Disclaimer: Not mine.
A/N: I wrote this for sendintheclowns, who is celebrating her birthday today (well, technically tomorrow!) :) As she puts up with me almost every day, I figured this fic was the least I could do in return. Trust me when I say she deserves SO much more. It is a departure from our usual Sam and Dean stuff, but I do think Neal and Peter are well worth the jaunt. Much thanks to geminigrl11 for the beta.
Summary: Neal really didn't like guns. Needless to say, bullets weren't his friends either.
Neal Caffrey wasn't exactly a careful criminal. Well, in some ways he was. After all, he could spend weeks planning a heist, put months into carefully planning a scheme, and he downright relished the chance to practice precision work by reproducing fine artwork or money. These were all things that required a certain amount of planning and care, all of which Neal had generally excelled at.
But, in other ways, being careful just wasn't his thing. He liked to live situations as they happened, let plans evolve on the fly. The groundwork was the tedious stuff; it was going live on the con that made him feel alive. And, overall, there was no denying it: such a live and let live attitude had served him well. Except, of course, the times he got caught.
Which, to be fair, Peter had nabbed him once. The second time, Neal had given up. There was a difference--a matter of choice.
Life was full of choices. It was what made it interesting. It was what made a con exciting. Trying to guess how one line would lead to the next.
Neal was usually pretty good at estimating the endgame. He was usually even better at making sure he came out on top.
So he knew that the guy was going to pull the trigger. Which meant that he had plenty of time to move himself clear of the path.
But his movement would leave Peter vulnerable. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he just did--one of them was going to get shot.
If it were Peter, it would get complicated. Neal wasn't sure what the FBI would try to pin on him, much less how much of his account they'd believed. It was probably even possible that they'd link him to it somehow, which would leave him facing prison with an even darker blemish on his less-than-clean record.
And even if not, Peter out of commission meant that he was out of commission. No Peter, no work release. Neal was under no delusions to the contrary.
But was it worth a bullet? Neal really didn't like guns. Needless to say, bullets weren't his friends either.
But it wasn't about that. It was, but not completely. No, the deciding factor was that Peter had taken a chance on him. He'd taken a chance and Neal hadn't always lived up to it, but Neal owed him something in return.
But this? His life? This wasn't even the guy they were after--this was all right place, wrong time, and the whole nine yards. Perhaps karma's revenge for his criminal ways, but this was going to go south for no reason at all other than damn bad luck.
Still, sometimes the right thing was the hardest thing, and it took a leap of faith. Peter had trusted him, not completely and not always, but enough. Neal had acquaintances aplenty and secret admirers in excess, but the fact was, he could count the people he trusted on one hand. Mozzie, and Kate...
Just like that, the decision was made. One moment, one decision, and the entire line of events changed, just like that.
The gun fired. Neal went left and Peter yelled out.
Another shot fired, and Neal went down.
One more moment, gone.
Neal felt his heard thud loudly in his chest, echoing in his ears.
One more moment, slipping away.
Then, there was pain. Blinding and encompassing, it radiated out from his chest, blossoming with vigor throughout every synapse of his body.
Then, there was blood. Red and thick, soaking through the shirt of June's deceased husband. It was a quality fabric, fine design, and it was ruined now, along with the vest and his undershirt. At least his hat was safe. Where was his hat?
Then, there was Peter. Hovering over him, fingers fluttering with uncharacteristic uncertainty. His face was drawn and pale, mouth stammering with words Neal couldn't hear.
Then, there was sound.
"Hang on, hang on," Peter muttered, fumbling for his phone. "Damn it, damn it, damn it."
It was just like Peter to state the obvious. To give pointless orders. It was an issue of control, and Peter liked control.
So did Neal. He liked knowing where things would end up, how things would resolve. He liked knowing where he would be on the other end.
This time, he didn't know.
He didn't know.
Pain flared anew and Neal blinked in surprise, gasping as he focused on Peter. The agent was still hovering over him, but his hands were pressed down hard upon Neal's chest, face hardened against the fear in his eyes.
Their eyes met, and Peter's countenance wavered. "You're going to be okay," he said. "Neal, you're going to be okay."
Peter was a bad liar. He never sold it in his eyes. He didn't know how to believe his own fabrications, how to live them with enough veracity.
Neal couldn't help it--he laughed. Peter was a horrible liar sometimes and Neal was bleeding to death on the ground of a scummy warehouse in an FBI bust gone wrong. He'd done everything right, he'd taken care of all the details, and here he was.
At least he was earning his keep this week.
Then again, hospitals were another type of prison. Death was being locked away without a key. Solitary isolation for all eternity.
"Neal, you have to stay awake for me, okay? Help is on the way, but stay awake."
Peter was a bad liar, but his promises were always real.
The pain surged again and Neal could not keep himself from convulsing. Bile rose in his throat, and he choking. Somewhere, Peter swore, and Neal found himself on his side, spitting vomit and blood.
When he was on his back again, breathing was suddenly a struggle, and each beat of his heart seemed to throb with a tentative finality that scared him.
No, terrified him.
Feeling hysterical, he laughed again.
Peter's brow creased. "Something funny about this, Caffrey?"
He laughed again, swallowing painfully. "Ten years in the game," he muttered. "Ten years in the game and not a scratch. Ten weeks with you and I'm bleeding out."
Peter's mouth flattened. "You're going to be fine, Neal," he said. "Trust me."
Neal shook his head, licking his lips. "You don't trust me."
"You're a liar and a thief," Peter said. "I don't have much choice."
"We always have a choice," Neal said. His eyes drifted and his mind felt hazy. "We always have a choice."
Peter shook him. "Hey," he said. "Stay awake."
Neal blinked lazily, his mind slipping further as his body went numb. "I really hate guns," he murmured.
Peter's head dropped for a moment, before he nodded, looking back at Neal with pained resolve. "Me, too," he said. "Me, too."
There was always a choice, but sometimes it wasn't his to make. So when his vision dimmed and his consciousness slipped away, there was nothing Neal could do but follow into oblivion.
The damn kid didn't even like guns. Best damn poker face in the world until he was staring down the barrel of a gun, and then the kid always lost his cool. Without fail. It was one of the few things that could bring Neal Caffrey from the depths of his fantasies into the real world.
Because no one could sweet talk their way out of a bullet. It was damn near impossible to con sheer metal and speed as it ripped through the body.
Peter had fired his gun before, sometimes on cases. He was a good shot and he was a good agent, and he wasn't scared of guns. But he knew what they could do, and he knew that he didn't want to be on the wrong side of one. His worst fear wasn't about taking one in the line of duty, but about the phone call El would get if he did.
At least that was what he had thought.
Until he was kneeling in the back of a warehouse with Neal Caffrey's blood on his hands.
Peter had always known that when push came to shove, he'd be willing to take a bullet. For his country, for the FBI, for his colleagues. Even for Neal Caffrey.
Turned out, Neal Caffrey would take a bullet for him.
And Peter didn't know what to do with that--except to make it right. That was what he did. He solved things. Closed cases. He'd arrested Neal Caffrey and put him behind bars, but this part of the story wasn't over yet. He didn't know how it ended.
He just knew he didn't want it to end like this. In a rundown warehouse out in Queens and a shooter that wasn't the one they were after and a bullet meant for him.
Peter swallowed hard, bearing down on the wound. It was low in the chest, and he knew it had nicked a lung from placement alone. He couldn't be sure what other damage had been incurred, but there was blood smeared Neal's lips, which was indicative of a severe internal bleed. Maybe a ruptured spleen. It was probably high enough to avoid the intestines.
He gritted his teeth. The medical rundown didn't matter. What mattered was that back up got there--and quickly.
"Neal," he called again, but he knew it was futile. The younger man was limp on the ground, head lolling to the side. If the pain hadn't taken him under, the blood loss had surely done the trick. Neal wouldn't be waking up. Not without some fluids and probably a transfusion or two. Not to mention that pesky little hole in his lung that needed to be sealed up.
Peter's heart hammered in his ears. He couldn't have called more than three minutes ago. Local ambulance and police support would be first--the FBI would take longer to trickle in.
He looked back at Neal, taking in the milky complexion, the scruff on his cheeks standing out stark against it.
He didn't need the FBI right now. He just needed an ambulance.
"Come on," he said under his breath. "Stay with me, stay with me."
In everything, Neal hadn't let him down yet. Sure, he'd taken some chances that Peter hadn't approved of and he'd tested the waters more than he should, but Neal had never let him down when it mattered. He'd helped solve cases. He'd brought bad guys to justice. He'd done research, gone undercover, risked his life.
Hell, he'd been Peter's lunch buddy. He'd been a guest in Peter's home. Elizabeth liked him.
It was a working arrangement, Peter knew that. If Neal solved cases for the FBI, he could stay out of jail. It was mutually beneficial to both parties, but this was Neal's debt to society. His debt for the crimes he'd committed. White collar crimes or not, a criminal was still a criminal. A felon was still a felon.
No matter how good he was at solving crimes. No matter how many others he brought to justice. No matter how many little bits of advice he offered. No matter how many conversations over lunch they'd had.
Peter's arms felt numb from the exertion, but he didn't dare let up. The blood soaked enough as it was--all over Neal's shirt and vest, staining the top of his perfectly tailored pants.
Neal could make just about anything happen with a few well-placed half truths and a whole lot of charm.
Part of Peter wanted to hate Neal for it. Resent him. Yet, in the end, it was impossible. Sure, Neal could be like a child--selfish and irresponsible with no sense of consequence.
But his heart was in the right place. Neal loved things that were beautiful. He appreciated the good in things. He was fascinated with people for the complex beings that they were. He looked at a world and saw possibility. He didn't always go about it the right way, but there was something respectable about that. Something enviable.
A common criminal would have given Peter up to the gunman. A hardened white collar felon would have pushed Peter into the path of the speeding bullet. But Neal Caffrey had taken the bullet for him. Not like a criminal. Not like a convict. Not even like a responsibility. Like a partner.
Like a friend.
Peter let out a hard breath, his chest feeling tight. He let his eyes linger on Neal's face again and forced himself to pull it together. "You stay with me, okay?" he said purposefully. "I need you to with stay me. I'm not going anywhere, so neither can you. Not until I say so."
His voice tapered off and he refused to lessen the pressure. His hands were slick with blood and Neal's color was a sickly gray--but Peter would hold on.
Somewhere, Peter heard sirens, and relief rushed over him.
"Just a little longer," Peter said, and he didn't know if he was talking to himself or to Neal. In the end, it didn't matter. "Just a little longer."
The pitch of the sirens peaked, and Peter could hear the sound of officers unloading. This was a crime scene, after all. Basic safety precautions had to be taken--the scene had to be secured.
Normally, Peter would understand.
Normally, Peter wasn't pressing down on a gushing chest wound while Neal Caffrey bled to death on the floor of a rundown warehouse from a bullet wound meant for Peter.
"Hey!" he screamed. "We're in here!"
He couldn't be sure if they heard him or not, but getting up to check was simply not an option. Neal would need help, that was sure, and probably a lot more than a simple first aid check. Whether or not Neal would be able to survive the internal damage wasn't an issue yet. The only thing Peter could focus on was keeping him alive long enough to give him a fighting chance.
Then, the sound of footsteps. Then, voices.
And the entire scene came alive.
A pair of uniforms were the first to arrive, guns drawn, scoping out the area. They were joined by another pair, also armed, before the paramedics swooped in.
It was fast and efficient work, as they pulled Peter aside and set to assessing Neal. From a distance, it looked worse than it had before. The sheer scope of the blood was nauseating, and the stillness of Neal's body was unnerving. He looked dead.
But the paramedics were dogged in their pursuit, cutting away at Neal's clothes, inserting IVs and sliding a tube down Neal's throat so smoothly that it almost looked natural.
Almost, but not quite.
With a grace that belied the seriousness of the situation, they rolled Neal onto a backboard, hoisting him onto the gurney. Peter was too numb to react and almost flinched when one of the medics turned to him.
"Excuse me, sir," the medic said. "Are you riding with your partner?"
It gave Peter pause, to hear it out loud. He looked to Neal, strapped to the gurney.
Then, hesitations forgotten, he nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I am."
"Get in then," he said. "And stay out of the way."
Without anymore prodding, Peter climbed on, sliding along the side and settling in a seat by Neal's side. The other medic situated himself across from him, immediately checking Neal's vitals once again. The door closed and Peter heard the engine start but his eyes didn't leave Neal when the ambulance roared to life, sirens blaring, as it headed to the hospital.
He called work first.
He didn't doubt that Hughes had already been alerted and that Jones already had a team scoping out the warehouse for himself. Peter had provided a rough description of the assailant, so he figured a manhunt was underway, but it didn't much concern him.
The response had been lackluster overall, though. No one liked the paperwork involved with shootings, and the fact that Neal wasn't actually an agent would only make things complicated. Peter got the distinct sense that Hughes wasn't so much worried about Neal's well being as he was any liability issues this could bring up.
When he'd been asked to come back in to clean up the mess, Peter had flatly refused and hung up before the request became an order.
Then he'd called Elizabeth.
He hadn't been able to say much of anything to her, but at the words Neal and shot and hospital, she had quickly said she'd be right there.
That was something he loved about El. She knew him, inside and out. She knew what he was trying to say even when the words wouldn't come out. She knew what he needed even when he didn't have a clue.
Which would be good right about then, because Peter had no idea what he was doing.
Yes, he was waiting in a waiting room, which was what people did in hospitals. Injury and illness were great equalizers, and it didn't matter if you were a cop, a crook, or a common man, hospitals put them all in the same place.
He'd gotten into the ER, however briefly. He was there long enough to tell them Neal's name and age, explaining how the wound had happened as they started cutting away Neal's clothes.
He'd seen Neal at his worst--all through the trial and even in prison--but seeing the kid so coldly exposed was harder than he would have expected. Amid all of that, Neal had just looked young and lost.
Then the doctor had asked about the anklet, before promptly ordering it cut off for the CT scan.
Peter had watched the piece of metal fall off, discarded, and Neal Caffrey became as free as he had been in over four years.
Limp, pale, bloody, with a tube down his throat.
Then an alarm had sounded and Peter had been summarily pushed out the door and left to wait.
And wait he did.
Alone in a waiting room, with nothing but his doubts to keep him company.
Had he properly secured the warehouse?
Should Neal have been along for that part of the investigation?
Was he wrong to let Neal out under these conditions at all?
Should he have pulled his gun sooner?
The answers were straightforward and to the point: it had been a routine sweep. The case had been a small-scale art smuggling ring, and after a piece had turned up linked to a employee of the warehouse, they'd secured permission from the owner to do a basic search, to see if there was anything worth finding. The owner had been cooperative and the search had been mostly a bust until Neal opened that back closet.
One turn of the knob and the entire thing was thrown on its head. Not the case, because that was still at a dead end. No, because of all the warehouses to pick, they picked one with a nervous petty theft. A nobody. Some strung out kid who had been trying to do a little looting to buy his next fix.
Armed, of course. And before Peter could get his gun out, the gun had been shaking between them both.
Peter had been trained in negotiations. He thought he could talk him down. He thought going for his piece would be just end badly.
It ended badly anyway, with Neal in surgery and Peter in a waiting room, still covered with blood.
He looked up, more surprised than he should have been to see his wife.
She took the seat next to him, putting an arm around him. "Are you okay?" she asked. "The blood--"
Peter looked down at his hands, catching a glimpse of his shirt. He winced a little, but shook his head. "It's not mine," he told her hollowly.
He nodded, his throat feeling tight.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?" she asked.
It was a simple question, yet Peter found himself struggling with the words. "It was a fluke," he said finally. "We were just making a routine stop. We hadn't even narrowed in our suspect yet."
"But he found you?" she asked gently. She was good at this kind of thing--the supportive, nurturing thing. It was one of the reasons why he'd married her. She could make him talk without feeling threatened. She could get him to open up when he didn't know what to say.
"No," Peter said. "It was just..." He trailed off with a tired laugh. He ran a hand through his hair. "It was a kid. Some--junkie who had stake the warehouse for some easy money. Neal opened the wrong door and there was nothing I could do."
"Honey, this isn't your fault."
He swallowed hard, lifting his eyes to meet hers again. Her words were platitudes, but she meant them. That mattered. That mattered a lot.
But it wasn't enough to keep the truth from being so harsh. "He was aiming at me."
At that, Elizabeth paused, her hand stilling on his back. "What?" she asked.
He took a steadying breath and held her gaze grimly. "The guy was taking a shot at me."
Confusion flitted across her features. She cocked her head as she worked to make sense of that revelation. "But--Neal's the one who got shot."
Peter nodded. "He jumped in front of me."
She stared at him, her mouth open slightly. "He..."
Peter nodded with an air of resignation. "Neal jumped in front of me."
Her mouth closed, her lips thinning. "It was his choice," she said. Her hand retuned to his back. "Neal's always had a good heart, misguided as he's been a times."
Peter gave a groan, leaning forward and scrubbing his hair once again. "But he's my responsibility."
"He's a grown man."
He sat back and shook his head. "He's not a field agent," Peter said. "He's just a consultant."
"Who should be in prison," Elizabeth reminded him. "You're the one that gave him the second chance at life."
"Yeah, which got him shot," Peter said, cynicism sharp in his voice. "Some second chance."
Elizabeth drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Peter could see her mulling her thoughts, but she pursed her lips and sighed heavily. "So how is he?"
Peter glanced at the admitting desk, wishing he could have a definitive answer to that question. "They didn't tell me much," he admitted. "But--there was a lot of blood. That much blood is never a good thing, no matter where he was hit."
She nodded, her forehead creased with concern. "So they're, what--in surgery?"
Peter nodded, glancing at his watch. He had to clear a smudge of blood from its face to get a clear read on the time. "They took him up maybe forty minutes ago," he said. "Red line straight there."
"Okay, good," she said. "That's good. Neal will get the help he needs. He'll be okay."
It was a cliche he wanted to believe, but not even the sincerity in Elizabeth's face was enough. The painful denial simmered inside of him and he swallowed back his bitterness with effort. "What makes you so sure?"
Her lips quirked into a small smile. "Believing in something is better than nothing," she told him softly. "I know you have trust issues, Peter, but now, of all times, you have to let it go. For yourself. For Neal. Remember, you have that choice."
A choice for himself. For Neal.
He blew out a steady breath and lowered his head again. Elizabeth's arms encircled him tighter.
His doubts always got him far. They made him a good agent. They helped him catch bad guys.
His beliefs, when he held them, were steadfast and unquestionable. It was a world of black and white.
Until Neal Caffrey.
A white collar criminal with more black marks on his record than Peter could count who was all shades of gray.
He knew he couldn't always trust Neal to be honest. He certainly couldn't trust Neal to always be legal. But could he trust Neal to do the right thing? To be his partner?
To be his friend?
Elizabeth's hand soothed his back and he squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to hear the sound of the gun or see the blood on Neal's shirt.
He didn't know the answers to his questions, but he had to hope--he had to believe--that Neal would survive long enough for him to figure it out.
Neal Caffrey was running.
He was always running, even when he was standing still. Because moving your feet wasn't the only way to run.
Hell, it wasn't even the best way. Neal Caffrey could run a marathon and not even break a sweat, because he knew all the best escapes routes in his mind and could talk his way past security right to that finish line.
At least, he liked to think so.
Really, he was just good at running.
Running from the competition. Running from cops. Running from normal life and respectability and productive society.
Because Neal Caffrey didn't play by the rules. He sweet talked the rules into meeting his needs and ignored the parts that didn't apply to him.
He didn't want to be rich and famous. He just wanted to be happy and free. There was a world of things out there that were good and perfect and beautiful, but they were always out of reach. Always out of touch.
Life didn't have time for poor kids from the Middle-of-Nowhere, New York. As a child, he'd dreamed of becoming someone, something. But his grades were never good enough and his talents never mattered and Neal Caffrey, according to his teachers, his parents, and the world at large, was destined for mediocrity.
That was when Neal started running. When life was closing in on him from all sides, he did the only thing he could do, the only thing he was good at--he ran.
He'd run away a lot as a child. He'd camped out in his neighbor's attic for four days once, sneaking down when the old man went to work in the morning. He'd run away to a grocery store another time, living off their fresh produce until he got caught trying to start a fire and cook some SPAM. He even ran to the city once, and snuck into all the museums and discovered what art and beauty and life was all about.
This time, he just ran further and faster, back to the city, back to the life he wanted, until he ran into Kate.
Bonnie and Clyde, peas in a pod. What she had in class, he had in cons. He taught her to run and she taught him how to do it without rumpling his clothes. It was sex and money and art and thievery, but mostly it was love.
The road always ran out, and when Neal found the four walls closing in again, there was no place left to run. He secured what he could, hid the crimes they would never get him on, and accepted his four-year sentence with a cavalier smile and the hope that four years of standing still wouldn't be so bad.
Kate stood with him for almost four years, but he'd taught her to run better than he'd thought, and she did the one thing Neal didn't know how to recover from: she ran away from him.
So Neal ran again, but there was nowhere to go. But he remembered the tricky races of his youth and plotted a new course, straight through the FBI and Peter Burke.
It was a business arrangement, a new farce to hide behind, a new race to run in secret, but then--sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes, he had lunch with Peter and laughed about the Yankees. Sometimes, he came to the office in the morning and had a cup of coffee like he was a real person. Sometimes, he forgot about running, he forgot about Kate, he forgot that standing still was something he didn't know how to do until he realized he was doing it.
He could run from certain things, but other things he didn't want to. He wanted Kate, and he wanted freedom, but they weren't everything. Neal Caffrey had come up with a brilliant scheme to find his lost love and get himself out of prison and he'd screwed it up by planting his feet and refusing to move even when he should have bolted in the other direction.
He didn't like guns. They were vulgar and cheap. They required no finesse. A single shot, and the game was over. Neal liked his games with more nuance and less blood. It wasn't about the violence, it wasn't even about the loss of life: guns were cheats, pure and simple. Neal bent the rules and he ignored the rules, but he didn't cheat life like that. There was a cosmic order of things, a universal karma: what went around, came around, and a dog always returns to its vomit.
One good deed. One good moment. Neal stood still long enough to get himself shot, and now all he wanted was to run because he was scared. He didn't know what faced him. What heaven or what hell or what eternal slumber. Neal didn't long for what dreams might come on the other side--he still wanted the ones in the here and now.
So he ran. As far and as fast as he could.
Then, he looked back.
He looked back to the warehouse. He looked back on the guy who had shot him. He looked back on that moment, that split second decision. To run or stay. To save himself or to save Peter.
Peter wasn't a running kind of guy. Peter was the kind of guy who played by all the rules and lived a life of mediocrity to show for it.
But Peter had given him the chance. Peter had taken a chance on him. Peter had saw his fanciful flights and given him something worth living for again. Neal wouldn't have survived four years in prison without Kate.
Peter had saved his life.
Now, Neal had returned the favor.
And Neal Caffrey stopped. He could run forever like this. Run until everything caught up with him and he had no choice but to fall.
Or he could stand still and meet this all face on.
It was a scary prospect.
But he could do it.
Because Peter was there next to him. Not always willingly. But there.
The darkness grew around Neal, looming tall on every side. All his impulses screamed to run--far and fast--but he refused to acknowledge them.
For the first time in his life, Neal Caffrey stood still. Shaking and terrified, but not alone.
And he kept standing when the darkness overtook him and he trusted enough to surrender himself to it.
Four hours and twenty-nine minutes.
That was how long it took.
Two surgeons and three nurses, not counting the anesthesiologist and the recovery room nurses.
That was how many people it took.
Severe blood loss, a perforated lung, and a ruptured spleen.
That was how much Neal had endured.
Three blood transfusions, IV drugs to maintain overall volume, a chest tube, and a ventilator.
That was how Neal was staying alive.
And Peter and Elizabeth alone in a waiting room.
That was how many people were there that cared.
Peter rubbed a hand over his eyes and stifled a groan. It had been a long night. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he sighed. And it had just begun.
He turned his eyes back to Neal. The younger man had been transferred up to an ICU bed no more than thirty minutes ago. When the doctor had learned that Neal was actually a convict working under special conditions for the FBI, she'd consented to allow Peter access to the room, and had offered to post a security guard at the entrance of the ICU ward until proper FBI detailing could arrive.
Looking at Neal, he wondered why she'd thought it'd be necessary. In fact, it seemed downright ludicrous. Sure, in theory it was a sound decision, especially since Neal's anklet had been severed, but in practical application? More than slightly superfluous.
Neal wasn't going anywhere. If the IVs didn't slow him down, the heavy bandages under Neal's gown certainly would. Not to mention the damn tube down the kid's throat. Neal looked like death warmed over, not a flight risk.
Still, if it meant that he could be in here for Neal, then it was a taboo he'd let the unconscious man endure. After all, who else would show up?
Elizabeth, by default. She was there to support Peter primarily, but he knew his wife had a soft spot for Caffrey. But then again, Elizabeth had a soft spot for just about anyone, and Neal had enough of a puppy facade to make it worth her while.
Maybe June would come, though he figured Neal's benevolent landlady was too much of a socialite to be bothered with hospital visits. Mozzie would be there, no doubt, but Peter had no way of contacting Neal's friend. And, even if he did, that probably wasn't wise just yet. Though the other man seemed to keep his nose clean enough--his record was clear of convictions--he was involved in enough questionable operations that parading him in front of the FBI probably wouldn't be a good idea.
The last thing Peter needed was another reason to feel guilty. He'd already gotten Neal in the hospital; he didn't want to be responsible for Neal's best friend to end up on custody just because the FBI had their knickers in a twist.
And they were definitely going to have their knickers in a twist over this one. The response for any field operative getting wounded in the line of duty was extreme, but the paperwork on this one? The liability factors? Not to mention the possible spins in the media if they caught wind of this.
Hughes was going to be pissed. Peter was sort of surprised his boss hadn't stormed down here himself to insist Neal wake up and be okay or face prison time again.
With a sigh, he settled in a chair. Elizabeth had not been allowed back--not yet, anyway--and Peter felt too responsible to leave Neal by himself.
A guilty conscience only took him so far, though. He sucked at this bedside vigil thing.
It all made him nervous. The machines and equipment. The drugs and bags of blood. It was downright macabre if he thought about it, which he was really trying not to. The whole idea of it--that Neal's life was hinging on medical intervention--was downright unnerving.
What was he supposed to do, anyway? Pace back and forth? Look out the window? Sit at the bedside and stare?
None of those choices felt right, and most of them felt downright awkward. It didn't help that Peter was constantly afraid that he was going to trip and fall and disconnect something important.
He sighed, pushing to his feet again. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "Damn it, Neal," he muttered. "You really got yourself into a mess this time. I mean, sure, white collar crime wasn't smart, but this? The whole heroic bit? I'm not sure it suits you."
He paused, looking at the younger man again. Neal didn't move.
Not that Peter really expected him to--the whole gunshot and surgery thing made that kind of hard.
"Well, I'm not sure it suits me either," he groused, starting up his pacing again.
There was a knock at the door, and Peter turned with a jerk toward it. He saw Jones in the doorway.
"Hey," the younger agent said, slipping inside. His dark eyes passed over Neal for a moment. "So how is he?"
Peter shrugged a little. "Some damage to the lung and he lost his spleen. The doctors think if he can keep clear of any infection, he'll probably pull through, but it's going to be a haul. They're watching for more bleeds throughout the night."
Jones nodded a little. "Hell of a mess you two stumbled into."
"You're telling me," Peter said. "Did you catch the guy?"
"He ditched the gun in a dumpster a block from the warehouse. Apparently, he wasn't very subtle. Caught him trying to find some drugs less than a mile from the scene."
"He have a record?"
"Petty theft, a few drug possession charges," Jones said. "A notorious neighborhood junkie."
Peter just shook his head, laughing breathlessly. "All of this and we get taken down by a junkie," he said. He raised his eyebrows a little, giving Neal a brief glance. "Wrong place, wrong time."
"Hughes is just glad you didn't take the hit," Jones said.
Peter snorted bitterly. "Yeah, because having Caffrey take it is so much better."
Jones shrugged. "More paperwork maybe, but we can't afford to be down an agent," he said. "Which is why I'm here. Hughes wants you back at the office. He wants you to give your statement so we can wrap up the incident and file charges against the guy."
"What about Neal?"
"We've got a police detail from NYPD coming," Jones explained. "Two officers outside the doors at all times."
Peter made a face. "We can't just leave him here," he said.
"We'll use standard protocol," Jones said. "Once he's awake, we'll use cuffs."
Peter felt incredulity rise within him. "No, I mean--he shouldn't have to be alone," Peter said roughly. "He did just take a bullet for me."
Jones licked his lips, nodding patiently. "More reason you need to give your statement," he said. "I think Hughes wants to pick up on the art ring case as soon as possible and get it resolved."
Peter heard the logic in the statement. He understood the protocol.
But he could see the coldness of it. The pure disregard for Neal's life, for his personhood. Once a criminal, always a criminal. Neal Caffrey was a convicted felon who should be serving four years in a federal prison.
But Neal Caffrey was also Peter's partner--sometimes genius, sometimes naive, and he'd just saved Peter's life.
Peter turned away, feeling his frustrations rise. "So, what, we just leave him alone?" Peter asked. "Let him wake up alone and confused after saving my life?"
Jones actually looked surprised. "When we swept the warehouse, we came up with something," Jones said. "Another set of stolen paintings, back in the storage room where the perp was hiding. It's a huge break. Hughes thinks if we can push hard, we can catch these guys before they get spooked and move shop."
That was news he hadn't expected. "So the warehouse was relevant?"
"The base of operations," Jones confirmed.
Peter considered that, his eyes going to Neal again. Neal had picked the right door and the wrong door all at once.
"Which is why we need you to come back," Jones said.
A good agent would go back and do his duty.
A better agent would stick by his partner. No matter what.
Peter just shook his head. "I'm not going," he said. "You and Lauren can pick it up. Trail's hot, shouldn't be too hard."
"You've done all the background work."
"Yeah, and so has Neal," Peter pointed out.
"You know what I mean."
"What, that I'm more valuable than he is?"
"You're the lead agent," Jones pointed out.
"And my primary duty is to my men."
Jones opened his mouth and shut it abruptly. Then he leaned forward. "Look," he said. "I know you like Caffrey. I like him, too. No one wants to see him in here, but we have to remember that he's not an agent."
"So then tell me, Jones, what is he?" Peter asked, his voice low. He gestured toward Neal. "What is he?"
Jones glanced at him momentarily, his gaze sliding away. "That's not fair."
"No," Peter agreed shortly. "It's not."
Jones shifted uncomfortably for a moment, his face puckered with uncertainty. "Peter, I know you don't like it, but Hughes' orders are clear," Jones said, spreading his hands out in front of him. "You don't have a choice."
Peter laughed at that, hands still on his hips as he shook his head and looked at the floor. He thought about Neal lying on the ground of the warehouse bleeding out. He thought about Elizabeth in the waiting room with her hand on his back.
Lips quirked into a strained smile, Peter looked up at Jones. He shook his head lightly, letting his breath out evenly. "We always have a choice," he said.
Jones cocked his head at him, confused.
"Tell Hughes I'll be in when I'm in," he said. "Right now, I have someplace more important to be."
With that, he returned to Neal's bedside. Forcing numb legs to bend, he sat in the chair and fixed his eyes on Neal. The pale features, the equipment, the bandages: all of it. Took it in, studied it, knew it.
Behind him, he heard Jones sigh, his footfalls moving toward the door. The latch snicked as the door opened and Peter heard the faint squeak of metal as it fell shut again.
Alone again, Peter had to sigh, his shoulder slumping. He closed his eyes for a moment, wondering if he'd made the right choice at any point. If he'd been right to stay by Neal's bedside, if he'd been right to take Neal into the field with him. If he'd been right to let Neal out of prison and into his life.
Weary, he looked up again. "I'm going out on a limb for you," he said to the recumbent figure. He focused in on Neal's face, trying to remember the bright look of his blue eyes and the mischievous tilt of his smile. "You better not let me down this time."
He was alive.
The thought niggled at the edges of his consciousness, slipping in under the cloying blackness of his current existence.
At first, it was a reassuring thought, warming and scintillating. Alive meant that he still had choices. It meant that he still had chances. There was another day to live and breathe, to work and to discover, to find Kate all over again.
Then, awareness flooded over him, bringing a wave of pain and uncertainty that threatened to take him under again.
Alive, though. He clung to that, and let it buoy him toward the waking world, surfacing like a drowning man desperate for his first gulps of much needed air.
He broke the surface of unconscious, plunging himself into full awareness. The shock of it was blinding at first, then he choked on his own breath, dissolving into a fit of coughing that seemed to shake him to his very core.
Eyes burning, he tried to curl in on himself, but found himself immobilized. A gentle, steady hand was on his shoulder, pulling him back and supporting him.
Normally, Neal wasn't one for trust. He understood how the world thrived on lies and wasn't stupid enough to have faith blindly, at least not in mere mortals. There were things he could count on, but the innate honesty and goodness of people wasn't really it. His trust was hard to earn and he received it with even less ease. Except those few who proved themselves, like Moz or Kate or--
"Hey, easy," a voice said. It sounded tired and worn, but strong.
Peter Burke. FBI agent. The guy who had arrested him. Twice. The one who had let him out of jail on a work release. They shared cases and they shared lunches, but Peter was always quick to remind him of where he belonged and that that anklet was always strapped securely on.
Peter Burke, the guy by his side when he woke up.
Curling harder, Neal didn't want to deal with it. He didn't need to be reminded of just how much he'd screwed up by getting himself arrested--twice. Peter could save the reminders and the jokes and the cases and the threats that sometimes felt like blackmail.
"Come on, Neal," Peter said. "You're going to pull your stitches. Relax."
Stitches--would explain the pain. But it didn't explain what was wrong. Why he was here.
Which, where was here anyway?
The realization of his own vulnerability came to him with a start, and he unfurled enough to open his eyes.
Blinking, he struggled to focus. Four plan walls. Equipment. IV lines.
And Peter, leaning over him. No coat and tie. Shirt unbuttoned at the top and a small layer of stubble over his cheeks and chin.
A hospital, then.
And Peter was sitting at his bedside. From the looks of it, in full-on vigil mode. The kind reserved for family members and best friends, partners and, apparently, convicted felons.
For once, Neal was a bit dumbstruck.
Peter looked concerned. "Neal? Are you okay? Do you need me to call a doctor?"
He stared at Peter for a moment, then licked his lips. He opened his mouth, almost choking again at the pain in his throat.
Peter winced, one hand fluttering toward him before dropping awkwardly again. "Just--take it easy, okay? You had a tube down your throat for the better part of three days. The doctors just finally cleared you from ICU so I imagine things are still going to be a bit sore."
Neal's breath caught in his throat and he turned wide eyes back up to Peter. "Three days?" he croaked. "What's wrong with me?"
Peter wet his lips, scratching the back of his neck. He gave Neal a cautious look, hesitating slightly. "You don't remember?"
Neal had to think about that. He wasn't sure what he remembered--he hadn't grappled long enough with being alive and conscious to really ponder how he'd ended up here. But it was a good question, and Neal's mind worked to piece it together.
He remembered the case--a ring of art smugglers. With decidedly bad taste and sloppy handling all around, so it hadn't been all that fun. But they'd followed a lead to a warehouse. Nothing major, but some probable cause. They'd been searching for anything--something--and Neal had opened that back door and--
"I was shot," Neal said suddenly, the revelation coming with a horrifying clarity. "The guy in the warehouse. He shot me."
Peter nodded grimly. "Got you good, too," he said.
Neal looked down at his chest in wonder, feeling the weight of bandages and the itch of stitches for the first time. "How bad?"
Peter sighed. "Perforated lung. You lost your spleen. Some pretty bad blood loss. They had you out for three days, but they think you've turned a corner."
Neal's stomach roiled a bit. "I hate guns."
"Yeah," Peter said, a hint of dark humor in his voice. "I think I can agree with you on that one."
Neal shifted in the bed, trying to account for his body. The incision was a dull ache, which he figured was thanks to the meds in the IVs and he tried to remember what a spleen looked like, assuming he ever knew. He wondered what it was like living without one, and if he'd miss it somehow.
"So," Peter hedged. "Do you, uh, remember anything else?"
He couldn't remember what a spleen felt like, which was what really bothered him at the moment. He shook his head. "No, like what?"
Peter sat back, shrugging a little. "Nothing," he said. "Just--nothing."
Neal's focused shifted. Peter was lying--badly, at that. There was something else, something Peter wanted him to remember as much as he hoped that Neal wouldn't. "Something else I need to know about?" Neal asked.
Peter sighed. "No," he said. "I'm just...glad you're okay."
Neal's eyes narrowed. If Peter disheveled appearance was any indication, his would-be partner had spent the last three days here, in this very room. While Neal was sure he warranted around the clock attention as a flight risk and all, he wasn't sure Peter was so dedicated as to not share that kind of burden with the rest of the FBI. Or that the agency would have let Peter give up valuable on-duty time to play Florence Nightingale to their favorite pet convict.
No, this was different. This was real concern. This was guilt.
The memory clicked. "I jumped in front of you," he said, a little breathless, the words out before he could second-guess them.
Peter went rigid at that, eyes darting nervously toward him. He swallowed, hard. "It happened quickly."
Neal nodded, swallowing painfully. "The guy had the gun, and he was going back and forth, then he had the gun on you, and--"
Peter blanched a little. "I didn't even have time to pull my gun."
Neal snorted a little, and regretted it. He winced, but forced through it. "Yeah, since two guns always make a situation so much better," he said, his voice grating against his throat and rumbling uncomfortably in his chest.
"It was my responsibility to protect you," Peter said shortly. "I'm--sorry."
Neal was taken aback, his discomfort momentarily forgotten. "You're--what?"
Peter sighed, resignation settling over his features. "I'm sorry," he said again, more purposefully. "I should have been more prepared."
Neal just rolled his eyes. "Yes, since we should have suspected the junkie in the closet."
"It's my responsibility--"
"Peter, you really need to get a new punch line."
"Neal," Peter said, his face pinched with annoyance.
"Peter," Neal returned.
Peter gritted his teeth, looking briefly at the ceiling. "I'm just--sorry it ended up like this."
"Yeah, well," Neal said. He pursed his lips. The truth sat in the back of his throat. It would be easy to swallow it back. Easier still to lay on the guilt trip, nice and thick. He had few perks to his life; he could milk this for what it was worth. Make Peter lighten up, seek compensation from the agency--there were a lot of options.
Except--for all the sense that made, it wasn't what he wanted. Because for as sorry as Peter was, Neal just--wasn't.
Sure, he wasn't thrilled about being the whole being shot thing. He wasn't thrilled about missing his spleen. He wasn't thrilled about being in the hospital on a ventilator for three days.
But--he couldn't be sorry for taking the bullet for Peter.
Because Peter--Peter was more than an FBI agent. He was more than his handler.
He was his partner. His friend.
Neal sighed, keeping his body tense to lessen the impact of the movement. "I'm not sorry."
Peter's postured stiffened. His mouth fell open. "You're--not?"
"You think I'd prefer you to be laying here?" Neal said. He took a rallying breath, trying to ignore the tightness of it. "Thanks, but no thanks. I mean, with you out of commission, what am I supposed to do?"
Peter nodded a little, the tension in his back easing. "They might have reassigned you."
"To who?" Neal asked. His throat protested, but he pressed on. This was something he had to say. "Jones? Or worse, Hughes himself? Come on, Peter, you know me better than that."
Peter regarded him with reservation. "Yeah," he said. "I suppose I do."
Neal nodded, trying to reposition himself comfortably. "Now, do we think we could do something about this bed?" he asked. "It's kind of hard as a rock. And this blanket? Itchy as all get out. And there's no way I really want to stay in this robe."
Peter smiled a little. "I don't supposed I should tell you that you were au natural before the upgraded your status."
It was Neal's turn to blanch. "You're kidding," he said. "You're kidding, right? Peter?"
"I promise, I didn't look," Peter told him.
Neal glowered at him. "That's not funny."
Peter's grin widened. "It's a little funny," he said. He sighed, then, rubbing his hands on his knees. "I guess I'll go find you that nurse."
Neal nodded a little.
Peter stood, moving slowly toward the door. Before he got there, the agent paused, turning back to look at Neal. "I just--wanted to say thank you," Peter said. "For saving my life back there. I mean, it was above and beyond the call of duty."
Neal swallowed hard, this time with a different kind of pain. Gunshots, he could apparently handle. Genuine emotion, maybe not so much.
But there was a certain respect in Peter's voice. Not between an agent and his convict, but between partners.
There was always a choice, and this one mattered.
He forced himself to keep Peter's eyes, nodded as he did. "I figured I kind of owed you one," Neal said. "You're the one that let me out of prison in the first place."
Peter laughed a little at that. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I did."
"So, we even now?" Neal asked, keeping his voice light.
"Yeah," Peter said with a simple nod. "I think we're even."
Neal couldn't help but smile. Peter held his gaze for a minute more before he turned back toward the door. When the door shut behind him, Neal settled back into his bed, letting his eyes linger on the four walls of his hospital room again. It was still a lonely, bleak room. His body still ached. Yet, somehow, he felt better than he had in a long time.