Author's Notes: I want to thank all my lovely readers and reviewers. I'm so glad you have enjoyed this story so far. I hope you like this next part as well.
Big thanks go to whitecollarfan, gin2001, and ericadawn16 for all their help. :-) I couldn't have gotten this done without you.
Disclaimer: I always forget this since it's a given: I do not own White Collar, the characters or the plots. Jeff Eastin does, and bless him for it. Please don't sue me, because I have no money. :-)
All right, enjoy this next chapter!
Peter hadn't wanted Neal to go on this operation. He'd had a bad feeling about it from the start. As soon as Everett had approached Peter and Hughes about this assignment, Peter had argued against it. Neal had done well on his previous undercover ops, but this was much longer than what the younger man was used to. There was no timetable; Neal would have to go in for however long it would take. That's what had worried Peter the most. He had no say on the matter, unfortunately. Hughes had finally admitted how much Caffrey had grown on him by allowing Neal to pick a case to work on. It was a rare treat when the boss let someone pick an assignment.
Even as he argued against it, Peter knew what the choice would be. This was a big deal to Neal; his first chance to choose, to be his own person. Peter knew that no matter how much he wanted Neal to be safe, he couldn't take away the younger man's pleasure at this opportunity. Not to mention he knew the case presented by Greg Everett was compelling enough that his partner would snap it up in a heartbeat. Neal never could stand to see a child in distress. He would take it, of course.
Peter had insisted that he at least be involved in Neal's training. Hughes gave his blessing and Everett agreed, with a certain amount of mocking concession. Peter wanted to make sure Neal went into this op with as much knowledge as possible. Peter made sure Neal was trained in unarmed combat, how to handle a knife properly, and that his shooting was up to FBI standards.
He had even bullied his way into the work on Neal's new identity as Steve Tabernacle, one of his partner's old aliases. He coached Neal on what to do, what to say. Peter called in some favors because special permission had to be granted to hide that Neal was a convicted felon. They had to build a credit and employment history, set up bank accounts, new social security number, everything. Peter wanted things to be perfect. The mission was dangerous enough that even the smallest detail could get Neal caught.
New clothes, new hair, new personality, new place to live. Peter took Neal to look at apartments. Tomilin was too paranoid to allow even a small chance of him discovering a connection between 'Steve' and Neal. Peter suspected that Neal was amused by his behavior. To Caffrey's credit, he took it all in stride, and didn't even tease Peter about his protectiveness. He seemed to understand that Peter needed to do this for him.
A few agents who worked under Everett were less understanding. They thought that Peter was being unreasonably anxious. Like their boss, they seemed to think if anyone could handle this, Neal could. Peter was just as confident that Neal could manage the case, but he was less than confident that things would go as planned. Things had a way of spinning out of control when Neal was involved. It was a pattern he'd noticed over the years while working with Neal - the more dangerous the suspect, the less likely things would go smoothly. Caffrey had a knack for getting himself into trouble, and Peter was going to have to sit on the sidelines while Everett took charge.
It was difficult to do so much work on the case and know that his involvement in the case was limited. Knowing that Greg Everett was running the op. did nothing to alleviate his anxiety. It wasn't that Everett was a bad agent. He was considered one of the best. And unlike other agents who had worked with Peter and Neal in the past, he didn't treat Neal like he was a commodity instead of a person. Neither did his team. In fact, they were great towards Neal. It was just that Everett was too damn smug and over-confident.
That was one of the reasons Peter had finally asked (demanded) to be part of the bust. He wanted to be there when Neal was finally free to go home. He hadn't thought to ask for any other agents, but Hughes knew Peter and he knew Greg. They would need an intermediary, and he picked the mild-mannered Clinton Jones to go with them. The director had agreed to allow Peter to accompany Everett, and had also suggested to the skeptical agent that Jones would be a valuable asset. Peter heard Hughes tell the other agent that Jones was steady, reliable, and would provide a "restraining influence on Peter if necessary". This last part was entirely untrue, but it mollified Everett enough that he shut up. Peter didn't mind. He was relieved that his best junior agent would be coming with him.
Time crawled along for Peter as he had suited up and waited for the word that they would get moving. The time was fast approaching when they were supposed to head out - and then his worst fears were realized. They were delayed for some reason. Jones made the phone cal to Hughes, to let the boss know that something had gone wrong. Everett wasn't willing to share what the problem was with Peter or Clinton, but he knew the game was up when Hughes came down and demanded to know what the problem was. Greg had to finally admit that there was a possible mole in the office, and that he had been hoping to figure out who it was before they moved out. Never mind that Neal had been expecting them.
Of course, Everett said that Neal would be fine for a little while longer. Everett, Peter decided, was a moron and a bastard. He should have known that Neal's position was compromised and that the CI would be in terrible danger. But Everett firmly believed he would be able to fix everything with no problem. He was wrong. Fucking moron. Looking for the leak was secondary to removing their people from the field. That was the most basic of all training. In his eagerness to get the bad guy, Everett had tossed the rules out the window for the sake of his own ego.
That arrogance had made Peter want to punch him on various occasions. Now, listening to Neal confess that he was a snitch and goading Tomilin's men into attacking him, Peter didn't want to punch Everett. He wanted to kill him with his bare hands. He was in a van riding with other members of the FBI task force, listening to the audio of Neal's delay tactics. It was a risky move for Neal, but everyone knew Tomilin enjoyed torture. Neal was probably relying on that fact to buy enough time for the FBI to show up. Peter decided that the first thing he'd do when he found his best friend and partner was to throttle him for choosing this particular type of distraction to buy time.
A sickening crack resounded over the comm. link, a sure sign that Tomilin had not taken the news of Neal's betrayal well. Peter listened with enraged helplessness as his best friend took what sounded like a terrible beating. A beating that could have been completely avoided if things had been done right.
Neal should never have been put into this position, Peter silently fumed. Everett had assured him that his plan was airtight and that everything would be fine. Everyone kept saying that to Peter – things were 'fine'. Empty, useless reassurances that were repeated to him, meant to keep him quiet and out of the way. Neal will be fine. The operation is going fine. Everything was fine.
Except that things weren't 'fine'. On the live feed, Neal's taunts turned into moans. Peter realized Neal was at the end of his endurance, and his heart plummeted. They were still fifteen minutes away. Fifteen minutes that Neal might not have. Peter and Jones exchanged concerned glances in the back of the van. They both knew what could happen in that small amount of time.
Neal lout out a sharp cry of pain that was cut off suddenly by a heavy blow. The silence over the comm. link frightened Peter and for a moment he feared that Tomilin and his men had managed to kill Neal. Another dull thud sounded over the link and the silence was shattered by a harsh intake of air from Neal. There were a few more thumps from what Peter presumed to be Tomilin's men continuing to beat an unresponsive Neal. Finally, Tomilin's muffled voice came over the speakers.
"Enough. We'll torch the place. Leave him here." After that there was no more clear sounds save for Neal's labored breathing. It didn't make Peter feel any better to know that he'd been right about how dangerous this mission would be. He checked the map and frowned when he realized they were six minutes away. It was plenty of time for Tomilin to set fire to the warehouse, plenty of time for Neal to die.
Things were tense in the van. Hughes had his patented stoic face on, but Peter caught the sideways glance he sent to Everett. It was small consolation that Hughes was as angry as he was. Peter didn't dare say anything to a subdued Everett. He didn't even look at the man, because if he did whatever happened next would probably get him fired. He kept his peace until he heard a soft groan from Neal. Peter looked at the agent in charge of the tech gadgets, and raised an eyebrow. The young woman proved to be smarter than Everett; she didn't even bother to argue with Peter. She just moved aside so Peter could talk to Neal.
"Neal, wake up!" Peter said. Neal mumbled something unintelligible in response. It wasn't much but it gave Peter hope. Hughes was motioning for the tech to get Peter wired. Good boss. He knew that as soon as they reached the site, Peter would be out of the van. Not that Peter had planned on asking for permission, but it was nice to know that Hughes was so supportive.
He continued to hassle, bully and threaten a woozy Neal in an attempt to rouse the other man from his stupor. Finally, Neal grumbled that he was working on the ropes, and to get off his back, he was doing the best he could. It was a relief to hear Neal speaking, but Peter's elation was tempered by the fact that his partner seemed totally disoriented and was obviously in pain. "Neal, what's wrong?"
"Think my wrist is broken. Hurts..." Neal mumbled as he struggled to free himself. He let out a few pained grunts, unable to hold them back. Peter glared at Everett whenever Neal let a noise slip.
Everett was responsible for this disaster, and Peter was going to make sure he paid.
The van came to a screeching halt. Peter was out the door less than half a second later, and on his way to the warehouse where Tomilin's office was located. According to what they'd heard in the van, that's where Neal had last been. Now all he had to do was find Neal before the entire warehouse went up in flames.
Too late. He could already smell the smoke. He was going to definitely kill Everett for this disaster. "Neal, we're here. Where are you?"
Neal's response was not encouraging. "My clothes are gone. They took my -" Neal's voice cut off with a slight gasp as the warehouse was rocked by an explosion. Panic seized Peter, but before he had time to think the worst, Neal spoke again, his voice more slurred than before. "Hurts...M'dizzy."
"Neal, get moving!" Peter snapped. He couldn't get the first door to the warehouse open. It was either locked too tightly or the heat had prevented the door from opening. "Just keep moving. Come on. Talk to me, Neal."
His normally confident and clear-headed partner sounded terrified and confused. He was mumbling to an imaginary Peter. "There's so much smoke," Neal coughed. "It hurts to breathe."
"Crawl, Neal. Don't stand. Just crawl," Peter ordered him. He kicked in a door and began searching for Neal. The smoke stung his eyes, but fortunately, the flames were still on the other side of the building. Of course, with the fresh oxygen, the fire was growing in size. There wasn't much time left.
"Oh, hey Peter. Oh wait, that's not you. Hi, Imaginary Peter." Neal coughed and tried to laugh at the same time. Peter would have been amused that Neal was hallucinating about him. There was nothing funny about Neal seeing things, however, and Peter felt more irritation towards Everett. Peter told him so, and Neal laughed again, before saying quietly, "I feel sick. I can't figure out...I'm confused where I need to go."
With every word Neal uttered, Peter's fury grew a little more. Everett had fucked up. Once Peter was through with him, he'd be lucky to get a job as a janitor. If only Everett had listened to him instead of telling him to butt out. Chances were the mole would have been discovered long before now. Neal would definitely have not had to wait for back-up to arrive, and he wouldn't have had to use himself as a distraction to keep the kids safe. If Peter had been allowed to run this operation, he would have called fire and rescue the minute the words "Let's torch the place" had been uttered.
Peter ran through the maze of cubicles and shelves with crates. He had to back track twice because of flames and he was getting confused. No wonder Neal was having difficulties finding his way out. If he couldn't find his way out when he was lucid, how could he expect Neal to get out on his own? The only reason he hadn't given up hope was because of Neal's rambling voice on the other end of the comm.
"Peter, you have to get out of there," Hughes said. "Fire and rescue will be here soon. They can get Caffrey out."
"NO!" Peter snapped, fighting back a cough of his own. He wasn't leaving until he found Neal. He rounded a corner and realized with dread that he was back in the corridor he'd entered from. He was about to head back into the burning warehouse when he spotted the figure crawling into the passage leading to the door. The fire was spreading quickly now, fueled by the constant stream of oxygen. They only had a few moments before everything was ablaze.
"Neal, thank god! I'm here." Peter said just as some of the crates near Neal began to fall apart. "Neal, move! You have to get away from the fire!" Neal crawled along but finally slumped down. Peter reached the younger man's side just as something nearby exploded from the heat. He had to get Neal out now, but paused in horror as he got a good look at his partner. In the eerie glow of the flames, Neal looked terrible. His face was a mass of bruises, and his one eye had swollen almost completely shut. He had been stripped to his underwear and the exposed skin was sooty and red.
"Oh Neal, what did they do to you?" Peter asked, his heart aching. He had heard it all, of course, but even that didn't prepare him for the scene that greeted him. Despite the heat, Neal was shivering. Peter tore off his jacket and wrapped it around Neal's thin frame. The other man had lost a shocking amount of weight while he had been undercover. More small explosions came from nearby. "We have to get out of here. Can you stand?"
Neal tried to respond but ended up coughing instead. Fear gripped Peter; what if Neal's throat had been burned? He pushed that out of his mind as he helped Neal to his feet. It was obviously too much for Neal's battered body. He swayed and started to fall. Peter caught him and swept him up in his arms like his friend was a child. It was a ridiculous move, and awkward, but he didn't have time to find an easier way to carry Neal. Peter moved as quickly as he could with his barely conscious partner in his arms. Neal shifted, and put his arm around Peter's neck. It made it a little easier to carry him, which was good; because Peter was afraid he was going to lose his grip on his partner.
Neal rested his head trustingly against his shoulder, obviously too exhausted to do anything else. He was trying to say something, but he couldn't stop coughing. Peter tried to hush him, but Neal never listened to him anyway, so Peter wasn't surprised when Neal kept trying to talk. The fear grew that Neal's throat had been burned. Don't think about that, just get him out of here Peter thought. He had taken just two steps outside when Neal finally gave in to his unconsciousness. The coughing fit continued even as his body went limp. If it hadn't been for the drive of his own desperation, Peter probably would have dropped him.
"Easy, Neal," Peter murmured in a raspy voice. Neal was unconscious and couldn't hear him, of course, but it made Peter feel better to talk to him anyway. "You're safe now." He continued to carry Neal a little distance away from the burning building, but he was quickly running out of energy. Neal was tall, and even with the weight loss, he wasn't exactly easy to hold. Every time someone offered to help though, Peter snarled at them and told them to fuck off. He wasn't letting one person from Everett's team touch Neal. No way.
Peter didn't care about any of them; they were all incompetent as far as Peter was concerned. Neal would never have been in this position if they had just done their damn jobs. With his partner's unconscious body cradled in his arms, Peter let his anger grow. Neal could have died - those children had almost died - thanks to that idiot's incompetence, and his team's willingness to just blindly follow orders. Peter would have his badge. He'd have all their badges.
"Let me help," someone said. The voice was familiar, which was a relief, but Peter was too wrapped up in his thoughts to realize who it was. The person moved as if they wanted to take Neal from him. He was going to have set Neal down, but he didn't want any of Everett's team near his partner.
Peter held Neal tighter, ignoring the ache in his arms and back. "No. I've got him. I can take care of him myself." It was a bit childish to say; Neal wasn't a toy after all. He was just afraid that Everett's team would try to turn this into a good moment for them, and he didn't think they deserved any pats on the back.
"Peter, I don't think Neal wants you to drop him," the other person said dryly, and he blinked, surprised. It was Jones offering to help. Peter relaxed slightly. Yes, he could trust Jones to want to help for the right reasons. Peter offered him a sheepish grin as his junior agent grabbed Neal's legs and helped carry the younger man to a safer distance from the warehouse.
"Ambulance will be here in three minutes," Jones said. Peter nodded and allowed Jones to help him ease the unconscious consultant to the ground. Neal coughed and moaned, but otherwise showed no signs of awareness. Peter refused to leave Neal's side. He needed to hold on to him, reassure himself that Neal was alive.
"Stay with us, Neal," Peter said, and used the jacket Jones offered him to cover Neal's shivering form a little more. By the time the medics reached them, Neal's breathing had become more labored, and he was fading in and out of consciousness. Immediately the medics intubated Neal. They were concerned that his throat was swelling, although they reported to Peter that they didn't see any burns in the airway. That was excellent news, but Peter was well aware of how tricky smoke inhalation could be. Neal was still in danger, even without burns.
Two other people approached the group, and the last person Peter wanted to see at the moment spoke, "I want to know what his -"
The burning warehouse was the perfect backdrop for Peter's mood as he crossed to Everett's side in two steps and landed a hard punch across the other agent's jaw. Everett crumpled from the force. The medics, fortunately, remained completely focused on Neal, although he thought he heard one snicker when Hughes, Everett's companion, told Peter not to punch Everett again - at least not where he could see it happening.
"Right," Peter said his brown eyes dangerous. He wanted nothing more than to indulge his temper, and drag Everett to his feet so he could lay him out again. He fought back the impulse - barely, and instead said shortly, "I'm going with Neal to the hospital."
Hughes nodded and gave Peter a rare smile. "Tell Neal when he wakes up that he did well," the director said. Peter nodded once, and got into the ambulance with Neal.
A little over two hours later found Peter seated on an uncomfortable plastic chair by Neal's bed, holding the younger man's uninjured hand. The breathing tube had been replaced by a face mask once they determined there was no injury to the windpipe, something Peter was incredibly grateful for. Neal was responding well to the oxygen treatment, and even though he would still need surgery in the morning to repair his wrist - and possibly his spleen -, Neal was doing extremely well considering his injuries.
Neal stirred slightly, his lashes fluttering and his head turning slightly, but after a moment he stilled. Peter idly brushed back a few strands of hair that had fallen across Neal's forehead. His partner had been growing restive since he came back from his CT scan, but so far Neal hadn't been completely conscious. Peter thought that it was probably best right now. He would be in a world of pain for the next few days. Any sleep the younger man could get would be beneficial to his recovery.
The limp hand in his twitched, the fingers flexing gently as if Neal was trying to remember how to work them. The movement brought Peter out of his thoughts, and he looked up in time to see Neal's lashes begin to flicker.
"Hey Neal," Peter said. He squeezed his partner's hand, and was rewarded when Neal's hand curled around his. Blue eyes opened partially and slid closed almost immediately as the younger man let out a miserable sound to indicate his displeasure at the light.
"Easy," Peter said as he reached for the call button. The nurses had wanted to know when Neal woke up, and Peter wasn't about to leave his side anytime soon. "Nice and slow. I know the light hurts, but your eyes will adjust. Come on."
This time when Neal blinked his eyes open, they stayed open, although the swelling around one eye prevented it from opening all the way. Neal looked around the room and gave Peter a faint smile, although he looked puzzled as he became aware of the mask. He tried to move his hand to touch it, but Peter gently stopped him. "It's an oxygen mask," Peter explained. "Just leave it alone for now."
Neal relaxed a little, and pinned Peter with a questioning look. Peter could practically see the questions piling up as Neal revived some more, but before he could get into filling Neal in on what had happened a nurse joined them. Even though he couldn't speak yet Neal's eyes flirted outrageously with her as she bustled around him. Peter rolled his eyes and left the room so she could conduct her examination. Still, Peter couldn't quite hide his smile.
Same old Neal. By morning he was certain that Neal would have every person he came into contact with wrapped around his little finger. There wouldn't be a more fussed over patient in the hospital, and Neal would eat it up. It was good to know some things never changed.
After the nurse was a doctor visit, followed by the surgeon who was consulting on Neal's case. Peter was allowed to re-enter the room because Neal had managed somehow to convey that he waived HIPPA in regards to Peter.
The doctors were pleased that Neal was responding so well to oxygen therapy. They were keeping a close eye on the internal injuries; so far they didn't believe he needed surgery but the doctor said they would know more in the next 24 hours. The broken wrist would be operated on in the morning. It was not an immediate threat to his health, so they wanted his oxygen levels to get as close to normal as possible before they did the surgery.
All in all, the doctors were cautiously optimistic about Neal's recovery being swift and uncomplicated. It would be several months before Neal would be allowed to do any field work however, and Peter could tell Neal was already sulking about the idea of being stuck doing a lot of paperwork. He would have to work hard to find some cases to keep Neal entertained until it was reasonable for him to go back into the field.
After Peter questioned (more like interrogated) the doctors on Neal's treatment options, they left and Peter was alone once more with his friend. Peter seated himself in the chair and rested his hand on the injured man's shoulder. They would be moving Neal to a room now that he was stable, but until the nurse came, they had a few moments alone. "You did well, Neal," Peter said warmly to him. Neal's eyes brightened at the praise, leaving Peter with a giddy, warm feeling in his chest. "Hughes is proud of you...and so am I."
Neal gave him a grin, and tapped his fingers on the bed in a pattern that Peter recognized the Morse code. Of course Neal would want information on what had happened after he'd passed out. Neal was sometimes flippant about working for the FBI, but he was as serious as Peter was about taking down the bad guys.
K-i-d-s Neal spelled out. His eyes were wide and anxious, so Peter quickly reassured him.
"The kids are safe. We got there before Tomilin could do anything to them. They're in child services, and because their governments are being contacted. They'll be taken care of."
T-o-m-i-l-i-n? Neal asked next. He looked a little worried. Peter had a feeling his partner was concerned that in the chaos of the fire and rescues that the man had gotten away.
"Yes, we got Tomilin." Neal looked relieved. Peter nodded. "We have enough to put him away for a long time. No more hurting kids for him."
The younger man visibly relaxed at the news. Peter thought about giving Neal more details, but already Neal's eyes were drooping from the pain medication he had received. The details could wait. Neal blinked his eyes open a little more as he struggled to stay awake.
S-t-a-y. Neal asked. Peter nodded once. Neal gave him a grin that even through the mask could have lit up a Christmas tree, and then he surrendered to sleep.