This is the final chapter, and finally we get Neal and Peter together. I can't believe I've kept them apart for this long, since it's the interactions between them that make the show such fun. Thanks for sticking with the story, and thanks to everybody who commented and made me feel so welcome in this new fandom. I will certainly be writing more White Collar, although I have to go back and finish a Supernatural story I left in the middle of the final chapter to write this. It will probably be a while since I don't post until I've finished a story, and I write at a snail's pace.
Thanks again to Susan for her wonderful betaing, for sorting out my pronouns and commas.
Here's to July 13th! Chapter 7
Warden Haskley hadn't impressed Peter the last time they'd met. He didn't suppose his own attitude had endeared him to the man either, nor was the warden a member of Neal's fan club, having been professionally and personally embarrassed by the conman's escape. So he wasn't surprised by Haskley's uncooperative attitude. He stopped short of actively stonewalling, but he was perusing the paperwork with unnecessary thoroughness.
"You guys just don't know what you want to do with Caffrey, do you? He's a damned jack-in-the-box, in one minute and out the next."
"Well, you won't be seeing him again." Peter was going to make sure of that. "As you can see, the papers are all in order, so if one of your guards could take me to see Caffrey now."
"I'll have Bobby take you. Caffrey's in isolation."
Now he had Peter's undivided attention. "Isolation, why? I thought all the cells here were singles anyway."
"It's for his own protection," the warden assured him. "Someone tried to stick a shiv in him a couple of days ago. I think they objected to his new-found status as the FBI go-to guy. The Bureau doesn't have many friends here. Lucky for him he's such a slippery bastard."
Blood seemed to drain from Peter as if from a slashed artery, leaving him nauseous and shaky. Neal could have been killed while Peter was lying uselessly in a hospital bed. "Was he hurt?" he asked hoarsely.
"A few stitches, nothing serious," Haskley replied casually.
Peter felt an intense desire to plant a fist in the middle of that smug face. It wasn't so much his long experience dealing with aggravating assholes that stopped him, but rather the fear that he would collapse in a messy heap on the floor before he'd reached the other side of the desk. "I want to see him now," he growled.
The guard who guided him down the cell blocks was portly, but seemed to have retained his humanity, a rarity in this business. "So you're here to take Neal out? That's good. You know," he looked around slightly furtively, "I asked the warden to put him on suicide watch, but he refused."
"You think Neal's suicidal?" Peter was alarmed, but unconvinced.
Bobby shrugged. "I don't know. It's not like I'm an expert or anything. It's just like, for one thing, he's hardly eaten since he's been here."
Peter made a mental note of that, but on reflection, he wasn't surprised. Neal's refined palate would find little to please it in prison food. However, he'd survived nearly four years before, so he must have adjusted.
The guard continued, "But it's not just that. He's been...quiet."
Now there Peter would agree. A quiet Neal was unnatural. He appreciated the guard's concern for his friend and confided, "He shouldn't have been sent back here. He's not done anything wrong."
They passed through many locked doors and a legion of jeering inmates - Peter's clothing betrayed his profession - and ultimately through the infirmary. At the end of a long corridor, at a fair distance from the general population, were two cells. Bobby unlocked the first one. "Go ahead. I'll wait for you here."
Peter pushed the door open with some trepidation, suddenly worried about how the ordeal would have affected his friend. The cell, lit by one bare light bulb, was slightly larger than the previous one Neal had occupied, with an almost identical bed, sink and toilet. However, its size merely intensified the feeling of bleakness, since it contained not a single personal item - the walls cold and barren. But Peter only noted these things subconsciously as his eyes were totally focused on the sole occupant of the room.
Neal was sitting on the side of the bed, leaning against the wall with his knees tucked up against his chest. He seemed to glance up as Peter entered but, with a pained groan, slumped forward with his arms hugging his legs. Peter approached him uncertainly, unsure if he was being ignored or if Neal hadn't really registered his presence. He stopped when he reached the bed, then sat down awkwardly, one leg half tucked underneath him so he was still facing his friend.
"Neal?" he said gently, reaching out to touch his friend's shoulder.
The effect was immediate; Neal's head shot up. It would almost have been funny if it weren't for the shockingly vulnerable look in his wide eyes.
"Peter?" There had always been something unique in the way Neal pronounced his name, but now it was said with a wondering disbelief, as if a miracle had been performed or the Mona Lisa had stepped out of her painting to shake his hand. He uncurled, shifting his weight forward onto his knees and extending an arm almost as if he expected it to meet no resistance. As his knuckles brushed Peter's shirt, he took in a sharp inhale of breath. "You're not...I thought...you're not dead!"
As if released from too heavy a burden, he slipped forward until his forehead was resting against Peter's chest. No one had told him! As the horror of that revelation struck, Peter automatically brought up both arms to enclose the younger man. In the intensity of his focus to get Neal released, it had never occurred to him that no one had informed the conman of his survival. Fine sharp tremors shuddered through Neal's body and the blades of his shoulders felt too pronounced beneath the orange cotton of his jumpsuit. Peter felt a wave of protectiveness that nearly choked him, but he said nothing, allowing them both the needed moment of privacy to reconnect.
Neal pulled away first, shuffling back to the wall, and Peter joined him in an identical position. He needed the support behind him and, with Neal's warmth against his shoulder, their knees bumping together companionably, he felt like he could relax for the first time since waking up in the hospital. He shut his eyes, in no hurry to move.
"So," Neal began, his conversational tone marred by a slight waver. "Not dead."
"Not dead," Peter confirmed, then, after a pause significant enough to make it count, "Thanks to you."
"Yeah?" Neal's voice was young and hesitant. Peter said nothing more, so after a moment, the conman continued, "I thought it must have been too late, you know, or that I was wrong and they hadn't found you."
"I just assumed you'd been told. I'm sorry." Peter was about to continue his explanation, but Neal's hand trailed down his arm, fingers catching, then tugging on the plastic hospital bracelet that the agent had forgotten was still attached around his wrist.
"S'okay. I can see you were otherwise engaged." Penetrating blue eyes examined him closely. "You look like you should still be in the hospital."
"Really, I'm fine," Peter reassured him.
Neal played nervously with the bracelet. "They wanted to question you about the money."
Peter understood what he was asking. "Yeah, well, when they shot me, they really shot themselves in the foot. It was poetic justice really. Every time they tried to question me, I fell asleep." Peter decided he liked that line. It was worth trying on El, since it sounded so much better than 'passed out'. He'd probably get the same mild skepticism mixed with hope from her that he was receiving from his friend now. "Seriously, I'm okay. But I wouldn't be if you hadn't figured it all out so fast, so...thanks."
He felt Neal relax slightly beside him and teased, "Now I've shown you mine, you show me yours."
"Peter!" the conman returned in a scandalised tone, but the FBI agent counted it as a win, since it was first fragment of a smile he'd seen.
"The warden said someone had taken exception to your new career choice, and you needed a few stitches."
"Yeah." Neal reverted to monosyllabacy, not a good sign.
"Well, is that a few like you've committed a few felonies, or a few as in you've only been convicted of a few?"
This time, Peter received a fully fledged grin. "Are you really fishing for information, Peter?"
"Only about your injuries, so give," the older man insisted.
"18 stitches," Neal stated succinctly, his eyes dropping to his hands.
Peter swallowed back the acid in his throat. A sideways glance showed him the remnants of yellow bruising, a sickly patchwork on Neal's face. Normally, he wouldn't criticise the Bureau in front of Neal, believing it set a bad example of disparaging law and order, but this time, the conman deserved to hear it. "This was screwed up from the very beginning, and you've borne the brunt of it. I'm sorry."
He could feel renewed tension in the shoulder touching his. "Neal?" he queried, unsure as to the cause of this anxiety.
His friend turned toward him. His face was controlled, but he was unable to shutter the windows to his soul, and the bone-deep fear and fragility evident in the hollowness of those blue eyes caused Peter's chest to compress painfully.
"Are you here...is this some kind of weird equivalent of a conjugal visit...or are you..."
Understanding hit Peter with the impact of a freight train, and he knew he'd screwed up again. "Oh, God, Neal! I'm not just here to commiserate. No, you're getting out of here today."
Neal sagged bonelessly beside him, and Peter tried to figure out the misunderstanding, although everything he wanted to say seemed to have dried up and stuck together then lodged somewhere between his heart and mouth. "You didn't do anything wrong. You shouldn't even be here."
Neal was still pale, even the blue of his eyes seemed chalky. He swallowed hard several times before speaking, the lump in his throat working. "You told me once that if I ran again, I'd be in here for good, remember? Seaton told me the same thing."
Yet, with that sword of Damocles hanging above him, Neal had cut the thread, offering up his own neck. It was an astonishing act of courage and sacrifice, and Peter had no words to do it justice. "Exigent circumstances," he managed to mumble. He did have one promise of his own to offer. "I'm not going to let you do something stupid enough to end up back here." Deciding to lighten the tone, he added, "Besides, if I didn't get you out of here, Mozz would probably break you out."
Neal looked at him with interest, joining the game. "How do you think he'd manage that?"
"A tunnel," Peter decided. "Definitely a tunnel."
"Ah, the greatest cake."
Peter winced. "That's a terrible pun. You know, Mozz does look almost exactly like that guy in the movie?"
"The one that looks like Mozz," Peter clarified unhelpfully.
"Oh, that one." The younger man nodded his head sagely.
"The one who went blind from forging all the documents. Come to think of it, he's an absolute Mozz prototype. He could be his twin... or his father."
"Didn't he get shot?" Neal mused.
"I think you're right. You'd better warn him."
Silence fell. Peter felt almost punch drunk with exhaustion and was disinclined to move, but after a while, he continued to talk. "If he didn't get you out, El probably would."
"I don't think there were any women in the Great Escape," Neal offered thoughtfully.
"She'd be the Richard Attenborough character, the brains of the outfit. Did I tell you she's got Hughes scared of her? When he told her you'd been arrested, she tore a strip off him."
"That's my girl," Neal said fondly.
"No, that's my girl," Peter reminding him mildly, tapping himself on the chest.
A small apologetic cough came from outside the door. The two friends glanced at each other and exchanged slightly embarrassed smiles.
Neal stretched his legs out with a groan. "As much as I love what they've done with this place, I could really do with a change of scenery."
"Yeah," Peter agreed. "I want to get you checked out at a hospital.'' He missed the flicker of dismay that crossed the conman's face.
"I'm not the one who needs to see the inside of a hospital, I'm fine." Neal tried not to sound too anxious.
"No, you're not, you're hot."
Neal smirked, but there was a smidgeon of worry behind it, because the FBI agent must be operating below par to set himself up for that one. "Why, Peter, thank you for noticing. I thought you were immune to my charm."
"Oh, shut up, you're running a temperature, and I want a doctor to see you."
"Not tonight," Neal pleaded, hating the thought of being stuck in another institution. "If I'm still running a fever tomorrow, I promise to go with you. I just need a night without being prodded or observed."
Peter looked at him in concern. "Is there something you're not telling me? Did anything happen I should know about?"
"No, I just need..." ...to have some control. Peter could hear the unspoken words.
"Alright, but you're coming home with me tonight. El's made up the spare room, and I know she's cooking some of that fancy stuff you like. Actually," he continued a little awkwardly, "El would love it if you stayed with us for a while, keep me company while I'm under draconian medical restrictions. Any way, mi casa es su casa, and I'd like to think I'm a better host than I was a guest."
Neal didn't want to show just how much the thought of the companionship and security of that household appealed to him, so he accepted nonchalantly. "Sure, I can be your unpaid nursemaid as well as your virtually unpaid consultant."
Another thought occurred to him, and he quickly changed the subject. "Did they find out who falsified the data on my tracker?"
Peter shook his head with a frown.
"Do you think it was Fowler?" Neal pressed.
"Possibly. It certainly appears to be an inside job, but what OPR's connection with the Giordano family is I have no idea. The tampering proved to be untraceable, but I think it's quite probable that Fowler wants to see you in jail, figuring you'd be more likely to make a deal under those circumstances."
"Have you noticed that the anklet seems to be more useful in framing me for crimes I didn't commit than in stopping me from committing them?"
Peter matched the conman's wry expression. "Well, another advantage of you staying with me is you wouldn't have to put that damn tracker on. We could just stick it in a drawer until you leave."
Neal could hear the subscript. Peter was saying he trusted him, that the tracker was purely a formality demanded by the Bureau. He wondered if Peter knew that that trust was a far stronger deterrent to him running than the anklet ever was. Probably, but considering the agent's career was at stake on the matter, it was still a considerable act of faith, and Neal didn't fight the surge of warmth around his heart.
Favouring his injured side, Neal climbed carefully off the bed, then stood looking at Peter, who hadn't moved. "Can you walk? Because I think they might frown at me carrying you out."
"If I can stand, I can walk," Peter stated confidently.
Neal waited, but there was no corresponding movement from the bed. "And can you stand?" he prompted.
"That's debatable," Peter confessed. He pushed himself forward slightly, but he couldn't prevent the gasp that escaped as the movement sent pain rolling through his chest, hot and molten. His legs felt as if they had mutated from flesh and bone to rubber.
As he took small, shallow gasps, Peter felt a warm hand grip his shoulder, mirroring the concern on Neal's face as he bent over him. "Peter? Listen, I'm taking you to the hospital."
"I'll be fine. I've just overdone it a bit today, what with the hearing this morning and everything. Help me up."
Neal hauled him upright as carefully as he could, then grabbed him in what was effectively an embrace to stop him from keeling back over. "What hearing?" he asked, more as a distraction than from any real interest.
Peter steadied himself against his friend, finding his balance and digging for any residual strength that might be cowering in hidden crevices of his muscles. "Your hearing, Einstein. You'll be happy to know you were reinstated by a unanimous vote."
Neal was impressed; somehow he didn't think it was that easy. "Who did you have to threaten to make that happen?"
Keeping one hand on his friend, Peter started to shuffle to the door, concentrating on breathing steadily to release the tight band around his chest before giving a sly grin and an honest answer. "Only Seaton, and the bastard deserved it."
"Peter, I didn't know you had it in you," Neal said admiringly.
"Well, I had to get you out. Who else could I trust with my back."
The validation in that simple sentence contained an acceptance that Neal had searched for his entire life, and he let the words sink deep into his soul, knowing they would sustain him in more difficult times.
They limped slowly back along the corridors, but their heads were held high. And when Neal finally exited the prison that he had feared he would never leave, it was with the unaccustomed but welcome sensation of having a partner and friend at his side and a sense of pride and belonging in his heart.