Author's Notes: Big thanks to everyone who has read this story! Wow, I never expected it to do so well. So thank you all so much. I'd love to express my thanks to all the kind folks who took the time to review; I really appreciate it more than you know. Thanks to everyone who added this story to their comms, added it to their favorites, or alerts. I am grateful to you all.
Just a few notes on this chapter: It's shorter than the other two because I just couldn't get it to cut off at a clean spot. I hope that you still enjoy this chapter. I took forever writing it, and it's still not perfect, but I am at the point I have to just let it go. :-) The good news is the next chapters are nearly done, so the wait shouldn't be too long on them. :-D
Big thanks go to Enfleurage, who waited for forever for me to send her something. I didn't get it to you in good shape to begin with, and then I decided to take the plunge without a full beta run first. Thank you for your patience, and I hope maybe the next chapter we can collaborate together. To the lovely Elrhiarhodan, who gave me priceless advice that I still somehow failed to follow, THANK YOU even though I suck at writing, you are always so supportive. I appreciate it.
I am also in the debt of gin2001, who held my hand through this whole process. She pointed out many, many errors. I'm sure there are still plenty of things wrong with this story, but my gratitude really knows no bounds to her for her honesty and helpful suggestions.
Disclaimer: Please don't sue me, Jeff Eastin. I know you own White Collar and the characters. I just want to borrow them.
He let the warm water pelt down on him and wash away the traces of his tears.
By the time he was out of the shower and dried off, Peter was back in control of his emotions. The guilt and grief were still present but at least now he didn't feel as if they were tearing him apart. He could return his focus on Neal without being distracted by his own issues, and try to figure out a way to keep his partner together over the next few days. Aside from that one moment of weakness when he'd sobbed in Peter's arms, the younger man had been quiet and withdrawn, too stunned by the explosion and Kate's death to fully register that his own life was in danger, or that he could be placed back in jail if some higher up decided that those papers were illegal. Peter had taken preventative measures to protect Neal, and he knew Hughes was dealing with the other potential problem; at the moment he was more concerned about what would happen once Neal's shock wore off.
Peter feared that any tenuous self-control his partner had left would completely snap in the coming days. Neal was unpredictable at the best of times; when Kate was involved he had a severe lack of impulse control that made the situation more volatile. With her gone there was no telling what he would get himself into. Eventually he'd run - there was no doubt in Peter's mind that his partner would take off as soon as he was able to. When that happened, Peter wasn't sure even he would be able to find Neal in time to stop him from doing something stupid, and that thought terrified him.
His mind scrambled over the possibilities - Neal dead in an alley; Neal dead in the park. Neal simply vanished, erased as if he had never existed. He had to find a way to keep Neal with them, to protect him from the outside influences and from himself. There was a delicate balance between forcing Neal to stay and giving him a reason to want to remain with them. The question was what could he use to tether Neal to them without making him feel more trapped than he already was?
Neal didn't want to stay before a nasty little voice whispered in Peter's mind. What could you possibly offer him now that would make him change his mind?
He didn't have an answer for that as he threw on some clothes. He wasn't good at this emotional stuff – not like El, who had a real knack for knowing what to say and do to make people feel better. She had a good understanding of Neal and in some ways, she understood him better than he did. She could probably come up with a few suggestions on how to divert Neal's restless energy into something productive.
Normally Peter would give a case to his partner to work on, but at this point he wasn't even sure if Neal was still working for the FBI. He wasn't sure if he was still working for the FB. He had shot Fowler and who knows what the man was saying about that. With both their futures so uncertain, Peter would have to find something else tangible and goal-oriented to keep the younger man busy and out of trouble.
You can do this. You can do this; you have Elizabeth to help you. Peter tried to tell himself as he prepared to leave the room. He wasn't sure if he could be the emotional support Neal needed, or if the other man would want him to be involved at all in his grieving process. His partner was intensely private about his emotions even now, and was only recently opening up to him. Peter counted himself fortunate that his wife was so good with people. She'd be able to tell him when he fucked something up – as he expected he probably would.
His cell phone range just as he was about to exit the room. Peter anxiously picked up the phone when he saw that it was Hughes calling him, but he managed to keep his voice smooth and calm as he answered the phone. He didn't want to sound too hopeful, especially if Hughes had bad new to relay to him about his talk with the marshals.
"Peter? Hughes here. I spoke with the judge and the marshals. I've got some good news," Hughes said. He sounded pleased with himself, and Peter relaxed his shoulders. Hughes was hard on Caffrey sometimes but he cared. He had certainly proven that this evening. The director had pulled a ton of favors and put his own job on the line by vouching for both Peter and Neal.
The end result was that Neal was officially in protective custody (technically it was house arrest, but Peter didn't care as long as it wasn't jail) and would remain at the Burkes' for now. The potential danger of moving Neal had been considered, and everyone agreed that right now, the Burke residence was the safest place for him at the moment. They already had agents set up to watch the house and the street was secure. When they were sure June's home was safe from potential dangers Neal could return there if he chose until his hearing. Peter felt as if Hughes had lifted a weight from his chest. At least there was a tiny bit of good news today. He thanked his boss and promised to make sure that Neal understood the conditions of his release, and said goodnight.
Peter shut his phone and closed his eyes, allowing himself to absorb everything Hughes had said. It was imperative that he make sure Neal understood that more people could lose their jobs if he ran. He felt a little guilty for resorting to blackmail to keep Neal in line, but for now it was all he had. Now all he had to do was talk with his partner.
Quietly he made his way down the stairs so he wouldn't disturb Neal's rest if he was still sleeping. His caution was unnecessary however as he saw that the dark-haired man was propped up at the other end of the sofa, talking softly with Elizabeth and watching House Hunters with drowsy half-interest. One of his long legs dangled off the couch so he could rub Satchmo's back with his foot. The lab thumped his tail on the floor and let out a doggy moan of pleasure at the attention from Neal.
Peter paused at the bottom stair so he could study his partner without Neal noticing that he was being scrutinized. The younger man was attempting to put up a brave front by chatting softly with Elizabeth, but Peter knew him well enough to realize that his friend was hiding his emotions behind a cool façade. If he didn't know to look for the slight slump of the shoulders and the barely noticeable tension around the jaw and eyes, he might not even know Neal was upset.
The floor creaked slightly as Peter made his way over where Elizabeth was curled up on the chair. He brushed a kiss against her cheek and she gave him a tired smile while her eyes anxiously scanned over him, as if she were making certain that he was all there. Neal lifted a hand slightly but didn't look away from the television screen, as if he were too absorbed in what was happening to bother with a proper greeting. His jaw clenched a little tighter and he seemed to be purposely ignoring Peter.
Peter raised a brow at this new mood of their guest. He was expecting many things from Neal, but this was not one of them. He didn't understand what was wrong, and a glance at El told him she was as puzzled by Neal's behavior as he was. If he pushed, Neal would probably just clam up or give him some bullshit answer, so Peter did the only thing he could think of; he seated himself in the other chair and began watching the show with them. As soon as Peter had plunked himself in the chair, Neal had relaxed and twisted his head to look at him with a determined smile plastered on his face.
"We wondered where you'd gone," Neal said in a deceptively bland tone that made Peter's heart sink. He'd heard him sound like that before, back when then younger man had been convinced Peter was holding Kate hostage. The fake smile slid off his face and was replaced by a carefully blank expression. Neal was trying to put the masks back on, to dissemble his emotions and hide them but the haunted look in his blue eyes betrayed the pain he was in.
Some of Peter's concern must have shown on his face, because Neal looked away and made a devastatingly cutting comment about the wall paper in the home being shown on the television. The underlying desperation in his voice cut through Peter like a knife.
He's trying too hard to be normal, Peter thought with a growing sense of alarm. I have no idea how to fix this. He wanted to tell Neal that it was all right, that he it was safe for him to fall apart here but he didn't think the younger man was ready to hear such sentiments yet. Besides, Peter didn't know how to tell him without accidentally insulting Neal, or worse, causing the other man to completely shut down.
"I think they'll pick house number two," Peter predicted. He wanted Neal to relax, and if that meant playing the game for a few minutes he would do it. He was rewarded by the small smile that tugged at Neal's lips. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared but Peter was willing to chalk this up as a victory. Any reaction besides stoic silence or the false smile Neal used when he was conning someone was a good thing.
"Yeah, me too," Neal said with a lack of enthusiasm. He sounded exhausted but when Peter's gaze sharpened on him, Neal just rolled his eyes and turned back to the television. Peter watched him quietly for a moment and tried to figure out what to do with this strange creature who had replaced his friend and partner. The harder Neal tried to hide his emotions, the more quickly his control cracked. Peter wasn't sure what he would do once that happened.
"I knew they would pick house number two," Neal said in a smug voice, as if he had been the one to suggest it rather than Peter. He tried to smile again, but it turned into a grimace of pain as he tried to sit up from his sprawled position on the sofa. Neal groaned and sank back onto the pillow, his face pale as his hand fluttered to his side.
The younger man winced as he made another attempt to sit up. Unable to stand the sight of Neal in so much pain, Peter moved to his partner's side, but Neal put a trembling hand up and managed to heave himself to a full sitting position as another soft groan escaped his lips. One hand remained on his side; his other hand scrubbed viciously at his eyes to wipe away the moisture gathering there. Peter reached out to steady him and to offer comfort, but Neal angrily shoved him away. They both froze in surprise at the forceful reaction, and Peter thought he heard El gasp.
"Don't. I'm fine," Neal snapped his voice harsh despite the horrified expression on his face. Peter hovered uncertainly, wavering between letting Neal be or helping him to his feet. Neal solved the problem by hunching in on himself, silently rejecting Peter's floundering effort to help. Unsure of what else to do, Peter slowly backed up and slumped into his chair, feeling embarrassed and hurt by Neal's behavior. He reminded himself of what Neal had been through the past day, and tried to maintain a hold on his temper. Neal didn't need guilt heaped on him, along with of everything else he was dealing with.
Awkward, heavy silence hung over the room broken only by an annoying jingle on the television for toilet paper and the wet sounds of Satchmo gnawing on the bone he'd found under the sofa. Peter tried to think of something to say to get them on even ground again, but he couldn't come up with anything useful. Neal needed to know that he wasn't upset; that he was safe here and could fall apart if he needed to. The words in his mind sounded sappy and he was pretty sure his delivery of them would further embarrass everyone.
Neal remained huddled against the back of the sofa for a few moments, his slender body so tense it makes Peter ache just to look at him. He could offer Neal nothing right now; there were no words to make him feel better, no ways to approach him without upsetting the young man even more. Elizabeth reached over and takes his hand, and Peter finally tears his gaze away from his partner to look at his wife. She gave him a gentle smile but before anything else could be done, Neal lurched gracelessly to his feet.
He moved slowly, as if every motion took effort. It crossed Peter's mind that he should help Neal but the stubborn, almost angry expression on the younger man's face stopped him cold. His partner didn't want his help, even if he needed it.
"I'm...I'll be back," Neal mumbled, his gaze refusing to meet their eyes, and gracelessly stumbled over to the stairs. Satchmo hopped to his feet and trotted after Neal, bone dangling loosely from his mouth as he followed the young man up the stairs.
Peter let him go.