't want to mess up anything else. You can't take me home; I don't belong there. It's not the same anymore; I'm not the same anymore. Peter, I'm, I'm. . . I'm a killer."

Neal choked out the final word in an aborted sob as he whirled away, standing less than twelve inches further than before but looking more alone than Peter had ever seen him.

Whatever intention he'd had of playing it cool and following Neal's lead, Peter's plan changed in that single, tortured breath. He closed the small distance between them, grabbed Neal's shoulder to swing him back around, then pulled the young man close, wrapping him in a powerful embrace.

Neal stiffened, then struggled against the hold, first pushing futilely against Peter, then slapping against his back. "Let me go!" he cried. "You have to let me go!"

But Peter just tightened his grip, pulling them impossibly closer, murmuring directly into Neal's ear. "You listen to me, Neal Caffrey; I will never let you go. Never. You didn't mess up anything; you didn't do anything wrong. Neal, you saved my life; you saved us both."

Neal had stopped fighting and his arms hung aimlessly at his sides, but he was still mostly rigid as he trembled in Peter's arms. Peter kept talking, voice growing raspy as he fought back his own tears.

"You know I'd do anything to change it, don't you? To make it not have happened, to save you from all of it. I wish to God I'd been able to do that. I'm sorry we couldn't protect you from Rodgers—that I couldn't protect you from him; sorry that I couldn't find you sooner and then just made things worse when I finally did. I am so, so sorry that you had to do what you did, but, Neal, you did have to do it. You did exactly what you needed to do, so please don't let this be the thing that takes my partner from me. Please."

Peter heard a strangled whining sound a split-second before he felt arms finally, finally encircle him, and then Neal was squeezing him tight and neither one of them were letting go.

After a long, silent moment, Neal released the embrace and Peter let him step back. The expressive blue eyes were still lightly glistening, but Neal's face was dry and he was blinking away the unspilled tears. Peter wasn't surprised the young man was still working so hard at holding himself together. That's what Neal Caffrey did, after all, even when everything was falling apart around him. Maybe especially then.

But Neal's eyes were still locked with Peter's, open and honest, no more evasion. "None of this was your fault, you know."

Peter gave a lazy shrug. "We might have to agree to disagree. Besides, isn't that my line?"

Conjuring up another of those genuine smiles, Neal said, "As long as I've been denying your litany of accusations, do you really think I'd let you slide if you needed to take the blame for something?"

The teasing came out a little flat, without most of the charm Neal usually delivered, but Peter chuckled anyway, relieved that the kid was alert enough to even try playing word games again. "Smartass," he muttered. The barest twinkle in Neal's eyes was icing on the cake.

There was another moment of silence then, more comfortable than any of the others had been today, so Peter took another chance. He gestured again at the waiting duffel bag. "Mozzie packed some things for you, if . . ."

There was no hesitation in Neal's answering nod. "Let me get my shoes."

00000

"I hope Elizabeth doesn't make me cry," Neal said as they started across the Brooklyn Bridge.

It had been a quiet drive, they'd even gotten out ahead of most of the traffic, which Neal counted as a blessing for many reasons, not the least of which was that Peter and rush hour traffic was a scary combination on the best of days, and today certainly was not that.

He'd actually thought, maybe even hoped, that he'd fall asleep again once they got under way, but he felt amped up, like a thin current of electricity was running through him, keeping him on edge. He hoped he wouldn't regret making the trip to Brooklyn.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, you know," Peter answered.

"Of course not. But I am already pretty wiped out, and I think every emotion imaginable is waiting right under the surface, ready to make me fall apart. I think I won't stand a chance with her; she's too nice to me." He was vaguely aware that was not the sort of thing a con man should admit to a fed, no matter what the circumstances, but even with an undercurrent of electricity, he was too damn tired for secrets. He tried not to think about what Mozzie would have to say about that.

"I've told her that a time or two myself."

"Ha ha. You're all heart."

Peter smirked a little, but what he said was, "I'll tell her to go easy on you tonight. But you know she's at least going to hug you, so you might want to do whatever it is you con men do to get ready for something like that." His expression sobered.

"Neal, she's probably going to thank you."

Neal groaned and turned to watch the river passing underneath them, wide and seemingly free, but pushing inexorably toward its destination, with no real option to do otherwise—at least, not without violent upheaval. He didn't really want to think about that, so he closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the seat. He felt when they exited the bridge and Peter began winding his way through the surface streets toward home.

Home. That was another thing Neal didn't really want to dwell on too much, that in times of turmoil, when he thought of home, it was the Burke's house in Brooklyn that came to mind rather than his own apartment in Manhattan. He wasn't sure when that had become the case, but it was another thing he figured no self-respecting con would admit.

And he sure as hell didn't want to think about anyone thanking him for what he'd done. Of course, he could understand the reasoning; he had saved Peter's life, after all, and naturally there were people who would be grateful for that, himself included. But the idea of someone being grateful for the means necessary to achieve that end—especially someone as good and merciful as Elizabeth Burke—was almost enough to make him physically ill. He squeezed his eyes shut a little tighter.

He was glad Peter had followed his lead and let the silence linger, but after a while, Neal spoke again, hesitantly. "Peter?"

"Hmm?"

"Does it get easier?" Even with his eyes closed, he could feel the weight of the answering stare. "Keep your eyes on the road."

Peter didn't even bother trying to defend his driving. "Um, easier?"

There was a pause, and Neal held his breath. He wasn't used to uncertainty from Peter, probably any more than Peter was used to it from him.

"Do you mean, like . . . to do it again?"

Neal's eyes flew open as he bolted upright and shook his head emphatically. "God, no!" That moved right to the top of the list of things he definitely did not want to think about. Ever.

"No. I mean like, just living with it."

"Oh. Well." Peter seemed to be trying to choose his words carefully. "I guess. I probably wouldn't have ever thought of it as easier, since there's nothing particularly easy about it at all, but you do reach the point where it's not all-consuming. You learn how to kind of file it away. The nightmares stop."

"Nightmares?"

"Sorry."

Staring straight ahead, Neal huffed out a heavy sigh. "I guess I should've figured that." He rubbed at the back of his neck, suddenly grateful his body hadn't let him go back to sleep, and wondered if he'd be able to stay awake tonight.

"At the hospital," he continued, "they told me I should talk to someone."

"It's probably a good idea," Peter agreed. "It's required for agents after we—after. I can set you up with someone, if you want."

"I'm not an agent," Neal pointed out. "Not even an employee."

"Believe me, it won't be a problem."

Neal nodded. "I'll think about it. But what I was really thinking was . . . well, it's just that . . ."

He finally turned toward the other man, but then immediately lowered his eyes and stared at his own intertwined fingers. "It's just that you've been through it, and I trust you to tell me the truth about things, so I was wondering if it would be okay if we . . . I mean, if you wouldn't mind . . ." He shook his head in frustration. "If it wouldn't seem weird to you," he finally finished. He hoped Peter wouldn't point out the obvious flaw in his plan—that it would be difficult for them to talk about the shooting if Neal couldn't even manage to ask if they could talk about it.

But Peter didn't point out his flaws; instead, he smiled. It was the small, surprised smile he wore when Neal caught him off guard, but in a good way; the one that said, 'way to go, partner,' without ever saying a word. The smile that always made Neal feel like everything would be okay.

"Of course. I still think it might be a good idea for you to talk to a professional, too, but you can always talk to me, Neal, about anything."

He leaned his head back again, but this time Neal didn't close his eyes. "Thanks, Peter. Maybe not right away; I think I need to just . . . process things for a while. But I appreciate knowing I can come to you."

He stared at the roof of the car, deliberately trying to ignore all the things he didn't want to think about.

He thought instead about the quick, warm pat on his knee and Peter's simple answer of, "Whenever you're ready."

He thought of the way Peter had tried so hard to follow all his tedious regulations today—right up until the moment those regulations truly hurt his partner.

Of Peter's subtle but clear promise to do more than ignore regulations to ensure his partner wouldn't go back to prison.

Of the way Peter seemed to want to keep him close today, maybe as much as Neal wanted to be kept.

He thought of Elizabeth waiting to smother her husband with relieved hugs and unquestioning love and how she'd be sure to include him in that, too. How they'd let him lounge around with them all weekend if he wanted, laughing or crying, or whatever he needed to do, and never once blame him or ask for anything in return.

He thought of all the things he'd saved today with a single, horrifying action, and wished he could think of them without thinking of the horrifying action, too.

But it didn't work that way, and Neal knew it. He thought it possible he would never have another day in his life that he didn't think about what he'd had to do.

Another day? Hell, he'd be glad to get through an hour.

As the road hummed under them, Neal thought suddenly of his night of immunity. Peter had only issued one qualification: 'Did you kill anybody?'

He swallowed hard, feeling bile rise as he realized he'd never be able to answer that question the same way again.

It's not the same, he thought.

But another memory flashed to the forefront of his mind. The Russian Heritage Museum and another gun in his hand. Peter was there, too. Peter was always there.

'If you pull that trigger, you will regret it for the rest of your life.' And then, 'This isn't who you are.'

Was that even true anymore? If Peter found him tomorrow in another museum with another gun, would he be as confident that Neal wouldn't pull the trigger? And if Peter didn't believe in him, how would he ever believe in himself?

It's not the same, his mind insisted again. And, of course, it wasn't, but he couldn't quite convince himself that Peter's opinion of him wouldn't change as surely as his own had.

Neal thought that eventually he could probably learn to live with just about anything, but if it turned out that he had to get through this alone, if he'd done this horrible thing and lost Peter anyway, if it was all for nothing . . .

Except then he realized that it wasn't for nothing; it couldn't be. Because at the end of the day, Peter was going home to Elizabeth. A little worse for wear maybe, but alive, and no matter what happened beyond that, or what his own consequences might be, Neal knew that was justification enough. It had to be. In fact, he even thought maybe . . .

No. Neal shut down that train of thought with a vengeance. How was he supposed to reconcile the person he'd always been with the person he'd become the instant he'd pulled that trigger?

He squeezed his eyes shut and refused to let even a single tear slip past. This was not the way this was supposed to go.

"You okay over there?"

The gentle question was almost Neal's undoing, but he bit back the cry that threatened to escape, tightened his jaw, and gave an answering grunt he hoped was generic enough not to count as a lie.

"Neal? Do I need to pull over?"

Confusion cut through the rising panic and he turned a glare on Peter. "What? No. Why?"

Despite the denial, Peter rolled down the passenger window a bit. "You're looking a little green around the gills."

Neal was surprised to find that the fresh air actually helped; he must be in worse shape than he thought. He wasn't particularly surprised to find that Peter understood that more than he did himself.

"Thanks," he muttered thickly. "That is better." He lowered the window a little further and leaned sideways toward the opening, breathing deeply in the icy air.

"You're going to get through this, you know," Peter said after a moment, with the same painful gentleness. "I know you're not sure of that right now, but I am."

"You don't know that," Neal objected. "You don't know me, not anymore." And though he tried to inject his words with all the harsh uncertainty he was feeling, the rushing wind must have carried away the anger and all that was left was the sound of quiet despair.

He waited for Peter to yell, or at least grumble, the way the man always did when Neal scared him, some strange combination of argument and reassurance. Instead, Peter snorted.

Given the gravity of the day's events, Neal thought that might be a little insensitive, but at least it gave him the chance to try to wrap himself in a more appropriate bluster.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded hotly.

But Peter seemed to have at least enough respect for the day's gravity that he wouldn't be baited into one of their typical nonsensical arguments. His eyes were filled with concern and his voice with warmth when he said, "It means I still know you, Neal, even if you might wish I didn't."

Neal wasn't sure what to say to that, so he let the silence stretch until Peter crowed out an excited, "Aha!" at finding a parking spot only a few houses down from his own.

But neither of them moved to exit the car once they were parked. Neal, because he was debating whether he would do what he wanted to do (go inside and soak up whatever warmth and friendship he could until the inevitable moment Peter realized the truth about his partner), or what he should do (grab a cab back home and leave Peter and Elizabeth to their reunion and the Caffrey-free life they were entitled to). And Peter—well, as much as he hated to admit it, Neal had never been able to read Peter as well as the agent could read him, but he figured the guy was probably just trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

The silence hung heavily over them once again until Peter finally twisted around in the seat and faced the passenger side. "I might know you, Neal, but I'm not a mind reader. Please tell me what you're thinking." Still so damnably kind.

"You say that like it's a simple thing."

The agent smiled slightly. "I would never assume that whatever's going on in that brain of yours is simple."

The corner of Neal's lip twitched upward as he shook his head ruefully, but he sobered before it could become a full smile. "What I'm thinking scares me, Peter," he whispered. "I didn't want to do it, but . . ." He took a breath. "You remember with Fowler? What you said?"

"This is nothing like that," Peter told him firmly.

"You said I'd regret it for the rest of my life," Neal said, as if Peter hadn't spoken.

"Listen to me: this is not that. No one is blaming you; no one is judging you."

Neal's breath hitched as he wondered—not for the first time—how Peter could always manage to cut straight to the heart of his deepest fears. "Maybe they should be," he said darkly. "Maybe you should be."

"Neal, I—"

"You said I wasn't a killer!" Neal cried out suddenly, jabbing an accusing finger toward Peter. "You were wrong!"

"That's not what I—"

"No!" Neal batted away Peter's hands that were reaching out to soothe him. His face contorted as he continued to shout.

"No! You said that wasn't me and I believed you, but you were wrong! You were wrong, Peter! You know why? Because I don't regret it! It's the worst goddamned thing I've ever done, and I'm not even sorry! If I go back to prison, or you and Elizabeth hate me, or anything else, it doesn't matter."

Neal's eyes were wide and frantic, glistening again with tears, his voice growing rough and grating as he ranted at his partner, willing him to understand.

"It doesn't matter. Because I killed someone and I'm not sorry. I'm a killer, Peter; a killer, and I'm not sorry! I'm not sorry, and I would do it again!"

Neal crumpled with a tortured sob, falling forward awkwardly across the small space, and finally allowing Peter's arms to encircle him.

"God, Peter, I would do it again," he choked out, ignoring the agent's quiet words of comfort. "I killed someone, and I would do it again. What does that say about me? What does that make me?"

"It makes you a friend," Peter answered softly as he rubbed calming circles across the younger man's back. "It makes you a good friend. And the best damn partner I've ever had."

"But—" Neal pushed himself away, upright again if still shaky. "But you said—I thought—"

"Thought what, Neal?" Peter interrupted gently. "That I'd blame you? Hate you? That Elizabeth would hate you? I don't hate you, Neal; I'm grateful to you. You saved my life. I know what it cost you to pull that trigger, but you saved my life. And your own, in case you've forgotten. I'm more grateful for that than you could possibly know. And I will say this as many times as you need to hear it: you didn't do anything wrong."

He sat quietly for a long, long moment, getting his breathing under control, drying his eyes, trying to understand—trying to accept—the words Peter was saying. But Peter seemed to read his uncertainty as easily as he read so many other things.

"I want to ask you a question," the older man said, just a hint of challenge in his tone.

Neal doubted if he was up to any sort of brain teaser at the moment, but he assumed Peter had some kind of point to make, so he just said, "Okay."

"Do you think I regret shooting Vincent Adler?"

"What?" That was a more difficult question than Neal had anticipated.

But Peter's eyes didn't waver, held Neal's gaze even when it became uncomfortable. "You heard me."

But when Neal still didn't answer, Peter huffed out an exasperated sigh. "Jesus, Neal, the answer is no."

"You were pretty mad at me back then," Neal said softly.

"Mad at—?" Peter bit off his response with a frustrated shake of his head. "Okay, well, someday we're gonna have to have a conversation about how being mad at you isn't even close to the same thing as being sorry I stopped someone from killing you, but for right now, let me ask you another question.

"Do you think Adler would have killed you if I hadn't been there?"

"Yes."

"Still, do you think I wanted to shoot him?"

"No, but—"

Peter held up a warning finger. "Did you hate me for doing it? Blame me for not finding another way?"

"Of course not!"

"Then why is it different for you?"

Peter leaned back a little then, arms folded across his chest and looking decidedly satisfied that he'd made his point.

"Because you're . . ." Neal gestured vaguely at the older man, thinking he'd been less up to this than he'd even known.

"An agent?" Peter guessed.

But Neal shook his head; he knew that wasn't the reason. "No. Because you're . . . you're . . ." He racked his brain, considering and discarding ideas, then finally latched onto the one that felt right. "Because you're good."

"Oh, Neal. That's . . ." Peter shook his head sadly and dragged a hand down his face, suddenly looking as wholly spent as Neal felt.

"It's true," Neal insisted. "No one's ever going to question your motives, Peter; why would they? And you don't ever have to worry that one single action is the final straw that's going to push you over to the dark side forever. Your actions are good, Peter, because you're good."

Holding up a palm, Peter said, "I'm going to stop you right there before you start trying to convince me of the opposite corollary for yourself." Neal just shrugged.

"You've had a rough week," Peter went on, "and a total shit day, so I'm going to assume that's why that brilliant brain of yours isn't quite up to snuff right now."

"I'm not making excuses," Neal told him.

"Which is already a pretty good indication something's off-kilter."

Neal rolled his eyes and snuffled just a little. "If this is going to be a pep talk, you might need better material."

"My material's fine. Now, listen. Let's say I grant your premise that I'm a paragon of decency and moral fortitude—"

"I didn't say that."

Peter arched an eyebrow and Neal muttered, "But it's probably accurate," and waved a hand for him to continue.

"Assuming that's the case," Peter continued, "there's a flaw in your logic."

Neal didn't really want to be led so easily into their comfortable give and take, but he also didn't really have the strength to resist it. Besides, it felt good, even if he knew it couldn't last. "Do tell."

Peter didn't answer right away, building the anticipation, and Neal realized he shouldn't have taught the guy so much about milking a moment.

"It's simple, really," Peter finally said smugly, "surprised you overlooked it." His sincere brown eyes looked fondly at the younger man, and then he smiled.

"I chose you."

Neal sucked in a sharp breath, unprepared for the flood of emotions caused by Peter's simple words. Was it really possible that he could be forgiven? Or even that there was nothing to be forgiven? Was it possible that he hadn't actually ruined everything?

"Peter. What do—"

"Stop talking, Neal." Peter leaned forward and grabbed Neal's wrists, stilling his hands from nervous movement. Then he looked at Neal again, mumbled, "Oh, c'mere," and pulled the young man into another brief, clumsy embrace.

Peter grinned a little bit sheepishly as they separated. "You know, just a few hours ago, when I was actually worried that you were too quiet, I promised myself I'd never try to shut you up again. Leave it to the Caffrey mouth to change my mind about that before the day was through.

"Now, let me say this again: you didn't do anything wrong today. I know it feels wrong, feels mixed up and you don't know what to think, and this roller coaster of emotions that you've been feeling might get worse before it gets better, but it will get better. And until it does, I'm going to be right by your side, okay? Me and El both. Whatever you need for as long as you need it, understand? I just need one thing from you in return."

Blue eyes widened in surprise. He hadn't expected Peter to ask for anything in exchange for help. He didn't think he had much to offer at the moment, but he'd try. "Okay."

"You have to quit trying to push me away and do this on your own. You have to believe me when I tell you that we are okay."

The swell of emotion washed over him again, threatening another breakdown for an entirely different reason. He lowered his eyes, blinking them rapidly, unwilling to lose control again. He swallowed down the uncharacteristic words of gratitude that wanted to flow through his lips, refused to give voice to the almost manic laughter he could feel bubbling up inside him.

Neal let himself take about thirty seconds to feel the warmth of—the truth of—Peter's friendship, then raised his head again, a small smile on his face. "That's two things," he pointed out.

Peter's eyes swept over him, clearly assessing. He must've been okay with whatever he saw, because he grinned, giving a shrug. "Handler's prerogative. Live with it."

Neal's smile spread. "Bossy. But you still make a good deal." He gestured toward the windshield, down the block. "Can we go ho—inside now?"

With a chuckle, Peter reached out quickly and ruffled Neal's hair. "Yeah, partner, we can go."

Still smiling, Neal followed Peter down the street and up the steps to the warmly lit house, where Elizabeth threw open the door and welcomed them home.

~END~


Thanks bunches for taking the time to read, and I'd love to know what you thought!