Disclaimer: I own nothing. I swear. No, really.
Spoilers: Set somewhere vaguely in the beginning of Season 2.
a/n: This is my first White Collar fic. A friend sat me down and forced me to watch the first season with her. Forced, I tell you. There were threats. And duct tape.
But, by about Episode 3, I can easily say I was smitten. A few curiosities were triggered from the first Season viewing and at least thus far haven't been answered in Season 2, so this is my way of filling in the gap. I've cut some corners a bit in this as I found the FBI aspect a bit challenging to write—far more so, apparently, than the demon-hunting brothers I usually spend time with. And because I wrote most of this in a coffee shop during my few hours of 'me' time over the weekend, I didn't do much research. *hides*
This is shamelessly angsty. Consider yourself warned. But I felt that in order to have these two characters discuss what I wanted them to discuss, it was going to have to be under extreme circumstances. Also (and this is it, I promise), I know the events I depict from the past will vary as to what you may have imagined for them—and will most likely be AU as soon as the show addresses them—but that's what is so great about writing and reading fiction, isn't it?
There's always room for imagination and interpretation. I hope you enjoy.
Karen, this one is for you.
The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.
- Simone Weil
He'd planned it well.
They'd meet exactly at six, when the flurry of tired, distracted New Yorkers emerging from their various offices on their epic sojourn home via cab, subway, or on foot would serve as the blurry backdrop and cloak any illegal activities with normalcy. He knew this city; knew its need. It beat a heady pulse of ambiguity; every person on the street was there for the same reason, but with different purpose. There was nothing to look at, yet too much to see.
He also knew this mark; knew his ego. He'd been subjected to hours of incessant bragging during his time inside. He'd have been perfectly happy to never hear the man say another word. Ever.
But he didn't really have a choice in the matter. Not anymore. Not since he'd twice made a deal with the same person who had been the cause of his incarceration in the first place: Agent Peter Burke. A deal that offered him a version of a life in exchange for a digital tether and the promise to help the FBI stop others from doing what he was so very good at.
The deal had begun as the only way to find Kate and, with her death, transformed into a medium for vengeance. And, in a small way, with a nod to honesty that even he didn't willfully acknowledge, this deal became the only place in the vast expanse of life where Neal Caffery could truly breathe.
Therefore, when Peter presented him with the case they were building against Matthew Benjamin, a small-time art forger, Neal accepted with an easy smile that hit his eyes, knowing full well that Peter was acutely aware of the time Neal had spent with the man in prison. As far as Neal knew, Peter had transcripts of their hours of conversation.
Matthew was a brilliant artist; that Neal was willing to concede. Self-taught, much like Neal, and with a photographic memory, the skill Neal saw in the paintings Matthew had been caught trying to fence was unmistakable. He had a mastery of blended colors, softened lines; he brought emotion to a canvas and allowed his work to tell a story.
"It's almost a shame," Neal had told Peter as they geared up for the sting, "that Matthew decided to copy other artists rather than simply create his own."
"Y'know, I've wondered the same thing about you," Peter returned, his eyes askance as he affixed the Velcro along the side of his Kevlar vest.
Neal, sans vest but with tracking anklet tucked carefully beneath his socks, black Pacelli slacks positioned to easily hide the telltale device, had simply lifted a shoulder, tipping the corner of his mouth up in what he knew to be a smile that was both disarming and charming and had, in point of fact, sent Peter off the scent more times than the agent probably wanted to acknowledge.
"I'm not an artist, Peter," Neal had replied. He rolled a crisp, black fedora that would've had Dean Martin weak in the knees along the palm of his hand, then with an expert flip, landed it on the crown of his head, tipping his chin up to look at Peter from beneath the brim. "I'm a magician."
Peter's lips had quirked in a very what am I gonna do with you expression; one that Neal had not only come to appreciate, but depend upon. "That you are. You ready to pull off another scene with smoke and mirrors?"
Tucking his hands into the slim pockets of his pants, Neal had simply lifted an eyebrow. "Peter, this is the Prestige."
Turning from him and palming his radio, Peter had signaled Clinton Jones—arguably the only other man Neal trusted outside of Peter and his long-time, con-man friend, Mozzie—before looking back at Neal with a nod to make it so.
The meet was to take place inside the condemned Eighth Street Bank and Trust. The building was ancient, massive, and slated to be demolished in two days. A chain-link fence parameter had been constructed around the building, and Neal was certain Matthew would be assured that in no way could anyone have found them or followed them.
All he needed to do was convince the man to reveal the location of the original works his employer had taken from the Guggenheim, replacing them with Matthew's renditions, and thereby giving away the name of his employer and the art thief. The secrecy and stealth of the meeting was to convince Matthew that while Neal may have been released from prison by the Feds, he was no way in bed with them.
He was still his own man. And could be trusted.
Neal knew all Matthew needed was a quiet place to talk. Lead the guy on with a few well-placed insinuations, a nod and a wink, and the information was as good as theirs. Peter, Jones, and Agent Diana Barrigan were positioned at various vantage points. Any one of them could and would get to him within minutes if he got into any real trouble. He'd thought through each outcome of this plan.
Which was why it was such a surprise when the roof fell in on him.
In the academy, Peter had trained his memory to record things he didn't always register he was seeing, hearing, smelling. He learned to compartmentalize information so that he could bring it to the forefront of thought when it was needed, but not worry about observations impeding the moment. When he needed to be sharp, he was sharp. When he needed to be quiet he was quiet.
Neal wasn't the only conman in this partnership.
The problem with this categorizing of image and sensory memories was that, at times, they flooded him, overwhelmed him, confused him. At night, mostly, when his defenses were down. El had had her fair share of sleepless nights as he'd awoken disoriented, reliving a moment he'd actually experienced many hours before.
Inside an unnatural quiet that pressed against his eardrums with persistent pressure, Peter found himself gripped in recollection, even as he fought his way back to consciousness. With vivid clarity he saw Neal enter the darkened alcove of the abandoned bank. Shadows shifted in his mind and the next rush of reality hit him with such an impact that he gasped aloud, dust-saturated air rolling through his opened mouth and coating the soft tissue of his throat.
Jones calling out from his eagle's-nest perch atop an adjacent building…the disorienting, high-pitched mechanical whine…the low-rumble as the earth trembled…the feel of Diana's hand on his arm as he broke through the pre-made opening in the chain-link fence….
Darkness took him once more, for just a moment, and he was seeing into the building, he was calling Neal's name, he was locking eyes with Matthew Benjamin as the felon sprinted past him, toward freedom, abandoning Neal inside as somehow the detonations blew.
There hadn't been enough time.
Peter had known that before he'd taken his first step. Diana had known that as she'd gripped his arm. But Neal had been in that now-crumbling building. He'd been in there because they'd sent him in there.
And Peter wasn't going to just let him die.
With a sickening lurch of his stomach, Peter recalled losing all balance as the world around him quaked, going to his knees on the scarred and rugged floor—the marble having long since been harvested, rough-edged concrete and rebar left in its wake—feeling the foundation crack beneath his sweat-slicked palms, and looking up to see Neal also on the ground, twenty feet away, blue eyes wide…and inexplicably calm.
It didn't take long after the movie reel in his mind stopped jumping across the poorly-edited, horrific last minutes of consciousness for Peter to piece together that the demolition that had been slated for two days hence had somehow been triggered early—catching both himself and his partner in the wake of the building's collapse.
Coughing out the dust he'd breathed in with his gasp, Peter blinked. He made himself hold still, taking stock of his surroundings and his condition. He'd landed half-sitting, half-laying against an upright piece of concrete. Cold from the unyielding surface seeped through his clothes and climbed the back of his neck.
He could see. That was a bonus. He could also breathe, although the silt-like quality of the air indicated that he'd had the good fortune to wake shortly after the chaos of the blast had quieted. He head ached from crown to jaw line, and his right leg felt sickeningly numb.
With a grunt of effort he moved his hands carefully down his body until he came into contact with the rough edge of a broken piece of concrete. Dust fell from his lashes to sting his opened eyes as he blinked in the dim light, trying to shift and see just how much of his body was beneath rubble. The quiet was starting to weigh on him almost as much as the concrete. Swallowing, he took a breath, grateful for the Kevlar that had apparently protected his vital organs from more than a bullet this time, and called out his partner's name.
He was slightly surprised to hear how weak and breathy his own voice sounded. He certainly didn't feel that weak. But then his leg—ice cold just moments ago—began to heat up with an incessant throb that he recognized.
"Neal!" He called again, dread filling his belly when he received no answer.
Looking over his head, he saw that the light filling the space where he lay pinned came from a two foot crack in the remaining wall about twelve feet above him. A beam of evening light shot down through the opening and illuminated the debris around and on top of him, turning everything a faded gray.
Or maybe that was the dust.
Either way he realized that he could see roughly five feet on either side of him. There were two cross-sectioned pillars creating this pocket of air he'd miraculously fallen into. With stiff, clumsy fingers, Peter reached down his along his right thigh, trying to assess the damage. He was able to shift his left leg to the side, pressing against a block of concrete to alleviate some of the pressure on his spine.
"You think this is how…those guys felt on 9/11?"
"Shit!" Peter gasped, jerking sharply from the suddenness of Neal's slurred voice sounding out from the gray recesses. His leg protested at once and he cried out, gripping his thigh.
"Fabulous," Peter replied tightly. The pain was centralized on his ankle, he could now tell. "Where are you?"
Peter craned his neck, trying to pinpoint the location of Neal's voice. "Are you okay?"
The quick, almost child-like reply sent Peter's pulse into panic. "Neal," he barked, coughing once as he forced himself as upright as possible, searching for where his partner had fallen. "Talk to me—where are you hurt?"
There…just there. Back and to the left he could see along what remained of the wall he was slumped against. It looked as if it could have shored up a vault, perhaps. About four feet up, a slab of marble ended it. Near where Peter had landed, there was a break in the wall wide enough that Peter could make out Neal's profile and shoulders and see a bit into the anteroom.
If Peter could have moved even another foot to his left, he could reach through the opening and touch Neal's face.
He shoved himself sideways, sending rockets of heat through his right leg and gritting his teeth against the obligatory outcry. Settling once more, he turned his head and saw that Neal's profile was now comfortably in his eye line. As long as the light lasted, he'd be able to see him. He'd have to settle himself with that for now.
"Neal!" he repeated when the younger man didn't reply straight away. "Where are you hurt?"
Neal's eyes were closed; his head back against the wall. From this angle, he didn't have a mark on him, but he was extremely pale.
"M'head's killing me," Neal finally confessed, not opening his eyes.
"Yeah, well," Peter allowed, "getting caught in a demolition can do that to you. What else? Leg? Arm? Chest?"
"Ribs," Neal replied. "Think I…broke a couple."
Peter found his hand moving of its own accord to his Kevlar vest and he cursed himself for not insisting Neal wear one as well. "You sure they're broken?"
"Pretty sure," Neal replied. "Broke 'em before. Felt the same."
Peter frowned. He hadn't known that Neal had broken ribs before.
"Can you move?" Peter asked.
He wasn't sure how he could get Neal from that room into this one without the consultant crawling through the cracked wall—and doing so with broken ribs would be excruciating—but he wasn't going anywhere fast.
"Not…really," Neal replied, his voice tight, but not as slurred.
"Are you pinned?"
"Yeah," Peter sighed. Something was off; there was something Neal wasn't—
"I thought about that a lot when I was in prison," Neal said suddenly.
"Thought about what?" Peter asked, confused. He tightened his grip on his upper thigh—just above his knee. Somehow, that pressure seemed to ease the teeth-numbing ache in his ankle.
"Those rescue workers…what were they? Firemen? Police? I can't remember."
"Those people in the towers…they didn't have a chance. Just…gone," Neal mumbled.
September eleventh, Peter realized. He's stuck on the collapse of the towers. And with good reason.
"Towers went down…there's nothing but dust. But those guys survived. They made it out."
"We're getting out of here, Neal," Peter asserted. "Jones and Diana will find us."
"I know they'll find us," Neal sighed. "Magic ankle tether will see to that. Just…not sure how…they'll get us out."
Peter swallowed. He tried to move his foot and only succeeded in wiggling his toes. The effort cost him and he let out a brief cry of pain.
"I'm okay," Peter gasped. "My…my leg's pinned under some concrete."
"Is it broken?"
"No," Peter shook his head, even though he was pretty sure Neal had yet to open his eyes. "Hurts like hell, though."
"You sure it isn't broken?"
Peter licked his dry lips, closing his eyes and concentrating all of his effort on moving his foot. He'd broken his ankle once before at a company softball game. He'd had an opening to steal third, waited until the pitcher had moved into his wind-up, then launched. It was a perfect execution of motion, right down to the slide.
Until his cleat shoved the base aside and his toe caught in the prairie dog hole the base had been covering. His momentum carried his body forward while his foot stayed still and crack. The game ended in a tie and he'd been driven to the ER in the back of a friend's pick-up truck, El holding his head in her lap.
This did not feel like that.
"I'm sure," he replied.
Off to his right, Peter heard the muffled click, snap, fuzz of his radio. They were trying to reach him. But the radio was buried somewhere beneath what remained of the Eight Street Bank and Trust. Still, it was a sign. He turned back to reassure Neal and was surprised to see the younger man's blue eyes on him. They stood out in contrast to his pale face, arresting him with their deceptive guilelessness.
"They're looking for us," Peter tried.
"This is my fault," Neal said softly. He licked his lips and swallowed, his eyes slipping closed, then blinking open once more.
Peter couldn't tell if it was a trick of light or the motes of dust dividing the space between them, but something shadowed the opposite half of Neal's face.
"It's not your fault."
"I should've seen this coming," Neal slowly shook his head. "I knew this guy, Peter. I…I got cocky."
"You? Cocky? You're joking," Peter returned.
Neal didn't even smile. "The thief…the thief is Armstead."
"Devon Armstead? The entrepreneur? Built all those—"
"Banks," Neal finished for him.
"Son of a bitch," Peter closed his eyes, allowing his head to drop back against the wall so that he was a mirror image of Neal.
"He knew Matthew was talking to me," Neal continued, his voice becoming slightly strained and breathy. "Followed him here."
"He rigged the bank to get you and Matthew," Peter concluded. "Tying up loose ends."
"Matthew's not a con-artist," Neal said. "He's just…an artist. There's definitely a difference."
"He tipped off Armstead somehow."
Neal's quiet was Peter's answer.
"He got out, y'know," Peter told his partner. "Of the building, I mean."
"Maybe," Neal replied. "I was too busy falling to really see."
Peter was quiet, his eyes on Neal, but not really looking at him. Images from the fall kept forcefully inserting themselves into his vision and he was becoming dizzy.
El's gonna have my ass for this one, he thought. He was oddly relieved she was still visiting her sister; he didn't want her at the site, watching and waiting, anxious for someone to figure out a miracle and extricate her husband from a twelve-ton pile of cement and stone.
A shadow moved across his waning sunbeam and Peter looked up to the opening far above him.
"Hey!" He cried out. "Hey! We're here! We're down here!"
No voice responded. As far as he knew, that shadow could have moved from across the street. He had lost orientation as to how far inside the building they'd tumbled, was unsure how deep below the surface they really lay. As long as they had air, and weren't bleeding, they should be—
"Neal," Peter barked, whipping his head around to face the younger man's profile. It hadn't been shadows on his face…. "Hey, Caffery," he tried, breathing a little more smoothly when Neal blinked in response. "Look at me."
Obediently, Neal rolled his head along the wall until his eyes met Peter's. He could see it now. The entire right side of Neal's face was covered with blood.
"Are you bleeding anywhere else?" Peter asked, skipping the knee-jerk reaction to give him hell for leaving out that piece of information.
"Hmm?" Neal frowned, his eyes almost aglow in the beam of light.
"Your head is bleeding, Neal," Peter informed him, as calmly as he could. "Head wounds bleed a lot, so it probably looks worse than it is. I just need to know if you're bleeding anywhere else."
Neal swallowed. "Just my side."
"Your side is bleeding?"
"Not much," Neal informed him, his blink almost drowsy this time.
Trying to keep himself in control and resisting the urge to reach out and throttle the consultant, Peter asked him, "Why is your side bleeding?"
Neal looked away and down. "Probably 'cause of the rebar."
Oh, God, Peter felt his heart whisper.
That explained the almost stoned-like quality of Neal's replies. Taking a breath and bracing himself for the lightning bolt of pain, Peter leaned forward and clumsily shrugged out of his jacket, sinking back against the wall when it was finally off, drawing short puffs of breath to stave off the nausea that rocketed through his system as he wiggled under the weight of the concrete slab.
"Hey," he said softly.
"Yeah," Neal replied, his voice slightly firmer than it had been moments before.
Peter flung his left arm toward the opening that connected them, the jacket dangling through the hole.
He felt the material being tugged weakly from his grasp.
"Use it to help the bleeding."
"I already did the best I could with my tie," Neal informed him.
"Then cover up with it," Peter told him, his eyes closed against the dizziness, the pounding of his heart echoing in each nerve of his right leg. "Don't let yourself go into shock, Neal. Keep talking to me."
"Now you sound like Matthew," Neal told him, a smile in his voice. "His cell was next to mine—and we couldn't…couldn't see each other…but we could hear each other. My God did he like to talk." Neal sighed audibly. "But you…probably already…knew that."
"Yeah," Peter nodded, finally able to open his eyes. "Did you talk about 9/11?" he asked, trying to piece together the disjointed comments Neal had offered.
Peter shrugged. "You just mentioned those rescue workers. The ones that were trapped."
"I thought about them a lot while I was in prison," Neal repeated. Before Peter could comment that he'd said that already, Neal continued, "If I let myself…think about that room—the cell—too long…I'd go a little nuts."
"The cell?" Peter turned his head to regard his partner's profile.
"So small. Just…no space. Every time I'd…get a little panicky…I'd think about those guys. Trapped under all that rubble. Whole building on top of them. And they made it. They got out."
Peter frowned. He'd never realized Neal had suffered from claustrophobia—even a mild case of it. Every time he'd seen him while the younger man had been in prison, it had been to interrogate him further on heists he couldn't yet pin on Neal, but knew he'd been responsible for. After awhile, he'd stopped going all together.
Only when Neal escaped did Peter realize how long it had been since he'd visited the young criminal. And never in all that time, in all those visits, had Neal ever said anything about panicking in his cell.
"We used to play War," Neal said suddenly, snapping Peter back to the now.
"Me and Matthew," Neal told him. "We had to sit at the very edge of our cells…and reach through the bars. We each had a deck…so the game…the game went on for hours. He talked the whole time."
"What did he talk about?" Peter asked, reaching for a small rock near his left hand. If he could get the right angle, maybe he could toss it up through the opening, grab someone's attention.
"What didn't he talk about?" Neal countered. "He'd studied…art and literature and had…an opinion about every famous writer or artist…why they were famous…why they should or shouldn't be…. He really liked the…the sound of his own voice."
"Sounds like someone else I know," Peter grunted, throwing the rock, then ducking away when it missed the mark and tumbled back down toward him.
"Not fair," Neal pouted. After a moment he muttered in a voice think with self-loathing, "I got nothing on this guy, Peter."
Taken off guard, Peter paused in the act of reaching for another rock, looking up at Neal, surprised that a man who seemed to exude such a constant state of confidence could feel such doubt. "You're a helluva lot smarter than him," he declared.
"Did I tell you he…w-went to Berkley?"
"He got caught his first time out, Neal."
"I got caught, too."
"Took me three years to catch you," Peter said, throwing another rock and grinning as it sailed through the opening. He reached for a third. "And I still can't pin six or seven thefts that you pulled."
"Allegedly," Neal inserted.
"So, I'm…I'm a better cheat…that it?"
Peter sighed. "Listen," he muttered, running a hand down his face. "You forged degrees with enough authenticity to be hired as a professor at, what, three? Respected and revered Universities. Not only that, but you actually taught those kids for several months before, y'know…moving on. I think that qualifies you as smarter than him."
Neal was quiet and Peter took advantage of the gap in his partner's need for validation to throw another stone up through the opening.
"You ever…been shot, Peter?" Neal asked suddenly.
Peter froze. Automatically, his brain searched the moments before the building collapsed. He hadn't heard a gunshot.
"Why?" He looked carefully over at Neal's pale profile.
"Just wondering if it feels anything like this," Neal muttered, his face down, his breath shallow.
The rebar, Peter remembered. "Where'd it get you?"
"Lower right," Neal replied, the tension back in his voice. "Don't think it's deep…but I'm afraid to pull it—"
"No!" Peter shouted. "Don't pull it out. It could be blocking an artery."
"Right," Neal whispered, his head dropping back. "I got stabbed once. Felt different."
"You were stabbed?"
Peter stared at the younger man, slightly shocked. He'd studied Neal. For three years. Had learned everything he could about how he ran his cons, how to recognize his signature that was always woven through his forgeries. He knew that Neal had depthless comprehension of the arts, an extreme appreciation for expensive clothes, and attracted women like a magnet.
But he hadn't known that Neal never graduated high school until he made that off-handed comment about missing out on being valedictorian. And he hadn't known anything about stab wounds or broken ribs.
"Did that happen in prison?"
"No," Neal replied, not leaving an opening for more.
Come to think of it, there was quite a bit he didn't know about the man who'd become somewhat of an obsession in the last decade. He took for granted that his research, his observations, had told him the story of this smart, savvy conman. He took for granted that he saw more than most and what he saw was enough to know the person sitting on the other side of that wall.
Gripping his right thigh once more as a pulse of pain rolled up from his ankle, Peter conceded that it was possible he was wrong; there seemed to be more to Neal Caffery's story than even his handler knew.
"Yeah, I was shot before," Peter said, hoping that if he gave Neal a little, the younger man might release his Jedi-like grip on his past.
"Shoulder. It was before I transferred to White Collar Crimes."
"What did it feel like?"
"Hurt like hell, that's what it felt like," Peter grumbled, not liking the fact that he could hear Neal breathing, as if the younger man couldn't quite fill his lungs completely. "Was like getting hit by Paul Bunyan's sledge hammer. And…God it ached," he said, gritting his teeth as his ankle complied with his description. "But, after they got the bullet out…just had a few months of physical therapy. Back to normal."
"Were you…were you scared?" Neal asked softly.
"Yeah," Peter replied. "Yeah, I was scared. So was El."
Neal was quiet for a moment and Peter turned to look at him. His partner's eyes were on him, as if he were looking for something.
"Is that why you guys…decided not to…have kids?"
Peter blinked, unable to mask his astonishment. As far as he knew, neither he nor El had ever mentioned kids to or in front of Neal. It just hadn't come up. But his getting shot, and consequently transferring to White Collar Crimes, was one of the reasons they'd elected to remain simply Peter and El. He knew there were times his wife wished for something different; and to be honest, he sometimes wanted the comfort of knowing a piece of him would continue beyond his time on Earth.
But he'd seen too much to naively believe it would be an easy journey for a child. And he wasn't sure he'd make a very good father. He was nothing like his own father. He barely cut it as a husband and friend.
Before he could answer Neal's soul-bearing question, he heard a shout from far above him.
"Peter! Agent Burke!"
It was Jones.
"Here!" Peter called. "We're down here!"
Jones said something else, but Peter couldn't make it out. "You're too far away!" Peter called. "You gotta come closer!"
He heard a click-whine of a megaphone being triggered and then Jones' voice was perfectly audible. "We know your location," he called to them. "We tracked Neal's anklet."
"Told you," Neal said softly.
"Are you injured?" Jones bellowed.
"Yes!" Peter called back. "Neal needs immediate medical attention, and I'm pinned beneath some concrete."
There were several moments of quiet during which time Peter felt his palms grow clammy with anxiety, adrenalin flooding his system.
"It's gonna take us some time to dig you out of there," Jones informed them. "We're trying to get some water down to you."
"See, Neal?" Peter said, grinning. "Not long now."
"I trust you, Peter," Neal replied quietly.
Something in his voice tugged at Peter's conscious. He looked toward the opening, but saw that the light beam had shifted and faded enough that he could barely make out Neal's profile.
"I know you do," Peter replied.
The quiet on the other side of the wall settled on Peter's shoulders like a lead yolk. With renewed determination, he leaned over and began to work the smaller rocks from beneath his leg while he still had light, hoping to create enough of a space he could pull himself free without causing the slab of concrete to fall further and crush his leg.
The moment Neal had seen Matthew standing in the center of the abandoned bank he'd known in his gut that something was wrong. He should have turned back, walked away. Had he been on his own, he would've. But with Peter and his team counting on him, he got careless, put the need for the information above the need for self-preservation.
When Matthew started talking, it was evident he'd been made, but still Neal stayed. Trying to talk his acquaintance off the proverbial ledge, trying to extract the name Peter needed in order to keep the close rate of his cases within acceptable parameters—and consequently keep Neal on his team and out of prison. Matthew had begun to back toward the opening even before the world shook.
In the disorienting images that visited him upon waking, Neal saw several moments where he could have fled, could have escaped. He was punishing himself for screwing up the con before he'd even opened his eyes.
Reality continued the punishment from there.
At least he wasn't pinned like Peter. That might've sent him right over the edge. It was bad enough that he only had about five feet of space around him and a hole in the wall to his left. His head felt as if he'd managed to turn it inside out. Furious fingers dug into his skull, slashing at the back of his eye, tearing through his brain until his mind could barely form coherent thought around the pain.
Rolling to his back upon waking, he'd not even registered the hot stab of pain in his chest and side as he'd reached a shaking hand up to the side of his face, feeling the wet, sticky matting of blood slicking his hair to his skull and coating the planes of his face. He blinked himself fully conscious and felt the sting of blood in his right eye, wiping it free without thinking.
The instinctive need to get up get out get free had him turning to his side and attempting to sit up. The broken ribs and rebar sticking out of his side had him stopping with a sharp intake of breath and blackness overtook him.
He'd heard Peter's voice a moment later. A surge of strength chased the rush of adrenaline at the sound: he wasn't alone in the dark. He may have essentially been buried alive, but he wasn't buried alone.
Just like the rescue workers at the towers.
With trembling arms and shallow breaths, he'd managed to drag himself to a half-seated, half-slumped position against the wall near the opening. And there he stayed, unable to keep his body from shaking, unable to keep his voice from slurring, unable to keep his thoughts in order.
And that was a problem. He was exposing too much.
Peter thought he knew everything there was to know about Neal, but he only really knew what Neal had allowed him to learn. If didn't shut up, that was going to change; he wasn't sure he would be able to deal with the consequences.
A tremor shook through him and he carefully shifted Peter's jacket so that it covered him from shoulders to waist. The rebar that protruded from his lower right side was about four inches long. He'd reached down with a nervous hand to try to probe the flesh around it and see if he could feel how deeply into his body it had been thrust, but the pain grayed out his vision and he contented himself with the fact that at least he wasn't bleeding much.
His head was another matter. He could feel two cuts—one along his temple, the other buried on his scalp—and his fingers came away glossy with fresh blood. His wavering sight and the sour taste at the back of his throat warned him that it was more than just lacerations; he had a concussion.
On one level, he knew he had to stay awake if he had any hope of getting out of this mess alive.
But on a completely separate level, the idea of letting himself sleep and simply sink into the merciful darkness, letting fate take its course and decide what Neal Caffery's next steps might be, was wickedly appealing. No more atonement, no more guilt, no more what ifs, no more if onlys, no more loneliness, no more searching, no more cons, no more scams, no more regret. Just…no more.
The thing that kept him from slipping to that level was the simple fact that Peter was on the other side of the wall. And as much as he didn't want to be here alone, he also didn't want to leave his friend to that same fate. He'd lived it too often to risk damning anyone else to that reality.
Peter's voice was anxious. Neal realized it had been several minutes since Jones had made contact. He'd been quiet too long.
"'m still here," he replied.
"You hang in there, Neal. Help's on the way."
"I know, Peter," he assured his friend.
His body felt like burning ice, chilled to the point of uncontrolled trembling yet on fire from the damage visited upon him in the fall. It was wrecking his ability to put on a show, keep in place the smooth operator, the con man, the guy with confident smile and eyes like mirrors.
Then again…who was going to see him crumble?
Not even Peter could really see him right now. And Peter had seen every moment of weakness over the last year. Peter had found him sitting in an empty apartment, holding Kate's farewell wine bottle, dejection and hopelessness wrapped around him like a cloak. Peter had hauled his drugged ass out of the Howser Clinic. And Peter had been there when the plane—and Kate—had blown up.
Peter had grabbed him, held him back, held him up. Neal had known that if there had ever been a time to disintegrate, it was then. But still he'd kept himself in check. He'd surfed on the tidal wave of shock and pain, then pulled it inside where it was safe, where he could control it, use it, channel it.
But it had been a long time since he'd felt pain like this. Physical and real. Not of the heart, not of the psyche, but a body filled with the kind of pain that sought only to destroy and to weaken and to take. He felt it eating through him and he leaned his head gingerly against the wall, keeping his eyes closed and breathing shallowly.
It took him a moment to realize Peter was speaking to him again.
"….kind of stuff do you think those rescue workers talked about?"
"Hmm?" Neal grunted, still seeing his pain as a creature inside, looking to devour him whole.
"Keep talking to me, Neal," Peter demanded.
Talking took effort. And air. And he was short on both. "Why?"
"Because the only way you're getting out of this partnership is if I send you back to prison, is that clear?"
Neal blinked, rushing back to reality with the odd sensation of rising from water. It was only then that he'd realized how near he'd been to drifting off, succumbing to the lusty pull of oblivion, and perhaps not escaping its clutches.
"Don't be sorry. Just talk to me."
"What…what are you doing?"
"Trying to get my damn foot free," Peter grunted.
"Doesn't that hurt?" Neal asked, frowning with dim confusion.
"Yes, it hurts," Peter snapped. "It hurts a goddamn lot, but I'm not staying pinned under a fuckin' block of concrete while my partner bleeds to death five feet away from me."
Neal opened his eyes wider, shocked into full consciousness by Peter's angry declaration.
"What do you…want to talk about?"
"How…about…," Peter's tight voice shoved words into the void between them, "basketball. You pick the team."
"I don't watch basketball."
"Oh, right." Peter was panting now. "That's just weird."
"Why?" Neal rolled his head along the concrete, his side of the wall having darkened to the point that all he could see was the edge of the hole that connected him to his friend.
"Just…never met a guy who didn't at least watch NCAA," Peter said, meeting his eyes.
Neal thought Peter looked gray, but that could be all the dust that had filtered around them. He lifted a shoulder slightly in a half-hearted shrug. "I never…went to college," he reminded Peter, "…didn't have a team."
"You didn't even watch it with your old man?" Peter asked.
The very idea of watching basketball with his father screwed a secret jolt of longing up his spine with such swiftness that Neal let out a sharp cry before he was able to stop himself.
"Neal? You okay?"
"Yeah," Neal whispered, his voice thin. "Just…hurts sometimes."
"Keep that coat on you," Peter ordered, the words exposing his helplessness.
"I am." Neal swallowed, regaining his composure. "What about your…dad? You watch with him?"
He could see Peter's nostalgic smile in the dying light. "Yeah. He wanted to play, I ever tell you that?"
Neal shook his head, and Peter continued as if he'd seen him.
"He was good, too. Probably could've if he hadn't met my mom and had a kid. He worked long hours, was gone a lot, but when he was home, he left the job at the door. I always admired him for that. At home, he focused on the family. On the job, he focused on the job."
"Bet he was proud…of you becoming an agent," Neal said.
"Yeah," Peter answered softly. "Yeah, he would've been."
Neal wet his dry lips with the tip of his tongue, thinking for the briefest of moments to tell Peter about his father—his family. Tell him where he'd come from, why he left. But just then Jones' voice called once more over the megaphone that they were lowering water in through the hole. They were apparently using a combination of seismic x-rays and heat signatures to find them based on the location of the anklet tracker.
He let himself rest for a moment, eyes closed against the darkness, and listened as Peter called back to Jones, guiding what was apparently a rope and rod down through the opening until he could reach the package tied to it.
"Neal," Peter called. "Water. And a flashlight."
"Great," Neal replied with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
"And a note," Peter continued. Neal saw the soft glow from the flashlight spill over into his space through the hole in the wall as Peter read. "They've located the weak points in the structure and are bringing in equipment to shore it up. Then they'll come in through the side, not the top."
"What about…about Armstead? And Matthew?"
"We'll get that info when we get out of here," Peter told him. "Here…can you reach?"
Neal looked over and squinted against the glare of the flashlight beam hitting him full in the face.
"Jesus, Neal," Peter breathed.
"I just…before there were too many shadows and I…."
Neal held up a hand, shielding his eyes. "Peter, the light…my head…."
"Sorry, sorry," Peter lowered the beam. "Here. Water bottle."
"Thanks," Neal reached out, forced to lean toward his left. The lava-like burst of pain around the rebar wound slipped his vision to black and sent his ears buzzing.
He never felt himself fall.
"…you hear me? Caffery! Answer me right now, goddammit!"
Grit was digging into his forehead and his side was a river of fire sending chills through his body. Peter's jacket had slipped from his shoulders and lay next to him. He licked his lips once more.
"Neal? Thank God." Peter's voice audibly relaxed.
"Wha'happened?" Neal groaned, confused. The harder he tried to find the last few moments, the more his head threatened to roll free of his shoulders and lodge itself beneath a slab of concrete across the room.
"You went quiet on me," Peter said, relief plain in his voice. "Didn't take the water."
The water…. "I…tried…tried to move," Neal said, realization and explanation captured in the same sentence.
"Well, don't do that again," Peter ordered. "Can you sit up?"
"I'd…have to move."
"Always the smart ass," Peter muttered.
Neal pulled in a breath and shoved slowly upward. The motion didn't make him black out, but this time, he wasn't able to stifle his cry of pain. Once his back was against the wall, sweat mixing with the blood on his face, he lifted heavy eyes to Peter, shallow gasps puffing out his lips.
"C-Could use a dr-drink," he managed.
Peter handed him the water bottle, and to his surprise, he was able to grasp it with barely a stretch of his arm.
"Are you…did you move?"
"Well," Peter said, his voice a shrug, "when you didn't answer, I thought…."
"How's your leg?" Neal took a long drink of the tepid water.
Neal drank again, then handed the bottle back to Peter.
"Keep it," Peter told him. "They'll send more."
Neal felt something ticking inside of him. Like the sound of a cooling car engine. The feeling grew, intensified, cutting through what little air he was still able to draw and making his lips tingle. It was dark on his side of the wall. A complete absence of light that negated even the possibility of sight if he turned away from the hole that connected him to his friend.
He was fading. He knew it with a certainty that belied pretense. He was losing this game and no secret smile, no slow glance, no whiskey-smooth voice or well-told story was getting him out of this. He was backsliding to level two and clawing for purchase.
"The big questions," Neal said, his memory synching up with comments made several minutes prior.
"That's what I think they…talked about. The rescue workers…at the towers," Neal said, a hand snaking to his ribs and resting gingerly over the tender spot. "I think…they used that time to…ask each other the big questions."
"Big questions, huh?" Peter asked. "Bigger than did you ever watch basketball with your old man?"
"Bigger than that."
"Alright, who asks first?"
"We'll flip a coin," Neal said, not moving. "Heads I go, tails you go."
"Flip away, Magic Man."
Neal waited a moment, catching his breath, eyes closed against the darkness. "It's heads."
He lifted the half-full water bottle to his lips, drinking deeply as he braced himself for the question he'd been wanting to ask since Peter put himself on the line a second time—for him.
"Okay, here goes," Neal said. "Why me?"
There were some things Peter took for granted in life. Things that were simply black and white, right and wrong. It was what made him a good lawman, what had him able to sleep at night after taking away a man's life—either figuratively or literally. There were rules and laws for a reason; break them and suffer the consequences. It was easy.
Or it had been, until he met Neal Caffery.
Even on paper the con artist had flipped him sideways. At first, the case had been rather straightforward. Guy does bad; guy gets caught; guy pays price. The longer he investigated this thief and forger, however, the more Peter began to feel a kinship with Agent Carl Hanratty and his pursuit of Frank Abagnale.
The way Neal was able to engender himself to his mark so easily, so completely, left Peter in awe and more than a little frustrated. It shouldn't be this effortless to fool people. He'd followed Neal's almost invisible trail for two years before he caught a break. The young conman had been within his grasp when he managed to Houdini his way out of a building surrounded by Federal agents. He disappeared for another year and it was in that year, Peter knew, he'd met Kate.
Kate had been Neal's Achilles heel. And Peter had taken advantage of that weakness. He'd been almost remorseful when he finally caught him. Neal had deserved a lot longer than the four year sentence he'd received, Peter knew, but when the verdict was read, Peter couldn't help but be slightly relieved.
There was a light about Neal, a spark. Something that couldn't be easily categorized or filed away under common labels.
And touching that spark—even vicariously—had changed something in Peter.
It had turned him on to an appreciation of life beyond catching bad guys and coming home to a loving wife, a good beer, and a game. There hadn't been anything wrong with that life, that routine. But after being jolted by the live wire that was Neal Caffery, the routine simply wasn't enough.
Life was out there.
"Why me, Peter?" Neal pressed him, the weakness in his voice more than worrisome.
"You sure you want me to answer this?" Peter asked softly, his mind suddenly filled with everything he didn't know about Neal: his childhood, his youth, his parents, his past…why he became a con artist in the first place.
"Yeah," Neal replied roughly. "Yeah, I do."
Peter took a breath, searching for the right answer. He ended up going with the only thing he could think of. "Because you're nothing like me. And…you're also someone I…never really had the courage to be."
"Courage?" Neal repeated. "You're kidding."
"No, I'm not." Peter reached down and rubbed gingerly at his aching calf muscles, feeling the claustrophobic sense of darkness pressing around him. He turned on the flashlight and let the beam hit the low ceiling of debris before continuing. "I had it good as a kid, y'know? My old man…he was the best. He really was. And he loved the hell out of my mom. I always knew they'd be there. And I always knew I wanted to be just like him."
He rolled his neck, tortured muscles crying out for release. "I was never really…tested. Not until I became an agent. And by that time…I had Elizabeth. I was never really alone. I never had to be anything other than me, and I knew…I knew people accepted me. Loved me for it."
"Sounds nice, actually," Neal said softly.
Peter waited a beat, staring at the circular pattern of light cast off from the flashlight.
"Then I get this file chronicling the unproven exploits of a wise-ass—"
"—moderately attractive conman, and I spent my evenings reading up on him, and my days trying to predict his next move. You were the single most frustrating case I'd ever been handed. You were always one step ahead of us—of me. Two steps on some days. And the more I learned…the more I…admired you."
"Admired?" Neal asked, his voice cracking.
"You've got guts, Neal. I'm not saying I condone any crime you committed—"
"Allegedly committed. But you slipped through life like butter. You eluded me. You…you were better than me. And that pissed me off."
"You're working…with me 'cause I made you mad?"
"Basically, yeah," Peter half-chuckled. "Y'know how you said Matthew was an artist, not a con artist? You have more talent in your little finger than that guy, and you spent all your energy making people believe something that wasn't true. I just…I couldn't figure it out."
"Yeah, well," Neal said softly. "Not everyone has a safety net."
Peter felt a chill with those words. Moments were skipping on him in the darkness, the glow from the flashlight not enough to chase away the heaviness that settled on him. Peter looked up to the now-dark hole at the top of their cement prison. C'mon, Jones…he's running out of time.
"Who stabbed you, Neal?"
"'s that your…big question?"
"No," Peter amended hastily. "No, I was…I was just curious."
Neal was quiet long enough that Peter grabbed the flashlight. He shone it through the hole and was relieved to see his partner's pale profile.
"Still here," Neal said. Peter watched as a weak version of Neal's normally cocky grin slipped across his mouth. "Thanks for checking, though."
"You're welcome," Peter said sincerely.
"I was stabbed…during a heist. Case of mistaken identity."
"Brussels," Neal replied.
"No, where on your body," Peter clarified.
"Oh…right arm—up near the shoulder. Hurt like hell," Neal commented passively.
"I know what you're thinking," Neal proclaimed.
"Somehow I doubt that."
"You're glad it happened during a job."
Peter blinked. Hidden talents, this guy.
"Okay, you got me."
Neal was quiet once more and Peter realized he'd reached the end of his free pass.
"I don't think I'm getting out of here, Peter."
The sad certainty in Neal's voice ignited something in Peter.
"Don't you say that."
"I, uh…I just wanted to tell you…," Neal paused, and Peter heard him take a wet, thick breath. "I wanted…."
"No," Peter cut him off. "I don't give a shit what you wanted to say. I still get my big question. You think you're gonna con me out of that, you got another thing coming."
"It's…it's getting harder to, uh…to stay awake."
"Well, tough, pal," Peter barked, ripping open the Velcro strips that held the Kevlar vest in place and struggling out of the protective garment. "Because until I say otherwise, you still work for me. And that means you follow orders, got that?"
"Yeah." Neal's voice was barely audible.
"You got that Neal?" he repeated.
Without the Kevlar, Peter was able to bend further forward and use both hands to move rubble out of the way. Each tick of motion sent nauseating waves of bone-aching pain through his leg directly into the back of his skull, but he didn't stop.
He wasn't staying trapped another minute.
"I go' it." Neal's reply was slurred, soft.
"What was that?" Peter pressed, still digging, willing the sour taste at the back of his throat to stay put.
"I said I got it," Neal snapped, finally sounding more like himself.
"Good," Peter said, breaths coming in quick gasps as he clenched his jaw against the increasing ache and used both hands to try to unbury his trapped leg. "Now…I wanna know…how the hell someone who says he hates guns…can shoot the way you do."
There wasn't much that Neal could do that he hadn't taught himself.
He'd learned early in life that there was something to be said for the chameleon's survival tactics. He watched people, mimicked them, learned their trigger points and how and when to push or avoid them. He blended when he needed to blend and stood out when he needed attention drawn to him and away from something else.
He mastered this art of manipulation before his thirteenth birthday. The circumstances of his youth pushed him toward his chosen profession the moment he realized he had power over something. In an environment that had been out of control—one filled with heartache and heartbreak—he'd found a way to make his world richer, cleaner, and removed from the clutches of those who could break him.
He grew up on the backside of wealthy, spending much of his childhood looking at privilege from the outside in. He was always warm and fed, but there were days when he was acutely aware of what others went without in order to provide for him. His mother was a simple, loving woman who had long ago turned her life over to her husband's choices. His father was black Irish with a love for the pint and a weakness for ponies. He had a short fuse and a quick temper, but his loyalty to his family was fierce.
Neal ran his first con in an effort to save his father's life from large, angry men looking to cash in on a debt owed. Though it worked in the physical sense, the knowledge that he'd had to be saved by his teenage son so shamed the elder Caffery that he shut down. He never touched or looked at Neal directly again after that.
By the time he was sixteen, Neal was able to copy famous works of art by the likes of Monet, Altichiero, Frieseke, and Testa. He'd made money for art supplies by selling forged IDs at the various high schools that were so authentic, law enforcement officials were baffled. He'd taught himself how to play the piano with concert-level skill and had developed a great appreciation for the opera. He promised himself a better future.
His inherited attractiveness won him the heart of many women—both peers and adults—and he learned to perfect the art of duplicity to gain access to whatever it was he needed, be that money for food or rent, supplies for school, or items to supplement his hobbies. He earned decent grades, only lacking in excelling because he rarely spent time on his own studies. It always seemed to be a waste of time; anything they taught him in school he could learn on his own by reading the books and the world was busy providing him a better education than he was ever going to get in a classroom.
Life was what he made of it until the day another debt came due and no sly smile or smoothly-worded con made a difference.
"No one taught me," Neal started, working to find his way through the muddle maze of his usually sharp mind. He wanted to answer Peter's big question; he just didn't want to give too much away.
There were reasons Peter hadn't discovered certain things about Neal's past during his three year quest to apprehend him. Neal had been very careful to tuck certain facts away, keep them safely behind barriers, only to be released when he elected to set them free.
"I…find that hard…to believe," Peter grunted.
Neal could hear the sound of rubble tumbling and rolled his head to try to peer in the darkness. He couldn't make out anything beyond the outline of the hole.
"The first time I fired a gun…was the first time I'd held one," Neal told him.
"You held that rifle like…you'd been born with the thing in your hand," Peter said, pausing in whatever he was doing to catch his breath. "I've spent enough hours at a shooting range to know how hard it is to hit a moving target."
"I don't know…what to tell you," Neal said, running his tongue over his lips. The water was gone, but his thirst was far from quenched. "It just always made sense to me…the way the tool worked…the weight of it…the impact of the firing pin…the spin of the bullet…." Neal closed his eyes, raising his hands as he spoke, picturing a handgun resting in his palm, the barrel sighted to an end point. He flexed his index finger and almost felt the kick run down from his wrist to his shoulder.
"…could get away with calling a weapon a tool," Peter was saying.
Neal opened his eyes, realizing belatedly that his motion had jostled Peter's jacket loose and it had fallen to the floor beside him. He left it where it lay, lacking the energy to retrieve it.
"That's…how I always saw it," Neal said softly, trying to keep from using too much air. The broken bones in his chest had slipped over the blurry edge of ache and into a clear-cut world of pain. Each breath seemed to act as a reminder that all was not well in the world of Neal Caffery. "Every time someone…picks up a gun…someone else could die…. It's a tool for death."
"Morbid, but…okay, I'll give you that," Peter replied.
Neal fumbled for the jacket; he'd started to shiver and the trembles were jarring the rebar that impaled his side. He knew he needed to get warm, stop shaking, but all he wanted to do was sleep. Even the thought of leaving his friend alone in the dark wasn't enough to convince him this time.
Dimly he heard voices coming from Peter's side of the wall. Part of his mind registered that one of the voices was Jones via megaphone, but he didn't have the energy to focus on what the other agent was saying.
Peter's voice ebbed, splashing on his ears like water. He wanted to sink beneath the surface where darkness was pervasive, where pain was non-existent, and where it didn't matter who he was—or wasn't. Beneath the surface the past was not even a forgotten memory. It was nothing.
He wanted to be nothing.
That's how long Jones had said it would take to reach them. They'd apparently fallen through one floor, the debris from the roof and vaulted ceiling creating the pocket of air keeping them alive. However, since Armstead had jumped the gun, there'd been no time to check the detonators and nearly half of them hadn't gone off, giving the rescue team a somewhat stable access point into the lower areas of the wreckage.
They were shoring up and digging through and Peter just had to get Neal to hang in there for thirty more minutes.
Except that Neal wasn't answering him.
With true fear gripping his throat, Peter shone the flashlight through the hole. He could still see his partner's profile, but Neal's head was canted back against the wall, his lips slightly parted, eyes closed.
"Dammit," Peter cursed. He dropped the flashlight and returned to his leg. "Don't you do this to me, Neal," he muttered. "I'm the only one who gets to tell you when it's okay to quit." Glancing back over his shoulder at the darkened hole he called out, "You hear me? You don't quit until I tell you."
He felt his leg shift and bleated out a curse as the pain ricochet through his body. Renewing his efforts, he felt concrete slab slide just to the right, a rush of pins and needles and all-together too much feeling swam up his leg from his ankle and he was suddenly free. The release was unexpected and he slipped, tumbling to the side, his wounded right leg falling across his left causing him to cry out.
After he lay still for a moment, breathing, he shouted for Jones. Silence was his reply.
"Great," Peter pushed himself up on trembling arms. "That's just…just great."
"Agent Burke!" another voice suddenly bellowed down to him. "Jones is still about twenty minutes out, Sir."
Peter called out, "Send down more water!"
"Right away, Sir!"
"Neal?" Peter tried, not really expecting a response. "I'll be right there, okay? I'm bringing water."
He reached tentative fingers toward his ankle, feeling the hot skin swelling around the wound beneath the torn remnants of his slacks. He wasn't walking on it anytime soon, but he was still fairly certain it wasn't broken.
"Agent Burke! Water coming down!"
Peter shone the flashlight up through the opening, watching as the same rope and rod combination slipped another package down to him. Water and flashlight in hand, he gingerly crawled toward the hole. Turning the flashlight on, he dropped it through the opening, lighting up the smaller space Neal occupied. The bottle of water followed, and then Peter laid the Kevlar vest along the jagged edge of the opening before pushing himself up on his good leg.
"I'm getting the answer to my question whether you like it or not," he muttered to his unconscious partner as he clumsily heaved himself through the narrow opening. Crawling forward, he tried to lift his wounded leg through the hole without touching anything, but the heel of his shoe caught on the Velcro of the vest and he gasped with pain.
"Son of a bitch," he growled through clenched teeth. "We are so getting workman's comp for this."
Once through the opening, Peter rolled to his knee, grabbed the flashlight and shone it on Neal.
"Oh, good Christ," he whispered, his mouth going dry. "Neal, no…no…."
Blood covered one side of Neal's handsome face, giving him an almost ghoulish, monstrous appearance. The rebar was protruding from his lower belly, just below his rib cage. His legs were splayed out in front of him, one bent slightly at the knee, and his hands lay limp at his sides, fingers curled in toward his palm.
Peter reached out a trembling, tentative hand, resting it on Neal's throat. The pulse the skipped back at him was thready and weak, but it was there and Peter nearly collapse with relief.
"You look like shit," Peter informed the unconscious man as he hurriedly positioned himself next to him.
He retrieved his jacket and, careful to avoid jarring the rebar wound, covered Neal's chest and shoulders with it, easing an arm around behind the consultants back and pulling him close for body heat. Neal's head rolled loosely as Peter shifted him, lolling to the side and coming to rest on Peter's shoulder.
"Neal," Peter said, his voice as stern as he could make it. "You open your eyes. Right now." He began to rub the other man's upper arms and shoulders, working to warm him up, working to push back the shock that had finally overtaxed his system. "You have a job to do, Neal. You made a deal and it's not finished. Neal. NEAL. Neal, open your eyes. Open your eyes."
Peter felt Neal's head shift slightly against his shoulder, turning so that his cheek was now pressed against his collar bone.
"That's it, c'mon, come back to me, Neal. I told you, you don't get to quit until Itell you. And I still have work for you."
Neal huffed out a wet-sounding breath, pushing his cheek against Peter's chest as if trying to leverage himself out of something deep and murky.
"Easy, easy, just breathe, okay? Slow and easy, that's it. That's it, kid. You got this. Just open your eyes. Wake up, Neal."
His order was finally followed. Looking down in the dim, yellowish glow from the upright flashlight, Peter saw Neal's lashes flick and flutter until he was blinking, awareness returning slowly.
"How…?" Neal's voice was gruff, ragged and sounded nothing like him, but it was the sweetest sound Peter had heard all night.
"Welcome back, partner," Peter greeted him, continuing to rub warmth back into his wounded body. "Turns out you're not the only escape artist on this team."
Rolling his head back, Neal looked up at Peter, his eyes glassy, pupils wide.
"Not anymore," Peter said. "You stopped talking to me. I wanted the rest of my answer."
Neal swallowed and tried to weakly push away from Peter's chest. The motion, however, caught him almost immediately and Peter felt his muscles tighten as a small cry escaped his stiff lips.
Peter shifted, rotating so that he was no longer sitting with his back against the wall, but parallel to it. Gripping Neal's shoulders tightly, he eased the wounded man back, trying to ignore his sharp gasps and helpless cries of pain as he lowered Neal to his lap, the younger man's head on his left leg. Neal's eyes stayed tightly shut during the maneuver, but once he lay on his back, Peter noticed his breathing became slightly steadier.
Neal nodded, not opening his eyes. Peter adjusted the jacket to cover as much of Neal's upper torso as he could, looking pointedly away from the rebar wound. He didn't want to think about what vital organs it may or may not have hit.
"So, how 'bout you tell me why you hate guns."
"Taking…advantage of…the situation," Neal protested.
"You bet your ass I am," Peter informed him. "C'mon, spill."
"Not a happy story," Neal managed, blinking his eyes open and looking up at Peter.
Peter frowned, notice that as he warmed up, Neal's eyes grew both clearer and more guarded. It made him realize, with a fair amount of surprise, that there were very few opportunities in Neal's life when he wasn't performing. Playing a role. Being who he needed to be to fit the moment.
You're the only one…the only person I trust….
He'd been open, real, at the Howser Clinic. He'd been exposed just before the plane exploded. But those times were so rare that Peter decided he needed to start watching for them more. Cataloguing them, perhaps. Because Neal was right; there had to be a reason he so avidly pursued this one criminal—one among thousands that crossed his desk during those years.
Why me, Peter?
"Not everyone has a safety net, huh?" Peter replied.
Neal shook his head, and Peter felt the muscles under his hands tighten as if riding a wave of pain or warding off an attack. "You sure you want to…hear this?"
"Yeah, Neal," Peter replied softly. "I'm sure."
"My dad…was a good man, too," Neal said, reminding Peter of his description of his own father. "But he…had his problems. When I was a senior in high school," Neal swallowed, closing his eyes. "Those problems came after him."
"And you were there?"
Neal nodded. "I was there. I'd…gotten him out of it once…about four years before that…," Neal paused to take a breath while Peter's brain began to do the math, "but this time…I wasn't ready."
"You were just a kid, Neal."
Neal opened his eyes and turned his face to the side, exposing the wounded, bloody visage to Peter and making him cringe inside. "Doesn't matter. I coulda helped 'im…if I'da been ready," Neal slurred. "Men…with guns…came to our house. It was…just me and Dad. They…were gonna kill us…," Neal swallowed again, his breath catching on his words as he continued.
"Your dad saved your life," Peter guessed.
Neal was quiet a moment, then whispered, "Just like your dad…. He was there for me when…I needed him."
Peter closed his eyes, his hands slowing their movement and simply resting on Neal's upper arms. He supposed there was always a way to bend the world so that it fit a preferred view.
"So, that's why you hate guns," Peter concluded.
"No," Neal shook his head.
"Well…then why?" Peter pressed, resisting the urge to adjust Neal's head so that he could see the unmarred side of his face. The gore facing him now began to turn him cold and he imagined he felt Neal shudder against him in response.
"He woulda killed…m'dad," Neal replied, his voice slipping once more into that childlike cadence that twisted Peter's gut.
"What?" Peter grew still, the implication inside those words hitting home. "Neal…are you telling me you…killed someone?"
In all his research, in all his studying of this man, he'd never imagine him to be capable of killing. He'd never imagined that he had killed.
"You never know…what you'll do until… you have to," Neal said softly, turning his head once more to face Peter fully, his eyes suddenly, completely clear, without guard, without guile. His voice wrapped around Peter as solemn as if they were priest and confessor. "I knew, Peter. He tried…to talk them out of it…tried to…but…," he closed his eyes, "I knew."
Peter wanted details. How had he gotten the gun? How had he gotten away? And how had none of this been in his file? But then a thought occurred to him…Neal had been in high school when this happened.
"Your dad took the blame for it, didn't he?" Peter guessed.
"Told you…. He was there…when I needed him."
"Neal," Peter said, peering down at his partner's wounded face. "Is that why you never graduated?"
Neal cracked open one eye. "Should make y'wait…'til the next…demolition f'that big question."
"You left town, didn't you?"
"Left the country."
Neal closed his eyes. "Hate guns, Peter," he said, his brow furrowing slightly as another tremor—this one not imagined—coursed through him. "Won't…won't use 'em. Never again."
"Okay, Neal," Peter said, his hand moving along Neal's arm, this time for comfort, not warmth. "It's okay. I won't make you," he promised softly. No matter how good a shot you are.
"'m cold," Neal confessed.
"I know," Peter said, rubbing his hands together rapidly and then covering Neal's hands with his beneath the jacket. "They're coming, Neal. We're getting out of here."
Neal's frown deepened. "Glad you're here."
Peter let out a starved chuckle. "Well, I'm not," he said. "I'm missing a great game right about now."
"Been 'lone…awful long time," Neal whispered.
And with that, he seemed to sag a bit, his weight increasing against Peter's legs.
"No, no, hey, no, Neal, no," Peter shook his head, lightly smacking Neal's unblemished cheek, working to rouse his partner. "C'mon, I know you're hurting, but you gotta hang in there a little longer, okay? Just a little longer, Neal."
Neal exhaled, but didn't open his eyes. "Y'keep sayin' that," he whispered.
Peter felt himself smile. "There you are."
"You got any…cards?"
"Cards?" Peter asked, tilting his head toward the unmistakable sound of concrete being cut with a saw and pushed to the side.
"Could have a…game of War…'fore they get here," Neal said, his smile lacking none of its usual charm despite its absence of color.
"Here!" Peter called, watching the light bob and weave through the opening. "We're in here."
Moments later, Jones' dark face, smudge with concrete dust and sweat appeared in the opening. "Someone call for a ride?" he panted.
Neal and Peter both lift a hand, Peter's jacket slipping from its protective position and exposing the extent of Neal's wounds.
"You two look like shit," Jones observed, the evidence of his tireless efforts to free them clear in the lines of his face.
"We gotta get Neal out of here," Peter told him. "You have a backboard? He's not gonna be able to—"
"On it," Jones declared, ducking back out through the opening.
Peter heard additional voices filling the small adjacent room and a slight, brown-haired woman in a blue jumpsuit marked EMT climbed through the opening carrying an IV bag, stethoscope, and a flashlight. Peter watched quietly as she quickly examined Neal's wounds, and then called out instructions to the others through the hole.
It was over. They were getting out. They'd made it.
Adrenalin began to abate and in its place was the dull roar of unanswered questions clashing with too much information. He watched through a vacant haze as the flashlights bobbed over a backboard being inserted through the hole. With barely any protest, he allowed another EMT—who'd miraculously fit into the narrow anteroom—ease Neal away from him, and sat back to wait until it was his turn to leave.
He didn't even hear his name at first.
"Sir? I think he's calling for you," said the female EMT.
"Neal?" Peter leaned forward, seeing in the dim light his partner's hand reaching from the straps of the backboard. "I'm here."
"Vegas," Neal managed.
"This place…like Vegas."
What happens buried under the Eighth Street Bank and Trust, stays buried under the Eighth Street Bank and Trust.
"Got it," Peter nodded.
"Thank you," Neal found his eyes in the murky light, holding them with his own, allowing the real Neal Caffery to show through for the rarest of moments. "Mean that," he asserted softly, the words heavy with the burden of meaning.
"You're welcome, Neal," Peter smiled.
As the EMTs lifted Neal through the narrow opening and maneuvered the backboard through the tunnel, Peter allowed himself a moment to breathe. He knew more facts about Neal Caffery than any other person in his life, save El. He knew the man's skills as an artist, a forger, a thief, and a liar.
He knew the man could play any role with the skill needed to gain the desired result. He knew the man was an asset to his team.
He knew the man was a criminal.
"You ready, Agent Burke?" the male EMT asked as he finished tightening the temporary brace on Peter's leg.
"Hell, yes, I'm ready," Peter declared. "You guys move fast enough, I might be able to catch the second half of my game."
The EMT chuckled. "Yes, Sir."
And yet, it took this extreme situation for him to realize that he had far to go to really know this man. Know him as a person. As someone with a past beyond prison and heists. Beyond Kate. As someone who'd been a son and a victim and a child. As someone who'd lived through Hell and emerged broken and changed on the other side.
He would keep his promise. He wouldn't open the wound again unless Neal did. But he was determined to find a way to show the younger man that he knew he was more than just a con artist. More than just a partner.
He was a friend.
a/n: I'll leave you to decide who the true fortunate son was in this. I have my own interpretation, but it would be interesting to hear yours. I know it was angsty—and it was harder to write than I thought as I was so accustomed to the Winchester brothers—but I hope you were entertained.
For those of you who do read my Supernatural stories, I am working on "Sense" and it will start to post in the next few weeks. I just wanted to keep this promise first. Slainte!